Discovering a Better Left

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, Mao-quoting, 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."

So what caused the decline and fall of the Socialist Party? In Weinstein's view, the main culprit was the rise of Bolshevism; it split the radical movement in 1919 and then stymied the reconstruction of a mass party rooted in the concerns of working-class Americans. Perhaps only an ex -- Communist like Weinstein could truly grasp the fatal appeal of Lenin's ideology. The decline of the SP began the left's long, fruitless romance with authoritarian revolutionaries abroad who created a new order in which "freedom," "democracy," and "workers' power" blared from official banners but vanished as lived realities.

I now think Weinstein was too sanguine about the potential for socialism -- even the SP's pacific, scrupulously democratic version -- to have a bright future in the United States. Most Americans were and are too enamored of the self-made man and woman and too skeptical about "big government" to sustain a mass movement that challenges the ethics of individualism and puts its faith in public enterprise.

But Jimmy Weinstein never gave up hope of reviving the vision of Eugene V. Debs and his comrades. In two subsequent books about the U.S. left and in the pages of the magazine In These Times, which he created and edited until his death in 2005, Weinstein labored to link the dream of a cooperative commonwealth with the exigencies of doing politics in the most thoroughly capitalist republic on earth. It remained a noble task, even if not enough Americans cared to listen.

Weinstein could claim another kind of victory, however. As a historian of and for the left, he pioneered in writing the kind of empathetic study of ordinary Americans that transformed the writing of history. Most in my trade now reject the kind of dry, doleful scholarship that, to quote Mr. Dooley -- the fictional Irish American bartender who delighted newspaper readers a century ago -- is like those physicians who "are always lookin' f'r symptoms" and making "a post-mortem examination." "It tells ye what a countrhy died iv," commented Mr. Dooley. "But I'd like to know what it lived iv."

With inspiration from Weinstein's book, I'm still trying to figure that out.

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