Is Socialism Still a Dirty Word?

Tyler Zimmer on Verso's "The ABCs of Socialism."

By Tyler ZimmerOctober 26, 2016

Is Socialism Still a Dirty Word?

The ABCs of Socialism by Bhaskar Sunkara. Verso. 144 pages.

IN THE COLD WAR era and the decade or two following it, a few cheap jabs were enough to shut down any public conversation about the merits of socialist ideas. The mention of the Gulag, Pol Pot, or Stalin was sufficient to put the entire matter to rest. This is no longer the case.

If polls are to be trusted, young people today are decidedly more positive about the idea of socialism than they are about the profit-driven system they currently inhabit. A few months ago, 43 percent of Iowa Democrats said they identify as socialists. It is anything but clear what will become of the excitement generated by the (now failed) candidacy of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, but the surprising success that his campaign enjoyed in the last year is itself significant; if nothing else, it shows that there is a large audience for the idea that we need, as Sanders put it, a “political revolution against the billionaire class.”

The reasons for this left-wing shift in political consciousness ought to be obvious. For an entire generation of people, the 2008 global economic meltdown cast profound doubt on the once hegemonic myth that the free market always knows best. The fallout from the meltdown has left millions unemployed, underemployed, heavily indebted, furloughed, and foreclosed upon — while the financiers who brought the world economy to its knees made off with bailouts and bonuses.

Corporate profitability has been restored — for now, at least — but the future prospects for the working-class majority remain grim: ever-rising income and wealth inequality, fewer and fewer decent-paying jobs, more temporary and precarious forms of employment, shrinking investment in public services, soaring costs for housing and university tuition, ecological disaster on the horizon — the list goes on and on. It’s hard to struggle through these turbulent times and not begin to question the legitimacy of a system we’ve been encouraged to revere as the best the world has ever known.

The ABCs of Socialism, then, is particularly timely — especially when we consider that the hard Right seems to grow most effectively when, in times of economic turmoil, it can position itself against a corrupt caste of establishment politicians without any serious competition from the socialist Left. With the rise of Trumpism at home and far-Right forces in Western Europe, the last thing the Left needs is a crisis of identity and legitimacy. This volume is the most recent result of a collaboration between Jacobin magazine and Verso books. Unlike the monographs that Jacobin and Verso have jointly released in the past, however, The ABCs of Socialism is a collection of 13 essays by various authors on the Left. The book self-consciously aims, as editor Bhaskar Sunkara puts it, to be “a primer for future radicals” that answers “basic definitional questions about socialism.” Accordingly, all of the essays it contains are relatively short, accessible, and to the point. Each is framed as an answer to a common objection to socialism, e.g., “Doesn’t socialism always end up in dictatorship?” or “What about racism? Don’t socialists only care about class?”

The volume begins with the basic questions “Isn’t America already kind of socialist?” and “Don’t the rich deserve to keep most of their money?” Chris Maisano, who pens the answer to the first, does an excellent job of patiently and persuasively laying to rest the common misconception that socialism is nothing more than government ownership and control. This mistaken idea, unfortunately as common among mainstream liberals as among conservatives, has even been endorsed by Sanders himself, who, on the campaign trail, held up institutions as disparate as libraries and police forces as living examples of “socialism” in practice.

As Maisano correctly points out, by this logic “any sort of collective project funded by tax dollars and accomplished through government action is socialism[, including] the FBI, the CIA, the military, courts, prisons, and jails.” In other words, if this “socialism = government control” formula were true, there would hardly be a single country on earth that wasn’t already “socialist” in important respects; in fact, reactionary absolutist monarchies with a large state-owned economic sector (such as Saudi Arabia) would turn out to be some of the “most socialist” societies on the globe. But this is untenable. After all, socialism first emerged as a significant political force in the aftermath of revolutions against feudalism; early socialists thought that modern revolutions against aristocratic privilege hadn’t gone far enough. The dream of socialism wasn’t to replace one form of tyranny with another, but to abolish it altogether. Thus, instead of “big government,” Maisano correctly stresses that the heart of socialism is democratic ownership and control. The classic demand that workers own and control the wealth their labor creates remains the best summary of the basic values socialists hold dear: democratic participation in political and economic decision-making, and liberation from hierarchical social relations in which human beings are exploited or dominated by others.

One need only apply these values to the authoritarian regimes in the 20th century that called themselves socialist — some of which still exist — to see that they were, in truth, nothing of the sort. Certainly the workers who produced the goods and services in these societies — everyone from the industrial proletariat to teachers, doctors, and engineers — did not truly own or control the wealth they created. These weren’t egalitarian societies free of power asymmetries or material disparities. On the contrary, they were systems ruled by a permanent caste of unelected bureaucrats — the Nomenklatura, as they were called in the Soviet Union — who made all the important decisions and often appropriated a much larger than average share of the social product. We find no support for this wooden social system in the writings of Marx or subsequent Marxist thinkers such as Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, or Antonio Gramsci, all of whom praised emancipatory groundswells from below, such as the 1871 Paris Commune, as examples of what real socialism might look like.

