Recommend literature explaining the socialist revolution that almost was in 1930's America
October 25, 2004 1:34 AM   Subscribe

Someone once mentioned that the US was on the verge of a socialist revolution in the 30's. Can anyone recommend some literature on this subject? Thanks...
posted by black8 to Education (9 answers total)
Start with a history of the socialist movement pre-Depression. Marguerite Young's Harp Song for a Radical is the definitive bio of Eugene V. Debs, who was the leader of the American Socialist party until his death in 1928.

The best book I've read about the gaining momentum of socialist movements in the 30's is Lizabeth Cohen's Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939. It focuses on one major city's energies, but it gives a very good overview of what was happening in urban areas across the country. It emphasizes the angle of the participation of blacks, catholics and jews in the radical fold-- some of my classmates thought it was a bit too "90's politically correct textbook," but I really feel that it's examining an important distinction between socialists (and their period successes) and the other movements of the time.

Lastly, pick up Robert McElvaine's Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, which is a collection of letters written to the Roosevelts during the Depression, which includes letters chronicling increasing radicalism as people became increasingly desperate.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:10 AM on October 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Eugene V Debs, as well as being the head of the socialist party, ran for president several times, maybe 3? This doesn't seem so weird, we have all kinds of wackos running these days but I think he won up to 15% of the vote in one of the elections. He even ran from prison one of the times. It's a fascinating story, I think.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:14 AM on October 25, 2004

If you're looking for some illuminating fiction, Richard Wright's Native Son dealt at least in part with American Communism as it related to Civil Rights during this time period. And it's an excellent book, to boot.
posted by saladin at 6:20 AM on October 25, 2004

Early John Steinbeck, particularly In Dubious Battle.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:23 AM on October 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind the Espionage Act during WWI destroyed most of the IWW ("Wobblies") leadership. They were a union that was most socialist of all and it was quite clear that socialism would never work after that. I would say from my history experience that the big socialist push was in the time after the turn of the century and right around WWI. I really don't think socialism in the revolutionary sense existed beyond that, socialist reforms within the government, yes, but any serious bid for total reform -- no. The government was pretty strong handed in dealing with anything resembling socialism. Look paticularly at the Ludlow Massacre in which they opened machine guns on a camp fo coal miners (and their families) in Colorado. They brought their union leader out to "talk" with the government only to shoop him.

Howard Zinn's "People's History of the US", which is perhaps the most socialist/anarchist view of history also maintains this cynical view. America was too tightly controlled from the titans of industry and the media was in their pocket for anything non-capitalist to spread.
posted by geoff. at 11:01 AM on October 25, 2004

I've got to disagree with geoff. The Wobblies were an important bunch (until Big Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman got shipped off to Russia), but radicalism was still a big force in organized labor (and organized labor was much bigger than it is today).

Government suppression had been around since before Haymarket. But it didn't get very effective until after WW II.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:52 PM on October 25, 2004

I would certainly not say that the US was ever "on the verge of a socialist revolution".

However, socialism was much, much more mainstream as a political option in the US between 1901 (founding of the US Socialist Party) and 1945 (end of World War II, beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, etc.) than it is today.

Socialist presidential candidates like Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas consistently received a million votes or so in general elections, which was a pretty impressive number given the much smaller electorate (smaller population and wide disenfranchisement).

All of the books Mayor Curley cited are excellent, but you might want to start with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to get an overview of the historical context of the times. Zinn's perspective and opinions certainly inform his work, but even if you disagree profoundly with those, his research is sound and his writing style is engaging.

Candace Falk's Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman is a quite engaging biography of one of the US's leading Socialists.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:48 PM on October 25, 2004

Studs Terkel took the oral history of a lot of prominent Depression-era union activists and progressive politicians in Hard Times. He also contrasted their point of view with those of conservative pols and captain of industry types. It's a very accessible way to get a glimpse into not only what happened during the period, but what people hoped or believed would happen, from multiple and highly varied points of view.
posted by melissa may at 9:21 PM on October 25, 2004

Hope this gets seen, even though I'm answering after the question has alraedy gone into the archives...

An excellent account of one of the major strikes from 1934 (a watershed year for organized labor and radical politics) is Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs. You can get it at Haymarket Books, along with a lot of other material about the era.
posted by scody at 3:45 PM on October 26, 2004

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