People on the Left are understandably preoccupied with the growing strength of fascism, white supremacist and antisemitic rhetoric and violence, and the growth of extreme right-wing groups. There is no doubt that these developments represent an obstacle to badly needed social and economic change and a serious threat to democracy in the United States, but we may be losing track of a more encouraging countertrend (depending a bit on one’s particular politics). We are living though a socialist upsurge which continues to grow. In fact, it is likely that there is not only a connection between the two phenomena, but also that the health of American democracy depends on the development of a vigorous left-wing movement that is willing and able to confront the upsurge from the Right.
The change has been coming for a while. According to a November, 2017 YouGov poll, a majority of Americans aged 21 to 29 preferred socialism to capitalism and believed that the American economic system was working against them. A 2021 Axios poll found that 41 percent of all US adults had a positive view of socialism, up from 39 percent in 2019. Those figures are about the same today. In 2019, 58 percent of Americans aged 18–34 responded positively to the word “capitalism.” That’s down to 49 percent today. Even some younger Republicans seem to be wavering. 56 percent now say the government should pursue policies that reduce the wealth gap, while their positive view of capitalism has fallen from 81 percent to 66 percent. These attitudes are mirrored in growing support for the labor movement. In a period when support for most American institutions has declined sharply, public support for unions is at its highest level, 68 percent, in the past sixty years.
To some extent, we have Trump and the increasingly extremist Republican Party to thank for this. People seem to recognize that the best bulwark against political reaction may be a socialist movement. Subscribers to the splashy socialist quarterly Jacobin doubled in the four months following the 2016 election to 30,000, while membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest of several socialist groups thriving in the wake of Trump, shot up dramatically. The surge has continued. In 2021 Jacobin reported a paid print circulation of 75,000 and over three million monthly online visitors, while DSA reported a membership of over 94,000 and a total of 239 chapters as of July, 2021. Two DSA members currently sit in Congress, while Bernie Sanders and other congresspeople identify as socialists. Chicago’s city council currently includes six socialist alderpeople, and the council’s Progressive Caucus is more active than ever. Comparable changes are taking place in other city councils and state legislatures. These political shifts come in the midst of a major upsurge in labor activity, much of it driven by left-leaning young people and people of color. This is all unfolding in the context of fierce opposition from new-style employers like Amazon and Starbucks, and labor law that remains stacked against the unions.
You might say this is all out of the mainstream, a sideshow. But the Democratic Party is now in a situation where it cannot fully take advantage of the current backlash against the right wing without moving to some degree to the left. (Medicare for All might be the best example.) There is clear opposition to such a move among the old guard and the party leadership, of course, but there is great potential for such a move among young people and people of color in the wake of attacks on voting rights, and among many more women following the disastrous SCOTUS ruling on reproductive rights. The Electoral College, massive restrictions on voting rights, gerrymandering, and voter fatigue all make a blue wave unlikely in midterm elections, but the hope is that any future blue wave will have a (socialist) red tinge. At the very least, anti-socialism, which approached the level of a civic religion when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, will not discourage many people, especially young people, from moving left. Right-wing politicians still spout the rhetoric, but it is not scaring anyone.
Before we get carried away here, it is important to realize that something like this has happened before, more than once, and in each case the socialist movement subsequently declined. In the late 19th century, the Marxist First International, the Socialist Labor Party, and the International Working Peoples’ Association all had influence in the unions and some success in local elections. All were overwhelmingly working-class in composition.
By the era of World War I, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), founded in 1901, had become a mass movement, its rise more impressive than today’s upsurge. Millions read socialist newspapers and magazines. In 1912 Eugene Debs, the party’s presidential candidate, won almost 900,000 votes, and 1200 party members held office in 340 municipalities. Seventy-nine socialist mayors held office in 24 states, including Illinois. Remarkably, given the rise in nationalism and war hysteria, municipal success increased in 1917, and Debs won nearly a million votes running for president in 1920 from his cell in Atlanta Penitentiary. One reason for the party’s success was that it drew on a wide spectrum of the population—immigrant and native-born workers, but also intellectuals, professionals, and Christian reformers. Another was its focus on practical reform issues and labor organization.
The Communist Party (CP) was a tiny organization composed heavily of immigrant workers from its foundation in 1919 until the early thirties. In the midst of the Great Depression, however, the party began to grow, and it reached a high point of nearly a million members in the late thirties and during World War II, during its Popular Front era. As in the case of the SPA, the CP thrived when it recruited from a wide demographic spectrum, toned down its sectarian rhetoric, and focused on a broad range of issues and organizing workers.
The last surge in socialist interest came during the New Left years from the mid-sixties through the early seventies. Sparked particularly by civil rights activism, Black Power, the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement, many young people were “talking socialism.” While these groups attracted a broad spectrum of people, they never coalesced into a mass movement.
The most important question for us today might be what happened to all this? The answer is complicated, but two factors seem especially important in the demise of these movements: government repression and sectarianism. Alternatively, they seemed to prosper with practical policy proposals. The SPA, CP, and New Left groups were all subject to severe repression by the government in “Red Scares”: 1919–21, the McCarthy period of the fifties, and COINTELPRO actions in the late sixties and early seventies—raids, provocateurs, criminal conspiracy trials. But in each case, the movements were also weakened internally by extreme positions and factional conflicts. They thrived when they took the broadest approach to organizing and worked with groups on limited aims; they were vulnerable when they valued ideological purity over social solidarity. If the rise of the right wing within the GOP has taught us anything, it is the importance of working systematically at the state and local level on problems people face daily. When they were successful, these groups engaged in electoral politics, but never expected to simply vote in socialism. They also built strong social movements to mobilize people and press for change: unions, civil rights and women’s organizations, and student groups.
Few Americans will want to sacrifice democracy in the name of an abstract revolutionary ideal, but the shift in public acceptance of socialist values suggests that a truly democratic movement, international in perspective and action, but based on American issues and radical traditions, can succeed. Indeed, the democracy that Americans say they cherish may depend upon such a movement.
Jim Barrett is a historian of class, race, and ethnicity in the United States and author of History from the Bottom Up and the Inside Out: Ethnicity, Race, and Identity in Working-Class History (2017).
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