Socialist Party


The Socialist Party had a wide-ranging impact on the Philadelphia region, from its influence in garment unions, to free speech battles during the First World War, to the administration of the industrial city of Reading in Berks County. This big-tent organization of radicals, which brought in militant labor unionists and social democratic electoral reformers with moralistic orators, electoral campaigns, and advocacy for socialism, took root within Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, and to a small degree in Camden, New Jersey. The national Socialist Party was founded in 1901, and Philadelphia quickly became one of its centers with large hubs in the Kensington neighborhood and eventually the textile mills of Reading.

Philadelphia Socialists had a strong presence in immigrant communities, among garment and other textile labor militants, and in the anti-war free speech advocates of World War I. The high-water mark of Socialists in Pennsylvania arrived with the Socialist electoral successes in Reading from 1927-36, when they won the mayorship, several council seats, school board seats, city treasurer, city controller, and other local positions, before the national party crumbled.

During its heyday, the Socialist Party did not have much of a presence in the ring counties of Philadelphia, which at that time consisted mostly of small professional class towns or farmland. In the industrial city of Camden, a small Socialist Party published a labor and anti-war newspaper, The Voice of Labor, while Socialists curiously were largely absent from the chemical industry of Wilmington, Delaware.

Prior to World War I, the Socialists focused on building what they called “industrial democracy,” an economy that would be based around worker ownership instead of owner-management ownership. Many militant labor activists were also members of the Socialist Party, as a sort of clearinghouse of radical ideas and connections, even if Socialist Party activity was not their focus.

Election Influences

A black and white photograph of Eugene Debs in his elder years, standing with Independence Hall's arcade arches behind him. He is wearing a dark-colored suit and vest and smiles slightly at the camera.
Eugene V. Debs, shown here at Independence Hall, ran for President on a Socialist Party ticket four times, including a 1920 campaign held while he was imprisoned for sedition. Debs’ Socialist Party politics received moderate local support, especially in Berks and Philadelphia Counties. (Special Collections, Indiana State University Archives)

Three presidential elections showed the national influence of the Socialist Party: the 1912 and 1920 Eugene Debs (1855-1926) campaigns, when Debs won 900,390 and 913,664 votes, respectively, and the Norman Thomas (1884-1968) 1932 campaign, when he won 881,951 votes. Those three campaigns also represented good bellwethers of the party’s influence in the greater Philadelphia region, since they represented the three presidential elections of the highest Socialist Party vote totals, both nationally and in the Philadelphia region. In each, Philadelphia County, due to its sheer population size, and Berks County, due to the Socialists’ activist presence in the Reading mills, had the lion’s share of votes for the Socialist Party in the region, and the totals in other counties of the region were minuscule. In the 1912 election, in Philadelphia County, Debs received 19,568 votes (3.9 percent of the total), while in Berks he received 7,272 votes (10.5 percent). In 1912, the vote totals for the rest of the entire Philadelphia region, including the Lehigh Valley, South Jersey river counties, and northern Delaware, was 9,141 (all under 5 percent of the total). In 1920, Debs received 17,484 votes (4.3 percent) in Philadelphia, 5,674 (12.2 percent) in Berks, and 7,166 in the rest of the region (none above 4 percent). In the 1932 election, Norman Thomas garnered 13,038 in Philadelphia (2.1 percent), 15,988 (21.9 percent) in Berks, and 16,571 in the rest of the region(all under 5 percent).

While voting for a Socialist was not the same thing as membership, it did demonstrate the wider influence of the Socialist Party beyond its activist core. The Socialist Party membership was always much smaller than the vote totals, though in general Pennsylvania held the largest, second largest, or third largest state chapters of the party, depending on the year.

Voting was not the only indication of Socialist appeal or activism. In the heavily immigrant Kensington neighborhood, especially among Eastern Europeans, Irish, and Italians and their children, garment and textile workers established themselves as the left wing of the Philadelphia Socialist Party branches, interested far more in direct action industrial unionism than in electoral success. Socialist Party members led the American Federation of Full-Fashion Hosiery Workers as it became an underground secret organization opposing the draconian dictatorship of the emerging women’s clothing corporations by the 1920s. The Kensington Labor Lyceum hosted radical speakers as well as socialist singing societies of the German branch. The Hosiery Workers represented one of two large radical unions in the city, the other being the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Local 8 on the waterfront. Both pushed for better wages, hours, and benefits, and more control for workers of their own lives from the 1910s through the 1930s.

