Not much has been said yet about the fact that the man now giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed socialist with a picture of Eugene Debs hanging in his Senate office in Washington. Even when his socialism is discussed, for example in a recent Politico article by David Greenberg, more time is spent describing the history of American socialism and relatively little explaining how Sanders fits in.
Why is this? For one thing, the Vermont Senator is running as a Democrat and caucuses with that party in Congress. And behind that fact lies a wider development in our politics: The distinctive traits distinguishing socialism from more mainstream Left-wing politics in America have faded, leaving the movement more prone to fusion with Democrats.
At its peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American socialism was based in labor unions and fueled by immigrants with backgrounds in Left-wing political activism. Its followers believed in decisive action against the flawed institutions of democratic capitalism in the United States. Not just decisive but seditious, in the case of the anarchist who assassinated President William “Denali” McKinley in September of 1901.
Anarchists, communists, socialists, and free silver advocates all opposed various parts of the American political economy during this period and played prominent and active roles in national events prior to the New Deal. Socialists such as Sanders’ hero, Eugene V. Debs of Indiana, helped organize large labor actions directed at the “Robber Barons,” most notably Pullman and Ford. Debs went to jail for his involvement in the Pullman strike.
Big Bill Haywood, born and raised in Salt Lake City, helped organize miners throughout the country. He was an even more controversial socialist than Debs, having been tried and acquitted for the murder of Utah Governor Frank Steunenberg, a frequent antagonist of unions. Haywood and Debs both spent time in prison for their opposition to U.S. involvement in the First World War. Haywood was actually charged with treason under the Espionage Act of 1917 and, after getting convicted, ended up skipping bail and exiling himself to the Soviet Union.
The firebrand socialist leaders of that era appealed to the interests of their political supporters, who tended to be industrial workers, immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Like Sanders, they viewed the political and economic order as fundamentally unjust and in need of radical change to create a better and fairer world. Unlike Sanders, they proclaimed an undiluted Marxism and did not shy away from inflammatory statements about confiscating property or fomenting revolution.
But look what happened to their political base: what was a heavily unionized American labor pool became less and less so. Today, union membership has declined steeply and those unions that are still large and popular are for public sector employees. Public sector unions seek more lucrative pensions, not an overthrow of the owners of the means of production.
When asked today about his “socialism,” Sanders may point to the picture of Debs on his office and cite a commitment to justice and fairness in helping the “little person” against large organized economic interests. In reality, what he espouses is not fully articulated socialism but simply wealth-redistribution through taxation. The Sanders campaign webpage has a great deal about Sanders’ concern for income “inequality” and “decent” pay and wages. But it says very little about revolutionary aspirations or the need to confront the owners of capital. It does not advocate storming the offices of Google or Apple and snatching iPhones and Chromebooks, liberating the goods from the wretched hands of the capitalist blood suckers Tim Cook, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin.
Today’s socialism is surprisingly flaccid and tame—even the Occupy Movement that sprang up with the onset of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Occupy’s rather ragtag group of protestors moved into parks in New York and elsewhere to protest a hodgepodge of injustices they perceived in our political and economic system. There were arrests, some confrontations, a lot of staged events for television cameras, as well as many iPhone selfies and hippie dance circles. But there were no widespread outbreaks of violence. Nothing matched the pitched battles between unions and private security forces common in the Debs-Haywood era—or even the teargas-filled melee in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention or associated countercultural clashes of that time.
The Occupy people became famous for their strange way of communicating, not for shooting those in power or even threatening such actions. And that’s not surprising in a country that is largely middle class, suburban, and politically inclusive.
Thomas Edsall’s underrated book Chain Reaction (1992) describes how the Republican Party became successful in national elections during the 1970s. Edsall’s main argument was that the Democratic Party that emerged from that watershed 1968 convention pushed policies that were outside the mainstream and unpalatable to most Americans. Higher taxes for the rich, forced racial integration, large social programs (that did not sufficiently provide resources to the middle class) and lenient attitudes toward the accused, were all positions that socialists such as Debs and others had long advocated. Those same positions turned off many moderate voters, though—particularly the so-called Reagan Democrats. By finding a wedge group to pry away from the Democratic coalition, Reagan and other Republicans were able to consistently win national elections. The Democrats of the 1990s turned away from radical ideas and accepted the new consensus of lower taxes, free market institutions, and less government.
This insight that the majority and the middle matter was also a fascination for a clear-eyed observer of politics, the late economist Gordon Tullock. Tullock is most famous for his work on the development of the school in economics known as public choice as well as his groundbreaking insights into the costly inefficiency of what economists call “rent-seeking”—the competition among individuals for government-granted privileges known as rents.
But Tullock also wrote about many other matters, including how politicians redistribute within a society to maintain political support. Tullock noted that many social welfare programs were designed without means testing. He lamented the fact that the poor were poor, and marveled at the way in which government programs that appeared to be focused on the poor in fact benefitted the middle classes. He concluded, correctly, that the vast majority of government benefits inevitably flow to the largest group of potential voters—in our case today, the middle class.
Social Security, Medicare, the mortgage tax deduction, government-subsidized student loans, and tax deductions for children are among the many costly redistributive programs focused on the middle class. Best of all for politicians, these programs are paid for with the shrouded system of payment known as income-tax withholding. You don’t see a complete bill for the programs.
So what does this mean for the entire concept of “socialism” as Sanders describes it? Can socialism or its cousin, communism, ever be brought about—or even discussed straightforwardly—when an economy becomes service-oriented and affluent? I think the answer is no. Sanders seems to be borrowing from the sentiments of his hero but in the service of a much different cause. “Socialism” for Sanders focuses on the largest political group—the middle class. It still has the “us versus them” rhetoric that Debs would have recognized. We must take from the rich and give to the somewhat, relatively poorer (although not the real poor per se). However, no one wants blood in the streets or violent protests.
Redistribution through democratic processes will suffice, in a more peaceful era of quiet revolutions.