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USA: There Once Was a Socialist College in the Rural South

Friday 18 June 2021, by siawi3

Source: https://jacobinmag.com/2021/06/commonwealth-college-arkansas-socialist-education-debs-communist-party?mc_cid=57bb7a4f86&mc_eid=c5ee9c9b73

06.14.2021


There Once Was a Socialist College in the Rural South

By Meagan Day

Commonwealth College was a radical experiment in socialist education nestled deep in the Arkansas mountains. It taught and trained over 1,500 worker-activists before becoming an early casualty of American anti-communism.

Photo: The laundry tent at Commonwealth College, 1926. (Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922–1940 by William H. Cobb)

Anyone who aspired to attend Commonwealth College in rural Polk County, Arkansas, in 1931 would first have to fill out the following application:

Tell what you think of one or more of the following men: Lenin, Mussolini, Wilson, Hoover, Ramsay MacDonald.

Give your opinions on one of the following subjects: Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism, Americanism, Imperialism, Anarchism.

What real significance do you see in the revolt of the so-called modern youth? How do you explain that revolt?

Tell a good joke.

The radical faculty would have taken kindly to applicants who answered that Vladimir Lenin was a luminary and Benito Mussolini a scoundrel. They would have been pleased to read that socialism meant an end exploitation and domination, while capitalism meant their sustenance. And they would have agreed that the rebellious dress and behavior of young people represented an exuberant rejection outmoded thinking and illegitimate authority. The assignment to tell a good joke was meant to ensure the applicant knew how to have a good time.

You had to be a good-humored socialist to get into Commonwealth, but otherwise the application process wasn’t particularly selective. The college was usually desperate for students, and it took many kinds. Most of them were older than average, and most of them already had work experience. That was the purpose of Commonwealth College: to educate workers and prepare them for useful service to the labor movement and the cause of socialism.

Commonwealth College opened its doors in the remote Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas in 1924, and shuttered for good in 1940. Throughout its brief history it played host to heated pedagogical debates about the scope and aim of workers’ education, tested the limits of radicalism in the Southern labor movement, and came under attack from the American Legion, the Arkansas state legislature, conservative preachers, and racist lynch mobs.

Commonwealth College was able to survive repeated bombardment with the help of allies in the progressive and labor movements. But eventually that support dried up, due in equal part to self-inflicted wounds and to the nascent anti-communism that would eventually evolve into McCarthyism. When the college’s friends disappeared, its enemies won and danced on its grave.

“When the college’s friends disappeared, its enemies won and danced on its grave.”

Throughout its existence, Commonwealth College educated more than 1,500 students, from Jewish New York City industrial workers to Arkansas sharecroppers. The college produced labor organizers, folk singers, and politicians (most of them socialist, of course, but also one archconservative: segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, whose socialist father had enrolled him at Commonwealth, but who later rejected the politics of his alma mater).

Most of its alumnae, however, became neither famous nor infamous. The majority left Commonwealth and returned to their jobs and the working-class milieus they came from, only with their personal and political horizons vastly extended.

Though their radical political ambitions remain unachieved, at Commonwealth students came many steps closer to constituting, as the college’s founders had dreamed, an enlightened and emboldened working class, prepared for struggle and fit to govern itself.

Debsian Roots

Commonwealth College was conceived in the early 1920s by leading lights of the Socialist Party of America, whose most famous figure was Eugene V. Debs.

Theirs was an amalgamation of international Marxism and native populism. These were bound together with a few threads remaining from early American utopian socialism, glimpsed primarily in a commitment to communal living. The name its founders chose for the college was an homage to this syncretic political tradition: Debsian socialists often used the phrase “the cooperative commonwealth” or “the universal commonwealth” to describe the ideal postcapitalist society, free of exploitation and subjugation.

Besides Debs, the person most popularly associated with the Socialist Party was Kate Richards O’Hare, whose stemwinders roused the egalitarian passions of farmers and factory workers alike from coast to coast, but especially in the heartland. She was born in 1876 in a rudimentary cabin on the Kansas prairie. When the homestead failed, the family moved to Missouri where Kate was schooled, after which she became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Nebraska.

