Toward a New Socialism

Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt, eds.

Toward a New Socialism
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

If 1900-1910 marked the apex of socialist optimism, 1990-2000 marked its nadir (and, of course, the apex of optimism for a permanent, inevitable global capitalism). Neither of these brief monuments to certainty survived long. The First World War plunged Europe into slaughter, largely supported by existing socialist parties, bringing about a Bolshevism that by virtue of its limitations to the boundaries of a sort of Russian State Socialist empire, could not survive encirclement and economic backwardness. Not even renewed expansion after the Second World War, and a host of liberation struggles (most successfully in China) could alter the balance against capitalism. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc prompted a sense that socialism was not only off the agenda but a sort of historical blip, destined to be forgotten. Now, amid new imperial crises, an economy based upon financialization of debt, and eco-system collapse, we know better.

But where does that leave the beautiful dream of socialism? This volume offers more insight and information than any other compact source. To recite the contents is almost overwhelming. The subjects and the names will be familiar to most readers of Socialism and Democracy. Equality, feminism, morality, rationality, schooling, sexuality, liberation theology, prisons, technology, climate change, war, workers’ control, multiculturalism, art, and the familiar critique of capitalism’s phenomenally destructive trajectory. Some authors’ names ring a bell in my own memory: Frank Bardacke, a hero of the Free Speech Movement; Barbara Epstein, one of the first theorists of the “new social movements”; Johanna Brenner, an important analyst of family life in transition, and so on.

One of the great difficulties here is that the compilation of such a massive volume demands a considerable stretch of time, and the lapse has left its mark. The essays here have, by and large, the feel of the 1990s. Socialism, in the discussion during that era, had been left behind by triumphant liberalism, and the principal back-up position of Left intellectuals, especially within the academy, was to try to best the liberals and conservatives on logical grounds. With no mass movement of the Left in sight, a rational-choice socialism became the socialism of first choice or something like it. Philosophy was to be debated within a framework that met reigning neo-Pragmatist (and sentimentalist for the 1950s Cold War era) Richard Rorty on his own grounds instead of coming at him from the dialectical tradition of pleasantly crashing negativity. There were, during that time, no pleasant crashes, only unpleasant ones.

Many things happened afterward, notably after 9/11, that point to the crash of liberalism itself – giving way to a new order in which the happy Conquering Americanism of Vaclav Havel, Samantha Power, and for that matter, Rorty, appears both morally bankrupt and profoundly uninteresting. The empire is now in crisis as it has not been since the 1960s-70s, without any means of extrication immediately apparent. Young people appear once again to move toward revolt or at least unrest, culture livens up, and the interest of the restive masses turns, as ever, not in the direction of rational choice but rather toward what C.L.R. James might have called “the pursuit of happiness.” I am especially inclined to observe, for instance, that in this new world, bourgeois philosopher John Rawls will not be counted a forerunner of future socialist philosophers. Far from it.

This is not entirely fair to the value of Toward a New Socialism, by a long stretch. Much that is solid here remains solid. I am especially struck by Eduardo Mendieta’s “The Religion of Liberation: Theology of Liberation and Socialism,” because Mendieta allows us to look back at the Reformation as the turning point in national autonomy, that is, distinct ruling classes grabbing off power for themselves. The West is invented in this theology, of course, and now, with the help of some future radical theology, must be un-invented. I’m sorry to say that the late Michael Harrington, with so much of his political life in alliance with forces bitterly opposed to Liberation Theology, is the only US thinker cited here, when the discussion has at times been vigorous and promises to return, leaving the half-hearted support of Harrington’s religious liberalism far behind.

I am likewise struck – unreservedly – by Johanna Brenner’s “Socializing Care: Reinventing Family Life.” This is a practical perspective on collective living that will be more and more needed in the era ahead. Likewise the essays dealing with ecological questions (they owe a great deal to the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, though I should also confess that I am a columnist of this same journal). Likewise the brief but trenchant “Marxism and War,” by Cheney Ryan.

The volume closes, more or less, with some notes on the Zapatistas and the cross-border mural art that they have inspired. It’s a good thought, because the US working class today is the most heavily foreign-born that it has been in a century, and because it has become and will become ever more of Caribbean (including Mexican) origin. The Zapatistas have slipped out of the news, of course, as Hugo Chávez and, to a lesser degree, Evo Morales have taken center stage in the changes at hand south of the US border, and in the challenges to US capitalism within the Hemisphere that was claimed as anything-goes Imperial space more than five generations ago.

Could anyone have expected the changes to come so fast and become so profound? I don’t think so (I certainly didn’t expect them). Do I wish this volume were more vernacular, with more popular culture and less theory, in particular less imperative dialogue with academic liberals? I sure do. But I believe that Toward a New Socialism, even if it does not really point toward a new socialism now, will serve as a sturdy foundation stone, reminding us of an age rapidly gone by, but worth pondering as capitalism-in-stasis so rapidly passed.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle
Madison, Wisconsin
paul_buhle@brown.edu

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