Socialism in a new era

March 31, 2009

Alan Maass examines a discussion about the relevance of socialism today taking place at the Nation magazine.

THE S-WORD is back.

You're still most likely to hear it as a term of abuse flung around by Republicans trying to smear a far-from-radical president with the lingering scare effects of McCarthyism. Or, alternatively, from media commentators grasping at the first handy label to attach to government policies that deviate, however slightly, from the neoliberal orthodoxies they preached for so long.

But beyond the fear-mongering and foolishness, a more serious discussion of socialism is reviving, as a consequence of the profound crisis of capitalism.

Several weeks ago, the hardest ticket to find in London was for a conference on "The Idea of Communism," with Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek as the featured speaker. The event was organized not by some small radical group, but the University of London's Birkbeck College. Žižek got a full-page write-up in the Financial Times.

On the left, too, the ideas of socialism are reappearing after years on the margins during the era when conservatism dominated in mainstream politics.


This development is symbolized by the Nation magazine's forum on "Reimagining Socialism. It started with the article "Rising to the Occasion" by veteran activists and writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr. The Nation has since published more than a dozen responses by well-known figures such as Tariq Ali, Mike Davis and Kim Moody. This debate is a welcome one, and bears close reading.

THE COMMON starting point for the contributors is no surprise: The free-market system of capitalism--globalized, deregulated, puffed up by financial bubbles--is suffering its deepest crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. Even the dry statistics of the International Monetary Fund predicting the first contraction in global economic output in 60 years make for frightening reading.

There's no doubt either that this crisis is rooted in the system itself. No one could seriously claim that any of the scapegoats of the past (overpaid union workers, government meddling in the economy, crony capitalism in East Asia) are to blame this time.

This slump started in the U.S., the leader of world capitalism, among its most powerful financial institutions because of their compulsive pursuit of profit. The famous passage from Marx and Engels--"a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells"--reads like it was written last week, with collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in mind.

If there was one reason for hope for many people as the recession began to hit, it was that the Bush regime--responsible not only for the ravages of war, but the Robin-Hood-in-reverse policies at home that helped set the stage for this crisis--was finally being swept from office.

But with each passing week, President Obama and his administration are revealing themselves to be in thrall to many of the old neoliberal dogmas that Bush represented. From a stimulus package overstuffed with tax breaks to the "cash for trash" bailout plan for Wall Street, the sense of continuity in economic policy--even down to the same players, like Tim Geithner, staying on with new job titles--is as strong as the sense of change.

The administration's basic plan seems to be to print money, stuff the banks with it and, as the Financial Times' Martin Wolf put it, "hope for the best." And this is the best that the free market has to offer right now.

The most basic feature of the case for socialism--that capitalism is incapable of providing what's needed for the good of all, or even most, people in society, and that a system organized according to the principles of solidarity, democracy and justice would do better--is urgently relevant in a way it hasn't been for generations. As Ehrenreich and Fletcher write:

[W]e do understand--and this is one of the things that make us "socialists"--that the absence of a plan, or at least some sort of deliberative process for figuring out what to do, is no longer an option...[T]he core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we--not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners--have to control our own destiny.

THE VINDICATION of the socialist critique of the free market won't automatically translate into a renewed movement, of course. Much of the Nation discussion is about what that would look like.

But given the scope of the questions posed by Ehrenreich and Fletcher, many of the contributions that follow, despite their other merits, are disappointing in how low they set the bar for socialism.

For example, Robert Pollin, in his contribution, insists that even nationalization of the financial system would be going too far right now--since "[r]ealistically, such a system will inevitably produce failures and scandals tied to 'crony capitalism.'" (Unlike the privatized mess on Wall Street today?) Instead, Pollin recommends that we "fight for a new financial regulatory regime with primarily private bank ownership as the means of promoting financial stability and channeling credit to priority areas such as affordable housing and the green economy."

