By Bob Fitrakis
May 25, 2009
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The Republican National Committee recently dropped its resolution to brand the moderate pro-corporate Democratic Party “Socialists”. As the late, great Democratic Socialist leader Michael Harrington liked to tell it when he testified before a dying Senator Hubert Humphrey on the Humphrey-Hawkins Work Bill, that would theoretically guarantee every American a right to a job, Humphrey bluntly asked him “Is my bill socialism?” Harrington replied, “Senator, your bill’s not half that good.”
Here’s why the Democratic Party is also not half that good. Obama’s “Me too” bailout policy to the largest and most irresponsible banks and investment houses has nothing to do with socializing capital. Democratic Socialists believe in democratizing and socializing money matters. They favor credit unions and co-ops with democratically elected boards over large welfare checks to transnational corporations. In fact, there’s little difference between Obama’s approach to the big bankers and George W. Bush’s.
If the Democrats were European Democratic Socialists or Social Democrats, they would have never allowed 20% of all U.S. workers and 47 million people in the U.S. to live without health care. They would have at least called for a general strike to shut down the system until the injustice was stopped.
If you want to look at the history of democratic socialism as a barometer for that esteemed label in American history, let’s start with the legendary Eugene Victor Debs. Unlike the cowardly Democratic Party and its then-leaders – John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who both supported Bush’s illegal imperialist occupation of Iraq to remain politically viable as presidential candidates – Debs went to jail to oppose World War I.
Not only that, he ran as a Socialist Party presidential candidate from jail and received a million votes defending the First Amendment. What was Debs’ great crime? Claiming the rich have always declared war and the poor and working class have always fought and died.
Historically, U.S. Socialist leaders like Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington were not cowards hiding behind pragmatism and popularity polls. When virtually no U.S. politicians spoke on behalf of accepting Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany during the Great Depression, Thomas fought for their admittance.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called Norman Thomas “the bravest man” he ever met. When Thomas gave his nominal blessing for the last remains of the Socialist Party to merge into the Democratic Party in 1960, he did not surrender his conscience. For example, he called John F. Kennedy “all profile and no courage,” particularly in regards to the President’s civil rights actions. In 1965, Thomas spoke at the first major anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington D.C. and announced he had come to “cleanse” the American flag, not to burn it.
Thomas spoke out and wrote a book against the torture of pacifists during World War I, asking the key question, “Is conscience a crime?” He understood that when you strung pacifists up by their thumbs, it was torture. I’m sure if he had ever been briefed on it, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allegedly was, he would have denounced it immediately.
Michael Harrington was the architect of the Great Society and the War on Poverty. His book, “The Other America,” stands as a lasting monument to the principles of Democratic Socialism. When both the Democrat and Republican Parties were ignoring the 22% of U.S. population living in poverty during the Eisenhower years, it was Harrington who documented their desperate plight.
Harrington later went on to champion the rights of the wretched of the Earth in his book “The Vast Majority.” He helped write the policy perspectives that tilted the European Social Democrats toward massive aid to Africa, Asia and South America.
Debs, Thomas and Harrington came to realize that democracy was more important than socialism and that decision-making from the bottom up was the key. To label the timid, triangulating Obama Democratic Party as Democratic Socialists is absurd. Not only is Obama not half as good as Debs, Thomas and Harrington, he’s not yet a pale imitation of FDR. And we can only dream that he would adopt the infrastructure programs and progressive tax policies of President Dwight Eisenhower from the 50s.
Perhaps the best we can do is raise the slogan demanding that Obama “Be like Ike.” America needs a Marshall Plan, that’s something an FDR or Ike would understand. Debs, on the other hand, would be calling for an army of a million men to arrest Bush and Cheney for crimes against humanity. And Debs would be talking about his desire to resurrect from the dead the more than a million dead Iraqis killed in a corporate capitalist war for oil.
That’s the legacy of American Democratic Socialism.
Bob Fitrakis, Ph.D., J.D., is the editor of the freepress.org and author of The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party which is for sale at the freepress.org online store.