I am not a socialist.
Of course I know there's a contradiction there. I've learned to suppress my irritation when others label me a socialist, and I'm accustomed to being grilled about this quirk of my political identity. On the face of it, it's absurd: Why would someone who has devoted much of her adult life to explicitly socialist institutions refuse to label herself a socialist?
I feel an enormous emotional attachment to the socialist tradition, more perhaps than many radicals my age. When I worked at Monthly Review in the late 1980s, we had a brown-bag lunch each Tuesday with Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, and whatever other fellow travelers happened to be passing through New York. The visitors might be from the FMLN or the ANC; they might be working with the Greens in West Germany or the Rainbow Coalition here in the States. They might be Americans back from a fact-finding mission to Cuba or Nicaragua; they might be from Eastern Europe or India or Senegal. One struggle, many fronts: Tuesdays at Monthly Review were about socialist internationalism in action.
Or rather, about the remnants of a socialist internationalism long past its prime. People came to MR in part because it was one of the few outposts left of a politics in precipitous decline. Only on the rarest occasions were these socialist visitors too young to have been my parents; more frequently, they were old enough to be my grandparents.
I felt privileged to be there, because those informal get-togethers allowed me, fresh out of college, to have a window into a Left culture that only barely still exists, into a historical moment that I didn't five, and that isn't with us any more. The MR lunches were about a kind of comradeship, a kind of unity in opposition, that I've never seen anywhere else--and that I certainly didn't see during the three months I spent last fall traveling around the country interviewing young radicals.
The most striking thing about the lunches was the palpable feeling of solidarity one got sitting around the office's big wooden table with people from all over the world. Skin color didn't matter, cultural differences didn't matter, gender didn't matter. There was true common ground, based on a certainty about the world, and about radicals' place in it, that was moving--and that was obviously a relic of the past.
"Which side are you on?": The lyrics of this great leftist anthem go to the core of that declining worldview, whose passing I lament. They suggest a world of stark simplicity, workers facing off against capital, joined in solidarity with oppressed peoples everywhere in a heroic binary battle. Armed with Marxist analysis, one could cut through all the obfuscations of ideology and get down to the real core of politics-material interests. Poor against rich, the dispossessed against the privileged: Winning the battle might not be an easy task, but it was perfectly obvious what the battle was. It was clear who the enemies were, and how they could be defeated. The task was to unite, and seize their power.
Capitalism most certainly has not gone away, nor oppression, but it's no longer possible to see the world in binary terms. It's less clear what the battle is, or rather, whether there's any single battle that should take precedence over any other. There are still foes, to be sure, but they've gotten harder to recognize. Power still exists, but it's become virtually impossible to see it as a discrete thing that can be seized.
All this is vague, of course, but it's a vagueness that is a product of history. This change in radical understanding of the world grows out of the political history of the last twenty years, having begun in earnest as the movements of the 1960s collapsed toward that decade's end. The New Left and the counterculture of the 1960s had rejected the Marxism of the Old Left in favor of a mushy amalgam of anarchism, Maoism, Jeffersonian democracy, and hallucinogenic utopianism. But despite this generational revolt, the New Left shared with the Old Left a crucial assumption about what the politics of opposition ought to look like. That principle was the idea of a radical counterculture: single, unified (however loosely), and starkly opposed to the dominant culture. Hippies, Yippies, anarchists, pacifists, and SDsers might sometimes seem to be each other's worst enemies. But anybody who had long stringy hair, listened to the Rolling Stones, smoked pot, lived communally, or opposed the Vietnam war knew she was linked in opposition with everyone else who did those things.
With the collapse of the 1960s came the decline of the counterculture--and even more so, the decline of the principle of the counterculture--and its replacement by something quite different: a constellation of varied, and sometimes mutually antagonistic, radical subcultures. When the Black Power, women's liberation, and gay liberation movements separated themselves from the New Left in the late 1960s, they forever changed the structure of radical politics. All that unity-in-opposition Woodstock Nation rhetoric went out the window as various oppressed groups came to focus on the differences in how they were oppressed. The very notion of common ground--and of a single, seamless entity called "the Left"--came to seem suspect as blacks became increasingly aware of the racism of white leftists, women grew impatient with the sexism of male leftists, and gays and lesbians confronted the homophobia of straight leftists. "Organizing around your own oppression" became the guiding principle of the new radicalism that came to be known as identity politics.
Over time, the separatist impulses of early identity politics have faded. Almost everybody laments the balkanization of radical movements. Almost everybody says we must build coalitions. But saying it has proven easier than doing it: Fragmentation--and even competition--remains the defining condition of oppositional politics. When I was planning my research trip around the country, I spent much time on the phone with activists I knew, asking them for contacts throughout the United States. The result was a mini-ethnography of the ties that bind American radicals to one another: Environmentalists steered me to other environmentalists, feminists to feminists, multicultural activists to multicultural activists, and so on. Nobody in ACT UP put me in touch with any of the Greens, or vice versa; punk anarchists didn't know black nationalists, and black nationalists didn't know Queer Nationals.
