Growing up I never felt there was much to be proud of about being an American. I grew up in the Jehovah’s Witness religion, so we never said the pledge of allegiance or anything. We were taught to be in the world, but no part of the world after Jesus’ direction. In the 1930s and 40s, German Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the time known as the International Society of Bible Students, were persecuted in the Holocaust for their stance of political neutrality and conscientious objection to war conscription. The Nazis made them wear purple triangles in the concentration camps to differentiate themselves from the gold stars, Jews; red triangles, communists; blue triangles, Romani etc. I eventually lost my faith in God and rejected a stance of political neutrality (as Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train), but Christian values are still deeply ingrained in me. It was through my Christian values I came to pacificism when I was a pre-teen, anarchism when I was a teenager and communism when I became an adult. Our Kingdom Hall was completely integrated and my first best friend was black. We were a new religious movement and that was controversial stuff for the small Western New York town of Holley. My favorite teacher was gay. My religion and almost all my peers told me this made him a bad person. I just could not believe it. He was just such a good guy, one of the best I had met in Holley. I hated that town growing up. I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States hoping to get a ray of hope out of American history. When I was 17, I snuck out of my parents’ house to see Zinn speak at the University of Rochester in 2001, shortly after 9/11. He talked about how the rights we enjoy today were due to working class movements, suffragists, abolitionists, militants, socialists, communists, anarchists that pushed the boundaries of what was possible. But when I read his book, all I saw were atrocities. American history, if we are honest about it, is horrifying.
It was not until I was well into adulthood that I discovered that Holley, my begrudging hometown, was named after Myron Holley, a founder of the Liberty Party, the first anti-slavery party in the USA. Holley was an early investor in the Erie Canal and made what for the time was a small fortune on the project. He decided to put much of his money into the cause he saw as most important at the time: abolition of enslavement of human beings. The Liberty Party eventually joined with the Free Soil Party and a few straggling Whigs to become the Republican Party, the anti-slavery third party that inspired the Civil War! I was shocked. How could this town that I hated growing up in so much actually have a radical origin? I decided to learn more about the history of the places around me after that. I found out that where I lived in Rochester was across the street from a utopian socialist who was active on the underground railroad. I was on the corner of Post and Anthony Street, in the historic 19th Ward neighborhood. Post refers to Amy and Isaac Post, radical Hicksite Quaker abolitionists who helped found the Western New York Anti Slavery Society (WNYASS) with Frederick Douglass and Huldah Anthony (Anthony as in Anthony street), Hicksite Quaker relatives of Susan B. Anthony, who lived for a time at the utopian socialist commune known as the Sodus Bay Phalanx. Right across the street there was a historical marker that said that a relative of Susan B. Anthony helped self-freed people escape to Canada from a house on that spot. It was Asa and Huldah Anthony’s house! They were socialists! When I started to explore these extant spaces and the stories of what happened there in the past, it made me feel as though my surroundings took on a new life. Everything seemed brighter and more inspiring. I would pine for that epiphanous EUREKA! moment when I would connect someone, some place or some event that I discovered to something else I was researching. It sent shivers down my spine as I thought to myself, “Oh! That’s what really happened!” This travel journal project is my attempt to share that feeling of pride and empowerment through knowledge that I have felt on my journeys. I hope that readers will take this work as a call for them to explore the sites of radical socialist history near them. You will be surprised, they are everywhere!
Communism is Americanism
I guess the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn't have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic.
During the depression and the New Deal era socialist sympathies had reached a historic peak in America and despite the United States’ strategic military alliance with the Soviet Union against fascism, the American capitalist grew afraid of what Marx called “the spectre of communism” haunting the young, entrepreneurial country. Ten days after president Harry S. Truman released the so-called “Truman doctrine” advocating international military intervention for the containment of the spread of communism abroad, he released executive order 9835, the Loyalty Order. The Associated Press said the order affected everyone in government “from the President to the janitor in a small town post office” and effectively made it illegal to be a communist and work for the government. This started a period of Cold War not only internationally, but also domestically. The government, corporations and society at large shunned, blacklisted and in many cases jailed communists and ruined their lives. The House of Unamerican Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts equated communism with the most vile evil and made it difficult for communists, socialists and anarchists to openly espouse their views in America for years to come.
Only recently has the word “socialism” lost the aversive quality it once had. A 2016 Harvard University poll found that 51% of young people, ages 18-29, do not support capitalism and that 33% say they support socialism. In the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary election self-described “democratic socialist” and independent Bernie Sanders earned 43% of the popular vote. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, an American communist party, issued the following statement:
Of major significance is that this massive outpouring of support is for a candidate who calls himself a socialist, in a country whose politics have been for so long dominated by virulent anti-communism and anti-socialism. Throughout the history of the United States, socialist presidential candidates have invariably been relegated to the margins. The fact that in 2015 a candidate who calls himself socialist is drawing huge crowds must be understood as a significant political development, regardless of the fact that his program is not revolutionary.
