What happens when a Black Marxist scholar wants to talk about race?

Reed and WestThe killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have brought to light some serious differences on the American left. Take, for example, the case of Adolph Reed, a Black Marxist scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who was invited to speak to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. Michael Powell covers it all in a fascinating story at The New York Times.

Reed wanted to argue that the left’s focus on COVID-19’s impact on Black people “undermined multiracial organizing, which he sees as key to health and economic justice.” When the topic of his talk was released, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus said that Reed’s topic was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.” The ZOOM lecture was canceled.

My favorite response to all of this comes from Cornel West: “God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation…he has taken some very unpopular stands on identity politics, but he has a track record of a half-century. If you give up discussion, your movement moves toward narrowness.”

Here is a taste of Powell’s piece:

The decision to silence Professor Reed came as Americans debate the role of race and racism in policing, health care, media and corporations. Often pushed aside in that discourse are those leftists and liberals who have argued there is too much focus on race and not enough on class in a deeply unequal society. Professor Reed is part of the class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue that race as a construct is overstated.

This debate is particularly potent as activists sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make progress on issues ranging from police violence to mass incarceration to health and inequality. And it comes as Socialism in America — long a predominantly white movement — attracts younger and more diverse adherents.

Many leftist and liberal scholars argue that current disparities in health, police brutality and wealth inequality are due primarily to the nation’s history of racism and white supremacy. Race is America’s primal wound, they say, and Black people, after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, should take the lead in a multiracial fight to dismantle it. To set that battle aside in pursuit of ephemeral class solidarity is preposterous, they argue.

“Adolph Reed and his ilk believe that if we talk about race too much we will alienate too many, and that will keep us from building a movement,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor of African-American studies and a D.S.A. member. “We don’t want that — we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.”

A contrary view is offered by Professor Reed and some prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black. They see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end. They include Dr. West; the historians Barbara Fields of Columbia University and Toure Reed — Adolph’s son — of Illinois State; and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, a Socialist magazine.

Read the entire piece here.

What the real socialists are saying about Sanders, AOC, and Black Lives Matter

Bernie Cortez

I want to highlight again something I mentioned briefly in this post.

What do real socialists say about Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and others on the left-wing of the Democratic Party who are frightening America conservatives and white evangelicals as we approach the 2020 elections?

The following quotes come from the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), a Marxist organization of the International Committee of the Fourth International. They are followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. I am guessing many of my readers are unfamiliar with this organization.

Here is the WSWS on Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign for president:

…what is remarkable about Sanders is how vacuous his supposed radicalism really is. He is far less radical in his domestic policy than the Populists, the anti-Wall Street presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, and the Farmer-Laborites. In the crucial area of foreign policy, he is virtually indistinguishable from Obama and Hillary Clinton, even attacking them from the right on issues like trade with China. When asked directly last year about his attitude to US military intervention abroad, he declared he was for “drones, all that and more.”

If Sanders goes on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, he will betray the aspirations of his supporters flagrantly and with extraordinary speed. A thousand excuses will be brought forward to explain why the wars must continue abroad and nothing can be done to rein in Wall Street at home.

Sanders is not the representative of a working class movement. He is rather the temporary beneficiary of a rising tide of popular opposition that is passing through only its initial stages of social and class differentiation.

Here is WSWS on Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign:

Notably excluded from Sanders’ opening campaign statement was any mention of “capitalism,” “socialism,” “fascism,” “imperialism,” “internationalism,” “equality” or “working class.”

He declared Tuesday that his campaign is “about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice,” but he said nothing about how this could be achieved through the vehicle of the Democratic Party.

The fundamental fraud promoted by Sanders, along with individuals such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is that the Democratic Party can be pushed to the left and made a force for progressive change. Articulating this political fiction, Jacobin editor and leading Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Bhaskar Sunkara proclaimed in a column for the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday that “Sanders started a revolution in 2016. In 2020, he can finish it.”

Here is the WSWS on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Ocasio-Cortez feeds on “half-thoughts” in the sense that she criticizes social inequality, global warming, etc., but refuses to say anything about the social and historical conditions that produce these maladies and the political forces responsible. She proposes curing inequality by supporting the Democratic Party, one of the two parties that promoted it. She proposes to attack the wealth of the rich without attacking the social system upon which this wealth is based.

