How Socialism Made America Great
As a nation, we seem to have forgotten the circumstances that turned rock-ribbed Americans into labor activists, social reformers, populists, and, yes, socialists.
Ronald Reagan famously warned that Medicare would lead us away from freedom and toward socialism. Barry Goldwater considered Jack Kennedy a socialist and called Lyndon Johnson one as well. America did not lapse into a collectivist dystopia with access to Medicare nor embark on the road to serfdom under the tenures of Kennedy and Johnson. Reagan’s fears and Goldwater’s fancies serve to remind us that “socialism” is in the eye of the beholder.
The specter of “socialism” has served as a convenient bugaboo for the right to invoke whenever its interests are threatened by progressive legislation or liberal advocacy, a pejorative to smear a broad swath of economic reforms that challenge the corporate status quo. With the resurgence of a democratic left, it has become common parlance in conservative circles to tar the entire spectrum of liberal opposition with the broad brush of “socialism.”
But there is now a significant pushback from liberals. Bernie Sanders made a full-throated defense of his socialist advocacy in the Democratic presidential debate on Thursday night, declaring that such policies as Medicare for all and free college tuition are popular with American voters. In his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders described his democratic socialist principles as “the unfinished business of the New Deal.” He forcefully declared in an earlier address: “We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. This is what I mean by democratic socialism.”
But some of his Democratic opponents were still wary of being tainted with the idea, fearing that it would turn off mainstream voters. Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado asserted at the debate that “socialism is not the answer.” Still, several of Sanders’ rivals have embraced such socialist-fostered nostrums as Medicare for all, and a Gallup poll last year reported that most Democrats had a positive view of socialism.
Nevertheless, the term serves as a red flag on the talk-radio circuit. And while it is doubtful that some of the demagogues who bandy the term can actually explain it, they aver to know it when they see it. The bogeyman they conjure up comes in the shape of a foreign ideology that imposes Orwellian controls on society, menaces freedom, threatens property, saps individuality and subjects us to the dysfunction of a command economy in which meritocracy is replaced by mediocrity and the undeserving secure an unwarranted free ride.
That this image has little to do with the multifarious aspects of socialism does not prevent right-wing ideologues, not least among them President Trump, from using it indiscriminately to scare voters and energize the faithful. Contrary to this caricature, socialism has deep roots in American soil and an honorable place in the journey of our nation to achieve justice for all. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
A history of socialism in America over more than a century, shows that as it evolved its effect was not to replace capitalism but to ameliorate its excesses through democratic means. Many socialist goals were subsumed within the later reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, achieving wide popular support. The prescription may have had “Democrat” on the label but the inspiration often came from socialists.
In this sense, conservative critics are correct in labeling various liberal initiatives as “socialist” but few of their followers would be willing to do away with such benefits as Social Security and Medicare, even though they were decried as socialism when first introduced.
As it developed in America in the late 19th century, socialism was a protest movement that was as fluid as it was protean, bringing together many streams of social activism. Despairing of reform from the Democrats and Republicans, socialists organized as a political party in the decades at the turn of the 20th century, electing two members to Congress and more than 70 mayors. But although the party ran candidates for president, it never gained traction as a national force. Consequently, its achievements were limited to regional success and were more in the realm of ideas than political power. Its very amorphous quality made socialism difficult to define but easy for detractors to fit it into any shape-shifting phantasm they chose. Yet whether in the 24-year tenure of Daniel Hoan as mayor of Milwaukee or the tenor of Michael Harrington’s “Other America,” in 1962, the movement was always reformist and democratic.
There were many socialisms springing from our native grounds. During the industrial struggles of an earlier age, militant socialists demanded worker control of the means of production and called for an end to capitalism. Over time, socialists split between radicals and moderates who called for a mixed economy of government and private enterprise as practiced by most European social democracies. This evolved into demands for a social safety net and consumer protections.
In its venerable history, socialism proved to be as adaptive as it was inclusive. Over time, it embraced such varied manifestations as the labor socialism of the trade unions; the Settlement Houses of the Protestant Social Gospel, inspired by socialism “as its midwife and nurse;” the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day, who wrote for the Socialist Call, and the Christian Socialism of the minister Francis Bellamy who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Today’s evangelicals might be surprised to learn of the tacit alliance that at times existed between their rural revivalist forebears and grassroots socialists.
If the nostrums of socialism are so baleful, the antidote must be the blessing of laissez-faire freed from the heavy hand of government. We have enjoyed such periods. The Gilded Age produced an unbridled capitalism and a culture of excess that led to financial panics impoverishing millions at the hands of corporate profiteers professing the sanctity of property. This led to near class warfare between exploited workers and industrial barons in mines and factories, and among hard-pressed farmers and railroad magnates in the fields. The “yeoman” cultivators of national myth were often as not landless tenants maltreated by distant trusts. The invisible hand of the market had its thumb on the scale abetted by the visible hand of government whose intrusion through the courts and, when necessary, troops, the tycoons were all too glad to invite.
