Modern US History

All the modern US history fit to print

Category: Federico Corradini

History of the Socialist Movement in the United States (1877-1960)

Election poster for Eugene V. Debs and Ben Hanford, Socialist Party of America candidates for President and Vice-president, 1904



In this project I examine the history of Socialism in the United States, from the first religious Utopian Communities to the birth of McCarthyism. In order to do this, I systematize the diverse expressions the movement has taken through the period emphasizing their doctrines, political actions, known activists, and the relation the movement had to the institutions of the US.

It is not a new finding that the socialist movement in the United States nowadays is weak. Compared to the rest of the developed countries, where at least a democratic socialist party has developed a major role in their political history, the country has never materialized a socialist association with the ability to take center stage. It may seem that individualism is a characteristic in the United States that is highly regarded, and therefore, because socialist ideas are not native, they will never have a fertile ground. However, this has not always been the case for an important portion of the society. The major task of this project is to show that socialist ideas have been present since the early beginnings of the US’s path as a sovereign nation.  As Albert Fried says, “if we read deeply, Socialism was not an alien but an integral part of American past”.

For this task, I propose revisiting from the early stages of the socialist movement until the First Red Scare. This is because the left movement was almost anihilated between the Interwar period, and it changed radically after the 60’s when it reborn and started campaigning for a broad range of social issues such as feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms, changing the focus on social justice based on dialectical materialism and social class. The “New Left”, which emerged in the 1960s on the strength of the civil rights movement, the protests the Vietnam War and the increasingly experimental character in personal styles and habits, is too amorphous and syncretistic to define with any assurance. Its hallmark lies in its indefinability, its looseness and lack of boundaries. Analyzing this mutation exceeds broadly the purpose of this work and it will be understood, then, why I end the presentation here.

In this project, the term Socialism is understood as the political ideology that advocates for an egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power in society and stands as a reaction to the rise of capitalism and the economic inequality it induces. As socialists have disagreed over how this change should come about, no distinctions would be made from this answer: utopians, anarchism, socialism, unionism and communism therefore should be understood as variants of Socialism. What animated these Socialisms, what underlay their enormous differences and why it is proper to bring them under the same rubric was their conviction that each person’s obligation to society was a brotherhood, not a collection of strangers drawn together by interest, that the individual derived his highest fulfillment from his solidarity with others, not from the pursuit of advantage and power. Whatever their persuasion, all Socialist regarded the opposition of self and society as a false one, reflecting the prevailing ethic of greed and domination. All envisioned an end, really a return to the beginning, in the form of either the perfect community, or the Kingdom of Heaven on earth or the cooperative commonwealth.

As I intend to show that socialist organization has been recurrent since early stages of the nation development, the historical era I propose to analyze American Socialism takes place from the Early National Period to the beginnings of the 1960s. That said, I will start reviewing the Utopian Socialism,the  Socialism Ties to Labor, Anarchism and  the  opposition to WWI & First Red Scare.

Paraphrasing the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, the task of historians is to “remember what the others have forgotten” and ” (not) simply to discover the past but to provide a link with the present”.  As the US is becoming more and more unequal after the post-2008 economic crisis is essential to rethink the economical path taken. Furthermore, the past can provide us valid answers on what we should do.

Prolegomenon: Utopian Socialism

The Shakers 

Calvin Green and Seth Y. Wells, “A Summary View of the Millennial Church or United Society of Believers” (excerpts), C Van Benthuysen (1848).

The story of Socialism in the US traces its roots in the beginning of the 19th century,  from the hands of millenarist christian sects. Between the 1820s and 1840s, individuals who believed in the perfectibility of the social and political order founded hundreds of “Utopian communities.” One of the earliest Utopian societies was popularly known as the Shakers. Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, the Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. Founded in 1776 by “Mother” Ann Lee, an English immigrant, the Shakers believed that the millennium was at hand and that the time had come for people to renounce sins. Aspiring to live like the early Christians, the Shakers adopted communal ownership of property and a way of life emphasizing simplicity.  This pamphlet provides a theological background for a communal organization of the society, showing the how the Shakers  try to justify their attempt to create a communal society.


5. To see the luxurious state of the pampered rich, the oppression and destitution of the poor, who are perishing by thousands, yea, hundreds of thousands, for the want of the necessaries of life; and the consequent bitter animosities and increasing collisions between the rich and the poor, must suggest to every benevolent mind the indispensable necessity of some system of operation among men, that will confer a much greater equality of rights and privileges, both in person and property, than any which now prevails, in order to prevent mankind from rushing on to utter ruin.

