Socialism Informs the Best of Our Politics

The case for democratic socialism in the 21st century.

Michael Harrington

American democratic socialist, writer, political activist, and political theorist Michael Harrington (1928 - 1989) speaking in Boston in 1977. Barbara Alper / Getty Images

In this classic article from the February 24 — March 8, 1988 issue of In These Times, Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington explains why the democratization of both power and economics is critical to human liberation, the importance of combatting runaway corporate capitalism and why leftists should proudly claim the mantle of U.S. socialism. 

"There is no question now as to whether there will be radical change in the immediate future. It is already under way. The only issue is how it will be carried out."

Is socialism relevant to the late 20th and 21st centuries? And if so what does one mean by socialism”? In any case, why identify as a socialist in the United States where the very word invites misunderstanding, at best, and a frantic, ignorant rejection at worst? Finally, given all of these problems why build a socialist organization in this country? 

First, the socialist critique of power under both capitalism and Communism is not only substantial in and of itself; it also makes a significant contribution to the cause of incremental reform as well as to a radical restructuring of society. 

Power, that critique argues, is systemic, North, South, East and West, and reproduces itself along with its mutually reinforcing social evils. In the various systems of power in the world today, the control of investment and basic economic allocations is not the only source of domination — racism and sexism persist in all systems — but it is its single most important constituent. Those in charge of investment, be they corporate executives or commissars, will claim and get unequal treatment for themselves on the grounds that they act in the interest of the future of the entire society and must therefore have the resources to do their job. And those who are excluded from that function will be forced to pay all the social costs of decisions made on high. 

An understanding of homelessness 

In a superficial analysis, the tremendous growth of homelessness in the late 1970s and 1980s is simply a result of the deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the 1960s. But that analysis contradicts the data, which increasingly shows that the homeless are families and that two thirds of them do not have histories of mental and emotional problems. It also fails to explain why the deinstitutionalization of the 1960s did not lead to a dramatic rise in homelessness until the late 1970s. 

A more serious — liberal — analysis would recognize that this homelessness is a function of decreased real income and increased poverty among the wage-earning poor and a decline in the supply of private and government-sponsored affordable housing. From this point of view, one would quite rightly attack New York Mayor Ed Koch for providing tax incentives for the destruction of single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs), while at the same time noting that the SROs themselves were utterly inadequate even if they were better than the streets. 

A socialist analysis would deepen those liberal insights. It would see Koch’s action as one more example of the system at work: of government policy subsidizing private, profit-making and often anti-social priorities, usually on the grounds of a trickle-down” theory. It would understand the decline in the real wage and the increase in the poverty of working people as a standard systemic response to the crisis of profitability and productivity in the mid-1970s. And it would stress not simply a program for decent shelter,” but the necessity of democratizing the entire process of investment in this, and other, basic needs of life. It would also show that, had the community health centers projected in the 1960s been built — or more broadly, if America had a national health program — then the problem of the deinstitutionalized mental patients would never have became the outrage it now is. 

That socialist conception of a housing program would not, however, simply specify so many units.” It would urge a planned development of racially and socially integrated communities with public spaces and facilities for new institutions of neighborhood democracy and control. And it would try to reach out to build political support for such an undertaking by uniting the homeless in a coalition with young families from the working class and middle class as well as with seniors who do not want to be segregated on the basis of age. 

Changing the distribution of power 

The socialist point is that these various reforms, which many liberals would support on an ad hoc basis, must be as coherent as the structures they oppose. What is needed is not simply a new housing bill but a new way of making and designing social investments in areas of critical need. And even if one has to settle politically for something less than that, a proposal designed on the basis of a socialist analysis will be different than one which is the product of liberal concern with a single issue. For example, Representative Ronald Dellums’ (D‑CA) national health bill gives people at the base a say in non technical medical decisions; it is not just a matter of health insurance.” And indeed, every socialist program is about changing the distribution of power in the way decisions are made. 

The Soviet Union and the Third World 

Similarly, a socialist response to what is happening under Gorbachev in the Soviet Union would not simply stress the importance of pursuing peace negotiations even more vigorously in order to encourage Glasnost and Perestroika. It would put Gorbachev’s progressive, but technocratic, reforms in the context of an analysis which would see bureaucratic resistance to change in the Soviet Union as a function of an anti-democratic system of power in which even positive initiatives are initiated behind the backs of the people. And it would argue that American unilateral peace initiatives toward verifiable Big Power agreements may well — and hopefully will — create the long run conditions for a democratization of Soviet society which goes beyond anything now on the agenda in Moscow. 

