Book Review:
"They Are All Red Out Here": Socialist Politics in the Pacific Northwest

  • Posted 4/22/2010
  • Essay 9405

By Jeffrey A. Johnson
University of Oklahoma Press, 2008
Hardback, 240 pages
Photographs, map, footnotes, bibliography, index
ISBN: 978­­-0-8061-3967-8

The Pacific Northwest has long been known for its left-of-center politics, but there is a dearth of analyses of the region's socialist movement. Jeffrey A. Johnson's "They Are All Red Out Here" seeks to shine a light on the Northwest's socialist past and explain its local character, which, he argues, "enjoyed an exceptional degree of political success and an unbridled rhetorical optimism that combined to make them some of the most dedicated, hopeful, and successful Socialists the United States has seen" (9). Through his chronological history of the socialist movement in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, Johnson explains the roots of the region's Socialist Party movement, its successes, and its ultimate demise.

Johnson traces socialism's roots to the profound changes in American society after Reconstruction. In particular, increasing industrialization, economic volatility, and a changing relationship between laboring people and the products of their work led some to seek alternatives to the capitalist system. In the Northwest, this discontent was based in the resource-based economy that subjected workers to the whim of global markets for commodities they extracted and to that of the capitalists who owned the mines, forestlands, and mills.

The socialist movement had its start in the late nineteenth century, though socialists  struggled to carve a space amongst the populists and other reform movements of that era. In the early twentieth century socialist membership grew, and, particularly in the Northwest, according to Johnson, socialists' optimism about effecting real change grew. As locals multiplied, so did the socialist press. Johnson provides a plethora of quotes from local, regional, and national Socialist newspapers to illustrate attitudes about the struggle against capitalists, divisions within the party, and relations between socialists and other reform-minded organizations.

Johnson ably describes the conflicts and efforts at cooperation the socialists had with other radical organizations. His descriptions of the socialist's connection with the AFL as a "continually slippery relationship" and the presence of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) as "new and radical alternative" capture the interconnectedness and contrasts of the organizations (67). Likewise, his discussion of the utopian societies that sprang up in the Northwest during this era explains their connections with the Socialist Party. Although workers in the Northwest may have seemed "all Red," radicals in the Northwest covered the ideological spectrum. Johnson parses their different motivations, as well as their differing strategies.

Johnson also untangles conflicts within the Socialist Party, both at the national and local levels. Different strategies and levels of radicalism divided the party. Some, including most of the party leadership, advocated pursuing local offices, such as mayor or city attorney, as a means to enact change that would demonstrate the socialists' ability to change the system for the benefit of workers. Others advocated sabotage and more violent means of challenging the status quo. The push and pull between these two factions within the party lasted throughout its heyday between 1895 and 1925.

The party's internal conflicts escalated as the country approached World War I, with anti-radical legislation and harassment increasing in tandem with war hysteria. More radical members of the party loudly criticized the war as a capitalist endeavor that would only harm workers. More conservative members supported the war effort and turned away from the party. This division, combined with the government's wartime repression of socialism followed by the post-war Red Scare, led to the Socialist Party's demise. Johnson's epilogue explains how many of the more radical socialists joined the Community Party of America, which was established in 1919, while more moderate party members migrated to the Democratic Party, which was advocating public ownership of some essential services.

The casual reader may not be familiar enough with the history of the national Socialist Party and its ideological development to see the contrast between the Northwest radicalism and that of other regions.  There are a number of good histories, many of which are cited in this book, that analyze the socialist movements in other regions and Johnson's aim is to provide an analysis of the party in the Northwest. It would be helpful, though, if there was more comparative information or if the reader has more background knowledge of the Socialist Party as a whole.

For readers looking for information about socialism in particular areas of the Northwest, this book will prove a useful resource. Johnson has used newspapers, letters, and party papers to draw out the local stories that make up the regional history.

The appendices are also a rich source of information. The first, "Presidential Election Totals in the Pacific Northwest, 1892-1924," vividly illustrates the regional voting trends over these four decades in comparison to national trends. The other two appendices are party platforms, one from the Great Falls, Montana, Local in 1911 and the other from the Socialist Party of Washington in 1912. They provide a view into what the socialists stood for and how they intended to attain their goals.

Though they were never a numerically large force in Northwest politics, the socialists had a significant influence on local government and illustrate the discontent felt by many across the political spectrum in the volatile era that led up to the Great Depression. "They Are All Red Out Here" provides a window into how the regional socialist movement grew out of local conditions, effected some change, yet ultimately failed to establish itself as a successful political party.

By Jennifer Ott, April 22, 2010

Submitted: 4/22/2010

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