“Eight Rough and Random Thoughts on Socialism” first appeared on  PoliticalAffairs.net on April 22, 2010. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.

(1) Socialism has its material roots in the inability of capitalism to solve humanity’s problems. Working people gravitate toward a radical critique of society out of necessity, out of a sense that the existing arrangements of society (people don’t necessarily call it capitalism) fail to fulfill their material and spiritual needs. It is no coincidence that around the time of the economic meltdown last fall, public opinion polls showed growing support for socialism.

I think this gravitation towards radical change is closely connected to the end of an era in which U.S. capitalism was relatively stable and provided reasonable economic security on the one hand and to the beginning of a new era – of uncertainty, instability, economic crises, and, not least, political possibility on the other.

Economic crises alone, however, do not prepare the soil for revolutionary change, though they’re important. The soil is prepared via the cumulative impact of a series of crises (economic, political, social, and moral), taking place over time, which erode people’s confidence in capitalism’s capacity to meet humanity’s needs and sustain life on our planet.

(2) Our vision of socialism is a work in progress. It is shaped by new economic conditions, new technologies (the internet) new dangers and challenges (global warming), new sensibilities (the desire for democracy) and new social forces (new social movements) as well the actual experience of countries trying to build socialism – positive and negative.

At the end of his life, Engels wrote (this was one of a series of letters Engels wrote to friends to undo a dogmatic interpretation of historical materialism on the part of young Marxists of his time), “To my mind, the ‘so called socialist society’ is not anything immutable. Like all social formations, it should be conceived in a state of flux and change.”

We should take this to heart. Our socialist vision should have a contemporary and dynamic feel; it should be rooted in today’s conditions.

Some will say that this means revising or throwing out Marxism’s principles and methodology. While that could be a danger, in my view the greater danger is to think that Marxism can stand still, rest self-satisfied, and repeat old formulas in the face of new developments and experience. Such “Marxism” is empty of meaning and irrelevant on the U.S. political scene.

Our task, therefore, is to further develop Marxism in a dialectical and historical spirit, with an eye to bringing everything in line with current realities, trends, and sensibilities. Such a critical posture means modifying and updating our concepts – of socialism, strategy, tactics, and more – in line with today’s realities.

(3) In the 20th century the Soviet Union became the universal model of socialism. This universalization came at a price – it narrowed down our ability to think creatively and “outside the box.”

Although we always noted the more favorable factors for socialism in our country (no encirclement by hostile powers, high level of economic development, democratic traditions, etc.), in many ways, we still clung to the Soviet model.

Such an approach can’t be laid on the doorstep of Marx or Lenin. Lenin on more than one occasion objected strongly to the idea of a universal path to and model of socialism. He insisted that socialism and the socialist road would vary from country to country.

Unfortunately, we failed to fully digest his views, in part because the Soviet Union was the first land of socialism and decisive in Hitler’s defeat in World War II, and in part because we had too rigid an understanding of Marxism and its laws (tendencies) of development.

The events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, however, compelled us to reexamine the notion of a universal socialist model. While further study is necessary, one thing is clear: there are no universal models and socialism in one or another country will succeed to the degree that it bears a deep imprint of that country’s history, politics, economics, customs, and culture.

If it has a “foreign” feel, people will reject it. Even where our vision includes general features that mirror other socialist societies (for example, public ownership of the means of production), these will be modified in the concrete process of constructing a new society.

Both successful and unsuccessful socialist revolutions offer lessons, but in no case can those experiences be uncritically imported into our context.

(4) The transition to socialism will mark an end to one stage of struggle and the beginning of a new one. In this stage, the struggle is to qualitatively expand and deepen economic security, working class and people’s democracy and unity, egalitarian relations (not leveling) in every sphere of life, and human freedom in both a collective and individual sense.

I don’t frame the matter in this way to replace the more traditional notion, in which the transition to socialism is distinguished by a revolutionary shift of class power from the capitalist class to the working class and democratic movement. What I want to do is to correct a one-sidedness in our thinking.