This is a significant political turning point in American political discourse. However, it is especially important to look to the examples of socialist movements from the American past to put the current status socialism enjoys in context.
The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), under the leadership of Eric Browder, began to use the slogan “Communism is 20th Century Americanism” in order to link communist activities with the venerated revolutionary traditions of Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln. In their 1939 election platform they wrote:
Reactionaries of all shades cry out against socialism. They say it is revolutionary. True, the change to socialism will be revolutionary; but since when is revolution un-American? On the contrary, revolution is one of the most powerful traditions of our people who are among the most revolutionary in the world.
Leader of the Russian Revolution Vladimir Illich Ulyanov Lenin wrote to American workers in 1918, appealing to the rich revolutionary American tradition. Lenin did not believe American workers were fooled by the rich bosses who opposed the Bolsheviks. Lenin wrote:
The history of modern, civilised America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilised” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world….
In January 1865, Marx, Engels and other representatives of the Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Movement wrote to president Abraham Lincoln:
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
Throughout American history the radical left has waged fights in favor of the most oppressed, most downtrodden members of society. Public programs like the Social Security Administration, the New Deal and public education are not socialism. America is not already socialist. However, socialists have indeed worked for these things and successful programs like them exist because socialists agitated for them. The revolutionary traditions of communism, socialism and anarchism have contributed to many rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Americans. Radical leftists continue to lead the charge against reactionism and in favor of progressive change; toward freedom, justice and equality.
Early American Socialists
From America’s founding, radicals who dreamed of a better world fought to shape the course of American politics. The first such radicals were the pre-Marxist utopian socialists who inspired and joined settlements in the “New World.” It may be difficult for post-Cold War readers to believe, but in the 1820s and 40s, many people throughout the country believed the communal spirit was elemental to the American creed.
Utopian socialist thinker Robert Owen was a wealthy industrialist who believed society should be shaped to design an individual’s character. He was a Scottish business man who witnessed the lower condition of his mill workers and determined that such inequality was immoral. Owen had already become a well-known socialist in the United Kingdom. He requested to speak before Congress shortly after arriving in the United States. Congress granted his request. To the elite audience’s bemusement, Owen wasted no time in advocating the overthrow of the economic system. Thomas Jefferson, the second president of the United States, was among the famous dignitaries present that day. Owen aped Jefferson’s own words. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The economic system elite Americans cherished, Owen argued, had become a despotic regime and it desperately needed overthrowing. The young nation could greatly increase liberty if the “national mind” rejected economic tyranny and embraced the “harmonious brotherhood” that his socialist system engendered. Most in his audience thought Owen insane. Owen, however, was determined to prove them wrong by embarking on a series of practical experiments in socialism. In 1824 he invested almost all of his money into a utopian project, New Harmony, that he joined in Indiana. This community espoused the moral, Christian virtues of equality, harmony between all people and freedom of religion. New Harmony became a beacon for those seeking remedies to the rapidly apparent problems of the market revolution. Throughout the 1820s and 30s Owenism swept through America. Radicals formed about a dozen Owenite communes in the middle states of New York and Pennsylvania and on the Western frontier of Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.
Owen’s legacy stretches beyond even the communities that he started or inspired. Frederich Engels wrote in 1880, “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.” Owen helped push for the first law limiting working hours for women and children in British parliament in 1819. He was the leader of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which attempted to join all trade unions in England into a single federation from 1834 to 1835. He also first introduced the idea of worker owned cooperative businesses in England. Engels explained the significance of these achievements, “These have since that time, at least, given practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.” Despite preaching harmony, Engels believed Owen made the contradictions between capital and labor even more clear. Owen’s son, Robert Dale, continued to contribute this same legacy to the political development of the United States.
Robert Dale Owen
Robert Dale Owen became a politician in Indiana. He was active with the Workingmen’s Party while living in New York City from 1829 to 1830. After moving back to New Harmony from New York in 1832, Owen served as a Democratic Party member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1835 to 38 and again from 1851 to 53. As a Representative, he introduced the bill that founded the Smithsonian Institution. In 1850, the people of Indiana elected him to Indiana’s Constitutional Convention. Thanks to Robert Dale Owen, the state constitution established the public schooling system in Indiana. Noyes wrote of him, “Robert Dale Owen undoubtedly has been and is the spiritual as well as natural successor of Robert Owen. Wiser and more moderate than his father, he has risen out of the wreck of New Harmony to high stations and great influence in this country.”
