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“Why Not Socialism?” added to the Reformist Bibliography

Einstein in 1950. (Photo: AFP)

Albert Einstein’s seminal 1949 essay, originally published in Monthly Review, is now accessible in PDF form via the bibliography. The piece, far from being an empty call to revolution or a milquetoast defense of welfare capitalism in the guise of a nominal “socialism,” is one of the most sober and concise defenses of democratic socialism ever written. In relatively few words, the German physicist puts forth an unsparing indictment of capitalism and argues in favor of the need for social and economic transformation.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of [man’s suffering.] We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

His conclusion, in favor of a planned economy, additionally confronts the dilemma of preventing tyranny.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate [society’s] grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals….Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Einstein’s essay offers both a solid explanation of socialism’s basic utility while avoiding any overly didactic prescriptions for its realization. Einstein ends his piece with a call for discourse. Seven decades on, the left is bogged down in unproductive and frequently baid faith discourse. A revisiting of pieces like Why Not Socialism? more often could break the logjam.

A New Direction

A collection of 1970’s DSOC pins (photo by the author)

When I created the social democratic bibliography three years ago, I was in a different place politically and so was the country. I interpreted the 2018 midterm election victories of left Democrats (most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), along with the continued growth of DSA, as a confirmation that realignment and left entryism in the Democratic Party were still a viable means of progress towards achieving egalitarian successes through electoral politics. Fast forward to today and the left Democrats have not only been further ostracized by their own party (the Dem status quo’s united opposition to Bernie Sanders last year being only one example), but a Democratic-majority house and senate presided over by a Democratic president refuse to respond to the worst crisis in a century with implementation of even the most basic social democratic policy. The American Rescue plan is not social democracy. It’s short term social liberalism; the metaphorical Band-Aid on an open wound.

Stupidly, I used to view postwar Nordic-style social democracy as an end in itself. The original SocDem bibliography was reflective of this, with its inclusion of opinion pieces expressing a deep pessimism, if not outright disdain towards democratic socialism. That attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy which will always favor conditions in which capitalism can continually sap the progress of even the most ardently redistributionist social democratic movements. Social democracy’s successes and gains, both historical and current are substantial. Realpolitik-focused reforms and policy are ensuring the survival, let alone well being, of millions of people across the globe right now. Witness the responses to COVID-19 of New Zealand and every Nordic country except Sweden, whose disastrous economically focused “natural herd immunity” strategy left them with the highest death toll out of the four. Beyond successful virus responses, Finland is pursuing a “housing first” policy and Jacinda Ardern has framed her policy decisions in anti-capitalist terms.

Any celebration of these developments must be extremely tempered, though, by the acceptance that none of their potential can be fully realized unless they’re part of a reformist path towards socialism. Regulated capitalism is still capitalism, and capitalism’s ruthless profit motive will always sabotage the realization of a truly egalitarian and equitable society. The social democratic bibliography was conceived of explicitly as an educational tool, but the understanding of social democracy it initially sought to further was flawed. From this point forward, it will be known as the reformist bibliography, focused on social democracy’s place within and in relation to the larger democratic socialist movement.

There’s plenty of sanctimonious revolutionaries who continue to flog the accusation that welfare capitalist postwar social democracy and reformist democratic socialism are merely the same form of rebranded liberalism. These arguments are empty and self-serving. Reformist socialism is needed as much now as any other point in its existence. Social democracy can be the catalyst, but never the end product.

“To pursue only power is to deny our reason for being.” Ed Broadbent at 85

Broadbent (MP for Oshawa-Whitby at the time) speaking in the House of Commons in 1974 alongside Tommy Douglas. Photo: The Canadian Press

Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, founder of the Broadbent Institute and enduring presence on the Canadian left, turns eighty-five years old today. In his two decade political career and three decades as an academic and public intellectual, Broadbent has consistently remained one of the most ardent and persuasive advocates of postwar social democracy (eschewing the third way liberalism of the 1990s and 2000s). In the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of scores of senior citizens (including fellow leftist academic Leo Panitch), Broadbent’s survival is an ember of hope in a world of bleak prospects, both medical and political.

A transcript of Broadbent’s 2013 address at Ryerson University, along with two videos featuring him, are already part of the social democratic bibliography. Today, I’m posting a recording of said speech as well as adding the link to its entry.

Happy birthday, Ed. Here’s to (hopefully) quite a few more.

Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear

Graffiti in Athens, December 2008.

The expressions of relief at the immanent end of 2020 are disturbingly indicative of a widespread shortsightedness. The sentiment is typically motivated by an overwhelming catharsis triggered by the symbolic closing of a catastrophic and traumatic period, the Sisyphean expectation that COVID-19 vaccines will return the world to “normal” within the year or a mixture of both.

During the 2008 riots in Greece, “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear” was a phrase frequently rendered in graffiti (a photo of it later went viral.) This sarcastic proclamation could hardly be better suited to the present moment. 2021 presents tremendous uncertainty and threat. The pandemic, currently at its most severe thus far in terms of both caseloads and deaths, will potentially worsen in the New Year. Anthony Fauci, quite optimistically, predicted that “normality” in the U.S. could return by fall of 2021. This would be heavily reliant on the timely implementation of vaccinations and continued mitigation efforts. As it stands, vaccinations in the U.S. are woefully behind schedule and even the simplest social distancing measures continue to be politicized and met with resistance.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration promises little more than milquetoast centrism. Biden himself insinuated he would veto Medicare for All legislation and his platform is mostly comprised of weak incrementalist policies with a few ambitious outliers like his college tuition subsidy plan along with his stated intent to bring supply chains back to the U.S. The degree to which he will actually pursue any of these measures (and the degree to which he would actually succeed) is anyone’s guess.