Such “half-truths” are, as Trotsky noted, the worst form of falsehood—they aim to chloroform, to misdirect, and thereby provide an essential service to the ruling class. All those who promote her, as they promoted Sanders before her and Obama before him, are assisting in this process of political cover-up.

There are social interests that underlie these politics. Pseudo-left groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, which promote figures like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, use populist slogans to cover over the fundamental class issues, subordinate the working class to the Democratic Party, and promote the social interests of more privileged sections of the upper-middle class.

Here is the WSWS on The Squad’s 2019 disagreements with Nancy Pelosi:

Everything about this supposed conflict is a political fraud. Ocasio-Cortez is not leading a rank-and-file revolt, nor is Pelosi seeking to crush such a rebellion. No such rebellion exists, only a cynical division of labor. Pelosi pushes through the policies demanded by big business and the military-intelligence apparatus, and Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of others seek to give the Democratic Party a “left” face so that it can better disguise its right-wing policies in the 2020 election campaign.

Here is the WSWS on Black Lives Matter:

“Black Lives Matter” has been adopted as a rallying cry by interracial and interethnic crowds of youth and workers protesting the actions of the police across the planet because it evokes their rage over the fact that the lives of black workers and youth do not matter to the ruling elite. In opposing police violence across the world, workers and young people must embrace a political strategy aimed at more than the rebranding and racial diversification of the bodies of armed officials which comprise the guards of the capitalist class. In order to put an end to the onslaught of police violence, war and social inequality, the protests must turn to the working class as whole and advance a program of revolutionary socialism.

Here is the WSWS on a Black Lives Matter statement in the wake Trump’s election:

On November 15, Black Lives Matter Global Network released a statement on the election of Donald Trump that ignores the facts of the vote to present a false interpretation of American society as one dominated by racial hatred.

This racialist narrative goes hand in hand with the endorsement by the top leadership of Black Lives Matter of Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was based on a combination of personal attacks on Trump, anti-Russian propaganda and the promotion of racial and gender politics.

The statement is a semi-coherent collection of bald and unsubstantiated assertions, non-sequiturs and moralistic declarations. Even apart from its politically reactionary content, it has no intellectual substance and offers no perspective for achieving its stated goal, which is to “end all state-sanctioned violence until all Black Lives Matter.”

The statement is perhaps most remarkable for what it lacks. Names that do not appear include Obama, Clinton and Sanders. Also absent are the words “Democratic” and “Republican.” Other words not to be found include “capitalism,” “unemployment,” “inequality,” “poverty,” “working class,” or any reference to the social crisis in America.

Instead, the authors operate with the abstract and ahistorical terms associated with identity politics. Without citing any evidence, the statement asserts that a “white supremacist” was voted into office by an electorate opposed to “dismantling white supremacy.”

And this from 2015:

At Amherst College and Princeton University, protesters have demanded that the schools change the names of buildings named after figures who demonstrators say were racist. At Amherst, students are demanding that the school officially renounce its namesake, Baron Jeffery Amherst, an 18th century British Army Field Marshall. Princeton students are likewise demanding that the school drop the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of the 28th president’s racism.

The working class is entitled to ask: Is this a movement that has a progressive character? Do the demonstrators deserve at least critical support? The answer to both questions is no.

These protests are not part of a movement for social equality or civil rights. Rather, they are of a typically middle class character and represent a very familiar and toxic element of bourgeois politics: the fight amongst different factions within the wealthiest ten percent for a more favorable distribution of wealth at the top. The extreme concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent generates resentment and grievances within broader sections of the affluent middle class, and the various factions seek to stake their claims to wealth, privilege and positions of influence by utilizing the politics of race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality.

The Marxists at The World Socialist Web Site are just as angry as conservatives and many white evangelicals about the cultural politics of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the academy, and Hollywood. For example, these Marxists have waged the most intense and sustained battle against The New York Times 1619 project, even recruiting prominent American historians such as Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Richard Cawardine, Clayborne Carson, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes in their battle against it. They believe that identity politics, especially those that focus on race, serve to divide the international working class–a community of laborers that Marxists believe transcends race.

I encourage you to listen to our conversation with WSWS historian Thomas Mackaman in this episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

I am Hearing About Two Different Generational Divides

Bernie kids

First, there is the general divide in the Democratic Party. The millennials and Gen X-ers  seem to like Bernie Sanders. Baby boomers like Joe Biden. Read Eric Levitz’s piece at New York Magazine.

