American Left

The American Left has consisted of a broad range of individuals and groups that have sought fundamental egalitarian changes[1][2] in the economic, political, and cultural institutions of the United States.Leftist activists in the United States have been credited with advancing social change on issues such as labor and civil rights, as well as providing critiques of capitalism.[2]



Many indigenous tribes in North America practiced what Marxists would later call primitive communism, meaning they practiced economic cooperation among the members of their tribes.[3]

The first European socialists to arrive in North America were a Christian sect known as Labadists, who founded the commune of Bohemia Manor in 1683, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their communal way of life was based on the communal practices of the apostles and early Christians.[4]

The first secular American socialists were German Marxist immigrants who arrived following the 1848 revolutions, also known as Forty-Eighters.[5] Joseph Weydemeyer, a German colleague of Karl Marx who sought refuge in New York in 1851 following the 1848 revolutions, established the first Marxist journal in the U.S., called Die Revolution, but It folded after two issues. In 1852 he established the Proletarierbund, which would become the American Workers' League, the first Marxist organization in the U.S., but it too was short-lived, having failed to attract a native English-speaking membership.[6]

In 1866, William H. Sylvis formed the National Labor Union (NLU). Frederich Albert Sorge, a German who had found refuge in New York following the 1848 revolutions, took Local No. 5 of the NLU into the First International as Section One in the U.S. By 1872, there were 22 sections, which were able to hold a convention in New York. The General Council of the International moved to New York with Sorge as General Secretary, but following internal conflict it dissolved in 1876.[7]

A larger wave of German immigrants followed in the 1870s and 1880s, which included social democratic followers of Ferdinand Lasalle. Lasalle believed that state aid through political action was the road to revolution and was opposed to trade unionism which he saw as futile, believing that according to the Iron Law of Wages employers would only pay subsistence wages. The Lasalleans formed the Social Democratic Party of North America in 1874 and both Marxists and Lasalleans formed the Workingmen's Party of the United States in 1876. When the Lasalleans gained control in 1877, they changed the name to the Socialist Labor Party of North America (SLP). However many socialists abandoned political action altogether and moved to trade unionism. Two former socialists, Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers, formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886.[5]

Anarchists split from the Socialist Labor Party to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1881. By 1885 they had 7,000 members, double the membership of the SLP.[8] They were inspired by the International Anarchist Congress of 1881 in London. There were two federations in the United States that pledged adherence to the International. A convention of immigrant anarchists in Chicago formed the International Working People's Association (Black International), while a group of Native Americans in San Francisco formed the International Workingmen's Association (Red International).[9] Following a violent demonstration at Haymarket in Chicago in 1886, public opinion turned against anarchism. While very little violence could be attributed to anarchists, the attempted murder of a financier by an anarchist in 1892 and the 1901 assassination of the American president, William McKinley, by a professed anarchist led to the ending of political asylum for anarchists in 1903.[10] In 1919, following the Palmer raids, anarchists were imprisoned and many, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were deported. Yet anarchism again reached great public notice with the trial of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who would be executed in 1927.[11]

Daniel De Leon, who became leader of the SLP in 1890, took it in a Marxist direction. Eugene Debs, who had been an organizer for the American Railway Union formed the rival Social Democratic Party in 1898. Members of the SLP, led by Morris Hillquit and opposed to the De Leon's domineering personal rule and his anti-AFL trade union policy joined with the Social Democrats to form the Socialist Party of America (SPA).

In 1905 a convention of socialists, anarchists and trade unionists disenchanted with the bureaucracy and craft unionism of the AFL, founded the rival Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), led by such figures as William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, Helen Keller, De Leon and Debs.[12]

The organizers of the IWW disagreed on whether electoral politics could be employed to liberate the working class. Debs left the IWW in 1906, and De Leon was expelled in 1908, forming a rival "Chicago IWW" that was closely linked to the SLP. The (Minneapolis) IWW's ideology evolved into anarcho-syndicalism, or "revolutionary industrial unionism", and avoided electoral political activity altogether.[13] It was successful organizing unskilled migratory workers in the lumber, agriculture, and construction trades in the Western states and immigrant textile workers in the Eastern states and occasionally accepted violence as part of industrial action.[14]