Kate was drawn to Girard, Kansas, on the strength of her admiration for a socialist magazine based there called The Appeal to Reason, edited by J. A. Wayland. She enrolled in the Mills School, a socialist political education program established by Wayland, and became a soldier in what was dubbed “the Appeal army.” There Kate met another soldier, Frank O’Hare from rural Iowa, and the two were soon married. (Debs, too, lived in Girard and worked for the Appeal, launching one presidential campaign from the steps of the Girard County courthouse.)

Photo: The Commonwealth College library, circa 1933. (Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922–1940 by William H. Cobb)

Kate Richards O’Hare became a charismatic face of the Socialist Party, stumping across the country with Frank deftly managing her touring schedule. Eventually the couple crossed paths with William Edward Zeuch, a kindred Debsian socialist who, like Frank, was from rural Iowa.

The trio devised a plan. They would found a residential college where workers would be given the chance to develop their intellects and cultivate their talents, which they would put to use building the labor movement and hastening the implementation of socialism. The college would also double as a cooperative community, in keeping with the values of honest and equal work held dear by this pastoral breed of early twentieth-century American socialist.

At the college’s founding, Kate O’Hare gave a characteristically rousing speech, declaring that “We cannot use, and do not want, the selfish, white-handed culture of the old college that sought to divide man into two castes,” but neither did they seek to emulate “the harsh, materialistic culture of the industrial magnates whose ideal is to produce highly-skilled technical servants and maintain a slavish, ignorant working class.”

Workers had been “shut out from the learning that might have lightened their burdens and the culture that adds beauty to life, breath to mind, and power to live life more bountifully,” but no longer.

William Zeuch, with fewer rhetorical flourishes but no less zeal, declared that Commonwealth College would be an institution “in which ambitious youths without money may avail themselves of the benefits of higher education and thereby prepare themselves in early life for service directed toward the enlightenment of the masses and the reconstruction of society.”

The Commoners

Ground first broke in 1923 in Louisiana at New Llano, a Southern offshoot of the California cooperative colony Llano del Rio. But the New Llano leadership and the Commonwealth founders had a rocky relationship, and the trio soon moved on, taking several New Llano colonists with them. They decided on Polk County, Arkansas, nestling into a remote valley outside of the county seat of Mena in 1924.

The original programming would revolve around a traditional liberal arts curriculum taught by radical professors who could draw out its relevance to the workers’ movement and the struggle for socialism. Students would learn four hours a day, work four or five, and devote the evening to study and recreation.

“Kate O’Hare gave a characteristically rousing speech, declaring that ‘We cannot use, and do not want, the selfish, white-handed culture of the old college that sought to divide man into two castes.’”

The labor of students and teachers was the principal means by which the community sustained itself, though it also relied on grants from the American Fund for Public Service (AFPS) whose director, Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union, had taken a shine to Commonwealth.

The construction of the physical campus was painstaking. At first, the Commoners, as they called themselves, had only crude dwellings with no electricity or running water. Classes were held either outside or in the small cottages that housed faculty, who did not receive salaries, only room and board. The Commoners primarily ate food they grew, hearty and simple meals revolving around corn and potatoes with occasional helpings of pork bartered from neighboring farmers.

As William H. Cobb observes in his definitive monograph, Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1923–1940, students were often in their twenties and instructors in their thirties or forties. Thus, relations between the two groups were marked by “a familiarity bred of similarity in age,” as well as by “long hours of hard work together as equals.”

“After all, these students were adults, not adolescents, and had come to college from job situations, not from high school,” writes Cobb. “Consequently, discussions were often heated as students thought nothing of contradicting their instructors, and classes sometimes resembled barroom confrontations.”

Commoners continued those heated political and philosophical debates during dinner, which served as a kind of group meeting for students, who rarely numbered more than fifty at a time, and faculty, of whom there were usually a dozen or so. But they also knew how to have fun. Commoners spent much of their free time playing baseball, tennis, and volleyball, swimming (often nude), and hiking, picnicking, and gathering berries in the Ouachita Mountains.

