New Parties Challenge the Economic System eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

A campaign button illustrates the Socialist Party's nominees for vice president and president—Emil Seidel and Eugene Debs—during the 1912 campaign. © DAVID J. & JANICE L. FRENT COLLECTION/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A campaign button illustrates the Socialist Party's nominees for vice president and president—Emil Seidel and Eugene Debs—during the 1912 campaign. © DAVID J. & JANICE L. FRENT COLLECTION/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © DAVID J. & JANICE L. FRENT COLLECTION/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
A banner for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Progressive Party, used during the 1912 campaign. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A banner for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Progressive Party, used during the 1912 campaign. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Progressive Party Platform of 1912

Political platform

By: Progressive Party

Date: 1912

Source: Platform of the Progressive Party, August 7, 1912: Declaration of Principles of the Progressive Party. Available online at; website home page: (accessed November 15, 2002).

About the Organization: The Progressive Party (nicknamed the Bull Moose Party) was organized in 1912 as a vehicle for reelecting Theodore Roosevelt. It took its name from the Progressive reform movement that Roosevelt had supported while serving as president between 1901 and 1909. Frustrated by the way his handpicked successor as president, William Howard Taft (served 1909–1913), handled a number of policy issues, Roosevelt caused a split in the Republican Party by challenging Taft in 1912.

Socialist Party Platform of 1912

Political platform

By: Socialist Party

Date: 1912

Source: Platform of the Socialist Party, May 12, 1912. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed November 15, 2002). About the Organization: The traditional parties (the Republicans and the Democrats) faced a challenge from both the Progressive Party and the Socialists in 1912. Many parties had formed during the nineteenth century to push for socialist and labor reforms in the United States, but the most successful was the Socialist Party founded in 1901 and led by Eugene V. Debs. Drawing on broad and diverse support from social reformers and radicals, factory workers, miners and agrarians, urban immigrants, and noted intellectuals, the party offered a pro-worker, socialist alternative to the American capitalist system.


Two issues—the regulation of industry and the conditions of labor—held a central place in the presidential campaign of 1912. The economy had been vastly transformed during the decades since the 1880s, as corporations grew in size and power. At the same time, increasing numbers of Americans, swelled by rising immigration, relied on wage-work for their livelihood. Debate centered around what sort of controls should be placed on "big business" and what sort of protections would be afforded to laborers.

For two decades, American antitrust law had sought to check corporate growth by prohibiting business combinations that restrained competitive trade. But what "restrained competitive trade" meant was unclear. Did antitrust law exist simply to stop the worst excesses of industrial monopolists? Or did its authors intend a broad assault on "bigness" in all its forms? President Roosevelt's "good trust"/"bad trust" distinction, which rested on vague notions of industrial statesmanship, did not survive in his successor's administration. Taft initiated antitrust proceedings against U.S. Steel over a merger that Roosevelt had previously sanctioned, straining relations between the former friends.

When Roosevelt formulated his Progressive Party platform in 1912, he veered away from the open-ended, legalistic, enforced competition that Taft advocated. Instead, Roosevelt sought strong federal regulation of interstate business activity. Regarding economic concentration as both inevitable and efficient, he sought to place regulatory controls over national firms while still allowing for their expansion. This stood in marked contrast to the "New Freedom" program advocated by the Democrat's candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, who claimed to stand for the "men who are on the make rather than the men who are already made," hoped to use public power to protect the economic freedom of the middle class and the small entrepreneurs from the overwhelming powers of big business.

Rejecting both the Democrats and Republicans as parties of the "capitalist class," Eugene Debs' Socialist Party endorsed social ownership of businesses and the end of "economic individualism." The platform declared that antitrust laws and other federal regulations "proved to be utterly futile and ridiculous," offering no protection to the working class. Urging citizens to vote their class, Debs hoped to offer a political alternative that would allow for serious debate over working-class issues, such as public ownership of industry, public unemployment relief, and government inspections of factories.

Indeed, industrial justice stood at the center of the Socialist platform. Ultimately, this meant the dismantling of the capitalist system, which they saw as having been built by a greedy upper class through the oppression of wage-workers. In their view, collective ownership would end the unequal distribution of wealth between workers and owners and diminish the consumption of the nation's natural resources. The Socialist platform endorsed a program geared toward achieving this new form of political economy, emphasizing, among other things, the regulation of working conditions and wages, and the abolition of child labor.

