A Precious Legacy

The USA has a unique democratic socialist tradition. Let us carry it forward as we fight the battles of our own time.

A fellow Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member recently told me I’m the first person they met who joined the organization because of Michael Harrington. It’s true – I joined DSA in the late 1990s largely because of Harrington’s influence. Like Harrington, I was raised a devout Catholic, and in Catholic school I was fortunate to learn about the preferential option for the poor, the dignity of labor, and the rights of workers. I stumbled upon The Other America, the 1962 book on poverty that made Harrington famous, read it, joined DSA, and have been a socialist ever since.

The remark reminded me that I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and it underscored just how much the organization has changed since I first joined. For years, many of the people I knew in DSA worked with Harrington before his death, at only sixty-one, in 1989. We all took it for granted that democratic socialism was a distinct political tradition, with a clear lineage and a core set of principles that distinguished it from other currents on the anti-capitalist left. Since DSA’s revival and expansion, however, the meaning of “democratic socialism” has become somewhat fuzzy and, at times, contested.

Political organizations, if they possess any vitality at all, change with time. The average person who has joined DSA since 2016 has an entirely different frame of reference than those from the organization’s founding generations. Many of the newest recruits joined with little or no connection to the Old or New Lefts, the labor movement, or the progressive religious institutions that furnished the socialist cadres of an earlier period. Many of us have no memory of the Cold War or the bitter fights among the various factions of twentieth century socialism. This is, in many ways, a positive thing. At the same time, the lack of a broad consensus about what exactly constitutes democratic socialist politics sometimes contributes to internal conflicts, reflecting an anxious search for collective identity.

These dynamics can lead to the question of whether democratic socialism is a distinct political tradition at all. For skeptics, “democratic socialism” often simply seems to mean whatever those who call themselves democratic socialists happen to say it is. This view embodies the relative lack of dogmatism that has attended the socialist left’s revival. But it also makes it difficult to respond with any consistency to the most basic questions a political movement needs to answer: what do you want, and how do you plan to get it?

Democratic socialism is a distinct political tradition that has found expression in many countries, with common roots in a democratic interpretation of Marxism. In the United States, whose democratic socialist movement I will specifically focus on here, it has also drawn extensively on the country’s secular and religious reform traditions, from radical republicanism to the Black social gospel.

Three core elements, in my view, have defined it historically: a vision of “democratic socialization” that deepens political democracy and extends it into the economic and social realms; a strategic emphasis on social alliances and coalition politics, rooted in but reaching beyond the labor movement; and a commitment to democratic internationalism. Here in the United States, it has seen liberalism — particularly its left wing — as an important ally because it has been the political home of the country’s mass-based reform movements, including the labor movement since the New Deal era.

If there is hope in getting human civilization to the next century with even a modicum of freedom and democracy, it lies in the democratic socialist movement. As democratic socialists in the world’s most powerful country, we bear a heavy responsibility to be as committed and effective in our efforts to change America as possible. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone’s future depends on it.

Fortunately, we do not need to begin from scratch, for we stand on the shoulders of giants. Harrington described the invisible world of the poor as the “other America,” but this phrase has many resonances. We are heirs of the other America that has fought, since the country’s founding, to make it live up to the best aspects of its national creed: abolitionists and feminists, Socialists and Populists, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and civil rights movement, New Leftists and participatory democrats. Our calling is to respect this tradition, draw upon it, and carry it forward as we fight the battles of our own time.

Toward Democratic Socialization

In the opening passages of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels survey the development of capitalism with an admiration bordering on awe. As the bearers of capitalist social relations, the bourgeoisie “played a most revolutionary part” in breaking the bonds of traditional society and creating “more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” It did this by bringing scattered people and means of production together in ever greater combinations, concentrating property ownership in the hands of a few and the exercise of political power in the modern state. In doing so, the bourgeoisie laid the foundations for a world of abundance by tapping the power of social labor, the cooperation of many individual workers in the production of commodities.

