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Portland Press Herald (Maine)

Where Are All The Socialists? Here, There and Everywhere

Harlan Baker

A recent column by Greg Kesich asked where the socialists are ("Looking for socialists in all the wrong places," Oct. 29).

During the recent election, the specter of socialism in its creeping form was raised in numerous op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, and accusations that Barack Obama was a "socialist." It is interesting that rarely has the press bothered to ask a socialist if the United States is really on the verge of a socialist revolution.

Being a card-carrying socialist -- yes, I pay dues to the Democratic Socialists of America -- I'd like to respond to the question of where the socialists are.

Socialism shares one thing in common with religion; there are many denominations and sects and they all claim to hold some higher truth. I don't claim to hold a higher truth. I do have a perspective on socialism, and that is, of course, open to disagreement.

Not all socialists are Marxists or atheists. Norman Thomas, the leader of the party in the 1930s and '40s, was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Socialists do not believe nationalization of an industry, government buying stocks in banks or the subsides to auto makers makes the country socialist.

Socialism is about social ownership. That can take many forms, such as employee-owned co-ops. It also does mean an end to privately owned business. But, socialists would want to democratize large corporations with real worker and consumer representation.

The Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas achieved high points respectively in 1912 and 1932, although the socialist-backed Robert Lafollette Sr., running on the Progressive ticket managed to net 17 percent of the popular vote.

After the 1956 campaign, the Socialist Party suspended its third-party presidential campaigns. Asking the movement's natural constituencies of labor, minorities and liberals to abandon the Democratic Party was proving fruitless.

In the 1960s, the Socialist Party adapted a strategy of working within the Democratic Party alongside its allies on the left to strengthen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the hopes that a new more left-wing party could be formed.

Not all socialists agreed with this strategy, and today a reconstituted Socialist Party fielded Brian Moore and Stewart Alexander for president and vice president respectively. The International Socialists is another group that works outside the two-party system.

The largest socialist organization in the United States and one of the heirs of the socialist party of Eugene V. Debs is The Democratic Socialists of America, which is affiliated with the Socialist International along with the Canadian New Democratic Party.


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The DSA is not a political party. It functions as sort of an American Fabian Society, attempting to bring socialist ideas into mainstream political debate and to help build anti-corporate social movements. Many of its members have worked in campaigns for Democrats.

But the DSA does not confine itself only to Democratic races. Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a registered independent, enjoyed wide support from the DSA.

The DSA has 25 chapters across the country. It has around 10,000 dues-paying members, not large by most standards but more than enough to fill a coffee house.

One of its founders was the late Michael Harrington, who was well known for his book "The Other America," which is said to have sparked the War on Poverty in the '60s, a war, by the way, that was lost on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Among the more well-known members of the DSA is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America," was partly researched in Maine where she worked in a cleaning service.

Other members include Cornel West, Francis Fox Piven and Dolores Huerta.

There are of course many people who consider themselves socialist and do not belong to any "official" socialist organization.

They may be found working in various unions, civil rights organizations and feminist and other progressive groups.

Many socialists are pleased that Barack Obama has been elected president.

Obama is not a socialist. But his election opens up the possibility of a new dialogue about where the United States is headed and how we can achieve the aims of a decent, more humane society.


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Harlan Baker is active in the theatrical community in Portland, Maine.

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