We’ve Been Looking in the Wrong Places to Understand Sanders’s SocialismRoundup
tags: Gilded Age, socialism, Eugene Debs
Mr. White is a professor of American history.
Detractors like to equate Senator Bernie Sanders’s socialism with Soviet and Chinese Communism. This is very 20th century of them. But if critics are looking for a knockout blow, they’re swinging at the wrong century, the wrong country and the wrong socialism.
Mr. Sanders does not disguise his socialism. But the question is: What do Americans mean when they talk about socialism? Pete Buttigieg equated socialism with a “rigid ideology,” but Mr. Sanders fits into a strain of American socialism that has largely eschewed ideology, made few references to Karl Marx, and been more likely to talk about fairness and values than about economic theory.
American socialism has a long history, and Mr. Sanders falls into a particular slice of it. He does not sound like the doctrinaire immigrant socialists of the 19th century, for example. He is somewhat closer to Norman Thomas and the socialists of the 1930s or Eugene Debs and the socialism of the early 20th century. But both men headed a socialist party, which Mr. Sanders does not.
The socialists Mr. Sanders most resembles were Gilded Age intellectuals, reformers, union members and ordinary citizens who self-labeled as socialist. There were immigrants among them, but the leading voices were, like Mr. Sanders, native-born and middle-class advocates of reform within the Democratic and Republican parties, whose bosses they often criticized.
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