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In her extraordinary new documentary film, “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word,” director Yael Bridge examines the surprising rebirth of American socialism. “Socialism is as American as apple pie,” notes one of the film’s interviewees, Harvard University philosopher and activist Cornel West. That statement becomes the film’s theme.
Of course, many would dispute West’s statement. “America will never be a socialist country,” President Donald Trump has often proclaimed, identifying socialism with Venezuela, Cuba, and other undemocratic societies. Trump is echoing the redbaiters who, throughout the 20th century, and especially during the Cold War (from the late 1940s through the 1970s), attacked socialism as a “hostile and foreign ideology,” an import from Soviet Communism, as Columbia University historian Eric Foner explains in the film.
“Most socialists begin with a critique of inequality and the premise that this is essential to the nature of capitalism and if you want to create more justice and more equality, you’re going to have to change the system,” Foner observes.
Although Bridge excavates the past contributions of socialism to American politics and culture, she primarily focuses on the past decade’s upsurge of socialist activism, including its role in various issue movements (feminism, Occupy Wall Street, struggles for health care and environmental sustainability, workers’ rights, and Black Lives Matter) and the growing number of socialists winning elected office.
Recent polls show that Americans — especially young people — are warming up to socialism. A Gallup poll earlier this year discovered that 43 percent of Americans say socialism would be a good thing for the country. Among 18-34 year olds, 58 percent embrace the idea, compared with 40 percent of those between 35 to 54, and 36 percent among those 55 and older. Among Democrats, 70 percent say they think socialism would be a good thing for America, in contrast to 45 percent of independents, and 13 percent of Republicans.
The popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is both a cause and a consequence of these changing beliefs. So, too, is the remarkable growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which had only 6,000 members a few years ago but now has over 70,000 dues-paying adherents and many more who embrace its ideas and its activities.
If today’s American socialists have any model at all, it is not Russia, Cuba, or Venezuela, but the social democracies of Scandinavia, like Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway — countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider social safety net. Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Sweden as the number 2 country for business. The United States ranked number 17.
But the 83-minute film goes into considerable depth in explaining that American-style socialism is homegrown, rooted in the nation’s soil and culture. Bridge shows how socialist ideas once considered radical are now taken for granted by most Americans. Key leaders of the abolition movement — and founders of the Republican Party — were influenced by socialist views, historian John Nichols reminds us. President Abraham Lincoln, who corresponded with Karl Marx, viewed slavery as antithetical to democracy and believed that in the burgeoning battles between labor and capital, workers and farmers had the moral upper hand.
In the early 1800s, American socialists — many of them influenced by religious beliefs and secular philosophies, including writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson — founded communitarian colonies like New Harmony in rural Indiana, Brook Farm in Massachusetts, and the Oneida Community in upstate New York to try to put their ideas into practice. Utopian socialism gained many new adherents — including labor leader Eugene Debs and feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman — after Edward Bellamy published his novel, “Looking Backward,” in 1888, which described a socialist America in the year 2000.
In the film, West reminds us that the “Pledge of Allegiance” was written by Francis Bellamy, a socialist Baptist minister and Edward’s cousin, in 1892 and that “America the Beautiful” was penned by a socialist poet, Katherine Lee Bates, the following year. He might have added that in 1883 another socialist poet, Emma Lazarus, wrote the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
In the early 1900s, socialists led the movements for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws, the progressive income tax, and workplace safety. Their constituents included activists from old American families, among them some wealthy “traitors to their class,” as well as many recent immigrants, including Jewish and Italian garment workers, Scandinavian farmers, Polish and Czech steelworkers, and Milwaukee’s German brewery workers.
In 1916, Victor Berger, a Jewish immigrant from Austria and a socialist congressman from Milwaukee, sponsored the first bill to create “old age pensions.” The bill didn’t get very far, but two decades later, in the midst of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt persuaded Congress to enact Social Security. Critics denounced it as un-American. But today, most Americans, even conservatives, believe that Social Security is a good idea.
Nichols (whose book, “The ‘S’ Word,” helped inspire the documentary) reminds us that Milwaukee was run by Socialists from 1910 through 1960. Milwaukee introduced reforms, later adopted by many other cities, that led to clean water and air, lovely municipal parks, and well-designed public housing. Under Socialist Mayor Dan Hoan, who led the city from 1916 to 1940, Milwaukee was consistently ranked as the nation’s healthiest and best-run city. Anita Zeidler — daughter of the socialist Frank Zeidler, who served as mayor from 1948 to 1960 — noted that Milwaukee’s socialists were “very practical.” Proud of their modern infrastructure, they called themselves “sewer socialists.”
Debs, who founded the Socialist Party in 1901 and ran for president five times under its banner, “spoke the language of American society,” explains historian Foner. He never received more than six percent of the national vote, but he was a popular public figure. At its peak in 1912, over a thousand Socialist Party members won public office. Candidates running as Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives stole many of the Socialist Party’s ideas, watered them down, and got elected.
A similar dynamic occurred during the Great Depression. With one-quarter of Americans out of work, many became radicalized. Elected president in 1932, FDR tapped into that anger by promoting ideas that a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. He met with Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and other leftists and invited a number of pragmatic radicals like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Sidney Hillman, into his inner circle. They crafted the New Deal program — public jobs, Social Security, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, the right of workers to unionize, tough regulations on banks — ideas that were first espoused by socialists.
It may surprise some viewers of “The Big Scary S Word” to hear President Harry Truman – an ardent anti-communist Cold Warrior – excoriating his Republican opponents for branding as socialist his efforts to expand the New Deal by providing government-funded health insurance, more low-rent public housing, and other programs. In a speech in October 1952, Truman said: “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.”
Black and white socialists were in the forefront of the civil rights movement from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Socialist organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin influenced Martin Luther King’s thinking and activism.
