tv American Socialism CSPAN June 12, 2016 4:30pm-4:46pm EDT
>> next on american history tv, jeffrey johnson talks about the rise and decline of socialism's popularity in america. c-span's american history tv interviewed mr. johnson at the annual meeting of the organization of american historians in providence rhode island. this is about 12 minutes. host: your study of socialism focuses on the late 19th-century-early 20th century. define socialism for us in that time. prof. johnson: there were a lot of socialists talking about it broadly. they were wrestling with, how to we come up with systems where distribution could be more fair. more equal. as a lot of socialists were talking about that. it was really crow marx who came
along in the 19th century looking at it historically and said there is this march of capitalism and ultimately he believed capitalism had gone awry and was exploitive. thinking about it in terms of the march of history, he believed class struggle would bring about a revolution. for him, it was a revolutionary, immediately kind of socialism than theorists who attacked about it earlier. this was in response to the industrial revolution and these ideas from europe started to come to the united states and change the political landscape. that was socialism. to think about classical society with a more fair, distribution of wealth devoid of capitalism. these were ideas that took a lot of traction in the 19th century and through immigrants and others coming to the united states in the late 19th century,
it gained some traction. host: how did this manifest itself in american politics? prof. johnson: that is a good question. it is unique. it started because of the american political landscape. the socialist labor party. 1877, it was almost exclusively german immigrants. that would not surprise us given this context of european socialism in the 19th century. bohemian radical marxists who had red marks and brought those ideas to the united states. so the socialist labor party was on the scene in the late 19th century and what is interesting, having done a little bit of research, they held all of their meetings in german so if you did not speak german, you could not really go to an slp meeting and get a lot from that. a were very in line with marxist radical teaching. it was inevitable.
the slp was on the scene. there was political socialism on the scene. the social democracy of america one was called. the real thing came in 1901 with the establishment of the socialist party of america, which became the kind of permanent socialist party and more inclusive. did not have meetings in german. anybody could join. they were established in indianapolis in 1901. something called the unity convention which they thought would bring together all of the factions of socialist. socialism took a lot of different forms. unifying as one political party was important. that was in 1901. third-party alternative and some of my writing, to the democrats and republicans for a party for label. 48 radical labor party. it was on the scene in 1901 with
fair success. 15 or 20 years. host: were there any particular areas of the country where socialism was more appealing than others? prof. johnson: my research is focused on the pacific northwest. i focused on washington and oregon on and ohio and western montana. what struck me when i started to poke around was eugene debs, the famous face of american socialism. the socialist party of america's candidate for president five times. once from inside jail, which is interesting. eugene debs got steadily increasing electoral results with the kind of common aiding moment being in 1912 were nationally he got about 6% of the vote, just shy of one million votes. that is interesting and remarkable in itself. in the northwest, he got almost
10% of the vote so clearly something was happening where regionally there was more interest and emphasis. i argued in my book that really it was the boom and bust economic cycles of the northwest. the power of being involved in the extractive industries there. industries that could be very exploitive of labor. socialists found an attentive audience because these were workers who had it there he tough. long hours, low wages and often very dangerous work conditions so all of that common aided and higher support in that region in the northwest and that is when i maintain. not to say socialism didn't pop-up up in other pockets. oklahoma, the southwest, milwaukee, wisconsin, which was a hotbed for socialist politics. that there were great in the northwest.
host: what set eugene debs apart as a candidate? prof. johnson: he appealed to labor. eugene debs could give a great speech and he knew how to play to the audience. in some ways, socialism at the time might have met -- meant simple answers for complex problems. you did not have to read marks marx that closely. eugene debs went to jail and was radicalized there. he found himself radicalized and was drawn to social politics but what set him apart was being a great oratory. a red or a titian. he really studied this message.
