Home > Uncategorized > In defense of democratic socialism – posted 6/23/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/30/2019

In defense of democratic socialism – posted 6/23/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/30/2019

Since there is no shortage of badmouthing socialism, I wanted to outline the road that led me to support for democratic socialism.

Growing up in the Philadelphia area in the 1960’s I was acutely aware of economic inequality and racism. If you got around the city and suburbs, there was a stark contrast between the ghetto of North Philadelphia and the Main Line. It was a chasm even then and I did not understand why there was such a disparity between geographic areas not so far apart.

It was the 1960’s and the War in Vietnam was raging. It was a dominant background reality to all our lives. Everyday featured body counts on TV. The logic for why American troops were in Vietnam was a mystery. Persuasive rationales were missing. Vietnam was a forerunner to Iraq where wars ceased to have any credible justification. The Movement and the counterculture emerged. To be woke was to question authority.

As a young person looking for answers, I gravitated to books. I wanted to understand our society and I was not getting good answers from the mass media of the time. I read widely and I would name two writers who led me to question fundamental things: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

Both articulated a critique of the war in Vietnam that went beyond seeing the war as an accident or a mistake. They saw the war as a product of a profit system that valued money over people. In their writings, they placed the Vietnam war in a context that explained why the United States kept intervening militarily in the Third World. They also offered a critical perspective on U.S.history that was new to me.

In college, I had my first opportunity to read books about socialism. I had a friend, Kevin, who was a member of the radical student group SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. Kevin gave me a list of books to read that were not on any college syllabus. I learned about labor’s untold story as well as the history of socialism and 20th century socialist thought.

Since this is such contested terrain, let me highlight how I see socialism. It has been best summarized by a labor educator, John McDermott:

“Socialism is the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government – this means every kind of authoritarian government – of the left, the right, the center; of capitalist, of communist; of church; of state; of corporation; of expert; and of zealot.”

Socialism is about working class self-rule. It is not about some bureaucracy ruling over workers. Nor is it government ownership of the means of production. Socialism is about more political and economic democracy. The working class is a subjugated class under capitalism. Working people have little control over critical decisions that affect their lives. Over the last 40 years, working people have seen their collective power erode, consistent with the weakening of unions and the expansive greed of our ruling class.

Implicit is the underlying reality of class struggle. Social classes compete for power, wealth and influence. For almost all of human history, working people have been exploited by their masters, whether they were monarchs, feudal lords or capitalists.

In America, a small number of people, the 1%, have amassed a huge amount of money, billions of dollars. The money has been used to buy political power, politicians, and control over our collective political agenda. That agenda has promoted minimalist change guaranteed to protect the profits of the 1%. Nothing too “out there” will get placed on this agenda. The 1% wants economic stability to safeguard its money. It is not an agenda designed to address the human needs of the American people.

The ruling class guards against the possibility of any significant progressive reform happening. It is like our society is a car permanently stuck in neutral.

We only need to look at climate change. According to science, we only have a small window of time to turn things around (12 years) before we will face catastrophic consequences. Where is the urgency? Where is the appreciation for science? There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists about climate change but we continue plodding, with blinders on.

I blame capitalism and the short-sighted pursuit of profit by the fossil fuel industry. You might think that these greedy capitalists would recognize the need for a long-term perspective on climate but that is totally lacking. Instead they still try to manufacture doubt about the science of climate change. The crazy thing is the capitalists along with all of us will have to live with the consequences of climate inaction. This is a betrayal of the future.

You can go down the list of problems we face – racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, the environment, reproductive rights, and immigration. Each problem has its own specificity but all are deeply rooted in a history where capitalism has failed over generations to adequately address them.

Socialism is not opposed to reforms. Ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition at public colleges and universities are building blocks moving in the direction of a socialist vision. Socialists are strong supporters of these reforms while also being aware that they are only steps in the direction of a radical change.

Some of the critiques of socialism complain that it is unrealistically about “free stuff”. I think arguments like this ignore context. We live in a society where the cost of education has skyrocketed. A generation of young people is now burdened and ultra-stressed because they are burdened with absurd levels of debt. Such debt is not necessary and a socialist agenda needs to offer support to the struggling students.

Socialism, like capitalism, does have a dark side to its history and socialists must not whitewash this history. Stalinism and other examples where human rights have ben trampled should be acknowledged, not dishonestly buried. There are no perfect examples out there and there never will be.

Still, democratic socialists have learned from the past and part of the learning is the importance of democracy and individual rights. Contrary to what some may think, there is a libertarian tradition in socialism. History shows the importance of the rule of law and something like the Bill of Rights, regardless of whether your social system is capitalist or socialist. When I think of the libertarian socialist tradition, I think of Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Victor Serge and Rosa Luxemburg.

Albert Einstein, a socialist, once wrote:

“The crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”

Einstein bemoaned the crippling of the social consciousness of individuals. He favored the development of a sense of community and responsibility toward humanity rather than glorification of power and success.

The moral superiority of socialism is that it offers the possibility of a good life for everyone, not just an elite who hog money, resources, and advantages. Socialism stands for the idea that everyone should be able to lead a life of dignity, accomplishment, security and satisfaction. Our extreme economic inequality is not an inevitability, rather it is an opening for democratic socialism. As Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, we either transition to socialism or we regress into barbarism.

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