Beyond Warm-and-Fuzzy Socialism

My prompt is simple — to the extent anything this early in the morning can be simple. It’s to say what it means to be a socialist today.

That’s somewhat subjective. I’m sure my vision of socialism differs from the others on this panel. So rather than just address you all didactically and since as an atheist I have such little experience being up this early on Sunday mornings, I’ll start more personally than I might otherwise.

I grew up in a middle-class household, with immigrant parents and an extended family that consisted of many without immigration status — relatives relegated to the fringes of the working class, with limited formal education and job prospects. But for me, socialism was never an organic outgrowth of material circumstance. If anything being a child of the meritocracy can be a deeply conservatizing experience.

My parents rented a small house in a good suburban school district for most of my life. I was given American social democracy to the extent to which it exists in this country — bastardized and reliant on property taxes, inherently exclusionary, of course. But I did have access to public goods, a safe environment to grow up in, food, housing, books, recreation, and all the other necessities to flourish as an individual.

These were opportunities that my parents and even some of my siblings — I’m the youngest of five and the only one born in the United States — didn’t have. That awareness was politicizing. It made me a socialist.

Socialists don’t believe people should be held hostage to accidents of birth. We believe in a society with equal respect for all, one that will bring to fruition frustrated Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

But importantly, I think these “warm-and-fuzzy” goals have to be rooted in class antagonism.

Creating a society built around different values requires a revolutionary transformation of our socioeconomic order. These shifts, a radical extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, are not only desirable, but possible. The roadblocks to their implementation aren’t technical ones, like they’re often portrayed to be, but rather rooted in the political resistance of those who benefit from the exploitation and hierarchy inherent in class society.

It’s important that the socialist message be wedded to moral and ethical appeals, but it can’t lose track of this antagonism against the class that makes even tepid social democratic reforms hard to envision in the 21st century. Yet there’s also the second half of that antagonism, the identification of the class and social forces capable of challenging capitalism and pushing us towards a better social order.

Any future society would build off the wealth and social advances of capitalism itself, but to accomplish this mission we need structures different than the ones capital can create. We need political parties, cultural organizations, a radical labor movement, and other currents of the exploited and oppressed.

And I think, in a very imperfect way, YDS is a part of that solution.

Socialists in America have been involved in every key struggle and progressive advance in the past century. We can take pride in that, but it hasn’t been enough. As young socialists we should stay grounded in reform movements, but we should remember that our task is not just to take part in daily struggles as anonymous members of a left-liberal coalition, but rather to:

  1. Name and identify the system and those who benefit from it.
  2. Participate in the slow and patient construction of class power through organizations capable of challenging that system.
  3. Actively propagate visions of feasible and just alternatives.

That’s our vital historical responsibility. But I think this question of “What it means to be a socialist today” needs to be tied to something concrete — to real political action in the context of a broader socialist strategy.

In the development of such a strategy in the 20th century, radicals fell into two traps that seem different, but are actually related.

  1. The pursuit of short-cuts: from syndicalist fantasies about general strikes ending capitalism overnight to more brutal attempts to stimulate change by imposing socialism-from-above.
  2. But also the other extreme. A gradualism that yielded useful reforms, but lost track of a structural critique of capitalism and the role of socialists as not the administrators of the capitalist state, but rather the identifiers and heighteners of class antagonisms.

We must find an alternative — both patient and visionary, pragmatic and utopian — and fight against austerity, pushing this world to and ultimately beyond social democracy.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin, a senior editor at In These Times, and a DSA member. This post is a transcript of a talk given at the Young Democratic Socialists’ national winter conference, February 17, 2013, and was originally posted on the Jacobin blog.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
· 33 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
· 40 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 92 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 26 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 5 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.