Whatever there is to be said for the societies that made up the official Communist bloc, however, it seems dishonest to declare them all socialist and, on that basis, to brand all self-described socialists as subversive “enemies within” who deserve no right to participate in public debate. This, however, is exactly what happened during Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunts in the 1950s — and although McCarthy’s crusade was relatively short-lived, its effect on the political and intellectual life of the United States for generations to follow was profound. For all these reasons, Maisano’s resuscitation of the original socialist idea of radical democratic control is useful for thinking critically about the relevance of socialist politics in today’s world.

The next essay in the volume, authored by the left-wing sociologist Erik Olin Wright, builds on Maisano’s argument by emphasizing how thoroughly undemocratic capitalism is and how little freedom it really accords to the masses of working people. For Wright, capitalism’s democratic deficit is not fundamentally due to the fact that the ruling class funds both major political parties and lobbies Congress incessantly to get legislation favorable to its interests. The problem runs deeper.

Most workplaces are not even nominally democratic. For socialists, you count as a “worker” if your income comes from working for someone else; in most cases, that person has the authority to tell you what to do while you’re on the job. Whether you’re a machinist, an actor, a programmer, an engineer, a teacher, or a line cook, you’re required to obey the orders of someone higher up — and so it goes all the way to the very top, where a small number of owners and investors have the final say. Of course, not all workplaces are alike, but the vast majority of the people who do the actual work are required either to accept the directives of the employer or else quit and find work elsewhere. Workers, as it is sometimes put, have only a right to exit in any given workplace, not to determine how it is run. This is why workers in industries as different as mining and higher education have found it necessary to form unions, in order to try to check the power of the employer.

The employer’s nearly unchecked authority doesn’t end there, however. Because capitalist business owners make large-scale economic decisions about investment and employment that affect the working population and society as a whole, there is “constant pressure on public authorities to enact rules favorable to the interests of capitalists.” As Wright puts it, “The threat of disinvestment and capital mobility is always in the background of public policy discussions, and thus politicians, whatever their ideological orientation, are forced to worry about sustaining a ‘good business climate.’” This fact, absent an immense amount of social pressure from below, tends to guarantee that legislative debates remain within a narrow range that is broadly acceptable to the capitalist class. Of course, context is important: capitalists are more likely to grant public policy concessions to restive workers in periods of economic expansion than they are in periods of crisis and contraction, when the need to restore profitability can be more effectively used as a trump card to defeat pro-worker reforms.

Michael McCarthy’s essay also attempts to slay a common anti-socialist argument, namely the idea that the rich deserve to keep most of their wealth. McCarthy makes a convincing case against the “libertarian” idea that pre-tax income in capitalist societies is “earned solely by individual effort.” As he puts it, “a person’s income or a corporation’s profits are in part the result of governments collecting taxes and actively creating the conditions under which they were able to earn money in the first place. [… T]hey are part of a broader social product.”

McCarthy makes a serious dent in the pro-capitalist argument that the marketplace distributes to each exactly what they deserve. But I wondered why he didn’t emphasize the distinction between labor income and capital income — the distinction, that is, between earning money by working for it and earning money purely by owning certain kinds of assets. After all, the biggest incomes come not from performing productive labor of any kind, but from owning capital: interest, dividends, rent, royalties, capital gains, arbitrage, and the like. Most people find it highly unintuitive that these passive, ownership-based forms of income are deserved in the way that income from working is deserved. This is precisely what underlies the Marxist charge that capitalism depends fundamentally on exploitation.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine more powerful evidence against the right-wing idea that capitalist markets distribute income only as a reward for individual productive contributions to society. The people who do the most arduous, demanding labor for society’s benefit often get paid the least — while those who accumulate the lion’s share of socially produced wealth do so without lifting a finger. There is, to be sure, income inequality within the class of people who earn from working: software engineers typically make more than bank tellers, and bank tellers tend to earn more than fast-food workers. But the biggest gap isn’t among those who work for a living, but between those who earn from working and those who earn from owning capital. In this light, it’s difficult to see how not taxing the rich could be justified — after all, they mostly got rich from owning wealth, not by working to produce anything. McCarthy, however, doesn’t pursue this traditionally Marxist line of argument. Here, as in many of the essays, the arguments advanced have an ambiguous relationship to the Marxist tradition.

