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Here it Comes, There it Goes: Turn-of-the-Century Socialism in the Wild West

Updated on December 25, 2013

Bill Haywood (1869-1928)

Big Bill Haywood
Big Bill Haywood | Source

Rabble Rousers

For approximately thirty years, a window of opportunity for change opened in the mountainous West: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Miners and factory workers were able to improve the regional capitalist system of the time, which was much more partitioned than anything we are familiar with today. There was plenty of money to be made harvesting the natural resources of the West -- still a vibrant enterprise today. But no trickle-down action occurred so that workers, as revolutionists pointed out in print, were able to fully benefit from the work of their own hands, sweat, toil, blood, and tears. Instead, they received wages. Rabble rousers arrived from all sorts of places, mostly back east, to explain to wage-earners that they were in fact wage-slaves. Many bought the argument. Good things were to come from this: the eight-hour day and a decent, daily wage. But bad things came, too. There were acts of violence and the repetitive use of brute force on both sides that was wholly counter-productive.

These were free-wheeling times. Orators and soap-box specialists alike got on their high horses and tongue-lashed the owners, who, consciously or not, shaped the lives of hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children. Bill Haywood said on many occasions that he desired nothing less than the overthrow of the government. Others like him exploited to the hilt the incontrovertible fact that capital, as it were, was dependent upon labor, just as much if not more than the reverse. But many workers were afraid to lose their jobs. Others were influenced to stand down by their churches. Nevertheless, numerous workers linked together and made stringent demands. In 1892, a strike took place involving some 3,000 miners in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Many were sent to the bull-pen, a horrid, two-story structure in which there was purposely no sanitation. Several prisoners died while others became severely ill.

This was the kind of thing that Marx had tuned into years before -- the routine abuse of workers by their superiors. In fact, a like-minded abuse was documented many, many years before in Exodus, when Moses fought a taskmaster in the process of beating a slave senseless. By this time, in Pharoanic Egypt, irresponsible potentates must have been the norm. Unfortunately, Marx was fairly unconcerned with the U.S.A. The compliment, of course, is/was mutual. The basic configuration of European economies, for us, is a subject of abstract exclusion, pertinent to relatively few thinkers, dabblers, and traders. We like our own systems; we are not tempted to emulate foreigners. It is nonetheless amazing to learn what strides have been made in France, for instance, vis-a-vis public transportation and socialized medicine. But their "miracles" have little impact here. For a while, MBAs closely studied Japanese business methods. But that was then. This is now.

It is difficult for the book-lover as opposed to the Professor of either History or Social Studies to distinguish the difference between Socialism and Communism. But it pays to keep in mind that while on the same lefthand side of the aisle, they are intellectually worlds apart. In general, 19th century owners were a greedy lot. They much preferred a rigid society of haves and have-nots, nothing in between -- no thriving, ebullient middle class. And they were dead-set on perpetuating their own good fortune. A western example is the Santa Fe Ring, which consisted of land-owners, cattle ranchers, and railroad barons, banded together in a quasi-legal entity -- all dedicated to themselves. Immigrants from an assortment of countries around the globe, however, found that with the help of gifted leaders, they could also merge into a strong unit, and have a say in quality-of-life matters.

So, who were they? These self-appointed champions of the downtrodden? Bill Haywood, Samuel Gompers, Ed Boyce, Mother Jones, Ida Crouch Hazlett, Vincent St. John, Father Hagerty, and Eugene Debs are a few. They were hard-headed men and women, rarely giving an inch when locking horns in arguments against the more powerful establishment. They had many skirmishes and seldom gave up, even if they gained no ground. Ultimately, they would prove successful, even if in the end, it was the Democrats, not the Populists or Socialists who got the credit. In brief, they were triumphant. They changed the way in which capital and labor related to one another. Then later, they left the center stage of economic and social history. Talk, and indeed, charges of socialism would arise again during the FDR administrations, as they searched for inventive ways to alleviate the misery of the Depression. But for the most part, that was it. Socialism gave way to Communism, especially after the Russian Revolution, and the Left spiraled into obscurantism.

Documentary on the Industrial Workers of the World

Alphabet Soup

It is not that complicated. Still, the IWW were not the AFL and the AFL, even though it eventually merged with the CIO, was unique and distinct, too. And then there was the WFM, the WLU, and the UMW. Sometimes they called themselves Socialists but did not belong to the Socialist Party. Sometimes just knowing what the letters stood for does not solve the problem anyways. The IWW were the Industrial Workers of the World. The WLU were the Western Labor Union. The AFL were the American Federation of Labor. The UMW were the United Mine Workers. The CIO stands for the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The Western Federation of Labor were the WFL. Before these the KOL, Knights of Labor, looked after blue collar workers. One must not leave out the Western Mine Owners Association, an organization of preferential treatment. But the very notion used by the author to describe the radical activities of the Mountain West States seems to have originated with the Populists.

The general distinction between the Populists and the Socialists was that the former were homegrown, nation-bound, and the latter, international in scope. Populists were big on setting a silver standard such that every 16 grains of silver would equal 1 grain of gold. They were "hopped-up" on coinage. They were also known as anti-Mormon in Utah, anti-Anglo in New Mexico, accepted in Colorado, and strong in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In 1893, a Populist, Davis H. Waite, was elected Governor of Colorado. Of all the states, Colorado seems to have had a heavy share of firsts, whether wonders or blunders. Populist issues varied from state to state. In Colorado and Nevada, it was silver. In Idaho and Montana, it was labor. In Wyoming and New Mexico, it was large ranchers versus small.

