5 American Heroes Who Were Socialists

Barack Obama? He’s a socialist. Elizabeth Warren? Yep, a socialist too.

The derision implied in the tone of this common accusation leveled against progressives on the American left proves one salient point: That to be labeled a socialist in American politics is, indeed, a bad thing. It is a single word meant to strike fear in the hearts of Americans and immediately discredit the person against whom the attack is made.

There are seldom any facts to back up such a claim. Instead the word socialist has become a single word, tailor-made for thought-stopping political argument.

Whether Obama or Warren are actually socialists can be debated. Neither would claim that they are. That could be simply because they are not or do not consider themselves as such. It could also be because they know that to acknowledge such a thing would mean nearly, instant political death.

The mere mention of the word in conjunction with a politician’s means that the politician will have to deny the claim.

This happened recently to Warren on CBS’ Face the Nation.

What should be questioned, though, is just how socialism became such a bad word in American politics. Although it is seldom taught in public schools, socialism has a rich history in the United States.

Its heyday was back at the turn of the 20th century, but it remained strong right through the 1960s. Even today, small pockets of socialism exist and a few local politicians manage to get elected, running as socialists, in various municipalities across the country.

But what remains most astonishing is that the word carries such a negative connotation, especially considering that many American heroes had close ties to socialism.

Of course the grueling decades of the Cold War had something to do with this. As public school students we do get to hear stories of the Red Scare. Still, it doesn’t seem implausible a distinction could be drawn between communism and a movement that was dedicated to equality and the rights of workers. A good teacher, surely, could pull that off.

But few ever do. No, mere mention of socialism and socialist tradition is all but erased from American history lessons in public schools.

In an effort to make good on that claim, here is a list of five prominent American historical figures that public school teachers rarely bother to mention were also socialists.

5 Jack London

Few make it out of school without reading White Fang and Call of the Wild. Some high school students are even exposed to Jack London’s darker works like the short story To Build a Fire. But it is seldom mentioned by teachers that London was actually a very active socialist.

Given his devotion to the cause of workers’ rights and class struggle, it seems unfair that such an omission be made. It can be regarded as just as unfair that the study of London’s works is confined to two books that are widely regarded as children’s stories and a handful of short stories. Apart from being a great author and story teller, the man was also an accomplished journalist.

From positions with several newspapers, he worked to advance the cause against capitalism at the turn of the last century. His first work on the subject hit the San Francisco Examiner in 1895, when he was only 20. It was titled “What Socialism is.” In 1896 he joined the Socialist Labor Party, and a year later published an article in an Oakland paper urging readers to study the works of Karl Marx.

He was close friends with Eugene V. Debs — another under-studied American socialist — and was even admired by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, long after London himself had died .

Some may attempt to make something of the fact that London left the Socialist Party in 1916, the year he died. But he did so not because of a growing disillusionment with the cause. Rather, he did it because of the party’s “lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis on the class struggle.”

Socialism was very much central to London’s life, which is a fact that should be taught to students.

4 Upton Sinclair

Another author public school students are unable to escape is Upton Sinclair. Most are required to read his 1906 book The Jungle.

The book is remembered mostly for its portrayal of the grotesque production of food in Chicago’s stockyards. Instruction on the book’s history seldom fails to mention that The Jungle sparked a huge public outcry about food safety and stories of disgusting byproducts being canned and sold to consumers as food. Students are always reminded that Sinclair’s most well known book was instrumental in bringing about the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

The problem is that the scenes regarding the actual production of food are but a small portion of the book. The story is really the story of immigrants trying to make it in Chicago at the turn of the century. The family battles homelessness. Women of the family suffer rape and unwanted pregnancies. All while they work long, grueling days in miserable conditions for pay that can’t support them.

Sinclair himself lamented following the public reaction to the book and the subsequent food safety laws that, “I aimed for their hearts, and hit their stomachs.”

But The Jungle is not Sinclair’s only socialist credential. He continued writing, even though The Jungle missed it’s intended mark. Much of his writing attacked capitalist thought, including his book in 1919 titled The Brass Check, which he called “the most important and most dangerous book I have ever written.” It was a critique on the contradiction of for-profit newspapers and the so-called free press.

In the 1920s he helped form the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and ran unsuccessfully for governor of the state in 1926 as a member of the Socialist Party of America.

It is true that Sinclair, at various times in his life, would abandon socialist political parties and support decidedly non-socialist positions. But the complexity of the man’s life should be studied right along with the rest of him. That many of his positions were widely held socialist positions cannot be disputed and should be at least mentioned to students.

3 Helen Keller

Helen Keller is remembered by most public school students as an example of perseverance and the ability of humans to overcome insurmountable odds. Either that or she is remembered as the subject of terrible school yard jokes.

But as James Loewen reminds readers in his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me Helen Keller is also an example of the American teacher’s tendency to practice what he calls “hero-making.”

That Keller overcame blindness and deafness cannot be denied. Her successes following that triumph are rightly celebrated. But white-washed from her entire story, as told to American school children, is the fact that Keller was an ardent socialist.

Keller joined the Socialist Party in 1909 and by 1912 she had become a national voice for worker solidarity. She sided with the extreme left of the party in 1916 by supporting the Industrial Workers of the World and denouncing Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the First World War.

An introduction to an online collection of her writings concludes with the following:

“Her legacy in the larger hearing world today is one of the saccharine sweet triumph of the individual over personal adversity (with the help of a determined educator-hero). Gone is her call for international working-class solidarity and her clear revolutionary vision. Hopefully, this small archive will go some way to recapturing her socialist legacy for the Deaf, Deaf/Blind and hearing workers of the world.”

2 Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein became an American citizen in 1940. Although born in Germany, Einstein, a Jew,  never returned to the country after Hitler came to power in 1933.

Given that he is mostly studied for his contributions to physics it can, perhaps, be forgiven that his politics and his socialism are seldom mentioned in public schools. But Einstein was also a humanitarian and a philosopher. Apart from the 300 scholarly scientific works he published, he also wrote roughly 150 non-scientific works including one, published in 1949, titled “Why Socialism” in which he wrote:

“Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society.”

He was a Labor/Socialist Zionist, which meant he supported the creation of the state of Israel. He was even offered the second presidency of the country after President Chaim Weizmann died in 1952.

He was a member of NAACP, and the FBI kept a close watch on him because of various allegiances and ties to Zionism and socialism.

1 Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated for his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement by every public school in United States. While it may be conceivable that an American student could slip through high school without exposure to Upton Sinclair, it is unthinkable that any American doesn’t know the name Martin Luther King.

And rightly so. A powerful orator, King quickly became the face of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

But in another instance of Loewen's “hero-making,” King’s less popular political positions are seldom mentioned to students.

King was a vocal critic of capitalism, a strident opponent of the Vietnam War, and an advocate of government-guaranteed jobs for all. That he was a socialist is beyond doubt.

After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, King realized that second phase of the struggle for equality had begun just as quickly as the first had ended. That fight, he predicted, would be just as difficult.

He told his staff in 1966:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums.You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”

He also understood that the coming struggle would have to place an emphasis on equality — economic equality — for all.

He wrote in 1967 that the “Negroes' problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.”

The day he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, King was in Memphis. He travelled there to support the right of the city’s sanitation workers to strike for union recognition. In other words, he died supporting the struggle he believed could bring about that economic justice.

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