Bernie Sanders calls back to America’s socialist roots

February 29, 2016
Berea, Ohio February 25, 2016 Senator Bernie Sanders campaigns for the Democratic nomination of President, speaking to a crowd of 3-4000 people in the gym of Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

Senator Bernie Sanders campaigns at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland, February 25, 2016. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

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.”

Berea, Ohio February 25, 2016 Senator Bernie Sanders campaigns for the Democratic nomination of President, speaking to a crowd of 3-4000 people in the gym of Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

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.”

Berea, Ohio February 25, 2016 Senator Bernie Sanders campaigns for the Democratic nomination of President, speaking to a crowd of 3-4000 people in the gym of Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

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.”

16 comments

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Socialist roots? Sorry but that is just hilarious.

“democratic socialism as exemplified by Debs was the largest political movement in the United States outside the Republican and Democratic parties”

Which is another way of saying that for the last couple centuries in the USA, socialism is was never important, at best a distant third and only briefly even that. Which is why the USA became rich and powerful and places like Russia became a banana republic without bananas.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

FDR was a “democratic socialist.”

He passed Social Security.

He passed the minimum wage.

He fought the Nazis.

He thought the Plutocrats were douches and treated them as such.

Result?

Rise of the Greatest nation in the history of mankind.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

America’s roots are individual freedom and liberty, not government socialism. Socialists are literally the antithesis of what America is all about.

FDR was the biggest socialist to ever hold public office and his administration marked a watershed in expansion of government and restriction of individual freedom.

FDR tried to stack the supreme court (a deeply unpopular move that was soundly defeated) He created internment camps, stripping japanese americans of their homes, businesses and freedoms, started social security which has been in debt ever since.

Posted by Rbohn | Report as abusive

America’s roots are individual freedom and liberty, not government socialism. Socialists are literally the antithesis of what America is all about.

FDR was the biggest socialist to ever hold public office and his administration marked a watershed in expansion of government and restriction of individual freedom.

FDR tried to stack the supreme court (a deeply unpopular move that was soundly defeated) He created internment camps, stripping japanese americans of their homes, businesses and freedoms, started social security which has been in debt ever since.

Posted by Rbohn | Report as abusive

“FDR fought the NAZI”

no he didnt, he sat in the kings palace until his death. he sent other ppl’s sons and daughters to fight the NAZIs. Just like he spent other ppl’s money to be charitable to the poor. Socialists didnt fight the NAZIs Patriots did, the same ppl you’d be calling racists today.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Since Free Market became the ballyhoo of the right, we have lost good paying jobs, .5 % of the country has the vast majority of the wealth, they own our government, have taken rights from labor, and have declared meaningless, prolonged wars to keep their war machine flowing with cash, and have dropped our standard of living to record lows.

Posted by stevie1 | Report as abusive

“Socialists didnt fight the NAZIs”

You mean to say that the people of the Soviet Union, where 20-30 million died during WWII, didn’t fight the Nazis? I can’t wait to read your book, professor.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

I call Ass-hat.

More, “socialists” died fighting the Nazis in WW2 than Americans. 20+ Million Russians died whereas only 600,000 Americans.

Hummm…moreover, you miss the point.

A “social democrat” is a capitalist, just one who cares about a functional healthy balanced society.

Book to follow soon!

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

Racists are not patriots.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

@ brotherkenny4: Racists are not patriots.
Nazis, who killed blacks, gypsies and Jews, were BIG patriots.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Yobro above is a nazi, hiding behind his screen name encoded with skinhead code “88” aka HH or Heil Hitler.

So that is who is condemning the socialists.

Socialism in America is also responsible for such traditions as the 8 hour work day and those weekends you enjoy so much, along with abolishing child labour. Americans have a short memory, but you all owe the socialist factory girls and other workers for the blood that was spilled fighting for your rights.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

I really enjoyed that article, and thank you for penning that. That felt good to read.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

UauS: Nonsense, Nazis are not patriots. They are fascists. Is that a goad or are you serious? US patriots believe in liberty and justice. We are the people who threw off the kings. Fascists are just another type of king. They take power by force, like a king, and they use everyone like a beast of burden, like a king and both kings and fascist believe that other humans have no right to freedom and liberty. The Nazis were just a very sick and dark type of fascist, often believers in the occult and magic. Not rational thinkers at all, even though they feign rationality through their perversion of Darwin and Nietzsche.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

World War 2 was won by a socialist America. Supplies were commandeered and rationed. FDR employed millions in public works to support the war effort and domestic growth.

We have not won a war since.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Any free market genius want to tell us the corporation that ran the Manhattan project? How about the CEO who launched D-day?

Socialism wins. We haven’t won a war since.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Yeah, yeah, we have seen this crowd before. 1960 had women breast feeding and exposing themselves on public too.
But America’s socialist roots…. sorry, that is a laugh. From day one, this nation has had a free market and a capitalist heart. The fact that we have instituted social programs, certainly does not mean we are a socialist nation. Even as a capitalist nation we have to care for those unable to care for themselves, and have managed to allow government to mandate that we care for those too lazy to work too. Never mind all the local, state, and federal workers, who are really only glorified welfare recipients anyway, as much a parasite on the working class as any other deadbeat.

Posted by Macpappy | Report as abusive