The problem with this arrangement, from a Marxist point of view, is the contradiction between the reality of social production and the private ownership of the means of production. Before capitalism, an individual owner of the means of production would also tend to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Think of a subsistence farmer producing directly for their family’s own consumption using their own land and tools. Under capitalist social relations, people tend not to produce directly for themselves, but are dependent on securing their livelihood through market exchange with others.

As Engels observes in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the “socialized producers and means of production and their products were still treated, after this change, just as they had been before — i.e., as the means of production and the products of individuals.” The products produced collectively by large numbers of workers, who now did not own their own means of production nor necessarily need to come into direct contact with each other in order to cooperate, “were not appropriated by those who had actually set in motion the means of production and actually produced the commodities, but by the capitalists.” Before capitalism, people tended to produce small amounts of goods, mostly food and other agricultural products, and either consumed it themselves or turned it over to a landlord. Under capitalism, people tend to produce not for themselves but for others, and it doesn’t really matter what the product is so long as it finds a buyer on the market. But when those products are sold it’s the employer of those who do the work, not the workers themselves, who reap most of the benefit.

This contradiction between socialized production and private, individual appropriation of the product is capitalism’s calling card. It “contains the germ,” Engels concludes, “of the whole of the social antagonisms of today,” which finds fundamental expression in the conflict between the working class created by capitalism and the capitalists who employ workers’ labor power.

In his final book Socialism: Past and Future, Michael Harrington describes this process as the “antisocial socialization” of the world through capitalist development. The social organization of work unleashed human productivity on a previously unimaginable scale. But under capitalist social relations, this process gave birth to a novel social condition: poverty amid plenty. The deeply contradictory — and for many around the world, utterly disastrous — consequences of capitalist development spurred the emergence of socialist organizing, which in Harrington’s words was the first political movement to pose the question: “How does one democratically control the revolutionary consequences of our increasingly social human genius?”

One major twentieth-century answer to this question was Communism, which grew out of the socialist tradition but departed from it in important ways.

Following Marx and Engels, socialists tended to assume that the most advanced capitalist countries with the strongest labor movements would be the main theater of socialist revolution. But it was tsarist Russia, not Britain, France, Germany, or the United States, where socialist revolutionaries made their first breakthrough. Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power on the assumption that the Soviet experiment could survive only if it was the first explosion in a chain reaction of world socialist revolution. Those hopes were quickly snuffed out, and the Soviets embarked on a crash course of modernization to overcome tsarist stagnation and catch up to the leading capitalist states of the west. They called it socialism, but socialist critics of the Soviet system and its emulators thought otherwise.

Harrington, for example, argued that the upshot of Communist revolutions was not “to achieve the democratic production and distribution of the wealth of a successful capitalism,” as he argued in Socialism: Past and Future, but rather a “desperate attempt of emergent elites in poor countries to catch up, to modernize” and compete economically and militarily with the leading capitalist states. For democratic socialists, this was not socialism but a variant of antisocial socialization – even if this was not what its architects originally intended.

It is certainly true that some Communist party-states have made impressive achievements in reducing extreme poverty or providing comprehensive health care services, and these advances should be respected. The Communist movement’s support for anti-colonial and national liberation struggles around the world should also be recognized. While Washington shamefully backed the government of apartheid South Africa, for example, the African National Congress found allies in the South African Communist Party, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and others in the Communist world. “Actually existing socialism” certainly did not turn out the way its inaugurators hoped, but it retained some connections to socialism’s emancipatory heritage. This is why it is problematic to lump Communism together with fascism – a project that has contributed nothing but hatred, violence, and death to the human experience – under the rubric of “totalitarianism.”

