Be a Realist, Demand the Impossible!

by CHRIS O'BRIEN

What’s the matter with American socialism? The days of easy credit are over, the Great American Jobs Machine has broken down, and Wall Street’s decadence has been revealed for all to see. In short, capitalism is less appealing than ever. Our friends in Germany, Portugal, and Latin America have recently made gains under similar circumstances. And yet we American socialists seem incapable of any fundamental breakthrough. Why? Our problems, I think, are twofold: first, we have the wrong attitude, and second, the wrong strategy. I’ll deal with each problem in turn.

Socialists are a pessimistic bunch. It’s pretty obvious why. We’ve been losing, a lot. The left, which 40 years ago remained a small but vital undercurrent in our society, has seen little but defeat since then. The social-democratic left has been marginalized within the Democratic Party, to the point where the Obama Administration seems intent on replacing moderate Republicans as the official voice of corporate America. Notice, for example, that demanding single-payer health insurance, once a staple of Democratic Party platforms, now marks one as an irresponsible radical.

What of the radical left itself? Faced with the ever-growing power of capital, and with our own corresponding enervation, we tend to moderate ourselves, to promote ‘realistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ reforms. Instead of socialism, we demand only ‘economic justice,’ instead of an end to exploitation, a ‘living wage.’ But even these goals are out of reach. What was once mere liberalism comes to seem almost revolutionary.

The problem, in short, is that we have become unable or unwilling to articulate our original vision. We no longer believe in socialism. Oh, we believe in it, but in the same way we might believe there is a black hole at the center of our galaxy: we accept that it is theoretically possible, but the notion strikes us as faintly magical, not anything we’ll ever see. This resignation makes socialists vulnerable to the old jibes that our ideas are basically utopian. If we want to have any practical success, we’d better just accept the rules of the capitalist game.

This moderation is fatal. The more pragmatic and "realistic" we are, the less we have to say that really matters to anyone. Socialism’s distinct advantage is that it, and it alone, seriously addresses the problems people face everyday in their working and consuming lives--the numbing intensity of the capitalist workplace, the sense of inferiority and purposelessness it generates, the ultimately futile temptations of consumerism. The small fact that capitalism is driving us toward environmental disaster. No other political philosophy can really deal with these problems. When we ignore them, when we confine ourselves to ordinary ‘progressive’ issues--no matter how worthy those issues are--we willingly give up on our single greatest asset. Worse yet, we give up on workers and the poor (and the environment, too).

Socialists in America are a little like awkward teenagers. We recognize that we are somehow unique, different, and this frightens us. We wish to be normal and ‘popular’, so we start to act like everyone else, to imitate their language and feign their interests. But by doing this, we obliterate whatever made us interesting in the first place, and so become less popular than ever. As everyone should have learned by now, if you want to make friends and influence people you need to stop worrying too much about what they think.

We need self-confidence, basically.

Of course, self-confidence isn’t enough. The Spartacist League and the Revolutionary Communist Party have it, and they’re even worse off than we are. We also need an intelligent strategy. Once we’ve convinced ourselves that socialism is decent and necessary, how do we convince everyone else?

One classic approach is to organize lots of protests and marches and petitions, with the hope of convincing those in power to change their ways. The Nation, with its "open letters to President Obama," etc., follows this strategy. Today, one even hears some talk amongst Nation types about ‘holding Obama’s feet to the fire.’ How’s this project going? Not well, these quotes unearthed by Bhaskar Sunkara of The Activist suggest:

Attending the [National Equality March] was a "waste of time at best," Barney Frank told a reporter a few days before. "The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass."

According to NBC News’ John Harwood, administration officials viewed demonstrators–and, in fact, anyone who criticizes Obama from the left–as an "Internet left fringe" that "needs to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult."

The problem, of course, is that we have no hope at the moment of competing with Washington DC’s other interest groups, particularly when those groups are funded by Goldman Sachs or Humana. Trying to influence politicians in Washington just won’t work. Speaking truth to power, Noam Chomsky once observed, is a waste of time. Those in power probably already know the truth, they just don’t care.

One might also follow what I’ll call the didactic strategy. This is what Chomsky himself seems to favor. It assumes that once you’ve gotten all the information out there, you’ll be able to convince people that capitalism is really horrible, and they will then go about taking political power and changing things for the better. Politics in this view, is really just a form of education.

