A Brief History of American Socialism

“Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.”

– Congressman Harold Velde of Illinois (1950), speaking to Congress in opposition to library services in rural areas (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)

 

The United States has a rich socialist tradition. It is an integral part of our history and saturates our modern culture. Each morning millions of schoolchildren rise from their desks, place hands over their hearts, and recite a Pledge of Allegiance written in 1892 by socialist Francis Bellamy, a New York pastor.

Many American children learn and love the popular song “This Land is Your Land” by socialist Woody Guthrie. One of the verses:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Millions of tourists flock to New York each year to see the Statue of Liberty, which is engraved with a poem, “The New Colossus,” written by radical Emma Lazarus. It ends:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Famous figures like Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, Malcolm X, Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, and W.E.B. Du Bois called themselves socialists. Others, such as Mark Twain and Thomas Paine, espoused socialistic ideas without labeling themselves (the latter existed before the term). People like Francois Fourier and Robert Owen established socialist towns across the nation. One community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson (see Nichols, The S Word).

Before the Red Scare and McCarthyism swept the United States during the Cold War, socialism was not a widely vilified political ideology. Major individuals and organizations publicly espoused it, from the Congress of Industrial Organization to American churches (launching the Christian Socialist movement; as Marx wrote, “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge”).[1] The Scare has not yet passed, still gripping the older generation and conservatives, typically perpetuated by misinformation and fear-mongering. It has, however, begun to weaken, particularly due to Bernie Sanders and a surge in interest from a younger generation.

Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that American socialism fueled the progressive movement and broadened freedom for all citizens. Throughout our history, many of the loudest demands for black rights, women’s rights, worker rights, and peace came from socialists, communists, anarchists, and other elements of the radical left.

Consider first the labor movement. Radicals were instrumental in leading the charge against starvation wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, 12-16 hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, fines for tardiness, and so on in the 19th century and beyond. Solidarity was their battle cry. Troublemaking was their tactic: organizing, petitioning, striking, protesting, boycotting, picketing, sitting in, rioting. Socialist heroes like “Big Bill” Haywood and Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor helped win us the workplace rights we take for granted today.

Of course, worker strikes occurred in the 18th century—that is, before the socialist movement. Americans already had a keen understanding of how capitalism functioned. Shoemakers with socialistic ideas declared in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1844, four years before The Communist Manifesto:

The division of society into the producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to [a] distinction—that of capital and labor… Labor now becomes commodity… Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labor stand opposed.[2]

In 1860, Lynn participated in the largest strike in American history up to that point. 20,000 shoemakers went on strike in 25 towns throughout New England. The ideas that are the foundation of socialism—that the interests of owners and workers are not the same, that the capitalist few are a “non-producing” class growing wealthy off the labor of the many, the workers, the “producing class”—were already held true by American workers. They knew it from their own experiences. Thus socialism became fairly popular in the United States.

The quest for democratic, worker control of workplaces has also been underway for a long time. In the first recorded strike of U.S. workers, 20 tailors in 1768 left their employer and formed a cooperative. The Knights of Labor helped launch nearly 200 worker cooperatives by 1886, across the country and across various industries. “The Knights thrived for a decade but were eventually crushed by big businesses, which rallied to stamp out this new and disturbing breed of competition, refusing to ship goods made by cooperatives, sell machinery and materials to them, or issue them bank loans.” Still, the movement persisted, seeing a resurgence as African Americans sought economic independence (in 1907 there were 156 co-ops founded by African Americans), during the Great Depression, and in the revolutionary times of 1960s and 1970s.[3] Today there are still worker cooperatives across the country.[4]

In the spring of 1886, 200,000 Americans rose up in rebellion. American socialists organized and led labor unions and the Knights of Labor in a massive nationwide strike to push for an 8-hour workday, declaring a May 1st deadline for corporate power to yield. Violence sparked between protesters and police, and when a bomb went off in Haymarket Square in Chicago, the authorities hunted down and arrested the leaders of the strike. After a sham of a trial, four socialists were executed. May Day, International Workers Day, commemorates this event.

Strikes only grew larger. In the fall of 1934, 421,000 textile workers across the nation went on strike for better working conditions. During World War II, there were 14,000 strikes involving nearly 7 million people.[5] Still today, the labor movement (Fight for $15, Occupy Wall Street, and so on) is often organized, led, and strengthened by Marxists.

The history of American socialism is also a revolution against slavery, racial hatred, discrimination, and segregation. For example, the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in a schoolroom in Ripon, Wisconsin (a former utopian socialist community) on March 20, 1854 by radical Alvan Bovay and 16 other socialists.[6] Many socialists, the most prominent being Karl Marx, condemned black slavery and were elated when Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1861.

