Gary Dorrien on Making Democratic Socialism American

Gary Dorrien shows that the best American traditions of democratic socialism have emphasized economic democracy, cultural and racial diversity, and perhaps surprisingly, a rootedness in religious ideals and socialisms.
Americans have long debated two contrasting visions of what kind of country they should want to be. Both are ideal types linked to mainstream forms of conservative and progressive politics. The first is the libertarian vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth, lifts the right to property above the right to self-government, and limits the federal government to national defense and protecting the interests of the rich. This ideal is powerful in American life despite being impossible, legitimizing the dominance of the rich, the aggressive, and the corporations in the name of individual freedom. 

The second vision conceives the good society as a realized democracy in which the people control the government and economy, self-government is superior to property, and no group dominates any other. The logic of this ideal is democratic socialist, extending the rights of political democracy into the social and economic spheres. Democratic socialism is supposedly so un-American that it must be called by other names. But it has a rich history in the United States, even by its right name.

Democratic socialists founded the industrial unions and many trade unions, pulled the Progressive movement to the Left, played leading roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded the first black trade union, proposed every plank of what became the New Deal, and led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. The four iconic leaders of the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Bayard Rustin—were democratic socialists all. Today democratic socialist activism is surging as a protest that global capitalism works only for a minority and is driving the planet to eco-apocalypse.

My forthcoming book from Yale University Press, American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory, interprets the history of U.S. American democratic socialism from the radical democrats of the early American Republic to contemporary movements for eco-socialism. Four arguments frame the narrative as a whole and inform the specific arguments of each chapter.

(1) This entire tradition has sought to Americanize democratic socialism by speaking the language of individual liberty, trying to build a coalition party of the democratic Left, and grappling with the distinct American traditions of racism, cultural diversity, Exceptionalist mythology, and activist religion.

(2) Religious socialism has been far more important in American democratic socialism than scholarship about it conveys. Religious socialists fit their ideological commitments to their ethical principles, not the other way around, and most of the African Americans and women who came into the early Socialist movement came through the social gospel.

(3) The best traditions of socialism are like the original socialist movement in being predominantly cooperative and decentralized. Nationalization is only one form of socialization and usually not the best one. The best American traditions of democratic socialism have emphasized bottom-up economic democracy instead of centralized government interventions from above.

(4) Democratic socialism is not too idealistic and unworldly to be a viable political perspective, contrary to Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, and all who quote them as final-word authorities on what cannot be achieved.


American Socialist Organizations: “There is no such thing as an unorganized socialist”

The first three chapters of this story track the first American socialist organizations to the end of the Socialist Party’s golden era. I describe America’s first great socialist leader, Eugene Debs, as a thoroughly American lover of working-class people who adopted a magical idea of socialist deliverance, and the first great hope of radical industrial unionism, the Knights of Labor, as a Christian socialist enterprise. The book lingers over the founding of the Socialist Party in 1901 and the wondrous stew of radical democrats, neo-abolitionists, Marxists, social gospel Christians, Populists, feminists, trade unionists, industrial unionists, Single Taxers, social democrats, anarcho-syndicalists, and Fabians that joined it.

It argues that the early party was remarkably successful at politics, despite its labor problem, and had little trouble speaking American, despite its Marxian cast. It contends that the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) fatally truncated the labor movement and the kind of socialism that was possible in the United States, thwarting the Socialists from scaling up and from creating a labor party. It commends the Socialists who bravely opposed World War I and bore the persecution of the U.S. government only to be devastated by the meteor of world Communism. Afterward they tried to build a farmer-labor-socialist-progressive party, but were defeated by obstacles new and old.

The Debsian heyday ended in shattered despair, yielding the dismal run-up to “Norman Thomas Socialism,” as it was called—the central subject of chapter four. Norman Thomas Socialism was a three-sided struggle to renew the democratic socialist idea, hold off the Communist Party, and get a farmer-labor-socialist-progressive party off the ground. Thomas was eloquent, personable, astute, courageous, and not cut out to be a party leader. He symbolized the shift of the Socialist Party from being primarily working class to being primarily a vehicle of middle-class idealism. The New York garment unions were the financial rock of the party until 1937, when Thomas and the leftwing drove them out. Afterward there was no financial rock.