In a letter to his girlfriend (and later wife) Coretta Scott in 1952, when he was a graduate student at Boston University, King wrote: “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic… [Capitalism] started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today, capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.”
The film includes a little-seen interview with King in which he discusses his leftist views.
“We have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor,” King says. “Why are there 40 million poor people in America? When you ask that question you’re raising the question of a broader distribution of wealth. You begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
But King rarely spoke publicly about his socialist views because he believed that, in the midst of the Cold War, it would hurt his credibility as a civil rights leader.
One of King’s closest advisors was Michael Harrington, whose best-selling 1962 book, “The Other America,” awakened the country to the reality of poverty in the midst of affluence. Although he was a committed socialist, he did not argue that America’s persistent poverty and inequality were caused by capitalism because, like King, he feared that doing so would undermine the book’s influence.
Socialism is no longer so scary. The most compelling parts of the film are the stories of Lee Carter, Kshama Sawant, Stephanie Price, and Dicarlo Johnson, contemporary activists who reflect the upsurge of socialism.
In 2017, Lee Carter, a 30-year old white Marine veteran and DSA member, ran for the Virginia state legislature after he was injured at work and discovered the inequities of the state’s workman’s compensation system. A Democrat, he beat a six-term Republican incumbent, but quickly learned that he would have little influence in the Republican-controlled legislature. While many of his legislative colleagues had cushy jobs with corporations that influenced their votes, Carter worked as a low-wage Lyft driver in order to give him the flexibility to attend legislative sessions and meet with constituents.
In 2019, however, the Democrats won a majority of seats in the legislature and Carter was re-elected, buoyed by support from DSA, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, Indivisible, NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Earlier this year, the legislature finally passed one of his bills — to extend the state’s minimum wage to workers at Dulles and Reagan airports.
Sawant, an immigrant from India and a one-time software engineer and economics instructor, was active in Seattle’s left-wing movements, including Occupy Wall Street. In 2013, she won a seat on the Seattle City Council, running as a socialist. The following year, she helped lead a grassroots campaign that persuaded her colleagues to pass a $15 citywide minimum wage, against the opposition of Amazon, Starbucks, and other large Seattle corporations. Other cities have since followed Sawant’s example and now Democrats have embraced a $15 minimum wage at the federal level.
Carter and Sawant are among the roughly 50 socialists who now serve in public office at the local and state levels (not only in deep blue states but also in Montana, Indiana, Texas and Tennessee) as well as four members of Congress.
Price is a single mom with a master’s degree who teaches elementary school in Oklahoma. She has to work two jobs to make ends meet and dip into her own pocket to buy school supplies for her students because the state government won’t provide adequate funding for public schools. Classrooms are overcrowded and textbooks are outdated. Price was never involved in politics until 2018, when her union, the Oklahoma Education Association, waged a lobbying campaign to persuade the Republican-controlled legislature to increase funding. We see Price joining 36,000 other teachers marching on the state capital and taking part in a remarkable 10-day strike that generated national media attention.
“We are fed up,” says Price, who is Black. “We shouldn’t have to fight this hard.”
The strike ends with only a modest increase in school funding. Price says: “I don’t feel it’s time to quit. We have to keep pushing. We need to stand up together. I’m ready to shake some shit up. I’m ready to make some changes.”
Those experiences radicalized her. She gained self-confidence and is elected vice president of her local union. At the end of the film, she attends her first socialist conference and even gives a speech. “I’m surrounded by people who are not happy with the status quo. I’m not the only person who has these feelings,” she says.
Johnson, a Black man, turns around his life after he gets involved with the Evergreen Cooperative movement in Cleveland, which, starting in 2008, set up several successful worker-owned businesses that employ over 200 people, many of them inner city residents who had previously barely survived on minimum wage jobs.
Johnson works in the co-operative’s laundry, which serves some of Cleveland’s largest hospitals and universities. Thanks to his job at Evergreen, Johnson was able to buy a house. He exudes pride at being part of the co-op, where he sits on a committee that reviews the firm’s financial information, something that blue-collar employees in traditional businesses never get to do. The film uses the Evergreen experience to illustrate the tradition of consumer, worker and tenant co-operatives in American history.
In a segment of the film that perhaps best illustrates Bridges’ theme, we see North Dakota’s Republican Gov. Doug Burgum extolling the virtues of the Bank of North Dakota (BND) at a celebration of its 100th anniversary in 2019. The bank was founded after the Non-Partisan League, a political movement led by socialist farmers, gained control of the governor’s office and the state legislature in 1918. The next year, the legislature established BND with $2 million of capital to serve the farmers who were being ripped off with high interest rates by private banks based in Minneapolis and Wall Street.
During the Depression, when other banks were foreclosing on family farmers, BND helped them buy their farms back. BND made the first federally-insured student loan in the country and continues to provide loans to local farmers, businesses, and homeowners.
“The Bank of North Dakota is successful when the citizens are successful,” explained Roxanne Junker, a North Dakota native who wrote a book about the bank. “It could make more money lending to luxury condos instead of single-family owners, but it doesn’t have to. Its goal is to serve the communities.”
Since the Wall Street-induced financial collapse that began in 2008 and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, activists around the country have looked to the BND as a model. Several cities and states have been debating the pros and cons of creating public banks. Proponents hope that the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress will pass legislation to create a federal bank to make loans to worker, consumer, tenant co-operatives, and other enterprises that Wall Street banks shun.
“The taxpayers are essentially the owners of the bank. It is controlled by the people,” explains Mike Jacobs, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, referring to BND. “Sure it’s socialistic. But it’s not un-American.”
“The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will be screened at NYDOC, the New York Documentary Film Festival, from November 11 to 18.
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.