Christian Parenti agrees that "'a specter stalks...' but it is not capitalism's revolutionary Götterdämmerung, just the ghost of mild-mannered Eduard Bernstein, father of evolutionary, reform socialism." But it was Bernstein's Social Democratic Party in Germany that cracked apart when many of its leaders supported the First World War--and that later proved to be a reliable administrator of German capitalism.

Then there are the contributors whose expectations for socialism aren't simply lowered, but regressive. Thus, Bill McKibben argues that the ecological crisis presents a more profound challenge than the division of society into rich and poor, and that the solution is a system where we will "need to find our livelihoods more locally, reducing the inherent vulnerabilities that go with a heavily globalized economy. At the moment, less than 1 percent of America works on the farm--that's a number that must rise."

As left-wing economist Doug Henwood answers in response to a similar contention in a contribution from Rebecca Solnit, "It's no model for running a complex industrial society. Such a system couldn't make computers or locomotives, and it probably couldn't feed 6 billion earthlings either. Maybe Solnit wants to give all that up. If so, she should tell us."

At the same time, though, Henwood's own article ends with proposals for high-speed rail, "publicly or cooperatively owned" banks, and "limited-equity co-ops" in housing.

Okay, fine--but is this really all that can be imagined about a reimagined socialism? After all, socialism isn't going to be achieved--or even become a force in U.S. society--without mass mobilization and protest, so we might as well set our sights higher than tinkering with the banking regulatory system.

In short, these contributions don't answer the question posed by Ehrenreich and Fletcher: Do we have a plan? Not our variation on their plan. Our plan.

Part of the problem here is the hollowing out of what socialism means, even to many on the left--rather than a vision of an alternative society based on the vast majority of working-class people becoming "rulers over their own destiny," it's merely about parts of the state, or certain alternative institutions, operating within the framework of the existing free-market system.

This conception of socialism isn't so far from the conservative mantra that government-plus-economy-equals-socialism. Our response should be the same: History shows that state control of the economy is perfectly compatible with capitalism, especially in times of acute crisis.

That doesn't mean that socialists shouldn't support, for example, nationalizing the banks or single-payer health care as measures to organize for under the existing system. But the goal of socialism is more than the sum of such reforms.

Of course, one central reason for the identification of socialism with the state is the legacy of Stalinism in Russia, China and elsewhere, with its tyrannies imposed in the name of the working class--as well as the tradition of social democracy in Europe, where parties calling themselves Socialist or Labor saw no contradiction in presiding over neoliberalism with a human face, and sometimes not even that.

The reimagining of socialism won't get very far if it stops with these models. That's why it's necessary to look back to a tradition where the defining feature of socialism is the "spirit of solidarity," to use Ehrenreich and Fletcher's phrase, and the emancipation of all.

"It goes without saying," Frederick Engels wrote, "that society cannot itself be free unless each individual is free." That's a considerably bigger project for socialists, both in the scope of its goals and in who will carry it out.

Kim Moody, in his contribution to the Nation forum, provides a concise summary of the Marxist view that socialism "is the rule of the working class, whether its members work along an assembly line or in front of a computer screen, and not the rule of the party or state. As Marx argued, this class makes itself 'fit to rule' through its struggles and organizations."

This last emphasis--on struggle and organization--is very important. If socialism means the "self-emancipation of the working class," to quote Marx, then the job of socialists isn't to draw up blueprints of the future socialist society. After all, the shape of that society will be decided by the people who make it. What we can do now is involve ourselves in the struggles of today, where the people who will make that future are gaining the experiences and knowledge to help them do it.

The history of workers' struggle internationally underscores this point. After all, it was the Paris Commune of 1871 that taught Karl Marx what workers' power would look like. Since then, there have been revolutionary uprisings in countries as diverse as Russia in 1917--when workers succeeded in holding power for a few short years before Stalin's counterrevolution--Hungary in 1956, France in 1968 and Iran in 1979, to name only a few.

