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:
- Name and identify the system and those who benefit from it.
- Participate in the slow and patient construction of class power through organizations capable of challenging that system.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.