The Road Not Taken: an episode in socialist history

Since the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs collapsed in the early 1920s, social democrats/democratic socialists have almost constantly sought some way to be politically effective, while remaining true to their core principles. At the same time as the Socialist collapse in this country, the British Labour Party formed its first government in 1924, and the example of the BLP was an inspiration to socialists here. The Socialist Party formed a part of the LaFollette Progressive coalition in the 1924 Presidential election, and for most of the next four decades thinking about the electoral instrument the Party hoped to create involved some discussion of the LaFollette coalition, the British Labour Party and, later, the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (today the New Democratic Party). Essentially, the electoral instrument they sought was an independent social democratic “national farmer labor party,” with heavy labor union participation and the Socialist Party as an integral left-wing.

While the 1920s and 1930s saw a variety of local and state labor and farmer labor parties, it became clear that the attraction of Franklin Roosevelt was going to prevent any national independent party of the democratic left. By 1948,with most of organized labor working within the Democratic Party,some members of the Socialist Party realized that they needed a new strategic model. It is important to remember that, even in the late 1940s, there were thousands of people who had been members of the Socialist Party at some time in their lives. This was especially true in the labor movement, with the Reuther brothers being, perhaps, the outstanding example. Most of these people regarded their time in the SP with positive feelings, although they would say such membership was politically impractical. As Thomas observed, this group of friends and former members might have been brought closer to the SP if its electoral policies were changed. Had Thomas and the majority of the Party’s leading committee been able to persuade their comrades to make the changes they proposed, it is quite likely that the influence of the Socialist Party would have increased greatly and that we would have a stronger social democratic/democratic socialist movement today.

1948 was the year in which Norman Thomas ran his sixth and last Presidential campaign. After the expected and inevitable defeat, he and some other leading members of the Socialist Party began to ask themselves and others, in the words of the title of an internal document written by Thomas, ” How Can the Socialist Party Best Serve Socialism?”

The quick and emphatic answer was ” Not by running Presidential candidates.” Thomas and some members of the Party’s National Executive Committee pointed out the obvious drawbacks. First, with the ballot access obstacles thrown up by the major parties, the basic act of getting a candidate on the ballot largely exhausted the pitiable human and financial resources of the Socialist Party. But even heroic efforts were often not enough: in 1948, Thomas observed, the SP was on the ballot in only 30 states, which did not include the major states of California and Ohio. Of courses, resources expended in a hopeless Presidential
contest left the Party with little left over. Further, the electoral policies of the Socialist Party isolated it from meaningful participation in the political process and alienated it from potential members, sympathizers and allies. Thomas observed: “… The more dynamic younger people who at heart are Socialists are refusing to join or, with important exceptions, to stay in the Socialist Party. They want to be free to act in the political field with the great mass of liberals and of labor.” The policies were “… alienating us from precisely those men and women and those organizations whom Socialism must win if ever it is to be victorious.”

The policies in question involved more than running Presidential candidates but guided the Party’s entire participation in electoral politics. They included
1. On pain of expulsion, neither a Socialist group nor an individual member could endorse another party or its candidates, and
2. No Socialist could run in the primary election of another party (When Upton Sinclair captured the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in 1934, he was expelled from the SP, although, since he had stopped paying dues, this was a somewhat futile gesture.).

In 1949 Thomas and his allies were not prepared to endorse one of the major “capitalist” parties. Rather, he suggested, Socialists should work in unions, farm organizations and Americans for Democratic Action for “better” candidates and programs. He conceded that this meant participation in primary and general elections; perhaps he was being somewhat disingenuous because, of course, a primary election is a party election and usually requires at least nominal commitment to a party. He also recognized that there was still residual Socialist strength in such localities as Reading, PA and Milwaukee, WI and granted that some local races could be run under a specifically Socialist banner.

Thomas was not prepared to see Socialists refrain from presenting their own programs: ” I should like to see the Party in every sort of campaign circulate the kind of program that Socialists would recommend. Then we should say: ‘This is the kind of platform you liberal and labor folks ought to adopt and behind which you ought to organize. To carry out this kind of program you need the equivalent of the CCF in Canada or the labor parties in the Scandinavian countries and Britain. If we cooperate with you now on something less it is in order the better to persuade you to go further.'”

Given his personal experience and that of the progressive movement with Communist infiltration tactics, Thomas must have understood that he was proposing Socialist caucuses in other organizations. He emphasized that he was not talking about “boring from within” to gain control of these groups:”We should be concerned with the advancing of ideas rather than the capture of power within other organizations.”

In addition to working with and within other organizations, however, Thomas regarded the continued existence of an independent Socialist group as critical:”…It is essential that we should confer together in our own Socialist meetings and conventions, draw up our programs, plan our projects, and stimulate one another to particular Socialist tasks for which our own particular abilities or our particular jobs and opportunities may especially fit us… We need a nation-wide Socialist Party to carry on an over-all program of education in the Socialist philosophy and program.”

The resolution presented at the 1950 convention of the Socialist Party by Thomas and a majority of the National Executive Committee called for several measures to implement the new strategy:
1. Conduct Socialist research on problems of the reorganization of society
2. Develop new Socialist programs for a mass party
3. Increase the quantity and improve the quality of Socialist literature and publications
4. Sponsor a leadership program to increase the effectiveness of SP members as Socialists
and as members of other organizations
5. Initiate action campaigns on issues affecting the American people.
Probably it would have been accurate to say that these proposals would have turned the SP into an American Fabian Society, but it would have been a Fabian Society on steroids!

This potentially historic change in Socialist strategy was decisively defeated by a vote of 70-37 by the convention delegates. The victors formed a new NEC majority, and their winning resolution made clear that the SP would continue on course. If possible, the Party would use its resources to run national campaigns; members were forbidden to campaign for or to endorse candidates of other parties in primary or general elections; no official body of the SP was allowed to support in any way a Republican or Democratic candidate. Even when SP members participated in liberal or labor organizations, they were required to concentrate on educating their non-socialist fellows on the desirability of “independent political action.” If such an organization supported the candidate of a “capitalist” party, SP members could not join their activities, although they were not actually required to leave the group.

Norman Thomas and the NEC majority had shown a way out of isolation for the Socialist Party. The Party’s majority had rejected that road. Ahead would be a decade of political ineffectiveness and isolation and then nearly another decade of faction fighting before the SP, soon to be Social Democrats USA, would finally take Thomas’ advice.

5 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken: an episode in socialist history

  1. There is a lot of history spoken of here. That is not a bad thing at all. But the history that the social-democratic/democratic socialists needs is the one we should be making today. Where is that movement making history today? What would future generations have to say about the social-democratic/democratic socialists of the 2010’s? That they had a blog?

  2. My purpose was not just to recount an incident in socialist history but to show a strategy that was relevant 75 years ago and that is relevant today. Sadly, the Socialist Party spent 20 years after 1950 virtually isolated and then engaged in a bitter faction fight. When the fight was concluded, the leaders of SDUSA could do little more than pursue their personal paths to neoconservatism.

  3. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate these important historical pieces of information. My comment was not directed at this article in particular or at you as the author, but rather at the fact that there is a lot of historical pieces in this blog (a good thing) but very little, if anything, that contributes to the establishment and growth of the democratic socialist party in America (a bad thing). Perhaps I am too anxious to see that movement thriving.

  4. I, too, want to see a strong social democratic movement in this country. Part of getting there is to ask,”Where did we go wrong in the past? What opportunities did we miss? What should we be doing now and in the future, based on the lessons we have learned?” These are not historical but political questions, that is,their purpose is to guide action, not to illuminate the past. I am convinced that a profound false step occurred in 1950 when the Thomas proposal was rejected and that analysis of that mistake is important in planning for the future. While I have decided that SDUSA has no part to play in that future (hence my resignation), I am confident that much of the Democratic Party is, in fact, social democratic and that there is much useful work to be done there.

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