Left intellectuals often like to lament that there once was socialism in America—that between 1901 and the end of the First World War, a small ingathering of urban reformers, trade unionists, and German immigrants banded together to create an American counterpart to European social democracy. The apex of this movement was 1912. That year, the Socialist Party controlled seventy-nine mayoralties, published a weekly newspaper that had a national readership of over 750,000, and ran a presidential candidate who won nearly a million votes in a contested four-way race. Such was the pride and envy of European socialists that even the ever-dour August Bebel proclaimed that, at this rate, “Americans will be the first to usher in a Socialist Republic.”
Of course, we all know how the story goes. American Socialists did not usher in a new republic. Many of their ideas—state-centered economic planning, local infrastructure development, suffrage for women—were absorbed into the progressive wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. But many others—neutrality during the First World War, the nationalization of major American industries, an antagonism toward business unionism—proved so unpopular that they became central reasons for the party’s demise.
The Socialist Party boasted a membership of well over 100,000 in the 1910s. By 1930, it was around 9,000. What once had been a broad-based movement was now a sect. Having expelled its left wing for demanding revolutionary action and its right wing for collaborating with the Democrats, the Socialists became a small cadre of the faithful. As the historian Richard Hofstadter once quipped, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”
Many on the left still look back to these salad days of American socialism with pride, lamenting that this was the one moment when socialism might have become as American as apple pie. But the failure of third-party socialism was a pivotal moment for the democratic left. Having released its activists and intellectuals from the ambition of seizing state power, the collapse of the Socialist Party was not—as many contemporary leftists insist—the end of socialism in America; it was, in fact, an important beginning. It enabled the left to turn away from professional politics and direct its energies to that realm where the left has always made its gains—that of amateur politics, of everyday citizens organizing and agitating outside the party system.
This formula of citizen activism—of door-to-door canvassing and publicity campaigns, street marches and sit-ins, steering committees and late-night bull sessions—is what made possible the achievements of the abolitionists and suffragists. It was also one of the primary tactics of Marxism in its early incarnation as an extra-parliamentary movement that sought to organize the proletariat into a single international association. But it was not until the collapse of the economy in the early 1930s that the mobilization of large numbers of citizens became a truly effective force in American politics.
Faced with mass unemployment, the Popular Front and the pan-unionist CIO helped to organize millions of American men and women into extra-party political organizations that helped to push through the Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts of 1935. They also helped to build the cultural institutions—reading groups and community centers, self-help societies and immigrant networks—that enabled Americans to not only voice their particular complaints but also build long-lasting political communities. Unlike earlier reform movements (in particular, the Progressive activism of the 1910s), the insurgencies of the 1930s and ’40s came from below as well as above. They were not only the work of elected representatives but also of amateur politicians—men and women out of office—who banded together in various civil society organizations and applied pressure from outside formal institutions of power.
This model of citizen organization was repeated in the 1950s and ’60s with the rise of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Originally single-issue campaigns, both eventually became broad-based social movements. The lunch counter sit- ins and boycott campaigns, the voting rights and antiwar canvassing not only helped enroll many marginalized Americans in a political system that had deliberately excluded them; it also helped the left articulate the particular complaints of its constituents in universal terms. Organized citizen bodies like the Congress of Racial Equality, SNCC, SDS, and SANE were able to both pressure politicians and shift public opinion.
The citizen left of the 1950s and ’60s never entirely found a way to build a “front.” Without the economic and political emergencies of the Depression and of the Second World War, the left, in truth, was several different lefts. This was not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this allowed the particular demands of both the civil rights and antiwar movements to gain clarity. While Popular Front activists spent late nights worrying about the ultimate goal of their movement—a socialist society? A welfare state? The defeat of European fascism?—civil rights and antiwar activists had a set of specific and achievable demands. They wanted to end legal and political racial discrimination in the South and to de-escalate the Vietnam War. Their task, therefore, was also more obvious: to mobilize mass numbers of citizens in order to pressure elected representatives to end these particular policies.
The citizen movements of the 1950s and ’60s also had a number of welcome secondary consequences. Mobilizing large numbers of young and black Americans, these movements forced the Democratic Party to rethink its platforms in an effort to better capture the support of these new constituents. They also helped to expand the realm of the possible by making a set of demands that appeared to be politically unattainable but that also helped widen the spectrum and range of debate within the party system. Daniel Bell once condemned the Socialist Party for being “in the world, in that it proposed reforms of society; but . . . not of [it], in that it refused to accept responsibility for the actions of government.” Well, this was exactly what made the citizen insurgencies of the civil rights and antiwar movements so successful. By insisting that there were political alternatives outside the purview of the two-party system, these citizen activists helped to show that what had once appeared impossible to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party—in particular, when it came to civil rights—was, in fact, achievable.
The left has tried to repeat this formula since the late 1960s but with more limited success. Gay liberation and radical feminism failed to achieve substantial gains in the 1970s; and the activism around the Equal Rights Amendment and for nuclear disarmament stalled in the ’80s. But the protest and pressure tradition has nonetheless continued and is still the best option for the democratic left, especially in an era when Citizens United and Speechnow.org have made building a left-of-center coalition within the party system all the more impossible.
Today, in fact, we are witnessing an exciting uptick in citizen insurgencies, many of which have the potential to become broad-based movements. From graduate student unionism and Title IX activism to Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter, a centripetal force is developing. American citizens are not only directing more and more of their energies to sites of political action outside formal institutions of power; they are also helping to shift public opinion by invoking a set of commonly held American ideals and principles. Equal protection under the law, for instance, is one of the demands at the center of Black Lives Matter, as it was in the fight for marriage equality. Likewise, low-wage and contingent worker campaigns also appeal to the long tradition of labor radicalism by arguing that all workers, no matter their status, deserve the right to earn a fair and decent wage. While a truly intersectional movement may still lie in the future, these campaigns are succeeding, in part, because they have found ways to universalize their demands—to show how they represent an ever-growing and intersecting set of interests.
It has often been said that citizen activism alone is not enough—that real political action begins after the street marches and sit-ins. This is when the tough and necessary compromises of politics happen, the so-called “sausage making” required to turn a movement’s demands into policies and legislation. And the point is well taken. In a liberal democracy, elected representatives will almost always be the main agents of social change and the democratic left—no matter how committed it is to a citizen politics—will never entirely be released from its obligation to engage with the Democratic Party.
But the left’s strength, and its power, will always lie outside formal politics. From the abolitionists and the suffragists to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, our advantage has always been the result of our outsider status. By working outside formal bodies of power, we can demand what appears to be impossible to those within; our acts of organized dissent—our pressure and publicity campaigns—can insist on a set of political alternatives. Michael Harrington was right to see the democratic left as a core element of the “left wing of the possible,” those working within the Democratic Party to help elect and empower its liberal and progressive factions. But we must also remain just left of the possible, reminding those in power not only of what is achievable within the limits of the political system but what ought to be achievable.
This is a politics of protest and public persuasion, the work of citizen activists and amateur politicians organizing and persuading neighbors and co-workers. It will almost certainly take too many evenings, as Oscar Wilde once complained. But this is also the steady work that has always been the purview of a left committed to democratic opposition. “Socialism is done from below,” a Cuban activist recently told one of our writers. Our hope is that one day it will also trickle up.
David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent.
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Michael Kazin, click here.
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