What is the history of socialism in the United States? (2023)

Figure 1. Brook Farm was associated with the utopian socialist movement.

At least in the US, socialism has often been seen as a negative term or associated with other countries, usually dictatorships or Marxist states. Nevertheless, socialism in the United States has a long political history and at times influenced American politics.

Early Socialism in the United States

The earliest forms of socialism appear in the early 19th century with the establishment of so-called "utopian" socialism, a form of socialism that focused on the creation of communities whose goal was to alleviate minimal social ills through collective social action. These communities could serve as role models for the larger country and ultimately influence national policy. Many such communities were established throughout the United States in the early to mid-19th century, primarily by European settlers who had developed their ideas in Europe but sought to practice their community beliefs in the United States because they saw it as a place, that gave them the space and the political opportunity to create new communities.

Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the town of Bethel, Missouri are two such examples. Some of these communities were inspired by the Christian faith and collective action socialism, while others were inspired by the philosophy of German idealism, such as that promoted by Immanuel Kant, and the Romantic movement in Europe, which viewed individuals and institutions as governed . of society and society corrupted by changes caused in part by industrialization.

This gave rise to the Transcendentalism movement in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. Brook Farm was one of their best known parishes, founded by George Ripley in 1841 and whose members included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Emerson. The Transcendentalists were influenced by Charles Fourier, a prominent French socialist thinker in the utopian movement. At Brook Farm, the community sought to pool their labor and resources so that the community could pursue their intellectual and scientific endeavors. In 1849, the municipality was financially insolvent, as the agriculture used for municipal funds proved unprofitable, and the farm itself was sold (Figure 1).[1]

Figure 2. The AFL union was a legacy of American socialism that eventually became today's AFL-CIO union.

Edward Bellamy, a relatively unknown author, wrote perhaps the second best-selling book in the United States in the 19th century, second only toUncle Tom's Cabin. The book (Rückblick: 2000–1887), published in 1888, describes a socialist United States in the year 2000. The book was still part of the ideals of utopian socialism, but now began to delve into the core aspects of socialism, examining work and production, including the equal distribution of goods discussed in the United States. The hero of the novel wakes up in the year 2000 to see the United States in a socialist utopian state where everyone retires at 45 and production is evenly distributed[2].

After 1848, many socialists from Germany had emigrated to the United States due to the political fallout from the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe. This led to the first Marxist socialists emigrating to the United States and also followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, a prominent German philosopher who believed that the state was essential to establishing justice in a socialist society, in contrast to Marxists who eventually believed, that the state might not have been required. In Germany, this influenced the development of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is still one of the most important political parties in the country. Several socialist parties were formed in the United States, especially in the 1870s when economic depression and stagnation hit. This included the emergence of the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP) and others where the SLP still existed. Many of the SLP members also founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which today exists as part of the AFL-CIO, a well-known union and trade union.

Other movements emerged, including Eugene Debs and others who founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901. The party nominated Debbs for president between the 1904 and 1920 elections, receiving about 3% of the vote and often finishing third. Debs would influence some left-wing politicians in the United States, although his own movement did not succeed. His speech and compassion are considered influential on left-wing American politicians in the 20th century and later on social democratic movements (see below).[3]

The United States and Socialism in Europe

In the late 18th and early 20th centuries, it was clear that socialism was beginning to unfold differently in the United States. This was largely because socialism was less politically influential in the United States, although it did influence the major parties indirectly through campaigns and strikes for better working conditions. This included the development of trade unions and other labor activities (Figure 2). Yet Europe's political experience was different, as socialism had a much stronger influence on political action stemming from revolutions (eg 1848) on the continent that led to the emergence of new political parties with far greater power. Political parties fared well under the banner of socialism, especially the SPD in Germany, where in the late 19th century it could muster between 4 and 5 million votes and run about 90 newspapers.

This despite the fact that the party was temporarily banned, although some candidates could run. The Marxists proved to be the most influential socialists, but others emerged who advocated a more gradual transition to socialism rather than revolution. A prominent thinker was Eduard Bernstein, who began to influence the SPD through incremental measures focused on specific legislative measures, even though the party had a more Marxist platform. This began to form what would eventually become the social democratic movements, focused on welfare and other reforms rather than full social revolution.[4]

In France, Great Britain and other smaller European countries, most Marxist movements began to develop into reformist parties, influencing and giving rise to the development of left-wing parties such as Labor in Great Britain. These parties, especially when they came to power, focused on legislative reforms that included workers' benefits and rights. A social security system was established in Germany in 1889. This was introduced by Bismarck, who opposed the socialist SDP party, but Bismarck understood the influence the party had on Germany and promoted politics as a way to stem its political progress. Even when socialist policies were not directly elected, they began to indirectly influence legislative action across Europe. Norway developed the first universal healthcare system in 1912, which is still present in the country today. Other states began to create welfare programs, either directly through social democratic action or indirectly to counter these parties through more right-wing parties. In fact, many Western European governments had tilted more to the left, especially in domestic politics, as the socialist-oriented parties began to push for change.[5]

In the United States, the popularity of socialists never materialized. During World War I, socialists became unpopular because they opposed war and conscription. The Socialist Party of America considered war a "crime" and Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to cause disobedience by preventing conscription, as anti-conscription demonstrations increased with the US entry into the war and many more of these demonstrations were organized of socialist groups. The Marxists who were more prominent in Europe were seen as predominantly German thinkers, leading to greater hostility in the United States and, at the end of the war, greater fear of the increasing influence of Marxism from Russia during the Russian Revolution, leading to the first red scare.

During the war, industrial strikes began to affect production, with President Wilson ordering a crackdown on the group Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which had organized some of the strikes. The American Communist Party was formed in the late 1910s and began to draw many socialists away from socialist parties and groups, weakening the socialist movements to some extent. The 1920s and 1930s saw a period of greater socialist and communist influence in the United States, similar to that in Europe, where legislative reforms, especially during the Great Depression, were in part aimed at reducing the influence of more left-wing parties. Groups drew on American workers who became increasingly disaffected. Socialists had some indirect influence on legislation, with Franklin D. Roosevelt even being accused of being a socialist or socialist sympathizer for his New Deal reforms.[6]

New Socialism or Democratic Socialism

The 1950s were the time of another "Red Scare"; This time it caused leftist groups, including socialists, to decline in popularity, especially during the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. It was not until the 1960s that socialists re-emerged in the United States with the New Left. The Progressive Labor Party was a political party formed in 1962 where it participated in leadership and organizing on a more local level, including organizing demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Michael Harrington became a noted author of socialist ideals, including a book (The other America), which helped to redefine socialism in the post-war period. He became a founding member of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), and that party still exists today.

In addition to founding its own party, the DSA strategy also included cooperation with the main democratic party to allow leftist candidates to be influenced or elected by democratic-socialist ideals, as in Europe. In fact, this was a shift similar to what happened in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, where various socialist factions emerged, also against purely Marxist ideals. As of 2017, the DSA is now the largest socialist party in the United States with over 32,000 members and includes members of the US House of Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. A total of 20 DSA members hold elected positions today.[7]


Socialism has a long history in the United States and has manifested itself in various forms there. This included how socialism is to be achieved, whether through small legislative measures, which most social democrats favor, or through major societal changes, which Marxist socialists favor. The Utopian Socialists were the first movement to emerge in the United States. They focused on creating separate communities that lived a life of sharing labor and resources to create a more utopian society, at least in small communities.


  1. For the early history of American socialism and utopian socialism, see: Taylor, K. (2016).The political ideas of the utopian socialists. Routledge.
  2. For more on the importance of looking back, see: Trodd, Z. (ed.). (2006).American protest literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Print.
  3. For more information on socialist movements in the mid-19th century, including in the United States, see: Linden, M. van der, & Rojahn, J. (eds.). (1990).The Emergence of Labor Movements, 1870-1914: An International Perspective. Leiden; New York: E.J. Smooth butt.
  4. For more information on the socialist movements in Europe in the 19th century and the SPD, see: Berger, S. (ed.). (2009).A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Europe: 1789 - 1914 (Paperback Edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. For more information on legal reforms in Europe stemming from socialist policies, see: Alesina, A. & Glaeser, E. L. (2004).Poverty reduction in the US and Europe: a world of difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. For more on the history of American socialists in the early 20th century, see: Howe, I. (1986).Socialism and America. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.
  7. For more information on the DSA and the rise of democratic socialism in the late 20th century, see: Harrington, M. (2011).Socialism: Past and Future. Arcade Publishing: New York.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Annamae Dooley

Last Updated: 01/03/2024

Views: 5903

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Annamae Dooley

Birthday: 2001-07-26

Address: 9687 Tambra Meadow, Bradleyhaven, TN 53219

Phone: +9316045904039

Job: Future Coordinator

Hobby: Archery, Couponing, Poi, Kite flying, Knitting, Rappelling, Baseball

Introduction: My name is Annamae Dooley, I am a witty, quaint, lovely, clever, rich, sparkling, powerful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.