How Socialists Built America

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The Nation

How Socialists Built America

This article is adapted from The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, published in March by Verso.

If there’s one constant in the elite national discourse of the moment, it is the claim that America was founded as a capitalist country and that socialism is a dangerous foreign import that, despite our unwarranted faith in free trade, must be barred at the border. This most conventional “wisdom”—increasingly accepted at least until the recent grassroots mobilizations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Maine—has held that everything public is inferior to everything private, that corporations are always good and unions always bad, that progressive taxation is inherently evil and that the best economic model is the one that allows the wealthy to gobble up as much of the Republic as they choose before anything trickles down to the great mass of Americans. Rush Limbaugh informs us regularly that proposals to tax people as rich as he is for the purpose of providing healthcare for kids and jobs for the unemployed are “antithetical” to the nation’s original intent and that Barack Obama’s reforms are “destroying this country as it was founded."

When Obama offered tepid proposals to organize a private healthcare system in a more humane manner, Sean Hannity of Fox charged that “the Constitution was shredded, thwarted, the rule of law was passed aside.” Newt Gingrich said the Obama administration was “prepared to fundamentally violate the Constitution” and was playing to the “30 percent of the country [that] really is [in favor of] a left-wing secular socialist system.”

In 2009 Sarah Palin raised similar constitutional concerns, about Obama’s proposal to develop a system of “universal energy building codes” to promote energy efficiency. “Our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our country had in mind for us,” a gravely concerned Palin informed Hannity, who responded with a one-word question. “Socialism?”

“Well,” she said, “that is where we are headed.”

Actually, it’s not. Palin is wrong about the perils of energy efficiency, and she’s wrong about Obama. The president says he’s not a socialist, and the country’s most outspoken socialists heartily agree. Indeed, the only people who seem to think Obama displays even the slightest social democratic tendency are those who imagine that the very mention of the word “socialism” should inspire a reaction like that of a vampire confronted with the Host.

Unfortunately, Obama may be more frightened by the S-word than Palin. When a New York Times reporter asked the president in March 2009 whether his domestic policies suggested he was a socialist, a relaxed Obama replied, “The answer would be no.” He said he was being criticized simply because he was “making some very tough choices” on the budget. But after he talked with his hyper-cautious counselors, he began to worry. So he called the reporter back and said, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.” Then, as if reading from talking points, Obama declared, “It wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement, the prescription drug plan, without a source of funding.

“We’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles,” said Obama, who concluded with the kicker, “Some of the same folks who are throwing the word ‘socialist’ around can’t say the same.”

There’s more than a kernel of truth to this statement. Obama really is avoiding consideration of socialist, or even mildly social democratic, responses to the problems that confront him. He took the single-payer option off the table at the start of the healthcare debate, rejecting the approach that in other countries has provided quality care to all citizens at lower cost. His supposedly “socialist” response to the collapse of the auto industry was to give tens of billions in bailout funding to GM and Chrysler, which used the money to lay off thousands of workers and then relocate several dozen plants abroad—an approach about as far as a country can get from the social democratic model of using public investment and industrial policy to promote job creation and community renewal. And when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, threatening the entire Gulf Coast, instead of putting the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies in charge of the crisis, Obama left it to the corporation that had lied about the extent of the spill, had made decisions based on its bottom line rather than environmental and human needs, and had failed at even the most basic tasks.

So we should take the president at his word when he says he’s acting on free-market principles. The problem, of course, is that Obama’s rigidity in this regard is leading him to dismiss ideas that are often sounder than private-sector fixes. Borrowing ideas and approaches from socialists would not make Obama any more of a socialist than Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. All these presidential predecessors sampled ideas from Marxist tracts or borrowed from Socialist Party platforms so frequently that the New York Times noted in a 1954 profile the faith of an aging Norman Thomas that he “had made a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties”—ideas like “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.” The fact is that many of the men who occupied the Oval Office before Obama knew that implementation of sound socialist or social democratic ideas did not put them at odds with the American experiment or the Constitution.

The point here is not to defend socialism. What we should be defending is history—American history, with its rich and vibrant hues, some of them red. The past should be consulted not merely for anecdotes or factoids but for perspective on the present. Such a perspective empowers Americans who seek a robust debate, one that samples from a broad ideological spectrum—an appropriate endeavor in a country where Tom Paine imagined citizens who, “by casting their eye over a large field, take in likewise a large intellectual circuit, and thus approaching nearer to an acquaintance with the universe, their atmosphere of thought is extended, and their liberality fills a wider space.”

America has always suffered fools who would have us dwindle the debate down to a range of opinions narrow enough to contain the edicts of a potentate, a priest or a plantation boss. But the real history of America tells us that the unique thing about our present situation is that we have suffered the fools so thoroughly that a good many Americans—not just Tea Partisans or Limbaugh Dittoheads but citizens of the great middle—actually take Sarah Palin seriously when she rants that socialism, in the form of building codes, is antithetical to Americanism.

