American Socialist, March 1957

Toward a Socialist Revival

by Joseph Starobin

Joseph Starobin, journalist, wrote ‘Eyewitness in Indo-China’ and ‘Paris to Peking,’ and is at present occupied with another bock about American capitalism and socialism.

NO subject is being more widely discussed these days than the rebuilding of an American socialist movement. In Detroit, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, spokesmen of widely divergent socialist views have shared the platform at meetings attended by an impressive cross-section of radical opinion. All sorts of people are talking to each other who would hardly, in past years, have found themselves in the same room. It is being discovered that a bond of mutual regard exists between those who parted ways on the great issues which divided the Left since the New Deal days. Perhaps a score of universities have seen students and faculty members welcome socialist theorists as more than curios. A whole new library of books will soon be available, each author working to achieve a fresh understanding of contemporary capitalism. The monologues are turning into debates and cross-discussions in half a dozen periodicals, in addition to the several which call themselves socialist.

Probably most important of all, literally thousands of American radicals are going through personal programs of re-study, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff of their lives and times. Often this takes organized forms. My own experience is that hundreds of well-defined groups of socialist-minded citizens are functioning throughout the country. They may be working people in a given plant or industry, dealing with the guts of the class struggle. Or they may be residents of the same neighborhood, simply discussing current events, including the arts, the sciences, problems of ethics and culture. Most of these people share a community of thought and experience; in many cases, such groups give general guidance to the participation of their members in organizational life far beyond the Left, without being clubs or branches of any party.

I do not mean to paint the picture in rosier terms than it deserves. But there is a real ferment at work. Most of it may be the twilight of something we have all known, the dying embers flickering up in the strong winds of a stormy year. It may, however, form the basis for a socialist revival or at least a transitional stage in that direction. Much depends on clarifying the stance, the ideas, and the forms of such an effort.

THE most serious divergences exist, of course, with respect to those countries and movements abroad which have been considered to be building socialist societies. Many of these are the inheritance of the past, differences which arose out of conditions that no longer prevail or are unlikely to come again.

For example, I doubt very much whether an American socialist movement can be built in the spirit of the ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ of John Reed’s time. An international organization was formed in that era, stemming from the shock of the collapse of the Socialist International. Its premise was the more-or-less imminent ‘world revolution.’ It was taken for granted that because the Russian Bolsheviks seemed to have solved the problem of getting a socialist society going in their own particular country, they had the wisest council for all other lands, no matter how different in history and structure. All that lies in an irretrievable past. There may be a considerable body of Americans who live in a ‘Comintern’ which is only the figment of their imagination and their nostalgia. Most of these are in any case remote from present-day American realities.

There is a variant of this un-reality, which predominated in the heyday of the American Communist movement, and still lingers on. It was assumed that the Soviet Union constituted the main force in a common battle which the American Left was a sort of guerrilla group. The guerrillas were not consulted in the over-all strategy battle; neither were they, to use the oversimplified phrase ‘under Moscow’s orders.’ Their inner premise was that any given guerrilla group might be expendable, even as considerable progress were being made in its own sector. The changing fortunes of the whole struggle were subject to guesswork, and the views of the Soviet Union—which was assumed to be in tip-top shape and most wisely governed—were divined by guesswork, not consultation. Such a state of mind explains the behavior of American Communists in the crucial period of 1944-45, when the gunfire from a friendly guerrilla force was accepted without question or much investigation. This explains the wanderings in the jungle ever since that time.

The discovery of immense failures and tragedies within the Soviet Union during the whole era when its strategy went unquestioned therefore came as an immense shock. Anna Louise Strong, in her recent booklet, finds the self-criticism of the Twentieth Congress largely unbelievable and many other prominent figures in American socialist ranks prefer not to believe that which compels them come to different terms with their past. Others remain confused over the relations between main forces a guerrillas. Howard Fast, crying out in anguish, sounds as though he is resigning from the Russian Communist Party of which he was not a member in the first place. His eyes are still fixed on some place else, even when he it must turn away.

