Justice  /  Q&A

The Socialist Party in New Deal–Era America

The 1930s Socialist Party is often seen as a marginal force, but its successes laid the groundwork for the next generation of organizing.

SG: In many ways, the 1930s was a decade of disappointment for the Socialist Party. Despite the horrors of the Great Depression, which caused many people to question capitalism, the party was still significantly smaller than in its Debsian heyday. But you argue this was far from a lost decade. Why were the thirties an important period for the SP?

JA: At the start of the economic crisis, the political establishment didn’t understand what was happening with the economy. There were clearly economic disruptions in ordinary people’s lives. And socialists were seeing these problems and laying them at capitalism’s feet. This is why young people were drawn to socialism. It was another moment of political and economic rupture.

In the book, I write about New York City: you have this metropolis that stands as a monument to collective human achievement. It’s an incredible demonstration of the wealth that humanity can create. This was particularly true for young people coming from small-town Missouri or Tennessee. And, at the same time, there are more and more unemployed people in the city. There’s real poverty and it’s growing, more and more people are struggling. And the private charities and the politicians don’t really understand what is happening or why. So it was a real opportunity for socialists to step in and propose an alternative. And they did.

Socialists built important institutions in the 1930s. One that I spend a lot of time on in the book is Highlander Folk School — which I don’t think has really been seen as a socialist institution, or if it has, it has been identified with a very tame Christian socialism that downplays how the staff at Highlander thought of themselves and their project near its beginnings. It was an explicitly socialist project. They wanted to set up a model of a socialist society. So I see the 1930s as this period when socialists are building for the next thirty years and also starting experiments that will evolve and go on to do great work in the service of democracy.

You also have socialist leaders and organizers in a number of unions, and they achieve a lot in terms of building a robust labor movement in the United States. They didn’t do it on their own, but through coalitions they were able to build some really impressive institutions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). It helped that they had allies in unions that were already led by social democrats, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The ACWA poached promising organizers from the Socialist Party for union work, and some of these socialists went on to hold important positions in the labor movement for decades. The most well known are the Reuther brothers. There was a robust middle rank, too.

A lot of the energy of the socialist movement in the 1930s ultimately goes into a coalition with the New Deal and with the Democratic Party. While the Socialist Party’s revival fades, the energy enters the labor movement and the Democratic Party and it remains, I argue, a distinctive force. Over time, their power within that coalition was eroded more and more, until there’s not much of a social-democratic presence in the Democratic Party’s coalition. But it lasts a long time. You have Emil Mazey, a socialist, serving as secretary-treasurer of the UAW from 1947 until 1980.