Some of the objections to socialist ideas that the volume confronts are more likely to be encountered in the lofty, abstract world of academia than in the more concrete terrain of everyday political debate. This is likely true of the argument that socialist (and, presumably, Marxist) ideas are inherently Eurocentric. The underlying assumption here, as Nivedita Majumdar explains, “is that socialism, a supposedly Western (and white) ideology, while capable of addressing economic injustices, remains incapable of speaking to the lived experience of […] black and brown people” in the Global South and elsewhere. Majumdar rejects this notion, root and branch: capitalism is a global system, and the struggle against it must be global. “Is it Eurocentric,” Majumdar asks, “to argue that Bangladeshi garment workers have as much at stake in fighting for their economic rights […] as workers laid off at American Walmart stores?” The point is well taken. But it was frustrating that the author didn’t, in the course of responding to the charge of Eurocentrism, draw more on the wealth of influential works on race and colonialism penned by Marxists from the Global South; C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney, for example, probably would have been astounded to learn that works such as The Black Jacobins and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa were Eurocentric in outlook.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s essay on the relationship between race and class tackles themes that overlap with the question of Eurocentrism. Echoing some of the arguments in her recent book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Taylor cuts against prevailing wisdom among liberals and conservatives alike, writing that “racism is not simply a product of errant public policy or even the individual attitudes of racist white people.” She argues that we won’t be able to understand why the United States is so resistant to racial equality unless we grasp how American capitalism has been — from Southern slavery to “Manifest Destiny” — premised upon racial oppression. It isn’t simply that the US economic system has, as Manning Marable once argued, “underdeveloped Black America”; we must face the fact that American capitalism wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for the coerced labor of black slaves or the stolen land wrested by violence from indigenous peoples. For Taylor, this history has to be the starting point when thinking critically about contemporary racism.

As Taylor stresses, the idea that there are different “races” of people, with the “white race” at the top and people of color at the bottom, emerged “as a justification for the enslavement of Africans at a time when the world was celebrating the concepts of liberty, freedom, and self-determination. The dehumanization and subjection of black people had to be rationalized in this moment of new political possibilities.” In other words, colonial conquest, indigenous genocide, and the slave trade in the early modern era revealed a profound contradiction between what European and North American elites preached and what they practiced. But rather than deny the existence of human rights themselves, elites chose instead to deny the humanity of the “darker” peoples they sought to exploit in their pursuit of wealth and power. This dehumanization was then entrenched in law, and supported by elaborate, ostensibly scientific theories about “natural inferiority” that continue to shape how many whites think and feel about race to this day.

Taylor does an impressive job of doing what so many writers on race prove unable to do: she avoids the mistake of reducing racial oppression to class inequality without severing the link between the two (and thereby making it impossible to grasp either). Thus, she can emphasize that “winning ordinary whites to an anti-racist program is a key component of building a genuine, unified mass movement capable of challenging capital,” without denying that racism has far-reaching effects quite apart from the harms that derive from material deprivation.

Taylor’s central strategic argument is that colorblind struggles against class inequality and class-blind struggles against racism are both doomed to fail. For the sake of ending racism, it’s essential to have good class politics — both for strategic reasons (it’s necessary to amass the movements needed to actually beat racism) as well as substantive ones (undoing class inequality would help undo many, although certainly not all, of the material underpinnings of racism). But it’s just as true that ending class inequality in the United States requires good antiracist politics. History bears this out. The struggle of black people against racism in the United States has, for decades, been an explosive source of energy and initiative for the class struggle more broadly. The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s sparked a variety of other left-wing social movements and increased the size and militancy of many trade unions, especially in the public sector.

This insight is as useful today as ever. The more the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to grow and link up with elements of the labor movement — like the Fight for 15 campaign to empower low-wage workers or efforts to unionize graduate students at private universities — the stronger both movements become. The more immigrant workers struggle to organize and fight xenophobia and racist attacks, the better the prospects for growing and renewing the entire labor movement.

While antiracism has often been a source of vitality for the class struggle, however, its absence has been a scourge. Racism has historically been the Achilles’ heel of the US working class. Both private employers and the state have used racism as a means to divide and conquer, turning white workers against workers of color in order to break strikes and defeat labor movements. Racist tropes — like the so-called “welfare queen” — have also served the Right as effective ideological weapons to turn white workers against the welfare state. And the especially intense legacy of racism in the South is an important reason why the labor movement — and, therefore, the Left — is so much weaker there than in other regions of the country. As Taylor emphasizes, the solution to these problems isn’t to talk more about class and less about race — but neither is it to ignore class in favor of a single-minded focus on race. To win, the Left has to talk about both at the same time.