IN a way, this mood is the mirror-image, the blood relation of that position among some American socialists who insist the Russian Revolution must somehow be undone. They see it, to use the phrase of Sidney Lens, (A World in Revolution) as a ‘counterfeit revolution.’ Just what these friends would do about the titanic changeover in China is a little less clear. But they are intensely dissatisfied with Isaac Deutscher, who believes that irreversible processes are at work in the Soviet Union, even if fitful and uneven, which stem from the very fact of its industrialization and the emergence of a culturally advancing working population. For Deutscher, the larger drama of change within the Soviet Union is more important than the ham performance or stubborn resistance of any of the individual actors. ‘The appalling Mr. Deutscher,’ says Irving Howe in a recent issue of Dissent. He would probably say the same of the brilliant study by Jean-Paul Sartre in the January, 1957 Les Temps Modernes, where Sartre explores the reasons why ‘Stalin’s ghost’ still walks, without despairing of socialism as a reality in Soviet life.

In trying to define an attitude which may contribute to clarity if not unity on the American Left, an historical and at relativistic approach seems to me the essence of the socialist method. The chief consequence of the very great changes of the past twenty years is that, if peace can be maintained, all peoples now have the prospect of advancing in a socialist direction, at their own pace, on their own terms, and favored by the new circumstances which their own activity generates. Many peoples have contributed to this change. The colonial peoples are making it impossible for American capitalism to restore the old empires or to inherit them. The American people have helped by their defense of democratic rights, and by the technological and political advances which force the invasion of socializing tendencies even within the hard shell of capitalist relations. The Soviet Union (and China on its own) has certainly contributed decisively. In so doing, it now becomes possible for the Soviet people to unwind the coiled springs of their inner development. The new situation in itself makes the Soviet and Chinese experiences more unique, but less relevant to the specific paths which the peoples of the West can now take. Our foremost problem is to maintain and extend an international environment of pacific competition between rival systems and their political and intellectual intercourse with each other, by which both can be modified most rapidly and least painfully. Socialists share with non-socialists the necessity of maintaining such an environment, but there is an aspect of it which only they, as socialists, can develop. It is to see the truth about the socialist countries in a historical, not an absolute fashion, and to tell that truth and behave within its framework.

THE era of the leadership of any one socialist country or party is over. Any attempt to maintain such a leadership runs counter to the real interest of socialist advance in countries which can no longer be treated as the areas of expendable guerrilla activity but important terrains of socialist development. Democratic change within the Soviet Union cannot be brought about, as it must be for its own sake as well as everyone’s, by preaching from afar that the Russian Revolution be un-done, nor by a mechanical subservience, or even a system of formal consultations in which the essence of an outmoded relationship continues to operate.

Special ties of genuine alliance may be helpful among states of similar structures and policies, but when extended to movements in the capitalist world, especially in the United States, these ties are more harmful than useful. They make for a double illusion. No American Left can flourish in that framework and hence it would contribute little to the general trend of world development. The peoples of other countries would be kept in a deception, and subject to a rude awakening.

The predominant problem of the past has been dependence. That is why American socialists need to declare their independence. This necessity does not have to be justified because American workers have deep anti-Soviet prejudices which a long period of pacific competition, if the socialist world advances, may dissipate, nor is it the result of the ideological pressure of American capitalism. Most of us have resisted that pressure as well as the socialists of other lands. Our necessity is governed by the principle which is inherent in the new set of world relationships.

A friend of mine writes from California deriding this concept of ‘detachment.’ How can you be detached from a third of humanity, he asks? My answer is that, with Lincoln, we believe ‘the strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation should he one uniting all working people of all nations, and tongues and kindreds.’’ But sympathy does not mean a passionate attachment. It is for the very reason that revolutionary forces abroad—not perfect in themselves, never models for us, and subject to changes which they themselves can and must bring about——helped to shape a new state of affairs, that we have a better chance of grappling with our problems, giving battle with American Capitalism.

THESE problems were not solvable by the illusions and stupidities of a ‘‘world general staff,’’ whose blueprints could never he followed. They were not solvable in the posture of ‘guerrillas.’ They are not solvable by ‘undoing’ the Russian Revolution. Neither are they solvable by that escapism which denies the immense cost to everyone of the Stalinist path, nor which, in its latterday form, tends to deny the Stalin phenomenon at all.

