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This chapter is in two sections. The first section, after noting the severity of the environmental emergency and the need to go beyond capitalism in responding to it, addresses the different understandings of socialism. The second section discusses the changing political space occupied by socialist discourse in the US over the span of the author’s politically active life. Finally, the two Parts that comprise the body of the book—“Issues in Applied Marxist Theory” and “Social Movements and Political Leadership”—are summarized in a pair of paragraphs that indicate briefly the theme of each chapter.
The Present Moment and the New Discourse About Socialism
Historian Eric Hobsbawm titled his book on the twentieth century The Age of Extremes. For the twenty-first century, this would be an understatement. No rubric can convey the level of emergency in which our species now finds itself. We live, both now and into the future, under a threat of geological proportions.1 The magnitude of the danger is clearly seen—and acutely felt—by young people the world over. The discourse of the powers that be hovers far from the storm-center, mostly waging (especially in the United States) a relentless campaign to keep everyone’s eyes shut—if not to the reality of the eco-crisis, then at least to the idea that we might be able collectively to do something about it.
My own sense of the danger is longstanding but becomes more pressing with each passing year, even as capitalist politicians and corporate media squander precious time with their contrived emergencies, their self-indulgent jousting, and their endless flow of distractions.2 The longer this hegemonic denial continues—and, along with it, the aggressions of powerfully armed governments and their vigilante shock-troops against largely defenseless populations—the more urgent becomes the imperative to sweep from power all those who keep it up. The scope of the required changes has all along been of revolutionary proportions, but beyond this, the amount of time we now have for securing a future that is to any extent livable—for the majority of our species—has become desperately short.
The revolutionary implications of this crisis were the theme of my 2018 book Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism. In it, I developed a wealth of considerations showing that the long-run changes necessary to our collective survival are inconceivable unless the capitalist economic calculus gives way to one grounded in the common good of both humanity and nature, as determined by a thoroughly informed democratic process. The transformation cannot come all at once (although there may be abrupt upheavals at particular moments along the way), but the incremental changes that are made in the near term must all be in tune with the ultimate goal; that is, they must be steadily creating structures—whether parties, educational networks, or governing apparatus—that embody the common interest of humanity as a whole and of a healthy environment. Empowering such structures is crucial to guaranteeing both the initial shift in class-power and the equally necessary permanent governing machinery grounded in universal participation.
The concept embodying this agenda, that of socialism, has an almost 200-year trajectory. But its most recent turns of historic fortune came, first, with the collapse or devolution, through the 1980s, of the majority of regimes claiming to embrace it, and subsequently, with the unexpected revival of popular interest in socialism in the United States in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008. In the wake of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement (2011), surveys have consistently shown, despite decades of anti-socialist indoctrination, an openness to socialism on the part of majorities or near-majorities both among African Americans and among people under 30. Of course, this does not yet reflect a precise notion of what socialism means, nor of what has shaped the historical attempts to implement it. But at least the S-word has ceased to be taboo for a great many people.3 As a consequence, it has become a target of ferocious attack not only from the governing Trump cabal but also from the “loyal opposition” of corporate Democrats, whose consistent pattern over the years has been to prefer defeat at the hands of the Republicans to any scenario that, while promising near-term electoral success for their own party, would entail the activation and mobilization of its popular base.
The dynamic of Democrat/Republican collaboration is now long established. On the one hand, Democratic electoral strategists rejoice in the most outlandish (racist, misogynist, etc.) conduct of Republicans, as this allows the Democrats to present themselves as guardians of rationality and decency. On the other hand, Republicans, having no policies to address the economic needs of the majority, revel in being able to tar the Democrats as “socialists,” thereby setting firm limits on the degree to which Democrats, recoiling from the dreaded “red” label, can legislate an authentically popular agenda. The result is that whichever of these two parties working-class people vote for, they are voting—except in rare cases of individual candidates—against their own best interests.4
This dynamic affects the way activists sympathetic to socialism define themselves in the political arena. Given the systematic bias of the electoral system and the mass media against third-party challengers, there are powerful inducements for socialists to seek office as Democrats. This leads them to water down their conception of socialism to the point of rejecting any explicit challenge to the power of capital. What remains, typically, is an invocation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and his 1944 “Economic Bill of Rights.” Although these expanded the scope of social welfare, thereby strengthening the economic power of the working class (for which they were widely denounced as “socialist”),5 they stopped short of questioning the legitimacy of the profit-system as such. The resulting political order has been variously dubbed “mixed economy,” “welfare capitalism,” and “social democracy,” but some of its advocates in the US—notably, Senator Bernie Sanders—refer to it as “democratic socialism.”
Given that the New Deal agenda did not entail dissolution of the capitalist class, the practice of implying that it was somehow socialist is highly misleading. Its socialist aspects, although real enough (as far as they went) in terms of their benefits, were in the nature of partial and transitory concessions. What the New Deal meant was that capital gave up a portion of its power in order—as Joseph P. Kennedy said at the time6—not to face the prospect of losing all of it. But when the historical moment was right, capital struck back. The first phase of its counterattack was the post-World War II anticommunist drive. This not only broke up the Left’s organizational infrastructure, it also had a long-lasting cultural impact, stigmatizing class consciousness on the part of workers and enshrining at the mass level—especially via racist suburban development planning7—an ethic of unalloyed individualism. The resulting conformity would be disrupted by the radical movements of the 1960s, but once again without diminishing the basic power of capital. The second phase of the capitalist counterattack is what has been increasingly in place since the mid-1970s, a period now generally known as the neoliberal era—referring to the systematic assault on every variety of welfare protection, along with widespread privatization, deregulation, and mass incarceration.
The evolution of this whole complex of hyper-capitalist policies—beginning in the late 1940s and with a fresh thrust since the mid-1970s—should decisively discredit any impression that the achievements of the 1930s brought some kind of systemic break (as the term “democratic socialism” might lead us to think) with capitalist power. In this sense, as Senator Sanders himself often insists, his core proposals, which typically revive New Deal-type priorities, are in no sense radical. They would bring the working-class majority certain obvious benefits, but (as he also says) would not threaten the decisive economic role of private capital, which he does not propose to replace.
In fact, in the US political context, programs even far more limited than that of Sanders do not escape the accusation of being socialist (recall the attacks made beginning in 2008 against Barack Obama). It therefore makes political sense for Sanders—especially considering the more fully socialist (including anti-imperialist) position he staked out earlier in his career, as well as his lifelong public admiration for Eugene Debs—not to disown his association with the word socialism. What his acceptance of the word ultimately reflects is the fact that socialism, despite any negative historical baggage and (above all) despite its sustained stigmatization, embodies the positive social goals that most people seek.
Given its broad albeit partly latent popularity, one might envisage socialism having ultimately a rather straightforward and successful faceoff with capitalism. Even granting the obvious military power of the capitalist ruling class, we could at least anticipate an embrace of socialism at the level of mass working-class opinion, which could possibly in turn sway some of capital’s intermediate-level operatives. The reality, however, is not so clear-cut. Important divisions exist within the potentially socialist constituency. Some of these reflect longstanding strategic divergences, foreshadowed in the Marxist/anarchist clash during the First International (1864–72) and in continuing antagonisms between reformist and revolutionary currents within the working-class movement. Added onto these we now find, especially since the 1960s, an intricate web of partly overlapping demographic groups (ethnic, cultural, religious, or defined by gender, sexuality, age, or ability) that occupy definite political spaces, corresponding to multiple structures of oppression.
These crosscutting interests magnify all the habitual difficulties of forging a popular majority that would be sufficiently unified to overwhelm the tiny yet all-powerful capitalist class. So, how do we come to terms with all the complexity? What insights and what proactive steps will be required in order to surmount the initially unavoidable, yet now steadily heightening, fragmentation of the popular forces?
The response to these questions must be a collective one. If it is effective, it will ultimately take the form of a hegemonic Left project—one to which all who are not viscerally wedded to capitalism will be naturally drawn. The components of the response will come from at least as many directions as there are social and demographic differences among people. Some of the inputs will be individual, while others will be from groups. The forums within which they interact will be equally diverse, ranging from household, neighborhood, or workplace to national or international convergences. Some will be face-to-face while others will use all manner of electronic channels. Whatever the mix, there will be exchanges among the various levels. The point is that such processes are continuously unfolding already, but that the directions they have so far taken within the US are, in their totality, so chaotic that one is hard pressed to envisage any uniform message, let alone a clear outcome.
On the other hand, however, there are conditions—both historical and geological—that are so universally relevant and yet so far beyond the control of any single human agent, that we will be compelled, sooner or later, to become aware of the common danger and, insofar as we recognize its scope, to see a narrowing of the range of available options that would assure our collective survival.
No single intellectual intervention into this process can expect to offer definitive guidance. At the same time, however, any set of reflections that spans a sufficiently broad range of issues, while drawing out the connections between them, may at least advance some moments of the larger dialectic. That is my hope for the discussions in this book, which are the fruit of several decades of observation, reflection, and interaction.
The Perspective of This Book
Having thought about or studied issues connected with socialism for most of my life (I was born in 1938), I can say that while my advocacy has been constant, the surrounding political environment has undergone major fluctuations. An account of these fluctuations—and my responses to them—will help ground and situate the arguments of this book.
Long before I could imagine becoming politically active, I experienced the pall of the post-World War II repression that was unleashed in the US against any challenge to capitalist orthodoxy. This had several immediate effects on me during my teen years. It made me apprehensive about sharing my thoughts with anyone in authority. It meant that when I went to college, I could not find any organized group of likeminded students. And it meant that my education proceeded along two largely separate tracks—one defined by formal course-requirements and the other by my political drive. The latter in turn was nourished, at that stage, more by theoretical study and book-learning than by practical experience. I felt myself to be cut off from ordinary humanity, especially because my anti-capitalism stemmed not—as would be “normal”—from personal material hardship inflicted by the system but rather from the malaise of seeing myself as the recipient of unmerited privilege.
Within this constricted framework, my readings broadened the basis for my opposition to capitalism8 but left me unsure about the alternative. The Soviet model—especially what I could then see of it—did not inspire me, and the threat of war between the two great powers created a feeling of helplessness. The first hint at a way out, on the global canvas, came with the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Cuba signaled that a break with the rule of capital did not necessarily have to produce the same outcome that it had done in Russia. (The Chinese case was not at that time within the scope of my awareness.) Cuba’s revolution was, at its outset, entirely self-generated—an unexpected intrusion into a hitherto bleak order, embodying the surprising (as it then seemed) assumption that every country had the potential to set its own course.
The opening created by Cuba told me that political reality was less resistant to change than I had feared. Other factors as well helped draw me out of my pessimism. During my last undergraduate year at Harvard (1959–60), I studied US labor history and wrote my Honors thesis on “Sit-down Strikes.”9 Just as I was finishing this work, which highlighted the factory-occupations of 1937, a similarly defiant action erupted onto the world stage with the first lunch-counter sit-ins of the US civil rights movement. In those same months, I discovered the Monthly Review (MR; then in its 11th year of publication) in the Harvard library. Here was a journal that conveyed a solidly grounded socialist perspective in a jargon-free style that could perhaps bridge the painful communication-gap that I felt in talking to people unfamiliar with my positions. Not incidentally, MR was the first US publication to give a full analysis of the political direction that the Cuban Revolution was taking.10 It was at the suggestion of MR’s co-founder Paul Sweezy (in 1962) that I chose Latin America as the focus for my doctoral studies in political science. The year I subsequently spent in Chile (1966–67) strengthened my sense of being in tune with the majority of humanity, as I found myself for the first time at public events among thousands who resonated with the same calls that I did. By the time I returned home at the end of that year, I was able to enjoy similar occasions of solidarity in the US.
The leftist wave of the 1960s was what finally freed me of concern that my politics might be seen as arising from personal “deviance” rather than from a general commitment to human decency (amplified by the evident desperation of particular populations and by the permanent threat of catastrophic war). It now no longer mattered how I had come to my views; they would henceforward define me as part of a project much bigger than myself. Even so, however, my particular trajectory set me apart, during the ’60s, from the newer cohort of activists, who were on average several years younger than I was. They were less restrained by the kind of fear that I had grown up with. They seemed to constitute a community, of which I was not a part. Although I had more background than most of them did in socialist theory and history, I was not well placed to apply my knowledge to their ongoing debates. I supported and even drew inspiration from the broad thrust of their efforts, but I played no leadership role, and I felt torn as the student movement—riven by conflict between direct-action and base-building factions—blew apart.
I carried my uncertainties with me when I joined the New University Conference (NUC) in mid-1969, after my first year of college teaching.11 This was a multi-tendency radical organization, which embraced a wider age-range than had the then-disintegrating Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I felt at home in NUC, which inspired me when I lost my first teaching job (in late 1969) to take my second one at a state university in Indianapolis, where I would remain (apart from three foreign stays) from 1970 to 1994. In this conservative city of the US Midwest, I was re-immersed in some of the repressive 1950s culture, though now less at its mercy. NUC dissolved itself in 1972, but not before having helped me acquire a public platform in Central Indiana as an authority on Latin American issues—which became especially relevant in 1973 with the US-supported military coup in Chile; again in the 1980s with US interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Grenada, and finally in the early ’90s when the Soviet collapse prompted speculation that a similar fate might be in store for Cuba.
Through most of my time in Indianapolis, I continued my activities in the face of a largely antagonistic atmosphere produced both by the local media culture and by the national priorities of the Reagan/Bush era. But thanks to my experience of the 1950s, none of this really surprised me. I no longer enjoyed the political “high” of the ’60s and early ’70s, but I retained the benefit not only of having experienced that fleeting (illusory?) moment of collective empowerment, but also of having developed, during my earlier years of isolation, some of the intellectual tools I needed to resist the once-again dominant paradigm of repression. I was now helped in this by two unforeseen openings. One was my discovery (in Indiana University’s statewide catalog) of a course-listing for Marxist Theory. The class was not being offered at my campus, so I was able without any formality to make it my own and, in so doing, to greatly expand upon my earlier forays into its subject matter. The second opening resulted from what I now view as a compensatory effect of being in a city where the Left community was so small, namely, that my Chile solidarity work brought me into contact with local prison activists, thus introducing me to a dimension of vital support work which would later mushroom in importance while all along linking me to a constituency of irrepressible revolutionary commitment.