Second, there seems to be a divide in how Americans are responding to the coronavirus. Read Rana Foroohar’s piece at Financial Times or this recent Wall Street Journal piece.

If all this reporting is correct, younger Americans love socialism, the environment, socialized medicine, and free college, but they are also selfish and more than willing to ignore the advice of older Americans who have scientific expertise.

It must be more complicated than this, but as a college professor of a certain age who spends a lot of time with young people, I find this discussion to be very interesting.

ADDENDUM: I just thought of another generational divide. Older and younger evangelicals on the Trump presidency.

Ron Brownstein on the Democratic Primary: “It’s Over”

Bernie

Here is the veteran political writer at The Atlantic:

After two insurgent campaigns that rattled American politics, Bernie Sanders’s dream of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee is effectively over.

Tapping an enormous wave of grassroots energy in both bids for the White House, Sanders galvanized young people, transformed online fundraising, and changed the terms of debate in the Democratic Party on issues ranging from health care to college affordability. But as his defeats last night made clear yet again, his unflinching call for a “political revolution” could not build a coalition broad enough to capture the ultimate prize.

For now, Sanders is staying in the race. “While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability,” he said today in a short speech from Burlington, Vermont. He still plans to attend an upcoming debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, who remains well short of the 1,991 delegates needed for a nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in July. But Biden’s resounding victories last night, and his widening delegate lead, have prompted even some of Sanders’s ideological allies to question whether the senator from Vermont should continue his campaign.

Read the rest here.  Bernie will not be president.  But American political historians will study his 2016 and 2020 campaigns for a long time.

Thinking Historically About Bernie’s Socialism

bernie-sanders-portrait-01

Stanford historian Richard White argues that Sanders best represents the Gilded Age socialists of the late 19th-century.  Here is a taste of his piece at The New York Times:

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.

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Walzer: “Sanders is alone with his excited followers”

Bernie Sanders

Michael Walzer is a public intellectual, co-editor of Dissent, and a life-long democratic socialist. Over at Tablet, he offers his take on Bernie Sanders:

What should lifelong democratic socialists and social democrats, like me, think about Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist? He isn’t like the socialists whom we know from other countries, where this kind of politics is much more common than it is in the United States. Socialist politicians usually emerge from powerful social movements like the old labor movement or from political parties like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democrats in Germany. Sanders does not come out of, nor has he done anything to build, a significant social movement. That wouldn’t be an easy task in the United States today; in any case, it hasn’t been his task. He has, moreover, never been a member of a political party—not even of the Democratic Party whose nomination he is now seeking. He has never attempted to create a democratic socialist caucus within the party. For all the enthusiasm he has generated, he has no organized, cohesive social or political force behind his candidacy. If he were elected, it is hard to see how he could enact any part of his announced program.

Several conservative writers have said it: Sanders is best understood as a left populist. He stands to the Democratic Party today very much like Trump stood to the Republican Party in 2016. I understand that Sanders stands for policies radically different from Trump’s. He speaks to the needs of millions of vulnerable Americans and to the anxieties of young people entering an unwelcoming economy—and, like populists everywhere, he promises to solve all their problems. But he stands in the political arena without the political support necessary to do that or even to begin to do that. He claims to be leading a movement. Look closely: He is alone with his excited followers.

Read the rest here.

Is Bernie Sanders Really a Socialist?

Bernie

Over at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews Georgetown University historian and Dissent editor Michael Kazin. Here is a taste:

Bernie Sanders likes to say that his proposals aren’t very radical if you take a long view of American history. Do you agree with that?

I agree and disagree. On the one hand, he’s channelling F.D.R. rather than Eugene Debs. He’s saying he’s going to complete the New Deal, and he talks about the Four Freedoms, which F.D.R. talked about in his State of the Union Address in 1941. So, in a sense, he’s going along with the social democratic tinge of the New Deal and arguing Roosevelt would be supporting Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, that F.D.R. would be wanting to strengthen labor unions and tax the rich, and that he—Sanders—is not out of the mainstream of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, he calls himself a socialist, which F.D.R. never did, because he wasn’t. The fact is also that Sanders is running in some ways against the so-called Democratic establishment and has never really become a Democrat, and he wants to transform the economy as utterly as he can. That would make him the most left-wing candidate for President that any major party has ever nominated. He’s sort of straddling a more legitimized politics—with more mainstream rhetoric within the mainstream Democratic Party—with ambitions which will clearly go beyond what any Democratic nominee has ever stood for. He seems very shrewd about that, because on the one hand, clearly, a lot of his policies are popular. On the other hand, as we know from polls, most Americans don’t like the idea of socialism.

