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I Love Bill Moyers, but He’s Wrong About Socialism


[This is a comment on Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s essay "Rising to the Occasion" as the opening essay in a forum on "Reimagining Socialism."]

"All this current rhetoric about socialism in Washington is partisan poppycock. The word being fought over so fiercely today lost its meaning long ago. The late social activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin said on my show some years ago that we have to keep pressing the socialist questions because they are questions of justice, but that we should be dubious about the socialist answers…" –Bill Moyers, March 20

Bill Moyers is one of the best American journalists, among the few willing to subject our corporate and financial elites to the bitter social condemnation they deserve. But he joins with many others, including many leftists, in writing off socialism. This is a terrible mistake.

For the first time in decades, socialism–democratic ownership and control over the key elements of the economy–can be the subject of serious public debate in the United States. Wall Street and "the captains of industry" are distrusted by most Americans. Everyone knows the system isn’t working. As always, establishment pundits say there is "no alternative" to the capitalist system, but now there is an audience ready to listen, if skeptically and tentatively, to a challenge to capitalism. Fast-moving events have dramatically outpaced popular, as well as elite, ideology.

Revived social movements, including the labor movement, could push the Obama administration some degrees to the left. But beyond the critical immediate relief that such movements can win, more fundamental change is needed. In the absence of an attractive, democratic socialist alternative, the crisis of capitalism could turn people to the right (as it’s already doing in Britain, where the downturn has sparked anti-immigrant strikes).

The main barrier to persuading people of the appeal of a socialist alternative is the antidemocratic and repressive model of the communist countries. Russia, China and other bureaucratic communist societies claimed to be socialist. People understandably looked at them and said, "If that’s socialism, no thank you!" So if any new socialist movement is to be morally and politically credible, it must be absolutely clear on its commitment to democracy and human rights. And it’s not just a question of credibility: without freedom of expression and organization, democratic socialist economic planning is an impossibility.

Our challenge today is to connect such urgent immediate struggles as those for single-payer healthcare and against foreclosures, layoffs, and cutbacks to a broader socialist vision. This means proposing solutions to day-to-day problems that make sense to people while pushing against the logic of the capitalist system. For example, the financial meltdown has caused more and more people to favor bank nationalization. But all too often this is presented as a temporary measure, aimed at restoring the banks to private hands once the government has absorbed their losses. Instead of accepting reprivatization, the left can say that the banks should be seen as public utilities that can lend for socially useful purposes under public control. Similarly, rather than going along with the rescue of the private owners of the auto industry with billions of taxpayer dollars, the left can call for the industry to be nationalized, with public resources invested in high-speed rail, fuel-efficient cars and other green transportation.

Proposing nationalization of the banks and the auto industry helps raise the broader question of socialism, of accountable democratic planning of the economy as a whole. But national solutions alone can’t succeed in a globalized economy. In their must-read article, " Global Labor’s Forgotten Plan to Fight the Great Depression," Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith reintroduce an eye-opening 1930s proposal for international public works financed through a global agreement to create jobs, an approach that begins to take investment and economic development decisions away from private investors and put them into the hands of ordinary people.

The left needs to help build grassroots movements and a political party that will confront the rule of corporations and Wall Street–something the Democratic Party cannot do no matter how much we push Obama to the left, given the place of finance and the corporations in the party. We need such movements, and an independent party that represents them, not only to wrest concessions and victories today but also so that people can learn how to truly govern themselves tomorrow. And along with activism, we need at least multiple sketches, if not a single blueprint, of a workable socialist future. If we are not inspired and guided by the vision of a socialist alternative, in the end the corrupt financial and political elites that have brought us to this point will continue to run the show.

Joanne Landy (jlandy@igc.org) is a member of the New Politics editorial board and co-director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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