A transfer in class power – which will more likely be a series of contested moments during which qualitative changes in power relations in favor of the working class and its allies take place rather than “the great revolutionary/to the barricades day” – is absolutely necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition for a successful transition to and consolidation of socialism.

In fact, a singular emphasis on the question of class power (a means), at the expense of social processes and social aims (economic improvement in people’s lives, working class and people’s democracy, rough equality, and freedom and solidarity), can lead – did lead – to distortions in socialist societies.

Thus aims and processes have to be organically integrated into and accented at every phase of socialism’s development.

(5) Socialism’s essence isn’t reducible to property/ownership relations and across-the-board socialization. Although those are the structural foundations of socialist society, by themselves they don’t constitute socialism.

To put it differently, property/ownership relations and socialization of the means of production create only the possibility for a socialist society. But it fully develops only to the degree that working people exchange alienation and powerlessness for engagement, empowerment and full democratic participation.

In my view, working class initiative and a sense of real ownership of social property, a transformed socialist state, and society are as much the sinew of socialism as are legal ownership of the economy, structures of representation and power, and socialization. The latter without the former leaves socialism stillborn, while the former without the latter is idealism.

Lenin wrote, “… socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation – socialist production – is essential for the abolition of national oppression (in our context racial and national oppression), but this foundation must also carry a democratically organized state, a democratic army, etc. By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat (working class sw) creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality “only” – “only!” – with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres.”

Note the weight that Lenin attaches to democracy in socialist society and working class initiative. Do we share his view? To a degree, but I would argue that a re-centering of the working class and people’s democracy at the core of our socialist vision is a necessary corrective.

(6) While the political leadership of communist, socialist and left parties and social movements is vital, in the past, our understanding of our leading role came close to substituting ourselves for the wide-ranging participation and leadership of masses of people and for a vibrant public space in which these same people gather, compare ideas, and take action.

Obviously, if this is so, we should go back to the drawing board. I did and this is what I came up with. Our role in coalition with a broader left will be to deepen our connections to the main organizations of working people, to find timely solutions to pressing problems (transformation and democratization of the state, reorganization of the economy, undoing centuries of inequality, resetting our international relations, global warming and more), to utilize a creative and critical Marxism to analyze concrete developments, to struggle for unity – working class, multi-racial, all people’s, and so forth, and to convey in everything we do a complete confidence in the creative capacities and desires of millions of people building a new society.

This last element latter was missing in some of the socialist countries of the 20th century, in no small part because the communists fell victim to a siege mentality, arising from encirclement and cold and hot war. As a result, there was a tendency to “circle the wagons” and turn the working class into a passive, and increasingly jaded observer of socialism, especially when the deeds and performance of communists didn’t match their ideals and ideological claims.

(7) The process of radical change is inevitably very messy; pure forms are only found in textbooks. Think of the major turning points in our nation’s history – every one was complex and contradictory, from the war for independence, to the Civil War, the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, and more.

The struggle for socialism will be complex too, and will bring a broad and diverse coalition with varied outlooks and interests into motion. And while we fight for the leadership of the multi-racial, multi-national working class in the coalition and for its deep imprint on the political process, we also search for strategic and tactical alliances. At times this dual task will cause tensions, sometimes strongly felt ones, but the resolution of these tensions is condition for radical change.

(8) The economic model of 21st century socialism should give priority to sustainability, not growth without limits. Socialist production can’t be narrowly focused on inputs and outputs, nor should purely quantitative criteria be used to measure efficiency and determine economic goals. New socialist production (and consumption) models are imperative. Both must economize on natural resources and protect the planet and its various ecological systems. The future of living things that inhabit this earth could depend on it.

That said, we cannot wait for socialism to address the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation. That must be done now. We are approaching tipping points which if reached will give global warming a momentum that human actions will have little or no control over.

Standing in the way, as you would guess, is right wing extremism and powerful global corporations – energy, military, and otherwise. And only a broad movement of the working class in close alliance with the African American, Mexican American and other oppressed peoples, women, youth, seniors other social movements, and some sections of business – big and small stands a ghost’s chance of defeating this entrenched and powerful political bloc and, in doing so, open a road to socialism.