by John Judis
When a friend forwarded an op-ed entitled, “Biden Has a Once-in-a-Century Chance to Fix Capitalism,” I quickly fessed up that I wasn’t even going to read it through. With the alteration of a few verbs and nouns, I figured I’d seen it all before. My question back to him was why in the world he was concerned with fixing capitalism. But really, I thought I already pretty much knew that, too. The fact is, that as the literary critic Fredric Jameson so well put it, in today’s America it’s easier for most people to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism: As it was with the God of Genesis, capitalism is what is. An economy without capitalism is as inconceivable as life without air. Where the socialists of yore thought the world’s future options were “socialism or barbarism,” today’s dominant world view sees the choice as “capitalism or chaos. ” In other words, while the socialism idea may have made up a little ground lately, it’s still got a whole lot of catching up to do.
Domestically, there really hadn’t been much socialism to speak about for quite some time — until the “Socialist Awakening” of John Judis’s title, set in motion by Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary campaigns, along with Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party campaigns, on the other side of the Atlantic. Although Judis’s highly informed and committed little book is in no way a memoir, the long time writer on the American left leaves no doubt as to his personal engagement with his subject. While the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns ultimately fell short of the main prize, they vastly exceeded expectations — in one case introducing socialist ideas to mainstream discussion, and reintroducing them in the other. And Judis, himself a veteran of past movement-building efforts, casts a wary but hopeful eye on the movements that they triggered.
Judis wants to believe he’s witnessing something he’s long hoped for — a socialist movement that’s actually a factor in American politics. For him a serious socialist movement should meet a benchmark described by the late economist Alec Nove — that it present a program “conceivable within the lifespan of one generation — say in the next fifty years; conceivable, that is, without making extreme, utopian, and farfetched assumptions.” Judis thinks both sets of campaigns have at least shown that potential.
A problem he finds with many past socialist movements is their apparent certitude that it was only a matter of time until their day would come. For his part, if there is one thing that he feels certain about, it’s that a socialist outcome is in no way certain. He also believes that while there “is much to learn from their analysis of capitalism and of the transition from feudalism to capitalism,” the early self-described “scientific” socialists, were actually rather “utopian” in their predictions of a “revolutionary class struggle that would culminate in pure communism and the withering away of the state.”
So far as the domestic situation goes, he counts Bernie Sanders as one of the two most significant socialist figures in American history — alongside Eugene Debs, the 19th century railway union leader and early 20th century Socialist Party presidential candidate. Judis sees Sanders as the “key figure in matching the ideals of socialism with the material grievances of the present,” who “more than anyone gave voice and prominence to democratic socialism.” And yet he notes that while Sanders has long admired Debs, he has tread quite a different political path himself. While Judis considers many Debs-era socialists to have actually been somewhat “otherworldly,” he thinks their Sanders-era counterparts are acting on the implicit belief that “Socialist economic institutions and programs can be developed within capitalism that shift economic and social power from capital (“the rich and powerful”) toward labor (“working people”).” Like sociologist Fred Block, he believes “there is no single moment of transition from a profit-oriented economy to a socialist economy; it is rather an evolutionary process through which there is an ever greater and deeper extension of democracy into economic decision making.” The opposite, we might say, of a “big bang” conception of socialism.
As the largest organizational beneficiary of the Sanders campaigns, the Democratic Socialists of America comes in for considerable attention. Founded in 1982, the organization was the product of a merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee — an anti-Vietnam War split-off from the Socialist Party — with the New American Movement. NAM, which Judis himself belonged to, was a “new left” socialist organization founded in 1971 that, among other things, distinguished itself with decidedly more explicitly feminist goals than the previous American socialist organizational norm. But by 2013, with about 6,000 members — average age 68 — DSA appeared destined to do little more than maintain a democratic vision of socialism distinctly not modeled on the Soviet Union, China, or other third world revolutions.
Although there had been a long fade of socialism’s negative image following the demise of the Soviet Union, and a more rapid fade of capitalism’s positive image following the Great Recession of 2008, DSA experienced no significant growth until Vermont’s Independent Senator Sanders brought the idea of democratic socialism into America’s living rooms in his 2016 Democratic presidential nomination campaign. Since that time, because DSA had the right name — with nothing in its history to suggest that it was a misnomer — the organization has become the go-to place for people who’ve become interested in this democratic socialist thing on a permanent basis. Buttressed by DSA member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 upset of the number four ranking House Democrat — along with the election of three other of its members to the House, and many more to lower offices — the organization’s membership now exceeds 90,000. Although still a modest number in a nation of 350 million, DSA can legitimately claim to be the nation’s largest socialist organization since the Debs-era Socialist Party.
