The Social Democratic Federation was formed by the "Old Guard" faction of the Socialist Party, which left the organization after their final defeat at the Cleveland Convention of May 1936.
During the factional war of 1936, the Socialist Party NEC expelled some or all of the New York state organization. This action early in the year prompted the exodus of several Old Guard dominated organizations, including the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania, the Socialist Party of Connecticut, the Socialist Party of Maryland and the Finnish and Jewish Federations in the summer of 1936. Large parts of the Socialist Parties of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts also separated from the national organization at this time.
0. Eastern States Conference of Social Democratic Organizations -- Philadelphia -- Feb. 7, 1937.
Sarah Limbach, State Secretary of the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania, called together an "Eastern States Conference of Social Democratic Organizations" to establish the framework of a national organization. The meeting was called for Philadelphia on Feb. 7, 1936 -- one day after the regularly scheduled meeting of the State Committee of the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania.
Sarah LImbach was named the permanent chair of the Eastern States Conference, with Sonia Tietelman as secretary.
The meeting was well attended and a committee of 7 was named to issue a formal convention call and to serve as a Credentials Committee for the founding convention. This group included Martin F. Plunkett of Connecticut, Leo Meltzer of Massachusetts, Darlington Hoopes of Pennsylvania, Sol Rifkin of the Jewish Socialist Verbund, Algernon Lee, William Karlin, and James Oneal of New York.
At the conference Jim Oneal of New York claimed a membership for the SDF -- including the two language federations and states which had not yet affiated with the fledgling group -- at between 6,000 and 8,000. In contrast, he doubted the membership of the Socialist Party of America following the split exceeded 3,000.
There was discussion of the question of independent political action, with Darlington Hoopes unsuccessfully proposing that refusal to endorse old party candidates should be a requirement of delegates to the Pittsburgh gathering. The New York delegation was particularly opposed to this as it would have forced them to choose between the SDF and the American Labor Party, the New York State organization in which they were heavily engaged.
The name "Social Democratic Federation" was not merely chosen for it sonorous qualities. The national organization was indeed intended to represent a return to state autonomy -- a federation of state parties. Martin Plunkett and Carl Rhodin of the Socialist Party of Connecticut declared that their state organization "would hesitate about joining a federation if it adopted any rigid rules for the states," according to a news report in The New Leader.
The convention was set for Pittsburgh, May 29-31, 1937.
[fn. "SDF Calls Convention at Pittsburgh, May 29," The New Leader [New York], vol. 20, no. 7 (Feb. 13, 1937), pp. 1-2.]
In April small groups of individuals were handpicked by the Arrangements Committee in advance of the convention to prepare written material as a basis for the convention's work. The following were chosen:
Consittution Committee: Julius Gerber (NY); Martin Plunkett (CT); Darlington Hoopes (PA).
Organization Committee: Carl Rhodin (CT); Leo Meltzer (MA); E.C. Thompson (NJ); August Claessens (NY); William N. Reivo (MA - Finnish Fed.).
Declarations of Principles Committee: Algernon Lee and James Oneal (NY); Jasper McLevy (CT); Henry Stump (PA).
The convention was planned for Hotel Webster Hall, 5th Avenue, Pittsburgh and the dates of May 29-31, 1937 chosen.
[fn. "Plans Completed for Nat'l SDF Pitts. Convention," The New Leader [New York], vol. 20, no. 16 (April 17, 1937), pg. 7.]
1. "1st National Convention" -- Pittsburgh, PA -- May 29-30, 1937.
The Founding Convention of the Social Democratic Federation was held in Pittsburgh, PA from May 29-30, 1937. The gathering was attended by delegates from 19 states, 2 language federations, and the District of Columbia. The convention was called to order Saturday morning, May 29, by Sarah Limbach, State Secretary of the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania. The keynote address was given by Louis Waldman of New York, long one of the chiefs of the Socialist Party's "Old Guard" faction in New York state.
Waldman's keynote address committed the new organization to democracy, socialism, and opposition to dictatorships of all kinds, a perspective reaffirmed by a Declaration of Principles adopted by the convention delegates. The delegates also passed resolutions calling for expansion of the Social Security Act, initiation of a nationwide program for the construction of government housing and the clearance of slums, and for adoption of "an adequate system of health insurance on a nationwide basis," as one reporter summarized it.
The group adopted a declaration of principles and elected a governing National Executive Committee, with Mayor Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport, CT elected the honorary National Chairman.
Headquarters of the Federation was to be in Washington, DC as soon as practicable, with a temporary national office established in Pittsburgh, to be headed by Sarah Limbach.
The SDF chose to maintain a very loose structure, allowing its state and local affiliates decision-making autonomy with respect to joint work with local and state labor parties and other political entities. It saw itself not as a mechanism for the actual running of candidates, but rather for the coordination of propaganda activities and as a center for the development of a national labor party.