Every chapter mixes narrative and theory, blends the renowned and the wrongly forgotten, and takes seriously the maxim of Debs that there is no such thing as an unorganized socialist. Socialist movement organizations are featured in every chapter except chapter seven and are always in view without exception. Debs realized there were plenty of individual socialists out there who never joined anything. He empathized with the non-joiners, being a romantic American individualist who couldn’t bear the wrangling of political conventions. Yet he rightly told his vast audiences that socialism is inherently social and organizational; the only kind worth talking about binds together with others in solidarity and struggle. This book is movement-oriented in the fashion of its subject and in accord with my customary contextual approach to intellectual history.


After Debs: Norman Thomas and the Shachtmanites

          Chapters four and five describe the forty-year period in which Thomas stood at the center of American democratic socialism, befriended black Socialist unionist A. Philip Randolph, and grappled with Communism, the New Deal, united front politics, World War II, and the Cold War. In the 1920s Socialists touted that Thomas was a Presbyterian minister and Princeton graduate, not a threatening Bolshevik. In the 1930s they watched Franklin Roosevelt carry out 90 percent of their platform and disastrously carped against him.

Norman Thomas

          The Socialists played leading roles in organizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and led the dominant CIO union, the United Auto Workers. Their united front activism mostly backfired and the party dwindled, surpassed even by a Communist Party that was shrewd enough to support Roosevelt. Thomas and the Socialists allowed into the party a band of Trotskyites who sabotaged the party and stole its youth section. Another exodus ensued when Thomas and the Socialists held out too long against World War II. Afterward Thomas adamantly opposed Soviet domination of East Europe and pro-Soviet American Leftism, supporting the purge of Communists from CIO unions. In 1958 he balked at admitting a group of former Trotskyites into the party, fearing they would take it over, which they promptly did.

These were the Shachtmanites, disciples of Max Shachtman, a former associate of Bolshevik hero Leon Trotsky. The Shachtmanites were brainy, cunning, scholastic, aggressively parasitic, fiercely ideological, consumed with the right kind of anti-Communism, which they called anti-Stalinism, and at every historical turn, strange. They were still Leninists when they broke from Trotsky in 1939 and were more Leninist than they claimed when they morphed in the mid-1950s toward democratic socialism. Michael Harrington was their youthful star. Brilliant, energetic, and charming, he befriended black Socialist-pacifist organizer Bayard Rustin and brought Shachtmanites into the civil rights movement. Rustin joined the Shachtmanites; Harrington and Rustin helped the Shachtmanites take over the party; and Harrington was anointed the successor to Debs and Thomas. At first he didn’t deserve the title. Harrington earned it by breaking from the Shachtmanites and breaking up the Socialist Party.   

The idea that democratic socialism should be radical is contested in every generation by socialists who are radical about hardly anything. From the beginning the Socialist Party had a wing of stodgy social democrats who prized their perches in the AFL. Most were German state socialists based in Milwaukee or Chicago, or Jewish garment unionists based in New York. Many became top party officials dubbed “the Old Guard.” Debs fought them fiercely, especially during the party’s first dozen years, targeting the AFL leaders. The Old Guard was never just one thing and it evolved through the eras of Debs, Thomas, and Harrington. Max Hayes, bitterly derided by Debs as an Old Guard sellout, tried valiantly to rally the Socialist wing of the AFL. James Oneal, a Debs ally of the early party, became an Old Guard stalwart in the 1930s without significantly changing his politics.

The Old Guard of the 1950s helped the Shachtmanites overtake the Socialist Party, with dripping irony, as these groups had previously despised each other. In every generation the Old Guard–whoever it was deemed to be–was accused of inordinate self-regard and betraying socialism. Thomas treated the Old Guard generously up to the point that he drove most of it out of the party. It was always tempting for left-Socialists to claim the Old Guard held them back. If only they could be rid of the grumpy conservatives! But the Socialists did not fail solely because they had an Old Guard.

The Marxian ideology that American Socialists more or less borrowed from German Social Democracy disparaged reform causes as second-order and pedestrian. Their attitude showed when they worked in reform movements and tried to create a labor party. Thomas dispelled much of the socialism-only ethos that the party inherited from its Marxian past, but acquiring new habits came hard. Many Socialists within and outside the Old Guard held racial biases that blinkered how they practiced socialism. The party took a decent position on racial justice and did little about it, falling far short of the Communist Party, even though Randolph was a prominent national figure and closely allied with Thomas. Randolph, Rustin, Harrington, James Farmer, Ella Baker, Norman Hill, and former Communists Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell changed this picture, helping Martin Luther King Jr. unite the established civil rights movement based in New York City with the new, youthful, church-based movement of the South. Randolph and Thomas, followed by King and Harrington, are central figures in my interpretation of American socialism. All were dedicated to keeping secret that King’s social gospel was democratic socialist.

The Shachtmanites had a vision of a “realigned” Democratic Party that put trade unions at the center, supported the civil rights movement, dumped the party’s Dixiecrat flank, and welcomed Shachtmanites as union and party leaders. Shortly after the Shachtmanites swung the Socialist Party behind this strategy, a group of ambitious college students based in Ann Arbor, Michigan proclaimed that a “New Left” was needed. The leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) lumped together all the competing groups and ideologies of what they derisively called the “Old Left.” Thomas got a pass, as did Harrington at first, but SDS said it took no interest in Old Left faction fights over Marxian ideology, Communism, union organizing, and the working class. Anti-Stalinist social democrats were surely better than pro-Soviet Communists, but only by degree. To SDS, the Old Leftists sounded too much alike, not fathoming what it was like to be a college student in 1962.

My telling of the SDS story and its influence on American socialism emphasizes the early affinities between SDS and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the emergence of Black Power and radical feminism in the later SDS and SNCC, and the howling alienation the New Left never outgrew. Chapter six recounts that the New Left was born in a fractious relationship with the Socialist Party while depending on funding from trade unions in the party. The so-called Old Left, being cast as old and bygone, denied that privileged college students who never learned their Marxism had anything to teach them.

The socialist drama of the early 1960s pitted hardened survivors of the 1930s against gently raised youth of the 1950s. It built to a spectacular crash as SCLC and SDS self-imploded, leaving the Old Left socialists to say I-told-you-so. The black New Left struggled with the role models it inherited from the 1950s while the white New Left was too alienated to find any; social critic C. Wright Mills came the closest to being a half-exception. Both wings of the New Left wrongly spurned the hard-won wisdom of the Old Left about Communist vanguardism and dictatorship, while giving birth to liberation movements that enriched how socialists conceived social justice and battled for it. Harrington blew his chance to be a bridge figure between the Old Left and New Left–until the 1970s.


Harrington, King and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)

Martin Luther King Jr. with Bayard Rustin

Chapter six revolves around Harrington, King, and the socialist organizations that Harrington co-founded in 1973 and 1982. I will argue that the 1970s was a lost decade in American politics marked chiefly by confusion and banality. It was a period of absorbing the turbulent legacy of the 1960s, the genocidal horror of the Cambodian revolution, and the daunting transformation of the world economy. The economic boom of the post-World War II era ran out, yielding a structural economic shift and its miserable combination of stagnation and inflation. Stagflation defied Keynesian correction, confounding the social democratic Left, which called the new situation “post-Fordism.” The bitter ideological divides in the Socialist Party blew it apart in 1973, ending the party of Debs and Thomas. The Shachtmanites bridled at the anti-Vietnam War movement, Black Power, and radical feminism, founding a new organization called Social Democrats USA.

Michael Harrington

Harrington led a faction of progressive social democrats into a new organization called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), building a vehicle for Old Left social democrats, select veterans of the New Left, and youthful newcomers from George McGovern’s Democratic presidential campaign. Meanwhile Harrington argued that the rightward trajectory of the Shachtmanites represented something too important not to name. He called it neoconservatism, a tag that stuck. The Shachtmanites and Cold War liberals he named went on to become the most consequential intellectual-political movement of their time, winning high positions in three Republican administrations and mocking Harrington for befriending feminists and anti-anti-Communists.

