Socialists in 1911, and Socialists Today

These are heady times for Columbus DSA! We’ve got a member running for city council, Liliana Baiman, who promises to deliver real socialist policies to help people in a city whose leadership has been content to ignore them. This is part of a rising tide nationally that has seen new leftist leadership on city councils, in state legislatures, and even in Congress. 

In the midst of this period of increasing electoral activism, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time socialist candidates have done well at the ballot box in Ohio. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Socialist Party presented a viable challenge to the two-party system in the state and nationally. They campaigned on policies that with hindsight seem commonsense: referenda, public control of utilities, and progressive taxation. For a time, their campaigns were effective. In 1911, the Socialist Party in Ohio elected twelve mayors, four city-councilmen in Columbus, two in Dayton, and one in Toledo. Difficult as it may be to believe, Lima had a socialist mayor for a few years.

The culmination of this, which was likely more important than the mayoralties and city council seats, was the state’s constitutional convention. Ohio was dominated by a Republican political machine that tried to block municipal reform if it deviated with party orthodoxy. Socialists became a major part of the progressive coalition that supported a state convention, and while no new constitution was created, thirty-three amendments were added to the state constitution. Amendments gave the state the power to regulate state industries, created a workers’ compensation system.

And yet, within a few years the Socialist Party had declined in Ohio and nationally. Why did the Socialists decline so quickly after 1911? Part of it was simply co-optation: both Democrats and Republicans adopted parts of the Socialist platform. Socialists had created a critical mass that led to new policies, but once some of those policies were adopted, socialists had little to distinguish themselves between the Republicans and Democrats. The Bolshevik Revolution, the Sedition Act, and the First Red Scare created a backlash against leftists of any stripe. Some of the votes cast for socialists were no doubt protest votes against a two-party system that had been unresponsive for too long, with equally weak candidates. Lima’s socialist mayor spent more time trying to close saloons than he did fighting capital, which may have been why he only lasted two years in office.

As we get close to this election and the return of a socialist to the Columbus City Council, there are things we can learn from this earlier period of history. It is not simply enough to be elected to office, as some officeholders hoped over a hundred years ago. Nor can it happen solely by improving the state’s constitution or other administrative solutions. Hopes that access to initiatives and recalls would create socialism did not pan out, as referenda and initiatives can be deeply regressive (remember, a majority of British voters actually opted for Brexit). Merely providing legal machinery and framework cannot by itself create a more just society. Civic reform, while desperately needed, was not sufficient to sustain a democratic socialist movement the issues were too abstract to sustain socialism and needed a strong connection to working people’s lives. 

For all of those warnings there were very tangible successes that should serve as lessons, too. Socialists managed to drag both Democrats and Republicans into supporting positions they had previously paid no attention to. In this sense, they shifted political norms in the direction of socialism. In the early 1900s, this was over public control of streetcar companies and utilities providers. Today, we’re fighting back against the same companies charging outrageous submetering fees

In a lot of ways, Lili’s fighting the same battles that Ohio’s socialists were fighting a century ago. She’s taken aim at the problem of big money in politics, because Columbus City Council has been too eager to give away tax abatements that only benefit developers. The socialists of the Class of 1911 fought for a minimum wage and won one; now, Liliana’s fighting to update it. Socialists then fought against exploitative private streetcar fares, and Liliana wants to bring rail service (back) to Columbus. 

 Despite the numerable challenges socialists have faced over the decades, one thing has stood true through time: local activists tip the scales. After World War II, attention to local issues faded away in many cases. Today, however, when the federal government is gridlocked and we are once again led by strikingly unresponsive parties, it is worth remembering that local activism can deliver and make people’s lives better. Every Saturday, we’re canvassing for Lili, and we hope to see you before November 5th. 

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