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He ran for President 5 times, once taking six percent of the vote nationally (almost exactly 100 years ago that happened). He was sentenced to 10 years of prison for speaking against World War I. As he said in that speech:
“Your Honor,years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
He ran for office while in prison. Again, he never held office, but he and the movement behind him brought to national political discourse the framework for reforms which would eventually be implemented, and for which many of us now take for granted.
A little bit of his history. I don’t know why they’re using the Entertainer as a theme song.
I’m asked the question often, and I’m never quite sure how to answer it. If you’re a socialist, you probably won’t be happy with my brand of socialism, whatever it is. If you’re politically conservative, I’m probably socialist enough to warrant a rant or two. To the extent that I’m a socialist, it’s more about a political ethos than any particular model, program, or ideological line. If you’re promoting socialism, I’m probably going to try to tear it down. If you’re attacking socialism, I’m probably going to defend it tooth and nail, especially when you really don’t know what you’re talking about, and most often you don’t. I would say that I still aspire to an ethos of egalitarianism and I see the bulk of our political problems as arising from not just the huge disparities in income and wealth, but more importantly the disparities in power and influence which arise from the former. I believe that democracy has the potential to mitigate the disparities, but collective choices are not always rational and can potentially aggravate them as well. Still, for any mitigation to take root, it has to be through democratic processes, and it has to be incremental and well thought. We have collective moments when we make such progress, and those small movements of progress have to survive the torrent of backlash from the more fearful and reactionary elements of the democracy. The health care reform may represent one such moment of incremental process. And we have to keep the discussion alive no matter what happens. I do believe in progress – I think it’s clearly evidenced. But I believe it’s excruciatingly slow. The shortcuts attempted have historically been disastrous, leading to consequences much worse than the evils they were intended to resolve.
I don’t believe in a perfect society. I believe we can address inequities of our time, and devise institutional reforms which bring us a little bit closer. But then human beings will always find ways to exploit each other. We are very creative that way. It will be up to those generations to address the new inequities. I believe we are called upon to address those in our time, and try to avoid repetition of the same mistakes.
The Western European model has achieved the highest standards of living the world has ever seen. It’s far from perfect. It has serious structural problems in whatever it is we are calling the “new international economy.” It will have to be reformed. It may require significant reconstruction to survive, which in the short run may look like regression (and which in the absence of political will may end up permanently regressive). The downside of democracy is that the collective has the right to make the wrong choices. I will continue to rant and whine about Citizens United, but ultimately each individual makes a choice in the voting booth – makes a choice to believe the advertising. Makes a choice whether to conform or break with “the dominant paradigm,” whatever that may be. My socialism is one which is focused on the autonomy of the individual, somewhat along the lines of Mills’ utilitarianism, and democracy for me isn’t merely the strategy or vehicle. If we collectively make the wrong choice, democracy has prevailed if socialism hasn’t, and democracy is more important than socialism. For me, while we can debate whether the Sandinistas were corrupt totalitarians or visionary socialists, but they’re choice to acquiesce to a democratic choice against their rule was the most positively radical move a Marxist regime ever made. They lost, but they also won, unlike the other regimes which collapsed or are waiting to collapse.
In short, I view socialism as something to aspire to, but cannot and should not ever be attained in perfection.
Finishing Arguing the World, the book emerging from the same project as the film, I came across some quotes which loosely resonate with my own thoughts on the question.
“We live in a time of diminished expectations – idealistic visions, utopian hopes, desires for social renovations are all out of fashion – indeed, are regarded as dangerous illusions that set off memories of totalitarian disasters. The current catchword is sobriety, which sometimes looks like a cover for depression. But Utopianism is a necessity of the moral imagination. It is a testimony to the resourcefulness that humanity now and then displays, together with other, far less attractive characteristics. It is a claim for the value of desire. So to friend and foe, at a moment when the embers of Utopianism seems very low, I’d say: “You want to call us Utopians? That’s fine with me.”
