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Is Socialism Breaking Out?
A shorter version of this commentary appeared as "Give Me Real Socialism" in The Indypendent, August 2018.
By Howie Hawkins
July 24, 2018
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2018 election. Socialism broke out!
Or at least a number of Democratic candidates have declared themselves to be socialists.
On June 26, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat the Democratic machine incumbent, Joe Crowley, in a Queens/Bronx Democratic primary for Congress. She won with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and embraced the socialist label. Within days, the Working Families Party-endorsed Democrats for Governor and Lt. Governor, Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams, were saying we, too, are socialists now. And lots of people and mainstream media were asking, what is this democratic socialism?
As someone who came up in the McCarthy and Cold War eras – when the word socialism stopped rather than started conversations – it is a welcome sight to see socialism coming back into mainstream public discourse for the first time since the 1930s.
The significant support for Bernie Sanders' presidential run in 2016 as a democratic socialist got the conversation started. The ranks of socialist groups have swelled in Sanders’ wake, with DSA in particular growing from about 5,000 to 47,000 members since Sanders launched his campaign in 2015. DSA elected 15 of its members to local offices in 2017, eight Democrats and seven independents in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. In 2018 to date, seven women supported by DSA have won their Democratic primaries for congress and state houses in Omaha, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City.
However, something is notably missing in these candidates' descriptions of socialism. They are leaving out the distinguishing tenet of the socialist tradition's program – the definition of socialism you will find in the dictionary – a democratic economic system based on social ownership of the major means of production.
What is also missing is a traditional principle of socialist politics: independent political action by the working class and oppressed groups through their own political party.
But it is a good thing that Sanders and other progressive Democrats have put socialism into mainstream political discourse. They have opened up a discussion that has been stifled in America for 80 years.
What Is Socialism?
What these new socialist Democrats really advocate is New Deal liberalism. They promote redistributive social programs that partially mitigate the inequalities the capitalist economy generates.
In his November 2015 campaign speech on “Democratic Socialism in the United States,” Sanders bluntly rejected socializing major productive assets. “I don’t believe government should own the means of production…. I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow….” For socialists, social ownership is the basis for economic democracy in both the public and private sectors. Government-owned corporations can be autocratic. They are often set up as “lemon socialism” to cover unprofitable markets or subsidize private profits for privately-owned corporations with below-cost inputs. A cooperative in the private sector is a form of social ownership. Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is indistinguishable from traditional American liberalism. Like liberals, he conflates democratic social ownership with state ownership. Like conservatives, he conflates liberal social programs with socialism – or worse, as conservatives like to fret, “creeping socialism.”
Liberals contend that their fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies will support better than conservative policies the economic growth and profits that can then be taxed to support social programs. Socialists demand much more. They want freedom for workers. They want to end the dictatorship capitalists exercise over economic resources, workers, and work itself. Socialists want equal pay for equal work. They want to enjoy the full fruits of their labor instead of having owners take a share of the value every worker creates every day at work. With lots of workers and few owners, this wage labor system generates capitalisms’ extreme inequality of income and wealth. Socialists want equitable distribution in the first place, at the point of production, not merely partial redistribution after the fact through social programs.
In an age of environmental crisis and an unfolding climate catastrophe, socialists are now emphasizing the imperative of an ecological socialism. They want to uproot capitalisms’ competitive structure because it is driving the blind, relentless growth that is poisoning the environment and depleting natural resources. Socialists want a system of economic democracy and planning to meet the basic economic needs of all on an ecologically sustainable bases.
Socialists also criticize the naive politics of liberalism. Capitalism generates concentrated wealth, which translates into concentrated political power. Liberal social programs are not secure as long as capitalists have the economic and political power. The rollback of New Deal programs in the United States and welfare state programs in Western Europe demonstrate this political reality.
Capitalists buying politicians through campaign contributions is the obvious way they exercise power over the political process. But even if we get full public campaign financing enacted, capitalists’ control over economic resources would still give them the power to repeal liberal programs. Capital can strike, too. It can temporarily tank the economy, blame the liberals, and force them out of office.
Dennis Kucinich found this out as mayor of Cleveland in 1978 when he kept his campaign promise to stop a bank and utility plan to privatize the city’s public power utility. The banks then refused to rollover the city’s longstanding line of credit and forced the city into bankruptcy and Kucinich out of office.
In June this year we saw how Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and his corporate cohorts in Seattle employed economic blackmail to scare the city council into repealing a business tax to fund housing for the homeless just one month after they had adopted it. Kshama Sawant, a twice-elected member of Socialist Alternative who actually is committed to social ownership, voted against the repeal. But the liberal Democrats caved.
Bill Clinton faced the business veto in late 1992 as he prepared to take office as president. Clinton had run on his “Putting People First” program of modestly increased spending for education, public works, and middle-class tax cuts that was drafted by his liberal soon-to-be Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. But his economic advisors, headed up by Goldman Sachs' Robert Rubin, told him that his reforms could not be implemented because the investor class demanded the fiscal austerity of balanced budgets and social program cuts. As Bob Woodward recounted in The Agenda, a red-faced Clinton responded: “You mean to tell me that the success of the economic program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?”
