Pennsylvania’s forgotten Socialist history and the century-old revolution that almost was

That time fair labor advocates took over Reading.

From left: Darlington Hoopes, James Maurer, and Lilith Wilson

From left: Darlington Hoopes, James Maurer, and Lilith Wilson

Courtesy PA General Assembly archives
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It wasn’t that long ago in Pennsylvania that capital-S Socialists served in the state legislature and controlled the municipal government in one commonwealth city.

The most famous among them was James Maurer, a late 1800s/early 1900s labor leader who pushed for workman’s compensation and child labor laws. His pro-union stance and ties to the Socialist Party of America were deeply influenced by his childhood, as he wrote in his autobiography. He became a newsboy at age 6 and, after his father’s death, worked in various trades. A labor organizer taught Maurer to read at age 15, and he devoted the rest of his life to improving conditions for workers and the average person.

Maurer was born and lived his entire life in Reading, which was a hotbed for socialism in the early 20th century. The city sent three Socialists to the state legislature — Maurer, Darlington Hoopes and Lilith Martin Wilson — and elected a completely Socialist council in 1929.

How did this happen in Reading, of all places?

“It’s a really huge question that hangs over the entire history of various socialist cities,” said Ian Gavigan, a historian and Rutgers graduate student who is studying the Reading Socialists.

There are a few theories. Reading was an industrial city with a large working-class population, which Gavigan noted is the basis for socialism. There was also widespread home ownership among workers, which gave marginalized people a stake in the city. Workers in Reading also earned less than their counterparts in nearby industrial cities like Allentown or Bethlehem.

Gavigan is working on a theory about how the structure of government in Pennsylvania could have played a role as well. He noted that Maurer was a charismatic man and an effective organizer.

“They just organized the hell out of their community,” he said. “They built a socialist world that one could inhabit.”

‘Going to Harrisburg…to look at hell’

Not only did the Reading Socialists gain a foothold in politics — they were “critical to the formation of the early 20th structure of the labor movement,” Gavigan said.

In 1912, Maurer was elected president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, the precursor to the AFL-CIO. During his time in the General Assembly, he advocated for eliminating the state police, which he called “a ruthless strikebreaking institution,” and successfully fought a bill to expand the force.

“My election got plenty of publicity in the daily papers throughout the state, most of it unfavorable, which was what we had expected,” Maurer wrote of his first election in 1910. “Several papers quoted me as saying: ‘I am going to Harrisburg to raise hell!’ What I had really said was: ‘I am going to the Harrisburg law-factory, not to raise hell, but to look at hell.’ In some of the papers I was pictured as a long-haired, bewhiskered firebrand, and ‘dangerous radical’ was one of their mild epithets for me.”

Darlington Hoopes and Lilith Wilson served in the state House during the Great Depression, and their legislative priorities reflected the direness of the time. Altogether, Pennsylvania Socialists advocated for bills to provide:

  • Compensation to injured workers
  • Pensions for widows, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities
  • One day off a week
  • Home rule and greater local power for third-class cities
  • Child labor standards

Wilson, in 1922, became the first woman nominated to run for Pennsylvania governor. Hoopes, Maurer, and Wilson all ran (unsuccessfully) for higher office, including U.S. president, on the Socialist ticket. Their stump speeches wouldn’t sound unfamiliar today.

“Despite the claims of Democratic politicians,” Hoopes said in 1952, when he ran for president the first time, “the rich are still getting richer and the poor are still having a rough time.”

Fast forward to today

In 1932, there were more than 100 Socialist chapters across Pennsylvania. Just over a decade later, the party had lost political power in the state.

There’s not a definitive answer for what exactly happened, Gavigan said.

“In the most general sense, the New Deal happens,” he said. “They reach both their high point and low point in 1935/36 and fizzle out.”

Whereas the union movement wasn’t tied to a single party during the early part of the century, by the mid-30s its fate was linked to the Democrats — not Socialists.

Like the Socialists who rose to prominence amid widespread poverty and economic despair a century ago, this year’s surge of DSA-backed candidates — three of who join the Pa. House in January 2019 — ran on platforms of economic justice and healthcare as a human right.

There’s a shared tradition among these politicians. Sara Innamorato, a Democratic Socialist who will represent part of Pittsburgh, recently described her vision as “another world is possible.”

That motto echoes Maurer’s own: “It can be done.”

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