Anti-War Stance

a color photograph of a castle-like building of red stone with green doors. Turrets with narrow vertical slit-like windows stand on either side of the building. It is in a state of decay with boarded and broken windows. Snow covers the sidewalk.
Anti-socialist sentiment during World War I led to sometimes-violent clashes between activists and their opponents, including one in front of this armory in the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where a mob attacked a group of pamphleteers. (

During World War I the Socialist Party of America, unlike its socialist European counterparts, took an explicitly anti-war stance and strongly opposed the United States mobilization for war. Operating out of its city headquarters/bookstore at 1326 Arch Street, members of the Socialist Party leafletted the city with the pamphlet “Long Live the Constitution of the United States,” urging readers to resist conscription and war during the summer of 1917, which may have contributed to 1,500 of the initial 30,000 Philadelphia draftees not showing up. The party’s Arch Street location was near several military recruiting stations, much to the anger of those recruiters. Moreover, the leafleteers faced mob attacks. In West Philadelphia a running attack of roughly three thousand people chased thirty-four anti-war leafleteers, and another attack took place outside an armory at Forty-First and Mantua Streets.

Police and federal forces launched repressive measures against Socialists in accordance with the Espionage Act of 1917, and thereafter raided a Socialist Party anti-war meeting at Seventh and Dickinson Streets. Finally, on August 28, 1917, police arrested the city’s Socialist Party leadership, including General Secretary Charles T. Schenck (1873-1920). After the war the ensuing free speech case, Schenck v. United States, ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Socialist Party lost. In Camden, the federal government refused to circulate that publication the Voice of Labor newspaper published during the 1910s because of its anti-war message. The Camden party fell apart after the national party split over the question of aligning with the Soviet Union, although it briefly rebounded during the early years of the Great Depression.

In the aftermath of the war, a nationwide Red Scare and anti-union corporate offensive led to Philadelphia clamping down on both radicals and labor, cementing the city’s reputation as an anti-labor citadel. The Philadelphia Socialists split into a Socialist majority and Communist minority that at times cooperated and at times bitterly opposed each other within the now underground garment unions, like the Hosiery Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. By the Great Depression, they competed for leadership of the Unemployed Councils, although the Socialist Party remained a presence in Kensington with offices on East Allegheny Avenue.

The Socialist Party’s real success was in the city of Reading, in Berks County, sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia. There, the massive Berkshire Knitting Mills became a Socialist recruiting target because of the repressive conditions that workers faced. In elections from 1927 into the next decade, the Socialist Party candidates swept into office, gaining the mayorship, several city council seats, and a host of other positions in Berks County. The Berks Socialists reached their height of electoral success from 1927-36, a period of similar electoral successes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Supporting Labor Causes in Reading

The Socialist administration in Reading lent support to labor causes, especially the hosiery and pretzel workers unions. Reading also became one of the centers of Socialist Party cultural life, hosting youth conferences, baseball teams, music, theater, the newspaper Labor Advocate, and the Reading Labor College. The Reading Socialists swept the elections of 1936, with a message of good government rather than explicit socialism, but the national Socialist Party fell apart in the late 1930s due to factional fighting between old and new guards. Eventually the old guard left the SPA to form the Social Democratic Federation over the issues of support for the Soviet Union and cooperation with Communists.
With the labor upsurges of the 1930s, former Socialist Party members remained socialists, even as they moved on into other organizations as the national organization collapsed. The Socialist Party branches of Philadelphia and Reading saw the possibilities of a different sort of society, from their influence in unions, brief electoral successes, and campaigns against militarism, even as they faced daunting odds and enemies, from corporate management to both local, state, and national security forces. Many of those Socialists who saw social change through electoral success ended up joining the New Deal Democrats from the late 1930s on.

By the 1940s, remnants of the Socialist Party faded because of its ambiguous position on World War II, neither supporting the war nor actively opposing it in the face of popular support in the United States for the global war against fascism. The few members left after the war later re-formed into the Socialist Party USA, which survived in the early twenty-first century. Although minuscule in numbers compared to the heyday of the Socialist Party, the later organization fielded presidential and statewide candidates for office at various times in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but with no success.

A color photograph of Bernie Sanders speaking at a podium on his presidential campaign in 2016. He faces an unseen audience. His right hand is extended in a pointed gesture. On the front of the podium, a small sign reads "A Future to Believe In."
Bernard “Bernie” Sanders of Vermont ran for president on a democratic socialist platform at a time when Philadelphia hosted one of the most robust branches of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist group in the United States by 2020, also emerged from several splits, mergers, and rebrandings of the Socialist Party of America after the 1950s. Nationally, the DSA grew rapidly after the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) Democratic Party presidential primary campaigns made “democratic socialism” more widely known and a less threatening philosophy. The DSA was positioned to receive this rapid growth partly because of its name and partly because of its relatively open internal structure. A Philadelphia branch of the DSA became one of the largest in the United States, with regular meetings of a few hundred. The DSA also established branches in Lancaster County, Berks County, and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, along with a Delaware chapter and a South Jersey chapter.

