When the Socialist Party Was a Factor in US Politics: Lessons in Party Building

In this article, the conditions for socialist revolution to develop are analyzed. The experiences of the Socialist Party of America and other left groups are analyzed as well, for those that are interested in building a Marxist leadership need to learn from past left and labor movements to avoid making the same mistakes past socialists have made.

In analyzing the socialist revolution and how it could develop successfully, Lenin put forward the idea that three objective factors and one key subjective factor would need to be present. Lenin explained that the first objective factor was that the ruling class would be split and could no longer rule in their traditional manner. The second factor was the tremendous political vacillations of the middle layers of society, moving to the left, then to the right and back again. The third factor was the willingness of the working class to engage in a struggle to the end in order to change society. These three factors have been present in many countries in the past, and more recently, to one degree or another, in Venezuela and Iran.

However, the final factor which would make a socialist revolution successful was the subjective factor: a Marxist leadership. It was the idea that a disciplined organization of workers and youth with a firm foundation built on Marxist theory could provide the leadership necessary to ensure the working class’ efforts led to victory. Leadership is the willingness to make sacrifices and lead by example. It is the willingness to go first, so that others can see the way forward and then join you. Building an effective revolutionary leadership requires the study of Marxist theory and the history of the workers movement internationally so that we can assimilate the lessons. In this manner, the same mistakes do not have to be made again and again. In Russia, this Marxist leadership was provided by the Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolshevik), later renamed the Communist Party. However, in many other countries where this leadership was not built, the fact that the first three objective factors existed, but the fourth did not, meant defeat for the working class.

Therefore, for those interested in building such a leadership in the USA, it would be useful to look at past experiences in the labor and left movements in this country to see the lessons which can be learned so as to avoid making the same mistakes that past socialists have made.

We are grateful to those who have struggled in the past and we believe that they deserve our admiration and respect. Looking at their successes and accurately examining their failures and weak points, in no way disregards their heroic sacrifice. On the contrary, we take them and their lives seriously and therefore we do not forget them, but look to learn from them. Everyone makes mistakes. The only person who does not make mistakes is the person who does nothing. However, from the perspective of those who want to change society, we must be willing to recognize errors and learn from mistakes rather than cover them up and turn men and women from history into gods.

In the 1800s, American Capitalism was expanding and the country was developing industry at a rapid pace. It did not develop in a straight line, but dialectically. Vigorous economic booms were followed by serious economic slumps. The growth of industry also meant the growth of the working class.

The working class felt the wrath of capitalism, both during its growth periods and during its depressions. Some workers looked for alternatives to capitalism, leading to the development of the Socialist Party of America.

The Socialist Party of America (SP of A) was set up by socialists dissatisfied with the sectarian politics of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) of Daniel DeLeon. Although in some ways DeLeon was a great thinker, he tended to view society in a rigid, formalistic way. He tended to have a scholastic way of approaching the working class. Rather than examining objective reality and seeking a way to intervene in it, he led his party to believe that the working class would simply come to the SLP and follow a specific path which he laid out.

The SP of A did not have the rigidity of DeLeon, and as a result, they grew much faster. In 1900, the SP of A had about 4,500 members in more than 200 branches spread over 25 of the 48 states. By 1908, the SP had about 40,000 members. In 1917, the party had grown to more than 80,000 members throughout the country. Socialist newspapers, such as Appeal to Reason, had circulations at times of more than 500,000!

The single most important figure in the SP of A was Eugene Victor Debs. Debs was an example of someone who came to socialism as a result of lessons he learned along the way in fighting to improve life for workers. He started out in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a union of those men who would fire the steam engine of a locomotive train. At first, his conception of unions was that of a society, based on one’s craft, which would help in mutual support to purchase insurance and other benefits. He did not start out believing in strikes or collective bargaining. In the process, he learned that the capitalists would not treat workers in a humane way and that any gain the workers make comes out of struggle. He also learned the futility of dividing workers into craft unions and tried to build one big union including all railroad workers, called the American Rail Union.

Eugene Debs candidature for President in 1920 that received 1 million votes is portrayed by cartoonist Berryman.Eugene Debs candidature for President in 1920 that received 1 million votes is portrayed by cartoonist Berryman. Debs and the SP of A were able to elect a number of state and city officials throughout the US, including a congressman from Milwaukee. In 1912, before women had the right to vote and when most Black men were violently prevented from voting, Debs got 6% of the national vote! As a comparison, in 2000, Ralph Nader got a little more than 2.7% of the national vote. In 1920, Debs got less than 6% of the national vote but almost 1,000,000 votes for President, although he was in jail for opposing US participation in World War I.

The gains of the SP of A showed that even in the USA, the advanced workers would find their way to socialist ideas. However, there were many serious problems with the SP. Above all, the leadership of the SP did not understand the importance of Marxist theory as a guide to action. As a result, a number of political and organizational decisions flowed from this which proved ultimately harmful.


The SP of A was a broad and loose grouping. It combined Marxists, labor militants and reformists, including clergy. Debs would tend to run on a program promoting the socialist transformation of the US while Victor Berger, who was elected to Congress on the Socialist Party ticket from Milwaukee, was a reformist. Berger’s narrow outlook was reflected on a number of issues including the question of race.

