Socialism’s comeback

May 6, 2009

The return of socialism to the political debate shows the possibility of reviving the mostly hidden but rich tradition of working-class struggle and resistance in this country.

SOCIALISM IS back--in the media, in political debate, and, on May Day, in the streets.

May Day is International Workers Day, a socialist holiday marking the struggle for the eight-hour workday in the U.S. more than a century ago. Since then, it's traditionally been a day of celebrations for the labor movement and the left.

In recent decades, May Day in much of the world has become a kind of ritualized demonstration with little political impact. But this year, it was a day of angry protest in Europe against anti-worker policies carried out by governments amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Paris behind socialist and trade union banners. Greece, too, saw mass protests.

Demonstrations in the U.S. on May 1 were far smaller. Nevertheless, May Day, long ignored in this country, has been re-established on the U.S. political scene thanks to the immigrant rights movement. That's an important achievement, because for decades, May Day was seen through the lens of the Cold War--it was a foreign, "communist" holiday that had nothing to do with U.S. workers.

Demonstrators march on May Day in Paris in a protest that united all the trade union federations
Demonstrators march on May Day in Paris in a protest that united all the trade union federations (Sipa)

In reality, May Day is as American as apple pie. The first May Day protests in 1886 were led by anarchists and socialists in Chicago--four were hanged in the political witch-hunt that followed a bombing in Haymarket Square. So it's entirely appropriate that May Day 2009 once again finds socialism back in the political mix.

A recent Rasmussen opinion poll found that only a bare majority of people in the U.S. say they prefer capitalism as an economic system. Among people under 30, there was an even split between respondents who chose socialism, those who preferred capitalism, and those who weren't sure.

The poll findings highlight a political change that goes well beyond the shift in mainstream U.S. politics symbolized by the Democratic sweep of last November's elections. Indeed, the Rasmussen poll shows the possibility of reviving the mostly hidden but rich tradition of working-class struggle and resistance in this country.

It isn't difficult to understand why socialism has a new appeal. Capitalism, the system that seemed so unchallengeable just a few years ago, is now in its worst crisis since the Great Depression.

Jobs are disappearing, homes are being foreclosed on, working-class living standards are being steadily ground down--and then there's the specter of ecological catastrophe, present in everything from the frightening outbreak of a new strain of swine flu to relentless climate change.

All this confirms the strongest, and yet simplest, argument for socialism--the reality that capitalism is incapable of meeting the needs of the majority of people in society.

THAT'S WHY millions of people in the U.S. are open to the idea that socialism would do a better job. The real question--one that Rasmussen pollsters didn't ask--is: What is socialism?

To Rush Limbaugh and the whackos of the Republican right, the answer is easy--socialism is whatever policy Barack Obama is pursuing.

Those genuinely interested in a socialist alternative, however, will find competing claims on the idea of socialism. In Western Europe, center-left parties that claim to be "socialist" govern with pro-capitalist policies little different from their conservative counterparts. Then there are the few remaining outposts of Stalinist totalitarianism, like North Korea or the corporate-friendly, low-wage haven of China.

The genuine socialist tradition is fundamentally different. At its heart is a commitment to the "self-emancipation of the working class," as Karl Marx put it. That is, socialism must be direct and democratic rule by workers, with production organized to meet human needs, rather than produce profits.

That's why it's absurd that Obama's bailout of Wall Street is called "socialist," even if the governments do end up controlling the banks.

Marx's closest collaborator, Frederick Engels, argued back in the 1890s that state ownership isn't equivalent to socialism. After the conservative German leader Otto von Bismarck "went in for state ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen," Engels complained, "degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all state ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic."

Marx, Engels and the revolutionary socialists who followed them also argued that socialism can't be achieved by voting a socialist party into office. The workers themselves must take the lead in transforming society by exerting their power in the workplace and taking control of production.

That's why socialists can't be satisfied with a critique of capitalism. They have to organize and fight for an alternative, by rooting socialist organization in working-class struggles against the ravages of capitalism.

Eugene Debs, the great American socialist who got nearly a million votes for president in 1912, made this point. "I would not lead you into the promised land if I could," he said, "because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition."

Today, the "present condition" for workers in the U.S. is bad and getting worse. That's why it's so important that the new interest in socialism be connected to every fight for social justice--just as the Haymarket martyrs did in the struggle for the eight-hour day on the first May Day.

By linking today's fights with the long-term struggle for a better world, we can rise to the occasion--and relate the socialist tradition we've inherited to the new realities we face.

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