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Call Me a Socialist and I Won’t Get Mad

Berry Craig: Genuine socialists are proud of the socialist handle. They call their parties -- you guessed it – “socialist,” or sometimes “social democratic” or “labor.”

Republicans are still dissing Democrats as socialists. Democrats are still denying it.

keith ellison

Rep. Keith Ellison

The other day, the socialist slam made Rep. Keith Ellison (left) so angry that he demanded that the Republican slammer – Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama -- take it back.

Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, is one of the most liberal members of Congress. Just don’t call him a socialist.

Ellison’s ire is more proof that the Democrats are a capitalist party – moderately so by world political standards, but capitalist nonetheless.

Genuine socialists are proud of the socialist handle. They call their parties -- you guessed it – “socialist,” or sometimes “social democratic” or “labor.”

Of course, real McCoy socialists are as rare as July blizzards in the U.S. But they’re common in every other industrial democracy – including our NATO allies.

So when Republicans try to pin the socialist tail on the Democratic donkey, they only show how far right-wing they are. In every other democracy, the current GOP would be a reactionary fringe party.

The U.S. is the only democracy that doesn’t have a socialist party in the political mainstream.

A big reason we don’t is because long ago Republican and Democratic powers-that-be convinced most Americans that socialism and revolutionary communism are the same thing.

They’re not, not by a long shot. Most importantly, socialists favor reform via the ballot, not the bullet.

Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey

Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey

Also, socialist, social democratic and labor parties in democratic countries stand for mixed economies – economies with significant private sectors but with meaningful government oversight to protect workers and the environment from the greedy excesses inherent in unrestrained capitalism. NATO member Norway , whose prime minister is from the Labor Party, is a good example.

Not only are socialists committed to the democratic process, they are staunch supporters of individual liberties such as free speech, a free press and freedom of (and from) religion.
America had a pretty big Socialist Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Explains John Hennen, a history professor and author at Morehead , Kenttucky, State University :

“Prior to World War I, there was a lively debate over the organization of the American political economy along the lines of democratic socialism. Respectful give-and-take over government ownership of railroads, utilities, and natural resources, and over a truly progressive tax structure to guarantee the fair distribution of social benefits to as many people as possible, was as normal in the public dialogue as are today’s narrow debates over how best to go about cutting back on services to the elderly and the poor.”

The old Socialist Party leader was perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who founded the American Railway Union. “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity,” he said. “We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”

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What did Debs – and later Socialist Party luminaries like Norman Thomas (who also made multiple presidential runs) – mean by being “for humanity?” Well, they advocated, for instance:

  • The right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively
  • An end to child labor
  • Equal pay for men and women who did the same job
  • The eight-hour day
  • Minimum wage and maximum hour laws
  • Laws to protect worker safety and health
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Worker’s compensation
  • Old age and disability pensions
  • Universal health care
  • An end to Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination
  • The banning of capital punishment
  • More direct democracy through the initiative, referendum and recall
  • Public ownership of railroads, telephone and telegraph systems and public utilities for the good of all, not for the enrichment of a few.
  • An income tax based on the idea that the more money you make you make, the more money you should pay
  • Direct election of the president and vice president
  • Conservation of natural resources

The political, press and pulpit guardians of the status quo -– and both big parties -- used “socialist” as a slur in Debs’ day, too.

Adds Hennen:

“Socialism in its various forms came to be conflated with Bolshevism and violent anarchism during the World War I hysteria and subsequent ‘Red Scare,’ when political capitalists, fearful that the masses of American workers might take the wartime rhetoric of democracy to heart, unleashed a highly successful campaign to portray any critic of industrial capitalism and concentrated wealth as un-American.”

(There was even more conflation in the post-World War II McCarthy era and in the rest of the cold war.)

Said Debs:

“Of course, Socialism is violently denounced by the capitalist press and by all the brood of subsidized contributors to magazine literature, but this only confirms the view that the advance of Socialism is very properly recognized by the capitalist class as the one cloud upon the horizon which portends an end to the system in which they have waxed fat, insolent and despotic through the exploitation of their countless wage-working slaves.”

I’m a left-leaning, union card-carrying Democrat and a fan of another Minnesota Democrat: Hubert Humphrey. (I admire Ellison, too.)

HHH admired Western European socialist, social democratic and labor parties. I do, too. So I won't get mad if you call me a "socialist."

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church I was taught that I am supposed to be my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. Such was the essence of socialism, according to Debs, whose party included many men and women whose socialism was fired by their Christian and Jewish faiths.

Explained Debs:

“Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked: ‘Am I my brother's keeper?’ That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.

“Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself.”

Berry Craig

I’ll add a Presbyterian “amen” to that.

Berry Craig