Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > Professor Michael Kazin on the Turbulent History of American Socialism

Feb 6, 2023

Professor Michael Kazin on the Turbulent History of American Socialism

tags: Michael Kazin,history,socialism,Henry George,ben tumin,skipped history,Myth America,socialist,robert owen,abrahm hewitt

In a new book called Myth Americatop historians (including many who’ve appeared on Skipped History!) set the record straight on some of the most pernicious myths about US history. When reading, I was particularly intrigued by Professor Michael Kazin’s chapter about the history of socialism in the US. He kindly agreed to chat further with me for today’s interview.

Professor Kazin teaches history at Georgetown and is an expert in U.S. politics and social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. The former editor of Dissent Magazinehe’s also the author of several highly respected books including, most recently, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, and earlier, American Dreamers: How the Left Change a Nation.

Professor Kazin and I discussed the successes, failures, and legacies of socialist movements in the US dating back to the 1820s. Our conversation went pleasantly long, so a condensed transcript edited for clarity is below, and paying subscribers can access the full transcript and audio here.

Ben: Professor Kazin, thank you so much for being here.

MK: It's great to be here, Ben. 

Ben: Let's begin in 1825. What happened then that in your words “suggests the philosophy of economic equality and cooperation” may not be so un-American after all?

MK: So by 1825, a Welsh-born Scottish industrialist named Robert Owen, who’d made a lot of money investing in textile mills, had become a socialist. He believed that he hadn’t been treating his workers well enough and began to treat them much better.

But more importantly, he believed that the competitive system, the market system, which was just getting going in a lot of countries, including his own, was unjust and a more communitarian system was necessary. He called this system “socialism” and was the first person to really popularize that word.

A lot of people in Congress were interested in his ideas, and in 1825, he spoke to a joint session. He detailed how the competitive market system was a bad thing and that a more cooperative humanitarian system would be much more humane. Two presidents—James Monroe, who was leaving office, and John Quincy Adams, who was just entering it—came to hear Owen speak. Afterward, he visited John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their homes to talk to them about socialism.

Ben: It’s fascinating that so many of the so-called “founders” were open to socialism. 

Can you describe a few of the leftist movements that preceded the Civil War? I’m thinking of abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, and the labor movement.

MK: You mention the three major movements actually. 

The abolitionist movement was crucial. As we know, slavery was the great contradiction to the ideals of American freedom and equality and of course, abolitionists pushed the Republican Party to abolish slavery.

The women’s rights movement grew out of the abolitionist movement. Women— mostly white women, but some Black women as well—met in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. They put together a Declaration of Sentiments which began, “all men and women are created equal.” Attendees of the convention argued that if they were fighting for the liberation of enslaved men and women, why not fight for the political and economic liberation of all women? 

After the Civil War, white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony demanded, in effect, that abolitionists support giving all women the right to vote. Frederick Douglass, who’d been a leading supporter of women’s suffrage—in fact, he attended the convention in Seneca Falls—said no, we can't jeopardize winning votes for all Black men, thinking the Fifteenth Amendment would fail to pass if women were included in it. Because of that, Stanton and Anthony broke with Douglass and with other abolitionists who, at least tactically at the time, opposed women’s suffrage.

As for the labor movement, before the Civil War, it was mostly a local movement. There were workingmen's parties, as they were called, in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, which won a fair amount of votes in local elections.

Unfortunately, some people in the labor movement back then were opposed to abolition because they were afraid of enslaved people coming north, taking their jobs, and driving down wages. Some members of the labor movement were sympathetic to abolitionism, mostly in New England, but in general, there was tension between those movements. And white working men weren’t just threatened by the abolition of slavery, but also by women having the ability to work “men’s jobs.”

So there was tension between each movement. This has long been true in lefts around the world: people consider themselves part of the left in a broader sense but disagree about a lot of details.

Ben: So the left has... contained multitudes for a long time? 

MK: Yes, as Whitman might say.

Ben: Moving forward, can you talk about the left came this close to seismic electoral gains in New York in 1886?

MK: Sure. That year there was a momentous mayoral election, which pitted an iron manufacturer named Abram Hewitt against a pretty radical candidate named Henry George.

George ran on a third-party ticket for the United Labor Party, and he was a celebrity for having written probably the most popular economics book of the 18th century, called Progress and Poverty, where he argued that land speculation was at the root of poverty. He was a great supporter of workers and unions, and just about every kind of socialist you can think of campaigned for him. The thinking was that if the most populous city in America could elect George, it would be a new dawn for the left. 

Well, George lost—narrowly. Tammany Hall stole some votes, as they were known to do, and the Republican candidate—a young guy named Teddy Roosevelt—secured 60,000 votes, almost three times the margin that separated George and Hewitt, the eventual victor. The best opportunity to launch an American labor party probably died when the polls closed in Manhattan that evening in November 1886.

Ben: On the flip side, you write, the critiques of monopoly and capitalism voiced by radicals like George persuaded national major-party nominees “and thousands of candidates who followed... to put an end to the freebooting capitalism of the nineteenth century.” 

MK: Yes, socialists really played a key role in the Progressive Era (from the 1890s through the 1910s). Though George lost, the Socialist Party of America formed in 1901, and its members continued to put out radical ideas about how the economy should be democratized. To a certain extent, they were really successful, and before World War I, over a thousand local officials were elected on the Socialist Party ticket at different times around the country.

Now, say what you want about politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt—and there’s a lot to critique about them, of course—but they were skilled politicians, and they adopted some of the anti-monopoly, anti-corporate rhetoric of socialist movements gaining steam. In that sense, the Progressive Era can be viewed as a coopting of the more radical tendencies in politics.

