Capitalism, as readers well know, hasn’t been doing very well in recent years.* And, of course, every time capitalism falters or makes promises it can’t deliver, alternative ideas—such as socialism—get a hearing. It happened, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century (when the French Revolution wasn’t able to deliver on the promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité), the middle of the nineteenth century (when workers protested the ravages of the Industrial Revolution), the early part of the twentieth century (when union leader Eugene Debs, as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, won almost a million votes), the 1930s (when the Great Depression forced millions of workers onto the unemployed lines), and during the 1960s (when students and many others criticized the military-industrial-academic complex).
If Jonathan Chait is right, it’s happening again. According to him, socialists in Obama-era America
consider the political process fundamentally corrupted by large corporations and harbor suspicions of any policy that relies on, or makes peace with, the profit motive. This idea forms a through-line connecting the left’s objections against the major items of Obama’s agenda. Socialists deemed his health-care reforms deeply disappointing, because they relied on private insurance companies and failed to create a public option to compete with them. They criticized his Wall Street reforms for regulating the big banks rather than breaking them up. And they judged a failure the cap-and-trade law he tried to pass in 2009 and 2010, which compromised too much with energy companies and relied too heavily on market forces. Obama likes to boast that his policies have enabled the private sector to thrive; socialists consider this an inherent problem.
Bernie Sanders is, of course, the standard-bearer of this new discussion of socialism, a term that until recently was simply not allowed in “polite” (i.e., mainstream) political and economic discourse in the United States. But there it is—and, for the first time in a very long time, Americans are being to get a sense that (a) socialism has a very long and rich lineage (which is as old as capitalism itself), (b) in many countries around the world, socialist critics of capitalism are accepted participants in academic and public debate (and, in many cases, have their own political parties), and (c) there are many different approaches to and definitions of socialism (some seeking to regulate and mitigate the negative effects of the excesses of capitalism, others involving a much sharper break from capitalism).
In any case, socialism seems to no longer have the same scary connotations it has had in recent decades and, of course, in many other periods of U.S. history.
The return of socialism helps explain why, for example, some (such as Emma Caterine) argue that Bernie Sanders’s socialism not only is not really socialism, but is actually dangerous to real socialism. To which I can only respond, really, Rosa Luxemburg is the socialist truth you want to invoke in 2015 in the United States, where no social democratic much less communist party even exists? But still, notwithstanding sectarian bickering, the issue of socialism is on the table.
The return of socialism may also explain why Deirdre McCloskey (pdf) [ht: ja], who prides herself on listening to and engaging the rhetoric of others, finds it necessary to be so dismissive of Marx (who, in her words, was “mistaken on almost every point of economics and of history”) and, especially, of the “followers of Marx” (who, again in her words, “have seldom adhered” to the principle of engaging in continuous conversation, “and less so now it seems than once”).
It’s a shame, really, because in my view McCloskey might have something to offer to the renewed discussion of socialism, precisely because of her concern with rhetoric, postmodern epistemology, and the history of capitalism. But, unfortunately, she disqualifies herself precisely because of her dismissiveness (“Marxists have not cracked a serious book in economics published after 1867 or 1885 or 1894”?!) and her unwillingness to cite even a single Marxist economist or economics text of the past decade (the best she can do is attempt to prove how wrong historian Eric Mielants is in his 2008 book, The Origins of Capitalism and the “Rise of the West”). It seems she’s simply thrown herself down the Austrian/libertarian rabbit hole.
Fortunately, in the months (and, perhaps, years) ahead, as the campaign within the Democratic Party develops, and as the capitalist recovery continues to be so one-sided (and, even on its own terms, to threaten a new Armaggedon), the context seems once again ripe for socialism to be taken up as a way both of criticizing the ravages of contemporary capitalism and of exploring real alternatives to the ongoing crises.
As Chait observes, “Even in the face of likely defeat, Sanders has brought new life to an old tradition.”**
*And, to read Paul Mason, might not be doing well in the days and months ahead.
**And, as Harold Meyerson explains, if Sanders does lose, his campaign “has to morph into an enduring left-wing movement.”
This formidable task requires, first, that Sanders’s legions understand the unique historic opportunity that their coming together presents: That their victory in all probability won’t be putting Bernie in the White House, but creating a surging and enduring left. That, in turn, requires them to give as much thought to forming or joining autonomous post-campaign organizations, and envisioning post-campaign mobilizations, as they now do to advancing Sanders’s candidacy. Indeed, they need to start forming such organizations today, while they are together campaigning for Sanders, and in the process even reach out to other progressives who may not be for Sanders. These endeavors can’t and shouldn’t be undertaken by the Sanders campaign itself. They fall exclusively to the volunteers. . .
Is this difficult? And how. Is this necessary? Totally.