Socialism’s all the rage. “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we’re already living in the USSA. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 23 issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “Rising to the Occasion” as the opening essay in a forum on “Reimagining Socialism.” TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
Jack London wrote more than 100 years ago: “We are all tied to the same machine—only some of us are tied to the top.” And that, of course, makes all the difference.
The crisis of capitalism that we are experiencing unfolds as two parallel crises. One crisis for them, the corporate elite, the CEOs and CFOs and the Boards, their lobbyists and politicians, and all those who make up the upper echelons of American economic, social and political life. And another crisis for us, often called “the middle class,” but better described as our country’s working people and, of course, the poor.
The crisis has quickly led to a struggle between the two groups, first over the question of who will pay for the crisis; second over how the economy will be reorganized through the crisis; and third over the new state of affairs that will prevail when the crisis ends. They want us to pay for the crisis, of course. Meanwhile, they want to consolidate economic power through the crisis, while we lose our homes. And finally, they want a new state of affairs tomorrow that will return them to profitability—and leave us broke.
The auto bailout, for example, is conditioned on union givebacks. Similar things are happening across the country, where state governments plan to make public employees pay the price for the crisis. Government and industry don’t intend to let this crisis go to waste, not when it can be used to strengthen capital at the expense of labor.
So a struggle has begun—but it is an unequal contest. The corporate elite that has run this country for a hundred years controls all the governmental machinery, dominates the two major political parties, the lobbyists, and business and commercial associations. We have...well, in truth, we don’t’ have much except our numbers and our disparate locations in the workplace, communities and society of working class America.
How do we use what little we have in this unequal fight over the future of our country? How in the face of their vast economic and political power do we build the people’s power to confront them? We believe the answer is for socialists to work to build and to support militant minorities. Think of the Abolitionists. Think of the sit-down strikers. Think of Martin Luther King, Ella Baker and Cesar Chavez.
Or take the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago and their union, the United Electrical Workers (UE) as an example. Those workers refused to accept the closing of their plant. But they didn’t just file a grievance, or bring a lawsuit. Three hundred workers in one factory organized democratically, from below, and built a grassroots movement that took action. They trespassed, seized private property, occupied a factory, called for solidarity, and got it. And in the end they kept their jobs, and for a brief moment inspired working people throughout the country and the world. They should be our model.
The task of socialists today is to build and support such militant minorities so that tomorrow we can set larger groups into motion. We know from experience that when large numbers go into motion, they develop new tactics and strategies, as well as the new political alternatives without which we cannot succeed in changing this society. Most important, when millions go into motion, they actually have the power to change society.
* From The Nation: