“Socialism Would Absolutely Eliminate the Liquor Interests”: An Address on “Rational Prohibition,” Los Angeles, 22 June 1902

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Turn of the century political and social movements in the Angel City included a great many notable elements, among which was the continued agitation to prohibition the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, which finally was achieved nationally with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, and the growing socialist movement that, even in conservative Los Angeles, gained traction because of mounting economic inequities, to the point that Job Harriman was a serious contender to become mayor before the domestic terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 took place.

Sometimes these two elements were conjoined, as was the case with tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a pamphlet published as part of the Pocket Library of Socialism by Charles H. Kerr & Company of Chicago and containing an address on “Rational Prohibition” given in Los Angeles on 22 June 1902 by Walter L. Young.

Los Angeles Herald, 27 May 1896.

While it might be easy to assume that Young was perhaps a radical union leader or working-class agitator, he was, in fact, an oil producer working in the Los Angeles Oil Field, first discovered by Charles Canfield and Edward L. Doheny in the early 1890s. While certainly not on the level of wealth of those two powerhouses, Young was hardly a poor man, nor did he come from a radical background.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1850, Young’s father, Loyal, was a Presbyterian minister and a brother, Samuel, also a minister and a close friend of John Muir during their adventures in Alaska, which included the famed naturalist saving Samuel’s life during a dangerous excursion. In fact, in 1910, Samuel wrote to Muir about coming down to California to visit and mentioned that “I have a brother in Los Angeles, Walter L. Young, an oil man and a rampant socialist, but a good fellow for all that.”

Young married Adele Ferrell in Christian County, Illinois, southeast of the state capital, Springfield and the couple, who did not have children, first settled just below the Elysian Hills where Dodger Stadium now is, before moving the year the pamphlet was published to Union Street and Beverly Boulevard very close to the Los Angeles Oil Field. A part-owner of the Raymond and Victor oil companies, Young was a founding member of the Municipal League, a prominent group in the Angel City, and mounted unsuccessful campaigns for mayor in 1904 and the state assembly three years later.

Los Angeles Record, 4 November 1899.

His support of socialism was occasionally manifested in local newspapers during the late 1890s and through much of the first decade of the new century and at least two letters to editors were written in fervent support of Eugene Debs, the perennial presidential candidate, and against the critiques of Christian clergy who fulminated against socialists.

Writing, for example, to the Los Angeles Record in November 1899, Young claimed that “socialism is nothing but applied christianity,” while observing that his father “preached fifty-five years in the same church . . . [and] it is a slavery, the fetters of which Socialism alone can break.” He also attacked churches who were supported by the wealthy, but which all but ignored working-class people and, he averred, “either stood aloof or bitterly opposed each new reform” in society.

Shortly afterward, he offered another letter to the paper and, when it came to “demon rum,” Young claimed “it can easily be proved that under our competitive [that is, capitalist] system, to the self-contained working man the drink habit is more a blessing than a curse. Nevertheless it is a curse per se and in spite of the illogical and often hypocritical efforts of the church to abate it the evil is ever growing stronger.” He added that, under the current system, it would continue to do so, but “the lack of the incentive to gain would sap its vitals.”

Los Angeles Express, 14 February 1901.

A year later, the Record reported that “Christian Socialists to Meet” at the city’s Camera Club with those “who believe in the teachings of socialism” encouraged to attend. A provisional committee included representatives of denominations including Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Unitarian, an independent (non-denominational), and Young as a Presbyterian.

In March 1902, Toledo, Ohio mayor Samuel M. Jones, nicknamed “Golden Rule” because of his advocacy of that time-honored adage, visited Los Angeles and stayed with Young. Like the latter, Jones was an oil producer, though of much greater wealth, and was a Christian Socialist heavily influenced by the work of Henry George. Among those in the welcoming committee with Young were such prominent Angelenos as Caroline Severance, John Randolph Haynes, and Joseph F. Sartori, while Mayor Meredith Snyder introduced Jones at a banquet held in his honor.

As for the “Rational Prohibition” address, it began with Young asserting that “there are two things regarding the temperance cause that are looked upon as beyond the power of man—one is to fully represent or conceive of the enormity of the liquor evil, the other to find anything new to say on the subject.” He claimed, though, that his address “is dinstinctly different from any other temperance lecture you ever heard.”

