Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington

Of the many reasons why socialism never became a major political tendency in the United States, as it did in Europe, is that working people—more precisely, white working men—gained the franchise here during the Jacksonian era, well before socialism had developed into a mass movement in Europe or America or anyplace else. In Europe, by contrast, it was chiefly the agitation of socialist parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the creation of universal manhood, and in some places womanhood, suffrage. Socialists brought ordinary Europeans the vote, which powerfully legitimated socialism for tens of millions of Europeans.

No equivalent legitimation happened in America. While there had been socialist movements and sects throughout the 19th century, the American Socialist Party wasn’t founded until 1901. That party, the Communist Party, and their various offshoots attracted thousands of activists during the 20th century, and their most enduring and significant achievement was to have seeded and helped form the movement for civil rights that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which went beyond Kennedy’s initial proposal to also ban racial discrimination in employment) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But despite their central role in the movement that led to the extension of the franchise to Southern blacks, American socialists experienced no gains for their movement equivalent to those their European counterparts had won. While Randolph, Rustin, and King were all democratic socialists, as were many of their colleagues and lieutenants, they did not march for civil rights under a socialist banner. To have done so would have been to make the attainment of civil rights all the more difficult. Nonetheless, the power of their economic perspective has been felt in black America from their time until this day. For decades, the proposed budgets of the Congressional Black Caucus spelled out what was essentially a vision of a social democratic American economy.

That vision, of course, was not realized. Accommodations were desegregated, but just as Randolph and his associates feared, the number of Americans who could afford to use them—who could afford college and medical care, to cite just two institutions that are legally open to all regardless of race and nonetheless beyond the reach of millions of Americans—remains well below any decent standard. Capitalism devoid of social democracy, the socialist planners of the march believed, would never produce the broadly shared prosperity that was needed if blacks and other racial minorities were to win more equal economic opportunities. Fifty years after the March on Washington, those socialists’ presentiments have been tragically borne out.
Linkage. This passage includes the closing paragraphs. Read the rest. Part of what attracted my to socialism - broadly speaking - was its commitment to economic equality as well as for civil rights. It was that way back when I was growing up in the shadow of the New Left back in the 1980s, and it is still true today. Keep in mind that the struggle for equality for all - economic, racial/ethnic, gender, etc. - is going to continue for the long haul. For the last couple decades especially, our elites of done their best to decouple civil rights from the economic issues that affect us all. As a divide and conquer strategy it has worked, and we are all suffering together - except of course for the 1%, who are making out like bandits while we fight each other. It did not have to go down like that, nor does it have to continue to go down like that. Something to think about.

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