Where will socialism come from?

What we mean by socialism is bound up with the questions of how we think a new society can be achieved--and who can achieve it. Alan Maass explains why.

Above: Franklin Roosevelt speaks to Congress; and below: the 1937 Flint sit-down strikeAbove: Franklin Roosevelt speaks to Congress; and below: the 1937 Flint sit-down strike

TIME FOR a Socialist Worker pop quiz.

Question: What's the big deal about January 1937?

I ask because that month figured prominently in Bernie Sanders' campaign speech last month where he explained what he meant by socialism. In his opening sentence, Sanders referenced President Franklin Roosevelt's second inaugural address in January 1937, when he described the devastating impact of the Great Depression and defended the New Deal legislation, like the National Industrial Recovery Act, of his first term.

"And," Sanders continued, "he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country."

A few minutes later, Sanders cited another U.S. president--an even more unlikely choice in a speech about socialism. Lyndon Johnson, Sanders said, "passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities and some of the most vulnerable people in this county."

My first response was: Wait, by themselves?

My second was the same as many left-wing writers who noted that Sanders' list of historical figures associated with socialism was missing the actual socialist whose picture reportedly hangs on his Senate office walls: Eugene V. Debs, who only ran for president.

Sanders didn't even reference the moderate tradition of Scandinavian social democracy, as he did in the first debate of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, his speech about socialism celebrated the legislative accomplishments of an American aristocrat who described himself as "the best friend the profit system ever had" and an ill-tempered political apparatchik from the Democratic Party's racist Dixiecrat wing.

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ALRIGHT, BUT back to the quiz: Roosevelt's inaugural speech was a big deal.

Just as it matters that Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and calls himself a socialist while promoting progressive political ideas, it mattered that Roosevelt, fresh from a landslide victory in the preceding November election, re-emphasized his commitment to a reform agenda in the face of hostility from some sections of his fellow capitalists.

But if Roosevelt was the only big deal about January 1937 you considered for your answer, then I can't give you full credit.

For socialists, there was a bigger big deal going on in January 1937: the sit-down strike of General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan.

It began a few days before the New Year, and it didn't end until mid-February when GM capitulated and for the first time signed an agreement recognizing a union to represent its workers, but the sit-down was in full swing throughout January. While Roosevelt was making that inaugural speech in Washington, the sit-down strikers 500 miles away in Flint were in the process of winning the pivotal battle of the most important era yet for the U.S. working-class movement.

Labor had won victories before in the great labor struggles of the 1930s, but not many, and big industrial corporations, led by GM, remained ruthlessly committed to the "open shop." No form of physical or economic violence was too cruel for them to use. So the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), recently formed by a section of the union leadership under pressure from the ranks to organize the unorganized, was still looking for its breakthrough.

The key to winning in Flint was the mass participation of GM workers and the support they had from the working class beyond them. Once begun with the factory occupation in Flint, the strike spread along the GM production chain. By the time GM caved, 140,000 out of the company's 150,000 production workers around the country had been involved either a work stoppage or occupation. Their demands included union recognition and a signed contract, the 30-hour week and six-hour day, a seniority system, and union input into the speed of the assembly line.

The sit-down strike turned out to be a very effective tactic. With workers occupying the factory, management couldn't resort to using strikebreakers to continue production, and the company's fear of damaged property put a leash on the violence of the cops.

But the sit-downs had a broader effect. They galvanized and emboldened those who took part, as Subterranean Fire author Sharon Smith wrote:

[A] factory occupation, if it's to succeed, must involve fairly extensive organization, both to protect the plant and to fulfill the basic physical needs of the strikers. Thus, the Flint sit-downers had daily meetings of all strikers in the plant. They organized routine cleanup rituals, defense drills, recreation and even "courts" where grievances could be raised (many, apparently, in jest, as a form of entertainment.)

[Outside the plant], strike supporters and families organized the picket lines and food supplies, and raised money for the strikers. Solidarity networks of union activists organized unionists to come to Flint to take part in solidarity actions and mass picketing.

In short, factory occupations give workers a taste of taking real control over their own lives.

The victory at GM, the citadel of American corporate power, opened the floodgates--within weeks, the other corporate behemoth, U.S. Steel Corp., agreed to a CIO contract without a strike. Within months, the CIO had a membership of 3.7 million, surpassing the AFL, which also grew on the strength of the strike wave.

As historian Sidney Fine wrote, the sit-down strike was adopted by "every conceivable type of worker--kitchen and laundry workers in the Israel-Zion Hospital in Brooklyn, pencil makers, janitors, dog catchers, newspaper pressmen, sailors, tobacco workers, Woolworth girls, rug weavers, hotel and restaurant employees, pie bakers, watchmakers, garbage collectors, Western Union messengers, opticians and lumbermen."

By the end of the year, nearly a half-million workers across the U.S. had taken part in a sit-down, and nearly 2 million workers had participated in some form of work stoppage. The militant mass movement of workers transformed U.S. society, winning the organization of basic production industries.

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THE REASON to go back to this history--besides remembering an inspiring working-class rebellion that too few people know about--is because of what it says about the topic of Sanders' speech: the meaning of socialism.

That meaning has been debated for the better part of two centuries by people with very different ideas and visions, but in the words of the American socialist Hal Draper:

Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized "from below" in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history.

It won't surprise any reader of this website if I put the socialism of Bernie Sanders in the "from above" category.

Some of what Sanders says and does is hard to call socialist in any way. Like his praise during the November speech not only for two avowedly pro-capitalist presidents, but for the NATO military alliance that has served as a vehicle for the U.S. and European governments to wage war and pursue imperial interests. Then there's the matter of his promise to support, as he has for many decades, the presidential nominee of a pro-corporate party, whoever it is, against any left-wing independent candidate, even if they identify themselves as a socialist.

But setting that aside, the tradition that Sanders' ideas most closely resembles--the social democracy that flourished in Europe, unlike its pale and distorted reflection in the U.S., during the postwar years of the 20th century--is a prime example of the Socialism-from-Above camp.

If Sanders' campaign message could be boiled down, it's this: Government should be made to work on behalf of the working-class majority of society, not the ruling-class minority.

No doubt there was a certain calculation for Sanders, in a speech appealing to the Democratic Party's liberal base, to associate himself with two of the most revered Democratic leaders of all time, rather than actual socialists. But Sanders' reference points have always been the same government programs of the New Deal and War on Poverty that he cited--not the class struggles in places like Flint that put pressure on the U.S. ruling class to accept these reforms, or face the threat of revolution.

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DOES IT matter that much? Many of Sanders' supporters on the left would agree with all the points of this description, but say that they aren't looking to him to define socialism for them--and that the importance of his campaign lies in his bringing socialist ideas into mainstream politics.

There's truth in that point. For sure, it's a breath of fresh air and a fantastic opportunity for everyone on the left when a major political figure in the national spotlight calls himself a socialist, whatever his limitations. Sanders is energizing millions of people with his advocacy of basic left-wing positions--people who want to see fundamental change and have concluded it won't come from the status quo in either mainstream party.

Earlier this year, in one of the polls asking people their opinions about socialism versus capitalism, Democrats who responded to the survey were evenly split at 43 percent on each side. When the same question was asked of Democrats a few months later--after Sanders' campaign had begun gathering thousands of people at rallies and electrifying a previously dismal primary race--the margin tipped toward socialism by 49 percent to 37 percent. Sanders has everything to do with that shift.

That's clear evidence of a new audience that the left can talk to about socialism. But the opportunity lies not only in being able to have the discussion, but what we say when we have it. We have an opportunity not only to draw a stark contrast between the ugly realities of capitalism in the 21st century and the socialist alternative, but to come to a clearer understanding of what we mean by socialism.

On that point, the question of Socialism-from-Above versus Socialism-from-Below matters very much--because what you mean by socialism is bound up with how you think it will be achieved.

A socialism that could hypothetically be founded on behalf of the working class, by leaders acting in its name, would not be anything like a socialism made by a mass democratic working-class movement through the process of its own struggles.

As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in a different context in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution: "[P]eople who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal."

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KARL MARX and Frederick Engels dealt with this same question when they first developed their ideas in contrast to the prevailing traditions of socialism at the time. They were critical both of the utopian socialists who made plans for a future society, but lacked any way to make them reality--and of radicals who were prepared to take militant action to make their ideas reality, but planned to do so as a conspiratorial minority, acting on behalf of the masses.

Instead, Marx and Engels began to outline a different way of thinking about socialism, focused not on "dogmatically anticipat[ing] the world," as Marx wrote, but of "finding the new world" in what existed in the old--especially in the struggles against the old.

At this time, the struggle for economic equality was still in its infancy, and the central political question was achieving elementary democratic rights and personal liberty. Marx and Engels were intimately connected to these struggles during the 1840s.

Over time, they also came into greater contact with the movements of the emerging working class, which became the focus of their practical activities in later years. All this was a recognition that the future socialist society would be made not according to a blueprint drawn up in advance by theorists or political leaders, but it would be formed and shaped through the struggle itself.

That's why we're used to socialism being associated with mass revolutionary movements like Russia in 1917 or with epic workers' struggles like the Flint sit-down strike. Marx and Engels made this the central slogan of the socialist movement they tried to build: "[T]he emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

That's a long way from Sanders' references to Roosevelt and LBJ. Then again, we're a long way from even a single tide-changing victory like the Flint sit-down strike, much less a whole sit-down movement sweeping the country.

The popularity of Sanders' campaign, whatever criticisms we have of him, is evidence of widespread anger at class inequality and injustice at a time when the organizations of workers and the oppressed are weak and the confidence to struggle is low.

We start from where we are. But at the same time, no socialist will want to lose sight of the bigger picture. We need a new socialist movement to go beyond election campaigns and the defense of existing reforms and root itself in communities and workplaces in every corner of society--becoming a mass grassroots movement that belongs to the working-class majority.