The socialists and communists of this era were not simply people who preferred a different economic or political views. They were agents working for, and sympathetic to, the government of the Soviet Union, and who were actively working to overthrow violently the United States government.
This coalition was joined by people from an extreme segment of the labor union movement. This segment was quite different from the mainstream of the organized labor movement. The mainstream of the collective bargaining movement sought better hourly wages, protection from unwarranted dismissal, safer working conditions, and the like. By contrast, the extreme segment of the movement sought to confiscate factories, leaving their current owners penniless, and to take control of the government, inspired by the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" from Marxist texts.
The first steps in the Red Scare were bombings and strikes. The bombings were, then as now, a typical terrorist tactic, and had been used as far back as the 1880's by a loosely-organized world-wide anarchist movement. The Red Scare's first wave of bombings took place in 1919, as Glencoe's history textbook explains:
In April, the postal service intercepted more than 30 parcels containing homemade bombs addressed to prominent Americans.
The socialists learned from their mistake - from the fact that their bombs were intercepted before they reached their targets - and worked more subtly the next time:
In June, eight bombs in eight cities exploded within minutes of one another, suggesting a nationwide conspiracy. One of them damaged the home of the United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
Although it was clear that these "bombings were the work of radicals trying to destroy the American way of life," the multifaceted nature of the coalition did not allow the public to conceptualize this as the activity of a single group. There were numerous factions at work, as Cengage's history textbook explains:
This radical surge did not mean, however, that leftists had fashioned themselves into a single movement or political party. On the contrary, the Russian Revolution had split the American Socialist Party. One faction, which would keep the name Socialist and would continue under Debs's leadership, insisted that the radicals follow democratic path to socialism. The other group, which would take the name Communist, wanted to establish a Lenin-style "dictatorship of the proletariat." Small groups of anarchists, some of whom advocated campaigns of terror to speed the revolution, represented yet a third radical tendency.
Terrorist-style bombings were one tactic of the socialists; strikes were another. By 1919, the notion of a strike was already fairly well defined. Mainstream labor unions used strikes to temporarily stop the operation of a factory in order to gain better wages and working conditions. But the coalition of socialists and communists conceived of a new type of strike, one designed to transfer ownership of the factory to the workers, and designed to restructure the government. This was a very different type of strike indeed. The radical coalition, according to Glencoe, intended to use
strikes to start a revolution. Seattle's mayor, Ole Hanson, for example, claimed that the Seattle general strike was part of an attempt to "take possession of our American government and try to duplicate the anarchy of Russia."
There was, in any case, a direct link between the extremists in the United States and the fledgling government of the Soviet Union. The Industrial Workers of the World, known as IWW and as the "Wobblies", orchestrated some of these massive strikes, and its leaders, in more than one case, fled afterward to the Soviet Union for protection. The IWW leaders interfaced with a specific part of the Soviet government:
The Soviet Union established the Communist International in 1919 - an organization for coordinating Communist parties in other countries.
Already in 1918, the communist intentions toward the United States and other western democracies were clear: the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk created a separate peace between Germany and Russia, allowing Germany to direct more resources toward the western front, which translated directly into more deaths among American and other allied soldiers. Already responsible for increased casualties in war, the socialists were now responsible for the deaths resulting from the terrorist bombings, and for the deaths resulting from the strikes and their accompanying riots.
Communists were conspiring to start a revolution in the United States. Americans had been stunned when Communists seized power in Russia and negotiated a separate peace agreement with Germany. Many Americans viewed this as betrayal, and hostility toward Communists increased.
Emboldened by their success, the socialists went further the next year:
In September 1920, a bomb made of 100 lbs. of dynamite and 500 lbs. of steel fragments exploded in New York City, killing 38 people and injuring 300 others.
The ties between the radical trade unionists and the Soviet government became more clear. Cengage's history book notes that:
Longshoremen in San Francisco and Seattle refused to load ships carrying supplies to the White Russians who had taken up arms against Lenin's Bolshevik government.
This broad and unwieldy coalition included the communists, the socialists, the extreme unionists, and the anarchists, among others. They differed from, and argued with, one another on some points. In general, however, from the gritty slums to "the radical circles that gathered in apartments and cafes," they agreed on central goals: "its participants wanted to revolutionize," not merely to elect different parties, as a way "of building a radical political party and accelerating the transition to socialism."
The tactic of the strike was, for these socialists, not the same as it was for mainstream labor unions. In a mainstream strike, organized labor temporarily brought work in a factory to a standstill, hoping to convince the owners and managers of the factory to pay better wages and to improve working conditions. By contrast, in a radical socialist strike, the strike was not against the owners and managers of a factory, the strike was against society itself. The goal was not better wages and better working conditions; the goal was to transfer ownership of the factory without recompense and to restructure the government: a very different type of strike indeed! Historian Howard Zinn writes:
The IWW idea of a general strike became reality for five days in Seattle, Washington, when a walkout of the 100,000 working people brought the city to a halt.
An entire major city was held captive. Clean clothes and decent food were nearly impossible to obtain; citizens were forced to roam about in dirty clothes, scavenging whatever they could to eat. The unions patrolled the streets, forbidding most automobile traffic.
The city now stopped functioning, except for activities organized by the strikers to provide essential needs. Firemen agreed to stay on the job. Laundry workers handled only hospital laundry. Vehicle authorized to move carried signs "Exempted by the General Strike Committee."
Seattle was one example; riots took place in cities around the country, accompanied by bloodshed and death. While often beginning as a strike, the specific issues of the strike (wages and working conditions) usually took a back seat, and then gradually disappeared altogether, in a cloud of other demands: take ownership of the factories away from their current owners with no payment in return; restructure the government as a "dictatorship of the proletariat."
Yet the roots of the radical socialist movement in the United States, like the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat", go back even further, before the foundation of the Soviet Union. Professor Harvey Klehr writes:
The two most successful 19th-century radicals were Edward Bellamy and Henry George. Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, eschewed notions of class struggle and was permeated with notions of the Social Gospel. George, whose single-tax program put the blame for America’s problems on land speculators, appealed powerfully to Irish immigrants. Large-scale industrialization and increasingly violent labor confrontations in the 1880s set the stage for the growth of the first substantial radical parties. Radicals were weakened because of incessant fights between purists unwilling to compromise and “opportunists” willing to accept small, immediate gains.
The hallmarks of the socialist movement seem to be, first, unwieldy coalitions whose factions hardly coordinate with each other, and, second, a persistent tendency toward violence. An exact
discussion of the Socialist Party of America reiterates the political problems radicals faced. Its base was among midwestern Protestants, both skilled workers and tenant farmers, and New York Jewish garment workers; it had messianic visions, but conservative social views. Neither its radical wing nor its reformist wing could surmount these internal tensions. Oklahoma had the most politically successful Socialist party in the country before World War I, but the party was destroyed when the small farmers who formed its core decided to march on Washington to seize the government after the U.S. declared war. The Green Corn Rebellion (the marchers planned to subsist on corn en route) was quickly suppressed and socialism in Oklahoma became a distant memory.
Inevitably, when one branch of the socialist coalition would soften and seek to obtain its goals by purely democratic means - speeches, elections, legislation - the other branches would nudge it back toward a more forceful version of fomenting the socialist revolution.
In Milwaukee, socialists captured city hall and remained in power for decades. But the largely German brewery workers at the party’s core were derided by other radicals as “sewer socialists” because of their inevitable need to focus on the mundane tasks of governing a city. Even the charismatic national leader of the Socialist party, Eugene Debs, was too smitten with Marxist notions of the inevitable collapse of capitalism to accept the idea that political reform was the best route to victory. And, in his romanticism, Debs embraced the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), whose bloodcurdling rhetoric thrilled those who hated capitalism but terrified more moderate socialists.
This romantic desire for a revolution which, if not directly violent, would at least be an illegal rebellion permeated the movement from the sweatiest of factory workers to the upscale neighborhoods in which armchair socialists lived in luxury. Wealthy and well-educated, and having no first-hand experience of either labor or life in a factory town, these backers of socialism understood the movement from a strictly theoretical point of view. Because theoretical economics eventually and inevitably becomes just a bit boring, the occasional bomb, riot, or death appealed to these hypothetical socialists.
Another wing of the Socialist party also scorned moderation. Around the turn of the 20th century, a new cultural Left was emerging in America, centered in Greenwich Village and championing modernism in the arts, sexual freedom, and secularism. Its newspaper, The Masses — which was not
in fact read by the masses, but which circulated mainly among the college-educated holdovers from Woodrow Wilson's progressivism, and among those for whom even Wilson had not been quite edgy enough - this newspaper "scorned compromise, much preferring the Wobblies to the boring sewer socialists."
Among the leaders of this movement, several opted to move permanently to the Soviet Union when their criminal activities in the United States were discovered. William Haywood, known as Big Bill Haywood, had been convicted in late 1918; by 1921, his conviction was still working its way through the appeals process, but it was clear it would stand. He violated the terms of his bail and left for the Soviet Union. Upon arrival there, he was given a post as a highly-placed advisor on labor topics in Lenin's government. Later, he helped to found the Kuzbass Autonomous Industrial Colony, an experiment in workers' control in the Soviet Union. His warm reception in the Soviet Union, and his immediate placement into positions of power and influence there, confirm that he had already been a loyal employee of the USSR for some time prior to his presence in that country.
Likewise, after a strike at a textile mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, in which socialist union leaders had killed a police officer, Howard Zinn writes:
sixteen strikers and sympathizers were indicted for murder, including Fred Beal, a Communist party organizer. Ultimately seven were tried and given sentences of from five to twenty years. They were released on bail, and left the state; the Communists escaped to Soviet Russia.
There were no ordinary union leaders: the mainstream of the collective bargaining union was not sympathetic to the Soviet Union or to the socialists. One must carefully distinguish between mainstream organized labor and the socialist communist extremists on the fringe of the union movement. Writing in the Washington Times, Matt Patterson notes that
for a time in the 20th century, American unions turned from this seedy past to become defenders of economic freedom. As Ivan Osorio, labor expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, notes, “During the Cold War, the AFL-CIO, Teamsters and most major U.S. labor unions were staunchly anti-communist. In fact, the AFL-CIO under Lane Kirkland worked closely with the Reagan administration to aid the Solidarity movement in Poland."
Mainstream labor unions are friendly toward capitalism and toward free markets, understanding that these are the source of wealth which they hope to procure for their members. Extremist labor movements, by contrast, seek to establish some form of socialism, and in alliance with communists and anarchists, hope to seize ownership of factories - and the means of production in general - with no recompense to their owners; they hope to restructure government into a dictatorship of the proletariat, and have no qualms about murder, bombing, hostage-taking in the form of a general strike, or alliances with powers which, like the Soviet Union, have explicitly declared a goal of overthrowing the government of the United States.
This movement - partially funded and partially directed from the Soviet Union; killing civilians in major cities by means of terrorist bombings; holding an entire major city captive for five days without clean clothes, food, or the right to move about town; and causing deaths around the nation in riots - was clearly a major symptom of the danger posed by socialism and communism in the years after 1918. Why, then, the astute reader will ask, has so little been presented about this in certain history textbooks or in certain history curricula? Why have the tales of terrorist bombings, conducted by a socialist coalition, not been included in our educations? Why has a narrative about the citizens of Seattle living as prisoners in their own homes been hidden?