This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
In 1960, the young socialist Michael Harrington traveled to Ann Arbor to provide what help he could to the fledgling radical movement at the University of Michigan, and to see if he could recruit some students to the Young People’s Socialist League. He had particularly long talks with the 20-year-old editor of The Michigan Daily (the student newspaper), Tom Hayden. Though the two hit it off, Harrington couldn’t make the sale. “He accepted much of my analysis,” Harrington later was to write, “yet he balked at the socialist idea itself.”
Harrington was no slouch at converting progressives to socialism; an unusually high percentage of the members of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (which he founded in 1973) and its successor organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (which he co-founded in 1982) signed up after having been intellectually and emotionally persuaded by one or more Harrington speeches. Nonetheless, DSA’s membership never grew to more than 8,000 during Harrington’s lifetime (he died in 1989). Hayden was just one of many progressives who either balked at the socialist idea or saw no future for it in real American politics.
Fast-forward to 2010. Not to today, not 2018, but to 2010. Actually existing American socialism isn’t doing very much. DSA has been reduced to around 5,000 largely inactive members (including me, having been a member of DSOC and then DSA since 1975). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar are in college. Most Americans couldn’t pick Bernie Sanders out of a police lineup. Wall Street and Zuccotti Park have yet to be Occupied; hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic has heard of, much less read, Thomas Piketty. Yet, likely because of the 2008 crash and ensuing recession, Gallup has decided to poll on the popularity of economic systems. It finds that while 53 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of capitalism, an equal 53 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism. The following year, Pew finds that 49 percent of Americans (not just Democrats) under 30 have a favorable view of socialism—three percentage points higher than the share that has a favorable view of capitalism.
DSA member and Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the opening of her Queens campaign office in Elmhurst speaking with supporters.
Let’s move now to the present day. Gallup continues to poll on economic systems, and this year finds that the share of Democrats with a favorable view of socialism has grown to 57 percent, while those with a favorable view of capitalism has dwindled to 47 percent. A YouGov poll of millennials (not just millennial Democrats) from last year showed that 44 percent would prefer to live in a socialist nation, 42 percent in a capitalist nation, with the remaining 14 percent evenly split between nations that are either communist (oy)or fascist (oy again).
So: Tom Hayden, who perhaps more than anyone personified the New Left radicalism of 1960s America, consistently refused to identify as a socialist, while today, millions of Americans with nothing resembling Hayden’s deep radicalism say that socialism is their preferred economic system. Many thousands of their compatriots—most of them not much older than Hayden was when he turned Harrington down—have now joined DSA(over Labor Day weekend, the group’s membership moved past 50,000). What had changed?
In a word: capitalism.
IN THE HALF-CENTURY between Harrington and Hayden’s discussion and Gallup’s discovery of American socialists, most of the political constraints placed on capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s were lifted, at capital’s insistence. The broadly shared prosperity of the New Deal order—in which unions were strong, taxes progressive, wages rising in tandem with productivity, domestic investment (both public and private) high, and production eclipsing finance—all but vanished. By 2010, when the polls began to pick up the great, though still quiet, shift leftward, the toll taken by the Great Recession was still mounting. Eight million families were to lose their homes. Millennials were entering a job market in which nearly all the new jobs were temp, part-time, independent contractor, or—a new wrinkle in sub-par employment—gig. Their rate of family formation and home-buying lagged their older siblings’, their parents’, their grandparents’.
The economic data confirmed what Americans knew experientially: Income had shifted from labor to capital. As the University of Chicago economist Simcha Barkai has documented, the share of GDP going to profits rose by 13.5 percent between 1984 and 2014, while the share going to both worker compensation and corporate investment declined by a corresponding 13.9 percent. Even as unemployment fell below 4 percent, the gap between profits and wages continued to widen. Comparing the second quarter of this year to the second quarter of 2017, profits of the S&P500 rose by 23.5 percent, while wages, when the increased cost of living was factored in, didn’t rise at all.
In Piketty parlance, “r” (the rate of return on investment) was indeed a hell of a lot greater than “g” (the rate of economic growth). All the more so, since corporations, under pressure from Wall Street, were lavishing their profits on shareholders through record levels of share buybacks and dividend payments. In the more elemental language of socialism, capital was crushing labor, and using its political power to protect and expand its economic power.
No nation can undergo so fundamental an economic transformation without experiencing comparable political change. Once Bernie Sanders declared he was running for president in the Democratic primaries as a self-described democratic socialist, on a platform featuring universal Medicare and tuition-free college, sizable numbers of Democrats not only flocked to his banner, but told pollsters that, come to think of it, they were socialists, too. Forty-three percent of likely caucus-goers in Iowa, 31 percent of New Hampshire Democrats on the eve of that state’s primary, even 39 percent of likely primary voters in South Carolina averred that they were socialists.
Did this mean they no longer thought of themselves as liberals, too? To the contrary: In the same poll in which 39 percent of South Carolina Democrats said they were socialists, 68 percent said they were liberal and 74 percent said they were progressive. Like the great sociologist Daniel Bell, who described himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture, they opted not to choose.
The Washington, D.C., local has taken on a wide range of projects, including one that provides counsel and support to tenants facing eviction in the city’s way-too-costly housing market. Here, members of the D.C. local vote on whether to endorse candidates for the D.C. City Council.
Two socialists—Harrington and Sanders—enabled them to avoid having to enter a political isolation booth by declaring themselves socialists. The singular achievements of the old Socialist Party, Harrington concluded—its advocating for universal old-age and medical insurance avant la lettre as well as for public housing and racial equality, its support for industrial unionism and the biracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and its opposition to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II—could just as easily have come without compelling its members to cut themselves off from the unions, civil rights groups, and other organizations of the mass left that had to function within the Democratic Party. “Even though there were profound limitations to the Roosevelt reforms,” Harrington said in a 1984 New York Times article, “the New Deal drew upon and reinforced a mass movement for social change in the United States. The Socialists made a terrible mistake in counterposing themselves to it.”
Besides, you could be openly socialist and a Democrat, Harrington said, and several notable elected Democrats who were Harrington contemporaries—among them Berkeley Congressman Ron Dellums and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger—did just that. Following Harrington’s lead, DSOC and then DSA preached socialism and at the same time backed “the left wing of the possible,” in Harrington’s phrase—those Democrats committed to greater economic democracy and the expansion of the welfare state.
Sanders went beyond Harrington by enabling socialists to avoid the spoiler role that those who’d voted for Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy in 2000 had played. By running in the Democratic primaries, and by proclaiming in a 2015 speech at Georgetown University that his socialism was a lineal descendent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Sanders created a path for those who not only wanted to repudiate the Third Way/Wall Street Democrats who had dominated the party under Bill Clinton (and still had a sizable foothold under Barack Obama), but also understood that working within a third party or shunning electoral politics altogether—the comfort zone of left sectarians—would never build a significant American left. Paradoxically and somewhat bewilderingly, Sanders has always insisted he’s not a Democrat, but all the candidates for whom he’s campaigned have been Democrats, and it’s his supporters, at his direction, who have successfully pushed the Democratic Party to reform its rules.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after he declared his candidacy in mid-2015, Sanders began drawing huge crowds, disproportionately of the young. It was at that moment that DSA’s membership began to grow from roughly 5,000 to its current 50,000. The growth has been steady, but with two subsequent surges: the first, right after Donald Trump was elected president; the second, right after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated longtime U.S. Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s Democratic primary.
The appeal of DSA to millennials wasn’t merely economic. In both ideology and activism, it was the real deal. At a time when left activism of all kinds—electoral, feminist, African American, pro-immigrant, worker, teacher, tenant, police accountability, anti–money in politics—was exploding, DSA’s new members involved themselves in all of these. For those who sought a group that was the sum of all lefts, DSA fit that bill.
The Los Angeles local, for instance, which currently boasts not quite 2,000 members, is heavily involved in precinct walking for a November ballot measure that would repeal a California law restricting cities’ ability to enact rent controls, and another ballot measure that would establish a city of Los Angeles public bank. Members also canvass for Medicare for All, monitor police sweeps of the homeless, and hold free fix-your-brake-light clinics for motorists who could be apprehended for driving while black or driving while immigrant. The Washington, D.C., local, which is roughly the same size as L.A.’s, has taken on a similar range of projects, including one that provides counsel and support to tenants facing eviction in the city’s way-too-costly housing market. Its most notable foray was completely spontaneous: the gathering of a handful of members who verbally shamed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a Mexican restaurant at a time when her department’s agents were taking migrant children from their parents.
It’s on the issue of candidate endorsements that a number of locals have experienced divisions. Some more sectarian members have opposed backing candidates running as Democrats, though since a plurality or majority of DSA members came to the organization through the Democratic primary campaigns of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and like candidates, that position hasn’t prevailed. At both the national and local level, however, DSA offers official endorsements only to declared socialists. Hence, the New York local endorsed Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid after she declared herself a socialist, though it’s in no way apparent that Nixon’s genuine leftism is any more distinctly socialist than, say, Andrew Gillum’s, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, who supports Medicare for All and abolishing ICE, but has not declared himself a socialist.
