In previous articles, we’ve demonstrated the genesis of the socialist movement in America going back to the Utopian commune movements of the Harmony towns, to Rapp and Old Economy, the infusion of Fourier and Marxist ideas, leading to Debs and the Labor movement, and his successor Norman Thomas. Each built on the previous set of ideas, in spite of their lack of success in practical terms. Debs’s ties to Lenin and the Russian Revolution are well documented. However, Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, eventually disclaimed the class warfare and central economic planning of the socialists, citing the failure of the Soviet Union.
Now Norman Thomas tells socialists to forget the “class struggle” creed. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t solve the problems of justice and prosperity. We’ve found a better way.Miami News, March 18, 1953
The socialists split along two lines, those who sought to affect change through education, protest, and legal means, and those who espoused violence -riot, revolution, and force.
The Cold War gave many Americans a healthy fear of anything with the word “socialism” or “communism” in its title. And while socialism is not communism, it has its roots in Marxist (and earlier French) theory, just as republicanism has its roots in democracy, dating back to the Greeks.
In 1956, the Socialists in America were split into the Democratic Socialists and the Socialist Party of America. There were two smaller parties that were avowedly Marxist, espousing the Communism of the Soviet Union, but they were small enough to have little influence. The “Red Scare” and the McCarthy hearings gave reason to avoid the name communism in anything politicians wanted to be popular. The leaders in the party were Bayard Rustin, a homosexual African American, and Charles Zimmerman, a Ukrainian emigrant in the labor union movement who openly espoused Communist philosophy.
Rustin, interestingly, was involved with the civil rights movement, and spurred Martin Luther King’s use of non-violent protest. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was an early advocate of homosexual rights, having been arrested for public sexual conduct. Rustin changed his tune on many issues over the years, becoming a neo-conservative, praised by Ronald Reagan. He died in 1987. He was awarded a Medal of Freedom posthumously by then President Barack Obama.
Zimmerman worked in the garment district sweatshops of New York City, and joined the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, becoming its president. He also joined the American Socialist party, and was a charter member of the American Communist party at its formation in 1919. Though some radical socialists regarded FDR’s New Deal with disdain, Zimmerman pragmatically supported it, seeing it as a way to further government control and improve working conditions for labor. In the face of Soviet aggression, and particularly actions against Jews, Zimmerman modified his support of Communism, emerging following WW2 as a liberal anti-communist. He supported changing the name of his party to “Social Democrats”, to avoid the communist label at a convention of the Socialist party in 1972. Zimmerman died in NYC in 1983.
Rustin and Zimmerman’s leadership is primarily important in the socialist movement for their turn away from totalitarian control and central government planning in the economy – the socialist movement began to acknowledge that complete government control of industry was ineffective.
Today’s Socialist Democrats (not to be confused with Democratic Socialists) espouse limited capitalism. The website of the Socialist Democrats of America (dsausa.org) states:
Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.
Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.
The DSA doesn’t say how that’s supposed to work – “workers and consumers own and control” without creating a government bureaucracy. It is interesting to compare to the 1964 Republican platform, which states:
Within our Republic the Federal Government should act only in areas where it has Constitutional authority to act, and then only in respect to proven needs where individuals and local or state governments will not or cannot adequately perform. Great power, whether governmental or private, political or economic, must be so checked, balanced and restrained and, where necessary, so dispersed as to prevent it from becoming a threat to freedom any place in the land.
Both purport to constrain power, and disperse it – clearly the difference lies in the means of constraint. The Republican platform of 2016 states:
When political freedom and economic freedom are separated — both are in peril; when united, they are invincible. We believe that people are the ultimate resource — and that the people, not the government, are the best stewards of our country’s God-given natural resources.
Again, the people are to control, but not through government agencies.
The Socialist platform of 2016 is clear:
For a democratically-planned socialist economy where the banks, basic industries and all natural resources are the collective property of working people – the 99 percent – and democratically operated for human betterment not the individual profits of the one percent
But this can only be achieved if in fact the government owns and controls banks, basic industries, and natural resources, since the government is supposed to represent the people.
In the twentieth century, parallel threads of socialism in America have been at work. We’ve paid attention to the mainstream of socialism thus far. Let’s look at the parallel streams.
The Democratic party was initially pro-slavery at its founding. As late as 1924, the Democrats had a KKK component of the party, and later in the century, sported such personalities as Lester Maddox and George Wallace, segregationist governors of Georgia and Alabama, respectively.
The Democrats morphed into supporting the rights of the underdog, particularly in support of Big Labor and workplace reform. Some of the reforms brought health and safety to the workplace, shorter hours and better working conditions. Unlike the Socialists, the Democrats viewed striking by labor as a last resort, due to the disruption of the economy, as in the Pullman strike.
Ironically, the Democrats were initially pro-tariff. In the 1916 Democratic platform: “We reaffirm our belief in the doctrine of a tariff for the purpose of providing sufficient revenue for the operation of the government economically administered, and unreservedly endorse the Underwood tariff law as truly exemplifying that doctrine.” This, in spite of pushing the 16th Amendment and House leader Underwood’s 1913 revenue amendment, that gave us income tax.
In 1928, the Democratic platform was still pro-capitalism, but anti-monopoly. It also opposed the proliferation of government control, and endorsed reduction in arms, though not the complete disarmament of the Socialists.
We demand that the constitutional rights and powers of the states shall be preserved in their full vigor and virtue. These constitute a bulwark against centralization and the destructive tendencies of the Republican Party. We oppose bureaucracy and the multiplication of offices and officeholders.… International agreements for reduction of all armaments and the end of competitive war preparations, and, in the meantime, the maintenance of an army and navy adequate for national defense.
Some of the Democratic Party 1932 platform proposals sound a great deal like Republican ones of today:
We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result... We advocate a competitive tariff for revenue with a fact-finding tariff commission free from executive interference, reciprocal tariff agreements with other nations, and an international economic conference designed to restore international trade and facilitate exchange...The removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest.
Previous Democratic platforms also supported exclusion of Asian immigration.
Then came FDR and the New Deal. FDR was not socialist per se, but in response to the economic crisis of the Depression, he advocated many socialist principles. According to Britannica, “Opposed to the traditional American political philosophy of laissez-faire, the New Deal generally embraced the concept of a government-regulated economy aimed at achieving a balance between conflicting economic interests.” Times of economic crisis are often when socialism sounds like a good form of rescue – the serfs and Bolsheviks in Russia, the National Socialists (Nazis) and the horrible economy under the Weimar Republic, the ravages of WW2 in China, and the Great Depression in America. Americans, battered by 25 percent unemployment, Dust Bowl droughts, and four waves of bank failures, welcomed the government’s rescue.