Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

“Socialism” is as American as Apple Pie

I’m getting tired of the rightwing fear meme that “Barack Obama is turning us into a socialist state.”  First of all, it is patently false. No socialist would begin an economic recovery plan by bailing out Wall Street instead of nationalizing the banks (at least temporarily), opening their books to see what crimes were committed and using the anti-trust laws to break up all institutions “too big to fail.” This administration has not even worked for CEO pay caps. Everything has been done to stabilize the markets, not stabilize main street or move to a full employment economy.  The Obama economic team is full of recycled neo-liberal Clintonites who laid the groundwork for the Bush  economic disaster.

But the other thing about this that enfuriates me is the idea that “socialism” is some alien ideology that threatens “the American way of life.”  Sure, the Framers of our Constitution were propertied white males, many of them slaveowners, who sponsored what Howard Zinn calls “a kind of revolution” in his A People’s History of the United States.  But the story of the capitalist power and privilege is only one part of the story.  Woven throughout our history is also the story of utopian experiments (many of them religiously inspired, such as the Oneida Community, the Shakers, and others) of sharing and struggles for economic justice:  the abolitionist movement, the Grange and farmers’ coops, labor movements, etc. 

Nor was this confined to a particular region of the country. Some of today’s most conservative bastions were once hotbeds of social unrest. Take Kansas, a state so conservative that it last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1936.  But Kansas was once such a crossroads of radicalism that it was known as “Burning Kansas.” When it came into the Union, farmers armed themselves as border guards to enforce the “Missouri Compromise” rather than let slave-owners bring slavery into the state.  Later the Grange wars were centered in Kansas. 

We teach history as the names of generals and presidents and of rich, powerful, capitalists. There is no doubt that these people make their mark, often destructive, on the nation and the world.  But our history includes labor leaders and activists, too.  Socialist Norman Thomas became the “third party” candidate who won a larger % of the popular vote than any other third party candidate, 20%–and he did that while “campaigning” from behind bars.  Emma Lazarus, the poet whose poem is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, was a socialist.  Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), the writer of the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance, was a Baptist minister–and a Christian Socialist who wrote two utopian socialist novels, Looking Backwards (1888), and Equality (1897) and originally wanted the word “equality” in the Pledge (“with liberty, equality, and justice for all”), but decided to omit it because he was afraid pro-segregationist schoolboards wouldn’t approve it and he was trying to use the Pledge to promote national unity and a progressive vision in a post-Civil War world.

Theologians from Walter Rauschenbush to Reinhold Niebuhr to Paul Tillich were members of various Socialist parties.  Michael Harrington, an early President of Democratic Socialists of America, wrote The Other America which exposed the poverty hidden from the American Middle Class of the ’50s and early ’60s–a book that helped launch the Great Society’s “War on Poverty.” 

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.  Capital is only the fruit of labor and could not have existed if labor had not first existed.  Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”  Who said that? Karl Marx? Vladimir Lenin? The “socialist” Obama of GOP mythology? No.  That pronouncement was by Abraham Lincoln.  Another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, took on the monopolies, championing the anti-trust laws.  After TR quit the Republicans and formed the Bull Moose Party, they became the first U.S. political party to propose universal healthcare–in 1912!    President Eisenhower, another Republican, not only claimed that any political party which tried to abolish Social Security would disappear (and it’s interesting that the GOP’s current woes began after they tried to privatize Social Security in 2005), but taxed the upper 1% at a 90%–far beyond the modest tax increases on the upper rich proposed by Obama–of other modest increases needed to finance universal healthcare or revitalize public education.  Even Richard Nixon, nobody’s liberal, saying, “We’re all basically Keyenesians now,” used wage and price controls to try to move the United States out of “stagflation” in the 1970s.

None of this makes socialism–or any other movement for economic justice and democracy–correct.  It doesn’t make capitalism wrong.  To conclude either one would take philosophical arguments and testing in the laboratory of history.  But this history DOES expose the lie that “socialism” or any movement to “redistribute wealth” or eliminate poverty or work for economic justice is somehow “Un-American.” Socialism, and work for economic justice in general, is as American as apple pie.


July 23, 2009 Posted by | economic justice, social history | 17 Comments