Magazine article The American Prospect

Discovering a Better Left

Magazine article The American Prospect

Discovering a Better Left

Article excerpt

About 40 years ago, I read a book by the historian-activist James Weinstein, and my political outlook changed utterly, and for good. Its title, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, doesn't sound like a catalyst of hope, much less of personal transformation. But at the time, I was recovering from a feverish romance with revolution. Weinstein's book was precisely what a recent refugee from the Che-adoring, Maoquoting, Weathermanic archipelago badly needed.

Weinstein revealed that, for two delicious decades, the peaceful and radical democrats of the Socialist Party had been a force to be reckoned with in American life. From 1901 to 1920, there were 323 Socialist newspapers with a combined readership in the millions. In hundreds of cities and towns, the SP elected mayors, councilmen, and tax assessors. Its members led such major unions as the Mine Workers, the Machinists, and the Ladies' Garment Workers. It was a revelation to learn that Socialists had once gained a plurality of votes in such hamlets as St. Mary's, Ohio; Antlers, Oklahoma; and Grand Junction, Colorado, and that the Rebel, published in Hallettsville, Texas, could sustain a weekly circulation of 25,000, larger than the population of the entire town. Clearly, unlike the left I belonged to, this was a movement rooted in the American heartland.

Weinstein acknowledged that the SP never approached the size of its counterparts in Europe. But its ranks were adorned with notable thinkers and artists as well as dirt farmers and factory workers. At various times, its card-carrying members included Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, Jack London, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Helen Keller, Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan, Clarence Darrow--and Charlie Chaplin.

The prime goad for all these Americans was the outrageous gap between wage-earners and the wealthy in a swiftly industrializing nation. Margaret Sanger's baptism by class-conscious fire occurred during a 1912 strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In early February of that year, she helped guide a group of strikers' children away from the violence and privation of their mill town to temporary sanctuary in New York City. Sanger was shocked to discover that only four of her 119 young charges wore underpants. "It was the most bitter weather," she testified to a congressional committee, "we had to run all the way from the [union] hall to the station in order to keep warm. …

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