A Very Brief History Of The American Left

The 4th of July is typically seen as a celebration of United States history that tells one narrative: one of the Founding Fathers, patriotism bordering on and sometimes exceeding nationalism, and our military prowess. This narrative tells only a very small part of America’s political history. Leftism, whether socialist, communist, or anarchist, has a long history in the United States and has dramatically influenced different epochs of American history. Though this narrative is downplayed by mainstream historians, high schools, and the capitalist two-party system that controls them, America has a long and proud tradition of leftist radicalism.


Beginning in the early 19th century, the newly open territories of the American Midwest and West were the sites of many of what were called “intentional communities.” These communities were often founded on ideas of communal living and communal ownership of property. Communes like New Harmony, Indiana; Nauvoo, Illinois; and Brook Farm, Massachusetts are just a few of the many non-capitalist societies that briefly flourished in America. These social experiments captured the imaginations of many, including a young Karl Marx who based part of his “scientific socialism” on the lessons of the shortcomings of these communes.

The historical US Left is not, however, limited to a handful of pie-in-the-sky communes. From the late 19th century onwards, the US had a vibrant and militant crop of radicals. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which resulted in street battles all over the nation between militant workers and state and private militias, was led by radicalized workers who defied the power of capitalism and the brutal exploitation of the robber barons. Many of the participants in the strike were European immigrants who brought with them Marx’s and Engels’ ideas of communism and revolution and the fervor of the Paris Commune. These ideas and the actions of the brave workers who acted on them would greatly influence later US leftists.

Just a few years later, Chicago would also become a battleground between the forces of capital and the organized working class. Chicago became a hotbed of unionists, socialists, and anarchists who untied in the struggle for the eight-hour working day. The working class of Chicago and its surrounding communities were facing brutally long work days, deplorable living conditions, and unsafe workplaces. Already radicalized by the eight-hour struggle, the Chicago working class, led by firebrand anarchists Albert and Lucy Parsons, agitated for the end of capitalist exploitation and garnered not just the overwhelming support of the local working class, but of their international comrades as well. The Chicago struggle ultimately resulted in the execution of Albert Parsons and several of his comrades in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair, but their legacy still serves as an inspiration for American radicals.

The late 19th century and early 20th saw the rise of the American Socialist Party under the leadership of the great American socialist, Eugene Debs. Debs, who began as a labor leader from Indiana, became the best-known US radical and led the famous Pullman Strike in in 1894. Debs was jailed for his activism and during his imprisonment he was further radicalized by the writings of Karl Marx and other European communists. Debs then became the leader of the Socialist Party and ran for president several times on their ticket, once from prison. To this day, Debs has garnered more votes than any other third-party candidate in a presidential election – nearly one million votes, which is quite the accomplishment considering the nation was much smaller then. Many American socialist organizations, including DSA, are based on the remnants of Debs’ party.

Debs was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, also called the Wobblies, fought to bring the entire working class into “one big union” to fight for the abolition of capitalism and the collective ownership of the means of production. Under the leadership of Big Bill Haywood, the IWW organized factory workers, lumberjacks, migrant farm workers, and other marginalized people to fight together, regardless of national origin or ethnicity. The IWW fought the police, private militias, and even the federal government to win reforms for the working class, while never taking their eyes off the final goal – the defeat and replacement of capitalism with a workers’ democracy.

The US Communist Party of the 1920s and 30s also had a massive impact not just on the Left in the US, but on US political history in general. The members of the party fought capitalist exploitation, disenfranchisement, racism, and the Jim Crow laws in the South. In addition, the communists set up many local workers’ councils that acted as aid societies, labor organizers, and civil rights advocates. Perhaps the most lasting aspect of the American Communist Party’s legacy is their influence on Roosevelt’s New Deal. The American communists fought hard for the betterment of working class living and working conditions and many historians, including Howard Zinn, have argued that the New Deal would not have been what it was without them. The legacy the party left in the South was also important: the communists were some of the first leftists to fight capitalism and racism at the same time and their legacy of civil rights activism, which included many leftists of color, laid the groundwork for some of the later civil rights groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

This is just a small sampling of the long tradition of US leftism. However, leftist radicalism is not just part of the United States’ past. There is a vibrant Left in the nation today made up of many different groups. Workers, communities of color, immigrant groups, and anti-war activists have worked together to form a broad coalition that opposes the horrors of capitalism and imperialism. Occupy Wall Street is just one example of what is possible today. A real, radical Left is possible and desperately needed. DSA strives to be a part of that Left, both embracing our long past, our present, and our future.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.


  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 68 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.