Erstwhile: A History Blog

Revolution or Reform? Bernie Sanders and American Socialism

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Addressing the Crowd: Socialist Party of America leader Eugene V. Debs in 1918; Candidate for the Democratic nomination Bernie Sanders in 2015

Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente offers a brief history of socialism in the United States, highlighting its relationship to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination has produced an incredible amount of public discussion. As his polling numbers have risen and after his surprising successes in the early primaries, one of the biggest concerns among Democrats is his electability in a general election, should he secure the nomination. Sanders’s self-identification as a “democratic socialist” has resulted in quite a lot of hand-wringing in the party, especially among its elite and its older supporters. They dismiss Sanders’s popularity among younger voters as the naivety of an electoral bloc too young to respect the fact that “socialism” is a bad word. Despite some convenient forgetting inspired by the exigencies and excesses of the Cold War, socialism in fact has a long pedigree in the United States. Its history in this country breaks roughly into two phases: communitarian and electoral.

Early American socialism largely existed apart from politics and at the fringes of society. Its first forms were religious sects, the members of which sought to live by Christ’s principles in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of these sects were founded by religious groups persecuted in Europe, particularly the German lands. Their members, like the Puritans, fled to the greater toleration of America where they could practice their beliefs unmolested. These groups, such as the Moravians and the Rappites, lived with varying degrees of wealth-sharing, with some even holding all property in common.

While Christian communitarianism would continue through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, emerging forms of socialism became increasingly secular in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Secular socialism continued to draw Christian adherents and, especially in the Antebellum period, continued to be articulated in familiar, moralistic terms. Unlike the largely insular religious communities, secular socialism sought to revolutionize society by example. These socialists believed their communes would serve as models to convince Americans of their superior social organizations.

Key examples of this secular communitarian socialism include two of the three movements Friedrich Engels would derisively dub “utopian socialism” for their impracticality. Engels dismissed as utopian the doctrines of British industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen and French thinker Charles Fourier. Owen and Fourier both envisioned limited, largely self-contained communities of less than 3,000 people as the most effective form of societal organization. All communitarians would live in private apartments in one large communal building with communal kitchens and mess halls. These visions sought to harmonize conflicting interests then emerging in industrializing Western Europe and the United States. They were built on cross-class cooperation and the blending of rural and industrial ways of life. Owenism enjoyed a brief popularity in the Northeast and the Midwest in the mid-1820s before collapsing spectacularly due to the lack of leadership at the experimental colony of New Harmony, Indiana. Fourier’s American followers managed to gain enough adherents to form some thirty communes during the 1840s, including the conversion of the existing literary and educational commune of Brook Farm outside of Boston.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, industrialization and the continuing integration of markets produced large, complex organizations in American society. Railroads, corporations, and government developed bureaucracies to manage their myriad functions. In this context, the utopian fiction writer Edward Bellamy served as a key transitional figure between communitarian and electoral socialism. In his wildly successful novel Looking Backward (1888), Bellamy adapted many aspects of Fourier’s socialist vision to the new realities of complex social organization. Just as Fourier had advocated, people would work at the productive tasks to which their personalities were most drawn, thus rendering labor attractive. The communal kitchens would also stay. But in place of autonomous, self-contained communes, American socialist society would function at a national level to effect economies of scale in production and distribution of consumer goods. Bellamy’s vision spawned the “Nationalist movement,” which entered the realm of politics in the 1890s as an ally of the Populists, a third-party movement led largely by disempowered farmers. Fatefully choosing to fuse with the Democratic Party in the 1896 election, the Populist movement disappeared after a landslide loss in the electoral college.

Popular disaffection found another expression in the early twentieth century in the Socialist Party of America (SPA). Absorbing many members of the shattered Populist movement, the SPA became a growing force in electoral politics under labor activist Eugene V. Debs. Boasting 118,000 members, the party garnered over 900,000 votes in the 1912 presidential election—some 6% of the popular vote. American voters elected thousands of Socialist Party candidates to office, including two Congressmen, dozens of state legislators, and hundreds of city mayors. Government repression during World War One and factional infighting in the wake of the Russian Revolution ultimately stalled the SPA as a political force to be reckoned with.

Both the communitarian and electoral strains of American socialism continued to develop through the twentieth century. Both emerged with potent force in the counterculture and the New Left in the 1960s. Bernie Sanders is in large part a product of that decade. And yet his political program seeks to resurrect the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and revitalize the New Deal for the twenty-first century more than it does to socialize the means of production. Whether this is a matter of Sanders adjusting his personal beliefs to make his platform more palatable to the American electorate or a matter of the Overton window shifting so far to the Right since 1980 that one equates New Deal liberalism with socialism is an open question.

A critical element of Sanders’s strategy is his concept of a “political revolution.” While that may sound scary to moderates and conservatives, Sanders is not advocating a violent overthrow of the political order but rather the sustained engagement of the American electorate in politics. In many ways, this call resonates with the successes of electoral socialism, which never existed on their own but owed much to the pressure of social movements. Late-nineteenth-century organizations like the Knights of Labor and the Farmer’s Alliance organized voters, articulated visions of political economy, and fought for laboring people’s rights at the same time that political parties served as vehicles for these visions in the electoral realm. Labor unions served similar functions during the SPA’s early-twentieth-century successes and were especially crucial to the success of the less radical New Deal in the 1930s.

Sanders’s vision is not to destroy capitalism but to help Americans reclaim the State as an instrument of the people, that they may wield it against the influence of corporations and what people in the (First) Gilded Age called “the monied interests.” In this regard, Sanders falls more within the tradition of reformers—such as the Populists, the Progressives, and the New Deal Democrats—who sought to use government to curb capitalism’s excesses and make it fairer for more people. Though this may be disappointing to American socialists, it should assuage the fears of the Democratic Party and its older supporters. And maybe it does take a candidate as old as Sanders to remind the Democratic Party of what it used to stand for.

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