New York Socialists in the Legislature—and Out

Five socialists are headed to the New York state legislature. The story of the five socialists elected in 1919 provides a sobering warning.

Joshua B. Freeman
September 11, 2020
Top row: The five socialist Assemblymen expelled from the New York State Legislature in 1919, from left: Charles Solomon, Louis Waldman, Samuel Orr, August Claessens, and Samuel DeWitt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Bottom row: The five socialists on their way to the New York State Legislature in 2020, from left: Jabari Brisport, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, and Julia Salazar. Rendering courtesy of the Democratic Socialists of America.

IN THE JUNE 23RD New York State Democratic primary, five candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won nomination for seats in the state legislature. If they win their general election contests in November—which is likely, since all are running in heavily Democratic districts—they will constitute the largest socialist delegation in Albany in one hundred years. 

Yet things did not go well a century ago for the five members of the Socialist Party elected to the State Assembly in 1919. On April 1st, 1920, they were expelled from the chamber by an overwhelming vote for alleged disloyalty to the United States. And while all five won the subsequent special elections to fill the vacant posts, three were quickly expelled again, leading their two colleagues to resign in protest.

Given the gulf of time between these socialist electoral peaks, it’s not surprising that there are many differences between the two groups of candidates, their programs, and their challenges. But there are striking parallels, too, and important reminders for the left, especially as the country teeters on the edge of a frightening period of political violence and repression. Donald Trump’s rejection of basic democratic and legal norms is hardly as novel in US history as it is often portrayed: Even in liberal New York, there have been repeated efforts to alter or ignore the rules of democracy when voters elect candidates who seek fundamental changes to the capitalist system. The story of the socialist legislators expelled during the first Red Scare shows how little it took for defenders of the status quo in both parties to embrace anti-democratic measures when that status quo was challenged. 

The Socialist Party of America (SP), formed in 1901, was the first national anti-capitalist organization capable of running effective electoral efforts at every level of government. By 1912 it had become a significant, if decidedly minority, political force. That year, party leader Eugene Victor Debs won 6% of the presidential vote, a mark still unmatched by a socialist in a general election. Twelve hundred socialists held local or state office, including 79 mayors. Four years later, SP candidate Allan Benson, a writer and newspaper editor, failed to match Debs’s percentage of the vote, but the party elected 29 legislators across the country as well as mayors in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.  

In New York, the first socialist electoral success came in 1911 in Schenectady—an industrial center with giant General Electric and American Locomotive factories—when the city elected Herbert M. Merrill, a GE worker and union leader, as the state’s first socialist legislator. The next year, George Lunn, a well-known Presbyterian minister, was elected mayor on the Socialist line. The SP drew much of its support from skilled workers, many from “old immigrant” backgrounds: German, British, or, as in the case of Debs, French. But in New York City, a party stronghold, poorer and less skilled workers, many of them “new immigrants,” especially Jews, provided its main base. In 1915, Abraham I. Shiplacoff, the Ukrainian-born secretary of the United Hebrew Trades—a federation of Jewish unions with a peak membership of 250,000 in 1914—won election to the state Assembly from Central Brooklyn. In 1917, socialists won ten Assembly races in working-class districts in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. 

It was not long before the Democrats and the Republicans sought to roll back the socialists’ electoral successes. To do so, they turned to a tactic widely used in the 19th century to defeat radicals: fusion. In 1918, in all of the socialist-represented districts, Democrats and Republicans nominated the same candidate, combining forces to defeat eight of the incumbents. But one year later—Assembly members were elected every year until a 1937 constitutional revision—the socialists clawed their way back to win five seats. Samuel DeWitt, a poet and gifted speaker born on the Lower East Side, represented the South Bronx. The Bronx district that included Crotona and Arthur Avenue was represented by Samuel Orr, a lawyer, born in Russian-occupied Poland. Charles Solomon, who would later become a judge while remaining a socialist, represented Central Brooklyn. Representing lower Harlem and part of Morningside Heights was the Swiss-born August Claessens, who taught himself Yiddish so he could take part in Jewish socialist activities. Finally, representing the Lower East Side was Louis Waldman, a Ukrainian-born engineer and law student.

The socialists’ victory proved short-lived, however. By the time the State Assembly convened on January 7th, 1920, the United States was in the throes of the first Red Scare. A wave of repression swept the country in response to the Russian Revolution and the massive 1919 spike in labor unrest and strikes. State and federal authorities rounded up socialists, anarchists, and left-wing labor leaders. Many of those born outside the United States were deported, perhaps most famous among them Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Congress and state legislatures passed a host of criminal syndicalism laws and other measures designed to crush the left. Unions were routinely denied the use of meeting halls, and police, private thugs, and the National Guard were deployed to break strikes. Newspapers trumpeted the danger of foreigners and subversives seeking to foment insurrection.  

In Albany, Assembly Speaker Thaddeus Sweet, an upstate Republican with gubernatorial ambitions, declared that the SP was not a legitimate political party but an organization committed to the overthrow of the government, whose members were therefore unfit to hold public office. When the 1920 session began, he introduced a resolution to suspend the five socialists until the outcome of a trial by the Judiciary Committee to ascertain their eligibility. Only one Democrat voted against the measure; not a single Republican opposed it.  

The predictable protests by the suspended socialists and their allies on the left were joined by some mainstream voices, including the 1916 Republican presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes; New York’s Democratic Governor Al Smith; and the city and state bar associations. But the Assembly was more than willing “[t]o discard the method of representative government,” as Smith put it. After a 21-day trial, the Judiciary Committee recommended expulsion on the grounds of disloyalty, and the Assembly overwhelmingly concurred. The socialists called the Assembly’s decision to expel them “the dictatorship of naked plutocracy.”

To fill the empty seats, Smith called a special election, in which Democrats and Republicans again fused to nominate the same candidates. It didn’t matter: All five socialists won re-election, and by greater margins than they had before. This time the Assembly took only two days to rid itself of the leftists, voting to expel Solomon, Waldman, and Claessens by a 90-45 vote. Under pressure from top Republican leaders, who were worried about backlash to the body’s anti-democratic behavior, the Assembly modified the grounds for the expulsion: It was not simply for belonging to the SP, as before, but for supposed individual acts of disloyalty during World War I. In response, Orr and DeWitt, who had been seated, denounced their fellow Assembly members as “un-American” and resigned.

The expelled socialists went on to have long, and in some cases, illustrious careers. Solomon, Orr, and Claessens soon made it back into the Assembly. Louis Waldman became a prominent labor lawyer and a leader of the “Old Guard” faction of the SP, which rejected the anti-militarism and radicalism of the party’s younger members during the 1930s. DeWitt wrote poetry and got rich buying and selling used industrial equipment. But for a hundred years, the numbers they had once achieved in the state capital remained unmatched.

That is, until now. The socialist candidates on the verge of doing so—Zohran Kwame Mamdani, Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Marcela Mitaynes in the Assembly, and Jabari Brisport joining incumbent Julia Salazar in the Senate—seem very different than their predecessors at first glance. The 1920 group ran on its own party line, defeating Democrats and Republicans to get elected. The current socialists belong to the DSA, which is not a political party but instead an organization that operates within the Democratic Party, at least for the purposes of elections and legislative caucusing. The five socialists expelled in 1920 were all white men operating in heavily Jewish milieux—a very partial representation of the New York working class of the time. The new Albany contingent is majority female and diverse in racial and national background, a better reflection of the heterogeneous working people of the city than their predecessors.  

Yet there are also similarities between the two groups. Most of the current candidates, like their predecessors, come from working-class backgrounds and were elected in predominantly working-class districts (though marbled with pockets of gentrifiers and long-time middle-class residents). Like their predecessors, all of the DSAers are either immigrants or from immigrant families. Everyone in the two cohorts was between 28 and 35 when nominated, except for Mitayanes, an outlier at 46. Eerily, both groups were elected during pandemics. And while the flu seemed not to have been at the center of political discourse in 1919, Covid-19 has become an important campaign issue in 2020, with DSA presenting its own program for dealing with the crisis. Local issues, like housing, were central to the campaigns of both generations of socialists, but foreign policy and internationalism figured much larger in the politics of the earlier group, whose identity was forged by opposition to World War I and support for the Russian Revolution.

The current crop of socialists is aware of the 1920 events, but they expect a better reception in Albany than their predecessors. Mamdani said he has “no fears of expulsion,” a sentiment echoed by Forrest and Brisport. Being within the Democratic party will likely provide some measure of protection, and fusion of the kind seen last century is highly unlikely in the current environment of partisan hyper-polarization. Furthermore, on many state issues, such as housing and health care, the socialists are not that much farther to the left than some non-socialist legislators, opening up possibilities for coalitions. 

The new socialist legislators do, however, anticipate the possibility of repercussions for their open avowal of socialist politics. “Anything that pushes against the establishment is a threat,” Forrest said. This past August, in response to a New York City DSA questionnaire that asked City Council candidates not to visit Israel while in office, 53 members of the Assembly signed a letter condemning DSA. “No political organization that embeds antisemitism into its platform should be welcome in the halls of our legislature,” the letter stated. For now, the letter’s strong rhetoric appears to be nothing more than political bluster, but it is a reminder that there remain issues around which Republicans and Democrats can rally in joint opposition to today’s socialists.

The first Red Scare was far from the only time New York Republicans and Democrats used unscrupulous means to block left-wing candidates. The 1947 Wilson-Pakula law—which targeted left-wing Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a member of the American Labor Party who ran in and won both Democratic and Republican primaries—forbids candidates from running in the primary of a party in which they are not enrolled or registered without the permission of party leaders. Much more recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo engineered an increase in the number of signatures and votes required for a party to get and maintain a ballot line—a move intended as retribution after the Working Families Party refused to endorse him in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

These measures are part of a longer history of attacks on political freedom in the United States. From the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, to the repression of anti-slavery speech and petitioning, to the first Red Scare and the McCarthy era—when membership in the Communist Party was all but criminalized through a sweeping range of prohibitions—state and federal governments have repeatedly used undemocratic means to quash dissent.  

Repression often works. The post-World War I decline of the socialist left had multiple causes, including the splintering of the SP over its relationship to the Soviet Union. But the mass arrests and deportations of left-wing activists and the denial of office to election winners—not only in New York but in Congress, too, where Milwaukee Socialist representative Victor Berger was denied his seat in 1919 and again in 1920—drained the left’s organizational resources and dampened its momentum. Similarly, government and business repression aimed at communists and their allies after World War II crippled left-wing unions and all but eliminated anti-capitalist thinking from higher education and public discourse for more than a generation.

The new crop of socialists poised to enter the legislature, like left-wing activists around the country, would do well to keep these anti-democratic precedents in mind. Though it’s impossible to predict what might happen, a second Trump term could lead to a wave of increased repression of left-wing activists. While less likely, so, too, could a Biden administration set on restoring the status quo and getting demonstrators off the street. In New York, the incoming DSAers could face attempts to limit their role in the legislature or in the Democratic Party. If and when that occurs, they will need to “flex [their] people power,” as Forrest said in an interview, and mobilize the multiethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious coalitions that got them elected.

Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author, most recently, of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.