“The time will come when mass anger must be reckoned with… the day seems not far ahead.” – from “Revolt,” in October, 1932.
“Socialism was the future,” – from “Dissent,” in 1954.
Democrats’ disillusionment following the 2004 election can’t compare to that of American socialists, whose hopes and dreams have been dashed and trampled for much longer than a four-year presidential term.
In the 1990s, the demise of communist regimes, the moderation of Europe’s social democratic states, and the increasingly conservative American landscape complicated life for socialist citizens. The Soviet Union’s fall finally sent the world into the new order radicals had yelled about for almost a century, but instead of a utopia of solidarity, this one saw market economies expand through Middle Eastern pipelines as western-style democracies globalized into former totalitarian nations.
The successes of capitalism and commercialism over utopian idealism presented problems for would-be socialists, whose ideas and strategies quickly turned obsolete. The international structure’s still developing away from traditional leftist values, and socialism seemingly must adapt itself to the new rules if it wishes to remain relevant, redefining itself to the spirit of the times. But in the new order, who knows how to define it as an ideology?
Not that I ever knew what it was in the first place. While finding satori, Jesus, or Allah is an enlightening and wonderful, instinctive experience, finding Bakunin, Marx, or Lenin is more cumbersome. An anarchistic friend last year lent me “God and the State” and “The Communist Manifesto,” but the former put me to sleep after three pages and the manifesto still leans unopened against my worn-down copy of the Lord of the Rings. Ever since I hit puberty, roughly ten years ago, I’ve been calling myself a socialist, and throughout junior high school I probably even believed I was one. Now, I’m not so sure.
Navigating through leftist definitions is difficult and boring. The specific distinctions between a communist and a socialist, a syndicalist and an anarchist, or either of those two and anarcho-syndicalists, I don’t know. They’re as unknown to me as the general socialist concept, posing several questions in need of answers. The Internet’s one pathway to enlightenment, another is the MSU library, although that’s online nowadays as well.
It’s easy to find sources and documents through the library’s search engine, and I automatically go through the motions as I’ve often done before, typing “socialist and periodicals” into it. The on-screen page changes to show a much longer list of hits than I expected. I effortlessly decode the call numbers for the magazines locations and prepare to retrieve them. But a closer study of the list reveals something I’ve never seen before. All the publications are in the “Special Collections room.” An avid reader and self-admitted geek, I’ve borrowed thousands of books during my three years at the university, but I’ve never been to the Special Collections room. I’ve heard they have a good comic book collection, but nothing about radical periodicals. Furthermore, it’s in the basement: unexplored territory. I’ve always gone up the stairs, who likes heading down?
Now, I do just that, leaving the upper world and its sunlight behind, entering darkness. The basement’s fluorescent lights blandly illuminate its bookshelves and tables, rending the atmosphere artificial and surreal. Random people sit poised over books as if petrified; and the Special Collections room is out of sight. Whereas each of the other floors consists of one giant and easily navigated room, the basement is a labyrinth. Turning the first corner, I see arrows pointed toward my destination. I follow their trail past withering theses and oversized dissertations, finally reaching a heavy rust colored metal door with an archaic sign saying “Patriarch Room.” Taking a deep breath, I press the handle. Bright- almost blinding- light streams out the frame, enfolding me as the door closes.
I. Ghosts And Goblins
“Hello,” somebody says in a voice barely stronger than a whisper.
I turn my head to find a friendly little white-haired hobgoblin of a man gazing up at me from behind a desk.
“What can I do for you today?” he asks.
“A lot,” I say, showing him my list of publications.
The hobgoblin smiles.
“Well, we don’t do that,” he says. “What’s your research topic?”
“American Radicalism.”
He nods, and murmurs something I can’t quite make out. It sounds like a joke about turning me in to the authorities. Laughing neutrally, I fill out the checkout-form with name, address, student number, and the magazines’ call numbers. The hobgoblin frowns.
“I’ve never seen call numbers like that before,” he says before showing me where to put my coat and belongings; only notebooks and pencils are allowed at the reading tables, and the research materials must not be removed from the room. “I’ll be back in a second.”
He walks the length of the cramped room, which is bordered by polished wooden walls and glass cabinets, easily evading the reading tables: six along the walls, and a big one in the middle. He disappears through a door with a small window revealing only the slightest amount of their mysterious vault. There is no telling how big it is, for all I know it could stretch for miles, down to even deeper catacombs and chambers filled with all the knowledge of the natural and supernatural world: the ghosts of cultures and movements long past. My answers are in there, but I am not allowed to enter.
As I wait, I stroll past the glass containers, each representing one of the special collections. I disregard the cookeries, merely glance at the natural histories, but stop at the popular culture cabinet. It has over 140,000 items, according to the information sheet, a lot of them comic books.
“It looks like a nerd’s paradise,” I note to myself. They probably even have anime.
Finally, I get to the American Radicalism display. It holds a few examples of feminist magazines, showcasing the diversity of the collection, which “includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, posters, and ephemeral material covering a wide range of viewpoints on political, social, and economic issues in American life.” Some of the materials cover extreme rightist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, but most are leftist collectibles, a good size of which document the evolution of socialism during its formative years.
American socialism boomed three times in the 20th century: in the 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s. Sharp declines followed every wave, sinking the movement a little lower each time, as a receding tide. In contrast to in Europe, American socialism never really found its feet, and scholars generally agree on the underlying reasons:
In 1919, following the Russian Bolshevik revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union, the conservative and militant factions within America’s socialist party finally split it in half. The ensuing enmity between the new communists, their former socialist “comrades,” and smaller radical groups like the syndicalists, divided support and halted significant progress for all parties.
As early as the 1920s, the Soviet Union and its affiliated U.S. party presented a threat to high- and middlebrow America. This threat was connected to the socialists by their communist rivals and amplified by mainstream politicians. Because of international evolution, the far left generated fear and suspicion, which would escalate to extreme proportions in the following decades, characterized by the Red Scare.
Possibly the largest factor, however, was the ideological thievery of Franklin D. Roosevelt for his New Deal, a plan for social reforms which somewhat resembled those of European welfare states. In the economically ravaged Depression era America, the New Deal borrowed from traditional socialist demands, taking some of the monetary support for the poor, but none of the radicalism. To casual observers, the socialists had nothing special to offer but aggression; and in a two-party political system, the leftists kept sliding to into the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and beyond.
II – Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup
Trends in socialist journalism initially mirrored the political climate, especially in weeklies and magazines, which had formats perfect for ideological commentary. Stylistically freer than newspapers, magazines allowed for personal and subjective coverage beyond mere facts, while remaining journalistically valid and dependable. While socialist dailies could be discarded as propagandistic, that weakness was the strength of contemporary weeklies and monthlies.
When the hobgoblin returns out the windowed door, he pushes a rackety cart full of such publications ahead of him. Most are bound in hardcover volumes, but the really old ones come in boxes and plastic slips.
The Comrade, founded around the turn of the century, followed the times’ dominating periodical style of blending graphic and literary commentary in an easily digestible and intellectually accessible mix for both the educated elite and the illiterate. Riddled with cartoons, it matched personal reports with criticism and opinionated discussions, closing each issue with seemingly mandatory book reviews, which would remain a hallmark for socialist magazines even after all literary style and humor had retired for the sake of numeral statistics and finger pointing.
Interestingly, despite the periodical’s obvious left leaning professions, even “comrades” couldn’t do without a little commercialism. Advertisements were few and small, but were present. For example, an 1905 ad called out to mothers – not once or twice, but three times; with excessive use of exclamation points – to buy “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.” It “soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind colic… it is the best remedy for diarrhea.” A universal cure it would seem, but why then would we need to socialize health care if we have this syrup?
“Wonder if it applies to more than just personal health?” I ponder. “The world could use some good syrup these days.”
My head swivels up at the sound of the heavyset entrance door opening. The hobgoblin quickly makes his way across the room to welcome the new arriver, sliding smoothly through the small space between my chair and the wall. The newcomer stays dazedly at the door, squinting through the light at the little creature coming toward him. In his early 20s, he looks like a 1985 political commentator: with a square-shaped news anchor’s haircut, big glasses, and a heavy black jacket.
“Hi,” he says, in a high-pitched Jerry Seinfeld-voice.
