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Socialist parties

Socialist parties in European history, political organizations formed in European countries to achieve the goals of socialism.

General History

In the late 19th cent. the gradual enfranchisement of the working classes gave impetus to socialism and the formation of Socialist political parties in many countries. Most were directly influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx. At the same time labor unions (see union, labor) were formed to improve the worker's economic status. In the 1870s and 80s, Socialist parties appeared in most European states; in 1889 they joined to form the Second International.

Despite similarities, the varying economic, social, and political conditions within countries gave distinctive national characters to the different socialist organizations. In France the political defeats experienced by socialists and other worker groups of the February Revolution (1848) and the Commune of Paris (1871) encouraged syndicalism and the revolutionary doctrine of Louis Auguste Blanqui. In Germany the state socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle gained wide acceptance. (For more detailed historical sketches of the Socialist parties in France and Germany, see below.) In Russia agrarian socialist ideas evolved indigenously (as did anarchism), finding expression in the Populist movement (see narodniki) and in the works of Aleksandr Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and others. Georgi Plekhanov introduced Marxism to Russia. (For the subsequent history of political socialism in Russia, see Socialist Revolutionary party; Bolshevism and Menshevism; communism.) Socialism in Great Britain developed in close association with the trade union movement and obtained its ideological direction from the evolutionary socialists of the Fabian Society rather than from Marxism (see Labour party). The Socialist parties in the Scandinavian countries were also generally moderate, and in the 20th cent. they soon gained a prominent political role.

All European Socialist parties were marked by schisms; the main issue dividing them was whether party members should cooperate with bourgeois-dominated governments to work for gradual reforms or should organize extralegally to hasten what Marxists viewed as inevitable, proletarian revolution. Eduard Bernstein, in Germany, was one of the first to deny (1898) some of Marx's doctrines and to argue for "revisionism."

World War I brought the collapse of Socialist internationalism, since many socialists supported their national governments in the war, some accepting ministerial positions. Of those opposing the war, the most notable were the Russian Bolsheviks, who in 1917 won control of their country in the Russian Revolution. After the war left-wing socialists, hoping for an extension of the Russian Revolution to other European countries, split off from the more moderate majority to form Communist parties. Thus a Third (Communist) International was formed to rival the Second International.

In the interwar years most of the Socialist parties discarded their revolutionary ideology. Many participated in coalition governments with bourgeois parties, and in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark they formed their own governments. However, since they formed either coalition or minority governments they were prevented from achieving structural socialist changes, although some social reforms were enacted. Socialists were not able to counter the rise of fascism, and in Italy, Germany, and Spain they were suppressed.

During World War II, socialists were prominent in the resistance movement in the countries occupied by Germany. In the postwar period the cold war widened the gulf between the Socialist and Communist parties, and most Socialist parties moved even further away from Marxism. Substantial periods of power have, however, enabled some to promote their goals of a planned economy and a welfare state in many European countries; their position has been especially strong in the Scandinavian countries. In the 1990s a number of Socialist parties moderated their commit to a planned economy and the welfare state, most especially the British Labour party, which went so far as to abandon formally its traditional Socialist positions.


See M. Beer, General History of Socialism and Social Struggles (1957); C. Landauer, European Socialism (1959); G. D. H. Cole, The Second International, 1889–1914 (1956), Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931 (1958), and Socialism and Fascism, 1931–1939 (1960); S. Kramer, Socialism in Western Europe (1984); A. S. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (1984); J. Tomaszewski, The Socialist Regimes of Eastern Europe (1989).

In Germany

In 1875, at Gotha, the followers of Lassalle united with the Marxist group of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel to form the Socialist Labor party, later known as the Social Democratic party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD). Despite repressive laws the SPD grew rapidly and by 1912 was the largest single party in the Reichstag.

In 1891 the Erfurt Program, adopted at a party congress in Erfurt, repudiated Lassalle's theories and placed the party on a strictly Marxist theoretical basis. Ideological debate shook the party throughout the 1890s. Bernstein led the revisionists in urging the SPD to weaken its commitment to Marxist theories of inevitable revolution and class struggle and to form alliances with middle-class parties. Karl Kautsky was the leading supporter of Marxist orthodoxy, and his position was formally upheld by the party, but in practice revisionism prevailed.

