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.

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

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Award-winning Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has made a career of combining her training in economics (she was a fellow at the London School of Economics), law (honorary doctor of civil laws from University of King’s College, Nova Scotia), and journalism to report on the front lines of the debate over free market globalization for The Nation and the U.K.’s The Guardian.  The short film above goes with her bestselling book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  The film is a short introduction to her thesis, which is documented and defended at length in the book.  The idea is that disciples of economist Milton Friedman (who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on monetary supply, but who is better known as the most thorough advocate of radical laissez-faire capitalism) use societal shocks (invasions, coups, natural disasters, etc.) in a way similar to the way torturous interrogators use individual shocks to gain compliance with captives.  Friedman advised his disciples to use crises, shocks, to force through radical privatization of education, commerce, healthcare, prisons, even the military–while people were too numb from a crisis to know what was happening and resist.  Klein wants to document this pattern (from Pinochet’s Chile to China after Tienneman Square to Iraq under Paul Bremer to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, etc.) in order for people to recognize and resist it.  Her thesis is well worth considering.  Radical capitalism is neither the fruit not the handmaiden of democracy, but is most radical in dictatorships (e.g., Pinochet’s Chile, contemporary China, post-Communist Russia) and undermines democracy by concentrating power in business oligarchies and taking it away from the judicial and legislative branches of goverment and concentrating it in the executive–and then reducing government to bare minimum.  (It is worth noting that the insurgency in Iraq, though fanning sectarian rivalries between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and augmented by foreign fighters from al-Qaeda, did not get any real headway until U.S. administrator Paul Bremer forced through the radical privatization of Iraqi business with sweetheart deals for U.S. business and concomitant loss of jobs for the Iraqis.  The Iraqi people saw this looting of their natural resources–against international law–as a continuation of the war against them–and THEN the insurgency grew and the U.S. death toll started to mount.  Klein contends that Abu Ghraib was a response–another shock– to a people that were refusing to be controlled. It is worth considering.  I think what has been done to New Orleans fits this pattern perfectly.)

November 30, 2007 Posted by | democracy, economic justice, human rights., poverty | 5 Comments

Defending the Poor–And the Prisoner

That’s the title of an excellent article by Aidsand Wright-Riggins, Exec. Director of National Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA.  It focuses on the rampant racial injustice still in the U.S. legal system–well beyond the case of the Jena 6.

September 28, 2007 Posted by | human rights., poverty, race | Comments Off on Defending the Poor–And the Prisoner

Three Deaths and a Campaign Announcement

If you follow U.S. politics and have anything CLOSE to my progressive commitments, you have to feel sorry for former Sen. John Edwards (D-SC). He chooses what should be the perfect setting and timing for his formal announcement as a candidate for the Democratic Nomination for President in ’08: Wanting to emphasize a campaign against poverty and for peacemaking, he chooses to announce in New Orleans–a city that symbolizes the malign neglect of the poor by the current administration and whose rebuilding has been hindered by the war in Iraq. Then he chooses the perfect timing to announce: Friday, 29 December–end of what is usually the slowest news week of the year. Brilliant.

But events just didn’t cooperate. Between the deaths and funerals of singer James Brown and former president Gerald Ford and Iraq’s execution of Saddam Hussein, Edwards’ announcement was all but drowned out. He drew good crowds in New Orleans and in his quick trips to Iowa and New Hampshire (early primary states in U.S. presidential elections), and the print media covered him well. But clips from his announcement and subsequent trips should have been played repeatedly on all the major news networks–giving him a powerful megaphone prior to the announcements of presumed Democratic “heavyweights” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). But I didn’t see ANY coverage in the networks or 24-hr cable news stations. The deaths of the famous and notorious drowned him out.

And that’s too bad. Because, although I wasn’t all that impressed with Edwards in ’04 (especially after he became John Kerry’s echo–I mean running mate), I have been very impressed since then. He was one of the first big name Democrats in the senate to renounce his vote for the the ’04 “authorization to use force” that gave a veneer of legitimacy to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Hillary still won’t even call her vote for the same “a mistake.”

