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Howard Zinn on:
Voice of the U.S. socialist movement

May 21, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

HOWARD ZINN is a veteran activist and the author of A People's History of the United States. He talked to ANTHONY ARNOVE about the socialist press at the turn of the 20th century.

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IT'S OFTEN said that socialism was something that happened "over there"--that it was alien to the United States. But at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a socialist challenge that had real roots throughout the U.S. Could you talk about that?

IN THE early years of the 20th century, the ideas of socialism influenced millions of people in this country. There was a reason for this: the obvious harshness of the capitalist system; the terrible conditions in mines, mills, factories; the misery of the city slums, crowded with the great wave of immigrants that came to this country in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It was the "free market" at its most atrocious. Employers were free to control the workplace, setting wages and working conditions with no regulation at all. And the union movement had been dominated for a long time by the American Federation of Labor craft unions, which didn't organize the vast majority of unskilled and semiskilled workers.

In this situation, the socialist movement grew. It had over 100,000 members at one point and elected more than 1,000 people to local offices all over the country. The socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason had half a million subscribers, and there were many other socialist newspapers around the country.

To give an idea of how far the reach of socialism extended, the Socialist Party in the state of Oklahoma in 1914 had 12,000 members--more than in New York state--and it elected over 100 socialists to local office, including six members of the Oklahoma state legislature. When Eugene Debs ran for president as the Socialist Party candidate, he got a million votes.

Consider that the population of the country at that time was probably 40 percent of what it is now, and that 50 percent of the population--women--couldn't vote. So in today's terms, Debs would be receiving perhaps 5 million votes.

DEBS AND others talked about how they became socialists, first and foremost, because of their participation in the struggles of labor. Was this a common experience?

MANY SOCIALISTS came out of the labor struggles of that era, because socialists were active in organizing working people in the garment districts of New York, the textile mills of New England, where they helped thousands of women immigrants win the great strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and other parts of the country.

WITH THE rise of the socialist movement came the rise of publications, including socialist newspapers, to communicate the different point of view. Can you describe the early socialist press?

THE SOCIALIST press--including newspapers like the Appeal to Reason and others, carried stories of resistance to employers, of the electoral victories of socialists, as well as theoretical pieces critical of capitalism and putting forth the ideas of socialism. The International Socialist Review was a monthly magazine that reported on the labor struggles of those years before the First World War.

People like Debs, Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, John Reed and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn often wrote for socialist publications. The Masses was another magazine of the time. It featured wonderful cartoonists and writers like Randolph Bourne, Lincoln Steffens and Max Eastman.

WHAT IS the importance of newspapers like these--and like Socialist Worker--in presenting an alternative to the corporate media?

LEFT-WING wing publications, whether the Socialist Worker or other newspapers put out by radical organizations, perform a function done by no other newspapers. They not only represent a point of view critical of the capitalist system, but they carry stories that simply don't appear in the mainstream press.

They will run stories about working people, about racist incidents, about the effects U.S. foreign policy on people abroad--that is, critiques of imperialist expansion--which otherwise would never reach the public.

"No country to fight for"

From "When I Shall Fight," by Eugene V. Debs, in Appeal to Reason newspaper, September 11, 1915.

"I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it. I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.

"Capitalists wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question, there can be no compromise and no misunderstanding as to my position. I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a gang of pot-bellied parasites.

"I am opposed to every war but one; I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades. There is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of war."

"I stand for the overthrow of the entire system"

From "Mother Jones in Alabama," by Mother Jones, in Appeal to Reason newspaper, October 24, 1908.

When I was in Alabama 13 years ago, they had no child labor law. Since then, they passed a lame one, so-called...When in Alabama 13 years ago, these women ran from four to five looms. Today, I find them running some 24 looms, and when you think of the high tension, when you think of the cruelty to their nerves, you may know why the glory of their lives is gone...

This is the Democratic south, my friends--this is a Democratic administration. This is what Mr. Bryan and Mr. Gompers want to uphold.

I stand for the overthrow of the entire system that murders childhood. I stand for the overthrow of a system that can give $6,000 jobs to labor leaders who have betrayed these infants in their infancy. I stand for the teachings of Christ put into practice, not the teachings of capitalism, and graft and murder.

I stand for the day when this rotten structure will totter of its own vileness. I stand for the day when the baby will live in God's fair land, enjoy its air, its food, its pleasures, when every mother will caress it warmly, when there will be no parasites, no slaves, when $2,000 won't be paid for a hat to cover the skull of the desirable citizen's daughter, when the child shall not be taxed for such diabolical infamy, when poodle dogs will not be caressed on the life blood of innocent childhood, when these children of Comer's hell-hole will live under God's heaven without any master to rob them of their lives.

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