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Political Ideologies In Action: Socialism: Prairie Populism, Sewer Socialism, and the IWW

A guide created for John Hultgren's Political Ideologies in Action: Socialism in the United States (POL4241.01)

Quick Description

The term populism was first used in the nineteenth century and has since been used to describe a variety of people and movements. Although multiple definitions have been applied to the term, the basic idea involves contrasting “the people” against “the elite."

In North America, populism has often been characterised by regional mobilisation and loose organisation. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, populist sentiments became widespread, particularly in the western provinces of Canada, and in the southwest and Great Plains regions of the United States. In this instance, populism was combined with agrarianism and often known as "prairie populism". For these groups, "the people" were yeomen—small, independent farmers —while the "elite" were the bankers and politicians of the northeast. In some cases, populist activists called for alliances with labor (the first national platform of the National People's Party in 1892 calling for protecting the rights of "urban workmen".

Sewer socialism was an originally pejorative term for the American socialist movement that centered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from around 1892 to 1960. The term was coined by Morris Hillquit at the 1932 Milwaukee convention of the Socialist Party of America as a commentary on the Milwaukee socialists and their perpetual boasting about the excellent public sewer system in the city.

Founded in 1905 by unionists opposed to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the first large labor union in the United States to organize as an industrial union instead of according to craft. It focused a large part of its organizing efforts on newly arrived immigrant workers, whom other union organizations ignored or overtly discriminated against.

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Brief Bios

Daniel De Leon, alternatively spelt Daniel de León, was a Curaçaoan-American socialist newspaper editor, politician, Marxist theoretician, and trade union organizer. He is regarded as the forefather of the idea of revolutionary industrial unionism and was the leading figure in the Socialist Labor Party of America from 1890 until the time of his death. De Leon was a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World and much of his ideas and philosophy contributed to the creations of Socialist Labor parties across the world, including: Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance.

Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund and also known as Joseph Hillström, was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly called the "Wobblies"). A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco. Hill, an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the union. His most famous songs include "The Preacher and the Slave" (in which he coined the phrase "pie in the sky"), "The Tramp", "There Is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab", which express the harsh and combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize their efforts to improve working conditions.

In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men. The same evening, Hill arrived at a doctor's office with a gunshot wound, and briefly mentioned a fight over a woman. He refused to explain further, even after he was accused of the grocery store murders on the basis of his injury. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers' organizations, Hill was executed in November 1915. After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry.

Eugene Victor "GeneDebs was an American socialist, political activist, trade unionist, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.