Nearly one hundred years ago, socialism was on the rise in America. Registration for the Socialist Party of America (SPA) peaked at over 100,000 members in 1912. Socialist leaders were elected to local and state offices all over the country, ranging from Santa Cruz, California, to Curranville, Kansas, to Charleston, West Virginia. Interest stayed high for the remainder of the decade, with dues-paying members in the tens of thousands.
However, this started to change in 1919 when America went through its first Red Scare. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had started several years earlier and would not be concluded until 1923. In combination with other factors like increased labor strikes and self-proclaimed "anarchists" mailing bombs to prominent Americans, the government started to crack down on "radical" organizations. Thousands were arrested and deported. This stigmatization and violence, in combination with the SPA's "unpatriotic" anti-war stance during WWI, meant that dues-paying members were halved in the following years, and socialist politicians all over the country lost their seats.
Yet somehow, amid declining membership and greater hostility to socialism, there was a socialist stronghold carved out in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, in the late 1920s, which had entrenched socialist leadership there for years. When we look at this chapter of American history, it reminds us not only how much more complex US history is, but how to build political power for an ideology that's outside the mainstream.
It might be hard for some to believe this even happened. Many Americans do not have a favorable opinion of the word “socialism.” According to a recent Axios/Momentive poll, only 41% of those surveyed claimed to view socialism positively (though this number is growing and admittedly higher among younger people). This grim outlook is partly due to that Red Scare propaganda we discussed earlier. In the past (and now), socialism has been likened to an ever-creeping menace infecting the heart of American society. Many men and women who were reared on that belief are now in positions of power today, which impacts our entire conversation about socialism.
Yet despite the ideology of socialism arguably being even more widely disliked during the 1920s, it could still find a home in places like Reading, Pennsylvania (the other two cities often cited during this time are Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Bridgeport, Connecticut). In 1927, the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania (SPP) captured the city council, the mayorship, several seats on the school board and many other seats in the municipality. In later years, they would successfully send representatives to the State Assembly and even had a woman candidate unsuccessfully vie for the governorship (Lilith Martin Wilson).
The reasons for this success were varied. Firstly, the SPP had impressive organization and leadership. Even before their parent organization, the SPA, granted them a charter in 1902, labor activists in the area were involved with groups like the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party. The SPP established its own newspaper (The Labor Advocate) and committed to recruiting people during street corner speeches, parties and more.
After being chartered, it took another decade of committed SPP organizing before they could put forth a full slate of municipal-level candidates (something that takes ongoing commitment). Their mayoral candidate, John Henry Stump, was well-liked by his constituents, and he was able to rewin his mayorship into the 1940s, well after the SPP had started to fracture.
Another prominent SPP activist was James H. Maurer, who started in those aforementioned Knights of Labor circles. He spent decades organizing in the Reading township before achieving any electoral results. Maurer was seen as a charismatic leader and a driving force behind the SPP's success. As scholar Raymond J. Phillips writes:
Older Readingites recall Jim Maurer as a forceful and persuasive speaker who had no peer on the public platform. … This writer offers the opinion that in the absence of Maurer, the Reading Socialists would not have been as successful as they were. While Mayor Stump was a highly personable individual, he was not a particularly effective organizer and administrator, and he depended upon the forceful leadership of men like Maurer to carry him through.
Secondly, a considerable part of SPP's success was that there was also a keen sense of community among Reading's socialists. The SPP frequently hosted parties and picnics, even purchasing a park and renaming it Socialist Park. This work and the vital fundraising that often went with it were predominantly the work of the SPP's women, particularly the Berks County Women's Political Committee, and its many iterations. This committee, although underappreciated, was essential for handling many of the non-electoral and political functions of the organization. It cannot be overstated how vital fundraising was to providing the SPP with a regular income.
Thirdly, and maybe most pressing, local leadership was very savvy about tying their movement to issues the town's working class supported (note, there was a sexist and racist undertone to this). A big issue the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania campaigned on during the election of 1925 revolved around municipal finances. Many working-class voters were facing rising housing costs, preferring to own rather than rent and, therefore, as scholar Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr. put it, "[were] very sensitive to the problems of municipal debt and taxation." Socialists used this to their advantage, portraying the Democratic administration as wasteful. The SPP positioned itself as against issuing more municipal bonds. They put out a four-page weekly bulletin in the Labor Advocate called "The Loan Question," describing how they would reduce these costs for the working-class voter by advocating for a pay-as-you-go model for spending.