- Irving Howe, Two Cheers for Utopia
“You ask me if I’m a neo-conservative. What I find amusing is that the people who decry a one-dimensional view of society, a one-dimensional view of politics, apply a one-dimensional label to things.
I think I’ve been consistent all the way through It’s not that my politics haven’t changed. Politics is basically a response to particular situations. I think my fundamental values have remained, and my fundamental view of understanding society has remained.
I believe there are different realms in the society and there are different principles which underlie these realms. That’s why I’ve called myself a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. I’m a socialist in economics because I believe that every society has an obligation to give people that degree of decency to allow them to feel that they are citizens in this society. In the realm of economics, the first lien on resources should be that of the community in a redistributive way.
I’m a conservative in culture because I believe in continuity, and I believe in judgment. I don’t believe that all opinions in culture are the same as everybody else’s opinion. I don’t believe that all art is the same. Some things are better than others, and you have to justify why it’s better than others, and you have to understand the grounds of justification (And the reader has to understand that Bell, like the other New York Intellectuals all come from roots of cultural criticism – think Partisan Review, NY Review of Books, etc. – EVK).
I’m a liberal in politics, but liberalism has no fixed dogmas. It has no fixed points that you can say, “This is the liberal position.” It changes because it’s an attitude. It’s a skepticism. It’s a pluralism. It’s agnostic.”
“All of us at Dissent- and Irving (Howe) has been one of the most persistent in this – hold on to socialism by continually redefining it, rethinking it. We have sponsored a long series of articles on market socialism which would once have been thought to be a contradiction in terms. Socialism was supposed to lead to a withering away of the state and the abolition of the market. We now talk of a socialism that makes its peace with decentralization rather than straight, top-down economic planning.
Why cling to socialism? I think the answer has to do with a sense of an historical tradition. The central vision of a society of equal men and women, who participate, who join together in shaping their own destiny, that is a socialist vision. It has been carried on by a succession of socialist parties and movements, and I think Irving’s view has been one that doesn’t want to be the end of that line. One doesn’t want to give up on the project.”
“We continue our criticism of the injustices and inadequacies of a society which allows thousands of people to be homeless in the streets, an affluent society in America where there is still a vast amount of poverty, social dislocation, social pathology.
The crucial lesson of the last fifty years, one crucial lesson is the absolute indissolubility, the absolute organic connection between democratic practice and socialist hope. The great tragedy of the last half-century has been the enormous waste of idealism and energy which the Communist movement represented and its malappropriation of the socialist vocabulary, the socialist idea. It will take a good deal of time before the consequences of this are undone.
But socialism means a greater social ethic, a concern for the needs of human beings, economically and culturally – a gradual transformation from the ethic of accumulation and me-ism to social sharing. All of this may sound vague at the moment, I guess it has to be.
To me, socialism is no longer a dogma or ideology, but it is a vision, a hope, an expectation for the world which there will be greater equality and a common ownership of major industries. Not nationalization, not government ownership, but shared ownership by the people who work in those industries.”
Just some thoughts arising from my vacation. Ironic that I’m inspired to write about socialism while sitting here in Indiana. Maybe not so ironic. Eugene Debs was born a hundred or so miles south of my current location.
I haven’t had the time to read any analysis yet, though I heard a little bit on NPR this morning. Basically the Socialists regained power in France on an anti-austerity/pro-stimulus spending platform (as well as a “unity” platform against the anti-immigrant tide). Apparently newly elected President Hollande is going to pick up the phone to argue with Chancelor Merkel immediately. Anybody know when Germany is up for elections? Does their system have a no-confidence vote?
Then in Greece even the Socialists who signed off on the Conservative Party’s austerity measures took a hit, and together the two main parties took under 35 percent of the vote with a slew of what NPR described as “extreme left and right parties” taking the rest. One of the left parties actually slipped into second place with 17 percent of the vote. Scary is the fact that the country’s neo-Nazi party went from one percent to seven percent, again over the austerity measures, but France’s more enlightened “unity” vote doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on Greece, which is suffering from 21 percent unemployement and a huge poverty rate. There is no governing coalition at the moment.
