You've got to meet the real socialists

Barack Obama's advice to people who call him a socialist is that they should meet some real ones. Danny Katch, author of America's Got Democracy! makes the introductions.

New York socialists marching for justice for Trayvon Martin (Matt Swagler | SW)New York socialists marching for justice for Trayvon Martin (Matt Swagler | SW)

SPEECHES THAT go down in history do so for different reasons.

Mario Savio's call to students to throw themselves on the "gears of the machine" during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 conjures the best of the moral outrage of that era. Sojourner Truth's biting question "Ain't I a woman?" conveys the impossible position that Black women still hold at the intersection of two different forms of oppression. The somber beauty of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the loving vision of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech are still capable of inspiring--if you forget all the crap you learned about them in school and listen to their revolutionary determination.

Then there are the remarks from Barack Obama on November 19, 2013.

It wasn't a grand speech. Rather, it was a chummy discussion between the president of the United States and a gathering of business leaders at an event called the "Wall Street Journal CEO Council." But when future historians search for a way to summarize the Obama years, they'd do well to ignore his more poetic speeches that have so little to do with the man's actual actions, and focus instead on these words:

When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans--we're fighting inside the 40-yard lines...

People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you've got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You'll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I'm talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.

It was a touching ruling class moment. At a time of bitter partisan warfare in Congress and frequent mudslinging by business executives, a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president and realize that they really aren't so different after all. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties--that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.

Note that Obama's laugh line was the phrase "real socialist." The suits laughed because the phrase reminded them that such a thing as genuinely radical politics--political ideas and politics that extend beyond the 40-yard lines--does exist, even though one rarely encounters it in this country.

I wonder which "real socialist" Obama was thinking of. The late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela? A mild-mannered European social democrat like French President François Hollande? Or could he have been thinking of the International Socialist Organization? I doubt it, but given the man's spying capabilities, you never know.

And what type of socialism did Obama mean? He only referred to what it wasn't--his administration's commitments to lower corporate taxes, preserve private control over the health care system, and keep the stock market booming.

This vagueness speaks volumes. There are very few prominent socialist parties in the world today--and the ones that most people know about, like Hollande's Socialist Party in France, support neoliberal policies that are the exact opposite of "real socialism."

There have been a number of mass protest movements in recent years--from Greece to Spain to Brazil, and even in the shadows of Wall Street itself when the Occupy movement was thriving two years ago. The Middle East has been shaken by revolutions and uprisings.

But the generation leading these rebellions is the first in more than a century to live in a world where the vision of a socialist society isn't looked to by millions of working people around the globe.

Instead, we live in a world where the guests at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council hear the president say "real socialist," and they laugh because they aren't afraid. But history shows they should be.

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THE DAY before Obama's chat with the CEOs, a real socialist named Kshama Sawant gave a speech of her own at a rally of Boeing workers at the aerospace giant's factory in Everett, Wash., near Seattle.

The workers had just taken a heroic and far-sighted stand by rejecting an eight-year contract extension that would have mostly preserved decent wages and benefits for them, but taken them away from new and future hires. In response, Boeing threatened to move production of its latest airline out of the region.

Sawant, who was elected to the Seattle City Council last month, called Boeing's threat "economic terrorism"--because the company is threatening to destroy the state's economy in order to get what it wants. Sawant went on to say that if Boeing tried to leave the state, the workers should take over the factory--and re-tool it in order to revitalize public transportation systems.

Now that, distinguished members of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, is a real socialist.

Socialism isn't just a government takeover of a big corporation, or even a whole branch of industry. Barack Obama did that a few years ago when General Motors was going out of business. All he did was force autoworkers to accept a further lowering of their living standards. GM executives got to continue producing whatever earth-destroying machines they wanted to, until the company was transferred back into private hands.

Socialism is a revolutionary transformation of society, based on two simple but far-reaching concepts:

1) Working people control the state; and

2) The state controls the economy.

Most people are only familiar with this second element, because that's the part emphasized by the two variants of socialism that have predominated for the last 75 years--one-party dictatorships like the former USSR and China today, and Western European reformist socialists. Choosing between these two "alternatives" is as deadly for socialism as the American two-party system has been for democracy.

Up until a couple decades ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, anyone who wanted to meet a "real socialist" was likely to be told that they should support, to at least some degree, something called "actually existing socialism."

What "actually existed," though, were anti-democratic regimes modeled not after the workers state created following the victory of workers and peasants in the 1917 Russian Revolution, but the tyranny that arose after the defeat of revolution and its takeover by Joseph Stalin and his fellow bureaucrats.

These societies were a nightmare fusion of capitalist inequality and state ownership – sort of like what could happen here if Google and the NSA ever decided to merge and take over the rest of the government and the American economy at once.

The main alternative variant of socialism was the social democratic parties, like the French Socialists or Britain's Labour Party. They called themselves socialist, at least on paper, and passed some progressive laws when they won office, but working people were no closer to controlling the state in these countries than Stalinism. And that's even before the transformation of these parties during the current era of neoliberalism into something that can't be distinguished from any other political party devoted to maintaining capitalism.

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THROUGHOUT THIS time, a minority of those who considered themselves socialists maintained a very different vision of the kind of world we were fighting for--sometimes called "socialism from below."

This tradition of socialism emphasized the importance of democracy in order for working people to truly control society collectively. But a much different "democracy" than what we're used to experiencing with the U.S. political system--one much closer to the experience of the mass struggles of working people and the oppressed throughout history.