What all of this has to do with socialism is that socialism has de facto become one radical subculture among many--albeit perhaps the only radical subculture that still insists on seeing itself as universal rather than partial. Feminists, multiculturalists, environmentalists, and queer activists will readily admit that their respective politics is not the only game in town. They embrace political pluralism not only as a reality, but as a necessity.
Many of those who espouse socialist beliefs today also acknowledge the political importance of diversity; outside of the alphabet-soup quagmire of tiny sectarian groups, few explicitly view themselves as the Leninist vanguard of radical struggle. Indeed, most socialists have even abandoned Marx's teleology, the theory of history which pronounced that capitalism was doomed to collapse and that socialism and ultimately communism would inevitably arise out of its rubble. ("The socialist program is not a theory imposed on society for its acceptance or rejection," read the Socialist Party platform of 1904, in a sterling example of this view. "It is but the interpretation of what is, sooner or later, inevitable.")
The problem is, some kind of teleological temper remains, a hangover from the time when, as my friend Michael puts it, radicals thought they had history in their back pocket. Socialists all too often act as if they had some special franchise on the truth, as if their politics were somehow broader and more universal than anybody else's. They may not say that, but in a kind of return of the repressed, this sensibility seems continually to seep its way into their prose. Anyone perverse enough to do a concordance of articles published by socialists in the last five to ten years would undoubtedly find that the verb which appears most frequently is must," with should" competing vigorously for second place. In the typical formula, the author begins with a historical materialist analysis of the ills of the world, segues into a brief lament about the inadequacy of contemporary oppositional movements, and then launches into a string of exhortations: "The Left must do x," or "Socialists should do y." (Never questioning, of course, who exactly this Left" is that should be running out to do whatever it is the author prescribes.)
This kind of attitude has permeated the relationship between socialists and identity politics, a relationship epitomized by the ongoing attempts of socialist intellectuals to incorporate identity politics into a single, overarching socialist theory. The 1970s were the heyday of these attempts to postulate connections between capitalism and patriarchy, capitalism and racism, capitalism and homophobia, and so forth. Meanwhile, a new generation of activists came of age who didn't so much reject all of this as simply ignore it. With its insistence on its own correctness and comprehensiveness, socialism fatally marginalized itself from the majority of radicals, who opted instead for a politics based on their own lived experience.
While many socialists were busy elaborating intricate political theories, radical activists were redefining politics altogether, in ways that distanced them still further from the socialist tradition. The defining slogan of the 1970s women's liberation movement--the "personal is political"--expressed a new awareness that power is exercised outside such formal institutions as the state or corporations as much as it is within them.
Radical activists came to see a host of things as political that used to be considered removed from politics: matters ranging from rape and sexual harassment to food and animal testing. They began to be aware of the ways that power permeates daily life, of its omnipresence, elusiveness, and intractability. They saw that institutional change--school desegregation, for example--didn't necessarily lead to attitudinal change. They lost faith in the state's ability to solve economic or social problems, without having any clear replacement for that faith. They gave up utopian dreams of seizing power and bringing about complete human liberation; eliminating oppression and domination, they concluded, would be a slow, painful, and most of all, complicated task.
The new radicalism, then, is about complexity: the complexity of the world we inhabit, and the difficulty of transforming it. Socialist politics, on the other hand, rest on a kind of certainty about the world which I don't have and which, in fact, I don't think is appropriate now.
That's why I can't feel comfortable calling myself a socialist. Saying I'm not a socialist doesn't mean I've given up thinking about--or fighting--capitalism, nor does it mean I'm going to chuck my copy of Capital onto the ash heap of history. There's an ethical component to Marxism that I cherish, a principled belief in economic justice. There's also an analytical breadth and incisiveness to Marxist theory that helps me make sense of the world.
But only partially. When I look out into the world, I'm not at all certain how radicals might most fruitfully fight to improve it. The questions I ask seem to lead me only to more questions, and in looking for answers, I find myself turning to many different radical movements and intellectual traditions. Why have working-class movements collapsed throughout the developed industrial world? Why have anti-imperialist liberation movements declined throughout the Third World? How, exactly, does one build movements in the age of mass media? How does one organize against an increasingly globalized capitalism? How much power does the state still have, and what's the best way to challenge it? What kind of economic system would be just and feasible? What would a truly democratic political system look like? What can be done about the environment? How do we create a society that fosters equality and takes account of diversity?
I know I don't have answers, not right now, and I don't want to embrace a politics that pretends it does. I'm not a socialist because I am, quite honestly, confused about the world, and the only way I can see to sort through that confusion is to begin by acknowledging it.
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|Title Annotation:||American politics; What's Left?|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1993|
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