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


  1. So Michael are you a Socialist or do you advocate it ?

    Comment by Paul | July 23, 2009

  2. Paul, I am not a member of any Socialist Party. I am a registered and active Democrat. But I do belong to the Democratic Socialists of America, which is a movement rather than a Party. I am not a Marxist-Leninist and believe that Leninist-style state socialism (falsely called “Communism”) failed the test of the laboratory of history–it never worked and had to violate all kins of human rights and civil liberties to even appear to come close. I do not advocate command economies–way too complicated for government micro-management.

    I do, however, advocate Democratic Socialism or economic democracy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2009

  3. Well I am an old Wobblie -Industrial Workers of the World. I do not advocate violence, but I do advocate for working people.

    Comment by Paul | July 24, 2009

  4. The Wobblies were cool. “Workers of the World Unite!” was the Wobbly motto. But Paul, I thought you were a conservative who told me not to knock Ayn Rand!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2009

  5. If I ever hear again that Obama is a socialist I think I will vomit through my ass. This is really stupid, paranoic, and the ones who say that (I guess) have never met any real socialist, not even a socialdemocrat.

    Comment by mountainguy | July 24, 2009

  6. Interesting! However the Lincoln quote actually begins “They hold that…” and describes someone else’s theory.

    In the same speech, Lincoln described free Americans laboring:

    “A large majority belong to neither class – neither work for others, nor have others working for them. Even in all our slave States except South Carolina, a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters. In these free States, a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families – wives, sons and daughters – work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.”

    He seemed to veer away from labor theories to simple freedom for all.

    Comment by K Gray | July 24, 2009

  7. K., Lincoln tried to push the new Republican party into economic populism though he was NOT interested in theories as such. It was after Lincoln’s death that the GOP began to side with the rich–and that was not complete until the age of Reagan which obliterated the liberal and moderate wings of the GOP.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2009

  8. Many of them, Mountainguy, have not even met people who don’t worship at the alters of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. They also have a mythology which says that Reagan never raised taxes (he raised them both as governor of CA and–twice–as POTUS). They also think Reagan singlehandedly defeated Communism, never negotiated or ran from terrorists, etc. It’s a real fantasy.

    Me, I know Obama isn’t a socialist and wish he was.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 24, 2009

  9. It is a wonder how Lincoln used government action to improve the bankrupt nation in ways that provided individuals the means to support themselves. As he said (to farmers), “No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms.”

    Comment by K Gray | July 24, 2009

  10. Michael, I don’t follow the party line even with being an old Wobblie. Wobblies were known to be an independent sort and rowdy too. I think as much with my gut instinct (at times) as I do with my brain. Sometimes the former produces better results. 🙂

    Comment by Paul | July 25, 2009

  11. And mountainguy please do try to refrain from puking. Americans (even misguided ones) can call Obama a Socialist if the please,because we have a Constitution that gives us the right of free speech. How would you describe President Obama ? I shall refrain from puking. P.S. I have met some real Socialists , Communists and Anarcho-Sydicalists too.

    Comment by Paul | July 25, 2009

  12. Paul:

    I also have the right to puke because in Colombia I have the right to do so. And I also have the right to say stupid things (like calling socialist someone who is not one) but I prefer to use my right to be less stupid than other people.

    Comment by mountainguy | July 25, 2009

  13. Indeed you have the right to puke in Colombia. Just please refrain from doing so on me. I have fond memories of Cartagena and a lady named Lupita, but that is for another day. Viva La Revolucion ! 🙂

    Comment by Paul | July 26, 2009

  14. Don’t worry, I won’t do it over anyone. But it gets boring when people calls someone “socialist” even though this someone may actually be a capitalist! It is like when people in the left (and even some in the center right) use the word fascist on someone who is more right-wing than them, but not necesarily a fascist.

    Comment by mountainguy | July 26, 2009

  15. These terms are thrown around by people of all political persuasions and have been for a long time. “Isms” have caused a lot of the world’s problems. If you really want to get an idea of communism,fascism, socialism and anarchism et cetera read “Homage To Catalonia” by George Orwell.

    Comment by Paul | July 26, 2009

  16. I’ll consider it, since Orwell was a really gifted author (I’ve read 1984 and “Animal farm”, and they were very interesting).

    Comment by mountainguy | July 28, 2009

  17. […] Socialism is as American as apple pie! […]

    Pingback by American radicalism « Poumista | July 29, 2009

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