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Americans Are Still Confused About Socialism

At a recent rally, Bernie Sanders touted FDR as a Socialist icon. The only problem: the 32nd president was an unabashed capitalist.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

DDid Franklin Delano Roosevelt play an important role in the history of socialism in the country? According to Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, the answer is a resounding yes. The Vermont Senator spoke glowingly about FDR at a rally earlier this month at George Washington University, claiming his own brand of politics is deeply indebted to the 32nd president of the United States. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Sanders told the crowd. Sanders also quoted a 1936 FDR campaign speech that night, saying “[Bankers] are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.”

But Sanders’ characterization of FDR fails to demonstrate an accurate depiction of the former president, or for that matter, democratic socialism itself.

“FDR did not call himself socialist,” says Adam Quinn, an independent historian of anti-radicalism in the U.S. Nor did FDR’s policies reflect the aims of socialism. Roosevelt “framed the New Deal as a safety net to save not only the impoverished but the American system of government,” Quinn says. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Communist Party supported the New Deal, following the Party’s “popular-front” strategy in this period, which consisted of forming broader, mainstream alliances.

It’s not entirely surprising that Sanders’ remarks about democratic socialism elicited more cheers than skepticism: Many Americans remain unfamiliar with the left-wing ideology. According to a May poll published by The Hill and the HarrisX survey company, nearly one in five Americans are “unsure” what socialism is. Worse still, none of the possible answers written for the survey accurately defined the left-wing ideology, meaning people responding to the survey couldn’t have given a technically correct response if they’d wanted to. Either the survey makers also don’t know what socialism is, or a proper definition was intentionally kept out of the poll.

A quick primer: Socialism entails ownership of the means of production by the working class, rather than by the bourgeoisie (that is, the owning class), as is the case in a class-based society. Democratic socialism, then, is a democratically-run government paired with an economy owned by the working class. Neither are views that FDR, a Democrat and a capitalist, was known for.

It’s fair to assume that Sanders knows what socialism is, but it seems he was capitalizing on Americans’ ignorance, framing his policies around a historical figure in order to make them more palatable to mainstream liberal voters.

The lack of knowledge and anti-socialist tendencies among the U.S. electorate and indeed the press are even more striking when one considers that this happened by design. In a sea of anti-socialist propaganda and policies, hostility toward socialism and indeed anything progressive has flourished.

AsAs a capitalist society, the U.S. has been anti-socialist for as long as socialism has existed in the country. During the Red Scares of the 1920s and again in the late ’40s and ’50s, the government executed brutal crackdowns on socialists, communists, and anarchists. Repression took the form of censorship, imprisonment, and in some cases deportation. “These Red Scares had a chilling effect on the spectrum of acceptable political views in the U.S.,” Quinn says. “Republicans and Democrats alike denounced anything too progressive as socialist, while many activists distanced themselves from any organization or policy that could be labeled socialists.”

While labor and anti-war agitators — many of them socialists, communists, and anarchists — were imprisoned during the Red Scares (some were even executed by the state following show trials), socialists in government were ousted. In New York, five Socialist Party members of the State Assembly were kicked out by their colleagues in 1920. It was the first time in U.S. history that the whole of a political party’s membership was removed from a legislative group.

In 1921, the U.S. began observing “Americanization Day” on May 1, a day that is recognized around the world as International Workers Day or Labor Day, in honor of the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886. On May 4 that year, police attacked anarchists, socialists, and other unionists who were striking for an eight-hour workday in Chicago, killing eight strikers. The government swept up eight anarchists in the aftermath, subsequently executing four. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, replaced May Day with “Americanization Day” (later and to this day technically called “Loyalty Day”) as a Red Scare maneuver.

“I’m also seeing people misrepresent socialism as simply a welfare state and government programs.”

The state’s framing of communism and related ideologies as “un-American” and therefore criminal persists to this day. Nathan Barnhelm, an electrician and member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Libertarian Socialist Caucus, says that he remembers “people talking about socialism as ‘un-American’ and for lazy people who just wanted to grift” when he was younger.

“These days,” Barnhelm says, “I’m also seeing people misrepresent socialism as simply a welfare state and government programs, whether they like it or not — like that meme that says ‘Socialism is when the government does stuff, and the more stuff it does, the more socialist it is.’”

Intensified repression continued in the second Red Scare, spearheaded by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. The end of World War II ushered in the Cold War era, which entailed witch hunts and decades of bellicose anti-communist propaganda. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subjected communist and suspected communist government workers and entertainers to partisan questioning. Many were imprisoned and lost their jobs. The state also arrested anti-war activists, among them were socialists, communists, and anarchists, and murdered black liberation leaders, including Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.

The anti-capitalist left was also marginalized in other sectors of society, such as education. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed a socialist, as Sanders mentioned Wednesday; however, this fact is generally not taught in schools. The obscuring of King’s agitation for socialism is but one example of how socialism is marginalized even when a socialist was very influential.

DDespite all of this, the movement for socialism persists. While there’s a dearth of socialists in elected office, ongoing and renewed support for socialism is evident through the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization founded in 1982 whose membership boomed during the Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Among various types of activism, such as campaigning for political candidates endorsed by the DSA, members also work to educate others about socialism, in part to combat rampant misunderstandings and bad feelings about the ideology. Barnhelm adds that in addition to organizing in their communities, most caucuses within the DSA also “hold regular political education sessions, with a wide variety of Marxist readings.”

The state’s historical and ongoing repression of socialism has created not only misunderstandings about what socialists believe and what they do, but also hostilities towards certain policies that have come to be associated with socialism. Universal health care, for example, is a concept utterly reviled by the GOP and denounced by many liberals as unrealistic. President Obama was smeared as a communist by the right-wing over the Affordable Care Act (a far cry from universal health care), despite the fact that the policy had its roots in the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

The consequences of the Red Scares and their tactics have brought not only the repression of socialists, communists, and anarchists, but also an aversion to or even hatred for standard progressive ideas. But in invoking FDR to describe his sense of socialism, Sanders relies on some of the same hostile misunderstandings that his own political opponents use to smear him and his agenda.

Freelance journalist covering repression and resistance.

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