The case for a socialist alternative

December 19, 2008

In a world of war, oppression and economic crisis, the need for fundamental change has never seemed more urgent. Todd Chretien examines the choices we have to make a new future.

THE CURRENT economic crisis has debunked the fiction that there is some sort of iron wall between politics and economics.

For decades, the partisans of the free market fought to liberate their system from the "meddling" of governments and bureaucrats. But when the blue chips were down, Wall Street and its friends in Washington dropped their anti-government ideal like a hot potato. Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson led the charge by demanding the power to disburse $700 billion in taxpayers' money to try to manage the disaster.

This about-face destroyed the last vestiges of the consensus in favor of an unfettered free market among large sections of the business and political elite. No less than ex-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan--once called "the maestro" by his adoring fans for his supposed genius in orchestrating the economy--admitted in October that he had found a "flaw" in his ultra-libertarian, free-market faith that had led to the housing bubble and subsequent crash.

The case for a socialist alternative

To top it all off, the Big Three American auto companies are now in a downward spiral, and are warning that they may have to file bankruptcy if the government doesn't bail them out, like it did the banks.

Barack Obama is, according to the New York Times, "looking to the New Deal" for inspiration to guide his plan to stimulate the economy and create 2.5 million jobs during his first term.

This has led to the recognition that the "economy" is just as "political" as gay marriage. That is, there is no "invisible hand" that manages the economy, while voters and politicians decide "social issues" like abortion, environmental protection, health care and education.

Nor is there any sort of abstract "national interest" that governs American military interventions in isolation from domestic politics. All of it is political, and it is all related.

Fortunately, Obama's election represents a renewed interest in politics at an important time. The question is: What political ideas and strategies are available, and which ones should you adopt?

What else to read

For an introduction to socialism and the socialist tradition, read The Case for Socialism, by Socialist Worker editor Alan Maass.

For a recounting of the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S., read Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States.

Lance Selfa's The Democrats: A Critical History examines the two-party system in the U.S. and focuses on a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party.

Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism provides a lively and accessible account of the ideas of Karl Marx, using historical and contemporary examples.

The best introduction to Marxism remains The Communist Manifesto, written 160 years ago by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.

I think there are four basic varieties to choose from: 1) The Right; 2) Liberalism from Above; 3) Liberalism from Below; and 4) Revolutionary Change and Socialism. Of course, this is a simplified description, but the point is to insist on the need to think through the ideas that guide your political actions.

The Right

While I doubt many readers would consider this option, it's important to understand it. After all, The Right has dominated American politics since 1980.

It did so partially by mobilizing an extremely racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist base--the so-called Christian Right. However, this base's power was always overblown and, in the end, rested on its utility to the dominant sections of the ruling class, which used it to bring the Republicans to power in order to smash the unions, tear up the social safety net and re-arm the Pentagon. In short, the Christian Right was the battering ram for Wall Street.

One early indication that this relationship of convenience was ending was the decisive support from the wealthiest Americans that Obama received during the election compared to John McCain. Without its agnostic patrons at the top, the Christian Right has been reduced to shouting "Kill him!" at McCain rallies, and is stuck with Sarah Palin as its champion.

The splintering of this coalition, which the post-election sniping between Palin and McCain illustrated, has rendered both weaker for the time being. However, that doesn't mean it will give up. In fact, the far-right "kill him" faction, though marginalized, may well grow more aggressive in the years to come. But The Right is down for now, and it should be kept down wherever it shows its bigoted face.

Liberalism from Above

Barack Obama's election as president signals the rebirth of official liberalism in American politics. This is a welcome development, but it is important to understand exactly what this means.

Liberalism from Above is not a marginal "deviation" in American history. In fact, it has often dominated for long periods.

For instance, from Teddy Roosevelt's election in 1900 to the end of Woodrow Wilson's second term in 1920, the U.S. government, or at least powerful factions within it, championed breaking up capitalist monopolies, legislation prohibiting child labor, the expansion of public education, environmental conservation and woman's suffrage.

