Defending Socialism: Foner and Sanders v. Eugene Debs

Denmarkian Dilution

Never underestimate the moral and intellectual corruption of the professoriat, including even some of its most accomplished left names. Look, for example, at the prolific, progressive, and esteemed United States historian and Columbia University Dewitt Clinton professor Eric Foner’s recent letter of advice to the nominally socialist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The subject is how to respond the next time the media asks him what he means by the term “democratic socialism.”

Here, below, is Sanders’ most relevant statement on that score to date – the one that elicited Foner’s letter. It was made early in the Democratic presidential candidates’ first and CNN-choreographed debate in Las Vegas, Nevada three weeks ago:

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”

Bernie Sanders: “Well, we’re gonna win because we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Forget for a moment the falsity of the notion that Sanders is actually trying to win the presidency (he isn’t) and the absurdity of thinking (or claiming to think that) that one can advance socialism from the margins of the hopelessly corporate- and finance-captive and imperial Democratic Party. However gallant Sanders’ denunciations of contemporary American hyper-inequality might be, the most remarkable thing about Sanders’ statement was its power-serving enfeeblement of the meaning of the phrases “socialism” and “democratic socialism.” By any meaningful historical gauge, democratic socialism is about collective property and popular self-governance with workers’ control and real participatory democracy. It’s about popular control of a nation’s leading economic and political institutions, a “radical reconstruction of society itself” (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the real issue to be faced” near the end of his life). In Uncle Bernie’s diluted Wonder Bread branding, democratic socialism means a decent welfare state on the Scandinavian model.

Why Bernie Can’t Invoke Debs

But this is not the only problem with Sanders’ claim to represent the cause of democratic socialism. An equally serious difficulty concerns his steadfast, well-documented commitment to Washington’s richly bipartisan imperial-military system and project. As Chris Hedges explained last September:

“You cannot be a socialist and an imperialist. You cannot, as Bernie Sanders has done, support the Obama administration’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and be a socialist. You cannot, as Sanders has done, vote for military appropriations bills, including every bill and resolution that empowers and sanctions Israel to carry out its slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian people, and be a socialist. And you cannot laud, as Sanders has done, military contractors because they bring jobs to your state. Sanders may have the rhetoric of inequality down, but he is a full-fledged member of the Democratic Caucus, which kneels before the war industry and their lobbyists.”

A recent CounterPunch essay by Connor Lynch is titled “Why Bernie Sanders Should Invoke Eugene Debs.” As the historian Heather Cottin wrote me when someone posted this essay on my Facebook page, “He [Sanders] can’t. Debs opposed imperialism and World War I. He went to jail for it! …Bernie …is not a worker, he is a life-long socialist of the imperialist vote-for-imperialist-U.S.-wars persuasion. Bernie supports imperialism and WW III.” (The “WWIII” comment might seem like excessive hyperbole, but it isn’t: Sanders has offered his full support to the Obama administration’s maddeningly reckless provocation of the resurgent nuclear power Russia in Eastern Europe and Syria.)

Embrace of empire is not only a moral and ideological problem for Sanders. It also gravely contradicts and renders mute much of Sanders’ progressive domestic social agenda. “The costs of empire,” Noam Chomsky noted in 1969, “are in general distributed over the society as whole, while its profits revert to a few within…empire serves as a device for internal consolidation of power and privilege.” As Chomsky and others have shown many times, American military Keyensianism triumphed after World War II both to underpin a U.S. capitalist wealth and power abroad and to defeat and preempt social-democratic welfare Keynesianism at home. The first form of government spending reinforced business rule while the second did not, the power elite understood. In a purely practical and more immediate sense, moreover, Sanders’ Scandinavia-inspired social-democratic “homeland” program cannot be paid for without a giant rollback of the nation’s massive Pentagon system, recipient of more than half the nation’s federal discretionary spending.

“Embrace Our Own” Radicals

In his missive to Sanders, Foner (who is no dummy and certainly knows better) makes no effort to correct the Senator on the actual meaning of the terms socialism and democratic socialism. He gives Sanders a pass on the candidate’s “social chauvinism” (Lenin’s still useful term for socialists’ caught up in nationalist militarism and imperialism) and longstanding faux-independent collaboration (now open) with the corporate Democrats. (No surprise there: the professor’s letter appears, after all, in The Nation, the leading faux-independent Democratic Party organ). The only problem Foner has with Sanders’ diluted and hypocritical use of “socialism” and “democratic socialism” is that it was too internationalist – well, too Nordic – in inspiration:

“I urge you to reconsider how you respond to the inevitable questions about what you mean by democratic socialism and peaceful revolution. The next time, embrace our own American radical tradition. There’s nothing wrong with Denmark; we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa). But most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia. More importantly, your response inadvertently reinforces the idea that socialism is a foreign import. Instead, talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values.”

