- - Thursday, June 9, 2016


“Socialism” has nearly always been a dirty word in American politics, largely because of the movement’s onetime ties to the doctrines of Karl Marx, but it has had an appeal to many naive and well-meaning folk, drawn to the prospect of an ideal society, sometimes based on an appeal to the Scriptures or more often, “scientific” socialism based Marx.

It’s not clear whether Bernie Sanders, whose appeal to the young nearly upended the Democratic establishment in the way that Donald Trump disposed of the Republican establishment, understands the tortured history of socialism in either the original European or the American version. Socialism had its hour in America in the early part of the 20th century, when Eugene V. Debs, a trade union radical, traded on the social problems of the rapid American industrialization to make a deep mark on public consciousness. President Woodrow Wilson, “a progressive,” sent Debs to prison for his opposition to American entry into World War I, but he won a million votes for president in 1920, when a million of anything was more than a million is now.

Shorn of their Communist radicals, the Socialists faded in the enormous real-world prosperity of the 1920s. They left the legacy of the federal income tax, implemented with the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which had prohibited direct taxes. When the Depression struck in 1929, much of the socialist rhetoric was adopted and adapted to the New Deal.

Norman Thomas, a tall, handsome man and a splendid orator whose booming voice was polished in a Presbyterian pulpit, took over the remnants of the movement. He was widely respected as a preacher but a failure as a politician with an appealing message. The party faded again under a series of crises; the first in 1936 when most old-time Socialists supported FDR against Thomas. He threw in with the European Communists against Hitler and Mussolini, further dimming his appeal. An anti-Communist splinter, mostly of New York Jewish intellectuals, broke away and the Socialists became a footnote to American politics.

The party continued in name, maintaining a New York headquarters and a weekly version of its once powerful newspaper The Call, and after World War II stragglers from the movement persuaded the U.S. government to wean the West European parties away from neutralism in the struggle against the high tide of communism in France, Italy and West Germany. European socialists brooked no rival in opposition to Moscow and the totalitarian state and its attempt to absorb central Europe.

The socialists blossomed in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden, where a highly sophisticated industrial base grew apace, aided not least by collaborating with Hitler during World War II as a friendly neutral.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” with the small-s, presumably in the Thomas and European anti-Communist traditions. He lived for two years in an Israeli kibbutz, or communal settlement, with ties to Moscow. He flirted with Fidel Castro and the pro-Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It’s difficult to know what he actually believes, and there was no attempt to question him closely about it during the campaign just now ended.

Like many other self-proclaimed socialists before him — as now in Venezuela — he retreated toward more conventional positions. Now he, too, becomes a footnote, and we’ll probably never know what he actually believes about the world beyond a campaign platform.



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