The catastrophe of 2020 presents, of course, a vast opportunity for leftist political reform and progress. COVID-19 has shone a floodlight on the savage inequality present in modern society. The private sector was no hero in the fight against the virus. Frequently, it was responsible and served as the justification for extreme negligence, re: resistance to much needed business closures, premature reopenings and widespread price gouging (all with disastrous results). Containment of the virus cannot be a green light for a simple return to the oblivious consumerism and recklessness of the pre-COVID-19 era. When a deadly airborne virus is no longer an omnipresent threat, widespread political mobilization is imperative.

2021 can be a continuation of the horrors of 2020 or the beginning of a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Whether it is the former or the latter will be determined by decisions made by the citizenry, carried out through civil society institutions and political organizations. In 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are experiencing “morbid symptoms” in the most literal sense. We can, however, be midwives to the birth of the new if we choose to be.

UBI: A March down the Wrong Path (Part I)

Participants in the Basic Income March San Fransisco, October 2019.
Photo: Basic Income March

On the 19th of this month, an organization called The Income Movement will be sponsoring a series of worldwide marches and rallies in support of a universal basic income. Prior to COVID-19, the concept of a UBI had gained substantial visibility and popularity by the mid-2010’s after languishing in relative obscurity for decades. Notably, former 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang made an unconditional $1k monthly stipend for all Americans the centerpiece of his platform. Post-COVID-19, UBI and temporary UBI-style programs have been touted as a means of ensuring financial stability amidst the pandemic and the economic chaos that has accompanied it. I’ve supported the latter (to an extent) but the promotion of UBI as a way of ameliorating poverty and its related social issues in general is riddled with problems. It is no coincidence that the last time basic income was this prominent in national discourse, it was being touted as a means of welfare reform (I.E. welfare elimination) by none other than Milton Friedman in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I’ll be writing in-depth about UBI in the post COVID-19 era at a later date. For now, I’m reposting an opinion piece I wrote last year about Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” which contains my basic critique of his favored implementation of the policy.

SocDem bibliography update: “The Minority Party in America” featuring Norman Thomas

In 1960, a producer from Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways) interviewed then leader of the Socialist Party of America and six time presidential candidate Norman Thomas, releasing the interview the following year under the title The Minority Party in America. Beyond the subject of the title, Thomas discusses a range of topics and issues (many of which are still relevant) including campaign finance and the odious role of the public relations industry in politics. Thomas’s forthrightness, pragmatism and commitment to egalitarian democracy shine through. He makes clear that his pragmatism, however, is not just a cover for unprincipled opportunism. “Politics is, in a sense, the art of compromise, but it’s the art of compromise of people who have a sense of direction, who know where they’re going and who don’t compromise too easily without a fight,” he says. The interview is both rich with Thomas’s insights and a snapshot of American cold war politics from a leftist perspective.

The record can be streamed in its entirety on YouTube and downloaded from the Folkways website along with the original liner notes.

Moral Wreckage: Murray Bookchin on Anti-Democratic Leftism

As conflict rages over “cancel culture,” identity politics and use of violence in the contemporary left, this Burlington, VT public access TV interview from 1986 with legendary anarchist Murray Bookchin remains shockingly relevant. When it was recorded, comrades were widely accusing each other of being “CIA agents.” Fast forward to the last few years and that accusation has simply been replaced with “cop.” For the left to regain any real power in the US, a lot of self interrogation is required. This assessment by a veteran member of the old left of its immoral tactics is an integral part of that self-critique and a segue into making a similar criticism of underhanded behavior engaged in by the modern left.

SocDem bibliography update: “From Socialism to Neoliberalism”

Bayard Rustin c. 1970. Photo: Associated Press

In 2013, American Marxist Edmund Berger published excerpts from an abandoned writing project on his blog. The two posts, titled “From Socialism to Neoliberalism: A Story of Capture,” chronicle the downfall of the Socialist Party of America and the ideological drift of seminal figures like Bayard Rustin from democratic socialism to anti-Communist hawkishness. It’s essential reading regarding the downfall of the American left.

Parts 1 and 2 are now included in the bibliography.

Paris Marx’s latest: The Necessity of Public Housing

In another piece written for Passage, Paris Marx describes how private homeownership forces home buyers to conform to and prioritize the logic of the market, viewing a home less as a stable dwelling and more “an investment that’s meant to generate wealth.” He also points out the role of condominiums in giving the wealthy who live in dense urban settings the option to buy rather than rent, reducing the profitability of the rental market. Marx is unambiguous in his advocacy of mass investment in public housing that is “not subject to market forces” as the solution to the housing issues plaguing Toronto (which apply as much to almost any other large North American city.)

“This government promotion of home ownership across much of the Western world changed the culture of our societies. As author Grace Blakeley describes in Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation, home ownership makes people more invested in the capitalist system as they build wealth through the ownership of an asset — even though the vast majority of the benefits continue to accrue to the wealthy.