While the SPP didn't capture any seats in 1925, all the bond issues submitted for a vote were rejected as well. This success in messaging encouraged the party to run again in the following election cycles, where they heavily focused on the Democratic administration's perceived wastefulness. This message was hammered home repeatedly until finally, in 1927, the SPP swept the board with both the mayorship and the city council.
Unsurprisingly, a significant concern of mayor John Henry Stump's administration was making sure that the tax burden was not placed more heavily on working-class property owners. For example, a big selling point of Stump's plan for a new City Hall was it being allegedly under budget. Stump renovated an old high school instead of building a new City Hall from scratch, which appears to have been cheaper. His administration also tried and failed to create a "scientific" establishment of property values. This would have led to tax savings, that although lower for everyone, were proportionally more significant for smaller property owners (e.g., working-class homeowners).
However, this desire for a small tax burden does not mean that Stump cut back services in the same way conservatives try to when campaigning on lower taxes. During his administration, many services were expanded, such as a municipal purchasing office, a street cleaning service, a machine shop, and more. His administration also fundamentally changed how payment worked for many municipal positions by moving towards salaries, which was deemed more economically efficient. The SPP made many improvements, but Stump’s administration was adamant that the costs of those new services not be passed on to their preferred constituency, which in this case was (white, male) working-class homeowners.
However, I want to stress that these policies were built on the racism and sexism of this period, which should not be emulated or admired. There were things done that we would consider abhorrent by today's standards, such as how Stump's administration cracked down harshly on sex work the moment he entered office. Though not barred from running for positions, white women were far from equitably treated compared with their male peers. The absence of Brown and Black individuals in the literature I researched on this subject also speaks to the discrimination that existed. Such policies are not only morally repugnant, but are partly the reason for the party's collapse in the region.
The SPP declined in Reading due to a combination of factors. Their control was always tenuous, as both major parties were against them from the start. The local Democratic and Republican parties teamed up together multiple times to defeat the socialist party's municipal slate in both the elections of 1917 and 1931. These "fusion" tickets were tough to overcome when the two parties were able to pull them off and continue to be a threat for socialist candidates in the present day (see India Walton's 2021 race).
When the Great Depression hit, Mayor Stump was the incumbent — a curveball that his administration was not prepared for. Stump’s insistence on rejecting any relief effort funded via tax increases, under the rationale that it would place a more significant burden on working-class homeowners, allowed the opposition to paint his administration as cold and heartless. Stump tried to raise funds privately, but these efforts turned out to be insufficient. Defeated, he had to direct those in need to ask the county for help, paving the way for the Democratic-Republican-fusion victory in 1931. The Socialists would regain power eventually, winning an upset victory in 1935, but it placed their party out of the majority for several cycles.
It’s difficult to say what would have happened if Stump had acted differently here. Would it have made a difference if he’d accepted a publicly financed relief effort? Given the unique stresses of the Great Depression, it's possible that he would have been swept out of office no matter what. Still, his insistence on serving working-class homeowners over his other constituents certainly didn't help.
Another reason the SPP suffered was that the political climate had been altered by the success of the New Deal. FDR's establishment of massive public works projects and financial reforms like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Glass-Steagall Act and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) cut into the SPP's base. Again, in the words of scholar Raymond J. Phillips, "Norman Thomas, the party's presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948, has attributed the decline to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In Reading, too, it appears that the Democratic party has had a stronger appeal for the younger generation than has the Socialist party. …"
Lastly, and probably most importantly, a big blow to not just SPP membership but SPA overall had to do with infighting. A major turf war was waged nationally and locally between the party's "Old Guard" and the more radical "militants," leading to the SPP fracturing a year after their triumphant victory in 1935. These militants, also referred to as "leftists," had a general desire for the party to accept more explicitly Communist principles. This split would turn out to be irreconcilable, as many of the Old Guard would leave in 1936 to form the Social Democratic Federation, reluctantly endorsing Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt for president that year (a decision arguably fueled partially by resentment of the now "militant" SPA).
There are many reasons for this divide, both ideologically and personally. However, in terms of Reading, this tension was not helped by the sexism within the party. There was a contingent of women "militants" who did not feel appreciated by their male comrades. This feeling was, in many ways, valid. Just like they would be in most contemporary organizations, SPP women were often stigmatized, making equal participation in the organization difficult. The following information from William C. Pratt's work, "Women and American Socialism: The Reading Experience," shows a huge gender discrepancy in committee members. This gap is even more striking once you realize that most female committee positions came from the Women's Committee.
This lack of representation made several women leftists resentful of the SPP, to the point that after the fracture, many of them turned their back on socialist politics altogether. Some female leftists found they would rather support the Democratic Party than be led by the Old Guard. In the words of scholar William C. Pratt:
Now known in some circles as the Mostellerites (after Clara Mosteller), they began to endorse Democratic candidates rather than their former colleagues and most of them ended up in the Democratic Party by 1940. … No longer Socialists, the “Mostellerites” apparently were consumed with bitterness and rage against their old comrades and slowly faded out of the Reading Socialist picture.
Again, this resentment was understandable in some ways. The Old Guard kept a tight hold on power. Men like Jim Maurer and John Henry Stump had been in charge of the SPP's direction in Reading for over a quarter-century, and they had no desire to relinquish power. Longtime leftist activists such as Charles Sands and Fred Merkel began rallying opposition and eventually supported the militants. Merkel would help coauthor a controversial pamphlet titled Rule or Ruin, accusing Old Guarders of trying to maintain “oligarchic control of the local.”
In some ways, Merkel was right. After a few turbulent local meetings and an incendiary national convention, Old Guard Readingites attempted to freeze the left out of their local party's affairs — at one point dramatically expelling leftist delegates from a state convention for "constitutional irregularities." The Old Guard, no longer recognized by the national party due to the schism with the leftists, waged a constant battle in '36 to maintain control of SPP assets like the Labor Advocate, the party office and Socialist Park.
For all these reasons and more, the Socialist Party of Pennsylvania started to lose steam in Reading and quickly. A few years later, in 1938, they lost majority control of the municipality in a landslide defeat. Only Stump would enjoy reelection in the late 1940s, which was more due to his popularity than to Readingites’ belief in the socialist party.
By 1965 the number of socialist party members in Reading was about 25. The Socialist Party of America would cease to exist by 1972, changing its name to Social Democrats, USA, with two caucuses spinning out into separate organizations (i.e., Socialist Party USA and The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a precursor to the DSA).
In modern times, I could not find much activity in Reading amongst the Social Democrats, USA, and the Socialist Party USA. I reached out to both organizations, but neither responded in time to be included in this article. The DSA does appear to have a small but active chapter in Berks County, which, as recently as December 2021, hosted a bowling fundraiser a 20-minute drive from Reading's downtown.
When we examine the history of Reading, Pennsylvania, many of the issues probably sound pretty familiar: socialism is still viewed suspiciously by the majority of Americans (though unlike during the SPP's time, that trend is reversing); Democrats and Republicans seem united in crushing leftist opposition; infighting also exists as strongly as it has in any period. We see from this history that these issues are not confined to the past. We can learn important lessons from the successes and failures of the socialist movement in Reading.
For one, the SPP successfully fought for policies that appealed to a working-class constituency, even if that strategy sometimes proved to be too narrow at times. National issues are all well and good, but to win on the local level, it's clear that campaigning on issues your constituency cares about matters slightly more. Without sacrificing their values, men like Stump, at least initially, tailored their rhetoric and policies to work within their community's local political ecosystem.
Unlike Stump, however, we have to try to be flexible when another disruption inevitably hits. The SPP was ill-prepared for the coming of the Great Depression. Like today, the Republican and Democratic parties could swoop in and reclaim power (temporarily at first, before securing a more permanent victory in '38). Socialists cannot just grab seats when times are good. They have to prove to constituents that they are best for navigating the bad times as well. Will Americans turn to socialists during the coming disruptions that climate change will bring, or will they drift towards an increasingly xenophobic, corporatist right?
Additionally, as socialists, we must welcome and include as many identities as possible into the fold. When we continue to exclude comrades for identities such as their gender, race, age or sexuality, it creates resentments that are very difficult to resolve. Leadership must be willing to let new blood into the fold, or new and old members alike will defect, weakening our base and political brand.
I always have wondered what would have happened if men like Stump and Maurer had made a genuine effort to make their more resentful comrades feel included in the decision-making? Would the SPP, and even the SPA, survive past 1938 to be more than a shell of its former self?
We will never know the answer to that question, but hopefully, we do not have to ask it next time.