When World War I broke out (1914), the Social Democrats in the Reichstag voted for war credits, and in 1916 SPD deputies entered the government. Late in 1915 a group opposed to the continuation of the war broke off from the Majority Socialists and took (1917) the name Independent Socialists. They were led by Hugo Haase. Another, more radical group also broke away; the Spartacus party led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. With the German revolution of Nov., 1918, an SPD government under Friedrich Ebert and Haase took control, but its failure to promote socialist policies led to Haase's withdrawal and the brutally suppressed Spartacist revolt of Jan., 1919. Under the Weimar Republic the Social Democrats joined coalitions with other parties and succeeded in improving the condition of the working classes but were unable to counter extremist resurgence, and with the rise of Adolf Hitler the SPD was destroyed.

After World War II the revived SPD in East Germany was forced to merge (1946) with the Communists in the Socialist Unity party. In West Germany, the SPD emerged as the leading opposition party. In 1966 it entered a "grand coalition" with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and in 1969 the SPD, led by Chancellor Willy Brandt, became the dominant party in a governing coalition with the small Free Democratic party. Brandt pursued a policy of normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany. In 1974, Brandt resigned as the result of a spy scandal and was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt. The SPD maintained a majority coalition, winning reelection in 1976 and 1980, but went into opposition when the Free Democrats switched to the CDU in 1982.

The SPD was a member of the East German transitional government in 1990, but lost again in the first all-German elections that year. The SPD was in opposition until 1998, when Gerhard Schröder led the party to a victory over the CDU coalition. Schröder's movement of the party toward the center led, in 2005, to formation of the more traditionally socialist Left party, an alliance of dissident SPD members (including former party leader Oskar Lafontaine) and former Communists. The SPD narrowly lost the 2005 elections to the CDU and entered into coalition with them as a junior partner (2005–9). The SPD suffered significant losses in the 2009 elections, but after the Free Democrats won no seats in 2013, the SPD was again the junior partner in a CDU-led government.


See studies by C. E. Schorske (1955, repr. 1970), D. W. Morgan (1975), G. Braunthal (1978 and 1983), and V. L. Lidtke (1985).

In France

The French Socialist party, known as the SFIO from its official name Section française de l'internationale ouvrière [French section of the Worker's International], was formed in 1905 by a merger of various socialist groups that had long quarreled over tactics. Led by Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde, the SFIO became a major political force. In 1914 the party supported French participation in World War I, accepting ministerial posts.

The duration of the war and the example of the Russian Revolution stimulated the growth of a pro-Bolshevik element in the SFIO. By 1920 the Communists held a majority in the party, and a split was unavoidable. The minority, led by Léon Blum, reconstituted the SFIO and in 1924 it joined a coalition government. In 1936, faced by economic depression, government corruption, and the rise of French fascism, the Socialists, allied with Communists and Radical Socialists, won election as the Popular Front; Blum was premier (1937–38).

In World War II the SFIO played a heroic role in the French Resistance, emerging in 1945 as one of the strongest government parties. But, flanked by Communists on the left and conservative parties on the right, it gradually lost strength, although it frequently was the leading party in governing coalitions. Split over support for the Fifth Republic in 1958, the party made a succession of alliances, unsuccessfully opposing the ruling Gaullists. It was reorganized in 1969 as the Parti Socialiste.

Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, was only narrowly defeated for the presidency in 1974, and in 1981, again with Communist support, he defeated Gaullist President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then led his party to an assembly majority. The Socialists governed, with Pierre Mauroy and then Laurent Fabius as premier, until 1986, increasing social benefits, nationalizing industrial and financial enterprises (later reprivatized by the successor government), and promoting devolution to local governments. However, its austerity policies cost it an assembly majority; a center-right coalition "cohabited" with President Mitterrand until 1988, when Mitterrand was reelected, and the party regained a majority. Michel Rocard became premier and established a minimum guaranteed income, but deficit-driven public-sector wage cuts cost him support. He was replaced by Edith Cresson in 1991, and she by Pierre Bérégovoy in 1992.

By the end of 1992, the party was divided in the face of a united conservative opposition, which triumphed in the assembly elections of 1993. The Socialists also lost the presidency in 1995, but they returned to power in the assembly in 1997, and Lionel Jospin became premier. In 2002 Jospin failed to win the presidency, placing third, and the party subsequently lost control of the assembly. The party's 2007 candidate for the presidency, Ségolène Royal also lost. In 2012, however, François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, defeated the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. They subsequently also won control of the assembly, with Jean-Marc Ayrault became premier.


