Socialist Eugene Debs could attract a crowd of thousands during brief whistle stops across Connecticut.

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

 

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27 Comments

  1. Back when communist eastern Europe was set free I heard directly from friends and family there how bad socialism was.I knew people from Sweden who said socialism was terrible.high taxes and rationing of goods and services.I believe all the blue states practice a form of socialism all ready and look at the shape these Democratic states are in.Not good!

  2. I can’t fear “socialism,” where government is the producer and distributor of goods and services. It is here to stay. Think about this the next time you drive down our “socialist” roads and bridges, past public works, schools, sewers, police, military, and fire services, libraries, mass transit, public health and agriculture inspections, trash disposal, academic research, or even borrow money. Big business has so much influence over tax dollars that it seems to me that such “socialist” activities are nothing more than a huge feeding trough for private enterprise.

    The only fear of “socialism” — newly defined — comes from Wall Street #MeFirsters, when the people they have excluded complain that profits are excessive — and wish to participate in the benefits of society.

    1. Because you can’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Those that know Socialism FEAR socialism, even dressed up it is still a death sentence. It goes against the human psyche and crushes it and individual greatness & freedom. Socialism has caused nothing but destruction, death and despair and those pedaling it are doing those not smart enough to seek the truth a grave injustice. Baiting classes against each other never ends well. socialism is made possible in part by that tactic. How did we become so willing to give up greatness for the lure of being taken care of by those who will crush us??

      1. 100% agree, as many of the comments to this viewpoint illustrate, many people do not understand the true danger of socialism. The viewpoint author equates socialism to better healthcare plans, social security and fairer pay – that is complete nonsense. We can achieve those things without socialism and anyone who says otherwise does not understand how true socialism works and where it inevitably ends.

  3. It is not responsible or honest to promote any form of socialism or the idealist values it promotes to young people without discussing the financial costs (taxes), enforcement of regulations and historic examples of where socialism has failed. This is especially true in countries with large geographies, diverse populations with different cultures and individual’s values and property rights. This does not mean we can’t improve the crony capitalism we see in many industries today, to offer more opportunity to everyone – including unionized workers but more importantly those people who rely far too heavily on government services today.

    1. It is also “not responsible” to discuss this topic without examples of where it has worked, is working, and the services provided to citizens. A balanced discussion is the responsible way.

      1. Yes, but the author does not provide that context, he is “selling” socialism and worse organized labor as going hand in hand – which is nonsense. Real socialism has failed on almost every economic measure and caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in countries with large populations. Young people need to look no further than the old Soviet Union or China (prior to privatization of assets) to see the abject failure of socialist economic policy. Marx himself believed that capitalism, lead to crony capitalism, to socialism and ultimately a communist utopia. Today, the U.S. has far too much crony capitalism, where specialist interests become a “protected class”. Ironically we see that as much with labor unions in CT, as we do with big bank bailouts, or tech monopolies.

  4. In the words of Mark Twain, “if men didn’t have commerce, what would they do?” And if women and men didn’t have leaders and innovators motivated by the rewards of capitalism, where would we be? Venezuela.

  5. Democratic socialism is what gave birth to a middle class and social security through president Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Nordic countries aren’t officially socialist, they have a similar system that’s successful.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.politico.com/magazine/amp/story/2019/08/16/democrats-socialism-fdr-roosevelt-227622
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2018/07/08/sorry-bernie-bros-but-nordic-countries-are-not-socialist/amp/

    1. That is not true. Nordic countries ARE NOT socialist. They DO PROVIDE far more government services that are PAID through FAR HIGHER TAX RATES (not just “rich people” taxes) and they refer to that as a Social Democracy. They ONLY HAVE capitalist economies where private property and contracts are protected under common law. The same is true for all countries in the EU. Recently Nordic countries were forced to cut back on government services to lower their tax rates because they were becoming less competitive for business and their outmigration of wealth was becoming problematic for 3rd party investment, their entire economy was slowing – similar to Connecticut – however we still refuse to cut taxes and services.

      1. Sorry Stacey, my mistake. I read or at least understood the “officially” word you used in your post to mean that you think they really are socialist with economies based on socialism and that is false. All countries of the EU are capitalists and believe in free markets, contracts and property rights. The Nordic countries have extremely high tax rates on the middle class compared to the United States, so they can afford more government programs. That has nothing to do with socialism as described in the Viewpoint, in fact the author of the Viewpoint seems to not understand what socialism is and why how it fails the people who have tried it.

