No Socialism Here: The Failure of America's Socialist Party

(Of note, this paper ignores theoretical or postmodern explanations responsible for Socialism's philosophical failure to take root among a majority of Americans. It focuses on the American Socialist Party and the explanations for its eventual electoral irrelevance.)

“In this Republican country amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, someone is always drowning.” —- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sentiment resonated with many Americans at the turn of the century. Capitalism had not yet fully developed and many believed its inherent structure promoted inequality and class division. Indianapolis, Indiana of 1901 marked the birthplace of the Socialist Party. Behind the leadership of the dynamic Eugene Debs, the S.P. hoped to harness the nation’s discontent over its economic and social fortunes. In just over a decade, the Socialist Party increased its electoral presence ten-fold (95,000 in 1901 to 900,000 in 1912). Moreover, the S.P. tripled its membership from 41,751 in 1908 to 117,984 in 1912. The Socialist Party heightened class-consciousness among workers, elected officials to office, and aided the fledgling labor movement of early twentieth century America. However, by most historical accounts the Socialist Party by 1925 would no longer pose a legitimate political threat to the more established Democratic and Republican Parties. Even during the Great Depression (1929-40), when capitalism lay sick and enfeebled, the Socialist Party failed to establish inroads in American political culture. How do historians explain this rapid decline? How have views changed over the course of the past twentieth century?

Socialism’s failure can be more clearly understood through an examination of approximately eighty years of literature concerning American Socialism. Literature and histories concerning the Socialist Party of America (S.P.) prove especially illuminating. As historians have placed distance between themselves and the S.P.’s “movement”, historical analysis probed deeper and examined issues from new perspectives. Relationships to the S.P. itself and the mythology surrounding it faded as historians released themselves from “popular historical memory.” While newer histories provide a more complex and illuminating answer to Socialism’s decline, older studies of the S.P. still prove valuable, revealing both the historical tendencies of the movement in which they were written and the relationship of those historians writing on the subject. Thus, for a complete understanding of Socialism and its place in America throughout its twentieth century existence, the sensibilities or “mentalities” of the varying periods must be examined. Beginning with two influential pieces of literature at the turn of the century, proceeding to three works of the 1950’s or Consensus School, and concluding with works of more contemporary historians of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, one can follow not only Socialism’s role and failure within American society, but also pervasive attitudes toward it.
Turn of the Century

In 1906, Werner Sombart produced the essay entitled “Why There is No Socialism in the United States.” According to Sombart, the failure of Socialism to take root in American culture lay in five basic conditions. First, the lack of a feudal past left citizens of the United States rather ignorant on issues of labor and class. The right to vote encompassed so many (women excluded), that only two lines for class determination were left, economic and social. As a result, class lines were severely blurred, making Socialist insurgency difficult. One might argue Sombart incorrectly assumes that class division is a natural manifestation of societal growth, however, considering the persistence of class structure upon societies from the Egyptians to the modern United States, Sombart might well be on solid ground. Second, the overall material prosperity in the United States and its ensuing economic expansion undermined Socialist arguments of the moment. Two myths combined for the third and fourth tenets of Sombart five part outline, the myth of social mobility and the open frontier. Finally, Sombart argued the two party system embedded itself so deeply in American political culture, that third parties had difficulties in even establishing themselves on the ballot.

A second work meriting attention from this early period is Selig Perlman’s, Theory of the Labor Movement. In his text, Perlman asserts many of the same points that Sombart articulated, although, Perlman contributes two important conclusions of his own. First, immigration waves (i.e. 1870-1920) produced severe ethnic cleavages and the influx of these new workers threatened the jobs of older immigrants and “native” born workers. Secondly, the lack of a socially and physically settled wage earning class blunted class-consciousness. Interestingly, both Perlman and Sombart, concluded that while Socialism had not yet established itself within U.S. boundaries, both authors believed its manifestation on American soil was a matter of time. While Perlman and Sombart’s points have been debated, both authors’ viewpoints resonate throughout the literature of the twentieth century. In fact both, Irving Howe (writing in 1977) and Eric Foner (writing in 1984) dispute both Sombart’s and Perlman’s conclusions (Howe labels many of Sombart’s conclusions “ahistorical” and “too Marxist”) eighty years after their publication. Thus, one can only conclude while flawed, Sombart and Perlman raised several significant points concerning Socialism’s battle with the external forces of American culture.

