For a Serious Conversation on Socialism

It was the mother of all ironies that the corporate media began the current public discussion of socialism.  Spurred by massive Federal investment in failing mega-corporations, the media wondered how much public funding would constitute socialism. By raising the alarm, they forced self-styled authorities - largely academics - to dust off their old manuscripts and voice an opinion.  

Faced with public interest, The Nation - the largest circulation, most influential liberal weekly - invited celebrated authors to share their views on socialism.

Their rusty, diffuse musings demonstrated that socialism had not occupied their thinking for some time. To its credit The Nation, regularly a source of splendid progressive journalism, pushed the discussion beyond the corporate media.  And we were not offended when the cuddly left -- some housed at The Nation, some elsewhere -- came out with their fluffy recipes for a better world.  

But The Nation's discussion has rippled out. It has become more serious. For us, it is a problem when those claiming to be revolutionaries surrender ideological ground to the opponents of socialism. Below, as examples, we consider the contributions of Carl Davidson and John Case.

The Marxism-Leninism Today website was founded several years ago by Communists and allied activists alarmed by a retreat from a commitment to revolutionary Marxism within the US left, and beyond. The downfall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist community, coupled with capitalist triumphalism, had spurred a trend away from both a Marxist interpretation of world events and a class and anti-imperialist approach to struggle.

Following the conventions of the history of our movement, we labeled the ideological shift as "revisionist" and the political retreat as "opportunist." We discerned both a wholesale retreat from the socialist goal and a shallow re-interpretation of the socialist ideals that had inspired the working class movement for over a century and a half. We saw a political posture that gutted radical demands and, in their place, offered accommodation to "lesser evils," and called the accommodation "principled."

This trend was hardly unprecedented. For example, Lenin addressed a similar development within his party after the failure of the 1905 revolution in czarist Russia. In like manner, defeat in 1989-91 bred discouragement and disorientation. But, as with Lenin, it is crucial for those with the deepest understanding and strongest commitment to continue on, unwavering in the confidence that capitalism will again produce the conditions for its own demise.

Today that moment is here. Capitalism is mired in the deepest crisis since the Great Depression. Capitalist euphoria of the last decade has been supplanted by a growing sense of imminent disaster. The pain and insecurity of this moment challenge even the smuggest defender of "free-market" capitalism.

Now many of our old friends and comrades are drifting back to the conversation about socialism, sensing that something more humane than Moloch of capital may well be possible. Those on the left who after 1991 reluctantly resigned themselves to the dominant narrative -- the rationality of markets, the creative power and ingenuity of competition and individual initiative -- now sense that much of that image was as bogus as the power of the Wizard of Oz.  Markets failed miserably. The masters of the financial universe proved to be snake-oil salesmen and crooks. But far too many of the returning left wanderers come back with scaled-down notions of socialism acquired in the dismal 1990s and the Bush nightmare years.

Moreover, the new conversation about socialism -- a new system -- arises at an awkward conjuncture of US politics, when much of the Marxist Left has given up on independent politics – the only way to achieve socialism. Therein lies a problem. A friend sagely observed, "When Democrats become Republicans, Communists become Democrats." Since the late 1970s, when US monopoly capital reasserted its class power through neoliberal ideas and policies, the Democratic Party has moved to the right, snuggling up against a Republican reactionary ideology in order to wrest office from the offspring of Reaganism. The Democrats have largely sought not to change, but to better manage an agenda set by the determined enemies of what was once perceived as the core values of New Deal Democrats. True, remnants of the New Deal ideology persist among the nationally oppressed, some urban Democratic leaders, and trade unionists. But, from Carter through Obama, these groups' influence has dwindled in the highest councils of the Democratic Party.

Progressives – including the top leadership of the Communist Party USA - rushed to fill the vacuum left by a Democratic Party eager to shed any ideological identity and drunk with polling, fund raising, and the mechanics of electoral success. Nature abhors a vacuum. Much of the left jumped at the opportunity of being the conscience of the Democratic Party – its self-appointed left wing. Criticism of the Democratic Party and its failings, and the building of all forms of political independence from monopoly capital's two parties – long the role of the left – gave way to coalition tactics, compromise, and pragmatism.  