There’s something to be said for working with and through the American radical lineage. But Foner’s rendering of that tradition is disturbing. He mentions some very good names in the U.S. radical pantheon: Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley, the early 1890s Populists, and Sanders’ own supposed inspiration, Eugene Debs. Many are left out, of course, particularly those of more radical hue, like the Haymarket Martyrs (including the revolutionary socialist-anarchists Albert Parsons and Adolph Fischer), Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, the radical syndicalist (Industrial Workers of the World – IWW) leaders Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and Tom Mooney, IWW trubador Joe Hill, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, the heroic Communists and Trotskyists who sparked the emergence of mass production unionism during the 1930s and 1940s, Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, the aforementioned anarchist-identifying linguist and anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky, and…I could go on.

But it is who and what Foner includes in the American radical hall of fame, not who he deletes, that is most distressing. “What,” Foner asks, “about the Progressive platform of 1912, for a party that nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president, which called, among other things, for strict limits on campaign contributions, universal health insurance, vigorous federal oversight of giant corporations and other measures that, over a century later, have yet to be realized?” As Foner certainly knows, the brazenly nationalistic, Social Darwinist, and military-imperialist Teddy Roosevelt was a fiercely authoritarian “corporate-liberal” enemy of radical-democratic politics generally and Debs’ Socialist Party in particular. Teddy’s project, shared with all of his opponents in the 1912 presidential election but one (Debs), was to complete what the brilliant historian Martin J. Sklar called “the corporate reconstruction of American capitalism”: a transition from proprietary and small-producer capitalism to concentrated corporate capitalism that kept the profits system intact without “undue interference” from the popular majority and grassroots populism and socialism. [1]

“The So-Called Progressive Convention” (1912)

Debs would surely be taken aback to see his name mentioned in the same breath as Teddy Roosevelt and the 1912 Bull Moose Progressive Party as part of a shared “American radical tradition.” Here is a selection from a campaign speech Debs gave in Fergus Falls, Minnesota on August 12, 1912:

“Friends and Fellow-Workers: …the cunning few have triumphed and now have the masses at their mercy. These few are closely allied in their economic mastery as they are also in their control of the political machinery. Their money and their mercenaries controlled the Republican convention at Chicago, wrote its platform and dictated its nominees, and the same is true of the Democratic convention at Baltimore. As for the so-called Progressive convention, it is sufficient to say that there is no attempt to conceal the fact that it was financed and controlled by three conspicuous representatives of the plutocracy which largely owns and rules the land…..The Republican, Democratic and Progressive conventions were composed in the main and controlled entirely by professional politicians in the service of the ruling class…The Socialist party is the only party in this campaign that stands against the present system and for the rule of the people; the only party that boldly avows itself the party of the working class and its purpose the overthrow of wage-slavery.”

“So long as the present system of capitalism prevails and the few are allowed to own the nation’s industries, the toiling masses will be struggling in the hell of poverty as they are today….Private ownership and competition have had their day. The Socialist party stands for social ownership and co-operation. The one is Capitalism; the other Socialism. The one industrial despotism, the other industrial democracy….The Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties all stand for private ownership and competition. The Socialist party alone stands for social ownership and co-operation.”

The Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties believe in regulating the trusts; the Socialist party believes in owning them, so that all the people may get the benefit of them instead of a few being made plutocrats and the masses impoverished….… The workers who have made the world and who support the world, are preparing to take possession of the world. This is the meaning of Socialism and is what the Socialist party stands for in this campaign. We demand the machinery of production in the name of the workers and the control of society in the name of the people. We demand the abolition of capitalism and wage-slavery and the surrender of the capitalist class…. We demand complete control of industry by the workers; we demand all the wealth they produce for their own enjoyment, and we demand the earth for all the people” (emphasis added).

(Read the following endnote if you want to learn more about Eugene Debs’ red-hot socialist-internationalist disdain for Teddy Roosevelt:[2])

“To Rein in the Excesses of Capitalism”

Sanders’ purported hero Debs looks down no less unfavorably on Bernie’s (and Foner’s) milquetoast definition of democratic socialism and Sanders’ ongoing record of militarism than Barack Obama’s purported hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looks down on the current administration’s relentlessly fake-progressive service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital, empire, white supremacy, and eco-cide. Debs would be chagrinned by the following statement in Foner’s memo of esteem and guidance for Bernie Sanders:

“As to socialism, the term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not. This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader and Socialist candidate for president …. Debs spoke the language of what he called ‘political equality and economic freedom.’ But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.”