The Consensus School —- 1950’s

Though the Socialist Party died as an electoral force sometime in the 1920’s, historical inquiry into the subject would expand thirty years later. Cold War tensions played no small part in this renewed interest. While some historians focused on the internal matters that led to the S.P.’s downfall, others looked at the external factors (i.e. American political and social culture) that prevented Socialism’s establishment. Eric Foner emphasizes this point in his essay, “Why is there No Socialism in the United States?”:

Thus far, the answers to the socialism problem have been largely ‘external’ … There are also explanations that might be described as ‘internal’ – those that focus on the nature and presumed errors of radical movements themselves. Such an approach has an obvious appeal for more optimistic left oriented historians. For if essentially, unchanging aspects of American society … are responsible for the failure of Socialism there appears to be little reason to hope for a future revival of socialist fortunes.

Additionally, while external factors may certainly be one explanation Foner warns historians regarding the dangers of such an approach, “Finally, there is the problem of proposed answers that simply explain too much. Descriptions of unchanging American ideology, or timeless aspects of the American social order such as mobility, leave little room for understanding the powerful American radical tradition based upon cross-class movements and appeals to moral sentiment rather than economic interest. Nor can they explain those periods when socialist politics did attract widespread support.” Thus, historians taking the external approach tend to make broad generalizations and rarely historicize the historical moment. However, internal writers are forced to historicize the moment because they must identify forces acting on the Socialist Party. The actors in internal histories have motivations based on historical contingencies which do well to explain the direction and shape of the movement at that moment.

However, with the above noted, many historians have come to similar conclusions as to when the S.P. became obsolete. Moreover, most of the historical investigation of this period found similar external and internal forces to be at fault for the S.P.’s demise. Seymour Martin and Gary Marks entitled It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, actually reasserts some of Sombart and Perlman’s assertions. Therefore, despite nearly 100 years of historical inquiry, historians seem to be mired in the same spot as Sombart in 1906.

Ira Kipnis’s The Socialist Movement 1897-1912 (1952) examines the Socialist Movement and more specifically the S.P. during its rapid ascension within the American political system. According to Kipnis, the Socialist Party formed in 1901 behind the leadership of American Marxists who believed capitalism eroded economic equality and corrupted democracy. Few members within the party regarded reform with much credibility, “The Socialist Party … argued that such reforms could never end the basic contradictions which were responsible for the decline in liberty and equality. The Socialists held that freedom and capitalism … was a contradiction in terms,” . Kipnis argues that the S.P. did impact American political and social culture:

It [the Socialist Party] elected well over two thousand of its members to public office. It secured passage of hundreds of reforms, and contributed to the adoption of many times more. It won position and influence in the American Federation of Labor and led in the organization of a small but militant revolutionary union (IWW). It publicized inequities in American economic, social, and political life, and participated in the struggle to restore substance to the nation’s democratic ideals. Clearly, whatever may have been the objective difficulties in advocating socialism in the wealthiest and most democratic capitalistic country in the world, the Socialist Party had achieved some notable success.

Ultimately, Kipnis’s work focuses on the internal factors that brought about its demise. Briefly, Kipnis attributed the S.P.’s decline to internal problems such as opportunism, racism, lack of intraparty democracy, and factionalism. Of these four central issues, the factionalism of the S.P. resonates throughout historical discourse from the Consensus School to more recent interpretations. Kipnis argues that factionalism was an under current within the S.P. from its earliest formation. While workers and union leaders made up the left wing, the right wing, according to Kipnis, consisted of middle class lawyers, professionals, and small businessmen. Subsequently, each held different social and economic interests; the left fought for a complete restructuring of the economic and political system, while the right wing believed it could transform the structural form through elected office. The inability of the left and right wings of he party to come to an ideological consensus undermined party unity and led to a party split in 1919 (not discussed in Kipnis’s work). Moreover, Kipnis places the blame for intraparty dissent on the shoulders of the “right wing” elements in the S.P., “The shortcomings of the Left wing were serious enough. But the major responsibility for the failure of the movement must rest upon the Right wing … It was the ‘constructive Socialists’ who controlled the party and determined policy and activity. And it was they who turned the party into what they themselves called an opportunist political organization devoted to winning public office for its leaders,” . However, Kipnis’s discussion of the left, center and right wings within the party, along with several other arguments draws criticism from recent historians, which will be examined shortly. Noting the emergence of Wilsonian Liberalism and Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, Kipnis acknowledges their negative impact on Socialism, yet ultimately he argues, “The Socialist Party had been organized to combat institutions, practices, and values of monopoly capitalism. Instead, it had been corrupted by them.”

While Kipnis chose to focus on the fifteen year period in which the Socialist Party enjoyed its greatest prominence, David Shannon in his party history, The Socialist Party of America (1955) traces the development and growth of the S.P. from its birth in 1901 to its irrelevance in the 1940’s. Considered by most historians, as one of the standard histories concerning the Socialist Party, Shannon also focuses on the internal issues that brought American Socialism to its grave. Although his historical inquiry revolves around internal factors, Shannon does acknowledge the difficulty the S.P. encountered externally in American society, “But despite all the shortcomings of the Socialist Party, its failure was not primarily its own fault; the failure of the Socialists was due less to their errors than to basic traditions and conditions in American society which could do little or nothing to change.” Many of Shannon’s external explanations follow Sombart and Perlman’s arguments with two notable additions: 1) the American fear that Socialism would subvert individualism and 2) the American political need for instant gratification. According to Shannon, the S.P. suffered internally form an inability to define itself. The party seemed unsure of whether it was a pressure group, revolutionary sect, political forum, or an electoral political party. This deficiency along with a lack of interest in local issues, the failure in courting organized labor, the seemingly inherent factionalism, the poor system of communication between the public and the party, and its negative attitude toward political organizing all helped to undermine the S.P.

Unlike Shannon and Kipnis, Daniel Bell approaches the S.P. from a more ideological point of view in his 1960 work, The End of Ideology. Chapter 13 entitled “The Failure of American Socialism” examines socialism not in stark historical terms, but instead Bell adopts a philosophical approach, “It is my argument that the failure of the socialist movement in the United States was rooted in its ability to resolve a basic dilemma of ethics and politics: the socialist movement, by the way in which it stated its goal, and by the way in which it rejected the capitalist order as a whole could not relate itself to specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-and-take political world.” Bell’s ideological approach therefore, places less emphasis on internal factors such as those discussed before and replaces them with broader philosophical issues. According to Bell, a distinct feature of modernity is the separation of ethics and politics:

But a distinguishing feature of modern society is the separation of ethics and politics – since no group can, through the civil arm, impose its moral conceptions on the whole society; and ideology – the façade of general interest and universal values which masks specific self-interest – replaces ethics. But that faithful entry into politics … becomes a far reaching goal which demands a radical commitment that necessarily transforms politics into an all-or-none battle.

Extending this idea to the Socialist Party clarifies Bell’s argument. Following Shannon’s assertion that the S.P. failed to define its purpose and role, Bell’s ideological argument clearly delineates the S.P.’s inherent weakness since political action demands absolute dedication. An organization that fails to vigorously promote its agenda and actively organize politically can not hope to attain or establish itself permanently in the confines of mainstream society. Moreover, Bell argues that by opposing the capitalist system, the S.P. left itself on the political margins never resolving whether to work for change as part of the political structure or to revolt and rebuild America’s economic and political edifice. Moreover, Bell criticizes both Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, the two prominent leaders of Socialism in America. Bell argues that Debs “lacked the hard-headedness of the politician, the ability to take the moral absolutes and break them down to the particulars with the fewest necessary compromises,” while Thomas “distrusted his own generation and surrounded himself with considerably younger men who stood in admiring and uncritical relation to him,” and took every political attack personally. Much of Bell’s argument incorporates various philosophical arguments ranging from Marxism to Weber’s “ethics of responsibility and conscience.” Furthermore, like Shannon and Kipnis before him, Bell notes the intense factionalism that most historians seem to agree weakened Socialism’s cause.