Read the rest here.

Listen to our own interview with Kazin in Episode 41 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Why Robert Jeffress Needs Socialism

This Fox News segment got some traction yesterday:

Comments:

1. Robert Jeffress claims that Democrats are on the wrong side of every major faith issue, especially abortion.  He always pivots to abortion because he believes it is the most important faith issue on the table.  Fair enough. But he also pivots to abortion because he wants to rally his Christian Right base to vote for Donald Trump. Jeffress is a surrogate for Trump and a spokesperson for the American political movement known as the Christian Right. He has credentials for serving in these roles because he is a minister of a Dallas megachurch.  Jeffress’s constant call to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” is disingenuous. He pulls out this verse whenever he wants to dismiss an approach to Christian politics that does not fit comfortably within his Christian Right playbook. Jeffress can say that the Democrats are on the “wrong side” of “every major faith issue” in America because he believes that there are only three such issues: abortion, religious liberty, and support for Israel.

2. Jonathan Morris is correct. The Democratic Party is not going to attract evangelicals until it moderates some of its positions on social and moral issues. I made roughly the same case here.

3. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, a black pastor and politician, says that the black church is committed to acts of mercy and justice that today we might call “socialism.” While I appreciate Dawkins-Haigler’s counter to Jeffress, we need to be careful about pinning a modern political ideology on Jesus.  Jesus was not a socialist.  There was no such thing as socialism at the time Jesus lived.

4. Jeffress, of course, is not going let Dawkins Haigler’s reference to socialism slide.  The very utterance of the word raises the hair on the back of his neck. Culture warriors and fundamentalists like Jeffress are incapable of taking nuanced approaches to these kind of issues. Instead of suggesting that socialist concerns about the plight of workers might have some overlap with Christian views of social justice, Jeffress claims that socialism is “absolutely antithetical to Christianity.” (Of course there are millions of Christians around the world and many in the United States who disagree with him here.  I guess they’re not real Christians).  Jeffress needs socialism.  It is vital to the survival of his fear-based approach to Christian politics.  Without the constant “threat” of socialism he loses his political brand. His statement equating socialism to “communism lite” reminds me of historian Richard Hofstadter‘s words about McCarthyism in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

The [McCarthyite] inquisitors were trying to give satisfaction against liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, intellectuals, and finally even against a Republican [Eisenhower] administration that failed to reverse liberal policies.  What was involved, above all, was a set of political hostilities in which the New Deal was linked to the welfare state, the welfare state to socialism, and socialism to Communism. 

For Hofstadter, McCarthy’s attack on communism was part of a deeper fear-based politics, something he would later call the “paranoid style“:

The deeper historical sources of the Great Inquisition are best revealed by the other enthusiasms of its devotees: hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt, implacable opposition to New Deal reforms, desire to banish or destroy the United Nations, anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, isolationism, a passion for the repeal of the income tax, fear of poisoning by fluoridation of the water system, opposition to modernism in the churches.

How Bernie Sanders Has Transformed the Democratic Party

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego

William Jennings Bryan, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Goldwater all failed in their bids for the presidency.  But their ideas lived on and profoundly shaped the future of their parties.  According to historian Michael Kazin, Bernie Sanders is doing the same thing.

Here is a taste of his New York Times piece “Bernie Sanders Has Already Won“:

Since he began running for president five years ago, Senator Sanders and his supporters have nudged Democrats to take stands to the left of where the center of the party was when Barack Obama moved out of the White House. Every remaining candidate for president now endorses either Medicare for All or a robust public option, doubling the minimum wage, much higher taxes on the rich, legislation to facilitate union organizing and a transition to an economy based on sources of renewable energy. Even if the delegates in Milwaukee this summer choose a different nominee, they will surely endorse such policies and make them central to the drive to make Donald Trump a one-term president.

So whatever his electoral fate, the socialist from Vermont who is pushing 80 is likely to be remembered as a more transformative figure than many politicians who won an election but whom most Americans were quite glad to put behind them. Mr. Sanders wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt — but if he can’t, better to be the next William Jennings Bryan or Jesse Jackson than the next William Howard Taft.

