The airwaves parade support for democratic socialism from converted candidates, activist advocates, and wide circles of young people. Some say socialism is conquering the Democratic Party. Others cry nonsense. What does the current surfacing of socialism mean?
As I listen, it at least says that huge numbers of people support or are prepared to support justice for all, honest and empathetic integrity for all, ecological sanity, and the ability for everyone to live a full rich life, including free education and health care for all, among other progressive policies.
This is all incredibly good, but it is not new. Anytime in the last half century, asked non provocatively, huge numbers would have said they favored such aims. What is new, complements of Bernie Sanders and the last five years’ activism, is that such people no longer avoid the label socialist. Call the same broad aims socialist ten years ago, much less longer ago, and your stance would garner little support and meet an outcry of dismissive outrage, even though, if you called it caring for humanity it would have gotten support, like now.
Another new meaning, less semantic, more substantive, is that few with the indicated humane or socialist views, now see it as unchallengeable gospel that fixing current institutions by removing some bad people is all the change we need. Many reject not only sexism, racism, and authoritarianism, but also capitalism. Many reject bad apples, but also bad institutions.
So how much does this growing verbal fearlessness plus 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?
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 to a serious touchstone of committed unity? Can it help us connect our siloed priorities and confidently posit aims that enrich our understanding, generate hope, and, as the saying goes, plant the seeds of the future in the present?
To do all that, our shared allegiance needs ample institutional substance including an organization in the present, and DSA is certainly making a compelling claim for that responsibility, and also clarity about organization for the future. 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 we want beyond the material 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 wonderful step forward, for sure, and that may indeed be the best way to now use the term, must in accord with the growing potentials of the moment, but, if so, we who ultimately 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 certainly need to centrally support and celebrate the emerging progressive socialist trend, not dismiss or denigrate it, but to also compellingly and clearly put forth a larger and deeper perspective for the wide movements of today to hopefully lead toward. Or, if the term socialism is to be our label for our full array of desires, even though it doesn’t currently have that meaning, then what it conveys will need to be filled out quite a lot, carefully and respectfully of all involved.
Different people have different ideas about the ultimately needed extra substance. I favor something called participatory society, or, if it proves more compelling without being fractious, 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 in all aspects of life, but also an equal participation in caring and nurturing roles in social life; intercommunalist racial, ethnic, and other relations emphasizing cultural communities having means to elaborate and sustain cultural ties and commitments of their own choosing without imposition or denigration from without; participatory politics including collective self management of political life via assemblies serving from neighborhood to society level, plus renovated just and equitable legal and executive relations; as well as participatory economics including federated workplace and industry councils, equitable remuneration for labor, a new division of labor eliminating harsh hierarchies of empowerment, and participatory planning in place of allocation by competitive markets or central planning.
But my immediate point isn’t what the substance of a needed “ism” ought to be, whether it winds up the above with suitable refinements from experience, or something else, but, instead, that to sustain and orient needed commitment the substance will in time need 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 it is called socialism or not, we will also need to mutually, supportively and inclusively propose, explore, debate, and arrive at a far more substantial and clearly communicable shared vision of what we favor.