Flag-waving socialists -- red flags, that is, showed up at last Saturday's anti-Trump rally in Albany NY, as they almost certainly did at rallies across the country that day. One of them handed me a little brochure entitled "Socialist Party USA: Who We Are, Where We Stand." It's a primitive looking document in a way that might reinforce notions of socialist obsolescence. While it includes a link to a Facebook page (look under "CapitalDistrictSocialistParty") and an email address (their website, by the way is socialistparty-usa,net), from the names of politicians cited, or the absence of more recently famous names, the main might have been written in the last century. That alone doesn't make the Socialists irrelevant, though they seem terribly close to that. Unlike some other leftist parties, it did run a presidential ticket last year, but the heirs of Eugene Debs won barely 2,700 votes in the two states where it made the ballot, as well as Guam. Its candidates had previously run for a seat in the California state assembly and for sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. In the latter case, the 2016 vice-presidential candidate actually won 21% of the vote. But you've never heard of these people and they have few ways to get you to know them. Most likely they depend on self-converted socialists discovering their party -- but what will they find there?
"Socialists believe that the problems facing America and the world, such as environmental despoilation, the systematic waste of public resources for private profit, persistent unemployment concentrated among women and racial minorities, and the maldistribution of wealth, power, and income, are not mere aberrations of the capitalist system -- they are the capitalist system," the brochure explains, "We believe that the use of profitability as the overriding criterion for the production and distribution of goods and services usually leads to decisions which harm the public welfare....Socialists feel that unless at least the 'commanding heights of the economy' are socially owned and democratically controlled, those corporations will use their enormous political and economic clout to circumvent and block political democracy."
Socialists may "differ on details" but the "many different points of view within the Socialist party ... are in agreement with these basic points of democratic socialism." Socialists (or at least these Socialists) see themselves (in an outdated Cold War way) as a "third force" opposed to "all forms of minority rule, whether capitalist, fascist or 'Communist.'" They implicitly differentiate themselves from Marxist-Leninists through their commitment to civil liberties, which they claim can be only "imperfectly" applied under capitalism. The ultimate test of their commitment to civil liberty, of course, would be whether they believe people can say no to Socialism and keep saying no after Socialists win elections.
Moving past the economy, there's a possible inconsistency in their positions on other issues. In time-honored fashion, the SPUSA contends that "it is only by abolishing the root economic causes or war that war will finally be ended." Whether this is inconsistent with other positions they take depends on whether they consider the "root economics causes" of war to be necessary and sufficient. Reading further, we learn that capitalism isn't to blame, and economics can't explain, everything bad. For instance, "The Socialist Party recognizes that the oppression of women pre-dates capitalism and so will not automatically be ended by the transition to democratic socialism." Likewise, in explaining its support for "independent organization by people of color to fight oppression," the SPUSA asserts that "Racism will not be eliminated merely be eliminating capitalism." Where I find a possible inconsistency is in the Socialists' allowance for a motive for chauvinistic domination and oppression independent of capitalist profit motives. If capitalism is not the root cause or racism and sexism, what makes it the root cause of war? If the desire to dominate and discriminate exists independently of capitalism, how sure can Socialists be that abolishing capitalism will abolish war? They trust that "working people around the world have more in common with each other than with their national rulers," but in our time they'll need to do more to address nationalist or "populist" skepticism on that point.
Looking back at the late election, the SPUSA website has nothing good to say about President Trump, of course, but nothing good to say about his main opponent, either.
The election of Donald Trump signals the beginning of a new and dangerous chapter in United States history....This is not to say that Hillary Clinton was a suitable option. We recognize that electing the first woman to the presidency is an important and long-overdue milestone for the United States, but it is incredibly disheartening that the first woman president would have stood in support of the status quo radical feminists have fought so hard to dismantle. Having a woman hold the highest office of government is a hollow victory if that woman perpetuates the systemic oppression that cemented women’s status as second class citizens in the first place....No legitimate socialist or socialist organization would give support to such a person without betraying everything that socialism stands for.
The SPUSA doesn't advocate complete separation from the political establishment. "Most Socialists are deeply involved in other, larger movements," the brochure claims, "and it is from those movements that many new Socialist Party members are recruited....Socialists can be found in the consumers' movement, in the labor movement, in the feminist movement, in the disarmament and peace movements [etc.]" While working "to promote the immediate aims of those movements" Socialists should try to "push those reforms an extra mile" and persuade colleagues that "for their goals to be fully achieved requires fundamental change." All well and good, but in our time some people may be asking whether we need more fundamental change than Socialists are offering. Socialism's future depends on whether socialists recognize this, and how they respond to the question.