This strategy actually has a lot of merits. We do need to educate people. It just happens to be too conservative. Simply lecturing to people probably won’t convince them. Instead, we need to demonstrate that socialism is better. Rather than convincing people to take political power at some future date, we should be helping them to gradually acquire power now. We need to figure out how we can place political and economic power into the hands of working people- we will teach them about socialism by creating it (gradually, step by step). The key to such a project, I think, is an old slogan on the international left: Dual Power. This is the notion that we should engage in traditional electoral politics while also building radical democratic institutions, with the later supplementing and eventually supplanting the former. With such a twofold approach, we could go about building a movement that’s both democratic and authentically socialist. Here are some highly schematic suggestions on how to do this:

Dual Power 1: Building Alternative Structures We tend to fall into the liberal trap of equating democracy with electoral politics. In a genuinely socialist society, though, democracy would be radically expanded. Workplaces, as well as the local and national (and eventually international) economies, would be organized democratically. Moreover, at the level of municipal government, one would want to see a great deal of direct democracy. As socialists, we should be working to build up alternative democratic institutions within the existing economy.

Of course, this insight isn’t exactly novel. But, while leftists repeat it almost to the point of cliché, there seems to be very little discussion of how to translate it into a concrete, practicable program. If we are serious about building egalitarian organizations outside of government bureaucracy, two actually existing institutions might be helpful: labor unions and cooperatives. Of course, unions are quite weak in this country, and there leadership has an awful record. However, rank-and-file labor organizers and unionists are often quite radical, temperamentally if not ideologically.1 An interesting project for YDS would be to discuss how we might go about stimulating the latent radicalism of unionists, and combating their rather scrofulous leadership. As we saw in the 1930’s with the CIO, militant unions can do wonders for the working class.

Co-ops are already relatively popular. Our goal should be to make them even more so. Our job should also be to remind co-op members that these highly successful institutions should be impossible, given capitalist ideology. Both unions and cooperatives teach people that democracy within the economy can have a real positive impact upon their lives. They are both democratic socialism, in embryonic form.

Dual Power 2: Succeeding in Electoral Politics On the other side of the equation, how does the left achieve electoral success? Since a mass-based Social Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be an option at the moment, perhaps we should think (and act) more locally. As sociologist G. William Domhoff demonstrates in an interesting series of articles, municipal governments in the United States are typically controlled by local real estate developers, eager to attract capital to their community and to use public resources for their own enrichment.

A particularly striking example of this was Chicago’s recent Olympics debacle. As Doug Henwood points out on his blog, studies have found that the Olympics doesn’t bring many long-term economic benefit to the cities that host it, at least if you include ordinary people in the analysis. It does make lots of money for local real estate interests. Since Chicago real estate magnates are major supporters of Mayor Richard Daily (not to mention favorite son Barack Obama), both of these gentlemen were willing to spend large amounts of public money on the Olympics. The point is: if Chicago could expend all these resources on a vanity project, why couldn’t it devote more to programs that actually improve people’s lives? City governments waste our money in similar ways all the time: think of all the public funds spent on stadiums and shopping centers and "enterprise zones" that enrich developers at the expense of everyone else.

If socialists could win control of a local government or two, we could redirect some of these funds toward worthwhile projects. Not only would this help a lot of people out (and presumably make us a bit more popular), it would also be potentially quite radical. For example, public support for limited-equity housing cooperatives could erode the grip of the capitalist housing market. One could also imagine local governments supporting environmentally friendly cooperative industry. It would be wonderful if working class Americans started to associate socialism with jobs and cheaper, better housing- rather than with gulags and pretentious intellectuals.

Socialists could also open up city governance to ordinary people, in the form of neighborhood councils with real budgeting and planning powers. If successful this could make it much harder for capitalists to erode working class gains.

Best of all, we have models for this sort of program. For example, Bologna, Italy, under a long period of Socialist and Communist government, was able to make tremendous gains for its population. A book entitled Red Bologna, published in the 1970s when the Italian left was at its peak of popularity and militancy, discusses the left’s achievements in that city. These were quite impressive: popular participation in budgeting and urban planning, free public transportation at rush hour, a heavily cooperativized retail sector, not to mention lots of cooperatively-owned industry and radical changes in education. Moreover, these things happened under severe budget constraints and under a strongly anti-socialist national government. The objective conditions, in other words, weren’t all that different from our own.

What’s exciting about these ideas is that they are simultaneously more realistic and more radical than most current proposals from the left. It’s increasingly hard to imagine the Democrats passing the Employee Free Choice Act or socializing the healthcare system, but it is possible to imagine us successfully campaigning for a local election, radicalizing a union local, or setting up a co-op. The left even has some experience doing these sorts of things. If we can do them on a small scale, then as we amass broader support, we could do them on an increasingly larger scale (winning national elections, radicalizing the whole labor movement). The point is that we coordinate these smaller projects so that they all lead toward the larger goal of building socialism. Who knows? The consequences could be revolutionary.

This article originally appeared at The Revolutionary Times, the blog of the Michigan State University chapter of Young Democratic Socialists.


Be the first to comment