In characteristically well-reasoned and pointed argument, Eric Foner recently chided presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for invoking European examples in making the case for “democratic socialism.”
“Next time,” Foner suggested in The Nation’s November 16 issue, “forget about Denmark and talk about Paine, Douglass, FDR, and Debs as forebears of a movement that can make the United States a fairer, more equal, more just society.” In this case, however, I beg to differ with one of my favorite historians.
Although there is certainly nothing wrong with citing the considerable contributions of the American radical tradition, no contemporary candidacy should be limited to the policy menu comprised by the domestic market. On the contrary, a constricted political climate in the United States has for too long kept options off the shelves—regarding family leave, daycare, healthcare, and free higher education (all advanced now by Sanders), as well as worker consultation-in-industry, nationalized banking, and confiscatory taxation—that have long been practiced in Europe, Canada, or Japan. What better way to make them “practical” here than to point to their successful implementation somewhere else?
Moreover, the embrace-our-own tradition model carries understandable but not altogether laudable pedigree: How long should the left defer to the charge of un-Americanism? Undoubtedly, the McCarthyism of the early 1950s cast a shadow of illegitimacy and conspiracy on any radical political project that was assigned a foreign origin, let alone sustained international inspiration. But there was something more. As intellectual historian David S. Brown emphasizes, the immigrant children who first advanced the new “history from below” in the 1960s were sensitive to their own distance from the American political heartland, and hence eager to bridge the gap. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, in particular, with deep roots in the nation’s progressive past, helped a new generation of students, including many “red-diaper babies” from New York Jewish families, to redefine the central themes of American history around the democratic yearnings of ordinary working people. Raised in Queens in a radical Yiddish-speaking household, Herbert Gutman, for example, began his pursuit of the American working-class experience at Columbia University (where he completed an MA under Richard Hofstadter in 1950), but did not catch fire until he transferred to Madison for his PhD. “The Madison years,” as he would later recall, “made me understand that all my left politics had not prepared me to understand America west (or even east) of the Hudson River. Not in the slightest.”
For Gutman, and for many of the rest of us New Labor Historians, the American industrial landscape itself thus proved a sufficiently broad and complex tableau to understand both the origins of Gilded Age labor conflicts as well as the source of ideological opposition (commonly identified as “working-class Americanism” or “labor republicanism”) to the power of anti-democratic elites. These skillful social historians, of course, painstakingly documented the role of immigration in US class formation, and they were not unmindful of the contributions of foreign-born socialists and anarchists in American-centered struggles. Yet, waging their own intellectual war against a consensus-minded generation of scholars who had preceded them, they focused on the domestic roots of popular resistance and rebellion. As James R. Green explained in a preface to his influential study of early-20th-century radicalism in the Southwest, “One of the most important objectives of this study is to describe the forgotten men and women who made the movement such a strong indigenous expression of socialism.”
But American radicals themselves were always more worldly than this island model suggested. In the pre–World War I Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs (not for nothing named after French romantic authors Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo), US-born as well as immigrant activists drew confidently from a global index of political and social thought. The economic dislocations of worldwide capitalist development put people as well as ideas in motion as never before. Intellectually, politically, and even spiritually, young radicals took advantage of heretofore unsurpassed international and cosmopolitan influences. Florence Kelly would study in Zurich, the Wobblies would look to the French syndicalists, and even the vernacular-socialist press in the nation’s heartland—like the Appeal to Reason (Girard, Kansas), National Rip-Saw (St. Louis), and The Rebel (Hallettsville, Texas)—regularly published translations of the German-language socialist classics.
There is no doubt that the first Red Scare, post–World War I, and Cold War tensions in the 1950s put a squeeze on world-traveling radicals like Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson and more generally discredited transnationally experimental social thought. If a political idea did not actually spring from American soil, it was best to act as if it did.
But the political valence of nationalism/internationalism in the last few decades has surely shifted once again. Albeit much weakened, the US labor movement, once staunchly protectionist, xenophobic, and ideologically intolerant, is now desperate for alternatives and generally embraces internationalist cooperation and even global labor standard-setting as a response to the competitive “race to the bottom.” A purely nationalist and populist discourse—witness Donald Trump—is now far more common on the political right than the political left. In such changing circumstances, a reinvigorated political alternative ought to draw from all available sources. When it comes to the political platform of today’s left, in short, a fair word of counsel is again vive la différence!