And now for the sixty-four thousand dollar question: What historical figure has been identified with socialism for the last century and a half? Yes, that’s right. Karl Marx! Bonus question: What has been the ideology of the movement for socialism in nearly the entire period? Right, again. Marxism!
You would never know this from reading the contributions in the current issue of the most popular, most influential publication on the US left, The Nation. In an issue headlined Reinventing Capitalism/Reimagining Socialism, The Nation editors call on “self-identified socialists” to discuss the prospects of socialism in the wake of a sinking world capitalist economy. To hedge their bets, the editors include an article by Joseph Stiglitz posing a strategy for saving capitalism from itself. I suppose we should applaud the magazine for raising a prospect that has long been absent from the pages of this journal that goes back almost to the founding of the First Workers’ International. Certainly, The Nation devoted much more attention to socialism in its first hundred years than they have in the last fifteen years – the era of capitalist triumphalism.
In the five articles featured in the March 23, 2009 issue, there are only two mentions of Marxism, including this derisive comment: “And we all know the joke about the Marxist economist who successfully predicted eleven out of the last three recessions.” Yes, I know that economist, too. But his or her confidence that capitalism periodically stumbles from its own internal logic strikes me as far more insightful than the correspondents who were caught completely unawares by the dimensions of the economic upheaval. So they dust-off their old socialist credentials and proffer musings on the prospects of socialism sans Marx – they re-imagine socialism.
The lead article by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. (Rising to the Occasion) is meant to “kick off a spirited dialogue”. One can imagine the Parisian Communards, Lenin, Mao, Fidel, or Hugo sitting in the rubble, in exile, on the Long March, in the Sierra Maestra, or in jail shouting: “Hey comrades, let’s kick off a spirited dialogue on socialism!” But, then, they were not twenty-first century US liberals.
Make no mistake about it; Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. are good folks. Their dedication and service to democratic reforms and defense of the rights of working people is unmatched among progressives. But they ain’t socialists. They see no revolutionary potential in the current moment: “There was supposed to be a revolution, remember?” They can find nothing worthy of revolutionary expropriation: “In recent years, capitalism has become increasingly and almost mystically abstract” (What could “mystically abstract” possibly mean?).
Their vision is darkly pessimistic: “Can we see our way out of this and into a just, democratic…future? Let’s just put it right out on the table: we don’t.” If this were my view, I’d ask for a re-deal.
Instead of a vision of workers power, social ownership of the key economic sectors and an end to exploitation, Fletcher and Ehrenreich opt for “participatory democracy” and “solidarity” – two ideas that would draw approval across the political spectrum from soft liberals to raging anarchists. It would seem that after over two hundred years of suffering the whip of capitalism, the best answers the left can supply were inherited from the French Revolution.
Another contributor, Immanuel Wallerstein, postures a similar negative view. In the short run, Wallerstein advocates pressure on Obama and similar centrist or reform-minded politicians – a sane position, but hardly a step towards socialism. In the longer run, Wallerstein opines that “[s]ince no one really knows, practically from day to day, where the [economic] indicators will shift, no one can sensibly plan anything.” Again, it would be hard to imagine these words coming from the mouths of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Fidel, or Hugo.
“What can we do?” Wallerstein asks. “[W]e must be clear what the battle is about. It is the battle between the spirit of Davos… and the spirit of Porto Alegre. No lesser evil here. It’s one or the other.”
In the end, the left is advised to promote “intellectual clarity”, “experiment with all kinds of new structures…” and “encourage sober optimism”. I suppose these less than ambitious goals flow from the spirituality of Porto Alegre.
Writing from the perspective of environmentalism and climate change, Bill McKibben confesses he’s “not much of a socialist.” And he’s right. His legitimate environmental concerns lead him to claim that the moment for socialism has past since socialism dealt with the problem of growth. “The fuel for free-market fundamentalism and Marxism was fossil fuel, and we’re not going to have it.”, he adds. While I credit his argument for its absolute simplicity, I don’t think Marx or any of his followers ever claimed that the road to socialism was paved with fossil fuels. Nor does changing the consuming habits of people or lowering their growth expectations preclude putting an end to labor exploitation.
McKibben’s contribution shows not even a hint of class awareness. The people of McKibben’s world all seem to be solidly middle-class albeit infected with “hyper-individualism” and a lack of respect for “common good”. There is no mention here of the role of trans-national corporations in corrupting the environment or accelerating climate change. Rather, he scolds us all for our intemperance. I guess if you can’t recognize capitalism, you will surely see no need for socialism.
For Rebecca Solnit, the revolution has already begun! But, unfortunately it has little or nothing to do with socialism. In place of public ownership, universal social securities, effort-determined compensation, and a democratic workplace, Solnit gives us “gardens”, “child-care-coops”, “bicycle lanes”, and “farmers’ markets”. How revolutionary! Like McKibben, she lives in a world without massive unemployment, debt, inadequate or no health insurance, poverty, or insecurity – the world of the self-satisfied burgher. One wonders if she has offered this revolutionary program to unemployed autoworkers or Bolivian peasants. Surely they need bicycle lanes, too.
Dismissively, she cites the Sandinista revolution as the “last of its kind”. Like so many romantic – decidedly middle class – leftists, she shows a smug affinity for the Zapatistas, who remain a toothless icon of media-friendly opposition. Apparently, she has yet to hear of the revolutionary changes in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, all of which aim for a socialist future.
Tariq Ali has. His contribution shows much respect for the question posed by The Nation editors as well as a measured historical perspective on the neo-liberal triumph and its current collapse. For Ali, the model that fills the void may well be the “radical social democracy that seeks to combine state, socialized, cooperative, small-scale private and individual enterprises” which he finds in the South American countries cited above. While Ali’s admiration (and defense) of the South American model is commendable, he is dismissive of the labor movement’s role in securing change. Instead, he opts for the Hispanic community as the agent for change in the US. But here he shares the thread of utopian detachment that runs through all of the contributions. There is little more than shared ethnic heritage that links our-Spanish speaking brothers and sisters with the inspiring example of Venezuela, Bolivia, etc. They are yet to be organized for effective progressive action, not to mention Chavez-inspired “twenty-first century socialism.” Besides, these South American movements would have made little progress towards their goals without the support of working people, peasants and many of their organizations. In the world of Saint Thomas More, God, fortuity, and reason will bring Utopia, but in our world, we will only get Jerusalem by organizing the unemployed and the unorganized, while bringing a commitment to socialism to the previously organized labor movement.
I confess to both anger and disappointment with The Nation initiative. Since the dawn of capitalism in its industrial incarnation, it has left thousands, then millions living on the edge, marginalized by its profit-churning logic that enriches its agents with unimaginable wealth. This is not or should not be news to anyone on the left. The persistent crises of capitalism – some “moderate”, some deep and profound – have devastated communities and families. Sure, capitalism has changed dramatically and resiliently, but whether it is dark, satanic mills or work cubicles or fast food restaurants, employees suffer the indignities and exploitation of the capitalist work place as well as the injustices of capitalist practices. These truths remain constant.
No doubt these truths strike different people, different strata, and different classes in different ways. A manual laborer in an Asian sweatshop, an autoworker in Detroit, and an academic or public intellectual may well feel the effects of capitalism in different ways, but all are capable of understanding the need for a system that provides decency, justice, and the absence of exploitation.
Since the dawn of industrial capitalism, the one solution that promises a complete and final break from capitalism is socialism. While there have been passionate debates over the contours of a socialist society, most advocates have offered homage to the pioneering work of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and their adherents. Their legacy sustained and energized the movements for socialism, almost without exception. So why is it absent from The Nation’s discussion? With an economic crisis that offers opportunity unseen in most of our lifetimes, an opportunity to seize the initiative against a wounded capitalism, we deserve more than pessimism and bike lanes.