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.