What is the history of socialism in the United States
Socialism, in the United States at least, has often been seen as a negative term or been associated with other countries, usually dictatorships or Marxist states. Nevertheless, socialism has a long political history in the United States and has been, at times, influential in American politics.
Early Socialism in the United States
The earliest forms of socialism are evident in the early 19th century with the establishment of what was called 'Utopian' Socialism, a form of socialism that focused on establishing communities that had a goal to develop communities that functioned with minimal social ills through social action. Many such communities were established in the United State, mostly by European settlers, who had developed their ideas in Europe but attempted to practice their community beliefs in the United States because it was seen as a place that afforded the space and political opportunity to create new communities. Brook Farm in Massachusetts and town of Bethel, Missouri are two such examples. Some of these communities were inspired by Christian beliefs and socialism, while others were inspired by German Idealism philosophy, such as that supported by Immanuel Kant, and the Romanticism movement in Europe which viewed as individuals and institutions having been corrupted by society. This developed into the Transcendentalism movement in the United States during the 1820s-1830s. Brook Farm was one of their well-known communities, established in 1841 by George Ripley, that once included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Emerson. The Transcendentalists were influenced by Charles Fourier, a prominent French Socialist thinker of the Utopian movement. At Brook Farm, the community attempted to pool their labor and resources so that intellectual and scientific pursuits could be followed by the community. By 1849, the community was financially insolvent, as the farming used for communal money proved unprofitable, and the farm itself was sold.
Edward Bellamy, a relatively unknown author, wrote what would become perhaps the second highest selling book in the United States in the 19th century, surpassed only by Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book (Looking Backward: 2000–1887) describes a socialist United State in the year 2000. The book was still part of the Utopian Socialism ideals but now began to tackle what would become core aspects of socialism as it discussed labor and production, including equal distribution of goods across the United States. The hero of the novel wakes up in 2000 to see a United States that is in a socialist Utopian state where everyone retires at 45.
After 1848, many socialists from Germany had migrated to the United States due to political fallout from the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe. This led to the first Marxist socialists to migrate to the United States and also followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, a prominent German philosopher who believed the state was critical in establishing justice in a socialist society. In Germany, this influenced what would become the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is still one of the main political parties in that country. In the United States, several socialist parties formed, including the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP) and others, with the SLP still in existence. Many of those involved in the SLP also formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which exists today as part of AFL-CIO, a prominent labor organization and union. Other movements began to emerge, including Eugene Debs and others who founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901. The party would nominate Debbs for president between the 1904-1920 elections, where they were able to get about 3% of the vote and often finished third. Debs would go one to influence some left-wing politicians in the United States eventhough his own movement failed to develop. His speaking style and compassion have been cited as being influential in American politics of the early 20th century.
The US and Socialism in Europe
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was clear that socialism in the United States began to develop differently. Mostly this was because socialism was less influential politically in the United States, even though indirectly it did influence the major parties through campaigns and strikes for better working conditions. This included the development of unions and other labor activities. Nevertheless, politically, Europe's experience was different due to a much stronger influence of socialism on political action, stemming from revolutions (e.g,. 1848) that had occurred on the continent. Political parties did well under a socialism banner, in particular the SPD in Germany where it could obtain between 4-5 million votes and run about 90 newspapes by the late 1800s. The Marxists proved to be the most influential socialists, but others emerged that argued for more gradual transitions to socialism rather than revolution. In particular, Eduard Bernstein emerged as a thinker who began to influence the SPD through gradual policies that focused on specific legislative actions. This began to form what ultimately would become the social democratic movements.
In France, the UK, and other smaller European countries, most Marxist movements began to evolve into reformist parties that influenced and led to the development of left-leaning parties, such as Labour in the United Kingdom. These parties, particularly as they achieved power, focused on legislative reforms that included worker benefits and rights. In Germany, a system of social security arose in 1889. This was enacted by Bismarck, who opposed the socialist SDP party, but Bismarck understood the influence the party had on Germany and promoted the policy as a way to stem their political rise. In effect, even when socialist policies were not directly enacted, indirectly they began to influence legislative actions throughout Europe. Norway in 1912, which is still present in the country, developed the first universal healthcare system. Other states began to create welfare programs either directly through social democratic actions or indirectly as ways to counter those parties by more right-wing parties. In effect, European political discourse had shifted, particularly in domestic policy, as the socialist-leaning parties began to agitate for change.