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.” will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.

Asked to reimagine socialism, two thoughts come to mind. First is the obvious need for state intervention in the economy. Capitalism will have to be hauled from the ditch by the redistributive engines of government–merely mopping up bad assets, so-called “lemon socialism,” won’t do. Capitalism needs something more like “rescue socialism” or emergency social democracy–a program of progressive restructuring.

Think about the basic components of the problem: the wider economy needs a banking system, the banks need the mortgages paid and the homeowners need incomes sufficient to do that. Thus, direct wages and the broader “social wage”–spending on public healthcare, schooling and social insurance–must rise.

In other words, for both human and purely macroeconomic reasons, the world’s poor and working classes need higher incomes. At first this will be at the expense of corporate profits, paid for by taxing the rich. But in the long run redistribution will propel new forms of investment, production and increased rates of return to private capital.

That old formula–a mixed economy, based on robust left Keynesianism–is not socialism as in “expropriation of the means of production” and “liquidation of the ruling class,” as such. But pushed far enough, it becomes something like the Scandinavian model. (I assure you, oh most righteous and revolutionary of comrades, there are actually worse fates than living in Sweden.)

So “a specter stalks…” but it is not capitalism’s revolutionary Götterdämmerung, just the ghost of mild-mannered Eduard Bernstein, father of evolutionary, reform socialism.

Picking up the urgency sounded by Bill McKibben, if civilization is to avoid runaway climate change and barbarism, this program of rescue reforms must be environmentally radical: massive subsidies for green firms and technologies; severe penalties for grey ones; a wholesale movement toward a carbon-neutral form of industrialization; the Global Green Deal described by Mark Hertsgaard.

My second thought on the question of socialism concerns the centrality of intellectual work. This became apparent to me during a recent trip to India. Despite a decade and a half of neoliberal policies and much of India seeming to drift rightward, a coalition of communists and left regional parties is now poised to win the April elections. Even the current Congress-led coalition government has been acting rather left, spending heavily on rural welfare and development.

In India I was struck by the political sophistication of regular working-class people. In the tea shops and among the knots of parked rickshaw drivers, the newspapers pass from hand to hand, and those who can’t read glean what they can from conversation.

Compared to the average American, your average Indian has a superior grip on the intricacies of international relations, political economy, history and environmental issues like GMO crops. And Indians’ thinking about these matters tends to be structural and historically informed, capable of dealing with contradictions and nuance. The sentimentality, hectoring moralism and attraction to simple answers that are the anti-intellectual hallmarks of American political culture (particularly our left) are in India reduced to a faint murmur.

I think this is to some extent the result of India’s broad and varied Marxist traditions, all of which take political education very seriously. The country is full of magazines, journals and small government-funded research centers. This intellectual work has a progressive impact on policy and electoral politics in countless ways.

So in facing the big question of reimagining socialism, one small task for us might be to more rigorously reimagine our intellectual lives. We might do well to be more grown-up and less self-righteous, to address and accept contradictions.

Speaking of contradiction, the environmental crisis requires radical ideas, but I fear it offers very limited possibilities for social change. The disastrously, apocalyptically, compressed timeframe of climate change will not wait for revolution. Realistically all we have time for is a program of reform that will get us to capitalism with a green and social democratic face.

Other Contributions to the Forum

Immanuel Wallerstein, “Follow Brazil’s Example

Bill McKibben, “Together, We Save the Planet

Rebecca Solnit, “The Revolution Has Already Occurred

Tariq Ali, “Capitalism’s Deadly Logic

Robert Pollin, “Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic

John Bellamy Foster, “Economy, Ecology, Empire

Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible

Mike Davis, “The Necessary Eloquence of Protest

Lisa Duggan, “Imagine Otherwise

Vijay Prashad, “The Dragons, Their Dragoons

Kim Moody, “Socialists Need to Be Where the Struggle Is

Saskia Sassen, “An Economic Platform That Is Ours

Dan La Botz, “Militant Minorities

Michael Albert, “Taking Up the Task

Dave Zirin, “Socialists, Out and Proud

Joanne Landy, “I Love Bill Moyers, but He’s Wrong About Socialism

Hilary Wainwright, “I Love Bill Moyers, but He’s Wrong About Socialism

George A. Papandreou, “The Challenge of Global Governance