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.
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.
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.