The idea of DSOC was to create a multi-tendency organization uniting the generations of the progressive democratic Left. DSOC was more Old Left than New Left, wearing its anti-Communism proudly. Yet DSOC achieved the Communist Party dream of the Popular Front periods of 1935-’39 and 1941-’45, creating a united front organization, this time without Stalinism. DSOC won the battle against the neoconservatives for influence in the Democratic Party only to get blown away by the next great turn in American politics. Harrington and DSOC sought to ride into power in 1980 when their ally, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Instead Kennedy failed to unseat Carter and the neocons rode into power to run the foreign policy and education departments of Ronald Reagan. DSOC was too deflated by defeat and disdainful of Carter to rally for him against Reagan. Many blamed the hapless and unlucky Carter for the alarming triumph of the Reagan Right, but Harrington stressed that Reagan became powerful by offering clear, bad, popular answers to complex structural problems. The Left needed new answers calibrated to the new realities of global capitalism. 

The democratic socialist Left entered a period of confusion, debating the fiscal crisis of the state and two academic cottage industries called “market socialism” and “analytical Marxism.” DSOC merged in 1982 with a New Left organization, the New American Movement, to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). There was no mistaking the symbolism of DSA. Both of the merging organizations sought to heal the leftover rift between the Old Left and New Left. By 1982 the Leftists who knew what they believed belonged to an ascending cultural Left that privileged race, gender, and sexuality, building on the social movements of the ‘60s. Meanwhile a long-departed Italian Communist leader won a tremendous vogue for contending that the Left wrongly cedes the entire cultural realm to the Right.


The Rise of Cultural Left Academia and the Next Socialist Left

Antonio Gramsci died in a Fascist prison cell in 1937. He argued that capitalism exercises “hegemony” over the lives of people where they live in schools, civic organizations, religious communities, newspapers, media, and political parties. Hegemony is the cultural process by which a ruling class makes its domination appear natural. Gramsci contended that if the Left had any serious intention of winning power, it had to contest the Right on the cultural level. This argument swept much of the Socialist Left in the 1980s, providing Marxists with a sort-of Marxian basis for appropriating the cultural leftism of identity politics, difference feminism, and other forms of cultural recognition.

The idea that socialism is compatible with liberal democracy and the related idea that socialism is compatible with capitalist markets have long histories in cooperative, ethical, and religious traditions of socialism. Both ideas, however, were anathema to orthodox Marxists. The storied debate over “revisionism” in German Social Democracy was principally about the role of democracy in socialism, giving rise to a self-conscious name, “democratic socialism.” But even the Social Democratic founders of democratic socialism did not claim that socialism is compatible with capitalist markets. Market socialism is the idea that there must be a way to combine socialist planning and cooperation with capitalist markets.

This idea, though implicit in democratic socialism, is much harder to justify on Marxian grounds than the idea that socialism is inherently democratic. Harrington’s theoretical work revolved around these two sets of problems. He argued that good socialism is radically democratic and it deals constructively with capitalist markets. On democracy he cast Marx as a radical democrat much like himself. On market socialism Harrington argued that capitalist markets should work within socialist plans, until he shifted in the 1980s to an emphasis on social democratic plans within capitalist markets, while fudging the difference.

Harrington was a market socialist in both phases of his later career, but the coming of neoliberal globalization chastened him. He cheered when his friend Francois Mitterrand became the president of France and instituted an ambitious socialist program. Then Mitterrand made a bitter retreat in the face of overpowering economic forces and Harrington pulled back. The fate of Mitterrand’s government marked everything that Harrington said about market socialism in his last years.

In some usages market socialism is synonymous with economic democracy and in others it is not. Today this discussion is a global enterprise that draws upon the foundational theories of Polish neo-Marxists Oskar Lange and Wlodzimierz Brus. My analysis focuses on American political economists and social theorists Fred Block, Robert Dahl, David Ellerman, John Roemer, Leland Stauber, and Thomas E. Weisskopf in dialogue with British theorists Saul Estrin and David Miller. Roemer was also a major player in analytical Marxism, along with political economists and theorists G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and Eric Olin Wright. Here the Marxian focus on structural conflict was refashioned through rational-choice game theory to explain the crisis of the welfare state. Rational-choice Marxists describe welfare state capitalism as a structural conflict among capitalists, state managers, and workers in which each group rationally maximizes its material interests. Like market socialists, analytical Marxists renewed socialist theory with an intellectual project that remains a significant endeavor.