At the same time, democratic socialists have always viewed the freedom to organize, speak, and publish as the “light and air” necessary for working people to develop their capacity to rule and to organize toward a society without classes. Here is where democratic socialism’s contrast with other expressions of socialist politics, particularly those which claim the mantle of the Bolshevik revolution, becomes most clear. Communist parties have historically been extremely undemocratic organizations, and the party-states they’ve run have suppressed representative democratic institutions and many basic political freedoms. Nicos Poulantzas, the Greek theorist of democratic socialism, posed the question in no uncertain terms:

It is necessary to take sides. If we understand the democratic road to socialism and democratic socialism itself to involve, among other things, political (party) and ideological pluralism, recognition of the role of universal suffrage, and extension and deepening of all political freedoms including for opponents, then talk of smashing or destroying the state apparatus can be no more than a mere verbal trick. What is involved, through all the various transformations, is a real permanence and continuity of the institutions of representative democracy — not as unfortunate relics to be tolerated for as long as necessary, but as an essential condition of democratic socialism.

Many Communists, it must be said, were sincerely committed to the cause of democracy, equality, and freedom and made very important contributions to those ends. In the US, Communist Party activists like Dorothy Healey and Jack O’Dell played key roles in labor organizing and the fight for racial equality, among other struggles. People became Communists not because they wanted to become Kremlin agents but because they were outraged by injustice and wanted to fight for a better world, and they thought joining the Communist movement was the best way to do that. Many had their lives ruined by state surveillance, harassment, and persecution because of this commitment. At the same time, however, we cannot forget the terrible crimes committed in the name of “socialist construction,” the undemocratic and sectarian nature of many Communist parties, or their subservience to the needs and interests of the Soviet party-state. All of this did massive damage to the socialist movement, and we have only recently started to recover from it.

What would a practical program for democratic socialization look like? In a 1978 essay titled “What Socialists Would Do in America – If They Could,” Harrington sketched the outlines of a democratic socialist program for political and economic reconstruction, much of which is still a useful starting point for us today. First, he proposed the adoption of a national planning process “in which all the people would have an effective right to participate.” This would be done by ensuring the technical capacity of citizen groups to challenge official plans and present counter-plans, and by radically democratizing the already existing political process.

The second major element would be a “profoundly modified private sector,” with institutions of workers’ control and public participation in corporate governance and major curbs on profit making through tax and regulatory policy. Finally, there would be a dramatically expanded, locally oriented cooperative sector based on cheap credit subsidized by the federal government. An expansive welfare state would collectively provide goods and services in areas where market provision is not effective like health, education, and transportation. Markets would still function in areas where private choice is actually efficient and does not determine the basic direction of the economy.

This is a radically ambitious agenda, and the socialist movement is nowhere near capable of achieving even part of it on its own. This is where the strategic element of democratic socialism comes into focus.

Forging a Democratic Majority

Here, I will consider the strategic orientation of the mid-to-late twentieth-century iteration of US democratic socialism, particularly as it was expressed through the civil rights movement, not the early twentieth century heyday of the Socialist Party (SP). This is not because Eugene Debs and his contemporaries were not democratic socialists – they certainly were – or that they are unimportant. It is because the conditions under which they operated are very different from those we face today.

The SP was the last sustained, nationally organized third party in US history. Outside of residual pockets of strength like Milwaukee, it ceased to be a viable independent electoral formation by the mid-1920s. While the party found success in a number of states and localities, it only ever succeeded in electing two members to Congress, Milwaukee’s Victor Berger and New York’s Meyer London. London was voted out of office in 1922, Berger in 1928, and they were never replaced.

The spread of direct primary elections at all levels, legal rulings that made parties less like private membership organizations and more like public utilities for nominating candidates, and the political-economic changes inaugurated by the New Deal and its underlying coalition (which crucially included organized labor), closed off the available space for independent left-wing parties. Debs, Berger, Morris Hillquit, and other early SP leaders were, as historian James Weinstein observes in The Long Detour, “products of the years when the door to participation in major parties had been tightly shut.” Those doors were pried open roughly a century ago, and the most effective democratic socialists have decided to walk through them ever since.

