The socialist revolt that America forgot: A history lesson for Bernie Sanders

In 1978, the Left was fed up with Jimmy Carter and looking for an alternative. If only they had followed through.

Published May 8, 2015 7:20PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders                            (AP/Cliff Owen)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Cliff Owen)

Bernie Sanders is a singular figure in modern U.S. politics, the lone self-identified socialist to serve in Congress, at a time when mainstream American attitudes, if not actively violent towards socialism as they have been in the past, remain nonetheless fundamentally suspicious. As such, his plans to run against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries represent something of an anomaly. What bears mentioning about Sanders' run, however, is that it is not the first time a prominent socialist has considered a bid for the Democratic nomination. To understand the significance of Sanders' candidacy, it's worth flashing back to the summer of 1978, as liberal Democrats were growing increasingly disillusioned with Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Jimmy Carter was never going to be the left's favorite candidate. On the eve of the 1976 elections, Michael Harrington, the leader of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee had called on leftists to vote for Carter “without illusions.” We expected very little and that's exactly what we got.

In his lone term in office, Carter failed to pass a national health insurance program, failed to reform labor laws, and disappointed liberal Democrats on a wide range of issues -- in particular, full employment.

So as the 1980 presidential election drew near, many were hoping that Senator Edward Kennedy would step in, as his brother Robert had done a decade before, and run against a sitting Democratic president. But Kennedy was cautious, despite some polls that showed him with a significant lead over Carter.

At the time, Harrington, a social critic and author of “The Other America” – a book widely credited with convincing President John F. Kennedy that poverty was still an issue in America – was trying to build up an explicitly socialist wing of the Democratic Party. Harrington and his supporters had won over the venerable (and tiny) Socialist Party a decade earlier to the view that if they were serious about politics, it was time to stop running independent candidates. Their argument was a simple one: The Socialist vote had declined from a peak of around a million in the years around World War I to just a couple of thousand by the 1950s. If socialists were ever going to leave their mark on the country, it would have to be done through the Democratic Party.

By 1978, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) was growing in numbers and in influence in the liberal wing of the party, having successfully organized two major national conferences of progressives, called “Democracy 76” and “Democratic Agenda.” The latter was successfully challenging Carter from the Left, and at the Memphis Democratic mid-term convention in 1978, its resolutions were supported by a very large minority of delegates.

DSOC was recruiting new members in places across the country where a young New York radical such as myself would never have expected to find an organized Left, such as in Texas and North Carolina. In just a few months, the DSOC would hold its national convention in a motel outside of Houston.   The hotel's billboard sign proclaimed “Welcome $ocialists.” (They actually did use a dollar sign.) To young and inexperienced activists like myself, it looked like we might be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

The DSOC wanted Kennedy to run against Carter from the Left, but until he made up his mind, the possibility was floated of a Harrington candidacy. To many of us, it seemed the next logical step, once you'd decided to work inside the Democratic Party. At a DSOC National Board meeting in November 1978, its leaders gathered in Philadelphia to discuss whether this was a good idea.

Harrington himself seemed enthusiastic. A brilliant public speaker, he discussed where and how the campaign might be launched. He imagined standing in the rubble of the South Bronx and there proclaiming the need for a new vision for America. (A similar idea was embraced decades later by John Edwards, who announced his 2008 candidacy standing in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans.) We imagined Harrington's announcement, giving the speech of a lifetime, getting press coverage as we'd never gotten before.  It was exhilarating.

But the organization was divided.

Nearly all the younger members were enthusiastic about a Harrington candidacy. They were certain that it would push American politics to the Left. It would force Kennedy to rise to the challenge of taking on Carter.  And the organization itself would grow by leaps and bounds, especially in the early primary states.

I remember one of our activists from Michigan talking about how well the organization had done by running a socialist, Zolton Ferency, as a Democrat for governor. What they had achieved in Michigan, we could achieve in New Hampshire, Iowa and elsewhere. DSOC chapters would emerge in areas of the country that hadn't seen organized socialist politics for a generation or more.

I was there, and I remember the excitement of the moment.  It had been more than four decades since socialists had run a credible campaign for the presidency.  The last time had been Norman Thomas' 1932 race, where he won 885,000 votes -- his best performance ever, though still less than what Eugene V. Debs had been able to achieve.

However, older members of the organization were firmly against a Harrington presidential campaign. I didn't really understand why at the time, but I understand better now: For them, the struggle to make socialism mainstream in America – the only industrial country in the world where “socialism” was a dirty word -- required caution, especially in dealings with the labor unions and the Democratic Party. They felt a Harrington candidacy would make a mockery of our reputation as serious political people committed to working inside the Democratic Party.  It would return us, they feared, to the margins of American political life.

Harrington made it clear that he was not intending to take DSOC into the political wilderness and that he would withdraw his candidacy the moment Kennedy announced. But that weekend in Philadelphia he was persuaded to not take the chance, to keep the organization united, and the idea was dropped. For me and many others, it was hugely disappointing.

Kennedy did, in the end, challenge Carter, but he entered the race too late and Carter won re-nomination. Carter's defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of conservative dominance of national politics that lasted for decades. Less than 11 years later, a still youthful Harrington died of cancer.

Two years later after considering Harrington, DSOC merged with another, smaller organization and re-branded itself as Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). More than three decades on and the organization continues to follow the path Harrington set out for it, trying to influence the Democrats toward the left. To many of us in 1978, it felt like a missed opportunity, and the organization seemed to lose focus.  At least that's how I saw it in 1978. That's why the possibility of a Sanders candidacy, even if doomed to defeat, is so invigorating.

As Irving Howe, one of DSOC's most important thinkers and writers, once put it, the question really is whether great historical movements ever get a second chance.

A Bernie Sanders challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 could well be that second chance.

Eric Lee is the editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

By Eric Lee


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1980 Election Bernie Sanders Jimmy Carter Michael Harrington Socialism