If you're reading this newspaper, you were probably part of the Occupy Wall Street movement during its heyday two years ago, or at least sympathized with it if you couldn't be active.

Occupy gave thousands of people around the country a taste of grassroots, participatory democracy, where people had the opportunity to engage in discussions that decided different questions for the movement--and to use their talents and creativity to build a vibrant community. Sometimes, the teeming General Assemblies and their debates seemed frustratingly inefficient--but they certainly gave participants a much greater stake in the process than they're used to getting.

Consider the contrast between democracy as defined by Occupy and democracy under the Washington political system--where some voices speak far, far louder than others.

In 2009, the Associated Press obtained Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's phone records and appointment calendar while he was determining the details of the bailout of Wall Street after the financial crash the year before.

What they showed, according to AP, was that the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were among a group of "Wall Street executives who have known Geithner for years...and who can pick up the phone and reach the nation's most powerful economic official...Goldman, Citi and JPMorgan can get Geithner on the phone several times a day if necessary, giving them an unmatched opportunity to influence policy."

We're supposed to influence the direction of the government by voting for candidates we support every two or four years. But if you're the head of one of the country's biggest banks, you can have far more impact on government policy every two or four hours, just by picking up the phone.

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DEMOCRACY UNDER socialism would be much more like Occupy--if the Occupy Wall Street movement were a thousand times larger and led by workers in their workplaces and in their communities.

Occupy Health Care would be nurses, technicians and other medical staff, doctors and patients taking over hospitals and clinics, and deciding how they should be run. Occupy Our Food would bring together farmers with slaughterhouse and factory workers and representatives of society more broadly, including people concerned about environmental effects and animal rights--all to debate out a safe, sustainable, ethnical and enjoyable system for feeding ourselves.

As for Occupy Boeing--well, Kshama Sawant already explained what that could look like.

Is she being realistic? Not in the here and now, of course--as I'm sure she knows. Sawant's point is to get us to question the limits imposed on us by capitalism, in the interest of protecting and promoting the profits of a company like Boeing.

What makes her plan unrealistic isn't that it can't be done. During the Second World War, for example, many auto factories were converted--under orders from the federal government--into factories for making military vehicles and supplies. What's unrealistic is for the government to take over a factory for the mere reason that society would be better off it was run differently.

The government under the present system isn't about to do any such thing. So our plan for Occupy Boeing is going to have to be accomplished by another force that has the power to do so--the workers of Boeing.

They would have to break the law to do it, of course--and that's unrealistic in the here and now for different reasons. Even if a majority of union members were convinced--in spite of all the propaganda drilled into them from a young age that they aren't "qualified"--that they should run the factory, they won't feel confident, especially after decades of defeats for the labor movement, that they can organize and sustain a direct violation of the laws protecting private property.

Of course, ordinary people have their property violated all the time. Workers lose pensions or retirement savings they've spent a lifetime building up at the stroke of a judge's pen or a drop in the Dow Jones. Tribal lands are violated so energy companies can build another oil pipeline. Women's control over their own bodies is repossessed under anti-abortion laws.

Make no mistake: public ownership and workers' control over the economy is crucial to any kind of fundamental change.

So many of the crises we face today stem from the fact that a relatively small number of people are making decisions that impact the entire world based on their own narrow interests. The prioritization of private gain over the public good is why we eat food made from chemicals and petroleum, instead of organic; why we struggle to afford housing and health care; why we spend way too little time with our friends and family.

The mythology of capitalism is that public ownership deprives us of our individuality, but that's obviously not the case with aspects of our society that are already run by the state. Nobody feels like it's fascism when they only have one choice of a fire department to call when their home is on fire. Nobody is pining for a free market of sewer systems so they can switch to a different brand.

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MOST PEOPLE accept the system of private ownership most of the time, but there are moments when the destructive absurdity of the situation becomes obvious.

Go back to the moment when the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in the fall of 2008, and all the world's financial institutions were suddenly caught short--they had no idea how much of the pretend money they gambled back and forth each day was actually backed up by real money.

The covers of The Economist magazine, normally famous for their droll wit, projected sheer panic: The headline "What Next?" by an image of a whirlpool; then "World on the Edge" written next to the silhouette of a man looking over a cliff. It must have taken all the stiff upper lip the Economist editors could manage not to run the cover headline "Crapping Our Pants."

For a few months that fall, people well outside the radical left were asking each other a normally unspoken question: "What do these billionaire bankers who have destroyed the economy actually do that's of any use to society?" Just as during Occupy, people who never seriously considered socialism as an alternative were inspired by a movement that gave a new and vital meaning to the word "democracy."

Of course, the problem is that society never changes because of just one protest or one movement. Struggles go up and go down, while the desperate need to change the world remains. The question of how to build a socialist movement capable of bridging the gaps between the high points of struggle is a long and complicated one. To recognize just one factor, there needs to be an organization of socialists dedicated to learning the lessons of past struggles and preparing the ground for future ones.

In the times between those moments of mass mobilization and a clear challenge to the status quo--between the 2008 financial crash and the high points of Occupy and today, as between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-57 and the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960 and the March on Washington in 1963, to name a few examples--the prospects for changing the world can seem dim and shadowy. We sink into the routines and habits of everyday life, such as it is. As the great writer James Baldwin put it:

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free--he has set himself free--for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

Those higher dreams and greater privileges are alien to Barack Obama and to the corporate executives who chortled at his attempt at "humor." The dream of a better world, organized around sharing the privileges of freedom and real democracy and liberation for all, belongs to the struggle for socialism.

Real socialism, that is.