Democratic socialists decisively reject minority strategies for winning political power. Since self-conscious socialists have rarely constituted a majority of the population anywhere, not least the United States, this necessarily entails a strategy of social alliances and coalition-building aimed at forging a democratic majority. This is a strategic imperative in any context, but it is especially salient in the US, where the lack of a proportional representation system shoehorns the wide array of social and political groupings into one of two big coalition parties.

The outlines of this strategy were, to a significant extent, developed by Black and white socialists in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, for example, worked with many organizers who came out of various corners of the Old Left. These included SP members A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, former Communist Party members and fellow travelers like Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison, and non-party socialists like Ella Baker and Pauli Murray. Harrington was a follower of Max Shachtman, a former Trotskyist who brought his Independent Socialist League into the SP in the 1950s. The Shachtmanites were a rather small group, but they were able to punch far above their weight because their number included key strategists and organizers like Rustin who made important contributions to developing the movement’s strategic orientation.

In their excellent book A Freedom Budget for All Americans, Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates outline “The Strategy” formulated by the democratic socialist wing of the civil rights movement. In their telling, The Strategy had two main elements. First, it projected “a mass struggle against segregation and second-class citizenship” in the form of direct action campaigns against Jim Crow. Second, it incorporated civil rights demands into a comprehensive program of economic reconstruction, “channeling the struggle against the Jim Crow system into an even more massive struggle (through a coming together of the anti-racist and labor movements) for jobs for all, an end to poverty, and democratic regulation of the economy, which would involve a transition from capitalism to socialism.”

The earliest formulations of this strategy aimed at the formation of a new labor party independent of the Democrats and Republicans. In his contribution to a new volume on Bayard Rustin, historian David Stein recounts a 1959 letter to Rustin from SP activist Tom Kahn about a plan for civil rights protests at the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions: “just keep repeating the formula: 1960 ProjectProject → increased tension within Democratic Party → Split Democratic Party → formation of Labor Party → Labor Party, under influence of mass socialist left.” In this sense, their approach as originally conceived was rather similar to the “dirty break” strategy some DSA members advocate today.

But no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Kahn and other socialist civil rights activists modified their strategy as their engagement with the US political system deepened. Stein conveys the experiences of former SP activist Rachelle Horowitz, who recalled that “We got hit in the head with…two realities…that, one, the labor movement was not about to split to form a labor party,” and second (as Stein summarizes it) that “most Black people were not willing to abandon the Democrats, Dixiecrats notwithstanding.” While Rustin, Harrington, and others remained SP members, by the mid-1960s they thought that the main political vehicle for their program would be a realigned Democratic Party led by its liberal-labor elements. In their view, this approach was necessary to break the power of the de facto party that had a stranglehold over American politics for decades: the conservative Dixiecrat-Republican coalition.

The reactionary Southern Democrats who dominated key committees in Congress and held great sway over presidential nominations would be pushed into the Republican Party, together with northern and western conservatives. Without the albatross of racist, anti-union reactionaries hanging around their necks, the Democratic labor-liberal coalition could be pushed to adopt a program responsive to the needs and interests of trade unionists, African Americans and other racial minorities, the poor, and the “conscience constituency” of progressive professionals and religious faithful.

Martin Luther King, the greatest democratic socialist the US ever produced, was a consistent and forceful advocate of this strategy. Like Randolph, King did not shy away from criticizing the racism and discrimination that still plagued the house of labor in his time. Nevertheless, he was committed to the proposition that a political alliance between organized labor and the Black freedom movement was the key to progress for both groups, and the essential foundation of a mass movement to transform American society.

In a speech to the AFL-CIO’s 1961 constitutional convention, King declared that the “two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement.” African Americans, King noted, were an overwhelmingly working-class people whose interests and methods of struggle overlapped considerably with the labor movement. They needed allies because they constituted a minority of the population; labor needed allies to prevent technological progress “from becoming a Moloch, consuming jobs and contract gains” won over decades of hard-fought battles. It’s in labor’s best interest, King implored his audience, to support the fight for racial equality, because labor’s political strength would thereby be multiplied. “Negroes given the vote will vote liberal and labor because they need the same liberal legislation labor needs.”

