“American Democratic Socialism” by Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien’s expansive, brilliant— and at points, punchy — new book, American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory, comes at a pivotal time for the left and for our country. Just two summers ago, we witnessed some of the largest racial justice protests this country has ever seen. Christian nationalism and its role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results continues to dominate the news. In 2020 Bernie Sanders led the most successful bid for a party’s presidential nomination as a democratic socialist since Eugene Debs in 1912; and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to mutate, causing long-term havoc with ever-growing human and economic costs, while reproductive justice rights are on the line

Dorrien’s book helps us ask urgent questions about the political left’s current direction, such as who are its leading figures, for both good and ill? Some, like noted political theorist Nancy Fraser, are decrying the historical amnesia they find in today’s progressive and leftist movements so that questions like this fall on deaf ears. Dorrien suggests that to better understand today we need to begin with our history — we need to examine the stories we tell about ourselves and our movements. In hearing the stories of the past, we realize we’ve been here before and that the lessons from past struggles are for the taking — if we have the stomach. 

For example, the story of Max Shactman, once an associate of the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky who became a neoconservative hardliner, is just one of the threads Dorrien weaves. Shachtman and his followers birthed the neoconservative movement after they took over the Socialist Party of America in the late 1950s. Stories like that of Shachtman and his followers, called the Shachtmanites, are important not only for their political legacy but also for what it allows us to perceive today. One Shachtmanite, Michael Harrington, didn’t follow Shachtman’s hard swing to the right. The birth of neo-conservativism is a complex tale, but part of the story has to do with the fact that the Shachtmanites bemoaned the rise of “cultural politics” and the New Left, and they felt the SP was soft on communism. Harrington could see the writing on the wall and in 1973, he pinned his old colleagues and friends as “neoconservatives.” Harrington went on to found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA is today’s largest democratic socialist organization, with membership numbers above 100,000. Dorrien reminds us that movements are convoluted and meandering, almost never linear.

When others have told the story of democratic socialism in the U.S., religious socialists have largely been overlooked. Dorrien pays attention to the religious organizations and figures who formed and shaped democratic socialism. He gives due attention to this magazine and its founder, Rabbi Michael Lerner, attending to Learner’s role in founding New Left organizations and pushing the Democratic Party to the left, all the while President Bill Clinton worked to ensconce it in neoliberalism. 

Eight colossal figures tell the story of the rise of democratic socialism in the United States: Eugene V. Debs, Kate O’Hare, Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, A Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Michael Harrington, and each are featured largely in Dorrien’s book. But Dorrien highlights each figure’s unique complexities rather than simple composite sketches and gives due diligence to the organizations they founded and their crucial choice points, while holding space for each figure’s complexity.

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The relationship between Christianity and Socialism from the late 19th century up to today is a dramatic and diverse one. Dorrien began his career with writing books about democratic socialism, neoconservatism, and the social gospel. In an equally encyclopedic fashion, Dorrien then approached this story in his history of American liberal theology. He flirted with it again as he told the birth of social ethics, an academic field that changed how Christian theologians and public figures engaged with the public. A broad academic field, social ethics gave birth to three schools: the social gospel, Christian realism, and liberation theology. It was the social gospelers who first argued that social structures should be transformed in the direction of social justice, but the Christian socialists were a minority flank of the social gospel school and imagined a particular strategy of this transformation, which Dorrien highlights in his history of American democratic socialism. Most recently, as Dorrien tells the story of the Black Social Gospel, he covers similar figures and institutions. But until this book, the second of his two-volume series on the history of European and American democratic socialism, he has never taken the plunge in the U.S. American story, exploring the rich and provocative lives of those figures who made democratic socialism American. 

At the turn of the 20th century, social gospelers made arguments for and against explicitly joining socialist organizations. Many of these organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, the Social Democracy of America, the Christian Socialist Fellowship, or even the Socialist Party of America (SP), for example, had such meteoric rises and catastrophic falls that in the end official membership mattered little in comparison to what one said, practiced, or preached. Christian pastors, academics, activists, and organizers were at the heart of the socialist movement. The Christian socialist message then, and still today, is a deep and abiding commitment to economic democracy; but not only to economic democracy. This point leads to one of my favorite lines of Dorrien’s book: that socialism is not enough. At the turn of the 20th century, Democratic socialists needed to get serious about racial justice, gender justice, and reproductive justice. Those fights are still being carried out today. 

