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Our overriding commitment is to democracy, to socialism as the means to its attainment, and to the inseparability of the two.”
That line, written by In These Times founder Jimmy Weinstein in his very first editorial, is how this magazine was launched, 47 years ago. Weinstein was a historian of socialism in the United States and took his inspiration from it.
He was in good company. Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, in 1912, pushed ideas like the minimum wage, women’s suffrage, the abolition of child labor, and antitrust reform into the mainstream, an influence on later progressive policy, from FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society. Other early 20th-century socialists, in the labor movement, built militant, industrial unions that continued the fight for workers’ rights. Socialists elected in places like Milwaukee spearheaded public housing projects and the first workers’ compensation law. Socialist civil rights leaders like Ella Baker and A. Philip Randolph organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The year Weinstein was writing, 1976, shares ironic and perverse parallels with today’s world. The Environmental Protection Agency was just turning 6. Nearly five decades later, the agency has been neutered beyond recognition just as climate change becomes an unavoidable daily reality, with each season bringing a new vocabulary, from “heat dome” and “wet bulb” to “polar vortex” and “bomb cyclone.”
After Watergate and Nixon’s televised resignation, few thought public trust in government could reach lower lows. From where we sit now, in the long tail of a pandemic, after an attempted insurrection at the Capitol, amid a tech-fueled explosion of political polarization, the mid-1970s look like a golden age of public trust.
In 1975, Wall Street used New York City’s debt crisis as leverage to install unelected emergency city managers there, a first at that scale; the event foreshadowed the broader austerity politics of our neoliberal age, as crises continue to fuel capitalist power grabs.
We are feeling deeply the impacts of that neoliberal turn — the turning of our public discourse into anti-politics, the unleashing of an unfettered nihilism that is the heart of fully globalized and financialized capitalism.
But In These Times still stands, and our roots in democratic socialism still grow.
The magazine has emphasized those roots in some eras more than others. By the late 1980s, the word “socialism” disappeared from our masthead. “Progressive” came into vogue. By 2016, with Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run, socialism returned to the political lexicon as more than a right-wing pejorative.
So how do we relate to socialism now, at the end of the end of history?
For this magazine’s purposes, we recognize that socialism means different things in different contexts. For Marx and Engels, it was about workers owning their work. For democratic socialists, it’s a big-tent concept with the transformation of our political system as its central pole. For others, it leans into anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor offers another expansive and beautiful starting point (in conversation with Astra Taylor)— socialism means “having the ability to self determine one’s life, to make decisions free from economic coercion.”
According to our January 2016 cover story by Joseph M. Schwartz — which prophesized 2016 as “the year socialism came back”—democratic socialists envision a society that extends democracy “from the political sphere into the economic and cultural realms.” It’s the guarantee of basic social rights — such as high-quality housing and education, healthcare, a living wage, and a habitable planet — and freedom from systemic racism, gender-based discrimination, and other forms of oppression.
In the middle of 2023, we’re in a unique moment. American voters have elected more than 100 openly socialist candidates to public office in the past decade, from school boards to city councils to Congress. The moment rivals the prior peak of socialist electoral success, from 1911 to 1912, with more socialists (five) currently in the House and Senate than ever before. Democratic socialist politicians like Reps. Alexandria OcasioCortez (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) have led the push for redistributive policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Socialist-minded reforms, from rent control to guaranteed income, have become part of common conversation if not yet the law of the land.
The recent spike in socialism’s popularity is marked by the growing membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that In These Times writer and thinker, Michael Harrington helped found in the early 1980s (and co-chaired alongside original In These Times sponsor Barbara Ehrenreich). Harrington was referencing Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci when he wrote, in our issue for Feb. 24, 1988, that socialism is “not a matter of a political victory” at any particular time, nor an economic “recipe,” but a “ ‘moral and intellectual reformation,’ a fight to transform the very culture and will of those who had, since time immemorial, been made subordinate.” It’s “the epochal work of the creation of a new civilization.” Today we feel even more sharply the need for that creation— that our choice truly is, as the Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg famously declared, “socialism or barbarism.”
We are living in a strange intersection of climate and economic interregnum. As senior advisers in the Biden administration declare the end of neoliberal economics, an anti-government Right stonewalls even modest reform. Every Friday of spring had us waiting with bated breath to hear what fresh hell the Supreme Court majority would decide. The profound damage the industrial age has inflicted upon our planet expresses itself daily in new and dangerous ways. The business press is awash in talk of global multipolarity with the ascendance of political and economic power in China and India, while bloodshed in Europe evokes a shimmering apparition of the Cold War.
We stand on such shifting ground that there is no single victory, no set of smart strategies, guaranteed to produce socialism in our time. What we can do is build systems to care for each other through the worst of it, and be prepared to act upon the change that crises inevitably invoke. If we don’t act, the Right will.
In These Times is engaging collectively with grassroots organizers, critical thinkers, and social movement activists to report and interpret what is happening in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and institutions, in service of the big questions asked in this issue. What does the shifting economy mean for union and workplace organizing? Where are the weak points in racial capitalism? How do we achieve a mass organization of the multi-racial working class? How do we seize the moments when popular front and coalition politics can make a lasting intervention?
We can’t predict when, or if, our current political and economic system will crumble under its own weight, or what comes after. What we do know is that the rich and powerful are fighting a class war and that, to build a just future, those of us who call ourselves socialists need to fight back. We know that, in a world of artificial intelligence and automation, worker struggles for a humane future are linked to grassroots organizing. We know that to reimagine public safety, the rights of tenants in a housing crisis are linked to the protection of healthcare, to the autonomy of women, trans and nonbinary people.
We ultimately know that great power exists in the hands of a very few, and our North Star is our belief that collective humanity can recapture that power to ensure a society that provides equality for all of us.
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Alex Han is Executive Director of In These Times. He has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. In addition to serving as Midwest Political Director for Bernie 2020, he’s worked to amplify the power of community and labor organizations at Bargaining for the Common Good, served as a Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana for over a decade, and helped to found United Working Families, an independent political organization in Illinois that has elected dozens of working-class leaders to city, state and federal office. Most recently he was executive editor of Convergence Magazine.