October 19, 2010 7 Comments
Originally posted at GlobalComment.com
The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood…Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.
-George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” 1943
I start with Orwell because people often forget that he remained a socialist even as he mounted critique after critique of the U.S.S.R. and other totalitarian-Communist states. Because the first argument one often faces in the U.S. when one suggests socialism as an alternative to the current political-economic structure is that Communism failed. But reading Orwell’s essays from the 40s, from an England struggling against Nazism on one side and yet learning of the brutality of Stalinism, is to remember that it is possible to have an intellectually honest critique of the states that called themselves socialist and to still advocate for socialism.
Also because in this essay, Orwell noted that it was impossible to know what would happen under the socialism he wished for, only that it had to be better than what we had.
And so, here I am, nearly 70 years later, ruminating on the word “socialism.” Because more and more it’s a term I identify with, claim, am turning over and over in my head. As words and phrases like “feminism” and “anti-racism” mean something to me, but are contested, nebulous, strange, I return to Orwell’s goal of a socialist society and wonder if it’s possible, still, to hope.
The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.
Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”
But as an old friend asked me the other day, just how far back do they want to go? To Nixon? The fifties? Slavery, perhaps?
Sarah Palin, argues John Nichols, in her rush to throw insults at Barack Obama, inadvertently brought socialism back into the political discourse in the U.S. In her extended stay in McCarthyism (between Goldwater and the Klan), Nichols notes:
“Palin’s determination to present socialism as the alternative to casino capitalism had a remarkable impact. In the spring of 2009, a survey by the Republican-friendly Rasmussen Reports polling group found that one in five Americans viewed socialism as a preferable system to capitalism. Another 27 percent of Americans said they weren’t sure whether they preferred socialism or capitalism. A bare majority–53 percent–was still rooting for the system that Americans had for decades been told was ‘the only alternative.'”
My colleague (comrade?) Erik Loomis has argued here that the American Left has failed to articulate an alternative to the casino capitalism Nichols describes, and I agree. Americans seem only capable of seeing the world in binaries: capitalism as we have it, perhaps with a few modifications to support the poor, or Stalinist communism. If you’re lucky, you only have to argue about Cuba.
But the fragmented Left is scrambling for ways to organize across silos. This weekend’s One Nation march drew more people to the Washington Mall than Glenn Beck has, but it remains to be seen if the coalition between organized labor and old Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP can ignite a movement that crosses generations.
Which is what leads me back to Orwell’s definition. Like Orwell, I have no clear picture of what my ideal world looks like. But I want it to be one where we organize around love and compassion for one another, not fear and anger. I want understanding that racism, sexism, homophobia are not individual failings but systemic crises that require social solutions. Social justice. Social.
At the blog Questioning Transphobia, Queen Emily notes that many of the problems facing the transgender community are not problems unique to transgender people–they’re problems that are shared across oppressed groups. She writes:
I highlighted Anne’s on-point needs assessment: “decriminalization, housing, education and employment.”Full employment, universal health care and universal education would address a lot of that. A lot.
Of course, employment and health care and education won’t do away with all the ‘isms, but combined a more equitable distribution of wealth could do a lot to break up the structural racism and sexism that have continued to leave communities of color poorer and leave women making 77 cents to men’s dollars.