Socialist candidates and election programmes pre‐dated socialist parties. The British Labour Party was founded in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee, one of its components being the Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893. The oldest socialist party in a leading country is the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, which can trace its origins to the German Workers' Party, whose Gotha Programme of 1875 was fiercely criticized by Marx. The first socialist candidate in a US presidential election ran in 1892 (and got 0.19 per cent of the vote); no socialist party has ever established itself there (see Sombart). Although there were prominent socialists in France during the Revolution (see Babeuf) and during the uprising of 1848 (see Blanqui), the continuous history of socialist parties in France dates back only to 1905. The reason for the late development of socialist parties was the late enfranchisement of the working class, where their mass support has always lain. Hardly had socialist parties started to benefit from the widening of the franchise when they were split asunder by the First World War. Many of the leaders of the socialist movements in combatant countries continued to preach international socialism, but their followers deserted them. Only when the war was going very badly for all combatants did anti‐war socialism revive, in 1916–18. But this merely deepened the splits in the socialist movement, as many socialist parties were now in governing coalitions, sometimes as in Britain for the first time. The most successful socialist parties at this time were therefore those in Australia and New Zealand, which were less affected by the war. Between the wars the most successful socialist parties were in countries which escaped extreme depression and fascism, particularly in Scandinavia (see social democracy).
After 1945, socialist parties spread worldwide, as many of the anti‐colonial parties in the Third World were instinctively, or explicitly, socialist. Those where the socialist heritage ran deepest were perhaps Congress in India and the ANC in South Africa. In some other countries, ‘socialism’ was little more than a label for whatever the local anti‐colonial elite happened to want.
Some argue that socialist parties are in permanent decline. Among the reasons for saying so are the decline in the working class, however defined, as a proportion of the population, the increased difficulty of funding the welfare state, and the (apparently) increasing unpopularity of socialist ideology among mass electorates. But parties and politicians have a vital interest in their own survival, and rational socialist politicians are no less clever than rational politicians of other persuasions, so that they may be expected to adapt their appeals to suit changed conditions.