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Radical Mainers: War Fever and the Decline of the Socialist Party in Maine

War Fever and the Decline of the Socialist Party in Maine

by | Dec 11, 2020

“SOCIALISTS FOR THE WAR,” blared the headline over a letter to the editor in the April 13, 1918 edition of the New York Times. Renouncing his earlier stance against “militarism,” science-fiction writer and Maine socialist George Allan England proclaimed his support for America’s involvement in World War I, declaring “Prussianism” the greatest threat to democracy.

“Force, and force alone, can liberate the world,” England wrote, in the same messianic language he had previously employed to preach the gospel of socialism. “This is a naked fact, and he who denies it is either a coward or a fool.”

As England freely admitted, this position represented quite a shift for the popular author, a nationally known figure in the Socialist Party. He’d been an especially important member of Maine’s socialist movement, considered one of its leading intellectuals for more than a decade.

England had joined the party in June of 1906, ran for Congress in 1908, and was the Maine Socialist Party’s standard-bearer for governor in the 1912 election. The party was reaching the peak of its influence that year — Socialist Eugene Debs earned 6 percent of the presidential vote, his strongest performance ever. (England did not fare so well, receiving only 2,081 votes out of 141,940 cast for the governorship, while Debs managed to attract 2,541 votes in Maine.) England had also given speeches all over the state and was the editor of the Maine socialist newspaper, The Issue.

England had faithfully promoted the Socialist Party line on armed conflict. He delivered an anti-war speech at a protest meeting in Portland on April 18, 1911, during the Mexican Revolution, advocating against U.S. involvement. He wrote a flurry of articles and editorials for both left-wing and mainstream publications on the subject of anti-militarism. One of his works, “Fiat Pax!: The Influence of the International Socialist Movement as a Factor in World Peace,” was originally published in the Socialist Party organ the New York Call, and later turned into a pamphlet distributed by the American Association for International Conciliation. In “Psychology and War,” published in the Sunday edition of the Call on May 16, 1915, England had decried “the part played by psychology — the psychology of the mob, if you will — in the stupendous social spasm called War.”

George Allan England, pictured circa 1914 in his official history of Appeal to Reason.

And yet by the spring of 1918, a year after the United States formally entered the “Great War,” England was singing a different tune. His heel-turn illustrates how difficult it was to avoid getting caught up in the spirit of the times, especially for intellectuals and writers whose careers depended on their continued ability to publish.

By no means did everyone in the Socialist Party follow England’s example. In his classic study of the period, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, James Weinstein wrote that the vast majority of rank-and-file members maintained their opposition to the war. A few months after England’s letter appeared in the Times, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, urging resistance to the draft, a stance that resulted in his jailing on charges of sedition. At his sentencing hearing, Debs uttered one of his best-known quotes:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Running for president from prison in 1920, Debs got nearly as many votes as he did in 1912 (though a much smaller percentage of the total cast). But there was no question that the war and the public’s reaction to it had begun to take a toll on the socialist movement. Like England, a number of the party’s most prominent thinkers eventually supported the war, and the internal conflicts this caused damaged some of the party’s most important institutions.

These socialists-turned-war-hawks included muckraking journalist Charles Edward Russell, whose position was approvingly cited by England in his letter; John Spargo, a writer and editor who had visited Maine to speak on several occasions, and had written about the brutal child labor conditions in Washington County’s sardine industry; and labor reformer and NAACP co-founder William English Walling. The group also included Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, an editor of Appeal to Reason, the most widely disseminated socialist newspaper of the day. England was a regular contributor to the weekly, and had written its official history several years earlier.

During this turbulent time for the party, Haldeman-Julius acquired Appeal to Reason — which was already suffering from government restrictions placed on its mailing rights in reaction to earlier anti-war editorials — and transformed it into an organ of pro-war socialism under the name New Appeal.

More significant than the desertions of prominent members, however, was the effect the war had on the general population. The Socialist Party’s pacifist stance turned a movement that was slowly gaining mainstream legitimacy into an object of suspicion in the eyes of many. This paranoia greatly increased following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The repression of dissenting political ideas during the Red Scare, compounded by internal division, decimated support for the Socialist Party in the years following World War I.

The situation in Maine mirrored national trends. Even before the war, the state party was beginning to show signs of decline. The Issue suspended publication after its March 1915 edition due to lack of interest and insufficient funding. The last election in which the party fielded a statewide slate of candidates was 1916. Its membership fell from 399 that year to just 108 in 1917. Membership rebounded a bit during the war years, climbing to 194 in 1919, but fell rapidly afterwards, to just 52 members by 1922.

Maine Socialist Party members who spoke a foreign language were often not counted in these tallies if they paid dues to their national federation, rather than the state party. Maine labor historian Charles Scontras found that party membership in Maine declined much more slowly among foreign-language speakers than among English speakers. This was especially true of the Finnish Federation locals, which persisted well into the 1920s. That can partially be attributed to language and cultural barriers that isolated them from national trends, but is also likely due to the important role these organizations played in their communities. Finnish Socialist Party meetings in Maine were said to have been joyful occasions, with singing, dancing and feasts of their native cuisine.

In 1919, two competing parties split from the Socialist Party of America: the Communist Party of America, which attracted the support of many of the foreign language federations expelled from the SPA; and the Communist Labor Party, which attracted many American-born workers who had been part of the Socialist Party’s left wing. (The two communist parties were later ordered to merge by the Communist International.)

Red Scare repression initially forced the Communist Party to largely work underground. But in the 1930s a new left formation emerged in the U.S. in response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism abroad. Communists were a vital part of this movement, which led to the durable political force known as the New Deal coalition and the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a federation of unions in the U.S. and Canada.

In Maine, the Communist Party found its most significant social base among the Scandinavian-born granite cutters of the midcoast region and their families. Many of these men and women had likely once been members of the Socialist Party of Maine who backed left-wing candidates for national party leadership positions.

Still, the Red Scare had accomplished its objective. The pre-World War I Socialist Party — an anomaly in American history as a leftist third party that seriously contested, and in some places won, elections — lay in shambles.

George Allan England soon abandoned the movement altogether and never looked back. He also divorced his first wife during this period and left Maine. Shifting away from science-fiction stories, the themes of which frequently reflected his socialist ideas, he turned to travel writing and adventure tales. When he threw himself into causes, they tended to be politically innocuous, like an effort to preserve George Washington’s boyhood home, and a campaign to promote tourism in Key West, Florida, where he spent his winters.

Although England affirmed his continued support for socialism in private correspondence, he hardly wrote or uttered another word publicly on the subject before his death in 1936.

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