Some of these themes, such as the conservation of resources and the need for better working conditions, were echoed in the Progressive platform. Roosevelt included human resources in his conservation plan, and called for an end to child labor; the regulation of wages, hours, and conditions of labor; and the protection of unions as a countervailing force against organized businesses.


Both the Bull Moose Progressives and the Socialists aimed to alter the American economic system to better address the issues of corporate bigness and industrial democracy for laborers. Roosevelt saw industrial expansion as both inevitable and key to American prosperity. His solution to corporate excesses was the corresponding expansion of the federal government. A powerful national government could oversee an increasingly national economy, ensuring healthy economic growth and economic justice for American working men and women. By contrast, the Socialists argued that the American capitalist system was beyond reform. Even Roosevelt's enlarged state would still be in the hands of the capitalist class, and thus economic reform would continue to serve their interests. A party dedicated to workers' interests, however, could institute practical reform while pursuing a more just economic system.

With the Republican Party split, Wilson and his New Freedom program carried the election of 1912. But the Socialist and Progressive challenges remained significant. With more than four million votes, Roosevelt easily outran Taft's more conservative Republican campaign. And Debs received about 900,000 ballots (about 6 percent of the popular vote), indicating significant support for a genuine alternative to established parties. Much of both Debs' and Roosevelt's programs were resuscitated in the New Deal of the 1930s, when the nation again faced serious questions about the nature of the capitalist system.

Primary Source: The Progressive Platform of 1912 [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The Progressive Party advocated the expansion of public power to nurture big business and protect the worker, as illustrated by this excerpt from their official party platform.

The conscience of the people, in a time of grave national problems, has called into being a new party, born of the Nation's awakened sense of justice. We of the Progressive Party here dedicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the duty laid upon us by our fathers to maintain that government of the people, by the people and for the people whose foundation they laid.…

The Old Parties

Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.

From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.

To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.

The deliberate betrayal of its trust by the Republican Party, and the fatal incapacity of the Democratic Party to deal with the new issues of the new time, have compelled the people to forge a new instrument of government through which to give effect to their will in laws and institutions.

Unhampered by tradition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, the new party offers itself as the instrument of the people to sweep away old abuses, to build a new and nobler commonwealth.…

Social and Industrial Strength

The supreme duty of the Nation is the conservation of human resources through an enlightened measure of social and industrial justice. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly in State and Nation for:—

Effective legislation looking to the prevention of industrial accidents, occupational diseases, overwork, involuntary unemployment, and other injurious effects incident to modern industry;

The fixing of minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations, and the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal control over inter-State commerce and the taxing power, to maintain such standards;

The prohibition of child labor;

Minimum wage standards for working women, to provide a living scale in all industrial occupations;

The prohibition of night work for women and the establishment of an eight hour day for women and young persons;

One day's rest in seven for all wage-workers.…

The establishment of industrial research laboratories to put the methods and discoveries of science at the service of American producers.

We favor the organization of the workers, men and women as a means of protecting their interests and of promoting their progress.


We believe that true popular government, justice and prosperity go hand in hand, and so believing, it is our purpose to secure that large measure of general prosperity which is the fruit of legitimate and honest business, fostered by equal justice and by sound progressive laws.

We demand that the test of true prosperity shall be the benefits conferred thereby on all the citizens not confined to individuals or classes and that the test of corporate efficiency shall be the ability better to serve the public; that those who profit by control of business affairs shall justify that profit and that control by sharing with the public the fruits thereof.

We therefore demand a strong National regulation of inter-State corporations. The corporation is an essential part of modern business. The concentration of modern business, in some degree, is both inevitable and necessary for National and international business efficiency. But the existing concentration of vast wealth under a corporate system, unguarded and uncontrolled by the Nation, has placed in the hands of a few men enormous, secret, irresponsible power over the daily life of the citizen—a power insufferable in a free government and certain of abuse.

Primary Source: The Socialist Platform of 1912 [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The Socialist Party's official platform argues that political reform is insufficient to control America's capitalist economy. At the core of the Socialist philosophy is a belief that nothing short of a complete dismantling of that system will resolve the country's economic and social woes.

The Socialist party declares that the capitalist system has outgrown its historical function, and has become utterly incapable of meeting the problems now confronting society. We denounce this outgrown system as incompetent and corrupt and the source of unspeakable misery and suffering to the whole working class.

