It’s time to break a taboo and place the word “socialism” across the top of the page in a major American progressive magazine. Time for the left to stop repressing the side of ourselves that the right finds most objectionable. Until we thumb our noses at the Democratic pols who have been calling the shots and reassert the very ideas they say are unthinkable, we will keep stumbling around in the dark corners of American politics, wondering how we lost our souls–and how to find them again.
I can hear tongues clucking the conventional wisdom that the “S” word is the kiss of death for any American political initiative. Since the collapse of Communism, hasn’t “socialism”–even the democratic kind–reeked of everything obsolete and discredited? Isn’t it sheer absurdity to ask today’s mainstream to pay attention to this nineteenth-century idea? Didn’t Tony Blair reshape “New Labour” into a force capable of winning an unprecedented string of victories in Britain only by first defeating socialism and socialists in his party? And for a generation haven’t we on the American left declared socialist ideology irrelevant time and again in the process of shaping our feminist, antiwar, progay, antiracist, multicultural, ecological and community-oriented identities?
People who espouse these and a dozen other arguments against the relevance of socialism today may regard it as quaint that Bolivia’s new president, Evo Morales, leads the Movement Toward Socialism Party, or that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez intends to create a “new socialism of the twenty-first century.” After all, socialist parties elsewhere, such as in France, Spain and Germany, or indeed Brazil’s Workers Party and Chile’s Socialist Party, have no intention of introducing anything like socialism in their countries. Still, the newest significant formation, indeed, today’s equivalent of the nineteenth-century International Workingmen’s Association, calls itself the World Social Forum. The name reminds those who believe “another world is possible” that it can come about only if it is global, only if it is guided by a loosely organized “forum” rather than a top-down party–and only if its character is social.
Among Americans it has long since become obvious that the left is doomed without a vision, a sense of direction and an effective call to arms. One of the reasons we are having such tough sledding nowadays is that we have been unable to develop our own compelling alternative to those created by the right and the center over the past generation and embodied in the politics of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. We need to point to a clearly different direction from the one in which the United States and the world are heading. We need to spell out a historical diagnosis and project, a strategy and tactics, and root these in widely shared ultimate values.
We would be further along on all of these fronts today had it not been for the immense success of the Anglo-American right in insisting, for nearly a generation now, that in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “there is no alternative,” that the conservative project of free markets, privatization and deregulation is simple obedience to necessity. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history” fourteen years ago, he ruled out picturing “to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.” Capitalism’s victory over Communism in the cold war silenced any and all alternatives, present and future, he said. And today, among apologists for global capitalism like Thomas Friedman, the ideological assault on alternatives has become even more insistent, the faith in the market almost total.