None of these glimpses of workers' power and socialism survived, but they do show the potential of working-class struggle to radically transform society from below.

In this respect, some of the points made by Ehrenreich and Fletcher and other contributors about existing models of participatory democracy and the like approach the question from the wrong end. The important thing isn't what we have planned out today, but what the struggles of today can show us about the future socialist alternative.

THIS QUESTION--about the political struggles before us right now--doesn't figure as prominently as it should in the Nation forum. And that's unfortunate, because what we've seen, just in the months since the November election, should give the left more confidence.

Starting the night of the election itself, for example, the passage of the Prop 8 gay marriage ban in California sparked a movement that has redefined the fight for equal marriage rights and LGBT liberation generally on a stronger basis. In early December, the occupation of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago electrified the labor movement with its echoes of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Israel's savage onslaught on Gaza stirred a revitalized movement in solidarity with Palestinians.

Go back a few years, and you see the shift in even sharper relief. Three years ago, U.S. society had just been shaken awake to the demands of immigrants to be treated as human beings by the first of the mega-marches in Chicago on March 10, 2006. Today, no one could consider talking about the left and its future without considering the contribution this struggle has already made in reviving traditions of solidarity.

These developments in the U.S. are emerging in the shadow of a longer-standing and deeper radicalization in Latin America, as Tariq Ali points out in his contribution.

And now, to quote Britain's Guardian, "revolt is in the air" in Europe--from the social collapse and mass protests in Iceland that brought to power the first open lesbian head of state; to the mass street demonstrations and campus occupations that paralyzed Greece; to France, where, in the wake of two one-day general strikes, a revolutionary socialist postal worker, Olivier Besancenot, is regarded as one of the most respected political leaders in the country, according to opinion polls.

By comparison, the level of struggle in the U.S. is lower. But the importance of what has taken place here shouldn't be downplayed--including the 2008 election, which marked the repudiation of America's official party of conservatism (in contrast to France and Greece, not to mention Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia, where the center right or worse is still in charge) as well as the historic achievement of an African American becoming president of a country founded on slavery.

Below the surface, too, anger is building at the impact of the recession and the deepening social crisis. Even if it's impossible to say when and where the first sparks will catch, that's a potentially explosive situation.

Which makes Ehrenreich and Fletcher's final point all the more important: an empty sentiment without organization--ways of thinking and working together, and of connecting the social movements that are battling injustice every day...[I]f we are serious about collective survival in the face of our multiple crises, we have to build organizations, including explicitly socialist ones, that can mobilize this talent, develop leadership and advance local struggles.

Some of the potential for left organization to take root and flourish in new forms can be seen in Europe. In Greece, where the days of the conservative government are numbered, a broad radical left is gaining support beyond the center-left PASOK. In France, several socialist and left organizations, including the former Revolutionary Communist League, have come together to form the 10,000-strong New Anti-capitalist Party.

This isn't to say that such formations necessarily should become models to follow in the U.S. And in any event, a new left will take shape not according to prescriptions arrived at beforehand, but out of grassroots struggles as they develop and advance.

But it's certainly easier today to sense the potential for the left to gain ground, even in the face of the difficult challenges--from the effects of globalization on the U.S. working class to the scale of the environmental crisis--referred to by contributors to the Nation forum.

More than anything else, the left would benefit from raising its own expectations about struggle and change. It's one of the ironies of the era that the widespread hopes raised by Barack Obama's presidential campaign are often higher than the sense of confidence among progressives and radicals.

The new discussion about socialism can help raise the sights of those on the left. As Mike Davis, one of the contributors to the Nation forum, said in an interview with Bill Moyers, "To be a socialist in the United States is not to be an orphan, okay? It's really to stand in the shadow [of an] immense history of radicalism and labor, but with a responsibility to ensure its regeneration."

That means starting now with the work of organizing the sentiment for change in concrete expressions of resistance--and reimagining and renewing socialism as a part of the struggles that need fighting in every corner of society.

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