Socialism revisited

Below is my presentation to a panel at the Left Forum in April 2005. The panel, entitled ‘Imaginings of Socialism,’ was moderated by the late Manning Marable and included Robin Kelley, Amiri Baraka, and Michael Albert.  I have edited it slightly for clarity.

Thank you Manning. I appreciate the opportunity to participate on this panel with you, Robin, Amiri, and Michael. I have admired scholarship, poetry, and activism of each of you from afar.

For a movement to gain power and create a new society – and that’s what we are all about in the end – political imagination as well as historical memory are vital at every turn. For many progressives and left minded people, however, given our nation’s present political conjuncture, this may not seem like a propitious moment for dreaming and imagining.

After all, for the past twenty-five years, we have been on our heels with barely a moment to clear our heads before the next body blow by our powerful class foes.

In such circumstances, the natural reaction is to duck, to assume a defensive posture, to shutdown our imaginations. But this is a mistake and I will tell you why.

In the course of consolidating its economic and political positions, a hyper aggressive U.S. imperialism brings in its train new and powerful oppositional forces, many of which – and not only the young anti-globalists – are beginning to think on a system level of analysis.

Admittedly, they don’t yet embrace socialism, but they do imagine a society without the hardships, oppressions, worries, instabilities, and unseemly profiteering that are structured into present day capitalism. They envision a future that would bring material security and a sense of community. They yearn for a new birth of freedom. They hunger for a joyous life. They want a little heaven on this earth.

This structure of feeling doesn’t, all at once, translate into a mass constituency for socialism. But our response can’t be to declaim ‘the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.’ Nor to endlessly bemoan the weaknesses of the left. We can’t squirrel ourselves away in left forms either that are detached from the main organizations of the working class and people and tone deaf to the actual dynamics of class and democratic struggles.

Instead, our task is to join with millions to defend and expand democracy, while at the same time sharing a vision of a different world that qualitatively enlarges the boundaries and transforms the meaning of freedom.

Socialism and Values

Our vision has to be informed by a set of normative values — some of the most important are social solidarity, equality, democracy, respect for difference, individual liberty, sustainability, and internationalism.

These values should be more than declarative and ornamental. Indeed, they should practically shape the essence and trajectory of socialist society. They should condition the means as much as the ends of socialist development.

There was a tendency in the communist movement, however, to see these values instrumentally. That is, in the name of fighting the class enemy and building socialism, socialist norms, morality, and legality became too easily expendable. And in doing so, socialism conceded its humanism and moral authority, which once lost, is difficult to regain.

I like to think we have learned some lessons in this regard.

Who are the Actors in the Transition to Socialism?

Essential to our political imagination is a vision of the class and social forces that have to be assembled to win political power and begin the process of socialist construction.

At the center of this assemblage is the multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, multi-generational working class. And to this I couple the communities of the nationally and racially oppressed, women, and youth. Together these social forces are – what I call – the ‘core constituencies’ of a broader people’s coalition insofar as their participation in this coalition is a strategic (power) requirement at every stage of struggle, including the socialist stage. Remove any one of them from the mix and the prospects for winning are not simply dimmed, but doomed.

Around this core are gathered other diverse social movements whose interests and issues of struggle ally them with these core constituencies.

While I resist the idea that the working class on its own can bring its class opponents to its knees, I don’t minimize its strategic social power nor its leadership capacity.

No Direct Path

There is no direct or smooth path to socialism or a ‘Great Revolutionary Day’ on which the economy breaks down, the workers revolt and seize power, the state, economy and civil society are smashed and remade from top to bottom in one fell swoop, and socialism springs up full grown, like Minerva from the head of Zeus.

You may be thinking that this is a caricature, but such ideas have always had some currency in the communist and left movement.

The other vision of the revolutionary process, which makes more sense, is that the struggle for socialism goes through different phases during which the configuration of contending class and social forces changes, requiring, in turn, new strategic policies and demands to match the new alignment of forces and new level of mass political consciousness.

Periods of advance will yield to periods of retreat and vice versa. Shifting alliances will form and reform with each side struggling to turn provisional allies into stable ones and gain the initiative. Electoral and legislative forms of struggles will figure prominently, while cmbining with various forms of extra-parliamentary mass action. And control over the branches of government and state apparatus will occupy the attention of competing forces and blocs. Much depends on a meltdown in the structures of coercion and paralysis, if not divisions, within ruling circles.

Even when political ruptures occur, they will be neither complete nor irreversible. In fact, on the day after the transfer of power, socio-economic life will probably look much the like it did the day before.

