The Future Socialists Want, And Centrists Fear

Are reds and red-scarers even talking about the same thing?

Joel Bleifuss March 23, 2020

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders discusses democratic socialism at a campaign function at George Washington University on June 12, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Mark Keam is a Kore­an Amer­i­can Demo­c­rat in the House of Del­e­gates from north­ern Vir­ginia. Speak­ing to the New York Times, Keam expressed his doubts about Bernie Sanders and social­ism”:

German social democrat Eduard Bernstein argued 100 years ago that the end goal of socialism is meaningless, while the socialist movement, advancing toward a more democratic horizon, is everything.

If you’re an immi­grant from Asia and you came to this coun­try from a coun­try that was social­ist, or you’re from Africa that has dic­ta­tors or South Amer­i­ca where you got your arm chopped off if you said any­thing wrong about the gov­ern­ment — you’re think­ing, I thought Amer­i­ca is not this way.

A more con­sul­tant-test­ed Red Scare came from for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Pete Buttigieg, who told then-MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Most Amer­i­cans [and] most Democ­rats don’t iden­ti­fy with a social­ist who thinks that cap­i­tal­ism is the root of all evil.”

It’s not a new argu­ment. But Sanders has his defend­ers, too — such as Yvette Simp­son, CEO of Democ­ra­cy for Amer­i­ca, the lib­er­al PAC estab­lished by Howard Dean after his with­draw­al from the pri­maries in 2004. The group has endorsed Sanders for pres­i­dent. On Feb­ru­ary 23 on This Week with George Stephanopou­los, speak­ing of Sanders, Simp­son said, He’s a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. I think we have to con­tin­ue to say that.” 

New­ly mint­ed pun­dit Rahm Emanuel retort­ed, No, we don’t have to con­tin­ue to say that.”

Emanuel has been on the hus­tings dis­parag­ing Sanders as an une­lec­table social­ist. After all, bet­ter to use car­toon social­ism to gin up fear of Sanders than have a seri­ous con­ver­sa­tion about what a healthy democ­ra­cy and fair econ­o­my might look like.

Of course, social­ism can mean lots of dif­fer­ent things, and since the 19th cen­tu­ry, var­i­ous move­ments have used the label to describe dif­fer­ent visions of a just soci­ety. For some, like Robert Owen, who in 1825 found­ed a com­mu­ni­ty of equals” in New Har­mo­ny, Ind., social­ism meant build­ing an inten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty where duties and respon­si­bil­i­ties are equi­tably shared. 

Marx­ists referred to such social­ists as utopi­ans. As an alter­na­tive to this pie-in-the-sky vision, they pro­posed build­ing a social­ist soci­ety around the infra­struc­ture that indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism was already cre­at­ing, with rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal par­ties and unions formed from the emer­gent work­ing class — the idea being to share the abun­dance of the indus­tri­al age and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly man­age it. 

Nei­ther the utopi­ans nor the 19th-cen­tu­ry Marx­ists came up with very con­vinc­ing plans for the long term. But per­haps detailed blue­prints are beside the point. Maybe, as the Ger­man social demo­c­rat Eduard Bern­stein argued 100 years ago, the end goal of social­ism is mean­ing­less, while the social­ist move­ment, advanc­ing toward a more demo­c­ra­t­ic hori­zon, is everything.

In oth­er words, we nev­er know what the future holds, but we can set a course. At this mag­a­zine, we cel­e­brate a fight­ing tra­di­tion to democ­ra­tize the econ­o­my and give work­ing peo­ple a say in the deci­sions that most affect their lives. 

In Sanders’ speech about demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in June 2019, he said, Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism, to me, requires achiev­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic free­dom in every com­mu­ni­ty.” More recent­ly, Sanders said, I’m an exis­ten­tial threat to the cor­po­rate wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. For too long, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and lead­ers have been going to rich people’s homes rais­ing mon­ey, and they’ve ignored the work­ing class and the mid­dle class, the low-income peo­ple. … That has got to change.”

Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists like for­mer Swedish prime min­is­ter Olof Palme and for­mer West Ger­man chan­cel­lor Willy Brandt nev­er man­aged to break with the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, but they achieved mean­ing­ful reforms that gave back pow­er to work­ing people.

What­ev­er we call those Euro­pean wel­fare states, we might con­sid­er them base camps for some future ascent toward a soci­ety we can’t yet entire­ly describe.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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