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Socialism Is Still Real, But It Is Not a Thing
I'm provoked in multiple dimensions by a new article in The New Republic, "Has the Socialist Moment Already Come and Gone?" by Ross Barkan, whom I've never met. I want to note, not meaning to suck up (I'm published in it, every so often), that under the editorship of Michael Tomasky the magazine has really taken off. That aside, this article sets me off. I also need to declare my interest, as it were, as a member of the organization discussed, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The right way to start is that the definition of socialism embodied in the piece is shared by many in and out of DSA and reflects programmatic and political confusion. In this respect Barkan and TNR are in good company.
The common, naive idea is that socialism is a state of being, featuring public ownership of "the means of production." That view is long past its sell-by date. The underlying premise is that we get socialism with a revolution -- an abrupt transition from one discrete state of being, or system, to another. It should be obvious by now that such is not in our future.
The only tenable transition to socialism in the U.S. and the advanced industrial nations is by democratic, parliamentary means: elections and legislation. To be sure, it depends on organizing outside of elections themselves. But there is no prospect of any forcible takeover from the left.
I like to say socialism is a vector. It has a starting point, our current situation, and a direction, towards the Green New Deal: a built-out welfare state, ample public utilities, aggressive attention to climate change, and incremental socialization of private enterprise. Vectors also have lengths. The length, or immediate objective, depends on the historical conjuncture -- a fancy way of alluding to what is politically possible, given the facts on the ground.
For example, given recent history, Sanders's full-blown Medicare For All, which I support, IS NOT HAPPENING. It has been rejected in the most liberal states in the U.S. Sanders himself acknowledges this reality by suggesting incremental expansion of Medicare benefits in vision and dental. It does help to organize for ambitious goals. As Barkan notes, the push for “free college” has to have helped the Biden Administration push out student loan relief policies.
The problem for Barkan’s analysis, which finds little “socialism” happening, is that it is founded on a static concept. Socialism is progress in the directions I cited above. For all practical, operational purposes, socialism is social-democracy. Ambitions of alternatives are delusional. I’m speaking for myself here, not for those within DSA with whom I associate. The fetish for socialism as a state of being is an effort to emphasize ultimate objectives, to signal one’s radical commitments. It ends up creating real-world obstacles to progress.
By social-democracy I do not mean the retrograde stance of an outfit that used to be known in the U.S. as “Social-Democrats, USA.” They were the so-called “Scoop Jackson Democrats,” all Cold Warriors, uncritical supporters of Israel, and big defense spenders. By now they have either died or joined the Republican Party. They were abjectly pro-U.S. Imperialism. Sanders is not, nor am I.
On a more mundane level, the failure of Sanders’s campaigns should not discourage hopes for socialism. Quite the contrary. The U.S. was in no condition to elect an avowed socialist to the presidency. In did behoove all progressives to support Sanders in the primaries. It was essentially a free shot, a costless way to elevate our issues. As protest campaigns, Sanders’s efforts in 2016 and 2020 were brilliant successes.
The other problem in Barkan regarding assessments of the state of socialism in the U.S. is glossing over the reality that threats from the Right drag us further from the objective, but do not change its basic direction nor erase the surge of interest in left politics. In particular, progress will depend on preventing Republican takeovers of Congress and the White House. Failure means the boulder we have to push on rolls further down the hill.
DSA’s problem is that it is split between practical and impossibilist notions of socialism. It trades on past association with Bernie Sanders, as well as with his open advocacy of democratic socialism, and can boast of political accomplishments, but many within it are struggling to get the organization to a different place. The uncertainty and ambiguity generated by this tug of war at least partly explains the decline in membership from over 90,000 to more like 60,000 now.
The tip-off to the deficiencies of the further-left in DSA is their open attacks on Sanders allies such as Reps Jamaal Bowman and even AOC, along with an unprincipled avoidance of such criticisms of Sanders himself, who after all has utterly identical politics with the others. There is constant invective against “electoralism,” with little hint of the alternative, other than continued grassroots organizing. I suspect putschist fantasies.
Barkan undoes his argument by admitting, “In 2023, socialism is still, relative to even a decade ago, enjoying a remarkable resurgence.” There are a few odd bits too, such as his book-ending the “Socialist Alternative” sect to DSA. SA is a tiny group on a slow boat to nowhere.
The main elephant in the room of 2023-24 politics is the anti-woke B.S., founded on the upsurge in prejudice against all those falling outside the circle of white, heterosexual, male native-born citizens. DSA could have a notable impact there. It’s usual vice — a weak grip on ordinary politics, — becomes a virtue, because it is free from conventional pols’ impulses to propitiate ignorant, popular opinion. I like the analogy to anti-racism in the 1930s, which was upheld primarily by the otherwise isolated Communist and Socialist Parties.