FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Democratic Socialism Has Deep Roots in American Life

The shock and disbelief with which many political pundits have responded to Bernie Sanders’ description of himself as a “democratic socialist”—a supporter of democratic control of the economy—provide a clear indication of how little they know about the popularity and influence of democratic socialism over the course of American history.

How else could they miss the existence of a thriving Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs (one of the nation’s most famous union leaders) and Norman Thomas (a distinguished Presbyterian minister), during the early decades of the twentieth century?  Or the democratic socialist administrations elected to govern Milwaukee, Bridgeport, Flint, Minneapolis, Schenectady, Racine, Davenport, Butte, Pasadena, and numerous other U.S. cities?  Or the democratic socialists, such as Victor Berger, Meyer London, and Ron Dellums, elected to Congress?  Or the programs long championed by democratic socialists that, eventually, were put into place by Republican and Democratic administrations—from the Pure Food and Drug Act to the income tax, from minimum wage laws to maximum hour laws, from unemployment insurance to public power, from Social Security to Medicare?

Most startling of all, they have missed the many prominent Americans who, though now deceased, were democratic socialists during substantial portions of their lives.  These include labor leaders like Walter Reuther (president, United Auto Workers and vice-president, AFL-CIO), David Dubinsky (president, International Ladies Garment Workers Union), Sidney Hillman (president, Amalgamated Clothing Workers), Jerry Wurf (president, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), and William Winpisinger (president, International Association of Machinists). Even Samuel Gompers—the founder and long-time president of the American Federation of Labor who, in the latter part of his life, clashed with Debs and other socialist union leaders—was initially a socialist.

Numerous popular novelists and other writers also embraced democratic socialism, including Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, Erich Fromm, Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Howard Zinn.  Eminent scientists, too, became democratic socialists, including Charles Steinmetz and Albert Einstein.

Many well-known social reformers also joined the ranks of America’s democratic socialists, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton (women’s rights crusader), John Dewey (educator), Helen Keller (author and lecturer), and Margaret Sanger (birth control pioneer).  Within the civil rights movement, particularly, a very important role was played by democratic socialists, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer.

In fact, although very few people know it, even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a democratic socialist.  “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he wrote to Coretta Scott (soon to become his wife) on July 18, 1952.  This belief system continued throughout his life, and, in the late 1960s, contributed to his shift from championing racial equality to championing economic equality.  In a 1966 speech to his staff, King declared:  “Something is wrong . . . with capitalism.”  He added:  “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”  Plans for the Poor People’s Campaign followed, as did his death while promoting the unionization of Memphis’s exploited sanitation workers.

Some might argue that democratic socialism, like these individuals, is dead and gone, replaced by its hierarchical enemies, corporate capitalism on the Right and Communism on the Left.  But that contention is belied by the continued existence of large, democratic socialist parties that either govern other democratic nations or provide the major opposition to the conservative governments of those nations:  the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Australian Labor Party, the Brazilian Democratic Workers Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Irish Labour Party, Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, South Africa’s African National Congress, the Israeli Labor Party, the New Zealand Labour Party, Chile’s Socialist Party, and many, many more around the world.

Nor is democratic socialism dead in the United States.  In response to rising economic inequality and, particularly, the blatant greed and power of the wealthy and their corporations, Democratic Socialists of America—a descendant of the old Socialist Party of America, though an organization rather than a third party—is growing rapidly.  Not surprisingly, it is fervently backing Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency.  Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders are suddenly shying away from their corporate dalliances and picking up a few programmatic ideas from Sanders, democratic socialists, and their allies.  These include a $15 per hour minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, free college tuition, and opposition to two pro-corporate ventures:  the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If the political pundits would look around, they would even discover a significant number of prominent U.S. democratic socialists at work in a variety of fields.  They include muckraking authors like Barbara Ehrenreich, journalists like Harold Meyerson, actors like Ed Asner and Wallace Shawn, intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, documentary film-makers like Michael Moore, TV commentators like Lawrence O’Donnell, science fiction writers likeKim Stanley Robinson, feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem, peace movement veterans like David McReynolds, and academics like Frances Fox Piven.

These and many other democratic socialists, among them Bernie Sanders, have played an important role in American life.  It’s a shame that so many political “experts” haven’t noticed it.

More articles by:

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
Michael Collins
The Affirmative Action Silo
Andrew Levine
Tipping Points
Geoff Dutton
Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times
Ajamu Baraka
Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez
David Rosen
The New McCarthyism: Is the Electric Chair Next for the Left?
Ken Levy
The McConnell Rule: Nasty, Brutish, and Unconstitutional
George Wuerthner
The Awful Truth About the Hammonds
Robert Fisk
Will Those Killed by NATO 19 Years Ago in Serbia Ever Get Justice?
Robert Hunziker
Three Climatic Monsters with Asteroid Impact
Ramzy Baroud
Europe’s Iron Curtain: The Refugee Crisis is about to Worsen
Nick Pemberton
A Letter For Scarlett JoManDaughter
Marilyn Garson
Netanyahu’s War on Transcendence 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail