The Socialist Alternative
Copyright © 2005-12, Henry J. Sage

One historian of early America has commented that “the capitalists arrived on the first ships.” It is true that the Jamestown colony was begun as an investment venture; the Virginia Company was owned by stockholders who hoped to for a return on their capital investment, much as modern Americans who invest in shares of stock in public companies hope to do. It is more than a coincidence that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a primer of modern capitalism, was published in 1776, the birth year of the most successful capitalist nation in history.

Early in the 19th century the shape of modern American capitalism began to emerge, aided by the Supreme Court decisions of John Marshall, who helped to define the legal essence of contracts, corporations, interstate commerce, and other matters as he “made the nation safe for capitalism.” As modern capitalism grew stronger, often wielding tremendous influence over governments and populations, reactions began to emerge, at the heart of which was publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and his huge work, Das Kapital, written with Friedrich Engels. Thus by the turn of the century worldwide capitalism, aided by conservative political forces was marching ahead on the right, while anti-capitalist forces, supported by political liberals and defined by both socialism and communism, advanced on the left. 

Caught in between were those who, while not quite ready to condemn capitalism, certainly were sympathetic to the plight of the working class.  President Theodore Roosevelt to a great extent personified that divide. The United States attracted great attention from Socialists around the world on the international political left, especially as it grew into an economic and industrial giant.  Karl Marx became interested in American capitalism even before the Civil War, and he followed that conflict with interest.  For him, American slavery as it existed on Southern plantations was nothing more than a logical extension of capitalist exploitation of the workers. 

When the headquarters of the Communist International in Paris was shut down during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, its headquarters moved to New York City. Among the millions of immigrants who flooded to the United States between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War were many working-class people and their sympathizers who were strongly influenced by communists or socialists trends in Europe.  Beginning with the revolutions of 1848, socialist parties grew up throughout Europe, and the dividing line between socialism and communism was in many cases barely distinguishable. The American labor movement, discussed elsewhere in these pages as “the war between capital and labor,” was strongly influenced by the international socialist movement. 

One of the most conspicuous labor groups in the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, known as the “Wobblies,” was led by many who openly embraced communism.  And as the political left at its extreme edge was associated with anarchism and political violence, the entire leftist spectrum was tainted by incidents such as the Haymarket riots in Chicago. The Progressive Movement, which began to gain strength after 1900, can be defined in part as a protective reaction against the growing threat of communism or socialism in American economic and political life.  The progressives were behind many reforms aimed at cleaning up capitalism and protecting workers’ rights, but because the Progressive Movement did not move fast enough for some, the Socialist Party in United States gained a bit of traction. 

In 1912 the Socialist Party under Eugene Debs won almost a million votes.  The Populist Party in 1892 had had similar success, and though the Populists were not explicitly communists or socialists, their interests certainly lay in the same direction. Although the progressive movement is considered to have ended with the outbreak of the First World War, the Progressive Party continued to thrive, and many liberal politicians were comfortable being identified as progressives.  Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette garnered almost 5 million votes as the Progressive Party candidate for president in the election of 1924. 

When the Great Depression hit and American capitalism seemed to be crumbling, those who had embraced communism and socialism seem vindicated.  Intellectuals flocked to the Socialist camp, led by men such as Lincoln Steffens who, having visited Soviet Russia, said, “I have seen the future and it works.” The Communist Party was a viable political entity during the election of 1936 when it held its election convention in Madison Square Garden to rally behind its candidate Earl Browder.  In 1948 Henry Wallace ran as a Socialist against Thomas Dewey, Harry Truman, and J. Strom Thurmond, the nominee of the Dixiecrat party. Wallace came in third.

During the McCarthy era, being labeled a communist or socialist ceased to be respectable, except to the fringe on the very far left of the American political spectrum.  McCarthy's anti-Communist tirades were such that even people known to associate with former members of the Communist Party were castigated, and many lives were ruined. That fringe emerged once again in the 1960s as part of the protest movement against the Vietnam War and the excesses of American capitalism.  But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the end of the Cold War, the Socialist alternative in America can be considered to have been buried.

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