Socialism and the Liberal Imagination

Socialism and the Liberal Imagination

How do socialist demands become liberal common sense? The history of the New Deal offers a useful lesson.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at a rally for Missouri congressional candidate Cori Bush, St. Louis, July 21 (Katherine Welles / Shutterstock)

What is “democratic socialism” in contemporary America? In November 2015, with the Iowa caucuses on the horizon, Bernie Sanders finally tackled the question head-on in a much-publicized speech at Georgetown University. Democratic socialism, he told his audience, is what Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did. FDR’s unfinished vision of a second bill of rights, an “economic bill of rights,” “is my vision today,” Sanders remarked.

Now, two and a half years later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has vaulted onto the national political scene on a platform that sounds unmistakably familiar to students of American liberalism: Medicare for all, a job guarantee, housing programs, a new Glass-Steagall Act, and a green . . . New Deal. Democratic socialism, apparently, is less Eugene V. Debs than it is a more successful Harry Truman.

This appropriation of liberal reform under the banner of socialism has inspired a number of writers to point out that the New Deal was not, in fact, socialist—and to accuse Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and their aspiring democratic-socialist counterparts of muddying the waters by conflating theoretically distinct concepts. These critiques rest on a set of uncontestable historical facts. The New Dealers—starting with Roosevelt himself—believed their basic mission was to save capitalism. For their part, many socialists saw FDR as a formidable adversary to their movement, a state capitalist who seduced the working class with a piper’s song of reform. (Socialists who worked in the Roosevelt administration saw the humorous irony of their situation: “We socialists are trying to save capitalism,” the New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank remarked to the economist Stuart Chase, “and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”) And there is no question that the depiction of the New Deal as “socialist” originated as a conservative effort to delegitimize liberal reform—indeed, as a number of commentators have pointed out, the fantastical way in which conservatives have contorted the meaning of the term to assail even moderate liberal policies like the Affordable Care Act has helped destigmatize socialism in the American political discourse.

The New Deal itself had anticapitalist elements, but except around the margins, it did not threaten private ownership of the means of production. As the historian David Kennedy has pointed out, America stands nearly alone among the rich countries in having emerged from the Great Depression with no major new state-owned enterprises. The New Deal did not usher in even the soft collectivism of postwar Britain. One could argue, with a bit of hyperbole, that the New Deal’s long-term legacy lies just as much in the boosterish developmentalism it unleashed, particularly in the South and West, as in its regulatory, labor, and welfare-state reforms.

But look from another angle, and the picture appears different—and perhaps more useful in thinking through our own political moment. The New Deal was not “socialist.” But to end the story there is to miss the role of socialists in crafting the intellectual world within which the New Deal unfolded. Look not at what socialism was, but at what socialists did, and one sees that the New Deal’s progressive achievements do bear a significant historical relationship to reform socialism.

As the historian Daniel Rodgers argued in his seminal book Atlantic Crossings, the New Deal took shape against the backdrop of a half-century-long transatlantic debate about “the social question”—the implications of an economic modernization that had rendered individuals, families, and communities inescapably interdependent. What were the responsibilities and mutual obligations of each in a world where no individual could be reasonably assumed to control their own fate? What could governments do to mitigate the social costs of capitalist development—to tame a world of smoke, of sweated labor, of booms and busts and overcrowded tenements and epidemics of communicable disease?

Participants in these debates ran the gamut from explicitly anti-socialist reformers like Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck—whose social insurance system, a distant forerunner of FDR’s social security program, represented an effort to preempt the socialists by stealing their thunder—to socialist parties, which offered programs of their own—for instance, publicly owned model housing. Many reformers fell somewhere in between. For instance, the settlement house founder Jane Addams, not a socialist in any traditional sense, once remarked to a newspaperman, “I suppose I am sort of a socialist”—a statement suggestive of the degree to which the content of these discussions, the nature of the problems and solutions at hand, mattered more than the formal political labels attached to them.

Because the socialists had an especially well-developed critique of the commodified society that was taking shape in the industrial cities, their “immediate demands” became a kind of policy slate in their own right. To look at the Socialist Party’s platforms in the years leading up to American entry in the First World War is to see a blueprint for the New Deal: reduced working hours and higher wages; abolition of child labor; national programs of old-age and unemployment insurance; more city parks and playgrounds; public housing; free maternity clinics and hospitals; public theater, cultural offerings, and reading-rooms. If Progressive social reform sometimes carried an element of bourgeois paternalism, the upshot was decommodification, so that working people might enjoy not only more security and better working conditions, but also the pleasures of everyday life and leisure. Why should the children of garment workers have to brave the filthy East River when the government could provide “seaside colonies and summer outings”?

Many future New Dealers engaged first-hand with reformist socialist thought. The young social worker Harry Hopkins registered with the Socialist Party and voted for Morris Hillquit in the 1917 New York mayoral election. As he was preparing to reenter politics in the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt—no one’s idea of a socialist—spent “hours deep in conversation” with the socialist garment-union leaders Rose Schneiderman and Maud Swartz, friends of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. As the historian Annelise Orleck describes, FDR occasionally drove the two women from New York City to Hyde Park, listening as they told him “all we knew about the theory and history of the trade union movement . . . about the sweatshops and the tuberculosis rate in the printing industry before the unions were organized.” Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins later credited those conversations with teaching FDR much of what he knew about labor issues.