Basically, the voters in both countries aren’t in the mood to tighten their belts to bail out the financial system. I haven’t looked, but I imagine that stock prices have tumbled this morning as they get jittery whenever any news comes out of Europe about potential debt defaults.
If Europe had joined the US and China in an international stimulus program two years ago, we might not be here. But for some reason conservatives in every country refuse to acknowledge that sudden and large cuts to spending when markets are in contraction actually exacerbate the debt problem, meaning that austerity measures are actually counterproducitve even if your concern is obsessed with debt to the exclusion of all the other economic concerns.
I would appreciate links to good articles you find on the subject. Thank you.
Somebody reviewing one of Michael Moore’s movies once commented that while Moore’s ability to drive entire audiences to a standing ovation is a notable feat, a film maker who is a true artist ought to prefer that his/her film has audiences arguing in the aisles as the credits roll. I thought it was a good point, but I was hard-pressed to come up with a documentary film which could accomplish just that. And then, recently the recommendations robot at Netflix directed me to a documentary film entitled Arguing the World. In terms of stimulating thought and argument about the larger political issues, I can think of no more effective documentary film.
The film focuses on four dynamic figures of a group which became known as the New York Intellectuals, characterized primarily by Jewish ethnicity, radicalism in youth tempered by anti-Stalinism, cultural critique in middle age, and anywhere but anywhere in old age. The four are Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell. They were all raised in poverty in Jewish ghettos in New York City. They met at City College of New York during the 1930s. City College became known as the “Jewish Harvard,” because of the prominence of working class children of Jewish immigrants who would ditch poverty as adult career intellectuals. As legend has it, the professors themselves were mediocre, but the students would read and learn through arguing with each other. The dining hall contained various horseshoe shaped alcoves, and each one was claimed by some sort of clique (jocks, Catholics, etc.). As it happens Alcove One was perennially occupied by anti-Stalinist socialists, either Trotskyist or Second International variety (the SWP and SP actually merged for awhile, weird as that sounds to modern students of sectarian politics), while Alcove Two was occupied by the Communist Party activists and their fellow travelers. Often there were arguments and even altercations between the two, but more often each group kept to itself. The Alcove One denizens infused literature readings into their politics, lacing their Marxist analysis with smatterings of Dostoevsky, Proust, T.S. Lewis, the Bronte sisters, etc., and moved beyond even the Frankfurt School of Marxism in the blending of cultural criticism with politics. The subculture was also characterized by intense arguments, sometimes stimulated by alcohol consumption (a darker aspect of the old left which is known to the families but not often discussed even in the narrative histories).
These four began as Trotskyists, which leads me to my favorite quote in the film (I’m not quite remembering who said it): “We didn’t know he [Trotsky] was right. We only knew he was interesting. And in the Village then, to be interesting was to be right. Certainly to be uninteresting was to be wrong. And I’m not sure I don’t still hold to that.” I have to admit that I probably hold to that as well, as I frequently find my self disagreeing even when I agree. And Trotsky was a more interesting figure than Stalin, or even Lenin, and certainly more interesting than Norman Thomas (you get to see a rare clip of a Thomas speech in the film), though maybe not quite as interesting as Debs or Shachtman.
As they got older and left CCNY, the four, and others, pooled resources and joined as writers a magazine entitled Partisan Review – intending to be a literary magazine with a political philosophy emphasis. Now the film doesn’t get into the history so much, but Partisan Review actually has roots in the Greenwich Village intellectual milieu, which included John Reed, Max Eastman, and the Masses Crowd, and it may overemphasize a bit the divide between Alcoves One and Two in the broader sense, but perhaps not as it applies to these four individuals.
They were integral to the formation and development of Commentary Magazine, which began as an attempt to integrate Jewish radicalism into American democratic culture with complex cultural criticism, but the magazine ultimately slid into a more straight-jacketed ideological neo-conservatism, and exists now as a shadow of its more intellectually challenging past. But by the time the four were writing for Commentary, all of them, including Howe, had abandoned their CCNY-era radicalism and embraced a more skeptical and pragmatic liberal outlook, which sent them into different directions. The film examines the directions they took and attempts to find answers to the question of why like experiences could leave Irving Howe in the socialist fold (even if most self-proclaimed socialists regarded him as neo-conservative) while pushing Irving Kristol into the the Reagan camp.
When McCarthyism came into full swing, these intellectuals found themselves in a tight spot. They had become anti-communist to the point that they were slamming not only the C.P. itself for its ties and loyalty to the Soviet Union, but also the liberals who downplayed the American communist’s complicity with the mass killings carried out by their more “successful” Soviet counterparts. None of the intellectuals’ was particularly enamored with McCarthy as a matter of style, but while Kristol protests that he referred to McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue” while implicitly supporting the carnage McCarthyism was wreaking on innocent people and the culture at large, he and other Commentary writers did not object to the underlying witch hunt process which ruined the lives of people who had been guilty of nothing more than attending socialist meetings while in college. At this point, Irving Howe broke away from many of his friends; and while slamming communism and even to some extent defending American culture, he attacked McCarthyism on civil liberties grounds- a frame that the others were unable or unwilling to adopt. Their defensiveness as exhibited in the interviews of the film is remarkable. On the one hand they protest that they did in fact “question” methods being used, but on the other felt that some sort of process was necessary.
Howe and other anti-Stalin socialists started the independent socialist quarterly Dissent (there is a recurring theme in the film that when Intellectuals don’t know what else to do, they start a magazine). The idea was to revisit socialism as a goal or a hope in a non-ideological manner, and outside of the auspices of any particular organization or program, while maintaining critical independence of thought and analysis. Kristol dismissed it as ideologically anachronistic and irrelevant, but by the time he was asked to comment he had already turned to the dark side and it’s unclear whether he was at that point unable to segregate his personal opinions from his political agenda. But the debate raged and an indication of the prominence of the debate in the NY Jewish subculture came a couple of decades later when Woody Allen, either unaware or uncaring that the reference was somewhat obscure on the national level, dropped a line into his acclaimed movie Annie Hall referencing a peace reached between Commentary and Dissent so that they merged to form the magazine Dysentery. Of the millions who have watched the Academy Award winning film over the decades since, probably only a fraction of them understand the reference. But that it made it into the movie is an indication of how strong the debate was in NY Jewish subculture.
The documentary then moves into the 1960s and the contentious relationship between the NY Intellectuals and the New Left. It doesn’t go into the initial discussions where Howe’s protege Michael Harrington attended the Port Huron conference and left with some frustration. The episode is described in some detail in Maurice Isserman’s If I had a Hammer, which is a brilliant summary of the history of the American Left. The film covers mostly the summit talks between Dissent and SDS. Howe and Glazer describe their interactions with upstart activist Tom Hayden, whom they regarded as a potential totalitarian – romantic utopian politics within a good looking guy completely into himself. The Intellectuals were paternalistic and condescending. The New Lefties were charged and emotional. It didn’t go well. There are interviews with New Leftists including Hayden and Todd Gitlin, and you can tell that it’s still a sore point.
(More below the fold)
Dissent writer Danny Goldberg offers a criticism of “professional progressives,” while defending the “spiritual side” of politics. The article is a couple of months old, but I’m catching up.
In a post for the Daily Beast Michelle Goldberg lamented, “Drum circles and clusters of earnest incense-burning meditators ensure that stereotypes about the hippie left remain alive.” At Esquire, Charles Pierce worried that few could “see past all the dreadlocks and hear…over the drum circles.” Michael Smerconish asked on the MSNBC show Hardball if middle Americans “in their Barcalounger” could relate to drum circles. The New Republic’s Alex Klein chimed in, “In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies….Wall Street survived.” And the host of MSNBC’s Up, Chris Hayes (editor at large of the Nation), recently reassured his guests Naomi Klein and Van Jones that although he supported the political agenda of the protest he wasn’t going to “beat the drum” or “give you a free hug,” to knowing laughter.
Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.
Since the mythology of the 1960s hangs over so much of the analysis of the Wall Street protests, it’s worth reviewing what actually happened then. Media legend lumps sixties radicals and hippies together, but from the very beginning most leaders on the left looked at the hippie culture as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a saboteur of pragmatic progressive politics. Hippies saw most radicals as delusional and often dangerously angry control freaks. Bad vibes.
Not that there is anything magic about the word “hippie…..”
The arguments aren’t anything new, but they are directed to a younger generation urban-based old left milieu who missed the “Old Left/New Left” debates of the 60s and 70s for whom, believe it or not, the subject matter is fresh. It provides a great intro to a post I’m working on about the New York democratic socialist old left intellectualism which I’ll post sometime within the next week or so.
A minor point to the article, but so very annoying, is the perpetuation of the myth that Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” was written in earnest. People! It was a joke! It was satire! Irony! Remember my 50 liberal country songs? Why do you think I included it? There was actually quite the discussion on it in the thread.
Judis is known in left circles as a “socialist conservative” and is even accused of DLC/Blue Dog tendencies in the more liberal left. For the past three decades he’s been the voice the more orthodox left loves to hate, because he always calls for moderate tones in politics with an incrementalist approach to progress. He is the one calling for support of Democrats who can win and has often “punched the hippie,” at least on cultural issues (although activists jumped the gun during the 1980s when he called for the left to reclaim “family values” when a lot of them unfortunately didn’t bother to read the article before issuing knee-jerk responses). He is the last wonk you would expect to call Obama a wimp for pushing compromise, but there it is. During the 1990s, I had arguments with socialist friends about whether Judis is legitimately even “liberal” anymore, and when I pointed out that he still identifies as a “socialist,” one friend laughed and said, “just wait about 10 years.” Well, it’s been about 17, and this is what he’s writing:
THIS IS IMPORTANT because Obama may now be facing his own crisis of the Union. Over the last four decades, the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of the government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment trial of 1999. If there is an earlier American precedent for today’s Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to, and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery.
Read the rest of the uncharacteristic opinion. Maybe he isn’t a leftist anymore. Maybe that’s how goofy the GOP has become.
My mother-in-law Toby passed away nearly a year ago and had apparently asked that I receive these buttons, most of which are Norman Thomas campaign offerings. But there are a few mysteries, and I know there are a few lefties around here who may have some insight.
I think you can make the jpeg pretty large after two clicks, which helps cut through some of the clear plastic glare from the scanner.
The buttons originally belonged to my wife’s grandfather, Joseph Glass, who was a labor attorney who ran for various NY offices on the Socialist ticket, but I don’t have any buttons from his campaigns unfortunately. The first button is probably the oldest or the second oldest, as James Mauer was his running mate in 28 and 32. We’ve already located one online sale of an identical button for $75.00. It’s probably the most valuable, though I have no intention of selling any of them in my lifetime. My kids can decide what to do with them when I’m gone.
But the “No AEF” button may be older. I can’t think of anything it stands for other than American Expeditionary Forces, presumably those which were sent into the Soviet Union just after WWI. Does anybody have any other ideas?
I am assuming that the Don’t join Jim Crow Army button (two of them in the bunch) was associated with the effort led by A. Phillip Randolph to desegregate the military, and may have been generated for the intended March on Washington?
The lower right corner button is difficult to read. It reads “Unite May Day for Peace and Security.” Security? Post-war, during, or pre-war? The other May Day (1937) button reads “unite labor against reaction.” I know the political definition of “reaction,” but I’m wondering about the specific context.
Opposition to the New Deal?
I don’t know who Thomas Nelson was, but I have one of his campaign buttons.
