Three Radicals Remembered

Mark Pittenger

Three American Radicals:
John Swinton, Crusading Editor; Charles P. Steinmetz, Scientist and Socialist;
William Dean Howells and the Haymarket Era
By Sender Garlin
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

LABOR JOURNALIST Sender Garlin has chronicled the history of American labor and radicalism from the front lines since the end of World War I, when at age fifteen he began editing the Glens Falls Socialist Advocate in his upstate New York home town. Later a student of radical educator Scott Nearing at the Rand School of Social Science, and then a reporter, columnist and editor associated with the Western Worker and the Daily Worker, Garlin today heads the Social Issues Forum at the University of Colorado and lectures frequently on labor and political topics.

In Three American Radicals, Garlin restores to visibility some largely forgotten figures and dimensions of the radical past In the three essays that makeup this book, Garlin examines the lives of three highly successful, highly visible men who rose to public prominence during the turbulent years of capitalist expansion and class conflict between the Civil War and the 1920s. Each rejected the path of narrowly self-interested careerism and embraced the causes of labor and the left, often at some risk to the comfortable lifestyle that each had achieved. And for all the inconsistencies and gaps that we today may find in their thinkin& all three fit Garlin’s characterization of William Dean Howells as a person ‘of generous impulses, a believer in justice, a courageous man….(1)

These three figures will probably be unfamiliar to many readers, at least in the context of radical history. Howells (18371920) is of course remembered, but mainly as the paragon of “genteel” literary realism who insisted that the American writer should stress “the more smiling aspects” of the national life. Some will recall the socialist electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923) from the portrait limned by novelist John Dos Passos in The 42nd Parallel (1930).(2) Steinmetz’s genius was fruitfully applied to lining the pockets of General Electric stockholders for some thirty years, and it is primarily in this connection that present-day residents of Schenectady, New York know of him.

John Swinton (1829-1901), probably the least-remembered of the three, wrote for the New York Times, the Sun and the Tribune, but poured his political passions and financial resources into the labor oriented John Swinton’s Paper (1883-1887) and into speaking and agitating widely for the cause of labor.

The Meaning of Their Lives

Sender Garlin tells three important but little-known stories here: of Howells’ courageous advocacy for the lives of the convicted and doomed Haymarket anarchists; of Steinmetz’s socialist activism in Schenectady and his efforts to help the fledgling Soviet Union’s electrification program; and of Swinton’s labor activism and association with Karl Marx.

Among the striking qualities shared by these men and helpfully underscored by Garlin was their intellectual breadth and ambition. Swinton and Howells, like many other reformers and radicals including Henry George and the socialist journalist Julius A. Wayland, began as journeyman printers. They educated themselves while plying their trade around the country, soaking up experiences and seething with a growing anger at what they came to see as the crimes of a predatory economic order.

Swinton and Howells emerge in the book as slightly more upscale versions of those intellectually-curious, self-educated workers who provided much of the leadership for the nascent labor and radical movements of the Gilded Age and the early twentieth century. Swinton’s formative influences ranged from Emerson and Carlyle to Marx, and he also wrote for the New York Times on science—including a perceptive piece on Darwin’s impact on scientific thought—while the young Howells leaned more to the likes of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Heine, gradually developing the view that literary realism was inherently a democratic and reforming force.

The cosmopolitan Steinmetz was educated in Germany but forced into exile by Bismarck’s anti-socialist law just before he would have received his Ph.D. A devotee of Homer, Goethe and Twain as well as of Marx, he resembled Swinton and Howells in his robust devotion to broad-ranging inquiry.

The observation by Steinmetz’s foster grandson that “he could discuss anything” (83) was equally true of the other two main figures in this book All three were exemplars for a largely auto-didactic radical culture that was intellectually eclectic and adventurous, steeped in existing traditions of thought and culture but determined to transcend their limitations.

Chronicling a Radical Publicist

Among the pleasures of Garlin’s volume are the brief excerpts from Swinton’s writings that attest to his journalistic powers. Thus Swinton lauded John Brown for “establishing human rights by the weapons that upheld public wrongs” (6), and castigated the “editorial funks and intellectual policemen” of his own profession for dismissing the unemployed victims of municipal clubbings as “Communists in league with the coming earthquake” (12).

Garlin illuminates Swinton’s unusually advanced views on women’s rights and his acuteand sympathetic analysis of the manipulation of African-American strikebreakers in labor disputes. But Garfin is not in the canonization business and does not soft-pedal Swinton’s racist attacks on Chinese immigrant workers, whose inferior blood threatened white Americans with debilitating “mongrelization” (28).

Effectively setting Swinton in the political and cultural contexts of his day, Garlin establishes through contemporary testimonials the importance of John Swinton’s Paper, depicts Swinton’s role as a labor spokesperson at meetings and demonstrations, and draws out his connections to figures such as Howells, Walt Whitman, Wendell Phillips and Eugene Debs. He also includes in an appendix the text of Swinton’s 1880 interview with Karl Marx.

Swinton’s story suggests an important line of continuity from the abolitionist agitation of the 1850s to the era of Debs. Dying in the year of the Socialist Party’s birth, this acerbic critic of the journalistic profession—”I am paid $150 a week for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with” (31)—did not live to see the flowering during the Progressive Era of the vigorous radical press whose coming his own paper heralded.

A Scientist and Socialist

The Charles Steinmetz who emerges in this book was a rather different figure from Dos Passos’ congenital cripple who bore the “top heavy weight of society’ on his “broken back “(3) Garlin’s Steinmetz was a happy and engaging participant in scientific work and public life for three decades, until his death in 1923.

A man whose concerns seem strikingly contemporary, Steinmetz advocated social security, solar energy, the non-polluting electric automobile and the four-hour workday. His communications with Lenin and public support for the Russian Revolution are chronicled here, as is his sense of humor, the scientist proudly displayed a signed photograph of Lenin on the wall of the laboratory GE built for him, pointing it out “to both sympathetic and unsympathetic visitors” alike (71).

Garlin’s discussion of the role Steinmetz played in socialist city politics.—he served for several years on the Schenectady Common Council and the Board of Education, and spearheaded major reforms in the school system—.offersa view of the fruits of prewar municipal socialism strikingly different from Walter Lippmann’s peremptory dismissal in his Preface to Politics (1913).

The decidedly peculiar relations between the socialist scientist and his corporate employer are provocatively sketched. if Sinclair Lewis gave us in Arrowsmith (1925) an enduring portrait of the research scientist as impassioned but austere and isolated truth-seeker, worshipping an ideal of knowledge accessible only to the anointed few and icily unconcerned with the common lot of the rest of humanity, Garlin offers us in Charles Steinmetz an alternative image of the scientist as contented creature of the corporation and good socialist citizen.

The Forgotten Crusader

William Dean Howells is the figure in this book most desperately in need of a historical rescue operation, If Steinmetz and Swinton are largely forgotten, Howells has long been consigned to the purgatory of late-Victorian literary gentility. Garlin details Howells’ anguished efforts on behalf of the movement to stave off the executions of the Haymarket anarchists, who he was certain were the victims of a monstrous justice, “their frantic opinions” notwithstanding (110).

For the reader who balks at the imposing bulk of the two main Haymarket histories,(4) this section of the book offers a good brief introduction to those events, to the convicted anarchists themselves—. excerpts from their prison letters are particularly effective in conveying the flavor of their ideas and personalities—and especially to the virulent public reactions by the press and by many politicians and intellectuals.

Howells showed courage in departing from the safer path of such avatars of gentility as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harper’s editor George W. Curtis, both of whom refused Howells’ pleas to join him in calling publicly fora new trial. In a red scare atmosphere that cowed many liberals, Howells took a stand for which he reaped a torrent of public abuse.

In telling this story, in demonstrating Howells’ personal anguish over the case as evidenced both in his private correspondence and in his public statements, and in noting these events’ impact on Howells’ subsequent literary production, Garlin convincingly demolishes what he calls the “myth of a bland Howell” (143). However limited Howells’ literary realism and his Christian, utopian socialism may appear when measured by the standards of later eras, no more should Howells be remembered only as his generation’s benign and beaming -Dean- of American letters.

The Threads of Radicalism

The limitations of Garlin’s book are mainly inherent in its format. As a set of three essays, written at different times, it lacks a unifying thread and cannot offer generalizations about possible continuities between the radicalism of the Gilded Age and that of the 1920s.

Common themes are not always traced; we learn little about John Swinton’s view of the Haymarket affair until the Howells chapter. And the development over time of each individual’s ideas is sketched only briefly.

Our appetite is whetted, but we are left to wonder. On what issues did Swinton differ with Marx, and with domestic radicals and reformers such as Henry George? Did religion play any role in his thinking, as it did for Howells? How exactly did Steinmetz encounter the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lassalle and other European radicals? How did his views on the relations between science and socialism develop? What were the essential ideas and the impact of his America and the New Epoch (1916)? What effect, if any, did the Haymarket events have on Howells’ theory of literary realism and democratic reform?

These sorts of questions, arising from Garlin’s book but lying beyond its scope, still beg to be answered. I must also suggest, as a frankly interested party, that on the subject of the present-day educator’s role in transmitting the history of labor and the left, things are going better than Garlin believes.

While his preface offers a useful and compact overview of dramatic events and individuals in U.S. radical history, it seems to me no longer true to say that “unconventional history texts” ignore such matters (xv). In one widely-used U.S. history survey text, I found references to seven of the eleven radicals who were uniformly ignored in an older work cited by Garlin.(5)

This is not to say that labor and radical history always receive the same loving care that is still sometimes lavished on the vicissitudes of tariff policy, but progress is, I think, progress. And contrary to another statement in the preface (xix), while it may have been true a few years ago that the history department at Colorado offered no courses in labor history, this is certainly not now the case.

But perhaps more important, because of the quality and the sheer volume of recent scholarship on labor and working-class history, it has now become much more difficult for any teacher at any institution to ignore the shaping role of labor and class relations in any course that addresses the American past Sender Garlin has now done his part to advance the cause of this bread historical re-visioning.

Three American Radicals is a welcome book at a time when another new work on the history of radicalism announces in its title the (presumably final) “fall” of the left.(6) Garlin’s book, like the very life of its author, suggests the sources of a vital and ongoing indigenous radical tradition. To interested general readers, it offers an accessible introduction (including a valuable bibliography) to radicalism from the 1870s to the 1920s.

To scholars, it recovers two little-known figures and reframes a well-remembered one. In doing so, it points to the need for comprehensive, full-blown studies, probably of Steinmetz and certainly of Swinton, indeed, Swinton is noted in passing only twice in a standard history of American labor and only once in Nick Salvatore’s acclaimed biography of Swinton’s good friend Eugene Debs.(7)

Garlin invites us to rethink the role of intellectuals in American radicalism, and of the interactions in their thinking between European Marxism and homegrown traditions such as abolitionism and populism. And he performs admirable service in the ongoing task of reconnecting the disconnected history of the American left.

Dead radicals, he points out, cannot protect themselves against New York Times obituaries that condescendingly dismiss or simply ignore any unpalatable opinions held by the deceased. To correct such distortions, and to re-forge our links with the radical past, are tasks for the rest of us.


  1. Sender Garlin, Three American Radicals (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), 146. Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.
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  2. John Dos Passes, The 42nd Parallel, introd. Alfred Kazin (New York: New American Library, 1969), 333-335.
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  3. Dos Passes, 42nd Parallel, 333.
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  4. Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1936); Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
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  5. Garlin looked at Samuel Eliot Morrison, Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); I compared Mary Beth Norton, et al, A People and a Nation, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Muffin Company, 1990).
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  6. John P. Diggjns, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992).
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  7. Foster Rhea Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History, Fourth Edition (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Incorporated, 1984), 128, 138; Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 57.
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July-August 1993, ATC 45