After the right led the Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression of the 1930s, the second Roosevelt, FDR, ruled from 1932 to 1945, ushering in the New Deal.

Official liberalism didn't adopt socialism in these eras, as right-wingers like to claim. Rather, capitalism in the later decades of the 1800s and the 1920s had gotten so crisis-prone and unbalanced that the "free market" required the very visible hand of government to straighten out its affairs and restore profitability.

The aim was not to overturn the system, but defend it. As FDR put it, "I'm the best friend the profit system ever had."

In order to legislate the anti-trust laws or the New Deal, Liberalism from Above needed to overcome resistance within the ruling class, which meant appealing to the working class on a limited and temporary basis in order to make the necessary adjustments. Thus, Teddy Roosevelt's opposition to child labor and FDR's initial tolerance for union organizing and his support for Social Security.

However, there were strict limits on what Liberalism from Above was willing to deliver. During this entire period, Jim Crow reigned supreme in the South, and the official liberals refused to pass anti-lynching laws. Most importantly, the New Deal didn't end the Depression. The Second World War did.

Organizationally, Liberalism from Above is first and foremost concerned with winning Congress and the presidency. Primarily, it relies on big money to do this. But sometimes, it must also "call out the troops," especially come election time, in order to defeat powerful opponents. Thus, FDR relied on the unions to get out the vote, and Obama, despite the millions he raised, had to organize a gigantic volunteer operation to defeat first Hillary Clinton and then John McCain.

This is a tremendously important fact. The millions of union members and college students and ordinary people who worked on the Obama campaign were not optional extras. They made the difference between victory and defeat, and they should be proud of their efforts.

Obama, especially early in the primaries, appealed to the idea of building a "movement," and referenced the labor and civil rights movements as models for his campaign organization. The fact that he won using this imagery and rhetoric shows the hunger for action against poverty, racism and war.

Now, the question is: What will Obama want done with this massive volunteer organization? Where will he lead it? The most likely scenario is that he will want it kept alive to help the Democrats win the midterm elections and himself a second term in 2012. But he won't want to allow it any independent life of its own.

Certainly, many people will be happy to settle for this. "After all," they will say, "if all Obama needs is a volunteer operation to win elections, and then he can carry out positive reforms on our behalf, doesn't that make sense?"

This seems like a reasonable idea. But it is important to keep in mind the limits of what his predecessors were willing to do.

In fact, there is a darker side to liberalism from above. Both Roosevelts and Wilson advocated and employed military power to transform America into the greatest imperialist empire the world has even known. Under the banner of "civilizing" colonial people or "protecting American interests," liberalism from above has never shied away from "wielding a big stick."

Today, Obama's decision to keep Bush's Defense Secretary William Gates on board and to appoint Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State--not to mention his promise to conduct a "surge" into Afghanistan--all indicate he intends to stand squarely in this tradition.

Liberalism from Below

Liberalism in America has always been double-sided. Liberalism from Below has a powerful history in the U.S., including some moderate sections of the anti-slavery movement and the suffragettes, much of the labor union and civil rights leadership, and, most recently, both the Vietnam and Iraq antiwar movements.

Liberalism from Below has often developed a powerful critique of Liberalism from Above. Time and time again, the conflict between activists on the ground and their supposed champions in high places has led to inspiring political struggles. In the 1930s, union leaders seized on FDR's tepid recognition of the right to organize to launch a wave of strikes, but FDR's supposedly "pro-labor" officials repeatedly sided with the bosses.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" castigated mainstream liberals who argued that civil rights should "wait" until the powers that be felt ready to hand down legislation. King attacked this idea and argued that only mass action would force the politicians' hands. In essence, King had to threaten Liberalism from Above in order to force it to do what it said it would.

In 1964, Students for a Democratic Society adopted the slogan "Half the Way with LBJ," based on his promise not to escalate the war in Vietnam. When he did exactly that within weeks of his election, SDS had a choice--either support Liberalism from Above or organize a mass movement to stop it.