The Black-labor alliance was at the heart of The Strategy, but even this would not be enough to forge the majoritarian coalition needed to win and wield political power. It was already evident in the mid-1960s that organized labor faced a difficult future if it could not organize new sectors, find more allies, and regain its former dynamism. In a 1965 speech to the Illinois AFL-CIO, King observed that the labor movement was organizationally powerful but “stagnating and receding as a social force. As the workforce has grown substantially in the past twenty years, the ranks of organized labor have remained stationary, and its moral appeal flickers instead of shining as it did in the thirties.”

In addition to working-class Blacks and the poor of all races, one potential source of renewed strength was the growing strata of educated professionals in postwar America. As Harrington argued in his 1968 book Toward a Democratic Left, the rising tide of “collective-bargaining impulses among professionals” — nurses, teachers, technicians, and other kinds of highly credentialed workers — “is something more than a new attitude within a traditional social class. Perhaps it is one portent of the appearance of a social class which has never existed before and which will play a significant role in the formation of a new majority of the democratic Left.”

Such an outcome is far from guaranteed. People occupying the twilight zone between the working and middle classes could be, in Harrington’s estimation, “an ally of the poor and the organized workers — or their sophisticated enemy.” Given its growing size and social weight, this group, which is disproportionately composed of women and often the source of feminist and queer liberationist demands, had to be brought into a political alliance with organized workers, the poor, and another group democratic socialists paid close attention to: religious progressives from the full range of faith traditions.

For King, Harrington, and others in the democratic socialist tradition, a coalition strategy uniting disparate groups on the basis of common interests and values is essential. It is forced upon those who seek a thorough transformation of American society, because there simply is not, as Harrington concluded, “some majoritarian proletariat with internal cohesion and solidarity seeking its own mighty voice.” Nor is there, absent fundamental changes to the US electoral system, a viable alternative to being the left wing of a coalition party that includes non-socialist progressives and liberals.

We should strive to gain a leading position in that coalition, but winning it will be a very difficult task. Pursuing, much less attaining, the lofty goals of democratic socialism in the US requires a healthy dose of strategic realism, an avoidance of sectarianism, and a consistent policy of alliances. The alternative is political isolation and all of the self-defeating habits that come along with it.

Democratic Internationalism

“Workers of the world, unite!” has been socialism’s watchword for nearly two hundred years. If there is no socialism without democracy, the same can be said of internationalism. International solidarity, opposition to national chauvinism, and the fight against militarism is in the movement’s DNA, and it has been a key element of democratic socialist politics in the US.

Internationalism is a moral and political imperative for socialists everywhere, but it is a particularly crucial aspect of democratic socialism in the US. Since the country’s founding, the US working class has been composed of all the nations and peoples of the world — some through voluntary immigration, others through forced importation and enslavement, and in the case of indigenous people, through violent expropriation of their land. Another dimension of the internationalist imperative is the fact that the US has been the world’s leading economic, political, and military power for nearly a century. This places an enormous burden of responsibility on Americans to minimize the harm our government causes and promote the world’s common good whenever possible.

Once again, democratic socialists in the civil rights movement provide some of the best examples of these principles in action. Though not as well known as King, Reverend James Lawson — still alive and active at age ninety-four — is a key figure in the history of our movement. He embodied the kind of democratic internationalism that suffused the Black freedom struggle and shaped its strategies and tactics. Lawson was working in India as a Methodist missionary when he got the news about the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. According to historian Michael Honey’s account in Going Down Jericho Road, “Lawson leaped out of his chair, clapped his hands, and shouted for joy. This was the movement he had been waiting for…He was eager to build a movement to overturn what he called the interlocking ‘cruelty systems’ of colonialism, racism, and war, using a revolutionary philosophy called nonviolence,” Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (“soul force”).

