More than 120 years ago, in Greensburg, Indiana, a socialist publisher named Julius Augustus Wayland founded a journal called The Coming Nation. Wayland moved to Girard, Kansas in 1895 and started another socialist weekly called Appeal to Reason. These long-forgotten publications became the mouthpiece for the socialist movement in the early-20th century Midwest; a movement that could have changed America forever. But it didn’t.
At its height, Appeal to Reason had a total circulation of up to 4.1 million copies. By 1912, the Socialist Party of America had 118,000 official members, including high-profile celebrities like Jack London and Helen Keller. They were particularly strong in the Midwest, where Hoosier powerhouse Eugene V. Debs tirelessly organized worker strikes for decades. Debs, who frequently wrote for Appeal to Reason, ran for president four times, and in 1912 managed to get 6% of the popular vote. The socialists helped shove the major parties to the left; both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made anti-big-business rhetoric a defining feature of their presidential campaigns.
The anti-corporatism of Roosevelt and Wilson did America little good in the long run. Just a few election cycles later, Calvin Coolidge proclaimed that “the chief business of the American people is business.” A hundred years later, nearly half of all union voters gleefully cast ballots for a New York grifter who promised to lower taxes on the rich and take health care from the poor. In nearly every other country in the world, an enduring, influential political party emerged from the organized labor movements of the 20th century. Today, the largest American socialist organization has only 86,000 members. What happened here?
The question of why there is no socialist political party to speak of in the United States is one that has been asked by social scientists and legal scholars over the last 200 years. There’s still no definitive answer. At least one academic, Robert Tuttle, puts the blame squarely on the socialist newspapers of the Midwest. To Tuttle, although Appeal to Reason “excelled at sensationalism and did not worry about being moderate in its language,” its tepid calls to action pissed on the fire of American socialism at a time when radicalism might have kept it alight. As Tuttle puts it, “In order to win votes from the middle class, right-wing Socialists repeatedly diluted their party’s program . . . This diluted brand of socialism did not appeal to the middle class, and it alienated the working class.”
In looking over old issues of Appeal to Reason, one can see Tuttle’s point. A January 6, 1900, edition says: “The way to build up the unions is to show the power of your unions, and in no way can you do that so thoroughly as to show it by your votes.” This is in keeping with the general tone of the publication for its entire run; it is obsessed with voting. There are few calls to strike, and none at all for anything considered more militant. It stood in stark contrast to the radicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World and other leftist unions of the time.
But then, as now, readers asked: Why vote for a third party when you know you’re going to lose? As Tuttle writes, “The Socialist Party failed to recognize that in order to have major electoral success, it had to offer a distinct alternative. It might have been more successful if it had kept more radical demands and tried to establish itself as the worker’s party. . . it instead offered a diluted brand of socialism which appealed to neither the working or middle class. By 1912, the Socialist Party was more interested in obtaining votes than in changing American society.” Most potential socialists were absorbed by Teddy Roosevelt’s progressives, and later by FDR’s New Deal Democrats. The few who were too far left to be absorbed were chased into hiding, jailed or worse.
It seems a bit much to lay the failure of American socialism at Wayland’s feet, though. By the time he died, the alarms of capital had already been sounded. Debs got almost a million votes for President in 1920, but he got them while he was in prison for sedition. The Coming Nation’s more militant northeastern cousin, The Masses, was shut down by authorities a number of times. After World War I, thousands of suspected leftists were arrested and held without trial; hundreds were deported to Russia. By the time my generation went to school, people like Debs and Wayland were erased from history books altogether, along with the IWW itself and all the worker uprisings of the 20th century.
Still, it hurts to think of what might have been, especially when Wayland’s publications came so close to getting it right. Wayland wrote: “When you do as the laboring people in many European countries have, you will find all the political parties in this country willing to serve you, they will make such laws as you wish and will enforce them. That is what labor unions in New Zealand have done there in five years.” But what the “laboring people” in early-20th century New Zealand did wasn’t simply voting; it was a combination of striking, agitation and aggressive organizing. The New Zealand Labour Party was officially formed in 1916 — about the same time the wheels were falling off the Socialist Party of America. New Zealand Labour, which today proudly describes itself as democratic socialist, has brought about some of the most progressive reforms in history. Meanwhile, here lies America, the wealthiest country in the world, with an enormous unemployment rate, half a million medical bankruptcies per year, two million people locked up, and $2 trillion of student debt. It’s safe to say we might have done better.
Appeal to Reason and The Coming Nation spoke to workers at a time when they needed a rallying cry; they just didn’t say the right things. Julius Wayland was not a risk-taker. He was of a conservative brand of socialist who thought capitalism should not be overthrown, but eased out the door using the processes already in place in early-20th century America. He seems to have genuinely believed that American democratic institutions, themselves products of classist, racist, imperialist capitalism, could somehow be gently harnessed and turned in favor of the socialists. Wayland and subsequent editors kept right on squeezing the same old lemons, hoping they would eventually produce not just lemonade, but a lemon drop martini with a sugar rim.
Ours is a system that stamps out radicalism, and thereby stamps out progress, by design. With the benefit of a century’s worth of hindsight, I’d like to think we’ve learned it can’t be changed by crossing our fingers and hoping for success on Election Day. I’m not sure we have.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.