Abraham Lincoln, while no socialist, had his sympathies in the right place. As John Nichols points out in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, Lincoln was close to socialist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley, befriended and allied himself with radicals who fled after failed revolutions in Europe in 1848 (some of them friends of Marx), appointed one socialist as his assistant secretary of war and another his ambassador to Spain, and even cordially corresponded with Marx about the American Civil War.[7] Lincoln said in his 1861 State of the Union Address:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them…[8]

Later, the labor movement sparked an interracial push for equality for blacks in many workplaces and leftist groups. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, poor blacks and whites often came together to strike for better wages, working conditions, and equal treatment. There were thousands of strikes in cities across the nation each year, and within them were sparks of progress. Blacks and whites were fighting the same battle, as losing limbs or dying on the job, dire poverty, and starvation were realities for millions of workers in Industrial America. Many realized their true conflict was not race but class.

Workers of all colors saw their employers grow rich, but were themselves given barely enough to stay alive, even though it was the workers themselves who created the wealth by creating the good or providing the service. And thus many unions and organizations integrated, like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, both of which welcomed blacks, women, Asians, and immigrants. Many of such institutions’ founders, leaders, and members, the lifeblood of the labor movement, were socialists, who called for “equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race”[9] (to quote an 1883 congress in Pittsburgh). One union, the American Workers League, was formed as an interracial organization in 1853.[10] The American Federation of Labor opened its doors to black members in 1929.[11] At its height the Communist Party had 80,000 members, 9% of them black.[12] In an America where blacks were drinking from separate water fountains and being tortured and executed at neighborhood picnics, small pockets of socialists across the country were building a more tolerant society.

Many socialists understood the relationship between race and class. Racism was used to justify further oppression and wage theft by the capitalist class. Just as emancipation would mean the end of free labor for slave-owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and others. In Communism and the Negro (1933), New Yorker Max Shachtman (head of the Worker’s Party) wrote:

The ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority…it affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a nigger.”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a nigger” who suffers.[13]

Shachtman declared, “White workers [must] become the most uncompromising champions of the Negro.”[14]

Now, this is certainly not to say all leftist unions and all socialists were pro-civil rights or accepted blacks as equals. Racism within their ranks stalled progress, to be sure. There was often intense racial hostility in the competition for work. Corporations often responded to strikes by hiring unemployed blacks to replace white strikers, since they could pay them dismal wages with less threat of resistance—the racial tension and violence this created damaged the prospects of interracial organizing. And racism served capitalists a second way: it discouraged workers of different colors from uniting and unionizing to push for higher wages or shorter workweeks. However, many saw the closing line of The Communist Manifesto (“Working men of all countries, unite!”) as a call for racial equality in the fight for class equality. It is telling, also, that the Communist Party of the United States ran a black man, James W. Ford, for the vice presidency in 1932—to put that in perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr. was three.

Socialist, civil rights leader, and labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph once said, “The Socialist Party was the only party that had a philosophy that took account of the race problem and whose economic analysis addressed itself to the solution of the Negro’s problems.”[15] W.E.B. du Bois said in 1908 that “the only party today which treats Negroes as men, North and South, are the Socialists,”[16] and fifty years later, “It is clear today that the salvation of American Negroes lies in socialism.”[17]

Malcolm X later commented:

You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political Philosophy is socialism.[18]

Stokely Carmichael posited:

If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you’re anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.[19]

And Dr. King said:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.[20]

Moreover, he declared:

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values… We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.[21]

Still today, many of the most passionate anti-racists, such as those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, are also socialists.

While white and black socialists pushed for racial equality, socialist women were hard at work across the country battling for gender equality. Marxist women were integral to the labor, peace, and civil rights movements (in 1937, while men conducted a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, plants, women armed themselves and fought police to protect the strikers[22]), but they are more so responsible for the freeing of womankind (something not all socialist men were happy about). They published literature, organized, and protested. In the 1915 suffrage campaign in New York, they distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets in multiple languages, and held hundreds of meetings. Radical leftists like Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and Mother Mary Jones (who co-founded the IWW), led the charge for voting rights, property rights, sexual rights, education rights, employment rights. Like some African Americans, they understood that a capitalist system that kept economic and political power in the hands of a few rich white men impeded their human progress.

Charlotte P. Gilman of Connecticut wrote a poem called “The Socialist and the Suffragist”:

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“My cause is greater than yours!
You only work for a special class,
We for the gain of the general mass,
Which every good ensures!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You underrate my cause!
While women remain a subject class,
You never can move the general mass,
With your economic laws!”

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“You misinterpret facts!
There is no room for doubt or schism
In economic determinism—
It governs all our acts!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You men will always find
That this old world will never move
More swiftly in its ancient groove
While women stay behind.”

“A lifted world lifts women up,”
The Socialist explained.
“You cannot lift the world at all
While half of it is kept so small,”
The suffragist maintained.

The world awoke, and tartly spoke:
“Your work is all the same:
Work together or work apart,
Work, each of you, with all your heart—
Just get into the game!”

