Eugene Debs

The historical legacy of American Socialism

The recent book The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History by Jack Ross, a contributor to this blog, is a must-read for anyone interested in the meaning of American socialism. The books starts in the nineteen century with the early socialists of America, some more close to Marx and others more similar to Bakunin. What seems to be the center of the book is American social democracy, but when Ross speaks about social democracy, he doesn’t refer to the Keynesianism of liberals like Paul Krugman, but the populist Jeffersonian decentralism of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.

Both Debs and Thomas are central to history of American socialism. The book refers to Debs as biggest champion in American history of the cause of free speech. Being imprisoned for a political speech in the context of World War I, there are few politicians that could match his anti-imperialism and conviction, and Ross mentions a possible kindred spirit in the present, the conservative libertarian Ron Paul.

Debs was a five time presidential candidate, a man who came from a prosperous immigrant family from Terre Haute, Indiana but who gave his life to the cause of workers and peace. Ross mentions that if Debs had been the presidential candidate of the Populist Party, history could have been very different; if the socialists would have gotten the endorsement from the unions, they might have been able to become an organization similar to social democratic parties in Europe. Ross makes clear his admiration for Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister opposed to both the New Deal and World War II, who ran six times for president as a candidate of the Socialist Party of America. Like Debs, Thomas was an anti-imperialist whose commitment to peace made him an ally of the Old Right.

Both Debs and Thomas were patriots in the most profound sense of the word; like the early socialists, their cause was a new American revolution against the oppression of capitalism, but their desired model was very different from Marxian European Socialism.

Why socialism failed to take root in the United States is question that gnaws at the edges of the book. While there is not one answer, Jack Ross thinks that the early days of the Socialist Party were crucial to their tragic future, because despite the fact that Eugene Debs was a true hero for the working class, the Socialist Party could never build a strong alliance with national labor organizations. I think there is some truth to that but the question of race is very important; the ties of socialists with racists and even with the Ku Klux Klan in some regions generate a strong problem with minorities in the days of Debs despite that he and an important part of the leadership of the Socialist Party were anti-racist. Also the question of Zionism made some Jewish socialists change their anti-interventionist position.

The text attempts to refute the Popular Front narrative that has been common in the history of the American Left — the role of communism and especially the Communist Party USA were overstated in the historiography of the Cold War. Though the Popular Front realignment was due largely to communists, it is very hard to think that this explains why some radicals support the Democratic Party today. Socialism was misunderstood in the context of Cold War as a synonym for communism, despite that in the American tradition they were particularly opposed to one another.

The attempt to defend the historic American social democracy is complex, because today social democracy is synonym of left-liberalism and identity politics. Maybe Milwaukee could be an interesting example for the history of American socialism, a city with a history of mayors from the Socialist Party which were efficient and transparent in the way to govern — the last one was Frank Zeidler, elected in 1948. John Norquist who called himself a fiscally conservative socialist was elected in 1998 as a member of the Democratic Party. I think that while Norquist never hold the fame of Bernie Sanders, he would probably had been closer to a more populist vein of the socialism that the Socialist Party used to represent.

On the legacy of American socialism, Ross points three groups that emerge from the break-up of the Socialist Party of America: the Schatmanites of SDUSA, the reformers of DSOC and the radicals of SPUSA. While Schatmanites were fundamental to the development of neoconservativism and very hard to identify as socialists, you can hear prominent neocons like David Frum supporting universal health care and a hike of the minimum wage. However, if non-interventionism is what used to be the principal characteristic of the American socialism, that makes them, definitively, something else.

DSOC, now DSA, is very small and despite having prominent members like Cornel West it is still part of left-wing of the Democrat Party, and it’s not event as prominent as some other progressive groups. The SPUSA still participates in some elections, but shows weaker and weaker results; their last elected member Karen Kubby was a councilwoman from Iowa City, who switched parties to the Greens, a relatively a quite common choice for members of the SPUSA.

The possibilities of development of socialism in America despite the odds were very exciting. The book relates that in the beginnings of the last century there was even a proposal of members of the Socialist Party to form an independent socialist republic in Texas. But the most clear possibility for the development of American Socialism was if Martin Luther King would have survived and run as a third party candidate in 1968.

King’s politics were close to Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, but obviously being a prominent Afro-American leader he could rally the support of minorities. Without King the third party effort of the People’s Party failed. In the 80s the Citizens Party was born out of the Barry Commoner presidential campaign but its form of liberal reformism never became powerful. In 1984 the Green Party was born. The Green Party, despite being identified with the Keynesianism of Ralph Nader, was born in the legacy of the New Left. In the 80s socialists and anarchists founded the Left Green Network, whose purpose was to drive the party to the left, among them was the social theorist and eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin. Under his influence the Left Green Network developed a decentralist platform fighting for change at the local level, but with time the Left Green Network’s priorities fell off in favor of the more liberal wing of the party that was more focused on the national level.

