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UNITED STATE HISTORY
Socialism in America
Roots of socialism in America
The roots of socialism in America can be traced to the arrival of German immigrants in the 1850s when Marxian socialist unions began, such as the National Typographic Union in 1852, United Hatters of 1856, and Iron Moulders` Union of North America in 1859. Theodore H. White, author of Fire in the Ashes: Europe in Mid-Century (1953) wrote, “Socialism is the belief and the hope that by proper use of government power, men can be rescued from their helplessness in the wild cycling cruelty of depression and boom.”
Progress of socialism
The Socialist Party in America was born and grew dramatically between 1900 and 1912. Under the charismatic leadership of Eugene V. Debs in 1912, 160 councilmen, 145 aldermen, one congressman, and 56 mayors, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Berkeley, California, and Schenectady, New York, were elected as Socialists. At the time, Socialists published 300 newspapers, including the Appeal of Reason, which was a Kansas-based publication with 700,000 subscribers. Membership in the Socialist Party totaled 125,000.
Debs converted to socialism while serving jail time for his part in the Pullman Strike in 1897, and began to edit the Appeal to Reasonpublication. From 1900 to 1920, he ran for president on the Socialist ticket while increasing membership to the Socialist Party tenfold. Although Debs insisted he was a Marxist, he spoke more about poverty and injustice than typical socialist concerns about the class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat (Marx).
In 1912, Debs received 900,000 votes, which was six percent of the presidential votes cast that year, principally for his stand against America`s involvement in World War I. Debs appealed to blue collar workers hungry for improved working conditions and higher wages, but also such intellectuals as authors Jack London and Upton Sinclair.
Theodore Roosevelt and through the 20th century`s first years, the Progressive Movement came into view with its belief in “the perfectability of man, and in an open society where mankind was neither chained to the past nor condemned to a deterministic future; one which people were capable of changing their condition for better or worse.”
The Socialist Party was included within the Progressive Movement. The party dealt with American problems in an American manner. Unlike the Communist Party, the Socialist Party at that time felt no obligation to adhere to an international party line. For example, socialists and other progressives campaigned at the local level for municipal ownership of waterworks, gas and electric plants, and made good progress in such endeavors. In 1911, there were 18 Socialist candidates for mayor, and they nearly won the Cleveland, Ohio, and Los Angeles, California, mayoral races.
In 1905, Upton Sinclair founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, which soon had chapters in the leading universities. Lively young men and women discussed the “New Gospel according to St. Marx.” Universities were considered to be favorable ground for progressive thought.
Following the election of 1912, Socialist Party membership began to decline as some members cast their vote for Woodrow Wilson. Others were expelled, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, of which Debs and labor organizer “Mother” Mary Harris Jones had once been members. The IWW had been organized in 1905, grew into a radical, direct-action wing of American socialism by 1910, and had up to 100,000 workers by 1915.
By 1917, Socialist Party membership had slipped to 80,000. Nevertheless, by 1920Debs managed to garner 919,800 votes for his presidential candidacy, the most a socialist has ever received in America, albeit making up only 3.4 percent of the popular vote. Those votes were representive of Americans` disillusionment with World War I, and of Debs himself, who spoke passionately against the country`s involvement in that war.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was crafted to jail “anyone who interfered with the draft or encouraged disloyalty [to America]” and provided for jail sentences of 10 to 20 years. The Sedition Act of 1918 extended further penalties to those found obstructing the sale of U.S. war bonds, discouraging recruitment, uttering “disloyal or abusive language” about the government, the Constitution, the American flag, or even the U.S. military uniform. Under those acts, the government arrested more than 1,500 people, including Eugene Debs.
The Socialist Party`s strength was further sapped by 1920, because of government suppression and public disapproval during World War I. Such anti-socialist hysteria as the Red Scare, and internal factionalism aggravated by the presence of Communists, took their toll. Fears associated with the Bolsheviks` seizure of power in Russia, bombings in the United States, along with a series of labor strikes, led to the Red Scare in 1919. Suspected socialists and Communists were arrested and thrown into jail. In the end, of the 5,000 people who were given arrest warrants, only slightly more than 600 aliens were actually deported.
