Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America

By Jacob H. Dorn | Go to book overview
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too often been facile. Elements of religion in its Christian forms, however, did blend into the movement culture of American socialism, whether or not their functional meaning for socialists was exactly the same as for Christians. Some socialists, for example, described becoming socialists in terms similar to religious conversion testimonies. "How I Became a Socialist" accounts focused on experiences that caused disillusionment with capitalism and a defining period or occasion of decision. Charles Edward Russell later described becoming a socialist as fundamentally different from being a Republican or Democrat: It was "a motion of solemnity and port . . . like joining a church. One must have had experience in grace, one must show that one has come out from the tents of the wicked and capitalism." 138 When socialists called each other "comrade," they were suggesting a community or experience not unlike that of evangelicals who called each other "brother" and "sister."

As in churches, music was a vital part of socialist meetings of all shapes and sizes, from singing of the "Marseillaise" in New York City labor halls to the evangelical tunes with socialist words sung in Southwestern encampments, from the parodies of Protestant hymns composed by Ralph Chaplin and other poets in the Industrial Workers of the World to the sober uplift songs in CSF member Harvey Moyer's Songs of Socialism. 139 The socialist movement had its martyr heroes, some borrowed from past movements for human betterment, such as abolitionism, and some close at hand in its own history--including Eugene V. Debs, whom many saw as Christ-like. 140 It had Jesus himself, sometimes simple carpenter, sometimes revolutionary, but always a man of the people--the "Comrade Jesus" of Sara Cleghorn's poem in the Masses, who had "paid his dues" and carried his red card. 141

Moreover, as the biographies in this work show, the socialist message was itself religious for many party members and sympathizers. For them, this message judged the status quo by religious standards, appealed to religious motives, and promoted a more truly religious social order. "It has about it nothing new nor alarming," wrote Charles Edward Russell in the final sentence of a campaign autobiography, "and instead of being rejected by men, it should be welcomed; for the essence of its doctrine is merely the practical application of the doctrine of Jesus Christ." 142


NOTES
1.
"Program and Songs of the Third National Conference, Christian Socialist Fellowship,"28-31May 1908, Socialist Collections in the Tamiment Library, 1872- 1956, New York University; Christian Socialist 5 ( 1 June 1908): 3, and ( 15 June 1908): 1-3, 5.
2.
"Edwin Markham on Religion and the Social State," Arena 40 ( August-September 1908): 244-45. Though he was a valued supporter of the CSF for many years, Markham's religion was really humanism, as expressed in "The Muse of Brotherhood": "Our hope is in heroic men, Star-led to build the world again. To this Event the ages ran; Make way for Brotherhood--make way for Man." The CSF had no doctrinal test and welcomed those who, like Markham, revered Jesus.
3.
Harold W. Currie, "The Religious Views of Eugene V. Debs," Mid-America 54 ( July 1972): 147-56; "Debs in New York" and "Debs Addresses Fellowship," Appeal to Reason, 13 June 1908. Debs's presence and promotion for the Call undoubtedly enhanced the rally crowd, which included many Jews; Christian Socialist 5 ( 15 June 1908): 5. Several years

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