6. Multitudes of people have been so firmly persuaded of the utility and practicability of such a system, that they have attempted to form communities upon the plan of equal rights and privileges, with a unity of interest in all things, believing that it is the design of the benevolent Creator that man should be a social and benevolent being; that their joys and sorrows, as fellow beings, may be shared together.  These sentiments are evidently the impressions of Divine Goodness, and clearly show his benevolent designs for his creature man, who is his intelligent representative in this lower world.  This was prefigured under the law, when Divine Providence fed the people of Israel with manna.  Of this they all shared equally, according to their necessities.

7. During the present century, many attempts have been made to form associations upon the plan of a community of interest, in various parts of Europe and in the United States of America.  Many societies have been formed in part or wholly upon this plan.  But it is well known that with all their wisdom, skill, benevolent designs, unity of intention, convenience of location and confidence of success, they have soon failed in their expectations, and been scattered as before.  This signal and general failure has more or less disappointed the votaries of this system, and set many to devising some other plan to accomplish their object.   Many, of course, scoff at the idea of such communities, while others, after having tried the system, have given up the object as unattainable.

8. But notwithstanding these general failures, we are prepared to show that there is a sure system, founded upon the principles of a unity of interest in all things, which has stood the test a sufficient length of time, to prove that it can be attained and supported.  This system has been established and maintained for many years, in seven different states in this Union, and in many locations in these states.9. The United Society of Believers (called Shakers) was founded upon the principles of equal rights and privileges, with a united interest in all things, both spiritual and temporal, and has been maintained and supported in this Society, at New Lebanon, about sixty years, without the least appearance of any failure.  Is not this proof sufficient in favor of such a system?


Utopian Literature

Edward Bellamy Boston, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”. Ticknor and Co. (1888) 

Socialism within the United States first received national attention following the publication of a science fiction book by Edward Bellamy called “Looking Backward”. “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” remains the most successful and influential Utopian novel written by an American writer. At the end of the 19th century, Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy’s protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000. West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American Life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy’s sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period. For example, he discovers that everybody is happy, and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same monthly allowance.



Socialism & Ties to Labor

The Birth of the Industrial Working Class

As historian Selig Perlman has said [1], modern American socialism began in the years immediately following the Civil War. While the bloodbath between the United States and the Confederate States solved the fundamental social issue of the day, the slavery question, the four year rush to produce goods of war also accelerated a process of industrialization. No longer was the United States merely a nation of small farmers, artisans, and small scale industrialists. A new centralized and urbanized production process was rapidly coming into being, a process needing a steady supply of labor power to keep the mills and machines of modern industry whirling. Thus, a distinct working-class began to emerge and to become conscious of its own existence. In this leaflet written for the First International Association, whose seat was in New York City, Karl Marx addresses the workers as an independent actor that would change the story of the mankind.

“On you, then, depends the glorious task to prove to the world that now at last the working classes are bestriding the scene of history no longer as servile retiners but as independent actors, conscious of their own responsibility, and able to command peace where their would-be masters shout war.”

Karl Marx, “Address to the National Labor Union of the United States” (excerpts), I International (1869)

Immigrants and Socialist Ideas

Largely influenced by the political philosophy of Karl Marx and others known socialist like Ferdinand Lassalle, German immigrants arriving on American shores formed small political parties or trade unions based on socialist principles. These groups advocated for social justice, labor reforms and more. During this period, the German socialist movement was recognized as the strongest all around the world. With prominent intellectuals and a vigorous worker class, it is not strange that the so-called scientific socialism was introduced by citizens coming from this country. This immigration record belongs to Fred C. Haack, a german immigrant who was the first socialist to hold public office in the United States.

Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Germans to the United States documenting the period 1850-1897, Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies database, (ca. 1977)


James D Tallmadge, “Labor songs dedicated to the Knights of Labor”, J.D. Tallmadge (1886)

Labor unions arose in the nineteenth century as increasing numbers of Americans took jobs in factories, mines, and mills in the growing industrial economy. The Knights of Labor, for example, was founded in 1869, was the first major labor organization in the United States. The Knights organized unskilled and skilled workers, campaigned for an eight-hour workday, and aspired to form a cooperative society in which laborers owned the industries in which they worked. The Knights’ membership collapsed following the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, and whey wouldn’t be able to get over it. the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in America. As seen in this source, The Knights frequently included music in their regular meetings and encouraged local members to write and perform their works.