The SPA was divided between reformers who believed that socialism could be achieved through gradual reform of capitalism and revolutionaries who thought that socialism could only develop after capitalism was overthrown, but the party steered a center path between the two.[15] The SPA achieved the peak of its success by 1912, when its presidential candidate received 5.9% of the popular vote. The first Socialist congressman, Victor Berger, had been elected in 1910. By the beginning of 1912, there were 1,039 Socialist officeholders, including 56 mayors, 305 aldermen and councilmen, 22 police officials, and some state legislators. Milwaukee, Berkeley, Butte, Schenectady, and Flint were run by Socialists. A Socialist challenger to Gompers took one third of the vote in a challenge for leadership of the AFL. The SPA had 5 English and 8 foreign-language daily newspapers, 262 English and 36 foreign-language weeklies, and 10 English and 2 foreign-language monthlies.[16]

American entry into the First World War in 1917 led to a patriotic hysteria aimed against Germans, immigrants, African Americans, class-conscious workers, and Socialists, and the ensuing Espionage Act and Sedition Act were used against them. The government harassed Socialist newspapers, the post office denied the SP use of the mails, and antiwar militants were arrested. Soon Debs and more than sixty IWW leaders were charged under the acts.[17]


In 1919, John Reed, Benjamin Gitlow and other Socialists formed the Communist Labor Party of America, while Socialist foreign sections led by Charles Ruthenberg formed the Communist Party. These two groups would be combined as the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).[18] The Communists organized the Trade Union Unity League to compete with the AFL and claimed to represent 50,000 workers.[19]

In 1928, following divisions inside the Soviet Union, Jay Lovestone, who had replaced Ruthenberg as general secretary of the CPUSA following his death, joined with William Z. Foster to expel Foster's former allies, James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, who were followers of Leon Trotsky. Following another Soviet factional dispute, Lovestone and Gitlow were expelled, and Earl Browder became party leader.[20]

Cannon, Shachtman, and Martin Abern then set up the Trotskyist Communist League of America, and recruited members from the CPUSA.[21] The League then merged with A. J. Muste's American Workers Party in 1934, forming the Workers Party. New members included James Burnham and Sidney Hook.[22]

By the 1930s the Socialist Party was deeply divided between an Old Guard, led by Hillquit, and younger Militants, who were more sympathetic to the Soviet Union, led by Norman Thomas. The Old Guard left the party to form the Social Democratic Federation.[23] Following talks between the Workers Party and the Socialists, members of the Workers Party joined the Socialists in 1936.[24] Once inside they operated as a separate faction.[25] The Trotskyists were expelled from the Socialist Party the following year, and set up the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the youth wing of the Socialists, the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) joined them.[26] Shachtman and others were expelled from the SWP in 1940 over their position on the Soviet Union and set up the Workers Party. Within months many members of the new party, including Burnham, had left.[27] The Workers Party was renamed the Independent Socialist League (ISL) in 1949 and ceased being a political party.[28]

Some members of the Socialist Party's Old Guard formed the American Labor Party (ALP) in New York State, with support from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The right wing of this party broke away in 1944 to form the Liberal Party of New York.[29] In the 1936, 1940 and 1944 elections the ALP received 274,000, 417,000, and 496,000 votes in New York State, while the Liberals received 329,000 votes in 1944.[30]

1950s and 1960s: Civil Rights, the War on Poverty, and the New Left

In 1958 the Socialist Party welcomed former members of the Independent Socialist League, which before its 1956 dissolution had been led by Max Shachtman. Shachtman had developed a Marxist critique of Soviet communism as "bureaucratic collectivism", a new form of class society that was more oppressive than any form of capitalism. Shachtman's theory was similar to that of many dissidents and refugees from Communism, such as the theory of the "New Class" proposed by Yugoslavian dissident Milovan Đilas (Djilas).[31] Shachtman's ISL had attracted youth like Irving Howe, Michael Harrington,[32] Tom Kahn, and Rachelle Horowitz.[33][34][35] The YPSL was dissolved, but the party formed a new youth group under the same name.[36]

Picture of A. Philip Randolph.
Socialist A. Philip Randolph led the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his speech "I have a dream".

Kahn and Horowitz, along with Norman Hill, helped Bayard Rustin with the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin had helped to spread pacificism and non-violence to leaders of the civil rights movement, like Martin Luther King. Rustin's circle and A. Philip Randolph organized the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have A Dream speech.[37][38][39][40]

Michael Harrington soon became the most visible socialist in the United States when his The Other America became a best seller, following a long and laudatory New Yorker review by Dwight Macdonald.[41] Harrington and other socialists were called to Washington, D.C., to assist the Kennedy Administration and then the Johnson Administration's War on Poverty and Great Society.[42]