In the CPUSA, the strategy was justified in theoretical terms by the claim that an All People's Front must be built against "the ultra right," newly dangerous for reasons never explained, and always synonymous with the Republican Party. It was a non-class analysis. Worse, its promoters insisted on a corollary -- that the left had to cede ideological leadership in this multi–class coalition, sometimes to a monopoly-run Democratic party, sometimes to a reformist-run trade union bureaucracy. It was a perversion of Dimitrov's ideas on the Popular Front. Its essential dishonesty is now in plain sight.  The ultra-right is no longer in office.  But, unconditional support for Democrats is still insisted on. Obsequious defense of the Obama Administration is the rule in The People's Weekly World, which ignores his bad policies and exaggerates his good ones.  

Of course, softening or shedding any commitment to socialism was understood as the price of two-party acceptability. The meager fruit of this ill-concealed dalliance with the Democrats was harvested with the election of Obama: the US left earned the right to join the celebration! One CPUSA leader actually advised members to go to Washington DC and to attend the Inaugural galas. Since November 2008 despite Democratic Party dominance, Obama's popularity, and Republican disarray, nothing like a progressive agenda has emerged, nothing signaling a retreat from imperial wars or the coddling of corporate power. The left has gained no new advocates, no new influence, and no seat at the table of conventional politics.

Now Carl Davidson and John Case have joined the discussion, posting on Portside, the web journal of the Committees of Correspondence, a loose group of disaffected Communists and other veterans of the ideological wars. Neither Davidson nor Case writes as a major spokesperson, but they merit study because they are typical of present-day US revisionism.

Like Martin Luther nailing his theses on the church door, Davidson has offered "Eleven Talking Points on Twenty-first Century Socialism." In the spirit of Luther, Davidson's emphasis on twenty-first century socialism is meant to repudiate twentieth-century socialism as much as it is intended to establish the shape of any "new" vision of a social system free of exploitation. In essence, it is an attempt to "re-brand" the movement seeking to move beyond capitalism.

Davidson's views illustrate present day US revisionism, to be found both in the Committees of Correspondence and its separated brethren in the right wing of the CPUSA.  Revisionism seeks to distance itself from 20th century socialism, to tail behind Obama and the Democrats, to sow illusions about the existence of an "Obama Movement," to disdain any leadership role for the left, and to refuse to own up honestly to the reformist conclusions drawn from 1989-91. Revisionism tries to conflate socialist democracy with bourgeois democracy, and to ignore or deny the need for a revolutionary vanguard party.

The revisionist decay can be found in high places. In the case of certain CPUSA leaders, revisionism labors to dissolve the Communist Party in the Democratic Party ocean.  They lambast Party opponents of this liquidationist line with the rhetorical gimmick of the Straw Man, which is to falsely attribute easy-to-criticize positions to one's opponents and to ignore the views they actually hold. Sam Webb, national chair of the CPUSA, in "Obama, Reform and the Role of the Left (PWW May 16, 2009) quoted below, typifies this. He calls for tailing Obama and the Democrats and  "assisting" movements, not struggling to lead them. He speaks of the "vision" of (not the struggle for) socialism, as if socialism were merely a demand for more "democracy." For Webb, democracy is always undefined in class terms.  He claims the "left analysis," also undefined, will as if by magic rub off on other participants in the mass movements under Obama's leadership. Webb distances the CPUSA from 20th century socialism by rejecting a "model imported" from the twentieth century. Predictably, posing as defender of "broad unity," he resorts to a Straw Man and declares those who disagree with him are  "critics of every move of the Obama Administration."

And herein lies the role of the left. Its main task, as it has been throughout our country's history, is to assist in reassembling, activating, uniting and giving a voice to common demands that unite this broad majority as well as draw in other people who didn't vote for Obama.

The left's political analysis, solutions to today's pressing crisis and a vision of socialism, rooted in a democratic ethos and practices, and not tied to a universal "model" imported from the 20th century, will receive a fair and favorable hearing from millions of Americans to the degree that left activists are active participants in the main labor and people's organizations struggling for vital reforms today — jobs, health care, retirement security, quality public education, equality and fairness, immigration reform, a foreign policy of peace and cooperation, and a livable environment and sustainable economy.

Those who narrow down the role of the left to simply being a critic of every move of the Obama administration and/or insist on left demands as the only basis of broad unity limit the left's capacity to be a part of a much larger coalition that could make America "a more perfect union."

Webb's views not only deviate from the 2005 CPUSA Program, they don't even match his formulations in the 2008 campaigns, when support for Obama was tactical and temporary to get the "ultraright" out of the White House.

In his theses, Carl Davidson writes with great confidence that the material conditions for socialism – advanced development of the productive forces – fully exist in the US. Indeed, he maintains that the further development of these forces are today retarded by the relations of production – the capitalist system (financial capital, in his understanding). We can agree on this, though his focus on financial capital is a gross underestimation of the drag on further development by the entire state-monopoly system. To see financial capital as the sole obstacle to socio-economic progress is to dismiss the current crisis as merely the missteps of an unregulated financial sector, and not a profound crisis of capitalism. He fails to recognize that capitalist profits for the last thirty years have been largely "ghost" profits, constructed from massive deferred and unrealizable payments (debts) stretching forward decades. He fails to see a system that has dramatically retarded the growth of working people's incomes and benefits for over forty years, resulting in a standard of living sustained only by staggering debt. The financial system was not a cause of the crisis, but a means to sustain the unsustainable.

It is this underestimation of the nature and scope of the current crisis that leads Davidson to fail to realize the full potential of the moment. He writes of a socialism that will retain classes, markets, capitalist enterprises, competition, and a bourgeois parliamentary system for "hundreds of years," a transition period that will see the remnants of the capitalist system "wither away." "Past efforts to build socialism have suffered from aggravated conflict between and among popular classes and lack of emphasis on building wide unity among the people," Davidson asserts.

In 1848 in the Communist Manifesto on "Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism," Marx and Engels anticipated this twenty-first century re-branding of socialism:

The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

Hence they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily deemed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel.

Such fantastic pictures of future society, painted at a time when the proletariat is still in a very undeveloped state and has but a fantastic conception of its own position, correspond with the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society.  

Marx and Engels thus exposed 161 years ago the conditions that produce a Socialism of Modest Aspirations, a socialism that might magically witness – in "hundreds of years" – the departure of anarchic markets and the capitalist class. In Davidson, we find a contemporary "socialist" caught in the contradictions of his "surroundings." On the one hand, he sees the merits of socialism, but, on the other hand, he is bound by his role as a leader of Progressive Democrats of America, a movement attached to the Democratic Party – openly hostile to socialism and infused with Obama-mania. The working class needs to escape this contradiction and opt for militant and revolutionary socialism.  

Davidson is held back by the market fundamentalism of the last two decades of capitalist triumphalism. Despite the abject failure of markets in the current crisis, he nevertheless asserts that "markets are a function of scarcity, and all economies of any scale in a time of scarcity have them…" This assertion ignores the profound irrationalities, waste, and corruption that markets have wrought in the era of state-monopoly capitalism. From false needs to cultural corrosion, markets have proven to guarantee neither rational nor efficient production in relation to human needs. In an earlier age, the argument that human calculation could not match the allocation of the market may have had some plausibility, but in our advanced technological era, that argument is obsolete, as shown by the theoretical work of Paul Cockshott and others.   

Admittedly, Davidson offers many novel and interesting reforms that would be welcome features of a future socialist society. Moreover, these criticisms of his vision of socialism in no way challenge his commitment to a progressive, humane agenda. But they are not the robust vision of socialism needed for our time.

Not so different from Davidson (or Webb for that matter), though much more confused, is John Case. He followed Davidson on Portside with an amazingly muddled alternative Nine Talking Points on Socialism. Case writes frequently on economics for the Communist Party's Political Affairs and People's Weekly World and administers the new Party economics discussion website "Socialist Economics," "what socialists are reading about economics." [originally, it was "what Communists are reading…." a climb down worth noting] Whether it is in fact or by sheer volume of production, Case appears to have become the voice of the CPUSA on economic matters, overshadowing other Party economists. Case famously hailed the bank bailouts as "a dose of socialism," a position now held only by a few rabid right-wing economists. Socialist thought, for Case, flows from the pens of liberal economists Joseph Stiglitz, or Paul Krugman, or Dean Baker. As best one can tell, Case brings the buzz words and jargon of a first-year MBA student to the cause of socialism.

Case finds the sprouts of socialism "…in the emergence and growth of realms of work and enterprise where the products are intangible and the capital merely 'human'; in the inherently 'opensource' -- in economics-speak, "public good" ---essence of much intellectual property; kernels of socialism are scattered across the landscape in cooperatives, socially organized human services, and centralized and widespread mass means of many-to-many communication and supply/demand data management."  Of course, Case gives no examples of these "realms of work," but we might conjure images of a start-up tech company employing a room full of bright, well-educated middle-class youth brainstorming new applications for cell phones, video games, or social networks. Three things need to be said about this imagery: Firstly, this is an idealized flashback to the late twentieth century before the collapse of the technology boom. Secondly, this "realm of work" is completely foreign to the work experiences of the vast majority of working people. And lastly, when these "cooperative" endeavors become commercially applicable, they are absorbed by mega-corporations like Microsoft or Oracle that differ only from the old smokestack industries by offering bike trails and green buildings.  

Case foresees: "The steadily advancing capacity of technology to automate all 'algorithmic' tasks undermines the material foundation of work characterized by Marx as proletarian – work that, because of its ability to be divided into homogeneous time-units lends itself to the sharpest and purest form of class conflict at the points of production. Instead work exchanged salary (even in material production--like maintenance) is increasingly of a "service" nature, and further, is of a kind difficult to alienate from the new means of production -- often pure human capital. Compensation to these forms of labor will more and more consist of ownership options or dividends, savings and retraining opportunities. In a word, work will increasingly be compensated by dividing capital in addition to wages." In this exercise of fantasy, technology simply charges ahead until there is only "human capital" sharing ownership. As time marches on, the "algorithmic tasks" (directed human labor) are simply supplanted by automation (Case never addresses who owns the machines, nor what that means!) opening the way to the era of "pure human capital." Give the man credit: it's nonsense, but it is imaginative nonsense. 

But there is more to the Case phantasmagoria:  "While classic socialists envisioned a future classless society where exploiting class privileges are abolished and classes and class distinctions generally wither away, both nationally and globally, I do not go that far: We cannot know the exact form of future relations that will based on even more profound transformations of technology, work and society. The proletarian and the financial capitalist of the past, however, are both leaving the stage of history, as Marx predicted."

So we cannot know what the gods of technology have in store for us, but Case is dead certain that the proletariat is "leaving the stage of history." This could come as a surprise to the millions of workers in scores of countries who have demonstrated and struck against the economic crisis. Likewise, the millions of unemployed are probably unaware that their fate has been sealed by the march of technological progress. They may share the illusion that they are the victims of a soulless system of profit and exploitation. Certainly they are an inconvenience to Case's musings.

The realities of class are missing from Case's account. Lost in the glitz of technology and its trappings is the simple truth that most people are employees while far fewer are employers and their socio-economic relations determine the contours of life in our capitalist society. The harsh truths of power, privilege, wealth and depredation are lost without the recognition of class.      

The liberal humorist Bill Maher, host of TV's Real Time with Bill Maher, has a regular segment called "New Rules" in which he is scathing about the corporate media and political follies of the hour. We propose new rules for this conversation about socialism. Rule#1: No more evasions. The only conversation on socialism worth having is one that studies the honorable history of twentieth-century socialism. Mainly, that history was a noble and glorious struggle to build the new social order. On occasion, it was a tale of heartbreak.  Rule# 2: This must be a conversation that centers on the gritty realities of class.  Let it focus on working class and popular struggles, on changing the system, on the fight for political independence, on the fight against monopoly, against empire, war, racism, and all social inequality. Perhaps a "dose" of Marxism and Leninism should be prescribed, as a refresher course, for all those who want to participate in a serious conversation.

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