Democratic Socialism in the Twenty-First Century

In the previous century I was a regular columnist for The Humanist magazine, and I was fortunate to work for an editor, Rick Szykowny, who was committed to publishing both class conscious and explicitly socialist writers. On March 1, 1994, The Humanist published my article titled “The Good Fight: The Case for Socialism in the 21st Century.” The article is archived online at The Free Library. Here’s an excerpt:

“Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in the last piece she wrote before her death that certain socialist ‘successes’ had been Pyrrhic victories, whereas there was much to be learned and gained from ‘those historical defeats which constitute the pride and power of international socialism.’ There is not a single word or ideal that has not been dragged through the mud and blood of this century–including democracy and humanism. Shall we invent a new language altogether to be able to go on with life and still pass on our stories? Is the burden and shame of the old words too great this late in the twentieth century? Broken-hearted silence and withdrawal have a certain minimum of integrity. But the century approaching will bring us still greater shame and burdens if we leave politics only to politicians, and if we abandon the great majority of our own species to another era of wars and hunger. We can choose to fight the good fight.”

In my sixth decade, I have lived long enough to recall the eye-rolling tolerance of “progressives” who preferred their social icons on postage stamps, who voted by rote for “pragmatic” candidates, who wrote checks to the ACLU and the Sierra Club, and who nevertheless made their peace with bipartisan war and empire. The deep lesson they learned from the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall was that social democracy made visits to Europe interesting, but that a comfortable life at home simply ruled out taking personal and political risks that might derail careers and create bad blood round Thanksgiving tables.

Since my social circle includes many academics, the fevered fantasies on the far right regarding troops of tenured radicals seemed absurd. True enough, a fraction of professors in higher education are, in fact, committed socialists. For that matter, a fraction of the very rich have always understood too well the brute facts behind the expensively groomed figures in corporate culture. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was even moved to join this fraction of “class traitors,” in an era of militant labor strikes and factory occupations. Roosevelt notably stated at Madison Square Garden in a public speech in 1936:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”

Among secular humanists, then and now, there has been an ongoing debate about the very meaning of humanism, and an unsurprising division of opinion about rational policies in public life. In fact, humanists of various kinds span the whole political spectrum. Some are true believers in “the free market” and even in the vainglorious egoism of Ayn Rand; others hope to reform capitalism with the kind of managerial plans recommended by Elizabeth Warren, who has stated “I am a capitalist to my very bones;” and some are committed, like Bernie Sanders, to democratic socialism, including the kind of social democratic policies the Sanders campaign honorably supports.

Though I send donations to the Sanders campaign, I reserve my votes for socialist candidates of the Green Party, because their Green New Deal is far better than the shoplifted product of the Democratic Party. If they make it on the ballot, I also sometimes vote for independent socialists opposed to both of the big corporate parties. I gladly give much credit to Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and others who have taken discussion of democracy and socialism to a much wider public. Too damn easy to snipe from sectarian bunkers at the new wave of young socialists who have joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the much larger number of voters and citizens who are the solid base in the Sanders campaign.

What really matters most now is that a growing number of working people are in motion, and that a class-conscious popular movement is on a collision course with the anti-democratic old guard within the Democratic National Committee (DNC). If the next Democratic Convention is a brokered convention designed to stop the Sanders campaign “by any means necessary,” then the old guard may retreat into the gilded palace of the DNC and finally pull down the roof and pillars on their own heads.

A class-conscious fight for basic democracy must also include radical reforms in the existing electoral system, so that councils of workers and neighbors finally become the living foundation of a democratic republic. We can have real democracy in this country or we can have “the two party system,” but we cannot have both. The political independence of workers and of class-conscious allies certainly includes a political revolution, just as Sanders recommends. Though we can fully expect the ruling class to wage a political counterrevolution through campaigns of organized lying and through ongoing economic assaults on the great majority of working people.

A democratic republic will certainly require a political revolution in campaign financing and in electoral laws. Including the overturning of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, and the abolition of the Electoral College. Equally certain is that a political revolution will be more easily eroded without an economic revolution gained through actual class struggles in workplaces, in neighborhoods, and in daily life.

For both moral and strategic reasons, non-violent resistance against the corporate state is by far the best way forward. Anyone inclined toward gunfights with the state is willfully ignorant of the fact that they are far outgunned by the state, but they have also mistaken class-conscious power with state violence. That kind of political romanticism has far more in common with a fundamentally amoral corporate state than with a democratic movement for socialism. Fortunately, the little Lenins of the left are a small minority, though at crucial junctures they may wield an influence beyond their actual numbers. To this day, there are sectarians who have not reckoned with the actual course of the Russian Revolution, that stormy coalition of workers, peasants and intellectuals who formed workers’ councils and popular assemblies.

