By Nathan Robinson
The Guardian (12/10/19)
It is often claimed that the United States differs from Europe in that it lacks a socialist tradition. The title question of Werner Sombart’s 1906 book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? was answered nearly a century later by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Wolfe Marks’ It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States.
It is common to say that socialism “failed” here; this is true insofar as socialists never became a substantial force in American politics. But it overlooks the fact that we did, for a short time, have a socialist movement that positively thrived.
A century ago, when socialism was at its peak in this country, the Socialist party had 1,200 offices in 340 cities. There were two Socialist members of Congress, dozens of Socialist state legislators, and more than 130 Socialist mayors in over half of the US states. (The University of Washington has maps showing just how impressive socialism’s spread across the country was.) Socialist party successes were especially concentrated in the midwest, which makes Senator Tammy Duckworth’s comment that you can’t “go too far to the left and still win the midwest” somewhat ironic.
Many people are taught, mostly as a curious historical footnote, that Eugene Debs received more than a million votes when he ran for president, even when forced to campaign from a prison cell. But the socialists who actually did hold public office are rarely discussed. That’s a shame, because it could help us answer some of the critical questions socialists often face: would socialism be a disaster if socialists were actually put in charge? Are socialists impractical utopians whose ideology would crush freedom and destroy our fragile institutions? What would socialist political power look like in the United States?
In fact, we had a taste of socialist political power in the United States, albeit only on the local level. Milwaukee had three Socialist mayors. Did Milwaukee turn into a bleak and bloody revolutionary nightmare?
No. In fact, as Peter Dreier puts it in an excellent historical overview:
“Under the Socialists, Milwaukee gained a reputation as a well-managed municipality …They built community parks, including beautiful green spaces and recreation areas along the lakefront that are still widely used. They increased the citywide minimum wage (28 years before the federal government adopted the idea) and established an eight-hour day standard for municipal workers. They championed public education for the city’s children, built excellent libraries and sponsored vibrant recreation programs.”
Daniel Hoan, the longest-serving of the three Socialist mayors, was so popular among the city’s residents that he was in office for 24 years. In 1936, Hoan was featured on the cover ofTimemagazine, which said that under his administration, “Milwaukee has become perhaps the best governed city in the US.” …
(Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist. This article is an adapted excerpt from his new book Why You Should Be a Socialist (St Martin’s Publishing Group)
Wisconsin Journalist John Nichols Has Also Published An Excellent History Of American Socialism From 1776 To The Present.
The ‘Commoner Call’ Archive Of The ‘American Socialist Tradition’ Also Offers Many Resources On American Socialism