Education reform was a key issue to many of the antebellum socialists. Although American educators formed the first public schools in the mid-17th century in New England, colonial education of children primarily took place in the home. By the 1830s, the First International Workingmen’s Movement had reached North America. It was a reaction to the mass production and monopolization of capitalism, which the men and women of the Workingmen’s Movement saw as taking away their way of life. Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, was an organizer with the Workingmen’s Movement in New York City at the time. They believed education would be a fortification for the workers against the growing inequality resulting from monopoly capitalism. In the fall of 1830, the Workingmen of New York City nominated candidates for public office demanding free, public education, arguing, “[U]nless this safeguard of liberty is secured, and by enlightening the mass, the axe of knowledge is laid at the root of aristocracy, there is effected, as it were, nothing. The best labours are lost, and success of the present is ever hazarded in the future.” The “monopoly of talent” was an affront to democratic values. Aristocratic education secured knowledge for the rich and ignorance for the poor. Robert Dale Owen and the Workingmen feared this would create permanent classes and a return to feudalism. By the 1840s, the egalitarian, democratic ideas of the Workingmen had infiltrated the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Responding to the call for economic intervention after the Panic of 1837, the Democrats made education reform a major plank of their 1839 platform.
Robert Owen Senior, too, was extremely interested in educational reform. According to historian Frank T. Carlton:
In the educational scheme exemplified in the New Harmony schools were incorporated a variety of principles and methods, which have finally found, or are finding, lodgment in our public-school system. Nearly a century ago Owen advocated free and universal education. Owen made the kindergarten and the industrial school integral parts of his school system. He urged that classical education, so called, should not be ‘thrust down the throats of all its unwilling victims.’ The ‘school city’ form of government was advocated.
The elder Owen left America in 1827. He had lost £40,000 on his utopian venture in New Harmony. He left a part of New Harmony to his sons. In addition to Robert Dale, Richard, David Dale and William Owen all lived and worked at New Harmony throughout the late 1820s and 30s. By June of 1828, Robert Owen had given up on the communitarian project. He sold and leased individual plots of land to individuals who still wanted to live there.
Josiah Warren left New Harmony in 1828, but by the 1840s had returned and set up a Time Store. Warren rejected the communitarianism of Owen in favor of his own philosophy of individualist anarchism. He denounced the Owenite projects as authoritarian. However, he still held true the notion that one’s character was formed for them, not by them, which had become an axiom of Owenism. Warren wrote:
Being subject to the influence of the circumstances around me, and being liable to be moulded by them, whether true or false, right or wrong, and having nothing to protect me from error and misery, but the knowledge which I may require of these circumstances, and the use I may make of this knowledge, I shall begin to analyze the circumstances around me and learn to distinguish the good from the evil; and as I have heretofore been misled by false instruction and by bad example, I shall claim the free exercise of my own judgment with regard to my own opinions and my own conduct.
Warren argued individual discernment, not social control, should be the basis of a harmonious society. He called the Time Store by that name because it accepted “labor notes” in exchange for items. The notes represented a certain number of labor hours. The price of an item represented the number of labor hours required to produce the item plus the clerk’s fee. The clerk calculated their fee by starting a large clock when the customer entered the establishment and stopping it when the customer was finished shopping. The clerk then translated the number of minutes they performed customer service into labor hours and added it to the customer’s total. Warren did not believe in community of property as Owen did. He based his Time Store on Adam Smith's labor theory of value. Warren believed merchants must base prices on the amount of labor it takes to make them, not market or commodity exchange value. He was an extreme individualist. Warren’s Time Store exemplified the modified form of capitalism that he advocated. The town was set up with the explicit intention of establishing fairness and equality in business and commerce. Although the project did not last long, it was exemplary of the open-minded, revolutionary spirit of the young nation.
1824 portrait of Frances Wright by Henry Inman
Nashoba was another Owen-inspired utopian community in Tennessee. Abolitionist Frances “Fanny” Wright founded the colony in 1825. Apparently, “Fanny Wright” became a pejorative term after Nashoba’s failure and the Skaneateles Community were targets of the invective phrase. Despite its eventual failure, Nashoba was remarkable for being the first American utopian experiment to tie abolitionism with socialism. According to utopian chronicler A. J. MacDonald, who visited Nashoba in the 1830s:
The objects were, to form a Community in which the negro slave should be educated and upraised to a level with the whites, and thus prepared for freedom; and to set an example, which, if carried out, would eventually abolish slavery in the Southern States; also to make a home for good and great men and women of all countries, who might there sympathize with each other in their love and labor for humanity.
Fanny Wright and her supporters purchased slaves at auctions and attempted to educate them in self-reliance and communal living to prepare them for life as free people. MacDonald visited the colony in 1825 and reported, “She invited congenial minds from every quarter of the globe to unite with her in the search for truth and the pursuit of rational happiness.” Wright attempted to draw on the popularity of social reform to make a practical difference in the struggle against slavery.
Religious communism inspired Wright's plan. She visited sectarian religious communes throughout the South, including those of the United Believers in Christ’s Second Coming or Shakers and the Harmony Society, known as Rappites after their founder Johann Georg Rapp. Both groups had practiced bible-based communism since the beginning of the 19th century. Eventually, Wright studied the projects of the non-religious, freethinking Owenites at New Harmony, Indiana. She concluded a socialist system similar to those practiced by the communities she visited was best suited to help blacks achieve their emancipation.