Los Angeles Record, 22 November 1904.

Next, he averred that “no finite mind can grasp the evils to be imputed to this liquor traffic,” which, he added, amounted to $1 billion in business. He suggested, “tongue cannot tell, neither has it entered into the heart of man to conceive, the ruin that follows in the wake of this evil.” Hundreds of thousands of children “are yearly sacrificed to this parent of vice” and he went on to note how

if we could the writhing and hear all the cursing and groaning; if we could behold the bloated bodies of the dying victims; if we could see the want and poverty, the thefts, the murders, the despoiled innocence, the brutality, the hardness of heart and the softness of brain chargeable to the accursed traffic all spread out in a panorama at our feet . . . the whisky evil is a great cloud threatening our civilization, at which we gaze with abject terror . . . it is a monstrous engine of destruyction which requires every year in this country for its insatiable mastication the blood, the life, the happiness, the honor, of 100,000 of our boys and girls.

He related a story of a stern judge telling a man convicted of selling liquor that he would sentence him to the maximum penalty of the law and the rejoinder was thatr the evil could not be mitigated “as long as there is an eight-cent profit in a ten-cent drink.” He lauded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League for their earnest efforts, but noted “King Alcohol sits serenely on his throne, knowing he has an ally that never sleeps and whose existence renders him unconquerable.”

Those fighting the temperance battle, he claimed, were “divided, disheartneed, undisciplined, yet often enthusiastic” and “when the reformer sleeps, as he always must, this enemy, supported by the power of money, which never sleeps or tires,” inexorably advances. The problem, as Young viewed it, was that reformers “are trying to suppress the evil while the cause, unimpaired, is manufacturing more and more evil and throwing it defiantly at your feet and in your teeth.”

On the other hand, Young proclaimed that “we socialists would destroy the power of money, knowing that from this is hatched out every distillery, brewery and darmshop in the whole land.” It was not the purchaser and user who was going to wage that war, but it was that “socialim would absolutely eliminate the liquor interests” and then allow for application of law. He allowed that manufacturers did not do so “with any sinister motive” or intent “to disgrace, impoverish, debuach and destroy.” Instead they were simply seeking profit, even if this was “at the certainty of the destruction of mankind.”

As Young stated that ninety-nine of a hundred men would, if offered a bar that promised a healthy profit, take the deal, he opined that “the whole philosophy of socialism teaches that a man need never be tempted either to sell liquor or drink it, and without the temptation who would enter the business.” The answer, of course, was that, for socialists, “there is no different in material compensation” in the range of occupations because “the pay in each is the same.”

While it was one part of the argument to delve into the irresistibility of the profit motive, Young noted that

when a man is beaten in the race, when smarting under the defeat and ignominy, the poverty and wretchedness of having fallen and missed the golden prize, then is thetime, if ever, he seeks the oblivion of the temporary stimulus of the cup that cheers, no matter if afterwards it clouds and styupfies, and intensifies the misery . . . His only chance for a brief period of enjoyment is in a cheap drunk. It is more an anathesia from presernt miseries than a real happiness.

He asserted that, in a million instances, drunkenness caused poverty, but half that amount it was the opposite. Yet, he also claimed that a working man who didn’t drink would actually be against temperance movements as denying opprtunity because more jobs were available due to the numbers of those who were under the thumb of alcohol and fewer job seekers meant higher wages (at least in times when the labor market was stronger). This form of labor competition, Young went on, meant that “capitalism accomplishes its infernal chemistry of moral ruin” by having temperate workers “welcome the degeneracy and eath of his competitor.”

Young noted that there were reformers who claimed that breaking the whisky trust would force those employed in that industry to find more meaningful and available work elsewhere, “but now when trusts are so universal and labor-saving devices so perfect the labor cost of a glass of whisky bears about the same proportion to its price as that of shoes and dresses, sugar, wagons and oil.”

While it may be true that closing distilleries and beweries “would be a blessing as far as that would go,” the larger issue would remain “as industrial stagnation is the greatest evil that can happen to a nation, because it produces the most misery.” Yet, he then offered that “the more we have as a whole, the more we lack as individuals” because ramped up production meant over-producing to the point that “we starve and grow ragged because we are carrying too great a supply of food and clothes.”

