At 2 in the morning on a November night in 1914, on the square that abutted the Forward building in the middle of the Lower East Side, a crowd that had been gathered there all evening heard an announcement it had awaited for hours: Tammany had conceded. New York’s 9th Congressional District had a new representative, Socialist Party candidate Meyer London.
“Men sang and danced,” one local later recalled. “London was brought to the square to head an impromptu demonstration [which culminated in a] march over the streets at early dawn.”
London’s victory marked just the second time that an avowed socialist had been elected to Congress. He had been preceded there two years earlier by Milwaukee’s Victor Berger. Debsian socialism was at its height in those years. Roughly 1,200 socialists held municipal or state office across the land.
What that socialism consisted of varied from region to region, state to state. In Berger’s Milwaukee, it was the very sober public-works politics of beer-drinking Germans. On the Lower East Side, it embodied the secular messianism and militant pragmatism of Russian-Jewish immigrants. American socialism was a universalistic ideology that took very different forms in a variety of American subcultures.
London served in Congress from 1914 through 1918, and again from 1920 through 1922, when Democrats and Republicans in Albany agreed to divide up the Lower East Side in the decennial reapportionment so that London could not win re-election. Berger served from 1910 to 1912, and again from 1922 through 1928. After that, there were no socialists in Congress for a very long time.
In the years that London and Berger served on Capitol Hill, socialism was a more clearly defined ideology than it is now, and the gap that separated it from progressivism and liberalism was more pronounced. London introduced bills to establish a minimum wage and ban child labor, charting the course the New Deal would follow 20 years later. Berger pursued similar legislative priorities, though neither he nor London got anywhere with their bills.
Berger and London remain the only Socialist Party members to have served in Congress. In the early 1970s, Democrat Ron Dellums, the left-wing congressman representing Berkeley and Oakland, joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the group founded by legendary activist Michael Harrington with an explicit strategy of functioning openly as a socialist group within the Democratic Party. Dellums was a leading civil rights and antiwar activist who played a key role in persuading Congress to place sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime. His democratic leftism was more distinct than his socialism, which was the case for most socialists of his generation who were active in social movements and electoral politics. Another Democratic congressman who has maintained membership in Democratic Socialists of America is Brooklyn’s Rep. Major Owens.
This January, Bernie Sanders will be sworn in as America’s first socialist senator. A congressman from Vermont’s one and only House district since 1990, the Brooklyn-born Sanders has run as an independent since he first was elected mayor of Burlington in the early 1980s.
The rumpled, professorial Sanders has caucused with the Democrats in the House and will do so in the Senate. (He’s drawn no serious Democratic opposition in any of his recent elections.) Indeed, he’s played a distinct role within the caucus.
A few years ago, he formed the House Progressive Caucus as a counterweight to the conservative Blue Dogs and the centrist New Dogs. He was the first member of Congress to lead bus trips to Canada so seniors could buy more affordable medications, and he is an advocate of single-payer health insurance. In the Senate, he is likely to join fellow rookie Sherrod Brown at the head of an incoming class that is opposed to free trade deals. His antipathy to free-market capitalism may run deeper than that of his peers, but it manifests itself in his campaign for a global mixed economy rather than, say, nationalizing this or that industry, which hasn’t been part of socialist doctrine for many decades now.
What does it mean to be a socialist in America these days? Even in Europe — where socialist, social democratic or Labor parties either govern now or have recently governed in virtually every nation, and where the welfare state remains far stronger than it is here — socialism as a coherent ideology is hard to find. Parties of the center-left grope for ways to preserve the social compact at a time when globalization is eroding it everywhere.
On the Hill and on the stump, Sanders’s calls for a sturdier compact are more impassioned and systemic than those of his progressive colleagues. His attacks on corporations and his defense of the working class — and his sense of the inherent antagonism between the two — are more explicit than those of all but the most militant left-liberals.
But Sanders’s role in founding the Progressive Caucus displays the more important half of his political identity. Like Michael Harrington, Bernie Sanders is the kind of socialist who can build a larger, preponderantly non-socialist, left alliance — of which he can then constitute the socialist wing. In America, that’s as good as it gets for a socialist who lives in, and tries to better, the real world.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect and political editor of L.A. Weekly. He is a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.