In addition, the party`s failure during the 1920s was due to its inability to appeal to the upwardly mobile worker who yearned to be part of the middle class. The party also was divided along racial and ethnic lines. Their broadest appeal was to the well-educated members of society. In 1928, the Socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, received only 267,835 votes. Thomas was a Princeton graduate and Presbyterian minister in New York. He succeeded Debs after the latter`s death as the perennial presidential candidate in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 elections. Thomas stood as more indicative of the Socialist Party member, which was made up of mostly intellectuals and the middle class, rather than a worker`s party that Debs had basically represented.
Socialists were also plagued by extreme doubt on the part of most progressives, who were leading the charge to free America from the economic woes of the Great Depression and were weathering deep hostility from conservatives. By the mid-Twenties, the party was deeply divided and failed to revive itself during the depression years of the 1930s.
During the election of 1932, the Socialist and Communist parties, who had insisted that capitalism had collapsed, pulled less than one million votes combined. American voters had grown weary of Republican policies and therefore Democrats won big in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, illustrating that Americans had faith in their country and its institutions. In that election, Norman Thomas received only 892,000 votes.
During the election of 1936, Republican painted Franklin D. Roosevelt as leading the country towards the platform of the Socialist Party. This bothered both Roosevelt and Norman Thomas, who agreed on one thing, which was that Roosevelt was not a Socialist.
“Creeping socialism,” an expression used in modern times to describe America`s so-called drift towards a socialistic society, was coined by author F.A. Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom. Published in 1944, Hayek`s book warned of the dangers of state control over the means of production, which he perceived to be occurring, especially in regards to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), during the New Deal and the Fair Deal administrations of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, respectively.
Hayek believed that excessive governmental controls on society did not deliver on their promises and that their ideology actually delivered dismal economic results. But more importantly, he averred, it produces a psychological change in the character of the people in that man`s desire to better himself is what drives him to succeed and also improves the way of life for those around him. According to Hayek, socialism strips man of his desire to succeed.
Because of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and dominance of the “Middle American” values, the Communist and Socialist parties virtually disappeared in the 1950s, when membership fell to below 2,000 members. Many Socialists left the party because it was seen that more progressive reform could be achieved through membership in the Democratic Party. Among those who departed were: Walter Reuther, Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin. Life was good for the average American, who worked fewer than 40 hours per week. Most received annual two-week vacations and had twice the income to spend as they had during the nation`s previous economic boom time in the late Twenties.
During the 1960s and `70s, the Socialist Party exerted little influence on American society because of intra-party conflict, as well as a refusal to support the anti-Vietnam War movement that was sweeping across America. In 1968 at the Socialist Party convention, members passed a resolution to support Democrat Hubert Humphrey for president, instead of nominating their own candidate.
And in 1972, the body chose to support George McGovern for president. But then for the first time in 20 years, in 1976, the Socialist Party decided to run its own presidential campaign with former Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler (1948-1960) for president and J. Quinn Brisben, a Chicago teacher, for vice president. Since that time, others have been nominated, including Willa Kenoyer (1988), J. Quinn Brisben (1992) and Mary Cal Hollis in 1996.
Modern socialist movements and organizations
In American society today, socialist groups range in political views from the extreme right to the extreme left. The extreme right wing groups comprise neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and fascist groups such as the National Socialist Movement or NSM, whose purpose is to “purify” American society through violent and non-violent means. The NSM is said to wear the uniforms and paraphernalia of the Third Reich. According to their website, the NSM is an organization that is “dedicated to the preservation of our Proud Aryan Heritage, and the creation of a National Socialist Society in America and around the world.”
Representing the far left wing are such groups as the Socialist Party U.S.A. That party believes in what is called “Democratic Socialism,” defined as “a political and economic system with freedom and equality for all, so that people may develop to their fullest potential in harmony with others.” The party further states that it is “committed to full freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion, and to a multi-party system” and that the ownership and control of the production and distribution of goods “should be democratically controlled public agencies, cooperatives, or other collective groups.” Other socialist groups include the Democratic Socialists of America, National Alliance, Young Democrat Socialist, and the Democratic Progressive Party.
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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.