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.