1: The Early Years 1876-1889

Submitted by jondwhite on December 29, 2014

Like the Christian religion, socialism came to America with immigrants, mainly from Germany. Not surprisingly the division of socialists in the German homeland into two denominations—Internationalists, members of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) who were strongly influenced by Karl Marx's ideas, and Lassalleans, followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx's arch-rival in Germany—was reproduced in America. Later, when the struggle between Marxists and the anarchist supporters of Bakunin destroyed the IWA in 1872-4, its national sections were free to go their independent ways. For the Internationalists in Germany this independent way took the form of political unity with the Lassalleans in a congress at Gotha in 1875, where the first united "socialist party" in the world was organized, the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Their comrades in America, who watched events in Germany as intensely as their counterparts would watch Russia a half century later, imitated them the next year, thereby becoming the second socialist party and, like the first, destined to last without organizational interruption to the present day. Events in America were especially conducive to unity in 1876. Expatriate German Lassalleans had prospered in the political democracy of the U.S., while internal warfare was destroying the International. As the International declined, some Marxists, while retaining their memberships in the International, had joined the Lassallean groups in their localities, giving these a Marxist orientation.

In April 1876, a preliminary conference of representatives of the Internationalists and the Lassalleans met in Pittsburgh and issued a call for a Unity Congress to meet in Philadelphia the following July to form a "Socialist Labor Party." Prior to this Congress, delegates from the remaining American sections of the International met in Philadelphia on July 15 and disbanded that organization. On July 15 the Unity Congress met. Seven delegates represented three thousand organized socialists in four groups: the now-disbanded International (with 635 members), the Workingmen's Party of Illinois (593), the Social Political Workingmen's Society of Cincinnati (250), and the Social Democratic Workingmen's Party of North America (1500), the latter three being Lassallean.

In four days the Unity Congress glued together the Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS) complete with an organizational structure, and a program calling for "the emancipation of the working classes," "the abolition of all class rule," and the abolition of the wages system. It also contained a Lassallean provision for state support of a system of cooperative production in which all means of labor would become the common property of the whole people, and an Internationalist-inspired call for the organization of trade unions. The Internationalists also succeeded in getting a party prohibition against electoral activity, although this was undercut by a Lassallean provision permitting sections to enter local elections if conditions seemed promising. Philip Van Patten, a Lassallean, was elected the first corresponding (national) secretary, a position he held until 1883. The new party had one English and two German weekly newspapers, The Socialist (soon renamed the Labor Standard) and the Arbeiter-stimme in New York and the Vorbote, Chicago. The first was edited by J.P. McDonnell, an Internationalist and colleague of Friedrich Sorge, who was the head of the IWA in the U.S. and a frequent correspondent of Marx and Engels.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

It would have been hard to choose a better year than 1876 to launch a revolutionary socialist party in America. The Panic of 1873, which had first created a depression in agriculture, had by the mid-seventies begun to affect manufacturing and the transportation system. Unemployment on the railroads was high, and those workers still employed had to contend with arbitrary cuts in wages that were already abysmally low. The railroad strike began in July 1877, a year almost to the day after the founding convention of the WPUS. Starting at Martinsville, West Virginia, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it rapidly spread westward.

Coming as it did only six years after the Paris Commune, the strike's violence and mass working class support were blamed on "communists," which is to say the WPUS, in just the same way that Bolshevik instigation was seen in any significant strike in the twenties and thirties. The Workingmen's Party was accused not only of encouraging and taking advantage of the violence but of planning the whole thing.

Actually the sudden outburst of working class militancy and solidarity surprised the WPUS and its leaders as much as anyone else. While the party supported the strike, organizing mass meetings often attended by thousands, these were largely propaganda meetings aimed at presenting the socialist solution to labor's woes, and not, as the communard-fearing business interests charged, to egg the strikers on to greater violence.

In Pittsburgh, the major center of violence, the WPUS had almost no presence at all. Its involvement was significant only in Chicago and St. Louis. The former was the site of the party's national headquarters and a high concentration of members who were deeply involved in the trade union movement. In their capacity as union militants, Chicago members like Albert Parsons, George Schilling, Philip Van Patten, and others addressing mass meetings were able to raise among the ruling class the specter of a general strike. The police made strenuous efforts to break up these meetings and were resisted, according to some accounts, by armed members of the Lehr und Wehr Verein (Education and Defense Society), a uniformed and armed unofficial socialist militia which had sprung up as early as 1874 in response to Chicago police repression of worker activity.

