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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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In A People's History of the United States, Zinn devotes a chapter to socialist movements during the early 1900s.  Is this justified or is he overstating the impact of the socialist movement?

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Zinn's historical focus is on marginalized groups in American history. Zinn sees the Progressive movement as a way to combat socialism by enacting social reforms without going toward socialism. Zinn overstates the socialism movement in the United States. While its main presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, gained votes, he was never a viable presidential candidate. Unlike other movements, such as the Populist movement, the Socialist party's principles were never fully adopted by either major political party. Contrast this with Progressivism, which was adopted by both major political parties at the turn of the twentieth century under the heading of "reforms."

Socialism was an important movement, and it reflected a worldwide trend of workers voicing their complaints against the ultra-rich, who were only getting richer. Many people balked at true socialism, however, as they saw their economic status as being upwardly mobile—one day, they figured, they or their descendants may become rich. While socialism was a part of the American political conversation, it was not as powerful as Progressivism or Populism in changing political parties and ultimately changing the relationship the average person had with the federal government.

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It is certainly true that there was a strong current of socialism in the country in the early 1900s.  Mainstream textbooks agree that there were 33 towns and cities with Socialist mayors in 1912.  The Socialist Party won roughly 3% of the popular vote in presidential elections in 1904, 1908, 1916 and 1920.  It won 6% of the popular vote in 1912.  Clearly, this was a movement that was strong in some locales and had a fairly consistent following for about 20 years.

But was this a true driving force in American history as Zinn claims?  Zinn sees the Progressive Era as an attempt to appease socialists and he believes that the attack on Mexico in 1914 and the US participation in WWI were simply ways to try to distract people from the fact that they were being oppressed.  I'm not convinced.  I would argue that the Progressive Era came about because of middle class reformers' desires, not a fear of socialism.  I would argue that the US shelled Veracruz out of a combination of arrogance ad impatience with the revolutionary upheaval in Mexico.  I do not believe that fear of socialism was a major driving force in the more prominent events of the time.  Therefore, I do believe that Zinn is overstating the importance of the socialists.

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