American Socialism, Strongest West of the Mississippi

Debs 1912 county results“Before the World War, American socialism was diffuse geographically as well as in its tendencies. Until 1918 the greatest relative voting strength of the movement lay west of the Mississippi River, in the states where mining, lumbering, and tenant farming prevailed. New York, since 1917 the bastion of socialism in the United States, placed 29th and 24th in the percentage of Socialist votes in 1912 and 1916. Even in New York, the Party’s greatest strength was upstate. Until 1917, Schenectady was the Socialist stronghold, electing the Reverend George R. Lunn as mayor in 1911 and 1915, and sending a Socialist to the state assembly in 1911. The states with the greatest percentages of Socialist voters in the prewar years were Oklahoma, Nevada, Montana, Washington, California, Idaho, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Texas. In that order, all appeared among the top dozen states in the presidential elections of both 1912 and 1916. Oklahoma had the largest and most complete organization: 12,000 Party members in 961 locals, 38,000 subscribers to the Appeal to Reason, 53,000 Socialist voters in the state in 1914. In that year, five Socialists were elected to the Oklahoma assembly and one to the state senate, along with more than 130 Socialist county and township officers.


“In 1911, four years after statehood, Oklahomans adopted their first flag. Flying above our State Capitol was a bright red plane emblazoned with a single, centered, white star, emblematic of leftist flags flown first in 18th century France and contemporary to those of Russia and China during the Communist Revolution.”Derek Dyson

“In other Western states, Socialists were less organized, but they more than held their own in relation to the East. From 1910 to 1918, the majority of Socialist state legislators were elected in Kansas, Nevada, Montana, California, Minnesota, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin.

“As in other American political parties, the geographic distribution of the membership of the Socialist Party corresponded to its political variations. The basic strength of [Big Bill] Haywood and the Syndicalists came from timber workers in the Northwest, in upper Michigan and Minnesota, and from dissident groups in the Western Federation of Miners, spread out from Arizona to Butte, Montana. The former Populist tenant farmers, as has been noted had their greatest impact on the Socialist movements in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, with some influence in Washington, Missouri, and North Dakota. The Christian Socialists seem to have had most of their following in Illinois, Iowa, Utah, Northern California, and upstate New York. On the other hand, the ‘constructive’ Socialists, the followers of [Victor] Berger and [Morris] Hillquit, were strongest in the larger cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, where success was more dependent upon stable organization and good working relations with the central councils of the AFL than it was in many of the smaller cities and towns where Socialists were active.

“Geographical diversity contributed to the polarity in the minds of contemporary Socialists between ‘revolutionists’ and ‘constructivists.’ But even here different self-images did not always mean different attitudes toward organization or program. Those who succeeded in building a stable electoral base, as did the Milwaukee Socialists under Victor Berger’s leadership, the New Yorkers who followed Hillquit, and the left wingers in Texas and Oklahoma, given direction by Tom Hickey, E. R. Meitzen and others, emphasized programs of immediate relevance to their constituents and concentrated on precinct organization. Those with less stable constituents (among migratory workers or immigrant women and children in the textile industry) often deprecated ‘practical’ programs and emphasized apocalyptic, or ‘revolutionary’ appeals. Yet the ‘revolutionists’ made practical demands: higher wages, shorter hours of work, improved conditions — in short, those related directly to job conditions and directed against the employer. The ‘constructive’ demands tended to be more political in that they were made against the state: maximum legal interest rates; state grain elevators; municipal ice, electric, and water plans. There was nothing incompatible in these two sets of demands, and in some places both were made; but since different constituencies were often involved, there was competition within the Party over which should be emphasized.


Eugene ‘Gene’ V. Debs

“These differences were exacerbated by the parochial character of most Party leaders. Eugene V. Debs, because of the range of his experience, was the only truly national leader the Socialist Party ever developed. He was almost equally popular among railroad workers spread out along the network of repair and maintenance shops in the Midwest and Southwest, among coal and metal miners, Christian Socialists, ex-Populists, IWW Socialists, and even among the brewery workers and garment workers who formed the backbone of Berger’s support in Milwaukee and Hillquit’s in New York. But since Debs evidenced little interest in the organizational affairs of the Party, and since neither the Christian Socialists nor the ex-Populists were capable of winning national office, control of the Party organization fell into the hands of Berger, Hillquit, and their supporters.” — James Weinstein, “Attitudes and Activities, 1912-1917,” The Decline of American Socialism in America: 1912-1925.


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