The SPA: Dashed on the Rocks of Compromise

Socialist Party of America Presidential Candidates - Debs, Thomas, Hoopes
Socialist Party of America Presidential Candidates - Debs, Thomas, Hoopes

Other than in our Socialist Party, way too much thought on revolutionary socialist organisation gets written advocating Lenin’s way as the one and only way and applying historic conditions under Russian feudalism to Western democracies today, and whose justification amounts to thinly veiled apologetics for ‘history is written by the victors’. The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History by Jack Ross, published last year, joins the comparatively smaller range of literature not from this vanguard perspective, and even opposed to it.

Submitted by jondwhite on August 22, 2016

Other than in our Socialist Party, way too much thought on revolutionary socialist organisation gets written advocating Lenin’s way as the one and only way and applying historic conditions under Russian feudalism to Western democracies today, and whose justification amounts to thinly veiled apologetics for ‘history is written by the victors’. The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History by Jack Ross, published last year, joins the comparatively smaller range of literature not from this vanguard perspective, and even opposed to it. Ross declares that the Socialist Party of America was unique in the history of American politics as a minor party that enjoyed a consistent level of public support, a wide ranging impact and respected place in the national conversation for half a century. The term ‘social democracy’ he argues, captured more accurately and precisely their goals marked also by a commitment to the ballot box as a means of advancing a political economy in the interests of the working class represented by the trade union movement.

Eugene Debs

The Socialist Party of America (SPA) was formed in 1901 by the merger of the Populist movement remnant led by Eugene V. Debs and the dissenting faction led by Morris Hillquit of the ‘increasingly sectarian’ Socialist Labor Party (SLP) of Daniel De Leon. Before Lenin, revolutionary insurrection was not the goal and Marxists looked to the electoral success of the German SDP. The founding principles, the Rochester platform from 1899, adopted by 125 delegates, were compromised from the start, adopting the short and succinct list (albeit as an addendum) of ‘immediate demands’ of the Social Democrats such as Debs, Job Harriman and Victor Berger.

The SPA believed in independent action on class conscious lines and refused to seek to wrest control of the main trade union body, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They believed themselves worthy of trade union support. A Chicago convention they packed in 1901 saw them voting down forming a Labour party. They respected the autonomy of unions engaged in struggle and rejected movement towards a general strike. Ira Kipnis wrote in The American Socialist Movement1897-1912 that ‘by the 1904 convention, the party had already divided into three loose factions, left, right and center.’ Ross argues this history is discredited and no-one in the SPA pre-1905 rejected the ballot box outright but the adoption of ‘immediate demands’ (other than socialism) was to prove its undoing.

In 1904 these ‘immediate demands’ were an eight hour day, social insurance, an income tax, inheritance tax, abolition of child labour, women’s suffrage, the initiative referendum and recall at all levels of government. A resolution also passed against the syndicalist idea of dual or ‘revolutionary’ unionism. Ross says it was probably in the platform debates of 1904 that the label ‘impossibilist’ emerged describing the ‘utopian’ belief that socialism was impossible through legislative reform and could only be created through revolution. Nevertheless SPA Presidential candidate Eugene Debs declared ‘Government ownership of public utilities means nothing for labor under capitalist ownership of government’ and won just under three percent of the vote.

In 1908 the immediate demands from 1904 were made ‘more comprehensive’, ‘but still concise, establish[ing] the general program that would remain largely unchanged through the end of the 1930s’ and a train ‘the Red Special’ was even leased for the 1908 presidential campaign. The American trade union body the American Federation of Labor (AFL) endorsed the Democratic Party, a rare constant for the twentieth century. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argues the obstacles could all have been overcome had the AFL endorsed the SPA. This conclusion is the wrong way round and the AFL probably quite correctly judged the Democrats as better able to deliver immediate demands, and the immediate demands of the SPA as a poor imitation departing from socialism. Ross tacitly acknowledges ‘popularity of the SPA did not come from any ‘boring from within’ of parliamentary trickery whereby the unions were to be put on record as supporters of socialism, but by socialists … converting them to their way of thought.’

Keir Hardie visited in 1909 calling for an Independent Labour Party as a united formation. Thankfully this wasn’t without opposition, although (p. 139) Ross seems to conflate the majority ‘impossibilist’ opposition (and the IWW) with the minority ‘Left-wing’ opposition (under International Socialist Review). One member W.E. Walling summed it up: ‘Labor parties adopt the ethics and philosophy of capitalism … denying the class struggle.’

That anti-Labor party impossibilism was not synonymous with ‘the Left wing’ was aptly demonstrated when Berger, Hillquit, Harriman and Spargo all agreed ‘any member who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working-class to aid in its emancipation, shall be expelled.’ Even Debs was ‘against sabotage, and every other form of violence and destructiveness suggested by what is known as direct action.’ Both peak vote and peak membership were achieved in 1912 when Debs ran for President and achieved six percent of the vote and membership reached 150,000 paying dues.

At this point, it should have been clear that a long-term strategy of rejection of Labor party immediate demands, commitment to the ballot box and rejection of direct action insurrection and respect for trade union autonomy was not only sustainable but an effective strategy. If their strategy was good, the same could not be said for their policy. Immediate demands were kept, with Roosevelt ‘annexing a large slice of the reform program’ and the large Debs vote was misleading (‘The Pseudo Socialist Vote’, Socialist Standard January 1913).

There were two other factors that came into play, one was World War I and the other was Bolshevism. The mainstay SPA publication Appeal to Reason (under new ownership) came out in favour of the war, and while Keir Hardie was helping conscription efforts in Britain (contrary to Ross’ assertion on p. 157 that Hardie was anti-war), Eugene Debs was locked up for publicly calling to resist conscription. This imprisoning of those perceived as socialists was part of the first Wilsonian Red Scare. The Daily Kos review of Ross’s book ( comments ‘organized labor swung firmly behind the war effort … There is little evidence to support the idea that the anti-war tradition would have continued to be dominant in a genuine Labor Party.’

As we commented in the Socialist Standard at the time: ‘Victor Berger, one of the most anti-Socialist leaders of the SPA, has also been given 20 years, though he supported the Mexican War and militarism. He was widely known as a pro-German. While Berger wrote the pro-German articles for the Milwaukee Leader, Simons did the pro-Ally work on the same periodical.’ ‘The mass of S.P. membership can be estimated by their continual support of the official clique and by their sticking to such a rotten organisation. Morris Hillquit, the "brains of the S.P.," one of the many lawyers on the National Executive, offered to organise an army of Socialists to help to explain democracy to the Germans overseas. He also admitted that if he had been a member of Congress he would have voted for the war’ (‘Class Struggle in the USA’, Socialist Standard, September 1919).

At this point, 42 SPA members left the Detroit local. With others who had not been SPA members they formed the Socialist Party of the United States on July 7 1916. They later described the SPA as confused reformers and confused direct actionists (Western Socialist #4 1966). The SPA threatened them with a lawsuit over their name and so they renamed themselves the Workers Socialist Party of the United States. No mention is made of them in Ross’ book.

The second factor of interest, was a personal visit by Trotsky to an SPA member in Brooklyn on Jan 14 1917 who ‘personally initiated and inspired much of the left-wing fury, … motivated by his pathological hatred for Hillquit in particular.’ At the 1919 August 30 convention, John Reed assaulted SPA chair Julius Gerber leading one member to comment ‘Many believe it is not only possible to follow the Russian example but mandatory. They declare that they alone hold the secret of success and it is their duty to impose it on the party.’ Ross mentions the expulsion of John Keracher’s Proletarian Party from Michigan as a ‘tiny sect almost entirely based in Detroit until the end of the 1960s.’

A measure of the socialist understanding of the members of the SPA was the anti-war St Louis Platform. This lost more pro-war members from the SPA than were lost to Bolshevism and the American Communists who boasted that they could change their line in 24 hours. Victor Berger commented ‘in this game of would-be radical phrases, the emptier the barrel the louder the sound.’

Norman Thomas

The 1919 conference saw the ‘Communist Left-Wing’ depart the SPA to form their own party. And in 1920 the SPA reaffirmed its disinterest in a Labour party by declaring its refusal to work with other groups. In 1927 the SPA launched its own radio station called WEVD which managed to broadcast until the 1980s. Two founding figures were lost when Eugene Debs died in 1926 and Victor Berger in 1929. A new faction rejecting the ballot box appeared, called the Militant faction proving past lessons hadn’t been learned.

In 1934 the SPA held a rally at Madison Square garden which was attacked by Communist Party members. Against the insurrectionary rhetoric of the Militant Faction inside the SPA stood the ‘Old Guard’ of the SPA who issued a 1934 restatement of principles calling themselves the Committee for the Preservation of the Socialist Party. It argued for education and propaganda not direct action and insurrection. In 1935, the SPA went on the offensive, Norman Thomas debated Earl Browder the new leader of the Communist Party and the ‘Old Guard’ dissolved twelve New York Militant branches.

The new presidential candidate Norman Thomas’ vote peaked in 1932, proving not quite as popular as Debs. New president Franklin D. Roosevelt received Norman Thomas and Morris Hillquit at the White House following the 1932 election shortly before Hillquit died a year later. Roosevelt’s New Deal would successfully co-opt all radical opposition and the following election in 1936 saw the SPA not on a record number of state ballots. This is the dire consequence of political trading with shrewd operators like Roosevelt.

Some resolve prevailed intermittently, with Norman Thomas observing and commenting: ‘Trotsky and above all Stalin, pioneered in that contempt for pity, and that Machiavellian ruthlessness in which Hitler has become so adept’ and expelled Trotskyist entryists in the SPA, leading one prominent Trotskyist, Hal Draper, to form the Socialist Workers Party (US). The SPA unambiguously opposed World War II and in 1940 expelled the Militants, but on the other hand also watered down even their immediate demands.

It is strange that Ross should neglect to mention at all (even in the footnotes) the World Socialist Party, a non-Leninist and non-reformist group but he also dismisses the SLP (US) as ‘sectarian’ without fully explaining why (where Kipnis devotes at least one chapter to the SLP). The SLP (US) expelled SPA members from the IWW union, seemingly disenchanting the SPA with syndicalism, before the SLP (US) found themselves expelled (see ‘Marxism in the USA’, Socialist Standard December 1968). To explain this would highlight Ross’ attachment to syndicalism and forming a Labor party by trade unions. Ross casts the 19th century Populist Party and the early 20th century Progressive Party as missed opportunities for the SPA. Ross claims ‘a Labor party, had it emerged would have profoundly differed from post-war liberalism’. This is to go against the experience of the Labour Party in Britain.

Trotskyism and the New Left

In 1952, the SPA presidential candidate Darlington Hoopes polled so disappointingly poorly that the SLP(US) outpolled them for the first time ever, and the SPA stopped fielding presidential candidates for good not long after. The SPA had survived the Commies in 1919 and survived the Militants in 1934, but it was one-time Trotskyist Max Shachtman who would prove their undoing in the 1960s.

One SPA member wrote ‘I can’t see why the official pacifist groups have to spend so much time on piffling projects like those temporary fasts, White House picketing etc. when all it does is impress its terrible weakness applying some of the minor Gandhi tactics where their chance of success is infinitely smaller that it makes them look ridiculous’.

Ross observes ‘This transformation of the American left that began with the rise of the Popular Front in the 1930s amounted to the displacement of historic American Socialism by a deeply undemocratic approach to politics. Throughout the 1960s, Erich Fromm’s ‘Let Man Prevail’ SPA manifesto was constantly in demand from the national office whereas Max Shachtman’s tome on the development of Stalinism, ‘the Bureaucratic Revolution’ gathered dust on the shelves’.

Ross writes ‘The Shachtmanite SPA majority endorsed the Democrats at the 1968 SPA conference.’ ‘A long wave of SPA resignations began.’ ‘In November 1970 the SPA and Democratic Socialist Federation jointly sponsored a rally for Israel, a merger had been in the works since 1969.’ ‘In December 1972 the SPA announced it would be known as the Social Democrats USA. The Wisconsin Socialists passed a resolution that they interpreted this to mean the SPA had ceased to exist.’ ‘In 1980 the SDUSA endorsed Ronald Reagan and invited the Nicaraguan contras to speak at their 1985 conference’.

The Socialist Party of America ceased to be in 1972 when the Chairman, Michael Harrington, resigned in October. Then in December it changed its name to ‘Social Democrats, USA.’ There was a minority without legal entitlement to the membership or assets, determined to continue. One minority later launched the SPUSA, a 'broad multi-tendency democratic socialist' organisation which exists to this day. It runs candidates for President and is doing so again this year.

Ross writes that the SPA was an exceptional party in an exceptional nation. The review of his book in the American Conservative argues ‘Ross pays little attention to ideas and proceeds chronologically rather than analytically’ and concluded that socialist parties in Europe embraced much the same blend of social welfare, economic corporatism, and militarized internationalism that had defined the Democratic Party at least since FDR. So perhaps America is not exceptional after all.

Two excerpts from our history demonstrate the foresight of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our American companion party and provide a rather more fitting conclusion:

‘If the Socialist Party of America had preached Socialism and got votes for Socialism, neither Republican nor Democrat could have enticed their votes away’ (‘Lessons from the American Elections’, Socialist Standard, January 1929).

‘Labor Parties are the same everywhere. They are all parties of reform. Names mean nothing. The Social Democratic Party of Germany, The British Labor Party and the Socialist Party of America—where the P. P. came from in 1919—are Labor Parties, whose purpose is to reform the capitalist system. They gather into their ranks all kinds of cranks and misleaders voicing hazy notions of a land of promise somewhere in the future. Their history shows that their leaders were ever willing to betray the workers. During the war all the Labor Parties supported their respective governments. Even now in Britain where the Labor Government rules, nothing has or will be done to endanger the steady flow of profits into the coffers of the capitalists’ (The Socialist, March 1930).




7 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by petey on October 24, 2016

thanks jond, i hadn't heard of that book


7 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by jondwhite on October 25, 2016


thanks jond, i hadn't heard of that book

Good point, I should probably add a picture of that book to the image!


7 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by Pennoid on October 25, 2016

Gonna come back and read this as I've considered purchasing a copy of this book. I almost got one at some Marxist book store in San Francisco!