* * *

Palin is not the first of her kind. There’s nothing new about the charge that a president who is guiding “big government” toward projects other than the invasion of distant lands is a socialist. In the spring of 2009, just months after Obama and a new Democratic Congress took office, twenty-three members of the opposition renewed an old project when they proposed that “we the members of the Republican National Committee call on the Democratic Party to be truthful and honest with the American people by acknowledging that they have evolved from a party of tax and spend to a party of tax and nationalize and, therefore, should agree to rename themselves the Democrat Socialist Party.”

Cooler heads prevailed. Sort of. At an emergency meeting of the committee—which traces its history to the first Republican convention in 1856, where followers of French socialist Charles Fourier, Karl Marx’s editor, and their abolitionist comrades initiated the most radical restructuring of political parties in American history—it was suggested that the proposal to impose a new name on the Democrats might make “the Republican party appear trite and overly partisan.” The plan was dropped, but a resolution decrying the “march towards socialism” was passed. Thus, the RNC members now officially “recognize that the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals” and that the Democrats have as their “clear and obvious purpose…proposing, passing and implementing socialist programs through federal legislation.”

The Republican Party is currently firmer in its accusation that the Democrats are steering the nation “towards socialism” than it was during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare of the 1950s, when the senator from Wisconsin was accusing Harry Truman of harboring Communist Party cells in the government. Truman had stirred conservative outrage by arguing that the government had the authority to impose anti-lynching laws on the states and by proposing a national healthcare plan. But what really bugged the Republicans was that Truman, who had been expected to lose in 1948, had not just won the election but restored Democratic control of Congress. To counter this ominous electoral trend, conservative Republicans, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, announced in 1950 that their campaign slogan in that year’s Congressional elections would be “Liberty Against Socialism.” They then produced an addendum to their national platform, much of which was devoted to a McCarthyite rant charging that Truman’s Fair Deal “is dictated by a small but powerful group of persons who believe in socialism, who have no concept of the true foundation of American progress, and whose proposals are wholly out of accord with the true interests and real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen."

Truman fought back, reminding Republicans that his policies were outlined in the 1948 Democratic platform, which had proven to be wildly popular with the electorate. “If our program was dictated, as the Republicans say, it was dictated at the polls in November 1948. It was dictated by a ‘small but powerful group’ of 24 million voters,” said the president, who added, “I think they knew more than the Republican National Committee about the real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen.”

Truman did not cower at the mention of the word “socialism,” which in those days was distinguished in the minds of most Americans from Soviet Stalinism, with which the president—a mean cold warrior—was wrangling. Nor did Truman, who counted among his essential allies trade unionists like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther, all of whom had been connected with socialist causes and in many cases the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, rave about the evils of social democracy. Rather, he joked that “Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing. Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, ‘socialism.’”

Savvy Republicans moved to abandon the campaign. The return to realism was led by Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who feared that her party was harming not just its electoral prospects but the country. That summer she would issue her “Declaration of Conscience”—the first serious challenge to McCarthyism from within the GOP—in which she rejected the anticommunist hysteria of the moment:

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism—

The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought.

Republicans might be determined to end Democratic control of Congress, Smith suggested in her declaration:

Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.
   I doubt if the Republican Party could—simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.

Most Republicans lacked the courage to confront McCarthy so directly. But Smith’s wisdom prevailed among leaders of the RNC and the GOP chairs of Congressional committees, who ditched the Liberty Against Socialism slogan and reduced Taft’s 1,950-word manifesto to a 99-word digest that Washington reporters explained had been cobbled together to “soft pedal” the whole “showdown on ‘liberty against socialism’” thing. Representative James Fulton, who like many other GOP moderates of the day actually knew and worked with Socialist Party members and radicals of various stripes, was blunter. The cheap sloganeering, he argued, had steered the party away from the fundamental question for the GOP in the postwar era: “whether we go back to Methuselah or offer alternative programs for social progress within the framework of a balanced budget.”

Imagine if today a prominent Republican were to make a similar statement. The wrath of Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin and the Tea Party movement would rain down upon him. The Club for Growth would organize to defeat the “Republican in Name Only,” and the ideological cleansing of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Margaret Chase Smith would accelerate. Some of my Democratic friends are quite pleased at the prospect; as today’s Republicans steer off the cliffs of extremism that they avoided even in the days of McCarthy, these Democrats suggest, the high ground will be cleared for candidates of their liking. But that neglects the damage done to democracy when discourse degenerates, when the only real fights are between a party on the fringe and another that assumes that the way to win is to move to the center-right and then hope that fears of a totalitarian right will keep everyone to the left of it voting the Democratic line.