Dorrien’s book is an intellectual history, covering figures and tracing out their arguments articulated in their books, essays, sermons, or speeches. Throughout, it’s clear that religious socialists disagreed on class warfare language, Marxist philosophy, the labor theory of value, and nationalization of industries, to mention just a few points of dispute; but nearly all championed socialism and economic democracy as the way to end capitalist domination of workers and prizing profit over people. They disagreed on how closely socialism was tied to craft unions and specifically the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — some splitting off to help form the scrappy, militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their one big union. But after watching the federal government step in to crush strike after strike and side with corporate management, even the most stouthearted of socialist politicians recognized electoral politics wasn’t enough: unions and labor were key to winning democratic socialism. This is still true today and exemplified in the Democrat Socialists of America’s 2016 policy platform. Issues of immigration, gender, and race were consistent points of conflict all the way back at the 1908 and 1912 annual conventions of the SP and in the broader movement. Today, this argument reverberates through disagreements over recognition vs. redistribution led by Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, and Iris Marion Young, and Dorrien explicates their positions deftly. 

Nearly all Christian socialists and social gospelers were theological liberals, successfully bringing the socialist message to middle-class churches. Theological liberalism itself was radicalized and transformed by its relationships to the social gospel where some radicals struggled mightily to push it beyond middle-class Victorian white supremacy and imperialism. For those who frequented socialist circles, socialism and socialist platforms offered the surest way to bring democracy, liberty, equality, and freedom to all humankind. The coming socialist transformation would only be possible by bringing democracy to industry — and to some, the two were indistinguishable. 

But at the turn of the 20th century, Christians were both attracted to and repelled by the socialist label because of its ethical demand for economic democracy, which for some was frightening, but for others not enough. Christians used that internal conflict in their own organizing. During and after World War I, when the SP purged itself of its radical left-wing, those figures leading the loosely held Christian socialist movement feared what the label “socialist” could do to one’s professional and social standing. The same could be said today. In the first half of the twentieth century, the federal government ran roughshod over socialists by breaking up their strikes and investigating their organizations, feeding a culture of hysteria and red-baiting. Jim Crow capitalism entrenched itself in the South and the North, while radical white supremacist groups grew in numbers and struck out against feminist, pro-immigration, racial justice, and anti-war movements. In the long wake of the failure of Reconstruction, capitalist investors and boosters tore down forests and feasted on the land in the New Cotton South through tenant farming and sharecropping, while poor white and black farmers languished under plantation capitalism. Some Christians fighting for economic democracy outwardly identified as socialist, others never officially joined a party organization or instead donned older political identities like that of “producerism,” and still others operated covertly, while often claiming that they could bring more non-socialists to socialism by remaining unaffiliated and instead work in churches. 

Christians organized themselves to fight for economic, racial, gender, and social justice in, alongside, and apart from official Socialist parties. Radical organizing wasn’t beholden to specific political or industrial movements like the SP or union organizing, especially for African Americans, who were so often explicitly excluded from such settings (only the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World explicitly organized across the color line in the early 20th century). Black churches nurtured and fed the Black radical tradition and New Abolitionist movement and eventually led to the birth of the Civil Rights and Black Freedom movements. Black churches in the late 19th century were one of the few institutional and financial supports for Black farms and Black schools. Churches were resources for mutual aid, for education, and were one of the earliest and most important spaces of cooperative economics. This tradition is a deep well of ethical commitment to economic democracy and the neo-abolitionist fight against capitalism’s racial and heteropatriarchal formation. 

While Christian socialists were a minority of the white and Black social gospel movements they were the crucial stream. Many of their insights are shared today in various fields of liberation theology; especially the preferential option for the poor, the solidarity among the oppressed, and the attention to the interlocking nature of capitalism’s oppressive reality. Many white Christian socialists in the early 20th century were horrible in taking a stance on race and gender issues, while their Black counterparts made radical critiques of capitalism that are seldom heard today in progressive theological circles. This tradition, led by theologians, pastors, church leaders, organizers, and activists, goes to the roots of the social gospel message.

Over the course of the 1990s and the turn of the 21st century, democratic socialism migrated to the academy, where debates on the left centered on market socialism, post-modernism, recognition vs. redistribution, and the turn to culture and language. Dorrien’s story has a long wind-up to our current state of affairs, illuminating that change doesn’t come quickly and it’s the slow and arduous process that typically yields lasting results. His story starts with an industrial trade union that was founded in 1869 as a radical Catholic secret society, the Knights of Labor, whose organizers rebuffed race and gender lines. The story of democratic socialism today needs to start here. Without it we miss the reality that the deep and abiding spirit of American democratic socialism has always had a religious well-spring.

Recently, Harold Meyerson noted that Dorrien’s book is a history of the socialist idea rather than a history of the Socialist Party of America. Getting the socialist idea right matters — and appreciating the ethical commitment that some academics held to it despite stormy waters helps us better understand the period of democratic socialism that has existed for basically my entire life. I was born in 1987, two years before a “fallow period” of socialism began and lasted until Sanders’ 2016 campaign. It was during that period when the socialist idea mainly migrated to the academy and cultural left academics like Nancy Fraser, Cornel West, and bell hooks changed the subject, as Dorrien puts it. These pages, Meyerson unflatteringly tells us, introduce readers “into the miasmic gobbledygook of academic theory,” and Dorrien’s preferred approach of market socialism. I found this an odd — if a bit funny — way of putting it, because this “gobbledygook” is what pulled me into the left in the first place. I’ve spent a good deal of time organizing, too: building relational power with Muslim communities in the south; organizing with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas. So, it’s not that I don’t appreciate power-building. But insofar as organizers and those who study it eschew theology or theory, they doom themselves to repeat the same mistakes (don’t let the Shachtamites into your group, for example; they’ll just take it over and crush any ideological opposition).