Revolutions then are not single events or a single act, but rather a series of events and processes stretching out over time, anchored in the mass participation of tens of millions and the skillful leadership of a party or coalition of parties that enjoy the confidence of those millions.

Revolutions aren’t imitative either. They offer some regularities, but only in the most general sense. Yes, political power has to migrate from the hands of one class into the hands of another,  economic transformations have to occur, and a revolution in values is absolutely necessary too. But all of this and more can happen in variety of ways.

At one time I held the view that the movement would narrow as socialism came into view. But I am of the opposite opinion now. Its constituency has to grow in breadth and depth. It has to be a mass social upheaval of all the discontented. Some will bring with them backward notions. Many will be newcomers to politics.

In other words, the struggle for socialism is not just a project of the left; it has to be a project of millions, a project whose mass character deepens, deepens again and deepens still again at every stage in the process. Without such a character, socialism will remain in our imagination.

Nationally specific path

In seeking forms of transition to socialism, we should be unabashed proponents of our own nationally specific path. We should study the experiences of other countries for sure, but the search for a universal path to socialism is a fool’s errand.

Each country has find its own particular way. For example, our path to socialism must include an unyielding commitment to expanding democracy as well as finishing the unfinished democratic tasks that we will inherit, beginning with the eradication of racism in all of its forms. Any, even the slightest, devaluing of democracy and equality in their many forms will keep the socialist movement on the political periphery.

We also have to expect that multiple parties and movements will lead the millions who are no longer ‘willing to live in the old way.’ In such a coalition, parties and movements will cooperate as well as compete over a range of issues and for mass influence, but the accent should be on cooperation and unity.

Obviously, a movement for socialism should seek a peaceful path, especially in this era. The American people should be allowed the be the final arbiter of the socio-economic character of their country. Of course, our ruling class has its own agenda. Thus, the best guarantee of a peaceful transition is an aroused, mobilized, united, and determined people.

The left has to heed the wishes of the electorate too, including the possibility of being removed from office by a majority of voters.

Conventional  view

The conventional view of the communist movement was that after the revolutionary forces won political power, the period of consolidation would be relatively brief and new forms of popular power would emerge to replace hopelessly corrupted political institutions.

We also assumed that the state would extend its reach into new areas of social, cultural, and civic life, including control over the mass media. Another assumption was that centralized planning would replace the market as the mechanism to regulate economic activity.

Finally, we were of the opinion that socialist state property would be dominant and eventually become the singular form of economic ownership.

Revisit and revise

These assumptions have to be revisited and revised in view of experience and new theoretical insights. I would like to briefly turn to these questions.

To begin with, I don’t think that the people of our country will agree to dismantle the political structures that currently exist. Nor do I think that they will jettison the Bill of Rights or the Constitution or a system of checks and balances on concentrated political power.

More likely, they will extend, deepen and modify them based on the unfulfilled promises of our democracy, new democratic desires, and the needs of socialist construction. At the same time, I suspect – and historical experience would strongly suggest – that new popular institutions will emerge in this process.

Today millions of people feel alienated from our government. Nearly one-half of the people don’t vote. Many people see government as disconnected from their day-to-day life, even an obstacle to their aspirations. Overcoming this sense of alienation constitute a major challenge to socialism’s development and future. Part of the solution to this conundrum lies in a robust civil society. Part rests on the devolution of power and resources to the local level. And it also turns on the shortening of the work week, thereby allowing working people to become activists and leaders in and beyond the workplace.

Federal power would have a role to be sure, but I also think that we have to keep in mind that such power is distant and beyond the reach of the very masses of people who are supposed to be authors and architects of this new society.

As for the economy, the main issue is not whether we would employ market mechanisms, but rather the issue is to what extent and for how long? In the past, there was a tendency to think market relations would disappear almost overnight. I’m unconvinced that that’s an accurate reading of the classical literature or a lesson that we should draw from the experience of socialist construction in the 20th century.

Mixed economy

I would expect that the economy would be a mixed one, combining different forms of socialist and cooperative property as well as space, within clear limits, for private enterprise. And while market mechanisms would operate, they wouldn’t take the place of democratic regulation and planning.

I would also envision a universal guaranteed income and the decommodification of some sectors of the economy like health care, food and nutrition, education, child and elder care, and so forth. In other words, the costs of the reproduction of labor power would be socialized as much as possible.

The federal budget would be overhauled and its priorities radically changed. The economy would be de-militarized and restructured. A social fund would be established to compensate for racial oppression, gender discrimination and other injustices. The narrowing of economic equalities would be a paramount goal of a socialist society.

