Saturday, March 23, 2013

Heath and Debs: America's awakening to socialism began with Edward Bellamy

The Social Democratic Party, the precursor to the SPA, the Socialist Party of America, had several important figures in it. This old illustration from 1900 places the point very well:

Two of those 5, Frederic Heath and Eugene Debs, wrote something very interesting. In Heath's "Social Democracy Red Book", Page 41-42, Heath writes the following:

Laurence Gronlund has said that in 1880 he could count the native born American Socialists on the fingers of one hand. Had the foreign born residents suddenly left the country they would have practically taken Socialism with them. In 1880 Judge Thomas Hughes, the Christian Socialist, founded a profit-sharing, semi-communistic colony at New Rugby, in the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee, and delivered several lectures in the larger cities. A year later this colony had nearly 300 members and enjoyed a short-lived prosperity.

The American awakening to Socialism began with the appearance of Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" in 1888, although in 1884 Laurence Gronlund's "Co-operative Commonwealth" was the first book to place the new theory before American readers in a popular way. This had a very fair sale and set many prominent men to thinking along new lines - and among them probably the novelist Edward Bellamy himself. "Looking Backward" was not at all scientific in its conception of Socialism or the probable Socialistic state, but it came as a great message to the American people, nevertheless, and its success was phenomenal. In the succeeding few years over 600,000 copies were sold and for a time it had a record of sales of over 1,000 a day. Still it must be noted that the word Socialism nowhere appeared in the book. Bellamy and his converts at once organized clubs, which, with a cowardice that was perhaps justified, they called Nationalist clubs, and they persisted in calling their Socialism Nationalism.

In quoting America's Fabians, I wrote about this last August: ""Nationalism" is how socialism was introduced to the American people". (My point is not to pat myself on the back, but rather to highlight that the Fabians are in agreement about the significance of Bellamy, his book, and the Nationalist Clubs) In both instances, you can see the hat tip to the fact that Bellamy didn't call it Socialism. He called it Nationalism, and there's clearly a broad belief that this is an important reason why it became successful.

It should be noted, that Frederic Heath was an expert in this on a very personal level. How did Heath become a socialist in the first place? In "The Comrade", Heath wrote an article titled "How I became a Socialist", and here's what he says: (page 154)

I evolved a philosophy of my own. I became impatient that the lower classes did not partake of the culture and the refinements that minister to a satisfactory life, and came in time to blame conditions and not the workers for it. I grew to be reflective. I remember that I noted the fact that the first ambition of the negro who drifted North was to make a good appearance and dress well, even though this latter was often carried to the lengths of caricature. I saw that there was in the breasts of all persons, white or black, the desire for self-betterment, no matter how little the possibility of attaining to their ideal.

I was puzzling my brain with such groping thoughts as this, when Bellamy's "Looking Backward" flashed forth upon the American people. I capitulated to it at once, and a few years later was the author of a series of reports of the sessions of a mythical Bellamy club, in a Chicago illustrated paper, of which I myself was editor, articles which afford me amusing reading today, you may believe. By this time I had come to think myself a Socialist, yet kept on religiously voting for "protection" to American industry.

This is profound. That is, if you are like me, and you are seeking to understand how it is that these people came to be. "Where does all of this come from", "how did this happen", and other such questions. We can easily gather up 900+ pieces of the 1000 piece puzzle, and put it together well enough, accurately enough, to see the whole picture as it actually existed back then, and make our judgements accordingly.

Now, I also mentioned Eugene Debs, not just Heath. Debs is also in agreement with the sentiments of Frederic Heath and the Fabians. On page 64, Heath notes:

President Debs, Margaret Haile and C. F. Willard were appointed to draft resolutions on the death of Edward Bellamy, to be telegraphed to a memorial meeting being held in Boston. The message sent was as follows:

"The first national convention of the Social Democracy of America pays tribute to the memory of Edward Bellamy, first to popularize the ideas of Socialism among his countrymen and last to be forgotten by them."

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