“The Socialist movement is as wide as the world,” Eugene V. Debs told the large crowds that came to hear him all over the United States, “… its mission is to win the world, the whole world, from animalism, and consecrate it to humanity. What a tremendous task, and what a royal privilege to share in it.” The history of the twentieth century made such confidence quite impossible. Yet socialism still has meaning, even if that meaning probably has never been as murky as it is today. Conservatives brand Barack Obama a socialist for signing a national health care plan that Richard Nixon would have viewed as timid; the rulers of the most populous country on earth say their booming capitalist economy is somehow building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”; while the socialist parties of Europe struggle to prove they can spur economic growth while keeping their welfare states from going bankrupt.

Dissent was founded in 1954 to promote a democratic vision of socialism. We still believe there is no better vision worth defining, understanding, arguing about, and working to realize. The four contributors to this symposium approach its meaning from different angles and come to different conclusions about what its future ought to be.

Sheri Berman explains how social democrats triumphed in twentieth-century Europe and how they might do so again, by combining the dynamism of markets with the promotion of solidarity and equal rights across national boundaries. The current fiscal crisis, Robin Blackburn insists, could lead to a revival of economic democracy, if its partisans can advance credible remedies that do not rely solely on the national state and that would promote power sharing with local communities. Jack Clark sets forth a variety of innovative ways to provide decent, environmentally responsible housing and jobs, as well as strict control over the Molochs of Wall Street. His article updates Michael Harrington’s inspiring 1978 piece in this magazine, entitled “What Socialists Would Do in America—if They Could.” Michael Walzer concludes the symposium with an eloquent argument that socialism is not a system to be erected but the most humane and most exhilarating way we can continue to “advance toward the society of our dreams,” even if that vision will never turn into reality. Gene Debs, I think, would agree.


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.