Young then indulged himself in the observation that, following the era of the Black Death in the 14th century, “the workers almost owned the earth (as we propose they should now do abolsutely)” because they were better educated and joined labor unions which allowed that they “for a while controlle dthe situation” so that “the working man was almost dominant in politics and industry.”

He moreover claimed that “in late years has come another Black Death, and it goes under the name of the liquor evil.” There was, though, an answer from the socialists: “we offer as a remedy peace, health, long life and ‘rational prohibition.'” In 1902, Young contnued, “universal waste is the stronghold of the self-contained worker” and no more wasteful product existed than alcohol. But, “the competitive system not only fosters the liquor traffic, but makes it a necessity.”

Addressing the misguided reformers, he proclaimed that “a new era is dawning” and “we are beginning to glimpse an elysian; we are beginning to know the meaning of brotherhood” in that “we are dreaming of a system in which the golden rule [think Mayor Jones!] can live.” Economic justice was at hand, but Young asked the temperance crusaders “to cease your illogical rantings, your impotent efforts, and your futile tears” and embrace the “Co-operative Commonwealth” created courtesy of socialism and abandon the competitive capitalist system.

He professed to find it strange to criticize “those who think they are doing God’s work,” but asserted that it was a verity that “present prohibition methods are so hopeless and foolish” while “the Socialists’ system is so sure of a permanent cure that refusal to study this problmem by our light impeaches your sincerity.” Turning to mothers, he implored that the only way to protect their children was to adopt the socialist way, as:

The way is plain and the cars run direct from Figueroa to Alameda street, from the home of the aristocrat [living among the high-end subdivisions along the former] to that of the outcast [residing in the industrial section near the latter]. To safeguard your child you must obliterate the crimes of Alameda street [and its saloons, taverns and bars].

Young quoted in its entirety the poem “Mother to Child” from Charlotte Perkins Stetson, soon better known by her second married name of Gilman and who was a Pasadena resident. It included the lines: “For the sake of my child I must asten to save / All the children of earth from the jail and the grave, / For so and so only I lighten the sahre / Of the pain of the world that my darling must hear.”

He impored readers to try to disprove or agree with his findings and added the time-honored Biblical injunction of “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” In the battle against the evil of alcohol, there was only the revealed truth or old error, while remaining aloof from the contest would mark people as lacking character and courage. Even an honest adversary was more acceptable in Young’s mind.

He concluded by opining that “there is only one greater blessing than that of coming into the enjoyment of the co-operative commonwealth” and that was to proudly bear the battle scars because “the most glorious thing is not to be victorious but to be right.” To be a martyr drowning under the weight of upholding “the unified human brotherhood” was the only way to counter the idea that “the supreme master of the world to-day is the almighty dollar and every other master is more or less so as that dollar wills.”

At the end of the publication were ads for Kerr & Co. productions like its edition of Karl Marx’s Capital, denoted as “the classic of Socialism;” Isaac Broome’s The Last Days of the Ruskin Co-Operative Association, one of many socialist utopian colonies of the era, this one existing in Tennessee during the last half of the 1890s; a history of such colonies by William Hinds and titled American Communities; the compendium Socialist Songs With Music, comprising three dozen tunes, including five from Kerr; and, lastly, “the only periodical whose reading constitutes a thorough educatrion in Socialist philosophy,” this being The International Socialist Review.

As for Young, he lived for another quarter century, though he was overshadowed by such figures as Harriman, Gaylord Wilshire, and Fanny Bixby Spencer, all of whom have been mention or featured in this blog. Socialism, as noted above, reached its local pinnacle in Harriman’s failed 1911 mayoral campaign and, with the onset of World War I, the Red Scare that followed, and the conservatism that marked the 1920s, it would be years before a left-leaning movement gained some adherents during the Great Depression.

Pasadena Post, 10 November 1926.

When, after living in Newport Beach in Orange County and then in Pasadena, Young died in 1926, a brief obituary called him a pioneer in local oil prospecting, but mentioned nothing of his radical politics. Young is an unknown figure today, but his “Rational Prohibition” speech is an interesting one to peruse in terms of where the socialist movement was at it was ascending in the the Angel City during the first years of the 20th century.

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