The popularity of socialism has skyrocketed since Bernie Sanders’ historic campaigns for president gave voice to the outrage, desolation, and pain caused by the dramatic and unrelieved rise in U.S. inequality over the past half century. This trend now spans three generations. It has been accompanied, with few exceptions, by rising political dysfunction, volatility, and corruption as corporate interests virtually consume allegedly democratic institutions: the departments of state, defense, health, commerce, treasury, the Supreme Court, and more. These institutions cannot be trusted to protect the public interest, say majorities of the American people. The process has profoundly undermined, indeed baked in, the declining confidence of working-class families in their government, which is the face of “democracy.” Even worse, the long train of lost or winless wars and the damage to our soldiers sent abroad to bear the burdens of failed imperial adventures has damaged the basic unity of this nation.
However, Bernie’s popularity has spawned wide discussion and disputations on what is meant by “socialism” and how it would differently approach the many challenges in U.S. society, a society irrevocably linked to the fate of the world. What is a socialist program in an “advanced economy”? What is the social foundation of a socialist-oriented political party’s agenda, and its capacity to govern, especially in adverse, crisis-driven conditions?
Bernie and others of his generation have witnessed and can date the births of this looming catastrophe in our lifetimes.
The Vietnam legacy
First, the tragic conduct and legacy of the Vietnam War — a war that signaled the ultimate doom of “domination” and imperial policies, but especially defenses of colonialism under the cover of anti-communism. The U.S.-led war was morally, politically, and militarily defeated, by both popular Vietnamese forces and the resistance of the American people as the character of the war became exposed. In the meantime, U.S. corps launched the long era of job outsourcing to low-wage countries and extraction of cheap resources around the world under the protection of a dominant military power. The damage done to national unity by this imperial policy, alongside the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King appears now to be irrevocable. If they were not directly or materially linked — a still unresolved question — they were, for me, glued together.
Colonialism has two forms: direct (the more traditional form) and indirect. Vietnam is an example of both: it was a French colony before World War II and later became technically independent, but its government was funded and protected militarily by a foreign power.
It is a sad reflection that the U.S., along with former imperial and colonial powers, remain unmoved by the repeated failures of “domination”-based policies. Domination, contrasted with “peaceful coexistence” approaches, is still favored by ruling interests in both U.S. political parties. Examples abound: In Latin America, the bloody suppressions of movements with Bernie Sanders–style politics, the nightmare of proxy wars in the Middle East and Africa, assassinations, coups, Iraq, Syria, Yemen. The interventions must number over 100.
It is impossible to gauge the moral, political, and now economic harm done to our people by permitting worldwide exploitation by, chiefly, global corporate and other wealth interests in the name of “defense” of our country. Nonetheless, we witnessed this strikingly, again, as Biden abandoned the fight for the (heavily Sanders and Civil Rights influenced) economic program that got him elected in favor of a worldwide economic war against China and Russia, a warfare that has weaponized global currencies and banking systems, that shows no end in sight — no doubt one of the enticements if you are a defense contractor — and has sharply aggravated global inflation and risks of depression. Russia’s intervention into the already ongoing civil war in the Donbas region of Ukraine provided a perfect cover for this pivot, or so some think. The Pope concludes that Russia “was provoked” — meaning the “color revolutions” and hostile NATO moves against Russia in the preceding decade. The origin of the post-Soviet “neoliberal” posture towards Russia was the Clinton administration, under whose administration NATO expanded by three countries. The prophetic stand-up artist George Carlin once ridiculed this posture when he quipped, “You know, it would be great to make every country in the world have a Democratic and Republican party.” Seven additional countries joined NATO under George W.’s administration.
The fruits of corruption
The fruits of the corruptions of the vicious and repressive Nixon administration are visible everywhere. Nixon’s victory in ’68 felt like assassins coming to power. The astounding reorganization of the Republican Party, their seizure of the former Dixiecrat South and the fascist churches, and their farsighted campaign to destroy the New Deal, Civil Rights, women’s rights, and labor rights have come to pass. The junta Republicans have installed extreme-right Supreme Court justices, a real coup d’état of which Trump’s January 6 is but a shadow.
Reginald Jones, legendary CEO of “Generous” Electric — when it was “the most profitable corporation in the world” and he dominated the top business roundtables and think tanks — predicted the economic foundation of the right-wing assaults in a report on the “governability of democracies” to the 1975 Trilateral Commission. That report reached the desk of Jim Matles, founder and Secretary Treasurer of the UE, who revealed its significance in his final address before a UE convention. The document pronounced that a staggering accumulation of capital would be required “to reproduce the system,” along with serious “political reform.” Translation: Wipe out the New Deal and the Great Society, releasing public capital to private markets. Simultaneously, GE helped propel its former employee, Ronald Reagan, into the national arena. The Democrats tacked further away from Roosevelt and social democracy every decade after Johnson.
Crossroads for socialism
The socialist alternative popularized by Bernie Sanders now stands in a new light. As does Joe Biden’s liberalism (or neoliberalism, if you prefer). Sanders’ program is a good, widely supported social democratic program of reform, endorsed in part by the elected president but swept from his agenda by imperial prerogatives. Biden gave a hat tip to the Sanders program but tacked to an economic and proxy war against Russia and Chinese socialism in a whoosh! — like Superman doing his costume changes in telephone booths. In truth Biden’s commitment to the Sanders program was always just skin deep.
We are thus reminded of some principles that seem to be established, criticized, and then re-established over the entire history of the socialist and communist movements. Both movements profess comparable political and economic programs, and they are permanently tied to each other in many ways, despite being at tactical odds much of the time. Bernie’s agenda is somewhat to the left (think toward Marx) on “social democratic” socialism in that it supports a broad expansion of public goods, greater social equality, and greater public control and influence over “the commanding heights” of the economy, including taxation of wealth. His “socialism” nonetheless remains a largely market, capitalist-oriented economy, but better regulated in the public interest. At critical times (before and during the world wars and colonial wars) “social democratic socialists” have joined nationalist movements — and have been recruited into their own nation’s imperial ambitions on the promise of big rewards.
The truth is that socialism makes no sense as a “nationalist” ideology. If attempted it would be a fraud, a pawn in the hands of a special interest. Hitler demonstrated that for all succeeding time. An important premise of socialism reflecting universal, working-class values is that the workers of different countries have more interests, and problems, in common with each other than they do with their employers.
(Interestingly, if the nation is a victim instead of a benefactor of an imperial or colonial relationship, the nationalism becomes heroic, e.g., Nathan Hale, but otherwise tragic and reactionary, e.g., Robert E. Lee.) Bernie’s socialism is to the left of much of the European social democratic tradition, and closer to the Latin American popular socialist rebellions. He has been a consistent critic of military-dominated budgets and solutions.
The “social democratic socialism” trend also typically renounces revolution, believing that capitalism’s defects will, or should, be overcome “naturally.” Bernie does not renounce the revolutionary path. On the other hand, he has never challenged the rights of bourgeois forces — no matter how reactionary — to political franchise. An actual revolutionary period, beyond rhetoric and phrases, will test that stance. As it did for Lincoln and the Union confronted with the revolutionary nature of the struggle to abolish slavery in the defiant South, where its infamous economy and traditions were long established.
Which brings us to the task of identifying the essential economic and political questions upon which the paths to socialism — and there may be many — depend, with particular interest in the U.S. where naked imperial impulses and global capital domination are impossible to ignore.
Of great assistance in this effort are the writings of French economist and socialist Thomas Piketty. There was a time when one would have to reach all the way back to Karl Marx to make some straightforward observations about capitalism unwrapped from cold war ideological nonsense. No more. Professor Piketty and his colleagues have reestablished both analytically and computationally (with large data) that capitalism itself is the source of antagonistic social tendencies. Further, they have spawned numerous data collection programs across the world that continue to enrich, refine, and sustain their formulation of the laws of capital accumulation. The exposure of true patterns and measures of inequality has placed the issue of inequality on global agendas as never before.
I am a great admirer of Thomas Piketty. His research on inequality has arguably had the biggest ideological impact on economic analysis of any economist since Paul Samuelson, or maybe John Maynard Keynes. And in a positive direction. Since the publication of Capital in the 21st Century, every gathering of the American Economic Association has had between five and ten panels on inequality. In recent years, he has produced numerous insightful blogs on the European Union, as well as a book on ideology, Capital and Ideology.
His work since his masterpiece, however, demonstrates that Piketty is indeed not a Marxist. The data series on income, for example, are not easily transformed into a Marxist concept of class — as a relation to production — and Piketty does not appear to have tried. Mike Roberts, on the other hand — a gifted macroeconomist and Marxist — has shown that this is both possible and illuminating. For example, a salesperson and a mechanic may make comparable incomes. But their work, and their relationship to production, are not the same. Their roles and relationships to a firm will reflect as many contrasts as comparisons in consciousness, arising from the different roles. Thus, a political poll that tracks “class” based solely on income will miss much.
