Honoring the Socialist Mary Marcy

Against the Current, No. 175, March/April 2015

Allen Ruff

WITH THE CENTENARY of World War I underway, it does us well to recall the remarkable socialist militant, Mary Marcy (1877-1922). Described by Eugene V. Debs as “one of the clearest minds and greatest souls in our movement,” Marcy provided a significant voice for the revolutionary left of American socialism in opposition to imperialism and capitalist-bred war during that turbulent era.

Born Mary Edna Tobias and orphaned as a young woman, she initially worked as a switchboard operator and self-taught stenographer to support herself and her siblings. Fired from her job for wearing a William Jennings Bryan button during the election campaign of 1896, she subsequently worked at the University of Chicago where she then studied with educator John Dewey.

Marcy joined the Socialist Party (SP) in 1903. Her muckraking exposé of the meatpacking industry, “Letters of a Pork Packer’s Stenographer,” serialized in 1904 in the monthly International Socialist Review (ISR) published by Chicago’s Charles H. Kerr & Co., first brought her to the attention of the national movement.

In 1909, she became the ISR’s managing editor and worked to transform it from a dry theoretical Marxist journal into a lively “fighting magazine of socialism,” “of, by and for the working class.” Initially an ISR series, her Marxist primer Shop Talks on Economics (1911), translated into six languages, introduced hundreds of thousands of readers to Marxist principles.

Following the start of the War in 1914, Marcy, as the ISR’s main editorialist, assayed both the imperialist causes of the conflagration and the Second International’s abandonment of working-class internationalism and failure to resist the nationalist war frenzy. Attributing the movement’s collapse to a culture of “habit” and “discipline,” of deference to the established leadership of the International’s parties, she became steadfast in her calls for rank-and-file “rebelliousness,” “disobedience” and opposition to nationalism by “the one class without a country.”

Arguing that “Votes cannot help us because we will have no opportunity to vote on any war issues” and that “old party tactics” were a “suicidal folly” in war time, Marcy’s anti-militarist and anti-imperialist editorials mapped out a line highlighting the need for “rebellion rather than war.”

Convinced the capitalist system could not be reformed, she nevertheless argued that ongoing popular struggles provided the best training for “revolutionists.” She remained certain that practice must inform theory, that “mass action” from below was the “best school for revolutionary activity.”

Like members of the anti-war European Left — Lenin and the Dutch “council communists,” etc. — she understood that the imperialist war would create new working-class possibilities.What she could not foresee was the intense reaction meted out by the Wilson administration once the United States entered the war.

The Feds shut down the ISR early in 1918 as a number of Kerr associates including Marcy’s intimate friend, the IWW’s “Big Bill” Haywood and Wobbly poet/illustrator Ralph Chaplin (lyricist of “Solidarity Forever”) were jailed.

The repression of 1919-20 dashed the hopes of postwar revolutionary possibilities. The broader socialist movement, once full of hope, fractured right and left. With the movement to which she gave so much in disarray, a disillusioned and exhausted Mary Marcy took her own life in 1922.

March/April 2015, ATC 175