[Editorial reprinted from The Montague Reporter, Sept. 7, 2017]
The Olden Days
One hundred years ago, 1917, was a heady, tumultuous time, globally as well as locally. The United States had joined the Great War in the winter, and for much of the spring and summer the local news focused on food shortages and the draft.
The rising cost of living spurred labor unrest. 3,500 workers on the regional division of the Boston and Maine railroad went out on strike in August; at the East Deerfield yard, workers demanded a raise from 38 cents an hour to 46.
That September, something interesting started showing up in the pages of the Greenfield Recorder: nearly every week, among the typical local items (Elks Clambake Sept. 12; Notes of the Fair; Hospital Rates Increase; Fall Killed Infant; etc.), there were earnest reports of Socialist meetings in the shire town.
On Saturday, September 8, according to the Recorder, “an attentive audience of 300 or more” turned out at Allen’s Corner to hear John McCarty, Socialist candidate for governor: “Mr. McCarty said that in spite of the fact that the workers can now produce more than at any time in history, yet the mass of them are nearer the poor-house than ever. He said that this is due to the fact that we allow a handful of capitalists to control industry and take more than half the product.
“This surplus product, which the workers have not sufficient wages to buy, he said must seek a foreign market, and in doing so comes in conflict with the surplus products of other countries, thus causing war. This he claimed was the fundamental cause of the present war…”
On September 24, the local Socialists held a caucus at Commonwealth Hall to elect slates of delegates for town, county and state offices.
And on the 29th, “an audience of about 400” came out to hear James F. Carey, one of the founders of the state party. The Recorder recorded that Carey “charged that the present plan has plunged the world into a welter of blood and that the struggle of the producers of wealth today to get a living is fiercer, and, comparatively speaking, less remunerative than ever, notwithstanding the greatly increased productivity of industry.
“He said that the working time of the wage-earner is spent under an industrial autocracy or despotism and that he can never have real democracy until capitalism is abolished and Socialism triumphs.”
On October 6, “about 400” returned to hear “Mrs. Marion Sproule of Lowell, the Socialist candidate for Secretary of the Commonwealth,” who spoke “from a strong woman suffragist standpoint, using woman’s place in industry to-day as an argument for her enfranchisement.”
On October 20, Prof. George N. Spiess of Boston “said that the mines, railroads and all means of transportation and communication should be publicly owned and democratically managed by the people themselves, as well as all large-scale industries,” and called profit “robbery.”
The Halloween edition of the Recorder observed that “this campaign has been the most active that Massachusetts socialists have ever seen. Tons of literature have been sold and distributed and the state office has been unable to supply the demand.”
On November 3, just before the state election, the party held a final rally in town. “Kaiserism received severe treatment at their hands,” the paper wrote, and “[w]hile a disposition to support the government was shown, a strong demand for world peace was expressed…”
McCarty proved a fringe candidate, garnering less than 5% of the vote in the largest race he’d lost so far. The Socialist candidates for local office were similarly unable to turn lecture audiences into votes – Walter S. Hutchins only won 140 votes for representative, to the Recorder’s expressed surprise.
After the campaign, the movement appears to have dissipated, at least in the newspapers, drowned out by the various Red Cross and YMCA war preparation efforts.
One year later, the Spanish influenza had hit, and the headlines on the corresponding local pages are drab: Volunteer Nurses Needed; Biscuit Company Flies Flag; Popular Young Man Dies; Influenza Must Be Reported; Lumberman Kills Himself.
In the end, the traumas of the War and the fear of Bolshevism wiped out any curiosity Franklin County people may have shown for a democratic reorganization of industry and society – particularly one carried out by the government.
But reading these century-old papers, we’re reminded that in certain unusual moments in time, quite regular people will find themselves discussing whether a very different world is possible.