Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address was unsurprisingly laden with the caustic language of xenophobia, warmongering, and crude nostalgia that will only find sympathy among his most devoted supporters. A more curious tone was struck, however, when he took an opportunity to revive a time-honored adversary of American Empire: Socialism. To a chorus of red-blooded chants from Republicans and Democrats alike, Trump proudly declared that not only was America “Founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control,” but that the country would renew its resolve to “Never be a socialist country.” A socialist America may seem like a distant reverie, and understandably so. There have nevertheless been those who have dared to dream, working to create a society that more deeply expresses our love of liberty and equality. If Socialism is to mean achieving a more equal society in terms of power, wealth, and income, as writer Elizabeth Bruenig defines it, then its detractors have good reason to be afraid. The President is ringing the alarms of the Red Scare, as billionaires look in trepidation at a public who show broad support for progressive policies. Tracing its origins to the Gilded Age, Socialism once again finds kinship amongst Americans who strive to reclaim democracy from a new oligarchy. The tides of democratic socialism that we see rising today come from the preceding waves of popular labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements that defined the 20th century. Turning back the pages to nearly two-hundred years of history reveals a lineage of figures who would appeal to a true fidelity to the values of our forefathers, and building upon the liberal notion of democracy that entrusts the economy into the hands of the people.
Pioneers of the Working Class
Laying the foundations of the American socialist movements does require some cursory comparison to the European model. Europe can point back to a time before capitalism swept the continent, and thus alludes to a set of collective principles that better realized our capacity to fulfill the common good; I had this in mind when I described the clockmaker’s ideal society in my piece on alienation. Contrast this with America, where the words of liberal values are enshrined into its founding documents; guarantees to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After 100 or so years of the democratic experiment, however, it became apparent that the promises made to the wider polity of the nation would take more than the words of enlightened Whigs; be they the indigenous American, the abolitionist, the suffragette, or the laborer. The 19th century brought the opportunities and challenges of capital into people’s lives, and from that moment there were always objectors to the constraints it imposed on their modes of being. Socialists communities had already existed in microcosms by the early 19th century, inspired by the work of French Utopian thinkers like Charles Fourier. Its emergence as a formidable political force truly began to take shape in the dawn of the 20th century, where it gained appeal amidst the tides of capitalism and industrialization that only brought diminishing returns for most working Americans. Having been hardened by his experiences with American Railway Union and their participation in the Pullman Strike, Eugene Debs became a symbol of both dissent against the monied interests of capital, and a unifying figure that laborers could rally behind. Debs was a powerfully dynamic speaker, orating with clarity and vitality that reflected his deep commitment to the betterment of mankind. Among the many other notable socialist figures that flocked to the party were Victor Berger of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Meyer London of New York’s Lower East Side, Oklahoman Oscar Ameringer, Labor Leader Morris Hilquit, and activist Kate Richards O’Hare, to name a few. From the heartland to the Atlantic, labor leaders, theologians, agitators, and activists united under what promised to be a new left front. By 1912, however, it seems the words of Debs and his contemporaries fell on deaf ears, as the party only secured 6% of the vote that year. Their troubles would be compounded with the fallout of the First World War, with Socialist party members, laborers, and other dissenters facing intense crackdowns for their opposition to the U.S’s involvement. The Espionage Act, which resulted in the jailing of various politicians and activists who openly opposed the war, formed the core of what became the First Red Scare. The fear only dug deeper as the Czarist regime of Russia fell, and among its ashes, an emboldened Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became the threat to the upper echelons of the Western world.
Despite one last presidential bid made by Debs from his jail cell, the Socialist movement largely lost steam during the Roaring Twenties. The seemingly bountiful prosperity of those initial interwar years made the causes of social and economic justice become a distant memory; that is until the Great Depression. As global markets collapsed and working people once again found themselves footing the bill for capitalism’s excesses, demagogues and dictators seized upon their nation’s collective fear and resentment, stoking the fires of fascism that threatened to consume the world. The rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition necessitated, in the eyes of many leftists, the need to work with this brand of liberalism in order to combat the more existential threat the fascists posed. The international alliance triumphed in the second World War, but the left’s victories were to be short-lived.
The Left Against the World
The new global order that emerged pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, in what was to be painted as a battle of good against evil. American capitalism and individualism, appealing to the atomized language of the nation’s founding, was to be preserved by any means necessary; those who articulated a different vision of what we could be, taking to task the many ways in which the nation was not living up to the promises of the founding fathers, was tantamount to a traitor in the eyes of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Second Red Scare would last throughout much of the 1940s and 50s, all the while blacklisting tens of thousands of Americans and threatening the growth of any mainstream socialist movement. Yet the resiliency of socialist beliefs, particularly in its pursuits of social and political equality found its champions in the Civil Rights movement, its implicit goals standing on the shoulders of giants such as A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King. For his part, King was able to weave the message of nonviolent resistance, political engagement, and economic emancipation into a proclamation that America’s synthesis of capitalism and democracy was the root of its most basic evils. The United States, King said in his later years, must move towards democratic socialism.
But despite the wellspring of diverse emerging voices that defined the New Left of the 1960s, their failure to chart an electoral course led to their downfall. It was during these decades as well that a sweeping series of measures were undertaken to surveil, intimidate, and even assassinate leftist political figures, most notably under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The internal fragmentation of the Left, coupled with tactics of subjugation employed by the American surveillance state, seemed to spell the end for a socialist movement ever to emerge again. Indeed, the 1980s and 90s fared no better for the cause; threatened by both Ronald Reagan’s sermons of free-market orthodoxy and the evil empire of the Soviet Union, as well as Bill Clinton’s ’Third Way’ movement, effectively shifting the Democratic Party to the right. It seemed there would be no opportunity for a mainstream political force to emerge that would articulate a vision that spoke to people’s social and economic needs, through the fight for liberation that defined the struggle of the nation’s disenfranchised peoples.
No Rose Without Its Thorns
How defiant it was, then, that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) formed during the height of the Reagan years. The organization’s founder, Michael Harrington, perhaps saw the seeds of discontent sown among many, for example, the air traffic controller’s who sought better working conditions and pay, only to be disbanded, deprived of work, and even blacklisted for U.S Government employment. The movement’s defiant roots amidst a growing neoliberal international order have shown surprising resilience 37 years later. The DSA saw America’s unquestioned faith in unbridled capitalism tested when a global financial meltdown once again brought hardship to ordinary people. The sons and daughters of these Americans, like those who endured the bitter ordeals of the Great Depression, have dared to envision a more fair and just society. The movement has watched as economic inequality became among the most pressing issues of an increasingly aware American public, taking to the streets during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and coalescing around self-described socialist Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic Primary. The forbears of the Left, who were met with fear mongering, political repression, and institutional violence, would look with admiration upon new vanguard of politicians, activists, leaders, and educators; whether they are among the 50,000 members of the DSA, or a part of an emerging national consciousness, there is a growing coalition of citizens whose defiant calls for justice hearken back to the tradition of American socialism.