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Is Socialism Possible in America?

“I was, I am, I shall be!”

– Rosa Luxemburg

The U.S. government has charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 (extended by the Sedition Act of 1918).  The act targeted “whoever, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States”; and to prohibit forms of speech that were judged “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States … or the flag of the United States.”

The law was promoted by Pres. Woodrow Wilson to suppress growing resistance to U.S. entry into WW-I. The repression of dissent took two forms. One included blocking the mail distribution of allegedly subversive publications like the Socialist Party’s American Socialist, the IWW’s Solidarity and even a 1918 issue of The Nation. The second involved the arrest, trial and imprisonment of people who voiced opposition to the war effort, including the draft; the most notable arrest concerned Eugene V. Debs, the head of the Socialist Party, who received a 10-year sentence.  At trial, he declared, “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace. If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”  Most troubling, the Espionage Act set the stage for theimplementation of the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids that led tothe deportation of suspected “aliens”; the U.S. government deported 250 aliens included Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

In the century since the adoption of the Espionage Act, the U.S. government has repeatedly employed the act – and subsequent supplemental acts – to suppress dissent or activities claimed to be a threat to national security.  During World War II, the U.S. government employed the act a number of times.  One involved Elmer Hartzel, a World War I veteran who distributed pamphlets calling for the U.S. to stop fighting the Nazis and wage war against American Jews; the Supreme Court found that while the material were “vicious and unreasoning attacks on one of our military allies, flagrant appeals to false and sinister racial theories, and gross libels of the President,” it did not violate the Espionage Act.  However, the act was used to censor the mailing permit of Father Charles Coughlin’s weekly – and anti-Semitic — magazine, Social Justice.

In the post-WW-II era, the act empowered both HUAC and Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) in their respective hunts for alleged – and actual – communist.  Most troubling, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death under the Espionage Act that provides that anyone convicted of transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government “information relating to the national defense” may be imprisoned for life or put to death.  In 1973, Daniel Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act for the release of the Pentagon Papers. And this brings us to the government’s case against Assange and the potential effort to suppress socialism.

***

The United States is not in a prerevolutionary – let alone prefascist – moment.  Nevertheless, a “radical” insurgency is spreading throughout the country among both the “right” and “left.”  Among the political right, militant antiabortionists, religious right-wingers, white nationalists, separatists, anti-Semitics, neo-Nazis and anti-environmentalists are but a few of this tendency.  Donald Trump’s presidency has only encouraged the worst — in word and action – among these diehard supporters.

A second, “left” insurgency, is spreading among what can be broadly identified as Democratic “progressives.”  Many are deeply concerned about the profound challenge facing the country: capitalism is globalizing and the “American Dream” is over. What’s next?

For all of Trump’s ceaseless incantations, “Make America Great Again,” an ever-growing number of Americans know – sadly – that the nation is being remade.  Wages are frozen; debt is skyrocketing; inequality is intensifying; the ecological crisis is intensifying; more Americans than ever are committing suicide; and the two-party political system is stuck.  These developments are making an ever-growing number of Americans to question the capitalist system and legitimizing calls for a more humane form of socially-conscious organization and distribution of wealth and power, socialism.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that over the past decade, Democrats had a more positive attitude toward socialism than they had of capitalism. It found that 57 percent of Democrats were favorable toward socialism while only 47 percent viewed capitalism positively, down from 56 percent in 2016.  However, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of respondents said socialism would be a good thing for the country while 51 percent believed socialism would be a bad thing for the country.  Nevertheless, the notion of socialism is in the political air.

One factor in the apparent increased acceptance of the notion of socialism is that it is being normalized by politicians, notably Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). As ever-cautious politicians, they identify as “democratic socialists.” Both elected officials clearly understand the structural problems endemic to capitalism and see “socialism” as a viable alternative, but do not name their alternative as such.

In a recent town-hall rally, Sanders stated:

What do I mean when I talk about democratic socialism? It certainly is not the authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union and in other communist countries. This is what it means.

It means that we cherish, among other things, our Bill of Rights. And Franklin Roosevelt made this point … in 1944, in a State of the Union Address that never got a whole lot of attention. This is what he said, basically — it was a very profound speech toward the end of World War II. He said, “You know, we’ve got a great Constitution. Bill of Rights protects your freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and all that stuff. Great.