Debs would certainly sense a false choice in this passage: socialism as “a blueprint for a future society” or a morally infused effort “to rein in the excesses of capitalism.” Socialism, for Debs, was an ongoing here-and-now struggle and movement (including grassroots efforts beyond electoral politics) to overthrow and transcend, not merely temper, capitalism. Moral passion, Debs knew very well, would not take the people very far without a specific socialist program and movement to move American and world workers and citizens beyond the deadly depredations of capital and empire.

By Foner’s and Sanders’ gloomily diluted definition of democratic socialism, the militant neoliberal corporatist and arch-imperialist sociopath Hillary Clinton absurdly qualifies as a democratic socialist. After all, candidate Clinton inveighs against New Gilded Age America’s extreme inequalities and plutocracy. She calls in passionate moral terms for greater equality and democracy in the U.S. “The deck is stacked” for the wealthy Few, she claims to bemoan, promising to even up the odds for ordinary working people. Listen to Hillary’s follow up to Cooper and Sanders’ exchange on democratic socialism in Las Vegas:

Hillary Clinton: “Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse [socialism with] what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.”

Where is the Dewitt Clinton Professor’s letter of admiration and advice to Hillary Clinton? (That will come, no doubt, after Sanders is swept dutifully off the presidential contender stage). Note, dear reader, the same exact phrase italicized in my last two quoted passages, the first from Foner and the second from Hillary: “to rein in the excesses of capitalism.” Is the precise match of words accidental? I sincerely doubt it.

FDR’s Radical New Deal?

Speaking of politicians “sav[ing] capitalism from itself,” Foner told Bernie Sanders to mention another part of “America’s radical tradition”: “FDR’s New Deal.” The esteemed socialism-thinning professor naturally says nothing about how the clever ruling class politician Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) boasted that his New Deal rescued and preserved capitalism. In March of 1931, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.” FDR’s New Deal kept that basic problem intact, something for which Franklin Roosevelt was quite proud.

As Lance Selfa notes in his excellent study The Democrats: a Critical History (Haymarket, 2008), “Roosevelt [told]…his business critics [that] ‘I am the best friend the profits system ever had.’ In campaign speeches in 1936, he proclaimed himself the ‘savior’ of ‘the system of private profit and free enterprise.’” That was a brag that might have impressed Dewitt Clinton (who nearly became U.S. President on the proto-state-capitalist Federalist Party ticket in 1812) but not Eugene Debs. Foner says nothing about how class-accommodationist New Deal reforms were forced on the capitalist elite to no small degree by working class rebellion organized largely by officially anonymous but often brilliant and heroic Marxist and other radical sparkplug activists – people who deserve mention in any serious homage to the American radical tradition.

Foner might want to take a look back at the first book published by his academic mentor Richard Hofstader. In his brilliant (for its time) mid-20th century study The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1949) – a curious anticipation of the New Left revisionist history that Hoftsader would later come to aristocratically oppose – Hofstader “examined,” in Howard Zinn’s words, “our important national leaders, from Jefferson and Jackson to Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Hofstadter concluded that [here Zinn quoted Hofstader] ‘the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man…That culture has been intensely nationalistic…’” [3] Hofstader dedicated a specific chapter to each Roosevelt, showing in both cases how their deep, underlying Big Business-friendly conservatism contradicted their progressive imagery and rhetoric. He certainly saw nothing radical in FDR or the New Deal.

The Freedom Budget

In the “American radical tradition” that he wants Sanders to invoke, Foner includes the Freedom Budget. It’s an understandable reference to an interesting and all-too forgotten progressive program. Rolled out by the old socialist, labor, and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph in 1967, the Freedom Budget was an ambitious plan to end poverty in America. But it was hardly a radical document, given its explicit refusal to call for cutbacks in the Pentagon budget or for any challenge to the overall distribution of wealth and income or any challenge to capital’s managerial prerogatives. The document’s failures on war and empire (quite telling in a time when the criminal U.S. War on Vietnam was deep-sixing the briefly declared and hardly fought “War on Poverty”) is especially noteworthy here in in light of Sanders’ support for the U.S. imperial project. Also worth noting is its commitment to rapid, high-volume economic growth, which the Freedom Budget’s authors saw as the real solution to poverty instead of the redistribution of wealth and income. By all serious indications today, economic growth on the capitalist “business for private profit” model championed by both of the reigning U.S. political parties has turned out to be an ecological death sentence for the human race and other living things.