Read the entire piece here.

Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Anticapitalism

Debs

Eugene Debs

Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece at The New York Times is worth your time.  It is important to remember that many socialists in United States history, including Debs and Sanders, believed they were defending American ideals.

Here is a taste of “The Enduring Power of Anticapitalism in American Politics“:

But Debs didn’t just condemn his class enemies. He also called on his audiences to imagine a better world — to realize the democratic and egalitarian promise of the American Revolution through collective action. “We live in the most favored land beneath the unbending sky,” he said in a speech in 1900. “We have all the raw materials and the most marvelous machinery, millions of eager inhabitants seeking employment. Nothing is so easily produced as wealth, and no man should suffer for the need of it.” Debs’s appeal, noted the historian Nick Salvatore in his 1982 biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” was “frequently described by contemporaries as evangelical, and transcended at that moment factional disagreements and led each in the audience to glimpse a different social order.”

Or, as one self-described “hard-bitten socialist” said to the journalist Heywood Broun at the time: “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.”

I mention all of this because I saw something of that Debs during Sanders’s Saturday rally in Queens, N.Y., where 25,000 people gathered to hear Sanders and many of his most high-profile supporters, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a show of force for Sanders, who was recently hospitalized following a heart attack.

Read the entire piece here.

Joseph Ellis: The Founding Fathers Wanted a Green New Deal

Mount Vernon gardens

Mount Vernon

Would the founding fathers have supported a Green New Deal?  I have no idea.

But historian Joseph Ellis‘s thoughts at CNN are worth considering here.  A taste:

From the very beginning, there were critics who challenged the claim that “We the people” referred to a collective or public interest shared by all American citizens. This is what the most vocal opponents of the Green New Deal get wrong when they call the plan “socialist” — they fail to realize that pursuit of a collective good is the very essence of the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. There is an alternative vision. It includes: the Antifederalists, who lost the debate over the Constitution in 1787-88; the leaders of the Confederate States of America; the captains of industry who dominated the first Gilded Age; the Southern defenders of Jim Crow and enemies of the civil rights movement; and the current corporate leaders of our second Gilded Age. What ties all these apparently different groups together is an anti-government ethos with libertarian implications and deep-seated reluctance to share resources with multiple versions of “them.”

Read the entire piece here.

Debs: Socialism is “merely Christianity in action”

Debs

Jill Lepore, in a piece at The New Yorker, argues that Eugene Debs‘s socialism was deeply rooted in values that were both American and Christian.  God and country!

Here is a taste:

But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

Read the entire piece here.

My favorite biography of Debs remains Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  It is worth your time.

Patriotic Socialism?

LBJ

As Duke Univeristy law professor Jedidiah Purdy reminds us, socialism is as American as baseball, apple-pie, and Chevrolet.  “Much of today’s socialism,” he argues, “was once the bread and butter of the Democratic Party.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Recent elections are bringing the largest crop of self-described socialist candidates in nearly a century, not just in New York and on the Left Coast, but in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania. For critics, this represents a futile and dangerous radicalism; for some who welcome it, it’s nothing more than a youthful resurgence of Ted Kennedy-style liberalism.

The reality is more interesting. The new socialism is both thoroughly American and pretty damned radical. Much of today’s “socialism,” like Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has deep roots; it’s basically the left wing of New Deal and Great Society liberalism, promising free higher education and universal health care, stronger unions and more support for affordable housing. These were once the bread and butter of the Democratic Party. But the new socialism is also genuinely radical—and not just because the country has moved so far away from the goals of widely shared wealth and leisure of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Read the rest here.

One of the best books I read in graduate school was Nick Salvatore‘s Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  Salvatore argued that Debs’s socialism was rooted in the republican and democratic traditions at the heart of the American experience.  I highly recommend it.

The Faith of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a major upset in yesterday’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th District.  She defeated Joe Crowley, the 10-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives who many believed would be the heir-apparent to Nancy Pelosi as the House Minority Leader.  Ocasio-Cortez is a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who ran on universal health care and the abolition of ICE.  She is also a Catholic.

On the day after her victory Ocasio-Cortez started writing, but not for The New York Times or The Progressive or The Nation or Jacobin or In These Times.  Nope. She turned to the web pages of the Jesuit magazine America.

