Socialism: do something about it.
What's that? An archival example of Great Depression rabble-rousing? No, it's a paragraph from a New York Times op-ed column, "Back to Class Warfare," by Richard Sennett (December 27, 1994). Coauthor of The Hidden Injuries of Class, Sennett replays an important theme from his previous works by stating in this column, "Class has been the dirty secret of American history. . . ."
Sennett (with some irony) was writing on behalf of the better sort of liberals - "enlightened and well-intentioned bourgeois that we are." He warned that Gingrich and Company "make mincemeat of privileged people who are evasive or paternalistic" about class. And he ended with this question: "Yes, America is a divided society, and a secure, confident future belongs only to the educated few. Now what?"
Liberals ask questions they cannot answer - because, in a pinch, they are willing to settle for a society in which security belongs only to the few. This and nothing else was the true message of Clinton's "Middle Class Bill of Rights." Even so, the sharp eye of William Safire promptly spotted a neo-bolshevik heresy in this "centrist" appeal to Americans. Safire's column on "Middle-Class War" appeared in the New York Times on December 24, 1994, and made a good Christmas season homily: "The divisive Marxist concept of class is social as well as economic, and Americans should never accept its confines." Safire recommended an "all-class, no-class economic policy" instead.
Safire is disingenuous. Class is not an essentially Marxist concept, but it suits Safire's purpose to confine it in just that manner. Marx did not invent class struggle but only claimed to make the study of class society more "scientific." Likewise, many streams of socialism preceded organized Marxism and have survived the collapse of most communist regimes in recent years. The function of pundits like Safire, however, is precisely to encourage public thoughtlessness.
Safire explicitly identifies the American Dream as the striving of all and sundry to rise into the "upper class." The quotation marks are his own, but this is a transparent evasion. For in fact Safire knows that the rich are fiercely class-conscious. For conservatives of his kind, class-consciousness is good only for the rich, who constitute a royal family with a marvelous unifying effect on the commoners. Any other kind of class, consciousness-even among middle-class citizens and New Democrats - is conveniently dismissed as an envious and divisive strain of Marxism.
How do we answer Sennett's question? First, I'd say, by asking still another: is it true that class has always been America's dirty secret? Yes, if we accept the official bipartisan whitewash of history, the civic pieties of the public, school system, and the "all-class, no-class" ideology of conservatives (which even they don't believe). No, if we keep in mind that American citizens elected more than 1,000 socialists to public office in 33 states and 160 cities by 1912. This was a genuinely democratic opposition movement to the Democratic and Republican parties. A brief historical excursion is in order here - the sort of history that places reflexive red-baiting (such as Safire's) in greater perspective.
The Russian revolution raised many hopes among working people and radicals, but it also deepened divisions between democratic socialists and newly rounded communist parties. Rosa Luxemburg was a great leader among socialists who did their best to bridge that gap, both as a critical supporter of the Russian revolution and as a democratic revolutionary herself. Her murder in 1919 was one of the many events that proved fateful for Germany and, indeed, for the world socialist movement.
In the United States, the government cracked down on the left during the Palmer raids and put many radicals behind bars or on boats beyond our shores. Two American anarchists, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were deported to Russia and were thus able to observe the communist regime for themselves. When the Central Committee gave orders to destroy the rebellious Kronstadt Commune in 1921, Goldman and Berkman outraged many of their own comrades by telling the truth: Lenin and Trotsky were not simply fighting "counterrevolutionaries"; they were waging their own counterrevolution.
Class struggles continued, of course, and militant labor organizers - including communists, giving credit where it is due - forced concessions from corporations and Congress. Roosevelt's New Deal reforms were the American translation of European social democratic politics. When conservatives identify links between old-fashioned liberalism and old-fashioned socialism, this is what they have in mind. And they are not wrong. Every honest liberal "pinko" used to admit that some color was borrowed from Reds.
Liberals are a lot less honest nowadays - and a lot busier calling themselves New Democrats, "centrists," "pragmatists," and anything other than liberal. Liberals are devolving into albino hamsters, racing ever faster to get nowhere on their treadmill of opportunism. They make good pet food for Republican pythons.
Senator Ted Kennedy, full of all the old high-minded bluster and void of a single new idea, gave a call to battle in January at the National Press Club - which still sounded like the last gasp of liberalism: "If we become pale carbon copies of the opposition and try to act like Republicans, we will lose - and we will deserve to lose." Quite right. And if Kennedy and others had fought a real battle years ago to save liberalism within the Democratic Party, they might have had a chance.
The Dukakis campaign for the White House really marked the begin, nine of the end. No sooner had Dukakis identified himself as a "a card-carrying member" of the American Civil Liberties Union than Bush used this ironic tag for real pinko-baiting. Dukakis then responded by running away from the liberalism which dares not speak its name. He lost that campaign, and the Democrats decided that they could beat the Republicans only by joining them.
Before becoming president, Clinton headed the Democratic Leadership Council and its allied think tank, the absurdly named Progressive Policy Institute. Thus he helped to create a genie he could not keep in its bottle. His old DLC buddies now berate the president for not sticking with the program: drop all that baggage from the 1960s and 1970s, including uppity workers, blacks, women, and queers. Clinton and Gore are dutifully repentant.
Please do not misunderstand! Personally, I have a weakness for the Arkansas boy who scrambled for scholarships, who used his smile and his smarts in the bigger world. Like his more, he really likes sex, food, and music, and of course he inhaled. It's good to have "white trash" in the White House, especially after that pseudo-populist and pseudo-aristocrat with his "ancestral home in Kennebunkport." Precisely on a personal level, Clinton is truly friendlier with blacks, more respectful of women, and less disgusted by queers than the recent Republican emperors.
But the personal is not always political. The essential gospel of liberalism is that everyone ought to have a chance to rise into the middle class (at least) and "we" must be kind to those who don't. Well, Clinton knows how to rise - in fact, it's what he knows best. The boy who shook hands with President Kennedy learned the habit of rising on the ladder of liberalism, and he can't go higher now. On the way up, he learned to travel very light. That's why he can't command a firm base of progressive and radical activists to work overtime prop, ping him up - something which so many Democratic politicians have counted upon in the past.
From now on, Democrats who want to get ahead within the bipartisan game had better become real Republicans rather than "moderate" republicrats. Predictably, some Democrats did just that after the Republicans swept the November 1994 elections. Watch and see which others make the switch in the approaching presidential campaigns. And why shouldn't they? This is the consensus of republicrats: whatever works to keep you in office quite simply works.
Now what? Six practical proposals:
Defend and extend democracy. Otherwise known as "No Taxation Without Representation." If billionaires and corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes, how long must common citizens bear the burden? The bipartisan system is presently rigged against democratic representation, just as many citizens suspect. Some 70 million eligible citizens are not registered to vote, and only a minority of eligible voters (37 percent) actually voted in the last election. The bipartisan system is now eroding - to the right, as the Perot forces and the Christian Coalition are proving. Rebellious populism is not necessarily progressive.
That's why an explicitly socialist alternative is necessary. By initiating local independent campaigns, we have a good chance of creating a socialist movement that can later make a difference in national elections. Proportional representation is a crucial reform - which is why Clinton dumped his friend Lani Guinier when the right discovered she favors it. It already exists in a scattered ad hoc form in some places in this country, but it is integral in most parliamentary democracies.
Defend and extend the gains of the New Deal and of American radical social movements. The right is rolling back the first, and the explicit agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council is to roll back the second. The last four proposals really follow from the first two.
Start scaling back military spending and welfare for corporations. Yes, the military budget is still bloated. And every time a company jumps across local or national borders, hundreds and thousands are thrown out of work with little or no compensation. In recompense for often outrageous tax abatements, corporations should be required to pay a share of the cost for job-retraining programs, preservation of the environment, and community services. (See also Steven Hill's article, "Stakeholders versus Stockholders" in the March/April 1995 issue of The Humanist).
Fight the campaign for "family values" whenever and wherever it undermines social solidarity. In this matter, the traditional left has often been either dim-witted or downright opportunist. Anti-feminism and anti, gay bigotry is still solidly entrenched even in sectors of the left. Right,wing attacks on welfare are richly laced and coded with sexism and racism, and right-wing attacks on national health care are often directed against gay people with AIDS. Contrary to the pieties of liberals and social workers, AIDS is overwhelmingly a disease of folks who get fucked (women and queers), of folks who shoot drugs or trade sex for drugs, of their sex partners, and of their kids. No surprise - it is also very largely a disease of African and Latino Americans and of the poor.
Liberal pieties turn out to be a dishonest acknowledgement of deeply destructive inequities related to sex, race, and class. Rather than address such matters directly, liberals appeal to "universal" humanity. Predictably, the right responds by saying: "No, this is not our disease, so let them die." When Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders dared to talk honestly about sex, drugs, and health, she was promptly fired by her boss. In the United States alone, the number of deaths due to AIDS is rapidly approaching a quarter-million. Most of them, according to the right, are "outside the family."
Educate citizens for social solidarity. Solidarity doesn't happen by magic. "All-class, no, class" education is a lie, and most elementary schoolbooks are dishonest (at best) about the history of class and labor struggles here and around the world. Any radical movement needs historians who refuse to lie about our own mistakes and failures. Sometimes (in the manner of ACT UP and other groups) we can fracture "all the news that's fit to print" with heckling and street theater. But that's no substitute for founding and funding our own schools for radicals; our own newspapers, TV, and radio stations; our own computer networks. In the spirit of the IWW, we should also fight the most destructive corporate policies through selective sabotage, including creative computer hacking. We know radicals are under government and corporate surveillance. Let's return the favor. (Needless to say, these recommendations do not reflect the views of either the American Humanist Association or The Humanist.)
All power to the Soviets! This turned out to be too radical for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who promptly smashed independent working-class councils as soon as they had served as a stepping stone to state power. Nevertheless, without workplace and neighborhood councils of workers and citizens, neither socialism nor the most basic democracy is possible. Originally, soviet was simply the Russian word for workplace councils and collectives. Soon enough it became a monstrous misnomer.
Common sense is not given all at once to any individual; it depends upon conversation among citizens (and upon uncommon citizens like Thomas Paine). Workplace and neighborhood councils are preeminently a place for conversation and decisions. They are points of resistance to the mass media and the corporate state. Contrary to the 21-Point Revolutionary Programs of Vanguard Parties X, Y, and Z, the point is not "to organize the masses." As though somebody else is that lump of clay we call the mass, and we are privileged to sit at the potter's wheel.
There has always been another and quite different radical tradition: the tradition of the libertarian left, including social anarchists, radical democrats, and council communists. Folks in this tradition are likelier to say: "Mass thinking is thinking with your ass." A mass is what the mass market makes us, and if you want to fight mass society, do it with class.
Start small and start now.
Scott Tucker is an artist, activist, and writer, as well as a rounding member of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP.
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|Title Annotation:||Our Queer World|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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