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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Work, John McClelland
(January 3, 1869–January 5, 1961)

–one of the most important leaders of the Socialist Party of America in Iowa and the nation–remained an active Socialist from the founding of the Iowa Socialist Party in Oskaloosa in August 1900 until he ended his career in 1942. He was a party executive and leader, a sought-after lecturer, a perennial candidate for public office, and author of articles and books espousing the socialist cause.

    Work was born near Westchester, Iowa, and grew up on a farm in that area. He received a B.A. from Monmouth College in Illinois. An early religious bent led Work to study for the ministry at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He quickly abandoned his theological pursuits to study law at Columbian College (now George Washington University), where he received his LL.B. in 1893. He established a law practice in Des Moines and joined the Young Men's Republican Club.

    Serving as a delegate to national Republican clubs in Louisville in 1893 opened the young lawyer's eyes to the ruthless inner nature of politics. A lifelong supporter of prohibition, a vegetarian, and eventually an advocate of various health fads, Work was shocked by the convivial beer garden atmosphere of the convention and by what he considered the raucous behavior of the Iowa delegation, which included progressive leaders such as Albert B. Cummins (future governor and senator) and Jonathan Dolliver (a future leader of the Iowa delegation in Congress). Work soon began to search for alternatives to conventional politics. One of the major influences on Work was the Cooperative Commonwealth by Laurence Gronlund.

    Becoming a confirmed socialist by 1897 was not beneficial to his struggling law practice. By 1900 he had become one of the leaders in the Iowa Socialist Party, a conglomeration of ex-Populists, reformers, Marxists, exploited miners, and farmer Work quickly set out to form Iowa branches of the young party and became a consistent if unsuccessful candidate for public office. He waged a series of futile campaigns, running for mayor of Des Moines in 1902, governor in 1903 and 1910, and the U.S. Senate in 1908. Nevertheless, Work was successful in establishing many Socialist locals as he traversed the state. By 1912 the Socialist candidate for governor and longtime Work friend I. S. McCrillis received nearly 15,000 votes. Work by then was serving on the national executive committee of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), and had moved to Chicago. There, in 1911, he was elected national executive secretary of the party; he held the post for one term, which ended in 1913. While living in Chicago, Work ran for alderman (1914), Congress (1914), and superior court judge (1917). He moved to Wisconsin in 1917 to serve as editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Leader. Work made his last campaign for public office when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1925. He continued working for the Leader until his retirement in 1942.

    Work was one of socialism's most prolific writers. His columns appeared in the mainstream socialist paper, the Appeal to Reason, as well as the short-lived Iowa Socialist. He was also the author of at least seven books. His most popular book was What's So and What Isn't (1905), which sold more than 200,000 copies. The 96-page volume sold for 15 ¢ each or $7.50 per 100 and was published by Julius A. Wayland, the editor of the Appeal to Reason. The book contained short, pithy answers to questions about and objections to socialism. Work's popular column, "X-Rays," also appeared in the leading socialist publications of the early 20th century. He also claimed to have written several of the editorials for which national socialist leader Victor Berger was tried in 1917 for violation of the wartime Espionage and Sedition Act.

    Work's socialism was moderate and had strong moral and ethical elements. Socialism, he believed, would not only remove the cause for class division and economic exploitation, but would also improve morals. He was something of a moral purist, arguing that capitalism contributed to moral dissipation, which included smoking, drinking, and an unhealthy diet. But he also believed that socialists should work for health and old-age insurance, woman suffrage, a shorter workday, employer's liability insurance, the prevention of injunctions and use of police in breaking strikes, public ownership of utilities and railroads, a national banking system, abolition of child labor, and proper education for the young. Work did not advocate the collective ownership of all land as advertised in the national platform of the SPA, which he regarded as unappealing to farmer who might otherwise be attracted to the socialist cause. More radical elements in the Socialist Party charged that Work was merely a middle-class reformer and scoffed at his seeming eccentricities. Morris Hillquit, the SPA's leading theoretician in the early 20th century, deplored Work's "primer" style of writing. However, Work adhered to his principles throughout his life.

    He died in Milwaukee at the age of 92. By that time, many of the causes he espoused had become part of the nation's social program.
Sources John M. Work's unpublished autobiography is at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison. The Milwaukee Public Library holds a collection of his papers. Many of his writings were published in the Appeal to Reason . A basic survey of Work's life and work is William H. Cumberland, "John M. Work: Iowa Socialist," Palimpsest 64 (1983), 140–48.
Contributor: William H. Cumberland

Cite as: Cumberland, William H. "Work, John McClelland" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017