While similarities and differences abound in each work, what themes or arguments surface repeatedly throughout the period? First, all three authors note the intense factionalism of the S.P. Shannon and Bell both see the S.P.’s inability to define itself and its role as a crucial problem in the movement’s evolution. Kipnis fails to discuss external factors to the extent that Shannon does, and Bell’s discussion is so grounded in philosophy (mostly European) that the closest he comes to discussing external factors is his discussion of American religious tradition. Kipnis and Shannon both mark 1912 as the watershed year for American Socialism, with every year following it a gradual decline in the S.P.’s political relevance. As will be discussed shortly, historians hotly contest this view. Each author, including Bell, notes that Socialism lost many adherents to Wilsonian Liberalism and later, as only Shannon discusses (because of his more expansive periodization), to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bell even goes so far as to label the S.P. “irrelevant” in the context of Wilsonian Liberalism.
The Late 1960’s and 1970’s

Much of the debate revolves around when the Socialist Party actually declined. As will be discussed, many current historians do not see 1912 as the S.P.’s last gasp of political relevance. Moreover, they attribute Socialism’s failure not so much to internal factors as to the structure of American political culture.

In 1963, James Weinstein’s article “Socialism’s Hidden Heritage: Scholarship Reinforces Political Mythology” (in the journal Studies on the Left) directly assaults the Consensus view of the Socialist Movement. Arguing that historical scholarship failed to probe deeply enough to find the true reasons for Socialism’s failure, Weinstein asserts that previous histories either focused exclusively on parties, thus obscuring larger more complex issues or “The historians of the early Socialist Party have been incapable of transcending their own memories of , and relationships to, the faction ridden movement of the decades following 1920.” Weinstein chided previous historical scholarship for its “obsession” with factionalism and its stereotypical analysis of leftist and rightist politics. Focusing his attack on two authors discussed here, Weinstein first deconstructs Kipnis’s The Socialist Movement 1897-1912. According to Weinstein, Kipnis underestimates Socialism’s resiliency by suggesting its demise post-1912. Instead, Weinstein suggests that the movement sustained itself and even built support. While many of the historians of the Consensus period argued that World War I greatly damaged the party (it took an isolationist i.e. anti-war stance), Weinstein argues that W.W.I actually delivered new constituencies to the Party. Additionally, Weinstein derides Kipnis’s stereotypical analysis of the left and right wings of the party. Kipnis argued that racism, predominantly from the center and right within the Party, undermined the movement. Weinstein argues that “The differences between right and left were frequently rhetorical, more of mood than of substance; and where they were of substance they were as often the opposite of what one would expect as not.” Thus, Weinstein disputes the attributes that Kipnis ascribes to the left (i.e. non-racist) and right (racist) wings of the party. Ultimately, Weinstein argues, “In short, none of Kipnis’s reasons for the rapid decline of the Socialist Party after 1912 stand up. This, however, should not be too surprising since the thesis of rapid decline is itself invalid, as we shall see.”

Daniel Bell’s work also receives criticism from Weinstein. Bell, Weinstein points out, approaches the topic from a rigidly ideological standpoint. Thus, Bell while correctly searching for “the reason in the nature of the movement,” fails to escape his narrow focus, “Bell’s thesis is that the Socialist Movement, because it rejected capitalism, ‘could not relate itself to the specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-and-take political world.’ This means … that American Socialism never was a viable movement, and that whatever fleeting popularity it had was the result of fortuitous circumstance,” . Challenging Bell’s assertions, Weinstein charges Bell with using the 1912 rapid decline thesis as a substantiated way to support his own incorrect argument, “Thus, rapid decline of the movement after 1912 becomes a necessary condition for the logical validation of the entire thesis.” Shannon escapes much of Weinstein’s wrath, receiving criticism for providing party history, which Weinstein claims are intrinsically narrow in their focus.

In 1967, Weinstein had completed his own work on the Socialist Party, The Decline of Socialism in America 1912-1925. Within the text, Weinstein disputes the 1912 rapid decline model, instead arguing that the S.P. maintained its position from 1912-1919, beginning its true decline with its Communist split in 1919. However, Weinstein argues that even the period from 1919-1925 the S.P. manifested itself in different forms from various laborite movements to the Communist Party. Weinstein focuses on the Socialist Movement rather than the Socialist Party, thus his emphasis lay in Socialism and not the political relevance of the S.P.:

The Party had reached the peak of its strength just halfway to 1924. As we have seen, its decline was not a simple or steady process of disintegration. From 1912 until the United States entered the war, the Socialist Party remained a vital radical force in America., despite the widespread disillusionment with the world Socialist movement that followed the failure of the European Socialists to prevent, or even to oppose, the war in 1914.

Unlike Kipnis, who blames the S.P. failure on the party’s right wing, Weinstein looks to 1919 and lays blame on the antics of the left wing, “But it was the Left that had pursued policies that made the split inevitable,” . Concerning the S.P.’s political relevance, the key point of distinction between Weinstein and the Consensus School is that Weinstein argues that 1919 proved to be the ultimate undoing of the S.P., “The point is that both the Communists and the Socialists had been hopelessly caught up in conflict over forms organization, attitudes toward fellow Socialists, and concepts of strategy and tactics did not grow out of American experience or the problems transforming American society. The legacy of 1919 was the alienation of American Socialism,” .

Michael Harrington provides yet another perspective on the Socialist Party in his essay, “The Socialist Party” in Arthur Schlesinger’s History of United States Political Parties. Charting Socialism from its nineteenth century “utopian” phase to its convention in 1968, Harrington also argues against the rapid decline model presented by the Consensus School. Much like Weinstein, Harrington argues that while the Party contracted post-1912, it remained a vital political presence. Furthermore, Harrington argues that while the Socialist Party did not retain visibility of a major party, social democratic impulses in America remained active (although in uniquely American forms such as defense of “Republican ideals”). Disagreeing with Bell, Harrington disputes Bell’s claim that the S.P. failed to respond to problems of the present pointing to the S.P.’s non-intervention stance regarding W.W.I. Moreover, while many of the older historians (Shannon, Kipnis) and Weinstein argue that the S.P. compromised itself with Norman Thomas toward middle class orientation, Harrington suggests that change in the Party made realignment necessary. Organized labor had thrown its support behind Roosevelt and the New Deal, leaving the Socialist Party with middle class leftism. Ironically, Harrington agrees with Shannon, Kipnis, and Bell regarding the factionalism that constantly shook up the party. Unlike any of the other authors, Harrington does not assert that the S.P. post-1919 became an irrelevant vestige of the past. Instead, he argues that until the early 1960’s, the Party influenced America’s underlying social democratic belief and labor movements. (note of disclosure, Harrington himself was a member and leader of the Socialist Movement for some twenty years).

Irving Howe’s Socialism and America (1977) approaches the question as to why Socialism failed in America differently from the previous works. Instead of asking why Socialism failed, he asks: Why should it have succeeded? According to Howe, “There never was a chance for major Socialist victory in this society, this culture.” Despite writing seventy years after Sombart and Perlman, Howe disputes each factor that both authors attributed to American Socialism’s lack of development. Framing the arguments differently from the previous authors, Howe maintains not that the Socialist Party could not decide what role it wished to serve, rather “American Socialism tried to combine two roles – that of moral protest and political reform which in America had traditionally been largely separate, and which our political arrangements make it very difficult to unite.” Howe follows much of Bell’s argument concerning Socialism not only here, but also in other areas. Unlike Shannon, Weinstein, Kipnis, Harrington, or even Bell, Howe does not discuss Socialism’s decline or the controversy surrounding the moment of its decline. Rather, he discusses the issue in a manner most similar to Bell. Similar to Bell, Howe emphasizes theory and ideology over “hard” historical fact. While he places blame on the S.P. itself, Howe asserts that “American Exceptionalism” along with the “distinctiveness of American culture” also undermined Socialist aspirations, “I believe that the distinctiveness of American culture has played the more decisive part in thwarting socialist fortunes. And even after both kinds of reasons – the socioeconomic and the cultural – are taken into account, there remains an important margin with regard to intelligence or obtuseness, correct or mistaken strategies, which helped to determine whether American Socialism was to be a measurable force or an isolated sect. That the American socialist movement must take upon itself a considerable portion of the responsibility for its failure, I have treed to show in three earlier chapters.” Thus, unlike previous authors, Howe blames three parties for Socialism’s decline. Howe concludes that for Socialism to ever play a role in American society, it must find a way to be both moral reformer and political activist, “It’s not a matter of choosing roles of moral witness and political actor. It’s a matter of finding ways through which link properly the utopian moralism of the protester with the political realism of the activist … “


Obviously, historians distinguish reasons for the movement’s eventual failure differently. Many historians view Socialism as an American impossibility. According to these historians, external factors prevented socialism from gaining a foothold in American political and social culture. While other more optimistic historians view Socialism’s failure as a result of internal factors. Thus, such historians argue that problems like factionalism or the inability to compromise undermined the Socialist Movement. Which proves more accurate? Arguments based on external factors such as American exceptionalism (some historians might suggest the belief in such exceptionalism deserves to be identified as a weakness) suffer from broad generalization. External arguments frequently make broad generalizations and fail to historicize historical moments. Also, these arguments often cut both ways. Social mobility is offered as an external factor defeating socialism, yet as Eric Foner points out:

Plausible as they appear, the ‘success of capitalism’ and ‘mobility’ approaches raise as many questions as they answer … More importantly, the precise implications of the ability to acquire property for class consciousness and socialism are far more problematical than is often assumed . A venerable tradition of analysis, dating back at least as far as Alexis de Toqueville, insists far from promoting political stability, social stability is a destabilizing force, raising expectations faster than can be statisfied and thus encouraging demands further change

Again, Foner points this out, “As we have seen, all the explanations that have been proposed – the internal and the external, the social, ideological, economic, and cultural have a certain merit, and all seem to have weaknesses as well. Nor can we simply toss them all together in a kind of mixed salad and feel satisfied with the result.”

What does Foner suggest? Foner does not argue so much for the perfect historical interpretation as much as he argues for new lenses from which to view the issue. Questions like “Why is there no Socialism in the United States?” are too simplistic “… the socialism question rests on a number of assumptions that may not survive careful analysis … In the case of socialism, the premise is that under capitalism, the working class will develop class consciousness, expressed in unions, and a labor or socialist political party, and that consequently the failure of either to emerge must be the result of some outside interference.” Thus, Foner argues why should this pattern be inherently assumed. Historical guarantees do not exist. Contingency alone prevents such developments, historical events and movements are specific to the forces at large during that particular moment. Therefore, new questions concerning socialism should be asked such as “whether the experience of socialism in the United States is, in reality, exceptional, or whether it represents an extreme example of the dilemma of socialism throughout western society,” or “why is the United States the only advanced capitalist nation whose political system lacks a social democratic presence and whose working class lacks socialist class consciousness?”

Socialism has changed since Werner Sombart’s time, just as the capitalist system in America has changed. Laissez-faire capitalism died with the onset of the Great Depression. Subsidies, corporate welfare, social welfare, the SEC, and various other forms of government largesse and regulation have altered the modern understanding of both capitalism and socialism. Even the socialist parties of Europe have abandoned true socialism, choosing to focus on the distribution of wealth and resources over dogmatic socialist arguments. Thus, no pure system exists. Just as these systems have incorporated outside influences, so must historians begin to weave an argument that successfully incorporates internal and external factors. New questions must be asked. Can socialism be considered present only when a viable class-consciousness exists or when a socialist political party exerts influence or can socialism remain relevant through other means (i.e. subsidies, social welfare)?

Ryan Reft

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