In the case of the Third World, one can be even more specific. The response to the international debt crisis — and the global structure of inequality underlying it — by the Socialist International, under the leadership of Michael Manley, former Minister of Jamaica, and Willy Brandt, former Chancellor of West Germany (and, until his death, of Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden), is a perfect example of what is needed. A major transfer of funds from North to South, the International has shown, could create jobs in the First World as well as the Third. International justice could be an engine of growth for U.S. workers. It could provide an alternative to chauvinist attitudes, which sometimes accompany the justified anger of people under advanced capitalism with the systemic irresponsibility of multi-national corporations. 

New departures

All these negatives and criticism are well and good, someone might say. But isn’t the socialist movement itself in a profound crisis even in those countries where it has a mass base? What about the spectacular failure of the French Socialists when they had an absolute parliamentary majority and control of the presidency as well? 

There is no doubt that the Keynesian” version of social democracy — a mixed corporate economy in which socialist governments extract a surplus for welfare measures, but leave basic investment decisions in private hands — which dominated the European movement from 1950 to about 1975, is in a profound crisis. The French socialists were subjected to the brutal discipline of the world’s banks because their socially based Keynesian programs generated more jobs in Japan and Germany than in France. Even as one searches for a new response to this reality, it should be noted that this is one more example of elite corporate power — in this case exercised by multinational banks and corporations. The contemporary challenge to socialism, however, requires new departures, not fatalistic surrender. 

At the very origins of the modern socialist movement in the 19th century, there was a basic insight which will be even truer in the 21st century than when it was first formulated. Capitalism was understood as a system of private socialization, creating a genuine world market for the first time in human history, applying science to production, and linking people together in an unprecedented interdependence. But because that socialization was private, it was pursued at the expense of society. Socialism was conceived of as a program of democratic socialization from below, as a movement to put the people in control of the economic conditions which determine so much about their lives. 

That basic goal has been understood over the past century and a half in many, many ways, some of them wrong, some leading to partial victories, none even beginning to achieve the fullness of the original vision. And matters were complicated when, in the Soviet Union, a system of anti-democratic socialization emerged. There the party-state carried out the brutal process of accumulation which was the work of capitalism in the West, and used the rhetoric of socialism to rationalize new forms of class rule. 

Now that the Keynesian version of socialism is in crisis, the mass socialist movements of the world are indeed confused and even bewildered about the next steps toward democratic socialization. This is roughly the third time that this has happened: it occurred right after World War I when the socialists suddenly got political power and did not know what to do with it, and at the time of the Depression when, with the exceptions of the Swedes, there was a general programmatic and political failure of the movement. 

At the same time, the objective need for socialism has become all the more imperative. The multi-nationalization of the world economy is creating an increasingly interdependent globe, striking at the workers and communities of advanced capitalism as well as at the poor countries. Revolutionary new technologies are undermining even the limited accomplishments of capitalist welfare states. 

The need for international democratic socialization 

There is no question now as to whether there will be radical change in the immediate future. It is already under way. The only issue is how it will be carried out. Will it come from on high, at the social and economic cost of the mass of people in every society and through a repression of freedom? Or can socialists, faced with a reality they never imagined, work out effective programs of structural change which move in the direction of a truly democratic socialization of the world? 

There is now too much” food in the world — and people starving to death; too much” steel capacity and masses desperately in need of housing and transit which use steel. And there will be, within the next year or two, a crisis of the world economy which will not automatically engender a progressive response, but which will make such a political response possible. At that point, some of those who now assume that the determinants of Reagan’s America (and Thatcher’s Britain, Kohl’s Germany, Chirac’s France, to cite but a few of the obvious cases) are eternal will look around for a socialist movement with positive answers. These cannot be predicted now, but it is clear that they will be distinctly internationalist, antiracist, feminist and green” as well as oriented to the working class, both old and new. 

Why a socialist organization? 

But why not just insist on the socialist specifics and omit any mention of the socialist name itself? Why not, as Tom Hayden’s original Campaign for Economic Democracy of the 1970s proposed, socialism without the S word”? 