“Hello,” the hobgoblin replies. ”What can I do for you today?”
“I’ve heard you have a really good comic book collection.”
“Yes, but this resource is not open to the public. Student’s only.”
“Oh, okay. It’s just that my friend told me….”
The two go on for minutes, discussing early issues of Spiderman and other comic book characters unknown to me. The hobgoblin gets visibly exited at the prospect of a lengthy discussion, his face reddening and voice growing almost audible. The conversation turns into a monologue, the newcomer only pitching in short phrases:
“Huh!? Oh!? I see! Fascinating! Wow!”
“Yes,” I think, “why care about politics when you have comic books.”
Putting away The Comrade, I open one of the biggest boxes, which holds the 1913-1917 volumes of The Masses, drawing a thick layer of dust onto my shirtsleeve. When the hobgoblin dumped the magazine onto my table he informed me it’s one of the Special Collections’ most prized possessions because of its colored political cartoons.
The Masses coincided with the peak of the socialist party. In 1910, socialist mayors governed 33 American cities, including Berkely, Calif. and Flint, Mich. Two years later, the party counted 118, 000 members; and its leader, Eugene Debs, polled 879, 000 votes in the presidential election. That was six percent of the total. The socialists sent representatives to several state legislatures, and even one Victor Berger out of Wisconsin to the U.S. Congress.
Socialist periodicals in the English language approximated 270, most of them small in scope and circulation. Like most minority-identified magazines, they depended on financial contributions from friends and philanthropists to keep running. Few lasted longer than three or four years, and those that did would often change their names.
The Masses eventually became The Liberator, after long legal battles with the Associated Press and the Department of Justice barred it from the postal service and sent its editors to several trials in 1918 for “conspiracy against the government.” The editors walked free, but the magazine was condemned.
For most of its published time, it was both political and literary, with a definitive focus on visuals, artwork, short stories, and poetry. Outside sources mostly contributed the poems, but several issues (perhaps all of them) included a full page with the lyrics of the editor, Max Eastman, a leading radical intellectual and former philosophy professor at Columbia. For example, the January 1913 issue opens with a poem, printed over a drawing of two women, one draped in a long cloth and one in the nude, lounging in front of two dark rock pillars in a dusky desert landscape:
One line reads, “Truth rises startle-eyed out of a tomb, and we are dumb…”
“Damn, she’s hot!” I think, studying the naked woman. “… for a cartoon.”
“…A death-bell tolls, and we still shudder round the too smooth bed, for Truth makes pallid watch above the dead…”
“That pillar in the background looks like Stephen King’s Dark Tower!”
“…Light and the garish life, and we are brave, for Truth sinks wanly down into her grave, yet the heart yearns.”
“It sure does.”
For all its smarts and good humor, The Masses remained radically critical and propagandistic in its core. This most clearly showed in its satirical cartoons. A recurrent theme, the drawings typically portrayed the petty and downright evil nature of fat men symbolizing either the bourgeois, the authorities, or both. For example, one 1913 cartoon pictured a giant policeman with a belt buckle imprinted with “U.S.” He sits on a tiny old working man, called “the striker,” sinking his blood streaked bayonet into the latter’s arm. The sky above them is red, filled with smoking black industrial chimneys. A bearded old man dressed in tweed, called a “serene on-looker,” complacently puffs on his pipe while watching the scene.
“Very unfortunate situation,” he says to the striker, “but whatever you do, don’t use force.”
While The Masses was guilty of representing themselves rather than their ideological base (a common fault in socialist publications) its editors’ narcissism didn’t nearly reach the magnitude visible in other common types of contemporary magazines: those published by and in the name of leading socialist intellectuals. Eugene Debs had Debs H. Gaylord Wilshire had Wilshire’s, and Upton Sinclair had Upton Sinclair’s.
Sinclair, who in 1934 won California’s Democratic nomination for governor after several unsuccessful runs as a socialist, was a notable public figure, one more moderate than his ideological peers. His magazine primarily served as an outlet for the opinions of his and his wife’s, but still drew contributions and letters from celebrities like the novelist H.G. Wells and the popular newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken, although the latter dispensed pleasantries in his commentary.
