California Radical - Free Speech and Political Genesis

On May 5, 1896, Eugene Kingsley mounted the stage at the Metropolitan Temple in San Francisco. It was May Day, and a crowd of nearly 2,000 people crowded to hear Kingsley and fellow socialist R.T. McIvor speak. However, much to the alarm of his comrades, Kingsley began by immediately denouncing trade unionism and called improving social conditions for the working class a "philosophy of misery." Electing Socialists to power, Kingsley lectured, was the only just and meaningful path to economic and social transformation. Such a statement seems unbelievable from a man who would come to deeply influence the structure of Canadian socialist thought. Yet there was a rationale to his thinking, one which would structure Kingsley's approach to Socialism for the remainder of his life.San Francisco After recovering from his injury and migrating to San Francisco, Kingsley quickly rose to the level of state organizer for the Socialist Labor Party of America. The SLPA was the first major party in the United States which articulated a cohesive platform for a political socialist revolution and was an ideal environment for the genesis of Kingsley's politics. Founded in 1876, centered in New York and led by the 1890s by Daniel DeLeon, the SLPA taught that the road to social equality lay through electoral victory at the polls, rather than through workplace activism or by reforming capitalism. Kingsley, for the most part, agreed.

Market Street in San Francisco,  where Kingsley and other Socialist Labor Party speakers held their \u0026quot;street corner meetings\u0026quot; and faced arrestIn the West, however, the Party was far less consensus-driven in its politics, and more heavily influenced by industrial unionism - a movement more concerned with organizing at the workplace than at the polls. It was also a time of tremendous public interest in social change, with all manner of social reformers, from the Salvation Army to Socialists, jockeying for prime corners on San Francisco's Market Street, preaching to those who stopped while passing by. Eugene T. Kingsley himself was arrested for lecturing the public at the street corner - on the charge of obstructing a thoroughfare - and many others of the Socialist Labor Party would follow in mass arrests of other SLPA public speakers between the years 1895 and 1896.

What was at stake for these street-corner lecturers was the right, in the era before mass communication, to effectively organize as a public activity in a manner which befitted legitimate political activity. The city had long permitted political meetings to be held on thoroughfares, and the status of Socialist lecturing as respectable and democratic political participants was very risky. The SLPA responded in kind with protests, court battles, and silent marches, but were ground down by the weight of civic opposition to their public activities - through mass arrests and public dispersal. Eugene Kingsley was frequently at the centre of this, both at the bully pulpit and on the podium.

Letter revealing the internal power struggles within the Socialist Labor Party of America, which culminated in KingsleyDuring his 1896 May Day lecture, Kingsley proclaimed that revolutionary politics "could not mix with mere reform any more than could oil and water." While the battles over free speech on the streets of San Francisco would ultimately be at best a standoff for the SLPA, Kingsley himself would continue to face the problem of mixing revolutionary politics with legitimate political activity for the remainder of his career. Nowhere would this be more apparent than with his move to British Columbia in 1902.

Next: The Old War Horse - Socialism in British Columbia
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