Oh, there’s one which opposed Roosevelt’s third term put out by a group calling itself “the Constitutionalists.” But I’m not familiar with any applicable Constitutional provisions to prohibit a third term at the time. Presumably the button was associated with the 1940 Thomas campaign (with running mate Maynard Krueger), but it probably could have been generated by Republicans as well as
The “Keep the US out of war – boycott Japanese goods” also has me curious as to the timing and the precise meaning. It doesn’t say “the war,” and I don’t know how long we were trading with Japan before we were attacked. And I’m not certain how the boycott would keep us out of war. Seems like it would make war
with Japan more likely. But I don’t know the context. Did it have something to do with “cash and carry” policies?
And I have no clue as to what the “Ford Drive” was or what was meant by “my dollar is paid.” The button contains the year dates 1937 and 1938. Was it a labor drive?
The button in the lower left corner reads “there’s a U (you) in the United Nations.” The left doesn’t celebrate the UN anymore really. Was the SP gung-ho about it at the time?
I would be grateful for any information about these buttons. If anyone can point me to anything written by or about Joseph Glass, who died in the early 80s, I would also be grateful for that.
Thanks to John Rogers for scanning them for me. I was having problems.
A very eloquent defense of a much maligned word.
I saw it at the Museum few weeks ago, and I didn’t realize it was going to be over so soon. But if you happen to be in Santa Rosa today, it’s your last chance. It provides a fascinating history of communists in Sonoma County, including the Jewish immigrants who started the Petaluma chicken industry, the Apple Pickers Strike of 1935, vigilante responses such as the one reported in the Press Democrat image here, the Sonoma County residents who were hauled up before investigation committees in Congress, and of course Jack London’s time in the county, during which time he wrote The Iron Heel.
The vigilante episode was particularly chilling. A group of socialists was kidnapped and brought to City Hall where they were instructed to kiss the flag. Three of the five refused, and they were tarred and feathered and paraded around the city. But they continued to organize, or try to anyway, afterward.
I know Eureka has a history of socialists, not necessarily communists, being elected early in the 20th century. I wonder what else would turn up in a Humboldt County exhibit. It would probably include something about Jack London who got into a bar fight in Eureka with one of the logger barons. Somebody around here made a post about it, but I can’t find it.
Addendum: I found the reference to Jack London in this Times Standard article about Old Town’s history containing this paragraph:
“In the early days of Eureka there was a favorite little drinking bistro across from the Vance Hotel named The Oberon,” Waters wrote. “Marble floors, tapestries, pictures of beautiful girls in the raw, etc. Writer Jack London, a confirmed Socialist and Stanwood Murphy, a conservative Republican met in the Oberon. They argued over politics and started throwing punches. The bartenders locked the doors and they fought for over an hour. After the fight they were both in the hospital for a couple of days licking their wounds.”
This is recapping an exercise in college where some friends and I sat around thinking – if a potential socialist convert were to agree to read any three books on socialism, what would you offer? Well, now I have to come up with ten, even though I’m not so sure I’d call myself a socialist anymore. Here are the ten books I think place socialism in the best light, with the best explanations.
1. Socialism Past, Present, and Future – Michael Harrington.
2. The Essential Works of Socialism – Irving Howe (yeah, maybe an anthology is cheating, but his selections are representative and excellent)
3. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1868 – Karl Marx
4. Design for Utopia – Charles Fourier
5. Foundation – Isaac Asimov (sold me on the whole concept as a teenager)
6. Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy (her utopia was compelling, but also disturbing)
7. Marx’s Concept of Man – Erich Fromme (sold me as a teenager on the concept of alienation)
8. A Theology of Liberation – Gustavo Gutierez
9. The Shape of Things to Come – HG Wells
10. Rerum Novarum – Pope Leo XIII (much more radical than either Catholic conservatives or secular socialists want to acknowledge)
Honorable mentions: The Communist Manifesto (the first five pages of which contain nothing but compliments for capitalism as a progressive force in historical context), People of the Abyss – Jack London, The Iron Heel – Jack London, The Permanent Revolution – Trotsky, The State and Capital – Lenin, Looking Forward – Edward Bellamy, Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution – Peter Kropotkin, and Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman