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12. Migrant

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Activities: Context Activities

Socialism and Communism

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Back cover of The Masses, July 1916

[7892] Robert Minor, Back cover of The Masses, July 1916 (1916), courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
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Socialism can be understood as an economic theory or system of social organization whereby the means of producing and distributing goods are collectively owned or controlled. At its heart is the desire for a just and equitable distribution of wealth, property, and labor. Communism is an established system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy with the putative intent that goods should be shared equally among the people.

As industrialization gained momentum and technology improved, skilled workers and artisans became less important to the production of goods and were often replaced by factory wage earners with fewer technical skills. Unskilled workers soon dominated many industries, including shipping, transportation, and building. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, most factories and jobs moved to the cities and unskilled workers followed. In an effort to receive better benefits, pay, and working conditions, these workers began to organize into trade unions. Many union leaders were inspired by socialist ideologies that promised just treatment for workers.

Though the ideals of socialism go back to classical times, contemporary socialism had its roots in the reaction to the industrial age and the treatment of workers as commodities. As the perception grew that capitalism and industrialism were causing widespread suffering, socialists called for fundamental changes to what they perceived as unfair economic and social systems. European socialist leaders championed different versions of socialist ideology. The utopian socialists, such as Comte Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen, envisioned a naturally occurring course of progress for humanity leading to shared wealth and resources for all. These thinkers influenced experiments with utopian societies in America, such as the Oneida Community and Brook Farm, the basis of Hawthorne's satire in The Blithedale Romance. Scientific socialists, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, argued that organized trade unions and radical political parties were needed to overthrow capitalist systems. Depictions of unions and leftist ideology appear in the works of Muriel Rukeyser, Carlos Bulosan, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck, as well as in the writings of Ralph Waldo Ellison, Richard Wright, and Chaim Potok.

Some American laborers joined socialist movements, but the majority did not. There were three different socialist parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the Socialist Labor Party, formed in 1876; the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1898; and the Socialist Party, formed in 1901. Eugene V. Debs repeatedly ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in the early twentieth century, but he never received more than 900,000 votes nationwide. Though socialist party membership dropped off during World War I, it grew somewhat during the Great Depression. After World War II, the Socialist Party in America split into conservative and progressive wings and lost much of its following, partly as a result of the anti-communist sentiment of the late 1940s and 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers fostered the perception that socialists and communists were closely associated.

Communism, in a broad sense, refers to radical political movements meant to overthrow capitalist systems of government. After the 1917 Russian Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, they renamed themselves the Communist Party. Eventually, under Lenin and then Stalin, the Soviet Union became the international leader of the communist movement. Many other countries became communist, including much of Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Although governments like that of the Soviet Union called for the overthrow of capitalistic systems, the United States did not perceive international communism as a serious threat until after World War II. A "cold war" began between the Soviet Union and the United States, with each vying for world domination. American fear of communism was enhanced by the emergence of Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin senator who spearheaded an anti-communist campaign from 1950 to 1954. During the same period, in the House of Representatives, the Un-American Activities Committee held numerous highly publicized hearings on suspected communists. The "Red Scare" campaign mounted by McCarthy and the Republican Party alleged that communists had infiltrated America and were intent on overthrowing the country. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is perhaps the best-known literary response to this era. The anti-communist campaign and the public support it garnered allowed for unscrupulous congressional committee investigations, which Miller likened to the witch trials of centuries before, that sought to discredit or blacklist individuals with "known ties" to communists or socialists, even if those ties were well in the past. Many literary figures and people in the motion picture industry fell victim to these investigations.

The Cold War loomed large in the American consciousness throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s. Films and literature were the primary genres where these concerns surfaced. Movies like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe expressed anxiety about atomic annihilation. Nuclear holocaust, Russian invasion, and the perceived rise of totalitarianism in American society were all themes in popular books and films like Fahrenheit 451, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came from Outer Space, and The Thing. Similar themes appear in such popular works of fiction as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Each novel explores how coping with constant Cold War fears leads to alienation, absurdity, and paranoia.

  1. Comprehension: How did American capitalism fail certain segments of the population? Why were people attracted to socialism and communism?

  2. Comprehension: How did the fear of communism affect the United States in the 1950s? Was the government justified in the measures it took to root out communism?

  3. Context: Why would a poet like Muriel Rukeyser, who was born into a wealthy family, support American communist and leftist organizations?

  4. Context: In Chapter 26 of The Grapes of Wrath, Casey is called a "red son-of-a-bitch" just before he is killed. "Red" was a slang word for "communist." Does Casey seem to be a communist or socialist? What are his concerns? Why did Steinbeck portray Casey in this way?

  5. Exploration: In the first decade of the twenty-first century, some people have compared the actions the U.S. government took in investigating possible communist "infiltrators and collaborators" in the 1950s to the post-9/11 suspension of civil rights for many people living in the United States. Are those comparisons fair? Do they help you understand why the government acted the way it did in the 1950s?

[4775] Mabel Dwight, In the Crowd (1931),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6582].
Socialists and communists encouraged people to work together to rebel against capitalism, which they held responsible for the oppression of the masses and exploitation of workers. Important works of American socialist literature include Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart.

[6240] Anonymous, Look Behind the Mask! Communism Is Death (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80757].
Propaganda poster depicting Stalin and a skull. U.S. anti-communism peaked during the 1950s Red Scare. Many political, union, and popular culture figures were accused of being communists. Cold War politics often made labor organizers unpopular, as depicted in Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart.

[7892] Robert Minor, Back cover of The Masses, July 1916 (1916),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Radical magazine The Masses parody of desired qualities in army recruits. Leftist political movements, such as socialism and communism, continued during World War I, despite government censorship efforts.

[8609] Patriotic Tract Society, Red Stars in Hollywood (1949),
courtesy of the Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Contains part of a speech made after the opening-night performance of Thieves Paradise on April 12, 1948. The speech talks about the presence of communism in Hollywood and "the menace of these traitors to the safety of America."

[8615] Anonymous, The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1921),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Written after the initial trial of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were originally arrested in 1920 on the charge of being "suspicious reds" but later charged with the murder of two men. They were found guilty and executed in 1927, though over one hundred people testified to their innocence. This pamphlet was partially designed to raise money for a new trial for them.

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