A season’s reflections on socialism
Sam Webb, December 23 2014
This season, besides gaiety, good food and drink (and may all of us have an abundance of these), brings moments of quiet reflection. Sometimes the reflection is of a personal nature; other times, it’s about the larger world in which we live.
Both are good for the soul. But here, I’m going to stick with the larger world – and making it a better one – with some reflections on socialism. It is a subject on which my thinking has changed significantly over the past decade, and continues to evolve.
And that’s good! Over time I have learned that in politics, standing still is seldom a wise choice, especially when things change, and they always do.
Reflection 1: I begin with the unexpected implosion of the Soviet Union nearly a quarter century ago. One moment this seemingly sturdy socialist edifice was a major presence in world politics and the next moment – poof! – it was gone.
Not surprisingly, the demise of that first land of socialism, whose revolutionary beginning in 1917 constituted a sea change in the international class struggle, triggered a debate that will likely continue for a long time. While I don’t claim to be a historian, I offer one thought:
The fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t the singular handiwork of its then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as some have suggested. I don’t doubt that Gorbachev played a role in the meltdown, but leaving the analysis here misses the forest for the trees.
The “forest” – the bigger picture – was the Soviet model of socialism that took shape in the 1930s, became entrenched, acquired a political constituency at the leadership and mass level, and proved resistant to any fundamental change till the very end.
This model didn’t come out of any Marxist textbook. It was a specific historical product. It was the outcome of an extraordinarily tumultuous 10-year period, in which a peasant-based economy and society, hyper-industrialization, an autocratic political culture, the looming war against Hitler and Nazism, competing political and class forces, and especially the personality and policies of Joseph Stalin clashed and left a deep and lasting imprint on the main features and dynamics of Soviet socialism.
Soviet society during this period was modernized, struck – at great cost in human life – the decisive blow against the Nazi war machine, evolved into a world power, registered notable achievements in the provision of jobs, education and other public services, science and culture, and overcame many long-standing divisions and inequalities.
But the price paid was nearly incalculable, in two ways.
First, the authoritarian and at times improvisational “forced march to socialism” snuffed out the lives of millions of victims, including substantial numbers of communist leaders and members. In the name of building socialism in one country and combating the class enemy, Stalin and his acolytes committed crimes on a vast scale. Only later was this sordid chapter in socialism’s history finally condemned by the Soviet Communist Party and the world communist movement.
Second, the command-style, undemocratic structures of political and economic governance were deeply rooted and persisted long after Stalin’s death. These structures – and the political constituencies that controlled and gained advantage from them in various ways – were resistant to necessary economic renovation and democratization in the second half of the 20th century. All of this gradually and inexorably sucked the dynamism and liberating potential out of Soviet socialism. By the 1980s, stagnation, exhaustion and cynicism came to define the society.
Any analysis that fails to place these historical dynamics at its core will yield only the most surface, superficial insights as to why the Soviet Union fell so quickly and with no popular resistance. At the same time, making a deeper historical-political analysis doesn’t preclude recognizing other causative factors – including the role of Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders who lost confidence in socialism and its capacity for renovation, the unrelenting pressures of U.S. imperialism, and so on – but it doesn’t turn them into the main explanation for the collapse.
Reflection 2: If our vision of socialism is simply a slightly modified version of what existed in the 20th century, don’t expect a crowd to embrace it. I have said on more than one occasion that using a rear view mirror to construct a vision of socialism won’t fill the bill.
Only a vision that is modern, forward looking, democratic, and home grown will capture the imagination of the American people – not to mention meet the challenges of this century. It has to be sunk in our own realities, traditions, and sensibilities in the first (and last) place.
Moreover, socialism’s vision shouldn’t be reduced to economic structures, relations, planning, and growth rates, or how big a basket of material goods it provides.
What should figure large is socialism’s commitment and capacity to expand the boundaries of human freedom and equality, as it completes the unfinished democratic tasks left over from the American Revolution and Civil War. It must place ordinary people – and this is paramount – at the center of creating a new society. It must accent the full, free, and many-sided development of the individual along with the expansion of collective rights like the right to organize. It must paint in many colors new arrangements of collective living and working.
And it should insist that political power be subordinated to a set of values, as well as embedded in and checked by a thoroughly democratic culture and institutions.
Furthermore, political power and its exercise cannot be the property, constitutionally or otherwise, of any one party or centralized state. Socialism should diffuse power broadly among the people and a range of institutions. If the 20th century taught us anything it is that a singular emphasis on the question of class and political power (a means) at the expense of socialist values and aims (a purpose) can easily lead to major distortions of democracy, massive crimes against people, and eventually the loss of legitimacy, and defeat.
In short, socialism’s vision and practice in the 21st century must give new vigor to, and in some cases recover, its democratic, emancipatory, humanistic, people-centered essence.
Reflection 3: It is evident that some sections of the American people are gravitating toward a radical critique of society. And furthermore, this gravitation towards radical change, inconsistent and uneven as it is, is explained in no small measure by the giving way of one era in which U.S. capitalism was relatively dynamic, stable, and broadly lifting standards, to a new era defined by instability, inequality, heightened exploitation, and economic crises.
Economic crisis alone, however, is not the sole cause of revolutionary change. The soil is prepared via the cumulative impact of many different crises – economic, political, social, and moral – taking place over time, during which people’s understanding gains in sophistication (going beyond “them and us” and “the system sucks”), unity broadens and deepens, and organizational capacities and infrastructures grow by leaps and bounds.
In other words, the old notion of economic breakdown followed by “the revolution” should be retired. It should be replaced by an understanding of a more protracted and complicated political/historical process, which will surely have more than one stage and shifts in initiative, momentum, popular thinking, and power, as we see today in Latin America.
Reflection 4: Socialism, it is correctly said, must be the product of an engaged, united, and politically sophisticated majority. But it doesn’t follow that such a majority will simply emerge out of everyday struggles in the absence of a growing, equally engaged, and broad, nonsectarian left. To think it will just emerge out of struggles is as mistaken as the inverse, namely, thinking that socialism will be the product of an energized and radical minority. Both are bound up with and depend on each other. And without a broad, deep, and durable alliance between them, a socialist future is a pipe dream.
Reflection 5: The struggle for democracy (economic and social as well as political) is at the core of the struggle for socialism. It’s not a diversion or a second-order task. Of overriding importance in this regard is the struggle against racism and male supremacy and for equality. Not only do these interrelated struggles bring long overdue justice to tens of millions, but they are also a cornerstone of higher levels of unity and understanding in the working-class and people’s movements at every stage of struggle, socialist included.
Reflection 6: We have seen over the past four decades an unrelenting ruling-class offensive, the rise of right-wing extremism and neoliberalism, and large-scale economic transformations in the global economy and the size and structure of the working class (including a historically unprecedented expansion of the pool of cheap, unprotected, and exploitable pool of labor worldwide). But to turn this new socio-economic environment, in which organized labor is fighting for its life, into a rationale for bidding farewell to the working class as a political actor in the 21st century is wrongheaded.
There is no way to win radical democracy and socialism without labor figuring prominently in the leadership of the broader movement. What other social constituency has labor’s resources, institutional strength, and power?
Reflection 7: A socialist movement needs a revolutionary theory. At its core is Marxism, but it must also include our country’s revolutionary-democratic traditions and other schools of radical social theory. But theory becomes a guide to action only if creatively applied and developed, only if it captures the complexity, contradictions and contingency in everyday life. Cut-and-dried formulas, simplistic answers, and high-sounding slogans with no reflection in concrete reality are of little help.
If the left hopes to evolve into a major political player in the politics of the U.S., practical engagement in everyday struggles is an absolute necessity. But at the same time, that is not enough, and never will be. The left has to distinguish itself at the level of ideas as well as practice. And that takes hard work and study, collective and individual, a robust infrastructure and a culture that builds theoretical capacities every bit as much as organizational ones. As a someone once said, humans do not live by bread alone; they also need ideas, understanding and inspiration.
Reflection 8: There is considerable resistance on the left to embracing the concept that the struggle goes through phases and stages, each with its own particular balance of power and particular class and democratic tasks. It’s as if political will and a resistance alone are enough to bring us to socialism.
A case in point is the near refusal by many radicals to acknowledge differences of any consequence between the Republican and Democratic parties. A while ago, I read an editorial in a left journal introducing a special edition on strategy. There was not a single mention in that editorial of the rise of right-wing extremism, which, among other things, dominates the Republican Party, controls roughly 25 state governments, and is one election away from controlling every branch of the federal government.
Now if this article were the exception, I wouldn’t bring it up, but it isn’t. The analysis of many on the left boils down to this: both parties have “blood on their hands” and bow down to Wall Street.
These are neither brilliant insights nor good guides to action. Indeed, they obscure the differences between the two capitalist parties on a whole range of questions, their very different social bases, and the utterly anti-working-class, racist, misogynist, super-militarist, anti-immigrant, deeply reactionary and authoritarian worldview and program of the Republicans.
Understanding these differences and their strategic and tactical implications is essential if the left is to assist in moving the country beyond the current political impasse to the higher ground of substantive social justice, sustainability, and eventually socialism.
Thinking of the major turning points in our nation’s history makes me believe that socialism in the U.S. will never become a reality without stages of struggle, changes of tack, compromises, unreliable and conditional allies, and tensions between competing tasks. It will never happen without taking advantage of rifts in the ruling and political elite, without a keen sense of mass moods (not our mood), without experienced, modest, and astute leaders, leading organizations that are transparent, democratic, and able to activate people at the grassroots, without a big and lasting footprint in the legislative and electoral arena, and without a sustained and broad-scale struggle for democracy. Isn’t it ridiculous in the extreme to think otherwise?
Thus the left – not to mention the larger movement – has to allow for complexity, contradiction, and a shifting terrain of struggle on which it elaborates and re-elaborates its strategic, tactical, and class and democratic tasks to fit changing conditions of struggle. The point of political engagement isn’t to feel righteous or conjure up “get socialism quick schemes.” It is to change the world.
Reflection 9: Socialism must give priority to sustainability, not growth without limits, not growth that degrades the natural conditions that make the production and reproduction of life and human society in its infinite variety of forms possible.
Humankind now faces changes in our planet’s climate that could not only make socialism a mere dream, but make the Earth itself uninhabitable. If there is a more defining struggle in this century I’m not sure what it is.
But while its full resolution will require socialism, humanity – and certainly socialist-minded people – can’t wait for socialism to address the dangers of climate change as well as environmental degradation. These dangers must be front and center now! We are approaching tipping points which if reached will give global warming a momentum that human actions will have little or no control over.
Standing in the way of any mitigation of climate change – not to mention every other progressive change on the political agenda – is, in the first place, right-wing extremism and powerful global energy corporations. Only a broad and diverse movement stands a chance of defeating this entrenched and powerful political bloc and, in doing so, taking a first and absolutely necessary step to protect and sustain Earth and life on it – and the possibility of a socialist future.
This winter solstice week we see the return of the light as the days start to get longer. I hope my nine reflections on socialism shed some light as well at this turn-of-the-year season. I’ll continue to ponder them through the holidays and beyond, and hope you do too.