Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
By Michael Steven Smith
October 23, 2015
The word socialism is in the air these days. It gets the most hits on the Merriam Webster Dictionary website. Even though he is running in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. Over in England left socialist Jeremy Corbyn was recently elected the head of the British Labor Party as a consequence of a social movement that saw thousands of young people joining his organization.
Likewise in America an estimated 200,000 people have volunteered to work for Sanders. The success of Sanders and Corbyn is reflective of the beginnings of broad anti-capitalist social movements here and abroad, especially in Greece and Spain. Why?
Millions listened with sympathy to what Pope Francis said in his speech to the Congress had to say on inequality, poverty, nuclear disarmament, and the sale of arms for war. His encyclical on climate change clearly takes on the capitalist economic system. People understand that it works for the 1% but has been a disaster for the rest of us. In a Pew poll three years ago 49% of young people under the age of 30 responded that they had a favorable reaction to the word socialism. Now it is likely high among adults as well.
Six people in the Walton family (Walmart) are worth as much as the bottom 40% of the population of the USA. Some 400 families give most of the money to election campaigns leading Jimmy Carter to reflect, at age 90, that "We've become an oligarchy instead of a democracy. " Since the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court corporations are considered people with respect to the unlimited amount of money they can donate in an election. I will consider a corporation a person the day it gets a colonoscopy.
I recently co-edited a book of 31 original essays called "Imagine: Living In a Socialist USA". Before he agreed to publish it, the executive at HarperCollins asked me what my definition of socialism was. I responded, "It is economic as well as political democracy." He smiled and offered a contract.
Our book shows how almost everything would be different in socialist America: housing, medicine, food, education, sexuality, welfare, art, women's rights, law, media, immigration, racism, and ecological preservation. This is so, as our most well-known and respected intellectual Albert Einstein, who was a socialist, wrote, because socialism is humanity's attempt "to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development." Our most renowned moral figure the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King Jr. noted in a posthumously published essay titled "A testament of hope, "the real issue to be faced is "the radical reconstruction of society itself. ".
Racism is impossible to eliminate under capitalism because it is used by the system to divide and conquer. Race gives class its intensity. Young activists for Black Lives Matter, immigrants rights, prison abolition, living wage, and climate justice are opening eyes to state violence and the profound impact of racism in our country.
For far too long, socialism has been branded a system of state control and as such it has not been able to gain a foothold.
In our book historian Paul LeBlanc argues persuasively for a third American Revolution mounted by "a broad left-wing coalition" that could spark a mass socialist movement. Socialism, he writes, "involves people taking control of their own lives, shaping their own futures, together controlling resources that make such freedom possible....Socialism will come to nothing if it is not a movement of the great majority in the interests of the great majority....People become truly free through their own efforts. "
Socialists have quite a record as participants and leaders in the great reforms of our society. This includes defending civil liberties and starting the American Civil Liberties Union, struggling to end racism, now through support for Black Lives Matter and helping to start the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the anti-slavery movement before and during the Civil War, the fight for women's right to vote, birth control, the end of child labor and for public education including kindergartens. Socialists helped form the Congress of Industrial Organizations and win the eight hour day, the weekend, Social Security, Worker's Compensation, and Unemployment Insurance . They were in the leadership of opposition to the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq and the support of nuclear disarmament. They are for gay rights, immigrant rights, universal healthcare, prisoner's rights and oppose the death penalty. And on the question of all questions, they side with Pope Francis in understanding that without the abolition of the capitalist economic system of production for profit not for human needs the destruction of the planet is insured.
As socialist John Lennon sang: "You may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one/ I hope someday you'll join us/And the world will live as one."
[Michael Steven Smith is a New York city attorney, author and editor. He is the co-host of the radio show Law and Disorder.]
By Van Gosse
October 27, 2015
It's a fine irony that after years of allegations President Obama was a covert "socialist," we now have the genuine article in Senator Bernard Sanders, and no one knows what to make of his unblushing socialism. In part this is due to the anti-intellectualism endemic to America, and the provincialism of those who consider themselves intellectuals in America. No one knows much about socialism; all have felt free to disparage anyone who does. Sanders' surging candidacy, combined with the prairie fire sweeping Latin America and now Europe, is the come-uppance to all this know-nothingism regarding one of the world's major political traditions.
Socialism of many varieties has been enjoying a comeback in Latin America for some time. Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Lula da Silva of Brazil, the late Hugo Chavez have been the region's dominant leaders in this century. And now there is a remarkable resurgence of European socialism, no longer just a shopworn label for tired parties which long ago renounced their Marxist commitments. The deep roots of socialism's opposition to capitalism as an amoral system of exploitation can be seen in the electoral victories of PODEMOS in Spain and Greece's Syriza, in the formation of new radical Marxist parties in continental Europe's leading powers (Die Linke in Germany, the Front de Gauche in France), and, most recently, in Britain's Labor Party leadership contest, won by Jeremy Corbyn, an uncorrupted man of the left like Sanders.
The American punditocracy can gnash its teeth, but the members of Labor have spoken loudly -- they want no more of Tony Blair's neoliberal truckling to capitalism and New Labor's acceptance of "austerity" at the expense of social rights won by Labor over the past century, above all the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS was the postwar creation of Labor's greatest prime minister, Clement Attlee, and his Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, a Welsh coalminer. If you want to be reminded of what a real socialist sounds like, hear Bevin in 1948, denouncing England's ruling class Conservatives as "lower than vermin." Socialism was then a fighting faith, and the appearance of Sanders, Corbyn, and many more at the heart of modern capitalism suggest it might be so again.
But what difference does it make in the U.S. context that Sanders is an avowed socialist? Why should anyone care, given that his policy prescriptions already place him firmly on the Democratic left? Shouldn't we care more about policies than ideological labels?
Here are some reasons why it matters that Senator Sanders has identified himself as a democratic socialist for the past 40 years. First, the socialism Sanders avows is part of an American tradition hardly anyone talks about outside of history classes. Sanders calls himself a "Debsian socialist." Just over 100 years ago, the former railroad union leader Eugene V. Debs received six percent as the American Socialist Party's candidate in 1912's presidential contest, during which the two leading candidates (Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt) were pulled to the left by his attacks on corporate capitalism. This number alone does not impress. More substantive is that Debs' party held well over 1,000 elected offices in its pre-World War One heyday, and the socialist tradition lasted into the 1930s, 40s and 50s in industrial cities like Bridgeport, Connecticut, Reading, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all of which had Socialist mayors. By then, there were two versions of American socialism, one democratic and reformist, the other authoritarian and revolutionary. For a while, the latter was more attractive, as during the New Deal and World War Two, about 1 million Americans passed through the Communist Party, mainly Eastern European immigrants and African Americans attracted to its militant interracial trade unionism, despite its pro-Soviet loyalties.
But Sanders' socialism is not primarily about reviving one strand of American radicalism. Around the world, socialism remains a potent idea -- to be not just "populist" or "anti-corporate," but anti-capitalist, imagining a world where, indeed, society is organized on the principle "from each according to his or her ability" and "to each according to his or her need." A significant fraction of the world's people, especially in Europe's social democracies and Latin America, define themselves as socialists. Obviously, there are many varieties, from Canada's New Democrats to Cuba's Communists. A few still support one-party rule, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most socialists recognize the absolute necessity of building a pluralist democracy with full rights for everyone, capitalist and anti-capitalist.
The variety of socialism that Bernie Sanders supports is the Scandinavian or Canadian model, in which the government acts on behalf of all of society to guarantee social and human rights: the right to decent health, to education, to employment, to a long life free from worries about old age. Capitalism doesn't just fail to ensure such rights and "social goods," it actively blocks them in its insistence on taking profit anywhere it can.
The senator talks of having a "class analysis," which means analyzing the differences in power and influence between different social classes. If you live in the American fairyland where almost everybody is "middle class," and it's rude to acknowledge the dominance of a permanent monied elite, than such talk is strange. But all societies are organized into classes -- those who produce wealth (workers, including the vast numbers in "service industries"), those who control the wealth produced by others (capitalists), in between the professionals and managers who facilitate this process, including university professors, as well as small businesspeople and the self-employed. Obviously, this is a spectrum, not a set of simple categories, but it is the reality we inhabit, and Sanders speaks for the large majority who are neither capitalists nor part of the professional-managerial class. He asserts the capitalist class has claimed the overwhelming preponderance of power in our political system, and that this domination is wrong: working people, the working class majority, should rule, if this is to be a real democracy. That would be socialism.
What would a working-class government actually look like? Let's concede the obvious: Sanders is no Castro; he does not propose to nationalize all private property and hurry the capitalists into exile. If Sanders turned this country into a social democracy, we would probably look a lot more like Germany, a highly advanced economy in which employees are guaranteed a share of decision-making on all major corporate boards via their unions, and excellent health care and world-class education are free to all. Yet capitalism is also alive and well in Germany, as the social-democratic version of socialism presumes a mixed economy.
If you think, as many on the American Right seem to, that public libraries and public schools and Medicaid and a minimum wage are all evidence of a creeping socialist tyranny, then what Bernie Sanders proposes must seem truly frightening. But in most of the world, it's simply part of common sense. Maybe it's time we catch up with socialism, or just "socialize" our democracy.
[Van Gosse is a historian and author specializing in American political development, the African-American struggle for citizenship and American society in the Cold War era and since. He is author of Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America, and the Making of a New Left, The Movements of the New Left 1950-1975, and the forthcoming We Are Americans: Black Politics and the Origins of Black Power in Antebellum America. His book Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book for 2006 and will be published in translation in the People's Republic of China.]
Thanks to the authors for sending thier columns to Portside.