See H. G. Simmons, French Socialists in Search of a Role (1970); S. Williams, ed., Socialism in France (1983); D. S. Bell and B. Criddle, The French Socialist Party (2d ed. 1988).

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Socialist Party of the United States of America


The Socialist Party of the United States of America (SP-USA) is one of several parties claiming to be the heir to the country's original organized Socialist movement, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Support for the party has fluctuated over the years, but it remains a vigorous advocate of radical change of economic and social policy in the United States.

Originally called the Workingmen's party when it was organized in 1876, the party was renamed in 1877. Most of its members were immigrants from the large industrial U.S. cities. In 1890 Marxist Daniel De Leon joined the SLP and became editor of its newspaper, The People. Under De Leon's leadership the SLP adopted a Marxist view that advocated revolution in order to free workers from the bonds of capitalism. In 1892 the SLP ran Simon Wing as a presidential candidate. The SLP continued to run presidential candidates for many years; however, electoral strength for the party reached a peak in 1898 when the SLP candidate fielded 82,204 votes.

In 1898 eugene debs and other veterans of the American Railway Union's national strike against the Pullman Company organized the Socialist democratic party (SDP). The majority of SDP members were laborers who had been born in the United States. In 1901 one wing of the SLP merged with Eugene Debs' Social Democratic Party (SDP) at a unity convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. The newly merged Socialist Party of the United States of America was a mix of people harboring moderate to radical views including Marxists, Christians, pro-Zion and anti-Zion Jewish reformers, pacifists, populists, anarchists, and others. The continuing reform versus revolution debate was blunted by the adoption of platforms that envisioned revolution as the ultimate goal, while advocating immediate reform measures, but the party faced continuous internal conflict due to the variety of opinions held by its members.

The Socialist party sought to become a major component of the American political system. Debs ran as the party's presidential candidate in 1908, 1912, and 1920, polling over 915,000 votes in 1920. In 1919 a major ideological divide within the party caused a number of members to split off and form what eventually became the Communist Party of the United States. In 1924 the Socialist party did not field a presidential candidate, but instead it supported the campaign of Senator robert la follette of Wisconsin who ran on the progressive party ticket. La Follette polled 5 million popular votes but carried only his home state. The Great Depression of the early 1930s increased support for the Socialist party; its 1932 presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, received 896,000 votes.

After that election the membership and political impact of the Socialist party began to decline. The heterogeneity of views led to conflicts among various party factions, and over the years these factions were subject to numerous splits and mergers. Some members left to join the Communist party because they felt the Socialist agenda was not sufficiently radical. Others became Democrats, theorizing that working with a major political party was the most viable means of achieving reform.

In 1976 the Socialist party ran a presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years. Since then the party has fielded presidential candidates in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 2000 the presidential candidate, David McReynolds, a peace activist and former party chair, earned ballot status in seven states. Since 1973, the Socialist party has concentrated on grassroots organizing and having an impact on local politics.

further readings

Fried, Albert., ed. 1992. Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International: A Documentary History. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks. 2001. It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: Norton.

Miller, Timothy. 1998. The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America: 1900–1960. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press.

Socialist Party of the United States of America. Available online at <> (accessed August 11, 2003.


Marx, Karl Heinrich; Socialism.

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Socialist Party of America


SOCIALIST PARTY OF AMERICA was formed in July 1901 by a union of the Social Democratic Party of Eugene V. Debs and Victor L. Berger, and Morris Hill-quit's wing of the Socialist Labor Party. The Socialist Party gave to American radicalism, normally fragmented and divided, a unique era of organizational unity. The party was well entrenched in the labor movement: the Socialist candidate captured almost one-third of the vote for the presidency of the American Federation of Labor in 1912. In that year, too, the Socialists reached the high point of their electoral success: Eugene V. Debs, running for the U.S. presidency, gained 6 percent of the vote; and some twelve hundred Socialists were elected to public office, including seventy-nine mayors.

