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U.S. socialists need to relearn the populist lessons of Eugene V. Debs.

The Problem Is Capitalism

Only radical reforms will solve neoliberalism’s crisis of democracy.

BY Joseph M. Schwartz and Maria Svart

To build an effective socialist presence in America we will have to learn from our past and look to our future, building a movement vibrant and open enough to attract a diverse new generation of activists.

In “Lean Socialist: Why Liberalism Needs Socialism—and Vice Versa” (May 2013), Bhaskar Sunkara calls for the rebirth of a socialist movement that would work alongside liberals for immediate gains for working people, while simultaneously offering a vision of a socialist society that would extend democracy into the economic sphere. And, at the same time, that movement would fight for the structural reforms most likely to lead towards that goal. We at Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), including our founding co-chair Michael Harrington, have always embraced this strategy. The problem? Socialists became indistinguishable from liberals because the liberals and a strong labor movement disappeared, swept away when “the tides of neoliberalism moved in.” As Barbara Ehrenreich frequently noted in the 1990s, with liberals and social democrats endorsing Clinton’s and Blair’s “kinder, gentler” dismantling of the welfare state, socialists were often the last defenders of the liberal gains of the 1930s and 1960s. But to go beyond liberalism, we absolutely agree with Sunkara that work must be done alongside movement activists, rather than so-called liberal technocrats. Socialists need to teach the liberals to fight once again. But how?

First, we must remind liberals of history. Before social democracy retreated, socialists foresaw the dangers of insufficiently radical reforms. In the 1970s and 1980s, European socialist theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gorz joined Harrington in warning that if the Left failed to socialize control over investment, the corporate drive for profit would lead capital to abandon the “social contract” compromise of the welfare state. Socialist governments in France, Sweden and elsewhere pushed for democratizing investment. But capital immediately fought back, beginning with the CIA-aided overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile in 1973 and continuing with French capital’s strike of the early 1980s. In the face of the onslaught, democracy and old-style liberalism began to crumble. This time around, liberals must recognize the true enemy and embrace radical reforms. Socialists will be there to push them to do so.

Second, we must remind liberals that racism and the center and Right’s use of a racialized politics played a central role in the rise of neoliberal capitalism. Thatcher’s and Reagan’s opportunistic attack on income-based child support for single mothers (aka “welfare”) played a major role in constructing a right-wing majority. Though the main beneficiaries of means-tested “welfare” were white, Clinton passed “welfare reform” to rein in mythical, non-white “welfare queens.” This distracted the public from Corporate America’s job-killing deindustrialization and outsourcing policies. So, since conscious socialists are but a small part of the American public, how do we build the revived Left that Sunkara calls for? Clearly, we need an anti-racist radical movement capable of refuting pervasive myths about the U.S. welfare state. The emergence of a militant immigrant rights movement and low-wage workers movement will be central to a Left and labor revival, as will the resistance of underemployed and indebted college graduates.

We take heart along with Sunkara that younger people are favorable (or at least open) in their attitudes toward socialism. But 30 years of neoliberal capitalist state policies have fostered a deep skepticism about politics. Many find it hard to envision mass movements winning reforms in state policy that would improve their lives. Sunkara is right to issue his impassioned plea to “Lean Socialist,” and young people are joining the socialist movement, in part due to the invaluable intellectual work that he and his colleagues carry out at Jacobin magazine.

But even if the socialist Left can break out of its at times sectarian and insular culture, we are unlikely to become a mass movement overnight. We know that socialist renewal in the United States (whatever its organizational form) will only occur on the terrain of the democratic socialist tradition of Eugene V. Debs. To build an effective socialist presence in America we will have to learn from our past and look to our future, building a movement vibrant and open enough to attract a diverse new generation of activists. Such a revived socialist movement will have to speak to constituencies far beyond the current reach of Jacobin, In These Times or DSA.

Joseph M. Schwartz is a National Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and author, most recently, of The Future of Democratic Equality: Rebuilding Social Solidarity in a Fragmented America.

Maria Svart, who joined the Democratic Socialists of America in 2004 as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, is now the group’s national director. Read more of her writing for In These Times here.

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