The community failed the same way most of the Owenite projects did. It fell into financial ruin because it could not generate profitable income. The response from the accounting trustees of Nashoba was to abandon the Owenite notion that a person's character was created for them, not by them. In 1828, the trustees of Nashoba published a declaration that undermined the abolitionist aspect of the project. Wright explains:
They [the trustees] show the impossibility of a co-operative Community succeeding without the members composing it are [sic] superior beings; ‘for,’ say they, ‘if there be introduced into such a society thoughts of evil and unkindness, feelings of intolerance and words of dissension, it can not prosper.’ That which produces in the world only common-place jealousies and every-day squabbles, is sufficient to destroy a Community.
She clarified, “superior beings” were those with “moral qualifications..., who may be admitted without regard to color,” who are able to pay $100 per year for board and could build their own house. This price would have been virtually impossible for enslaved people to raise. The decree effectively ended the Nashoba experiment’s practical abolitionism.
Another pre-Marxist socialist who inspired utopian communities throughout the young American nation was the French philosopher Charles Fournier. His ideas led to the formation of many utopian communities throughout the young United States, most notably Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the North American Phalanx in New Jersey. Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Weekly Tribune who would later run for president against Ulysses S. Grant was one of Fourier’s most enthusiastic disciples. Greeley was the son of a New Hampshire farmer. In the 1820s, his father hit “bad times” and creditors and police began to hound him. The Greeley family moved from place to place throughout the 1820s. Horace struggled to support himself until in 1826, at the age of fifteen, he took a printer’s apprenticeship in Poultney, Vermont. The apprenticeship made him a servant, beholden to a master. After his term of servitude ended, he went cautiously into the precarity of wage work. Luckily, he made his way to New York City, where he found success in the printing business. However, the struggles of his modest upbringing followed him. A rival newspaper editor wrote of him:
The editor of the Tribune is the son of a poor and humble farmer; came to New York a minor, without a friend within 200 miles, less than ten dollars in his pocket, and precious little besides; hes has never had a dollar from a relative, and has for years labored under a load of debt, (thrown on him by others’ misconduct and the revulsion of 1837) which he can now just see to the end of.
Greeley, although now a wealthy New York City socialite, still wore the scars of a son of the working class. His economic rivals never missed an opportunity to remind him of his humble beginnings. The Panic of 1837 destined Greeley to be on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. He would dedicate himself to this cause for the rest of his life.
In 1839 Greeley wrote “a series of articles entitled ‘What shall be done for the laborer?’” He fatefully acquainted himself with Fourierist agitator Albert Brisbane the same year. Greeley continues, “I believe these [articles] attracted the attention of Mr. Albert Brisbane, a young man of liberal education and varied culture, a native of Batavia, N.Y., which he still regarded as his home, but who had traveled widely and observed thoughtfully; making the acquaintance in Paris of… Charles Fourier….” In 1842, Greeley allowed Brisbane to purchase a regular column in his widely read New York Weekly Tribune for $500.
Albert Brisbane was on the front lines of the economic and cultural changes taking place in Western New York from his birth. He was born in 1809 in Batavia, New York. Batavia, about 35 miles west of Rochester, was America’s frontier at the turn of the 19th century. Foreign speculation was responsible for its emergence. Joseph Ellicott, a surveyor for the Dutch investment group the Holland Land Company, founded the town in 1802. In his autobiography Brisbane remarks that the founders of Batavia were ex-Quakers and “men of liberal views.” Albert’s father, James Brisbane, came to Batavia with the Holland Land Company early on. He got a loan from the company to start a store. By 1821, he had made over a half a million dollars from investing in land. Young Albert enjoyed the freedom of frontier life. He owned three guns at the age of ten and his parents allowed him to wander the forests hunting and riding horses. At the age of fifteen he had a sudden “spontaneous intuition” while hunting. Brisbane recalled:
I remember standing on the bridge that crosses the little creek at Batavia one day, and musing as I threw pebbles into the water and observed the widening, rippling circles as they started from the center. New problems were forming themselves in my mind, though not yet brought clearly and definitely to the touchstone of consciousness. This solitary musing took possession of me. The intuitions of the mind were gradually molding their external expression, and it finally came in this shape: What is the work of man on this earth? What was he put here for, and what has he to do? I said to myself: If the individual man does not know what the work of the collective man is, he has no guide to his career. It seemed to me that I belonged to a vast army in which each individual had his place and function, and that those who left the rank to attend to individual concerns could not advance in the great achievement to which they were destined. The army was Humanity. I was a soldier in its ranks.
From that day on a sense of duty to the so-called army of humanity drove Brisbane to action. He studied in New York City and became interested in philosophy. In May 1828, his parents agreed to send him to France. During an intermission at the Paris Opera, Brisbane had a second revelation. He went out to get some ice cream and had an internal dialogue:
‘Who pays for this ice cream?