Here is a taste of her piece, published today:

Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Solutions are already beginning to take shape, which include unraveling the War on Drugs, reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing and embracing a growing private prison abolition movement that urges us to reconsider the levels at which the United States pursues mass incarceration. No matter where these proposals take us, we should pursue such conversations with an openness to change and an aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.

Read the entire piece here.  She apparently disagrees with her church, however, on abortion and marriage.

Michael Eric Dyson on Identity Politics

dysonIn light of some of the things I have been writing on identity politics lately, someone on Facebook who disagrees with much of what I have written so far asked me to respond to this New York Times article by Michael Eric Dyson.

First, let me say that I have learned a lot from Dyson over the years. I would love to host him at Messiah College some time.

Last Winter I was driving through Alexandria, Virginia listening to C-SPAN radio and heard Dyson talking about his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  I found the interview so compelling (I have written about this before here at the blog) that the following week I bought a copy of the book at Hearts and Minds Books, Byron Borger’s bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I took it home and read it in two sittings.  It helped me to better understand the Obama presidency and the subject of race in America more broadly. (You can see that interview with Dyson here).

Here are some thoughts on Dyson’s current piece:

  1. I think it was unfair of Kanye West, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to say that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”  Dyson apparently disagrees.
  2. I also think it is unfair to equate Donald Trump’s views on race with the views of liberals and progressives such as Bernie Sanders or (implied) Mark Lilla. (More on Sanders below).
  3. Dyson does not distinguish between the universal ideals at the heart of the American Revolution (or at least the way these ideals were used by social reform movements through American history) and the failure of white people to apply them in American life.  For example, the idea that “all men are created equal” was used in arguments on behalf of women’s rights, abolitionism, the opposition to Jim Crow, and other reforms.  See, for example, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  So here is my question: Do the ideals of equality and human rights transcend race?  I would answer yes.  In other words, they are universal Enlightenment ideals that all human beings share.  And if one wants to argue that they are “white” ideals, then it seems that we should be thanking white people for introducing them into global history.
  4. But there is more to the story.  I largely agree with Dyson’s account of American history.  Yes, these universal ideas were not consistently applied in American history. (And we should not be thanking white people for that).  This is the history any American with a conscience must confront.  This is why I think the deep connections between American Slavery and American Freedom (as Edmund Morgan put it) must play a prominent role in the teaching of American history.  It is also why I think history is needed more than ever as a means of teaching people empathy for the stories of all Americans within a national narrative.  As a historian my vocation is to tell the story.  It is then up to my students and my audience to decide what to do about the story. (The latter work can take place in the history classroom, but it is not this is not the exercise that drives what happens in the history classroom). After telling the story my work as a historian is done.  (Of course my work on this front as a human being, a Christian, a citizen or a community member should not end, although one’s involvement in the cause will vary from person to person).
  5. So let me say a word about moving beyond the classroom.  Should we throw out these American ideals just because they were not consistently applied in the past? Some would say yes. They would say that the weight of racism (the failure to apply these principles) in America cannot be lifted.  They would say that the idea of “we shall overcome” is a relic of the past.  I must part ways with such thinking.  I will cast my lot with Martin Luther King and other early leaders of the Civil Rights movement who longed for and prayed for an integrated society.  My America, like the America King talked about in Washington and in a Birmingham jail cell, is a nation where we must continue in the long hard struggle to apply the principles that our founders put in place in the eighteenth-century.  As a Christian who believes in sin, I doubt we will ever get there on this side of eternity, but that is no excuse to stop working.  (And we have a lot of work to do–I have a lot of work to do–when opportunities arise). We are called to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth and, with a spirit of hope, await its ultimate fulfillment,.
  6. I like what Dyson said about Obama in the C-SPAN interview I cited above: “When black people’s backs are against the wall as American citizens…the president should take the side [of black people]….When they are being gunned down in the streets…and especially vulnerable to racist rebuff, you must use your billy pulpit to amplify their cause and their claims and you must do so not simply as the ‘first black president’–that may be inessential at this point.  What is essential, however, is that you as the representative of the state must speak on behalf of all citizens including African American people.” (Italics mine, although Dyson does inflect his voice on these words).  Here Dyson is appealing to the ideals that bind us together as a people. He is making what appears to be an appeal to the ideals of the nation and the responsibility of the POTUS (and by implication all of us) to apply them to the cause of racism.
  7. I agree with Dyson that the administration Trump is assembling is not equipped to handle race in America and will not be up to the task as I have just described it.
  8. As you might imagine by this point, on the question of “identity politics” I find myself siding with Bernie Sanders.  I believe that Bernie is correct when he says that we need to move beyond identity politics and toward a more national vision that seeks to address the things that affect all Americans–economic equality, the power of Wall Street, and climate change.  These things affect people of all colors.  I see a lot of Eugene Debs in Sanders–or at least the Debs that Nick Salvatore writes about in his book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  What I take away from Salvatore’s treatment of Debs is the way that this prominent turn-of-the century socialist invoked the civic humanism of the American founding.  Debs’s civic humanism was certainly limited.  Our does not have to be.
  9. To suggest Sanders is a racist is wrong. (I don’t think Dyson is saying this).  To say that he does not care about black people or race in America is wrong.  (And I don’t think Dyson is saying this either, but he may come close).  I also don’t think a Sanders presidency would have ignored race.
  10. In the end, I see Sanders reaching beyond racial identity to make an appeal–primarily–to the things that all  Americans must address.  Isn’t this what the POTUS should be doing?  Isn’t this the politics we need to move forward?  Citizens of the United States must continue to frame their arguments about race in the context of the national ideals.

