Bernie Sanders calls back to America’s socialist roots
Buffeted by high winds and thick snow Thursday morning, Senator Bernie Sanders came back to the Cleveland area for the third time since he started running for president, speaking to the crowd of 3,600 packed into the Baldwin Wallace University gym. Ohio remains one of the worst hit states by successive economic crises over the last two decades, with some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country in 2008-09 and the average person earning 20 percent less now than in 2000.
So, it’s no surprise that Sanders’ stump speech championing free college education, a higher minimum wage, and all his other proposals against inequality would draw rapturous cheers here. Zachery Olivos, 23, a graduate of Case Western University hoping to apply to medical school while working as an EMT, said, “Tuition is still rising. Bernie is the only candidate seriously considering this issue and the economic fallout which has screwed up my generation.”
Ohio is also the place where one of Sanders’ inspirations had one of his greatest moments. On June 16, 1918, Eugene Debs, labor organizer and five-time Socialist candidate for president, made the most important speech of his long career in nearby Canton.
Bernie Sanders has recorded filmstrips and a record celebrating Debs’ life and ideas, even using his own voice in the role of his hero. Easy to make fun of, and easy to forget what was at stake: World War One was raging. Debs took a principled — and unpopular — stand against it in Canton. He was arrested after his speech, convicted of sedition, and spent four years in prison.
At his trial in Cleveland, he said, “I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization, money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth, gold is God today, and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.”
Almost a hundred years later, the oratory may sound baroque and at least one issue remote and no longer relevant – widespread child labor was abolished in the United States long ago – but Sanders’ inheritance from Debs rang clear when he said Thursday, “The 20 wealthiest people now own more wealth than the bottom 150 million. When I talk about a rigged economy, I say to the Walton family, get off of welfare. Start paying your workers a decent wage.”
Back in 1919, to protest Debs’ detention and agitate for a $1 a day minimum wage (sound familiar?), 20,000 demonstrators paraded on May Day in Cleveland. Businessmen and police attacked them, and in the mayhem that followed, two marchers were killed and hundreds wounded.
Before the rise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and then the Cold War confused and conflated the issues and the terms used to describe them, democratic socialism as exemplified by Debs was the largest political movement in the United States outside the Republican and Democratic parties. Dozens of socialist mayors and several socialist congressmen were elected to office.
So when Sanders says that nothing he espouses is new or radical, and that socialism is as much a part of the American tradition as anything else, he’s right. It’s uncertain, in this profoundly ahistorical society, how many people know or remember our socialist past. That’s certainly true in places like Cleveland and Canton, even as Sanders retraces Debs’ footsteps both literally and symbolically.
Some in the audience, though, clearly had history on their minds after the rally. Judy Flamik, a 67-year-old retired high school teacher, said, “We need a work program, like FDR did during the Great Depression. My dad was in that – in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) – out in Idaho and Utah. My son went to see a bridge that they built there. I wish we could address that. People are fed up.”