After 20,000 immigrant women garment workers organized and went on strike in New York City in 1909, they celebrated the first Women’s Day. A few years later, in 1917, women demonstrators in Soviet Russia helped topple a dictator, and March 8 became the day International Women’s Day would later be celebrated.[23] Many of the fiercest feminists and equality advocates in the modern era are of course radicals.

With their activity and leadership in the progressive freedom movements, socialists were quite popular, a force to be reckoned with. In the first decades of the 20th century, an estimated 1 million Americans read socialist newspapers. The Appeal to Reason, a socialist publication from Kansas, was one of the nation’s most widely read papers, with 790,000 subscribers.[24] The Socialist Party had nearly 120,000 members.[25] Socialist politicians served in 340 cities across the country, some 1,200 mayors, councilpersons, state congressmen, etc.[26] In 1910, Milwaukee became the first major city to elect a socialist mayor, Emil Seidel. The city had socialist mayors off and on for the next 50 years, popular because they rooted out corruption and improved public services like health care, education, and public housing. Victor Berger of Milwaukee became the first socialist U.S. Congressman in 1911 and served off and on until 1929; throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the two major parties in Wisconsin were the Republicans and the Socialists. Even the smaller Communist Party put men on the New York City Council. The first Communist mayor in America served Crosby, Minnesota in 1933.[27] Oklahoma had one of the strongest socialist movements, with 12,000 Socialist Party members, who joined other voters in giving over 100 socialists local political power in 1914.[28] Missouri had 135 Socialist Party locals.[29]

Socialist parties had significant influence over candidates and policies. Even decades later, when the Red Scare gripped America, people still favored socialist policies; Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle), in a letter to famous socialist Norman Thomas, remembered, “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it…running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000.”[30]

The most famous of all American socialist politicians was Eugene V. Debs of Indiana. He was the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1920, he garnered 6% of the national vote (nearly 1 million people), a percentage any modern third-party candidate would die for, and he did it from a prison cell.

Debs was jailed, like thousands of other Americans, many of them socialists, by the Wilson administration for opposing America’s involvement in World War I. In a 1918 speech, Debs had thundered, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” When the ruling class beat the drums of war, the loudest pleas for peace were often from socialists.

At his trial, Debs said, “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose it if I stood alone… I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.”

He was sentenced to 10 years, experiencing firsthand America’s sacred “freedom of speech” and its relevance during wartime. He was released early by President Harding, and died in 1926. Though not all radicals opposed the war (it in fact caused great division in the socialist movement), across the nation thousands of IWW members, unionists, laborers, socialists, and communists marched for peace, while the Department of Justice censored mail, raided meetings, broke into homes, and made arrests to root out these “disloyal” Americans. The government managed to destroy the IWW, but not the antiwar spirit. In Boston, for example, 8,000 marched on July 1, 1917, holding banners that read: “If this a popular war, why conscription? Who stole Panama? Who crushed Haiti? We demand peace.”[31]

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, American socialists and communists would continue to be at the forefront of peace movements during each and every war the United States entered. This continued into the 21st century.

 

Notes

[1] Communist Manifesto, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2762617?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[2] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 231

[3] http://inthesetimes.com/article/17061/a_co_op_state_of_mind

[4] https://usworker.coop/home/

[5] Zinn, People’s, 397, 417

[6] Nichols, The “S” Word, 58

[7] Nichols, 66, 73, 80

[8] Lincoln, 1861 State of the Union Address, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29502

[9] Zinn, People’s

[10] Nichols, 179

[11] Nichols, 179

[12] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[13] Schachtman, Communism and the Negro

[14] Schachtman

[15] Nichols, 187

[16] Manning Marable, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, https://books.google.com/books?id=aw4eCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT108&lpg=PT108&dq=w.e.b.+du+bois+%22north+and+south,+are+the+socialists%22&source=bl&ots=dxvYm4T2L1&sig=CG5ioeCDBdppiVc2c7mXhm1v5C0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjbsLWP9anSAhVM82MKHQhpAWsQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=w.e.b.%20du%20bois%20%22north%20and%20south%2C%20are%20the%20socialists&f=false

[17] W.E.B. du Bois, “The American Negro and Communism,” October 23, 1958, http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b206-i015/#page/1/mode/1up

[18] Malcolm X, Remarks at Militant Labor Forum Symposium, May 29, 1964

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug8RJyLoz0

[20] King, Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence, 1967

[21] http://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/King-quotes-2-page.pdf

[22] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[23] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[24] https://socialistworker.org/2012/07/19/the-appeal-for-socialism

[25] Howe, Socialism and America

[26] Zinn, 340

[27] Nichols, 132-133, 103-105

[28] Zinn, 340

[29] https://jacobinmag.com/2017/02/rise-and-fall-socialist-party-of-america/

[30] Letter to Norman Thomas (1951), Upton Sinclair, http://spartacus-educational.com/Jupton.htm

[31] Zinn, People’s

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