So, the only self-identified socialist to hold a federal elective office in the USA is now campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination for President of the USA, namely one Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In one way, this is an unlikely turn of events, as Sanders has always run as an independent for his Senate seat. Sanders is to the left of the majority of US politicians, though not consistently so. On the Palestinian occupation, his positions favoring Israel have been roundly attacked on the left, and rightly so. From another angle, however, Sanders’s campaign is right on time. That rightness concerns the impasse of current political discourse in the USA at this time and the overdue rebirth of socialism as a live political option.
Although the Socialist Party USA [full disclosure, I am a paid-up member of the SPUSA] has run presidential candidates since 1976 with the single exception of 1984, most people in the USA think socialism is equivalent to the Stalinist regime, rivers of bloodletting violence, and the equal distribution of poverty. This terrifying image leftover from the paranoia of the Cold War is so far past its expiration date but, only now, as Bernie throws his hat into the ring, will we finally begin to have a national conversation about the most dreaded “S-Word.” Socialism still had a respectable advocate in Norman Thomas well into the 1960s, but after the collapse of any mass support in the mid-1950s, the Socialist Party of America – predecessor to the SPUSA – could no longer command a sizable voting bloc.
As a budding radical in the 1980s, I faced the dilemma of how to label and describe my anti-capitalist viewpoint. My first label was Christian Anarchist, but as we all know, “if you’re not an anarchist in your twenties you have no conscience, but if you’re not a socialist in your thirties, you have no brains.” The Soviet Union was still a real entity in the 1980s for me, though I’d come to doubt all the intense fear of communism was rational. I mean, capitalism sucked for working people, didn’t it? What was our alternative?
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel cooked up a new radical economic model in the 90s called “participatory economics” or “Parecon” for short. It got the notice of some people on the radical left, but ultimately, it never really gained any mass traction. Most of the left either ultimately embraced Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, or took a left-liberal position that favored deep reforms of capitalism without abolishing it. These were the days of retreating left radicalism, even as the Green Party gained steam as a third party of the left, only to be crushed by the reaction to Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign. The Greens sole economic principle was “community-based economics,” somehow lacking the punch of Socialism. One would expect that the Greens would have come around to the view that capitalism was the cause of global warming and other environmental ills, but such views never commanded majority sway in the party ranks, let alone the leadership.
The anti-globalization movement of the latter 90s was more economically radical than the Greens, with some advocates of Parecon making common cause with anarcho-syndicalists for the World Trade Organization protests. The Anti-WTO protests collapsed in the aftermath of 9/11, leaving a void on the left that allowed George Bush to win an impressive re-election in 2004. By the time Obama was elected, most of the left was preoccupied with some sort of single-issue politics, notably, same-sex marriage taking much of the radical energy. However, the collapse of Bear-Sterns and the mortage crisis of 2008 triggered the nearly dormant anti-capitalist sentiments in the USA back into a slowly growing re-examination of socialism, communism, and anarchism.
Karl Marx reading groups sprang up on college campuses and coffee shops. Obama’s failure to pass single-payer healthcare or the employee free choice act disillusioned those who had placed some hope that a Democrat in the aftermath of Bush might really turn things back towards the liberal economic agenda of an earlier era. More and more, gradualism looked like completely futile. Neoliberalism mimicked neoconservatism and Hillary Clinton certainly gives us little reason to hope for any change in Democratic Party policies.
The final failure of radical economic activism that brings us to the present was Occupy Wall Street. This almost magical uprising of economic fury looked like nothing else in recent US history, including the 1960s. The Sixties were wonderful if you were fighting racism or sexism or militarism, but organized Labor in the US was wholly owned by Cold War liberalism and while Marxism did make a dramatic appearance in the early 70s with the “New Communists” and the Trotskyist revival, the organizations born in that era never really made a mark. Even the Socialist Party of America underwent a three-way schism, as two-thirds of its active membership gave up on independent politics in favor of working in the Democratic Party along with organized labor.
OWS, however, was a truly amazing outburst of mostly anarchist anti-capitalist energy. While most people know about the Zuccotti Park occupation, the really important part of the OWS was the model of a general assembly that was held nightly during the height of the movement. These assemblies sprung up in every major US city and many smaller ones. Naming the “One Percent” as the principal enemy reintroduced an element of economic radicalism into everyday discourse. Although OWS is now considered a dead movement, its fundamentally correct targeting of capitalist domination as the enemy of human freedom was its enduring gift to the left.
Now, it is time for the Socialists and the Socialist movement to take its rightful place in the economic discourse of the USA. Love Bernie or hate him, he is the only choice to be the spark that triggers a new conversation about the alternative to capitalism. I will still be voting for some other candidate for president, for sure, but I am so excited to see just how far Bernie can take the conversation about Socialism and its meaning for the working people of the US. And the world, for that matter.