Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement
By Jason Sibert
Reading, Pennsylvania – a city of 95,112 residents as of the 2020 census – and the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown hardly makes national news today. Reading Hospital, East Penn Manufacturing, Carpenter Technology Corporation, and the Reading School District are among its biggest employers.
However, the city, which could be called a part of a mini-metro area, played a role in the history of the political movement known as sewer socialism. Sewer Socialist J. Henry Stump served as mayor of the city for the first time from 1927 to 1931 with two socialist councilmen, one being James Maurer, also a trade unionist and state legislator, making Reading the only city with a majority Socialist government at the time. In that election cycle, Reading also elected two socialist school directorships and a socialist city comptroller. In 1929, the party captured the two remaining seats on the city council.
By 1931, the Republicans and Democrats united in a fusion movement to turn the Socialist Party out of office, and Stump and the socialist councilmen lost their jobs. However, Stump returned as a mayoral candidate in 1935 – this time, winning. However, the Socialist candidates for council lost in that cycle. Stump suffered another defeat in 1939 but returned to the office for a third time in 1943. The up-and-down cycle of his political career continued with Stump being defeated for reelection in 1947 – by 200 votes!
Stump did have some accomplishments as a sewer socialist. Reading gained with a new city hall, new firehouses, an outdoor auditorium in City Park, a new branch library at Schuylkill Avenue and Windsor Street, and a tower on Mt. Penn. The taxpayer won through the municipal collection of garbage, improvements in the sewer and water systems, modernizations of the fire and police alarm systems, including two-way radios for police patrol cars, the Glenside housing development, and improvements to the airport. The children of Reading enjoyed new recreational opportunities – the improvement of the playground on Lance Place, the installation of field houses on several other playgrounds, and the purchase and equipping of the Eleventh and Pike playground.
The former Mayor of Reading parted ways with the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1936 and joined the splinter group – the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). At the SDF founding convention in 1937, he said: “We came here because we could no longer square our Socialist conscience with remaining in the party which has fallen into the hands of disruptors, of people who do not believe in the idea and ideals of democratic Socialism. I am confident that at this convention, we will build an organization that will truly represent these ideas.” The split occurred because of the conflict between the SPA “Old Guard” and “the militants,” a younger faction that favored sabotage and cooperation with the Communists on some issues. Including dissident Communists, like the Trotskyists and Lovestoneites, in the party was also an issue. At its founding conventions, the SDF supported expanded social security, slum clearance, and opposition to Fascism.
J. Henry Stump passed away in 1949.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.