Who’s afraid of socialism? According to some pundits, everyone should be. Today’s adherents of democratic socialism have greatly increased over the past few years, and not just on college campuses.
Polls show that anywhere between 49% to 57% of Democrats view “socialism” favorably. But now the term is being used to bash elected officials because smearing an opponent is always easier than debating their ideas.
Connecticut has had a love/hate relationship with socialism, which includes a wide spectrum of egalitarian political and economic ideals. State voters, for instance, helped Socialist Party candidate Eugene Victor Debs garner almost one million votes in the 1920 presidential election. (That number doesn’t stack up to Warren Harding’s 16 million total, of course, but remember that Debs was in prison at the time for opposing the First World War.)
Plenty of home-grown examples illustrate the attraction of “people before profits.” Jack London was a socialist even as he wrote Call of the Wild in Branford. Helen Keller lived in Easton for the last 30 years of her life; her well-known radical views made Keller a surveillance target of J. Edgar Hoover. Albert Einstein vacationed on the Connecticut coastline; he deplored the “predatory phase” of human history and looked forward to an ethical, socialist society.
For long term, consistent advocacy of socialist principles, my favorite is Samuel L. Clemens. As Mark Twain, the Hartford resident wrote his best-known works here. On the page and at the rostrum, Twain skewered greed and the excesses of the Gilded Age. He supported and lectured on the Knights of Labor, the “one big union” of the period.
On March 22, 1886, he told a Hartford audience:
“Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many, the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-headed and idle eat.”
The union’s goal was to free workers from the bondage of wage slavery. The Knights opposed the nation’s growing financial and industrial system that controlled so many resources and left families in poverty. The union’s socialist vision was a cooperative commonwealth, not cutthroat capitalism that treated the worker like a replaceable machine.
By 1886, the peak of the Knights nationwide, Connecticut could boast 118 local assemblies in 62 towns. They ran strikes, successfully passed factory safety and child labor laws, and worked to counter the power of the capitalist trusts. Mark Twain understood their potential:
“When all the bricklayers, and all the machinists, and all the miners, and blacksmiths, and printers, and hod-carriers, and stevedores, and house-painters, and brakemen, and engineers, and conductors, and factory hands, and horse-car drivers, and all the shop-girls, and all the sewing-women, and all the telegraph operators; in a word all the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power … when these rise, call the vast spectacle by any deluding name that will please your ear, but the fact remains a Nation has risen.”
Workers were not a special interest group, Twain argued. When united by an organization like the Knights, the working class was the essence of a powerful nation. Despite all the talk about the writer being a “failed capitalist” (an automatic typesetter invention lost him a load of money), in truth Mark Twain was a member of the working class his whole life who held union cards both as a typesetter and a river boat operator.
Don’t fear today’s progressive political figures as a “left-wing demagogues.” Pay attention to what motivates them; their full-throated support for universal health care, free public higher education, union jobs for all — issues that mean nothing to the one percent, but everything to working people. People like this are, as Dr. Cornel West says, our country’s “moral center.”
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer whose work appears at ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.