Socialism is a good word. Why fear socialism?

by Vicki S. Nikolaidis, RedRoom Writer, political activist and Jim Cullen, Editor, The Progressive Populist

The hard-edged lack of kindness Gov. Palin emanated during her unsuccessful quest for the VP position is her most memorable trait.  Listening to her convention speech I tried to keep a distance but then she reeled me in with her patronizing schoolmarm voice.  She spoke of a bad word, “the S-word”.

To raise suspense she gave us a hint, “It starts with an ‘S’ . . .!”

As she leaned towards us over the podium I prayed, “Please don’t let her say ‘sex’ maybe she means snaky or sneaky or sly.”

But no, she finger quoted one of the least scary words in the English language and one of the most needed concepts for discussion within the U.S.A.

“Socialism!” she offered to her tribe in the audience.

Not being part of her tribe I was flummoxed, “We’re supposed to be afraid of socialism?”

The strongest showing by a Socialist US presidential candidate was Eugene Debs’ 901,000 votes for 6% of the total in 1912 and 913,000 votes (3.4% of the total) in 1920.   Norman Thomas, who succeeded Debs as president of SPUSA, ran national campaigns through 1948 and got nearly 885,000 votes in 1932, almost as many as Debs got in 1912, and there have been other Socialist candidates throughout the years.

Socialism never ‘took’ in the U.S. nationally although history tells of city and local successes.  Many citizens say they don’t want ‘socialism’ yet Jim Cullen has noted, “decades of public opinion data from nonpartisan sources show the majority of Americans hold progressive positions on a broad range of issues.”

Norman Thomas, Socialist presidential canidate in the 1940’s, made a prescient statement, “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened.”

Taking away the power of banking by switching to a political system in which a workers community has power seems reasonable.  Workers parties have tried to achieve pay equity, safe working conditions, adequate health care, and enough money to pay for housing, eat well and still have some cash left over for saving and shopping.

I pulled out my file on socialism.  Yes, I have a file on socialism although I am not an enemy of the state.

There I found an article by Ronald Aronson “The Left Needs More Socialism.”  He suggested in the spring of 2006 that we “break a taboo and place the word socialism across the top of the page in a major progressive magazine.”  He goes on to comment, “I can hear tongues clucking the conventional wisdom that the ‘S’ word is the kiss of death for any American political initiative.”Mr. Aronson remarks on the need to incorporate the concept of equality into the demands of the Left.  In the U.S. every citizen has the right to vote, but there is no denying the inequality to many necessities such as a good situation at birth, resources for a person to develop their own talents, availability of nutritious food, health care and education.

The “I” of individualism is a universally accepted characteristic of U.S. citizens.  The opposite of collectivism, individualism is the idea that every person can reach their personal potential and each can live a productive healthy life by scrambling to the top of the pile.  Each person can reach the top of the pile. What a contradiction!   Citizens are exhausted and angry at being stepped on, pushed and betrayed.

I turned to the informative, well-researched book It Didn’t Happen Here, Why Socialism Failed in the United States which explains that American individualism is an important reason socialism didn’t happen here.  Workers gave priority to their personal identity in racial, religious and ethnic communities instead of seeing themselves in solidarity with their fellow workers.

The authors conclude that the most important reason for the failure of American socialism is likely to have been the conflict between unions.  The exclusionary craft unions were dominant within the American labor movement and more powerful than unions with a membership of less skilled workers.

Also the willingness of the two national parties to absorb parts of the socialist message undermined the creation of a national labor party.   Early examples of party flexibility include the way the Jacksonian Democrats incorporated socialist goals into their platform.  The Republican Party started describing their party goals using the vocabulary of European socialists.  Whereas the national parties were flexible the socialist parties viewed as dogma the Socialist doctrine.

Constitutionalism was another factor working against U.S. socialism.  European and the American constitutions grew from different social systems.  Feudalism was common in Europe, on the other hand the American constitution was written by colonial property owners.

In contemporary times even European socialist parties have been moving away from regulation towards market liberalism.  Of the fourteen European countries analyzed in the book only one country has not moved closer to the free market.

Greece falls almost smack dab in the middle of the continuum from State Control of Economy (1.00) to Market Liberalism (10.00).  The data point in 1984 is positioned at 4.66.  And their move to the left?  In 1995 the data point is 4.60.  A 0.06 move is not a radical change of position.

The authors conclude, “The influence of social democracy as a distinct approach to policy is not exhausted.   The seemingly universal shift to support for capitalism and the free market may be of short duration.”

Certainly if any lessons have been learned over the last 3 decades, or even the last 3 months, we will apply socialist values.   If not for moral reasons, we need to do it to keep the economy working at steady state.

Since overhauling the political system into a parliamentary system is unlikely, we have to work harder in the two realms we can make changes.  We know that in the U.S. third parties are most successful at the city and local level.  And we can influence the platform within the national Democratic Party.

Instead of being fearful of the “S” word let’s remember who brought us the precursor to the 40 hour work week: the Workingmen’s parties that demanded and successfully negotiated a ten- hour work day in the 1920’s!