One of the volume’s most strategically useful essays for the US Left is Vivek Chibber’s brief answer to the question, “Why do socialists talk so much about workers?” As Chibber points out, socialists don’t place the working class at the center of their strategy for merely moral reasons — for example, because workers suffer a great deal under capitalism. Rather, it is because “[workers] are the group best positioned to enact real change.” Practically speaking, “progressive reform efforts have to find a source of leverage, a source of power that will enable them to overcome the resistance of the capitalist class and its political functionaries.” And, as Chibber makes clear, “[t]he working class has this power, for a simple reason -- capitalists can only make their profits if workers show up to work every day, and if they refuse to play along, the profits dry up overnight. And if there is one thing that catches employers’ attention, it’s when the money stops flowing.”

This basic tactical insight is conspicuously absent in far too many debates about strategy on the US Left. For example, take what was arguably one of Bernie Sanders’s most popular campaign planks: single-payer health care. To demonstrate the feasibility of such a reform, Sanders regularly points us to the Nordic countries as examples of what’s possible — and this is positive, because it raises people’s expectations and proves that bread-and-butter social democratic reforms are realistic. What he doesn’t say, however, is that the Nordic countries won these reforms with the help of stronger, more unified, and politically independent labor movements than our own. In Sweden, for example, 85 percent of workers are unionized; compare that to the States, where the figure is a meagre 11 percent. There is a strong correlation between the strength of the labor movement and the percentage of GDP a country spends on social welfare. There is a strong correlation, in other words, between the economic power and organization of workers and their ability to win progressive reforms in the political arena. That’s no accident: as Chibber points out, the powers that be are far more liable to make concessions to workers who are in a position to use the strike weapon to “stop the money from flowing.” Tinkering with the nonbinding platform of the Democratic Party doesn’t frighten the ruling class in the least — but interfering with its bottom line will bring them to heel every time.

And the point about the potentially immense disruptive power of workers to grind the system to a halt isn’t merely applicable to universalist reforms like single-payer. It could be a powerful tactic for winning victories against structural racism, gender oppression, and other forms of injustice. This isn’t to take a stand in favor of reform instead of revolution — it’s simply to note that, in the here and now, the role of workers in the economic system gives them a potential power unlike that of any other social class.

How might that power be put to good use in the here and now? This is a topic the volume largely ignores. In particular, readers eager to think practically about how to carry on Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” after his electoral defeat are liable to be disappointed. For all the useful interventions in the collection, there is very little on offer in the way organizational strategy or tactics. Should the Left, for example, focus on building an electoral challenge to the political dominance of capital, or should the emphasis instead be on strengthening extra-electoral movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and unions? Should socialists try to work inside the Democratic Party to try to reform it from within — or is it necessary to establish a separate, genuinely left-wing party akin to Germany’s Die Linke or Spain’s Podemos? Have looser, ostensibly non-hierarchical formations like Occupy or #BlackLivesMatter rendered the idea of a socialist political party obsolete — or even dangerous? And what of that old debate on the Left about reform versus revolution? These pressing questions get very little attention in the ABCs — and that strikes me as the collection’s greatest weakness. But perhaps this isn’t as damning as it sounds. In his introduction, Sunkara rightly concedes that the collection doesn’t offer all the definitive answers to our questions about socialism — only tentative answers to some of them.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle socialist thinkers and activists in the United States have faced is their distance, or isolation, from their target audience: the working class. Will this volume help them overcome it? That remains to be seen, but its jargon-free, accessible essays seem well positioned to reach critically minded working people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. And the book’s very design — this is true of Jacobin’s aesthetic branding more generally — seems likely to appeal to millennials, the power base of Bernie Sanders’s campaign and arguably the most economically precarious and politically open-minded segment of workers in the United States. Phil Wrigglesworth’s charmingly quirky artwork deserves particular praise. Aside from the book’s awkward tall and narrow shape, and the sometimes distracting font colors, I expect that the volume will be visually appealing to younger readers.

I also expect the essays will generate plenty of debate and disagreement among the growing young audience for socialist ideas — which is a good thing. For too long, socialist ideas haven’t been given a fair hearing in the United States. For too long, it has been taboo to question the merits of our economic system. It’s exciting to live at a time when a substantial segment of the population is moving left, when uninspiring bromides about how “liberalism is working just fine” are losing their grip. The ABCs is a welcome sign of an increasing openness to questioning capitalism and its discontents.


Tyler Zimmer teaches philosophy at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. His work focuses on the meaning and value of social equality. You can reach him on Twitter @tjzimmer.

LARB Contributor

Tyler Zimmer teaches philosophy at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. His research focuses on the meaning and value of social equality. Some of his recent work has appeared in Public Affairs Quarterly and In These Times. You can reach him on Twitter @tjzimmer.


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