Review: The Socialist Party of America, by David A. Shannon

This book, written in 1955, is essential reading today for anyone interested in democratic socialism. Democratic Socialists of America, one of the successor organizations of the Socialist Party, is now nearing 100,000 members. For that reason, a study of the party’s first 54 years — its rapid rise followed by a long, slow demise — could not be more relevant.

This is in some ways a terribly sad story. The Party, founded in 1901, had such a hopeful beginning. By 1912, at its peak, the Socialists were electing dozens of mayors, members of state legislatures, a couple of members of Congress, and winning nearly a million votes (6%) in the presidential elections. But by the time David Shannon wrote this book, the party’s presidential election vote had dropped to just 2,000, and it never ran candidates for national office again.

So what went wrong? Many things. The split between the Socialists and Communists following the Russian Revolution certainly didn’t help. Nor did the difficult relationship between the Party and the trade unions of the American Federation of Labor. The Party’s refusal to even consider running candidates in Democratic primaries was another factor, even though when Socialists did this — like Upton Sinclair in 1934 in California — they did remarkably well, breaking into the mainstream and nearly winning.

Shannon has less to say about the role of state repression in the destruction of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as well. That repression was ferocious and included arrests, jailings, deportations, the closure of newspapers, the refusal to seat duly elected Socialists to state legislatures, and so on. Even the occasional lynching. The demise of the Socialist Party was hurried along by its enemies.

Shannon seems quite fond of Norman Thomas, who led the party for twenty years after taking over from Eugene Debs. For this reason, perhaps, he glosses over (though he does mention) one of Thomas’ great failures: his willingness to support the America First movement (the earlier one, not today’s version). America First’s leader, Charles Lindbergh, was pro-Nazi. Shannon does, however, touch on an early incident when one of the most senior American socialists, Morris Hillquit, fought back against anti-Semitism in the party. Then as now, this was a problem on the Left.

The early triumphs of the Socialists and the extraordinary leader they had in Debs will inspire American socialists today. The story of the Party’s decline into irrelevance has much to teach them as well. What a pity that this book is no longer in print.