According to Honey, Lawson “met socialists and nationalists in India and toured Africa. Observing a parallel freedom struggle building among the colored peoples of the world, he vowed to become a part of it.” Upon his return from abroad he met King; joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious pacifist group that counted socialists A.J. Muste and Norman Thomas among its founders, as a southern field organizer; and sought to mobilize the power of nonviolent direct action against Jim Crow in Tennessee. He played a key role in leading the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike where King was assassinated and continued his work in support of workers, immigrants, womens’ and queer liberation, and international solidarity for decades afterward.

Nobody, however, could move masses of people with a vision of universal humanity like Martin Luther King. By the mid-1960s, King was a moral and political leader of truly global stature. In that capacity, he did what he could to promote a vision of common humanity against the powers and principalities on both sides of the Cold War.

In 1964, Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin and the future social democratic chancellor of West Germany, invited King to visit the city to headline a cultural festival. He spoke to a rapt crowd of 20,000 West Berliners, met with students and clergy, and preached a message of peace and common humanity. King insisted on crossing the Wall to East Berlin, where he gave a powerful sermon to an overflow crowd on the topic of reconciliation. “It is with great humility that we in the United States in the freedom struggle have taken the liberty to assume that we are serving as agents of God’s reconciliation.”

He recounted the main events in that struggle and extolled the faith that allowed the movement to keep pushing forward toward victory, even in the face of death. “This is the faith I commend to you Christians here in Berlin,” King intoned in his peroration. “A living, active, massive faith that affirms the victory of Jesus Christ over the world, whether it be an Eastern world or a Western world.” King’s message of democratic, nonviolent revolution left a deep impression on both sides of the Wall, inspiring youth in particular to take action against “the kingdoms of this world” who would keep them divided and afraid.

Vietnam was a major test of democratic socialists’ internationalism, and unfortunately the record in this regard was mixed. Harrington did not support the war and thought US policy in Vietnam was immoral and indefensible. But his wariness toward what he saw as the “middle-class elitism” of the anti-war movement and his lingering personal loyalty to Max Shachtman, who was an apologist for the war on anti-Communist grounds, prevented him from taking a more effective position against the war. Harrington came to regret his approach and broke with long-standing comrades like Shachtman and Rustin over it. As he put it in his memoirs, Rustin — a pacifist who educated King in the theory and practice of nonviolence in the 1950s — “made the wrong decision: to subordinate his anti-war convictions to what he became convinced were the imperatives of domestic coalition politics. He was wrong because this position assumed that the social programs could succeed while the war raged, and because it ignored one agony to deal with another.”

At the 1972 SP convention, Rustin and his allies defeated the faction around Harrington and a smaller faction known as the Debs Caucus, and changed the party’s name to Social Democrats, USA. Harrington and his allies resigned to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, while the Debs Caucus formed the Socialist Party USA. Simply put, the Vietnam war was a moral abomination and a political disaster. It divided the labor movement, split the democratic Left, and dealt a fatal blow to the hopes for economic reconstruction outlined in the visionary Freedom Budget. King, in Harrington’s retrospective estimation, made the right decision. While King shared the aversion to Communism common among democratic socialists, he did not let this prevent him from demanding an immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam, even if this meant victory for the Communist-led National Liberation Front.

In his remarkable 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” King lacerated not just the US war in Vietnam, but the deeper spiritual decay the war represented. In laying waste to Vietnam, America wasn’t only destroying the lives and homes of millions of Vietnamese. Its war effort acted like a “demonic, destructive suction tube” wasting American lives and resources that could be put to far more constructive use at home. He denounced the US government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and called on Americans to “get on the right side of the world revolution” against “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” King paid a heavy price for his forthright condemnation of the war, isolating him from many he once considered to be allies. Yet over half a century later, this speech stands as a shining testament to King’s moral clarity and the international consciousness that suffused his democratic socialism.

