THE SOCIALIST PARTY: A PRECEDENT OF A MEMBERSHIP-BASED PARTY
The Socialist Party (SP) is the only significant left third party in American history that was based on a dues-paying membership organized into local chapters, which was the norm for labor parties in the rest of the world. The mass-membership organization was the invention of the labor left. It was absolutely necessary if working people were to have labor unions and political parties they controlled and with the resources needed for effective concerted action. It was the only way working people could compete politically with the old top-down elitist parties, which had evolved earlier out of legislative caucuses that were funded by rich sponsors and provided no formal structure for rank-and-file participation and accountable representation. The Democratic and Republican Parties retain these elite-serving top-down characteristics. It was the labor-based socialist parties that led the fight to extend the franchise to working people in countries around the world.
The founders of the SP, many of them veteran populists, were well aware of the need for a mass-membership party structure that chose its platform and candidates at a yearly democratic membership convention. The socialists drew two organizational lessons from the demise of the People’s Party. First, they secured their political independence by banning fusion candidacies in the party constitution. Second, only dues-paying members were allowed to vote on party decisions in order to protect the Socialists’ internal democracy from being overwhelmed by the contemporary Progressive movement that might flood their meetings with different agendas and motivations like the shadow populist movement had done to the People’s Party.
The Socialists faced an additional barrier to organizing in their own way with the spread of primary elections, which took nominations out of the hands of party conventions and put it in the hands of a state-regulated party enrollment that was different from the active party membership. Direct primaries made American parties creatures of the state, rather than voluntary private associations. The state, not the party, set the conditions for “membership” by establishing the conditions for voting in party primaries.
These conditions vary from state to state depending whether or not the state keeps party enrollment lists and on the type of primary the state uses (open, closed, semi-open, top two, or blanket). But in all their variations, primaries tend to hand power to professional politicians sponsored by wealthy interests who can dominate an unorganized electorate in a top-down plebiscite. The Socialists maintained their membership convention system alongside the primary system. They nominated by convention and then campaigned for their nominees in primaries if necessary, nearly always winning those primaries.
Arthur Lipow explains that commentators at the time primaries were introduced foresaw the implications for democracy between party membership conventions and direct primaries.
In the United States, it was only in the internal structure of the Socialist Party that the democratic and representative type of party organization was developed. Writing in the middle of the Progressive period’s mania for “direct democracy” [i.e., primaries and referenda], the University of Chicago labor economist and historian Robert F. Hoxie pointed out that “it is a little known fact that the Socialists are introducing among us a new type of political organization and new political method very much in contrast with those to which through long usage we have become habituated.” He suggested that the democratically organized convention system represented “a political organization and political methods that are worth consideration on their merits as possible contributions to a more wholesome, more democratic, and more Progressive expression of the social will.”
In a discussion of the spread of primary elections, the Socialist Call in 1914 denounced the progressives’ push for direct primaries: “In their eagerness to get the reputation for being democrats, those pseudo-democrats who are running things just now want to break up political parties. If they really wanted to have real democracy, they would pattern parties after our party.”
The two-party duopoly ruling New York State would soon confirm the Socialists’ indictment of the memberless American parties. Ten Socialists were elected to the New York State Assembly in the 1918 election. But in the climate of the Red Scare and Palmer Raids against the antiwar Socialists following World War I, the New York State Assembly expelled the five socialists elected in 1920. A special election was called to replace them. Their districts reelected all of them. Again, they were not seated by the assembly.
To justify its actions, a special Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities soon issued a massive 4,428-page report on Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose, and Tactics with an Exposition and Discussion of the Steps Being Taken and Required to Curb It. The long section on the Socialist Party of America begins,
The expression “Socialist Party of America” is really a misnomer, for the group operating under this name is not in reality a party. . . . The Socialist Party is in reality a membership organization. . . . A distinction must be drawn at this time between the members of the Socialist Party of America and the enrolled Socialists. . . . A person enrolling under the Socialist Party emblem on registration day in this state does not thereby become a member of the Socialist Party of America.
In other words, for the memberless capitalist parties, it was subversive for the Socialist Party to be a membership organization. The last thing the capitalist parties wanted was for the working class to become well organized politically.
Although the progressive-era electoral reforms (direct primary, nonpartisan election, initiative and referendum) were nominally aimed at the corruption and boss control of urban patronage machines, they have been very effective in preventing the emergence of an independent left party in the contemporary period. Those growing out of the 1960s New Left such as the Peace and Freedom, People’s, and Citizens Parties did not organize as mass-membership parties. By contrast, the SP in 1973 and the Green Party USA in 1984 did form as dues-paying membership organizations.
However, both the Socialist and Green Parties faced challenges to the mass-membership structure from state party affiliates that acquired ballot status in the 1990s. The state parties demanded more representation in their national committees and conventions based on their state-maintained party enrollment rather than their paid membership as provided for in the parties’ rules. In the case of the Green Party, the state-regulated party enrollment and primary system effectively disorganized and defunded the national party, leading to replacement by 2001 of affiliated locals of dues-paying members with a federation of state parties in a new Green Party of the United States that is organized around county, state, and national party committees largely peopled by party insiders who are self-selected, appointed from above, or (very rarely) elected at primaries, just like the Democratic and Republican parties. The Green Party can correct this problem of accountability to its activist base by returning to a mass-membership party structure in which dues-paying members are organized into locals that elect and hold accountable their delegates to party committees and conventions. In the case of the Socialist Party, the challenging Oregon party soon lost its ballot line and later disaffiliated from the national party.