Less than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and ensuing triumphalist proclamations of the “end of history,” socialism is back on the public agenda, even in the United States. The issues, in the US context, are not yet clearly posed; given three generations of hegemonic anticommunism, what can one expect? But confidence in the prevailing order has been severely shaken, and many of its ideologues, stung by the prospect of a mass awakening, are reacting with alarm, deploying the S-word as a way of trying to marginalize serious responses.
At another level, of course, socialism never went away. It remains for much of the world a positive concept. In Asia, despite its battering in several countries, it has shown new energy with the recent electoral victory in Nepal. Cuba, now observing the 50th anniversary of its revolution, survived a stepped-up US onslaught after the abrupt loss of its main external sources of economic and political support. Blending painful concessions to the global market with resourceful initiatives on other fronts –- ecological, medical, and solidaristic -– Cuba’s particular variant of socialism subsequently attained a new plateau of viability and prestige, contributing to an array of fresh socialist projects elsewhere in Latin America.1
These advances have been both obstructed and spurred forward by the continuing ravages of capital, whose last two decades have brought to the fore on the one hand the unbridled militarism of “the world’s only superpower” and, on the other, the generalized application of neoliberal economic policies seeking to dismantle every progressive gain of earlier periods. This entire trajectory has proceeded against the increasingly insistent backdrop of an environmental crisis which puts species-survival at proximate risk.
For the US population, the existence of a larger crisis has now been brought home by the seemingly sudden economic meltdown.2 Fortuitously, this came during the climactic weeks of the presidential election. The result was that among the major candidates the one less tainted by incumbency, even without radically challenging the discredited policy-agenda, got an unanticipated and decisive boost.
This final thrust for Barack Obama capped a nearly two-year campaign, in the course of which the initial impact of his 2002 statement against the Iraq invasion -– as the factor persuading rank-and-file Democrats of his “superior judgment” –- was largely buried. By contrast, his symbolic significance as one who -– in part by defying a deeply entrenched racial barrier -– inspired among newly active voters a belief in “change,” remained very much in the foreground. The combination of mass economic hardship with the anticipation of even a modestly progressive governmental agenda could create openings for more radical projects.
This is surely a moment in which popular response to political challenges is in greater flux in the US than it has been for a long time. As the rhetoric of neoliberalism’s discredited advocates becomes more aggressive and strident than ever, the Left needs to respond in a way that engages the large constituency whose disaffection extends no further than griping to their friends or laughing at the daily doses of satire offered by Comedy Central. It needs to help make the envisioning of radical alternatives part of the majority culture.
As a contribution to this process, Socialism and Democracy is planning for its next issue a collection of short “conjunctural” essays: reflections on the dangers and opportunities of the present moment, grounded as far as possible in an effort to have the discussion joined by people not previously open to an agenda of radical transformation.
1. Cuba’s response to this crisis was the focus of a special S&D issue (no. 29) in 2001 (http://sdonline.org/backissues/index.html#29). A new special issue on Cuba, focusing on the past decade, is planned for 2010.
2. For key insights into this development, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
We honor the memory of John M. Cammett, who passed on July 30, 2008.
Internationally known author of the pathbreaking study “Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism” (1967), and dedicated socialist activist, John was also a strong supporter of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy from its inception in 1984.