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The DSA has upended local politics in this Democratic stronghold, and its wins extend well beyond New York – into Virginia, Nevada and beyond. How did socialism jump from the fringes of American politics into its very center?

American socialist history

The DSA's roots trace back to the Socialist Party of America, which was formed in New York in 1901 to promote such issues as establishing an eight-hour workday and public ownership of utilities like water and electricity.

Union leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs campaigning in 1900.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Writer Upton Sinclair, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were prominent early members. But many early American socialists were Jews and Eastern European immigrants – groups that were considered well outside mainstream "white" society at the time.

My research as a historian of American socialists finds that early 20th-century socialists found electoral success by running candidates who represented the economic and racial diversity of their communities and championed the issues that mattered to working-class, immigrant constituencies.

In 1918 – the heyday of New York's socialist caucus, when socialists held 10 of 121 seats in the State House – socialist politicians were teachers, settlement house lawyers and union leaders. They proposed New York's first birth control bill, allowing advocates to give women educational pamphlets about contraception, and put forward programs to create old-age insurance and rent control.

The Socialist Party began losing members to the growing Communist Party in the 1930s. By the mid-20th century, it had responded to Americans' growing anticommunism with a rightward turn. In 1972, party leaders actually renamed the party the Social Democrats, USA because so many people associated the word "socialist" with America's great antagonist, the Soviet Union.

The DSA, past and…
Matthew Chapman
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