The socialists Mr. Sanders most resembles were Gilded Age intellectuals, reformers, union members and ordinary citizens who self-labeled as socialist. There were immigrants among them, but the leading voices were, like Mr. Sanders, native-born and middle-class advocates of reform within the Democratic and Republican parties, whose bosses they often criticized.
Mr. Sanders sounds like these Gilded Age socialists in part because the issues of their time were similar to ours — immigration, environmental deterioration, declining well-being and growing inequality in a period of rapid technological and economic change. Mr. Sanders — whose socialism, built on fairness, is remarkably nonideological — shares the conviction of these old socialists that values, not economic laws, determine the contours of American society. The Gilded Age socialists admitted what their opponents often did not: Americans did not all share common values.
Like most modern pundits, 19th-century liberals — the equivalent of modern libertarians — believed that Americans always have been and always will be individualists. They imagined society to be a collection of autonomous subjects whose competition achieved the best possible outcomes. To deny this truth, they felt, was to deny reality.
Those who called themselves socialists echoed Dr. Leete in Edward Bellamy’s best-selling 1888 novel “Looking Backward,” a book that imagined a socialist utopia. Dr. Leete defined the core problem in American society as “excessive individualism.” The socialists stressed collectivities — the home, the community, the church and the nation. They spoke to another equally American tradition that had flowered in the Gilded Age: The Knights of Labor, who envisioned worker-owned cooperatives replacing wage labor and sought to amend “the work of the Founders” to “engraft republican principles on property and industry.” Their influence pervades “Looking Backward,” which is less a novel than a compendium of desired reforms. Not surprisingly, some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters have rediscovered the novel.
The more his opponents caricature Mr. Sanders as a Sandinista or a Bolshevik, the more Mr. Sanders’s actual similarity to 19th-century socialists makes him seem unthreatening, even avuncular. He is infinitely closer to William Dean Howells, the 19th-to 20th-century novelist who for a while proclaimed himself a socialist, than to Joseph Stalin.
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