“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Antonio Gramsci Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)
Years before the nearly successful Bernie Sanders run for the presidency, one did not need too keen eyesight to see the need and opportunity. There was nothing new about the need and opportunity. The need and opportunity existed a century ago every bit as much as it exists today.
What Sanders did that could be called innovative was made possible because he consciously tried to learn from the political failures of his hero, Eugene V. Debs. If you haven’t already watched Sanders’ Debs film, please do so at some point during this election cycle. I think that having done so assumptions by some on the left about Sanders’ political naivete or cravenness may lessen.
Although Debs was a true radical international socialist, and hence in isolation more politically to my liking, I suspect that Sanders loves humanity and our world as much as Debs did and is trying to do as much good as he can politically in his own life and times.
It was not truly innovative for Sanders to come up with a fairly standard (and for that matter rather meek) social democratic menu. The Green Party and other left parties have more progressive platforms and therefore in isolation are more attractive to me.
Nonetheless, I believe that it was innovative for Sanders in his life and times to bring his campaign into the Democratic Party. For this he has taken a lot of criticism from many on the left and even more such criticism for choosing to endorse Hillary Clinton.
This piece will not rehash or debate any aspect of the Sanders vs. Clinton campaign or the endorsement. Nor will it visit the questions of whether Sanders’ innovation truly made sense strategically or makes sense going forward. Nor will it lecture anyone on how they should vote. Good people like Chris Hedges (cited below) and Noam Chomsky (www.alternet.org/…) can disagree on some of these questions.
Rather, I am focusing on an even bigger and more important matter, the great labor of love. I am citing Sanders’ nearly successful approach to running for president simply as an example of the potential value of being willing to examine and even shake off intellectual and personal cobwebs that may, if only incrementally or indirectly, impede “articulat[ing] a viable socialism,” to use Hedge’s term.
We as a species cannot afford to fail to articulate a viable socialism. Pointing out the abundant failures of capitalism is not enough, either as a matter of theory or practice. Winning that argument is easy compared to the task of framing and achieving a viable socialist alternative.
I will briefly attempt to lay out a practical democratic foundation of personal conduct and social discourse that may eventually, in an ongoing and never-ending manner, articulate a viable socialism.
But first, why is there the need and opportunity?
The need and opportunity
Far less has changed since before President Obama took office than many of the U.S. liberal intelligentsia sometimes acknowledge. The crises of capitalism still surround us. Even if you or I somehow manage to live in a financially secure enough bubble to not personally sense this, we do not have to look too far to see the suffering of our “neighbors,” to use the radical international socialist Jesus’s term.
In late 2008, citing George Orwell writing in the Great Depression, and without specifically predicting by name the political marriage of fatuous fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, Jr. to his non-religious royal fatuousness Donald Trump, Chris Hedges presciently anticipated their perverse union. He also accurately referenced what should have been done to prevent their union from enticing a large segment of “whites” in the U.S.:
If Barack Obama does not end the flagrant theft of taxpayer funds by corporate slugs and the disgraceful abandonment of our working class, especially as foreclosures and unemployment mount, many in the country will turn in desperation to the far right embodied by groups such as Christian radicals. The failure by the left to offer a democratic socialist alternative will mean there will be, in the eyes of many embittered and struggling working- and middle-class Americans, no alternative but a perverted Christian fascism. The inability to articulate a viable socialism has been our gravest mistake. It will ensure, if this does not soon change, a ruthless totalitarian capitalism.
One quibble with this is the assumption that Christian fascism in the U.S. is anything new. I recently was cleaning out my aging fundamentalist parents’ old papers and encountered a pompous Christian fascist leader staring back at me.
In 1981, this man claimed to control a moral majority and had a recently elected president and magazine covers to “prove” it.
Now is past time to learn from our mistakes. It is not entirely fair to single out, as Hedges did, President Obama in the U.S. system of divided government for these mistakes. However, fixated celebration of the prevention during his presidency of a global depression is obtuse.
But how on earth are we as a disparate group of deep democrats around the world to proceed to change a system reinforced by so much division, distraction, and systemic opposition turned against the masses and in favor of the oligarchs and their mercenaries? The simple answer is that we alone can’t. However, that recognition is not cause for despair but reinvigoration of our deep democratic theory and practice.
Here are three related suggestions for building true democracy capable of articulating a viable socialism.
Three suggestions for articulating a viable socialism
(1) Honestly and fearlessly critique all relevant issues. For instance, critique not only capitalist but also socialist successes, failures, and limitations and not only the successes, failures, and limitations of the two-party political system in the U.S. but also the successes, failures, and limitations of third parties and independents.
If you choose to work politically as a Democrat, do not by doing so sacrifice your duty to honestly and fearlessly critique the party’s failures and the costs of your wasting precious time or money supporting candidates you do not believe in. But if you choose to work politically outside the Democratic Party, do not sacrifice your ability to honestly and fearlessly critique the potential value of working with Democrats, such as through short term alliances, and do not disregard the costs of your unwillingness to form such alliances.
To give another related example where honest and fearless critique is vital, do not neglect intersectionality. In considering a class-based critique do not neglect issues of race and gender, and vice versa.
Also, do not under- or over-value the indirect action of voting and electioneering in comparison to a wide variety of direct action that may be available to you, including protesting, cooperating with those near you geographically or ideologically, and otherwise living as much as possible in solidarity and in jointly fighting the powerful.
Perhaps most importantly, look at facts holistically. Do not accept facts in isolation from their context and do not accept as ordained artificial boundaries that have been imposed by the powerful. We live on one crowded planet, and the masses have to find a way to reject divide and rule and get along together.
(2) Try to practice compassionate, mindful self-discipline rather than blindly following any party’s discipline or any person’s indiscipline. Be willing to consider your own vulnerabilities and weaknesses but also to speak up boldly when you feel it is the right thing to do about the critique that you have developed.
How can the masses be expected to democratically seize power when they do not even profess to believe they should have a full spectrum of rights as human beings? And how can they know these rights if the already mobilized left does not plainly and consistently proclaim them? Proclaiming a right to health care, as the Democratic Party platform is now doing under the influence of Sanders, while long overdue, is far from adequate as a statement of economic rights.
On the other hand, recognize that there will be tension in our political relationships. Some allies of convenience will not be acting in good faith but to preserve as much as possible a status quo that divides, rules, fools, and oppresses the masses. The bigger the tent, the greater the tension and the intrusion of reactionaries. Sometimes self-discipline will suggest that we tolerate more tension than we would prefer as well as even people we rationally do not trust.
Do not get overly discouraged by our own or anyone else’s failures and limitations. (See Gramsci!) But also do not underestimate the essential difficulty, which includes the challenge of democratically convincing others to join us in articulating a viable socialism.
Nejdanov spoke about the antagonism between Heine and Borne, Proudhon, and realism in art. Solomin alone sat listening and reflecting, the smile never leaving his lips. Without having uttered a single word, he seemed to understand better than the others where the essential difficulty lay.
Turgenev, I.S., 1877. Virgin Soil. (ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/…)
(3) Recognize the inherent relationship of true democracy with the permanent revolution of the masses. We the people cannot escape our continuing revolutionary responsibility. A viable socialism will not spontaneously generate, but it cannot be imposed. It must be democratically “articulated.”
True democracy must embody the permanent revolution of the masses. We cannot expect a utopian stasis will ever be achieved. Where there remains injustice, it is our collective duty to end it.
The masses have to want socialism for it to work well. True democracy does not exist where society is not organized so that the masses have their needs met and are truly treated as equals. They will eventually be repelled by a “socialism” or a “democracy” of unmet needs and inequality where some are more equal than others.
A viable socialism will be iterative and deeply democratic. Totalitarianism is not an option. Calcification and resentment set in where human beings are not willingly engaged in self-disciplined creativity for the common good.
A viable socialism will be both materially and values based. The ownership and control of the means of production and distribution are secure in the hands of one ruling class or another as long as the masses have values that accept this scenario.
As a starting point for articulating more deeply democratic values, all nations, including the U.S., should finally ratify the Eleanor Roosevelt-inspired International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. www.gwu.edu/…
A viable socialism will not be undemocratically imposed or set in stone for all times and all places. It must be democratically coercive against capitalist power, corruption, and those who seek to oppose or overlook the common good for their own selfish wants or ambition, but it must be flexible, open-minded, and forgiving too.
Many of our newfound brothers and sisters will have been competitors, rivals, or even enemies. To end a world of divide and rule, healing of divisions among the manipulated masses must occur.
No single programmatic vision will be the only viable socialist vision. Hedges’s specific construct seems to be a good starting point for the U.S., but it does not pretend to be a full articulation of a viable socialism. It will certainly not be adequate for all times and all places.
We will either find our way out of this mess by embracing an uncompromising democratic socialism—one that will insist on massive government relief and work programs, the nationalization of electricity and gas companies, a universal, not-for-profit government health care program, the outlawing of hedge funds, a radical reduction of our bloated military budget and an end to imperial wars—or we will continue to be fleeced and impoverished by our bankrupt elite and shackled and chained by our surveillance state.
The masses may be quietly crying even when they are not yet openly crying out for justice much less coalescing behind a specific political-economic program. The U.S. is a nation of widespread self-medication and undiagnosed PTSD. What passes for democracy often ignores their cries and actively works to perpetuate injustice.
True democrats will not ignore their cries. True democrats will be listening for their cries, long muffled by the ruling class. True democrats will be permanent loving revolutionaries against injustice.
But first and foremost, to be effective, true revolutionaries of a viable socialism must be democratically persuasive. Our vision must be the nascent vision of the masses themselves, democratically compelling because it emanates from their own economically, socially, and culturally hegemonic values, which must be rationally discerned from understanding the full spectrum of human needs. (Again, see Gramsci!)
A few of us, or even a substantial minority of us, cannot act successfully in isolation or as an undemocratic vanguard to a decent society for all. A viable socialism will be inclusive and reject discrimination, privilege, nationalism, and exceptionalism. Striving to build walls or islands of privileged “justice” surrounded by oceans of injustice is not articulating a viable socialism.
A decent society for all must ultimately and continuously be articulated by the masses themselves. That is the essence of true democracy. A society of true democrats will itself be a living articulation of a viable socialism.