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The Socialism America Needs Now

Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the country, and the DSA convention just made national news. But U.S. socialism has to find a viable path to power.

Mark Peterson/Redux

In the early 1970s, I was a founding member of the New American Movement, a socialist group that later merged with another (the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee) to create what is still the Democratic Socialists of America. Earlier, I had been a member of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), but after the organization went berserk in the summer of 1969 and opted for “bringing the war home” through terrorist activity, I had dropped out. In 1971, a bunch of us had come together to found NAM as a way of preserving what was sane and democratic in the earlier SDS. 

Five years later, I was finished with NAM, too, and gave up on socialist organizing. By then, I felt like I was living in a parallel American universe populated by several thousand holdovers from the anti-war and civil-rights movements, but of no consequence anymore to American politics. My disillusionment peaked during a debate we had over whether to support SDS co-founder Tom Hayden, who was challenging a sitting U.S. senator in California. I was for it, but what seemed to carry the day was a speech by one of the Los Angeles comrades citing Lenin’s State and Revolution as grounds for supporting Hayden, who’d written the Port Huron Statement in 1962, a cri de coeur for “participatory democracy.” That epitomized for me the parallel universe.

My other problem was that nobody seemed to know how socialism—which meant, to me, democratic ownership and control of the “means of production”—would actually work in the post-World War II economy of the United States. Would it mean total nationalization of the economy? And, then, I wondered, wouldn’t that put too much political power in the state? The realization that a nationalized economy might also be profoundly inefficient, and disastrously slow to keep up with global markets, only surfaced later with the Soviet Union’s collapse. But even then, by the mid-1970s, I was wondering what being a socialist really meant in the United States.

Forty years later, much to my surprise, socialism is making a comeback. The key event has been the campaign of self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who almost won the Democratic nomination and is now reputedly the most popular politician in America. Several opinion polls have also found that young people now think favorably of socialism and ill of capitalism—a result that would have been almost inconceivable in the 1970s, when socialism, in the words of historian Staughton Lynd, was still a “forbidden word” in American politics. 

And now the DSA, which I had long given up on, has more than 25,000 dues-paying members, up from at best a thousand during its first decades. (That might sound paltry, but when the Tea Party rocked American politics in 2010, its various groups had an estimated 67,000 members.) DSA’s recent convention got favorable press just about everywhere—Vox, Slate, The Washington Post, The Nation, the New Republic, and The Daily Beast, which praised its political strategy of “Dreaming Big but Acting Locally.”  

For the first time since the ‘60s, socialism looks like a politics with a future in the United States. Will this revival last, and the ranks expand, until socialists can rival conservatives and liberals as a third force in American politics? It has happened before, in the distant past when Marx’s original vision of industrial capitalism giving way to democratic worker-ownership was still relevant to historical conditions. In the first decades of the last century, Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party elected thousands of legislators and, perhaps more important, forced the major parties and America’s business leaders to take account of workers’ growing demand for better wages and greater say. Neither progressivism nor the New Deal would have been possible—or as relatively radical as they were, certainly—without the movement led by Debs, the hero of Sanders and just about every other democratic socialist. 

Now, in the world that Donald Trump, the Great Recession, and Democratic neoliberalism have bequeathed us, socialism has again become both newsworthy and popular. Still, is it any better situated to be a real political force in America than it was in the 1970s? It’s possible. But it’ll only happen if American socialism is updated and retrofitted to suit the conditions of 21st-century, Information Age capitalism.

The old nostrums about ownership and control of the means of production simply don’t resonate in 2017. And if we were a long way in the 1960s from having the kind of “participatory” mass labor movement in the U.S. that could have prepared us for a radically expanded democracy, we’re eons removed from it now. In the 2016 campaign, however, Sanders began to define a socialism that could grow in adherents and influence and have something to say about the country’s future. He did so almost unwittingly. As he explained to Stephen Colbert during the campaign, the Vermont senator preferred to be considered a “progressive.” Yet, I think there is an important place for the kind of democratic socialism that Sanders espoused—not necessarily at the center of the Democratic Party, but certainly on its left flank. Unfortunately, the left flank of the Sanders movement, dominated by the DSA but including strong groups in Seattle and Chicago, still has to do the hard work of reconciling its idea of socialism to the 21st century. 

There is no scientific definition of socialism, any more than there is of liberalism or conservatism. It’s a political tradition with many different flavors—Marxist, Christian, social-democratic, Fabian, Owenite, Leninist, Maoist. In looking at the choices facing American socialists now, the most important distinction is one that really dates back to the German Social Democrats of the early 20th century, but became more pronounced after World War II. In short, this was a choice between a socialism rooted in Marx’s apocalyptical promise of revolution, or the abolition of capitalism and a socialism that works more gradually toward the incorporation of public power and economic equality within capitalism. One could be called “Marxist socialism” and the other “social democratic”—or, to borrow from John Maynard Keynes, “liberal socialism.”

Marx saw socialism as a new mode of production that would follow capitalism the same way that capitalism had followed feudalism. It would represent a break, a rupture, and would likely come about through a revolution like the one in France. Socialism, and its ultimate form of communism, would incorporate in modified form certain elements of capitalism—namely popular democracy—but abandon others, like capitalist ownership of the means of production. In Engels’s later formation, the working class, having won power, would own and control the country’s industry through their control of the state. 

Before World War I, and to some extent afterward, many Marxist socialists saw capitalism becoming, in effect, a giant system of factories in which a small capitalist class ruled over the country’s rapidly expanding ranks of industrial workers. Through labor organizing and a socialist political party, the working class would seize power and displace the capitalist class. A dissenting group of revisionists, led by Eduard Bernstein, foresaw the growth of a new middle class and the attempt by the capitalist class to meet some of the demands that Marxist socialists believed would precipitate revolution.

But the debate between Marxists and revisionists was diverted by the Russian and Chinese revolutions. None of the pre-World War I socialists in the West believed that a country without a developed working class or the experience of parliamentary democracy could create socialism. But the leaders of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions insisted that they had done just that. As a result, the socialist debate for many years was waged over whether these countries were really “socialist.” That carried through to the new left of the 1960s when radicals describing themselves as “communists” adopted Cuba or China or even North Korea as models. (A commune in Berkeley called the “Red Family” extolled the achievements of Kim Il Sung.) Their critics on the left, some of whom flocked to NAM, saw Debs’s socialism as a model. Debs believed in elections and democracy, but he also envisaged socialism as workers’ ownership and control of (repeat after me) the means of production. So what should have been a debate between Marxist and liberal socialists became a debate between self-styled communists and Marxist socialists.

In Western Europe, however, where many of the socialist, social-democratic, and labor parties entered government, socialists were forced to define their objectives more clearly. And what has emerged is a liberal conception of socialism. It has found itself under attack not from communists—who have disappeared after the fall of the Soviet Union—but from Christian Democrats, Conservatives, and other center-right parties that continue to put the imperatives of the private market first. To some extent, too, that debate has crept into the socialist and social-democratic parties themselves through the advocacy of neoliberal politicians like Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, Felipe Gonzalez in Spain, and Francois Hollande in France.

In all its different varieties, you can still mark some clear lines between this Western European socialism and Marxist socialism—and also distinguish pretty clearly between it and the neoliberalism or market-liberalism that came to dominate the Democratic Party here. In practice, social democracy has probably reached its acme in the Nordic countries, where the left has ruled governments for most of last half-century. In these countries, the public’s interest takes precedence over private interests of capital. Governments oversee the relations between employers and employees. Workers’ rights are enforced. In Sweden, the government conducts negotiations between labor and capital. In Germany, union representatives sit on corporate boards.

In some countries, key public service industries are nationalized; in others, they are strictly regulated in a way that goes well beyond our palsied agencies. Britain’s health service is state-run. (In Switzerland, the government sets rules for non-profit private firms to provide universal insurance.) In France, there are guarantees against arbitrary dismissal from a job. In Denmark and the Netherlands, it is easier for companies to hire and fire, but the government also provides very generous employment insurance. In Denmark, unemployment can last as long as four years and cover as much as 90 percent of what a worker had been earning. In most of these countries, college education is free and workers can also enjoy free retraining programs. 

That’s not Marx’s vision of socialism, or even Debs’s. In Europe, workers have significant say in what companies do. They don’t control or own them. Private property endures. But within these parameters, families don’t have to fear going hungry, losing their home, losing health insurance, and being unable to send their kids to decent schools just because somebody’s job is automated or their company made bad investments. 

There’s an implicit trade-off in this kind of social democracy. Private capital is given leave to gain profits through higher productivity, even if that results in layoffs and bankruptcies. But the government is able to extract a large share of the economic surplus that these firms create in order to fund a full-blown welfare state that alleviates the daily anxiety that workers feel. Nordic and Dutch social-democratic parties were among the first to make this trade-off soon after World War II, and the terms of it are still being fought over throughout Western Europe and Canada.

By the standards of Marxist socialism, this kind of social democracy appears to be nothing more than an attenuated form of capitalism. In the ‘60s, we scoffed at the very notion of Sweden as a “socialist” country. But the older version is not remotely viable. As the Soviet experiment with blanket nationalization showed, it can’t adjust to the rapid changes in industry created by the introduction of automation and information technology. For non-vital services, the market is a better indicator of prices than government planning. And as the American Max Eastman pointed out after World War I, the older Marxist model of socialism may not even be compatible with popular democracy. By concentrating economic power in the state (or even in American states), it would lay the basis for authoritarian rule. In other words, Marxist socialism may not be viable or desirable.

