Note: A shorter version of this piece was published yesterday at The Daily Beast here. Thanks to Michael Tomasky for his help.
Socialism has captured the attention of American elites in a big way.
On the right, it is clear that Donald Trump and his Republican followers are intent on using Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a symbol of all that is evil in the world, commencing a vicious campaign of red-baiting that is sure to intensify in the months leading up to November 2020.
On the left, smart writers are noting that many socialist ideas resonate with the traditions of Progressive liberalism, and that there is a productive if uneasy dialogue to be had between self-styled socialists and liberals.
John Nichols, for example, has recently argued in the Nation that the estate tax plan proposed by Bernie Sanders echoes ideas put forward by Theodore Roosevelt in his 1910 “New Nationalism” speech, in which Roosevelt laid out a bold program of Progressive reform centered on limiting extreme inequalities of wealth and income.
Nichols has written extensively on the history of socialism in his fine book, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism.What he says about Sanders’s proposal echoing Roosevelt’s speech is true. But Nichols strangely fails to mention that Roosevelt’s speech not only sounds “socialist” themes but can only be understood in the context of the powerful socialist movement and the extensive class conflict of his day. Roosevelt clearly justifies Progressive reform as a way to avert revolution, asserting that “Nothing is more true than that excess of every kind is followed by reaction; a fact which should be pondered by reformer and reactionary alike.” While he condemns the low wages and unsafe working conditions of the time, he also insists that “in the interest of the working man himself, we need to set our faces like flint against mob-violence just as against corporate greed; against violence and injustice and lawlessness by wage-workers just as much as against lawless cunning and greed and selfish arrogance of employers…If the reactionary man, who thinks of nothing but the rights of property, could have his way, he would bring about a revolution.”
Roosevelt points out that while leftists denounce him as a “tool of Wall Street,” rightists denounce him as “a Socialist.” He makes clear that he is no socialist, but also that he has “the Socialists” on his mind, and that he seeks to occupy, and to expand, the ground between unrestrained capitalism and socialism — and thus, we might say, to coopt the socialists.
Roosevelt drew heavily from Herbert Croly’s 1909 The Promise of American Life. Croly too had socialism on his mind, and his own discussion of these same issues indicates that while he too was no socialist, he was actually not particularly worried about being “mistaken” for one. And so, having outlined a “reconstructive policy” of reform centering on corporate regulation and the recognition of the collective bargaining rights of labor unions, he writes these rather astonishing lines:
The majority of good Americans will doubtless consider [my vision] is flagrantly socialistic both in its methods and its objects; and if any critic likes to fasten the stigma of socialism upon the foregoing conception of democracy, I am not concerned with dodging the odium of the word. The proposed definition of democracy is socialistic, if it is socialistic to consider democracy inseparable from a candid, patient, and courageous attempt to advance the social problem towards a satisfactory solution. It is also socialistic in case socialism cannot be divorced from the use, wherever necessary, of the political organization in all its forms to realize the proposed democratic purpose.
Croly proceeds to criticize revolutionary socialism for its revolutionism and its internationalism.
But he also makes clear that his program of civic nationalism requires broadly social democratic reform.
The Progressives — Croly, Lippmann, Roosevelt, Wilson and the rest — were of another century, and there is much about them that is either objectionable or outmoded. And in spite of the important similarities that explain the recent proliferation of pieces like this one, their world was a very different world than our own (I made this point many years ago in The Poverty of Progressivism, and I stand by it).
At the same time, it is striking how close they were on questions of property, inequality, and labor, to the Socialists; how frequently this closeness was noted, and sometimes attacked; and how little this seems to have disturbed them.
Much separated them from the Socialists, as Croly’s text indicates. But much also linked them.
It is interesting to compare Roosevelt’s speech, for instance, with the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party. The platform begins with a powerful denunciation of capitalism and endorsement of socialism, and proceeds to demand many forms of public ownership, though not expropriation of all private property in the means of production; these things are clearly beyond the pale of Roosevelt’s Progressive liberalism. But here is a partial list of its specific policy proposals, quoted verbatim:
The immediate government relief of the unemployed by the extension of all useful public works. All persons employed on such works to be engaged directly by the government under a work day of not more than eight hours and at not less than the prevailing union wages. The government also to establish employment bureaus; to lend money to states and municipalities without interest for the purpose of carrying on public works, and to take such other measures within its power as will lessen the widespread misery of the workers caused by the misrule of the capitalist class.
- The conservation of human resources, particularly of the lives and well-being of the workers and their families:
- By shortening the work day in keeping with the increased productiveness of machinery.
- By securing for every worker a rest period of not less than a day and a half in each week.
- By securing a more effective inspection of workshops, factories and mines.
- By the forbidding the employment of children under sixteen years of age.
- By the co-operative organization of the industries in the federal penitentiaries for the benefit of the convicts and their dependents.
- By forbidding the interstate transportation of the products of child labor, of convict labor and of all uninspected factories and mines.
