‘American Democratic Socialism’ Has a Proud, Diverse, and Inspiring History
A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.”
TERRY EAGLETON, IDEOLOGY: AN INTRODUCTION
“[I]t’s hard for me to believe that, thirty years after I came to America as an idealistic teenager, this is where we are headed. In college I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which contains the thrilling declaration “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. We seem to have gone, in one generation, from the bracing atmosphere of Mill’s On Liberty to the dark, dank atmosphere of Orwell’s 1984. Hate Week! The Ministry of Truth! The Thought Police! All of this—once the hallmark of faraway socialist regimes—is now familiar. It has become our world.”
DINESH D’SOUZA, UNITED STATES OF SOCIALISM
“To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity. It’s asserting the value of saying that the America we want and the America that we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education. It’s one in which no person is too poor to have the medicines they need to live.”
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ, VOGUE, 2018
America was never, is not, and will never become a socialist country. It is where socialism goes to die. Just over a week ago, the Republican led House of Representatives handily passed a resolution denouncing the “crimes” of socialist autocrats like Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot and rejecting the implementation of socialist policies in the United States. This followed on the heels of the Republicans’ own discount autocrat Donald Trump having in 2020 denounced the “socialist agenda” that would “demolish” the country. Of course, other countries may have, or have had, thriving democratic socialist parties and leaders. Nearby Canada crowned Tommy Douglas1 its most beloved son—the leader of the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the ‘father’ of Canadian public healthcare beat out a dream team of hockey stars to win the designation. The National Health Service, or NHS, a creation of the British Labour Party, is among the most cherished institutions in Britain. And the Nordic welfare states, largely the product of worker movements aligned with various social democratic and democratic socialist parties, are widely regarded as the most flourishing societies created thus far. And that was (maybe) fine…for them. But that has no place in the land of free markets, white Jesus, and GoFundMe medical fundraising campaigns.
This was the conventional wisdom for the last 100 years since Eugene Debs led the Socialist Party of America to its best ever showing in the 1912 presidential election, winning 6 percent of the vote. After this, even germinal socialism dwindled and died, existing only in fringe left-wing communities and far from fringe right-wing conspiracies propagated by the likes of the John Birch Society and Fox News. Then, as if thunder on a sunny day, everything changed in 2016 when Bernie Sanders decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders was dismissed as something of an eccentricity at first, but no one was laughing when he ran a competitive campaign even in the face of severe disadvantages and a media environment that ranged from bemused to outright hostile. Over 13 million people cast a ballot for Sanders during the primary, and he won a large number of the northern states that constitute the Democrats’ heartland. Chillingly, this included other states such as Michigan and Wisconsin that Clinton would later lose to Trump in the general election. Since 2016, American democratic socialism has refused to go away, becoming an important segment on the political spectrum—surviving and thriving in spite of its small size. This includes around 90,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America and DSA-adjacent politicians like AOC and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders being two of the most popular and most-followed members of Congress on social media.
So goes a narrative that most of us who came to democratic socialism in the 2010s are familiar with. It has a lot of appealing mythological qualities to it: feisty rise until Eugene Debs, long tragic fall, and then a potential phoenix-like rebirth. And, of course, it flatters the conceits of the present to imagine we’re the creators of something tremendous and unprecedented, that we are on the precipice of an overdue paradigm shift in American culture and thinking.
Dorrien’s History of American Socialism
Every now and then a book comes along that warrants the adjective magisterial. It’s not a word to be rolled out casually. Even though it conveys something positive, it’s also a bit intimidating. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is magisterial. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is magisterial. Karl Marx’s Capital is so magisterial that I’ve met committed Marxists who’ll admit, usually after a few drinks, that they’ve never made it the whole way through even Volume One. Big books that get the M word slapped next to them run the risk of never being read—winding up on people’s shelves, either to impress a date or as a kind of New Year’s resolution to better oneself.
by Gary Dorrien
Yale UUniversity Press; 752 pages
September 14, 2021
That must not be the fate of Gary Dorrien’s magisterial American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion and Theory. Clocking in at 700 pages and change, the book could be used productively by weightlifters. Its 100-plus pages of footnotes no doubt come across as intimidating. But Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, hasn’t written an intimidating book. He has written a masterpiece. American Democratic Socialism will be the definitive history for some time. Purely as a factual account of a complex series of development, Dorrien’s book is unrivaled. And he is a talented storyteller, weaving personal, intellectual, and spiritual narratives together into a gigantic tapestry of life and struggle. In Dorrien’s hands, people like Eugene Debs, Cornel West, and May Wood Simmons come alive as complicated and very human actors.
More than just a chronicler, Dorrien has been involved in American socialist circles for decades, and even made cameos within the history, dialoguing with writer-activists like Michael Harrington, who founded the DSA in 1982 and wrote important defenses of its principles. This proximity to its subjects gives Dorrien’s history a kind of texture most histories can only dream of; the people in his book are often easy to admire and empathize with but are very far from perfect.
