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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What are the main ideas and key points of chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

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In chapter 13 of his A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that American capitalism and its associated imperialism came under mainstream critique by the early 1900s. Though criticism was not radical and the flaws of the capitalist system were plain to see, there also arose...

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In chapter 13 of his A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that American capitalism and its associated imperialism came under mainstream critique by the early 1900s. Though criticism was not radical and the flaws of the capitalist system were plain to see, there also arose socialist critiques. Writers and muckraking journalists revealed to the public eye rampant corruption and labor exploitation. A handful of American banking interests had created a corporate oligarchy. Scientific labor management methods, like Taylorism, sought to make workers interchangeable and thus compromised their individuality and humanity. Poor and often dangerous working conditions led to deaths and illnesses in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere and led to more organized labor action in the form of strikes and membership in labor unions. The exclusivity of the unions, specifically the barring of blacks from membership and the lack of popular control in their administration, led to the formation of the International Workers of the World, or IWW. The IWW was more radical, with many anarchist and socialist members. The emergence of the IWW led to greater militancy and official efforts to suppress it. Socialism became more entrenched as a political movement: it started, perhaps, as an immigrant phenomenon but became American. Progressivism emerged to stave off or co-opt socialism, leading to an amelioration of some abuses; however, labor militancy remained strong, with socialism as a major component, on the eve of World War I.

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Chapter 13 describes the rise of a socialist and Progressive critique of society in turn-of-the-century America. A number of factors fueled this critique. Zinn describes popular opposition to the Spanish-American War, as well as imperialism in general. He outlines the terrible working conditions that began to enter the public consciousness in the late nineteenth-century. He discusses the emergence of Jim Crow in the South. Having described these abuses, he proceeds to a narrative of how radicals in the nation resisted them. The clearest example is the rise of radical leftist unions, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or the Wobblies,) who grew in influence and in numbers during the period. But Zinn shows that the movement was not limited to the fringes of American politics. Progressives throughout the nation began to seek action to remedy the abuses of industrial capitalism, seeking government action that would guarantee better working conditions, restrict child labor, protect the right to organize, and other reforms. The more radical insurgency with the Wobblies as the vanguard was crushed, often violently. But Zinn's purpose is to show how mainstream radical critiques of society were at the time. Eugene Debs is shown to be one of the nation's most popular political leaders, and Helen Keller, whose image has been somewhat watered down over the years, is shown to be a true radical socialist, opposed to imperialism, advocating woman suffrage, and pushing for reforms for the working class. Moreover, Progressive reforms, which Zinn interprets on page 344 as an attempt at "stablizing the system in the interests of big business," endured.  

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