Sanders promised a “revolution,” but campaigned as a democratic reformer. Ultimately that may not be enough

Bernie Sanders’ revolution is still alive — but is democratic socialism a realistic goal?

Since Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential run ended last year, the senator from Vermont has attempted to keep his “political revolution” alive in order to bring about lasting change. Though he lost his Democratic primary run against Hillary Clinton more than a year ago, today Sanders is the undisputed face of progressive politics in America, and consistently ranks as the most popular politician in the country. He is in a very good position, then, to promote his cause and continue his political revolution.

Yet even as Sanders has become a household name in America, some uncertainty has lingered about his political revolution and what it truly represents. Is, for example, Sanders a democratic socialist — as he calls himself — or is he more of a social democrat? And just how radical — and revolutionary — is his political revolution? The word revolution does, after all, historically denote the abrupt and often violent overthrow of a government and/or social system.

In one interview with Rolling Stone last year, Sanders was explicitly asked by Tim Dickinson whether he supported an “overthrow of the capitalist system” like one of his political heroes, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. The senator’s response was unequivocal. “No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative,” said Sanders, who went on to lay out what he actually meant by political revolution:

What we have got to do is not only overturn Citizens United, but we have got to move, in my view, to public funding of elections. We have to pass universal legislation that makes everybody in this country who is 18 or older eligible to vote, so we do away with the Republican voter suppression around the country.

This, of course, is what one would call a reformist agenda rather than a revolutionary one — which is essentially what the Sanders campaign was all about. Though Sanders identified as a “democratic socialist” and advocated a “political revolution,” in reality the Vermont senator was more of a social democrat who espoused a bold though decidedly moderate agenda. Sanders did not advocate an overthrow of the government or the collective ownership of the means of production, but a nonviolent popular movement fighting for progressive reforms akin to the New Deal legislation of the 1930s.

And this is ultimately what Sanders meant by a political revolution. Using the Democratic primaries as a launch pad, the senator aimed to create a sustained grassroots movement similar to transformative social movements of the past (e.g., the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labor and socialist movements, etc.). “Change never takes place from the top down, it comes from the bottom up,” the senator frequently repeated during his run, suggesting that electoral politics is limited in what it can accomplish.

Whether one believes in reform or revolution (or, indeed, counterrevolution), it is hard to argue with this theory of change. History shows us that social movements drive progress and that political apathy is the lifeblood of the ruling class. This may sound like common sense, but Americans have become so accustomed to the spectator sport that is modern electoral politics that it was actually radical for Sanders to drive this point home last year. And he has continued to do so over the past year. Indeed, last week he made a stop in Naperville, Illinois to give a presentation on his new book, “Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution,” and the message was familiar.

“The struggle of American democracy has been to become a more encompassing democracy, to involve more and more people,” said Sanders to group of high school students. ”And none of that happened by accident. It happened because people stood up and struggled and fought to make that happen.”

Not surprisingly, the senator’s new “guide” to political revolution advocates reforming the system rather than overthrowing it. This is to be expected from a social democrat like Sanders, who believes that it is both possible and preferable to reform our political system and economy through legislative means. But not all of Sanders’ supporters are on the same page. There is a growing subset of progressives who believe that while social democratic reform is a step in the right direction, the end goal should be true democratic socialism — meaning an economic democracy in which workers rather than plutocrats hold power.

This debate between social democrats and democratic socialists was recently on display in the pages of the New Republic and Jacobin Magazine. In the former publication, veteran progressive journalist John Judis wrote an  excellent article on the resurgence of the American left and why he believes it should embrace a social democratic agenda going forward.

The “old nostrums about ownership and control of the means of production simply don’t resonate in 2017,” writes Judis, who contends that social democracy, “while lacking in utopian appeal, does provide a vision that goes very far beyond the status quo in the United States.” The author of “The Populist Explosion” goes on to suggest that American socialists should “do what the Europeans did after World War II and bid goodbye to the Marxist vision of democratic control and ownership of the means of production.”

“They need to recognize that what is necessary now — and also conceivable — is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it,” Judis concludes.

Responding to Judis’ piece in Jacobin, founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph Schwartz, national vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, observe that while Judis has good intentions, his reformist vision would ultimately lead progressives “into the dead end of twentieth-century social democracy.”