But more than that, Dorrien’s theological training comes very much in handy in describing the shifting pathos of distance and closeness to one’s convictions so characteristic of the radical. Shockingly, at many points, his history of democratic socialism is more Kierkegaard’s Either/Or than Marx’s The Civil War in France. In other words, Dorrien evokes the soul of American democratic socialism. He charts how Eugene Debs found his way from patriotic American reformer to democratic socialist with some difficulty, stirred by a combination of empathy for the working classes and an inner conviction that socialism wasn’t anti-American but in fact all about freedom. Dorrien discusses the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s complicated socialist radicalization and his equally complex transition to liberal realist under the pressures of the Second World War. Ironically, Niebuhr was guided by a very Marxist sense of realpolitik coupled with a gloomy version of Christian outlook that saw much of humankind as radically fallen. And, more importantly, Dorrien powerfully captures the frustration felt by women like Ella Baker and gay men like Bayard Rustin. Baker and Rustin made absolutely critical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and the advancement of welfarism but were deeply hurt that their straight male counterparts either took them for granted as all but hired help or sneered at their sexuality.
But more than just a chronicle, the book has three important lessons for American socialists.
Three Lessons for American Democratic Socialists
The first and most important contribution of American Democratic Socialism is to highlight the inherent diversity of the movement throughout its history. Dorrien doesn’t shy away from the fact that many American socialists were morally culpable in the prejudices of their time. Eugene Debs gets a lot of credit as a charismatic figure who pushed the movement forward. But Dorrien points out that he had a bad habit of ignoring how racism operated independently of class oppression, and how many in the early socialist movement held bigoted views. Michael Harrington, an important socialist intellectual, is applauded for bringing attention to the plight of America’s poor. But Dorrien notes how he long struggled to understand the emotional register of feminist language. Dorrien also highlights the vital contributions of long marginalized identity and ideological groups to American democratic socialism at all levels, which testifies to its intellectual, political, and activist diversity. This includes figures from W.E.B Du Bois to Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Fraser, and the women of color “Squad” members who are the face of progressivism today. Overall, the book should be the final stake in the heart of accusations that American socialism, past or present, is nothing but a bunch of white male “Bernie Bro” types who want better wages and pensions for people who look like them.
For the most part, Dorrien applauds this diversity as a sign of democratic socialism’s broad appeal and integrity, but he rightly stresses how it has and does pose intellectual and organizational challenges. As an academic, I empathize with Dorrien’s description of the heated battles between the “old” and “cultural” left that broke out in the 1990s and have been waged ever since. “Old” left intellectuals held that American progressives had resigned themselves to accepting the worst kinds of neoliberal capitalist exploitation and environmental degradation as long as there were more CEOs of color. Meanwhile, cultural leftists focused on demanding inclusion and liberal rights insisted that old-school Marxist and revolutionary materialists hadn’t achieved anything of note for decades next to the real advances obtained for women, people of color, and queer individuals that were spearheaded by rainbow coalitions and politics. This calcified into an enduring fault line amongst American progressives that has only recently been softened. Political diversity is a strength, but it is also something that requires constant dialogue and empathy to avoid becoming factionalism.
Secondly, Dorrien’s book decisively overturns the myth that American socialism was just a nonstarter. As he points out, between a long history of capitalist-driven antebellum slavery followed by segregation, the toleration of far-right terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan, the use of mass violence to crush natal labor movements and strikes, and obsequious levels of inequality during the “Gilded Age,” there was more than enough oppression to catalyze an American socialist movement. Why it never took off is a complicated question that much of American Democratic Socialism is dedicated to answering. Dorrien admits that “America’s culture of capitalist individualism thwarted socialists from the beginning.” In its more benign forms, this just made socialism a tough sell, but the culture of capitalist individualism could also be appealed to in order to justify outright use of state force to marginalize or even crush serious socialist agitation. Dorrien might have added something about the paradox of this very culture of capitalist individualism often assuming a markedly nationalist tone, which has enabled reactionaries to wrap themselves in the flag while gutting programs that benefit their fellow citizens.
But Dorrien doesn’t let socialists off the hook by blaming its failings on the opposition; one of the remarkable points he makes is that the American Socialist Party was one of the earliest of its kind, and yet counterparts in Europe overcame similar odds over a shorter period of time to win power. Dorrien claims that early democratic socialist parties made a serious error in not sufficiently building alternative networks and working-class organizations aligned to the party. In the 1930s and ‘40s, American socialists adopted a critical attitude towards the New Deal and War on Poverty— efforts advanced by Democratic institutions—even though many of the initiatives were things they supported. This kept them from claiming credit for very real achievements—even if incomplete—that required decades of left activism to win. More recently, he expresses worry that “Green” initiatives put forward by legislators like AOC, however necessary, may struggle to win working-class support if people’s jobs are impacted. Of course, much of this is speculative on Dorrien’s part given the Green New Deal never passed Congress, meaning it is impossible to gauge support for its impact. But ensuring any environmental policy works to the advantage of the entire community, including workers in traditionally extractive industries, is important, and Dorrien is right to anticipate the point.
