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:: John Strinka has guts

Socialist makes Indiana ballot

By David Hoppe

I don't know John Strinka. We've never met. But this guy's got guts.

Strinka has filed as a Socialist candidate for the Indiana House of Representatives in, of all places, District 39 — a swatch of the northern suburbs that includes parts of Carmel and Fishers. Jerry Torr is the incumbent there. He's an insurance man who voted for what Strinka calls “Right to Work For Less” during the last legislative session.

In a press release, Strinka is touted as the first Socialist candidate in decades to qualify for the Indiana ballot. This is worth thinking about. Indiana, after all, plays a distinguished part in the short and largely forgotten history of socialism in the United States.

Terre Haute was the home of Eugene V. Debs, the labor leader who ran as a Socialist candidate for president five times, between 1900 and 1920, garnering as much as six percent of the popular vote during the race in 1912. Debs was a memorable orator who fought for a society based on the common good instead of individual striving. “I want no advantage over my fellow man,” said Debs, “and if he is weaker than I, all the more it is my duty to help him.”

Debs understood the way capitalists used their power to divide people into competing interests, enriching a few at the expense of many. “Competition was natural enough at one time, but do you think you are competing today?” he asked. “Many of you think you are. Against whom? Against Rockefeller? About as I would if I had a wheelbarrow and competed with the Santa Fe [railroad] from here to Kansas City.” On another occasion, Debs said: “In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.”

Debs was arrested and did time for organizing workers and then for his opposition to America's entry into the First World War. Upon being convicted of violating the Sedition Act he said, “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs said he opposed a social system, “in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Debs was part of a populist rising in response to the vast income inequality and exploitative working conditions associated with Gilded Age capitalism. The labor movement he helped foster improved wages and benefits for industrial workers and was key in the creation of an American middle class.

But Americans are famous for historical amnesia — and capitalists publish our history books. So it wasn't long before Debs' idea of socialism — a social system, as the Republican Abraham Lincoln said, of, by and for the people — was lumped in with what communist dictators were doing to the Soviet Union and consigned to the dustbin of our collective memory. Socialism became a dirty word.

It still is. Today Republicans use it to smear President Barack Obama, whose policies — from reforming health care in favor of big insurance companies, to bailing out Wall St. tycoons — look for all the world like the works of such Cold War Republican presidents as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Socialism is the kind of word people today use to kill debate or, for that matter, thought. We place our faith in the profit motive and call that freedom. This is not to say that socialist policies offer a silver bullet. The current mess in Europe, where socialism has long been part of conventional political discourse, suggests it is no more immune to corruption and ineptitude than any other means of social organization.

But, in a political season when candidates from both parties seem eager to downplay the idea that government is actually us, a public tool meant to serve public needs, socialism's moral argument that if we fail to hang together as a community, our community is bound to fail even the best off among us, deserves to be part of the mix.

“The power of the state can be used to create jobs, provide living wages, and provide healthcare,” says self-proclaimed Socialist John Strinka. “We must simply find the political will to use that power to improve the lives of all our residents.”

If a Socialist getting on the ballot in Indiana seems strange, what's even stranger is that it takes a Socialist like Strinka to stand up for a common sense understanding of government's role. That's why my hat's off to him. In times like these, common sense takes guts.