Socialist Moment Has Come Again


My grandfathers were both industrial workers and committed Socialist Party members in the tough, gritty factory town of Racine, Wis.

During the Great Depression, they both suffered long periods of unemployment and my paternal grandad was fired three times for union or Socialist activity. But my grandfathers were able to help elect a Socialist mayor for Racine in the mid-1930s and they cheered the massive labor upsurge that swept 85% of the city’s industrial workers into unions by 1937.

In a total of 73 cities, socialist candidates captured the mayor’s chair. But this local strength was not reflected in presidential elections. It was considered an achievement for the ticket of Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and Milwaukee Mayor Eugene Seidel to capture over 900,000 votes, representing 6% of the electorate in 1912. Socialism, although revered by massive numbers of workers like my grandfathers as the only alternative to lifetimes of exploitation, largely remained marginal to the national discourse even during the Depression.

Flash forward to 2016. I try to imagine how my grandfathers would view the vast new opportunities that American progressives now have to shape the future of this country. Proudly proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders captured nearly 13 million votes during the Democratic primaries. Most significantly, with Sanders leading the march leftward for Democrats, an astonishing 60% of Democrats now consider themselves favorable to socialism, according to a poll by OnMessage Inc. and the American Action Network. An earlier poll taken by New York Times/CBS News showed that even 52% of Hillary Clinton voters similarly favorable to socialism.

The precarious lives suffered by tens of millions, amidst the continuing transfer of income from the working class and poor to the top 1%, has clearly soured large numbers of people on America’s ruthless profit-maximizing model of capitalism. This has fueled a heightened interest in egalitarian, democratic alternatives that promise broadly-shared prosperity. Socialism is no longer at the far fringes of American politics, and instead represents an as-yet-undefined hope for a society no longer dominated by dictatorial CEOs and their no-holds-barred drive to maximize profits.

The spread of this sentiment allowed Sanders to clearly set the framework for the Democratic debate throughout the primaries, and Hillary Clinton found herself again and again compelled to adopt some form of Sanders’ proposals. Sanders forcefully raised the issues of staggering inequality, an economic system “rigged” working families, an increasingly unaffordable university system, the structural changes needed in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and denouncing the offshoring of millions of US jobs — and the trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Democratic Platform Committee adopted “80%” of Sanders-backed planks on issues like a $15 an hour minimum wage, a no-debt college plan for families earning under $125,000, breaking up “too-big-to-fail” banks, according to Sanders policy director Warren Gunnels. Historian Maurice Isserman, who has long closely followed the American Left’s development over the past century, called it “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.”

The Sanders platform committee suffered some setbacks in failing to win firm opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would establish a kind of corporate supremacy enabling them to over-ride the decisions of democratic governments on public-interest regulations, among other fatal flaws. Still, Hillary Clinton and her vice presidential pick Tim Kaine, formerly an ardent pro-globalization advocate, are now opposing the TPP.

Further, the TPP was raised by speakers continually throughout the convention. With nearly non-existent media coverage — including on the liberal MSNBC — on TPP’s severe shortcomings, the constant displays of anti-TPP sentiment at the Democratic convention surely stimulated vast public interest in the issue. Given polling that has consistently shown massive public opposition to “free-trade” agreements like NAFTA that foster a race to the bottom on wages and the environment, we can expect much more widespread and volatile protests against the TPP once its implications become broadly understood.

However, for some of my most respected friends on the Left, the Democratic National Convention only confirmed their deepest suspicions about the Democratic Party. Some are identifying with a movement called DemExit#. On the one hand, I understand their disillusionment. Hillary Clinton, up until relatively recently, was a Wall Street favorite, an avid promoter of “free trade,” and advocate of relatively hawkish foreign policies. Topping things off were e-mails demonstrating what few had doubted: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was blatantly biased in favor of Clinton.

Moreover, as Nicholas Confessore has reported in the New York Times, top Democratic donors flocked to the Democratic convention and were untroubled by the flow of anti-corporate rhetoric. “After a wrenching yearlong nominating battle with searing debates over the influence of Wall Street and the ability of ordinary citizens to be heard over the din of dollars changing hands, the party’s moneyed elite returned to the fore this week, undeterred and mostly unabashed,” he noted.

The rush of donors to the Democrats is likely to accelerate as Donald Trump’s statements become increasingly offensive and erratic. One disastrous statement after another by Trump threatens to shrink his following further and to pose a threat to the Republican stranglehold on Congress, and perhaps even to Republicans at the state level.

So we are witnessing a growing corps of billionaires — Warren Buffett, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and Meg Whitman — becoming increasingly vocal in backing Hillary Clinton. This influx of big donors, along with alienated Republicans, will likely tempt Clinton and Tim Kaine to run a centrist campaign despite the public outrage at inequality and impervious elites, which has marked politics in 2016. With the potential for winning a landslide merely by demonstrating that she is not Donald Trump, Clinton would walk into the Oval Office without any clear mandate for fundamental change — which is probably how she prefers it.

Yes, the Democratic establishment is, well, acting like the Democratic establishment. Powerful Democrats led by President Obama are determinedly pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as if enacting a trade deal opposed by the vast majority of Democrats would somehow be a key part of the legacy he leaves behind. Does he somehow imagine that the public looks back fondly at Bill Clinton for ramming through NAFTA despite overwhelming Democratic resistance?

But most revealing and distressing is the Clinton team’s courting of Henry Kissinger, long regarded as a war criminal by progressives, but admired by Hillary. Kissinger, the Dick Cheney of past decades, was responsible for prolonging the Vietnam War and orchestrating a coup against the Chile’s democratic government of Salvador Allende in 1973, among many horrific policies detailed in Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow.

Despite these daunting barriers, the present historical moment still creates a unique moment to mobilize the radicalized Democratic rank and file. One major asset on our side: Hillary Clinton won the nomination by raising the expectations of Democratic voters. If we seriously organize, she will face severe consequences if she neglects to genuinely follow through in resisting the TPP and fighting for greater economic and racial equality.

In the past, most notably the famed socialist Michael Harrington’s effort in the late 1970’s, fell short because the level of public outrage was not high enough and many rank-and-file Democrats stuck to the party establishment’s line as urged by union leaders and others unwilling to face the mounting class war being unleashed by Corporate America.

But 2016 is a very different time, with six out of 10 Democrats open to democratic socialism. At the same time, the party establishment’s certain resistance to structural reforms may prove too powerful to overcome.

However, this unique moment—when we have the chance to develop and deepen public support for democratic socialist programs—is something that my grandfathers could never have imagined a century ago. It is an opportunity worth all our efforts, and we must be willing to seize this chance with both hands.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2016

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