Reflecting on Socialist Politics in West Virginia

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West Virginia is a relatively new “red state.” It wasn’t until 2014 when the Republicans took control of the House of Delegates and the State Senate. However, a century ago, West Virginia showcased a different shade of red.

The Socialist Party in West Virginia opened its first local in Wheeling in 1901, and for the next two decades, it played a major role in the political and labor makeup of this Appalachian state. Socialists were elected to local positions across the state, and Star City, near Morgantown, ended up having the longest-lasting Socialist municipal government in the United States. Socialists were elected to local union offices in the UMWA, specifically Districts 29 and 17; the latter, controlled by the militant unionist Frank Keeney, played a seminal role in the history of the Mine Wars, a series of conflicts in the state that led to the largest insurrection in US history since the Civil War.

The decline of the Socialist Party in the Mountain State, however, was due less to the effect of the Red Scare and the post-war period than issues within the party itself. During the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike (1912-3), a series of armed assaults on striking miners and their families ensued. At least fifty people were killed by agents of the coal mining companies. To combat this, Governors Glasscock and Hatfield declared martial law, and in the process, destroyed the Socialist Party’s press in Huntington and arrested over thirty Socialist “agitators.” In April 1913, Governor Hatfield negotiated an end to the protracted strike by forcing the UMWA and local mine operators to come to a settlement. The deal was so bad that the UMWA had to force this deal through with little regards to membership. In lieu of negotiating the contract through a referendum – which was typical of contracts at the time – the UMWA instead held a convention with only miner delegates allowed to vote on the contract.

By 1913, Eugene Debs was convinced that the UMWA was the best union to “bore within” to oust the conservative leadership of Samuel Gompers in the AFL. Certainly, many Socialist Party members held important positions within the UMWA, but these individuals were never more than a vocal minority. It was the common belief of the more conservative leadership of the SPA at the time that a combination of electoral wins and winning leadership positions within the AFL would do more to achieve socialism than the direct action tactics advocated by the IWW. Debs’ attempt to blunt Socialist criticism of the UMWA’s negotiated deal went so far as to write up an NEC report that sided with Governor Hatfield’s martial law and deflected blame away from the coal operators. The national party had sided with capitalists against even their own party leaders in the state, all of whom vociferously denounced NEC’s report.

The effect of this report was devastating on the Socialist Party in West Virginia. Well-known Wobblies Ralph Chaplin and Elmer Rumbaugh left the SPA, as did UMWA district presidents Frank Keeney and L.C. Rodgers. When Keeney and his fellow workers rebelled again against the UMWA’s conservatism in another strike, this time in 1916, they rejected Debs’ assistance and any help the SPA would offer. One year later, as the United States entered WWI, the Socialist Party in West Virginia had far fewer connections in the coal-rich south, making the government’s Red Scare tactics that much more effective on a fractured movement.

The history of this time period is imperative for the Left in Appalachia, particularly in West Virginia, to understand well. Debs’ presidential runs have cemented him as the quintessential American socialist politician of the 20th century. His meteoric rise in popular imagination has led not one, but two candidates for president – Howie Hawkins and Bernie Sanders – to invoke his memory in their campaigns. Debs’ mythological past betrays the work he did for the party in ways that destroyed locals, leaving them vulnerable to reactionary pushback years later. Recognizing that Appalachian organizing has never been reliant upon the “Great Man Theory” of history is critical when deciding on future tactics within the South more broadly. The common refrain that “Bernie won all 55 counties in West Virginia” in the 2016 primary is an example of this. Digging beneath the voting patterns of Appalachians presents fascinating conclusions; one of which is that the Left cannot be reduced to electoral numbers.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the history of the SPA in West Virginia shows what can happen when militants rely upon the “boring within” strategy exclusively. DSA’s 2019 resolution endorsing the “rank-and-file” strategy parallels the belief that Debs had at the time, after he withdrew from the IWW. Boring within the AFL, through the UMWA’s national office, meant that the party had to side with milquetoast union leadership under the belief that this could position the party to take over the AFL later down the line. In the end, it was Gompers’ AFL who won out, breaking the “rabble” who had challenged them both from outside (IWW) and from within (SPA).

The critical junctures that we on the Left now find ourselves demand a reckoning with our own past, the flaws that we’ve made, and the possibilities for the future. 

In this reflecting, though, please don’t write off Appalachia. The mass wave of education strikes that started in our state two years ago were the warning shot across the bow to the capitalist class. West Virginia was once a bastion for socialist politics a century ago. It can be so again.

Michael Mochaidean is an educator and organizer in West Virginia with the WVEA and IWW.