Prospects remained grim, however, at the macro level. They suffered what seemed to many to be a coup de grâce with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the ensuing collapse of East European Communist regimes and eventually (1991) of the Soviet Union itself. Somewhat to my surprise, much of the US Left felt initially crushed by the orgy of bourgeois triumphalism that these developments unleashed. It was widely claimed that socialism and Marxism had been decisively discredited. I recall having had to argue in two organizations—successfully, as it turned out—against dropping the S-word and the M-word (respectively) from their names. I was sustained in my conviction by having lived through the earlier period in which those concepts had been targeted.
The general argument that I formulated in 198912 turned out to be my first contribution to the journal Socialism and Democracy, with which I subsequently worked editorially (from my new base in the Boston area), serving as managing editor from 1997 through 2017.13 A major portion of my own writing during this period (for various journals) focused on the ecological crisis; this is reflected in my above-mentioned 2018 book on ecosocialism. My editorial work with S&D, however, required me to delve into a wide range of other issues, as did also (1) the classes in Political Thought and Contemporary History that I have been giving since 1996 at the Berklee College of Music; (2) my participation, also dating from 1996, in the work of the Berlin-based Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism; (3) occasional commentaries on current issues that I was invited to write for online publications; (4) correspondence with prisoners and support of their struggles for basic rights; and (5) a lecture-series on US politics that I gave in 2018 at Renmin University of China.14
This whole complex of engagements can be discerned in the chapters that follow. In terms of the fluctuating relationship of my socialist outlook to current realities, my experience of the last two decades has revolved around the issues discussed at the beginning of this Introduction. In sum, the current period is one of heightened movement in opposed directions: on the one hand, an accelerated march to destruction; on the other, an alarmed but still only partial and inchoate mass awakening, still very much shackled by preoccupation with particularistic concerns.
In addressing this situation here, we begin (in Part I) by looking at the basic body of theory that has evolved for guiding revolutionary movements. I first offer an overview (in Chap. 2) of the history and meaning of Marxism. Chapters 3 and 4 comprise arguments I developed in immediate response to the crisis surrounding the so-called “end of communism” (1989–91) and the ensuing drive, within the US Left, to jettison Marxism as a framework for combatting the persistent injustices of capitalist society. This leads into the issue raised at the international level (discussed here in Chap. 5) of how we may view the environmental crisis in relation to class struggle. Finally, I address in Chap. 6 some perennial questions of economic policy—notably, planning vs. the market—as they arose in the context of twentieth-century socialist practice.
Part II presents some historical applications of the approach developed in Part I. Chapter 7 examines via case studies the core tension between revolution “from below” (at the level of the workplace) and “from above” (at the level of the state). Chapter 8, with its focus on “lesser evil” politics, explores the classic strategic question of when a revolutionary movement can be proactive and when it must prioritize defensive considerations. In Chap. 9, we attempt to interpret the course of the US Left through its successes and failures of the past half-century. Chapters 10 and 11 examine, through the medium of film, the depiction of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary moments in the recent history of, respectively, Black Liberation in the US and social revolution in Latin America. And Chap. 12 explores a century of US labor and social history through the prism of its musical expressions.
In the concluding chapter, I reflect on how these experiences, in combination, may inform our collective response to the current global emergency.
Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth-System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
See Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2019).
See John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2015).
For more detailed discussion, see Victor Wallis, Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on U.S. Politics (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2019).
An accusation that prompted President Harry S. Truman to say, in October 1952, “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Quoted in G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? 1st ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 153. It should be noted that the most significant reforms under FDR, those of the so-called “second New Deal,” came in response to the massive labor organizing drives (including sit-down strikes) of the mid-1930s.
The explicitly racist and anticommunist agenda of postwar federal home-loan policy is documented in Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 171–200.
On my formative readings, see Victor Wallis, “Ecosocialist Struggles: Reminiscences, Reflections, and Danger Signals,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 25:1 (March 2014), 44.
Unpublished text from 1960 available at Harvard College Library.
Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1960).
For more detail, see my interview in Victor Cohen, ed., The New American Movement: An Oral History, in Works and Days 55/56 (2010), 263–272 (available online).
Originally published as “Marxism in the Age of Gorbachev” (Chap. 3, below).
See Suren Moodliar and Victor Wallis, “Socialism and Democracy: A Conversation,” Socialism and Democracy, 32:1 (2018).
Published in Wallis, Democracy Denied.