Shachtman, Michael Harrington, Kahn, and Rustin argued advocated a political strategy called "realignment," that prioritized strengthening labor unions and other progressive organizations that were already active in the Democratic Party. Contributing to the day-to-day struggles of the civil-rights movement and labor unions had gained socialists credibility and influence, and had helped to push politicians in the Democratic Party towards "social-liberal" or social-democratic positions, at least on civil rights and the War on Poverty.[43][44]

Harrington, Kahn, and Horowitz were officers and staff-persons of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which helped to start the New Left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).[45] The three LID officers clashed with the less experienced activists of SDS, like Tom Hayden, when the latter's Port Huron Statement criticized socialist and liberal opposition to communism and criticized the labor movement while promoting students as agents of social change.[46][47]LID and SDS split in 1965, when SDS voted to remove from its constitution the "exclusion clause" that prohibited membership by communists:[48] The SDS exclusion clause had barred "advocates of or apologists for" "totalitarianism".[49] The clause's removal effectively invited "disciplined cadre" to attempt to "take over or paralyze" SDS, as had occurred to mass organizations in the thirties.[50] Afterwards, Marxism Leninism, particularly the Progressive Labor Party, helped to write "the death sentence" for SDS,[51][52][53][54] which nonetheless had over 100 thousand members at its peak.


In 1972, the Socialist Party voted to rename itself as Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) by a vote of 73 to 34 at its December Convention; its National Chairmen were Bayard Rustin, a peace and civil-rights leader, and Charles S. Zimmerman, an officer of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).[55] In 1973, Michael Harrington resigned from SDUSA and founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which attracted many of his followers from the former Socialist Party.[56] The same year, David McReynolds and others from the pacifist and immediate-withdrawal wing of the former Socialist Party formed the Socialist Party, USA.[57]

When the SPA became SDUSA,[55] the majority had 22 of 33 votes on the (January 1973) national committee of SDUSA. Two minority caucuses of SDUSA became associated with two other socialist organizations, each of which was founded later in 1973. Many members of Michael Harrington's ("Coalition") caucus, with 8 of 33 seats on the 1973 SDUSA national committee,[58] joined Harrington's DSOC. Many members of the Debs caucus, with 2 of 33 seats on SDUSA's 1973 national committee,[58] joined the Socialist Party of the United States (SPUSA).

1980s and 1990s

From 1979–1989, SDUSA members like Tom Kahn organized the AFL–CIO's fundraising of 300 thousand dollars, which bought printing presses and other supplies requested by Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the independent labor-union of Poland.[59][60][61] SDUSA members helped form a bipartisan coalition (of the Democratic and Republican parties) to support the founding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose first President was Carl Gershman. The NED publicly allocated US$4 million of public aid to Solidarity through 1989.[62][63]

In the 1990s, anarchists attempted to organize across North America around Love and Rage, which drew several hundred activists. By 1997 anarchist organizations began to proliferate.[64] One successful anarchist movement was Food not Bombs, that distributed free vegetarian meals. Anarchists received significant media coverage for their disruption of the 1999 World Trade Organization conference, called the Battle in Seattle, where the Direct Action Network was organized. Most organizations were short-lived and anarchism went into decline following a reaction by the authorities that was increased after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

2000s to present

Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who runs as an independent,[65] won his first election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981 and was re-elected for three additional terms. He then represented Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 until 2007, and was subsequently elected U.S. Senator for Vermont in 2007, a position which he still holds.[66][67][68] He lost the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton but won the fifth highest number of primary votes of any candidate in a nomination race, Democratic or Republican.[69]

In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke received 2,882,000 votes or 2.74% of the popular vote on the Green Party ticket.[70][71]

Filmmaker Michael Moore directed a series of popular movies examining the United States and its government policy from a left perspective, including Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story and Fahrenheit 9/11, which was the top grossing documentary film of all time.[72]

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protests demanding accountability for the financial crisis of 2007 and against inequality started in Manhattan, New York and soon spread to other cities around the country, becoming known more broadly as the Occupy Movement.[73]

Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council as an openly socialist candidate in 2013. She was re-elected in 2015.[74][75][76]

Democratic Socialists of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sometimes referred to as AOC, defeated 10 term incumbent Joe Crowley in the NY-14 U.S house primary and went on to win her general election. She is the youngest woman ever elected to congress, and ran on a democratic socialist platform.

Broadly, the modern American Left is characterized by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the US with over 55,000 members. The DSA has seen a huge resurgence in growth with the election of Donald Trump, and continues to grow despite having had a membership of around 5,000 members only a decade ago. The most widely circulated socialist publication in the US, the Jacobin (magazine), along with leftist publications like Dissent and Monthly Review, have all become increasingly popular with the resurgence of Socialism post Bernie Sanders and AOC.

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