He then warned, “But you know what it doesn’t protect? It doesn’t protect and guarantee you economic rights.”

Ocasio-Cortez was more critical.  In March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, she declared:

Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the accumulation of money above all else, and we seek it at any human and environmental cost…

She added, “But when we talk about ideas for example like democratic socialism, it means putting democracy and society first, instead of capital first.”

At a different time and place, these pols might well call themselves socialist, if not communist.  But those words – but not their meaning – have been outlawed in 21stcentury mainstream politics.

Twenty-odd well-meaning politicians are running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination – and anyone of them might be chosen and might win.  Sadly, so what?

Yes, a Democrat in the Oval Office would be better than Trump and the Republican reactionaries who control the Senate. If the Democrats defeat Trump, maintain control of the House and gain seats in Senate, this period of corportist gluttony and culture-wars repression will likely be contained, if not pushed back.  The abortion wars might be contained, especially with the appointment of more “liberal” justices to the Supreme Court; global warming will be acknowledged and appropriate environmental laws adopted; corporations and the rich will be taxed and inequality contained; a single-payer healthcare system will be adopted; and the corporate military-intelligence apparatus of state power could be broken up and shrunken.

But will these – and other appropriate – actions only modify or forestall the greater crisis of capitalist globalization that the U.S. now faces?

***

WW-I precipitated international and domestic crises in the U.S. and Europe, including the adoption of the Espionage ActGermany’s defeat precipitated an ill-fated rebellion. In November 1918, workers struck, the navy mutinied, and the Social Democratic government floundered.  In January ’19, a massive strike involving 100,000 workers broke out in Berlin, precipitating a rebellion led by the Spartacists, a revolutionary communist organization headed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.  Fearing what happened in Russia a year earlier when the Bolsheviks seized power, the Social Democratic government called on the Freikorps, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group consisting mainly of anticommunist WW-I veterans, to put down the insurgency. By the 15th, they had killed over three hundred rebels, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

That same month, Luxemburg published, “Order Prevails in Berlin,” that was filled with trepidation.  She warned:

The whole road of socialism – so far as revolutionary struggles are concerned – is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats. Yet, at the same time, history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory! Where would we be today without those “defeats,” from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism? Today, as we advance into the final battle of the proletarian class war, we stand on the foundation of those very defeats; and we can do without any of them, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding.

In conclusion, she mourned: “Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!

In her article, Luxemburg reminds readers that the Germany Social Democrats had, in 1914, joined with British, French and Russian socialists pledging to oppose militarism and the rapidly-coming war. However, each party succumb to nationalist patriotism and supported their country’s war effort.  The defeat of the Spartacists’ rebels — including the killing of Luxemburg and Liebknecht — was a critical first-step in the Social Democrats’ ultimate capitulation to Hitler.

A century later, it’s clear that the defeat of the Spartacistsinversely mirrored the successful experience of the Bolshevik rebels led by Lenin, Trotsky and others.  The outcome of these twin historical events foretold the fate of “socialism” over the subsequent century as well as around the world. They signify the defeat — and renewal! – of the socialist ideal.

In the West, insurgent rebellions were suppressed in Spain in the ’30 (by Moscow communists and Franco fascist) and, a generation later, ‘60s rebels in the U.S. and France/Europe were contained in the efforts to remake society.  In parallel, anti-colonialist – and often socialist-inspired — struggles reshaped Africa, Latin America and Asia – once called the “Third World” — be it Algeria, Cuba or Vietnam. Sadly, all-too-many revolutionary movements were either defeated or contained.  The parallel collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s ascendency as a capitalist super-power (with attendant domestic repression) illuminates how socialism in “victory” was defeated.

Today’s democratic socialists are not socialists but rather old-fashioned liberal Democrats in the FDR mold.  Sadly, so powerful is corporatist ideology that even the moderate FDR model is attacked as too liberal, too socialist. One can only fear that the nation’s deepening social crisis does not end up like that which faced Luxemburg a century ago – when the Social Democrats turned to the neo-Nazis to repress a socialist revolution and her fate was sealed.  And all we are left with is her lamentation: “I was, I am, I shall be!

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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