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Socialists on the Knife-Edge

American Democratic Socialism has deep roots in the very “American” values it is accused of undermining.

Contemporary American socialism exists on a continuum between social democrats, who want to achieve a fairer settlement within market capitalism, and democratic socialists, who want to bring various activities, from housing to health care, under some form of state, community, cooperative, or employee control. Democratic socialists have transformative ambitions, but unlike Communists, their goal is not the abolition of private property. They accept, to varying degrees, the utility of markets, but disagree with classical free marketeers who see the economy as a self-regulating system that works most efficiently when insulated from the “distortion” of nonmarket forces; they insist instead on what the Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi called “embeddedness,” the emergence of the economy from—and dependence on—social, political, and cultural relations.

This kind of thinking has never been popular with American elites, who have historically used the press, public information campaigns, think tanks, and corporate lobbyists to turn public opinion against it. But while the demonization of socialism has a long history in the US, so does American socialism itself. The movement whose tangled history Gary Dorrien tells in American Democratic Socialism has deep roots in the very “American” values it is accused of undermining.

American socialism predates Marx. Early experiments in communal living and working included intentional communities such as New Harmony, Indiana, founded by followers of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen in 1825, and Utopia, Ohio, founded by disciples of Charles Fourier in 1844. The word “socialist” is usually held to have entered the English language in 1827, when it appeared in the pages of the Owenite Co-operative Magazine. By the 1830s “socialism” had been brought into conceptual opposition with “individualism,” creating the basic contours of our contemporary political landscape.

Owenites started the first American labor party, the Working Men’s Party, which put a carpenter into the New York State Assembly in 1829, and they became involved in abolitionism and campaigns for public control of land. Owen’s famous demand for a shorter workday became a rallying cry for the American labor movement, under the slogan “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” The bumper sticker reminder that “if you enjoy your weekend, thank a union” speaks out of a political tradition that is two hundred years old.

After the failure of the European revolutions of 1848, many German “forty-eighters” fled to the US, exposing Americans to currents of European socialist thought. They became Republican legislators, land reformers, and Union soldiers in the Civil War. As Dorrien writes, figures like Friedrich Karl Franz Hecker, the cofounder of the Illinois Republican Party, and Herman Kriege, who as part of the Communist League had commissioned Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto, joined a “stew of radical liberals, radical democrats, humanists, Christian evangelicals, socialists, feminists, disaffected Whigs, and formerly enslaved neo-abolitionists.”


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

The long history of American Socialism and its ideological roots in our nation's founding values.