Ever since the election of Kshama Sawant to City Council, socialism has become a hot topic. Many people under 30 view socialism more positively than capitalism, according to a Pew Research Center survey. For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, this signals a return to our radical roots.
Leftist movements have existed here since 1887. The region hosted a number of socialist colonies. Although utopian colonies did not catch on widely, their ideas had an impact. Several members of the Port Angeles settlement became leaders in the Socialist Party of Washington, founded in 1901.
The Socialist Party ran candidates and published a newspaper. It collaborated with the more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in a free-speech fight in downtown Seattle, where sidewalk orators were repeatedly arrested.
Beginning in 1905, the local IWW organized lumber and mill workers. It was the first labor or left organization in the U.S. to organize across race lines. Wobblies (as IWW members were called) were attacked by bosses and police, with notorious massacres taking place in Everett and Centralia.
Both the IWW and the Socialist Party were influential in the 1919 Seattle General Strike, which erupted when shipyard workers reached an impasse in a battle for higher wages. They appealed to the Central Labor Council and 110 unions voted to walk out in solidarity. Though it was met with repression, many unionists were elated by the dynamic demonstration of working class power.
One strike leader was Anna Louise Strong, a journalist, labor advocate and antiwar activist. A writer for The Union Record, she was the inspirational voice of the strike. She had previously been elected to the Seattle School Board where she advocated for services to help underprivileged children and opposed military training in schools.
In 1919, the Socialist Party gave birth to the Communist Party (CP) of Washington. The CP had a huge impact on the labor movement. It fought race segregation and led battles of the homeless and unemployed. In the 1930s, the party grew increasingly conservative as it followed Stalinist policies of the USSR. Relentless persecution during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s nearly destroyed it.
Opponents of Stalinism joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had a lively branch in Seattle during the 1940s and ’50s despite the witch hunts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In 1966, a new political strain originated in Seattle: socialist feminism, the guiding principle of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). The following year, seasoned radicals from the FSP joined with young women from Seattle’s boisterous New Left to form Radical Women (RW), which declared itself “the revolutionary wing of the women’s movement, and a strong feminist voice within the left.” The socialist feminists put women’s liberation on the front burner as an issue vitally connected with racial freedom, labor struggles and lesbian/gay rights.
With African-American women in the anti-poverty program, Radical Women launched the first protest for legalized abortion in Washington State. Members of FSP and RW fought police brutality, defended the Black Panthers, participated in Native American rights actions, and helped win legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, disability and political ideology.
Bold and fiery, FSP and RW founder Clara Fraser was well-known on the Seattle scene, especially after winning an eight-year-long sex and political ideology discrimination case against Seattle City Light. In 1992, the FSP candidate for City Council, Yolanda Alaniz, was the first Chicana to run for the office and gained 27,938 votes — 17.5 percent — the most won by a socialist until Sawant’s election.
Seattle’s rebellious history didn’t begin with the Vietnam-era Seattle Seven, the WTO, or Occupy; these are among the episodes that brought our town notice as a hotbed of radicalism. We have a deep tradition to emulate as new generations of workers, women and fighters of all colors and sexualities lead the charge for a better, more humane world.