While the socialist party loudly and vehemently opposed American intervention in the World War I, Sinclair openly supported it. Discussions about the war frequented his periodical and set him apart from the larger organization, especially its militant wing, which ultimately formed the communist party.
Upton Sinclair’s only lasted a few years, not long past the division of the socialist party. Though preachy and self-involved, as well as distinct from the opinions of the party, it articulated the core issue of socialism, what Sinclair called his message of Social Justice:
“If you really want to do away with the horrors of Armageddon, you have to abolish exploitation, you have to drive poverty from the earth; you have to change the ideas and ideals – not merely of German Junkers, but of American gentlemen, business-men, merchants and masters of affairs. You have to do away with the power of any man, anywhere, to make his comfort and his glory out of the necessities of others; you have to discredit, once and for all time, those pecuniary standards of culture, which estimate the excellence of people’s happiness he can possess and destroy.”
Sinclair’s magazine ended along with the most prosperous era of the socialist movement, concluding the first chapter of leftist journalism. Periodicals between 1900 and 1920 were intellectual, humorous, literary, poetic, visual, personal and accessible to many if not quite the mainstream. The period’s dubbed “The Golden Age,” but, given the socialist party’s comparatively puny success, it better resembles yellow mica. Even so, one tiny nugget of that was worth millions compared to what followed.
III – A Separating Symposium
“I’ve been told you have a really good comic book collection.”
Another visitor has arrived, stating her business at the front desk. She seems a part of a trend.
“Comic books are obviously popular.”
Conversely, the leftist press of the 1920s did their best to turn off readers, as membership in the socialist party dwindled. Already, in 1922, ten years after the party’s peak, it counted only 11, 273 members. Its faithful remainders saw their multifaceted periodicals lose most sense of humor and humility, turning into vehicles for intra-leftist squabbles. Respect for the uneducated disappeared, replaced by poorly masked condescension; the beautiful visuals disappeared, never to return, replaced by statistical tables; descriptive lyrics disappeared, replaced by numerals, percentages, and a newfound love for the word “symposium.” As the new socialist leader Norman Thomas steered the party along a more intellectual course, the press embraced academia’s scientific aspects, discarding all artistry.
Photographs seldom appeared. Insufficient finances probably contributed to the infrequency, given the magazines’ small circulations and revenues, but the extreme length of many articles implied that the writers had too much to say to allow space for pictures.
Whereas the commentaries of the golden age showed signs of optimism for the future, the anger and broadness of the journalistic language in the subsequent decades suggested growing indifference and hopelessness. The movement successively lost influence, despite a boom in membership in the early 1930s, and thereby also lost its need to appeal to mainstream audiences. Socialist magazines grew increasingly radical in tone, boiling down their enemies to two Cs: Communism and Capitalism, commonly capitalized for emphasis.
Nowhere was this as visible as in student magazines such as Revolt, first published in 1932. Revolt’s rhetoric included key phrases like “the new order,” and appointed socialism as “our only hope of averting catastrophe and establishing plenty, peace, and freedom.” Uncharacteristically, however, the magazine showed some distance to its convictions by changing its name to The Student Outlook after a few issues.
Students, its editors announced, “felt it was more important to sell our magazine and convince by its content than to shout ‘revolution’ and have no one listen.”
An insightful measure, but it didn’t work. Neither did its example grow to become a journalistic standard. For instance, 43 years later, The Campaigner’s November cover showed heavily armed soldiers marching westward from the Soviet Union over a dark map of Europe. The issue contained only a 35-page defense of Stalinism by the Labor Party’s presidential candidate, Lyndon Larouche, who in 2004 ran for the Democratic nomination. Though unable to match that extreme, today’s radicals still grapple with the problem college kids solved 70 years ago.
However one perceives the far left, it can at least not be accused of watering down its standards or being overly accessible. The socialist media made no attempts to hide their disdain for the people they were fighting for, not in the 1930s, 1940s, or anytime after.
“The American working and middle classes are, politically and economically, among the most illiterate in the world,” proclaimed The Student Outlook in 1932.
“All the workers in the U.S. including the politically backward, i.e. the majority among them…,” wrote The Modern Monthly in 1933.
