by Michael Cooney/Guest
A century ago Democrats and Republicans were as united in their hostility to socialism as they are today. Unlike today, however, socialism was not simply a mythical bogeyman in 1912. In the same year as the Little Falls strike, the party was growing and it was a threat to the two major parties. This was true on a national level where Eugene V. Debs was barnstorming the country in his own “Red Special” train and it was true on a local level where Socialists came to power not only in Schenectady but in Milwaukee and other cities.
The Socialist Party’s 1912 platform called for the collective ownership of all large scale industries, public employment for the unemployed, shortening the work day, and safety inspection of all workplaces. Politically, the party called for, among other things, absolute freedom of speech and assembly, graduated income and inheritance taxes, women suffrage, direct election of the President, abolition of the Senate, and abolition of the Supreme Court’s power to overrule Congress. In an echo of the current focus on inequality, the platform proclaimed: “The boasted prosperity of this nation is for the owning class alone. To the rest it means only greater hardship and misery.”
Within five years, the party had been destroyed, its leaders jailed or exiled, and the United States had embarked on those foreign wars and entanglements that have presisted ever since. And although the destruction of the Socialist Party was clearly a bipartisan mission, it was the Democratic Wilson administration which used the Espionage Act of 1917 and the 1919 Palmer Raids to suppress every kind of radical dissent.
It was with all this history I mind that I visited Schenectady where George Lunn dominated city politics for a decade before eventually cutting his losses and becoming a Democrat. Few in the city know anything about Lunn and he has been largely forgotten except among those who value local history. He has no noticeable internet presence and the one book on his life (George R. Lunn and the Socialist Era in Schenectady, 1909-1916 by Kenneth Hendrickson) is long out of print.
However, the Schenectady Historical Society does preserve his memory along with quite a trove of materials, including clipping files, audio and video tapes of talks on Lunn, and files on the city’s political history. The Efner History Center and Archives on the top floor of the city hall contains two large scrapbooks composed by one of Lunn’s fellow Socialists, the City Clerk Hawley Van Vechten. The scrapbooks contain a chronological series of newspaper articles covering the whole Lunn era and provided much of the information on this page. The books are fragile but can be made available to researchers to use on site.
The Van Vechten books provide a glimpse into a much livelier era in the small city’s history. In 1910 24,000 people worked for GE or the American Locomotive Company, and 55% of the city’s 73,000 residents were foreign-born. Rapid growth had led to housing shortages, poor and overcrowded schools, a faltering sewer system, bad roadways – all aggravated by graft and no-bid contracts presided over by a bipartisan series of crooked city officials.
Lunn had arrived in 1904 as minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and was soon hammering away from the pulpit at corrupt politicians and he did not hesitate to name names. Soon enough, his congregation asked him to move on. He responded by founding his own Peoples Church and carrying on the fight. In 1910 he founded a weekly paper, The Citizen, and joined the local Socialist Party.
The Schenectady Socialists had been led by Charles Proteus Steinmetz a German-born engineer for GE whose genius at developing new patents for the company earned him the right to indulge in radical politics. Steinmetz developed key theories for the improvement of electrical motors and attracted great attention by his experiments in the production of man-made lightning. A hunchback and dwarf, he had adopted the middle name Proteus after a dwarf in the Odyssey.
A socialist from his youth who had fled Germany because of his politics, Steinmetz was a brilliant individual but physically handicapped, spoke with a heavy accent and not a good candidate for mayor. Lunn, however, was American -born, an eloquent speaker and a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The engineer was overjoyed to have the 38 year old minister carry the party’s standard in the 1911 municipal elections.
Lunn’s oratory was said to be remarkable and he swept into office with a full slate of
aldermen. He moved quickly to reform the city, raising the pay for municipal workers, appointing Steinmetz to head the School Board and introducing the novelty of accepting bids for city contracts. He reassessed property, raising the business district’s taxes by $2 million and cutting taxes on workers homes by $300,000. He started free trash collection, free dental care and bought tracts of lands to create the city’s still-existing parks. For his part, Steinmetz built new schools, hired school doctors and nurses and launched programs for deaf, developmentally delayed and tubercular children.
Lunn and his comrades did spread themselves a little thin, it appears. The party was involved for much of October, 1912 in supporting the Little Falls textile workers strike, and much of November and December was consumed by the project of providing a temporary home for the strikers’ children. Some projects faltered, such as plans to sell coal and ice at cost to city residents and to run a municipal grocery store. His secretary Walter Lippmann quit, claiming Lunn was not radical enough to be a real socialist, foreshadowing the ideological split that would soon doom the party locally. At this point Lippmann was just 22, a youthful idealist just out of Harvard, and not yet the world famous journalist and critic of every administration from Wilson to Johnson.
In 1913 the Schenectady Republicans and Democrats joined with the Progressives to form a Fusion ticket hat defeated Lunn, but in 1915 he was re-elected against all three establishment parties. A study of Schenectady newspapers from that era reveals the usual shortcoming of Leftist parties: internal doctrinal wrangling turned personal and purists began to attack the pragmatists, and vice-versa. The party’s own The Citizen, available on microfilm at the New York State Library, is the best guide to this process of political dissolution. The end result is that Lunn was ousted from his own party in 1916, though he remained on as mayor.
Fed up, Lunn became a Democrat and was elected to Congress just in time to become an ardent supporter of Mr. Wilson’s war. While Eugene Debs and other national party leaders went to jail for speaking against the war, Lunn grew close to the more liberal wing of New York’s Democratic party. Defeated for Congress in 1918, he was elected as a Democrat to two more terms as Schenectady’s mayor in 1919 and 1921. In 1922 was elected Lieutenant Governor. In 1925 Governor Al Smith appointed him to the state’s Public Service Commission where he served until poor health forced him to retire in 1942.
Lunn’s is a fascinating American story, echoing themes that are still very contemporary. He was a Christian minister obsessed with politics, but unlike many preachers then and now who serve as shills for the rich, he was influenced by the Social Gospel promoted by Walter Rauschenbusch, a best-selling religious writer of those years.
His pragmatism is also very much in the American tradition and it was not surprising that his more radical followers broke with Lunn. He preferred to quote Lincoln and the Constitution rather than Marx and he shifted from Republican to Socialist to Democrat over the years. He was always a nationalist, fought against Spain in 1898, and said in Congress that U.S. national honor required entry into World War I. His long commitment to the state’s Public Service Commission was useful but distinctly unglamorous work.
Given this record it is no surprise that George Lunn never became the figure of either legend or infamy that was the fate of so many radicals of his generation: Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Eugene V. Debs. Rejected by local Socialists and seeing the national leadership imprisoned, he naturally returned to the Democratic party.
Michael Cooney is the author of the historical novel, The Red Nurse, based on the 1912 textile strike in Little Falls, NY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work can also be read at upstateearth.blogspot.com.