It is not just that the right wing will not let you get away with it, although that is true (they routinely denounce liberalism as socialist). It is not even primarily because the historic function of American anti-socialism is to fight liberal reforms, not a non-existent socialist threat, and that an attack on that anti-socialism will broaden the political spectrum in a country which has a right and a center but no real left. Even more important, if one pretends that one is not a socialist, or speaks in euphemisms, all that is lost is the basic clarity of analysis and program. You cannot talk, or think, about the present crisis without understanding its roots in the systemic complex of corporate capitalist power. We can try to communicate that fact in the most effective possible rhetoric — and many socialists do wrongly think that it is radical” to talk in such a way as to infuriate the average American — but we cannot conceal the basic reality from others and, above all, from ourselves. 

Secondly, socialists have had a significant impact upon power in America even if, for complex historic reasons, they have never come close to achieving power. The role of the 1912 Debsian immediate program in introducing the concepts of the welfare state of the New Deal is well known (though it is often not recognized that the 1912 program is still to the left of what has been achieved). So is the critical importance of socialists, Communists, Trotskyists and anarchists in struggling for the theory and practice of industrial unionism, which led to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. More recently, David Garrow has documented how Martin Luther King, Jr. saw himself a part of that socialist tradition (a fact that I knew from my own work with Dr. King). And the feminist, anti-interventionist and Citizens’ Action movements clearly built upon the radical tradition of the 1960s. 

I also think of the generation of economists now in their late thirties and early forties, the men and women who will provide many of the practical ideas of the next mass left. Every one of them comes out of the New Left and the socialist tradition. However they now define themselves, they are a part of that ongoing socialist contribution to practical politics. 

But why, then, a socialist organization? Why the backbreaking, frustrating work of building DSA against the tremendous odds of corporate America? Simply put, because there is no individualistic way of showing people that democratic and communitarian action is critical to the future. More broadly, the times are already a‑changing. The moral and intellectual fatigue which so many veterans of the past twenty years feel blinds them to the fact that, within a year or two or three, there is going to be a new generation of change in America. 

I remember the Eisenhower — and Joe McCarthy — 1950s. They were worse than anything that happened in the Reagan 1980s. And when the moment of change came — none of us who had been waiting for years for that blessed break understood that it actually happened on a day in February 1960 when four black students in North Carolina decided to have an integrated cup of coffee—a decimated left was utterly incapable of rising to the enormous new opportunities. 

I do not think that the 1960s would have been totally different had there been a continuity with the radicalism of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s — had there been the equivalent of a DSA in February 1960. I do think that there would have been a difference. Perhaps people would not have had to spend so much time reinventing the wheel, sometimes badly, and maybe the histories of Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee would have benefited. 

Right now, the difficult and laborious work of DSA — the struggle to make the anti intervention movement as broad as possible and to involve the unions and the churches in it; the campaign to make disarmament the beginning of the work of international economic and social justice; the attempt to define the issue of poverty and racism and sexism as problems of economic and social structures rather than discrete evils; the coalition meetings with activists from the unions, the new social strata, the minority movements and all the rest — is going to make a profound contribution to the 1990s left.

A new civilization 

We are not going to lead the nation and, thank God, have abandoned any Messianic pretense of being the anointed vanguard of history. But when the moment comes, when that pilgrimage of women and men toward the realization of their own humanity begins again, as it will, we will be there. DSA itself may well be transformed at that moment, its cadres and energy and ideas being absorbed into new organizational forms that we cannot now even imagine. And yet it will be there. 

Those who lose heart on the very eve of a new generation of change should remember the profound truth Antonio Gramsci articulated from an Italian jail cell in a decade that saw the triumph of fascism — and, with an exception or two, the spectacular failure of socialism, and the destruction of the Russian Revolution by Stalinism. Socialism, Gramsci said, was not a matter of a political victory on this or that day, or even this or that decade. It was not an economic program, a recipe. It was a moral and intellectual reformation,” a fight to transform the very culture and will of those who had, since time immemorial, been made subordinate, the epochal work of the creation of a new civilization. 

We live today in the most radical of times; humanity is fighting at this very moment over the content of that new civilization — of a new planet, if you will — and that struggle will go on beyond the lifetime of every one of us. There is no guarantee that the vision of a democratic and communitarian socialization will prevail over the bureaucrats and the technocrats who abound in this period. All socialism is — all” — is the theory and practice which seeks to empower the people of the North, South, East and West to take control of their destiny for the first time. 

Those who join the movement for the immediate rewards of power are advised to apply elsewhere. Those who are willing to wager their lives on the possibility of freedom and justice and solidarity should pay their dues. 

Michael Harrington was a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the author of The Other America, among many other books. He died in 1989.
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