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Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Socialism - The Early Years

Following the birth of political Socialism, based on socialist philosophers such as Plato, More, and Rousseau, the Fabian Society broke off from its parent organization, The Fellowship of the New Life.  Socialism soon found a nursery in colleges around the country and the world.

The Intercollegiate Socialist Society was a Socialist student organization from 1905-1921. It attracted many prominent intellectuals and writers and acted as the unofficial Socialist Party of America’s student wing. While not an “activist” group in the modern sense, the Society sponsored lecture tours, magazines, seminars and discussion circles all over the United States aimed at propagating Socialist ideas among America’s college students.  The group expanded into a more “Fabian" philosophy in the 1920s that did not focus exclusively, or even primarily, on college students. To symbolize the shift in emphasis the group changed its name to the League for Industrial Democracy.

 The Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS) was a national non-party group dedicated to the organization of current and former collegians for the Socialist cause and the spreading of Socialist ideas on campus.

There were at least two isolated cases of socialist organization on campus prior to the establishment of the ISS in September 1905.  From about 1901 there was a college socialist club organized at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In its first year, the club had 11 student members and one professor and was limited to confirmed Socialists. The membership restriction was loosened in 1904, however, and the club grew, coming to hold weekly discussions on the exploitation of child labor, workplace safety, and other matters of general concern.

The second collegiate socialist club was organized at the University of California at Berkeley. Called the “Social Progress Club,” the group sprung into existence following a lecture by Jack London early in 1905.  [I never did care for Call of the Wild, no matter how my father pressed me to read it.]

The ISS proper was a product of the brain of Upton Sinclair. In December 1904, Sinclair drafted a call for the formation of a group which he called “the Intercollegiate Socialist Society,” which he circulated among leading socialist intellectuals for endorsement. The document was ultimately signed by nine others in addition to Sinclair, including Leonard Abbott, Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Graham Phelps Stokes, and William English Walling, among others. This call was published in various socialist publications in the spring of 1905 and a topic of discussion throughout that summer.

The ISS was formally launched at a meeting held on Sept. 12, 1905 at Peck's Restaurant in downtown New York.  More than 50 men and women were in attendance to give birth to the new organization, including such luminaries as Leonard Abbott, Mary Beard, Crystal Eastman, W.J. Ghent, and Gaylord Wilshire, in addition to a young Junior from Weslyan University named Harry Laidler. Upton Sinclair called the meeting to order.  The gathering decided to accept the name “Intercollegiate Socialist Society” and to open membership to college students, teachers, or graduates.  

Students were to be organized into college chapters on each campus and the central organization was to be funded by these local groups remitting a percentage of the dues collected to the national society. Officers were to consist of a President, two Vice Presidents, a Secretary, and a Treasurer -- each elected annually by vote of the whole society. Governance was to be handled by these five officers and six additional members of an Executive Committee. Term of office was to begin in April of each year.

The first slate of officers elected at the Sept. 1905 organizational meeting included the following:

President: Jack London; First Vice President: Upton Sinclair; Second Vice President: Graham Phelps Stokes; Secretary: M.R. Holbrook; Treasurer: Rev. Owen Lovejoy; Executive Committee: Rev. George Willis Cooke, Morris Hillquit, Robert Hunter, Harry Laidler, Katherine M. Meserole, George H. Strobell. Of this group of socialist worthies, only Harry Laidler was actually a current college student.

Organization proceeded slowly, with the group banned from many campuses by conservative administrators, who generally held veto power over the formation of student organizations in this period. Chapters were often small and their names frequently did not emphasize their connection to the national society or even with the socialist cause, as was the case, for example, with the Wesleyan Social Study Club headed by Harry Laidler, one of the first organized and affiliated with the ISS.

A second chapter was formed at Columbia University in New York City, with a student named Walter Lippmann (author of Social Opinion) playing the leading role. Over the course of the first three years, affiliated socialist clubs were organized at Harvard, Princeton, Barnard, New York University Law School, and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to meeting to discuss problems of the day, these groups distributed socialist propaganda and arranged lectures on their respective campuses in an attempt to extend support for the socialist cause.

In May 1907, Jack London resigned as President of the ISS and Graham Phelps Stokes assumed the post.  In the fall of 1907, the ISS Executive Committee decided to hire an organizer on a temporary basis, and a young socialist named Fred H. Merrick went to work in January 1908. From 1907 through 1910, the ISS maintained its office at the Rand School of Social Science in New York City.

The First Convention of the ISS was attended by 35 delegates, representing 7 colleges.  Late in 1910, the ISS obtained its own headquarters separate from the Rand School, a move marking its organizational independence.

The 9th Convention of the ISS was attended by delegates from around the country, representatives of the group chapters on some 40 college campuses. An executive session was held Dec. 27, followed by a dinner at which speakers discussed the question, “What Should Be the Next Development in National Policy?” Speakers included Norman Angell, Frank Boh, Louis Boudin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, with Frederic C. Howe acting as chairman.

The second day consisted of a discussion of chapter problems and was held at City College. An evening reception was held for the delegates, with discussion of  “The Future of the Socialist Movement in this Country” held at the Civic Club, located on West 12th Street. Speakers included Algernon Lee and Scott Nearing. John Spargo was also slated to attend.

The final day of the convention was given to a prize competition with a question box on Socialism. “Tea and talk will take up the afternoon at the Civic Club,” the Evening Call noted. An evening meeting at the “People's House” of the Rand School was the concluding event, with Morris Hillquit and Henry Bruere speaking on “The Future of the City.”

In 1904, Sinclair spent seven weeks in disguise, working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants to research his political fiction exposé, The Jungle.  Chicago – it figures.  He was a prolific author.  His other famous work was The Metropolis (1908), a utopian novel.  When The Jungle was published in 1906, it became a bestseller. With the income from The Jungle, Sinclair founded the utopian Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, N.J.   He ran as a Socialist candidate for Congress.   The colony burned down under suspicious circumstances within a year.  He died in Bound Brook, N.J.  And we wonder why New Jersey is a "Blue State".

James Graham Phelps Stokes was a scion of one of the city’s most prosperous families. He was one of 9 children. His great-grandfather, Thomas Stokes, came to New York from London at the end of the 18th Century and became a merchant, founding the establishment Phelps, Dodge & Co., the source of the family’s wealth.  His father was a banker and real estate developer and the patriarch of a large house on Madison Avenue.  His mother, Helen Louisa Phelps, was the descendant of a man who emigrated to America from England around 1630, putting her on level with the Mayflower Descendants, among the “First Families of America.” 

While attending Columbia University, Stokes became concerned with the plight of the American underclass and poverty. He served on the board of the University Settlement.  In November 1902 Graham Stokes left his father’s comfortable household to take up living himself in a settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — one of the poorest areas of New York City.

Historians Arthur Zipser and Pearl Zipser write: 

“There was a lively intellectual atmosphere on the top floor of the University Settlement house, where the highly educated, mostly rich, young social workers had their residence, dining, and club rooms. It was a world apart from the lower floors of the building, where the regular settlement house functions were carried out among the denizens of the surrounding ghettoized slum. This separation between leaders and led was not the goal they were aiming for, which was the outreach of the privileged to the downtrodden.  But the separation was real.”

In 1921, the ISS decided it needed to expand its reach beyond intellectuals if it was to truly achieve Marx’s “Workers Paradise”.  To symbolize this shift in emphasis on the working man, the society changed its name to The League for Industrial Democracy.




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