Largely clamped shut by political orthodoxy, private interests, and the courts through the first third of the century, the policy toolbox that socialists had helped assemble was suddenly pried open in the wake of the economic catastrophe of the early 1930s. The labor lawyer Louis Waldman—one of the five Socialists expelled from the New York State Assembly during the Red Scare prompted by the Russian Revolution—recalled introducing then–president elect Franklin Roosevelt to Norman Thomas, who had run against him on the Socialist line in 1932. Roosevelt “looked like the cat who had swallowed the canary,” Waldman wrote. “Indeed, on shaking hands with Thomas, he chuckled, ‘Well . . . I took 99 per cent of your program, didn’t I?’” (“But you made very poor use of it,” Thomas replied.)

A good story, if not exactly true—the real history was more mundane, but also more instructive for the contemporary left. Roosevelt and the New Dealers did not simply swipe the Socialist platform in a fit of expediency. Rather, Rodgers explains, as the Hoover administration’s efforts to arrest the depression by bailing out key financial institutions came to naught, space opened up for policy ideas that grappled more systematically with problems of modern capitalism—problems that could no longer be written off as the unfortunate workings of a self-correcting market and the proper purview of private charity. In the course of a “great gathering in from the progressive political wings of a generation of proposals and ideas,” Rodgers writes, the “immediate demands” of the 1910s became the New Deal experiments of the 1930s.

In 1936, as Roosevelt was running for reelection, former New York Governor Al Smith—once FDR’s great political benefactor, by then turned sour adversary—accused him of carrying out most of the demands of the Socialist platform. But card-carrying Socialists rebuffed the growing conservative effort to brand the New Deal as “socialist”: Norman Thomas, making his third bid for the presidency as the party’s standard-bearer, took to the airwaves to stress the point. If Roosevelt had carried out the Socialist platform, Thomas famously remarked, “he [had] carried it out on a stretcher.”

But Thomas was not the only Socialist to weigh in on the question. Abraham Cahan, a founder and longtime editor of the Yiddish-language socialist daily The Forward, saw it differently. The Forward had backed Thomas in 1932. But already by the fall of 1933, Cahan was reconsidering. Roosevelt “should be a Socialist,” he argued; “if anybody is entitled to membership in our party he is.” In 1936 the Forward spurned Thomas; Cahan joined with the garment unions, radio station WEVD, and other bastions of New York’s old-guard socialist wing to form the American Labor Party, taking up its position in the social-democratic flank of the New Deal coalition. Cahan was one of many intellectuals, and many more voters, to make the shift. “Abandoning formal socialism,” the critic Irving Howe wrote, “they seemed to feel they were preserving something of its original moral intent.”

Many orthodox Socialists in the 1930s saw figures like Cahan not only as sellouts, but also as politically desiccated: “Their minds still worked,” Howe later wrote, “but their imaginations had closed down.” Yet to appreciate why someone like Cahan believed Franklin Roosevelt “should” be a socialist is to get a sense of the difference socialism made in American governance. The New Deal never carried out Norman Thomas’s platform. Even the programs that owed the most to socialism were compromised in ways that the welfare states of postwar Britain and Scandinavia were not. Worse, the New Deal was shot through with racism, gender bias, and many other ugly forms of exclusion and marginalization—against which the 1930s left fought valiantly, but by and large in vain. (Roosevelt’s primary contribution to civil rights, his creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941, owed largely to the efforts of the socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph.)

Yet the New Deal’s frank recognition of the interdependence of society, its acknowledgement that a good society rests on a sense of mutuality, reciprocity, and community spoke, if not fully to the socialists’ vision, at least to their understanding of what was wrong with a market society. Its more imaginative programs did owe a debt to the social-political borrowings American socialists had curated and advocated for. The resurgence of the left in the mid-1930s in the form of direct-action campaigns and labor organizing shaped the context in which it was necessary (and electorally worthwhile) for Roosevelt and the Democrats to enact programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Wagner Act.

Something similar may be happening today. As in the Progressive era, today’s socialists have no monopoly on policy ideas like Medicare for All. But they are on the ascent because their systematic critique of today’s market society allows them to frame visible, easy-to-understand policies that speak in a direct and powerful way to the lived experiences of contemporary American life, particularly for young people: stagnant wages, insecurity, exploitation, precarity, runaway inequality, indebtedness, the soaring cost of essentials like housing and health care.

Today’s liberals may find irksome the appropriation of their own historical legacy in the service of this project. They may worry, reasonably, about the consequences of branding liberal reform as “socialist.” A few might find themselves in Al Smith’s shoes—displaced from the heart of the party as new forces filter in. But the example of the New Deal might serve as a reminder of the value that liberalism can draw from schools of social and political thought that cast a more critical eye on American capitalism and the political practices bound up with it. The result may be a more tempestuous liberal-left coalition, but one with a broader capacity to imagine social problems and solutions. And if that is not enough, they can at least take comfort in another fact: FDR’s reforms won the Democrats a lot of votes.


Mason B. Williams is assistant professor of leadership studies and political science at Williams College and the author of City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (Norton, 2013).

Correction: The print version of this essay incorrectly dated the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee to 1942, which has been corrected here to 1941.

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