“History shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable,” they write. “Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.”

This is a crucial point that social democrats like Judis must grapple with. Even the French economist Thomas Piketty — an avowed European social democrat — concludes in his bestselling book on inequality, “Capital In the Twenty-First Century,” that the “golden age” of capitalism in the mid-20th century, when inequality levels actually declined, was a historical aberration that is unlikely to repeat itself. While social democrats are often seen as the pragmatists of the left, it is the democratic socialists who recognize the structural forces of capitalism and the inevitable antagonism between labor and capital.

Of course, the question of political pragmatism depends largely on one’s perspective. In the short term, the social democrats who are currently trying to take over the Democratic Party and carry out a progressive agenda in the halls of Congress are certainly more pragmatic than the democratic socialists who obstinately reject the Democrats. The United States has a winner-takes-all voting system that favors two major parties. Until we see electoral reforms that not only eliminate money from politics but create proportional representation  and ranked-choice voting, working with (and within) the Democratic Party seems to be a necessity. This does not mean the left should limit itself to electoral politics, however; as Sanders has argued over the past two years, there must also be a sustained popular movement that pressures elected officials to pass the needed reforms.

This may be the pragmatic way forward in the short term, but in the long run the left must also deal with the question of what comes after the current stage of capitalism and how to create this future. Social democracy cannot be the end goal, lest we repeat what happened at the end of the 20th century. At the present moment it is imperative to work within the system and fight for meaningful reforms. But eventually a true “political revolution” may be necessary to confront capital in the 21st century.

 Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
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Everyone’s a Socialist After a Natural Disaster

Ted Cruz’s hypocrisy won’t stop government from helping in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, but Texas will be needing help for a long time.

After Capitalism: A New Synthesis

I was talking to someone recently and in the middle of a perfectly civilized conversation about our impending doom by nuclear holocaust they blurted out: “but you’re a leftist!”

Whoa there, pardner. I’m many things, a wastrel, a real life vampire — but I’m assuredly not a leftist. Not that there’s anything wrong with leftists, apart from their nitpicking ways, but liberals share that too I suppose. Here’s what I do think.

Capitalism and socialism might have been, once upon a time, in a mythical fairy tale of empires past, opposites — thesis and antithesis. I say “might” because I think even that is a tale told by wise old fools to keep children afraid of the dark. The genuine opposite of both capitalism and socialism are kleptocracy, oligarchy, authoritarianism — what results when political economies are run by and for tiny elites. We’ll come back to that.

The great lesson of the last century is very simple: first extreme socialism failed, and the Soviet empire fell. Now extreme capitalism is failing, and America is falling. Two great kingdoms — one single lesson: yesterday’s extremes have both failed. Cutthroat competition in every aspect of life soon becomes abuse. Enforced cooperation soon becomes unendurable. So what now? Well, surely not choosing sides in this textbook false dichotomy—which unfortunately is what many still hope to do — but transcending it.

Today capitalism and socialism are not opposites. They are complements. The global economy of this century must and will be built on new synthesis: capitalism and socialism working together, each strengthening the others’ weakness, a kind of yin and yang of human organization.

In what specific way? Well, let’s examine reality for a moment. Capitalism is very, very good at providing people things like iPhones and craptastic summer blockbusters and dating apps and edible deodorant and designer diapers and reality TV. You might call them idle pleasures. Which I might not like, but the average person certainly does. And that’s fine. If.

If they have the basics of a genuinely good life first. What are those basics? The American right and left love to pretend as if there’s some kind of great debate, mystery, about it. There’s not. Aristotle, the Buddha, and Jesus all spelled it out millennia ago. Food, shelter, income, safety, security, opportunity. Today we might update that list with things that didn’t exist in their time, but are clearly in the same spirit: transportation, healthcare, education, environment, relationships, etc. If you think about it, no matter how much money you have, you can’t really buy such things unless a society has invested in them first.

These “things” are what I call “fundamental goods”. They are what makes a life good at its root. Through them, everyone can be happy, and grow into their potential — without them, no one can be, no matter what your latest self-help bestseller says. Without a few meals a day, a little bit of money in the bank, and your health, no amount of positive thinking can get you to happiness — nor should it. Human beings are not all born to be monks — they are born to dare, risk, defy, rebel, imagine, create. And to do all that, they need the basics. Without the basics, democracy can’t survive, society can’t cohere, people can’t flourish, and lives can’t be fully lived.

So. The two great systems of the past, learning to work together. Where do we see it happening? All over Europe and Canada of course. There, capitalism and socialism are being mixed together in sophisticated and bold ways. Those societies are prospering because they are getting the formula of human possibility right: socialism provides the basics, and capitalism offers endless idle pleasures which only really count if you have the basics.

Where don’t we see it happening? Well, ironically, or maybe logically, in the two fallen empires of the past. America still clings to extreme capitalism, which has devolved into oligarchy — just as it has in Russia. Here, people have idle pleasures but not the basics — and for the simple reason that you can’t eat your iPhone, or educate your kids with Uber’s nonexistent benefits package, middle classes are choosing demagogues to topple the elites who have failed to provide working social contracts.

It’s a big world, and an endless future. But it’s also one with big problems. Demagoguery, driven by rage, is one. But then there are mass extinction, climate change, the growing threat of nuclear war. Choose your apocalypse. These are the stakes of this troubled age.

If humanity is to survive, it’s going to have to grow. Up. It is going to have to mature beyond the simple, crude polarity of yesterday, and learn to synthesize its great lesson. Capitalism and socialism aren’t adversaries, opposites. They never really were — more yin and yang. Every thesis and antithesis yield ultimately only a new synthesis. The opposite of capitalism and socialism is oligarchy. And the new synthesis beyond oligarchy is social capitalism, or capital socialism. Whatever we call it, it is a system in which people are freer. In America, ironically, “freedom” has devolved to “you’ve got to compete like an animal for your life every single day of your life, or else die young”. In Soviet Russia, it devolved to the precise opposite: cooperate for your life, or else. But the great gift of synthesizing human organization beyond capitalism is that human beings no longer have to submit to those foolish non-choices, demands, little tyrannies.

They are a little more genuinely free. Liberated not just to be themselves, but to see themselves, their very own hearts beating, in every life — and that is what growth really is.

Umair
August 2017

View story at Medium.com

Eugene Debs and the Kingdom of Evil

Posted on Jul 16, 2017

By Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Eugene Victor Debs, whose home is an infrequently visited museum on the campus of Indiana State University, was arguably the most important political figure of the 20th century. He built the socialist movement in America and was eventually crucified by the capitalist class when he and hundreds of thousands of followers became a potent political threat.Debs burst onto the national stage when he organized a railroad strike in 1894 after the Pullman Co. cut wages by up to one-third but did not lower rents in company housing or reduce dividend payments to its stockholders. Over a hundred thousand workers staged what became the biggest strike in U.S. history on trains carrying Pullman cars.

The response was swift and brutal.

“Mobilizing all the powers of capital, the owners, representing twenty-four railroads with combined capital of $818,000,00, fought back with the courts and the armed forces of the Federal government behind them,” Barbara W. Tuchman writes in “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.” “Three thousand police in the Chicago area were mobilized against the strikers, five thousand professional strikebreakers were sworn in as Federal deputy marshals and given firearms; ultimately six thousand Federal and State troops were brought in, less for the protection of property and the public than to break the strike and crush the union.”

Attorney General Richard Olney, who as Tuchman writes “had been a lawyer for railroads before entering the Cabinet and was still a director of several lines involved in the strike,” issued an injunction rendering the strike illegal. The conflict, as Debs would write, was a battle between “the producing classes and the money power of the country.”Debs and the union leaders defied the injunction. They were arrested, denied bail and sent to jail for six months. The strike was broken. Thirty workers had been killed. Sixty had been injured. Over 700 had been arrested. The Pullman Co. hired new workers under “yellow dog contracts,” agreements that forbade them to unionize.

When he was in jail, Debs read the works of socialist writers Edward Bellamy and Karl Kautsky as well as Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.” The books, especially Marx’s three volumes, set the “wires humming in my system.”

“I was to be baptized in Socialism in the roar of the conflict. … [I]n the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed,” he writes. “This was my first practical lesson in Socialism.”

