[Marxism] America Can Never Sort Out Whether ‘Socialism’ Is Marginal or Rising

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 22 15:42:03 MDT 2018

(Very perceptive.)

NY Times, July 17, 2018
America Can Never Sort Out Whether ‘Socialism’ Is Marginal or Rising
By Beverly Gage

“Can you donate $5 NOW to defeat the socialist uprising?” a Republican 
congressional candidate tweeted in late June — just after Alexandria 
Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified democratic socialist, won a New York 
congressional primary. Numerically speaking, the socialist “uprising” 
remains small: one safe-seat Democratic primary, a presidential-primary 
near miss by Bernie Sanders, a handful of local races around the country 
and a total membership of about 40,000 for the Democratic Socialists of 
America. What it all means, though, is a different matter. American 
politics may speak in the language of statistics and projections, but 
when it comes to the question of socialism, hard numbers have never 
counted for much. A lot can be a little, and a little can be a lot, and 
either one may or may not be a sign of more in the future.

In 1906, for instance, the German scholar Werner Sombart published a 
classic essay asking, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” 
One answer he identified was workers’ access to “roast beef and apple 
pie,” consumer luxuries that led them to reject European-style class 
politics. But another response is that there was, at the time, actually 
quite a lot more socialism in the United States than Sombart let on, 
particularly in the Midwest. In 1912, 6 percent of the presidential vote 
went to the socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, setting off predictions 
of, well, a socialist uprising.

A strange logic has always surrounded this topic in the United States: 
Both interpretations — that socialism is a dead letter and that it is 
the wave of the future — can exist side by side. At the end of the Cold 
War, we heard that socialism was at last forever vanquished, but in 2009 
Newsweek declared that “We Are All Socialists Now.” By 2016, Sanders’s 
presidential campaign was reviving talk of a “revolution” in the making, 
as if nobody remembered that we had already been socialists for seven years.

Some of this revolution is said to be occurring outside the electoral 
sphere, where trends can be hard to measure. Polls suggest that almost 
half of millennials have a favorable impression of socialism, though 
surveys rarely delve into the details. After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, 
Merriam-Webster reported a surge in look-ups for “socialism” — which 
could be evidence of a significant surge in sympathy and interest, or 
just a reminder that many people in 2018 remain unsure what “socialism” 
really means.

Even among avowed socialists, there’s robust disagreement about what the 
word actually entails. Is it an idea? A set of policies? A political 
identity? Is its presence or absence best measured by public sentiment, 
or by electoral outcomes, or by what happens to Obamacare? Does being a 
good socialist mean trying to win elections and influence policy or 
seeking to transform the entire social order? Can it be all of these 
things at once?

Almost from its origins, the word “socialism” came with modifiers. The 
Oxford English Dictionary has it naming a belief in “state or collective 
ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution and 
exchange for the common benefit of all members of society” — but this 
sort of description is more open-ended than many of socialism’s 
19th-century adherents could embrace. Soon enough there were Fabian 
socialists and Marxian socialists and Debsian socialists, along with 
profusions of anarchists, syndicalists and trade unionists who shared 
one or another element of the socialist dream. “Democratic socialist” 
(or “social democrat”) — the label of choice for politicians like 
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez — emerged around 1848, wedding the collective 
aspirations of socialism to the individual freedoms of democracy, 
suggesting no person could truly be free without some measure of 
economic security.

One result of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is that mainstream news outlets 
have been drawn into this left-wing definitional quagmire, offering up 
awkward primers on the differences between communists and socialists and 
social democrats. “So what are we talking about here?” the host 
Stephanie Ruhle asked in an MSNBC segment, with background graphics 
highlighting that democratic socialism is “NOT Socialism” and “NOT 
Communism” but something more like a fondness for Social Security and 
Amtrak. The D.S.A. itself both embraces and rejects such friendly 
definitions, explaining that it “fights for reforms today” but still 
seeks to overturn “an international economic order sustained by private 
profit, alienated labor” and other forms of exploitation.

Debs wrestled with a similar issue, veering between identifying as a 
“revolutionary” (or even a “Bolshevik”) and seeking to attract a 
respectable number of socialist votes. More than a century ago, he 
founded the Social Democratic Party — later merged into the Socialist 
Party of America — to rally the left around issues like inequality, wage 
insecurity and the corrupting force of money in politics. A few years 
later, he was present at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the 
World, a self-described “revolutionary” union. It was around an 
I.W.W.-led textile strike in 1912 that the organizer Rose Schneiderman 
coined a lasting socialist slogan, declaring that “the worker must have 
bread, but she must have roses, too” — that working people deserved not 
just full bellies but also beauty in their lives.

This spring, fast-food workers at the Burgerville chain in Portland, 
Ore., unionized under I.W.W. auspices. They professed to want what most 
people who join unions want — a raise; “affordable, quality health 
care”; “fair and consistent scheduling” — but also adopted some of the 
I.W.W.’s swashbuckling radicalism, proclaiming that their workplaces 
should run “for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a 
handful of bosses and executives.” At a moment when American unions seem 
to be in free fall, this revival of radical aspirations might be viewed 
as a nonevent — a handful of millennials playing revolutionary in a 
true-blue town. Or, like the victory of a single primary candidate in 
New York, it might be seen as the first hint of a coming “red” wave.

That second interpretation was easier to embrace at the start of the 
20th century, when socialists believed that history was on their side 
and that the tide of human progress would move inexorably in their 
direction. The Bolshevik Revolution seemed to confirm this in 1917, 
creating a home for “actually existing socialism” in a hostile 
capitalist world. But association with the Soviet Union quickly became a 
political liability in America, where “Communist” and “Socialist” were 
all but interchangeable — shorthand for tyranny, disloyalty and treason. 
The end of the Cold War produced reams of self-satisfied commentary 
about how capitalism had won, socialism had lost, ideological struggle 
had ended and the glory days of human freedom lay ahead.

In retrospect, though, rather than foreclosing talk of socialism for 
good, the end of the Cold War seems to have opened up space for a new 
debate, with new terms of argument. When today’s leftists talk about 
socialism, they point to places like Sweden and France (home to robust 
maternity leave and universal health care) or even to lost relics of 
America’s recent past (stable jobs, union power, a collective investment 
in human welfare). On the right, the great socialist specter is not a 
hostile superpower but Venezuela, currently in the throes of 
hyperinflation, food shortages and mass misery. These disparate 
reference points can produce genuinely bizarre miscommunications. In a 
notorious 2018 interview, an Infowars reporter cornered a woman outside 
a Sanders appearance to ask, “Why is socialism good?” Soon the reporter 
was warning that in Venezuela, “a majority of the country is currently 
eating rats,” while the perplexed interviewee maintained that “I just 
want people to have health care, honey.”

The right’s vehemence on the subject may, oddly, have aided in today’s 
revival of socialist discourse. Younger Americans, after all, have spent 
their lives hearing that even popular, market-driven policies like 
Obamacare are part of a grand socialist plot, steps on the path to 
totalitarian ruin. That leaves little reason to avoid more radical 
alternatives. What are opponents going to do — denounce it all as 
socialism? Actively embracing the “socialist” label conveys a certain 
left-wing ambition and commitment — a willingness to think big and 
imagine a wildly different future.

And the source of all our recent attention to socialism is obvious: A 
larger-than-usual share of that left-wing ambition is being aimed at the 
conventional political project of reshaping the Democratic Party. Many 
of the policies being advocated by so-called socialists — labor rights, 
affordable public education, a vibrant welfare state — were once vital 
to that party’s identity, especially during the New Deal. To 
conservatives, this may look like proof that Democrats have been 
socialists all along. Seen from another perspective, though, what 
appears to be a surge from the left also feels like evidence of how far 
right the party has shifted in recent decades, leaving its labor-left 
constituents stranded on the fringe. Now one of the best ways to 
indicate support for that lost vision is to adopt a label outside 
Democratic politics — or perhaps one that’s a little outside and a 
little inside, all at once.

Beverly Gage is a professor of American political history at Yale. She 
is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in 
Its First Age of Terror” and is currently writing a biography of the 
former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

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