Socialism Informs the Best of Our Politics – The case for democratic socialism in the 21st century.

In this clas­sic arti­cle from the Feb­ru­ary 24 — March 8, 1988 issue of In These Times, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca founder Michael Har­ring­ton explains why the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of both pow­er and eco­nom­ics is crit­i­cal to human lib­er­a­tion, the impor­tance of com­bat­ting run­away cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism, and why left­ists should proud­ly claim the man­tle of U.S. socialism. 

“There is no question now as to whether there will be radical change in the immediate future. It is already under way. The only issue is how it will be carried out.”

Is social­ism rel­e­vant to the late 20th and 21st cen­turies? And if so what does one mean by ​social­ism”? In any case, why iden­ti­fy as a social­ist in the Unit­ed States where the very word invites mis­un­der­stand­ing, at best, and a fran­tic, igno­rant rejec­tion at worst? Final­ly, giv­en all of these prob­lems why build a social­ist orga­ni­za­tion in this country? 

First, the social­ist cri­tique of pow­er under both cap­i­tal­ism and Com­mu­nism is not only sub­stan­tial in and of itself; it also makes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the cause of incre­men­tal reform as well as to a rad­i­cal restruc­tur­ing of society. 

Pow­er, that cri­tique argues, is sys­temic, North, South, East and West, and repro­duces itself along with its mutu­al­ly rein­forc­ing social evils. In the var­i­ous sys­tems of pow­er in the world today, the con­trol of invest­ment and basic eco­nom­ic allo­ca­tions is not the only source of dom­i­na­tion — racism and sex­ism per­sist in all sys­tems — but it is its sin­gle most impor­tant con­stituent. Those in charge of invest­ment, be they cor­po­rate exec­u­tives or com­mis­sars, will claim and get unequal treat­ment for them­selves on the grounds that they act in the inter­est of the future of the entire soci­ety and must there­fore have the resources to do their job. And those who are exclud­ed from that func­tion will be forced to pay all the social costs of deci­sions made on high. 

An under­stand­ing of homelessness 

In a super­fi­cial analy­sis, the tremen­dous growth of home­less­ness in the late 1970s and 1980s is sim­ply a result of the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of men­tal patients in the 1960s. But that analy­sis con­tra­dicts the data, which increas­ing­ly shows that the home­less are fam­i­lies and that two thirds of them do not have his­to­ries of men­tal and emo­tion­al prob­lems. It also fails to explain why the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the 1960s did not lead to a dra­mat­ic rise in home­less­ness until the late 1970s. 

A more seri­ous — lib­er­al — analy­sis would rec­og­nize that this home­less­ness is a func­tion of decreased real income and increased pover­ty among the wage-earn­ing poor and a decline in the sup­ply of pri­vate and gov­ern­ment-spon­sored afford­able hous­ing. From this point of view, one would quite right­ly attack New York May­or Ed Koch for pro­vid­ing tax incen­tives for the destruc­tion of sin­gle-room-occu­pan­cy hotels (SROs), while at the same time not­ing that the SROs them­selves were utter­ly inad­e­quate even if they were bet­ter than the streets. 

A social­ist analy­sis would deep­en those lib­er­al insights. It would see Koch’s action as one more exam­ple of the sys­tem at work: of gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy sub­si­diz­ing pri­vate, prof­it-mak­ing and often anti-social pri­or­i­ties, usu­al­ly on the grounds of a ​trick­le-down” the­o­ry. It would under­stand the decline in the real wage and the increase in the pover­ty of work­ing peo­ple as a stan­dard sys­temic response to the cri­sis of prof­itabil­i­ty and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in the mid-1970s. And it would stress not sim­ply a pro­gram for decent ​shel­ter,” but the neces­si­ty of democ­ra­tiz­ing the entire process of invest­ment in this, and oth­er, basic needs of life. It would also show that, had the com­mu­ni­ty health cen­ters pro­ject­ed in the 1960s been built — or more broad­ly, if Amer­i­ca had a nation­al health pro­gram — then the prob­lem of the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­ized men­tal patients would nev­er have became the out­rage it now is. 