labor was having a hard time. he ultimately emerged as one of the voices of labor. this is not to say others were not important. but he is great latitude with those kind of folks, courting labor and the labor vote. host: what was the high point of the movement? prof. johnson: probably 1912, when eugene debs garnered about 12%. probably the most of any socialist. that was striking into important. so, 1912 was probably the high point and i will say there was always this sense for the socialist party, if you read pamphlets and newspapers, they always believed the next election would be the big one and they would bring about the final march of socialist a la ticks in the united states. of course, that never happened
but the high point was 1912. host: was there any lasting influence or impact on the american political system? prof. johnson: i think it was one of the first and most important third-party successes but in terms of great reform successes, i do not think we can point to the debs candidacy because he did not win as a result. had he won, i suspect things might have been different it my sense is probably, not a great, lasting impact other than the fact there could be dissenting voices and those dissenting voices were important. that tells us a lot about the broad american narrative. i think there was some good that came out of it for the political system. we have a two-party system and always have. we talked about this yesterday on our panel. it focused on new perspectives and american socialism and that
is one of the nice things that comes out of this. challenging the two-party system. host: in addition to eugene debs, who were the other major players in the socialist party? prof. johnson: someone like victor berger, from milwaukee, wisconsin, a working-class town. he served in congress. was later denied his seat because of world war i and objections to u.s. involvement in world war i. another person i think is interesting and closer to my research and heart was a man called lewis duncan, the mayor of butte, montana, from 1911-1914. it does not seem like a huge electoral victory, but it was the quintessential mining town and he was able to capitalize on the labor vote and win that election and serve as a pretty
productive mayor for those three years in representing the socialist party and labor. so there are those kind of figures that one important elections and served as an example of the possibility of what socialist politics could do. host: your research focuses on late 19th century early 20th century. what happens between then and the present day? prof. johnson: not ultimately i have always argued that world war i helped ring about a pretty quick and to the socialist party's prominence and that. host: how does bernie sanders -- those objections were routed
in all wars being capitalist wars and how can we support it when working classes will do the fighting? that came at a great political cost and with the espionage act and the red scare, it became very hard and very unpopular to be a socialist in the way it might have been in 1910, in 1920. i really answer the question, think it is something that continues after the russian revolution. if you were to be a red, a socialist or communist, throughout the cold war, this was not something looked on particularly favorably. i think that helps explain why socialism enters this kind of period of unpopularity. it's just not politically expedient to be a socialist or communist, and it has some grave consequences. host: how does bernie sanders fit into this history? prof. johnson: this is a good question. nobody was talking about socialism before this and my profession is happy about this. i am not a political.
i think senator sanders is the kind of candidate who's talking about socialism; he calls himself a socialist. senator sanders up against folks in the 20th century, he would certainly be in a different camp. in the 20th century the socialist party was divided between radical, dogmatic and tempered, more moderate socialists. i think he is talking very explicitly about inequity, and the kind of social programming we have in the united states. but he certainly is the kind of and whot in the way -- knows -- but i don't think he would be one in the way that eugene debs was or some of the
art of marxists were. host: thank you very much. >> you are watching "american history tv," 48 hours of programming on american history every weekend on c-span3. follow us on twitter @cspanhistory for information on our schedule and to keep up with the latest history news. >> this is an amazing family story where they surpassed terrible cruelty with great love affairs but it is also a family where fathers kill their sons, or wives have the husbands overthrown. it's a family unlike any other. >> tonight on "q&a," the new book "the romanovs: 1613 to 1918" about the dynasty that
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the discussion was part of a daylong symposium at grand valley state university in grand rapids, michigan. it's about an hour. >> so much of this summit is concerned with the electoral history of progressivism and conservatism. many of our speakers asked how the ideas and arguments of major political thinkers have made their way into the cultural conversation. have shaped political attitudes, and given rise to political action. our midmorning session is particularly exciting in this respect. the three historians before you are going to discuss how certain major intellectual figures of the long 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries have affected and in some cases may continue to affect american political thought. i will introduce our speakers alphabetically.