The magazines reduced proletarians to doddering idiots who couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly and cast what Student called “intelligent votes.” At best, the press treated workers as unruly but well-meaning children in need of parental guidance:
“In our era, the technostructure and intellectuals will always serve another class,” wrote Monthly Review in 1968. “It is the job of radicals today, in our country, to make that the working class!”
Monthly Review continued a trend that was visible in the early issues of The Modern Monthly and its 1930s contemporaries, in which the articles’ focus slid from the U.S. over the Atlantic, to countries where socialism was a viable political alternative.
“Socialism is an international movement,” Revolt’s creators had decided, but as time progressed, its community increasingly excluded America. Parties and people in Albania, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, and even South Africa garnered more interest than the domestic population. The magazines’ had completely detached themselves from their audience.
IV – Icebergs And Ice Picks
Whereas detachment from the working populace was undesirable, socialists gladly widened distances from other groups and organizations. Early on, intellectual socialist publications like Partisan Review consequently cut all ties to the communists and Stalin, from whom they desperately but unsuccessfully tried to disassociate themselves. This most clearly expressed itself in an escalating interest and support for Leon Trotsky, the exiled Soviet revolutionary leftists turned to for ideological refuge as the reality in the Soviet Union grew worse. Periodicals frequently analyzed Trotskyism and compared it to Stalinism, printing Trotsky’s essays even after he was murdered in 1940.
“A successful ideology apparently must have a martyr. It doesn’t matter whether its founder helps form one of the most oppressive states in modern history as long as he’s stabbed to death with an ice pick.”
This schism added to the tip of the socialist iceberg as Sen. Joseph McCarthy steered America toward an intense “red scare.” The internal strife and external pressures then proved insurmountable for the party, despite The Fourth International’s 1952 prediction of “the failure of U.S. imperialism” and “the doom of capital.” So when Labor Action in 1957 asked “Can the left unite?” the answer was visible to all but the blind.
Thus, when Irving Howe and his Dissent entered the magazine market in 1954, they remained independent of parties and organizations. Discarding propaganda, Dissent’s writers analyzed and contemplated around the union of socialism and democracy. Without an overlying agenda, the magazine took no responsibility for the content of its articles; its contributors, including many big names like Norman Mailer, were as independent of the magazine as it was of the socialist movement. The Dissenters thereby created not only their own brands of socialism, but of socialist journalism as well. Benefiting from writing in a climate where socialism was as far from the power as possible, Dissent found an opening for serious criticisms and refinements of the old and rigid ideology which weren’t voiced in Europe.
“I wonder if it’s still around. If it is, it might need to improve its marketing technique.”
Exhausted, I fold my reading materials before stacking them back onto the cart from which they came. Slipping The Masses into their boxes, I notice a sticker I’d initially missed.
“The Masses has not aged well as a physical artifact,” it says. “In fact, few original paper copies remain anywhere.”
“Kind of similar to socialism, then,” I think, only to realize that it more closely resembles youthful idealism. Cynicism eventually calls on everyone but the religiously devout and the clinically insane, but it reaches the socialist before anyone else, possibly excepting aspiring actresses and WWE-wrestler wannabes. The ideology hasn’t disappeared, but people’s faith in it has. It’s hard to be a pragmatic and realistic adult while investing energy in losing causes.
“Socialism demands too much: too much time and too much thinking,” I decide, before the hobgoblin’s voice snatches me away from my thoughts.
“You all set?” he asks.
Before leaving, I watch him push the cart back through the windowed door. When it opens I catch a glimpse of someone moving through the vault, a man I haven’t seen since I was small. After the door slams shut I stare at it in stunned amazement. The man had once been my biggest obsession, before turning into my greatest disappointment: I’d lost faith in him before I even knew politics existed. He’d looked just like I remembered him, but for his tight green shirt. Short and round, his hair was long and white, just like his bushy beard. I’d thought he was dead, but now I know better. Santa Claus lives in the MSU Library’s basement.
V – Antisocial
The woman at the main library’s circulation desk pauses after scanning my book through the computer system.
“This is an old book,” she says apologetically. “I’ll be right back..”