* * *

If universal building codes and health protections for children can be successfully depicted by our debased media as assaults on American values and the rule of law, then the right has already won, no matter what the result is on election day. And a nation founded in revolt against empire, a nation that nurtured the radical Republican response to the sin of slavery, a nation that confronted economic collapse and injustice with a New Deal and a War on Poverty, a nation that spawned a civil rights movement and that still recites a Pledge of Allegiance (penned in 1892 by Christian socialist Francis Bellamy) to the ideal of an America “with liberty and justice for all” is bereft of what has so often in our history been the essential element of progress.

That element—a social democratic critique frequently combined with an active Socialist Party and more recently linked with independent socialist activism in labor and equal rights campaigns for women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities—has from the first years of the nation been a part of our political life. This country would not be what it is today—indeed it might not even be—had it not been for the positive influence of revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, social democrats and their fellow travelers. The great political scientist Terence Ball reminds us that “at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine—Medicare—got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson’s desk.”

That did not just happen by chance. A young writer who had recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism left the fold of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to join the Young People’s Socialist League. Michael Harrington wanted to change the debate about poverty in America, and perhaps remarkably or perhaps presciently, he presumed that attaching himself to what was left of the once muscular but at that point ailing Socialist Party was the way to do so. In a 1959 article for the then-liberal Commentary magazine, Harrington sought, in the words of his biographer, Maurice Isserman, “to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived ‘below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.’”

Harrington succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The article led to a book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which became required reading for policy-makers, selling 70,000 copies in its first year. “Among the book’s readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing antipoverty legislation,” recalls Isserman. “After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an ‘unconditional war on poverty.’ Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant.”

Harrington’s proposals for renewal of New Deal public works projects were never fully embraced. But his and others’ advocacy that government should intervene to address the suffering of those who couldn’t care for themselves or their families underpinned what the author described as “completing Social Security” by providing healthcare for the aged. It urged on the Johnson administration’s Great Society, including the Social Security Act of 1965—or Medicare. Johnson took his hits, but Americans agreed with their president when he argued that “the Social Security health insurance plan, which President Kennedy worked so hard to enact, is the American way; it is practical; it is sensible; it is fair; it is just.”

Could a plan decried as “socialized medicine” by the American Medical Association because it was, in fact, socialized medicine really be “the American way”? Of course. During the Medicare debate in the early ’60s, Texas Senate candidate George H.W. Bush condemned the proposal as “creeping socialism.” Ronald Reagan, then making the transition from TV pitchman for products to TV pitchman for Barry Goldwater, warned that if it passed citizens would find themselves “telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But Bush and Reagan managed the program during their presidencies, and Tea Party activists now show up at town hall meetings to threaten any legislator who would dare to tinker with their beloved Medicare.

Americans would not have gotten Medicare if Harrington and the socialists who came before him—from presidential candidates like Debs and Thomas to organizers like Mary Marcy and Margaret Sanger and the Communist Party’s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—had not for decades been pushing the limits of the healthcare debate. No less a player than Senator Edward Kennedy would declare, “I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America.” The same was true in abolitionist days, when socialists—including friends of Marx who had immigrated to the United States after the 1848 revolutions in Europe were crushed—energized the movement against slavery and helped give it political expression in the form of the Republican Party. The same was true early in the twentieth century, when Socialist Party editors like Victor Berger battled attempts to destroy civil liberties and defined our modern understanding of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to petition for redress of grievances. The same was true when lifelong socialist A. Philip Randolph called the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and asked a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., who had many socialist counselors besides the venerable Randolph, to deliver what would come to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

* * *

Again and again at critical junctures in our national journey, socialist thinkers and organizers, as well as candidates and officials, have prodded government in a progressive direction. It may be true, as historian Patrick Allitt suggests, that “millions of Americans, including many of these critics [of the Obama administration], are ardent supporters of socialism, even if they don’t realize it and even if they don’t actually use the word” to describe public services that are “organized along socialist lines,” like schools and highways. In fact, contemporary socialists and Tea Partiers might actually find common (if uncomfortable) ground with Allitt’s assertion that “socialism as an organizational principle is alive and well here just as it is throughout the industrialized world”—even as they would disagree on whether that’s a good thing. Programs “organized along socialist lines” do not make a country socialist. But America has always been and should continue to be informed by socialist ideals and a socialist critique of public policy.

We live in complex times, when profound economic, social and environmental challenges demand a range of responses. Socialists certainly don’t have all the answers, even if polling suggests that more Americans find appeal in the word “socialist” today than they have in decades. But without socialist ideas and advocacy, we will not have sufficient counterbalance to an anti-government impulse that has less to do with libertarianism than with manipulation of the debate by all-powerful corporations.

Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were not socialists. But the nation benefited from their borrowing of socialist and social democratic ideas. Barack Obama is certainly not a socialist. But he, and the nation he leads, would be well served by a similar borrowing from the people who once imagined Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty.

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