One of the most complex tasks of a socialist society will be achieving a sustainable economy. It will, according to Marxist economists and ecologists, require major changes in our production methods and consumption patterns.

It is hard to imagine how this challenge, not to mention challenges like overcoming racial and gender inequality, demilitarization, urban and rural revitalization, and so forth, can be successfully tackled without planning. Market mechanisms can play a useful role in economic coordination as I said, but the redirection of the economy along fundamentally new lines requires a planning process at every level.

A final challenge on the morrow of the revolution is to re-imagine our nation’s role on a global level. Without going into detail, we will immediately remove our uniform of global cop and exploiter and take our place along side other members of the world community and demand no special privileges. There is much to love about our country, but the image of a city on a shining hill and arrogantly wielding its sword does the American people as well as the world’s people enormous harm.

In fact, if the city shines at all, it is in no small measure because our imperialism, often with the use of military force, has structured international relations between the capitalist core and its periphery so that astronomical wealth at one pole is combined with unspeakable deprivation and immiseration at the other. Eight million people die each year because of poverty and ten million from AIDS. Hundreds of millions of human beings are living in slums on nearly every continent. This has to change for all of humanity’s sake, but it won’t until we rethink and restructure our relationships with the global community.

Day after the revolution

I have confined myself to the day after the revolution, but extending the time frame a bit further into the future brings additional images and possibilities. Homelessness and joblessness would be eradicated. Toxic dumps would be cleaned up and replaced with gardens and playgrounds.

Our skies would be blue and pollution free. Our neighborhoods would become places of rest, leisure, culture, and green space. The whole panoply of oppressions that scare our people and nation would be on the wane. Human sexuality and sexual orientation would be enjoyed and celebrated. The audiences at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall would look as diverse as the people of this city.

The prisons systems would be emptied and the borders demilitarized and opened. Women would be regularly receiving Nobel prizes in the sciences. The Pentagon would be padlocked and the swords of war would be turned into plowshares and we would study war no more. Rinally, the full development of each would be the condition for the full development of all.

Juvenile and divisive

In a debate over the nature and contours of imperialism between the Marxists John Smith and David Harvey, Smith makes this concluding point,

“Harvey defends his call for a “benevolent imperialism” on the grounds that “it would have been better for the left to support a Keynesian alternative.” But there was, and is, no Keynesian alternative; this is nothing else than a social-democratic fantasy, just as was Kautsky’s dream, shared by Harvey, of an end to inter-imperialist rivalries. And as Lenin explained, social democracy is a nothing else than a euphemism for social imperialism.”

Set aside whether there is something that might lift up the fortunes of the majority between our current economic predicament and socialist revolution, I strongly believe that Smith’s claim that Harvey is a “social imperialist” out of bounds. Actually, it’s juvenile and divisive, closing off mutual discussion and joint action on the left.

Moreover, if experience is a reliable guide, such a method of discussing differences on the left didn’t serve well either Lenin or the parties that embraced Leninism or the working class and socialist movement generally in the 20th century. In Stalin’s hands, in fact, it turned millions into “enemies of the people. And you know where that led.

Needless to say, we should turn the page on that method of interaction on the left. At a moment when the struggle for unity is paramount and no one has an exclusive franchise on the best way of comprehending and changing the contemporary world, the expelling of those on the left with whom we differ from our circles strikes me as a non-starter. Or, to put it more bluntly, boneheaded.

Stray thoughts in a dangerous world

1. The editors of the NYT rightfully condemn Trump and Netanyahu for yesterday’s calamitous events that resulted in the loss of so many Palestinian lives and the injury of so many more. The power of the editorial, however, loses some of its potency in the final two paragraphs. It reads:

“Israel has every right to defend its borders, including the boundary with Gaza. But officials are unconvincing when they argue that only live ammunition — rather than tear gas, water cannons and other nonlethal measures — can protect Israel from being overrun.

Led too long by men who were corrupt or violent or both, the Palestinians have failed and failed again to make their own best efforts toward peace. Even now, Gazans are undermining their own cause by resorting to violence, rather than keeping their protests strictly peaceful.”

This strikes me as gratuitous, an attempt to protect its flank from attacks from the right. But is that really necessary? Doesn’t it take away from its main message? Is equivalence of the two sides a reality or an invention that conceals the preponderance of power on the Israeli side and the steady expansion of the Israeli state at the expense of Palestinian lands and rights? And shouldn’t the violence of the bully be distinguished from the person or people on the receiving end who resist.

