A Century Ago, Socialists Represented New Yorkers in State Government
DSA’s newly elected officials are part of a rich history.
Now that the absentee ballots have been counted, it’s clear that the New York State Legislature is about to include five new socialist members, all from the slate put forward by the Democratic Socialists of America.
There’s a historical precedent for this.
In 1919, five socialists were elected to the New York State Assembly. They weren’t the first — in fact, ten socialists had been elected in 1917. Only one of 1919’s five – Samuel DeWitt, of the Bronx — was newly elected. The rest — Manhattan’s August Claessens and Louis Waldman, the Bronx’s Samuel Orr and Brooklyn’s Charles Solomon — were incumbents first elected in 1918 or 1917 (terms in the assembly back then were only one year).
The US ruling class was running scared in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the country was in the midst of a wave of anti-communist repression known as the first Red Scare.
Just following the Palmer Raids — a campaign by President Woodrow Wilson’s Department of Justice targeting and deporting leftist immigrants — both Republicans and Democrats in the New York State Assembly voted to expel the five socialists, having them forcibly removed by armed cops when they refused to leave the capitol. A few Democrats, embarrassed, muttered as the socialists were dragged out, “Sorry boys, we couldn’t help it.”
The ouster of democratically elected representatives for merely holding minority views shocked the public and even the press. There were street protests, and the liberal newspaper New York World called the assembly’s action “a legislative outrage.”
The Brooklyn Standard Union, a Republican newspaper, called the assembly’s action “utterly wrong in principle and lamentable as a matter of policy.” The socialists became a cause célèbre, and many Americans learned about the Socialist Party and its ideas for the first time.
In response to the outcry, the assembly’s judiciary committee held a trial of the socialists in January 1920 — but voted to uphold the expulsion. Though the vote was close (7 to 6), the atmosphere at the conclusion of the trial was ugly, ending in liquor-soaked chaos — only the lobbyists were sober — with one of the socialists’ colleagues, a former prizefighter and saloon owner, declaring that they should be “strung up to the nearest lamp post with their feet dangling in the air.”
Still, their constituents were unconvinced. A special election was held that September to fill the empty seats — and all five socialists were reelected. The 2020 victory of the DSA slate (Phara Souffrant, Jabarai Brisport, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, Marcela Mitaynes, and Julia Salazar) is a remarkable way to celebrate the centennial of that 1920 win.
Their victory was short-lived, however. Three of the socialists were expelled again the next day, and the other two resigned in solidarity with their comrades. Some of the men ran successfully later on and did serve in the assembly again.
Like DSA’s current elected officials, some of the 1919 socialists came from families and communities of recent immigrants. One of them, August Claessens, born in Switzerland, began working at the age of fourteen, by turns a newsboy, shipping clerk, and grocery clerk. He discovered socialism and the Socialist Party of America — the party of Eugene V. Debs — through the Rand School of Social Science, the party’s intensive and serious school for workers, which provided both political and general education.
Learning Yiddish — widely spoken among Jewish immigrants at the time — as well as socialist ideas through the Rand School helped him get elected to the assembly in 1917. After the 1920 brouhaha, he ran again for the state legislature and was seated in 1922.
Reflecting the social changes of the last century, the NYC-DSA politicians represent a broader cross section of the working class than their 1919 forefathers do: the socialist assembly members of 1919 were all men, none were black, and all were of European descent. But their commitments were similar to those of today’s DSA slate.
In The Socialists in the New York Assembly, a 1918 pamphlet coauthored by Claessens with William M. Feigenbaum, a Socialist Party comrade and assembly colleague, two of the socialists elected that year reflected on their work in Albany thus far:
These ten Socialists did not act as individuals. They went to the legislature representing the Socialist Party. In carrying out the mandates of those who sent them to Albany, the Socialists presented a solid front…the Socialist bloc acted as a unit in advancing a program of constructive Socialist legislation and in opposing legislation inimical to the interests of the masses of the people. It was the Socialist group that did the work, and the group was a dynamo of thought, of study and of activity.
They described their principles this way: “…to make the lives of the people happier.… Their daily question was this: ‘Is this for the benefit of the workers? If it is, we are for it. If it is not, we are against it.’”
Some of the reforms Claessens and his comrades fought for were defeated at the time, but enacted years later. Socialist assemblyman Joseph A. Whitehorn, for example, introduced a bill allowing children to pay half fare on public transportation. The railroad companies fought and killed it but the idea provoked debate and was popular, and children ride free on New York City transit today.
The socialists also pushed for public housing, an eight-hour workday, a pension system for workers, welfare for single mothers with dependent children, protections for tenants against unfair rent increases and other landlord abuses, a state university system, the abolition of the death penalty, and democratically elected school boards — all reforms that later came to pass either nationally or in New York state (though some have of course been undone since).
Some of the socialists’ ideas were plagiarized by other legislators, including suffrage for women and more public control of the milk supply. The socialists also successfully fought an effort to weaken child labor laws and passed a bill making it easier for workers to collect back wages awarded to them in court judgements.
The socialists unsuccessfully pushed for an end to food profiteering, a municipal takeover of water and utilities, numerous workers’ rights initiatives, and many other socialist reforms. Almost none of the bills they introduced became law. Claessens’s book asks why and then answers the question:
The answer is easy. There were not enough Socialists in the Assembly, and there were none at all in the Senate!
Though the ruling class never wants socialists in power, the DSA legislators now enter amid a slightly less hostile political climate than 1919, not only in the larger society but also in Albany, where they join a growing number of left and progressive lawmakers — in the Senate as well as the assembly — some elected in 2018 and some just recently. There is no “red scare” in New York now, and any attempt by the current federal government to orchestrate one would utterly lack credibility.
The five-member DSA slate won’t even be the only socialists in Albany: there are in fact at least six. While Emily Gallagher, running in Brooklyn, wasn’t endorsed by NYC-DSA this election year, she is a DSA member and campaigned openly calling herself a socialist. In a narratively elegant coincidence, her particular district is connected to this early twentieth-century history, as Jacobin reported back in May.
After the 1920 expulsion, Morris Hillquit, a founder and leader of the Socialist Party — and a defense lawyer for the socialist assemblymen — made a remark that seems timely today:
Henceforward it will be a finish fight between social democracy and capitalist absolutism. The fight is only beginning. The socialists are ready for it.