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.

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?

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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.

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.

Bernie Sanders, the Founders, and Faith at Religion News Service

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

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego, California on March 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FEA-COLUMN, originally transmitted on March 23, 2016.

Religion News Service is running my essay on Bernie Sanders’s religion under the title “In Bernie Sanders’ deeply religious message, an echo of the Founding Fathers.”

Here is a taste:

(RNS) Bernie Sanders’ political revolution rolled on Tuesday night with crushing victories over Hillary Clinton in Utah and Idaho. While it will be difficult for the Vermont senator to catch Clinton in the delegate race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (Sanders lost to Clinton in Arizona on Tuesday), he continues to preach a political message that is resonating with large numbers of voters.

It is a message that is deeply religious.

Over the last several months, reporters have asked Sanders to explain his religious beliefs. Here is how he responded to such a question from CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a recent town hall meeting:

“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’ 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 self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing up Methodist, in terms of the common good.

Sanders’ comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices.

Read the rest here.

NOTE:  This piece also appears today at the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

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.