The Times’ editors would have served themselves and their readers better had they repeated their condemnation of Trump and Netanyahu, both of whom wrongly operate on the assumption that political power grows out of the barrel of of a gun and can erase the national aspirations of an oppressed people as well as insisted on the urgency of a just settlement of the long delayed and just statehood claims of the Palestinians. There is, after all, no other road to mutual peace and security in that part of the world.

2. In an oped in the NY Times, David Brooks writes,

“There is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.

“The first piece of evidence” Brooks goes on, “is North Korea. When Trump was trading crude, back-alley swipes with ‘Little Rocket Man,’ Kim Jong-un, about whose nuclear button was bigger, it sounded as if we were heading for a nuclear holocaust led by a pair of overgrown prepubescents.”

“In fact,” Brooks continues, “Trump’s bellicosity seems to have worked. It’s impossible to know how things will pan out, but the situation with North Korea today is a lot better than it was six months ago. Hostages are being released, talks are being held. There seems to be a chance for progress unfelt in years.”

This claim is mistaken and dangerous. It is mistaken insofar as it fails to account for the role of China, the thawing of relations between the two Koreas, the new political landscape in South Korea, and, not least, the undeniable fact that North Korea has been left behind by its modernizing neighbors in East Asia in nudging Kim Jong-un to discuss de-nuclearization, mutual security, and a new era of relations between the North and South. People forget that East Asia has been the most dynamic center of capital accumulation, economic growth, and social modernization in the world over the past three decades. To think that the North Korean elite wants a piece of the action wouldn’t be an outlandish assumption.

It is dangerous insofar as it suggests, even if in a slightly qualified way, that Trump’s saber-rattling and muscle flexing are the best means of settling disputes not only on the Korean Peninsula, but in other trouble spots in the world as well. And Brooks does so without so much as considering, for even a moment, the potential negative consequences of such a posture.

What happens if Trump’s bullying doesn’t achieve its expected results. Is Brooks ready to support Trump when he moves from words to weapons, from threats to regime change? Or decides to engulf the world in flames? Or teaches “Rocket Man and other thugs” a harsh lesson?

If Trump understands the mind of a thug, as Brooks says, there is a simple reason for this — Trump himself is a thug and, for that matter, the most dangerous one in the world today. But this inexplicably goes unmentioned by Brooks. Instead, Brooks tells us that Trump’s “bellicosity’ is making the world a safer place.

Really? In what alternate universe does Brooks live?

Perhaps I should be surprised by Brooks’ take on Trump, but that would be a lie. Many consider him a “public intellectual,” but he has done little to earn that title in my view. His commentary is filled with empty abstractions and pious moralizing. If his feet are planted anywhere, it is in mid-air and above the fray.

From this perch, he sanctimoniously gives counsel to both sides. His opinions are occasionally interesting, usually vapid, and from time to time, as I’ve tried to demonstrate above, are irresponsible and dangerous.

3. Trump’s decision to opt out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, much like his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, does more than isolate the U.S. on the global stage and rupture our alliances internationally. It also — and this point should be emphasized — existentially endangers the well being of the American people, not to mention people worldwide.

Moreover, what prompted Trump’s action was more than his singular desire to undo President Obama’s accomplishments in the global theater. It was driven as much by Trump’s view that the preponderance of military power in U.S. hands gives him the ability to unilaterally dictate to the rest of the world, and in turn, the world — again in Trump’s view — has no other option than to capitulate to his dictates, even if reluctantly. Trump, in effect, believes — and now he is surrounded by advisors of like mind — that there are no limits to the projection of U.S. power, despite much evidence to the contrary..

Indeed, one has to wonder if high on the White House’s agenda is regime change in Iran. After all, that is the overweening desire of not only the Trumpists, but also the Saudi and Israeli governments. The latter two, notwithstanding the free pass given to them by the major media, are anything but innocent actors in the Middle East.

4. Here’s a tactical conundrum — how to strengthen the progressive current in the Democratic Party, while at the same time helping to build — what is strategically necessary — a common front against Trump and GOP this fall. Not so simple in my view. Any solution, however, must include, among other things, discussions with local Democrats and the other makers and shakers in every congressional district. And we should bear in mind that in many CDs — especially non-urban — that have to be flipped if Democrats are to regain control of Congress, the overall lay of the land is different from what liberals and left thinkers might be familiar with, the best candidates may not have impeccable left credentials, and the strength of the progressive-left is much thinner and loosely organized.

For example, Conor Lamb, who won a House seat in a special election in western Pennsylvania, didn’t easily fit into the progressive category. And yet, he gained the support of progressive and left people as well as the full and indispensable support of the labor movement.