But these were not the discussions that drove the Left in the 1980s and ‘90s. This book shifts gears in chapter seven because cultural Left academics took over the Left and changed the subject. The democratic Left cratered everywhere except the academy, where it surged with controversial new forms of theory and activism—difference feminism, queer theory, critical race theory, and identity politics. Many social democrats charged that cultural Leftism betrayed the socialist commitment to economic redistribution. Sociologist Todd Gitlin, literary critic Irving Howe, and philosopher Richard Rorty protested that the new discourses of cultural difference and even vanilla multiculturalism ruined the Left by reducing it to identity politics. Some democratic socialists, notably social philosophers Nancy Fraser and Cornel West, fused socialist theory and cultural Left criticism, while political theorists Joseph Schwartz and Michael Walzer tried to temper the social democratic critique of cultural Leftism.

But the Left fought bitterly over Marxist retentions and cultural recognition, especially outside DSA. Chapter seven keeps DSA in view, but on the margin, where it struggled through the 1990s and early twenty-first century merely to hang on.

Photo courtesy of the DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group

My analysis of cultural Leftism features the work of West, gender theorist Judith Butler, feminist theorist bell hooks, Jewish theologian Michael Lerner, and social philosopher Iris Marion Young. It builds to an extensive analysis of Fraser’s theory of redistribution, recognition, and participation as interlinked scales of justice, leading to Fraser’s contention that a third wave of feminism has emerged among feminists demanding alternatives to the authority of the modern nation state.

Today the next socialist Left is being forged by third wave feminists, liberationists of color, unionists, religious socialists, and youthful opponents of neoliberal inequality, many of whom came of age politically in the Bernie Sanders Democratic primary campaign of 2016. I shall argue that Sanders renewed American democratic socialism by running the greatest campaign ever waged by an American socialist and that he is better described as a social democrat than as a democratic socialist. His description of democratic socialism closely resembles how European Social Democratic parties have described it for the past century, as an advanced welfare state politics of economic rights.

Sanders supports a version of worker codetermination in which firm employees elect part of their corporate board, but he emphatically rejects centralized government ownership and does not discuss forms of social ownership that differ from it. The fact that he shares this habit with many European Social Democrats does not mean that he or they are right that socialism no longer has anything to do with worker ownership, public ownership, or mixed models of them. Ironically, European Social Democrats stopped talking about social ownership and the class struggle at the same time, but Sanders has dramatically revived the language of the class struggle. This achievement far transcends his strategic omissions about social ownership.

Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, was a harbinger that people are fed up and a breaking point had been reached. Forty years of letting Wall Street and the big corporations do whatever they want yielded belated protests against flat wages, extreme inequality, and the rule of neoliberal capitalism. Sanders railed throughout the neoliberal era against inequality and exclusion. Then he spoke to the surge against it. Many youthful types who cut their political teeth in his campaign are struggling to build a different Left than the one they inherited, creating social justice networks within and outside the orbit of the Democratic Party. Some are swelling the socialist wing of the Democratic Party in the fashion of U. S. Congressional stars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Harbi Tlaib. Some are reviving the dream of a Left coalition party and debating what went wrong with previous efforts.

The golden era of the Socialist Party ran out when America intervened in World War I, the government viciously persecuted the Socialists, and Communism shredded the Socialists. Belatedly the Socialists tied to build a broad coalition democratic Left party. America would have much more social democracy today had they succeeded.

Their best opportunity to do it occurred before the Socialist Party existed, when Debs refused the Populist nomination and deflated the Populist movement. The Old Guard talked about it seriously in 1909, when the British Labour Party was new and unproven. Hillquit and others talked about it again in 1919, when Labour made a great leap forward and American socialism imploded. The entire party took a pass at it in 1924, when Socialists co-sponsored Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign on a Farmer-Labor-Socialist-Progressive fusion ticket, a one-off episode for the AFL. The Socialists talked about it constantly in the 1930s and 1940s, when FDR stole their platform and the question of allying with Communists constantly plagued the debate. By the time that Socialists settled for caucus status in the Democratic Party, they lacked anywhere else to go. Their shrewd attempt to realign the Democratic Party paid huge dividends for the nation, but not for them. The issues they left on the table by failing to build a coalition party of the Left are very much with us.


Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His twenty authored books include most recently Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism, and In a Post-Hegelian Spirit: Philosophical Theology as Idealistic Discontent. He is also a member of the Advisory Board for the Institute for Christian Socialism.

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