Of course, the tension between Liberalism from Above and Liberalism from Below isn't always this obvious. For instance, the AFL-CIO spent tens of millions of dollars and millions more volunteer hours to get Obama elected. And Obama repeatedly and forthrightly promised to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which, if passed, could lead to an explosion of unionization.

If Obama keeps his word, the main enemy will be the Republicans and conservative Democrats and their friends at WalMart, who may try to block it. This could lead to a situation where Obama and the AFL-CIO are on the same side of a crucial fight, at least temporarily.

However, the depth of the economic crisis and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that the scale of reforms necessary to end the suffering go well beyond anything that Obama is prepared to endorse.

For instance, his plan to spend federal money to create (or retain) 2.5 million jobs is a welcome change, but it will fall far short of ending unemployment in the U.S. Today, there are at least 15 million people who are unemployed or can only find a crappy, part-time job when they need full-time work. Reducing this number by 15 percent is a welcome start, but it's hardly a solution.

There is a real potential for a struggle to develop in the coming years in the spaces between what Obama has offered, what his friends on Wall Street are prepared to support and the needs of the vast majority of the American working class.

In short, if Liberalism from Above is the response on the part of one section of the ruling class to the excesses of the system it supports, Liberalism from Below is the fight against the inadequacy of that response. However, politically, it is still a struggle that accepts that capitalism can be fixed--even if it must be done so against the will of some capitalists.

Organizationally, Liberalism from Below has developed union and movement structures that are far more durable and effective than mere electoral machines. The NAACP, the National Organization for Women, the AFL-CIO and so on have all mobilized large numbers of people in pursuit of their important goals.

However, most times, their leaderships have simultaneously accepted the idea that they must place their resources at the disposal of Liberalism from Above at election time. This devotion of resources and energy has often been misplaced and led, not to an increase in their power as social movements, but the opposite.

Revolutionary Change and Socialism

Alongside Liberalism from Below, a more radical vision for society has struggled for influence throughout U.S. history.

From the Revolutionary War and the fight for independence, to the Civil War and the struggle to abolish slavery, there were revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Sojourner Truth who understood that Liberalism from Above would only begrudgingly pursue reform.

From the beginning of the 20th century, that revolutionary tradition has been embodied in the socialist movement, which included the IWW, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Black Panther Party and other socialist groups in the 1960s.

Why socialism? Two reasons.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2 billion people around the world live on less than $2 a day, while 6 million children starve to death or die from easily preventable diseases each year. That's another Holocaust, each and every year.

We have the absurd situation of lacking funds to develop sustainable energy technology, while the U.S. spends more than $100 billion a year to kill Iraqis for oil. We have the most advanced medical technology in the world, but 45 million people go without health care insurance.

Those absurdities--in short, the contradiction between the capacity to create and capitalism's inability to distribute to everyone--helped create the movement for socialism, with the aim of taking the power out of the hands of the private mega-rich who use their wealth for personal gain and putting it into the hands of the people who actually do the work.

Socialists believe that, not only do workers have the right to take over the economy and run it democratically, but that if they do not, the capitalists will continue down the path of war and ruin until they destroy the planet.

The other source of the socialist movement came from the experience of the limitations of Liberalism from Below and the question that has emerged time and again: Do you accept the limits imposed on the struggle, or do you go beyond them and question the whole system?

For instance, it was in the struggle to force FDR to keep to his promises that unionists finally decided they needed to organize a series of citywide general strikes in 1934 that set the stage for the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations union federation in 1935 and the mass sit-down strikes that followed.

The liberal union leaderships were afraid to launch these strikes because it would mean confronting the police and embarrassing FDR. It took socialists and communists to say, "If the choice is between FDR's friendship and winning a strike, we say strike."

Martin Luther King Jr. followed a similar path. He helped win the end of legalized Jim Crow, but he recognized that poverty and institutionalized discrimination remained, which led him to say, "You have to ask how people can go thirsty in a world that is two-thirds covered with water."

