An Inheritance for Our Times

PRINCIPLES AND POLITICS OF DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM


Edited by GREGORY SMULEWICZ-ZUCKER and MICHAEL J. THOMPSON


“You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker.” —Malcolm X


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About the Book

Democratic socialism is on the lips of activists and politicians from both the left and the right. Some call it extremism; some call it common sense.

What are we talking about?

At a time when the capitalist experiment has made fewer people richer than ever before and seems to be well on the way to killing the planet, a new generation is reassessing old-fashioned principles of community. Millions are looking to democratic socialist values—much as they are now championed by the Squad’s Green New Deal and once were espoused by FDR’s New Deal—to address economic inequalities and environmental devastation.

An Inheritance for Our Times is a reader that includes original essays in the form of both personal accounts and intellectual arguments from activists and theorists advocating a democratic socialist outlook. Featured writers include Mimi Abramovitz, Kevin B. Anderson, Sheri Berman, Fred Block, Stephen Eric Bronner, Paresh Chattopadhyay, Sheila D. Collins, Zillah Eisenstein, Barbara A. Epstein, Steve Fraser, Fernando E. Gapasin, Philip Green, Gregor Gysi, Rohini Hensman, K. Kim Holder, Nancy Holmstrom, Peter Hudis, Joy James, Geoffrey Kurtz, Elena Mancini, Stephanie Mudge, Bernie Sanders, Saskia Sassen, David Schweickart, Wilson Sherwin, Tony Smith, Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker, Lester Spence, Michael J. Thompson, Ian Williams, and Richard D. Wolff.

420 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-234-4 • E-book 978-1-68219-238-2

About the Editors

Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker editor photo

Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker is managing editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. He is the editor of seven books, his most recent being Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy (with Michael J. Thompson) and The Political Thought of African Independence. He has published in Salon, Democratic Left, Dissent, New Politics, and elsewhere.

Michael J. Thompson Editor photo

Michael J. Thompson is Professor of Political Science at William Paterson University. His most recent books include The Specter of Babel: A Reconstruction of Political Judgment as well as the forthcoming, Twilight of the Self: Cybernetic Society and the Eclipse of Autonomy.

Read an Excerpt

Fifty Shades of Red

Ian Williams

Struggling to define pornography, a US Supreme Court judge famously declared “I know it when I see it.” “Socialism,” democratic or otherwise, is equally resistant to objective definition, not least since its various forms, whether in theory or in practice, are no more scientific or falsifiable than Scientology or phrenology. Like most social sciences it suffers from a surfeit of subjectivity. National Socialism, Arab Socialism, Christian Socialism, African Socialism, revolutionary socialism and democratic socialism have little in common except a shared pretension to look after ordinary people, or at least some of them.

As that acute political philosopher Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice riposted, “the question is whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Comrade Dumpty countered, “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.” And he had it exactly right: all too often the real issue been mastery over polemical enemies, not least by using one’s own idiosyncratic definitions. Populists across the ages have used the rhetoric of socialism to excuse their grabs for power and their ruthless retention of it afterwards.

Many avowed socialists, particularly but not exclusively on the Leninist wing, adopt the anathematic approach to socialism. They have lists of features that are “unsocialist” – or not really socialist, excluding their rivals and including their allies. Anything that falls short of absolute perfection, as defined in this ad-hoc way, is not the real thing.

We self-styled advocates for “democratic socialism” usually realize that the term is a tautology, and only use it because so many authoritarian regimes and parties have misappropriated both words and abused them in an Orwellian way. Any rational socialist would accept that barbed wire and socialism are antithetical – citizens should not be held in paradise against their will. If you need border guards and police to stop people running from it, then it is unlikely to be socialism as we want to know it.

Clearly, “actually existing socialism” in the old Soviet Bloc has had, and still has, a pernicious effect on perceptions and appreciations of socialism. To prove their pretensions to socialism these governments invoked state ownership, free or very cheap healthcare and education, and rigid central planning. Even now, too many people overlook or make apologies for the denial of civil liberties and democratic rights, and indeed outright massacres, because murderous and kleptocratic regimes claim such achievements.

State ownership, free or very cheap healthcare and education, and state ownership have mesmerized many with their economic pseudo-clarity, leading people to overlook or make apologies for an absence of civil liberties and democratic rights. For example, Barbados has effective free education and healthcare, free trade unions and high literacy rates while people can read what they like and do not have to flee armed guards to leave the country. In any objective consideration, it is a much more attractive and egalitarian country than Cuba! But somehow it fails to grab on a visceral emotional level.

In many countries centralized economic planning in recent decades has often been a cover for smuggling and corruption with apparatchiks deriving rents from condoning or conniving at illegalities. Many regimes have nationalized industries and companies, but without too much benefit to the people in general, or to those who worked in them. Neither Pemex in Mexico nor PDVSA in Venezuela are glowing examples of egalitarianism in action, let alone of the economic superiority of state control of the commanding heights of the economy. However, there are people who imply that if as the fifty biggest corporations are nationalized, we do not have to worry about Gulags and firing squads.

If our conception is predicated on a centralized economy, we should regard the Incas as proto-socialists and overlook slavery, human sacrifice and autocracy as mere details for a society that avoided the abolition of money by the simple expedient of never inventing it. But in fact, many people have achieved just such a feat of selective amnesia for states like Russia whose executioners exceeded the quotas of the most Stakhanovite of Aztec priests. It is not enough to have state control of the economy. The Humpty Dumpty question is, “Who controls the state?”

Socialism does indeed imply some degree of national planning or public ownership, but such centralization of power demands guarantees of human rights and civil liberties which in turn are codependent on democracy to develop and defend. A core pragmatic principle derived from history has to be that power corrupts. Idealistic tripe about the purity of a workers’ state led by a workers’ party has repeatedly been proven delusional in the ghastly real-time experiment since 1917.

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