“Socialism is coming,” J.A. Wayland, publisher of Appeal to Reason, predicted at the dawn of the last century. “It’s coming like a prairie fire and nothing can stop it.”
More than 100 years later, American socialists speak with similar ebullience. A 74-year-old candidate who once produced a hagiographic documentary about Wayland’s friend, employee, and hero Eugene Debs runs for president as the vehicle of their faith in future.
“And yes, my policies will demand that the top one percent and the largest corporations in this country start paying their fair share of taxes,” Bernie Sanders told MSNBC last year.
The top one percent currently pay 44 percent of federal income taxes and the bottom 45 percent don’t pay, according to the Tax Policy Center. If one percent shouldering 44 percent of the income tax burden represents paying less than a “fair share,” what number, precisely, does Sanders regard as just?
The Vermont senator told Charlie Rose last year of “working right now on a comprehensive tax package, which I suspect will, for the top marginal rates, go over 50 percent.” The Tax Policy Center’s Howard Gleckman pegs the top federal rate at 58 percent under Sanders while Dylan Matthews last month assessed his plan at Vox as imposing a top rate of 77 percent.
Under Sanders’ vision, high earners turn over most of their income to the government he presides over. In return, America’s socialist CEO doles out free tuition at state universities, institutes single-payer health care, and more than doubles the federal minimum wage to $15 — all of which does little to benefit those subsidizing all of that. At least the transactions that brought Donald Trump great power came voluntarily.
America meets a Bernie Sanders every few decades. He may go by Norman Thomas in this generation or Michael Harrington in that one. The common denominator of the various reincarnations involves their rejection by the American people.
In 1906, German academic Werner Sombart famously asked, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” A better question subsequently came from Princeton University’s Wilbert Moore: “Why are there any socialists in the United States?”
The United States within nearly a century of its founding became the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. It accomplished this without an income tax, free university tuition, universal health care, or even Social Security. In Bernie Sanders’ lifetime, he witnessed the fall of National Socialists, Soviet Socialists, and more benign iterations of the collectivist ideology. But he imagines the command economy, rather than the free market, as our savior.
America’s aversion (thus far) to socialism continues to puzzle academics and activists. Disenchanted former Communist Party member Aileen Kraditor posited: “Suppose a movement has for the past century preached that it was inevitable that the great mass of people would come to see the truth of numerology and that some historians have written the history of the United States in terms of the question, ‘Why have the mass of Americans not come to believe in numerology?’ The reader would see at once that something is wrong with the question…. The analogy does not suggest that the reason most American workers have not converted to socialism or numerology is that either is wrong.”
Why did it take all of 240 years for an explicitly socialist candidate to capture the imagination of a large swath of a major American political party?
Werner Sombart pithily theorized the ideology’s failure in America: “All socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Victor Berger, a socialist congressman from Milwaukee, offered: “The feeling of class distinction in America, at least among the native workingmen, has not the same historic foundation that it has in Germany, France, or England. There the people were accustomed for over a thousand years to have distinct classes and castes fixed by law.” John Pepper, a Hungarian dispatched to America by the Comintern in the 1920s (and liquidated by his masters the following decade), stressed the alien flavor of the far Left, candidly observing: “If we were to read carefully the nine dailies and twenty-one weeklies of the Workers’ Party carefully, one would get the complete picture of all European countries, but a very incomplete picture of life in America.”
All true, but a greater truth proves more painful to the ideology’s sympathizers. Capitalism works for men who do. Socialism works for men who don’t.
The actual workers — not the fetishized cartoon character “workers” in the socialist imagination — desire the fruit of their own labors, which makes collectivism a hard sell in a nation of gainfully employed. In a nation with larger numbers of students and willfully unemployed, Sanders’ message begins to sell.
America’s last big socialist moment came 104 years ago. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party’s version of Harold Stassen, reached the political outfit’s high-water mark with six percent of the vote in the general election. Yet, even this triumph of sorts disappointed those who dreamed big.
“The struggle under the competitive system is not worth the effort,” a dejected J.A. Wayland — who first serialized The Jungle, once provided winter lodging for Mother Jones, and transformed Girard, Kansas, into America’s unlikely Socialist Mecca — wrote five days after his friend Eugene Debs’ six percent finish in 1912. “Let it pass.” The publisher of one of America’s most-widely read weeklies then wrapped a bedsheet around his rifle, and let loose a muffled shot that ended his life.
Socialism is a letdown like that. It promises a brotherhood of man, complete equality, and the perfectibility of man. It delivers something less heavenly. The ugly reality of socialism quickly evaporates in the minds of men. Socialism the beautiful dream exerts a firmer grip. Never looking back at the experienced past, always gazing starry-eyed ahead toward the imagined future, socialists perpetually doom themselves, and the rest of us, to relive that not worth reliving.