Edwards created a think-tank on poverty and he has become far more knowledgeable about foreign policy and more aggressive in defending international law, human rights, and peace. He has boldly called for universal health care (not just universal availability of insurance)–long a dream of progressives. But now that health care is the largest labor cost of business and is one of the problems of the airline and auto industries, Edwards could get support for this long overdue social safety net from both business and labor.

Edwards’ message–economic justice, ending poverty, the U.S. rejoining the international community (instead of trying to command its obedience) and reestablishing human rights and peacemaking, repealing the absurd tax giveaways to the richest at the cost of everyone else–is one that needs to be heard and should find a hearing in today’s USA. Now, if only Edwards can get that message out.

This may turn out to be an interesting primary season for the Democrats–the 2 announced candidates, Kucinich (D-OH) and Edwards (D-SC) are both more progressive than media darling Hillary Clinton. Have times begun to change from our long slide from democracy to plutocratic oligarchy? One can only hope.

December 31, 2006 Posted by | peace, politics, poverty | 1 Comment

BPFNA Conference Update

Well, this remote blogging is trickier than I thought. My first update went only to my church’s blog (Life at Jeff Street) and the second one didn’t go anywhere–lost in cyberspace. So, let me try to convey a sense of these exciting days. Thanks to portable DVD players, we got all the way from Lousville to Chattanooga before the first “Are We There Yet?” came from the back seat! Molly (11) and Miriam (7) were much better behaved on this trip to Atlanta than I remember being as a kid in car trips.

The opening plenary Monday night was rich–but very long! We awarded Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who is living proof that the U.S. electorate sometimes gets it right, a peacemaker award for her solitary “no” vote following 9/11 to giving W a blank check to wage war with whomever he wants under the guise of a war on terror. Rep. Lee, a Baptist and member of Allen Temple BC in Oakland, CA (a BPFNA partner congregation), has also led the congressional concern about Darfur, formed the “out of Iraq” caucus, has been part of the effort to impeach based on the Downing Street memos, and is a co-sponsor of the legislation to create a cabinet level Department of Peace. Her mother was facing surgery, so Ms. Lee had to leave that first night, but it was great to have her.

Rabbi Michael Lerner was with us Mon & Tues. Check out the “Life at Jeff Street” blog for what he said to us Monday night. The link is on the right of this blog. On Tues. Rabbi Lerner gave a worskshop on his attempt to create a Network of Spiritual Progressives with a 3-fld task: 1) Countering the misuse of God and religion in public life by the Right; 2) Countering the phobia of the Left to all talk of faith or morality or values. Insisting that, without violating church/state separation, there can be a valid spiritual voice in politics–but it must be pluralistic (not just evangelical Christians) and not treat people without faith as second class citizens. 3) This
network must move for a new bottom line that does not judge everything solely in terms of

Then R. Lerner closed out our worship Tues. night at Ebenezer BC with a traditional Hebrew prayer for peace, that he translated freely into English in song form set to an old Gospel tune. It was beautiful. R. Lerner said that one(of the many) sad results of the history of Christian persecution of Jews is that until recently Jews had lost Jesus as one of Judaism’s greatest prophets. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus is more than a prophet, but he
was definitely a prophet–something on which Jews, Muslims, and Christians can agree and use
as a beginning point in dialogue. I know that Jewish scholars have really helped this Christian’s picture of Jesus!

On Monday night, I go to introduce the legendary C. T. Vivian who spoke on fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream today. Because I find typing on this laptop difficult,I won’t attempt to summarize his message. I’ll wait until I get back. Tomorrow night, I get the honor of presenting the Bill Moore Lifetime in Peacemaking Award to Dr. Vivian.

Dr. Peter Paris has been leading us in a series of reflections on types of violence and responses: We have covered war and poverty, and will also discuss sexism, and racism as types of violence.

Today, I went to a went to a workshop on “understanding whiteness,” something this whiteboy has been trying to do for 44 years! Whiteness is a pseudo-scientific cultural construction that brings privilege—but at a price.

More later, with more detail once I am on my home computer. Please feel free to post comments, but they won’t showup until my return.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, Jews, Judaism, peacemaking, poverty, prejudice, race, sexism, social history, violence | Comments Off on BPFNA Conference Update