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Arena's voluntary socialism


Tim Satterthwaite
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 54
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Jean-Louis: thank you for this wonderful presentation - I really enjoyed it. Could you contextualise for me, a little further, the reformist culture to which The Arena belonged? Your presentation connects Flower to the National Child Labor Committee (the 'Human Junk' montage), to Riis's How the Other Half Lives, and the City Beautiful movement; and Flower was also involved in Christian Science. It's a heady mix! Is this just Flower's idiosynchratic ideology, or is there a coherent political agenda at the heart of this? Who were Flower's allies, and adversaries? And did The Arena take a position on labour unions, and radical socialism (as opposed to "voluntary socialism")?

Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8

Dear Tim,

Thank you for your questions and kind words.

Flower was mainly part of the Christian socialist culture in Boston in the 1890s, a mix of Christian socialism, Social Gospel, and Nationalism (i.e. the reform movement following the publication of Edward Bellamy’s utopia Looking Backward:  2000–1887). Nationalists were also into spiritualism and Swedenborgian movements: this is one of the links between economic and spiritual radicalism. Flower also edited The Psychical Review. A Quarterly Journal of the Psychical Science and Organ of the American Psychical Society, which became part of a clubbing offer with The Arena. Another answer is Populism itself: Flower exemplifies the influence of liberal and heterodox ideas within the communities that sustained the Populist cause (see Charles Postel’s Populist Vision on how Populism was a "big tent" movement of reform organizations, including labor groups, farmers alliances, women's groups, prohibitionists, and urban bohemian intellectuals and nonconformists).


I must confess the images on my first slide (National Child Labor Committee, Riis and the City Beautiful movement) were just illustrations of the period, not of Flower’s work in particular. However, he opened his magazine to these reforms and published many symposia on the “Tenement House Curse,” White Child Slavery” – i.e. poverty – and “Public Parks and Playgrounds.” These symposia were complete with bibliographies listing social workers and intellectuals: some are now forgotten, and some took part in major reform organizations. Some of these articles were reprinted abroad, in general in Australia and New Zealand. Riis’s How the Other Half Lives was a model for Flower’s series of articles on Boston poverty and for the book that collected the articles: Civilization Inferno.


As to the “a heady mix,” it’s even stranger if you think that in the 1910s, he fought for “medical freedom,” struggling against the American Medical Association’s move to control alternative medicine (or so he said) and against the creation of a federal Department of Health (he won: a federal Department of Health was only crated in 1953). He he also defended freedom of the press against postal censorship, which, oddly enough, led him to work for a rabidly anti-Catholic newspaper during the Great War, The Menace.


My take on all that is that Flower is an example of the “strange theoretical combinations” of Progressivism, to use historian Robert Wiebe’s phrase (reform could mean labor legislation and eugenics etc.). Another line of argument is the non-conformist culture of radical reformers, both in economic, political and spiritual terms. Flower defended Christian Science because some unlicensed Christian Science practitioners were fined for curing people, which prompted him to claim that it had “become criminal in many States of the Union to cure the sick.” Christian Science was also unfairly slandered by the "yellow press." The controversy over medical freedom revealed two conceptions of Progressivism: one the one hand, a managerial model based on regulation by professional organizations and government bureaucracies, and, on the other hand, an alternative model of democratic, deliberative professionalism, whereby “medical boards” would democratically represent all the medical schools and each school would confer degrees recognized by authorities because politicians cannot and should not determine what is scientific or not. 

But the most important aspect for me is Flower’s radical antimonopoly politics: he never stopped fighting the threat wealth concentration posed for economic and political freedom, the “octopus” in short. First, he fought against railroad corporations, Standard Oil and the like. Then, in the 1910s, once the US had been “awakened” to the need for reform, he fought against the creation of a federal Department of Health because he feared a “doctors’ trust.” At the end of his life, he reframed Catholicism as a “trust” who wanted a monopoly on Catholics’ minds. For him, the same Progressive logic was at work (even if he used the sort of arguments conservatives use today in the US against universal health care for example and even if he ended up exemplifying “paranoid style politics"). But he DID want more government intervention, just not on people’s conscience (medical freedom was like religious freedom for Flower: the right to choose). Even if “the right to choose” is reminiscent of Milton Friedman, Flower wanted more government intervention and hated laissez-faire. As he put it in on editorial, “we are of those who would favor the state going far–very far–to remedy the wrongs that work injury to the weak and unfortunate, especially when the evils affect the young; but we unhesitatingly oppose the fastening on the body politic of representatives of a favored school of medicine.”

In the 1890s, his allies were all kinds of reformers and radicals: Christian socialists, Populists, socialists (Eugene Debs, Julius Wayland) and middle-class reformers (Henry D Lloyd, Elizabeth C Stanton, Frances Willard, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Stead, Robert La Follette etc.).

In the 1910s, because of his fight for “medical freedom, it became more complicated. Former (Progressive) friends split because they understood Progressivism in mutually exclusive ways. In reforming circles, Flower had “the reputation of a fighter for everything involving the spiritual, social and physical progress of humanity.” It was therefore “inexplicable to his admirers” how such a fearless reform editor could “lead a movement opposed to the improvement of the health of the nation,” as one commentator put it.

His adversaries were mostly “plutocrats” and their friends in politics. These adversaries lumped Flower together with the fearful mass of “cranky” Populists. Or they simply ignored him. In the 1910s he fought with former Progressive friends over the creation of a federal Department of Health. At the end of his life, his main opponents were Catholic organizations and newspapers. The Menace sold extremely well: a circulation of more than one million some weeks. And Catholic leaders were rightfully alarmed. 

For Flower, being part of a labor union was a constitutional right, but he also had problems with unions as he was working with a “rat printer” according to the Typographical Union. Flower defended Bill Haywood (Industrial Workers of the World) when he was accused of murder. He worked with Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, a Chicago-based publisher of socialist and anarchist works. The anarchist Victor Yarros wrote in The Arena. Flower supported the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 (but we don't know what he thought of the October Revolution: he was too sick to write). So his relationship with labor unions wand radical socialism was ambivalent. In general, he was supportive, but he hated violence and his support stopped when violence erupted. As a result, he favored socialism, as long as it wasn’t too radical.

Thank you again for your comments and kind words and sorry for this extremely long answer!