Debs came to the conclusion that no strike or labor movement could ultimately be successful as long as the government was controlled by the capitalist class. Any advances made by an organized working class would be reversed once the capitalists regained absolute power, often by temporarily mollifying workers with a few reforms. Working men and women had to achieve political power, a goal of Britain’s Labour Party for workers at the time, or they would forever be at the mercy of the bosses.

Debs feared the rise of the monolithic corporate state. He foresaw that corporations, unchecked, would expand to “continental proportions and swallow up the national resources and the means of production and distribution.” If that happened, he warned, the long “night of capitalism will be dark.”

This was a period in U.S. history when many American Christians were socialists. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Christian theologian, Baptist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement, thundered against capitalism. He defined the six pillars of the “kingdom of evil” as “religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (being ‘the social group gone mad’) and mob action, militarism[,] and class contempt.”

Debs turned to the Bible as often to Marx, arguing “Cain was the author of the competitive theory” and the “cross of Jesus stands as its eternal denial.” Debs’ fiery speeches, replete with words like “sin” and “redemption,” were often thinly disguised sermons. He equated the crucified Christ with the abolitionist John Brown. He insisted that Jesus came “to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth.” “What is Socialism?” he once asked. “Merely Christianity in action.” He was fond of quoting the poet James Russell Lowell, who writes:

He’s true to God who’s true to man;
Whenever wrong is done.
To the humblest and the weakest,
’neath the all-beholding sun.
That wrong is also done to us,
And they are slaves most base,
Whose love of right is for themselves
And not for all the race.

It was also a period beset with violence, including anarchist bombings and assassinations. An anarchist killed President William McKinley in 1901, unleashing a wave of state repression against social and radical movements. Striking workers engaged in periodic gun battles, especially in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, with heavily armed company goons, National Guard units, paramilitary groups such as the Coal and Iron Police, and the U.S. Army.

Health Care in America: Where is the Socialist Solution?

Photo by Molly Adams | CC BY 2.0

The introduction of the Republican legislation to “repeal and replace” Obamacare is no more than latest scrimmage in the ongoing one-sided war against the poor and working class. The “Affordable Care Act” (ACA, better known as Obamacare) proved to be both unaffordable and unable to provide comprehensive care for millions. Nevertheless, with the ACA being one of the only tangible “victories” Democrats could claim for an administration with a dismal record of noteworthy accomplishments, neoliberal Democrats and the party’s liberal base led by Bernie Sanders are now coalesced around the ACA and have vowed to defend it to the bitter end.

Yet, camouflaged by the hot rhetoric of confrontation and the diversionary struggle of the duopoly, the common agenda and objective interests being protected in this healthcare battle are quite clear. No matter what version of the healthcare bill passes or if the ACA remains in place, it will be a win for the market-based, for-profit beneficiaries of the U.S. system. As long as healthcare remains privatized, the real winners of healthcare reform will continue to be the insurance companies, hospital corporations and pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

That commitment to the interests of the insurance/medical complex ensures that the interests of healthcare consumers, the uninsured, the elderly and the sick will continue to be sacrificed to maintain a healthcare delivery system in which thousands suffer premature deaths from inadequate preventative treatment, millions are unable to afford coverage and millions who have private insurance fear using it because of prohibitive co-pays and deductibles.

That is why during the current debate the insurance companies have been largely silent. There is no need to engage in public debate because having largely written the ACA they are again deeply involved in the construction of the current legislation. Their interests will be protected even if it means forcing Republicans to embrace policies that are at odds with their professed philosophies – like including government subsidies for low-income people to purchase insurance. In fact, the only comments from insurance companies in this debate were related to their supposed concern that the Senate bill might not provide enough assistance to those who need help to pay for healthcare. They want what is being called a “stabilization fund” to reduce the numbers of people who might opt out of coverage because they can’t afford it.

The Senate bill provides those funds, but they are temporary and are scheduled to end after 2019. Which means that people will be forced to make an unpalatable decision after that – purchasing insurance with higher out-of-pocket costs like $10,000 deductibles or electing to go without insurance altogether. If history is a guide, many will opt out. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the current bill will push 22 million people back into the ranks of the uninsured with the potential loss of millions of customers and potential profits for healthcare corporations.

But the companies have a plan should those funds prove inadequate to hold substantial numbers in the system: Increase individual premiums by at least 20 percent more than the double-digit increases already under consideration.

Coming to the aid of the Insurance/Medical complex: Ted Cruz and the Consumer Freedom Amendment

Insurers need large numbers of healthy people on the rolls, as their premiums help defray the cost of care for those who are sick. Because insurance companies are for-profit operations they set rates based on the risk pool in a market. With the potential loss of customers if the government does not provide adequate long-term subsidies, middle-class consumers who earn too much to qualify for temporary premium assistance will bear the brunt of any premium increases.

The Cruz amendment to the legislation has a solution to the possible increase in premiums and healthcare costs in general. The so-called “Consumer Freedom Amendment” represents the typical extreme individualism and anti-social sentiments of the right wing. It essentially advocates for reducing the burden on healthy consumers paying into system to help cover higher-risk fellow citizens.

The Washington Post’s analysis of the Cruz amendment suggests:

“Under Senator Cruz’s plan, insurers could sell cheaper, stripped-down plans free of Obamacare coverage requirements like essential health benefits or even a guarantee of coverage. These sparser plans would appeal to the healthiest Americans, who would gladly exchange fewer benefits for lower monthly premiums.

But insurers would also have to sell one ACA-compliant plan. The sickest patients would flock to these more expansive and expensive plans because they need more care and medications covered on a day-to-day basis. As a result, premiums for people with expensive and serious medical conditions like diabetes or cancer would skyrocket because all those with such serious conditions would be pooled together.”

And how would the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions pay for the increased premiums that they would face under the current Senate bill and Cruz’s amendment? “The $100 billion stabilization fund for states could help cover costs for the resulting pricier coverage for those with preexisting conditions under this amendment.”

In an ironic twist that both exposes the class interests of this initiative and its hypocritical approach to the question of the role of the government, Cruz’s amendment affirms that role in the form of subsidies for the sickest citizens and calls for an expansion of government resources to cover them.

The Cruz plan would segment the insurance market into healthier and higher-risk segments. High risk individuals along with the already-sick and the elderly would be pushed out of the market because those premiums would soar even with state subsidies, since insurance companies would still set premium rates to maximize profits.

Given the lose-lose options for consumers now being debated in Congress, the only rational objective for the majority of the people in the U.S. is to move toward the complete elimination of the for-profit healthcare system.

Socialization of Healthcare: The Only Solution

The ideological and political opposition to state-provided healthcare is reflected in the ACA and the various repeal-and-replace scenarios. Through mandates, coercion and the transfer of public funds to the insurance industry, the ACA delivered millions of customers to the private sector in what was probably the biggest insurance shams in the history of private capital. And that gift to the insurance companies is only one part of the story. The public monies transferred to the private sector amounted to subsidies for healthcare providers, hospital chains, group physician practices, drug companies and medical device companies and labs as well.

The Republican alternatives to the ACA variably supplement the corporate handouts with more taxpayer-funded giveaways. And once the private sector gains access to billions of dollars provided by the state, they and their elected water-carriers fiercely resist any efforts to roll those subsidies back.

The subsidies coupled with the mergers and acquisitions of hospital corporations and insurance providers over last few years and a general trend toward consolidation of healthcare services in fewer and fewer hands underscored the iron logic of centralization and concentration of capital represented by the ACA and was a welcome development for the biggest players in the healthcare sector. The movement toward a monopolization of the American health-care market means that rather than the reduction in healthcare costs that is supposed to be the result of repeal and replace, the public can instead expect those costs to escalate.

Many on the left have called for a single-payer system similar to those that work well (if not perfectly) in Britain, the Netherlands, Finland and elsewhere in Europe. But even with an “improved Medicare for all” single-payer system, costs will continue to increase in the U.S. because they cannot be completely controlled when all of the linkages in the healthcare system are still firmly in the hands of private capital.

The only way to control the cost of healthcare and provide universal coverage is to eliminate for-profit, market-based healthcare. Take insurance companies completely out of the mix and bring medical device companies, the pharmaceuticals companies and hospitals chains under public control.