The party's growth stopped after 1912, but the following years can be characterized as a time of consolidation rather than as a time of decline. For once departing from its policy of inclusiveness, the party, in 1913, cast out the syndicalist wing led by William D. Haywood. By eliminating the one group not committed to political action, the party became more cohesive without altering the balance between the right and left wings. World War I severely tested, but did not undermine, the Socialist movement. During wartime persecution, Debs and many others went to prison; vigilante action and the barring of Socialist literature from the mails weakened outlying bodies, especially in the western states. These setbacks were more than counterbalanced by the rapid growth of the party's foreign-language federations and by the tapping of antiwar sentiment, as was evident in the party's strong showing in wartime elections.

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia (1917) was the turning point for the party. The problem was not the event it self—this was universally hailed by American Socialists—but whether it provided a model for the United States. The left wing, and especially the foreign-language federations, believed that it did, and they were sustained by instructions coming from the Third Communist International in 1919. The party leaders thought otherwise: they did not think that the United States was ripe for revolution, nor were they willing to reconstitute the party along Leninist lines. With the left wing about to take over, the established leadership in May 1919 suddenly expelled seven foreign-language federations and the entire Michigan party, and invalidated the recent elections to the national executive committee.

A decisive break with the past had occurred. Not only was American radicalism permanently split between Communists and Socialists, the latter had lost their authenticity as a movement of radical action. By 1928, Socialist membership was not even one-tenth of the 1919 level, and, although it experienced some revival during the 1930s under Norman Thomas, the party never regained either its popular base or the electoral appeal of earlier years. After 1956 the Socialist party ceased to nominate presidential candidates and increasingly viewed itself as an educational rather than a political force.


Shannon, David A. The Socialist Party of America: A History. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Weinstein, James. The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.

DavidBrody/a. g.

See alsoCommunist Party, United States of America ; Radicals and Radicalism ; Social Democratic Party ; Socialist Labor Party ; Socialist Movement .

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Socialist party

Socialist party, in U.S. history, political party formed to promote public control of the means of production and distribution. In 1898 the Social Democratic party was formed by a group led by Eugene V. Debs and Victor Berger. Two years later, Debs ran for president with the support of the more moderate wing of the Socialist Labor party, and in 1901 this group, led by Morris Hillquit, united with the Social Democratic party to form the Socialist party. The new party differed from the more radical Socialist Labor party in favoring an evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, socialism, and it soon outsized the older organization.

The Socialist party did not show much electoral strength until 1910 and 1911, when its candidates won numerous state and local elections. In 1912, Debs received nearly 900,000 votes (6% of the votes cast) as the party's presidential candidate. The party reached its peak membership (nearly 120,000) in that year. Allan Benson ran for president in 1916, but his percentage of the national vote dropped to 3%. In 1917 the party opposed the American entry into World War I, with a small faction of dissenting prowar members seceding from the party. Debs and a number of others were arrested for their opposition to the war, although Debs ran for president in 1920 while imprisoned and received 920,000 votes. After serving part of his sentence he was pardoned by President Harding. Following the Russian Revolution, a substantial group within the party advocated that the organization drop its evolutionary and reformist position and work instead for the immediate overthrow of the capitalist system. In 1919 this faction withdrew from the party, thereby substantially weakening it, and formed the Communist party of the United States.

In 1924 the Socialist party supported the Progressive party candidate for president, Robert La Follette, but in 1928 it once again nominated its own candidate, Norman Thomas, who ran in the following five presidential elections. The party lost much of its support during the 1930s when the New Deal came into effect, implementing many programs that the Socialists had long demanded. Since then the party's influence has steadily declined. In the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections Darlington Hoopes ran as the Socialist candidate, receiving fewer than 2,500 votes in the latter election. Although other minor parties espousing socialism currently participate in national elections, the Socialist party decided in 1960 to withdraw from national politics and concentrate on education. Since the 1950s the party has reorganized and changed its name several times, with the main group taking the name Social Democrats, USA in 1972.

See W. B. Hesseltine, The Rise and Fall of Third Parties (1948, repr. 1957); I. Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement (1952, repr. 1972); D. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955, repr. 1967); H. Nash, Jr., Third Parties in American Politics (1959); J. Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (1967); R. W. Judd, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism(1989).

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Socialist Party

Socialist Party US political party. It was formed in 1901 by the unification of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Labor Party. Dedicated to the state ownership of all public utilities and important industries, its best-known leaders were Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas.

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