Reimagining Socialism: The Nation encourages a critical discussion

Posted March 27, 2009

No one can tell you that capitalism is working, and after several decades of global neoliberalism (a brand of de-regulated hyper-capitalism spawned in the mid-1970s to secure the continuing rule of the rich), no one can tell you that “socialism” is a barrier to prosperity anywhere. As if to really drive the point home, a world devastated by neoliberalism is now confronted with a crisis of capitalism so deep that we can’t yet find the bottom. If you haven’t been reconsidering that whole “there is no alternative” thing at least a little bit, then you probably were on the receiving end of Bush or Obama’s bank bailouts.

The Nation

The editors at the premier liberal US weekly paper, The Nation, have decided it’s time to let a hundred flowers bloom and are promoting a growing discussion on “Reimagining Socialism.” The Nation has never been a venue closed to radicals and socialists, but the focus has always been on politics decidedly within the US mainstream. Every time the Democrats fail to deliver or even when they’re actively screwing us over, The Nation can be counted on to provide electoral support to the Party. Perhaps the contradictions are getting to them, just like nearly everyone else in the US? I wouldn’t say The Nation is going red, or even a little pink–the schizophrenic front cover is split between “Reinventing Capitalism” and “Reimagining Socialism.” They could have at least put us on the left side…


As far as popular media goes, it’s certainly not just The Nation. Newsweek recently declared “We Are All Socialists Now” on their front page. According to their less-than-astute analysis, we all become socialists once stimulus money is distributed from the federal government to our states–no matter that the funding will not be enough to stop the hemorrhage of job loss and foreclosure hitting every shop and every block (Paul Street discusses the Newsweek article here). The Economist recently featured a cover article on “The Return of Economic Nationalism,” a euphemism for democratic control of the economy. In a departure from the panicked speculation and red-baiting of the center-right, the Washington Post recently published a thoughtful article by a “card carrying” member of the Socialist Party USA titled “Obama’s No Socialist. I Should Know.”

The Economist

Of course, this is no phenomenon limited to mainstream media. Everywhere, the writings of Karl Marx are flying off the shelves. My casual conversations with strangers frequently take an anti-capitalist tone sooner than planned. Just a few nights ago, I attended a speaking event at Ebenezer Baptist Church featuring Angela Davis and heard hundreds of people (some activists, some not) cheer suggestions that we “have a discussion” about replacing capitalism with something else. But alas, the revolution is not around the corner…people in the US aren’t joining Solidarity or any other socialist group in droves.

Worse than that, the specter of reaction also haunts capitalist crisis today, just as it has in the past. People don’t automatically move toward our solutions–other “solutions,” like scapegoating immigrants for job woes, are also out there. One local example in Atlanta: homeowners near my neighborhood have organized a group called “ATACC” (Atlantans Together Against Crime and Cutbacks) to fight rising crime. This small group of moderately wealthy whites has gotten no lack of attention from local media and politicians in their effort to increase police presence in a rapidly gentrifying area of the city. See Isaac’s upcoming entry to the webzine for more information on ATACC and the effort to build alternative organizations reflecting our solutions.

This state of affairs, where many are questioning and few are moving (that is, into movements and red groups, not simply out of their homes), requires that we talk strategy. How are we going to move from crisis to alternative? Tellingly, this is the focus of the series in The Nation–not just “reimagining” socialism as a vague alternative, but highly relevant discussions on meeting the present crises to build the system we need. As the diverse array of authors “reimagine” socialism, we see many points of unity and debate emerge–far too many for this busy graduate student to summarize in full.

While I honestly think the series is great, I have to put out a short disclaimer for webzine readers: some of these articles are explicitly reformist and some don’t even appear to “reimagine socialism” at all. Saskia Sassen’s entry, “An Economic Platform That Is Ours,” presents a policy proposal for infrastructure development that would create jobs on the cheap. There is no insistence on movement-building, as if we just need to convince the capitalist state of our superior ideas. To make this convincing easier, Sassen reassures readers that this would not challenge capitalism and would not require any sort of revolution. One wonders how this remarkably unimaginative article, which doesn’t even include the word “socialism,” made it into the series.

There’s also at least one missive to represent the autonomist trend of some non-revolutionary anarchist currents. Rebecca Solnit’s piece, “The Revolution Has Already Occurred,” extols the power of organic, urban, and community assisted gardens to smash the corporate grip on food production that’s ruining our health, our environment, and our potential for long-term survival. While I can certainly sympathize with this goal, it’s easy to notice that the scattered victory gardens of the US have not even threatened to dislodge corporate control of food. This will take nothing less than freeing thousands and thousands of acres of privately owned land. Can you see this happening without powerful social movements willing to confront state and capital in an effort to transform social relations on a massive scale? (Note: Sultan of Snark Louis Proyect offers a more developed critique of the politics of Solnit and fellow travelers here)

Mike Davis enters the arena to cast both of these problematic strategies as utopian in the negative sense. He writes, “A peaceful, just-in-time transition toward low-carbon, rationally regulated state capitalism is about as likely as a spontaneous connecting-the-dots of neighborhood anarchism across the world… Simply extrapolating from the present balance of forces, one most likely arrives at an equilibrium of triaged barbarism, founded on the extinction of the poorest part of humanity.” One fundamental thing to keep in mind when we “reimagine” socialism is the importance of having a sober analysis of actual conditions and knowing how to most effectively engage people in the real world. It’s not enough to simply imagine desirable alternatives to capitalism without recognizing viable paths to getting there.