In St. Louis the specter became a reality. Sympathy strikes were actively encouraged by the influential WPUS and led to a general strike that cut off all services and halted the movement of goods. For five days the headquarters of the WPUS replaced City Hall as the center of government. From it it an "Executive Committee" set up by the party issued permits to move and distribute food and other necessities. This hiatus in capitalist control of the city came to be called the St. Louis Commune. In the aftermath of the strike, dozens of WPUS members were jailed, and several were indicted for treason—but never tried. Among them was Lawrence Gronlund later to become a prominent author and popularizer of socialist ideas. For the WPUS nationally, the principal result was a very rapid increase in membership; by 1878 it had shot up to seven thousand in seventy-two sections.

Economic versus Political Action I

In their eagerness for unity the delegates to the 1876 founding congress had not resolved the dispute on tactics between the trade union-oriented Internationalists and the Lassallean proponents of electoral activity. The combination of a a rapid increase in membership, publicity from the party's role in the 1877 railroad strike, and increasing misery among the working class as the depression continued made the question of political action a hot issue when the first national convention met in Newark in December 1877. Dominated by electoral enthusiasts, the convention dropped the prohibition against entering elections and also changed the name to the Socialistic Labor Party (SLP). It should be pointed out that this was a change in the name only. Organizationally the party remained as before, even retaining Van Patten as national secretary. There was no split between Lassalleans and Marxists as such, many of the latter remaining in the party.

But Sorge and McDonnell, the leaders of the anti-electoral Marxists, seeing the handwriting on the wall, hadn't even bothered to attend. Taking with them most of the Marxist trade union militants—and the Labor Standard of which McDonnell was the editor—they immediately organized the International Labor Union (ILU) in conjunction with such eight-hour advocates as Ira Steward and George O'Neill. The ILU had a short but gallant life, collapsing in 1881 and expiring in 1884.

Not all trade union militants left the party, however. Parsons and others, mainly in Chicago, joined the ILU while remaining active in the SLP. At the same time that they supported the eight-hour movement and the ILU, Chicago socialists pursued a very successful series of election campaigns, defecting several aldermen and state legislators. In fact, SLP political success was sufficient to cause the Greenback Labor Party (GLP), a cheap-currency reaction to the prolonged depression of the seventies, to look on the SLP as a possible junior partner. Van Patten and the rest of the National Executive Committee (NEC) favored electoral fusion with the Greenbackers, as did Parsons and many other members of the English language sections. The opponents of fusion were the trade-union activists in the foreign language sections in the Midwest and the anti-political revolutionaries in New York and some other eastern cities. The non-compromisers (anti-fusionists) prevailed in the 1879 convention in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, where they nominated an SLP ticket for the 1880 presidential election. A party referendum, however, overwhelmingly rejected an independent SLP ticket and favored supporting the Greenback Labor ticket.

It was this action by the majority together with a new SLP prohibition against membership in the Lehr und Wehr Verein that hastened the departure from the SLP of Parsons and other Chicago militants, not rejection of electoral politics; for Parsons was a candidate for office as late as 1882 under the banner of trade union socialists. Nonetheless the rapid downturn in SLP fortunes in 1879 as the economy improved (the fall 1879 vote was only one-third that in the spring election, four thousand versus twelve thousand) and the counting-out of the lone SLP victor created the mood for the 1880 schism.

Parsons, August Spies, and the trade union militants in the Midwestern foreign language sections united with the eastern non-compromisers in 1881 to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). But theoretical differences between the eastern anarchists like Johann Most and the radical trade unionists forced another convention in 1882. It produced a new statement of principles, the Pittsburgh Manifesto, which accommodated the syndicalist thinking of the Chicago trade unionists, and a new name, the International Working People's Association (IWPA), called the Black International. By early 1885 the membership of the IWPA had reached six thousand, with two thousand of these in Chicago alone.

One can gain some idea of the extent of the SLP roots of the IWPA by the number of prominent members who had been members of the SLP. For instance, all but one of the Haymarket defendants had been SLP members. The exception, Louis Lingg, had emigrated from Germany in 1885 after the split.

The SLP Reaches a Low Point

The SLP fusion with the Greenback Labor Party was a disaster. Not only did the party have no influence on the GLP's small-business/farmer-oriented platform, but the election dealt the SLP and its new ally a resounding defeat. This together with desertions to the RSP and the economic recovery that began in 1879 brought the SLP in 1883 to a point where its membership was little more than half the three thousand it had begun with four years earlier. At this point a bizarre event crushed morale even more. Philip Van Patten, national secretary of the party since its foundation as the WPUS, became discouraged and, apparently because he lacked any face-saving way out of office, simply disappeared on April 22, 1883, leaving a suicide note. Some time later it was learned that he had changed his name and accepted federal employment. Eventually he became a merchant in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Early in December 1883 Alexander Jonas, editor of the principal SLP paper, the daily New Yorker Volkszeitung, wrote to the IWPA on behalf of some prominent SLP members. He proposed the reunification of the movement on the ground that the Pittsburgh Manifesto held almost nothing the SLP could not accept. Answering for the IWPA, Spies rejected the overture, suggesting that the SLP dissolve its national organization and join the IWPA as independent local groups.

The SLP Gets Its House in Order

The fourth SLP national convention in Baltimore in 1883 was attended by only sixteen delegates. The crisis in the party's fortunes brought strong and creative action. Apparently influenced by the IWPA's success, the convention adopted a less centralized structure. It abolished the office of national secretary, curtailed the powers of the national executive committee, and gave the sections a great deal of autonomy. Tactically it renounced electoral politics except as an agitational and propaganda device. Ideologically it drew the line between anarchism and socialism, beginning a running debate with the IWPA. By abandoning the purely political electoralism of the seventies and conceding the necessity of force to achieve socialism, it co-opted a part of the ground held by the "socialist revolutionaries." At the same time by denouncing the language of violence used by many IWPA leaders, it began to appeal with some success to ex-SLPers in their ranks.

With this new energy plus the effects on recruitment of a new nationwide economic recession beginning in 1884, the SLP began its recovery. At its fifth national convention in Cincinnati in 1885, the number of sections was reported at forty-two up from thirty shortly after the 1883 convention. By 1886 the number had grown to sixty. The disintegration of the IWPA in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair may also have helped the SLP's fortunes at this time. The party's 1883 stricture against politics lasted through the 1884 presidential election, but in 1886 a union labor movement precipitated by the new economic downturn and spearheaded by the Knights of Labor and other supporters of the eight-hour day movement brought the SLP buck into fusionist electoral politics, this time in parties called in various localities United Labor Party, Labor Party, Union Labor Party and Industrial Labor Party. These reached their zenith in the 1886 election and faded except in New York where fusionist sentiment persisted in the trade union faction around the New Yorker Volkszeitung. There the party had supported the United Labor Party, which had run single-tax advocate, Henry George, as its candidate for mayor of New York City.

In the first campaign in 1886, George came close to beating Theodore Roosevelt and a Democrat with the support of the SLP and union groups. In fact he probably did win but was counted out. Encouraged by this near success in the 1886 elections, George and his political advisers decided that still further political gains could be made among small business elements in the electorate by dissociating the movement from its union and socialist supporters. They also wanted to put the party on a more nearly pure single-tax basis by eliminating some of the platform concessions to the socialist and labor element. In the battle for control of the United Labor Party, the socialists lost and then organized the Progressive Labor Party. But an economic upturn and the effects of the split cut the vote of both parties to discouraging lows.

Economic versus Political Action II

To the New Yorker Volkszeitung faction of the SLP, whose interest in electoral politics had stemmed from the belief that it would rouse the interest of trade unionists in socialism, this disaster supported the contention that electoral activity in the U.S. was premature. But the political action group (which included national secretary W.L. Rosenberg, the majority on the NEC, and the party's German and English weeklies) prevailed in the debate over participation in the 1888 general election. For the first time the SLP went it alone in a national election and nominated presidential electors in New York who were committed to calling for the abolition of the U.S. presidency.

The low vote for this ticket, fewer than three thousand, followed by an even poorer showing in the spring 1889 elections completely discredited the political actionists headed by Rosenberg. At the same time the American Federation of Labor, by remounting an aggressive eight-hour day campaign, helped the fortunes of the trade unionist New Yorker Volkszeitung faction. Accusing Rosenberg and his group of dragging their heels in supporting the eight-hour struggle, the Volkszeitung faction succeeded in getting a majority in the General Meeting of Section New York. There, by stretching the constitutional right of Section New York to elect the national secretary and the national executive committee to include the right of dismissing them, they recalled Rosenberg, replaced him with Sergius Schevitsch, and elected three new NEC members.

The 1889 National Conventions

Questioning the authority by which they had been deposed, Rosenberg and the old NEC called a national convention for October 2, 1889, in Chicago. Because the new NEC chose to ignore the call, it was attended by delegates representing only a small minority of the SLP membership, the mainstay being Section Cincinnati. Through this convention the Rosenberg loyalists effectively separated themselves from the SLP majority. Known variously as the Rosenberg group and the SLP of the Cincinnati Persuasion, it later changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation and continued a separate existence until 1897 when it became a part of Eugene Debs's Social Democracy.

The Volkszeitung-influenced faction called its convention for October 12, also in Chicago. Clearly the larger of the two, it upheld the recall of party officials by Section New York, an action "of doubtful legality" according to Commons, author of the standard work on this period. It also made major changes in the tactics and goals of the party, one being the removal of a Lassallean platform demand for government funds for co-ops. Lucien Sanial, later to become the first editor of The People, was instrumental in rewriting parts of the constitution. The party went on record as endorsing without qualification the major trade union objective of the time, the eight-hour day, and pledged, in the context of the Marxist-Lassallean (trade union versus political action) conflict that had afflicted the party from the beginning, the convention was fully in the hands of the "Marxists." Technically, then, the action of the convention supports the contention in later years that the party had been "reorganized on its present Marxist basis." But this took place in 1889, not 1890 as party historians later claimed, and was instigated, ironically, by the Volkszeitung faction, destined to become the opponents of revolutionary trade unionism in the SLP during the next decade.


Looking back at the pre-1890 SLP, party leaders spoke of the German beer drinking and singing society the SLP had been, a foreign transplant isolated from the American working class. In later years they were even unwilling to admit that the pre-1890 SLP with its history of fusion and confusion was the same organization. For them the Socialist Labor Party dated from the advent of Daniel De Leon in 1890 and the birth of The People in 1891. Socialist history before that was an embarrassment.

But of course one doesn't escape the past by repudiating it. Like all organisms the SLP retained the genes it had received at its conception. These included an ongoing internal dispute over the relative emphasis to be given to political and trade union activity. The SLP would struggle over this question in 1899, 1905, 1908, and 1924, long after the Lassallean/Marxist debates were forgotten. Even in 1978, close to a century later, the question of intervention in the union movement would shake the party as would that of nominating a presidential candidate in 1980.

Still another characteristic of the pre-1890 SLP was its domination by immigrants. What is questionable is the degree to which this condition interfered with its activist; among urban industrial workers. The record suggests that in the cites, at least, the alleged foreign roots of socialism seem to have had less inhibiting effect than Frederick Engels and later critics of the early SLP imagined, probably because immigrants had become an important component of the working class and because the party was more successful among English-speaking workers than was generally understood. Even Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a population in the 1870's of fewer than thirty thousand, had both German and American section of the Workingmen's Party. Local newspaper accounts of a WPUS mass meeting held in support of the railroad strikers in 1877 describe it as sponsored by both sections, and the list of speakers includes German, English, and Irish names. The same held true a decade later at the meetings in connection with the eight-hour day agitation and the Haymarket Affair.

Moreover, except in the early eighties, the party always had a weekly newspaper in the English language beginning with The Socialist and ending with the Workmen's Advocate. Also, while their fluency in English may have contributed to their prominence in the party, the roles played by Parsons, Van Patten, Holmes, Morgan, McDonnell, McQuire, Fielden, and many others make it clear that the SLP was not just a foreign colony in America. What does emerge as a bequest of the pre-1890 SLP is its special "mission" to the most exploited segment of the American working class, the immigrants.

Probably more alienating in the minds of most native-born American workers than its foreign accent was the SLP's alleged association-carefully fostered by the capitalist press—with the Paris Commune and the "crazy" element among the Bakuninists, who had adopted the tactic of public murder to fight the system. Assassinations, together with the public language of Johann Most and the RSP, continually raised the problem of how to dissociate the SLP from anarchist tactics while advancing the same goal.