War and the Intercollegiate Socialist Society

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It is likely that many of the students who followed Goldman and Berkman home to 1340 Wilmot Street after their lectures were also those attending regular meetings of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. From the heavy praise of the Michigan chapter exhibited in the 1913 volumes of the Intercollegiate Socialist, the on-campus presence of the society seems to have faded into relative obscurity by the February-March issue of 1915. While at Columbia University, over 50 students are described as publicly taking a stand against militarism, the University of Michigan goes unmentioned [1]. The Michigan chapter continued to organize meetings and visits by I.S.S. organizer Harry W. Laidler, but, by the spring of 1915, was apparently in need of “re-organizing.” By the winter of 1916-1917, however, the chapter appeared to be on the rise again. In November, Lincoln Steffens “delighted a large audience under the auspices of the Chapter,” and was followed the following spring by visits by Rose Pastor Stokes, John Spargo, and Irwin St. John Tucker. On February 18, 1917, Scott Nearing—famously fired from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in light of his radical views—came to speak. After “a lot of argument and persuasion,” the I.S.S. was able to secure the use of a university hall for his lecture, which gained an audience of three or four hundred. On his spring 1918 tour of Midwestern colleges, organizer Harry W. Laidler lectured in Professor Evans Wood’s and Professor Robert Crane’s classes on sociology and American government, respectively [2]. Around the same time, the Secretary of the Michigan Chapter reported that the Michigan Chapter had lost the use of its on-campus meeting room “because of the cloud thrown over all Socialist activities by the war…We tried in every way we could to secure another University room, but our attempts were unsuccessful.” From here on in, the I.S.S. was forced to meet at 1340 Wilmot St., the home of Agnes Inglis. Meetings, however, remained well attended, with the average number of participants averaging around twenty. That spring, the chapter was able to gain use of the Natural Science Hall for an address by Dr. Laidler.

Outside of the loss of its University-sanctioned meeting space and the reduction in number of members, the I.S.S. seems to have operated relatively unhindered throughout wartime. The tone of The Intercollegiate Socialist suggests one primary reason for this: the organization, unlike others prominent in Socialist circles, maintained a strictly neutral stance on the war throughout. In its October-November, 1917 issue, The Intercollegiate Socialist stressed the “educational and noncontroversial character” of the Society:

…members of the Society should ever keep in mind that the I.S.S. is an organization for the study and discussion of Socialism. It is not anti or pro-militarist, anti or pro-war, anti or pro-conscription organization. The Society as such includes within its ranks men and women of widely varying views on Socialism and war, and each Chapter should make a special effort to bring into its membership all who are sincerely desirous of obtaining a better grasp of the problems of industrial democracy, no matter what their political or economic creed. [3]

Though the organization itself adopted a neutral stance on the question of war, it remained an important vehicle for the expression of academic antiwar sentiment. From 1914 onwards, The Intercollegiate Socialist published a wide range of articles espousing widely varying viewpoints on the nature of the European war, the question of military preparedness, and the justice of American involvement, including those that commented in the negative on all three. A widely diverse group of Socialist and non-Socialist intellectuals and activists—including international pacifist Henri La Fontaine, feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S.P.A. founder Morris Hillquit, and Norman Thomas—wrote articles espousing both viewpoints, though the antiwar stance remained the more common of the two [4]. Any young college student reading these articles, at the University of Michigan Chapter or elsewhere, would have found a measure of thoughtful, thorough and comprehensive debate on the issues of militarism and preparedness in the periodical; elsewhere on campus, however, these qualities were swallowed up in an atmosphere of forced consensus and fervent if artificial unity of opinion.


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[1] Intercollegiate Socialist Society (U.S.), The Intercollegiate Socialist, Vol. III, No. 3, February-March 1915.
[2] Intercollegiate Socialist Society (U.S.), The Intercollegiate Socialist, Vol. VI, No. 4, April-May 1918.
[3] Intercollegiate Socialist Society (U.S.), The Intercollegiate Socialist, Vol. VI, No. 2, December-January 1918-1919, 3; Vol. 6, No. 1, October-November 1917, 4.
[4] Intercollegiate Socialist Society (U.S.), October-November, 1915, Henri La Fontaine, “Socialism and War”; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “World Federation and Peace”; Norman Thomas, “Universal Service in Time of Peace”; February-March, 1919, Norman Thomas, “Political Prisoners in the United States.”