History of the U.S. Workers Movement: From Populism to Socialism

Peter Moody maps the genesis of the Socialist Party of America in the fourth part of his series

Populist Party: in search of a silver bullet

As mentioned in last month’s article, the Socialist Labor Party did important work in adapting the radical-democratic core of Marxist politics to the American political landscape, despite the compromises and limitations put upon said program by the way the SLP was formed.  Nevertheless, the Socialist Labor Party ultimately did not grow.  While it was able to win some local elections in smaller industrial cities and had periodic influence in the developing trade union movement, the SLP did not take off in the way that its contemporaries in Europe did, and quickly developed a reputation as a non-influential sect.  It would be a quarter of a century after the foundation of the SLP before a party started to approach relevance.  This party was, of course, the Socialist Party of America, and while the SLP did play a role in its creation, the Socialist Party was a product of social upheavals of the 1890s in a way that the SLP wasn’t, which gave it deeper roots in the American working class from the start.

The first of these upheavals – the Pullman strike of 1894 – is perhaps better known for its connection to the rise of the Socialist Party, because it helped spur the radicalization of Eugene Debs, who went on to become one of the Socialist Party’s most well-known members as well as its presidential standard bearer for nearly two decades.  It was also important because it managed to show both the strengths and weaknesses of trade union action on its own.  On the one hand, the American Railroad Union – an early industrial union which by and large spearheaded the Pullman strike – was able to shut down passenger and freight traffic across wide sections of the US rail network.  According to one account of the strike written a few years after the fact, by the end of the second day the strike had spread from its origins in Illinois to Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, and other states in the Midwest and West.  On the other hand, the strike did not gain mass support outside of some localities, and without much of an organized presence engaged in supporting the strike aside from the ARU, the railroad workers weren’t able to link up with other movements in a systematic way.  Ultimately, the strike was put down through federal intervention, and many of its leaders were imprisoned or blacklisted, including Eugene Debs.  It was during this stint in prison, however, that Debs started to read socialist literature in a more in-depth way, and through prison visits came in contact with some of the socialist activists who would later become founders of the Socialist Party.

Many of these activists were involved with party politics around the same period, though again, the SLP was not their political home.  Rather, they participated as a semi-organized tendency within a group called the People’s Party, a party which drew its primary base of support from small farmers in the Midwest and South, and the second movement which helped form the Socialist Party.  The People’s Party, or Populists, carried out strong agitation against banks, railroad conglomerates, and what it saw as corrupt, plutocratic governments supporting them.  While this aspect of their program was considered at least “semi-socialistic” by the socialists working within the People’s Party, this was tempered by a strong faction which saw monetary reform as the party’s primary or sole focus, as well as a tendency towards coalitionism on a local level, where Populists would forge electoral alliances with one of the two major parties against the other – generally, this played out with Populists forming alliances with the Democratic Party against the Republicans in the Midwest, and allying with the Republican Party against the Democrats in the South.  While this allowed the People’s Party to win a fairly large degree of representation on both the federal and local levels, it also meant that the political independence of the Populists was tenuous at best in many instances.

These contradictions within the People’s Party came to a head in 1896, when the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate.  Bryan, who was a strong supporter of changing the US currency to be backed by silver as well as gold, gave both the monetary reform wing and coalitionist wing of the People’s Party a perceived route to greater power and influence through supporting his candidacy.  This move was opposed by other Populists, as well as the socialists who organized within the People’s Party.  Led by Victor Berger, who had helped bring Debs towards socialism while he was in prison and would later become a Socialist Party member of Congress, socialists in the People’s Party spearheaded an effort for the People’s Party to nominate Debs for president.  This effort was ultimately unsuccessful, partially because Debs insisted he did not want to be nominated for president, though partially through the political subterfuge of pro-Bryan Populists.  Nevertheless, this effort helped win some segments of the People’s Party to more explicitly socialist politics, which, combined with the association of labor radicalism through the person of Eugene Debs, gave socialist forces in the United States a much firmer ground to merge a socialist program with with the American workers movement than earlier efforts were able to.  While it would still be a few years before these forces coalesced into the Socialist Party of America, it was during this time that the foundation was laid.

(From The Red Vine.)

Part one | Part two | Part three


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