So, it may be fair to say that “socialism” has been one of the most divisive words, and concepts, in 20th century American politics.
A Gallup poll from 2018 (which compared responses to a similar poll conducted in 1949) found that Americans don’t agree on what the word “socialism” really means.
In 2018, 23% of people polled thought socialism meant “Equality - equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution”, up from 12% who believed this to be true in 1949.
And 17% of people polled in 2018 thought socialism stood for “Government ownership or control, government ownership of utilities, everything controlled by the government, state control of business,” down from 34% who believed that statement was true in 1949.
So what is the history of socialist ideologies in American politics?
Today we’re going to get to the bottom of one of the most hotly debated terms in 20th and 21st century politics, starting with its origins in the 19th century to its fluctuating definitions today.
So when most people, today, think about American socialism they are more likely than not going to think of self described Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But actually the concept (and the term) stretch back much further.
One of the earliest predecessors to socialism was Plato’s Republic in which there’s discussion of a sort of communal society.
And in Thomas More’s 16th century Utopia he depicts a society where people live communally.
But socialism as a practice first began to take hold in the 19th century with Utopian Socialism that sprung up as a result of the industrial revolution.
Utopian Socialism was an idea that basically meant that people would work, own and live communally.
With factories and industrialization expanding, the stratification of the rich and the poor was getting worse, with many poor workers living in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
But early Utopian Socialists didn’t always agree on what socialism actually was or should be.
Some early socialists (like Henri de Saint-Simon) believed that the state should control the means of production, while others (like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier) championed preplanned micro societies or settlements run by smaller groups.
In the early 19th century, during the peak of Utopian Socialism, over 40 of these types of settlements sprung up all over the country.
Some Utopian Socialists settlements were a mere blip on the historical spectrum, while others had surprising staying power.
The settlement near Red Bank, NJ formally lasted until the 1850s, but in some form stayed around until the 1930s.
But One of the more famous settlements in New Harmony, Indiana (which was founded by Owen) was a huge failure because Owen lost most of his fortune by 1829.
But a few key things happened that dramatically changed the scope of socialism worldwide.
First Karl Marx and his co-writer Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848.
They called for a “scientific socialism” with workers seizing the means of production from the upper class, resulting in a true class uprising or communism.
This document served as the underpinning for the emerging communist states of the early 20th century.
But while communist ideology was spreading abroad in places like Russia, socialist ideology was finding a foothold in the United States.
And although socialism and communism are parallel but distinct ideologies, the spread of communism in Europe would later heavily impact socialism’s reputation in the United States.
In the late 19th and early 20th century socialist candidates began to gain traction with everyday voters in the US, with the first socialist candidates being elected to office in this period.
And the first socialist to serve in Congress was Victor Berger in 1911.
As socialists around the country began to pick up steam and run for (and win) political offices, the popularity of the idea also spread.
And it all came to a head with one of the leaders of the socialist movement in the United States in the early 20th century: a man named Eugene V. Debs.
Debs ran for president a total of 5 times on the Socialist Party ticket and in 1912 he garnered 6% of the popular vote (and zero electoral votes) in the presidential race.
By that point there were over 300 English and foreign language publications spreading the message about socialism across the country.
But this socialist wave still represented a diverse array of definitions and opinions.
In his book Socialism and America historian Irving Howe writes of that historical moment: "When one considers the inner diversity--indeed, the chaos of conflicting opinions, styles, accents, and levels of thought--within the Debsian Socialist Party, the most remarkable thing about it is that it ever held together.
How could they all stay in the same party--the stolid social democrats of Wisconsin with the fierce syndicalists of the West, the Jewish immigrant workers of New York with the inflamed tenant farmers of Oklahoma, the Christian socialists with the orthodox Marxists?"
In Howe’s description we see that the diverse opinions, politics and strategies of these early 20th century Socialists were as widespread as the definitions of socialism that exist within the US today.
And a large part of this was because of regional differences, not only in lifestyle but in the types of labor being performed.
It was often challenging for these early socialists to unite people who worked under different conditions and had vastly different lives.
But Debs and his comrades were able to unite these often divergent opinions and agendas under one umbrella, by marketing socialism as a potential solution to widespread class inequality, causing them to win local and national elections during this time period.
Socialism in the wake of the Industrial Revolution appealed to many Americans.
But the Russian Revolution of 1917 which formed the Soviet Union, began to change the tides for socialist thought in the US.
As the early 20th century saw the Soviet Union expand throughout Eastern Europe, the association of socialism or communism with authoritarianism began to spread as well.
Government messaging dramatically influenced the perceptions of socialism nationwide, leading to the basic political messaging that socialism is equal to authoritarianism and authoritarianism is (obviously) bad.
This formula became a cornerstone of American politics following WW1, when fears that a violent revolution would spread to the US (like it did in Russia) inspiring the first wave of the “red scare” or fears that socialists and communists would either infiltrate the government or overthrow the government completely.
Coupled with ongoing workers’ strikes following WW1 for fairer wages and better treatment, and you can see how equating socialism with social unrest began to rise.
So we can see during these early 20th century years a divergence in how socialism was being received and portrayed.
On the one hand socialists considered themselves labor activists fighting for equality and better treatment.
On the other the government was dead set on portraying them as a secret, hidden threat to national safety.
And the “red scare” was only just beginning.
The first wave of the “red scare” occurred immediately after WW1.
With fears on the rise in the US government about socialist revolution, the Anarchist bombings of 1919 only added to those fears.
In 1919 a series of mail bombs were discovered that targeted government officials and wealthy citizens.
The bombs, sent by anarchists, led to investigations, beatings, false arrests and threats led by men like J Edgar Hoover and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
The “Palmer Raids” as they came to be known were the peak of the red scare in the US that saw prominent socialists and radical thinkers jailed or deported.
But no one is as famous for supporting the “red scare” as Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Elected into office in 1946, McCarthy began his fear mongering campaign in 1950 when he claimed that he had a list of 205 American government employees who were members of the Communist party.
Despite never producing definitive proof that he had uncovered numerous “reds,” hearings continued on for years, with support from various quarters of the government.
But that support came to an end, however, in 1954 when McCarthy turned his attention to exposing communists in the armed services.
Without the support of fellow senators and government officials he was eventually stripped of political power before dying in 1957.
After Debs’ historic presidential run and the Cold War, American socialism failed to find widespread political and popular support until very recently with the election of democratic socialists to national office.
And Americans still continue to wrestle with the definitions of socialism today.
Whether it’s self described democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders or AOC or candidates that are still running for office under the socialist party banner, our perceptions of socialism still remain in flux.
According to AOC democratic socialism is a system that guarantees: "[...]basic levels of dignity so that no person in America is too poor to live...That's what democratic socialism means in 2018, and not this kind of McCarthyism Red Scare of a past era.” And although younger generations are seemingly beginning to warm to the idea of broader social policies and safety nets, those who were raised during the years of the Cold War are still resistant to the idea.
But whether it relates to policy or to social constructs, socialism has had a surprising staying power in the American political imagination.