Ben: Which, again, sounds like a success to some extent. But as you point out, socialists couldn’t sustain their electoral gains.

One reason for this failure was major party nominees coopted socialistic policies. Another reason, posited by a German academic around this time named Werner Sombart, was that there was too much prosperity in America, or what he described as “reefs of roast beef and apple pie.”

Do you agree with that assessment, and would it be correct to assume that the reefs also contained vanilla milksharks, as well as a despondent clownfish searching for his son, Filet Mignemo?

MK: ...I don’t remember writing that, and no, I don’t agree. The real zapper of socialists’ momentum was World War I, a watershed in the history of the American left. The Socialist Party opposed going to war in 1917, and the federal government responded by effectively banning socialist discourse in newspapers and through the mail. 

The Socialist Party was never as strong again, though it did revive a bit during the Great Depression. In the late 30s, the left joined what people at the time called the anti-fascist Popular Front, which included labor unions, immigrant African American and Hispanic groups, and more.

It was a very broad left, supportive of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, and thanks to their influence, in 1935, Congress passed and FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act (or the Wagner Act), the most important piece of labor legislation in the 20th century. The act granted most workers the legal right to organize or join unions and bargain collectively. 

The act was seriously flawed (notably, it excepted agricultural and domestic workers from unionizing, which disproportionately affected African Americans), but the government wouldn’t have granted unions legal protections if it weren’t for radicals pushing for more progressive policies.

Ben: That’s more or less the argument in your book: that throughout US history, leftists have been better at winning reforms than elections. In a similar vein, let’s move to the rise of the New Left in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which you say “did more to discredit the old liberal order than to lay the foundation for a new one.”

MK: And here I'm talking about my own generation. I was a co-chair of Students for a Democratic Society at my university, helped lead a strike there, was part of the anti-war movement, and was in a crazy would-be terrorist group called Weatherman for a very short period of time.

Ben: What led to your rise and demise, so to speak?

MK: It’s a long story, but I'll make it short. 

The rise had a lot to do with the Black Freedom Movement. As I’ve mentioned, with the exception of abolitionists, leftist movements in American history, at least white-led ones, have not been great about supporting racial minorities, especially African Americans

But many new leftists were deeply involved in the Black Freedom Movement. Some went to Mississippi to work during the Freedom Summer in 1964. Others worked on their own campuses and within their own communities for civil rights and integration, as I did. 

Then came the war in Vietnam. The New Left really grew large when the US took over most of the fighting from the South Vietnamese army in 1965. This was an outrage to us.

At the same time, the New Left was the first left in American history that came primarily from what you might call more privileged quarters, especially the white new left. People think about the baby boomer generation as being a hugely college-educated generation but in fact, in 1960, only 16% of Americans 25 and older had college degrees.

So going to college was still something of a mark of privilege (with some exceptions of course). The idea that people like me, at places like Harvard where I went to school, were smashing and denouncing America, spelling America with three Ks, hoping for the Vietcong to win (we were), supporting the Black Panther Party, and promoting the idea of revolution—well, that turned a lot of people off from the left. And even though the war in Vietnam became more and more unpopular during the1960s, in the early 1970s, the anti-war movement became just as unpopular. 

Ben: On the flip side, you write, “The New Left articulated a critique of everyday life, which was, in time, taken up by millions of people who had little regard for those who had originated the ideas.”

So, many of today’s ideas about equality, whether for racial minorities or the LGBTQ+ community, were furthered by your generation, too.

MK: Yes—and just to clarify, though liberals have adopted those stances today, the New Left was not liberal. Many of us likely came out of liberal households, but we identified as anything but.

Ben: Moving into the 80s and 90s, that brings to mind another point of yours. You write that “conservatives acquired the pernicious habit of describing the leadership of the Democratic Party simply as ‘the left.’ Soon the mainstream media followed along, squeezing everyone from Bill Clinton to Noam Chomsky under the same saggy terminological umbrella.”

My first question is: what did an umbrella ever do to you?

MK: Ha! Maybe I could use some therapy.

Ben: Happy to help.

My second question is: how much merit is there to equating Democrats with the left today?

MK: Well, of course, it serves Republican and conservative interests to equate the Democratic Party with the left, especially with more radical leftists. It's also just sort of easier for journalists of any political leaning to say one party's the right party, one party's the left party, especially when you’re on deadline.

But as much as I don’t identify as liberal, I’ll say there’s some merit to this point, because a lot of people on the left, like me, did become Democrats with the capital D in the 70s. So the left did become part of the Democratic Party or at least some parts of the left did, even before Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2015 as a socialist.

Ben: This brings me to a concluding question. What is your take on the future of the DSA? It seems to me that your main takeaway from studying this history is that socialists should strive for a utopian vision through more pragmatic short- and medium-term goals.

MK: You've described my outlook well. I believe in what Michael Harrington, who was head of the Socialist Party for several years in the 60s and 70s and a founder of the DSA, called “the left wing of the possible.” I think you’ve got to put out a left-wing vision of where America should go and articulate that very strongly in a language that most Americans understand.

At the same time, you can't just say you refuse to participate in a filthy, corrupt system because people need help, housing, and jobs now. The environment needs to be preserved now. We need to move away from a security state now. And the only way to accomplish those goals is to win elections. 

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, American history suggests you can’t win elections with a third party, a socialist party, or any kind of radical party. Socialists have to take power seriously in this country and to take power seriously, you have to work with people whom you wish you didn't have to work with, just like leftists did in the mid-19th century, the Progressive Era, amid the Great Depression, and now with DSA members aligning with the Democratic Party. 

Ben: Well, I think that’s a compelling way to synthesize the history that you've presented today. I really appreciate your time, Professor Kazin.

MK: Thank you, Ben. It's been a lot of fun.

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