That social­ist con­cep­tion of a hous­ing pro­gram would not, how­ev­er, sim­ply spec­i­fy so many ​units.” It would urge a planned devel­op­ment of racial­ly and social­ly inte­grat­ed com­mu­ni­ties with pub­lic spaces and facil­i­ties for new insti­tu­tions of neigh­bor­hood democ­ra­cy and con­trol. And it would try to reach out to build polit­i­cal sup­port for such an under­tak­ing by unit­ing the home­less in a coali­tion with young fam­i­lies from the work­ing class and mid­dle class as well as with seniors who do not want to be seg­re­gat­ed on the basis of age. 

Chang­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of power 

The social­ist point is that these var­i­ous reforms, which many lib­er­als would sup­port on an ad hoc basis, must be as coher­ent as the struc­tures they oppose. What is need­ed is not sim­ply a new hous­ing bill but a new way of mak­ing and design­ing social invest­ments in areas of crit­i­cal need. And even if one has to set­tle polit­i­cal­ly for some­thing less than that, a pro­pos­al designed on the basis of a social­ist analy­sis will be dif­fer­ent than one which is the prod­uct of lib­er­al con­cern with a sin­gle issue. For exam­ple, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ronald Del­lums’ (D‑CA) nation­al health bill gives peo­ple at the base a say in non tech­ni­cal med­ical deci­sions; it is not just a mat­ter of ​health insur­ance.” And indeed, every social­ist pro­gram is about chang­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er in the way deci­sions are made. 

The Sovi­et Union and the Third World 

Sim­i­lar­ly, a social­ist response to what is hap­pen­ing under Gor­bachev in the Sovi­et Union would not sim­ply stress the impor­tance of pur­su­ing peace nego­ti­a­tions even more vig­or­ous­ly in order to encour­age Glas­nost and Per­e­stroi­ka. It would put Gorbachev’s pro­gres­sive, but tech­no­crat­ic, reforms in the con­text of an analy­sis which would see bureau­crat­ic resis­tance to change in the Sovi­et Union as a func­tion of an anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem of pow­er in which even pos­i­tive ini­tia­tives are ini­ti­at­ed behind the backs of the peo­ple. And it would argue that Amer­i­can uni­lat­er­al peace ini­tia­tives toward ver­i­fi­able Big Pow­er agree­ments may well — and hope­ful­ly will — cre­ate the long run con­di­tions for a democ­ra­ti­za­tion of Sovi­et soci­ety which goes beyond any­thing now on the agen­da in Moscow. 

In the case of the Third World, one can be even more spe­cif­ic. The response to the inter­na­tion­al debt cri­sis — and the glob­al struc­ture of inequal­i­ty under­ly­ing it — by the Social­ist Inter­na­tion­al, under the lead­er­ship of Michael Man­ley, for­mer Min­is­ter of Jamaica, and Willy Brandt, for­mer Chan­cel­lor of West Ger­many (and, until his death, of Olof Palme, Prime Min­is­ter of Swe­den), is a per­fect exam­ple of what is need­ed. A major trans­fer of funds from North to South, the Inter­na­tion­al has shown, could cre­ate jobs in the First World as well as the Third. Inter­na­tion­al jus­tice could be an engine of growth for U.S. work­ers. It could pro­vide an alter­na­tive to chau­vin­ist atti­tudes, which some­times accom­pa­ny the jus­ti­fied anger of peo­ple under advanced cap­i­tal­ism with the sys­temic irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty of mul­ti-nation­al corporations. 

New depar­tures

All these neg­a­tives and crit­i­cism are well and good, some­one might say. But isn’t the social­ist move­ment itself in a pro­found cri­sis even in those coun­tries where it has a mass base? What about the spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure of the French Social­ists when they had an absolute par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty and con­trol of the pres­i­den­cy as well? 

There is no doubt that the ​Key­ne­sian” ver­sion of social democ­ra­cy — a mixed cor­po­rate econ­o­my in which social­ist gov­ern­ments extract a sur­plus for wel­fare mea­sures, but leave basic invest­ment deci­sions in pri­vate hands — which dom­i­nat­ed the Euro­pean move­ment from 1950 to about 1975, is in a pro­found cri­sis. The French social­ists were sub­ject­ed to the bru­tal dis­ci­pline of the world’s banks because their social­ly based Key­ne­sian pro­grams gen­er­at­ed more jobs in Japan and Ger­many than in France. Even as one search­es for a new response to this real­i­ty, it should be not­ed that this is one more exam­ple of elite cor­po­rate pow­er — in this case exer­cised by multi­na­tion­al banks and cor­po­ra­tions. The con­tem­po­rary chal­lenge to social­ism, how­ev­er, requires new depar­tures, not fatal­is­tic surrender. 

At the very ori­gins of the mod­ern social­ist move­ment in the 19th cen­tu­ry, there was a basic insight which will be even truer in the 21st cen­tu­ry than when it was first for­mu­lat­ed. Cap­i­tal­ism was under­stood as a sys­tem of pri­vate social­iza­tion, cre­at­ing a gen­uine world mar­ket for the first time in human his­to­ry, apply­ing sci­ence to pro­duc­tion, and link­ing peo­ple togeth­er in an unprece­dent­ed inter­de­pen­dence. But because that social­iza­tion was pri­vate, it was pur­sued at the expense of soci­ety. Social­ism was con­ceived of as a pro­gram of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­iza­tion from below, as a move­ment to put the peo­ple in con­trol of the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions which deter­mine so much about their lives. 

That basic goal has been under­stood over the past cen­tu­ry and a half in many, many ways, some of them wrong, some lead­ing to par­tial vic­to­ries, none even begin­ning to achieve the full­ness of the orig­i­nal vision. And mat­ters were com­pli­cat­ed when, in the Sovi­et Union, a sys­tem of anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic social­iza­tion emerged. There the par­ty-state car­ried out the bru­tal process of accu­mu­la­tion which was the work of cap­i­tal­ism in the West, and used the rhetoric of social­ism to ratio­nal­ize new forms of class rule. 

Now that the Key­ne­sian ver­sion of social­ism is in cri­sis, the mass social­ist move­ments of the world are indeed con­fused and even bewil­dered about the next steps toward demo­c­ra­t­ic social­iza­tion. This is rough­ly the third time that this has hap­pened: it occurred right after World War I when the social­ists sud­den­ly got polit­i­cal pow­er and did not know what to do with it, and at the time of the Depres­sion when, with the excep­tions of the Swedes, there was a gen­er­al pro­gram­mat­ic and polit­i­cal fail­ure of the movement. 

At the same time, the objec­tive need for social­ism has become all the more imper­a­tive. The mul­ti-nation­al­iza­tion of the world econ­o­my is cre­at­ing an increas­ing­ly inter­de­pen­dent globe, strik­ing at the work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties of advanced cap­i­tal­ism as well as at the poor coun­tries. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary new tech­nolo­gies are under­min­ing even the lim­it­ed accom­plish­ments of cap­i­tal­ist wel­fare states. 

The need for inter­na­tion­al demo­c­ra­t­ic socialization 

There is no ques­tion now as to whether there will be rad­i­cal change in the imme­di­ate future. It is already under way. The only issue is how it will be car­ried out. Will it come from on high, at the social and eco­nom­ic cost of the mass of peo­ple in every soci­ety and through a repres­sion of free­dom? Or can social­ists, faced with a real­i­ty they nev­er imag­ined, work out effec­tive pro­grams of struc­tur­al change which move in the direc­tion of a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic social­iza­tion of the world? 

There is now ​too much” food in the world — and peo­ple starv­ing to death; ​too much” steel capac­i­ty and mass­es des­per­ate­ly in need of hous­ing and tran­sit which use steel. And there will be, with­in the next year or two, a cri­sis of the world econ­o­my which will not auto­mat­i­cal­ly engen­der a pro­gres­sive response, but which will make such a polit­i­cal response pos­si­ble. At that point, some of those who now assume that the deter­mi­nants of Reagan’s Amer­i­ca (and Thatcher’s Britain, Kohl’s Ger­many, Chirac’s France, to cite but a few of the obvi­ous cas­es) are eter­nal will look around for a social­ist move­ment with pos­i­tive answers. These can­not be pre­dict­ed now, but it is clear that they will be dis­tinct­ly inter­na­tion­al­ist, antiracist, fem­i­nist and ​green” as well as ori­ent­ed to the work­ing class, both old and new. 

Why a social­ist organization? 

But why not just insist on the social­ist specifics and omit any men­tion of the social­ist name itself? Why not, as Tom Hay­den’s orig­i­nal Cam­paign for Eco­nom­ic Democ­ra­cy of the 1970s pro­posed, social­ism with­out the ​S word”? 

It is not just that the right wing will not let you get away with it, although that is true (they rou­tine­ly denounce lib­er­al­ism as social­ist). It is not even pri­mar­i­ly because the his­toric func­tion of Amer­i­can anti-social­ism is to fight lib­er­al reforms, not a non-exis­tent social­ist threat, and that an attack on that anti-social­ism will broad­en the polit­i­cal spec­trum in a coun­try which has a right and a cen­ter but no real left. Even more impor­tant, if one pre­tends that one is not a social­ist, or speaks in euphemisms, all that is lost is the basic clar­i­ty of analy­sis and pro­gram. You can­not talk, or think, about the present cri­sis with­out under­stand­ing its roots in the sys­temic com­plex of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ist pow­er. We can try to com­mu­ni­cate that fact in the most effec­tive pos­si­ble rhetoric — and many social­ists do wrong­ly think that it is ​rad­i­cal” to talk in such a way as to infu­ri­ate the aver­age Amer­i­can — but we can­not con­ceal the basic real­i­ty from oth­ers and, above all, from ourselves. 

Sec­ond­ly, social­ists have had a sig­nif­i­cant impact upon pow­er in Amer­i­ca even if, for com­plex his­toric rea­sons, they have nev­er come close to achiev­ing pow­er. The role of the 1912 Deb­sian imme­di­ate pro­gram in intro­duc­ing the con­cepts of the wel­fare state of the New Deal is well known (though it is often not rec­og­nized that the 1912 pro­gram is still to the left of what has been achieved). So is the crit­i­cal impor­tance of social­ists, Com­mu­nists, Trot­sky­ists and anar­chists in strug­gling for the the­o­ry and prac­tice of indus­tri­al union­ism, which led to the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions. More recent­ly, David Gar­row has doc­u­ment­ed how Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. saw him­self a part of that social­ist tra­di­tion (a fact that I knew from my own work with Dr. King). And the fem­i­nist, anti-inter­ven­tion­ist and Cit­i­zens’ Action move­ments clear­ly built upon the rad­i­cal tra­di­tion of the 1960s. 

I also think of the gen­er­a­tion of econ­o­mists now in their late thir­ties and ear­ly for­ties, the men and women who will pro­vide many of the prac­ti­cal ideas of the next mass left. Every one of them comes out of the New Left and the social­ist tra­di­tion. How­ev­er they now define them­selves, they are a part of that ongo­ing social­ist con­tri­bu­tion to prac­ti­cal politics. 

But why, then, a social­ist orga­ni­za­tion? Why the back­break­ing, frus­trat­ing work of build­ing DSA against the tremen­dous odds of cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca? Sim­ply put, because there is no indi­vid­u­al­is­tic way of show­ing peo­ple that demo­c­ra­t­ic and com­mu­ni­tar­i­an action is crit­i­cal to the future. More broad­ly, the times are already a‑changing. The moral and intel­lec­tu­al fatigue which so many vet­er­ans of the past twen­ty years feel blinds them to the fact that, with­in a year or two or three, there is going to be a new gen­er­a­tion of change in America. 