“The Commoners primarily ate food they grew, hearty and simple meals revolving around corn and potatoes with occasional helpings of pork bartered from neighboring farmers.”

Every Saturday night they held a dance, which was open to the public and became a destination for youth from the nearby farms and towns. All manner of dancing could be found at these events. As one visitor, folklorist Vance Radolph, observed:

Five traditions of dancing meet on the floor of the Commonwealth dining hall. Students from the cities bring with them the urban fox trot, waltz, one-step, and two-step. Old fashioned partner dances, such as the rye waltz and the minuet, still claim their partisans. Russian steps filter in from the East side of New York, and folk dances come by way of the German youth movement. But the indigenous square dances of the rural South are perhaps most picturesque of all.

Sunday evenings were reserved for lectures, also open to the public. These lectures were often given by Zeuch or Kate O’Hare, and sometimes by visiting socialists, who assured the worker-students of Commonwealth and the occasional curious neighbor that the sun was setting on exploitation and misery, and soon would come the dawn of equality and freedom.

Photo: Commonwealth students roasting weenies in the Ouachita mountains. (Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922–1940 by William H. Cobb)

Trouble In Paradise

While some neighbors flocked to Commonwealth for the Saturday night dances, or to perform their traditional folk songs before a rapt and appreciative audience of mostly non-Southerners, others were far more circumspect.

In 1926, Commonwealth came to the attention of American Legion, which was formed less than a decade earlier to combat growing left-wing sentiment among World War I veterans and provided shock troops for the first Red Scare. The state commander of the American Legion in Arkansas accused Commonwealth of being funded by “red gold,” or money from the USSR.

It wasn’t true, but the allegations took on a life of their own, appearing in newspapers across the state and angering right-wing Arkansans. The outraged including neighbors who’d previously been friendly to the college, some of whom were just as scandalized by allegations of “free love” and other cultural norm-breaking on campus as they were by charges of Bolshevism.

Some neighbors were also alarmed by the college’s advocacy of racial equality. Commonwealth was not racially integrated — no school in Arkansas yet educated both white and black students, and the Little Rock Crisis was still several decades away. Integrated spaces of any kind were subject to night-riding by Klansmen and other violent racists, and lynchings were common.

Given the social climate, Commonwealth felt it could not guarantee black students’ safety. It had tried to hire black faculty, reasoning that this might not be quite as taboo, but all prospective candidates declined the offered posts for fear of racist reprisal. Still, Commonwealth advocated a doctrine of racial equality, and this was enough to draw the ire of many white people in Arkansas.

An ensuing investigation found no Soviet ties, and the furor subsided, but the school’s local reputation was damaged. In an effort to fix it, the director, Zeuch, implemented a code of conduct which prohibited “inappropriate dress, language, interdormitory visits, drinking,” and so on. The founders had been wary of this kind of behavior anyway, their social sensibilities corresponding to their nineteenth-century Midwestern upbringings.

Many of the students, however, were indignant. Across the nation, the freewheeling youth of the twenties were scandalizing their elders with informal dress and premarital sex, and the Commoners were no different. As socialists, they also imbued the issue with political meaning: their behavior was a form of rebellion against authoritarian control. It was the first glimmer of generational conflict at Commonwealth.

Over the next few years, that conflict would grow, and it would revolve primarily not around conduct norms but political pedagogy. Zeuch, the O’Hares, and the New Llano recruits had conceived of Commonwealth as an institution that would provide a liberal arts education with emphasis on the themes of socialism and working-class emancipation.

“Across the nation, the freewheeling youth of the twenties were scandalizing their elders with informal dress and premarital sex, and the Commoners were no different.”

They reasoned that this type of holistic education had always been withheld from workers, and they hoped to correct it for the sake of both students and the movement. Knowledge and culture were the heritage of all humankind, but had been stolen from those forced to work rather than learn. Studying literature and history — including both classical and radical texts — would elevate workers’ intellects, shape their understanding of class forces, develop their critical thinking faculties, make them wiser and more worldly servants of the socialist movement, and enrich their lives forever.