And third and most importantly, American Democratic Socialism is—beyond just a history—a deep and moving account of socialist faith. Many socialists accept Marx’s gloomy description of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” And certainly, the vulgarity of Christian evangelism in this country has done little to discourage this view. As Obery Hendricks observed in his book Christians Against Christianity, it has been rather astonishing to see the right take a faith tradition whose central figure insisted to the rich man “if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” and mutilate it into a defense of avarice and punishment. But Dorrien points out how many of the most central figures in American democratic socialism, from George Woodbey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Cornel West, were and are Christian socialists. The theological dimensions of this are complex and debatable. But Dorrien’s emphasis on the centrality of Christian socialism to the American left should give militant left secularists pause, and hopefully will provoke a crucial dialogue that has been avoided for too long.
In his book Dynamics of Faith,the Christian socialist theologian Paul Tillich observed that faith spoke to what people thought was of existential “highest concern.” It often did this in a symbolic way, and as Marx (and Jesus, for that matter) pointed out, it is all too easy for the symbol to become idolatrously fetishized in place of deep rumination of what really gives human existence meaning. In my experience, modern socialists are very good at speaking to people’s yearning for justice on this earth, but we are not yet as talented at connecting this to broader questions about the point of life: why anything we do or don’t do matters at all, and why it’s important to struggle against the evils of the world rather than cynically or even nihilistically resigning ourselves to them.
By contrast, the political right constantly peddles its own, rote answers to what Freud called “oceanic” questions by blunting their capacity to provoke a yearning for justice. The meaning of life lies, as Roger Scruton put it in The Meaning of Conservatism, in people becoming “tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them” while being “unwilling to lodge blame where [there is] no remedy, [to] seek fulfillment in the world as it is—to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born.” Or it comes from following Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life by cleaning your room, standing up straight, and working on getting ahead individually rather than wasting time reading bell hooks and trying to change a world too complicated to understand. In other words, reactionary faith traditions become the handmaiden of idolatrous injustice where they demonstrate a less than religious, all too human deference to worldly power. It is no coincidence that even self-declared defenders of Christian civilization like Jordan Peterson and Dinesh D’Souza so admire Nietzsche, the “anti-Christ” who denounced the “lie of equality of souls” and called socialism “the residue of Christianity and Rousseau.”
This is, of course, profoundly contrary to the ethical spirit of religious movements like Christianity, which radically insisted that the “the wretched of the earth will know that God is on their side” and which insists that we must do on Earth what would be done in heaven. As Hendricks points out in his book The Politics of Jesus, at its best, this has led Christians to condemn systems of oppressive power from the Roman empire to Jim Crow and demand a better kind of society based on care and fraternity. Against accusations that this radicalism means “politicizing” Christianity, Hendricks points out that this just shows that progressive Christians take Jesus’ message seriously enough to act on its demands. By contrast, it is intriguing how, while many conservatives claim to love the Christian God, they have little interest in his message that “whatever you do unto the least of your brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” If the left is to be successful, both religious and atheistic leftists will need to rediscover how to connect our yearning for justice to questions of existential meaning without giving into fanaticism or chauvinism. It will mean recognizing how a life of the spirit is not one which is directed inwards to the aesthetic realm, or even outwards to the ethical world of tradition and moralism. Instead, it requires faith that when God speaks to us, it is on behalf of the poor, the wretched, and the outcast.
“The American people are infected with racism—that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals—that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right. But they do not have a millennium to make changes. Nor have they a choice of continuing in the old way. The future they are asked to inaugurate is not so unpalatable that it justifies the evils that beset the nation. To end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play, and creativity—all these are worthy of the American ideal. We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience.”
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Gary Dorrien’s American Democratic Socialism is more than just an epochal history. It’s also a guide to the future. He recognizes that we are at a crucial tipping point now. We must not let the early anti-Trumpist energy erode (for now) because there is no reason things couldn’t go backwards as they have many times before. The history of democratic socialism in the United States is for the most part a proud one, but incomplete. It has been relegated to the sidelines for much of the country’s history. The job of contemporary democratic socialists is to complete this history by transforming the present. Thomas Paine once said that we have it in our power to remake the world anew. Dorrien’s American Democratic Socialism left me feeling that we still have that power if we’re willing to use it.
1. No one is perfect, and it’s important to note that Douglas initially had some bad views on issues like eugenics.