Learning from history: democratic socialism in Maine

By Robert Wasserstrom | Aug 01, 2019

Debates about the future of democratic socialism have a long history in the Midcoast. By the late 19th century, Knox County had become “the nursery of reform movements in Maine,” according to labor historian Charles Scrontras. In 1891, Norman Wallace Lermond, a former railway clerk and farmer in Warren, founded the state’s Populist Party to prevent “the fruits of the toil of millions” from being “boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” In 1895, the national Socialist Labor Party organized a chapter in Rockland and soon spread to other areas. In 1900, it became the Socialist Party of Maine, campaigning for “a new and better system of wealth production…”

What would that system look like and how would it be achieved? Nearly 120 years later, democratic socialists in Maine and elsewhere are asking the same questions. Their vision echoes the old SPM platform: “Socialists are trying to achieve the most difficult thing humans have ever attempted,” one activist recently explained, “the conscious transformation from one social order to another, carried out by, and in the interests of, the majority of society.”

But how? Can they “borrow the Democratic Party,” as someone put it, by running candidates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or do they need a labor party of their own, a clear contrast to Tweedle Dee Democrats and Tweedle Dum Republicans? Or should they build a powerful, independent new political force that can drive basic change from outside current political arrangements?

Each of these views has its advocates. Many of them agree with Maria Svart, national director of Democratic Socialists of America, who champions working inside the Democratic Party. “When we win, we grow; and when we grow, we win,” she writes. “Elections are also real fights in the class war, battles that we need to win because they have real consequences.” Running as Democrats builds political momentum and “makes socialist ideas possible” for young people, who can then work for fundamental change.

But working within the existing system also brings the danger of being co-opted, of settling for crumbs from the capitalist table. Reordering our society, many activists argue, will require more than winning elections. It needs a strong and independent working-class movement operating outside of the two-party system.

In Maine, all of these alternatives were tried in the early 1900s. But despite years of organizing, no mass movement emerged. Only a small fraction of workers became Socialists. Electoral success eluded them, too. By 1906, after eight years of campaigning as a labor party, “the Socialists could claim only one election victory”: a school board member in Lubec.

None of this happened by accident, of course. Around the country, Big Money counter-attacked wherever capitalism was threatened. Lockouts, bribery, voter suppression and outright violence crushed independent unions. In 1919, the Palmer Raids – orchestrated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer – targeted labor activists and foreign-born dissidents. Jim Crow-like racism spread to northern cities and industrial centers, undermining any real, broad-based coalition. By the 1960s, when I was in high school, the American version of capitalism – a lightly regulated corporatist state – had become "the natural order of things." We were taught not to imagine anything else.

All that set the stage for the Great Leap Backward. Beginning in the 1970s, economic mobility in the U.S. slowed to a crawl; labor laws were gutted and our social fabric was ripped to shreds. Big Money ramped up its relentless – and largely successful – campaign to repeal anything limiting its power. Panicked Democratic leaders bolted for the middle of the road, only to find nothing there but “a yellow stripe and dead armadillos,” as Texas progressive Jim Hightower famously said.

Apparently, leading Democrats have gotten used to dead armadillos. “Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently declared as he unveiled a “moderate” plan to recapture America. Good to know. What is it?

And this is where today’s Democratic Socialists may find their best opportunity. We need to provide real alternatives for real people: jobs, housing, wages, health care, racism. We need to work with everyone who shares our desire for a just and equitable country.

Remember, in one form or another, capitalism has dominated Western society for nearly 500 years. It won’t go away overnight. It will fight back. It will lie, cheat and steal, as it has always done. But it will change, because the alternative has become truly unimaginable. Who will decide what comes next?

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.