Social democracy or liberal socialism, while lacking in utopian appeal, does provide a vision that goes very far beyond the status quo in the United States. It would bring immeasurable benefit to ordinary Americans. A good watchword is economic security—something that is very lacking to all except the wealthiest Americans. It is the next step beyond the industrial capitalism that Marx and Engels believed was doomed. What politics and economics look like beyond that is simply unknowable. It’s like speculating on whether there is human life on other planets. 

What’s the difference between this kind of socialist politics and garden-variety liberalism? Not much. But I do think it defines a leftwing version of liberalism, and one that differs in some respects from the current variety and could provide an outer horizon for a liberal politics as the socialism of the 1930s did for the New Deal liberalism of the time.

Contemporary liberalism has lost that horizon. It has drawn back from a focus on the economics of the average American and became increasingly identified with social causes. It has incorporated the economic priorities of those segments of Wall Street and Silicon Valley that support the party’s stand on social issues. Sanders’ campaign showed what that had wrought in terms of Democratic ideology: Party leaders and pundits reflexively dismissed as utopian, or simply undesirable, his focus on free college tuition or Medicare for all, or his call for a political revolution in how election outcomes are determined. His positions were attacked because they wouldn’t pass the current Congress or might even cause—God forbid—a political upheaval. But they gave a meaning to politics—a relationship between means and ends—that Hillary Clinton’s laundry lists of incremental proposals, and her appeals to identity groups (“It’s her turn”), lacked. 

There is, of course, a larger argument to be made about whether a socialist politics of this kind is politically viable in the United States. I always believed that if Sanders had won the nomination, he would have been pinioned as a proponent of big government and higher taxes. In November 2016, a proposal in Colorado for a single-payer health insurance system that Sanders campaigned lost by 80 to 20 percent. Sanders would have had trouble with Trump, but in retrospect, he might not have lost some of those Midwestern states that cost Clinton the election. We’ll never know.

What does seem clear to me is that American capitalism—and that goes for Western Europe—has entered a period of upheaval, where voters are looking for alternatives beyond what the major parties are offering. It wasn’t just Sanders’s results in the U.S.; it was Melenchon in France and Corbyn in the U.K. and Pablo Iglesias and Podemos in Spain. These might not be the greatest candidates, and socialists—or left-liberals—may not be able to get their candidates elected or even nominated, but through participating in organized politics, they can begin an important discussion of where these countries should be headed.

I can’t really comment except in a very general way on DSA or on other current socialist groups. I like DSA because it is committed to working within the Democratic Party rather than trying to perform Nader-like surgery on our two-party system. We are stuck with two major parties, and if socialists (or their right-wing counterparts) want to influence the country’s future, they are going to have to work through them. I also like DSA because, unlike many Washington-based organizations, whose members consist of people who clicked on a link, or unlike political organizations that depend on wealthy donors and foundations, DSA is based on a dues-paying membership that works through chapters. Unlike Indivisible, it is not bound by the politics of the moment.

And much of what DSA chapters have done pretty much conforms to what a social-democratic group would do. They were big supporters of Sanders’s campaign in 2016 and have echoed his kind of concerns this year. They’re focused on local elections and organizing, along with health-care battles at the state level, and they’ve been organizing against white supremacists’ “Summer of Hate” rallies. But they face the same problem that plagued social democrats in the 1960s and 1970s—they haven’t yet developed a viable idea of what American socialism should and (at this historical moment) can be. 

In its “Resistance Rising” strategy document, the DSA defines its aim as as “the radical democratization of all areas of life, not least of which is the economy.” Under socialism, it says, “democracy would be expanded beyond the election of political officials to include the democratic management of all businesses by the workers who comprise them and by the communities in which they operate.”

The platform goes into some detail about different sectors of the economy. “Very large, strategically important sectors of the economy—such as housing, utilities, and heavy industry—would be subject to democratic planning outside the market, while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods.” It is hard to parse this out, but it suggests that the large firms that make goods that go into producing other goods, or raw materials, would operate outside the market—presumably through central planning. These would include, it seems, firms like Intel, while consumer- goods businesses like Apple would operate within the market, but would be under worker control. Which would mean what? (I’m experiencing flashbacks just asking these questions.)

If the problem with current liberalism is that it is too timid and too grounded in the current deadlock between the parties, the problem with the socialism of the DSA is that it fails to recognize how far-reaching and, in a way revolutionary, are the reforms that a liberal socialism could advocate. American socialists need to do what the Europeans did after World War II and bid goodbye to the Marxist vision of democratic control and ownership of the means of production. They need to recognize that what is necessary now—and also conceivable—is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it.