Most of what has been written on this topic concerns the United States after the foundation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1897 by a group of Marxist journalists and trade union activists (community organizers). In 1901 the SDP merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America, which gained prominence especially during the 1920s, the period of First Red Scare, followed by the candidacy of Eugene Debs for President in 1920.
Notably, Eugene Debs was in prison at the time of his candidacy for participating in violent Mayday riots in Cleveland, OH, where anarchists, communists, socialists and unionists joined to “celebrate” the Haymarket riot. The history of socialism is the history of riots and revolutions, anarchy, unions and community organizing. This powerful visceral force is the untamed devil dormant in most of us. Only hard work, drill, good habits and goal-orientation can tame it. Nonetheless, as I explain below, it has always been part of our American Psyche. The fact that Debs had been in prison multiple times by the time he ran for President, and was called a “traitor to his country” by President Wilson, yet won nearly 1mil votes, clearly points at the power of socialism in America.
Where did all this come from? Debs himself started as a unionist and member of the Democrat Party. It was not until after the infamous Pullman strike in 1893, while in prison, that he read Marx. On July 9, 1894, the New York Times editorial called Debs a “lawbreaker at large, enemy to the human race.” The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx was not published in the United States until 1872. It had been written years earlier, in 1848, during and consequent to the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe. Marx was in Brussels, penniless, ranting against greedy capitalists…
However, prior to the 1870s, socialism in America had been different and unlike its European counterpart. Socialism existed here before Marx in the form of utopian socialist communities such as New Harmony, founded in Indiana by Robert Owen. The fact that Owen was a Welsh immigrant with several trades (saddler, iron monger, draper, eventually a mill owner in Scotland) indicates that his concept of “socialism” was that of a community engaging in work and trade. He would not have seen any difference between a “socialist” and a small businessman.
Owen was also very inventive and came up with a “truck system” of payment, wherein the company issued “tokens” and the workers could purchase goods for tokens in a company store. This system was soon abolished by the Token Acts, but it remained dormant elsewhere and would be practiced later, on a much larger scale, by the Soviet communists in the countries they would subjugate, such as Romania, where one could purchase goods only for such tokens (unless you had some West German Marks and access to the black market…).
Interestingly, Owen was supported (both ideologically and financially) by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, the doctrine whose concise motto is that “the greatest happiness to the greatest number should be the measure of right or wrong.” What is more, Bentham’s Fragment on Government coincides with our Declaration of Independence, wherein Jefferson famously changed Locke’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property” to the “pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson also resourced George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which restated Locke as “…life, liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Both Mason and Jefferson mention happiness, but Jefferson omitted entirely the idea that it is based on the pursuit of personal property. Happiness as such is an abstract idea which can be interpreted in as many ways as there are human beings on Earth. To unify this definition, communists (so called “democratic socialists”) build on Bentham’s utilitarianism, while capitalists (republicans) tend toward pragmatism. Practically speaking, as Bentham is largely considered the founder of modern welfare state, we may conclude that the founding stone of socialism had been laid by Jefferson in our key founding document.
Nonetheless, how it would be interpreted was unclear. Owen’s “utopian socialism” was largely understood as small community utilitarianism. It was fully compatible with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, which stemmed from the reconciliation of Locke’s empiricism with Christianity, in particular in view of the popularity of (and in opposition to) Hume’s skepticism (which claimed that God is unknowable and His existence cannot be proved). Thus, two “types” of socialism were extant at this time, and ever since, in the United States: the Fourier-like anti-trade communitarianism (soon to be transformed into communism), and what we might refer to as the Transcendental “universalism.”. The latter was closely tied to British romanticism: the tendency to become one with Nature, God, Universal Being – so skillfully portrayed in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Emerson’s Essays.
The fact that Transcendental universalism has always been predominant in the United States leads us to conclude that Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” should properly be interpreted not as a socialist aspiration with communist ends but, rather, as a statement of romanticism grounded in our American admiration for Nature, the raw wilderness which sustained us from the very start and in which we were bound to live and survive. As it was impossible to survive without trade, killing, sustenance of culture upon the produce of the land… we discover there is a direct link between Jeffersonian democracy, Emerson’s Transcendentalism, and universalist pragmatism of the Metaphysical Club. Trade and personal achievement have always been key to our survival and our happiness. What is more, our religious tolerance is extremely akin to Buddhist and Hinduist doctrines of nirvana and pacifism. Non-interventionism and isolationism are thus typical capitalist values: mind your business and let everyone else mind theirs!
On the other hand, revolution and anarchy is the product of communism, which fosters big government and welfare state. Reliance on government and welfare state were furthered by the likes of Debs who transformed Owen’s utopian socialism into uncompromising Marxist hell. As indicated above, Owen’s philosophy stems from Bentham’s utilitarianism and is closely tied to Hume’s skepticism. This means that socialist understanding of the “pursuit of happiness” is directly opposed to and antithetical to the “pursuit of happiness” in the vein of Jefferson, Emerson, Peirce, Holmes and William James. It is anti-Christian and anti-individualistic. It hates every Donald Trump and Steve Jobs. It admires big, totalitarian do-gooders, wolves in sheep clothing whose mottoes are: there is safety in numbers; proletariat unite; forget about the individual – think about the mass! This type of socialism is skeptical, communitarian and revolutionary. It understands well the strict, Sharia-Muslim organized tyranny, because it is one.
In conclusion, the American transcendental “socialist” philosophy starts in 1800 with Jefferson’s extolling the soil and culminates in 1900 with William James’ “functional psychology.” The Marxist line of socialist communism in America starts with Robert Owen and culminates with Eugene Debs. The twentieth century socialism from the First Red Scare to the Second Red Scare to Alinsky, Clinton and Sanders must be viewed as a restless dweller in our republic’s cellar. From time to time, the old, disheveled ghost will emerge to point at the “evil Wall Street” crying wolf. This idling Socialist will inevitably climb upstairs to denigrate all our fundamental values: industriousness, self-reliance, independence, personal and national pride. He will preach political correctness – attacking our language, our faith, our culture of pragmatism and personal property. Socialists’ most powerful vehicle is ENVY. Envy is moral because it is justified by fairness. Violence is moral on the same grounds… Are we going to need new Espionage and Sedition Acts to deal with these anarchists?
Finally, it must be emphasized that transparent democracy means republican system of accountability. It is good for us to see who they are and what they want. Let us help them out of the cellar. Let us lead them to the light of day. Let us show them the mirror of their likeness. They (Sanders and his sheep) have grown up in the best country in the world, benefitted from all the advantages of capitalism – only to turn into shiftless monsters of socialism!
It was under F.D.R. that socialists were Prompted to join Democrats. Prominent Democrats, such as David Dubinsky, called upon Socialists to vote Democrat in 1936 – and have done so ever since. Socialists’ ranks shrunk, until they fell below 2,000 during the McCarthy Era. Socialists crawled into capitalist cellars again, awaiting the opportunity, which came with the Civil Rights Movement. They hijacked the cause and lulled the black people. It is easy to appeal to the primeval instincts in us all: envy and propensity to violence. Finally, 1968, the Socialist Party of America came up with a presidential candidate – Hubert Humphrey. Four years later, in 1972, it was George McGovern. In those years, while Donald Trump was building and renovating housing complexes in New York and Ohio, Sanders and Clinton joined the New Left and began their careers of community organizing. Eugene Debs and Karl Marx would be proud of them.