Jim Weinstein’s legacy involves more than the books he wrote, the publications he founded, the organizations with which he worked, the hundreds of people he influenced, both personally and politically. There’s also the consistent intellectual thread through his work over nearly a half century – that the ideas and principles of democratic socialism could and should be part of the mainstream political debate in America, in part because they were legitimate expressions of fundamental American ideals of liberty, equality and democracy.
But socialist principles have only rarely been part of everyday conversation, he often argued, because leftists failed to pay close attention to the distinctive contours of American history and institutions. Instead, all too often they have been influenced by foreign models and pressures, focused only on short-term objectives in their public political work, and generally alienated from American life.
As he wrote in The Decline of Socialism in America, there was a time, lasting into the ’20s, when socialists had great appeal, won elections, produced widely read publications, led trade unions and other organizations and influenced public life through powerful individuals like Eugene V. Debs. But the Russian revolution created a “long detour,” the subject of his last book, that divided and undermined the American left, created an inappropriate (and ultimately unappealing) model of socialism and distracted the left from working for democratic socialism in this country. There was also too little recognition, he argued, of how corporate liberalism had adapted to both the socialist challenge and the problems of capitalism, posing new challenges for the left.
Despite the renewal of American radical politics with the New Left, of which he was a major figure, he argued that the movement failed to make the creation of a socialist alternative to capitalism a central part of its agenda. But mainly the New Left, like its predecessors, became alienated from the American mainstream, seeking some revolutionary agent of change in foreign anti-imperialist movements or in one or another particular group within America society.
Unlike much of the left, Weinstein thought that the majority of Americans were part of a greatly varied working class that shared a potential common interest in the liberation of human potential that a truly democratic socialism could bring. There was a tendency in the latter days of the New Left for many radicals to see America – sometimes spelled with three k’s – as the enemy, but Jim believed that the ideals of socialism could have wide appeal.
And contrary to many on the left, Weinstein thought not only that electoral political work was essential – fighting to win elections and not just “educate” voters – but also that in most circumstances, socialists should fight their battle in Democratic primaries, not through third parties with dim prospects resulting from the structure of American political institutions. He was an enthusiastic supporter of politicians like Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D‑Minn.) and Rep. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), who, if not all openly socialist, were and are able to fight effectively for popular democracy, fairness and equality. In The Long Detour, he identifies socialism with expansive educational opportunities, universal health care, electoral reform and other programs that might have been at home in the old Socialist Party of Debs.
Last year he was planning to launch an institute focused on long-term strategy and implementing the ideals of socialism, but his illness made it impossible. Somebody else will have to take up the task, one to which Jim creatively devoted his life.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.