I grew up in the shadow of the Iraq War and the mid-2000s skepticism over the far-reaching influence of multinational corporations. Concerned about reckless military interventionism, worried about the encroachments on civil liberties, angry about global corporations lack of accountability, the beginnings of my politics might have placed me on a track to become an unabashed progressive. But, at around the age of 17, I found myself exposed to socialist ideas and historic socialist literature which led me inexorably to a fervent democratic socialist politics.
At this time I came across a book which irreversibly led my politics in a certain direction, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by the Irish socialist Robert Tressell. The book, a semi-autobiographical Edwardian novel about English decorators, hides within it a detailed thesis. Most memorably it details poverty as being primarily caused by profit and the division between unaccountable owners and their employees. More than anything else the lessons of that book have stuck with me and shaped my politics; its lessons still, often, motivate my politics today.
The novel’s message still resonates regardless of where you are in the world, because regardless of where you are a great number of working people are laboring simply to enrich others- it is a reality at the heart of the socialist analysis. Tressell’s masterpiece led me deep into reading into the history of socialist movements across the world and particularly into the history of the Bennite current within the UK Labour Party.
The current, named after Tony Benn a campaigner and cabinet minister who almost dominated the Labour Party in the 1980s, combined radical analysis with a set of strident, democratic socialist demands. Growing out of the stagnation of the center-left economic model in the UK in the 1970s, the Bennites gave short shrift to the free-market solutions proposed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Instead, they saw the right’s attempts to bolster and enhance capitalism for what they were, as attacks on a cooperative vision of society with all that it entails. The Bennites proposed to expand collectively-owned services, extend democracy into the workplace and seriously redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to those who actually produce it. It was a message with as much relevance in the United States as it has to Britain and as much relevance now as it did thirty years ago.
In the United States, socialism has long been a dirty word. While this has always been unjustified, the politics of the Cold War and the despotism of Bolshevism provided legitimate reasons to fear the word. Yet, a word and a political idea that’s centuries old, that can explain poverty and exploitation, that has guided movements and governments across the world cannot afford to remain buried. Socialists have identified the fundamental injustices in society, fought for and won many of our most valuable rights and led democratic government’s in Britain, France, Chile, India and countless other countries.
Socialist politics is, in short, too important to leave behind. The task of the new wave of democratic socialists in Britain and the United States is to formulate a viable, constructive and open vision of socialism.
Capitalism is a system which in reality centralizes power in the hands of a small few; socialism rejects that political system and seeks to bring about a political and economic order which ends the exploitation and abuses of power. It has a fine tradition in the United States with Eugene Debs, Helen Keller and Michael Harrington amongst its great thinkers and shoots of socialist analysis present within the thought of names like Tom Paine, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass.
I haven’t just become a socialist because it’s the obvious way to fight against exploitation, but because it is necessary to bring about control over our own lives- to end the suppression of working people. The reason I’m not a social democrat, in the style of the Nordic Model or the mainstream left in Western Europe, is that I don’t believe social democracy can deliver autonomy and sovereignty for the mass of people. Social democracy, for all its advances, cannot deliver a society in which working people are in control of the economy, socialism’s promise is that it can. Democratic socialists are people concerned that the nonexistence of industrial democracy are not conducive to either a free, or a fair society. Deeper change is necessary to rectify this.
Our current economic models in the United States, Britain, Canada, France and across the rest of the globe are all either discredited or inadequate, failing to deliver a free and fair society. Coercive and abusive labour thrives in the Global South, while insecurity, poverty and stagnation persist in the Global North. Global poverty in the capitalist world is not falling, especially in absolute terms, while in Britain poverty is on the rise and in America deep poverty continues to persist – even among workers. Swathes of communities in Europe, America and elsewhere face falling incomes combined with a bitter powerlessness over their own destinies.
The details of how socialist politics could offer a serious transformation of society are far from set in stone, yet there are profoundly serious visions out there. The Labour Party’s Alternative Models of Ownership document is an, admittedly, very tentative one but it is coherent and optimistic, setting out the case for co-operative enterprises and common ownership of key industries. The intersection of the long-existing currents in Labour and the DSA, with newer social movements, is creating something vibrant and potentially transformational. There are dozens of programmes out there which the left can look at and discuss, as starting points for building a vibrant democratic socialism. There are a growing number of socialists internationally, from Labour’s John Mcdonnell and Diane Abbott to Julia Salazar in New York, who really, seem to get it and for that reason, there is a lot to be hopeful about.