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.
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.
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.
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.
Collectively, the articles offer important insight into the much vaunted social democracies of Scandinavia and, with Day’s second piece, how that form of welfare statism has utterly failed to materialize in the United States.
Note: This was written in the Spring of 2019 for a now defunct Facebook group I used to moderate. I resisted posting it anywhere else for a year but finally decided to post it here since I still agree with the central thesis and believe it has a renewed relevance given the class dimension of the COVID-19 crisis.
The stereotype of leftism as some ego-stroking pastime of the wealthy and college-educated wouldn’t be so cringe-inducing if there wasn’t some truth to it. Something that drove me insane when I first became involved in activism in my late 20’s was how many of my peers were exactly like me: privileged people from upper-income backgrounds with college degrees. Few of these people had parents who were the first in their families to attend higher-ed or grew up poor.
Anyone who knows anything about leftism knows how antithetical this is to the cause. Of course, it’s not new either. In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell excoriates the “book-trained” socialist and his elitist attitudes. “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about,” writes Orwell. “Sometimes I look at a Socialist–the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation–and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed.”
He goes on to observe that this brand of socialist seems motivated by an aversion to the disorder of the proletarian condition, not by their suffering. “The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard….The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ’we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ’them’, the Lower Orders.”
Orwell’s portrait of the didactic “book-trained” socialist is as relevant today as it ever was. The working class and underclass must be able to view the left as their allies. Those of us who come from privileged backgrounds need to quash our petty aesthetic aversions to and stereotypical assumptions about the blue collar worker and the poverty-stricken individual and view them not as infantile creatures we’re saving via our benevolence. We need to view them as our comrades who we’re engaged in a common struggle with for the betterment of humanity.
Of course, I recognize the irony here, being a fuzzy-haired book-trained leftist myself, currently pounding out a tract to be posted on a website run by unprincipled capitalists. Joking aside, my grievance comes from my family history. My working class mother and her siblings, with their father dead and their mother dying, relied on social security to get by. Without that state largess, born of New Deal quasi-social democratic reforms, who knows what would have happened to her and her family. Unfortunately, the cold war red-baiting of the time presented the left to my mother as the enemy. Years later, the failures of the Democratic Party provided the right with an opportunity to seduce the working class.
Attacking the exploitation of labor and the indignity of poverty is at the heart of both social democracy and democratic socialism. Both the worker and indigent must be able to recognize this and not be alienated by elitism and dogmatism. If the “servile masses” are ever to arise from their slumbers and “change henceforth the old tradition,” the left needs to change its tradition of holding the people they claim to represent in contempt.