The following is an excerpt from When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America by R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox (Bison Books, 2020).
In Kansas industrial laborers were largely confined to the Tri-State Mining Region of the corners of southeastern Kansas, southwestern Missouri, and northeastern Oklahoma, areas with rich deposits of tin, lead, zinc, and low-grade coal. Mining was not an attractive occupation to Native Americans, so the Tri-State region attracted European miners from Great Britain, France, Italy, and the Balkan states.
Kansas workers first turned to unions to redress their grievances. Alexander Howat’s District 14 of the United Mine Workers was a great success, with 100 percent membership. At the same time the Socialist movement was very attractive to downtrodden workers, both the American version espoused by Eugene V. Debs and the kind of socialism that these workers brought with them from Europe. This brand of political activity held workers in high esteem as socialism had as its key premise that we are our brother’s keeper. The main goal of American socialism was to improve the workingman’s lot in life through collective action.
Socialism provided workers even more than this. To the young activist, socialism seemed to have not only goals but plans to achieve them that other political parties lacked. The “labor problem” sparked by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of big business arrived on the East Coast in 1877 and spread rapidly westward to Kansas with the railroad strike of that year. It gave rise to many reform movements, but the violence was finally suppressed with federal troops and in the process frightened the ruling capitalist class. These reform efforts were finally suppressed by federal troops and failed to unite workers, both rural and urban.
Soon after the Civil War ended, citizens of foreign birth flocked to the new state of Kansas, some directly from the homelands and others after originally moving to other parts of the United States. Heavily European, they took advantage of the land available, and ethnic communities arose as a result. In the late nineteenth century they lived in a state that was either Republican or Democrat, with only moderate opposition or competition from a third party. The American Nonconformist, a radical paper and a major voice for reform in Iowa, found a welcoming home in Kansas in 1886; it was published in Winfield for five years before moving to Indiana. Its growth coincided with the rise of the Knights of Labor, one of whose leaders, Christian Hoffman, a Kansan originally from Europe, became a key national figure in the Populist movement.
For its first thirty years as a state, Kansas was mostly Republican. The population expanded in those early decades, and railways were built, crisscrossing the state. Industry spread into the new state from the East. Kansans, who were at first agriculturally minded, were becoming more industrialized. Farming had provided a good living for many, but some farmers failed. Tax issues, political graft, and agricultural problems resulted in disgruntled citizens. The economy suffered as taxes rose, ultimately forcing many Kansans to look to alternative political groups or parties to help them deal with the instability. Reforms were suggested, and political reform parties were created. From this rose the Populist Party in Kansas.
The Populist movement proved to be the next great protest movement, but it, too, was unable to unite the working classes politically. Many members of the Greenback-Labor Party and the Knights of Labor joined with Prohibitionists, agrarian Democrats, and restive Republicans to form the People’s, or Populist, Party. When the Populist fusion with the regular Democrats fell short of victory in 1896, the lack of “fishes and loaves,” as Theodore Roosevelt expressed his loss in 1912, left the Populists without the political adhesive of patronage, and these malcontents faced few acceptable political options. Many easily migrated to socialism, which was gaining greater respectability by the turn of the twentieth century under the aegis of the Progressive Reform movement. Remnants of these various reform groups met in Indianapolis in 1901 and, singing the Marseillaise, formed the Socialist Party of America.
During the Progressive movement (1890–1920), Socialism threatened to become a viable force in American political life. With horror stories washing ashore about the radical theories and activities of European Socialists, a majority of Americans feared this movement and tended to categorize its adherents as the caricatured bomb-throwing radicals who were intent on destroying the “American way of life.” Most Kansans, who reflected middle-class values, joined this majority.
The American Socialists were even more of an umbrella political party than most because they could never agree fully on a core set of beliefs. The socialism the German immigrants brought with them from Europe, that of the German political activist Ferdinand Lassalle, was popular in cities of the Eastern Seaboard and Chicago but never really found an audience on the conservative Great Plains. It seemed that every year Socialists were faced with issues that forced them to accept reconciliation or splinter into factionalism. Discord among adherents of socialism began in 1901, when Morris Hillquit, leader of New York Socialists, and Austrian-born Victor Berger of Milwaukee convinced Eugene V. Debs to form a coalition party. Debs acquiesced in this merger but soon joined William “Big Bill” Haywood to organize the Industrial Workers of the World (iww), or “Wobblies.” When Debs found the iww to be unmanageable, in true Socialist fashion he joined the moderates, leaving Haywood with both his Western Federation of Miners (wfm) and the iww.
From its beginnings in 1901, the Socialist Labor Party, led by newspaperman Daniel De Leon, refused to merge with the Socialist majority, a coalition of regional groups under Debs’s leadership that often professed differing points of view. His group remained a doctrinaire segment of Marxist thinkers who anticipated the masses rising up to throw off their chains and establish by force the classless society of the future. This majority remained catholic in their national organization and sometimes had little in common beyond their red card membership. They insisted on pursuing a peaceful program to achieve their goals through the ballot box, forcing De Leon to withdraw from the movement in disgust. The members amended the Socialist constitution to bar anyone who advocated violence and in 1912 expelled Haywood and his wfm from the Socialist Party. Haywood subsequently became the leader of the iww, which used force to achieve its goals. The Fabian Socialists completely rejected the class struggle and its accompanying violence. The foreign-language federations constituted a splinter group that was essentially strong among the Finns of the Upper Midwest.
Socialists everywhere insisted that capitalism was the root of almost all of society’s evils. It produced periods of economic boom or bust, exploited workers, and resulted in poverty, hunger, and misery for the masses. Capitalists, they argued, were responsible for the world’s wars and most of the ills of Western civilization. Socialists felt that Americans must abandon this evil system and institute one in which the people collectively owned the means of production and distribution. This revolution was inevitable: all that the workers needed to do was to rise up against their masters, throw off their chains, and establish the corporate commonwealth with all who produced society’s goods. But Socialists differed mightily over the process of bringing about this utopia.
Such an amalgamation often produced family fights when all could have pulled together. The American Federation of Labor (afl) had the same goal as the Socialists, helping the working class, but the two groups were at odds. The De Leon faction wanted to organize industrial unions to compete with the afl because it believed that skilled workers were abandoning the masses. Even liberal Socialists accused labor union leader Samuel Gompers of being too conservative and feared the right wing in their party would attempt to turn it into a labor party because Gompers remained nonpolitical. Debs even once referred to Gompers as “an old woman.” There were other issues that caused friction between labor advocates and reformers. In the party elections of 1910 for membership on the Socialist Party’s National Executive Committee (nec), the conservatives won. Then the McNamara case the next year and the iww strike in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1912 precipitated a crisis over the use of sabotage and violence as tactics.
According to historian John P. Diggins, Socialists continued to split over three political approaches: Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the German Social Democratic Party, believed control of the government could be won politically through the ballot box, while Marxists insisted on political activity through organizing industrial unions; right-wing Socialists sought step-by-step changes, while their left-wing brethren envisioned an apocalyptic leap to success; and different groups continued to dispute how much violence, if any, was necessary to achieve their goals.