Strike at the Ballot Box: Bernie Sanders and the Legacy of American Socialism

Moving Ballot Boxes
Mov­ing Bal­lot Box­es

Where is the Sanders cam­paign get­ting this idea that he can win Michi­gan?” Vox’s Matthew Ygle­sias posed this ques­tion last week in a now-infa­mous tweet, before the upset vic­to­ry of Bernie Sanders in Michigan’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pri­ma­ry on Tues­day. Polls showed that he won with heavy sup­port from mem­bers of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, not to men­tion the over­lap­ping enthu­si­asm of the his­tor­i­cal­ly polit­i­cal­ly engaged Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. Wide­ly deemed impos­si­ble by poll­sters in the fevered cov­er­age pre­ced­ing the pri­ma­ry, this result breaks the media black­out on the out­spo­ken “demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist” can­di­date, as well as on an old­er idea: social­ism. Since the days when the abstrac­tion of coun­ter­cul­tur­al “lib­er­a­tion” dis­placed the mate­r­i­al project of “social­ism” for the vast major­i­ty of the New Left across racial lines in the 1960s and 70s, inter­est in any­thing resem­bling non-cap­i­tal­ist solu­tions has been sharply lim­it­ed. We would have to go back to the 1930s and the almost 900,000 votes for Social­ist pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Nor­man Thomas, “Mr. Social­ism,” in 1932 to find an equal­ly pop­u­lar social­is­tic fig­ure.

But let’s dig a lit­tle deep­er. The first con­sid­er­a­tion about Left his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States should begin with the con­text ignored by his­to­ri­ans until very recent gen­er­a­tions: for most of that his­to­ry, a major­i­ty or large minor­i­ty of activists and activ­i­ties did not employ Eng­lish as a first lan­guage. Think for a moment about the impli­ca­tions. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in elec­tions had not been ruled out, but exist­ed at a defin­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage, long before the cur­rent era of seem­ing apa­thy. No won­der the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW), respond­ing to the social­ist plea, ”Strike at the Bal­lot Box!” offered the humor­ous response, “Strike at the Bal­lot Box with an axe!” They had con­clud­ed that if social­ist agi­ta­tion in elec­toral pol­i­tics may be a nec­es­sary edu­ca­tion­al effort, vot­ing does not bring real change.

They had a point, those Wob­blies, and momen­tum for their own movement—for a while. The vision of a strict­ly func­tion­al gov­ern­ment, minus politi­cians, ruled from below by indus­tri­al coun­cils, appealed to a desire to break the pow­er of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It also reflect­ed the deter­mi­na­tion to encom­pass all work­ing peo­ple, not just the (white, male, and priv­i­leged) craft work­ers of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, in the strug­gle from below. Wob­bly the­o­rists, most of them trained by Daniel DeLeon, the Caribbean-born sec­tar­i­an leader of the small Social­ist Labor Par­ty, worked out a vision in which every mass strike hint­ed at the cre­ation of a new soci­ety with­in the shell of the old, bring­ing the full and true work­ing class into exis­tence as a class for itself. By no sur­prise, the IWW faced over­whelm­ing oppo­si­tion from the AFL and mas­sive repres­sion dur­ing the First World War.

There is a real his­to­ry to sup­port their view. After the Great Rail­road Strike of 1877, dozens of social­ists were elect­ed to local and state office, espe­cial­ly, but not only, in Illi­nois. By the next elec­tions, Democ­rats had moved left­ward and swept up the labor vote. In 1912, Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans at the local lev­el formed joint tick­ets to defeat hun­dreds of social­ists elect­ed at var­i­ous lev­els, and swamped social­ists with red­bait­ing tac­tics not so dif­fer­ent from those that are emerg­ing today. No won­der that so many Ger­man immi­grants of the 1880s—and, lat­er, Ital­ians, Slavs, Hun­gar­i­ans, Finns, and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties where a kind of anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism had great support—expressed indif­fer­ence to polit­i­cal cam­paigns, turn­ing all ener­gies toward union­ism, the build­ing of social-cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, sup­port of rad­i­cal news­pa­pers, and so on.

The dif­fi­cult result of this over­whelm­ing­ly neg­a­tive view has been the eager­ness of many social­ists, com­mu­nists, and oth­ers toward the edu­ca­tion­al effort in the elec­tion process, and the expec­ta­tion (or hope) that pres­sure can be exert­ed even when left­wing can­di­dates are not elect­ed. The aura of hope exert­ed by the per­son­al­i­ty of Eugene Debs still rever­ber­at­ed, among peo­ple in their eight­ies and nineties, when I inter­viewed them about their lives, around 1977-82. Debs offered a vision of what a coop­er­a­tive soci­ety could be like, and his nation­wide cam­paigns on the “Red Spe­cial” train elec­tri­fied work­ing class to low­er mid­dle class crowds, indus­tri­al work­ers to school teach­ers, every­where he went. The effort to orga­nize the unor­ga­nized was boost­ed enor­mous­ly by his cam­paigns.