She returns after a minute to stamp a photocopy of my Student ID and the names of the borrowed book and its author. My face as it was three years ago is right there on the paper, next to the 1968 volume of Monthly Review: An independent socialist magazine: a 20-year-old freshman staring angrily at the library stamp swishing down toward him.
The clerk hands me the book, but keeps the “receipt.” In a pre-PATRIOT Act America, I would’ve thought nothing of it, but now I can’t help but feel as if I just signed my deportation papers. Exiting to the dreary Fall evening, I fear that my face will be faxed to the CIA headquarters, sending men in black suits, tanned sunglasses and white headpieces aboard private jets destined to East Lansing before I even have time to reach my door. Crossing the street outside, I wonder if the agents drive one of the oncoming cars mockingly glaring their headlights in my face. I regret not having said goodbye to my family. Nearby, the clock tower ominously strikes the hour:
Modern socialists don’t live on the fringe of America’s political landscape, they live outside of it. Ever since the 1930s, and increasingly after the 1960s, the ideological measuring stick tilts steeper and steeper, sliding the moderate right across its middle and shoving the left completely off its edge. Consequently, the modern leftist is a Democrat. Ralph Nader’s as close to socialism publicly known politicians will get, and even he hasn’t managed to poll as well as Debs did in 1912. Socialism’s invisible in the new world order, and the common man has no idea what it is.
Learning anything takes effort, especially if it runs contrary to mainstream values. Socialism’s “Dangerous” teachings’ nature makes them even less reachable. Hence, the story of socialism is locked away in a basement, accessible solely through a hobgoblin, and by students only. There it will remain until it becomes a greater priority than comic book collections.
The most interesting information about the socialist movement trailed off after the 1930s, because it was primarily a movement the early 20th century. The confrontational hard core aimed a bazooka at its own foot, blowing it off before it took steady steps. How can quotes like The Modern Monthly’s “Gradually building socialism alongside of capitalism brings only shameful defeat” otherwise be explained? Add internal strife, and the socialist movement was sure to stay in its cradle, never progressing beyond a crawl. Socialism was the future, now it’s the past.
Minority movements’ voices are their media. The steady breakdown of socialist journalism left its supporters nearly mute. The traditional problems, like aversion to visuals, are still noticeable if not quite as bad as before. Against The Current, published out of Detroit, is a good example of periodicals wasting spotlight opportunities on creaky, stilted writing and topics Americans can’t relate to, like political corruption in Mexico. Such judgments might be too hard, however, as the limitations of small magazines likely represent lack of dollars rather than talent or good will. The media’s role is not to create opinion; a large-scale movement must precede it.
Many socialist intellectuals of the 1930s called the working class politically and economically illiterate. They’d likely find today’s low wage earners even more repellent, perhaps so much as to disavow their convictions and capitulate to capitalism. They’d never turn over power to the modern worker. In the view of the socialist old guard, the modern worker would institute Spanish as an official second language, appoint fried chicken as a national food, and make wife beaters mandatory uniforms. In their view, his would be the dictatorship of “ignorant” immigrants, “vulgar” blacks, and “white trash.”
For far too long, American socialism took the form of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It purported to solve all of life’s and society’s problems; showcasing flashy rhetoric without following it with solid, constructive actions. In the new world order, that strategy can only be destructive. Bereft of a strong official organization, socialism’s reduced to an idea, but maybe it’s always been a mentality rather than a system. Before it can be politicized, it needs unity, demanding acceptance, solidarity and love from its followers, even for those of different and initially disgusting opinions.
Maybe socialism is nothing but a fairytale, as real as Spiderman and the Green Goblin, as real as Santa Claus and hobgoblins. Disillusioned baby boomers often call the step out of college entering “the real world,” equating it with a growing appreciation for Lands End sweaters, Disney movies, and November Christmas shopping. But the real world is conservative, idealism is childish; utopia is nothing but a dream. But the socialist would rather dream away his whole life than spend eight years of it under a Bush.
When I get home, my keys stick in the front door’s lock. My roommate lets me inside.
”What have you been up to today?” she says.
”I’ve been digging through stuff at the library’s special collection, have you ever been there?”
”No, never,” she says. ”But I hear they have a really good comic book collection.”

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