Democratic internationalism requires frequent opposition to US foreign policy, which has too often wreaked havoc and destruction around the world. But democratic socialists like King never let this responsibility, nor their horror at the violence our government has so often unleashed, morph into the kind of radical alienation that drove the New Left’s most self-destructive tendencies. They were able to galvanize mass movements because their politics were grounded in an immanent critique of American society that, in Gramscian terms, transformed its “common sense” into “good sense” — a critical consciousness forged out of materials from the dominant ideology itself.

They called on the nation to actually live up to its democratic and egalitarian ethos, with no double standards based on race or anything else. The country had written a “promissory note” of freedom to all Americans, including those who were poor or Black, and they fully intended to collect on it. King made this plain in the speech he gave to striking Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was assassinated:

All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

The revolution of values that King called for in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech was, in important respects, an appeal to return to the country’s origins in a revolt against British imperialism. He pointed out the supreme irony of American support for counterrevolutionary movements in the post-colonial world. “It is a sad fact,” King lamented, “that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.” Communism’s appeal to revolutionaries in what was then called the Third World was, in King’s view, “a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Once again, King identified himself with the country’s revolutionary, democratic heritage in order to criticize its conduct that much more effectively. In doing so, he held out the possibility of a positive, constructive role in the world for America — so long as people of conscience fought to build a more perfect union at home.

Shortly after King was assassinated in Memphis, his wife Coretta Scott King — a steadfast political activist in her own right — summed up the democratic, internationalist spirit that shaped her husband’s life and work. “He gave his life for the poor people of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam,” she eulogized. “The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.”

King, Lawson, and other democratic socialists at the forefront of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements set an enduring example for those who seek to take up their banner. Their example inspired millions around the world, including democratic socialists in other countries. One of them was Sweden’s Social Democratic prime minister, Olof Palme, who got a first-hand look at American racism and the struggle against it while living in the US after World War II.

During an election campaign in the early 1980s, Palme declared:

I am proud and glad to be a democratic socialist. I became that when I traveled around India and saw the appalling poverty, contrasted with the immense wealth of a few; when I traveled around the United States and saw what in some ways was even more degrading poverty; when, as a young man, I saw at first hand the lack of freedom and the oppression and persecution in the Communist states; when I visited the Nazi concentration camps and saw death lists with the names of Social Democrats and trade unionists.

During his two stints as prime minister in the 1970s and 1980s, Palme was critical of political repression in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc while opposing the Vietnam war, supporting Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, supporting national liberation movements in Latin America and Africa, and backing the Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli occupation.

The challenge for democratic internationalists is to vigorously oppose our own government’s actions whenever necessary, while avoiding a self-defeating alienation from our own country. It means opposing interstate rivalry in principle, holding all the powers of the world to a single standard while supporting all genuine movements for democracy and justice however we can.

Democratic Socialism in the 21st Century

Democratic socialism, as I have described it here, is a distinct political tradition grounded in three core elements: a vision of democratic socialization, a strategic emphasis on social alliances and coalition politics, and a commitment to democratic internationalism. It has roots in a democratic interpretation of Marxism but draws on a diverse array of ideological and intellectual sources, including a deep well of religious commitment as exemplified in the civil rights movement, where democratic socialists like Martin Luther King played leading roles. Finally, democratic socialists in the United States have, particularly since the New Deal, treated the left wing of liberalism as an important ally because that is largely where popular movements for social change, including the labor movement, have been politically organized.

Democratic socialists are enormously fortunate to have this tradition to draw upon, for it furnishes valuable intellectual, political, and moral resources rooted in our country’s history and culture, and which already have a deep resonance with millions of people who aren’t socialists. Why look to tsarist Russia or imperial Germany for guides to practical action when we have our own movements and traditions to learn from?