Brisbane thought about this for some time until he concluded, “a certain class in society live on the labor of the masses….” He realized that he was of that class that benefits from the work of others. These two revelations led Brisbane on a lifelong philosophical journey to find a form of society that elevated the whole of humanity and did away with contradictions between the classes. The journey first led him to Germany, in search of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Then, in 1830, he travelled to Turkey, Greece, Ireland and finally back to France. Brisbane studied the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon, but was not fully satisfied. Finally, after reading Charles Fourier’s A Treatise on Domestic and Agricultural Association, which a friend had sent him, Brisbane found his prophet. He wrote, “...I came to the following phrase printed in large type: ‘Attractive Industry.’ Those two words made on me an indescribable impression…. I sprang to my feet, threw down the book, and began pacing the floor in a tumult of emotions.” The idea that a planned economic system could organize work so that it was dignified and pleasant was a compelling revelation.
In May 1832, Brisbane finally met Fourier at the offices of the Fourierist publication La Réforme industrielle in Paris. He paid him for private lessons in his theory. Brisbane returned to the United States in 1834. He first began his Fourierist agitation in Western New York, convincing sarsaparilla seller and druggist C. C. Bristol to support eight editions of the first Phalanx newspaper. In 1839, he formed a Fourier society in New York City. In 1840, he published Social Destiny of Man; or, Association and Reorganization of Industry, the first complete survey of Fourier’s philosophy in English. In 1842, Greeley allowed Brisbane to purchase a regular column in his widely read New York Weekly Tribune for $500. Brisbane adapted Fourier’s theories to the sensibilities of an American audience, focusing mainly on his economic program and avoiding his libertine sexual ideas and other peculiar beliefs. He spoke to Americans about social problems that affected them, not about the symphonies of the cosmos and human tail evolution that preoccupied Fourier the Frenchman.
By 1841, Greeley completely converted to the gospel of Fourier as translated by Brisbane. He explained, “Association affirms that every child born into the world has a rightful claim upon the community around him for subsistence, until able to earn for himself an education, which shall enable him to ear efficiently, as well as rightly to improve and enjoy; and for the opportunity to earn at all times, by ones industry, steadily employed and justly remunerated.” Greeley believed Brisbane’s preoccupation was a natural solution to the problems presented by the crisis of 1837.
Albert Brisbane translated Charles Fourier into English and published his treatises in easily distributable pamphlets. He made French radicalism palatable to the Christian Yankees that opposed slavery, but were turned off by Fourier’s views on free love. Most importantly, Brisbane made Fourierism make sense to both the proletariat and petit bourgeois victims of the Panic of 1837. Brisbane believed associated industry offered to secure prosperity for all, regardless of class, educate the masses, drive innovation and enculture morality. If it could offer even a fraction of its promises, it was certainly worth attempting. Brisbane wrote in 1843:
If a Social Reform can be effected, which will dignify Industry and render it attractive, increase immensely production or real wealth - secure abundance to the Poor and permanent prosperity to the Rich - extend the refining and elevating influence of superior education to all - widen the sphere of intellectual existence and combine the pleasures of Art and Science and social Life with the pursuits of useful Industry, how desirable would be the result, and how worthy of the persevering efforts of men of pure motives and exalted ambition.
Larger than life philosophers like Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley did not sway everyone. The Nothingarians, so-called because they did not claim to follow any leader or ideology, of the Northampton Association followed a path led not by ideology, but by their own sense of business practicality. They saw individual entrepreneurship as inherently reckless and unstable. Large-scale industry required collective investment and cooperative labor in order to avoid unscrupulousness and over adventurous capitalism. Most of the Northampton Association’s founding members were industrialists or farmers who had lost money in the Panic of 1837. Several were silk manufacturers. During the Panic of 1837, many investors felt it was responsible to invest in the silk trade. A second economic bubble burst in 1839, decimating the silk industry. Farmers and silk manufacturers scrambled to figure out what to do. The Northampton Association bought what remained of the Northampton Silk Company in 1841, hoping to profit from the once lucrative industry while avoiding the instability of capital markets. They believed communal association would provide the security they sought. According to historian Chris Clark, “As former manufacturers and traders, they sought not to overthrow the existing economic system, but to organize it on more stable and equitable principles.” The Northampton Association was, as John Humphrey Noyes claims, a preparation for Fourierism. Fourierism sought to produce harmony and security in labor relations, not to exacerbate class struggle. The Northampton Association was Nothinarian, but their rational inquiry led them as close to the Fourierist system as they could be while still claiming to espouse “nothing.”
