Monday, December 1, 2008

Know Your Third Parties: Part 4 - Socialists

Socialism is one of the oldest and (historically) most significant Third Party movements in American politics.

When it comes to Socialists, there is no one Party to focus on. Several political parties in the United States claim to be socialist parties - although many of them actually hinge on communism, anarchism, or other Marxist principles.

The most prominent of the socialist parties in the U.S. is Socialist Party USA. There are also several state socialist parties such as the Liberty Union Party in Vermont.

History of Socialism in the United States

The oldest socialist party in the U.S. was the Workingman's Party of America - later named the Socialist Labor Party - founded in 1876. It ran its first presidential campaign in 1888, winning 2,068 votes under Daniel De Leon, an academic who devoted himself completely to the party. Four years later, the Party received over 21,000 votes with Simon Wing.

The Socialist Labor Party had frequent inter-party problems with anarchists and radicals. This led to a few schisms, including the creation of the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party in 1881.

In 1901, the Socialist Labor Party combined with the Social Democratic Party as the Socialist Party of America, frequently running Eugene V. Debs as its presidential candidate.

The Socialist Party of America boomed in a handful of U.S. cities. In Milwaukee, "sewer socialism" led to a socialist-dominated city which elected the first Socialist Congressman and Socialist Mayor of a major city, along with a predominately Socialist City Council.

By the later years of the Progressive Era, the Socialist Party of America had elected two Congressmen, over 70 mayors, and a countless number of State Legislators and City Council members across the country.

The direction of the Party was always a heated issue. New York City socialists and others on the right of the party argued for greater cooperation with the American Federation of Labor in the hopes of creating a U.S. Labor Party with the AFL and Progressive camp of the GOP. The left wing of the Party, including Debs and the Industrial Workers of the World, were opposed to making the party more moderate in order to appease the AFL.

In 1920, the Socialists experienced their first major legal blow when the New York State Assembly expelled five Socialist members for "disloyalty".

But the Party saw dramatic growth during the Great Depression, especially among younger voters. They took the party in a radically left direction, associating with Comintern, and dominating the National Conventions. They also split between the Stalinists and Trotskyites, and in 1938, many of the new members left to join the Fourth International.

The Socialist Party of America then began to decrease in numbers and finally split in the 1970s to form the Democratic Socialists of America (the Coalition Caucus), Social Democrats USA, and the Union for Democratic Socialists (which later became Socialist Party USA). The split was largely due to differences in opinion on supporting the Democratic Party in light of the Vietnam War.

American Socialists Today

Today the socialist parties are far less successful than they were in the past. In 2008, the Brian Moore and Stewart Alexander ticket for Socialist Party USA appeared on the ballot in only eight states, and received only 6,563 votes. The Party cannot claim any electoral victories in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Socialist Party has mostly reserved themselves to supporting Democrats and the Social Democratic Party has supported a strange twist of socialist and neo-conservative principles.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is the only self-proclaimed Socialist member of Congress, although he has not run under his Liberty Union Party ticket since being elected to national office.

On the Issues

As they always have in the past, Socialists have many disagreements among themselves on issues of achieving socialism. While the membership is allowed to differ on specifics, Socialist Party USA openly favors extending democracy and allowing the public to own the means of production.

Among the many points of the platform, they call for a 30 hour work week at no loss of pay, with six weeks annual paid vacation, a $15 per hour minimum wage, and dramatically progressive social policy.

You can read the platform here.

Final Thoughts

While socialists can take credit for believing in Marxist ideals through democratic means, the majority of their views are too far left for them to be taken seriously by the American electorate.

It also does not help that "socialist" carries a stigma of failed policy views on public ownership. This was made especially clear when President-Elect Barack Obama was characterized as a socialist by his opponents during the presidential race this year.

Whether or not the socialists are surviving due to the legacy of their historical prominence is not so clear. For example, membership in Socialist Party USA has nearly doubled in the past eight years. Nonetheless, the growth of Democratic success and the end of the Bush Era may very well bring an end to their resurge.

We expect the different Socialist Parties to move further and further into obscurity in the coming years - although their historical impact on American politics will allow them to continue for a good deal of time to come.

Coming Thursday - Communists and other Marxists.

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