In today’s repressive political climate? Unless he was fairly well off and not really concerned about whether he could make a living wage… if he was a union man formed in the older socialist forge, your great-grandfather’s politics might seem controversial, perhaps even denounced as unAmerican by those who know it’s not, but fear it nonetheless. Socialism, today, is an ideological brand name that’s not just fallen out of favor, but has been profoundly booed, tabooed and rendered virtually unnameable as a viable political perspective in this nation through decades, more than a century of “legal” repression driven by political and social propaganda from the right. McCarthyism and plutocracy notwithstanding, socialism is a term that has been rendered unquestionably profane in the mind of a majority of Americans, as though the mere mention of it conjures visions of Soviet dictatorships, violent repression, tyranny, even godlessness… corruption and vice beyond all comprehension… but hey… buckle up, America, the “S” word is once more out of the box today… and it’s coming back, slowly, inevitably gaining ground… invading the American ethos. Whether you consider it a revolution or a necessary and political evolution… it’s coming. So, perhaps it’s time to put aside your fears, America. Be objective and find out what it really means.
A near global financial collapse and economic depression caused by out-of-control financial monoliths, coupled with recently and broadly published facts and data concerning the present, shocking disparities in American economic and income inequality helped launch a profound public reaction expressed in a powerful, popular, though leaderless Occupy movement in 2011 and in the 2016 Democratic Primary election, an apparently unexpected phenomenon in which a self-proclaimed democratic
socialist Senator launched a viable and powerful challenge to the establishment candidate who had been considered incontestable. And the Senator mounted that challenge, not with 1,000 dollar-a-plate private events and generous endowments from corporate giants and the occasional hedge fund manager, but with individual donations from ordinary Americans, small amounts from huge numbers of citizens who resonated with his message, a call for equality in all things… in economic as well as social circumstance, a purely socialist agenda. These two major events and the proliferation of other, similarly progressive activist movements across the nation display the changing perceptions and the prevailing mood of the electorate. It represents a growing challenge to established American political institutions.
Not that it’s new. We’ve been here before. More than once. And in ways that are eerily similar in both the cause and the reaction. To quote Pearl Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth, which was written about China before World War II, but has applicability in universal human concepts throughout history… “When the rich are too rich there is a way, and if I am not mistaken, that way will come soon.”
Following hard times and economic failures in our own history, America came quite close, if not to a social revolution, at least to a social political evolution that involved socialist theories and expressed itself in various ways, primarily through militant trade unions and political engagement. In one instance, the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and subsequent bank failures throughout the nation entirely upset the American economy and devolved into a dreadful period of economic hardship, devastating unemployment, bread lines, soup kitchens and great numbers of homeless men and women nationwide. Our grandparents called it The Great Depression.
America’s response to the nationwide crisis was to elect the Democrat and progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the office of President in an election that could be accurately described as a political tectonic shift. Roosevelt’s New Deal launched bold programs and initiatives that were nothing less than socialist in both concept and in fact. They were not only accepted by the vast majority of Americans, but proved wildly popular and, eventually, thoroughly successful in bringing the collapsed American economy back toward an even keel.
Nonetheless, more work needed to be done, as those same financial institutions and corporate giants who brought the nation to economic collapse in 1929, began once again to embrace the same greedy practices in ways that clearly threatened to usurp the hard-won gains in prosperity through increased production and to use the profit thereof to enrich those wealthy families and financiers who’d survived the Depression. The problem then, just as it is today was expansive and crippling economic inequality.
In his Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies, delivered on April 29, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of the danger inherent in income inequality, calling out the growing concentration of wealth in powerful corporations and financial institutions at home, while alluding to the growing power of fascism in Europe, understanding the relationship between corporate institutions and the governance in both Italy and Germany. He wrote…
“Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing. This concentration is seriously impairing the economic effectiveness of private enterprise as a way of providing employment for labor and capital and as a way of assuring a more equitable distribution of income and earnings among the people of the nation as a whole.”
In response to similar economic inequality today, there is a new voice in America today. And whether it comes from self-proclaimed socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or… from progressive consumer advocates like Elizabeth Warren, their message is similar and revolutionary… or for the faint of heart… evolutionary.
It sounds like this:
“When we talk about the word ‘socialism,’ I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our economic dignity and our economic, social, and racial dignity. It is about direct representation and people actually having power and stake over their economic and social wellness, at the end of the day.”
“The billionaire class fully understands what is at stake. That’s why a handful of them are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the current elections. Their goal is not to strengthen the middle class, but continue the trend in which the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else.”
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
To be sure, these voices don’t always agree, but whether you advocate a kinder, gentler, and more just form of capitalism, or the gradual dismantling of all inequity and injustice through socialism… business as usual is definitely coming to an end.
Socialism in America has very deep roots. The labor movement grew up in the same rough neighborhood as the socialist movement. Their voices were virtually a chorus. Many of those who fought for their rights in solidarity in labor, were also those who preached the message of socialism. Trade unions, though many curiously conservative union leaders would deny it today, are the perfect expression of democratic socialism and only one manifestation of socialist thought that pervades our history… quite in spite of all efforts to suppress it ever since that day when men and women found the strength in solidarity to stand up for their rights together.
Socialism in America has yet to be properly defined, even as those human rights upon which our nations was founded have yet to be fulfilled in universal suffrage according to the premise that all of us… every one of us… is due his or her dignity and liberty in perfect equality through a universal, Constitutional guarantee of justice under the law.
Socialism in America has yet to be properly expressed and reasonably defined, but to be sure, it’s coming. There is much talk… and with cause… about the power and the influence of wealth on the political structures of this nation, but the inequality that exists today is as bad as that which existed in our past. The force of it threatens our democracy as never before. We can talk about the history of socialism… discuss the many theories concerning its structure and methods, but none of that will apply to the specifics and the ethos of American life. The books could be opened and academics can polemicize for hours on end with the many and varied theories that purport to instruct and direct us, but theory is dust in the wind. What’s failed in the past should not guide us in the future.
America will write its own book. We the people will define our own society. Just as we did once before… we will do it again. We’ll not be paying the piper for his tune. We’ll write our own… and the other nations of the world? Just as they did when they saw what we’d done when we threw off our king and built our own and democratic republic? Maybe they will take heart, one by one. Maybe they’ll follow our lead and throw off the nominal slavery of corporate dominion as well. It won’t be easy.
But like the lady wrote back in 1931… ““When the rich are too rich there is a way, and if I am not mistaken, that way will come soon.”