Group portrait of Socialist Party members gathered for the Socialist Convention and Eugene V. Debs picnic in Canton, Ohio, 1918.
During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, socialism attracted many Americans. Socialists called for an economic system that removed greed from the people. Rather than working to attain the most wealth, socialists hoped that Americans would work together to benefit the common good. They also desired public ownership of utilities and transportation systems. Socialists did not want to necessarily make all Americans politically, economically, and socially equal. Rather, they wanted to have Americans, as a whole, working together to benefit all Americans. Some Americans would be deserving of more than other citizens, but no American should prosper by denying his or her fellow citizen the basic necessities of life. The socialists’ message became especially welcome among the working class, including factory workers who endured harsh working and living conditions. In 1912, as many as one-third of the American Federation of Labor’s members favored socialism.
During the 1890s, several political parties formed that favored socialism. The Social Democratic Party, founded by Eugene V. Debs in 1898, and the Social Labor Party ranked among two of the more prominent organizations. These two parties united together in 1901 to form the Socialist Party. This new party favored the peaceful establishment of a socialist economic and political system within the United States, but not all socialists agreed with this approach, favoring a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism’s dominance in the United States.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Eugene V. Debs dominated the Socialist Party. In the presidential election of 1912, Debs received 900,000 votes, amounting to six percent of the total votes cast. In the presidential election of 1920, Debs surpassed that number of votes by twenty thousand, but socialism’s appeal had begun to decline. While socialists attained many local and state offices during the 1910s, socialists’ opposition to World War I and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s implementation of many socialist goals to help Americans during the Great Depression doomed the Socialist Party. Socialists still exist today and several socialist political parties still exist, but none have attained the success of the Socialist Party of the 1910s.
In Ohio, socialists attained limited success. Progressives, who sought to improve the working and living conditions of Americans, originated in the state before the socialists gained a foothold. In 1911, socialists managed to gain control of the mayoral seats of a few communities, including Canton, Lima, Barberton, and Lorain, but socialism’s popularity quickly declined in the state, as many prominent socialists opposed United States involvement in World War I. Socialists remained active in the United States through the 1920s and 1930s, but their numbers dwindled during this same period.