Under this system the industrial equipment of the nation has passed into the absolute control of a plutocracy which exacts an annual tribute of hundreds of millions of dollars from the producers. Unafraid of any organized resistance, it stretches out its greedy hands over the still undeveloped resources of the nation-the land, the mines, the forests and the water powers of every State of the Union.

In spite of the multiplication of laborsaving machines and improved methods in industry which cheapen the cost of production, the share of the producers grows ever less, and the prices of all the necessities of life steadily increase. The boasted prosperity of this nation is for the owning class alone. To the rest it means only greater hardship and misery. The high cost of living is felt in every home. Millions of wage-workers have seen the purchasing power of their wages decrease until life has become a desperate battle for mere existence.…

In the face of these evils, so manifest that all thoughtful observers are appalled at them, the legislative representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties remain the faithful servants of the oppressors. Measures designed to secure to the wage-earners of this Nation as humane and just treatment as is already enjoyed by the wage-earners of all other civilized nations have been smothered in committee without debate, the laws ostensibly designed to bring relief to the farmers and general consumers are juggled and transformed into instruments for the exaction of further tribute. The growing unrest under oppression has driven these two old parties to the enactment of a variety of regulative measures, none of which has limited in any appreciable degree the power of the plutocracy, and some of which have been perverted into means of increasing that power. Anti-trust laws, railroad restrictions and regulations, with the prosecutions, indictments and investigations based upon such legislation, have proved to be utterly futile and ridiculous.…

Society is divided into warring groups and classes, based upon material interests. Fundamentally, this struggle is a conflict between the two main classes, one of which, the capitalist class, owns the means of production, and the other, the working class, must use these means of production, on terms dictated by the owners.

The capitalist class, though few in numbers, absolutely controls the government, legislative, executive and judicial. This class owns the machinery of gathering and disseminating news through its organized press. It subsidizes seats of learning—the colleges and schools—and even religious and moral agencies. It has also the added prestige which established customs give to any order of society, right or wrong.

The working class, which includes all those who are forced to work for a living whether by hand or brain, in shop, mine or on the soil, vastly outnumbers the capitalist class. Lacking effective organization and class solidarity, this class is unable to enforce its will. Given such a class solidarity and effective organization, the workers will have the power to make all laws and control all industry in their own interest. All political parties are the expression of economic class interests. All other parties than the Socialist party represent one or another group of the ruling capitalist class. Their political conflicts reflect merely superficial rivalries between competing capitalist groups. However they result, these conflicts have no issue of real value to the workers. Whether the Democrats or Republicans win politically, it is the capitalist class that is victorious economically.

The Socialist party is the political expression of the economic interests of the workers. Its defeats have been their defeats and its victories their victories. It is a party founded on the science and laws of social development. It proposes that, since all social necessities to-day are socially produced, the means of their production and distribution shall be socially owned and democratically controlled.

In the face of the economic and political aggressions of the capitalist class the only reliance left the workers is that of their economic organizations and their political power. By the intelligent and class conscious use of these, they may resist successfully the capitalist class, break the fetters of wage slavery, and fit themselves for the future society, which is to displace the capitalist system. The Socialist party appreciates the full significance of class organization and urges the wage-earners, the working farmers and all other useful workers to organize for economic and political action, and we pledge ourselves to support the toilers of the fields as well as those in the shops, factories and mines of the nation in their struggles for economic justice.

In the defeat or victory of the working class party in this new struggle for freedom lies the defeat or triumph of the common people of all economic groups, as well as the failure or triumph of popular government. Thus the Socialist party is the party of the present day revolution which makes the transition from economic individualism to socialism, from wage slavery to free co-operation, from capitalist oligarchy to industrial democracy.

Further Resources


Bell, Daniel. Marxian Socialism in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Schelsinger, Arthur M., ed. History of U.S. Political Parties, vol. 3. 1973. Reprint, New York: Chelsea House, 2002.


Milkis, Sidney, and Daniel Tichenor. "'Direct Democracy' and Social Justice: The Progressive Party Campaign of 1912." Studies in American Political Development 8, Fall 1994, 282–340.


1912: Competing Visions for America. Available online at (accessed October 13, 2002).

"Presidential History Resources." The American President. Available online at /presidentialresources.htm; website home page: (accessed October 12, 2002).

"The Progressive Era." American Political Development. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed July 23, 2003).

"Theodore Roosevelt Papers at the Library of Congress." American Memory Historical Collections, Library of Congress. Available online at; website home page: (accessed October 13, 2002). Additional primary sources concerning Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party are available here.