Lenin even wrote one of the classic documents of the libertarian left in August and September of 1917, titled The State and Revolution. He was moody and cunning, however, and by 1920 he was writing “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. By 1921, Emma Goldman gave a speech at the grave of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and indeed his funeral would be the last time anarchists were permitted to demonstrate in public. In the same year, Lenin and the Central Committee mobilized troops to crush the Kronstadt Rebellion. In the previous century, an earnest member of the Spartacist League informed me that this rebellion was simply a misadventure of “degenerate elements” and lumpenproles.

By the time Lenin wrote his Last Will and Testament in 1922, he did give a warning: “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” Furthermore, Lenin added: “Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General.”

This reference to the Russian Revolution may be of interest to democratic socialists for both moral and strategic reasons. Some readers may be impatient with past revolutions, and certainly our first duty is to stand our ground in present circumstances. Even so, we are better oriented to reality if we can glance backward to gain perspective, the better to acknowledge both the losses and gains of the world socialist movement over the past hundred years. Moreover, gaining a sense of history is not simply an academic exercise. What began as a Russian Revolution did not consolidate a democratic republic, and ended in a Bolshevik coup d’etat.

Some have argued that a plural coalition of peasants, workers, social anarchists, social democrats, and socialist revolutionaries was fated to fail without successful revolutions in Europe, and only the centralizing drive of Lenin had any chance of holding the red fortress in Russia. The Bolshevik theorists of revolution considered themselves in possession of a “scientific” doctrine that justified their own course of action, exclusively in command of state power and of state violence.

The crucial distinction between power and violence is worth our attention, since the ruling class rules far more often through institutional power than through outright violence. Consider the police power of the state, and the most honest opponents of assassins in uniform will acknowledge that the institutional impunity of the police is established not only by bullets but also by class and racial disparities in legal penalties, including the barbarism of the death penalty. When we confront state terrorism within national borders, then class-consciousness also grows in opposition to an unaccountable military budget and to endless wars.

Sanders is not our best guide in getting a clear public account of the vast Pentagon budget, nor has he been the most consistent public witness against imperial wars. But he has changed incrementally, and for the better, even on these issues. He has been challenged to be more honest about the racist and colonial regime in Israel, and he has become more forthright in criticism of state Zionism.

Outrageously, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd recently addressed his guest, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, and stated, “Ruth, we have all been on the receiving end of the Bernie online brigade.” Quoting a column by Jonathan Last in The Bulwark, Todd said, “Here’s what [Last] says, no other candidate has anything like this digital brown shirt brigade except for Donald Trump. The question is this, ‘What if you can’t win the presidency without an online mob? What if we live where having a bullying, aggro social media online army popping anyone who sticks their head up, is an ingredient for or a critical marker of success?” Has Todd no sense of decency, has he no sense of shame? Members of Sanders’ family were murdered by the Nazis.

A New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, had previously opined that Trump and Sanders are ideological mirror images of each other, and the graphic that ran with his column showed the heads of both men facing off in profile and encircled with flames. Bruni got merely rich in the course of flattering the stratospherically wealthy career politicians of his chosen party. For the record, Bruni also wrote a meatloaf cookbook, where his taste and talent are better featured.

What do we think of law, order, democracy? The story may be apocryphal, but a reporter once asked Mohandas Gandhi, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” Likewise, we can agree that reason and persuasion are best in making the case for law, order and democracy. The contradiction we face is that the ruling class is very highly class conscious of its own privilege in extracting profit from the whole planet, including from the lives and bodies of working people. In their version of capitalist meritocracy, the great majority of the human species does not merit any great share of their consideration. The stark and growing class divisions in this country are not an accidents of ruling class power and public policies, but necessities of the accumulation of capital across global borders and of imperial wars.

We are many, they are few. Democracy from the ground up is both the moral and political strength of any socialist movement worth our brief time on earth. This does not mean socialists should resign ourselves only to personal acts of witness. The whole field of social relations becomes the ground of struggle. If we lose our moral bearings, we will also lose any sane orientation to socialist goals. But the ruling class also gets a “vote” in the use of brute force, and indeed they exercise that option far more often than the working class, as the whole history of class struggles has proven.

Raising the ground floor of social democracy in health care, housing and education is common ground between social democrats and democratic socialists. These are certainly radical reforms, and cannot be won and defended without popular resistance against the corporate state. Whatever happens in the presidential election, the movement for democratic socialism will cross party lines and go beyond the year 2020. No friction, no traction.