The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.
Eugene V. Debs
…freedom and progress go hand in hand…people are rejecting socialism because they see that it doesn’t empower people, it impoverishes them.
In my previous letter, I wondered why, among many western industrialized nations, we were the only one which never elected a socialist president. I suggested that we were not ideological by nature and never saw collectivism as a solution to our problems.
I further pointed out that there was a sharp distinction to be drawn between communist countries like Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela which were despotic and those which practiced “democratic socialism.”
The key term here is “democratic.” Democratic socialists believe in free elections and when a socialist government is defeated, it will turn over power to the opposition party.
One more important point. Those who lump communism and socialism together need to refine their thinking.
Our Constitution allows for a military and a federal highway program, both socialist enterprises. Congress has also created Social Security, Medicare and Workman’s Compensation…more socialism.
Maybe we need to think of ourselves not as a capitalist society, but more of a “mixed economy.”
Now, for a closer look at the men whom history has designated the leaders of the socialist movement. Eugene V. Debs was a trade unionist, a socialist, and a political activist.
He was the founder of the American Railway Union and the International Workers of the World also known as the Wobblies. He ran for president six times -1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920.
His last race was run from a prison cell having been convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 for opposing America’s participation in World War I.
His conviction led to 10 years in jail, but the sentence was commuted by President Warren G. Harding in 1921.
In his many races for the presidency, he never garnered more than 6 percent of the popular vote and not a single vote in the electoral college. So much for the chances of a socialist winning an election in the U.S.A.
Debs may be most famous for his leadership in the Pullman Company strike of 1894. This “wildcat” strike involved more than 250,000 men across 27 states. President Grover Cleveland intervened on the side of
the railroad on the excuse that mail was not being delivered. The army was called in and the strike was broken. As a result, Debs was sentenced to six months in jail for violation of a court injunction.
This was an era in which corporations could count on the courts, the government and private armies of Pinkerton detectives to thwart the efforts of unions. The legitimate claims of working men and women for a living wage and decent working conditions were disregarded.
When Debs died in 1926, the new face of socialism in America was that of Norman Thomas. Like Debs, he was a perennial candidate for president. He ran five times beginning in 1928 and four of these races were against F.D.R. It has been said that Thomas did not need to beat
Roosevelt because the New Deal enacted almost all of the planks in Thomas’ platform. Unlike Debs, Thomas was a Presbyterian minister.
He was admired by Margaret Sanger and criticized by Leon Trotsky. While most upper and middle-class Americans found his socialism unsavory, he was grudgingly admired because he was well educated, articulate and wore three-piece suits.
Jewish-Americans must have had mixed feelings about him, for while he wanted to open America’s doors to victims of the Nazi persecution in the 1930s, he opposed Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, especially after the Suez Crisis.
Norman Thomas passed away on Dec. 19, 1968.
A third figure who looms large in the pantheon of great American socialists is Michael Harrington.
Unlike his predecessors, he never ran for president. He was the scholar socialist, author of 16 books and a Distinguished Professor of political science at Queens College where I had the privilege of working.
When in 1988, more than 600 of his friends and colleagues gathered at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City to honor him, among the attendees were Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Cesar Chavez president of the United Farm Workers.
On that occasion, Kennedy said: “Among veterans of the War on Poverty, no one has been a more loyal ally when the night was darkest.”
Harrington is best known for his book called “The Other America” which has been described as an illuminating, profoundly moving classic.”
Written in 1962, it shed light on the lives of the poor and has been described as “a galvanizing force for the war on poverty.” His vision for socialism was that it must be international and that tax policies should redistribute wealth.
At the age of 61, far too young, we lost him to cancer.
What characteristics did all three of the men described above share?
Here are my “take-away” lessons. Each of them came to socialism as a result of the heinous conditions America faced. They were guided by compassion and selflessness.
A discussion about capitalism inevitably talks about incentives and the virtue of competition. Socialism assumes we are guided by our better angels. I prefer to think of humankind as benevolent, not greedy and self-aggrandizing. This was the thought process of Debs, Thomas and Harrington.
It is a proud heritage!
Dr. Hal Sobel