Many in the Northampton Association were Garrisonian abolitionists prior to their involvement in associated industry. Economic factors forced the abolitionist movement to undergo its own tactical and theoretical Panic of 1837. Massachusetts capitalist, evangelical Christian and abolitionist Arthur Tappan had been a valuable financier of the Massachusetts anti-slavery movement. Tappan made a great deal of money during the Market Revolution in the 1820s from his silk importing business in New York City. New Yorkers knew Tappan to connect business and religion. He demanded his employees live in Christian boarding houses and attend church every week. Like utopian socialist Robert Owen, who attempted to put his utopian ideals into practice at his textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland, Tappan attempted to blend business and his belief in the reorganization of society. By the early 1830s, Tappan became a financier of Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). However, on May 1, 1837 the silk bubble burst and Tappan had to declare bankruptcy. The abolitionist movement in Massachusetts went into a panic. They lost their largest financial backer. Tappan led a walkout of evangelicals at the 1840 meeting of the American Antislavery Society protesting women’s involvement in the group. Garrison and other Massachusetts radicals who were in favor of women in antislavery leadership, loosed from Tappan’s patronage, saw an opportunity. They reevaluated their tactics. They began to reject as wholly corrupt everything they considered “worldly." This included governments and institutional churches.
William Lloyd Garrison
Garrison increasingly advocated nonresistance, a form of nonviolent civil disobedience, and anarchistic no-government ideas. In 1852, Garrison explained, “Non-Resistance is not a state of passivity, on the contrary, it is a state of activity, ever fighting the good fight of faith, ever foremost to assail unjust power, ever struggling for ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ in no national sense, but in a world-wide spirit. It is passive only in this sense — that it will not return evil for evil, nor give blow for blow, nor resort to murderous weapons for protection or defense.” Many interpreted Garrison’s plea for nonresistance not as a call to reject all institutions. Christopher Clark argues, “Though they attacked existing ‘human government,’ they sought to establish the ‘government of God’ and social institutions that could embody it.” Christian perfectionism influenced the nonresistance and no-government advocates to build better institutions that could respond to the challenges of the day. Clark concludes, “Nonresistance in this form led not to a rejection of institutions as such but to a search for new social organizations uncorrupted by existing evils.” At least twenty of the Northampton Association’s founders were non-resistance advocates. John A. Collins and John O. Wattles of the Skaneateles Community were also advocates of nonresistance and no-government principles.
The early utopian communities mostly ended abruptly, exposing weaknesses in this form of socialism. Frederick Engles wrote of Fournier and Owen in 1880:
Not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat which historical development had... produced. Like the French philosophers, they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once. Like them, they wish to bring in the kingdom of reason and eternal justice, but this kingdom, as they see it, is as far as Heaven from Earth, from that of the French philosophers.
Oneida Community leader John Humphrey Noyes’ volume A History of American Socialisms is the most extensive history of the early American socialist movement. Noyes established the Oneida Community in 1848. He hoped to take the best parts of the religious and non-religious utopian societies and apply them to his own “bible communist” utopia. In order to fulfill this task, Noyes researched previously existing communities. In 1869, he wrote one of the most comprehensive histories of 19th century American socialism that exists to this day. Noyes compiled it only a few short years after the dissolution of many of the projects it describes. Noyes draws on extensive primary evidence including utopian chronicler A. J. MacDonald's unpublished eyewitness manuscript, socialist newspapers from the period, letters and phalanx documents.
Much of this evidence is still extant. Scholars have not explored much of it since historian Arthur Eugene Bestor Jr.’s research in the 1940s. Bestor wrote, “Of all the freedoms for which American stood, none was more significant for history than the freedom to experiment with new practices and new institutions.” Freedom of religion was codified into the first the United States Constitution in 1788, but religious groups fleeing persecution in Europe were making pilgrimages to the New World as early as the 1630s. While violent religious disputes made social experimentation heresy punishable by death and expulsion in Europe, settlers in the colonies enjoyed the freedom to organize society as they pleased. Bestor explained, “What remained mere speculation in the Old World had a way of becoming reality in the New.” The refugees of European intolerance created communities based on their utopian visions in America, a site uniquely situated to allow social experimentation. The young nation was susceptible to radical social experimentation from its founding.
Noyes, like Bestor, argued the utopian socialist movement in America was a continuation of the Second Great Awakening and the teachings of Charles Finney. While many of the socialists of the Owenite and Fourierist periods were atheists or freethinkers, the earlier and more institutional communist societies were religious. The Shakers, the Zoarites and the Amanas all lived communally in America before Robert Owen first visited in 1824. Noyes believed socialism should not be separate from religion. The revivalist religious tradition inspired individuals to reform their souls. For John Humphrey Noyes, only religion provides sufficient “afflatus” or collective motivation to carry out the work that socialism requires.
Marx and Engels wrote about the experimental communes throughout the United States (US) during the 1830s-1840s. They devoted a whole section of their influential Manifesto of the Communist Party to a critique of utopian socialism. In an 1844 letter, Engels wrote, “For communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realised [sic] in many communities in America… with the greatest success….” Engels cheered the utopian movements in the United States. However, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, he critiqued this early kind of socialism as utopian and unscientific. He describes utopianisms as “pictures of ideal social conditions.” Almost all the utopian communes in the United States failed quickly and miserably. Lack of pragmatism, planning and accounting for the ruthlessness of the market belie the failures of the utopian socialist projects. Nevertheless, Engels pointed to another factor as the main reason for the failure of the utopians. The leaders were not representatives of the working class. They sought to uplift the condition of all classes and believed there was a chance to reconcile the contradictions between capital and labor. It is ironic that Engels would take such a position since he himself was the son of a factory owner. Engels, despite ruthlessly critiquing utopian socialist projects in the United States, acknowledged them as foundational to the later, more politically influential, Marxist conceptualization of communism.
