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.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 8 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

February 15, 2017
· 61 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 3 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But check out their short the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 2 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.