Getting the socialist idea right is important for two additional reasons. For religious communities, it’s a time when Christianity is often associated with the Jan. 6, 2021 attacks by Christian nationalists on the U.S. Capitol. Many wonders if religion can be part of the solution. Dorrien’s tour of market socialism not only addresses some of the largest policy potentials for cooperative economics and democratic socialism in Europe and the U.S. in the last 30 years; it also presents a theological opportunity for churches to reimagine how they “do” church. The cooperative economic movement is the contemporary of the Social Gospel’s cooperative commonwealth — put theologically, the cooperative commonwealth is a vision of society where God invites us into covenantal relationships that are economically, politically, and morally significant and enhance our agency as producers and co-constructors of the world with God. Efforts that center the cooperative movement have a long history in organizations that prize the socialist idea and today they are again arising. To not address this is to overlook one of the areas where real economic power is currently being built in communities across the country.

The second reason is a familiar one to readers of Tikkun. For too long those on the left have failed to recognize the self-inflicted pain they wreck on themselves through their anti-religious stance and their failure to appreciate what Rabbi Lerner identified as the psychological pain of capitalism. A major part of what keeps capitalism going is that it convinces people that we live in a meritocracy — the idea that one has to earn one’s worth pervades our very sense of selfhood. The economy is moralized: if you’re not economically successful, you’re morally at fault. Once you buy into the notion of a capitalist economy based on meritocracy, it leads to self-blaming, which mediates and reduces the feeling that people have a right to challenge the system as a whole. There are few places where this false-meritocracy is more embedded than the academy and so the socialist idea is needed there as much as anywhere. The modern university is run by adjuncts and contingent instructors often without unions for its staff and students. For too long, socialists have not been able to address this psychological aspect of capitalism. For West and hooks, this is what socialism is about — and Dorrien shows that by telling their stories; their stories of struggle and commitment to the socialist idea and its practical application in the world, that we understand not only the idea of democratic socialism but how it is practiced. The two should not be separated.

What do democratic socialists lose by not joining Dorrien in his religious socialism? This question has been a persistent one for the political and religious left. Many religious socialists have felt and continue to feel overlooked or looked down upon in the movements; religious faith and commitment can often be perceived as irrational or soft in a world of power politics. Yet for Christian democratic socialists like myself, Christian love and the prophetic call to social justice provide moral fervor, vision, courage, and helps us claim our political birthright. I believe democratic socialism would be weaker without its religious participants. This is in part because religion is the stuff of sacred value — people organized to protect and fight for what they hold most dear. Christian love, that ethical ideal and practical reality, feeds a spiritual fire that throws me into the fight, keeps me there, connects me to others, and pushes me through ideological infighting of the “what-comes-first” sort to a deeper ground of solidarity, while inspiring visions of what we can and need to be together. We are in a time of global transformation and disintegration — ecological and economic collapse is happening all around us. The left needs people who have a deeper faith, and a deeper spiritual and ethical commitment to sustain us. Without it, our political imaginations remain wedded to the ways of this world. Religious socialists work for democratic socialism not to just improve this world, but to repair it, transform it, and redeem it — not for heaven’s sake, but for our own. Christian democratic socialism teaches me how to be a better human and how to engage in the very creaturely project of politics. Dorrien’s story is one of the traditions that define my Christian commitments and it’s a legacy we desperately need to pass down.

I first met Gary Dorrien in 2010 when he came to speak at Ghost Ranch, a conference center an hour north of Santa Fe, N.M., most well known for its association with the artist Georgia O’Keefe. It was not a large crowd — about 15 of us showed up. But Dorrien spoke electrically about the social gospel and the hopes of economic democracy in the era of President Barack Obama. In nearly every one of Dorrien’s books, he notes how a certain figure exhausted themselves on the lecture trail, speaking hundreds of times yearly, nationally and internationally, in church basements or in large arenas all the while holding a pulpit position or lecturing in seminary classrooms. Dorrien speaks from experience. He has spent the last forty years stumping for economic democracy as a Christian, which has pulled him deep into the struggle for racial, gender, and climate justice, always with other religious socialists. Now, in American Democratic Socialism Dorrien gifts readers with a study of democratic socialism in the U.S., paying special attention to the role of religious socialists in the movement’s politics, theory, and institutional life. The book is a labor of love, a gift to our moment.

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