The ideological implications of the Cruz amendment are that it reflects a growing public perception both domestically and internationally that healthcare should be viewed as a human right.

Putting people at the center instead of profit results in healthcare systems that can realize healthcare as a human right. This is the lesson of Cuba where the United Nations World Health Organizationdeclared that Cuba’s health care system was an example for all countries of the world.

That is the socialist option, the only option that makes sense and the one that eventually will prevail when the people are ready to fight for it.

Ajamu Baraka is the national organizer of the Black Alliance for Peace and was the 2016 candidate for vice president on the Green Party ticket. He is an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and contributing columnist for Counterpunch magazine. 

Why Socialism is a big deal

Alan Maass reports from Chicago on the record-breaking turnout at Socialism 2017.

A plenary session crowd at Socialism 2017 (John Snowden)

A plenary session crowd at Socialism 2017 (John Snowden)

SOME 2,000 people packed into a convention center on Chicago’s Near South Side last weekend for the four days of Socialism 2017, an annual gathering for political discussion, debate and entertainment.

This was by far the biggest Socialism conference ever, one-third larger than last year, and one of the biggest national gatherings of the radical left in the new Trump era.

As usual, there were a dozen sessions or more to choose from in each time slot–around 160 in all–covering a dizzying range of topics: from building emergency response networks for defending immigrant workers, to the latest developments in struggles in Europe, to the history of the Marxist tradition, to celebrations of artistic and cultural figures.

It was a super-sized version of past conferences, but that wasn’t the only difference. This year, there was a greater sense of urgency and purpose than ever before.

Damian Smith of Washington, D.C., said he had missed the previous two or three Socialism conferences. “But then something happened on November 8 at around 11:45 at night,” he said, “and I realized that I had to go this year. It matters a lot what happens here.”

How to take the ideas discussed at Socialism and make them relevant back home in the local resistance struggles of the Trump era–that was on the minds of people throughout the four days.

“This was my first time being here, and it was absolutely incredible,” said Lindsay Cesar of Greensboro, North Carolina. “I feel like I came in full of ideas I couldn’t quite articulate, and now I feel way better equipped. I feel inspired to talk to other people and groups in the area and convey our politics to them, so we can come together more.”

Socialism 2017 was host to some truly special events. Comedian Hari Kondabolu brought down the house late Friday night with a set that went on three times longer than expected. Nation columnist Dave Zirin moderated a generations-spanning discussion on athletes and activism. Author and actor Wallace Shawn introduced his new book Night Thoughtsin a conversation with Haymarket Books’ Anthony Arnove.

But there were special ideas and insights coming out of all the discussions. “I was watching someone talk about a political question that they had been working through over a period of years, about their understanding of postmodernism,” Damian Smith remembered. “And right there, they were able to come to a conclusion about it in this discussion. I realized I was seeing someone’s whole political trajectory in a few minutes–that’s something that happens at this conference.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AT A packed plenary session on the first night of the conference, author and Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor spoke on racism and the resistance to Trump. It was a speech she was supposed to give Seattle a month before, but had to cancel after receiving dozens of death threats after a Fox News slander campaign.

“We will not win just because we believe that our side is right,” Taylor told the rapt crowd. “We have to know what it is we are fighting for, and we have to openly debate and strategize our way forward. And most of all, we have to be involved in protests and demonstrations and building social movements to win concessions from the political and economic establishment.”

Taylor was a participant in another highlight for many Socialism attendees–two sessions honoring the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of Black women that broke new ground in the struggle against oppression.

Two members of the collective, Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, gave their own accounts of the experience, and authors such as Sharon Smith and Barbara Ransby, who have been inspired by the Combahee collective, joined them onstage.

Of course, there was one revolutionary anniversary that was at the forefront of everyone’s minds–this is the centennial year of the Russian Revolution of 1917. There were close to a dozen sessions specifically devoted to the revolution, though its history ran through many more.

That’s a fitting tribute to the continuing relevance of the revolution, as Elizabeth Terzakis explained in an inspiring presentation at the final plenary session of the conference.

“The Russian Revolution is crucial for us to study because it shows us the working class in movement,” Terzakis said, “so that we can see what it is, what it is capable of and why it is the only force with both the desire and the positioning to not only achieve self-emancipation but to liberate all of humanity in the process.”

