Learning to Left
Socialism has, to put it mildly, a bit of a bad reputation.
This may sound like an absurd statement in this year of 2016, especially if you live your life on the internet. It has only been a few years since socialist candidate Kshama Sawant won a spot on the Seattle City Council; and it was only last month that Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for President of the United States after a fiercely contested battle with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is a socialist in everything but name. The socialist-communist left is surging like it hasn’t in nearly a hundred years, as the curdled promise of capitalism becomes harder and harder to believe in, and a generation of young people become aware of the grim future that awaits them at the hands of an unrestrained market economy.
But these new and uncertain developments belie the fact that, virtually since their invention, communism and its kissing cousin socialism have been taboos almost everywhere they have manifested themselves. It was less than a decade ago that Barack Obama, a moderate centrist technocrat with a faith in capitalism as strong as that of any Silicon Valley tech mogul, was tarred as a socialist (the more polite word for a communist, in American political cant if not in actuality) by his political opposition; hell, for that matter, in his big speech at the Democratic National Convention a few weeks ago, Obama himself placed communism alongside fascism and jihadism as one of the menacing evils that “threaten our values”.
History is not the strong suit of Americans. We forget things unless they’re happening right now, and that’s if we ever knew them to begin with. We forget that the first Americans to fight fascism were socialists and communists who volunteered against Franco’s forces in Spain, correctly identifying them as a bellwether of what was to come in Europe, and that these heroes died in greater numbers than the American casualties of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. We forget that it was the Russian communists who died in the millions to bring Hitler’s forces to a grinding halt on the Eastern front, allowing the Western democracies the time they needed to bring their own resources to bear against the fascist war machine. We forget that socialists enjoy the highest living standards in the world today, that syndicalists brought us every victory the working class has ever one, that communists have always been on the forefront of the struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia. We forget that, in the same year that a young Hillary Clinton was roughly informed by NASA that women couldn’t be astronauts, the Soviet Union put the first woman in space.
This forgetting makes us come to some pretty strange conclusions. We conclude that the time for unionism is over, even as the gains the unions made are slowly taken away, because we forget how hard they fought for us and how they died at the hands of their own countrymen. We conclude that socialism is for white people, at a time when it is needed more than ever in the Global South, because we forget that socialism has arisen from the bottom in black, Asian, and Latin American countries for decades. We conclude that communism has been a failure, thanks to compromises and excesses of communist-identified governments, because we forget that everywhere it has arisen, communism has been undermined, sabotaged, railed against, subverted, and fought with unthinkable violence. We conclude that leftist politics inevitably lead to authoritarianism, and we remember learning about Red Terrors in school, because no one bothered to teach us about the dozens of White Terrors.
All of which leads us to The ABCs of Socialism, a concise and fascinating little book by the good people at Jacobin magazine. Jacobin is one of the more curious and singular manifestation of the recent upsurge in interest that socialism has experienced, and the fact that they are so widely despised by everyone from libertarians to neoliberals to dedicated tankies tells me — if I didn’t already know from reading their beautifully designed and diversely written magazine — that they’re doing something right. ABCs is just as lovely as the magazine itself, and it’s exactly what it purports to be: a respectful and intelligent but never pandering or inaccessible introduction to the whys and wherefores of the socialist left.
ABCs isn’t a bold work, or a massive and rigorous introduction to Marxist theory, and that’s good; anyone convinced by its arguments, which are well-made and direct, will find themselves heading in that direction anyway. What it is is a pamphlet-shaped book of short essays that answer the kind of questions that the average American, who, whether they know it or not, have been swimming in the toxic waters of red-baiting anticommunist propaganda since they day they were born, might have about socialism. Is socialism inherently Western? (No.) Is the left anti-feminist? (No.) Does communism inherently lead to totalitarianism? (No.) Does socialism act in defiance of human nature? (No.) Isn’t capitalism synonymous with freedom? (Ah ha ha ha, no.) It does all this with good-natured arguments, lots of facts and statistics as well as suggestions for further exploration in the magazine and elsewhere, a lovely design sensibility, and a passion that is never dogmatic.
It has been almost 25 years since Francis Fukuyama penned his infamous treatise The End of History and the Last Man. He argued, at the same time that Bill Clinton was first elected President and the Democratic Party turned its back on its pro-labor leftist roots and became the party of socially semi-progressive neo-liberalism, that global capitalism and social progress marked an end-point in the political development of humanity — the market had won, the sun had set on communism, and there would henceforth be only one form of government, with freedom and light-up sneakers for all. Now, with another neo-liberal Clinton about to take office, the discontents of capitalism — largely unchanged since the days of Marx and Luxemburg — could not be more pronounced. The seeds sown by the need for more and cheaper markets resulted in an anti-colonialism that mutated into radical Islamism; the insistence that the invisible hand could fix anything proved to be a bad joke as inequality became ever more pronounced in even the richest countries; and environmental devastation threatens to put an end to history in a very different way than Fukuyama predicted. There are good reasons people are more interested in socialism than they have been in decades. If you’re one of them, you can get The ABCs of Socialism from Jacobin in paperback for less than $20, or for free in PDF form. Memory and history will take you that far; the next step is up to all of us.