Lawrence Wittner, Time Magazine via HISTORY NEWS NETWORK
WASHINGTON (TIME) — The recent announcement by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed “democratic socialist,” that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President raises the question of whether Americans will vote for a candidate with that political orientation.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the idea of democratic socialism — democratic control of the economy — had substantial popularity in the United States. At the time, the Socialist Party of America was a thriving, rapidly-growing political organization, much like its democratic socialist counterparts abroad — the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Australian Labor Party, and numerous other rising, working class-based political entities around the world. In 1912, when the United States had a much smaller population than today, the Socialist Party had 118,000 dues-paying members and drew nearly a million votes for its candidate, Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader, for President. (The victor that year was the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who drew six million votes.) Furthermore, the party held 1,200 public offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Socialist administrations were elected in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Butte, Montana, Flint, Michigan, Schenectady, New York, and all across the country. In 1912, the Socialist Party claimed 323 English and foreign language publications with a total circulation in excess of two million.
Of course, this socialist surge didn’t last. The Democratic and the Republican parties, faced with this threat to their political future, turned to supporting progressive agendas — breaking up or regulating giant corporations, curbing corporate abuses, and championing a graduated income tax — that stole the socialists’ thunder. In addition, after U.S. entry into World War I, an action opposed by the socialists, the federal and state governments moved to crush the Socialist Party — arresting and imprisoning its leaders (including Debs), purging its elected officials, and closing down its publications. Moreover, one portion of the party, excited by the success of revolutionaries in overthrowing Russia’s Czar and establishing the Soviet Union, broke with the Socialist Party and established Communist rivals. Co-opted by the mainstream parties, repressed by government, and abandoned by would-be revolutionaries, the Socialist Party never recovered.