History of Socialism in America

Our motto here is we make history fun – but also looking at the past with relevance for today.

In that spirit, this is the start of a new series on the history of socialism – what it is, what it isn’t, and how it’s been implemented and lived out in the past in the United States, the men, and women who have promoted and opposed it. This will temporarily replace the Thursday “History in the Headlines” feature.

First, let’s get our terms straight: Socialism, according to Webster’s dictionary: 1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.

Usually, socialism says it allows freedom of religion, but often promotes secularism.

Communism: Definition of communism
1a: a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed
b: a theory advocating the elimination of private property

You can see more of the distinctions between socialism and communism here: https://www.diffen.com/difference/Communism_vs_Socialism

No society has yet incarnated pure communism – a totalitarian form of socialism is about the closest, as seen in China and the former Soviet Union.

Webster’s defines democracy as 1a: government by the people
especially: the rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

A pure democracy would have all citizens vote on all laws and measures – similar to a town meeting. No nation in modern times has incarnated a pure democracy. Instead, as Benjamin Franklin said when asked what the result of the Constitution was, we have “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Webster’s defines a republic as:
1a(1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president
(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government
b(1)
: a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.

Sorry for the slightly boring high school civics lesson, but it’s tough to talk about without using the correct terminology.

So now, how about it? To what extent is our American way of life socialist, and how has it been tried in the past?

A quick glance at a few high school history and economics texts should convince you that this wasn’t covered in school 🙂

We’ll start with Robert Owen(14 May 1771 – 17 November 1858). Did you know about him?
Owen was a Welsh textile manufacturer and millionaire. From a humble background, his entrepreneurial spirit led him to invest in a new invention, the spinning mule, for spinning cotton into thread. His business skills led to success, and marriage to Anne Carolyn Dale of Scotland whose father owned Lanark Mills led to the expansion of his business. making his fortune.

His father-in-law, David Dale, was reform-minded, and tried to improve the lot of his workers, yet paid them in tokens or scrip good only at the company store, a common practice of the time.

Many of the workers were in the lowest levels of the population; theft, drunkenness, and other vices were common; education and sanitation were neglected, and most families lived in one room. The respectable country people refused to submit to the long hours and demoralizing drudgery of the mills. Owen instituted an eight-hour workday, unheard of for the time, improved working conditions, mandated education for worker’s children, and placed a colored cube above each worker’s space, the color indicating the quality and quantity of his work, as an incentive.

The manners of the children brought up under his system were beautifully graceful, genial and unconstrained; health, plenty, and contentment prevailed; drunkenness was almost unknown, and illegitimacy extremely rare. Owen’s relationship with the workers remained excellent, and all the operations of the mill proceeded with smoothness and regularity. Furthermore, the business was a commercial success. Tsar Nicholas toured the facility approvingly, along with other luminaries.

But not everyone was pleased, and investors in the mill forced Owen to sell his shares. In 1813 Owen authored and published “A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character”, the first of four essays that he wrote to explain the principles behind his reform-minded and socialistic philosophy.
“According to the last returns under the Population Act, the poor and working classes of Great Britain and Ireland have been found to exceed fifteen millions of persons or nearly three-fourths of the population of the British Islands.
The characters of these persons are now permitted to be very generally formed without proper guidance or direction, and, in many cases, under circumstances which directly impel them to a course of extreme vice and misery; thus rendering them the worst and most dangerous subjects in the empire; while the far greater part of the remainder of the community are educated upon the most mistaken principles of human nature, such, indeed, as cannot fail to produce a general conduct throughout society, totally unworthy of the character of rational beings.” – Robert Owen

You can read the full essays here: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/owen/ch01.htm

In 1825, Owen took the money from the buyout of the mill and established a socialist colony, New Harmony, Indiana in the United States. Bought from Lutherans who tried to establish a religious community, the colony was to run on his principles established in his essays. Owen finalized the purchase of an existing town that included 180 buildings and several thousand acres of land along the Wabash River in Indiana, near present day Evansville, bordered by Missouri and Kentucky.

New Harmony lasted only two years. It had 1000 settlers and merely lasted from
1825-1827. This community would follow a “superior social, intellectual, and physical environment” based on Owen’s beliefs. All property was held in common. New Harmony became known as a center for advances in education and scientific research. Town residents established the first free library, a civic drama club, and a public school system open to men and women, radical for the 1820s.

New Harmony failed due to a lack of leadership, discipline, and several
shortages. There was also a lack of support for Owen’s free sex ideas. The towns at one point became too overcrowded, with not enough outputs to support its members and unequal distribution of supplies. The inadequate supervision and management eventually put an end to the Owenite community. A contributing factor was the people who applied for membership in the settlement had insufficient skills and motivation to work to make the colony successful. Owen experienced business reversals in the UK, and declared bankruptcy soon after the establishment of the settlement – in other words, it ran out of money. The town struggled on, mostly without Owen’s ideals, and formally dissolved in 1928.

New Harmony Historic Park
New Harmony as imagined

Next week: Old Economy village

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