By 2016, socialism gained renewed interest among left-leaning voters generally, especially after the two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns where he called himself a democratic socialist and offered a Eugene Debs-like vision of socialism like Scandinavian models of mixed economies. But such interest did not lead to a reconstituted Socialist Party that developed its own slate of candidates and built a separate party movement. By 2022, new groups with no ties to the DSA, such as the “Philly Socialists,” had emerged, but they focused on mutual aid and direct-action political organizing on issues such as tenants’ rights and did not become involved in electoral work. In turn, the DSA sought to affect public policy and gain leadership positions within the Democratic Party by endorsing and supporting democratic socialist candidates running for offices on Democratic Party tickets. Groups like the old Socialist Party of America continued to operate far beyond the lifespan of the original organization, and even, for better or for worse, with many of the same goals of a socialist world as the original SPA. The original Socialist Party of America, through its labor and antiwar work, remained an important note in the history of Philadelphia.

James Robinson, who received his Ph.D. in history from Northeastern University in 2020, is an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University in the Labor Studies Department, and a Philadelphia history tour guide. He has written about links between radicals, labor, and grassroots sports from the 1920s into the 1940s. (Author information current at date of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Armory at 41st and Mantua

Anti-socialist sentiment during World War I led to sometimes-violent clashes between activists and their opponents. Skirmishes often broke out when Socialist activists promoted their pacifist politics in the vicinity of military recruiting centers and other sites with high military presence. The Sixth Regiment Armory in the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia was one site where these conflicting beliefs came to a head when a mob attacked a group of men and women distributing Socialist literature.

Eugene Debs Independence Hall

Special Collections, Indiana State University Archives

Eugene Debs' Socialist Party politics received moderate local support, especially in Berks and Philadelphia Counties. Born in Indiana, Debs left formal education young to work for the railroad industry and became involved in union activity through his work. He spent years trying to unionize railroad labor and in 1893 he founded the American Railway Union, serving as the organization’s first president. A year later, the union led a successful strike for higher wages against the Great Northern Railway. Debs’ leadership in a Chicago Pullman Strike led to his arrest and imprisonment, during which time he studied politics.

In 1897, Debs and others founded the Socialist Party of America and in 1900, he embarked on the first of five Presidential campaigns over his lifetime. Debs’ 1912 and 1920 campaigns – the latter of which he conducted while again imprisoned on sedition charges – found support in Berks County, where socialist activity gained a foothold in Reading. Workers of the massive Berkshire Knitting Mills became a prime source of Socialist Party recruitment as they fought against repressive labor conditions. In the 1920 Presidential election, 12.2.% of the Berks County’s total vote went to Debs. Debs is shown here visiting Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1923, three years before his death.

Norman Thomas

Library of Congress

Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas joined the Socialist Party in 1918, drawn by their pacifist stance at the United States’ entry into World War I. He soon resigned from his pastoral position when the church withdrew funding for social programs Thomas supported. Instead, he entered politics, running unsuccessfully for Governor of New York in 1924, New York State Senate in 1926, and mayor of New York City in 1925 and 1929, all on a Socialist Party ticket.

Beginning in 1928, Thomas ran for President of the United States six consecutive times, reaching the height of his popularity during The Great Depression. Locally, Thomas found success in Berks County, where hosiery mills in Reading became hotbeds of Socialist Party recruitment. His 1932 campaign received about one fifth of the total vote for Berks County. Thomas continued to be active in politics into his later years, but waned in popularity when he again opposed the U.S. entry into World War II and rallied against Soviet Communism. In 1966, three years before his death, he was awarded the second Eugene V. Debs Award for his promotion of pacifism.

Bernie Sanders, 2016

Wikimedia Commons

Bernard "Bernie" Sanders, a Senator representing Vermont, ran for president on a democratic socialist platform at a time when Philadelphia hosted one of the most robust branches of the Democratic Socialists of America. Sanders began his political career in 1972 when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Governor of Vermont on an independent platform. In 1991, he was elected to the House of Representatives and in 2006 to the United States Senate. Sanders' presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 fueled a rapid growth of the party with a platform reminiscent of Eugene Debs, combined with modern Scandinavian mixed economies. Despite popularity, Sanders' campaigns failed to launch a new wave of Socialist candidates locally. By 2022, new groups with no ties to the DSA operated locally with a focus on direct action rather than electoral politics.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Bucki, Cecelia. Bridgeport’s Socialist New Deal, 1915-36. New York City: Verso Press, 2001.

Gavigan, Ian. “Read All Over: The Reading Labor Advocate and Socialist Power in Pennsylvania, 1927–1936,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 88, Number 1 (Winter 2021), 56-84.

Lynskey, Bill. “Reinventing the First Amendment in Wartime Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 131, Number 1 (January 2007), 33-80.

McConnell-Sidorick, Sharon. Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

The Camden Voice of Labor” U.S.A. Periodical & History Archive. Marxists Internet Archive. Last updated: November 3, 2018.

Socialist Vote Totals, Membership, Newspapers, and Elected Officials by States and Counties.” Mapping American Social Movements. Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, University of Washington. Access date: January 18, 2022.

Related Collections


Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy