The first local branch of the West Virginia Socialist Party was established in Wheeling in 1901. With the assistance of Socialist organizers from Pennsylvania and Kentucky, the West Virginia movement spread by 1908 to Huntington, Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Charleston, and a number of smaller communities throughout the state.
By 1914, several thousand West Virginians were dues-paying members of the party’s 86 local branches. As early as 1910, local Socialists began to elect candidates to office, and in 1912 more than 15,000 West Virginia voters cast their ballots for Socialist Eugene Debs for president. By 1914, West Virginians had elected Socialist Party candidates to more than 40 local offices, including virtually the entire administrations of such widely scattered communities as Miami, Eskdale, Adamston, Cameron, and Hendricks. Star City, near Morgantown, would ultimately have the longest-lived Socialist municipal government in the United States. In addition, Socialists controlled Cabin Creek, Paint Creek, and Washington districts in the Kanawha County coalfields and the Falls Magisterial District of Fayette County.
To a great extent, the progress that the West Virginia Socialists achieved on the electoral front was a reflection of the party’s strategy of increasing class consciousness by working with existing unions to build the power of the labor movement. The party appealed to a fairly broad cross section of wage earners. There were important concentrations among skilled craftsmen in the pottery, window glass, machine tools, cigar making, and building construction trades. Socialists from these crafts and others held leadership positions in their own unions and in a number of the state’s central labor bodies. Party members had special influence in the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, the Huntington Trades and Labor Assembly, and most important of all, the West Virginia State Federation of Labor. Socialists were especially popular with coal miners and were able by 1916 to control both District 29 and District 17 of the United Mine Workers in West Virginia.
The steady growth of West Virginia’s Socialist Party also owed much to the fact that many members of the middle class were attracted to the cause. These included physicians and dentists such as Albert Bosworth of Elkins, Edgar Smith of Martinsburg, George Kline of Wheeling, and Matthew Holt of Weston, who was the party’s candidate for governor in 1920. Another contingent of middle-class professionals was made up of lawyers, including George H. Duthie of Wheeling, Altha Warman of Morgantown, Samuel Webb of St. Albans, and H. O. Davis and Harold Houston of Parkersburg. In addition, practically every major urban Socialist local branch had several businessmen who were active in the party’s work, the most well known being Edward H. Kintzer, a Clarksburg real estate broker; William Blenko, the founder of Blenko Glass; Charles Boswell, a furniture dealer in Charleston; and William McMechen, a textile manufacturer and store owner whose family founded the Northern Panhandle community that bears his name. These businessmen and professionals helped to establish the local halls, libraries, cooperative stores, and newspapers that were spreading throughout the state. Many of them served on the party’s state executive committee.
Despite the progress made through 1914, the West Virginia Socialist Party experienced a precipitous fall in voting strength in 1916. Several factors combined to send the party into a rapid decline. First of all, the state legislature passed a primary law in 1915 that made it more difficult for third parties to get on the ballot. This law and the confusion it generated helped to radicalize some Socialists and drive them from the party and toward more militant action. The idea had been growing in state and national Socialist circles that militant trade unionism and direct action, not political activity, were the key to achieving a more equitable and humane society in America. These so-called ‘‘Red’’ Socialists were also encouraged by their participation in the bitter class warfare of the 1912–13 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike.
Thus, the West Virginia Socialist Party was weakening just at the time it would face such divisive issues as America’s participation in World War I and the Russian Revolution. Not until the onset of the Great Depression would the party experience a revitalization; but by then the New Deal Democrats had stolen too much of the Socialists’ thunder and many of the party’s issues.
This Article was written by Fred A. Barkey
Last Revised on October 29, 2010
Cresswell, Stephen. When the Socialists Ran Star City. West Virginia History, 1993.
Barkey, Frederick A. "The Socialist Party in West Virginia from 1898 to 1920: A Study in Working Class Radicalism." Ph.D. diss; unpub, University of Pittsburgh, 1971.