Sometimes, the SP appeared as reformers who offered to improve a few small things today. Other times, the party presented itself as wanting to change society with little concern for today’s problems. What the party needed was to link the struggles for reforms and improvements in today’s working conditions with the struggle to fundamentally change society. This problem was actually a problem throughout the Socialist International at that time. European socialists would fight for a limited “minimum program” of immediate reforms and make speeches about Socialism at the May Day parades. Only the Bolsheviks were able to skillfully combine the two objectives.

In addition, the SP was not organized under the principles of democratic centralism. Democratic centralism means that the majority decisions are carried out, but there are many safe guards to allow the minority to be able to express their views throughout the party. Under democratic centralism, the leadership and the party newspapers reflect the democratically decided positions of the organization. However, in the SP, the leadership was usually made up of middle class elements, such as small business people, preachers and professors, who had the financial ability and spare time to devote to party business. Many workers, lacking money and time, were excluded from leadership bodies. The socialist papers, such as Appeal to Reason, were independently owned and reflected the owners’ version of socialism, rather than the views of the workers in the party. This tended to produce conflict in the party and there were times when the SP would lose its working class base because of these internal struggles.

Debs did not play the role in these internal battles that he should have. Unlike Lenin, who would use internal disagreements as a way to politically educate the rank and file of the party, Debs avoided party conflict, giving strength to the reformist right-wing of the SP. This resulted in confusion in the ranks rather than political clarity.


One of the biggest theoretical errors of the SP was on the question of racism. Debs was opposed to racism and racial discrimination but he did not think that racism was a special problem of American capitalism that needed to be addressed. Debs once said that “We [the SP] have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all races. The Socialist Party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of color -- the whole working class of the whole world.” [The Bending Cross, p. 260.] The SP also had elements, such as the above-mentioned Victor Berger, who were out and out racists.

However, if the SP was to become the party of the whole working class, it could only be done on the basis of the reality of American capitalism and all of its horrors. The SP should have recognized the special oppression of Black Americans and incorporated the struggle against racism into its program. Certainly, racism can only be eliminated by the establishment of socialism, and this will be brought about only by the united struggle of the working class. However, in order to win over the Black workers and youth, the party has to be seen as addressing their problems.

Although many Blacks lived in the rural south in the early 1900s, increasing numbers were migrating to northern cities to work in industry and other occupations. This meant that the SP needed to take a lead in fighting Jim Crow and other forms of segregation, not to mention the battle against lynchings. The capitalists tried to divide the working class by discriminating against Black workers, hiring them only as replacement workers during strikes. The SP should have explained that this is why it was vital and in the interest of white workers to fight against the discrimination of the white bosses and for union-controlled hiring halls, which would hire a diverse workforce, as part of their battle for union recognition, higher wages etc. The position of the SP on racism meant that very little support for the party was gained among Black workers, even though they were the most oppressed part of the proletariat.

Industrial Unions

The SP correctly understood the need for American workers to form industrial unions. The American Federation of Labor mostly organized workers by their craft or occupation. In other words, carpenters were in one union, electricians were in another, and so on and so forth. However, the working class can easily be divided in that manner, and the craft unions tended to organize the more skilled workers while leaving the unskilled factory workers, who were becoming a much greater part of the work force, with out any union.

However, the SP had different strategies on how to organize the workers into industrial unions. Some SP members believed that it was necessary to work in the AF of L. This would mean raising socialist ideas in the AF of L and raising the idea that the labor federation should organize unskilled workers in industry-wide unions. Early in the 1900s the socialists did have a lot of influence in the AFL. At the 1902 AFL convention, a resolution calling for an end to the wage system by establishing workers’ political and economic power got more than a third of the convention’s vote! However, a few years later, the left wing of the SP, including Debs, thought that they should work to create new industrial unions, separate from the AFL. He and others then founded the IWW.

Although the IWW should be a subject for a future article, it should be noted that the IWW did not have anywhere near the resources of the AFL and received little help and much hostility from it. Although the right wing of the SP correctly worked in the AFL, it should be noted that much of what they did simply went along with the leadership and did not always present a political alternative to it.

Theory was the key in trade union work as well. It was easy to get demoralized about working in the AFL, having to face a conservative bureaucracy. One of the ways that theory aids militants is that it gives a longer term perspective and orientation when intervening in a particular situation.

In general, when capitalism is in an upswing, the “practical” leaders will be at the apex of their support, as they are able to deliver some crumbs in the form of higher wages and better benefits for the membership. However, when the capitalist system inevitably moves into crisis, these same leaders are no longer as popular as members are laid-off and concessions are given to the bosses. Therefore, Socialists must have a long-term view and patiently explain the situation to the workers, building points of support. As the times become more desperate, workers looking for answers expand the possible base for socialism. Unfortunately, the left-wing of the SP did not use Marxist theory and reacted to events in a “pragmatic” way. The IWW was not able to build industrial unions and ultimately, these industries were organized by the CIO, unions that split from the AFL, in the 1930s.

The Russian Revolution

In late 1917, the socialist revolution triumphed in Russia. This was a beacon to workers and socialists all over the world. Here in the USA, the revolution split the SP. The right-wing became opponents of the revolution. Most of the left-wing formed the Communist Party. Debs, although a strong supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, never left the SP. He died in 1926.

The theoretical mistakes in the SP of A led to its demise in the 1920s. Although it grew a little in the 1930s it was never again going to play the role it had played. The largest force on the American left was then the Communist Party, USA, which we will discuss in a future article.