Democratic Socialism: As “American” as Apple Pie

Despite May Day’s roots in the U.S. labor movement, the United States doesn’t celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 like the rest of the world—a relic of labor union defeats in the 1880s. But don’t let that deceive you: socialism has a long, storied U.S. history.

Imagine an America where a president declares, “labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Imagine an America where a radical philosopher writes for a popular national newspaper and an idealistic young socialist’s book launches a volley of programs intended to end poverty forever. Imagine a nation where a presidential candidate pledges to “break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people,” a president writes that “The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary,” and a major political figure proclaims that “there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

An alternate history? Not at all. Nothing above is fictional, although most details didn’t occur concurrently. In his First Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln attacked the myth of capital’s superiority to labor. In the 1840s and 1850s, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (which sold over 110,000 copies weekly) ran regular columns by Karl Marx, publishing 350 articles under Marx’s byline, 125 under Friedrich Engels’s byline, and 12 articles credited to the two jointly. DSA founder Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America stung the conscience of the nation and Washington policymakers, catalyzing the War on Poverty and the Great Society. In 1924, Robert LaFollette promised to revolutionize U.S. society and won 17% of the national popular vote. Lincoln proudly affirmed the federal government’s progressivism in a response penned to the (Communist) First International upon receiving a commendation from them for his Civil War policies. And Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for democratic socialism and a “radical redistribution” of economic power, especially in his later years.

Mainstream U.S. history sweeps radicals under the rug. But “radical” ideas have deep roots in U.S. politics. U.S. citizens have socialists and socialist ideas to thank for many things they take for granted, as John Nichols details in his excellent book The “S” Word. Social Security, public housing, protection for collective bargaining, and Medicare: all socialist-inspired.

Thomas Paine, the Founding Father who wrote The Age of Reason, promoted progressive taxation, old-age pensions, and child welfare programs (all radical in the early 1800s). Eugene Debs netted 6% of the 1912 presidential vote, and the Socialist Party won 34 mayoralties—in places like Flint, Minneapolis, and Butte—and boasted city officials in 169 cities. In 1932, Socialists and Communists received about one million votes combined. Milwaukee, a hub of “sewer socialism” with cooperative housing, municipal stores and food subsidies, and municipal waterworks, had a Socialist mayor from 1910 until the 1960s. Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, and A. Philip Randolph, Pullman union head and the activist responsible for the desegregation of the railroads, were both strongly associated with socialism.

The dream of a “cooperative commonwealth,” a land whose citizenry shares its bounty, was articulated vividly by the Populists of the 1880s and 1890s. The Populists, mostly farmers and laborers, had a clear, anti-corporate platform. They advocated nationalization of railroads and telecommunications, postal savings banks, a graduated income tax, the eight-hour workday, and abolishing corporate subsidies.

In the 20th century, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas were probably the highest-profile U.S. men who identified as democratic socialists. Debs was pivotal in the 1894 Pullman railroad strike, fought for workers’ rights, and was a prominent anti-war activist. Running for president in 1920 from behind bars because of his anti-war crusade, he won nearly a million votes.

Norman Thomas followed Debs in leading the Socialist Party. A Presbyterian minister, he was a pacifist and Christian socialist who opposed racism and Japanese internment and supported women’s suffrage and labor rights. Martin Luther King Jr. praised Thomas effusively, telling him: “I can think of no man who has done more than you to inspire the vision of a society free of injustice and exploitation.”

Debs and Thomas were Socialist Party heads, but many other Americans, famous for reasons besides their politics, were also staunch socialists. Take Helen Keller. Tales lauding her perseverance usually omit her commitment to socialism. She gave numerous speeches opposing war and encouraging workers to organize. King is best known as a champion of civil rights, but he also opposed war and colonialism and regarded democratic socialism as the logical extension of the civil rights struggle. As early as 1952, he was writing, “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic…capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” In 1961, he prophesied, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” In March 1967 comments, King declared that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

Although King initially advocated gradualism, he became increasingly radicalized. In 1967, he proclaimed, “we must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…this means a revolution of values.” In an April 4, 1967 speech, King called for a society governed by the democratic socialist idea of ‘people over profit’: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He wanted a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for the poor and was killed organizing Memphis sanitation workers. Before his assassination, he’d planned to organize a coalition that included African-Americans, poor whites from Appalachia and rural areas, Latinx farmworkers, and Native Americans to march on Washington and demand an economic and social bill of rights.

The modern celebration of May Day originated in the United States amid a different wave of organizing. The Knights of Labor, American Federation of Labor, and other unions were fighting to win the eight-hour workday. They used a series of strikes and protests on May 1, 1886 to pressure capitalists. Thousands of workers took to the streets. On May 3, at a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, police clashed with protesters. Someone in the crowd threw a bomb, prompting violence and a number of deaths. The government and corporations took the Haymarket Square riots as a pretext to crack down on leftists. Eight men were tried for the bombing and convicted on flimsy evidence—four died and one took his own life.

Internationally, socialists and communists began commemorating the occasion and named May 1 International Workers’ Day. The federal government moved Labor Day to September to symbolically disconnect our workers’ movement from the rest of the world—this despite May Day’s U.S. origins.

It’s time to rethink U.S. history. Democratic socialism isn’t a foreign import. It’s American, and it has been as long as the modern United States has existed. Bringing back May Day celebrations today would be one step towards acknowledging that important fact.