I suggest the S-word stands for Sensible.


See biographies by M. B. Seidler (2d ed. 1967), H. Fleischman (1964, repr. 1969), and B. K. Johnpoll (1970).

Aronson, Ronald, “The Left Needs More Socialism” (April 17, 2006) The Nation, pages28, 29 and 30.

Cullen, Jim M. Editorial, “Center-Right Socialism” December 1, 2008. The Progressive Populist.

Lipset, Seymour Martin and Gary Marks. It Didn’t Happen Here Why Socialism Failed in the United States (2001) W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Thomas, Norman. U.S. Socialist Party presidential candidate 1940, 1944 and 1948.

Eugene Victor Debs           (born Nov. 5, 1855, Terre Haute, Ind., U.S. — died Oct. 20, 1926, Elmhurst, Ill.) U.S. labor organizer.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Labor organizer and socialist. Debs grew up in the small midwestern city of Terre Haute Indiana, where his parents, Alsatian immigrants, operated a grocery store. In 1875 he was elected secretary of the Terre Haute lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. His intelligence and commitment, coupled with his conservative outlook (he argued against participation in the nationwide railroad strikes of 1877), attracted the attention of the brotherhood’s leaders. By 1881, he was national secretary of the brotherhood, increasingly its spokesman on labor issues, and its mos tireless organizer. Simultaneously, Debs entered politics as a Democratic candidate for city clerk in 1879. First elected over Republican and Greenback-Labor party candidates, Debs was overwhelmingly reelected in 1881. Four years later, he was elected to the Indiana State Assembly with broad support from the wards of Terre Haute’s workers and businessmen.

During the 1880s Debs’s ideas began to change. At first a firm proponent of organization of workers by their separate crafts, he resisted the industrial organization implicit in the efforts of the Knights of Labor and ordered his members to report to work during the Knights’ 1885 strike against the southwestern railroads. But his year-long involvement (1888-1889) in the strike against the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad altered these views. He now thought craft organization divisive, a hindrance to working people’s efforts to secure fair wages and working conditions. And concentrated corporate power, he argued, had a debilitating effect on the political rights and economic opportunity of the majority of Americans. By 1893 he had resigned his position as secretary of the brotherhood and begun organizing an industrial union of railroad workers, the American Railway Union (aru).

The aru’s 1894 strike against the Pullman Company of Chicago marked a second turning point in Debs’s thinking. The unified power of railroad management working intimately with federal authorities broke the strike. Federal troops occupied Chicago, federal injunctions prevented communication between aru locals, and federal judges sentenced Debs and other activists to jail terms. Debs emerged from this experience with two convictions. He questioned the ultimate ability of trade unions to combat successfully capital’s economic power and, after the 1896 elections, looked upon socialism as the answer to working people’s problems.

Between 1900 and 1920 Debs was the Socialist party’s standard-bearer in five presidential elections. In 1912, in a four-way race with Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft he received 6 percent of the vote–his highest total ever. Between campaigns, Debs was a tireless speaker and organizer for the party, and he traveled the nation defending workers in their strikes and industrial disputes. Although many workers enthusiastically applauded Debs’s vision, relatively few endorsed his political program. He conducted his last campaign for president as prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary while serving ten years for his opposition to World War I. He received nearly a million votes. As the American Socialist party fragmented in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, Debs remained with the party he had led for so many years. Upon his death he was buried in Terre Haute, his home throughout his life.

Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982).

Thomas, Norman Mattoon, 1884-1968, American socialist leader, b. Marion, Ohio; grad. Princeton (1905), Union Theological Seminary (1911).
He served as pastor of several Presbyterian churches and did settlement work in New York City until 1918. (He formally left the ministry in 1931.) In World War I, he became a pacifist and joined (1918) the Socialist party. He founded (1918) The World Tomorrow, was (1921-22) an associate editor of the Nation, and became (1922) codirector of the League for Industrial Democracy.
He was also active in setting up the Amercian Civil Liberties Union. Thomas unsuccessfully sought election as governor of New York (1924, 1938) and as mayor of New York City (1925, 1929). After the death (1926) of Eugene Debs, he assumed leadership of the Socialist party and was repeatedly (1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948) the party’s candidate for president.
He polled his highest vote, about 880,000, in 1932. An advocate of evolutionary socialism, Thomas was a constant critic of the American economic system and of both major parties; he strongly opposed American entry in World War II while bitterly denouncing both fascism and Soviet communism.
After the war, he lectured and wrote extensively on the need for world disarmament and the easing of cold war tensions. In 1955, he resigned his official posts in the Socialist party, but he remained its chief spokesman until shortly before his death.
His works include The Conscientious Objector in America (1923), Socialism of Our Time (1929), Human Exploitation (1934), Appeal to the Nations (1947), Socialist’s Faith (1951), The Test of Freedom (1954), The Prerequisite for Peace (1959), Great Dissenters (1961), and Socialism Reexamined (1963).

Definition of Socialism

  1. Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
  2. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.    (from V. Debs. (credit: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Essay originally appeared at on December 11, 2008   (and still relevant!)