- Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898-1920 by Frederick A. Barkey
Numerous groundbreaking labor histories over decades have cited Fred Barkey's dissertation on the Socialist Party in West Virginia, but it has remained unpublished and largely unknown except among labor historians. That is, until now. The publication of Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898-1920 is long overdue, but its subject continues to be relevant today, and great workmanship never goes out of style.
Working Class Radicals charts the growth of the Socialist Party in West Virginia from the streets of Wheeling at the turn of the century to the tent colonies of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek during the 1912-1913 miners' strike. Barkey details organizers' tactics and arguments, analyzes the backgrounds of Socialist leaders, and follows the organization to its 1912 high-water mark. Labor activists and disciples of Eugene Debs worked tirelessly to spread the ideas and values of the Cooperative Commonwealth among working people in West Virginia, winning over local labor assemblies, establishing newspapers and cooperatives, and electing members to some fifty political offices. The 1912-1913 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike—notorious for its bloodshed—stands at the center of this study, a moment of revolution, political victories, and political betrayals.
The Socialist Party in West Virginia experienced a reversal of fortune after 1912. The Party suffered from internal divisions, counterattacks from the established parties, new restrictive primary election rules, and technological changes that eroded the position of skilled workers—the Party's source for most of its leaders. At this moment of weakness, the political atmosphere of the nation and West Virginia shifted with the drive for 100 percent loyalty during World War I and the Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Some Party leaders were driven out of the Mountain State while others no longer publicly identified as Socialists. Though West Virginia seethed with labor conflict between 1919 and 1921, the Socialist Party slipped out of view. [End Page 79]
Barkey's research is extremely thorough. In the late 1960s, he conducted more than ninety interviews with old radicals and their family members. In doing so, he preserved a chapter in West Virginia history that would otherwise be lost. He also researched the written record extensively, examining the Socialist Party Papers at Duke, newspapers, and government documents. Working Class Radicals is one of the few labor histories of West Virginia that spans the urban industrial centers and the coal fields. At times, it brings the early 1900s back to life and captures labor leaders' collaborations and rivalries, their hopes and fears.
In a robust foreword that places Working Class Radicals into the broader literature, Ken Fones-Wolf notes that had Barkey written this study today, it would have been much different. Barkey would have benefitted from forty years of scholarship on West Virginia's political economy and undoubtedly would have paid closer attention to the roles of women and African Americans in the events that unfolded. I also found that at times his desire to recover and preserve the names of individual Party members overwhelmed the narrative. Yet these shortcomings do not diminish Barkey's accomplishment. He is a true pioneer in West Virginia and American labor history.
Today, as the winds of change seem to be stirring again, Barkey's study takes on a new significance. In an interview that took place at the height of Occupy Wall Street, Barkey reflects on his research and notes: "The commitment of some of our predecessors to a more cooperative collective arrangement seems unexpectedly relevant once more" (176).