I think Ross’s book fails to mention the importance of one of the Green Party founders to the history of socialism in America, Howie Hawkins was a member of SPUSA that became an ally of Murray Bookchin, but also was key into drafting Ralph Nader as the Green Party candidate. While the 2000 Nader campaign caused a backlash against the Green Party for allegedly being a spoiler, party insiders had said that the organization wasn’t as strong as in the early days of the party. The Green Party failed to become a biggest threat to Democratic Party in the next election, the liberal wing decided to choose as presidential candidate an unknown lawyer David Cobb in 2004, against Nader who was supported by socialists and anarchists and even some libertarians and paleoconservatives.

Nader running as an independent didn’t help in the party building, but neither did running a weak candidate like Cobb. In 2008 Nader built a relatively similar alliance running as an independent, while greens choose Cynthia McKinney a popular black congresswoman, but with Barack Obama as the Democratic Party nominee both Nader and McKinney showed poor numbers. In 2012 they ran Jill Stein, a physician, and got numbers far from the ones of Nader in 2000. Stein, unlike Nader, never showed interest in making inroads with the paleoconservative or libertarian vote and was in search of progressive supporters. The Green Party has evolved from libertarian municipalism of the 80s to the liberal reformism of the 90s to eco-socialism today. Though eco-socialism is a term connected to Murray Bookchin, I think today eco-socialism has in more in common with state interventionism in the name of ecology. The Green Party has embraced identity politics, which could be a problem if as in the past there is need of the votes from what used to be the Old Right. Though decentralism is still on their platform, they focus a lot more on the presidential campaign.

Ross mentions that the Old Right and socialist left had a lot in common, and I agree. Their foreign policy was the biggest common cause, Bill Kauffman goes as far as to suggest Pat Buchanan is the second coming of Eugene Debs. The text fails to mention that Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess was also a former member of the Socialist Party, but unlike the neocons he went leftward in the context of the Vietnam War. But the text mentions something often forgotten, the fact that after his presidential campaigns Norman Thomas started to sound closer to Peter Kropotkin, denouncing state bureaucracy and calling for the development of mutual aid. In those days he sounded closer to eco-anarchists like Murray Bookchin or Christian anarchists like Dorothy Day. But even with libertarians there is still some room for an alliance, in the 2014 election Howie Hawkins the eco-socialist candidate of the Green Party for Governor of New York opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline on the grounds that it violated property rights.

A curious fact is that Jack Ross was a writer of The American Conservative, and I think he could be defined as a heterodox left-conservative, but his book could make the radical left think again in their own tradition. Today the possibility of America having a president who calls himself a socialist is real. Few journalists predicted Sanders’ success, the liberal left is tired of the corporatism of the Clintons, and Sanders’ message is resonating with a public tired of the merger of Wall Street and Washington. But neither Debs nor Thomas would had been proud of Sanders, who is not only much more bureaucratic than them, he is also a supporter of the American Empire.

Ross points that socialists are like prophets, and he is right. The historic antiwar activist David McReynolds said on the 100 year anniversary of the Socialist Party that the victory of socialism in America was not going to be when someone who was part of the socialist left is in a place of power — a sly reference to the neocons. Likewise, a victory for Bernie Sanders could easily be less the vindication of American Socialism than its defeat.

I don’t know if America will see a character like Debs or Thomas again. Ralph Nader was closer to the Old Left in speaking about a broad left/right alliance against the corporate state and the importance of the concept of community activism. But Ron Paul was even closer because in making foreign policy his priority he was able unify libertarians, conservatives, progressives and socialists against the American Empire, and like Debs and Thomas he want a Republic. I think that the book shows that not only the New Left had a lot in common with the Old Right but actually the Old Left had also a lot in common with the Old Right, a call for a Jeffersonian decentralist Republic, and whether one calls that libertarian, conservative or socialist doesn’t make much difference. The socialist left in America had strong democratic convictions and was opposed to all totalitarian forms of socialism. Though today there is still a caricature of socialism as a synonym of Soviet communism, but the youth is not interested in buying it.

There is a long noble history of American socialism, men and woman who choose to believe that they can build a new country, based on the ideals on which the old one was founded. We may need to rediscover it, as the socialism we’re most familiar with is much more pernicious. America has in the last century started to live under a kind of socialism, the state socialism of Bismarck, proper to a military empire like the ones between World Wars. Later, in the context of Vietnam War, Murray Rothbard described a “nixonian socialism,” and since Reagan, neoconservativism can be understood as right-wing social democracy. If conservatives have been vital for the triumph of some forms of socialism, maybe they could be a factor in bringing about a future for the more positive kind. Maybe the descendents of the prairie socialists are supporting Donald Trump but I think they could be waiting for a new Eugene Debs.

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