Lately Piketty has been blogging more on politics. His “social democracy socialism” is straightforward, and he is very progressive and astute in evaluating economic reforms. But in several respects, it retreads previous social history and is not so new.
It differs little, for example, from Karl Kautsky, the German socialist, and renegade from Communism. Kautsky fell victim to patriotic German socialism in WWI. To my knowledge, Piketty never mentions imperialism. Like many previous social democrats, he rejects the revolutionary path to socialism.
Mostly, I suspect these sentiments are closely linked to patriotic or nationalistic influences contending with “class” points of view — that together fuel hopes of “benefits” from one’s own country’s imperial ambitions. The Buy America campaigns in various industries, for example, have captured more than a few union endorsements as ransom to slow the erosion of U.S. manufacturing jobs under union agreements. But they seldom, if ever, turned into the “Employ America” reality. More often they were and are accompanied with the “accept concessions” campaigns in exchange for vaporous pledges, and the undertow of diverse U.S. diplomatic, so-called “foreign aid” and military foreign investment/defense department campaigns, and disasters, like Afghanistan. The point being: the question of an “imperialist” agenda is an existential issue in the advance toward socialism, especially in nations with a long and dominant imperial history. For the U.S., this likely means a hard landing, the opposite of Piketty’s speculation.
Piketty rejects the socialism of every country I can think of that actually calls itself socialist, all of whom came into existence via revolutions and revolutionary movements.
In contrast, Piketty’s own very thoughtful and profound, evidence-based reform recommendations, which include an “incremental” but aggressive expansion of the “welfare state” into the realms of wealth, are exactly the reforms that ruling classes have repeatedly drowned in blood. Indeed, they are exactly the reforms that revolutions need in order to implement socialism.
For an example in a different era, consider the goal of an incremental end to the British Empire’s taxes on Boston tea founded on pleas to a colonial regime. Foolish. I submit that Piketty’s reforms unrealistically presume a comparable measure of respect for democracy on the part of the billionaires and trillionaires, a “respect” that would permit them to accede to the voters voting away most of their private wealth — without resort to violence or destruction of (to them) “illegitimate” democracy. Absent such capture of wealth, Piketty’s own math and analysis show that capitalist wealth will continue to concentrate and accumulate, along with the vast political corruption of the public interest such concentration incentivizes.
I do not disagree in principle that there can be peaceful paths to socialism — which does not actually wipe out capitalism, because only relative and advancing abundance can truly accomplish that. But the revolutionary path does permit the establishment of a different ruling-class coalition in which bourgeois interests are not dominant. Most likely, however, only increasing the strength of both a) existing socialism and b) internationalist-minded forces in imperial nations can effect a global balance of forces where progressive and peaceful transitions are possible, within an overall framework of peaceful coexistence and increasing cooperation over dominion in policy.
The history of the long 20th-century imperialist wars, global commercial and structural integration, and massive immigrations and intermarriages between races and nationalities across the world set the stage for global and international multilateral governance. Globalization is not inherently imperialistic, even though imperialism — capitalism expanding beyond national borders — gave birth to it.
Missing in most of the social-democratic socialisms is outright internationalism, cooperation, and honest relations with the countries that practice socialism (and call it that too), with the Chinese system proving to be highly resilient and adaptive as well as massive. Missing is the organization of the revolutionary detachment. Reforms will inevitably fail when a social system becomes unable to reform itself and collapses, either in stages or catastrophically. What happens at the base, in towns and counties, and workplaces, especially key and frontline first responder services, in dysfunctional circumstances, will ultimately determine the outcome.
Survival will largely depend on those forces that rise to political leadership. Electoral races for offices are not prohibitively expensive. The legendary Wyndham Mortimer, a founder of the UAW, once noted that 25 skilled organizers should be able to capture the working-class vote in any local contest. A good place for the Communist Party to flourish and serve.
The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.
Images: Poor People’s march, 6-18-22, photo courtesy Dylan Manshack; North Vietnam soldier, Wikipedia (public domain); Bernie Sanders, Wikipedia (public domain); Car mechanic, Chris Yarzab (CC BY 2.0); Buy American poster, New York State AFL-CIO (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
This article was republished from Communist Party USA.