The younger generation, which included some faculty, saw things differently. Inspired above all by Brookwood Labor College in New York, they wanted Commonwealth to provide practical training for class struggle, and for the college to play a more activist role in the existing labor movement. They envisioned Commonwealth not as an isolated idyll where workers could quietly receive a well-rounded education before being released back into the world, but as a place that would be oriented toward equipping workers for the tasks of movement-building, which need not wait until graduation.

The Left as a whole was experiencing a changing of the guard, and the new pedagogical turn was emblematic of its evolving outlook. Romantic oratory from flamboyant prairie preachers was going out of style, replaced by an angular urban socialism which was associated more with the Communist Party than the Socialist Party. As the decade came to a close, students increasingly came from the second milieu. Debsians had founded Commonwealth, but as Commonwealth modernized, it grew disenchanted with Debsianism.

Photo: A class at Commonwealth College in the 1930s. (University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville)

Zeuch was vehemently opposed to the proposed turn, decrying the tendency “in the labor movement to confuse education with propaganda,” and arguing:

Workers’ education is not simply vocational training, training as organizers, publicists, etc.; it is not merely a matter of a year’s or two yeas’ learning of ‘pointers’ on organizing, publicizing, etc. Workers’ education . . . involves complete reeducation of our thinking in terms of labor. It means education to a thorough understanding and appreciation of social forces and their manipulation in control of social processes in the interest of labor.

Detractors reasoned that:

Commonwealth is coming of age at a time when the need for workers’ education is becoming daily more obvious. The increasingly serious problems which will face the labor movement of the future call as never before for men and women trained to take an active and intelligent part. . . . The time has now come when it should intensify its militant mission of educating people who will do something in addition to being broadminded.

Commonwealth was one of several labor colleges across the country in the early decades of the twentieth century, and most were having some version of this same debate. Rather than keep up with the times, some dissolved under the pressure of the worldview divide.

But after a years-long power struggle, during which the founders each located an excuse to drift off campus, Commonwealth changed hands to become a paragon of practical worker-activist education, just as it had been a paragon of socialist liberal arts education.

New Militancy

Beginning in 1931, Commonwealth’s new director was Lucien Koch, who, along with his siblings, matriculated at Commonwealth. As the son of the original New Llano recruits, Lucien was quite literally the offspring of Debsian socialism. He acknowledged his great intellectual and political debt to his forebears, but subscribed wholeheartedly to the more modern philosophy.

Under new administration, Commonwealth offered fewer traditional courses and more that taught the basics of organizing to future labor organizers, of activist journalism to future movement journalists, of public speaking to future agitators, of labor law to future movement lawyers, and so on. In the arts, its emphasis was on labor drama: students wrote original plays that illustrated core socialist concepts and began to perform them around Arkansas for general audiences.

“Commonwealth changed hands to become a paradigm of practical worker-activist education, just as it had been a paradigm of socialist liberal arts education.”

Under Koch, the college became far more outward-facing, and its activities were hardly restricted to performing plays. Commonwealth was determined to become an influential presence in Arkansas politics, running a handful of Commoners for office. It was even more determined to integrate its activities with those of the labor movement, which had been repressed nearly to the point of nonexistence in the South but was showing signs of new life.

In 1932, Commonwealth dispatched a contingent (including Koch) to Harlan County, Kentucky, to provide direct support to striking miners. For their trouble they were beaten bloody by police. Over the coming years, Commoners traveled to Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, and all around Arkansas to support strikes and help organize union drives. In many cases they were arrested. They were also threatened by racist mobs for the trespass of fraternizing with black workers, profaning the sacred social order of the Jim Crow South.

Word spread of Commoners’ direct engagement in labor struggles, which drew an even more radical (and often younger) student body down from big cities like New York and Chicago. In the coming years, Commoners embraced their reputation for militancy, nicknaming the bulletin boards in the dining hall the Pink Peril and the Red Menace. They established on campus a “Museum of Social Change” whose installations depicted the horrors of capitalism, the advance of the working class, and the dawning of socialism.

