Recently, I have been sorting through a collection of socialist pamphlets and texts donated by the family of Harry Wellington Laidler, class of 1907. The collection is mostly made up of League for Industrial Democracy (LID) pamphlets printed during the first half of the twentieth century and an assortment of texts on socialism abroad and at home. The collection most certainly provides the Wesleyan community with a first hand opportunity to explore socialist thought at its height in the United States.
Harry Laidler is probably best known as one of the founders of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), which developed into the LID, the group he spearheaded from 1914 to 1956, and was a forerunner to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the most popularly recognized student activist groups. When the ISS was founded in 1905 Laidler was the only college student on the executive committee, which included renowned socialists such as Jack London and Upton Sinclair. He also led Wesleyan’s ISS chapter, the second university chapter in the nation. Within its first decade seventy chapters were formed across the US. The purpose of the ISS was education, not inciting unrest. Sinclair was once quoted as saying, “I decided that since the professors would not educate the students, it was up to the students to educate the professors.” Additionally, in more than one New York Times article Laidler denied the league’s promotion of the Marxist movement. “We conceived of the Socialist society as one with a mixed economy, an economy with public, cooperative and private ownership, the ultimate objective of which was real equality of opportunity for every man and woman so he or she could achieve the fulfillment of his or her potentialities.”
During Laidler’s life he wrote or edited over 50 books or pamphlets on socialism and economic issues. He penned “Boycotts and the Labor Struggle” (1913), “History of Socialism” (1943), and was working on a history of the LID at the time of his death. He was also a founding member of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and its first board director.
Even at a young age Laidler’s penchant for exploring matters of economic thought developed into a tangible expression of this interest. Prior to Wesleyan, he attended a progressive college in Missouri, which required both study and work as part of its curriculum. From there he went on the American Socialist College, a labor college in Kansas, before his desire for a more vigorous education led him to Wesleyan.
Laidler often honored Wesleyan by sending copies of his personal texts and NBER publications to be added to Olin’s collections. Similarly, Wesleyan often honored him through alumnus profiles, an honorary degree of Master of Arts in 1933, and the like. President Butterfield’s letter, read at Laidler’s 80th birthday celebration, fondly recalled Laidler’s college nickname “Debs” (after Eugene V. Debs) and his speech at the 1906 Junior Exhibition entitled “the American Social Problem” for which he won an award.
Laidler’s 80th birthday was a large event coordinated by the LID, and profiled by the New York Times. The article celebrated his service to education; “Instead of making a career in law or economics he has devoted himself full time since 1914 to various causes, the chief among them the promotion of democratic liberalism on college campuses.” Laidler’s devotion is exhibited in the many publications found in his donated collection. In the end, his desire to educate has greatly benefited the institution that educated him. I sincerely suggest that any student interested in the study of socialist thought take the time to peruse Laidler’s collection.