Walter Kendall 1994

Review of John Graham (ed), Yours For the Revolution

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2, 1994. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

John Graham (ed), Yours For the Revolution: ‘The Appeal to Reason’, 1895-1922, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1990, pp 330, 18.95

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Socialism in the United States? Icebergs in the tropics. The one idea seems as absurd as the other in the present age. Yet it was not always so. James Connolly worked full-time as an organiser for the Socialist Party of the USA. The Appeal to Reason, America’s leading socialist newspaper, mailed 760,000 copies of each issue to prepaid subscribers each week in 1913. Special numbers reached two, three and even four million copies. These figures have never been matched by any other socialist journal in the English-speaking world.

The astonishing efflorescence of American socialism which editor John Graham brings to life in this volume of extracts from The Appeal to Reason over the years 1895-1922, finds its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War. America went into the ‘War Between the States’ as a nation of small farmers and self-employed artisans living amongst a network of small country towns. A generation later, once the ‘Open Frontier’ was closed, the centres of power were predominantly urban, and a new corporate America of railroad barons, steel kings, financial overlords and large manufacturers had emerged. The self-employed artisan found himself downgraded to the status of wage labourer, and the once independent farmer was now at the mercy of the railroads and financiers who controlled access to distant markets.

The Appeal to Reason raised a very loud voice against all this, and called for the long-overdue fulfilment of the American dream. Ranged alongside it in 1912 were no less than eight foreign-language and five English-language socialist dailies, 262 English and 36 foreign-language weeklies, 20 socialist state legislators, one socialist congressman, and 79 socialist mayors in 24 states. Eugene Debs, an editor of The Appeal to Reason, polled 900,000 votes (six per cent of the total) as the Socialist Party Presidential candidate in 1912, and 919,000 votes in 1920.

In Yours For the Revolution the reader will find in the extracts from day-to-day reporting of political events, strikes and living and working conditions in field, farm, mine and factory over the length and breadth of the USA, a picture of America from below quite unrivalled elsewhere. The cartoons are astonishingly vivid. The short fiction and poetry reproduced make fascinating reading. The contributors extend from Jack London and Upton Sinclair through Helen Keller, Scott Nearing and Stephen Crane, to JA Mitchell, later founding editor of Life magazine.

What, then, went wrong? Socialist opposition to the First World War brought down a great wave of repression. The Russian Revolution and its wealthy offshoot, the Communist Party of the USA, split the socialist ranks from top to bottom. American socialism never recovered from these combined blows.

One wonders. Will Communism in the Soviet Union in 60 years’ time seem as out of place as does socialism in the USA at the present time? The Anabaptists of the Middle Ages struck fear into the hearts of the mighty throughout Europe. Who remembers the Anabaptists today?