The Socialist Party

Compared to the major party campaigns, Socialist presidential campaigns were run on a shoestring. The Socialist Party’s financial resources, (unlike the major parties, the Socialists had dues-paying members--100,845 as the party convened in 1912) press coverage, and public visibility all paled in comparison when compared to the major parties; what coverage they did receive in the mainstream press was as often as not openly hostile.   Nevertheless, the Socialists opened 1912 with a great deal of optimism.

Organizationally, the Socialist Party was as strong as it had ever been. In 1910 they elected their first Congressman, Victor Berger of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and pulled approximately 700,000 votes in various races throughout the nation. By 1912 the party held in the neighborhood of 1000 elective offices around the country, most of them municipal offices in pockets of Socialist strength throughout the Midwest. Other areas of strength included the new state of Oklahoma, where more than half of all farm families were landless tenants, and parts of the far west and California where industrial development had been particularly naked. In Oklahoma and other parts of the southwest, a strange alliance formed between socialism and conservative evangelical Protestantism, creating a sort of rural socialist revivalism no European Marxist (and in fact few American Marxists) could ever fathom. Such grassroots socialist development, strange though the roots often were, encouraged party leaders to believe a breakthrough might be at hand.  In fact, the socialist vote had recently shown remarkable growth.
Nevertheless, the Socialist Party also entered 1912 almost as divided internally as the two major parties. The vast majority of Socialists holding office were not fire-breathing radicals or orthodox Marxist ideologues, but constructive reformers only a little to the left of progressive Democrats or Republicans. Their success revealed a major fissure in the party between politically-oriented reformers and labor radicals. The conservative wing, led by Berger, drew most of its strength from skilled workers in the northeast and Midwest, many of them ethnically German and/or employed in industries which retained a heritage of skill and craft (Berger’s strength in Milwaukee, for example, was based in the brewing industry and affiliated with the conservative trade unionism of the American Federation of Labor). Berger was opposed by an alliance of agrarian radicals, purist Marxists, and the hard-core labor radicals either involved in or supportive of the International Workers of the World and its policy of direct action against capitalism. These radicals opposed the skilled unionism in which much Midwestern socialism was based, some on grounds of socialist doctrine and some because it conflicted with their strategy of organizing the unskilled, and resented Berger’s strength within the party. They also disagreed among themselves as much as they agreed.
Debs floated above these divisions as best he could, partly to avoid damaging his reputation as America’s number one Socialist and partly because he had no taste for the fierce organizational infighting they involved. Debs’ own sympathies leaned toward the party radicals; he disliked Berger personally and distrusted Berger’s relationship with the AFL. But Debs had also broken with the Wobblies over the issue of labor violence, and his socialism was always much closer to the indigenous-American-protest strain of the southwestern agrarians than it was to the orthodox theorists. He remained the party’s de facto national leader, but was increasingly mistrusted by certain factions within it. Nor were egos in short supply; Debs, Berger, and IWW leader Big Bill Haywood, buoyed by the success of the Lawrence textile strike, all had a confidence in their own righteousness second to no one else, least of all themselves. The Socialists thereby prepared for its May 12-19 convention in Indianapolis in a state of agitation almost as severe as the Republicans’.
The convention’s major issue was what to do about the IWW, which hoped to receive formal recognition and endorsement. The success of the Lawrence strike, during which socialists of many different stripes had worked together successfully (even Haywood and Berger), suggested that some sort of accommodation between the factions might be possible. The passage early in the convention of a platform plank broadly supportive of organizing unskilled and immigrant workers (the IWW position) seemed to suggest the same. But it was merely prelude to purge. On day two of the convention, the conservatives secured passage of a party constitutional amendment expelling "any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class." Haywood, who during the Lawrence strike attacked Berger personally in the socialist press even as the two were working together, was voted off the party’s National Executive Committee. The Wobblies were out.
Once the Wobblies were purged, the convention turned to the Presidential nomination. Debs, who to avoid the infighting did not attend the convention himself, was the natural front-runner and the clear choice of the western agrarians and other elements of what was now left of the party’s radical wing. Berger and the conservatives, however, opposed Debs as well and supported their own candidates. Debs was nominated, but with less support than in previous years; the conservatives asserted their power by nominating Berger allies Emil Seidel for Vice-President and J. Mahlon Barnes (who Debs openly opposed) as Debs’ campaign manager. The convention also came out in favor of woman suffrage.  (Click here for more images of the Socialist leaders.)

Debs was not in the hall when the delegates nominated him, but his running mate, Emil Seidel, upon receiving the vice presidential nomination, promised the delegates "that he would make the campaign 'as lively as the capitalist parties have ever seen.'"

As the candidate, Debs largely ignored his campaign manager and the party apparatus and campaigned as he always had, delivering long, fiery speeches from the back platform of his campaign train or in front of open-air crowds of thousands of working-class listeners. He attacked both capitalism in general and his fellow candidates. Taft he attacked as a reactionary jurist, Wilson as a kindly but ineffectual puppet of Tammany Hall ("ladylike in his utterances," Debs once called him), and Roosevelt as an insincere latecomer to support for the downtrodden. Debs feared, however, that the split of the Republican Party and the nomination by the Democrats of a relatively progressive candidate might siphon off potential Socialist votes. (Roosevelt, in particular, was attacked by Debs and other Socialist campaigners as an opportunistic thief of Socialist Party platform planks.) Debs therefore spent much of his time on the stump attacking mainstream reformers as ineffectual accommodationists protecting an inherently unjust and unworkable capitalist system. "The Republican, Democratic, and Progressive Parties are but branches of the same capitalistic tree. They all stand for wage slavery," said Debs in front of 15,000 supporters at a rally in Madison Square Garden. "There is no essential difference between them." 

The entire campaign cost the Socialists $66,000, a fraction of what the major parties could muster. In support of their contention that the major parties were supported by capitalists and therefore uninterested in challenging them fundamentally, the party published a list of every Socialist Party contributor and the amount of their donation. The mainstream press, which drenched itself in daily coverage of the three major candidates and their activities, either attacked or ignored them. They depended on the Socialist press, their own literature, and Debs’ own personal magnetism to carry their message.

 Although this cartoonist saw Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party as "Socialism," and thereby stealing the thunder of both the Bryan wing of the Democratic Party and of Debs's Socialist Party, certainly the Socialists did not agree.

Sources:  The cartoon of Debs in the Pond is from Harper's Weekly,
Sept. 21, 1912, p. 9; the caricatures are by Art Young from a 1912 issued of Metropolitan Magazine.