The appeal for socialism

July 19, 2012

Jason Netek remembers one of the most important socialist papers of its time.

APPEAL TO Reason was the most important newspaper in the early days of American socialism. Founded and published by Julius Augustus Wayland in 1895, the paper supported first the People's Party, and then the Socialist Party of America, from its founding in 1901 until the paper's closing in 1922.

By the time he founded the Appeal, Wayland was something of a veteran socialist, having previously published the popular Colorado-based The Coming Nation and participated in the formation of a Tennessee cooperative settlement known as the Ruskin Colony. After leaving the colony, Wayland moved to Missouri and then to Girard, Kansas, which would be the home base for the Appeal.

Like the majority of the socialist press during this period, the Appeal was owned by Wayland himself and never had any formal attachment to the political organization it supported.

For the paper's first few years, Wayland was determined to keep its pages free from the advertisements that both propped up and diluted the integrity of other newspapers. He considered it a matter of principle that a paper opposing capitalism be free of any of the trappings of the system. This same commitment led him to keep the annual subscription rate at 50 cents, in order to ensure that working class readers could always afford their own paper.

The socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason
The socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason

These desires ran up against rising printing and mailing costs. Either the paper needed to generate revenue beyond subscriptions or the price would have to rise. Wayland eventually decided that allowing a bit of advertising space was preferable to raising the price. After all, what was a socialist newspaper without a working class audience?

The added revenue allowed for the expansion of the paper from four to 12 pages and the addition of a managing editor--Fred Warren. In order to better boost sales, the paper offered prizes for readers who sold the most subscriptions.

Circulation climbed rapidly. At its height, the Appeal had a subscription base of 760,000. Whatever shortcomings it had, the Appeal quickly became the best-known publication for socialism that the U.S. has ever had.

While contributing to his paper through countless editorials, Wayland saw himself primarily as popularizer of socialism. The appeal of the Appeal was its ability to give a forum to speak out to the multitude of working class readers turned correspondents--as well as to attract the more famous socialist authors and agitators of the time. Among the paper's correspondents were Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mother Jones and Eugene V. Debs.

The Appeal first made Upton Sinclair famous. In 1905, Warren approached the novelist with the idea of shedding light on the appalling working conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants. Sinclair was to work incognito, gathering information. The result was a series in the Appeal called "The Jungle," which modern readers may know as one of the most widely read works of American literature. The public response to this firsthand exposé of the meatpacking industry is often credited for being the impulse for the passage of regulatory legislation such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

LIKE ANY good socialist newspaper, the Appeal was more than just a source of information for the public. By bringing together a network of thousands of activist correspondents, the paper served as a forum for debate within the movement and a tool for propagating the message of socialism.

The astounding level of circulation was due primarily to the volunteer "Appeal Army" made of up supporters of the paper who helped sell subscriptions and individual papers to their peers. Readers formed Appeal Study Clubs to discuss the editorials in each issue. The Appeal Lecture Bureau organized speaking tours for staff writers. The price of admission to an event was a subscription to the paper.

Wayland's philosophy regarding the paper was similar to the general attitude of American socialists at this time: "If we could put a socialist paper every week into the hands of every voter in the United States, we could capture the government." For Wayland, the paper was not meant to push a general line of an organization, nor to train party militants as agitators, but merely to convince working people to abandon the pro-capitalist parties for socialism.

This limited approach was not unique to the Appeal but rather reflected the whole of the movement. The Socialist Party never had a single newspaper to push its political line, but the party also didn't have a unified line, either. Members had hundreds of papers to choose from--all were privately owned, and the perspective of the paper was in the hands of the owner.

Thanks to its grassroots method of circulation and its sympathetic coverage of the major labor battles of the era, the Appeal was in many ways the unofficial voice of the Socialist Party's left wing. Wayland considered himself a revolutionary and intentionally placed himself on the front lines in the fight against capitalism. For this, he earned the scorn of the establishment and its press.

The Appeal received harsh criticism from the mainstream papers of the day for its typically contrary position on political issues. Under constant government scrutiny for its radicalism, the Appeal's offices were broken into on a number of occasions in attempts to find evidence of illegal activity, or else to merely disrupt the work of the staff. Wayland himself survived an assassination attempt, thanks only to the gun misfiring.

Wayland was prone to severe depression, and the campaign by the establishment to disrupt the work of the Appeal proved too much. He took his own life in November 1912. The ownership of the paper was transferred to his son, Walter, who in turn sold the publishing rights to the paper's editor, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. In 1917, the paper was rechristened the New Appeal; a patriotic journal which supported the U.S. government's participation in the First World War.

This was the end of the Appeal to Reason, though the paper continued publishing for several more years.

But during Wayland's life, the Appeal had been responsible for bringing the message of socialism to an immense number of people. Its editorials blasted the capitalist class and told the stories of the heroes of the labor movement. Whatever the limits of its approach as a means of building a more cohesive socialist party, the Appeal and its founder are an important part of the history of American socialism.

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