Karl Marx found fellow travelers at Horace Greeley’s New York Weekly Tribune. Charles A. Dana was managing editor of the Tribune at the time. Dana had also been a Fourierist. He lived at the Fourierist commune at Brook Farm in Massachusetts from 1841 to 1846. By 1846, Dana became disillusioned with Fourierism and became interested in the work of Marx’s rival, French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In 1848, Dana met Marx in Cologne.
Charles A. Dana
Dana was enthusiastic about signing Marx up as a correspondent for the Tribune. The European Revolutions of 1848 had shook the Fourierist foundational belief in the possibility of harmony between capital and labor. Dana and others were eager to discover other strains of socialist thought. The Tribune ended up being the most lucrative employment Marx enjoyed in his entire life. Between October 1861 and March 1862, Marx wrote his last nine pieces for the Tribune. All nine dealt with the American Civil War.For Marx and Engels the struggle against slavery was essential to the progressive material and social development of the United States. Early American socialism had been a harmonious cooperation between the proletariat and the petit bourgeoisie. However, as the 19th century wore on, the issue of slavery would make class contradictions more clear and class struggle more militant. In 1864, Marx and Engels wrote to Abraham Lincoln:
While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.
Communists would play key roles in the struggles against slavery and racism. Joseph Weydemeyer, widely considered the first American Marxist, was a military officer in the Kingdom of Prussia prior to coming to the United States. In 1846 he came into contact with Marx’s works and discovered them to be in line with his own thinking. In 1851 Weydemeyer arrived in New York as a political exile and began to distribute Marx and Engels’ writings. In 1861 he moved to Missouri to join the effort to fight the Confederates and by 1864 had become a Colonel in the Union army. His leadership was key in the emancipation of St. Louis and the prevention of annexation of Missouri by the Confederates.
August Willich was another German-American communist who fought in the Civil War. Willich then led a “left wing” faction of “True Socialists” that, in 1850, split from the Communist League over disagreements with Marx. In 1853, Willich immigrated to the United States. Willich enlisted in the first call to arms of the American Civil War in 1861 with the first German regiment, which later became the ninth Ohio regiment. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, so impressed with Willich’s service, requested he take command as colonel of the 32nd Indiana Infantry Regiment. The 32nd saw action at Shiloh and repelled an attack by Texas Rangers on November 26, 1861. Confederates captured Willich at the battle of Stone River, December 31, 1862, but they paroled him in exchange for a Confederate prisoner of war in 1863. Willich met president Lincoln in May of that year. He remained active in many important Civil War battles and he rose quickly through the Union Army ranks. The army gave him the rank of major general on October 21, 1865. After the war, he became the auditor for Hamilton County, Ohio. Despite their disagreements, Marx felt moved to write about him, “In the Civil War in North America, Willich showed that he is more than a visionary.”
Marx was optimistic about the “American Antislavery War.” He argued the emancipation of black chattel slaves would lead to a new ascendancy for the working class. He even argued a nonviolent proletarian revolution was possible in America after the Civil War. According to Marx, if they were politically enfranchised, freed blacks could join with impoverished farmers to create a strong labor party that could take state power without a violent uprising. Marxist historian Robert Blackburn writes that according to Marx, “Defeating the slave power and freeing the slaves would not destroy capitalism, but it would create conditions far more favorable to organizing and elevating labor, whether white or black.” Although Marx’s dream of a non-violent proletarian revolution did not come to fruition, the Civil War did lead to new opportunities for the American working class. His predictions came partially true in 1866, a year after the official end of the fighting, when American workers formed the National Labor Union (NLU), the first national labor federation in America. The NLU opened new avenues of collective power for workers. However, the emergence of labor organizations was not the only sign of hope for a positive outcome for black and white workers after the American Civil War. Since the Southern bourgeoisie considered chattel slaves property, not humans, emancipation of blacks from Southern slavery would mean one of the greatest expropriations of private property from the bourgeoisie in human history. The Southern slave owners would have their wealth (slaves) seized and redistributed to the working class (emancipated blacks).