All of which leads me to believe that this tactical conundrum will only be solved concretely and in the context of the overriding imperative of electing a Democratic Congressional majority — not by way of some abstract formula like “fight the establishments of both parties.” The latter may sound radical, but from a strategic and tactical standpoint it is badly misguided.

In these circumstances, the challenge is to allow for a robust debate over the Democratic Party’s direction and internal organization, while at the same time maintaining a united, party-wide approach — which will take compromise, flexibility, and a retreat from political maximalism on all sides — to the central task of this moment: regaining control of Congress in the coming elections. Nothing, it is fair to say, is more important than the latter. If the democratic movement — the resistance — hopes to restrain creeping Trumpist authoritarianism and, at the same time, set the stage for a new period of reform, winning this fall is an absolute necessity.

5. The attitude of the left toward the Putin government is complicated. On the one hand, we oppose the resumption of the Cold War and its attendant dangers — a nuclear confrontation, first of all — but, on the other hand, we can’t be silent in the face of Putin’s systematic efforts to interfere in our elections — not to mention elections in Western Europe. And in each instance, it’s on the side of right wing and authoritarian candidates and parties. Needless to say, threading this needle will take political dexterity.

6. In a wide ranging, insightful interview, Jayati Ghosh, a radical Indian economist, makes this point:

“Another — possibly more powerful — reason (for the decline of Marxism as a framework for thought) is the very political use of Marx to justify particular strategies by those ruling different countries. This meant that particularly over the course of the 20th century, major political movements, dramatic changes in economic strategy, massive socio-political upheavals and drastic attempts at social engineering were all carried out in the name of Marx. As a result, both good and bad elements of such strategies all became identified with Marxism.”

“Many people,” she adds, “across the world who had little or no knowledge of Marx or his writing nevertheless associated him with not just revolutions but also their aftermath, and with particular social and political systems that operated in his name.”

In celebrating Marx’s 200th birthday, this should be acknowledged, especially by the communist movement, along with a commitment to a Marxism that is open ended, admits new experience, accents critique, and fearlessly revises its own understandings when life and experience compel them.

7. A meandering thought: In comparing the political ascendancy  of the right against that of the left in recent decades, one has to be mindful of what seems to me an indisputable fact: the right doesn’t confront and challenge capitalism — its structure, profit making, and power. The left, on the other hand, does, thus making its mission much more difficult.

8. On a lighter note: Most of us, I suspect, have to find relief from the madness of Trump. Here’s what I do: 1. My daily walk with my dog on the Hudson 2. Swimming, yoga, and spin class 3. Drinking wine and (craft) IPA 4. Getting ready for fall elections 5. Conversations with friends and strangers about Trump and the state of the country 6. Staying engaged in practical politics at the local level 7. Watching the NBA playoffs and Netflix 8. Reading good history books.

Stray thoughts on Trump’s decision to vacate nuclear deal with Iran

1. To say that Trump’s foreign policy actions have no strategic coherence other than his singular desire to undo President Obama’s accomplishments in the global theater misses an important point. And it is this: Trump is of the mind that the preponderance of military power in U.S. hands allows him to unilaterally dictate to the rest of the world, and the world, in turn, has no other option than to comply with his dictates, even if very reluctantly. Trump, in effect, believes — and now he is surrounded by advisors of like mind — that there are no limits to the projection of U.S. power, despite much evidence to the contrary..

I will be surprised if a majority of people approve of Trump’s action, especially as they learn more about its consequences.

2. In light of yesterday’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, one has to wonder if regime change is far behind? After all, that is the overweening desire of not only the Trumpists, but also the Saudi and Israeli governments. The latter two, notwithstanding the free pass given to them by the major media, are anything but innocent actors in the Middle East.

3. Trump’s decision to opt out of the nuclear agreement with Iran much like his pulling out of the Paris climate change accord does more than isolate the U.S. on the global stage and rupture our alliances internationally. Both also — and this point should be emphasized — existentially endanger the very well being of the American people, not to mention people worldwide, in the near as well as the longer term.

4. Amidst all the chatter around the abrogation of the Iran deal it is easy to forget about the control of oil and other energy sources.

Albright on fascism

I have said that a heterogeneous coalition is the best defense against Trumpian authoritarian rule. And this morning I listened to Madeline Albright, who discussed her new book, “Fascism: A Warning” and its contemporary relevance. She was on point and it’s welcome.

Anyone looking for politically pure movements of a mass character will forever be disappointed, and not only at this stage of struggle.

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