The History Of Socialism In Our World — And Its Future In The U.S.

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A demonstrator wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)
A demonstrator wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Find our buildout from this hour, featuring a partial transcription, here.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

President Trump says the U.S. will never be a socialist country. Some Democrats embrace the "democratic socialist" label. But what does socialism really mean? What’s its history?


Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin, a socialist, quarterly magazine. Author of "The ABCs of Socialism" and the forthcoming "The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality." (@sunraysunray)

Kimberly Phillips-Fein, professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and The History Department at New York University (@NYUGallatin). Historian of 20th-century American politics. Author of "Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan" and "Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics."

From The Reading List

New York Times: "America Can Never Sort Out Whether ‘Socialism’ Is Marginal or Rising" — "'Can you donate $5 NOW to defeat the socialist uprising?' a Republican congressional candidate tweeted in late June — just after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified democratic socialist, won a New York congressional primary. Numerically speaking, the socialist 'uprising' remains small: one safe-seat Democratic primary, a presidential-primary near miss by Bernie Sanders, a handful of local races around the country and a total membership of about 40,000 for the Democratic Socialists of America. What it all means, though, is a different matter. American politics may speak in the language of statistics and projections, but when it comes to the question of socialism, hard numbers have never counted for much. A lot can be a little, and a little can be a lot, and either one may or may not be a sign of more in the future.

"In 1906, for instance, the German scholar Werner Sombart published a classic essay asking, 'Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?' One answer he identified was workers’ access to 'roast beef and apple pie,' consumer luxuries that led them to reject European-style class politics. But another response is that there was, at the time, actually quite a lot more socialism in the United States than Sombart let on, particularly in the Midwest. In 1912, 6 percent of the presidential vote went to the socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, setting off predictions of, well, a socialist uprising.

"A strange logic has always surrounded this topic in the United States: Both interpretations — that socialism is a dead letter and that it is the wave of the future — can exist side by side. At the end of the Cold War, we heard that socialism was at last forever vanquished, but in 2009 Newsweek declared that 'We Are All Socialists Now.' By 2016, Sanders’s presidential campaign was reviving talk of a 'revolution' in the making, as if nobody remembered that we had already been socialists for seven years.

"Some of this revolution is said to be occurring outside the electoral sphere, where trends can be hard to measure. Polls suggest that almost half of millennials have a favorable impression of socialism, though surveys rarely delve into the details. After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Merriam-Webster reported a surge in look-ups for 'socialism' — which could be evidence of a significant surge in sympathy and interest, or just a reminder that many people in 2018 remain unsure what 'socialism' really means."

Vice: "Socialism Is Incredibly Popular but Does Anyone Know What 'Socialism' Is?" — "America is on the brink of socialist revolution. Sorta. A Gallup poll in August suggested that only 45 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 see capitalism positively, compared to 51 percent for socialism. Though left-wing candidates haven’t performed especially well overall in Democratic primaries this year, the surprise victory of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a powerful incumbent has been studied and obsessed over by every media source from The Daily Show to Breitbart.

"Since then, other candidates associated with socialism have won elections, including Rashida Tlaib, who after a primary victory in Michigan is likely to be one of the first Muslim women in Congress. And 27-year-old Julia Salazar, who won her primary in mid-September, will be the first avowed socialist to serve in New York’s state senate in almost a century.

"All this had led outlets like Vox to conclude that 'the rising socialist left is a major national story.' As the libertarian Reason recently noted, 'People are rightly looking for alternatives, and "socialism" is one of them.'

"But though 'socialism' is gaining in popularity, nobody can seem to agree on what it means. Some liberal commentators have suggested that socialists aren’t actually all that distinct from liberals—'The new socialist movement doesn’t look that different from a standard progressive Democratic agenda,' Noah Smith wrote on Bloomberg—while the right has described the movement in apocalyptic terms, with Housing Secretary Ben Carson recently decrying a conspiracy based around the 'Fabian Society.' "

Washington Post: "Is socialism on the rise in the United States?" — "On Tuesday, President Trump alleged in his State of the Union that the United States was on a dangerous course to socialism.

"On Thursday, democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) proposed a Green New Deal — and it was instantly supported by several Democratic presidential candidates. The package isn’t socialism, of course, but with its major proposed spending and initiatives, it’s the kind of big-government approach Democrats have been politically leery of for decades.

"So does Trump have a point? Is the country warming to this kind of approach? And what might the s-word portend for 2020?

"We can say two things. One is that getting serious presidential hopefuls to join someone who identifies as a democratic socialist on such a huge vision for government activism is a clear shift in the American political paradigm. But the second is that the public more broadly is still about as wary about socialism as it has been for years. As a result, Republicans will gladly affix that label to this proposal — with an easy assist from Ocasio-Cortez."

Allison Pohle produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on February 11, 2019.



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