The most serious shock of the past year did not lie so much in the Soviet self-criticism. It arose from the Soviet hesitation to pursue its implications frankly and boldly, and this was mainly responsible for the Hungarian catastrophe. It comes from the attempt to backwater, to hold the differing elements of a world movement together on unreal foundations whereas it can only make its way if the most important parts of the movement— especially those which have yet to realize their great potential—stand on their own feet and learn to walk again. A sympathetic, critical detachment of American socialists toward other countries and parties is part of the maturity we must acquire if we lay claim to leadership in a nation which is no marginal or secondary factor of humanity, but a primary and vital member of it.

Harvey Goldberg and William Appleman Williams, in their newly published book, (American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities) point out that American radicals are now coming face to face with ‘their most promising opportunity of the twentieth century,’ for ‘no American radicalism can arise and become effective unless and until the United States found itself forced to choose between, on the one hand, a war that threatened it with devastation, and on the other, a reorganization of American society.’’ The most hopeful feature of all the talk, the parleys, the re-study, of the past year lies in the deep conviction that we all need to know much more of American reality in order to help shape a reorganization of American society. This is the durable, the irresistible tendency. It was poignantly expressed in a letter to the Daily Worker last July, which spoke of a ‘longing for returning to our own backyard.’ Most widely recognized is the fact that there is no Aladdin’s lamp, which if properly rubbed, with simultaneous incantations to Marxism-Leninism, produces a genie with all the answers. Marxism is itself developed and altered to the degree that it is creatively employed. The real issue, in re-appraising American reality, will inevitably involve a re-appraisal of what socialism is.

The relation of democracy to socialism has to be reassessed. It may be that in the new context of world relations, the powers of the state in a developed capitalist society with a deep and firmly defended democratic tradition can in fact be used for socialist transitions quite differently than in under-developed countries with a predominantly feudal past. There are problems of a moral and ethical character: problems of the limits and abuses of power, and the checks and balances to power, in the democratic operation of a highly-industrialized society. These were not appreciated in Russia forty years ago. The Chinese are far more sensitive to such matters, and in this respect, Americans may find surprising answers. A great part of the answer will lie in asking the right questions.

A discussion the other night, another friend of mine lamented the ‘decline of socialist consciousness’ since the thirties. Perhaps what he fails to see is the rise of a much deeper democratic consciousness, to which the very activity of socialists and communists contributed. This is not a ‘corruption’ of some kind, but the very basis for the extension of democratic consciousness to a socialist level. We can hardly go along with the editors of Fortune that this money-crazy, wasteful, nervous society staggers along by the cannibalism of its human and natural resources is the ‘permanent revolution.’ But no socialist will make headway by debunking what has been achieved. The rise of great labor organizations without which modern industry cannot function; the remarkable fight of the Negro people for full equality, with weapons of their own choosing; the wider diffusion of a democratic and humanist culture which asserts itself despite limitations and idiocies of time mass communications—this is all the result tint the strivings of millions of Americans to ‘make democracy work.’’

There is a current in American radicalism, expressed by the town atheist, the village iconoclast, the intel1ectual who thumbs his nose at everything, and while indicting the society, also withdraws from it. Escape is an ancient theme in American life. An industrial society which its people do not control, and which has no greater ideal than money-making, atomizes its members and feeds the urge to escape. This is often noble, but almost always sterile. And it is understandable after a decade in which so many socialist-minded Americans have been uprooted from productive process, been driven from unions and colleges. But the problem remains of keeping one’s eye on the terrain on which socialists will advance, the terrain of what millions have already accomplished. To be dissolved without a trace in the bubbling currents of American life was always a danger; to be precipitated out is equally bad.

THE question inevitably arises: Who are the people that can give substance to a socialist revival, even if only in a transitional manner? The answer lies in a careful study of what actually exists. In this respect, just a word on the American Communist Party whose recent convention drew the spotlight. At this writing, I have not yet studied its resolutions on key issues, such as economic perspectives, trade union policy, or proposals—if there were any—for American development in the peaceful competition. Within their own limits, a formulas they use, my view is that the Communists did make a break with their own past. The demands of the stand-pat wing, insisting on a repudiation of thc criticisms on Hungary, banning further debate on changes of name and form, and viewing Marxism-Leninism in fetishistic terms, were not accepted by the convention’s majority. Most of the serious newspaper editorialists and political observers recognize the change.

