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.
I was absolutely shocked when I got asked to write an essay on what socialism means because I never get asked about big philosophical questions. People come to me with very specific requests about my not-so-secret recipe to deploying the concepts of direct action, concrete change, sustained relationships, and progressive values to kicking ass and taking names. I don’t get to think about big philosophical questions, ever.
I’ll start by saying I don’t believe in utopia, and I don’t trust utopians. Anyone who tells me that they have a solution that will create a perfectly just and equal world makes me check for my wallet while I reach for my fact-bat. So I have a real hard time with libertarians, separatists of any flavor, anarchists, religious zealots, and communists. I lump you all together. If you are incensed, you can stop reading now. I don’t hold it against you that you believe in fairy dust. I just think you are terribly dangerous to yourself and others.
So what is socialism in America to me? I take it from the root of the word sociare, to share. And by share, I mean that we all share a collective fate in how society works or doesn’t work. I take it from its more concrete meaning – societas. The concept is that there exists a bond between people who stand as equals before and under the laws of society – laws that they both create and consent to live by. That there is between all of us a common public good which we contribute to and benefit from that defines society. So socialism is the notion that we share a common destiny, whether we know it or not.
Sadly, most of us do not.
Socialism is the idea that all are equal, and that we participate in the creation, maintenance, and understanding of the common public good. It is the recognition that, without the common public good, society goes to hell in a flaming handbasket. And at the heart of that common public good we find a civil society, criminal justice system, and social service system that are always on guard against racism, militarism, and materialism.
That could look a lot of ways in terms of public policy. But if we can’t agree that no matter what we do, we are always impacted by racism, militarism, or materialism, then we are screwed from jump-street. I mean we could end up with a Black president and still be the most unequal society in all creation. Wait a minute…damn, that just happened.
Socialism is working to create and maintain a society that lets people pursue their aspirations and not be preyed upon by the greedy, opportunistic, and amoral among us. It is always going to be a struggle.
It is a realization that the American status quo has always been built on the backs and bones of oppressed groups of people. The story of this country is written in the blood of people and movements who fought to redefine societas and to determine what is in the sociare that we share. Everything of value in American society came from a struggle against forces opposed to having an inclusive societas because of the status quo crushing people and refusing to expand the sociare to others. Socialism is the battle against the forces trying to stamp out the civic imagination that animates societas and horde sociare.
I believe in both the frailty and the aspirations of humanity, and I know that humanity’s most incredible trick is that when we band together we can create or destroy pretty much anything – including ourselves.
So I don’t believe that there is ever going to be a workers’ paradise. And history has shown us that whenever the elites have gotten too much power and control, society has collapsed into an orgy of bloodshed and suffering. There is nothing in living or recorded history that says the collapse of society will be a good thing. And the people who suffer the most when the bloodshed and suffering kick in are those at the bottom.
So socialism is about creating a society where our default mode is not to reward those who find the best way to game the system, but to create a system that is responsive to the common public good.
It’s like my grandfather said: Democracy is the battle that never ends. You are either fighting for something or losing everything.
Don Washington is an award-winning writer, researcher, trainer, and organizer who has been working on issues of human, civil, and labor rights in the U.S. and abroad for over 20 years. He runs the volunteer public policy blog and events cooperative, Mayoraltutorial.com. You can follow him on Twitter @drobsidian. You can also hear him on Fact-Bat Radio, Lumpen Radio, and on Facebook at “Jack Knight.”