The socialist press naturally reported national and international events, but its moral emphasis was on the eclipse of the republic and the promise of socialism. An awakened citizenry had to educate itself to the history and destiny of civilization. Perhaps the emergence of an indigenous women’s Socialist sector best expressed this fundamental aspect of Debsian socialism. (Quint 1994) Women’s socialism first blossomed where nineteenth century reform traditions had remained strong, in the small towns of the Midwest and West. Tinged by spiritualism and its offspring, it resumed the Protestant mission for a purified world with woman’s moral influence assured. For a time, in spite of a determined resistance by male Socialists, their movement flourished; their own press, with a circulation of 10,000, conveyed a unique socialist message through the schoolteachers, ministers’ wives and aging gender agitators. (Quint 1994)
Marxism abstractly, and the socialist party concretely, had made possible the preparatory training women needed in order to take hold of their own collective destiny. Alliance with the working classes would bring reconciliation between the sentimental values of the past and a Bellamyesque future. (Bell 1972) Socialist women had the right and the duty to demand their own share of the work and the glory, their own definitions of Socialism. In truth, the contemporary European avant-garde with its appeal to individual woman’s emancipation did not aspire nearly so far or so radically as these stiff-backed, semi-rural women. (Bell 1972)
The Socialist educational program, most popular in the Midwest and Plains states among native-born men and women in early middle age, demanded new kinds of books and new ways to read them. One may judge the movement’s intellectual character by the most important educational text supplied to English language socialists, The Struggle for Existence (1904) by former Populist educator Walter Thomas Mills. (Quint 1994) Interpreting the history of the universe in one grand sweep, this widely circulated work simplified religion, culture, Spencer, Darwin and a little Marx into a graspable whole. Study questions following each chapter allowed little circles of disciples, meeting in public schools, union halls and taverns, to rehearse their own understandings and to raise their collective self-confidence. The local Socialist newspapers provided Marxism its first extensive popularization (or vulgarization), the most sweeping ever conducted in the English language, and pressed readers to go on to the books themselves.
Given the rise of the United States to economic and military world dominance – capped by the collapse of communism – we should hardly be surprised to see the Left and its intellectual efforts repeatedly marginalized over the late twentieth centuries. The very process of marginalization has often hidden the tracks of Left influence, by making state sanctioned reform seem the inevitable outcome of conflict. As radicals helped launch the Republican Party and later forced laborist planks upon the local Democratic Party urban machines, socialists acted decisively within the early AFL and Communists in the CIO and in the pre-formative civil rights movement. (Quint 1994) The conservative and bureaucratic element always won out in the end, scuttling the radical class, race and gender programs; burying memories and discrediting uncompromised survivors. The enlarged share of the pie, inevitably if not entirely, went to elites cashing in on the victory. But the Left had pointed down another road, the famous ‘Lost Highway’ of American dreams. (Starobin 1992)
Very often along the way, the unique contribution of American radicals to Marxist thought was misplaced. The millenarianism of the indigenous radical forces and the cultural alienation of the immigrants, which together set the subjective tone for us Marxism’s early evolution, did not fit easily into European expectations. The subsequent eclipse of small property democracy and the rise of heroic industrialization prompted a decisive but historically limited phase of hegemonic ‘proletarian’ politics on the Left, if not in America at large. (Bell 1972) The centrality of America’s economic world empire and the consolidation of a consumer society eventually returned the class question to its broader domestic context. Theorists had to catch up with what their distant ancestors had already suspected: American socialism had to be a leap of creative faith, or it would be an empty incantation.