“Re-imagining socialism”

Chris Cutrone

Letter in The Nation April 20, 2009. [PDF]

Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s article, and the forum in reply, exhibit a glaring disparity between the breadth and depth of the crisis and the timidity of response, in particular Robert Pollin’s reversal of the 1960s-era slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” to “Be utopian, demand the realistic” to push Obama’s reforms further.

There was an earlier formulation of reality and utopia by C. Wright Mills in his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” the injunction that any purported left “be realistic in our utopianism.” After the 1950s declaration of the “end of ideology,” Mills recognized that the only realistic possibility of political responsibility was in the “utopian” and frankly “ideological” program of socialism, which Ehrenreich and Fletcher treat as the dirty S-word.

Mills warned that socialism needed to be reinvented, on the basis of the best of the Marxist tradition. He enjoined his readers to “forget Victorian Marxism” and “re-read Lenin and Luxemburg” and recall what socialism once meant. But we now have a rehash of the worst of socialism. The global problems of capitalism will not find solutions derived from Lula’s Brazil or Chávez’s Venezuela, 1970s-’80s Swedish policies, takeovers of closed factories in Argentina or community gardens in Detroit’s emptied lots. Mills called such perspectives the politically irresponsible combination of “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” in the ongoing absence of a true left.

While there are much worse things than living under the Swedish welfare state or eating homegrown vegetables, this is not a realistic prospect for saving the majority of the world’s people, or even the majority of Americans, from the ravages of capitalism.

When Christian Parenti–-who, with Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood, wrote a fine critique of “Left anti-intellectualism” in Action Will Be Taken, invoking Adorno’s critique of unthinking “actionism”–-notes the virtue of Marxism so even a semiliterate Indian public could grasp the dynamics of international capitalism better than their US counterparts, we have arrived at the reversal of Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, that hitherto we have tried only to understand the world, while the point is to change it.

Only what the present “left” deems “utopian,” “full-throttle socialism”–-starting and pursued to conclusion in the United States, the core of global capital, where the crisis and its potential solution find their nexus–-has any hope of making a true diagnosis of our problems and a prognosis for overcoming them. While the revolution envisioned by Marx has never occurred, it still might and, indeed, must if we are to begin to address the manifest problems of capitalism recognized clearly so long ago. | §

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