Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Is Socialist Revolution in the US Possible?

Is Socialist Revolution in the U.S. Possible?

The short answer is no. But that's the title and thesis of this book by Mary-Alice Waters, Olympia Newton and Norton Sandler. Of course they answer Yes.

Published in 2009, the book recounts events at the Venezuela International Book Fair, held in Caracas in 2007, specifically the session on the prospects for socialism in the US. It includes Ms. Water's opening presentation, along with reporting on the entire proceedings by Ms. Newton, and a presentation Ms. Waters gave a year later at another event in Caracas. Mr. Sandler contributes the introduction.

I guess it's human nature to regard our current generation as representing some inflection point in history. People imagine that folks in the future will spend their days thanking/condemning us for what we have or haven't done: saved the climate; prevented nuclear war; stopped an asteroid from hitting the earth; prevented the dystopia of artificial intelligence that's smarter than we are; solved the problem of overpopulation; returned us to the gold standard; etc.

Any of these items could represent the end of civilization as we know it, but they probably won't. Chances are the real threat to human flourishing will be something nobody today has even thought of. What the soothsayers all forget is that life is very contingent; the future depends as much on what side of bed Kim Jong-un wakes up on tomorrow morning as on anything else.

But Mary-Alice takes soothsaying to an extreme. Part of the future is inevitable, and another part of it depends on our choices.

The money quote is actually on the back cover.
To think that a socialist revolution in the U.S. is not possible, you would have to believe not only that the ruling families of the imperialist countries and their economic wizards have found a way to 'manage' capitalism. You would also have to close your eyes to the spreading imperialist wars, civil wars, and economic, financial, and social crises we are in the midst of.
In her world, the bourgeoisie are compelled by their "declining rate of profit" (she never explains what that means) to steal from the rest of us until the entire world order collapses into a catastrophic mess. The rich, despite their wealth, are insatiably hungry and inevitably can act in no other way.

On the other hand, we, the working class, have options, albeit only two of them. We can organize to fight back and defeat the bourgeoisie. For this we will need a vanguard party, which is the unique role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Or, we can allow ourselves to be guided by false prophets who sell us out for a pocketful of change, betraying the working class and leading to the very end of the human civilization.

It's like a train rolling inevitably down a hill, and ahead is a switch between two tracks. Choose the wrong track and you'll head over a cliff. Flip the switch the other way (follow the SWP) and instead you'll reach safe harbor where everybody lives happily ever after.


On matters of fact the above quote is misleading in at least two ways. First, she is quite right that the wizards are unable to 'manage' capitalism--neither the Fed, the Treasury department, nor the White House. Capitalism is, by design, completely unmanageable. But what she doesn't understand is that capitalism is stable--it doesn't need to be managed. Adam Smith's invisible hand works remarkably well.

And second, she is also correct that we have turmoil, strife, and "crises." The Militant always exaggerates every problem into a crisis--today we have an economic crisis, an educational crisis, an ecological crisis, and so on. Mostly these are just the warp and woof of every day life--problems, to be sure, but hardly a crisis. It is true that in 2008 we had a financial crisis, and in 1961 we had a missile crisis. But nothing today rises to anywhere near such a level. History has always been thus.

The most interesting part of the book is the contribution from Olympia Newton reporting on the rest of the conference. Most attendees apparently didn't agree with Mary-Alice, taking a much more pragmatic point of view.

Author Eva Gollinger said she didn't " 'share the same optimism that revolution is possible in the United States.' because 'it's very easy to change the channel. People are not poor and hungry in the U.S. like they were in Venezuela. You get two or three credit cards in the mail every day. There is poverty, but it's only in a few small sectors.' " (Italics mine. The conference took place when optimism about Venezuela still prevailed, hence poverty was spoken of in the past tense. How quaint!)

Ms. Gollinger's view seems more in accord with facts than Mary-Alice's.

Ms. Waters sees the struggle of illegal immigrants as central to the American Revolution. Recall that in 2006 (a year before the conference) there was a flash mob of Mexican high school students who demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands to protest deportations. Ms. Newton reports that Latin Americans were much less tolerant of these people than Ms. Waters would have you believe.
In various ways, several said that Latin Americans living in the United States are simply there to "get a piece of the pie."
"They are only there to get passports," said one participant. "Once they get them they will stop marching." Many spoke with barely concealed contempt for immigrant workers as sellouts who had bought into the "American dream" instead of remaining in Latin America to fight for political, economic, and social change.
This does seem like a truer description of immigrants than Mary-Alice's relentlessly downtrodden workers.

Then there was explicit antisemitism from "Leftist", Amiri Baraka, among others. Mr. Baraka recited one of his so-called poems.
"Who decide Jesus get crucified?" one poem asks. "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed? / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day? / Why did Sharon stay away?"
Another "participant from Panama had said during the discussion that Jews are the main problem facing working people in the world today because 'they have all the money' and control everything."

Norton Sandler, representing the SWP, demonstrated appropriate courage. "[H]e spoke from the floor the next day and pointed to the deadly danger scapegoating and Jew-hatred posed for the working-class movement."

Whatever their intellectual failings, my former comrades have retained a moral compass.

Further Reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment