Socialism: New Direction?

This is the first in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.

The airwaves parade support for democratic socialism from converted candidates, activist advocates, and a great many young people. Some say socialism is conquering the Democratic Party. Others cry nonsense. Polls say Socialism has attained a plurality among younger generations, while diverse old-timers are responding by urging we are headed for calamity, unless we re-educate our young. So what does this surfacing of socialism mean? 

As I listen, it at least indicates many people support or are prepared to support justice, honest and empathetic integrity, ecological sanity, the ability for everyone to live a full life, and particularly free education and health care for all, among other progressive policies.

This part is good, but we ought to acknowledge that it is not new. Anytime in the last half century huge numbers would have said they favored such aims. What is new, however, complements of Bernie Sanders and the last five years‘ activism, is that many people no longer avoid the label socialist. Call the same support years ago being socialist and you met an outcry of dismissive outrage, even though, if you called it caring for humanity, or liberalism, or whatever, it would have gotten support roughly like now.

Another new meaning indicated by the upsurge, less semantic and more substantive, is that few with the indicated humane, liberal, or socialist views, now take as unchallengeable gospel that fixing current institutions by removing some bad people is all the change we need. Many do feel just that way. But many others reject not only being sexist, racist, elitist, and authoritarian, but capitalist institutions. Everyone favoring socialism in polls reject bad apples, but, and this is new, many also reject bad institutions.

So how much does this growing verbal fearlessness about touting socialism, plus innovative openness to rejecting basic institutions matter? Will it lead to widely shared long-term commitments extensive enough  to sustain multi-issue, multi-tactic, grassroots, participatory organization? Or will it surge but then retreat?

The left has long suffered silos of separate focus. Activists almost universally believe all central concerns intersect and even entwine, yet few who focus on immigration, violence against women, war, feminism, racism, militarism, climate calamity, pollution, income distribution, market madness, police violence, election reform, OR other worthy concerns, actively support not only their own agenda, but also ALL the others. 

Why don’t we all aid the aims of every valid priority, not just with lip service, but with strategic care and sustained commitment? One reason is we don’t have overarching shared answers to the obvious question, what do we want, not just today, but for the long term? An “ism” should provide that, so is “democratic socialism” up to the task? Can it move from being a vague intimation of wanting better lives to being a serious touchstone of committed and comprehensive unity? Can it help us connect our siloed priorities and confidently posit aims that enrich our understanding of current relations and future possibilities, generate hope, and, as the saying goes, plant the seeds of the future in the present?

To do all that, this series of articles exploring “socialism,” takes as a given that arriving at shared allegiance to a better future is going to require ample institutional substance. If we reject sexism, okay what does that imply for the kind of families and sexuality we want beyond the material equity that other innovations will yield and sustain? If we reject racism, okay, what does that imply for the kind of cultural interrelations between races, nationalities, and ethnicities that we want beyond the social enrichments that other innovations will yield and sustain? If we want an end to political subservience and subordination, okay, what does that imply for how we should arrive at laws, adjudicate disputes, and implement shared programs beyond the solidarity that other innovations will yield and sustain? And if we reject exploitation and class division, okay, what does that imply for how we ought to structure work and workplaces and determine allocation of products, rewards, responsibilities, and costs beyond the justice that other innovations will yield and sustain?

If socialism continues to only mean nice values and progressive policies for the present, enlarging support for it will be a big step forward, for sure, and in truth despite justified semantic disagreements, that may indeed be the best way to now use the term, but, if it is, we who want new institutions will need a more encompassing term for a new type of society that doesn’t just ameliorate some ills, but that removes their structural causes and liberates full popular potentials. We will need to support and celebrate the emerging progressive socialist trend, not to dismiss or denigrate it, but also to put forth a larger and deeper perspective for it to hopefully lead toward. Or, if the term socialism is to become our label for our full array of desires, then what it conveys needs to be filled out quite a lot.

Different people have different ideas about the needed extra substance. I favor something called participatory society, or, if it proves more compelling without being fractious, we could call it participatory socialism. As succinctly as possible, whatever name it takes, for me this would include: feminist kinship and gender relations emphasizing men and women not only having equal opportunity and rights, but also equally assertive and caring roles in social life; intercommunalist racial, ethnic, and other relations emphasizing people having means to elaborate and sustain cultural ties and commitments of their own choosing; participatory politics including collective self management via assemblies serving from neighborhood to society level, and renovated legal and executive relations stressing solidarity, justice, and self management; as well as participatory economics including federated workplace and industry councils, equitable remuneration, a new division of labor eliminating harsh hierarchies of empowerment, and participatory planning in place of markets or central planning.

But my immediate point in this introduction to a series of explorations of “socialism” isn’t what the substance of a needed “ism” ought to be, whether the above or something else, but, instead, that the substance ought to be far more substantial than anything now generally supported, which means that even as activists oppose vile Trumpism and advocate for worthy Sanders-ism, whether we call our goals socialism or not, we should also mutually supportively and inclusively propose, explore, debate, and arrive at a far more substantial and clearly communicable shared vision of what we favor. 

Note: Forthcoming articles in this series will address diverse facets of socialism including especially desirable values, consistent institutions, and workable methods of attaining them, as well as associated controversies, criticisms, and debates. If you have ideas for issues or ideas to include in the series, or you doubt or reject points I raise, or you have alternatives you would like assessed, as we proceed, please either indicate your views in comments attached to series articles or, if you prefer, send them to me directly via email to sysop@zmag.org. I will pay close attention and also try to reply.

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