Socialism couldn’t forget another lesser-known anniversary: This year, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a co-sponsor of Socialism, turned 40 years young. Paul D’Amato, editor of the International Socialist Review, packed his session on the history and politics of the ISO full of insights on how socialists organize.

In fact, Socialism 2017 was the latest in a series of summer educational events that the ISO has been sponsoring since the very first of those 40 years, as Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, remembered:

In the early days, our summer schools were at church camps. For the first one in 1977–in Germantown, Ohio, at a Methodist camp–we had maybe 100 or 150 people. From then on, through the 1980s, we might get up to 300 people.

But when you get 2,000 people this year, it’s a different feeling. In the earlier days, we were hanging onto the ideas with small groups of people. We had great events, and they kept people going. But I think this gives you an idea that there’s something else bigger than us.

More than a few attendees this year were coming back to the annual conference for the first time in some years.

Keith Danner, from Southern California, had the same reaction as pretty much everyone who attended a previous Socialism: “It’s so much bigger.”

But Danner also reflected on some of the qualitative differences–for example, the participation of more people of color and an intense focus on the anti-racist struggle. “And,” he said, “you can see the reflection of the struggle for trans rights in a way that was never here before.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

ONE REASON for the larger size of the Socialism conference was expanding participation from around the U.S. left. Jacobin magazine was a co-sponsor this year, coordinating a series of meetings. A number of Democratic Socialists of America members made the trip to Chicago for the four days.

As always, there was an impressive array of international speakers to bring a global perspective to the discussions. Author Neil Davidson communicated the excitement of left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s triumphant showing in the June election in the UK. Two members of Greece’s Internationalist Workers Left provided updates on the struggle that rattled Europe’s bosses a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Haymarket Books–a project of Socialism sponsor, the Center for Economic Research and Social Change–brought a semi trailer’s worth of books for conference participants to covet and take home. The top seller this year was Haymarket’s first title to crack the New York Times best-seller list: Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

Every aspect of the project of building a bigger, broader and better left was on display at Socialism. The socialist left in the U.S. has made advances in the past year and a half, but we need to make more, and we need more people to do it. “You say you’re not a joiner?” said ISR associate editor Ahmed Shawki at one plenary session. “Too bad–become one.”

That session on “Build the Left, Fight the Right: Why We Need a Socialist Alternative”–with a huge audience packed into a room the size of a football field–set out the high stakes of the struggle in the Trump era, but also the hope for an alternative. Jen Roesch of the ISO brought the electrifying meeting to a close with a call to take action:

Let’s be clear: We need a real alternative. We need fights over any number of pressing issues…We need to fight anywhere and everywhere that our side faces attacks. But Naomi Klein is right: No is not enough…

Such an alternative is not measured in election cycles, and neither is the social devastation, the economic immiseration, the attempt to strip ordinary people of their basic dignity. This long pre-dates Trump–it even predates the latest round of crisis that began in 2008. These are built into the system of capitalism itself and any alternative has to address itself to that fact.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/12/why-socialism-was-a-big-deal

The future of Cuba after Fidel

In recent months, Andrea Gutmann Fuentes and Coco Smyth each spent at least a week in Havana, Cuba. Here, they offer their observations about conditions in Cuba today and what the future may hold in the era after Fidel Castro’s death last year.

Graffiti on a wall in Cuba (Coco Smyth)

Graffiti on a wall in Cuba (Coco Smyth)

FIDEL CASTRO, the leader of the Cuban Revolution and longtime Cuban president, died on November 26 of last year.

In both the Western and Cuban media, Castro’s death took on a key significance, though in sharply different respects. In the West, many news outlets rejoiced, hoping that Cuba would pursue a new and less combative course. In Cuba, the media eulogized the death of a heroic fighter who secured a free and independent state in the Caribbean.

But during our encounters with Cubans in Havana, we found that most people refrained from such overheated rhetoric.

No Cubans we talked with assumed that the death of Fidel would lead to a sharp rupture with the politics of the past. Rather, while Fidel’s death may represent the symbolic closure of a chapter in history, no one, whether supportive or critical of Castro, saw his death as marking a fundamental change in the orientation of the Cuban state.

