Friday, October 30, 2020

Heather Cox Richardson on the Origin of the American Obsession with “Socialism”

Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian and the author of the book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She also regularly publishes a dispatch via Facebook in which she “uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics.”

In a recent dispatch, Heather examines the U.S.'s obsession with big bad socialism and how it has “virtually nothing to do with actual international socialism . . . based on the ideas of political theorist Karl Marx.” Following (with added links) is an excerpt.

Trump and his campaign surrogates, as well as Republican lawmakers, continue to refer to Democrats as “socialists.” In Florida on Friday, Trump said: “We’re not supposed to have a socialist – look we’re not going to be a socialist nation. We’re not going to have a socialist president, especially a female socialist president, we’re not gonna have it, we’re not gonna put up with it.”

[Recently] in Lansing, Michigan, Trump warned about the elevation of Kamala Harris to the presidency, saying that “Joe’s shot; Kamala, you ready? . . . She makes Bernie Sanders look like a serious conservative.” Trump seems to be using the term “shot” as the old slang word for “worn out,” but there is no doubt he understands the dual meaning in that word, and is warning that Harris, should she be required to succeed Biden, will be a left-wing radical.

The American obsession with socialism has virtually nothing to do with actual international socialism, which developed in the early twentieth century. International socialism is based on the ideas of political theorist Karl Marx, who believed that, as the working class was crushed under the wealthy during late stage capitalism, it would rise up to take control of the factories, farms, utilities, and so on, taking over the means of production.

That theory has never been popular in America. While we have had a few socialist mayors, the best a socialist candidate has ever done in an election was when Eugene V. Debs won about 6% of the popular vote in 1912. Even then, while Debs called himself a socialist, it is not clear he was advocating the national takeover of industry so much as calling for the government to work for ordinary Americans, rather than the very wealthy, in a time that looked much like our own.

American “socialism” is a very different thing than what Marx was describing in his theoretical works. Fear of it erupted in the 1870s, long before the rise of international socialism, and it grew out of the peculiar American context of the years after the Civil War. During the war, Republicans had both invented national taxation – including the income tax – and welcomed African American men to the ballot box. This meant that, after the Civil War, for the first time in American history, voting had a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks.

After the war, southern Democrats organized as the Ku Klux Klan to try to stop Black Americans from taking their rightful place in society. They assaulted, raped, and murdered their Black neighbors to keep them from voting. But President Ulysses S. Grant met domestic terrorism with federal authority, established the Department of Justice, and arrested Klan members, driving their movement underground.

So reactionary whites took a different tack. The same people who had bitterly and publicly complained about Black Americans participating in society as equal to whites began to argue that their problem with Black voting was not about race, but rather about class. They said that they objected to poor voters being able to elect leaders who promised to deliver services or public improvements, like schools and roads, that could be paid for only by taxes, levied on property holders.

In the South of the post-Civil War years, almost all property holders were white. They argued that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to poor Black people. It was, they insisted, “socialism,” or, after workers in Paris created a Commune in 1871, “communism.”

This is the origin of the American obsession with “socialism,” more than 40 years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

Since that time, Americans have cried “socialism” whenever ordinary Americans try to use the government to level the economic playing field by calling for business regulation – which will cost tax dollars by requiring bureaucrats – or for schools and roads, or by asking for a basic social safety net. But the public funding of roads and education and health care is not the same thing as government taking over the means of production. Rather, it is an attempt to prevent a small oligarchy from using the government to gather power to themselves, cutting off the access of ordinary Americans to resources, a chance to rise, and, ultimately, to equality before the law.

Heather Cox Richardson
via Facebook
October 27, 2020

Related Off-site Links
Biden Is No Socialist, as Trump Claims. But I Know an Autocrat When I See One – Andres Oppenheimer (The Miami Herald, October 23, 2020).
Socialists Must Be the Champions of Freedom – David Harvey (Jacobin, October 22, 2020).
Joe Biden Is No Socialist; Donald Trump Is No Capitalist – Dave Anderson (, October 20, 2020).
Trump’s False Claim That Biden Is a Socialist – Amy Sherman (Politifact, October 15, 2020).
Why Trump’s Efforts to Paint Biden as a Socialist Are Not Working – Jim Tankersley (The New York Times, October 14, 2020).
Trump Campaign Launches ‘Fighters Against Socialism’ Bus Tour in Tampa – William March (Tampa Bay Times, October 11, 2020).
In Peak 2020 Irony, President Trump Launched a Socialist-Type Program That Dwarfs Sanders’ Agenda – Jack Kelly (Forbes, April 13, 2020).
There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic – Peter Nicholas (The Atlantic, March 10, 2020).
Three Cheers for Socialism: Christian Love and Political Practice – David Bentley Hart (Commonweal, February 24, 2020).
Trump Is the Worst Kind of Socialist – Bernie Sanders (The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2019).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Phillip Clark: Quote of the Day – April 15, 2020
Bernie Sanders: Quote of the Day – June 12, 2019
Jonty Langley: Quote of the Day – August 17, 2011
A Timely Reminder
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic Socialism
Something to Think About – December 14, 2011
A Socialist Perspective on the “Democratic Debacle” in Massachusetts
Obama a Socialist? Hardly
Obama, Ayers, the “S” Word, and the “Most Politically Backward Layers in America”
A Socialist Response to the 2008 Financial Crisis
Capitalism on Trial

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