An increasing number of students, and a few faculty, were established members of the Communist Party. That meant, among other things, that they were accommodated to a factional style of politics that was mostly alien to Commonwealth.

Lucien Koch had been responsible for this more radical turn, but he soon found some of the student body a bit doctrinaire, and careless with accusations of oppression. Raised by socialists and educated at Commonwealth, the young Koch was shocked and stung when the students, particularly those calling themselves Communists (some party members, others merely sympathetic), began to agitate against his administration. In particular, they took issue with the school’s long-standing refusal to affiliate with any party, which they considered a cop-out and a dereliction of revolutionary duty given the rise of the Communist Party.

“Commoners embraced their reputation for militancy, nicknaming the bulletin boards in the dining hall the Pink Peril and the Red Menace.”

The Communist students likened Koch to a boss and themselves to workers. “By bringing up the class struggle analogy,” Koch lamented, “the Communists can make it an issue of superior against inferior . . . attempts on our part to settle differences amicably and reasonably become ‘attempts to break student solidarity.’”

Koch was personally wounded. He was accused of being a boss, but had he not just returned from Harlan, Kentucky, bruised and battered for the cause of the working class? He was accused of dragging his feet on racial integration, but had he not forged the school’s first alliances with black workers? Rival camps began to emerge: those sympathetic and those unsympathetic to these arguments in Koch’s self-defense.

There were now hostilities between students and faculty, and factionalism among the student body itself. Koch found the new campus environment frustrating. It was more militant and activist than the old Commonwealth, by design, but at the expense of an atmosphere of camaraderie. “The atmosphere,” he wrote to a friend, was “no longer congenial.”

Koch had significant difficulties with Communists in person, but no grievance with their being at Commonwealth on principle. An avowedly nonpartisan institution, Commonwealth had always accepted leftists of all stripes, and Koch felt obliged to keep it that way.

Photo: Commonwealth College director Lucien Koch and his mother, Frieda, also a Commoner. (Radical Education in the Rural South: Commonwealth College, 1922–1940 by William H. Cobb)

But some progressive and labor movement allies did object to the Communist presence on campus. Chief among them was H. L. Mitchell, founder and leader of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). Under Koch, Commonwealth College would pledge loyalty to the STFU, and the cause of poor sharecroppers would emerge as the school’s cause célčbre. But in the end, the loyalty flowed one way.

Uneasy Union

The height of Commonwealth’s militant activity was yet to come. In 1934, sharecroppers in Arkansas formed a multiracial union to combat their immiseration, which was already considerable and had been exacerbated by the Great Depression. The racial makeup of tenant farmers in the South was about 40 percent black and 60 percent white, and as Cobb writes, most of them “lived in conditions that would appall a medieval leper.”

When Koch heard about the formation of the STFU, he was enthused, and promised Mitchell that Commonwealth would be a steadfast ally. Only a few months later, in early 1935, Mitchell took him up on the offer for support. A white STFU organizer named Ward Rogers had been arrested on charges of being a Communist Party member and advocating racial equality. Commonwealth swiftly dispatched a delegation to organize sharecroppers in Rogers’s defense.

Mitchell was always interested in distancing the STFU from Communism. Interestingly, despite Koch’s tensions with Communists on campus, Mitchell’s first impression of Koch was that he was too much of a Communist sympathizer. Still, Mitchell was grateful for the help, and put the Commonwealth delegation to work holding meetings in towns around eastern Arkansas.

Koch and a young Communist student named Bob Reed were sent to Gilmore, where they collaborated with black organizers to hold a meeting in a black church. As Koch took the pulpit, four armed white men burst into the church and ordered the black attendees to leave on threat of lynching. They then beat Koch and Reed, held them at gunpoint, and marched them into cars headed toward an unknown destination. The Commoners were convinced they’d be killed, but instead they were taken to the county seat, where they were gravely admonished for socially mixing with black people.

“The Commoners were convinced Koch and Reed would be killed, but instead they were taken to the county seat, where they were gravely admonished for socially mixing with black people.”

Koch and Reed were then taken back to the church and ordered to get into their own car. Before they did, they picked up a rope tied into a hangman’s knot which had been left by the racist mob on the church steps. Koch later installed the noose in the Museum of Social Change.

Word had gotten to Marked Tree, Arkansas, where another STFU meeting was being held, and the Commoners and union members there stopped the car caravan that had been assembled to escort Koch and Reed over the county line. The sharecroppers were armed to the teeth and ready for a fight, but no bullets flew. Koch and Reed were simply handed over to their comrades and warned never to return.

Mitchell’s reaction to the business in eastern Arkansas was mixed. He admired the courage of Commoners and appreciated their assistance, but he was angry to learn that Reed had passed out Communist Party literature at the union meeting. The Communist Party had ties to Moscow, and Mitchell felt the STFU, being a racially integrated union in the segregated South, had enough on its plate without charges of treason and sedition.

When the Commoners returned to campus, they felt that the outing had been a great success. All factions on the campus were at last united: they would devote themselves to a campaign in support of the STFU. They were unaware that their love was unrequited.

Mitchell held a series of grave phone calls with other Southern labor movement and progressive leaders who assured him that any association with the Communist Party was not strategic, as it spelled unnecessary and grave trouble for the fledgling union. They urged him to keep Commonwealth at arm’s length.

Photo: A meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, 1937. (Louise Boyle)

Even so, the STFU agreed to Commonwealth’s offer to enroll about a dozen sharecroppers, deepening the relationship. Additionally, a few high-profile STFU organizers took posts as faculty at Commonwealth. All of this made Mitchell uneasy, but he wasn’t ready to burn bridges with a potentially critical ally just yet.

For his part, Koch, who had long found the atmosphere on campus insufficiently harmonious and personally stressful, made designs to exit the college. He left in 1936, and the college’s downfall was not far behind.

Betrayal and Counterrevolution

After the college’s first brush with infamy a decade prior, Arkansas conservatives had more or less left Commonwealth alone. But Commoners’ high-profile field activity attracted their attention once again.

A conservative pastor in Mena named L. D. Summers began preaching fire and brimstone against Commonwealth from the pulpit, and distributed pamphlets linking Commonwealth to the Communist Party. Summers “was a perfect caricature of the narrow, bigoted, fundamentalist, protofascist Americanism abroad in the South during the thirties,” writes Cobb. “He had the same level of tolerance for the Commoners and their views that Savonarola had held for pregnant nuns.”

The passions of the Arkansas state legislature were also reawakened, as a viciously anti-communist young representative named Herman Horton declared war on Commonwealth. Horton introduced a sedition bill that was directly aimed at the college. A great deal of support for the bill poured in from wealthy landowners, indicating that the clever bourgeoisie understood the potential for Commonwealth’s troubles to also drag down the STFU.

The statewide offensive generated national publicity, most of it negative. The conservative magazine Liberty sent an undercover reporter to pose as a prospective student, and he published an exposé on Commonwealth under the headline “Rah, Rah, Russia!” Mitchell began to panic, and so did Roger Baldwin, the leader of the ACLU who was the head of the AFPS, on whose money Commonwealth’s existence depended.

The STFU and the AFPS launched a defense of Commonwealth in 1937, but begrudgingly. Baldwin set about to convince Commonwealth to course-correct before it self-destructed. Conversations with the new Commonwealth administration, helmed by STFU organizer and Debsian-style radical minister Claude Williams — installed in a last-ditch effort at compromise — were unproductive. Williams’s allegiances were split, and, in Polk County isolation, many suspected he was becoming something of a Communist himself.

The relationships were growing strained on both sides now, as the impression began to form on campus that Mitchell was a reactionary and a sellout. Mitchell even stopped by for a visit and was fired upon by an STFU member, an old friend no less, who’d enrolled at Commonwealth. The sharecropper may have suspected Mitchell was sleeping with his wife, but Mitchell took the shooting as proof that the Commonwealth student body was irrevocably poisoned against him, which was probably true.

“This idiosyncratic experiment in worker education in the rural South, which spanned the Debsian and Communist traditions, left an indelible imprint on thousands of lives and shaped the Left in the twentieth century.”