If only it were this simple. In 1891, both Democrats and Republicans began to talk about silver and gold. Stealing another party's fire was the norm. Again, generally speaking, old guard Republicans did not delve into the controversies that Socialists, Populists, and unionists harped on to no end. The early 1890s were confrontational. Immigrants disembarked and found their way to, of all places, Utah: Finns, Italians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians, Greeks, and Japanese. There may well have been language problems. But this did not stop the press from growing, publishing on a regular basis such journals as The Inter-Mountain Advocate (Populist) or The Appeal to Reason (Socialist). Circulation was substantial.

In 1896, the Populists ran William Jennings Bryan for President. For some reason, maybe because of the Scopes trial, this "might-have-been" has never been forgotten. Personally, I wish I could have heard the man speak, since this was what differentiated him from the pack. At the time, parties were apt to "fuse" for the sake of an election. This was the case between the Populists and the Democrats in 1896. In 1901, David Coates, a friend of Bill Haywood, became the Lieutenant Governor or Colorado. Sent to investigate an uprising by the Western Federation of Miners, he managed to settle the matter without the aid of the Colorado National Guard. Personalities could, if persuasive enough, decide between life and death, peace and war. After leaving office, Coates joined the Socialist Party of America. He was known both as a businessman from Pueblo, CO, as well as a radical. His contradictory existence, as it were, serves to illustrate the point that workers were not against business, as such, nor big business, for that matter, only the way in which it was conducted.

This was a time during which headstrong individuals came to prominence. An example is William E. Borah, Senator of Idaho. A Republican, he was nonetheless progressive in outlook and all-too-apt to form his own opinion regardless of what his party advocated. He was also known at one point in his history as a Silver Republican. He must have caught the bug that may or may not have inspired Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. President Coolidge, upon learning that Borah liked horseback riding, remarked that he would be surprised to learn that both Borah and his horse went in the same direction. He was a life-long political careerist from the Senatorial election of 1907 to his death in 1940.

Clarence Darrow

Not Guilty
Not Guilty | Source

Frank Steunenberg (1861-1905)

If you're anything like me, all this talk about commodities and mankind makes you sleepy. But there is no denying Idaho's natural resources, lucrative mines, and hence labor agitation. Governor Steunenberg held office from 1896 to 1900. At the turn of the century, he was still young, retired with two terms behind him. But five years later, a rigged bomb ended his life. A man named Harry Orchard confessed. In doing so, he claimed Bill Haywood ordered the murder. Attracted to high-profile courtroom dramas, Clarence Darrow defended him -- despite being labeled "an undesirable" by Theodore Roosevelt. The prosecutor was none other than the rookie Senator, William E. Borah. Orchard was a miner for the Western Federation of Labor. Haywood was its General Secretary. Somehow it happens. All this talk about capital and labor, what's fair and what's shameful, not to mention strikes and unions and scabs, national guards and federal troops, and so many egos, none of whom know when to quit or step aside, loses its glow in the face of a wrong no one can very easily justify. And though it stood out in terms of grandeur and glitz, this murder was far from an isolated case.

There were many companies then owned by the likes of John D. Rockefeller, the heirs of Jay Gould, and other tycoons. But though powerful, their word was not "law". Discontent was ubiquitous. The Cripple Creek gold strike lasted from August 1903 to June 1904. It affected 3,500 miners. And strikes were only a factor. There were also actions that went against the general, left-leaning trend: the election of James H. Peabody as Governor of Colorado, for instance. He was a Republican bank owner. Arizona Socialists denounced "Peabodyism" for a variety of reasons. They described it in terms of "theft, murder, wanton destruction of property, false imprisonment [and] . . . indignities heaped upon defenseless women and children." (David R. Berman, Radicalism in the Mountain West -- Kindle loc. #2730) Mother Jones was outraged. Strikes continued. One in Trinidad, CO involved 22,000. According to Cripple Creek's own, amiable website today, from 1890 to 1910, over 22 million ounces of gold were extracted from some 500 mines. It would have been fool's gold indeed to have thought such a king's ransom could come so easily without any commotion.

Something of the whole, nasty period of time, during which so much occurred, coalesces in this trial. Judges on the payroll, pro-mine-owner Republicans, Socialists mouthing standard Communist rhetoric (such as "the means of production"), and Eugene Debs, who won nearly a million votes for president behind bars, are only some of the contributing elements to a wild story that is, by virtue of its girth, refactory, hard to define, and impossible to accurately characterize. Things happened, were said, or printed. Nothing went unopposed, both verbally and with live ammunition. But what did it all amount to? It was not a soccer match or a football game. And the stakes actually got higher after the successful 1917 Russian Revolution. A parallel American tragedy played itself out mingling agony and despair in terms of damaged personal lives and careers well into the 1960s.

The Haywood Trial went on a long time. Literally hundreds of witnesses were called. But Socialism in the American Workplace did not come to a shrieking halt by any means. In fact, the trial was a landmark of some sort, leading up to Steunenberg's murder in 1905, and away from it in the subsequent legal proceedings of 1907. Steunenberg was certainly on the side of mine owners. He did not hesitate to prevail upon President McKinley to send federal troops. But the men he hunted down were not shrinking violets either. They often resorted to dynamite to make known their deepest sentiments. It was only with the assistance of Pinkerton's finest detective, James McParland, that the State of Idaho was able to nab Harry Orchard. His stunning confession that fingered Big Bill Haywood included seventeen additional victims. Thus it is that the luster of yellow is darkened by red.

Cross of Gold Speech by William Jennings Bryan


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