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A Brief History of American Socialism

A look at socialism’s far-reaching influence on American thought.

Like it or not, socialism has been as impossible to separate from the narrative of the nation’s history as the capitalist economy itself—and often posed the most prominent alternative to it. Socialists were also energetic advocates of federal and state policies such as Social Security, on which most Americans have come to rely.

Conservative politicians and commentators take quite a different view. For them, socialism has meant only a hankering for state tyranny and brazen assaults on property rights that, together, threaten the beliefs every patriotic citizen holds dear. For the Right, socialists are the sworn enemies of freedom and democracy; according to Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, they defy the national creed that “the ultimate sovereign power [in the US] lies with the people.”[4]

The congressman might be surprised to learn that, a little more than a century ago, his own state had been home to one of the strongest contingents of socialists in America. In 1912 one-sixth of Oklahoma voters cast their ballots for Eugene Debs, a former railroad union leader, who ran for president on the Socialist Party (SP) ticket. Debs drew a little less than half as many votes in Oklahoma that year as did William Howard Taft—the White House incumbent. Soon there were then six Socialists in the state legislature; more than three thousand Sooners belonged to the party—one of every three hundred adults in the state.

Part of their attraction to socialism was practical: the Oklahoma party appealed to small farmers, then the majority of residents, with a program that featured a plan for the state government to purchase arable land for the use of those willing to cultivate it and vowed to remove all property taxes on farms worth less than $1,000. State banks and warehouses would help growers stay in business. And nearly all socialists, like most other Oklahomans, were devout Christians. They flocked to yearly encampments that blended a faith in Jesus with a belief in socialism. At one gathering, a preacher proclaimed, “Christ’s church was a working class church” and cited the verse from Ecclesiastes that decrees “the Profit of the Earth is for all.”[5]

The passion for reform that moved many Oklahomans to vote for socialists or look favorably on their ideas was not unique to that prairie state. Socialists, then and later, played a major role in initiating and rallying support for changes that most Americans have no desire to reverse. These include women’s right to vote, Medicare, the minimum wage, workplace safety laws, universal health insurance, and civil rights for all races and genders. All were once considered radical ideas. But vast majorities now consider them the cornerstones of a decent society.


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

How socialism is as American as Baseball or Apple Pie.