Socialist Party USA On Its Hundredth Anniversary

| July 25, 2001

On the last weekend in July, a handful of die-hard activists will be gathering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of North America's most successful far-left political party. The organization in question isn't the New Democratic Party, or even the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), but rather, the Socialist Party USA - a once-mighty force that won millions of votes at the turn of the twentieth century.

Tiny and largely irrelevant today, the Socialists used to be the most prominent "third party" in America. Much of the SP-USA platform - from unemployment insurance, ending child labour, a shorter work-week, a minimum wage and more rights for workers - was eventually taken up the Democrats and Republicans, the two dominant parties south of the border.

Still, it's unlikely that the party's conference/birthday bash will attract more than token media coverage.

Not only is the SP-USA a fringe party, it's a radical organization in a conservative country with a short political memory.

"There isn't much awareness of American socialist history," admits SP-USA campaign director Shaun Richman, from party headquarters in New York City. "A lot of people aren't aware of how mainstream radical thought had been in America in the past."

As proof, he points to the Socialist Party's astonishing electoral success in the first two decades of its existence.

The party was founded in Indianapolis on July 29, 1901, out of a merger between the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Labor Party.

Originally called the Socialist Party of the United States, the organization managed to elect over seventy mayors and scores of city councillors and state representatives within a few short years.

In 1910, Milwaukee voters sent Socialist Party candidate Victor Berger to the U.S. Congress. Four years later, a second Socialist Congressmen, Meyer London, from Manhattan's Lower East Side, joined him.

Eugene Debs, the party's 1912 presidential candidate, pulled in nearly a million votes, out of some 15 million cast.

At its peak, the Socialists had over 100,000 dues-paying members. The First World War, however, proved to be a deathblow for the organization.

The Socialist Party opposed American military involvement in the conflict, a position that resulted in the arrest of many top party leaders on charges of sedition.

In addition, an early "Red Scare" following the Russian Revolution of 1917 put the Socialists under intense government scrutiny. A major rupture in 1919 over the issue of internal dissent (meaning the right of members to disagree with each other) didn't help matters either.

Neo-Leninists who wanted to follow "a party line (and) take orders from Moscow" broke off from the Socialists to form the Communist Party U.S.A. explains Richman.

Those who stayed in the Socialist Party fold believed that individual rights and the democratic system were worth preserving. Unlike the communists, the Socialists rejected violent revolution in favour of the ballot box.

Such a stance didn't stop the party's declining fortunes, however; during the Great Depression, many leftists abandoned the Socialists to support activist president Franklin Roosevelt. Following World War Two, the red-baiting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy further shattered the progressive left.

By the 1950s, the Socialists had been reduced to about 2,000 members and had largely withdrawn from electoral activity. While the party managed to hang onto a few political offices (voters in Milwaukee kept Socialist Frank Zeidler in the mayor's chair even at the height of McCarthyism), many members concentrated on working with the Democrats or social-protest groups.

Socialists became involved in the civil-rights struggle, anti-Vietnam War protests and labour-organizing drives.

Membership continued to dwindle, however, and now stands at about 1,200.

On the brink of their centenary, the party - which has been officially known as the Socialist Party USA since the 1970s - is trying to regain some of their lost political relevance. To this end, the SP-USA took part in recent anti-capitalist demonstrations in Quebec City and Washington DC.

Some aspects of the party's platform haven't changed: the old SP believed in "economic justice" and taxing rich people to pay for a social-welfare state. Twenty-first-century Socialists oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) deal and support a "mixed economy".

The SP-USA has taken on some new positions, however, that would astonish the party's original founders. The Socialists support abortion rights, solar power, the decriminalization of illicit drugs and free airtime on TV for political candidates.

Their progressive stance on social issues might explain why the Socialists have been successful in attracting new members as of late, many of whom are quite young.

Richman himself is only twenty-two years old, and a student of labour studies and journalism at Queen's College in New York City. He's also the part-time director of an organization called The Five Borough Institute, which he describes as "sort of a left-labour policy think-tank on New York City issues, such as health and housing, employment."

As for the future of the SP-USA, Richman says the party plans on contesting more elections and organizing a fresh crop of left-wingers.

"We've had a lot of new, young members - college age and high school age - join up in recent years," he says. "We have to train them to be activists so that we can be around for another hundred years."

Nate Hendley is a freelance journalist who lives in Toronto. He has written extensively for This Magazine, the National Post and eye weekly, among other publications.

embedded_video