What this means is that DSA’s official endorsements are likely to be concentrated in terrains like New York City, where leftist candidates believe it politically safe, or even advantageous, to embrace the socialist label. Gillum, whatever his personal beliefs, likely counts it as a blessing that he doesn’t have DSA’s formal endorsement, which would surely be an albatross in his campaign to carry Florida.
That said, a stance of socialist-only endorsements can be glaringly short-sighted in those instances when progressive Democrats are facing off against neo-fascist Republicans. Indeed, other progressive groups may likely view such standoffishness as a betrayal. In early September, the Atlanta local of DSA sought to deal with this self-inflicted conundrum by effectively recommending that its members work for the election of Democrat Stacey Abrams as governor while not itself formally endorsing her. “For many reasons,” the local stated, “we cannot endorse Abrams ourselves, but neither can we stand aside while our friends and allies fight for something they know will make their lives better. We voted to encourage our members, if they feel so moved, to stand up and fight in this election cycle.”
As with Gillum’s campaign, Abrams’s probably welcomes this halfway house position, which will swell its corps of volunteers without saddling it with the backing of godless Marxists. Still, the position of the Atlanta local refracts a fundamental tension in today’s DSA, which is between sectarians who shun the Democratic Party in favor of “pure socialist” movement building, and those who seek to work more closely with the broad progressive community and view the Democrats as offering a plausible arena for struggle. Such tensions were evident in the New York local’s deliberations on endorsing Nixon, which more sectarian activists opposed, but which the rank and file overwhelmingly supported in an online survey (of the 1,500 members who voted, more than 70 percent favored the endorsement).
Over the past two years, as DSA’s membership has swelled, a number of veteran sectarians, including long-beleaguered Trotskyists, also signed up, with the apparent hope of creating a mass sectarian organization. At the organization’s 2017 national convention, where the vast majority of delegates were brand-new members, some small sectarian groups constituted the only organized factions, and managed to elect a disproportionate number of their adherents to leadership bodies. But such long-timers have sometimes been able to make common cause with the far larger number of younger members who see in DSAan opportunity to make a clean break with what they view as their sell-out liberal elders. At their most otherworldly, these members have authored such documents as a petition (which went nowhere) to condemn the two DSA members who won Democratic congressional primaries this year, Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, for supporting a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine, rather than just one Palestinian state. (Tlaib, of course, is herself Palestinian American.)
Some of the intensity behind this drive for a distinct brand of socialism that few liberals will embrace is doubtless due to a perennial conundrum of the American socialist left: that it flourishes at a time when the mainstream is moving left, too. The high point of Debsian socialism in 1912—when presidential candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote and the party boasted 118,000 members and a thousand elected local officials—came at the apogee of progressivism. The upsurge in both Socialist and Communist Party memberships of the early 1930s coincided with the coming of the New Deal, which then saw the defection of many longtime socialists to Roosevelt’s column and the Communists dismantling such previous sectarian institutions as their own trade unions, while making common cause with progressive Democrats. Indeed, by the mid-1930s, it was the younger members of the Socialist Party (the self-described “Militants”) who accused the New Dealers of milquetoast reformism, while the Communists (under orders from Stalin, who sought an alliance against fascism) had no discouraging words for the Roosevelt coalition.
The heirs to that Militant strain in today’s DSA offer kindred critiques of the Democrats—critiques that are perfectly valid when condemning the rightward movement of the party under Bill Clinton and the financial policies of Barack Obama’s Treasury Department, but fail to register the broad leftward movement of Democrats in recent years. Thus, the prominent militant Corey Robin can describe the party as “massively dependent in its [presidential] nomination process on super-delegates,” only to have the party, at the insistence of its Sanders wing, vote to strip its superdelegates of that power one month later.
Members of the Democratic Socialists of America chanting at the Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017.
For those DSA militants who would make a clean break with the Democrats, the facts that polls show rank-and-file Democrats more favorably inclined to socialism than capitalism, that 60 House Democrats now belong to a Medicare for All caucus, and that even such centrist Democratic senators as Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have endorsed Medicare for All and planned full employment—all this and more has created an intolerably porous border between liberalism and socialism, between the Democrats and DSA. The electoral successes of a Sanders or a Tlaib make that border more porous still. There’s still plenty of room for differentiation—consider those Senate Democrats who voted to weaken bank regulations earlier this year—but it grows harder to argue that today’s Democratic Party isn’t a viable arena for promoting social democratic or even socialist policies.