      2. In addition in Norway they had to encourage their young people between the ages of 20 – 26 to go back to work because The government actually paid them more to NOT work compared to people who did work. Allowing this to even happen shows you how damaging this can be. Connecticut needs to be very cautious how it proceeds because our state economy is already under massive strain and we are not seeing significant or sustainable growth – yet we refuse to cut taxes but also reduce services to sustainable levels.

  6. What we are really debating in the U.S. today is Democratic Socialism vs. Unbridled Capitalism. In fact, some degree of Socialism is good – especially along the lines more closer to what we see in Canada and Europe. We do not need to go all the way, yet Medicare for All would be a good step forward and likely free public college for those prepared for it. |

    Similarly Capitalism is good, yet Unbridled Capitalism is bad.

    Today we could use more of Socialism and less of Capitalism, IMHO.

    1. Tax dollars should go towards ensuring all Americans are healthy and educated instead of being neglected to pay for endless wars like they are now. It is their money after all.
      Americans resemble slaves at this point.

    1. Highly recommended show. However, Mr. Sax is biased due to his admitted liberal progressive philosophy that is often tied to Democratic Socialism. The show does give concrete examples of how so many people (including Bernie Sanders) have poorly defined what Socialism and Democratic Socialism are.

      The author of the viewpoint (Mr. Thornton) would benefit greatly from listening to Economists and Historians about socialism and not Organizers (special interests) and Politicians, who really are willing to say anything to get the vote they need and then they move on. Remember Gruber’s on Obamacare .. “the stupidity of the American voter made it important for him (Obama) and Democrats to hide Obamacare’s true costs from the public. That was really, really critical for the thing to pass. But I’d rather have this law than not.”

      In other words, the ends—imposing Obamacare upon the public—justified the means – regardless of costs or return on the investment.

  7. Everyone thinks that some public agency built this road or that bridge, etc. Not in all cases. Ya know what my dad, who was owner of a concrete company, laid the foundation of my high school, & many a road in this state. So I don’t buy this that some govt. agent built stuff we use. In most cases it’s some john q. public who put out the effort.

  8. With all due respect Steve Thornton, unions outlived their purpose when they started protecting workers who didn’t work. It was an inside joke in Detroit: Don’t buy a car assembled on Friday because the workers were drunk, and don’t buy a car assembled on Monday because they were hung-over. We had a neighbor who clocked in at the Rouge plant and then came home and slept for 6 hours.

  9. Why is socialism scarring democrat politicians. When I wrote to Susan Johnson, State Rep for Windham, about some issue and stated she had socialist tendencies, she accused me of scaring the voters.

  10. If the people vote for a democratic social party, then OK, so be it. But don’t tell other people how ignorant they are if they are pro capitalism. In my opinion, if you want to “fix” inequity, first look at the tax structure. Fix that first and maybe we wouldn’t need to redesign our whole economy. If everyone pays their fair share then maybe no one would feel cheated.

    1. 100% correct. We don’t need socialism (it can’t happen anyway unless you change the U.S. Constitution). Tax reform and punishing companies and politicians that practice crony capitalism is where we need focus. Taking money out of politics and demanding results from government is the real issue.

  11. First — great article by Steve Thorton. And regardless of what all the moaners & goraners here may say, socialism has had a a significant measure here in the Nutmeg state. I’m sure Steve had to choose based on space limitations. But as a result, he does not mention one of the most popular socialists in our state, with a national following as well.
    He was Jasper McLevy, the socialist mayor of Bridgeport for 24 years. McLevy was elected in 1933, in response to rampant corruption. My parents were young Bridgeport residents at the time. My aunt said that the day McLevy was sworn in, he arrested the former mayor and many of the former aldermen. He made city contracts open to competitive bidding. He ended the practice of city officials getting home heating oil on the city’s tab, and showed tight fiscal restraint, so money was available for programs for working people.
    Several socialists from Bridgeport were also elected to the General Assembly. There were a force for good in an age when government had succumbed to cynicism and greed. McLevy remains historically one of the state’s most popular politicians, with good reason.

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