OK–there are some quick thoughts.

The Religion of Bernie Sanders

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On last Tuesday’s Democratic town meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked Bernie Sanders to explain his religious beliefs.  

Here is how the Vermont Senator responded:

Every great religion in the world–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism–essentially comes down to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ And what I have believed in my whole life[is] that we are in this together….the truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt.  And when my kids hurt, you hurt.

Sanders’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have been well-documented in this primary season. And his approach to faith and our life together in this world is different from what we are hearing from nearly all the people who are still running for president.

The Republican candidates talk about faith in terms of rights and self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the Gospel from the political philosophy of John Locke.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing-up Methodist, in terms of the common good.  Now she is talking about making America “whole” again and loving one another.

Bernie’s comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices. 

First, he sounds a lot like Barack Obama.

On June 25, 2015, the day the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Obama invoked a message similar to what Sanders has been saying on the campaign trail:

That’s when America soars -– when we look out for one another.  When we take care of each other.  When we root for one another’s success.  When we strive to do better and to be better than the generation that came before us, and try to build something better for generations to come.  That’s why we do what we do.  That’s the whole point of public service.

Sanders also echoes the American socialists who came before him.  According to historian Nick Salvatore, Eugene Debs, a five-time presidential candidate and the 2oth-century’s most prominent socialist, believed that big corporations were hurting American democracy because their leaders were motivated by self-interest, rather than a commitment to the economic well-being of all citizens.  The problem with the country, Debs and his fellow socialists argued, was that citizens did not understand, to quote Sanders, that “we are in this together.”

By emphasizing community alongside individual rights, Obama and Debs tapped into a longstanding American tradition.  It is a tradition that drives the Sanders campaign today. It is a way of thinking about society that does not come from Denmark or Sweden, but from our Founding Fathers.

The founders of the United States knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good. 

Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship sounds foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”

If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic: 

Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it. 

Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society. It requires exercising the Golden Rule.

Bernie may not believe in God, but he certainly believes in the potential of human beings to create a more just and democratic society.  He should stop talking about Scandinavian nations and start letting people know that his vision is a decidedly American one.

Eric Foner Gives Bernie Sanders Some Advice About Democratic Socialism

Esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner recently gave Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders some advice about how to talk about democratic socialism.  The advice came in a letter published in The Nation.  


In a nutshell, Foner wants Sanders to connect his political ideas to the radical tradition in the United States rather than to present-day socialism in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, etc.).  By doing so, socialism will not seem so foreign to Americans. 
Here is a taste:


You could begin with Tom Paine and other American revolutionaries who strove not simply for independence from Britain but to free the new nation from the social and economic inequalities of Europe. Embrace the tradition of abolitionists, black and white, men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abby Kelley, who, against overwhelming odds, broke through the conspiracy of silence of the two major parties on the issue of slavery and helped to create a public sentiment that led to Lincoln’s election and emancipation. (And don’t forget to mention that slaves represented by far the largest concentration of wealth in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, that slaveholders were the richest Americans of their time, and that nothing could be accomplished without confronting their economic and political power.) Refer to the long struggle for women’s rights, which demanded not only the vote but also equality for women in all realms of life and in doing so challenged some of the most powerful entrenched interests in the country.