Sociologically, DSA today resembles in many ways the major student left organization of the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society. As SDS saw its small initial membership expand exponentially as the Vietnam War escalated, so DSA has seen its membership swell, almost entirely among millennials, with such breakthrough campaigns as Sanders’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s. SDS, of course, came to a bad end, its membership shrinking and splitting into a hard core of Maoists (its Progressive Labor wing) or a hard core of violence apostles (the Weather Underground), even as the broad antiwar movement continued to expand.
I don’t foresee a similar bad end—which would mean not violence, but a retreat into sectarianism—for today’s young DSA activists. The time during which SDS descended into madness was one in which the urgent and immediate demand of the left and liberals—ending the Vietnam War—had completely failed; when antiwar mobilizations and the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had ended in defeat and tragedy; when every existing strategy had failed to stop the war and prevent the election of Richard Nixon. DSA’s growth, by contrast, has been fueled not by defeat but by stunning victories of millennial socialist women of color, by the tectonic-shifting campaign of an avowed socialist presidential candidate, and by a pronounced move leftward of the Democratic Party—driven in many instances by its socialist or social democratic members. These are conditions more likely to produce an increasing intervention of socialist candidates and an interjection of socialist policies into the mainstream political arena—not a withdrawal into a hothouse where sectarians can cultivate their distinctive purity.
TO DATE, THE DIVISIONS within DSA are more strategic than doctrinal. The re-surfacing of an American socialist movement has been accompanied by a kindred re-emergence of both social democratic and socialist policy ideas, but these have largely not become the objects of dispute. No internal disputes at all have arisen around the expansion of social rights embodied by such policies as Medicare for All, free public college educations, or the creation of more public housing—projects often embraced by mainstream Democrats no less than socialists.
The past few years have also seen a range of proposals to create public institutions that could compete with and set a yardstick for private ones. Often as not, such proposals have not come from explicitly socialist ranks. The Los Angeles ballot measure to create a public bank, for instance, emerged from organizations that criticized the well-publicized abuses of Wells Fargo, with whom the city had done much of its banking. A recent article on the Prospect website by the leaders of two progressive organizations proposed establishing a public company to develop and market affordable prescription drugs—which, after all, are frequently the end product of taxpayer-funded research. And it was none other than the leftward-moving centrist Senator Gillibrand who has introduced legislation calling for a renewal of postal banking.
In the past few months, proposals have begun to come forward that address more fundamentally the immense gap in both income and power between capital and labor. Citing the experience of both Norway and Finland, and of Alaska’s fossil-fuel fund, writer Matt Bruenig has recommended the establishment of a U.S. sovereign wealth fund, using increased tax dollars and other governmental resources to establish a governmental stake or outright ownership of current private-sector corporations, and directing the proceeds from that ownership to every American citizen. (Economist Dean Baker has long suggested that corporations be made to pay their taxes not in dollars but in shares to the government.) Two Democratic senators—Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin—have each proposed bills that would require corporations to divide their boards between representatives of shareholders and representatives of their employees (the employees would get one-third of the seats under Baldwin’s bill and 40 percent under Warren’s). In Britain, the shadow chancellor of the Labour Party has proposed that companies with at least 250 employees provide their workers with ownership funds, so they can share in the profits.
UNLESS THE CURRENT generation of American socialists takes a power dive into the sectarian abyss—a choice I consider improbable—it’s likely to grow in size and influence for some time. The gap in power and income between capital and labor has become so vast that public support for a more equitable and democratic economy may well continue to grow, while the Harrington-Sanders strategy of centering electoral work within the Democratic Party won’t condemn DSA to the historic role of spoiler, an obstacle to progressive advance. In such left-leaning terrains as the nation’s major cities, openly socialist candidates will win an increasing number of elections; the future of urban America may well be one of municipal socialism, public banks, green public power, and more worker co-operatives.
By championing social rights, and by organizing workers into powerful unions, American socialists have historically played a deeply ironic role: helping build a more humane and sustainable capitalism, which puts them out of business until capital erodes the advances they helped create, crashes, and calls them back into existence. We don’t know whether that’s the task, and fate, of this new generation of socialists. We do know that our nation needs them, and that our capitalism richly deserves them.
Executive Editor Harold Meyerson has been a member of DSOC, and then DSA, since 1975. He served on the organization's national political committee from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, and was an honorary vice-chair of the organization for much of the current century.