Most authors are united in this insistence that movement-building is key to transforming mass consciousness and seizing control of key economic and political institutions. Critically, some go further. Bill Fletcher and Barbara Ehrenreich, in the opening shot of the series, note, “if we are serious about collective survival in the face of our multiple crises, we have to build organizations, including explicitly socialist ones, that can mobilize this talent, develop leadership and advance local struggles.” If we want to build these broad movements and explicitly socialist organizations, how do these goals relate? Kim Moody clarifies: “Socialism will gain credibility to the extent that socialists are directly involved, as leaders and learners, in the actual existing struggles of the day.”

According to Dan La Botz, socialists should “work to build and to support militant minorities” that are integral to carrying movements further toward realizing our imagined alternatives. “We know from experience that when large numbers go into motion,” he writes, “they develop new tactics and strategies, as well as the new political alternatives without which we cannot succeed in changing this society.” To do more than just “reimagining,” we’ll need to organize as socialists and get serious about strategic movement-building as the principal path toward actually revolutionizing society and creating a more just, humane, peaceful, and sustainable future.

Furthermore, an anti-racist and feminist orientation for all organizations is paramount. I note this last not as an afterthought, but as something absolutely worth remembering. Lisa Duggan calls for an intersectional “reimagining,” rejecting “the leftist habit of ignoring those on the manufactured political, social or cultural margins [which stand] in the way of making something new happen, something worth living for–for all of us.” Without this, we’re sure to miss the mark in building anything worth imagining.

Oh, but there is so much more. This is already a rich series, and I’m eager to see what else develops. While I’m happy to hear that bookstores are having trouble keeping Marx’s Capital in stock, I’m even happier to see more accessible conversations about socialism proliferate mainstream and liberal news media in the US. I imagine that these folks taking their first foray into Capital are feeling a bit ripped off at least by the time they get to chapter 3. Marx’s theories remain crucial to explain why crises occur and why they are inevitable under capitalism, but these conversations are more likely to introduce readers to the immediate questions of how to organize for socialism. I suggest we use them to kick off conversations with activist contacts. In Atlanta, one member of a local radical history group has already mentioned to Solidarity members that they’d like to host some discussions on the series. Since the articles are all on the web, they’re easy to e-mail, tweet, blog about, post on facebook, whatever.

What do you think of the series? How do you think it can be used in discussions about socialist organization? Post your comments!

Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., “Rising to the Occasion”

Immanuel Wallerstein, “Follow Brazil’s Example”

Bill McKibben, “Together, We Save the Planet”

Rebecca Solnit, “The Revolution Has Already Occurred”

Tariq Ali, “Capitalism’s Deadly Logic”

Robert Pollin, “Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic”

John Bellamy Foster, “Economy, Ecology, Empire”

Christian Parenti, “Limits and Horizons”

Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible”

Mike Davis, “The Necessary Eloquence of Protest”

Lisa Duggan, “Imagine Otherwise”

Vijay Prashad, “The Dragons, Their Dragoons”

Kim Moody, “Socialists Need to Be Where the Struggle Is”

Saskia Sassen, “An Economic Platform That Is Ours”

Dan La Botz, “Militant Minorities”

(hopefully, this list will be outdated soon as more entries are added)


5 responses to “Reimagining Socialism: The Nation encourages a critical discussion”

  1. TNC Avatar

    The Nation is not a liberal magazine. All of the authors listed above (from Ali to Wallerstein) are leftists. All the editors at the Nation are leftists. The magazine is still trying to prove the innocence of Alger Hiss!

  2. R Avatar

    You know, I think I am actually more stubborn than “imaginative” on these questions. I’m not even sure if that’s actually what we lack, though–our answer to inequality, crisis, etc. has always inherently been more “imaginative” than that of the ruling class! I think what’s more important is that many liberals and some conservatives are being disabused of notions that crises are “mistakes” in the management of capitalism or that we can continue basing our subsistence on the wasteful production of commodities while the planet burns up, to name just a few. Of course, people need “help” in drawing these conclusions sometimes and The Nation is playing an uncharacteristically productive role in this process now.

  3. S. D'Arcy Avatar

    I really don’t see why you’d promote that Proyect article that you link to.

    A “developed critique”? That sort of thing is embarrassing to ortho-Trots. He tries to convince gullible readers that Albert or Hahnel proposed “parecon” as a strategy for overturning capitalism. But where’s the evidence for that absurd charge?

    What he really means to say is, “Albert’s not a Trotskyist! Albert’s not a Trotskyist! Albert’s not a Trotskyist!” Trotskyists should ask themselves: have these sorts of condemnations ever been convincing to non-Trotskyists?

    He says, in effect, that other things are more important than proposing models for how to organize a planned economy that would be egalitarian and democratic (in ways that “public ownership,” even when aimed at meeting needs, as in the case of the public library system, is not). But, obviously, Hahnel and Albert would agree with that. They’ve never said or suggested that the most important task confronting today’s Left is the development of a vision for a post-capitalist economic democracy. They’ve just said that such a thing is one of the many things worth doing today. And it isn’t a waste of time. (Many things that are not the very most important thing, are nevertheless not a waste of time.)

    I think that if Trotskyists want to be taken seriously they have to leave behind the crude polemical mode of “debate” that they picked up from immersing themselves in the early Comintern internal culture. Regular people find it very off-putting.

  4. Kate G Avatar
    Kate G

    great post! I’ve been recommending the nation series left and right, so to speak, and will add your response to the recommendation. I also think that the articles in the series are a very good length to use in undergrad classes and I am thinking of using them that way this semester.

  5. Micah Avatar

    What do I think about the series? That you should submit an article to it! This was really a great summary — I hope at the very least you’ll write a second installment commenting on new pieces as the series grows.