Posting until I feel catharsis

Some Socialist; or: Bernie Sanders and the new old red-baiting

My early teenage years coincided with the election of Barack Obama and the subsequent right-wing reaction to this in the form of the “Tea Party” movement. I remember reacting to the criticisms of the Obama administration coming from that sector with a combination of shock and curiosity. This was the first political conflict, besides the anti-war movement under Bush, that I had paid any close attention to. The charge of socialism against the president was one that really made me curious. I started doing my own research, and I eventually discovered that I was, in fact, a socialist myself.

It was obviously not the intention of the movement to introduce a new generation of people to the term, who - armed with the internet - can actually consult the primary sources as soon as they’re introduced to the concept. The conservatives assumed that they still had a monopoly on the term, that they were the ones setting the standard as to its use. For decades, they had made “socialism” a dirty word, consigning self-identified socialists to dark corners of academia.You would seldom hear from self-identified socialists on cable news, unless they were brought in as some foil because a liberal politician had been accused of being a socialist. In the beginning of the Cold War, states like Louisiana even instituted “free enterprise” classes to be taught alongside Civics in high schools, to indoctrinate students into the pro-capitalist ideology of the American right-wing, devoting a whole semester to teaching the perils of socialism and the merits of “free markets” and competition.

While the Tea Party succeeded in some of its goals - they managed to capture key leadership positions in the GOP and forced the acquiescence of remaining “moderate” GOP leaders to the Tea Party agenda, while rallying the conservative electorate into an ideologically conservative quasi-counter-revolution in the 2010 midterms - it has also generated blowback that has taken the form of youth who are no longer afraid of the term “socialism,” recognizing in the cries of it from conservatives either sheer hysteria, such as the form it took when levied against the arch neoliberal Barack Obama, or verbal inflation and conflation, such as the kind of red-baiting Bernie Sanders is going to increasingly be faced with.

But the older liberals, as well as the young but more cynical ones, still fear the conservative backlash (which, I want to stress, is going to happen no matter who gets the nomination). Paul Krugman, in the denial stage of grief, wants to caution everyone that although Bernie calls himself a socialist, he is not really one, at least not if Venezuela and the Soviet Union are the standard bearers of the ideology. Krugman is right to a certain extent: Bernie is no Bolshevik; but Krugman’s understanding of socialism, in particular its history as a political movement, is clearly deficient. Krugman:

The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark . He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own .
So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie.

I’m willing to take him at his word and grant that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. I’m not going to quibble on that regard. I would like to stress, however, that “socialist” is a word with many meanings. Speak to n different socialists and you will get n different definitions of the word “socialism.” Libertarian socialists like Cornelius Castoriadis provide a definition that emphasizes workers’ self-management, which is at odds with the state socialism practiced in the USSR, where self-management was clearly not a feature of the system. This is intentional on Castoriadis’s part: he did not believe that Soviet state socialism was even deserving of the name. Castoriadis had a fondness for saying of the full name of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that it was “four words and four lies.” In On the Content of Socialism , Castoriadis argues:

[T]he realization of socialism on the proletariat's behalf by any party or bureaucracy whatsoever is an absurdity, a contradiction in terms, a square circle, an underwater bird; socialism is nothing but the masses conscious and perpetual self-managerial activity.

When confronted with this kind of nuance, conservatives usually double back and insist that those in agreement with Castoriadis are giving a “no true scotsman” argument, and that socialism of any variety inexorably leads to Stalin and Mao. This despite the fact that Castoriadis and libertarian socialists had meaningfully set themselves up in opposition not only to the Soviet Union, but also to the political parties and organizations (such as unions) in their own countries which were ideologically aligned with Stalinism, providing a critique of the organizational forms of these parties which - Castoriadis and libertarian socialists in general insist - are what actually lead to Stalin and Mao. What Krugman and the conservatives miss - because socialism has been a practically dormant movement until recently - is that “socialism” as a movement is fraught with dissension, and always has been, and always will be. There is no single “socialism” to speak of, but a variety of ideologies and movements which correspond not just to different class formations (hence Marx speaking in the Manifesto about petit-bourgeois and reactionary socialisms, which communists are in opposition to) but also disagreements over end goals, strategies, and tactics. Socialism and communism in this context are not static states of affairs to be established, but political movements, rife with internal contradictions.

It’s within this context that we can move beyond the understanding of the movement gleaned from old John Birch Society propaganda, and really begin to understand the socialist tradition Bernie Sanders emerges from. Bernie is not of the Stalinist political tradition. Krugman is right that the “democratic socialism” that Sanders speaks of does not even go as far as libertarian socialism in the extent of the changes it would like to see. Sanders shares with the Democrats and Republicans a commitment to an economic order characterized by wage labor and capital, and by the dominance of markets in rationing economic resources. He is not seeking to impose on Americans the kind of state-run healthcare system employed in the UK and Cuba - despite these systems producing better outcomes with a fraction of the resources than the private, market-based, system that the US uses. Sanders is not seeking to abolish or negate bourgeois private property, or institute a planned economy based on common ownership of the means of production - much to the ire of those of us who are actually communists who, sometimes, feel saddled with the obligation of defending him.

The fact that these things still need to be said is representative of the decrepit state of political discourse in the United States. That Americans are largely ignorant of the history of the wider socialist movement is not surprising, but this has important ramifications for common political understanding. Those whose mental image of socialism is Stalin’s gulag will not understand the objections to capitalism from libertarian socialists or democratic socialists, and cynically perceive their objections to Stalinism as disingenuous apologetics. This constrains the American political imagination, what Americans are willing to conceive as possible or desirable. For those who socialism is an inexorable march to Stalin and Mao, to the gulags and the Great Leap Forward, there is simply no room for consideration of an expansion of the public sphere. For that type of thinker, the only thing the public should do is disappear and retreat into the private.

While Krugman and Sanders’s left-wing critics are right that Sanders’s politics are not really that radical compared to much of Europe, where even right-wing parties like True Finns of Finland will defend the welfare state, and neoliberalism does not have the vice grip it has on the American political imagination, it is still a welcome fact that “socialism,” whatever we take this to mean, is once again in our political vocabulary as something more than an invective. Sanders represents a rare rupture in the social imagination, the result of a breakdown of faith in established ideologies and political formations in the face of brewing and ongoing political, economic, and environmental crises. Those to Sanders’s left should use this opportunity wisely, to stress an alternative vision of socialism to people who would have otherwise never entertained the concept, and to further break down the years of indoctrination that have gone into making Americans fearful of any alternative to capitalism.

Liberals are concerned that Sanders as a candidate is tainted by his chosen ideological label, and will be subject to ruthless red-baiting from the right for it. This, unfortunately for Democrats, is going to be the reality for any candidate they choose, regardless of their political identification. Those on the right who categorically reject socialism usually include in their image of socialism the kind of policies offered by even the moderate Democratic party candidates. The kind of voter who believes that “progressive” is a synonym for “Maoist” is never going to be won over to the Democratic party no matter what candidate is run. For eight years under Obama, the right claimed that communist totalitarianism was right around the corner, ready to be sprung on a hapless American people. Obama’s repeated capitulation to right-wing economic doctrine did not change one conservative’s mind on the matter. Rather than retreat and be on the defensive, Sanders’s embrace of the label threatens to reduce the potency of the charge.

If there is one thing for socialists to worry about under a Sanders presidency, it would be the risk of an economic crisis occurring under his tenure. The far right would immediately seize the opportunity to blame “socialism” for any crisis that might occur, even if national economic institutions under Sanders are not significantly altered. With Sanders likely to be the nominee, and somewhat likely to beat Trump, socialists might do well to distance themselves from the Sanders brand of “democratic socialism.” For those who socialism means workers’ self-management, it is of vital importance that the differences between them and Sanders are outlined and brought to public attention. While Sanders may earn critical support in certain circumstances and in certain battles, the independence of our formations from the democratic socialists should be maintained, and criticism of their policies voiced when they violate our own principles.

Sanders is not the candidate to pin our hopes and dreams on. A strong socialist movement in the United States is going to require far more than rallying people for the next election cycle, and far more than the “bully pulpit” Sanders plans to use the executive office for. It will require the independent, self-managing, activity of the working class, against capital and against professional bureaucrats. As Castoriadis argues:

The proletariat can carry out the socialist revolution only if it acts autonomously, i.e., if it finds in itself both the will and the consciousness for the necessary transformation of society. Socialism can be neither the fated result of historical development, a violation of history by a party of supermen, nor still the application of a program derived from a theory that is true in itself. Rather, it is the unleashing of the free creative activity of the oppressed masses. Such an unleashing of free creative activity is made possible by historical development, and the action of a party based on this theory can facilitate it to a tremendous degree.

The Sanders campaign’s success so far shows that the power of red-baiting has significantly weakened, and that Americans no longer unanimously turn their brains off when they hear the word “socialism.” That is undoubtedly a good thing, regardless of the outcome of the campaign. Sanders’s socialist bonafides may be questionable - he is very much on the “right-wing” of the socialist movement, closer to Eduard Bernstein than to Friedrich Engels - but this gives ample room for independent socialists to voice critiques and to attract new adherents. This rupture in the American political imagination should be exploited to its utmost.