Posts Tagged ‘socialism’


Yesterday, Bernie Sanders made the case that democratic socialism is a thoroughly American tradition, best exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Peter Dreier recently made a similar argument:

Because the word “socialism” has been demonized, few Americans call themselves socialists or even social democrats. But public opinion polls — including the Pew Research Center, Hart Research Associates and The New York Times/CBS — show that a vast majority of Americans agree with what Sanders actually stands for.

For example, 74% think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that “our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;” 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers’ rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

On those matters — both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions — Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans. There’s a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans’ frustrations with the status quo. That’s what American socialists have been doing for over a century. Indeed, socialism is as American as apple pie.

Dreier’s examples of U.S. socialists include “some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Eugene V. Debs, and Gloria Steinem.”

Let me add a few others, off the top of my head, from various walks of life and eras of U.S. history: Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ed Asner, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Jay Gould, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Harry Belafonte, Edward Bellamy, Ron Dellums, John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Meridel Le Sueur, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Robert Dale Owen, Upton Sinclair, and so on.

There have also been many socialist mayors in the United States—including, of course, Sanders himself.



The two numbers that are central to Bernie Sanders’s vision of democratic socialism are the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent of households and that of the bottom 90 percent: in 2012, just 160,000 families, each with a net worth in excess of $20.6 million, counted themselves among the wealthiest 0.1 percent of households. Together, they owned nearly as much as everyone from the very poor to the upper middle class combined—90 percent of the country, some 145 million families in total.

Today, in America, we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but few Americans know that because so much of the new income and wealth goes to the people on top. In fact, over the last 30 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth – trillions of wealth – going from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent – a handful of people who have seen a doubling of the percentage of the wealth they own over that period.

Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

The numbers come from a study, which I discussed a year ago, by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

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Capitalism, as readers well know, hasn’t been doing very well in recent years.* And, of course, every time capitalism falters or makes promises it can’t deliver, alternative ideas—such as socialism—get a hearing. It happened, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century (when the French Revolution wasn’t able to deliver on the promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité), the middle of the nineteenth century (when workers protested the ravages of the Industrial Revolution), the early part of the twentieth century (when union leader Eugene Debs, as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, won almost a million votes), the 1930s (when the Great Depression forced millions of workers onto the unemployed lines), and during the 1960s (when students and many others criticized the military-industrial-academic complex).

If Jonathan Chait is right, it’s happening again. According to him, socialists in Obama-era America

consider the political process fundamentally corrupted by large corporations and harbor suspicions of any policy that relies on, or makes peace with, the profit motive. This idea forms a through-line connecting the left’s objections against the major items of Obama’s agenda. Socialists deemed his health-care reforms deeply disappointing, because they relied on private insurance companies and failed to create a public option to compete with them. They criticized his Wall Street reforms for regulating the big banks rather than breaking them up. And they judged a failure the cap-and-trade law he tried to pass in 2009 and 2010, which compromised too much with energy companies and relied too heavily on market forces. Obama likes to boast that his policies have enabled the private sector to thrive; socialists consider this an inherent problem.

Bernie Sanders is, of course, the standard-bearer of this new discussion of socialism, a term that until recently was simply not allowed in “polite” (i.e., mainstream) political and economic discourse in the United States. But there it is—and, for the first time in a very long time, Americans are being to get a sense that (a) socialism has a very long and rich lineage (which is as old as capitalism itself), (b) in many countries around the world, socialist critics of capitalism are accepted participants in academic and public debate (and, in many cases, have their own political parties), and (c) there are many different approaches to and definitions of socialism (some seeking to regulate and mitigate the negative effects of the excesses of capitalism, others involving a much sharper break from capitalism).

In any case, socialism seems to no longer have the same scary connotations it has had in recent decades and, of course, in many other periods of U.S. history.

The return of socialism helps explain why, for example, some (such as Emma Caterine) argue that Bernie Sanders’s socialism not only is not really socialism, but is actually dangerous to real socialism. To which I can only respond, really, Rosa Luxemburg is the socialist truth you want to invoke in 2015 in the United States, where no social democratic much less communist party even exists? But still, notwithstanding sectarian bickering, the issue of socialism is on the table.

The return of socialism may also explain why Deirdre McCloskey (pdf) [ht: ja], who prides herself on listening to and engaging the rhetoric of others, finds it necessary to be so dismissive of Marx (who, in her words, was “mistaken on almost every point of economics and of history”) and, especially, of the “followers of Marx” (who, again in her words, “have seldom adhered” to the principle of engaging in continuous conversation, “and less so now it seems than once”).

It’s a shame, really, because in my view McCloskey might have something to offer to the renewed discussion of socialism, precisely because of her concern with rhetoric, postmodern epistemology, and the history of capitalism. But, unfortunately, she disqualifies herself precisely because of her dismissiveness (“Marxists have not cracked a serious book in economics published after 1867 or 1885 or 1894”?!) and her unwillingness to cite even a single Marxist economist or economics text of the past decade (the best she can do is attempt to prove how wrong historian Eric Mielants is in his 2008 book, The Origins of Capitalism and the “Rise of the West”). It seems she’s simply thrown herself down the Austrian/libertarian rabbit hole.