But even if Fidel’s death doesn’t signal a break between the politics of the past and the present, many Cubans are wrestling with the real antagonisms and contradictions drawing Cuba in new directions.

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IN REALITY, Cuba had been changing long before the death of Fidel. After the collapse of the USSR, Cuba was plunged into an economic crisis now known euphemistically as “the special period.” The Soviet Union had heavily subsidized the Cuban economy since the 1970s, and when it collapsed, Cuba was forced to alter its economic approach.

In 1994, the Cuban state created a dual-currency system, pegging one of the currencies (the CUC) directly to the U.S. dollar. Additionally, Cuba slowly began to open its economy, reorienting towards tourism, allowing remittances, and looking for international investment.

Many of the Cubans we talked with–especially those who remember the revolutionary year of 1959–spoke fondly of the early days of the revolution, before the rise of the bureaucracy stemming from a close relationship with the USSR.

Many of these people approvingly recognized that the Cuban state still prioritizes basic human needs like health care and education for its people. Cuba’s relaxation of restrictions on foreign investments over the past couple decades calls into question how these priorities may change over the coming years.

“The key problem is how we both preserve our social institutions while opening up more greatly to foreign investment,” said a city planner and Communist Party member in describing what he considered one of the biggest threats to Cuba’s future.

Ultimately, he believed–along with other Communist Party members we spoke to–that if planned correctly, the bureaucracy could come to a successful resolution of this contradiction.

However, while Communist Party members were attuned to the significance of these economic contradictions, their answers reflected the limitations of the Cuban Communist Party’s (PCC) conception of socialism.

Socialism is understood by the CCP primarily as a set of economic and political programs clustered around public institutions and a strong welfare state, similar to Scandinavian social democracy. These programs include universal health care, public education, funding for the arts and wealth redistribution. Other features of Cuba’s political system after the revolution include state direction of the economy, a one-party state, and a large bureaucracy.

It can’t be denied that Cuba’s revolution brought about a much more just system than what had existed before–and a system which is enviable in many respects, even for citizens of the most developed capitalist countries. But the CCP’s vision leaves out the most crucial aspect of socialism: workers’ democratic control.

As Karl Marx famously wrote, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Socialism cannot be handed to the working class by bureaucrats or benevolent guerillas, nor can it be decreed in a speech two years after the revolution, as happened in Cuba.

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MANY OF the Cubans we spoke with shared experiences that highlighted the contradictions inherent in “socialism” without working-class rule.

One man, a retired physics professor at the University of Havana, spoke of wanting to move to Chile in search of a new teaching job. Unlike Cuba, he said, “In Chile, the professors can protest to raise their wages.” Indeed, it’s a bitter irony that Cuba claims to be a communist country, but workers possess very little collective bargaining power in relation to their employers.

Others spoke of Cuba’s reliance on capitalist economies. An artist we spoke to lamented that because of the absence of an art market on the island, contemporary Cuban artists gear their work specifically for export to Western markets, resulting in what he described as a sort of deference to Western tastes.

Ultimately, attempts to build “socialism in one country” both ignore the centrality of internationalism and working-class rule and cannot sustain themselves indefinitely against the weight of the world capitalist system.

Cubans continue to hope for an end to the U.S. embargo, but the recent election of Donald Trump appears to have dimmed the immediate prospects for completing the normalization of relations that Obama initiated.

The embargo has negatively impacted the economy of Cuba for generations. But if the embargo ends, and Cuba opens up significantly to foreign investment to solve its current economic problems, it will not be able to do so on its own terms, as the PCC suggests.

Economic investment never comes without strings attached. The West utilizes investment and aid as a means of domination and control. Thus, opening to the West poses a threat to much of the progressive content of the Cuban system. On the other hand, without more investment from outside Cuba, the necessary funds to continue progressive programs will run dry.

The long-term choice facing the Cuban ruling class is to watch its economic system falter or to respond to the imperatives of economic openness by cutting back on health care and other public spending, at the price of eroding the positive contributions of the revolution.

The only way to preserve and ultimately complete the Cuban Revolution is for the working class to take power into its own hands in Cuba, as part of a worldwide and internationalist struggle against capitalism.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/06/14/the-future-of-cuba-after-fidel