I remem­ber the Eisen­how­er — and Joe McCarthy — 1950s. They were worse than any­thing that hap­pened in the Rea­gan 1980s. And when the moment of change came — none of us who had been wait­ing for years for that blessed break under­stood that it actu­al­ly hap­pened on a day in Feb­ru­ary 1960 when four black stu­dents in North Car­oli­na decid­ed to have an inte­grat­ed cup of cof­fee—a dec­i­mat­ed left was utter­ly inca­pable of ris­ing to the enor­mous new opportunities. 

I do not think that the 1960s would have been total­ly dif­fer­ent had there been a con­ti­nu­ity with the rad­i­cal­ism of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s — had there been the equiv­a­lent of a DSA in Feb­ru­ary 1960. I do think that there would have been a dif­fer­ence. Per­haps peo­ple would not have had to spend so much time rein­vent­ing the wheel, some­times bad­ly, and maybe the his­to­ries of Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety and the Stu­dent Non-Vio­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee would have benefited. 

Right now, the dif­fi­cult and labo­ri­ous work of DSA — the strug­gle to make the anti inter­ven­tion move­ment as broad as pos­si­ble and to involve the unions and the church­es in it; the cam­paign to make dis­ar­ma­ment the begin­ning of the work of inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice; the attempt to define the issue of pover­ty and racism and sex­ism as prob­lems of eco­nom­ic and social struc­tures rather than dis­crete evils; the coali­tion meet­ings with activists from the unions, the new social stra­ta, the minor­i­ty move­ments and all the rest — is going to make a pro­found con­tri­bu­tion to the 1990s left.

A new civilization 

We are not going to lead the nation and, thank God, have aban­doned any Mes­sian­ic pre­tense of being the anoint­ed van­guard of his­to­ry. But when the moment comes, when that pil­grim­age of women and men toward the real­iza­tion of their own human­i­ty begins again, as it will, we will be there. DSA itself may well be trans­formed at that moment, its cadres and ener­gy and ideas being absorbed into new orga­ni­za­tion­al forms that we can­not now even imag­ine. And yet it will be there. 

Those who lose heart on the very eve of a new gen­er­a­tion of change should remem­ber the pro­found truth Anto­nio Gram­sci artic­u­lat­ed from an Ital­ian jail cell in a decade that saw the tri­umph of fas­cism — and, with an excep­tion or two, the spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure of social­ism, and the destruc­tion of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion by Stal­in­ism. Social­ism, Gram­sci said, was not a mat­ter of a polit­i­cal vic­to­ry on this or that day, or even this or that decade. It was not an eco­nom­ic pro­gram, a recipe. It was a ​moral and intel­lec­tu­al ref­or­ma­tion,” a fight to trans­form the very cul­ture and will of those who had, since time immemo­r­i­al, been made sub­or­di­nate, the epochal work of the cre­ation of a new civilization. 

We live today in the most rad­i­cal of times; human­i­ty is fight­ing at this very moment over the con­tent of that new civ­i­liza­tion — of a new plan­et, if you will — and that strug­gle will go on beyond the life­time of every one of us. There is no guar­an­tee that the vision of a demo­c­ra­t­ic and com­mu­ni­tar­i­an social­iza­tion will pre­vail over the bureau­crats and the tech­nocrats who abound in this peri­od. All social­ism is — ​all” — is the the­o­ry and prac­tice which seeks to empow­er the peo­ple of the North, South, East and West to take con­trol of their des­tiny for the first time. 

Those who join the move­ment for the imme­di­ate rewards of pow­er are advised to apply else­where. Those who are will­ing to wager their lives on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of free­dom and jus­tice and sol­i­dar­i­ty should pay their dues. 

This post was originally published on Radio Free.