The party had initially been founded in 1876 as the Workingmen’s Party, as a result of the merger of four groups including Marx’s Internal Workingmen’s Association (the First International) which had moved its headquarters from Europe to New York. Initially, dominated by Lasalleans, a majority favored direct political action under the banner of Science the Arsenal, Reason the Weapon, the Ballot the Missile and believed that the ballot box was the only effective weapon with which to fight the capitalist class.
in advance of the 1880 Greenback Labor Party convention, where James Weaver became the Greenback presidential nominee, the socialist leaders sought an alliance between the two parties, hoping both to retain their socialist platform while maximising electoral impact.
After a long struggle, it was allowed 44 delegates, made a number of concessions, but insisted – to some great resistance from the broader convention – that it wished a specific ‘land plank’ to be added to the platform, namely:
‘Land, light, air and water are the free gifts of nature to all mankind, and any law or custom of society that allows any person to monopolize more of these gifts than he has a right to, is to the detriment of the rights of others, and we earnestly condemn and seek to abolish such law or institution.’
This emerging relationship between the parties, was based on the need ‘to unite our forces with yours to make common cause against the common enemy’. One of the socialist party’s leaders – the carpenter, agitator, and trade union organizer, Peter J McGuire – commented of their involvement at the convention that they were ‘a party of propaganda – at work to Spread the Light – using the ballot as a weapon’. While suspicious of, and angered by, the manoeuvrings of senior Greenback leaders, he concluded that ‘…with the powerful and far reaching assistance of the Irish World we found the rank and file of the Greenbackers far more radical than their leaders and platforms dared to admit’.
However, the dismal results of the election for the partnership meant that both returned to their individual internal battles. Under pressure from an increasing number of German members, as well as the anarchist inclinations of a small but active and influential minority, the party split in 1881 with the formation of a Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party. By 1883 the original party had only 1500 members. It was to be 1890 before its fortunes were revived under the leadership of Daniel DeLeon.