The Socialist Party

The Socialist Party of America was a socialist  party in the United States formed in 1901. In the first decades of the 20th century, it drew significant support from many different groups, including trade unionists, progressive social reformers, populist farmers and immigrants. However, it refused to form coalitions with other parties, or even to allow its members to vote for other parties. Eugene V. Debs twice won over 900,000 votes in presidential elections while the party also elected two Representatives (Victor L. Berger and Meyer London), dozens of state legislators, more than a hundred mayors and countless lesser officials. The party’s staunch opposition to American involvement in World War I, although welcomed by many, also led to prominent defections, official repression and vigilante persecution.

House Member Introduces Resolution to Abolish the Senate, Victor Berger (1911)

This text formed the preamble to a constitutional amendment introduced in the House of Representatives by that chamber’s first Socialist member Victor Berger of Wisconsin. Continuing evidence of corrupted state legislative elections for U.S. senators and the Senate’s apparent reluctance to follow the House in passing a constitutional amendment to require direct popular election of its members inspired Berger’s resolution. Furthermore, the Senate chamber has been always considered by the radicals and social reformers as an oligarchical institution, as it doesn’t represent the people but abstract entities as states. As with nearly all the more than 11,000 constitutional amendments introduced from 1789 to our own day, Berger’s proposal died silently in committee.

“Whereas the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth; a body, many of the Members of which are representatives neither of a State nor of its people, but solely of certain predatory combinations, and a body which, by reason of the corruption often attending the election of its Members, has furnished the gravest public scandals in the history of the nation. . .”

Victor Berger





Early Anarchist Ideas

Josiay Warren and the Cincinnati Time Store

  Josiah Warren , A sample labor for labor note for the Cincinnati Time Store (1846)

The Cincinnati Time Store was a store created by the individualist anarchist Josiah Warren to test his theories that were based on the labor theory of value, which says that the value of a commodity is the amount of labor that goes into producing or acquiring it (and this theory of value is also shared by the vast majority of socialist and anarchist of this era). The experimental store is the first place where notes for labor were used. In the store, customers could purchase goods with “labour notes” which represented an agreement to perform labour. This was determined on the principle of the equal exchange of labour, measured by the time taken, and exchanged hour for hour with other kinds of labour. Warren embraced the labour theory of value, which says that the value of a commodity is the amount of labour that goes into producing or acquiring it. Warren summed up this policy in the phrase “Cost the limit of price,” with “cost” referring to the amount of labour one exerted in producing a good. He set out to examine if his theories could be put into practice by establishing his “labour for labour store.” His experiment proved to be successful.From this, he concluded that it was therefore unethical to charge more labor for a product than the labor required to produce it.

Feminism and Anarchism

Worcester Daily Spy, “Anarchist Shoot by Sweetheart”, Page 1 (1902)

Feminism was almost a creation of anarchist intellectuals. That is what anarchist history can tell at a very first sight. One of the pioneer’s feminists of all time was Voltairine de Cleyre. Voltairine de Cleyre (the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced, as Emma Goldman noted) was an anarchist known for being a prolific writer and speaker, and opposing capitalism, the state, marriage, and the domination of religion over sexuality and women’s lives. It was Voltairine who pioneered feminist theory on economic independence for women, autonomy inside and outside marriage; the impact of oppression on women’s social status, economic status, and consciousness, women’s ownership of their own bodies and the role of the church and state in oppressing women. This newspaper article notices what Cleyre has been shooted by a “sweetheart”, perhaps a jealous lover that could not stand her free way of living.


Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman stands as a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism. An influential and well known anarchist of her day, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organization. Her criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two year imprisonment, followed by her deportation in 1919. For the rest of her life until her death in 1940, she continued to participate in the social and political movements of her age, from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.


The Propaganda of the Deed



Alexander Berkman’s attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick, W. P. Snyder for Harper’s Weekly (1892)


The Propaganda of the deed is the political action meant to be exemplary to others and serve as a catalyst for revolution. It is associated with acts of violence perpetrated by proponents of insurrectionary including bombings and assassinations against the ruling class. These “deeds” were to ignite the spirit of revolt in the people by demonstrating the state was not omnipotent and by offering hope to the downtrodden, and to expand support for anarchist movements as the state grew more repressive in its response. In 1892, as the illustration shows and undertaking an act of propaganda of the deed, the anarchist Alexander Berkman made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate businessman Henry Clay Frick.


The Opposition to the First Word and the Red Scare

Espionage Act, 18 U.S. Code Chapter 37 (1917)

Resultado de imagen para espionage act

The Espionage Act was the Congress response to a growing fear that public criticism of the war effort would make it difficult to conscript the needed manpower for American participation. Also contributing to widespread unease were the actions of labor groups who proclaimed their sympathy for laborers through the world, including those in Russia, the Espionage Act was passed in June 1917 and provided penalties of 20 years imprisonment and fines up to $10,000 for those convicted of interfering with military recruitment.

State and local Committees of Public Safety, although they often did effective work, also at times exceeded legitimate object and left a memory of unjust repression in some communities. No formal censorship existed but the result was the same, through pressure and the mere threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Speech to the Court (excerpts), Eugene V. Debs (1918)

The man who was “too good for this world”, Eugene Debs was a prominent leader of socialist movement. The best-known apostle of industrial unionism in the early years of the 20th century, Debs ran for president of the United States for the Socialist Party five times between 1900 and 1920, winning millions of votes. Although none of his dreams were realized during his lifetime, Debs inspired millions to believe in “the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind,” and he helped spur the rise of industrial unionism and the adoption of progressive social and economic reforms. Lofty speaker, he was arrested in 1918 under the Sedition Act because of his anti-war speeches.

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions…

Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…

Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison…

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.

In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.

There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists, loyal, devoted adherents to this cause, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color, or sex. They are all making common cause. They are spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order. They are waiting, watching, and working hopefully through all the hours of the day and the night. They are still in a minority. But they have learned how to be patient and to bide their time. The feel—they know, indeed—that the time is coming, in spite of all opposition, all persecution, when this emancipating gospel will spread among all the peoples, and when this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greates social and economic change in history.

In that day we shall have the universal commonwealth—the harmonious cooperation of every nation with every other nation on earth…

Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy comet with the morning.

 Mayflower Photoplay Company, “Bolshevism on Trial”  (1919)

As World War I was ending an anti-communist movement known as the First Red Scare began to spread across the United States of America. In 1917 Russia had undergone the Bolshevik Revolution. For some Americans communism was also, in theory, an expansionist ideology spread through revolution. Once the United States no longer had to concentrate its efforts on winning World War I, many Americans became afraid that communism might spread to the United States and threaten the nation’s “democratic” values. Fueling this fear was the mass immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the United States as well as labor unrest in the late 1910s, including the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Both the federal government and state governments reacted to that fear by attacking potential communist threats. The overt patriotism helped to fuel the Red Scare and the federal government’s fervor in rooting out communists led to major violations of civil liberties.


Primary Sources

  1. Calvin Green and Seth Y. Wells, “A Summary View of the Millennial Church or United Society of Believers” (excerpts), C Van Benthuysen (1848)
  2. Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Germans to the United States documenting the period 1850-1897, Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies database, (ca. 1977)
  3. Edward Bellamy Boston, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”. Ticknor and Co. (1888)
  4. Emma Goldman Cut Interview uploaded by musicluver220 (2010). Link:
  5. Espionage Act, 18 U.S. Code Chapter 37 (1917)
  6. Eugene V. Debs, Speech to the Court (excerpts) (1918)
  7. James D Tallmadge, “Labor songs dedicated to the Knights of Labor”, J.D. Tallmadge (1886)
  8. Josiah Warren , A sample labor for labor note for the Cincinnati Time Store (1846)
  9. Karl Marx, “Address to the National Labor Union of the United States” (excerpts), I International (1869)
  10. Mayflower Photoplay Company, “Bolshevism on Trial”  (1919)
  11. Victor Berger, House Member Introduces Resolution to Abolish the Senate,(1911)
  12. Worcester Daily Spy, “Anarchist Shoot by Sweetheart”, Page 1 (1902)
  13. WP. Snyder Alexander “Berkman’s attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay” Frick Harper’s Weekly , (1892)

Secondary Sources

  1. Foner, Eric. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? History Workshop Journal, No. 17 (Spring, 1982)
  2. Fried, Albert. Socialism in America: from the Shakers to the Third International. A documentary History. Columbia University Press (1993)

© 2019 Modern US History

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