Socialist party, in U.S. history, political party formed to promote public control of the means of production and distribution. In 1898 the Social Democratic party was formed by a group led by Eugene V. Debs and Victor Berger. Two years later, Debs ran for president with the support of the more moderate wing of the Socialist Labor party, and in 1901 this group, led by Morris Hillquit, united with the Social Democratic party to form the Socialist party. The new party differed from the more radical Socialist Labor party in favoring an evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, socialism, and it soon outsized the older organization.
The Socialist party did not show much electoral strength until 1910 and 1911, when its candidates won numerous state and local elections. In 1912, Debs received nearly 900,000 votes (6% of the votes cast) as the party's presidential candidate. The party reached its peak membership (nearly 120,000) in that year. Allan Benson ran for president in 1916, but his percentage of the national vote dropped to 3%. In 1917 the party opposed the American entry into World War I, with a small faction of dissenting prowar members seceding from the party. Debs and a number of others were arrested for their opposition to the war, although Debs ran for president in 1920 while imprisoned and received 920,000 votes. After serving part of his sentence he was pardoned by President Harding. Following the Russian Revolution, a substantial group within the party advocated that the organization drop its evolutionary and reformist position and work instead for the immediate overthrow of the capitalist system. In 1919 this faction withdrew from the party, thereby substantially weakening it, and formed the Communist party of the United States.
In 1924 the Socialist party supported the Progressive party candidate for president, Robert La Follette, but in 1928 it once again nominated its own candidate, Norman Thomas, who ran in the following five presidential elections. The party lost much of its support during the 1930s when the New Deal came into effect, implementing many programs that the Socialists had long demanded. Since then the party's influence has steadily declined. In the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections Darlington Hoopes ran as the Socialist candidate, receiving fewer than 2,500 votes in the latter election. Although other minor parties espousing socialism currently participate in national elections, the Socialist party decided in 1960 to withdraw from national politics and concentrate on education. Since the 1950s the party has reorganized and changed its name several times, with the main group taking the name Social Democrats, USA in 1972.
See W. B. Hesseltine, The Rise and Fall of Third Parties (1948, repr. 1957); I. Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement (1952, repr. 1972); D. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955, repr. 1967); H. Nash, Jr., Third Parties in American Politics (1959); J. Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (1967); R. W. Judd, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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