Our Great Historic Socialists

Today’s leftists have many admirable predecessors to learn from…

In today’s Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig has an article arguing that socialism should no longer be considered a dirty word. Socialists believe that “working Americans deserve a say in how the country’s vast wealth will be used,” and that “more than policy tweaks will be needed to empower everyday people to participate meaningfully in society and democracy.” Since these are sensible positions, she says, socialism is at the very least a reasonable political tendency. She is, of course, completely correct, and all of the common criticisms of contemporary democratic socialism are misleading, unfair, or outright false.

In explaining why it can be difficult to figure out what socialism means, Bruenig notes that “the United States doesn’t have a familiar, established socialist history to look to for guidance on what socialism might mean in this country.” It’s certainly true that the U.S. doesn’t have a “familiar” socialist history, since students generally aren’t taught much about American socialists in school. (Eugene Debs is usually mentioned, mostly as a curiosity.) And it’s true that in the U.S., unlike many European countries, there was never a socialist movement that had mass popular support. In England, for instance, the Labour Party founded by socialist Keir Hardie would become a dominant force in British politics for the entire 20th century and establish the modern social welfare state. In France, socialists took over Paris! (A few things also happened in Russia.) Nothing comparable occurred in America, hence the title question of Werner Sombart’s 1906 book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, a question followed up nearly a century later in the book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed In The United States

But I also think it’s worth remembering that even though socialism “failed” here, insofar as it never became the kind of political force it was in many European, Latin American, Asian, and African countries, we do have a socialist history, and a rather inspiring one! Delving into that history is a great way to find lessons for contemporary democratic socialists. And in some ways, the successes of American socialists have been underappreciated. As I’ve written before, the list of socialist mayors in the United States in the early 20th century is impressively long, and one reason the Socialist Party fizzled after about 1908 is that the other major political parties actually began co-opting the Socialist agenda. I recommend reading Ira Kipnis’ The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912, which talks a lot about where the socialists succeeded and where they didn’t. Many of the intra-socialist debates were the same ones we are having today: What does socialism really mean? Are particular reforms “socialist”? To what extent should socialists work within the existing political system? Unfortunately, they did not resolve those debates then, and the first thing to learn is that we need to do better this time around. 

The history of the American Socialist Party and the IWW are fascinating in their own right. (As well as the histories of socialist publications like The Masses and the Appeal to Reason.) But I’d like to single out a few historic American socialists who I find exemplary. We do have a grand left tradition in the United States, one carried forth from generation to generation by humane and committed activists. We should never forget their lives, struggles, and ideas.

Hubert Harrison

Hubert Harrison is one of my favorite forgotten Americans, period. Known as the “Black Socrates,” he was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, renowned for his dazzling streetcorner oratory and the seriousness of his intellect. Jeffrey B. Perry’s excellent biography of Harrison calls him the “voice of Harlem radicalism” and the book summary gives you a flavor of Harrison’s extraordinary life:

The foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician of the Socialist Party of New York, Harrison was also the founder of the “New Negro” movement, the editor of Negro World, and the principal radical influence on the Garvey movement. He was a highly praised journalist and critic (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer), a freethinker and early proponent of birth control, a supporter of Black writers and artists, a leading public intellectual, and a bibliophile who helped transform the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture. 

Harrison is particularly notable for the way he combined “race consciousness” with “class consciousness,” And while considered a “Harlem Renaissance” figure, he was critical of the entire concept, because he felt it diminished previous black achievements. As a brilliant atheist, socialist, anti-racist intellectual, Harrison is a standout figure in the history of the left who deserves to be given his due.

Helen Keller

Keller herself is, of course, well-remembered. But her radical socialist politics are still too frequently neglected. She was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a supporter of Debs, an anti-militarist feminist trade unionist who was staunchly committed to the rights of working people. If you read her socialist writings, it can actually be a little surprising to realize just how firm her conviction was. Here she is describing the IWW and why she supports it:

The creators of wealth are entitled to all they create. Thus they find themselves pitted against the whole profit-making system. They declare that there can be no compromise so long as the majority of the working class lives in want while the master class lives in luxury. They insist that there can be no peace until the workers organize as a class, take possession of the resources of the earth and the machinery of production and distribution and abolish the wage system.

I don’t remember hearing that when we watched The Miracle Worker in middle school! In her essay “How I Became A Socialist,” Keller says she is pleased that people seem so interested in her inspiring life story, particularly because it will help get the word “socialism” into more newspapers! (Ah, how she underestimated the power of the whitewashing machine!) She also amusingly recounted how the New York Times asked her to write an article, before immediately printing an editorial condemning the “contemptible red flag.” This would not do, Keller said:

I love the red flag and what it symbolizes to me and other Socialists. I have a red flag hanging in my study, and if I could I should gladly march with it past the office of the Times and let all the reporters and photographers make the most of the spectacle. According to the inclusive condemnation of the Times I have forfeited all right to respect and sympathy, and I am to be regarded with suspicion. Yet the editor of the Times wants me to write him an article!

Nor did Keller think much of the Brooklyn Eagle when they suggested that her left-wing politics were a product of her physical disabilities. Keller’s reply is so deliciously scathing that it’s worth quoting at length:

The Brooklyn Eagle says, apropos of me, and socialism, that Helen Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Some years ago I met a gentleman who was introduced to me as Mr. McKelway, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. It was after a meeting that we had in New York in behalf of the blind. At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. Surely it is his turn to blush… Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! What an ungallant bird it is! … The Eagle is willing to help us prevent misery provided, always provided, that we do not attack the industrial tyranny which supports it and stops its ears and clouds its vision. The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper. If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.

Mother Jones

I think if there is one thing we can say for certain about Mother Jones, it’s that she wouldn’t think much of the magazine that publishes under her name. She was certainly no liberal. (“I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser!”) She traveled across the country organizing strike after strike and motivating workers to resist the strike-breakers. She led a march of hundreds of child laborers, which ended up outside Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home, where she demanded to see the president to protest child labor. (She was refused.) She went to prison, was released, raised more hell, went to prison again, and then went to meet John D. Rockefeller, spending two hours telling him personally about the conditions in his mines and demanding he improve them. She was generous toward Rockefeller though: “Him raised in luxury, how could he know anything about real things? It isn’t his fault, though—the raising he got is the cause of it.” The woman who reminded laborers “You ain’t got a damn thing if you ain’t got a union!” was one of the most fearless, frank, uncompromising champions of working people in American history.

“I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.”  — Mother Jones

Peter Clark

Peter Clark is known as the first African American socialist. He was an active abolitionist in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and then afterwards became the first black school principal in the state of Ohio. He ran for office, ran a newspaper, taught black students, supported striking workers. He was once fired by the school he worked at after he taught students about the radical “atheist” thinking of Thomas Paine. Clark’s life is documented in Nikki Taylor’s America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. Here is an excerpt from a talk he gave on socialism in 1877: 

Many wise men, learned in political economy, assure us that their doctrines, faithfully followed, will result in a greater production of wealth and a more equal division of the same. But as I have said before, there is but one efficacious remedy proposed, and that is found in Socialism. The present industrial organization of society has been faithfully tried and has proven a failure. We get rid of the king, we get rid of the aristocracy, but the capitalist comes in their place, and in the industrial organization and guidance of society his little finger is heavier than their loins. Whatever Socialism may bring about, it can present nothing more anarchical than is found in Grafton, Baltimore and Pittsburgh today.  — Peter Clark

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is a legendary figure among social justice Catholics, organizing the Catholic Worker movement and advocating pacifism, economic equality, and civil rights from a Christian anarchist perspective. Arrested numerous times for her civil disobedience, Day often took Biblical teaching more seriously than the Church did. She was the kind of Christian who defers to the Sermon on the Mount rather than the prejudices of local priests and bishops, and as such has been long admired for her moral courage. Predictably, there have been attempts to sanitize her legacy and minimize her radicalism. The Catholic Crisis magazine has suggested she was a conservative, because she “lamented the encroachment of the state and the perils of the welfare system.” She did so, however, because she was an anarchist, and anyone who thinks these views imply a support for the principles of the contemporary Republican Party is unfamiliar with the basics of the libertarian socialist tradition. It’s true that her economics were not purely socialistic, but her words made clear how she felt about capitalism:

I am sure that God did not intend that there be so many poor. The class structure is of our making and our consent, not His. It is the way we have arranged it, and it is up to us to change it. So we are urging revolutionary change…. We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists ‘of conspiring to teach [us] to do,’ but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.

Rose Schneiderman

Today, Rose Schneiderman is best known for coining the leftist slogan “bread and roses,” saying in 1911 that “the woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too.” This simple phrase has inspired generations of leftists (it’s why the Democratic Socialists have a rose as their symbol), and for good reason. It expresses a truly important aspect of left philosophy: We can’t just push for “equality” or some base level of subsistence, we want people to actually live well. People don’t just deserve the bare minimum, they deserve to have comfort and luxury.

The description of Schneiderman from the Jewish Women’s Archive is vivid:

Only four feet nine inches tall, with flaming red hair, the diminutive Polish Jewish immigrant possessed legendary power as an orator. From 1904 through the 1950s, the militant trade unionist and women’s rights advocate spoke on street corners, soapboxes, lecture platforms, and over the radio, impressing even those who did not share her political views. In an age when political oratory was a leading form of entertainment, many contemporaries described her as the most moving speaker they had ever heard. Even her enemies evoked a sense of her emotional punch—dubbing her “the Red Rose of Anarchy.”

Every movement must strive for bread, but we could also use more Roses.

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson might have been the last of the true “Renaissance men.” In high school, he performed Shakespeare, sang in the chorus, and competed in football, basketball, baseball and track. He became the third-ever black student at Rutgers, where he joined the debate team and excelled at both academics and football. He was class valedictorian, went to Columbia Law School, played in the NFL, studied African languages at SOAS, and became a star of Broadway theater, renowned for both his acting talent and his incredible bass baritone singing voice. (His Old Man River is still legendary and widely played.) But Robeson was also a committed Communist, whose career was destroyed by McCarthyism. America embraced him when he sang musical numbers, and turned on him instantly when he wouldn’t disavow his radical socialist politics:

For a time he was the most famous and respected African American in the U.S., and probably the world. But after 1949, he was the most vilified American alive, blacklisted, spied on, and threatened by racist vigilante terror. His passport was stripped from him by the State Department because it was thought that his singing abroad (even in Canada and Hawaii) was a danger. A strong voice for labor rights, civil rights, and anti-colonialism was rather successfully contained.

Robeson felt true solidarity with the “workers of the world” and when he was in England in 1929 he encountered a march of striking Welsh miners. Robeson developed a bond with the Welsh that would last for years (it’s a great story), and was a devoted supporter of the miners:

He had remained with the protest until they stopped outside a city building, and then he leaped on to the stone steps to sing Ol’ Man River and a selection of spirituals chosen to entertain his new comrades but also because sorrow songs, with their blend of pain and hope, expressed emotions that he thought desperate men far from home might be feeling. Afterwards, he gave a donation so the miners could ride the train back to Wales, in a carriage crammed with clothing and food. That was how it began. Before the year was out, he’d contributed the proceeds of a concert to the Welsh miners’ relief fund; on his subsequent tour, he sang for the men and their families in Cardiff, Neath, and Aberdare, and visited the Talygarn miners’ rest home in Pontyclun.

Robeson was too sympathetic to Stalin, and uncritical of the Soviet Union generally (although it was a little bit understandable given his experience with the United States). Still, I have to admire a man so phenomenally talented, who could have had everything, and gave literally all of it up in the service of working class politics.

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their true culture destroyed… denied equal protection of the law, and deprived their rightful place in the respect of their fellows. — Paul Robeson

Listen to Paul Robeson sing the classic labor song “Joe Hill.”

A. Philip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph was always my favorite of the great Civil Rights Era heroes. I admired him because he was a man who worked tirelessly and effectively for decades, without seeking or receiving full credit for his contributions. He organized black train porters into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and under his leadership the union “ultimately receiv[ed] recognition from the Pullman Company in 1935 as well as nearly two million dollars in increased wages, a shorter work week, and overtime pay.” Then, in 1941, he successfully pressured Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate the armed services industry by threatening a mass March on Washington. After that, in 1946, he created the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, and managed to get Truman to desegregate the entire armed forces. To top off a life of achievement, when he was in his 70s, he was one of the main architects of the 1963 March on Washington. Few others in history have such a proud record of accomplishment.

I don’t ever remember a single day of hopelessness. I knew from the history of the labor movement, especially of the black people, that it was an undertaking of great trial. That, live or die, I had to stick with it, and we had to win. — A. Philip Randolph.

There are plenty of others we could meet. I’ve deliberately left off white men, since I have already talked about so many of them previously. But we could also talk about people like Jack London, Staughton Lynd, Alexander Berkman, Norman Thomas, Emma Goldman, Stokely CarmichaelBig Bill Haywood, Bayard Rustin, Ammon Hennacy, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Lucy Parsons. And then, of course, there’s the greatest anti-capitalist in American history, Martin Luther King himself, who told us:

Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

But I’m still not even beginning to convey the remarkable breadth and diversity of historical American socialism. That’s because I’m singling out particular well-known individuals. These people do not form the bulk of social movements, though. Social movements are mostly made up of anonymous, devoted ordinary people who work tirelessly to try to improve the lives of those around them. People like these IWW supporters:

These people accomplished so much. They brought us the eight-hour day. It’s them we have to thank for the existence of social insurance, workplace safety standards, and minimum wages. If you want to read about one of these “ordinary” lives, I recommend Matilda Rabinowitz’ Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman. Rabinowitz came here from Ukraine as a teenager in 1900, and went to work in a shirtwaist factory. She had a difficult life, but she did everything she could to further the cause of women’s equality and worker rights. She did the thankless work that doesn’t end up being written about; coordinating a kitchen to make food for striking workers, collecting money for their legal representation, running strike offices, and getting arrested plenty in the process. Matilda, and the hundreds of thousands of others like her, have bequeathed us both an example and a responsibility. The American socialist left has a great heritage. It is up to us to honor it and carry its mission forward.

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.

More In:

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs