“Socialists?” one asks. “In Missouri?” To today’s observer, Missouri would seem to be the last place where one would expect to find a strong radical and socialist heritage. Of course, the Sikeston sharecropper’s strike of 1939 and its connections to the socialist movement are well known. With the exception of the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, however, the more radical tendencies in Missouri’s earlier labor and reform movements—especially those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—have been largely ignored. While there is some excellent scholarly work in the field, the story of Missouri’s socialists has been often neglected in the popular press.
Yet, Missouri’s socialist movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s was rich, vibrant, and diverse. Socialist ideology, including Marxism, arrived in the state with German and French revolutionaries and “freethinkers” who had been exiled from their homelands in the wake of the European revolutions of 1848. During a time of enormous sociopolitical change, socialists campaigned for office in the state, and the movement maintained a lively press and educational program. The height of socialism’s influence in the state came with the Socialist Party of Missouri, a diverse organization founded in 1901 as an affiliate of the Socialist Party of America, the party of Eugene V. Debs.
Socialists were also extremely active in the state’s unions. Labor historian Gary Fink once characterized the Missouri Socialist Party as “young” and “vigorous.” While it certainly attracted many middle‑class reformers, the Socialist Party of Missouri, said Fink, “was predominantly a working‑class party.” In fact, said Fink, “perhaps no Socialist state organization other than Wisconsin’s made a more dedicated attempt to work within the established labor movement or was rewarded with as much influence.”1
Missouri socialists offered popular alternatives to the changes and problems brought about by America’s Western industrial expansion. With, and as part of, the state’s organized labor and agrarian populist movements, Missouri’s socialists appealed to many workers and farmers who felt left out of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, though, Missouri’s socialists offered more than a mere critique of capitalism. Many also offered solutions and new structures for a future peaceful, egalitarian society.
Missouri’s socialists were not a homogeneous or monolithic group. Missouri’s socialist movement, like the socialist movement nationally, contained in its ranks all sorts of trends, factions, and tendencies. Missouri socialists were eclectic and influenced by different ideologies. While many accepted Marx’s theories regarding class and class struggle, not all, or even most, Missouri radicals were doctrinaire Marxists.
Missouri’s socialist ranks included Marxists but also included many democratic socialists, social reformers, religious believers, pacifists, feminists, and even prohibitionists. Many were active in the state’s labor unions. Others were tied to Missouri’s strong populist farmer’s movement and demanded an end to exploitation of farmers by lenders and by railroad monopolies. Some, like architect William L. Garver, were visionaries and futurists who offered blueprints for a progressive economic and political system. Unfortunately, a few Missouri socialists were strongly nativistic to the point of being anti‑immigrant, anti‑Catholic, and even racist.
German and French refugees arriving in St. Louis after the European uprisings of 1848 brought with them radical social and political ideas. They also played a key role in Missouri’s early labor movement. These immigrants supported abolition and, generally, the Republican Party and its more socially radical tendencies. Some organized Turnverein or “Turner” Clubs, German athletic/social social clubs patterned after those in Germany that had served as fronts for revolutionary political activity.2
One of the Forty‑Eighters was Joseph Weydemeyer, a personal friend of Karl Marx and an early member of the Communist League. A radical journalist who left Germany in 1850, he first settled in Switzerland and later, in New York where he was hailed as “Marx and Engel’s literary agent,” He kept Marx informed of American affairs. In 1852, he helped found the Proletarian league and later, the American Workers’ League. He wrote extensively and founded American Workers’ league branches in Milwaukee and Chicago. On Engels’s advice, Weydemeyer moved to St. Louis.3
Weydemeyer supported the Union and the “Radical” Republicans during and after the war. Because of his early experience as a Prussian junior artillery officer, he was offered the rank of colonel and later, Brigadier General in the Union Army. Like Marx, Weydemeyer viewed the Civil War as a class struggle, a historical confrontation between the modern industrial economy of the North and the more backward, semifeudal, slave-based system of the South. According to the Marxists, such a backward form of social and economic organization as chattel slavery was destined by history to be abolished.