State affiliates retained the right to use historic names. For example, the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania and the Socialist Party of Connecticut were allowed to remain called such, even though they were no longer associated with the Socialist Party of America but rather the Social Democratic Federation.
Although the convention had been slated for three days, the basic business of the gathering was wrapped up by the evening of Sunday, May 30 and the gathering was gaveled adjourned sine die one day ahead of schedule.
On May 31, the day after the Sunday conclusion of the official convention, the newly elected NEC met to continue the tasks assigned it by the convention with respect to finalizing the shape of the organization and drafting a program of political, labor, and educational activity. This NEC consisted of 2 each from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and 1 member from Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois -- an expression of the new organization's center of numerical strength..
[fn. "SDF is Launched at Convention of 19 States," The New Leader [New York], vol. 20, no. 23 (June 5, 1937), pp. 1, 9; "Social Democrats Combine in New National Federation," Ibid., pp. 1, 7.; Charles E. Russell, "Russell Hails Pittsburgh Convention as Vindication of Democratic Socialism; Ibid. pg. 5.]
The move to Washington, DC for national headquarters was made in the summer of 1937 and Leo Meltzer was named the organization's first official National Secretary.
New York SDF City Convention -- Jan. 29, 1938 -- New York City
On Saturday, Jan. 29, at 1:30 pm the Social Democratic Federation in New York City held its first city-wide convention since it dropped the name "People's Party" in 1936. The gathering was held in the auditorium of the Rand School of Social Science and was attended by about 150 delegates who were provided in advance with credentials. Speakers included City Alderman Charney Vladeck, Louis Waldman, Louis Hendin, Judges Jacob Panken and Charles Solomon, publsher Abe Cahan, and National Secretary of the SDF Leo Meltzer, among others.
NEC Meeting -- March 6, 1938 -- Baltimore, MD
The quarterly meeting of the NEC of the SDF met in Baltimore on Sunday, March 6, 1938 to set the date of the organization's second national convention. They were feted at a banquet that evening by local members of the organization.
NEC Meeting -- June 25-26, 1938 -- Camp Tamiment, PA
The regular quarterly meeting of the NEC held at the Rand School's Camp Tamiment was addressed by National Secretary Leo Meltzer, who presented a report reviewing the organization's first year of activity and agenda for future work. The decision was made to appoint a three member committee to explore reunification with the Socialist Party of America. Named to the committee were NEC members Jasper McLevy, Louis Waldman, and Sarah Limbach. The committee was instructed to report to a regularly scheduled meeting of the NEC on Sept. 17, 1938, at which representatives of the various state organizations would be invited to attend to act as a de facto national conference, acting on this report. Reunification was envisioned within the next year, according to a report in The New Leader.
2. "Enlarged Executive Conference" -- Sept. 17-18, 1938 -- New York CityThe regular fall session of the NEC was touted as a "Enlarged Executive Conference," to include officials of the SDF from around the country. The session was held at the Rand School of Social Science, 7 East 15th Street, over two days. The agenda included (1) discussion of national socialist unity "on the principles of the Social Democratic Federation"; (2) Setting date and place for the next SDF convention; (3) development of an educational and propaganda program; (4) discussion of similarities and differences of various state organizations and arriving at a policy for the SDF in the forthcoming 1938 elections. Speakers were assigned in advance to guide main discussions.
The gathering was addressed by an impressive list of the organization's worthies, including publisher Abraham Cahan, Mayor Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport, Darlington Hoopes of Reading, Sarah and Emil Limbach of Pittsburgh, Finnish-American socialist leader S. Syrjala of Boston, writer C.E. Russell, and New York leaders Julius Gerber, Algernon Lee, Gus Claessens, and others. It was decided that although important issues remained, a chance of unification of a great part of the Socialist movement in the next year existed. The party's unity committee was instructed to continue its work, with a view towards holding of a unity convention in 1939.
[fn. "SDF Pushes Membership, New Leader Drive," The New Leader, vol. 21, no. 39 (Sept. 24, 1938), pg. 7.]
One small step toward unity was taken in January 1939, when in Reading, PA 62 members of the SDF and 25 of the SPA joined together in a new local organization which was recognized by both the national SDF and SPA organizations -- a unique "dual membership." This was done as a tactical measure to isolate a radical "Mostellerite faction" of the SPA which as viewed as undermining the very much electorally-oriented Reading organization.
[fn. "Social Democratic Federation At Work: Reading, Pa.," The New Leader, vol. 22, no. 9 (March 4, 1939), pg. 6.]
X. Convention -- Sept. 8-10, 1944 -- PhiladelphiaThe SDF formally endorsed a 4th term of office for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at its convention held in Philadelphia. The group also called for the unification of the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and independent unions and for establishment of a new 3rd party to unite socialist and liberal forces in electoral campaigns.
[fn. "Social Democrats Endorse Roosevelt," Gazette and Daily [York, PA] via Associated Press, Sept. 11, 1944, pg. 10.]