But Judis frets over DSA’s future. Describing a rather amusing episode when non-socialists were declaring that Sanders didn’t meet their definitions of socialism, he writes, “To be a socialist, columnist Eric Levitz wrote in New York, is to advocate “the abolition of profit or worker ownership of the means of production.” At the same time, Paul Krugman declared that socialists are those who want to “nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning” (and he’s a Nobel Prize winning economist, so he should know). Not knowing what an American socialist actually operating in the mainstream political arena would look like, they assumed that one would — and should — behave rather like a newspaper columnist, opining about the distant future, rather than wasting time exhorting people to action in the immediate future.
Unfortunately, similar reasoning can now be found within DSA itself. In its still ongoing inflationary stage, it has attracted socialists of various stripes who would not have come near the organization before Sanders, and now think there were no real socialists in DSA before they arrived. Some appear to find the first word in DSA’s name somewhat discomfiting. In remarkable displays of pretzel logic, some declare that Sanders’s failure to win the Democratic presidential nomination demonstrates the need to return to the third party wilderness where much of the American socialist left has languished for the past century. This, despite the obvious fact that they — and tens of thousands of others — would not be in the organization had Sanders not contested within the Democratic Party. Like the authoritative columnists, never before having witnessed socialists engaging with millions, some believe that those who now successfully do so cannot be “real” socialists. As Ocasio Cortez put it in a recent interview, these folks are “More socialist than thou.”
It might seem obvious that the way to the heart of 21st century America does not lie in advocating things like the establishment of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — as some of the “we’re the real socialists here” factions do. Unfortunately, history suggests that that ain’t necessarily so. Consider the demise of the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS, arguably America’s most significant left wing student organization since the World War II era, was figuratively blown up in 1969 by the Weathermen, a faction that came to believe that literally blowing up a few buildings would unleash a mass movement. Thankfully, there seems little likelihood of that sort of king-hell lunacy returning on the left these days. But the events leading up to SDS’s final days might be worth recalling.
The Weathermen themselves were actually a faction within a faction. They were first called the Revolutionary Youth Movement II. (The RYM I faction would go on to follow a more conventional Maoist path.) Both factions developed in reaction to yet another Maoist group, the (still existing) Progressive Labor Party. Looking back we might think PL’s politics — denouncing “the Washington-Moscow-Hanoi anti-revolutionary axis” and the like — should have assured the organization’s being brushed off as the Bizarro-world version of Marxism that it was. But SDS (like DSA today) was teeming with newly radicalized people seeking clarity, direction, and organization. To some degree, we all seek an orientation for our actions. And it can happen that even a bad theory can seem better than no theory at all. By the end SDS had multiple bad theories on offer — very bad theories — and before the organization’s Weathermen-led suicide, the PL faction had been thriving.
In something of an effort to fill the current theoretical void, Judis identifies five distinct socialist strands that have sought to replace capitalism over the years: Utopian, a largely 19th century movement that attempted to create socialism in individual ideal communities; Christian or ethical, a movement of roughly the same period that held that adherence to Christianity demanded egalitarian politics; orthodox Marxist, which considered itself “scientific,” in that it analyzed capitalism and concluded that its internal dynamics would lead to its own destruction, ushering in the political dominance of the working class; Marxism-Leninism, a predominantly third world movement with origins in the Russian Revolution and generally categorized by “vanguard” parties and single-party-rule governments; and social democracy, a movement largely attempting to institute socialist reforms within still capitalist-dominated societies.
To this list, Judis adds his notion of post-Marxist socialism. This he sees as differing from social democracy in not accepting “the logic of market capitalism” and not acquiescing to “policies that eliminated significant differences between them [social democrats] and the parties of the center-right.” He characterizes this still-in-formation bloc as rejecting “Marx’s theory of punctuated stages of history as well as the social-democratic view of socialism as the end point on an infinite line.” It is, in the words of New School professor Nancy Fraser, dedicated to the effort to “overcome domination across the board, in society as well as the economy” and broadly adheres to the ideal of “socialism as a just system.”
This densely packed book covers a remarkable range of material for a volume of its size — its history of British socialism is particularly worthwhile. And given that it is a polemical work, nearly everyone may find something to disagree with — in my case there was what I considered the muddy use of the term “nationalism” to describe the simple fact that we can prescribe policies only for the governments of our own individual nations. But for anyone feeling the need to start defining a theory for a reality-based, 21st century socialist movement — a movement that they may already feel a part of — this might be a fine place to start.