Earth Time is Up

Which reminds me: where are the great Left environmentalists Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, and Murray Boochkin in Foner’s American radical tradition? The environmental crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes is the leading reason we really don’t have time for professorial pussyfooting around with diluted and Democratic Party-captive fake-radicalism and once-every-four-years electoralism these days. Capitalism and its twin evil imperialism has brought us now to the literal edge of multiple and interrelated catastrophes, none more urgent and threatening than the ecological one. Debs’ actual goal – “the abolition of capitalism” and popular control of society’s leading institutions, not just an enhanced welfare state – is now an urgently required prerequisite for survival Anyone who thinks they are acting in accord with that reality by jumping aboard the latest seemingly endless quadrennial corporate-managed big money-big media-major party and candidate-centered electoral extravaganza – with its incredibly constricted and time-staggered definition of “that’s politics, the only politics that matters” – is wasting their time and energy and that of their fellow workers and citizens. We’re kind of running out of time for all this kind of milquetoast bullshit, to be perfectly candid. We’ve got some totally different and far more genuinely grass-roots and radical kind of organizing to do.


1 See Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 (New York: Cambridge University, 1986), 333-364, for a learned discussion of where Theodore Roosevelt stood in the U.S. ruling class’s new anti-socialist corporate-liberal formation during the early 20th century. Sklar’s saddening late-life lurch right should not obscure the brilliance of his brilliant, Marxian work (dating from the late 1950s through the Reagan era) on the U.S. corporate reconstruction and corporate-liberal ideology, law, politics, and policy during the Progressive Age. In all fairness, it should be acknowledged that (thanks to his idiosyncratic conservative-socialist socialist ideas about “mixed systems” wherein capitalism contained socialism and vice versa), the Sklar who wrote The Corporate Reconstruction would side with Sanders and Foner in the argument posited in the present essay.

2 In a famous speech delivered in Canton, Ohio in 1918, Debs spoke with passionate scorn against Teddy Roosevelt’s transparently hypocritical beating of the drums of war against Germany in the name of “democracy.” Debs noted that Roosevelt and the German Kaiser were war-mongering and authoritarian upper-class comrades, both enemies of the working class and socialism: “You remember that, at the close of Theodore Roosevelt’s second term as President, he went over to Africa to make war on some of his ancestors. You remember that, at the close of his expedition, he visited the capitals of Europe; and that he was wined and dined, dignified and glorified by all the Kaisers and Czars and Emperors of the Old World. He visited Potsdam while the Kaiser was there; and, according to the accounts published in the American newspapers, he and the Kaiser were soon on the most familiar terms. They were hilariously intimate with each other, and slapped each other on the back. After Roosevelt had reviewed the Kaiser’s troops, according to the same accounts, he became enthusiastic over the Kaiser’s legions and said: ‘If I had that kind of an army, I could conquer the world.’ He knew the Kaiser then just as well as he knows him now. He knew that he was the Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. And yet, he permitted himself to be entertained by that Beast of Berlin; had his feet under the mahogany of the Beast of Berlin; was cheek by jowl with the Beast of Berlin. And, while Roosevelt was being entertained royally by the German Kaiser, that same Kaiser was putting the leaders of the Socialist Party in jail for fighting the Kaiser and the Junkers of Germany. Roosevelt was the guest of honor in the white house of the Kaiser, while the Socialists were in the jails of the Kaiser for fighting the Kaiser. Who then was fighting for democracy? Roosevelt? Roosevelt, who was honored by the Kaiser, or the Socialists who were in jail by order of the Kaiser? ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’…When the newspapers reported that Kaiser Wilhelm and ax-President Theodore recognized each other at sight, were perfectly intimate with each other at the first touch, they made the admission that is fatal to the claim of Theodore Roosevelt, that he is the friend of the common people and the champion of democracy; they admitted that they were kith and kin; that they were very much alike; that their ideas and ideals were about the same. If Theodore Roosevelt is the great champion of democracy —the arch foe of autocracy , what business had he as the guest of honor of the Prussian Kaiser? And when he met the Kaiser, and did honor to the Kaiser, under the terms imputed to him, wasn’t it pretty strong proof that he himself was a Kaiser at heart? Now, after being the guest of Emperor Wilhelm, the Beast of Berlin, he comes back to this country, and wants you to send ten million men over there to kill the Kaiser; to murder his former friend and pal. Rather queer, isn’t it? And yet, he is the patriot, and we are the traitors. I challenge you to find a Socialist anywhere on the face of the earth who was ever the guest of the Beast of Berlin , except as an inmate of his prison—the elder Liebknecht and the younger Liebknecht, the heroic son of his immortal sire.”

3 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harperperennial, 2003), 563. Prior to the publication of Zinn’s People’s History, Hofstader’s American Political Tradition offered perhaps the best and most readable single-volume counter-narrative for a progressive U.S. history professor to assign in a U.S. History Survey class. Hofstader is mentioned as Foner’s dissertation director at Columbia University in Eric Foner,’s brilliant first book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970), vii.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).