His military assignments included the pursuit of Confederate guerillas in Missouri’s “Bootheel” and later in the war, the military governorship of St. Louis. He left military service for about a year, during which he participated in Republican politics. While in St. Louis, Weydemeyer witnessed the printers’ strikes of 1864. German labor activism had led to the establishment of a strong labor movement in St. Louis.3
A major force in the city’s radical proletarian movement was the St. Louis Daily Press, a pro‑labor, socialist newspaper. The Daily Press endorsed the inalienable right of workers to strike and to an eight‑hour workday, rather radical demands at the time. Weydemeyer was able to exercise considerable influence on the Daily Press. His close ties with the paper enabled him to get it to publish Marx’s inaugural address from the founding convention of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), also known as the “First International.” Weydemeyer died of cholera in 1866 but his son Otto lived to help found the St. Louis Section of the First International in 1871.
Although German socialists played a role in the founding of the St. Louis Section of the IWA, the section grew directly out of a group of Franco‑American Civil War Veterans who published a socialist newspaper, La Tribune Francaise. The organizers had been followers of Etienne Cabet, the leader of St. Louis County’s Icarian commune. Cabet was a utopian communist who wrote Voyage en Icari (Voyage to Icari), a novel about a future utopia. He and a group of followers came to America in 1848 to found utopian communities. In Europe, Cabet’s dictatorial leadership style had led to his expulsion from the main body of the Icarians. After Cabet’s death, his followers established a communal society on an estate called Cheltenham outside of St. Louis.4
The Icarians were just one current in the St. Louis IWA. In St. Louis and internationally, there were a number of ideologies, tendencies, and trends within the organization. The First International included anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, radical republicans, and German and Italian nationalists. This diversity might have been the International’s strength but unfortunately, it turned out to be its downfall, leading to division in the organization and ultimately its breakup. Marx himself was notorious for his intolerance toward those with whom he disagreed. Some of the ideological tendencies in the movement were more influential in Missouri than others. For example, the anarchist wing of the International, which later formed its own International organization, would influence the anarchist movement of the 1880s. Anarchism, however, with its emphasis on the violent destruction of the state as a prelude to a free and egalitarian society, was not as influential in the United States and even less so in Missouri. Syndicalism, with its emphasis on “direct action” by workers, was a bit more successful, and locals of the International Workers of the World were organized in the state. “Wobbly” leader William “Big Bill” Haywood was a popular speaker who did encourage his St. Louis listeners to vote the socialist ticket.5
More significantly, Missouri’s socialists generally rejected violence. This included the “industrial sabotage” advocated by some syndicalists. Missouri’s socialists supported the right of workers to organize, to strike, and to exert economic pressure on their employers, but they usually rejected sabotage. In fact, Missouri socialists played a central role in the adoption by the Socialist Party’s 1912 National Convention of an “Anti‑Sabotage Amendment” which led to the expulsion of Haywood from the national leadership. In fact, historian Eugene Nutter maintained that the amendment was originally the idea of Missouri’s own William Garver.6
Two major socialist currents in the First International that affected socialist movement were Marxism and Lassalleanism. The followers of Karl Marx and the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle were similar in many ways. Both groups considered themselves “scientific socialists,” with an ideology rooted in rational observation of human political and social behavior. Both groups also believed that capitalism was doomed. Moreover, both believed that to defeat capitalism, the proletariat had to move beyond strikes and labor actions and be organized politically. It was on the nature of that proletarian political organization that the Marxists and the Lassalleans disagreed.
The Marxists believed that emphases had to be placed on the trade union movement and the economic pressure of the workers. Unlike the syndicalists, the Marxists did not rule out political organization but they had less faith than the Lassalleans in participation in the capitalist political system. The Lassalleans, on the other hand, believed that the workers could only win gains such as fair wages, shorter working hours, and other rights and benefits at the ballot box and advocated a labor party that participated in elections and fielded candidates for office. Both tendencies would influence Missouri’s socialist movement, although the Lassallean position, with its emphasis on partisan political participation, would certainly come to dominate.
The First International officially disbanded in July 1876. The same month, former members and sympathizers held a Unity Congress and formed the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, with a strong section in St. Louis. The Workingmen’s Party platform reflected a compromise between the Lassalleans and the Marxists.
In Missouri, the height of the Workingmen’s Party’s activism came with the St. Louis Strike of July 1877. Part of the national railroad strike against wage cuts in 1876–1877, the St. Louis strike rapidly turned into a general strike that paralyzed the city’s commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors. Under the leadership of the Workingmen’s Party, the strike spread from railroad employees to the iron and steel industry and even to newsboys on the streets. The demands of the strikers went beyond wages and included demands for an eight‑hour workday and for the end of child labor. At one point, the leaders of the strike were exercising effective control over St. Louis’s municipal government, leading David Roediger to dub it the “St. Louis Commune.”7
In the fall of 1877, the Workingmen’s Party changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). The SLP remained the main socialist organization active in Missouri for many years. The St. Louis branch would provide future leaders for the Socialist Party of Missouri, including Gottlieb Hoehn, Albert Sanderson, and Caleb Lipscomb.
The St. Louis SLP was well organized. African‑Americans participated in a “Colored Section.” The Lassallean doctrine of political action dominated and candidates were fielded in local and state elections. In its early years, the SLP also participated in coalition politics with populist and labor parties and endorsed the Greenback‑Labor Party’s Presidential and Gubernatorial candidates. The Party had an active press, including St. Louis Labor, which became the Party’s national organ and, after 1901, the main publication of the Socialist Party of Missouri. At least thirty‑two local editions of Labor were published throughout the country.8
By the late 1890s, however, the SLP had become less inclusive and more and more under the control of Daniel DeLeon, a dogmatic and sectarian Marxist. DeLeon had a reputation for being less than tolerant with those who disagreed with him. Anti-DeLeonist dissent developed in the SLP’s ranks, leading to the resignation and expulsion of many key members including Lipscomb, Sanderson, and Hoehn. The SLP branch in St. Louis was a center of this faction fight, with St. Louis Labor opposing DeLeon.
A major issue in the controversy was the role to be played by farmers in the socialist movement, The orthodox Marxists who now controlled the SLP did not see a revolutionary role for farmers. Marxists generally regarded the urban industrial proletariat as much better educated and much more enlightened than the rural farmers. Farmers (or “peasants” in the European context) were seen as, at best, essentially conservative and, at worst, a counterrevolutionary force that would abandon the proletarian revolution as soon as its own demands of land reform had been met.
Small landowners, thought the Marxists, were like small capitalists: they wanted to expand their holdings and to become rich. History, they said, showed that the urban proletariat and the rural peasants had opposing class interests. For example, urban workers always wanted low food prices and farmers always wanted higher prices for their produce and better markets for it. The only reliable rural allies of the industrial working class, the Marxists argued, were the non‑landowning farm laborers who exchanged their labor for a wage. In fact, Marx predicted that small farmers would “wither away” under capitalism and would be replaced by a few large landowners who would own “agricultural factories” and employ proletarianized farm laborers.
Yet, any socialist expecting any sort of success in Missouri would have to address the “agrarian question.” After all, by the late 1800s, Missouri had a strong “grass roots” populist movement that addressed the concerns of farmers who resented the power that banks and railroads exercised over their lives. Members of the Missouri SLP, in opposition to DeLeon, sought ways to include small farmers, small businessmen, and other “non‑proletarians” in the “working class” since they were also capitalism’s victims. They sought cooperation with such populist farmers’ groups as the Missouri Alliance.9
Many of those who left the SLP Joined with various state Social Democratic Clubs and others to form a united Socialist Party of America in 1901. A key leader of the Social Democracy movement was Eugene Debs who would run five times as the Socialist Party’s Presidential Candidate. Another Social Democratic was “One‑Hoss” editor W.A. Wayland whose newspaper Coming Nation was actually published for a while in Rich Hill, Missouri. This fusion brought new blood to Missouri’s socialist movement.
While many members of the early socialist movement had been part of the urban, immigrant working‑class, the Social Democrats were more likely to be native‑born, rural, small‑town activists and the so‑called “Redneck Socialists” who, noted Donald Critchow, built a socialist movement with a “revival‑like” spirit in the American South and Midwest. This native‑born socialism was actually a sort of “Americanism” that even turned nativistic at times. Many Midwestern socialists flew the Stars and Stripes just as proudly as they flew the Red Flag. The Socialist Party of Missouri was a diverse organization. There were Marxists, followers of Edward Bellamy, and utopian socialists. Until 1913, there were Wobblies and other syndicalists. The Party’s membership included workers but it also included farmers, small businessmen, and professionals.10
Although many religious leaders and institutions, such as the St. Louis Archdiocese, were critical of socialism and while socialists and other radicals had gained a reputation for anticlericalism and even “militant” atheism, there was an organized “Christian socialist” movement in Missouri whose largely professional and middle‑class members belonged to independent organizations as well as the Socialist Party. These socialists saw social justice as a part of the Christian Gospel. Missouri clergymen like William A. Ward and Edward Henry Eckel were outspoken advocates of socialism in the early twentieth century. Rev. Ward even ran as a Socialist gubernatorial candidate.11
The Christian socialist movement in Missouri preceded the Socialist Party itself. For example, in a November 1897 sermon, Rev. Frank G. Tyrrell, the pastor of St. Louis’s Central Christian Church, condemned the Church for neglecting the workers and the poor. “When the workingmen withdraw from the Church,” declared Tyrrell, “and call for the Christ whose names they have carved over our altars, I am glad.” In response to criticism of his sermon by other clerics, Tyrrell replied: “The burning questions of to‑day are those of social righteousness . . . we have . . . a system of industrial slavery.”12
Several important leaders emerged, including people who had been leaders of the SLP and the Social Democracy movement. These leaders brought to the Missouri Socialist Party their own ideological backgrounds and perspectives. One leader, Gottlieb Hoehn, was described by Gary Fink as the single most influential member of the Socialist Party in St. Louis. Hoehn, a former SLP member, had originally supported DeLeon and was wary of populist participation in the socialist movement. During the faction fight in the 1890s, however, he left the party. A shoemaker born in Bavaria, Hoehn was a veteran of the “Eight‑Hour” movement of 1885–1886 in Baltimore. Marxian in his orientation, he represented the “immigrant” element in the Missouri movement.13
Albert Sanderson and Caleb Lipscomb were much different. Lipscomb was educated and had studied to be a pharmacist. He worked as a schoolteacher and as a small businessman. Sanderson took graduate studies in international relations, worked as a school superintendent, as a lawyer, and in promoting U.S. trade with Mexico. He originally advocated the building of socialism through the establishment of isolated, utopian communities but eventually wound up in the SLP and was a founder of St. Louis Labor.14
Many Missouri socialists were eclectic, rejecting a firm dogmatic ideological line. While some believed that the party should avoid mere reformism and work solely for the establishment of a “cooperative commonwealth” or socialist society, others were more pragmatic. These socialists saw no problem with lobbying for such “immediate demands” as higher wages, better working conditions, better public education, or programs to help farmers, even while capitalism still held state power. Other immediate demands included more responsive government, and the socialists lobbied for such things as direct election of more officials, the right to recall those officials, and the popular referendum or ballot initiative that many Americans now take for granted.
A Missouri socialist leader who best exemplified this eclecticism was William Garver, a Social Democrat who joined the party in 1902. An architect by profession, he became a paid organizer and lecturer for the Socialist Party. A prolific writer, Garver was perhaps Missouri’s best socialist theoretician. Garver studied at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri and later at the University of Missouri. He brought to the party his own background in theosophy and utopian experimentation. A member of a Mexican commune in the 1890s, Garver was also interested in religion, mysticism, the “paranormal,” and the occult. In 1894, he published Brother of the Third Degree, a novel, still read by modern “New Agers,” about a young man’s initiation into a secret, pseudo‑Masonic fraternity whose members were well‑educated, studied “secret knowledge,” and were dedicated to bettering the world.15
Garver’s earlier writings include a design for a cooperative system to replace capitalism. Garver reject militarized or totalitarian cooperative and communitarian models such as those of Lawrence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy. Later, he would also reject the Leninist “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He was, however, influenced by Henry Demarest Lloyd. In Associated Communities and Proportional Industry, Garver proposed a voluntary, cooperative system based on “a system of associated communities, each separate . . . but cooperating in the exchange of products.” It would purchase the means of production instead of forcibly expropriating them. The system would exist alongside the capitalist economy and gain supporters through attraction and persuasion.17
A designer of academic buildings, Garver wrote “Freeland University,” an article about a perfectly designed utopian university where theoretical and practical education were combined. Garver designed both the buildings and the curriculum. This university, wrote Garver, would offer courses in fields ranging “all the way from the most ordinary . . . things of life, to the . . . most transcendental metaphysics and philosophy.”18
Garver’s later writings strongly reflect his role as a socialist educator and apologist. For example, inThe Class Struggle, published by the Coming Nation in 1902, Garver made it clear that the “working class” included not only the urban proletariat but also struggling small farmers and others. He also stressed that the American “middle class” was declining and that soon there would be only the ruling and working classes.19
Socialism in Brief was a response to the antisocialist propaganda of the Citizen’s Industrial Association, an organization of Missouri businessmen and the Catholic Church. In this pamphlet, Garver attempted to correct many of the misconceptions that people had about socialism, including the charge that socialism was for the abolition of law and order, and that it was “anti‑family” and anti‑religion. Garver also stressed that socialism did not mean the complete abolition of private and personal property.20
Socialism, then, was a strong force in Missouri’s labor and reform movements in the 1800s and early 1900s. Missouri’s socialist movement was highly diverse and heterogeneous. As it developed, it included native‑born Americans as well as immigrants. It greatly expanded the definition of the “working class” and addressed issues important to farmers, professionals, intellectuals, and urban workers. Through socialist participation in elections, labor unions, and even churches, the movement’s influence was greater than the number of socialists who were formal members of a socialist organization.
It was a pragmatic movement. While many if not most Missouri socialists advocated the end of capitalism and its accompanying exploitation, they also realized that the immediate, violent overthrow of the system was not a viable option. Missouri socialists, like many American socialists, preferred to work peacefully and, as much as possible, through the system. On the other hand, while it was greatly influencedby the Lassallean idea of a “labor party,” the Missouri movement was largely a “two pronged” movement that combined political activism with labor and community “grass roots” activism. Realizing that the peaceful establishment of a “cooperative commonwealth” might take some time, Missouri’s socialists lobbied both government and employers with their “immediate demands” that would improve their lives in the meantime.
World War I, schism, and U.S. Justice Department persecution all helped to diminish the influence of American socialism by the 1920s, although the movement revived somewhat during the Great Depression. Nowadays, the memory of American socialism is fading fast and the term “socialist” has been, at best, equated with economic and bureaucratic inefficiency and at worst, with totalitarianism and brutality.
Yet, there was a time when millions of Americans had a vision of fairness and the willingness to pursue it. They were not just dreamers. They believed they could devise and implement a new cooperative social system that would work in practice. It would be incorrect to say that Missouri’s socialists failed in their quest for social justice. The organized labor movement in St. Louis, which was built in large part by socialist activists, is still strong. Many demands made by the socialists, such as a minimum wage, the right to collectively bargain and strike, and better work safety are all now taken for granted by most Missourians and indeed, by most Americans. Political reforms advocated by many socialists are now part of state constitutions, including Missouri’s.
Nor have the feelings and the passion of the early Missouri socialists faded away. Many Missourians and other Americans still have a vision of a better future. Wide gaps between rich and poor still rankle many people. The struggle is still being fought in the area of curbing corporate misconduct and in civil rights and liberties. Privileges of wealth, when they are obtained at the expense of other Americans, still seem to go against the “American” grain and American ideas of fairness and justice, just as they have for decades. The story of Missouri’s socialists is part of that American heritage of struggle for a better society.
© E. Scott Cracraft