Much of this history has fallen down the memory hole of what Gore Vidal famously called the United States of Amnesia. As a nation, we seem to have forgotten the circumstances that turned rock-ribbed Americans of the industrial age into labor activists, social reformers, populists, and, yes, socialists. Their responses to the injustices they endured often overlapped and literally bled into one another.
A paradigm for what may have impelled American workers to embrace labor militancy were the conditions at Andrew Carnegie’s sprawling steel mills, characteristic of the period. As described by Richard White in his magisterial history of the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which It Stands, men worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, “amidst open furnaces, unstable stacks of beams and ingots, and exploding machinery. In the summer, the mills themselves might as well have been furnaces.” Carnegie, whose philanthropy did not extend to his employees, espoused “great inequality” as “essential for the future progress of the race.“ According to White, “the death rate from accidents in Pittsburgh’s iron and steel mills nearly doubled between 1870 and 1900.”
It was such brutal conditions, obtaining throughout the industrial U.S. of that era, which politicized American workers and their tribunes. Perhaps the best known was Eugene V. Debs, the icon of American socialism. Far from a foreign agitator, Debs was a Protestant workingman who hailed from the heartland city of Terre Haute, Indiana, where he toiled on the railroad and helped found the American Railroad Union. “If organized labor has any mission in the world,” Debs declared, “it is to help those who cannot help themselves.”
For many years Debs was a loyal Democrat until the Pullman strike of 1894. The railroads, saddled with debt after the financial panic of 1893, cut wages, extended hours and imposed stringent work rules. The response was a strike of 250,000 workers extending over 27 states. President Cleveland called in federal troops which helped break the walkout but not before 30 strikers were killed and thousands blacklisted. The courts were hostile to labor and a federal judge issued an injunction preventing the workers not only from striking but from meeting to discuss the strike. Debs was jailed for defying the injunction. He went to prison a Democrat and emerged a Socialist.
Debs ran for president five times, garnering almost a million votes in 1912 and again in 1920 when he ran from jail after he’d again been imprisoned under the repressive Sedition Act for speaking out in 1918 against America’s participation in the bloodbath of World War I. President Wilson used the act not only to suppress anti-war dissidents but to settle scores with labor radicals and other political dissenters. The Socialists never regained their footing but left their mark on a wealth of subsequent progressive legislation.
Illustrative of their far-reaching influence is the Socialist Party platform of 1912 which, among other things endorsed:
An eight-hour workday at a decent wage, a public-works program for the jobless (realized later in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration), safety regulations for workers in the mines and factories, a child-labor law, an old-age pension, unemployment and accident insurance, a graduated income tax, an inheritance tax, suffrage for women, a direct vote in national elections doing away with the electoral college, the creation of separate departments of health, education and labor, and a convention to revise the Constitution. The first of their political demands was absolute freedom of the press, speech and assembly.
It might be worth noting for people who today call themselves Populists that the Populist Party platform of 1892, overlapped with the Socialist plank in its call for a graduated income tax and the eight-hour day. In combatting corporate monopoly, the Populists also proposed nationalizing the railroads, the telegraph and telephone systems. Socialism had company.
The Socialists did not believe that either of the two major parties were capable of enacting these goals. But, as it turned out, many of them were realized within a few years and most became law through the New Deal struck in response to the crisis of the Depression. Moreover, they were solidified as the nation mobilized during World War II and they became part of the national consensus in the post-war prosperity when an enlightened business community decided that labor peace, social opportunity and an equitable distribution of wealth was in its own interest. It was the very America that President Trump affects to take us back to.
This era of good feeling lasted for no more than 50 years, coming to an end with the Reagan reaction. Labor unions were broken, the income gap between the wealthy and the rest of the country grew exponentially, all boats were not lifted, greed was good, the ideal of the common man gave way to the cult of the individual and the nation polarized over social grievance exacerbated by immigration and race as a distraction from the economic disparities that plagued it.
Conservatives would tell us that it is the job of government to protect the entrepreneur’s right to own and control his property, and then get out of the way, thereby guaranteeing his freedom, and ours. Critics of this 18th-century notion might ask: What happens when we effectively become part of the owner’s property and the proprietor is a faceless corporation whose only obligation is to its shareholders? The question Socialists asked 100 years ago is again a pressing one today: When economic power is concentrated in the hands of a corporate handful, what becomes of our society, and our democracy? A new generation is no longer intimidated by the wolf-cry of “socialism” but is willing to reclaim the socialist ethos as a legitimate part of the American reformist experience.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.