The following is part of a series of essays, “Why I’m (Still) a Socialist,” in our Fall 2022 issue.
Dissent was first published at a low point for the American left. The editors decried the McCarthyist conflagration of the 1950s, which had cast a pall over radicals throughout the country, no matter how sterling their anti-Stalinist credentials. And repression wasn’t the only problem. A combination of factors—a burgeoning consumer society, the strides made toward a welfare state during the Great Depression, the material dividends of global supremacy, and the nationalist spirit of the Cold War, to name a few—had relegated socialism to the margins of American life. The high tide of civil rights struggle and the second-wave feminist and gay awakenings were off in the future; union leaders had assumed a more conservative posture in the wake of Taft–Hartley. What did it mean to be a democratic socialist in such a moment?
When I started as an intern at Dissent, the month that Lehman Brothers collapsed, the picture, on the surface, wasn’t entirely different. To a twenty-year-old without a left-wing heritage, socialism wasn’t even a specter; it was an absence. The situation soon changed dramatically. Grassroots uprisings, new organizing efforts, electoral campaigns, and a hunger for political education made a generation of radicals. In recent years, socialists have helped shift the terrain of American politics, even if it still tilts against them. They have turned moral outrages like the U.S. healthcare system—and many other areas where private provision militates against human need—into unavoidable public issues.
The state of socialist politics in 2022 is nowhere near as dire as it was in 1954 or 2008, but the challenges facing the twenty-first-century left have become more difficult to ignore. Our institutions have not been able to absorb the bulk of the anti-systemic energies unleashed by the multiple crises of American society; protests flare up and burn out, their ashes fertilizing precious few new roots. The right has made its own inroads with discontents of the status quo while offering a backdoor to continued corporate rule, intermingled with aggressive reaction to the demands of women, LGBTQ people, migrants, and racialized minorities. At the same time, the shock of the pandemic, along with pressure from the left, have resuscitated the reformist drive of centrists, and many people fearful of right-wing ascent have understandably rallied behind them. Many others, including a growing number of young adults, view any political participation as a pointless and frustrating affair.
All of which raises the recurrent question: what does democratic socialism mean today?
The simplest answer is a familiar one: socialism is a capacious commitment to freedom and democracy. Democratic socialists believe in civil and political freedoms, and democratic forms of government, and we also believe that they are not enough. We carry these commitments to the workplace, to the sphere of reproduction, to all the authoritarian enclaves in our social lives. And while we operate within nations, our commitments extend to allies in other countries (and to the goal of overcoming the inequalities of the global order). More profoundly, socialists call for a reckoning with the awesome forces unleashed in the capitalist era—forces that have created “wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals,” as Marx and Engels wrote, and also innumerable horrors. We reject the fatalist attitude that the productive capacities of the modern world necessarily lie beyond our efforts to direct them, or that they are the rightful property of the richest class. Socialism injects a sense of political possibility into the lives of people whose experiences have been characterized by elite domination, technocratic obscurantism, diminishing expectations, and looming catastrophe.
The socialist legacy provides us with many resources for hungry times. But it can also cloister us from the contemporary world or lead to a fixation on noble failures (and ignoble successes). To prevent it from becoming stale orthodoxy, we need “to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified,” as Lewis Coser and Irving Howe wrote in Dissent’s founding statement. We fight for the future. To do so, we need to be alive to changes in the world around us.
As ever for socialists, it starts with labor. It was once common to wonder if consumerism and the growth of middle strata in the West had closed the historic window for working-class politics. Today, after a few decades of one-sided class warfare, socialists have reclaimed the idea that our fortunes rise and fall with the strength of workers’ institutions. The overall state of affairs for unions is grim, which means the traditional base of the left is largely unorganized. Former industrial union strongholds have been stripped for parts, and the wages of growing economic sectors have failed to compensate for these losses. That’s why we celebrate the vital bright spots in the U.S. labor movement. The fight against further union deterioration is important; expansion in critical areas even more so. Over the past decade, socialists have been active participants in struggles in sectors like healthcare and education, as well as in the more recent organizing efforts at Amazon and Starbucks. These campaigns are pushing us to once again advance a labor politics that includes but goes beyond workplace issues—a form of social unionism we now call “bargaining for the common good.” They also force us to look squarely at the class composition of the current socialist movement and its coalitional allies, alongside the distressing realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties along educational lines. Polarization is not just a symptom of deeper rot but a staggering political roadblock.
Labor’s hard times have tracked the decline of social democracy and the end of the long economic boom that began after the Second World War. The mixed economies and welfare states of the postwar era were powered by growth—and when that growth began to slow, the working class suffered the consequences. Today, we are living with the results of the long neoliberal offensive: loosened restrictions on international capital mobility, intricate yet fragile commodity supply chains, financial plunder and impunity, endemic corporate short-termism, the rise of informal employment—which accounts for 70 percent of the workforce in emerging markets and developing economies—and our reliance on asset appreciation as the engine of prosperity. The last issue points to another recent development: central bank activity now props up the global system of accumulation to an unprecedented extent. Any socialism for our times cannot wish away these features of the contemporary means of production and circulation. By the same token, half-century-old concerns about the limits of social democracy have little practical bearing in the short term; we are a long way off from testing those limits. Socialists can support socially beneficial fiscal policy while at the same time refurbishing tools—public and cooperative ownership, capital controls, decommodification, the socialization of investment—left to rust in the age of human capital.
At the same time that political forces have succeeded in scaling back the redistributive state, governments have become more adept at surveillance, policing, and punishment. This development has tactical implications: we should expect any surge in militant civil disobedience to be met with a government apparatus that takes full advantage of our reliance on internet-based communication systems and the vast troves of personal data held in both corporate and state hands. It is also imperative that we incorporate the problem of the U.S. carceral system into our political projects. Over 5 million people are currently under correctional supervision in the United States; over 70 million have some form of criminal record. This group is disproportionately poor and working-class, and disproportionately black. Reactionary backlash and popular concerns about safety call for serious responses, but telling people pressing their needs to hold off is a recipe for indefinite postponement. We cannot accept the choice between victims of private and state violence.
Then there is the unavoidable trouble of the twenty-first century: climate change. It is at once slow-burning and urgent, abstract and the literal air we breathe. This summer, the United States adopted serious climate policy for the first time. Arguments on the left about the shortcomings of the Inflation Reduction Act are undergirded by reasonable distrust of a decarbonization model that relies on private investment and profitability, and disappointment that we lack the power to pose a feasible alternative. Still, there are traces of the impulse behind the Green New Deal—that climate politics must be a popular politics—in the new legislation. That idea should continue to guide socialist climate politics, even as we recognize that improving living standards through unplanned economic expansion is no longer tenable.
In all these areas and many others, socialism doesn’t provide us with easy solutions, even if we had the capacity to realize them. But it helps us name the problem. When we get caught up in the minutiae of seemingly intractable strategic questions, socialist principles can ground us. Amid demoralizing setbacks, they remind us what we’re fighting for: a democratic society that provides everyone with the chance to flourish. Socialism offers us, and everyone we hope to inspire and organize, “not simply a legislative shopping list,” as Michael Harrington once wrote, “but a vision.”
Nick Serpe is senior editor at Dissent.