- By abolishing the profit system in government work and substituting either the direct hire of labor or the awarding of contracts to co-operative groups of workers.
- By establishing minimum wage scales.
- By abolishing official charity and substituting a non-contributary system of old age pensions, a general system of insurance by the State of all its members against unemployment and invalidism and a system of compulsory insurance by employers of their workers, without cost to the latter, against industrial diseases, accidents and death.
- The absolute freedom of press, speech and assemblage.
- The adoption of a graduated income tax and the extension of inheritance taxes, graduated in proportion to the value of the estate and to nearness of kin-the proceeds of these taxes to be employed in the socialization of industry.
- The abolition of the monopoly ownership of patents and the substitution of collective ownership, with direct rewards to inventors by premiums or royalties.
- Unrestricted and equal suffrage for men and women.
- The adoption of the initiative, referendum and recall and of proportional representation, nationally as well as locally.
- The abolition of the Senate and of the veto power of the President.
- The election of the President and Vice-President by direct vote of the people.
- The abolition of the power usurped by the Supreme Court of the United States to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislation enacted by Congress. National laws to be repealed only by act of Congress or by a referendum vote of the whole people.
- Abolition of the present restrictions upon the amendment of the Constitution, so that instrument may be made amendable by a majority of the voters in a majority of the States.
- The granting of the right of suffrage in the District of Columbia with representation in Congress and a democratic form of municipal government for purely local affairs.
- The extension of democratic government to all United States territory.
- The enactment of further measures for the conservation of health. The creation of an independent bureau of health, with such restrictions as will secure full liberty to all schools of practice.
- The enactment of further measures for general education and particularly for vocational education in useful pursuits. The Bureau of Education to be made a department.
- The separation of the present Bureau of Labor from the Department of Commerce and Labor and its elevation to the rank of a department.
- Abolition of federal districts courts and the United States circuit court of appeals. State courts to have jurisdiction in all cases arising between citizens of several states and foreign corporations. The election of all judges for short terms.
- The immediate curbing of the power of the courts to issue injunctions.
- The free administration of the law.
Virtually every one of these proposals, once considered radical and even “un-American,” are now enacted into law.
Socialism is not something alien to U.S. politics. And at crucial moments, during the Progressive and New Deal eras, socialists, and socialist organizations, have played an important role in the democratization of American democracy.
And that is why Cass Sunstein’s recent Bloomberg piece, “Trump is Right to Warn Democrats about ‘Socialism’: Progressives have embraced the term, and that’s a problem,” is so disturbing. Sunstein writes:
“In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump was entirely right to reject ‘new calls to adopt socialism in our country.’ He was right to add that ‘America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion,’ and to ‘renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.’ Yet to many Americans, the idea of socialism seems to have growing appeal.”
Sunstein is a well-known legal scholar. And yet he perversely chooses to read Trump’s speech as a benign and well-intended “warning” about threats to “freedom,” rather than see it for what it is: an evocation of fear and danger by an authoritarian demagogue who is now telling the world that he intends spend the next two years red-baiting his opponents. Can Sunstein seriously regard Trump — builder of walls and the declarer of national emergencies and the separation of immigrant families — as a friend of “liberty” and an opponent of “government coercion?” More to the point, the “yet” in his final sentence quoted above betrays a willful ignorance of the historical record. For the “socialism” that he denounces in fact helped to bring about not the forced collectivization of anything, but the eight-hour work day, and Social Security, and occupational safety and health regulation, and Medicare and Medicaid. And now socialists threaten to support…universal health insurance and a Green New Deal? And this is supposed to scare us?
Progressive Democrats should only embrace the ideas of their democratic socialist colleagues if they agree with them. But they have no reason to fear or to shun these colleagues, or their ideas, unless they are cowards or fools.
That does not mean that either the Democratic Party or the U.S. is ready for a full-blown socialist campaign or agenda. The labor movement remains weak, even if recent teacher strikes show some promise. While many young Americans may register criticism of capitalism and interest in “socialism,” such preferences hardly demonstrate strong or deep ideological commitment. And there can be no doubt that in many parts of “red state” America “socialism” is a dreaded idea — as Trump and the Republicans well understand, and will continue to hammer home in ways both despicable and effective.
But it does mean that the red-baiting tactics of the right ought to be strongly and consistently condemned, and that the good ideas and political energies currently being brought to the party by young people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and less young people like Bernie Sanders ought to be welcomed, taken seriously, and given their fair chance.
Over a century ago Herbert Croly, perhaps the most seminal American liberal thinker of the 20th Century, had it right: “If any critic likes to fasten the stigma of socialism upon the foregoing conception of democracy, I am not concerned with dodging the odium of the word.” Croly was a serious thinker who stood for something. Today’s liberals and progressives ought to follow his example. If they fail to do so, they will sacrifice their integrity and play into the hands of one of the most vicious tropes of right-wing politics.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.