When you ask that question, it leads you in the direction of the socialist critique of capitalism.

And King had a decision to make about Vietnam. Liberalism from Above insisted that the cause of civil rights would be damaged by taking an antiwar position. In essence, LBJ offered civil rights in exchange for King's support for killing Vietnamese people. King could either accept that offer or move beyond it--which he courageously did in 1967 when he declared that "my government is the primary purveyor of violence" in the world.

What Kind of Organization?

Socialists believe the first step is to gather together the people who share their point of view in a political organization or party. But because the capitalists control the media, and because workers are taught to submit to the boss and "those who know better," at most times, socialist ideas remain on the margins of society. So to be a socialist, you have to be prepared to be in a minority.

In and of itself, that shouldn't scare any serious person looking to change the world. Every powerful movement that ever changed anything began as a minority opinion.

However, there is the danger that the minority can become contented to "know better"--and just be happy to be "right." This is a recipe for arrogance and sectarianism. Like Marx said, "The philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it."

This means that once you've decided you agree with socialist ideas, you have to do something about it. No matter how small, socialist organizations must always seek to put their ideas into practice in whatever real movements are fighting back against the system, be they large or small.

And because Liberalism from Above helps to legitimate Liberalism from Below, that means participating in movements and organizations that are not socialist in outlook. Instead, they seek to win reforms within the system, like stronger unions, abortion rights, an end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigrant rights, gay marriage and so on.

We do this for two reasons. First, getting rid of capitalism will be a long, tough fight, and the only people with enough power to do it are the huge majority of the working class. And the only way they'll learn to take on the whole system is by starting out taking on some more limited aspect of it.

In other words, you can't learn to swim by reading a book. You learn to swim by going in the water--although it's best if you start off in the shallow end.

Second, once people are in motion, they become more receptive to new ideas and strategies. In the Civil War, white Northern soldiers went to war to preserve the Union, but a number ended up fighting for the rights of slaves.

Eugene V. Debs got into politics as a Democrat and ended up running for president as a socialist while in prison for opposing the First World War, on orders of a Democratic administration. Malcolm X started out as an apolitical, small-time criminal; he emerged as one of the world's foremost revolutionaries. Real political action changes people.

Socialists don't stand aside from that struggle, but seek to participate alongside people who hold different ideas.

In that common struggle, there is a battle for ideas. Liberalism from Above constantly seeks to put limits and conditions on the fight. Movement leaders who represent Liberalism from Below argue for their point of view. Often, that point of view is so pervasive that it is seen as "common sense," but it is, in fact, a highly developed ideology. Socialists try to pull in the other direction, towards mass participation, more radical reforms and questioning the whole system.

The coming political period will be very exciting, but also complex. Barack Obama will sometimes push in the right direction, but he has also made it obvious that he intends to defend the pillars of American capitalism and imperialism.

Socialists will join every fight we can to push things in favor of the working class, for gay marriage, abortion rights, legalization for immigrants and an end to the wars. However, we will also argue against accepting the limits placed on the struggle, or rotten political compromises that would, for example, pit African Americans against gays and lesbians, native born against immigrant workers, unemployed against union members. And in the process, we will try to recruit more and more people to a socialist point of view.

You aren't obliged to agree with the socialists. But you do have the responsibility to participate in the effort to change the world, and to study history and politics in order to clarify what you believe to be the best way forward.

If you have faith in Liberalism from Above, then study so that you can explain your ideas and try to win more people over to them. This leads logically to trying to reform or strengthen the Democratic Party as your main task.

If you believe that Liberalism from Below is a more realistic strategy for change, then you'd better learn what really happened in the 1930s, and during civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, in order to avoid a repetition of McCarthyism and Reaganism.

If you're interested in the socialist, revolutionary point of view, then find a way to meet up and discuss ideas with the socialists in person or online, and join alongside us while we organize around the many pressing issues of the day.

Politics is not a spectator sport. Get in the game.

Further Reading

From the archives