Like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Prof. Eric Foner of Columbia University styles himself a democratic socialist. Unlike Sanders, who unselfconsciously suggests that Americans could learn about democratic socialism, and learn not to fear it, from European examples, Foner argues that American democratic socialists should look to American traditions for examples and inspiration. In an article that went online shortly after the first debate of the 2016 Democratic presidential contenders, but has only just seen print in the November 16 Nation, Foner chides Sanders, in a more-or-less friendly fashion, for making democratic socialism sound like some foreign import. During the debate, when asked how a self-described socialist could win an American presidential election, Sanders said he would point to "countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway" as examples of democratic socialism in action, showing Americans "what they have accomplished for their working people" Foner agrees that "we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa)," but argues that basing a campaign on that premise will get Sanders nowhere, since "most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia." Instead, Foner advises, Sanders should "talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values"
Who are these radical forebears? Starting with Thomas Paine, Foner runs through a pantheon of abolitionists, populists and progressives expansive enough to cover Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Going through the list, Sanders might ask whether any of Foner's heroes actually were socialists. Foner's answer seems to be that it all depends on how you define socialism. There seems to be a movement, if not a competition, afoot to redefine socialism. A few weeks ago we had David Brooks -- a Republican! -- attempting an anodyne redefinition of socialism as putting "society" at the heart of politics, or something to that effect. More audaciously, Foner argues that socialism has already been redefined for all American intents and purposes. "[T]he term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society," he writes, "but to the
need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to
empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and
to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of
Americans for whom it is not." Still more audaciously, Foner suggests that this isn't even a redefinition. "This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs," he claims, "Debs emphasized [that] socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic
one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and
opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political
power, can produce far-reaching change." Foner implies that no particular change matters as much as that there is change; any incremental improvement short of socialism as the concept was understood for generations will do so long as capitalism is "reined in," and to the extent that capitalism is reined in, the people are empowered, if not to the extent Debs actually envisioned. At a minimum, as long as plutocrats can lose an election, the people are empowered and capitalism is reined in. No further blueprint is needed.
Foner doesn't really let Debs speak for himself. Writing in 1904, Debs compared the agenda of his Socialist party to that of the trade union movement: "[W]hile the union is limited to bettering conditions under the wage system, the party is organized to conquer the political power of the nation, wipe out the wage system, and make the workers themselves the masters of the earth." The goal of democratic socialism, understood to mean socialism dedicated to achieving power through elections rather than by violent revolution or coup d'etat, is "to conquer the capitalist forces on the political battlefield; and having control of the machinery of government, use it to transfer the industries from the capitalists to the workers, from the parasites to the people." As one of the most honored American historians and holder of one of the most prestigious faculty chairs, Foner certainly knows what Debs stood for, even if Debs's heyday comes a generation or two after Foner's field of study. But for Sanders' instruction Foner argues that "It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans." I'm not sure the program and the moral fervor are as easily separated as Foner claims. I'm more certain that if neither Foner nor Sanders can endorse Debs's agenda, neither has any business calling himself a socialist, whatever adjective they modify it with and whatever moral fervor they retain. Each might object to that verdict, but if they did I'd have to wonder why. Wouldn't it make life easier for both of them? As it is, I wonder why they want to call themselves socialists? Do they know something about the American people that I don't? Do they see an opportunity for personal advancement that I don't? Since I don't see a grass-roots hankering for socialism of any sort for them to exploit, I have to suppose that for reasons of personal history they need to kid themselves, even if they're hardly kidding anyone else.