Solidarity, Whatever

Solidarity, Whatever

WHAT WAS THIS? I’d been invited to some Washington think tank for a May Day symposium on socialism, which also seemed to be a reunion of the old Shachtman-Meany-Kirkland Social Democrats USA.

What strange error had led the planners to invite a former executive committee member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee such as I to their fish-fry? Many of these SDers hadn’t been social democrats for decades; for some, the group had been a halfway house on their journey from Leon Trotsky to Oliver North. Speakers included some erstwhile SD stalwarts (Josh Muravchik, Penn Kemble, and Sandy Feldman) and battle queens of yore (Jeanne Kirkpatrick). Music by Ron Radosh. Fun for the whole family.

But, wait, also speaking were New Yorker‘s Rik Hertzberg and Dissent‘s own Paul Berman: Harrington-Howe (not Shachtman) socialists. “Reunion” seemed a bit of an overstatement, since, when the day came, a number of attendees from both traditions were united mainly in the belief that it was those other guys who had been wrong then and were wrong now.

Clearly, this was not the case for convener Penn Kemble or American Federation of Teachers president Sandy Feldman, both of whom exuded a more catholic sense of camaraderie and who seized a middle ground–gainsaying nothing of the SDs’ cold war zealotry, but rejecting the laissez-faire lunacy many of their onetime comrades now espouse. And indeed, it wasn’t Kemble’s and Feldman’s SD buddies, but Berman and Hertzberg who came to social democracy’s rescue. Berman praised the Socialist International in 1889 for laying out the civil and social rights that the socialist parties and union movements of the West then actualized during the subsequent century. Both Harringtonians spoke of the roots and achievements of actual, existing social democracy.

Muravchik and Kirkpatrick would have none of it. Socialism, they countered, had been so rooted in class struggle, so utopian in vision, that it was complicit in the rise of all modern totalitarianisms. Both directed their fire at nineteenth-century utopian Robert Owen, though Kirkpatrick’s main target was Socrates, a proto-totalitarian with living habits worthy of a San Francisco Democrat (her gay-baiting characterization of the mid-eighties Democratic Party). Muravchik attacked democratic socialism for impeding freedom-maximizing markets. The folly of their comrades was cause for sneering and some venomous mirth.

This was a bit much for the vintage Norman Thomas socialists in the crowd, and for none more so than an old social democrat, who as head of the Jewish Labor Committee had been a close ally of the Meany-Kirkland wing of labor. And so as attendees entered the hall, there was Josh Muravchik’s father, Manny, eighty-five-years-old, breathing through oxygen tubes, handing out his own two-page Xeroxed affirmation of socialism. It began with ex...