Fortunately, in the months (and, perhaps, years) ahead, as the campaign within the Democratic Party develops, and as the capitalist recovery continues to be so one-sided (and, even on its own terms, to threaten a new Armaggedon), the context seems once again ripe for socialism to be taken up as a way both of criticizing the ravages of contemporary capitalism and of exploring real alternatives to the ongoing crises.

As Chait observes, “Even in the face of likely defeat, Sanders has brought new life to an old tradition.”**

*And, to read Paul Mason, might not be doing well in the days and months ahead.

**And, as Harold Meyerson explains, if Sanders does lose, his campaign “has to morph into an enduring left-wing movement.”

This formidable task requires, first, that Sanders’s legions understand the unique historic opportunity that their coming together presents: That their victory in all probability won’t be putting Bernie in the White House, but creating a surging and enduring left. That, in turn, requires them to give as much thought to forming or joining autonomous post-campaign organizations, and envisioning post-campaign mobilizations, as they now do to advancing Sanders’s candidacy. Indeed, they need to start forming such organizations today, while they are together campaigning for Sanders, and in the process even reach out to other progressives who may not be for Sanders. These endeavors can’t and shouldn’t be undertaken by the Sanders campaign itself. They fall exclusively to the volunteers. . .

Is this difficult? And how. Is this necessary? Totally.


While it may be unusual for a presidential candidate to join a picket line, it isn’t unusual for Bernie Sanders.

“Let me get to the point,” Sanders said at the Monday picket line, which took place at a Verizon Wireless store in midtown Manhattan. “Middle class in this country is disappearing and what Verizon is doing to their workers is exactly what has got to be fought if we are going to rebuild the American middle class.”

“What this campaign is about is that corporate America can’t have it all,” he added.


Back in May, the pollster YouGov surveyed Americans about their thoughts on socialism and capitalism.


This month, after the Democratic debate, YouGov decided to poll the same question.

One thing to notice is that Democrats now have a more positive view of socialism—by double digits.

The question is: who are these 9-11 percent of Republicans who have a favorable opinion of socialism? I can’t say I’ve met any of them.


YouGov also asked people the Anderson Cooper question: do you consider yourself a capitalist or socialist?

Capitalists outnumber socialists by three-to-one (30% to 9%) overall, but the majority say neither (46%) or “Not sure” (15%). Most independents and most Democrats are in neither the “socialist” nor the “capitalist” camp (though 21% identify as socialists, versus 14% as capitalists). Most Republicans (57%), however, call themselves capitalists.


While we’re on the topic of democratic socialism, why not expand the definition—from improving the way the wealth of the nation is shared (e.g., by raising taxes on the one percent and strengthening the safety net) to exploring new ways of democratizing the enterprises where that wealth is actually produced (e.g., by promoting worker-cooperatives)?

The New Era Windows and Doors Cooperative in Chicago is one such example.

The New Era Windows and Doors Cooperative has been in operation since 2013. It hasn’t been easy, but the worker-owners have learned together how to operate their own business. And then there were the meetings: “It was difficult to make decisions together,” Robles said. “But it’s kind of fun, because at the end of the day it’s for the benefit of everyone.”

Sales are modest, but growing. Last year the company sold about a half million dollars worth of windows. This year, they anticipate the number will be significantly higher. There are 23 worker-owners, and two staff members who Robles hopes will opt to become worker-owners.

His vision is for New Era to help spawn other cooperatives. Instead of expanding by hiring drivers, for example, he’d like to see the company help start a cooperative of drivers.

How is this company staying alive when other owners have failed? The worker-owners made tough decisions about what equipment they could get rid of to save money. And they did a lot of sales via word of mouth.

“The good thing is we don’t have the CEO making millions of dollars,” Robles said, “so we have the ability to compete with the industry.” Also, they don’t have to generate big profits to keep investors happy; they just have to make enough to pay expenses and pay back their debt.

One of the keys for success at New Era is it operates according to a different logic:

This business model is based on “enough.” Enough pay and benefits to live with dignity. Enough of the machinery that is necessary, but not the sort that is too expensive. Opportunities for employee-owners to draw on their full capacities, not to be relegated to repetitive work while a few make all the decisions and much of the money. Their more equitable pay structure creates opportunities for more people to have enough to live and thrive; instead of keeping some at the edge of poverty while others prosper.

This is what local power looks like: companies like New Era Windows and Doors creating the stability that comes with locally rooted employment, insulated from the speculative finance that, in the case of publicly traded companies, requires many jobs be moved to low-wage regions. These worker-owners focus on values, including the possibility for others to also be worker-owners, and the importance of producing ecologically smart products. The company prides itself on selling energy-efficient windows and doors, and customizing them to the climate and location of the client.

Worker-cooperatives have many obvious advantages over capitalist enterprises, and thus should be part of any contemporary definition of democratic socialism.

They can also solve the problem of capitalist education—in which, according to Einstein, “An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Participating in a worker-cooperative means making decisions “for the benefit of everyone.”

And, if New Era is any indication, learning to do that can actually be fun!

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I had the honor of knowing Rosalyn Baxandall, her son Phineas, and other members of her family.

A socialist-feminist activist, historian, and teacher, Baxandall was one of the first members to join the international Advisory Board of Rethinking Marxism, which she helped to bring into existence back in 1988 and to thrive in the intervening decades.