Can Spheres of Socialism Become Spheres of Influence?

An Inheritance for Our Times: Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism

Edited by Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker and Michael Thompson

New York: OR Books, 2020

Perhaps the greatest contribution of An Inheritance for Our Times is its rich drumbeat of a romantic vision of humanity—not romantic in the sense of fictive or fanciful, but of the romance of Marx himself. Marx the romantic believed that human lives matter, that they are important, that they are beautiful and unique, and that their brevity and precarity require the urgency of a political solution.  

In this era of pandemic; of persistent state violence, especially against Black people; of Donald Trump and the GOP’s relentless shock-bombing; and of the Democratic Party’s acquiescence to those terms, all set against the background of cataclysmic climate change, I for one, have recently felt grim in my politics—my political engagement driven mostly by frustration and worry, if not outright terror. But this text has revived a flicker in my political spirit: this work is important because life could be beautiful. We could lose our chains; another world is possible.  I recommend this book, especially to those in need of buoying. [Full disclosure: Michael Thompson is a colleague at William Paterson University, and I’ve met Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker socially.)

Smulewicz-Zucker and Thompson’s collection of essays is a vital text for this moment—whether we’re thinking of the moment as a time when the Democratic Party has reverted even  further to the center-right or as a time when signs of progress are visible in both the streets and in greater elected representation of left politics. Across its thirty essays, the various writers explore the essential unity of democracy and socialism, generating both a depth and concreteness to the politics required to defend individual and community life. 

The essays range from more typically theoretical, as represented by Rohini Hensman’s contribution, “Marx and Engels on Socialism and How to Achieve It: A Critical Evaluation,” to more directly movement-oriented pieces such as Sheila Collins’s “Toward an Eco-Socialist Democracy.” The book is arranged in thematic sections, including: “The Principles of Democratic Socialism,” emphasizing the socialism, “Socialism’s Democratic Essence,” emphasizing the democracy, and “Socialism Democracy, and History” which, more than its name suggests, tracks multiple histories of the present from the socialist viewpoint. The final two sections, “Socialist Alternatives” and “Socialism and the Challenges of the Present,” both move from defining the collective project’s past to envisioning its future.  

In the introduction, the editors state that the urgency of democratic socialism is beginning to grow, that there is a developing recognition that “a new kind of society on a new set of values is needed,” and a rigorous, ruthlessly self-critical democratic socialism might be part of building that new society. 

Co-editor Michael Thompson’s chapter argues for a categorical understanding of democratic socialism through what he calls the “spheres of democratic socialism.” By this he means that the values of democratic socialism can be seen in the economic or material sphere, the political sphere, and the sphere of the individual. This framework is not new, per se, but offers clarity for both forwarding and evaluating democratic socialist claims.   

Of special interest are Wilson Sherwin’s “Less Work for All! Reclaiming a Forgotten Socialist Aspiration,” and Bernie Sanders’s essay in which he asks, “[W]hat does it mean to be free?” and offers, if not a direct path, a clear direction to get moving.   

In the section of the book dubbed “The Principles of Democratic Socialism,” Lester Spence cuts through the neoliberalization of U.S. urban life to explore what it could mean for the city to be “owned by the people themselves in their totality,” a vision of self-determination in action.  Sketching out the destructive forces of capital-driven policing, housing, transportation, and work, Spence provokes the imagination as he calls for “a new vision of what the city [and thus life] could be.”  Essays like Spence’s make grounded, material critiques while holding the imagined future like a beacon.

Something that I originally thought was going to be a criticism, but that turned into a strong point, is that it is unclear if there is a singular audience for this book. For folks flirting with democratic socialism, the breadth of articles might seem overly dense. For movement folks, the scholarly approach of  the majority of the essays might be a deterrent. On the other hand, a more scholarly audience might wish for a more systematic treatment of the book’s topics. Ultimately, Inheritance for Our Time might be for all of these audiences. Specific sets of articles might be initially attractive to any reader, but might ultimately create opportunities to connect beyond one’s intuitive circles —which is necessary for the work to get done.    

I’d like to have seen more engagement with the abolition and Black Lives Matter movements, which seem to me to be the most vital arenas of left politics in this particular historical moment. These are movements that are democratic socialist in ethos but retain a complex and sometimes contentious relationship with the discourse of democratic socialism—not exclusively, but often because of the whiteness of many socialist and labor movements in the United States. Although Zillah Eisenstein persuasively argues for the necessity of anti-racist feminism in democratic socialism, a more direct engagement would have made the “Challenges of the Present” section seem much more attuned to this present. 

Overall, this text is invigorating, educative, challenging, and useful. I’m glad to be reminded that we’re fighting for bread and roses.