The relevance of democratic socialism in the 21st century – posted 9/18/2016
There were many surprising things about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. One of the most surprising was the emergence of a major candidate who explicitly described himself as a democratic socialist. I don’t think anyone in America has seen that before, at least not for over 75 years.
Up until recently, socialism had a taboo quality but Bernie Sanders smashed that. Although he did not win the Democratic nomination, he won the New Hampshire primary by a 22 point margin and he garnered 13 million votes in the primaries. The conventional wisdom had been that no socialist candidate would be taken seriously by voters.
Going back to the Cold War and the Senator Joe McCarthy period, socialist had been turned into a smear word. People identified as socialist often paid a steep price for having the courage of their convictions. In the late 1940’s-early 1950’s, thousands were hounded out of their jobs and their careers were destroyed. Socialists were blacklisted.
However, in America, we have a way of forgetting dark episodes. Now the Red Scare of that time is little-remembered ancient history. To quote Gore Vidal, we are the United States of Amnesia.
The witchhunt of that era focused on loyalty. Alleged subversives were considered disloyal to America. Anyone who was an active liberal or further left faced the possibility of being tagged “subversive” and treated as a pariah.
In New Hampshire, the state Attorney General at the request of the state legislature investigated “subversive persons”. In 1951, the state had passed a New Hampshire Subversive Activities Act. The Attorney General, with encouragement from William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, pursued an assortment of leftists, especially professors at UNH.
I will mention two examples. Louis C. Wyman, the New Hampshire Attorney General, investigated and relentlessly hounded Paul Sweezy, an economics professor from Harvard who also lectured at UNH. Sweezy, a New Hampshire native, went on to be co-editor of the independent socialist magazine, Monthly Review. Wyman dragged Sweezy before an investigative panel and questioned him extensively about his past conduct and associations. Sweezy declined to answer several questions, citing the First Amendment. Wyman wanted Sweezy to give up the names of other activists. Following the hearings, Wyman petitioned the Superior Court to get the Court to force Sweezy to answer which he steadfastly refused to do.
The Court found Sweezy in contempt and Sweezy appealed. The case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, in 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case titled Sweezy v New Hampshire, ruled that Sweezy’s rights were violated under the First Amendment.
In a companion situation, Wyman also went after another beloved UNH professor, Gwynne Daggett. In a beautifully told story written by Kimberly Swick Slover that appeared in the UNH Magazine, Slover described Professor Daggett’s persecution. Unlike Sweezy, Professor Daggett complied and answered all questions.
Still, William Loeb despised Daggett and he used the Union Leader to launch vitriolic front page editorials against Daggett and others. Union Leader attacks on Daggett continued into the 1960’s. Daggett did ultimately manage to keep his job as an English professor.
It is necessary to tell these stories to show how popular understanding of socialism became so skewed. The Red Scare profoundly affected the nation and demonized progressives of all stripes. It narrowed the range of what was considered politically acceptable discourse by equating socialism with disloyalty.
Unlike almost every other advanced industrial country, the United States has not even had a labor party, let alone a socialist party of any consequence. You have to go back to the time of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas for the last time socialists had a mass following.
Not surprisingly, no word in politics has been more misused and misunderstood than socialist. Opponents were happy to see socialism described as tyranny. At the same time, countries that defined themselves as socialist had a very checkered record at best. They ran the gamut from Scandinavian social democracy to the Soviet bloc. The label socialist got reduced to being a word used to describe and denigrate a political opponent.
To those who do not like it, socialist has multiple negative meanings. Here are some: supporter of big government programs, taxer and spender, aggressive regulator, advocate of class warfare, enemy of religion, believer in dictatorship and opponent of individual rights.
Because of confusion and demagoguery around the word, I think popular understanding of socialism is minimal. I do identify as a democratic socialist and I wanted to offer my own take on what socialism actually means. The definition I like best comes from John McDermott, a labor educator.
“Socialism is the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government. This means every kind of authoritarian government – of the left, the right, the center; of capitalist, of communist; of church; of state; of corporation; of expert; and of zealot.”
I would expect that is not a definition that most people would identify with socialism. The word has so much baggage. Isn’t socialism about supporting big government programs? Or nationalizing industry? Or isn’t it about defending the old Soviet Union or other repressive regimes?
I would say “no”. I would argue democratic socialism means working class self-rule. In the 21st century there is no blueprint about how that could happen but democratic socialism is about working people having more power and control over their lives. When I say working people, I mean the great majority of people who work, whether blue collar or white collar.
Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few rich people. The moral superiority of socialism is that it stands for the possibility of a good life for everyone. Capitalism does not stand for that. While a small number of people do fabulously well in capitalist society, most people are left behind, caught in a daily struggle for economic survival. Social mobility is actually quite narrow in America. The con is getting the masses of people to conclude otherwise.
Socialists believe extreme wealth inequality is a product and result of capitalism. Sadly, many workers blame themselves for bad outcomes when they should be looking at how the system operates. Generally speaking, it is not the workers’ fault for being poor. Poverty flows from a profit system where money is worshipped and held as the highest value. In capitalism, poverty for many is the inevitable other side of the coin from wealth for a few.
Socialists value the quality of life over the accumulation of things.
Democratic socialists believe that workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them. Social ownership could take many forms. For example, worker-owned cooperatives, worker councils, or publicly owned enterprises managed by worker and consumer representatives could all be part of the picture. There is certainly also a role for private businesses. In a future society, it would be up to workers to decide what balance would be most desirable between social and private ownership.
I would say that contrary to popular mythology, libertarian socialists favor as much decentralization as possible.
There are many socialisms just as there are many variants of capitalism. Others may define socialism as a comprehensive welfare state, social democracy, or just raising the living standards of poor and working class Americans. The Sanders campaign opened this discussion and I think it is appropriate that there is a wide range of views about what socialism should look like.
I would acknowledge that the movement for democratic socialism in the United States is in its infancy. There is no substitute for persuasion. The masses of people in the United States have not been persuaded that socialism is preferable to capitalism. That is the job for socialists now and in the future.
Socialists need to compete in the political arena like any other political entity. There are no shortcuts to influence and power. The experience of the 20th century shows the dangers of both right wing and left wing authoritarianism. Socialists respect the voting system, the rule of law and the importance of civil liberties. Democracy and concern for economic, racial and sexual equality must be central values for 21st century socialists.
Interestingly, polls show millenials have a higher opinion of socialism than of capitalism. Whether socialism reemerges in the United States remains an open question. At this point, it is hard to know if the voters just liked a candidate who had consistent principles and integrity. On the positive though, the agenda of massive redistribution of wealth and power remains a just one.
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