Unfortunately, the Compromise of 1877 would put an end to Marx’s prophesied anti-racist, social democratic South. Following the collapse of Reconstruction, the Southern racists instituted the “Jim Crow” system of segregation. White and black Communists militantly opposed segregation. One of the earliest struggles for civil rights in the Jim Crow south was what came to be known as the “Scottsboro boys” trial. The so-called “Scottsboro boys” were nine black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) intervened in the trial, considering it a travesty of justice and indicative of the racism of the Jim Crow south. According to James Goodman in Stories of Scottsboro the CPUSA was instrumental in bringing the injustice of this case to the public’s attention. He wrote:
Only after the [CPUSA] brought the truth about Alabama's legal lynching to the world's attention did the NAACP step in, and even then it could conceive of the case as nothing more than a rape case: the organization could set no goal greater than the 'legalistic illusion' of a fair trial. It could not see that there was 'no such thing as a "fair trial" of the Negro boy accused of rape in an Alabama court,' dominated as that court was by the southern ruling class. Nor could it see that 'behind the ghastly crime of the frame-up' was 'the whole question of the exploitation, persecution, disfranchisement, and constant murder of Negroes.’
In 1961 the late civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Dubois applied to become a member of the CPUSA. He wrote in a letter to Gus Hall, the Party’s chairperson at the time:
Today I have reached my conclusion:
Dubois’ conversion led civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to say, in his eulogy to Dubois, in 1968:
We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.
The Marxist-Leninist idea of a revolutionary vanguard would go on to inspire American black leaders to conclude that black power and community self defense were necessary to achieve liberation. Rob Williams, a leader in the NAACP, was one of the first black militants to advocate armed community self defense. In 1961, the same year Dubois joined the CPUSA, Williams fled to Cuba and then to China to avoid a trumped up kidnapping charge. Williams wrote of Socialist Cuba:
When I realized that I would not be safe in Canada, I remembered my two trips to Cuba. I could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere where a Negro would be treated as a human being, where the race problem would be understood, and where people would not look upon me as a criminal but as a victim of a trumped-up charge - a charge designed to crush the militant leaders who were beginning to form a new movement, a new militant movement designed for the total liberation of the Afro-Americans.
Rob Williams was highly influential to one of the most prominent communist parties in American history: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). The BPP was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. In addition to teaching classes on armed self defense and Maoism, the BPP had an extensive “survival” program. Services under this program included free breakfast for school children, free tuberculosis clinics, drug and alcohol addiction counseling and free grocery programs. Although the FBI’s brutal and violent Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was successful in destroying the BPP, many of their “survival program” services became institutions that still exist today.
The Black Panthers linked the oppression of black people in America to the exploitative system of capitalism. They were among the first black radicals to synthesize black nationalism and Marxism-Leninism and to tie the struggle of what BPP minister of information Eldridge Cleaver described as the “black colony” with the anti-colonial struggles in Cuba, China and Vietnam. Many in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement today are still inspired by this idea. Most exemplary are the BLM activists who say “Assata taught me,” referring to Black Panther activist Assata Shakur who is still living in exile in Cuba.
These are only a few examples of the tenacious, militant work done by Communists, the fruits of which were the abolition of slavery, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and community defense against American Fascist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Communists and revolutionary socialists continue to be involved in and an inspiration to black liberation movements today including those opposing police brutality and mass incarceration, advocating affirmative action, educational desegregation and reparations for slavery.
There are many more examples of communist and socialist involvement in the early feminist, indigenous sovereignty, workers’ rights, New Deal, integration, LGBT rights and welfare rights movements. American socialists fought for and won many of the freedoms Americans enjoy today including the public educational system, unions, the New Deal, temporary cash assistance, Section 8 housing, SNAP, Medicaid, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, OSHA, EPA, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, academic freedom, the 14th, 15th and 26th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The truth is, if you’re American, you have more reason to thank a communist for your freedom than you do a soldier. American communists stand on the shoulders of giants. We have a rich history of which we should be proud. Far from being ashamed of being Americans, we should proudly declare that we are the nation of Tekanawíta the Great Peacemaker, Robert Owen, Albert Brisbane, John Humphrey Noyes, Sojourner Truth, Joseph Weydemeyer, August Willich, Peter H. Clark, William Z. Foster, James W. Ford, Daniel DeLeon, Earl Browder, Eugene V. Debs, Joe Hill, John Reed, Harry Haywood, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Agnes Smedley and countless other American socialist heroes.
My travels have attempted to regain a sense of pride in my place of birth and to restore a sense of wonder and excitement to our late-capitalist American landscape. Revisiting the sites where some of the most revolutionary events of American history occurred reinvigorates the mundanity of the present with electrical echoes of the radical past. I hope this work will inspire you, the reader, to visit the sacred sites of militant American history near you, record your feeling of re-electrification and pride in the places where you are from and share it with the world.
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Mitchell K. Jones is a historian and activist from Rochester, NY. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in history from the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He has written on utopian socialism in the antebellum United States. His research interests include early America, communal societies, antebellum reform movements, religious sects, working class institutions, labor history, abolitionism and the American Civil War. His master’s thesis, entitled “Hunting for Harmony: The Skaneateles Community and Communitism in Upstate New York: 1825-1853” examines the radical abolitionist John Anderson Collins and his utopian project in Upstate New York. Jones is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.