Levellers

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

American Democratic Socialist Heroes

Yes, I’ve learned from Karl Marx.  Though never considering myself any kind of doctrinaire Marxist, I find Marx’s critique of Capital unanswerable, especially the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  I’ve learned from heterodox, creative Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (escpecially Habermas), British Fabians and others.  But when I call myself a democratic socialist and think of myself as standing in the democratic socialist tradition of struggle for economic democracy to complement political democracy and for a free, non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist, ecologically sound, non-heterosexist society, it is primarily the home-grown American socialist heroes and heroines of whom I think.  Below are a few that have been especially influential and inspiring to me.  There is no order in the listing except who I think of first, etc.

  • Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).  A prominent labor leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his youth, Debs founded the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) (1905).  He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket, winning millions of votes, though never a single electoral vote. (The Electoral College and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are the two most anti-democratic features of our republic’s structure and both need abolishing.) A pacifist, Debs openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I which, because Congress had passed an Espionage Act which made any opposition to the war effort the equivalent of treason (a law which was clearly unconstitutional), landed Debs in prison for 10 years. He ran for president from prison and won over 2 million votes!  He was not pardoned and released until 1923, when Pres. Harding pardoned him as an old man.  His particular Socialist Party had since died, torn itself apart while he was imprisoned over support or opposition to the new Bolshevik regime in the USSR.  But Debs’ ideals of economic empowerment, organized working people demanding justice for their labor, and international movement of workers, opposition to war as a tool of capitalist oppression, and the dignity of common people live on.  Favorite Debs quotes include “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a “criminal element,” I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 
  • W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). First African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was a historian, sociologist (including sociologist of religion), criminologist, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, who flirted with Communism, but returned to democratic socialism.  He once ran for NY Senator on the American Labor Party ticket. 
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930). Labor leader and organizer famous for her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  Considered the “Miner’s Angel” because of her strong advocacy for miners against exploitive bosses, dangerous working conditions, child labor, bad wages, poor benefits, etc.  Yes, she is the inspiration for the magazine, Mother Jones.
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935), Nobel Prize Laureate, who founded Hull House in Chicago and with it, social work in the United States.  An early feminist, she worked to end poverty in the United States and to advance the cause of women worldwide.  Also a pacifist, she was the founding head of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Norman Thomas (1884-1968).  Son of an Ohio Presbyterian minister, Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, before following in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Union Theological Seminary of NY and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  A pacifist, Thomas preached against the U.S. entering into WWI and became an early member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He soon became a major leader of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president 6 times. 
  • Dorothy Day (1897-1980).  She flirted with Communism in her youth as a radical, anarchist, journalist, but after a conversion near the time of the birth of her only child, Tamar, she became a baptized Catholic.  Then, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, combining democratic socialism, pacifism,  with teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic social encyclicals.
  • Michael Harrington (1928-1989) , trained at Yale as a lawyer, this founder and chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (not a political party, but a movement), he was an early participant in the Catholic Worker movement, but lost his faith in God.  A writer, political activist, professor of political science, radio commentator, Harrington’s The Other America:  Poverty in the United States, inspired the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major labor and civil rights leader.
  • Pauli Murray (1910-1985) first African-American woman to earn a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.  A civil rights activist, writer, poet, feminist, and one of the earliest women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Murray was always a democratic socialist.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), although never the Communist that J. Edgar Hoover and others charged him with being, was attracted to socialism and, after his visit to India in 1960, and  Sweden and Norway in 1964, became a democratic socialist in thought, though never part of any Socialist party or organization.
  • Cornel West (1954-), Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the great public intellectuals of our day.  Has been a co-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • Gary J.  Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, theologian, and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.  He is a strong advocate of economic democracy and historian of the Social Gospel and of socialism in the United States.
  • UPDATE:   I forgot to include:
  • Ella Baker (1903-1986), civil and human rights activist. Never part of any socialist party, she worked for labor and economic justice causes and shared socialist ideals and convictions.
  • A. J. Muste (1885-1967) began as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) who went to Union Theological Seminary of New York. As a student he became involved in labor and social gospel causes and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Later pastored a Congregationalist church while working on labor issues–led to loss of his church. Temporarily, he lost his faith and adopted the Trotskyite form of Marxism.  On a visit to the USSR and then a meeting with Trotsky in the latter’s exile, Muste was dramatically reconverted to pacifist Christianity.  He became a Quaker and the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joined the Socialist Party of America and campaigned for Norman Thomas. In retirement from the F.O.R., Muste went to work for the War Resisters’ League.
  • Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), gay African-American Quaker who was imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII.  Former communist who broke with the Communist Party over Stalin and joined the Socialist Party of America.  Rustin was prominent in peace and human rights issues–and was the behind the scenes planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

These are but a few of the many key thinkers and activists in the American tradition of Democratic Socialism.  I place myself with the experimental, non-dogmatic, pragmatist and pacifist strand of this heritage.

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November 13, 2009 Posted by | biography, economic justice, heroes, labor, poverty, Religious Social Criticism, social history, U.S. politics | | 7 Comments