Per­haps there was nev­er anoth­er such fig­ure, and nev­er could be, because the First World War ruined the opti­mism, the cer­tain­ty of a social­ist future, after that bygone age. Eugene Vic­tor Debs, the for­mer rail­road union leader from Ter­ra Haute, Indi­ana (named by his par­ents for French lit­er­ary rad­i­cals Eugene Sue and Vic­tor Hugo), had led the all-inclu­sive Amer­i­can Rail­way Union into the his­toric strike of 1894, and then into crush­ing defeat. He con­vert­ed to social­ism while in a jail cell. He rep­re­sent­ed the col­lec­tive hopes of sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions, women quite as much as men, and for the first time in the social­ist move­ment, thou­sands of African Amer­i­cans, gath­ered most­ly in Chris­t­ian Social­ist groups, but also in the bur­geon­ing black com­mu­ni­ty of Harlem. Impris­oned for call­ing upon Amer­i­cans to resist the draft, he took near­ly a mil­lion votes in 1920—behind bars.


But social­ists behind Debs, run­ning in local elec­tions, gal­va­nized some­thing sim­i­lar, or at least a sense of social sol­i­dar­i­ty. Although this mem­o­ry seems almost van­ished by now, they con­tin­ued to do so in pock­ets of Amer­i­can soci­ety into the 1960s. What did they “deliv­er” in office? Gen­uine hon­esty for one, a rare thing in itself. But also city-owned util­i­ties, where they could per­suade city coun­cils, bet­ter parks for work­ing class leisure, good pub­lic trans­porta­tion, and in some cities like Mil­wau­kee, next to lakes, a ban on tall build­ings that might block the enjoy­ment of ordi­nary cit­i­zens. Beyond the local, their oppo­si­tion to most US for­eign pol­i­cy was no small mat­ter.

If this seems like ancient his­to­ry now, in the shad­ow of the Clin­ton­ian Third Way, think about this: there are now tens of thousands—over the course of the nom­i­na­tion cam­paign, hun­dreds of thousands—of peo­ple, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly young, in motion, cur­rent­ly think­ing about this strange idea called “social­ism.”

Could it come at a bet­ter moment when, as John Nichols and Robert McCh­es­ney have explained in their new book Peo­ple Get Ready, the era of upward mobil­i­ty is over and dis­il­lu­sion­ment with cap­i­tal­ism at large is at a lev­el unknown since the 1960s? Have we fig­ured out how to trans­form these ener­gies into an orga­nized polit­i­cal form autonomous from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? No. But this is sure­ly our oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn.

“We shall know more of what men want and what they live by if we begin from what they do,” wrote C.L.R. James in Beyond a Bound­ary. It was a thought he shared with me in many dif­fer­ent iter­a­tions, as he observed move­ments of the 1940s-70s: watch what peo­ple are doing, stop the­o­riz­ing for a moment to fit things into some pre­con­ceived for­mu­la­tion and…try to learn from them. The “Old Left,” Com­mu­nist to Trot­sky­ist to Social­ist, could nev­er grasp, at least until 1960s and often not at all, that the black move­ment had its own log­ic, its own moment, and its own lan­guage. Nor could they grap­ple con­cep­tu­al­ly with the cul­ture (or coun­ter­cul­ture) of the New Left, nor with the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment and so on. After all, small par­ties do not build move­ments.

We do not know the tra­jec­to­ry of the Bernie Sanders cam­paign, nor its longer-range impli­ca­tions. A skill­ful orga­niz­er with decades of work behind him in heav­i­ly blue-col­lar Rhode Island, a steel­work­er, human rights leader, and lat­er rad­i­cal preach­er in mul­tira­cial com­mu­ni­ties, recent­ly put the mat­ter to me this way: “Think of Occu­py, Black Lives Mat­ter and the Bernie Sanders Cam­paign as waves, all of them lead­ing to the next wave.” That’s a fine insight. Instead of mea­sur­ing one against anoth­er, we would do bet­ter to see their con­nec­tions and pos­si­ble rela­tions. In order to unite peo­ple belong­ing to dif­fer­ent move­ments into a longterm, orga­nized rad­i­cal force in this coun­try, we would do well to begin, as C.L.R. James advised, with what they do.

Author of the article

founded Radical America at age 22, in 1967 and grew into the part. He left the Board in 1973, founded the inconsistently annual Cultural Correspondence (1975-83), the Oral History of the American Left (NYU) and co-founded the Rhode Island Labor History Society, during the same period. He stood on street corners in Chicago, Summer 1964, collecting signatures to get the Socialist Labor Party on the ballot in Illinois. It was tough going.