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 not a thing; it is a process. It is a process of societal transformation with the aim of creating a free and egalitarian arrangement in which, to borrow from the words of the fictional character Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in human affairs. It is a process that history has now demonstrated cannot be the work of an enlightened clique or even a well-intentioned, though economically privileged class. It must be a process that is led by the oppressed, and specifically the producers – the working class.
To suggest that socialism is a process has many implications. We can immediately point out two. First, that socialism is not equivalent to a set of programmatic points, as important as program remains. At different stages in any struggle, we, on the political Left, are fighting for an expansion of democracy – the fight for consistent democracy – at all levels. This means that our program will evolve over time to address the increasing demands of the oppressed for a greater and greater share in the social wealth and for control over their own lives. In this sense, the programmatic demands articulated today may look mild in comparison to what will be advanced in several years in the context of the actual struggles of workers and the oppressed for their own emancipation.
Second, the recognition that socialism is a process means that it is non-linear. One cannot take a snapshot of a society at a particular moment and use that moment to either condemn or praise the essence of that society. The actual struggles, and particularly the class struggles, in a society will determine the trajectory of the process and, specifically, whether the process is advancing or regressing. There are no guarantees.
Socialism, then, is a process of social transformation which includes the democratizing of society as well as the transformation of the agents of change. Not only is it the case that a new, revolutionary society does not appear whole, complete and perfect out of nothing, but is, in fact, marked at birth by elements from the old society. Those who are directly engaged in the social transformation process are products of that old society and, as a result, very much affected by the various social forces that emerged from within the old regime.
This very fact has a profound implication on the process of social transformation, that is, on socialism itself. The agents of change, whether as individuals or as organizations, will be very much affected by social ills such as racism, male supremacy/patriarchy, hetero-sexism, chauvinism, and class-ism. This means that socialism involves a period of continuous struggle, not only against the remnants of the old regime, but against practices that will continue to emerge in a revolutionary society that are antithetical to the socialist direction.
Thus, the recognition of socialism as a process actually helps us to guard against a philosophical idealism in which we romanticize the revolutionary road only to fall prey to despair when challenges are encountered. To understand the reality of a process means that one must always look at the general tendency rather than any momentary set of developments. In that regard, the rhetoric of a society and its leaders is almost irrelevant whereas the actual practices of the State and the actuality of the class and other social struggles will give us evidence as to the real direction.
Given all of that, while it is important that there is a U.S. presidential candidate – Bernie Sanders – who is a self-described socialist, in that he opens up people’s minds to the possibilities inherent in an alternative society, one must recognize that socialism is not something that can be introduced through a presidential election.
Sanders is onto something when he discusses the need for a “political revolution,” but our understanding of such a revolution must be broadened beyond anti-corruption and expelling money from electoral politics. The “political revolution” is actually the coming into existence of a collective awareness by the oppressed that an alternative to actually existing capitalism is essential and possible. It is a revolution that arises out of the recognition that capitalism is hostile to planet Earth and the continued existence of sentient beings on it. It is a revolution that arises out of a recognition that the polarization in wealth is rooted in not only the exploitation of workers in particular societies, but the development of a transnational capitalism that, inheriting from modern imperialism, continues to rape the planet and its peoples.
Socialism, then, becomes not a utopia but instead the discovery of the road not taken. It is not a guarantee, but rather the recognition of a possibility.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk-show host, writer, and activist. He has spent years in the trade union movement and is the former president of TransAfrica Forum. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.