Socialism’s all the rage. “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we’re already living in the U.S.S.A. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 4, 2009, issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “Rising to the Occasion” as the opening essay in a forum on “Reimagining Socialism.” TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
There seem to me to be two occasions, which require two plans for the world left, and in particular for the US left. The first occasion is in the short run. The world is in a deep depression, which will only get worse for at least the next one or two years. The immediate short run is what concerns most people who are facing joblessness, seriously lowered income and in many cases homelessness. If left movements have no plan for this short run, they cannot connect in any meaningful way with most people.
The second occasion is the structural crisis of capitalism as a world system, which is facing, in my opinion, its certain demise in the next twenty to forty years. This is the middle run. And if the left has no plan for this middle run, what replaces capitalism as a world system will be something worse, probably far worse, than the terrible system in which we have been living for the past five centuries.
The two occasions require different, but combined, tactics. What is our short-run situation? The United States has elected a centrist president, whose inclinations are somewhat left of center. The left, or most of it, voted for him for two reasons. The alternative was worse, indeed far worse. So we voted for the lesser evil. The second reason is that we thought Obama’s election would open up space for left social movements.
The problem the left faces is nothing new. Such situations are standard fare. Roosevelt in 1933, Attlee in 1945, Mitterrand in 1981, Mandela in 1994, Lula in 2002 were all the Obamas of their place and time. And the list could be infinitely expanded. What does the left do when these figures “disappoint,” as they all must do, since they are all centrists, even if left of center?
In my view, the only sensible attitude is that taken by the large, powerful and militant Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil. The MST supported Lula in 2002, and despite all he failed to do that he had promised, they supported his re-election in 2006. They did it in full cognizance of the limitations of his government, because the alternative was clearly worse. What they also did, however, was to maintain constant pressure on the government–meeting with it, denouncing it publicly when it deserved it and organizing on the ground against its failures.