Imagining Socialism?

Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith. Harper Perennial, 2014. Softcover, 304 pp., $15.99.
Reviewed by Mark Anderson

One’s first impulse on picking up a book with a title like “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” is to enthusiastically greet it, much as one might greet a rainstorm after a prolonged drought.

For the cultural and political landscape in the U.S. has indeed been parched – at least when it comes to talking about socialism – since the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies a quarter-century ago.

Even during the most robust flowering of the Occupy movement, with its frontal attack on income inequality and its denunciation of the greed of the “1 percent,” the word “socialism,” a word that has historically been synonymous with the abolition of social inequality, was rarely uttered among the assembled throngs on the plazas across the country.

This book aims to address that deficiency, after the fact. Here’s how Kirkus Reviews summarizes it:

Social activists Goldin, Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith gather 31 essays by historians, social scientists, economists, journalists, psychotherapists, poets, reform advocates, a science fiction writer, a musician and a physician. Occupy Detroit leader Dianne Feeley dismisses capitalism—it “works for the 1 percent, but it’s a disaster for the rest of us”—in one solid chapter, and other essays explore how socialism can foster equality, creativity and justice. Arguing that “who goes to prison is inevitably related to the role that the economic and political elites assign to persons in this society,” Angela Davis suggests radical ways to transform the justice system by learning from traditional societies and considering “non-retributive” justice. Blanche Wiesen Cook, biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, reminds us of community-building efforts by such reformers as Jane Addams and Crystal Eastman; journalist Arun Gupta proposes a socially sustainable food system; journalist Dave Lindorff proposes universal health care; educator William Ayers writes that the “ethical core of teaching toward tomorrow must be designed to create hope and a sense of agency and possibility in students.” The concluding section contains 10 essays on “How to Make a Socialist America.” Filmmaker Michael Moore and physician Joel Kovel reprise their rallying speeches at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Historian Paul Le Blanc argues persuasively for a third American revolution mounted by “a broad left-wing coalition” that could spark a mass socialist movement. Socialism, he writes, “involves people taking control of their own lives, shaping their own futures, and together controlling the resources that make such freedom possible….Socialism will come to nothing if it is not a movement of the great majority in the interests of the great majority….People can only become truly free through their own efforts.” Le Blanc’s cogent, well-informed essay sums up the book’s main thrust: Only a politically aware, socially committed populace can effect important and lasting change.

Missing from this Kirkus Review summary are a couple of key contributions: a wide-ranging and biting critique of contemporary capitalism by Paul Street (which serves as the backdrop for considering the socialist alternative), and an essay titled “How to Achieve Economic Democracy in the United States” by Clifford D. Conner.

In many ways these essays amount to the advocacy of what Marxists would call “minimum program” demands: radical reforms that are compatible with the capitalist order. These include measures to reduce poverty (Frances Fox Piven has an essay), expand health care coverage, protect the environment, cut military spending and end the policy of mass incarceration (in Angela Davis’ article, which is co-authored, incidentally, with Mumia Abu-Jamal).

As to the way forward, several authors suggest building new structures within the interstices of the capitalist economy to advance the cause of socialism: changing the composition of a company’s board of directors, enterprise by enterprise, to empower the workers who are employed there and the communities they serve (Rick Wolff); or establishing more co-operatives to lay the foundation for a new, more democratically run economy (several authors).

This “co-op path” to socialism, associated in recent years with professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland, was ably critiqued by Zoltan Zigedy in a recent article at Marxism-Leninism Today.

There’s an element of utopian socialism that flavors most of the book, as its title “Imagine” suggests. (The title is reinforced by the reprinting of some of the lyrics of John Lennon’s song of the same name at the beginning of the book.) While there are illustrious antecedents in this tradition (think of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” in 1888), listing various social ideals to be achieved is one thing, whereas indicating the necessary and economic and social structures needed to achieve those ideals – to ensure an end to class society – is another.

In that respect, with a few notable exceptions, the concrete experiences of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other countries that undertook socialist revolutions are ignored. It’s as though their efforts to construct a socialist society have nothing to teach, except by way of negative example. As a result, the reader is beckoned to think futuristically (in abstract, moral terms) rather than historically (based on real experience). The positive achievements of previous efforts to create a socialist society are simply written off as unworthy of review.

In tandem with this blind spot, there’s a curious underestimation of the severity of the economic crisis and the ecological crisis. The ravages of unemployment, for example, are inadequately described, as is socialism’s ability to put an end to this scourge. Even urgent measures that would be possible under the capitalist order – e.g. the creation of massive public works programs to put the unemployed millions to work – are given short shrift.

The ecological crisis is given a little bit more attention (“eco-socialist” Joel Kovel has two contributions), but here again, the magnitude and urgency of the problem, which requires a decisive break from the capitalist model of development, is strangely muffled.

Marxists will also be struck by the relatively few mentions given to the state, the class struggle, racism, monopoly capital, the capitalist class, imperialism, the national question, revolutionary parties, public ownership, central planning, and workers councils. They will notice that in too many places Lenin clearly takes a back seat to Lennon.

Clifford Conner’s “how to achieve” essay comes closest to drawing upon real historical experience to illuminate the path ahead. A few excerpts to illustrate:

“First, there is no avoiding the word ‘revolution’ to describe the necessary transformation. … There is also no adequate substitute for the word ‘socialism’ to describe a post-capitalist order characterized by economic justice and economic democracy. … If the capitalist system self-destructs, that will not automatically result in socialism. … There can be no organization without leadership. … Forms of organization [including trade unions, political parties, neighborhood committees, and workplace committees] and leadership do not suddenly appear out of nowhere; they emerge in the course of struggle. … But in the heat of a revolutionary situation, the ultimate goal of such movements will be to wrest control of the state away from the boob-oisie [H.L. Mencken’s flippant coinage for the bourgeoisie].”

But even here, Conner feels obliged to dismissively characterize the Soviet and Chinese experiences as “powerful negative examples.”

To summarize: to the extent that this collection of essays re-awaken an interest in socialism and Marxism, it can be cautiously welcomed. To the extent, however, that it dismisses the accumulated experience of the world revolutionary movement and solid Marxist theory, it does a disservice to the working class and to oppressed people everywhere.

This is not to deny that there are many interesting and useful observations throughout this book.

More than a decade ago, journalist Jeffrey St. Clair wrote a book about how easily people mistook corporate-backed, ersatz environmental organizations for the real thing. The book’s title? “Been Brown so Long, It Looked Like Green to Me.”

In our parched political landscape, any talk of socialism “might look like green” to the reader. But caveat emptor: those who spurn historical experience and revolutionary theory only heighten the prospects of working-class defeat, not the socialist revolution we so desperately need.

March 30, 2014

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