The examples I have recounted here nearly all come from the twentieth century. It is fair to ask how (or even whether) this tradition is relevant in the twenty-first century, where we confront crises and dilemmas our forebears scarcely could have foreseen. One often hears that the crises of the century don’t afford us enough time for the sort of politics outlined here. Majoritarian, democratic politics can be slow and painstaking, and the political system we have in the US places many barriers in its path. Faced with the truncated timetables of the climate crisis, propaganda of the deed and other minority strategies born of a sense of desperation may well find a renewed appeal. But actions born of despair are far more likely to facilitate the imposition of some sort of authoritarian statism than anything else.

Are the ideas and strategies our democratic socialist predecessors left behind adequate to the tasks we face? With certain modifications and adjustments, I think they are.

To begin with, the electoral revival of American socialism vindicates many of our predecessors’ strategic conceptions. The realignment that they and many others fought for — the polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties, with Southern reactionaries pushed from the former to the latter — actually happened. It did not necessarily have the effect many hoped for at the time, not least because it happened at precisely the moment organized labor entered a long period of defeat and decline. In recent years, however, the Left has used primary elections to oust moderate Democrats, replace them with socialists and progressives, and start winning victories for working people and the climate.

There is still much further to go in this regard. The Left has won a surprising number of successes in a short period of time, but it needs to keep growing its geographical and social base. If pushing the Dixiecrats out of the Democratic coalition was round one of the process, confronting the neoliberals and winning a leadership position for the progressive Left — including, but not limited to, democratic socialists — is round two.

This electoral project’s chances of success would be enormously improved if the current glimmers of labor movement revitalization continue to brighten. Unions are more popular than they have ever been, young workers are showing a marked interest in organizing across sectors, and two of the largest private sector unions — the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers — are now led by reform administrations who put a strong emphasis on organization and struggle. These are still just glimmers. We are probably not on the verge of a big bang in union organizing on the scale of the 1930s. But the fruitful interplay of left-wing electoral insurgency with the renewed stirrings of labor organization provides grounds for hope. If these trends continue to reinforce and propel each other, the dynamic left-labor alliance that earlier generations of democratic socialists worked so hard to build could become a renewed political force.

One area of strategic consideration our predecessors did not pay enough attention to is how to transform state institutions outside of electoral politics and representative bodies. Here is where US democratic socialists can learn quite a bit from our counterparts in the Global South, like Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra, MST). The sociologist Rebecca Tarlau developed the concept of “contentious co-governance” based on her study of the MST, which has been dealing with these issues in a highly challenging political environment for nearly forty years. For Tarlau, contentious co-governance is “not just implementing a reform, you are having a social movement enter an institution as part of a broader plan for social change.” Protest, pressure, and negotiation continues to keep reforms moving forward after legislation has been passed.

This is especially the case when political opponents win elections, but it can sometimes entail conflict with allies in public office. It also entails winning footholds within the agencies and institutions of the state itself, not just elected offices in representative bodies. “State power exists in a lot of different spaces,” Tarlau observes, “so we need to think about how we can solidify a movement and then find the spheres of state power in which we might be able to wield some control.”

The MST does this primarily through educational institutions; there are many other potential sites of power building in addition to this obvious example. The democratic Left must continue to elect democratic socialists to office, but this is just one aspect of the project of democratic socialization. We must also, as Nicos Poulantzas insisted, increase the “intervention of the popular masses in the state: certainly through their trade union and political forms of representation, but also through their own initiatives within the state itself.” The War on Poverty arguably made a tentative, highly contentious move in this direction through its Community Action Agencies, which were intended to facilitate the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor and oppressed in the local administration of federally-funded health, medical, job training, and education programs. It also provided funding for local civil rights organizations, which often used these resources to challenge entrenched political machines and business interests. The growing crop of democratic socialist legislators and policymakers should study the history of maximum feasible participation and work to implement updated versions of it in our own time.

The US Left has a proud heritage and a usable past – the democratic socialist tradition. It is a precious legacy, deeply intertwined with our country’s history and culture, with much to say about our current moment. Let us embrace it, learn from it, and continue building on it together.