During the late 1800s, and early 1900s the United States saw the rise of trade union membership, the coming and going of the populist party, and watched the progressive era come to institute reforms to correct the social damages of the Gilded Age.

During this time, we see the rise of a small domestic socialist party, even with some minor political successes, and yet by the 1920s, many of these groups have lost momentum, have declining memberships, and have seemingly been bullied out of existence.

What are the key factors that really led to the collapse of this movement during this era?

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    Is this question mostly about the decline of the socialist party? Union membership kept increasing (in absolute and relative terms) until after WWII. The New Deal represented an enormous increase in the redistributive and regulatory powers of the state. So really what decreased was worker and intelligentsia affiliation with third parties instead of the Democratic Party.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 13:08
  • 1
    I suppose it was largely questioning the socialist party as well as similar movements and organizations that lacked political clout such as the IWW. But thanks for the clarification on the dissolving of the left towards the democratic party, that makes sense. I believe @Semaphore mentions other leftist groups in his answer as well. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 22:13
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    It would be interesting to get an idea of how much of the Socialist activity was home-grown, and how much imported, as immigrants brought Socialist politics from their home countries, but gradually traded them for more traditional American values.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


The First World War and the Soviet Union happened. War time hysteria made labour groups and socialists, who were largely against the war, a target of vigilante attacks and political repression. To make matters worse, amid the political suppression internal divisions of the socialist movement spilled into the open. Encouraged by the revolutionary success in Russia, the radical left wing of socialism defected to the Communists.

Wartime Hysteria

The socialists were generally against the war, which they saw as the rich profiting off making the working class kill each other. Although many moderated their stances once the United States declared war in 1917, the Socialist Party held on to its principles and maintained an official opposition to the war. Thus socialists and labour groups became a target for patriotic vitriol, as wartime fervour and nativist prejudice formed a volatile mix that seized the nation.

The general public, which heretofore had tolerated the Socialists, now unleashed a wave of hatred for these nonconformists ... Throughout the country Socialist headquarters were raided by mobs and sacked by soldiers, while individual Socialists were treated shamefully.

- Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

Vigilantes prevented Socialists from using meeting halls; night riders tarred and featered Socialist speakers ... By the war's end 1,500 of the more than 5,000 Socialist Party locals had been destroyed.

- Rosenstone, Steven J., Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Labour groups attracted vigilantes and popular condemnation for a different reason. Since much industrial and mining concerns were now considered critical components of the war effort, industrial action became represented as treasonous pro-German plots. Such accusations attracted the hateful attention of the populace easily. An illustrative example is the infamous deportation of striking miners in Bisbee, Arizona.

Convinced that the strikers were foreigners engaging in a seditious German plot, a massive posse and summarily arrested over a thousand mine workers at gun point. They were then forcibly deported to New Mexico by rail, where they were dumped without food or water. As it turns out a majority were in fact American citizens, with most of the rest being British, Russian or Serbian. Many had purchased Liberty Bonds or were registered for the draft.

Such actions, both from the civil population and later with the assistance of government forces, severely demoralised workers, who were the natural support base of socialism. Socialists would subsequently discover that they were more successful in cities that had not yet experienced the bitter failures of industrial action

Unionism of either variety failed to survive the experiences of 1917.

- Perlman, Selig, et al. History of Labour in the United States 1896-1932: Labor Movements. Macmillan Company, 1935..

Government Crackdown

Beyond vigilante actions, the national hysteria also inspired government suppression. This was enabled by the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which gave the government legal grounds to prosecute anti-war dissidents. However, the hardest hit was perhaps organised labour; affected businesses created heavy political pressure on the government to strike against the Industrial Workers of the World, a prominent self-described radical organisation that found itself public enemy number one. On 1 August 1917, an angry mob had even lynched IWW Executive Board member Frank Little.

Although the Justice Department could find no financial connection between the IWW and Imperial Germany, a nationwide raid of IWW offices was carried out on 5 September 1917. The national leadership was put on trial for "conspiracy to overthrow the government", and rapidly convicted and sentenced to harsh terms by extremist judge Kenesaw Landis (33 to ten years and 15 to 20 years). This was followed by prosecutions of local officials, effectively killing the IWW as a relevant force.

The government's attorneys cited no actual crimes committed or actually planned by IWW's members ... After less than an hour of deliberations the jury found each defendant guilty on all counts ... The resultant federal prosecution transformed the IWW from a militant labor movement to an organization preoccupied with its own defense, as legal expenses depleted its limited resources.

- Theoharis, Athan G. The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.

Political Repression

The Socialists were not quite as hard hit as the IWW, but the machinery of government came down harshly on the party as well. At the direction of Postmaster General Albert Burleson, Socialist newspapers and magazines such as the New York Call or The Masses were deprived of their second-class mailing privileges, their editors charged with conspiracy to incite mutiny and various such crimes under the Espionage Act. Rather than provide protection from vigilantes, the police instead harassed the Socialists.

It became difficult, if not perilous, for the party's candidates to campaign for office. Under the Espionage Act, the Postmaster General seized Socialist publications sent through the mail ... Police in South Daktoa, for instance, broke up the state party convention and forced some delegates out of town.

- Rosenstone, Steven J., Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. Princeton University Press, 1996.

As was the case with the IWW, the most damaging weapon in the government's arsenal was prosecution under the Espionage Act. The Socialists would pay a heavy price for their opposition to the war, which was regarded as treasonous by the establishment from President Woodrow Wilson downwards.

Some [Indictments] were designed to hamper party organization and activity ... Others seemed aimed simply at terrifying and intimidating individuals.

- Weinstein, James. The Decline of Socialism in America 1912-1925. 1969.

The martyr to the Socialist cause was Eugene V. Debs, a founder of the IWW and former presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. In 1918 he was charged under the Espionage Act over a speech in which he praised some allies (Charles Baker, Alfred Wagenknecht, Charles Ruthenberg) who had already been imprisoned under the Espionage Act. A week after the war ended in victory for the Allies, Debs was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

Another notable case was German-American moderate Victor Berger, the first Socialist representative elected to Congress. In 1919 he was convicted of opposing the war and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment by vocal anti-German Kenesaw Landis. Having already been elected to the House of Representatives, Berger was thus blocked from his seat for having "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the [United States], or given aid or comfort to the enemies." Wisconsin re-elected him in a special election, only for Congress to bar him again.

More blatant suppression of the Socialist Party followed in 1920. In a dramatic breach of the democratic principle, the New York State Assembly voted overwhelmingly to expel five duly elected members over their Socialist affiliation. All five were subsequently re-elected, and once again expelled. The Assembly then passed a law banning the Socialist Party altogether, though the Governor vetoed it.

The Red Scare

One source of strong support for the Socialists had been immigrants from Europe. Many were socialist at home, and brought their ideological allegiance with them to the United States. Immigrant nationalities established their own language federations within the Socialist Party, with the Finns being a particularly successful example. In a climate of nativism and anti-foreign discrimination however, the immigrant base of the party were poorly regarded.

In fact, war time hysteria did not abate with the armistice, but instead morphed into the First Red Scare and xenophobia. Fueled by news of the October Revolution in Russia, the American public became gripped by paranoia over leftist radicalism. It is in this context that Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched his grossly heavy handed debacle. In a series of illegal searches, seizures, and nearly indiscriminate arrests, federal and local police seized thousands of supposedly foreign "radicals" for deportation.

Again, in the present raids we appear to be attempting to repress a political party. It has a platform, most of which Is highly objectionable to you and me. So much I grant you, but it at least calls itself a political party and holds open meetings and discussions.

- U.S. Attorney Francis Fisher Kane, resigning in protest to the raids.

The vast majority of these arrests were later overturned by Assistant Secretary of Labor, Louis Freeland Post, and only a few hundred foreigners were ultimately deported. In response Congress opened impeachment proceedings against him, though he conducted himself so well that no action was ultimately taken. Nonetheless, the mass arrests cowed much of the American Left.

In addition, American immigration was reformed in 1921, introducing the quota system. This would henceforth limit immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Factional Disputes

The Socialists had always experienced internal divisions. The October Revolution in Russia, however, galvanised the factional disputes into outright splits. Never before or since would Communists been so buoyed with confidence on the prospects of a successful world revolution. American Socialists, having spent the past years being trodden on by the general public and government, were inspired into emulation. The result was the formation of the Left Wing of the Socialist Party.

[C]ompletely discouraged by their wartime persecution, American radicals were suddenly confronted with the most successful Socialist revolution the world had yet seen. And they were awed.

- Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

Not all of the party agreed with the Bolshevik method. The conservative Right Wing of the party, under the leadership of Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger, reacted to the surge of revolutionary Left Wing with the Emergency National Convention of 1919. The ultimate result was the fracturing of the party into the broken remnant of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Communist Labor Party. By the time the last of the revolutionary elements defected (the Finnish Language Federation left in 1921 when it became clear the Socialist Party would not affiliate with the Third International), the Socialist Party had dwindled to less than 14,000 members.

The Communist offsprings of the Socialists did not fare much better. Although the two Communist parties merged after 1921, a protracted fight ensued following the death of Lenin. Factions in the American Party aligned themselves to ideological developments within the Soviet Union, with several leadership changes and expulsions throughout the rest of the decade.

Therefore, faced with repression from without, and division within, Socialism in America fractured into disarray by the start of the 1920s.

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    I forgot to (and is quite too tired to do so now) add a section on economy, but in addition to the losses the movement suffered, the 1920s were relatively prosperous enough to just keep socialism in check.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 18:28
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    Question: How can transporting miners from Arizona to New Mexico be called deportation? Deportation is defined as "the removal from a country of an alien whose presence is unlawful or prejudicial" (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deportation ). Last time I looked at a map, both Arizona and New Mexico were part of the United States.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 18:33
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    @jamesqf deportation: "the expulsion of a person or group of people from a place or country". Also because internal deportation is a thing, and because country: "a region that is identified as a distinct entity in political geography ... as a non-sovereign or formerly sovereign political division".
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:06

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