The final straw came in 1938, when Jim Butler of the STFU, who also taught at Commonwealth, found a fateful slip of paper that had tumbled out of Claude Williams’s pocket. It was an appeal written by students at Commonwealth to the Communist Party headquarters to send them funds so they could organize a Communist presence inside the STFU, unbeknownst to its leadership. Butler felt he had no choice but to report it to Mitchell, who was infuriated. All relations between the union and the college came to an abrupt end. The rest of the Southern labor movement, loyal to the STFU, immediately soured on Commonwealth.

The AFPS’s abandonment of Commonwealth was not far behind. In 1938, a new organization had come into being: the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), whose purpose was to identify Communists and drive them out of public life. One of its primary targets was the ACLU, and by extension the AFPS. Baldwin had supported Commonwealth since the days of Zeuch and the O’Hares and had tried to save the sinking ship in recent years, but the college’s falling-out with Southern labor and the rise of HUAC spelled the end of that relationship.

By late 1938, Commonwealth College was friendless, and consequently penniless, and the reactionary pressure wouldn’t let up. “The history of the school for the next eighteen months was nothing more than a prolonged death struggle,” writes Cobb. A fire destroyed part of campus, and the college lacked sufficient funds to repair the damage. The student body was dwindling. Williams left in bitter disappointment.

A new director had the idea to transform Commonwealth into a theater college, where it could focus on labor drama, one of its longtime specialties. But a cast of antagonists — Pastor Summers, various right-wing legislators, and even the college’s old nemesis, the American Legion — wouldn’t be satisfied until the entire enterprise was shut down.

In the end, it didn’t take much to put Commonwealth under, just a steady barrage of fines (for failing to fly the American flag, for displaying a hammer and sickle, for “anarchy”) resulting in debts the college couldn’t pay.

The college was finally finished in 1940. Out of spite, Pastor Summers bought up the school’s library, numbering over five thousand volumes. He separated the classical and the radical works, donating the former to local institutions and keeping the latter for his own anti-communist research purposes. Summers was one of thousands of “red-hunting” zealots across the country whose activism would eventually give way to McCarthyism.

Every One of You a Goddamn Red

Over the 1940s and ’50s, as anti-communism became more of a national preoccupation, many labor and progressive organizations continued to distance themselves from Communists in hopes of saving their own skins. These efforts were to little avail: the hammer of McCarthyism came down on the entire institutional Left, Communist and otherwise. The STFU and AFPS were some of the first victims of this onslaught, and hardly the last. In the final analysis, Commonwealth was abandoned in vain.

Photo: The Weavers, (L-R) Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, 1952.

But Commonwealth is not defined solely by its ugly end. This idiosyncratic experiment in worker education in the rural South, which spanned the Debsian and Communist traditions, left an indelible imprint on thousands of lives and shaped the Left in the twentieth century. Many who put up a good fight against McCarthyism, racism, and union-busting over the next few decades were former Commoners, or knew and were influenced by them. The college even had international reach, as many alumnae traveled overseas to fight fascism with the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War.

After the college folded, a Commonwealth theater teacher from Arkansas named Lee Hays teamed up with Pete Seeger to form the Almanac Singers — which also included Woody Guthrie and former Commonwealth student Sis Cunningham — and later the Weavers. When they weren’t dodging red-baiting and trying to shake off HUAC, Hays and his collaborators wrote and recorded a number of folk songs that remain popular in American culture, like “If I Had a Hammer.”

But digging a little deeper into their discography, one encounters more radical themes. In “Talking Union,” you can hear the lessons learned and experiences lived by Commoners, finishing on a note of optimism despite everything:

Now, boys, you’ve come to the hardest time.
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He’ll call out the police, the National Guard,
They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.
They’ll raid your meetin’, they’ll hit you on the head,
They’ll call every one of you a goddam red.

[But] if you don’t let red-baiting break you up,
And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up,
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up,
You’ll win.

°

Meagan Day is a staff writer at Jacobin. She is the coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism.