People’s World Series on Socialism
Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here.
(Socialism) is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call (socialism) the real movement, which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.
— Karl Marx, in The German Ideology
The historic presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders has tapped the smoldering resentments of millions toward Wall Street domination of politics, extreme wealth inequality, widespread economic insecurity, and institutionalized racism and sexism. Sanders has also stimulated a wide-ranging discussion about what he calls “democratic socialism” and the need for a “people’s revolution.”
From the Cold War until now, the American people have been denied the right to discuss socialism in the public arena. But these discussions have now forced their way to the surface. The idea of socialism is something that must be thought of in ways different from the formulas we on the left may have relied upon in the past.
Era of transition
A revolutionary reorganization of society to one that is people-centered, democratic, peaceful, and in harmony with nature is necessary if humanity is to survive and flower. Some hold the view that social revolution will be precipitated by a general strike or an implosion of the economy. The old ruling class will be overthrown and the working class will hoist the red flag.
In my view, a socialist revolution is not an episodic event, nor is it inevitable. It is the product of a complex and contested process, a transition orchestrated by real people consciously and creatively shaping their conditions of existence to make their lives more livable, secure, enjoyable, and meaningful.
Its realization will span an era of multiple stages of radical systemic, economic, political, social, and cultural change that addresses urgent and concrete needs. And it will certainly be an ongoing process. No one can predict exactly how this process will unfold or what the new society will ultimately look like. One thing is certain though – there are no blueprints for either. The process differs in each country depending on its unique set of circumstances, challenges, histories, and traditions.
Socialism in waves
So long as classes and class exploitation and oppression have existed, a struggle for freedom has been waged. Socialism is the modern expression of this age-old quest by humanity. I like to envision the historic realization of socialism as a series of epic waves, characterized by ebbs and flows, advances and defeats. It’s a history of great achievements, but also mistakes, errors, misjudgments, setbacks, and even experiences that go counter to the moral and humanistic ethos of socialism.
The first wave featured utopian socialist communities, which during the 19th century numbered in the hundreds in the U.S. They were founded on religious and moral convictions in response to the dehumanizing effects of class society and religious persecution.
A second wave encompassed 20th century socialism, born during the stormy era of war and revolution beginning in 1917. Economic backwardness, militarization in response to foreign intervention, devastation from WWII, and the Cold War arms race, compounded by undeveloped democratic institutions, determined the trajectory of those societies.
They were characterized by centrally-planned economies and total state ownership of the means of production. Among the great achievements were rapid industrialization, elimination of illiteracy, universal health care and education. But there were also democratic shortcomings, including constitutionally-enshrined one-party rule, political repression, lack of an independent press, and dogmatic approaches to ideology. These flaws, though not the sole explanations, contributed to their failure.
A third wave is unfolding today in a totally new historical context: post-collapse of 20th century socialism, the deepening crisis of late capitalism, extreme wealth inequality, the displacement of millions of workers through automation, and an ecological crisis that threatens mankind’s very survival.
Surviving socialist-oriented states, drawing on the lessons of the failure of the USSR and Eastern European socialist-oriented societies, abandoned the old models and adopted mixed economies and, in some cases, economic decentralization.
In other countries, particularly Central and South America, left coalitions that include socialists and communists have rejected armed struggle. Some have been elected to head up or as part of governing coalitions and are attempting to institute economic, social, and democratic reforms.
In Europe, mass socialist and left-led anti-austerity movements like Syriza, Podemos, and left united fronts are also contesting for power electorally. Socialists and the left comprise the majority in the British Labour Party now, as well as a substantial part of the Democratic Party.
Majorities make change
Majorities make lasting change. People gain a deeper consciousness, including socialist consciousness, in the course of greater participation in the struggle for immediate and longer-term radical economic, political, and social change.
The contours and features of a democratic eco-socialist society are and will be determined by the American people, with the diverse multi-racial working class at the core. Its daily struggle, including at the center of a future governing coalition, will be the dominant force shaping every aspect of politics, culture, and life.
The American people can draw on a rich history of struggle that has expanded democratic horizons and helped shape our thinking on the values of a future society. That history includes the American War for Independence and the Bill of Rights; the defeat of slavery; the Civil Rights Movement and struggles for racial equality; movements for labor, suffragette, and women’s equality; free speech; LGTBQIA equality; disability rights; immigrant rights; and climate justice movements.
It is being shaped today in the fight against right-wing extremism and its domination of the government at all levels and the judiciary, along with its ideology of hate in the 2016 elections. The organizations, movements and activists making up the broad and diverse anti-extreme right coalition will be at the center of an even broader and more diverse future coalition of socialist forces.
Democracy equals socialism
The revolutionary process unleashes the creative energy of millions through a wide variety of forms of mass protest, including mass non-violent action, in the battle for ideas and in the cultural sphere.
These forms of action are dialectically connected with voting and mobilization in the election arena, which will be greatly democratized as millions more become engaged. This includes repealing and removing voter suppression laws, Citizen’s United, and the introduction of proportional representation.
It must result in the election of labor-led coalitions and ordinary working people to office at every level. The breadth and depth of these coalitions and their degree of political consciousness will determine the extent of their ability to institute reforms that not only curb the power of the capitalist class but simultaneously put the country on a socialist-oriented path, the eventual disappearance of classes and the emergence of self-government.
Humanism and non-violent action
This socialist vision and the transition path toward it must be imbued with the highest ethical and humanistic values. In this sense, the transition shapes the end – the values that guide the movement will be those that guide the new society.
The movement leading the transition and new society must be deeply democratic, as well as broadly collaborative and inclusive. It must place the actual physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of people and nature above all else.
Throughout the 20th century until today, vast change has been won through non-violent action, utilizing all forms of protest and the electoral arena. But still some say don’t be naïve. They argue the U.S. has the most violent ruling class in history, and that this class won’t concede power peacefully. The people will have to defend themselves and violence will become inevitable.
To be sure, ruling class violence is always a possibility. But to say that it is inevitable is wrong. Just as wrong is to insist nothing can be done to limit or prevent it. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement met violence not with pacifism, but with greater non-violent action, mobilizing ever-larger numbers of people motivated by a higher moral calling. It exposed the immorality of the segregationists, crumbled their resistance, and brought about a civil rights revolution that, although incomplete, transformed our nation. Let that be our guide.
Crisis of nature, crisis of capitalism
The climate and ecological crisis is a crisis for humanity. It is also a crisis for capitalism and its ability to address the inevitable havoc of actual climate change and and adapt to a fully sustainable model. To save our planet though, humanity can’t wait on a global transition to socialism. Profound and radical changes in our economy and society must begin today if the Earth is to avert the worst of the destruction.
Sections of the capitalist class are alarmed over the prospect of major disruptions of the market economy and are pushing for a transition to renewable energy sources. But that transition to a sustainable economy means imposing greater national regulation on the “market system,” including of externalities and liquidation of the fossil fuel industry.
Ultimately it means transferring all natural resources and the energy production sector to public ownership managed under democratic authority. It means a radical reallocation of social expenditures needed to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure from coast to coast, retrofitting for conservation, and converting to renewables.
It means a guaranteed wage and retraining for new jobs for all those who are displaced during a just transition or whose jobs have been eliminated due to automation (although here more far reaching reforms are needed like a shorter work week with no cut in pay). It means allocating necessary resources to adapt to the inevitable changes wrought by global warming, including extreme weather events, coastal flooding, relocating entire communities, building massive infrastructure works, overcoming drought, and deforestation.
The immense resources needed can only come through a redistribution of society’s wealth, which will require a conscious and determined struggle against the capitalist class. The battle will be over who pays for it: the ruling circles or the working class and people?
A similar redistribution struggle will be fought to ensure a $15/hour minimum wage or a living wage, universal health care, and free college tuition.
This will be part of the process of developing mechanisms for directing social investment and imposing further restrictions on capital and the anarchy of the market economy. This implies the need to raise Earth consciousness and intertwine it with class, racial, and gender consciousness.
To again quote Marx, socialism is “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.” Building the movements of today, including defeating the danger of right-wing extremism in the 2016 elections, is a revolutionary act and a crucial part of the actual long-term realization of a uniquely American, modern, people-centered, democratic, peaceful, and green socialism.
John Bachtell is the National Chair of the Communist Party. Previously he was Illinois organizer for the party, and is active in labor, peace, and justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio and currently lives in Chicago.