I proposed in my previous blog post [http://henryhitz.com/happy-earth-day/ ] that catastrophic climate change could not be stopped under capitalism, that only the central planning that comes with socialism could prevent the catastrophe. But what is socialism? The word has been so dragged through the holocaust and the gulag that one is tempted to drop it and come up with a better term. But Bernie Sanders has done us the great favor of embracing the term. I know there are people who wish he wouldn’t use it, especially since his core proposals are not really socialist in the sense that they don’t require the overthrow of capitalism. But I think we too should openly embrace it and advocate for it far and wide.
It’s useful to consider socialism as a spectrum. Clearly there are aspects of socialism – programs originally advocated by socialists – in the U. S. system: social security, medicare, unemployment insurance. The largest socialized program within the U.S. system is of course the military. It’s interesting for example that the schools around the world that serve children of U. S. military personnel are significantly superior to the locally run public school system. One could argue that after the collapse of capitalism in 1929, it has been the military socialism that has propped up the system by transferring huge amounts of public capital into the armaments industry.
Most of Europe has a much greater degree of socialism and a
lesser predominance of capitalism than we see in the U. S. Free medical care,
free college, free child care, etc. – this is the kind of socialism which
Bernie is advocating, referred to as democratic socialism or social democracy.
It’s not insignificant that these societies
are far more democratic with their parliamentary systems than the U.S. system.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” proclaims the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1846. This is literally true in the sense that the historical period begins with the development of writing, itself a tax collecting tool used to divide society into classes. Ancient master-slave societies were superseded with the help of the church into feudal societies with aristocrats and peasants as the primary classes. Columbus and the age of colonialism enriched the merchant class or bourgeoisie to the point where it overthrew the feudal aristocracies in the 18th and 19th centuries and developed the capitalist system. Now that capitalism is so thoroughly predominant, we tend to forget its bloody history in genocide and African slavery, child labor, and sweat shops. It was Marx’s idea that just as the bourgeoisie rose to overthrow the aristocracy, the working class would rise to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Note that it took the bourgeoisie 400 years to achieve international hegemony. The working class has struggled to overthrow that hegemony for 120 years. So when people tell you that socialism has failed, you might point to where capitalism was in 1600. It’s not an overnight process. We do have a sense that history is speeding up though, reinforced by the understanding that, though it was originally a progressive movement with its expansion of rights and economic mobility, capitalism with its dependence of growth has become malignant, threatening the survival of the planet.
This is of course a sketchy Eurocentric outline. But I think it reflects a useful understanding of where our societies have been and where they are headed.
The spectrum of socialism reflects the degree of working class power. When Bernie defines socialism, it’s a movement toward a government that serves the 99%, not just the 1%. Like the planet devastation upon which the wealth of the 1% is based, a system in which three families have more wealth than half the population of the country is unsustainable. The goal of socialism at this point is to increase the power of the working class at the expense of the bourgeoisie. To do this requires ever increasing democracy. Many nominally socialist societies often call themselves people’s democracies, as opposed to bourgeois democracies. Bourgeois democracies such as in the U.S. pretend to represent the people but serve the bourgeoisie. When the working class is strong and well organized as in the 1930s (primarily by the socialist Communist Party, BTW), it can force bourgeois governments to establish programs that address its needs. Electoral struggle is one place to organize worker’s power, but only one. We need to organize just as rigorously on the job, in the schools, and in working class communities.
Today, the working class is weaker than it has been in decades. Unions are shrinking, wages are stagnating, working class debt is rising. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie is flourishing, richer and more powerful than ever. As Bernie has consistently pointed out, there are three tasks before us to turn this situation around and save the planet: organize, organize, organize.