The new socialist Democrats and the traditional socialists who want to democratize the economy through social ownership are united on behind immediate demands for liberal social programs like single-payer health care and a job guarantee. What the traditional socialists want to the liberal “socialists” to understand is that these programs are not secure, if they are even achievable in the first place, so long as capitalism prevails and concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the capitalist elite.
Working Class Political Independence
The traditional socialist commitment to political class independence from capitalist parties like the Democrats was a lesson socialists learned the hard way in the revolutions of 1848 that spread across Europe and into Latin America. The new rising working and business classes joined forces to overthrow the monarchical landed aristocracies. They fought for the elective franchise and economic reforms. But in country after country, the landed elite cut deals with the business owners, leaving the workers without the vote or economic protections. The socialists concluded that no one would free the workers but the workers. Workers needed their own political party.
Building independent working-class parties became the starting point for socialist politics. That approach prevailed in American socialist currents in the Greenback-Labor and People’s parties of the post-civil war 19thcentury and the Debsian Socialist Party of the early 20thcentury. In the early 1930s, independent Socialist, Progressive, and Farmer-Labor parties had elected two governors, three U.S. Senators, 12 members of the House, and scores of state and local elected officials. Those successes fueled widespread agitation for an independent Labor Party in the unions that reached a peak as the 1936 election approached.
But as fascism spread across Europe, in 1934 the Communist International began promoting the Popular Front against fascism. It called for a coalition of the working class parties with the liberal anti-fascist capitalist parties. The spreading independent electoral insurgence in the U.S. was co-opted into the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party for the 1936 election, with the unions and the Communist-influenced left leading the way.
Combined with post-war McCarthyism, the Popular Front approach to left politics largely erased in America the longstanding socialist principle of independent working-class political action. Two of DSA’s founding fathers, Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, used to call their political approach of reforming the Democratic Party “the Popular Front without the Stalinism.” Whether to run inside or against the Democrats has become a tactical question for most self-styled socialists, not a question of principle.
What this approach of permeating the Democratic Party has meant in practice is that the socialist left has disappeared as distinct voice and identity in American politics. Socialists have ended up doing the grunt work in campaigns to elect liberals, who, in the absence of an independent left political competitor, have moved steadily to the right since the early 1970s. And now, with candidates and politicians who are liberals calling themselves socialists, the very idea of socialism as a new social system could get lost even more.
The idea that third parties can have no impact in America’s single-member-district, winner-take-all electoral system is a conservative one. It accepts that system as given, even though we had a period when many cities adopted proportional representation from the 1910s to the 1940s and today we have a growing number of cities and now states adopting ranked-choice instant-runoff voting.
This dismissal of third parties also forgets the role that independent parties on the left played for a century in American politics in forcing their demands to the center the political debate. From the Workingmen’s parties of 1829-30, through the Liberty and Free Soil parties, to the farmer-labor populist and socialist parties up until the 1930s, insurgent third parties forced the major parties to address demands they wanted to ignore, from abolition, land reform, monetary reform, and anti-monopoly reforms to suffrage, worker protections, and social insurance programs.
If socialism is to advance as a radical alternative to capitalism, it needs its own independent political party so socialists can speak and act for themselves instead of trying to lobby the liberals of the pro-capitalist Democrats. Socialists need their own distinct program, identity, and internal democracy that is outside and opposed to two-capitalist-party system.
Green New Deal
While the Green Party has been trying to build an independent party on the left since the 1980s, it is only recently that it has begun to identify itself with a socialist perspective. Although many of us have identified as socialists and pushed socialistic programmatic demands within the Green Party for years, it was only in 2016 that the national Green Party adopted a platform plank that committed the party to an ecological socialism.
In my Green campaigns for New York governor in 2010 and 2014, as well as Jill Stein’s presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2016, the Green election platform was summarized as a Green New Deal. It stood for a revitalization of the public sector, both services and infrastructure, with progressive taxation and military spending cuts to provide the funds. It called improved Medicare for All, fully funding of public schools and public housing, tuition- and debt-free public higher education, a job guarantee, a guaranteed minimum income above poverty, and – the centerpiece that was emphasized – a World War II-scale mobilization to get to 100% clean energy by 2030 as both a climate protection program and an economic revitalization program.
These demands were seen as the culmination of the old New Deal as expressed by FDR in his last State of the Nation address calling for second bill of rights to secure basic economic rights. The civil rights movement picked these demands up with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the 1966 Freedom Budget, and King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign for an economic bill of rights, with the crucial addition of ending racial discrimination in education, employment, and housing. The Greens picked up the thread, adding the ecological demands, hence a GreenNew Deal.
We saw this approach as appealing to the progressive majority in the nation on economic class issues, particularly Democrats who still think of their party as New Deal Democrats rather than corporate New Democrats. We wanted to draw the contrast between our Green New Deal and the tepid social liberalism and pro-corporate economic conservatism of Democratic leaders since the Carter presidency.
The Green New Deal is not an explicitly socialist program, though it consists of reforms socialists certainly support. It embodies the same class and race analysis that animated the Socialist Party members such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Michael Harrington who pushed this agenda of universal economic rights in the 1960s. They wanted The Movement to pivot “from civil rights to human rights.” They believed that civil rights for black people would not be secure and free from the white backlash until white working people were economically secure. As the central organizers of the March on Washington and the Freedom Budget, they saw their economic demands as a program that could enlist the support white workers as well as blacks and other oppressed minorities to forge a governing majority that could enact the program.
Unfortunately, Randolph, Rustin, and Harrington counted on the Democrats to implement their program. They took most of what remained of the Socialist Party, as well as the much larger progressive periphery that followed their lead, into the Democratic Party in the latter half of the 1960s as Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. Randolph, once jailed like Debs as a Socialist Party member opposed to World War I as an imperialist war, and Rustin, jailed during World War II for refusing to fight in a segregated army, were at first silent and later actually supportive of the war. Harrington called for negotiations instead of joining the anti-war movement in the streets demanding “Out Now.” Part of their motivation seems to have been they didn’t want to alienate the Democratic president or the Democrats in Congress by coming out against the war like Martin Luther King, Jr. did. The wanted to still be able to push their economic program inside the Democratic Party. But the Democratic Party, with no credible challenge from their left, moved away from their New Deal liberalism in the 1970s. The Freedom Budget and Economic Bill of Rights were rejected.
Today’s socialist Democrats face the same dilemma. Will they challenge the bloated military budget and endless wars abroad? Or will they remain silent as the price to pay for being able to stay in the party and call for single-payer health care and a job guarantee, reforms the Democratic leadership has defeated for decades on behalf of their corporate sponsors, even though these reforms were in the Democratic platform the 1940s until the 1970s, or in the case of single-payer, until Clinton won the 1992 presidential primaries. The Democratic leadership values these progressive voices because they attract the votes of progressives, not because they want to make such progressive reforms. Socialists will do better to bring their vision directly to the voters without the confusion of being in a party coalition full of capitalist politicians who oppose them.
At the beginning of this year, the state committee of the Green Party of New York discussed what our gubernatorial campaign should do. It was decided we would campaign as ecological socialists. In previous campaigns, we have put forward socialistic reforms to address to problems like the climate crisis, stagnant wages while the rent and medical bills skyrocket, and the bipartisan test-punish-and-privatize agenda that is destroying public education. Now we would call them socialist solutions to pressing problems.
We decided to campaign as socialists for two reasons. One was that time is running out. The climate crisis is accelerating. And poverty kills. People who lack a secure job or income, affordable health care, and a decent home die younger. Meanwhile, the top 1% in New York State have raised their share of all income from 12% in 1980 to 30% today, and from 12% to 41% in New York City over the same period.
The other reason is that socialism is now a conversation starter, thanks electoral successes of the campaigns of Sawant, Sanders, and the DSA socialists. It was time to join that discussion.
When I formally announced my candidacy in April, I said I would be campaigning as an ecological socialist. Our slogan would be Demand More! We would demand more reforms, like the ban on fracking, the $15 minimum wage, and tuition-free public college which we believe our 5% in the 2014 election forced Cuomo to concede in order to compete for our progressive votes. But we would also demand more than piecemeal reforms. We would demand system change.
The left-wing of the old New Deal actually employed public enterprise and cooperatives to increase employment and extend services, particularly electrification, to unserved areas. The Green New Deal as we have advocated it also promotes public enterprise in several areas: a public energy system in order to effectively plan the transition to 100% clean energy; pubic broadband to universalize access, improve affordability and customer service, and ensure net neutrality and privacy; and a public bank to lower the costs of credit for public infrastructure, private businesses, and consumers and to target investments to meet public needs. We call for the public bank to have a division devoted to planning, financing, and technically assisting the development of worker cooperatives, as the financial institutions at the center of the successful Mondragon cooperatives in Spain have done.
We also call for state-owned Social Wealth Fund that over time willprogressively transform private wealth, which is very unevenly distributed, into public wealth in which every New Yorker would own an equal share. The Social Wealth Fund would buy intothe securities of private corporations andshare the returns across the population as citizens dividends and lower taxes on the earned income of wages.
These are all pro-socialist structural reforms Greens have long advocated. The difference for the Greens this campaign is that we a calling them socialist.
We should not overestimate how far openness to a discussion of socialism has spread. It is still largely confined to the progressive base that found its broadest expression in the 13.2 million votes Sanders received in 2016. Its strongest expression is among the millennials, over half of whom view socialism favorably. Even if most of these people view New Deal liberalism as socialism, having a debate on socialism is half the battle. I don’t think capitalisms’ defenders can win that debate.
Howie Hawkins is retired Teamster from Syracuse, New York and the Green Party’ candidate for New York Governor.