08 July 2010

Is this 'Socialism Now?'

Michael Kazin introduces a Dissent magazine symposium on the modern state of socialism with a quote from Eugene V. Debs, the leading American socialist of a century ago: "The Socialist movement is as wide as the world....its mission is to win the world, the whole world, from animalism, and consecrate it to humanity." Kazin goes on to note: "The history of the twentieth century made such confidence quite impossible." What interested me about the Debs quote wasn't his confidence but his use of the word animalism to describe, presumably, capitalism. I wanted to read more of that speech, so I googled the phrase Kazin quotes. It comes from a speech Debs composed for a phonograph record, though the recording was actually made by an actor impersonating Debs. The full speech can be found here, but I want to call attention to a particular passage.

The historic mission of Capitalism has been to exploit the forces of nature, place them at the service of man, augmenting his productive capacity a thousand-fold, to turn as if by magic, the shallow, sluggish dreams into rushing, roaring Niagaras of wealth, leaving to the toilers who produced it, a greater poverty, insecurity, and anguish than before. The mission of Socialism is to release these imprisoned productive forces from the vandal horde that has seized them, that they may be operated, not spasmodically, and in the interests of a favored class, as at present, but freely, and in the common interest of all.(emphasis added)

Strong language, again: capitalists are a vandal horde, barbarians by implication, exemplars of animalism as opposed to humanity. I looked in vain for similar language from the four authors who participated in the Dissent symposium, all of whom were struggling to clarify exactly what socialism offers to people. I learned from Shari Berman, for instance, that socialism has been in rhetorical trouble since Debs's own time. Berman notes how socialism evolved in different directions at the end of the 19th century. One route was Lenin's, the way of the vanguard party and its tyranny over the state and everyone in it. The other route is known as "revisionism" and was founded on the presumption that an actual workers' revolution was not as inevitable as Karl Marx believed. Revisionism itself evolved into "social democracy" or "democratic socialism;" whatever you called it, it meant an emphasis on using political power to improve conditions for workers through taxation, regulations on industry, and so on. Berman's article goes into a lot of intriguing detail in just a few pages, but it ends up being a rather demoralizing account of how non-Leninist socialism became a non-violent variation on the vanguard party idea. While Lenin's Bolsheviks and their many imitators believed it the Party's business to tell everyone what to do, many socialists believed it was a socialist government's business to take care of the working class rather than empower it. Their object was less to win the world from animalism than it was "taming and domesticating the capitalist beast." Indeed, a wise social democrat, Berman presumes, acknowledges that "capitalism is the only economic game in town [while] the Left's energeies, both intellectual and practical, should be devoted to taming and restructuring it." Berman is unlikely to call a capitalist an animal or a vandal. Is that progress?

Robin Blackburn echoes Berman's emphasis on taming. "The socialist aim should be to tame and 'socialize' market forces on a national, regional and global basis -- but not to aim at outright suppression of the market," Blackburn writes. He likes Marx's insistence that "the free development of each requires the free development of all," and would like to see Americans interpret their "pursuit of happiness" as something more than an individual right. But his socialism still looks like an adaptation rather than a replacement of capitalism. He hopes that continued state intervention on the 2008 model will save capitalism, and he wants governments to retain some ownership of bailed-out businesses or industries in order to regulate responsible growth and distribute revenues. This is certainly socialism in the feverish imagination of reactionaries -- and since this is a socialist writing, I guess they're right -- but I still feel like I'm missing something. Isn't socialism on some level supposed to be about workers' control of the means of production? A regime of socially conscious bureaucrats and regulators isn't quite the same thing.

"Socialists continue to believe what we have always believed," Jack Clark writes, "that we need to shape the economy to meet human needs. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around. Profit-maximizing corporations distort the economy and the polity." That sounds better, and I also like what Clark says about financial reform: "Don't leave it to the experts." The experts, he reminds us, got us into trouble in the first place. On other fronts, too, "the experts who tell us that we can't afford to do these things are the same wise men (and they are mostly men) who assured us that the [economic] crisis couldn't happen because our financial system was so sophisticated." Clark is all for full employment because "the power of workers grows" that way. But he identifies workers' power with the strength of unions. "Building the labor movement is critical to the creation of a better society," he writes. I don't disagree, but wouldn't a socialist movement ultimately make a labor movement redundant? Shouldn't it?

Michael Walzer seems to be reading my mind when he criticizes the "conventional socialism" that seems to prevail today. Conventional socialism isn't exactly a bad thing; it consists of democracy with strong civil liberties, state regulation of the market, and a welfare state. But Walzer asks, "is that all there is?" Then he asks, "What degree of democratic participation, market regulation, and welfare provision should we aim at?" Beyond that, he proposes a perpetual "socialism-in-the-making" that looks a lot like liberalism to me in its emphasis on process over result.

Unless liberation is self-liberation, it won't work; it won't make us free, on the ground, in everyday life. What is most important, then, is not the final realization of socialist goals, but the process by which they are realized....We think of socialism as a 'final goal,' but what we are really focused on, and what we are really committed to, is the means by which we work to reach that goal. Here is our most intimate and actual ambition. In truth, the people we would most like to be are not the citizens of some future socialist state but the activists and militants struggling to bring it about.

Walzer is concerned about the "iron law of oligarchy," which he sums up thusly: "In the absence of countervailing forces, the powerful get more powerful and the rich get richer, and this is what is going on everywhere, all the time." Socialism is the countervailing force, and "socialism-in-the-making" presumes a constant vigilance against the consolidation of hierarchies and concentrations of power anywhere, including in socialist movements. As he puts it: "Repeated insurgency is the price of equality." Not all insurgencies are equal, however. He warns against mass movements and leaders like those in South America today, the kind that he claims empower only demagogic leaders like Hugo Chavez. Walzer has a healthy mistrust of leader types and self -proclaimed ideological experts. "In politics," he writes, "any claim to esoteric knowledge is dangerous....in any genuine left insurgency, intellectuals are not leaders because they have special knowledge [but] because they are persuasive and energizing, because they are models of commitment and activism."

It could be argued that socialism is a process that depends on a result, and that putting the process before the result is like putting the cart before the horse. To be less proverbial about it, what exactly is the perpetual process of "socialism-in-the-making" aiming at, if it can be said to aim at anything? Maybe I'm still thinking about the wrong movement, because I'm stuck with this nagging idea that socialism has something to do with workers controlling the means of production. Isn't that the final goal? And if "the means by which we work to reach that goal" really matter more than the goal itself, then what exactly do the workers control? Walzer answers: Socialists "have come to believe in the market's capacity to coordinate economic activity, so long as it is subject to democratic control." Is democratic control the same as workers' control? The argument could be made, but it depends on what we mean exactly by "democratic control." If it means that voters control the market by electing conscientious politicians who appoint conscientious bureaucrats and regulators to oversee capitalism, then it isn't exactly a bad thing, but I'm not sure what Debs would make of it. On the evidence of that one speech, he had a moral passion about his version of "socialism in the making" that I find entirely absent in the Dissent writers. Walzer's socialism-in-the-making, the writer warns us, "is the only socialism we will ever know." And he follows that with a quote from Kafka about life being short.

Eugene V. Debs represented socialism at its peak of popularity in America. Whether the Dissent writers represent anything more than themselves is debatable. If the editors wanted to get more people interested in socialism's future, they might have tried printing more Debs.


Anonymous said...

"There is no other definition of socialism for us than that of the abolition of the exploitation of man by man."

Che Guevera

Anonymous said...

As long as these people continue to support the exploitation of the working class, they are not socialists.

As long as the working class allows itself to be exploited by those who consider themselves above the working class, there is no true equality.