The SP’s Roots and Legacy: In the American Grain

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Benjamin Balthaser

American Socialist Triptych:
The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
Upton Sinclair, and W.E.B. Du Bois
By Mark W. Van Wienen
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012, 390 pages, $80 cloth.

IT SEEMS HARD to believe that in parts of the country where Democrats today are viewed as radical socialists, actual self-described Socialists once won upwards of 20% of the vote, elected two members of Congress, and in locales such as Minot, Kansas and Oklahoma City held mayoral office and sent dozens of members to the state legislature.

Mark Van Wienen’s new book American Socialist Triptych is an intellectual and literary history of the early 20th century socialist movement, and challenges the often-held assumption that the Socialist movement — at its peak in the years before World War I — vanished without a trace.

Focusing on the lives and literary output of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, W.E.B. Du Bois and Upton Sinclair, Van Wienen chooses three giants in American thought and letters as a way to explore how early 20th century socialism influenced their writing, ideas and activism, as well as the trajectories of the later civil rights movement, feminism, and the welfare state.

In some ways it might seem that Van Wienen merely grabbed three important turn-of-the-century artists at random, especially considering that Sinclair was the only one of the three to be an active campaigner for the Socialist Party. Yet that seems to be the author’s point: the Socialist movement of the early 20th century was broad enough so that intellectuals from multiple backgrounds were profoundly influenced by it.

Indeed Van Wienen’s main argument seems to be that unlike other radical socialist movements, particularly the Communist movement of the 1920s to the ’40s, the Socialists were successful precisely because they were non-doctrinaire, and open to vigorous debate and a diversity of ideas.

To this end, Van Wienen begins the book with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who herself was never a member of the Socialist Party. Much like Michael Denning’s claim about the 1930s that “the peripheries of the movement were the center,” Van Wienen is interested in major intellectual figures such as Gilman precisely because they were influenced by the socialist movement, yet not cadres of a particular party.

Describing Gilman as a “socialist of the humanitarian kind, based on the first exponents, French and English, with the American enthusiasm for Bellamy,” Van Wienen charts an alternate history of socialist activism and development in the United States, apart from the great labor upheavals of the 1870s and 1880s and the Marxist International Workingmen’s Association. (26)

Waking Up to Socialism

Van Wienen locates the roots of the American socialist movement in the Fourierite cooperative farms of the 19th century and the Populist movement, as well as in Bellamy’s Nationalist clubs that sprang up in the hundreds after the publication of his famous utopian novel Looking Backward (1887), where socialism was to be modeled on civil society rather than open class warfare. (In this most famous of utopian novels, socialism is literally brought about in the narrator’s sleep.)

Gilman’s association with Bellamy’s reading clubs, as well as Sinclair’s electoral campaigns, places the Socialist Party well within the liberal tradition of U.S. politics, in which free individuals rationally debate the best policies, rather than organize along class lines. Van Wienen suggests that rather than view socialism as a hot flash in the pan, we should see the victories of the socialist movement in the New Deal, women’s rights, and effective government civil service.

In part, this focus is due to the monograph’s status as literary criticism and intellectual history, privileging modes such as the utopian novel and the theoretical tract over radical newspapers and strike histories. The utopian novel was perhaps the most popular single genre of protest literature at the turn of the century, an essentially middle-class mode that often imagined a gradual path to socialism that avoided all social conflict.

The book is particularly insightful in addressing ways the socialist movement engaged with early feminist thinking. Many mainstream feminists might be astonished to learn that their foremothers (or perhaps more literally, great-grandmothers) not only demanded the vote but were also advocates of open marriage, waged housework, and other forms domestic liberation.

Van Wienen’s focus on Gilman’s socialism and her probable familiarity with Engels’ Origin of the Family suggests a needed context for her seminal work The Yellow Wallpaper, in which a middle-class woman slowly loses her sanity literally locked in the gilded prison of her husband’s vacation cottage. The author backs up his reading of The Yellow Wallpaer by citing liberally from Gilman’s Women and Economics, in which Gilman not only views the nuclear family as a “relic of a patriarchal age” that oppresses women, but also understands the ways in marriage naturalizes capitalist reproduction. (102-3)

While one could not call Gilman a radical socialist by any means — she believed in a Fabian gradualism and was a member of Bellamy’s “Nationalist clubs” — Gilman’s analysis of gender suggests she is very much in line with Marxist feminist thought, seeing the family as much as the workplace acting as an agent of social control. Not only does the family create a class of consumer-oriented “dependents,” a class of “horse-leech daughters crying give! Give!,” it naturalizes economic activity within a competitive masculinity, in which men pursue individual gain for “sex-advantage” among women.

Most surprising is Upton Sinclair’s embrace of feminism, who declared “the Socialist battle is the battle of woman, even more than it is the battle of the workingman.” (107) In a move that is reminiscent of later Second Wave feminists, Sinclair goes so far as to suggest that it is the oppression of women on which the other class structures originate and maintain themselves. In a move that is both materialist and essentialist, Sinclair asks:

“How could it be that women, who bore the race with so much pain and sorrow, should be drudges and slaves, or the ornaments and playthings of men? Else how could it be that life, which cost such a fearful price, should be so cheap upon the earth?  For every man that lived and walked alive, some woman had to bear this agony; and yet men were pent up in mines and sweatshops…worse than that, were dressed up in gaudy uniforms, and armed with rifles and machine-guns, and marched out to slaughter each other by the tens and hundreds of thousands!”

Even Du Bois, known for his outward Victorian appearance and embrace of “proper” family life for African Americans, condemns prostitution in the name of professional work for women and sexual freedom. (117-8) While Van Wienen is quick to point out that Sinclair and Du Bois did not live up to their own standards in their personal lives (after promoting open marriage, Sinclair famously filed for divorce after finding his wife in bed with another man), the theoretical as well as political contributions of the socialist movement to feminism are a worthy project of recovery.

Blind Spot on Race

For all of the insight that socialist thinkers such as Sinclair and Gilman had into the intersection between gender and capitalism, they showed a unique (or perhaps far too typical) insensitivity toward the particular situation of workers of color.

Perhaps the best one could point to is Eugene V. Debs’ comment that “black workers are not one whit worse off” than white workers, famously stating that socialist have nothing “special to offer.” African Americans (128) While Debs did author withering critiques of white workers who refused African Americans into the ranks of the Socialist Party, his “colorblind” indifference towards the racist structures of the capitalist labor market seems almost enlightened when compared to Sinclair and Gilman.

Sinclair’s depiction of Black strikebreakers in The Jungle goes well beyond indifference, describing them as violent, hedonistic, and “savage.”  Gilman’s racism was far more systematic, as she was an avid supporter of the eugenics movement, embracing a “utopian” vision in Moving the Mountain in which “birth defectives and degenerates” would be sterilized, and “racial aliens” would be removed from the United States. (128,186)

It’s no surprise then that a socialist such as Du Bois would both support the economic and political platform of the SP, but nonetheless discourage Black members of the NAACP from joining. While generous in characterizing the anti-racist “theoretical statements” of the Socialist Party, Du Bois nonetheless poses a searing question, one that should resonate with socialists today:

“Why do not Negroes join the Socialists?” they ask. They do not ask such silly questions of white folks. They teach, agitate, and proselyte; while among ten million Negro Americans they have scarcely a single worker and are afraid to encourage such workers. (139)

Yet for all Du Bois’ critique of the Socialist Party, Van Wienen is correct to note that even as early as the 1910s and ’20s one can see the impact of the socialist movement on his’ writing. Eschewing the Black capitalism of Marcus Garvey, Du Bois writes in Horizon that the “natural friends” of the African Americans are not “the rich but the poor….not the employers but the employees.” (132)

Perhaps most telling of Du Bois’ future embrace of Marxism, Communism and Pan-African socialism, he openly praised the cross-race organizing of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)  timber workers, noting their willingness to flout Southern custom and law to hold integrated public organizing meetings. If Du Bois may be seen as one of the fathers of the Black Liberation movement in the United States, then the early socialist and IWW movement must also be included in that lineage.

Contradictions of “Diversity”

While Van Wienen does an excellent job documenting the currents of racism that ran through the Socialist Party, I was ultimately disappointed by what I felt was the book’s failure to connect the Party’s racism to any larger structures of power or meaning.

Van Wienen seems to want to recover the “socialist moment” as over and above the much more frequently memorialized “red decade” of the communist 1930s, and believes Socialism’s roots in Populism and the cooperative movement allowed for its “diversity” of thought and its flexibility. While the Socialist Party’s roots in “American” movements such as the Populists and Bellamy’s Nationalists may have it made it more electorally viable in the Midwest and “border states” of the South, racism is very much a part of that “diversity” of anti-capitalist thought in the 19th and early 20th century.

Van Wienen does grant that the Communist Party had a better line on race, yet fails to consider what led to the historical conjuncture, most notably the CP’s connection to international anti-imperialist movements and thinkers such as Sen Katayama, Jacques Roumain, George Padmore, and Aimee Cesaire. This may have made the Communist Party far more doctrinaire and bureaucratic, but it also allowed the party to dedicate significant resources to organize African-American members, as well as put on trial and even expel party members who expressed racist views.

This is not to say that the Communist Party was “better” than the Socialist Party, rather that the successes and failures of the CP and the SP were not incidental or merely the choices of individuals, but structured by larger national and global histories.

By and large, I agree with Van Wienen that the “socialist moment” in the United States is undervalued, and is worthy of far more discussion and debate by scholars, students and activists. Not only does the New Deal have its roots in the Socialist Party’s reformist politics, I believe he is correct to trace these victories back to the early part of the 20th century.

Still, I would offer that this meticulously researched, valuable and highly informative book would have benefited from attempting to see how the SP’s successes and failures are part of larger structures of dominance within which it operated.

September/October 2012, ATC 160