Excerpt: The Socialist Party of America

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A excerpt from The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (Potomac Books, 2015) by Jack Ross. 

1 The Roots of American Socialism (1876-1892) 

It was a curious twist of fate that the founding of the first nationally organized party of Marxian Socialism in the United States took place in essentially the same act as the liquidation of the International Workingmen’s Association founded by Karl Marx in 1864. After moving from London to New York in 1872, the First International came under the control of Friedrich Sorge, a German exile from the 1848 revolutions who established the International’s American branch in 1867. As the fractious American party began to dominate the International, whose European base was rapidly collapsing, a meeting of ten Americans and one German gathered in Philadelphia on July 15, 1876, to proclaim the following:

“The International convention at Philadelphia has abolished the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, and the external bond of the organization exists no more. ‘The International is dead!’ the bourgeoisie of all countries will again exclaim, and with ridicule and joy it will point to the proceedings of this convention as documentary proof of the defeat of the labor movement of the world. Let us not be influenced by the cry of our enemies! We have abandoned the organization of the International for reasons arising from the present political situation of Europe, but as a compensation for it we see the principles of the organization recognized and defended by the progressive working men of the entire civilized world.”1

Four days later, Sorge was present at the founding convention of the Workingmen’s Party of America in Philadelphia, representing the nowmoribund First International in an effort to create a unified party of Socialism in America. This effort was largely instigated by the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party, which split off from the International in 1874 under the influence of Ferdinand LaSalle, the founder of the German Social Democratic Party and critic of Marx. The Social Democratic Workingmen had already absorbed the remnant of the National Labor Union, founded in 1866 to agitate for the eight-hour day, after its disastrous attempt to launch a new political party in 1872. The founders of the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party were the most important leaders of the American labor movement in its turbulent formative years. They included Adolph Strasser, a Hungarian exile who founded the Cigar Makers Union in New York; Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters; and Albert Parsons of the Typographical Union in Chicago, a Confederate veteran who fled Texas after agitating for the rights of newly freed African Americans.

J. P. McDonnell, a one-time personal secretary of Karl Marx in London who had led most of the English-speaking members out of the American section of the First International even before its split with the Social Democrats, was named editor of the party’s newspaper, Labor Standard. Meeting in the city where the United States declared its independence and in the very month of the centenary of that occasion, the Workingmen’s Party of America seemed destined to become a force of history. Though the party could not field a presidential ticket that year, many supporters backed the marginal Greenback Party campaign of Peter Cooper, the pro- labor philanthropist who founded New York’s Cooper Union.2 The election of 1876 would be remembered for the bitterly disputed outcome between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. The “Great Compromise” of 1877 is often characterized as the concession of the election by the Democrats in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the Southern states, but there were actually very few troops remaining in the South by 1876. The Republicans appealed to the anxiety of the Southern “Bourbon” Democrats that Tilden, a New Yorker who campaigned on a reform platform, would not heed their appeals for federal patronage to rebuild their shattered economy.3

 

1. Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States, 187.
2. Fine, Labor and Farmer Parties, 129.
3. See Woodward, Reunion and Reaction.