Pravda did so in its own peculiar fashion. The Soviet Communist newspaper (as reported in the N.Y. Times for Feb. 17, 1957) hailed the results of the convention, claiming it to have been a defeat for the ‘waverers’ and ‘deviationists,’ meaning, we must assume, those who fought for a change and who won it. Such a performance has only one explanation: Pravda does not wish its own audience and the public opinion it shapes in many countries to know the extent to which the convention rebuked the reckless and thoughtless intervention of the Soviet leaders, aided by the French Communist Party. This is a piece of unparalleled cynicism. Pravda prefers to lie to its own people rather than let them face a serious and unpalatable truth, and thus begin to understand American reality by understanding why the American Communists have to break with the past.

Yet the convention in itself hardly solves the problems of the American Communists. Nor does it clarify what role they may play in a socialist revival. A large group of leaders who had such a heavy responsibility in running their movement to the ground could not re-impose their former policy and bitterly opposed even tentative steps toward a new one. Yet they presented their candidacies for carrying the new one out. They have no intention of giving others a fair chance to steer a much-weakened organization, and then submit the issue to a democratic decision at a later date. Thus, there is a real danger that the ‘old guard’’ will win enough of the remaining forty seats in the Communist national committee (in addition to the small number they have in the twenty already elected) and will dominate enough of the state organizations after the conventions in March, so as to continue the leadership-deadlock of the past ten years. In short, the men who place power above principle—with whom the non-Communist Left has had so much experience— can reverse the course if the supporters of a forward advance fall away at a critical moment. It is therefore a big question whether the Communists will be able to take part in the peaceful competition and the normal evolution of a socialist revival, a question they have to answer.

The answer in full, however, still depends on whether the much larger body of socialist-minded Americans will face up to the challenge that has been before them for a long time, and which arises out of the ferment on the Left. I may be wrong, but my own experience convinces me that the largest potential lies among the ex-members of what used to be the most influential organizations on the Left. These are the people I find in the scores of groups, working people and middle-class groups, in many towns and cities. These are the kinds of people who are meeting each other for argument and mutual exploration. The main body of active unionists, both leaders and rank-and-file, who think in socialist terms come from this category. These are the ex-members of the New Deal groupings, the ex-members of the Progressive Party, of the Socialist Party, ex-supporters of the Trotskyist groups, and ex-members of the Communist Party.

GRANTED that a considerable proportion of those who abandoned their former organizational ties did so out of fear, because of changes in their status, because of all the organic transformations which the Left has shared with the country as a whole. But the facts will also show that a very large body of people exists whose convictions have not changed and who are prepared to function in a fashion suitable to their real needs. Most of these people stepped out of their previous organizational ties not because they were wrong about them, but because they were right. I do not say that everyone who remains in a particular organization is hopeless, far from it. But there is an intermediate group, and by far the majority, those who were the ‘premature’ critics of policies in the ranks of the Left which did, it is now generally admitted, lead to its decline. There is much to be learned from them. They have given our common problems a great deal of thought. Those who have come to such views later (myself, for example) have the obligation to listen to them.

No one is going to repeat the past, and there is no prospect or need today for a monolithic, tightly knit political formation which assumes the responsibility of leading everything, and in which the most useful people cannot really function. What is needed is best expressed in the term ‘‘Fabian Society,’ which can inaugurate educational projects, conduct a serious discussion, and stimulate a modest contribution by its members to the struggles which are developing and will develop, and with which no one can compete. Such a Fabian Society may not last forever; it might only save the best of American Socialism and restore its prestige so that it can play an important part in whatever new formations must someday arise out of the labor movement, whether as a ‘‘third party’ or a first party. No one can rush the crystallization of such a group out of the existing ferment. But the time is approaching, unless I am much mistaken, when a realistic and responsible initiative in this direction will bring gratifying results.

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