The word “socialist” is getting a lot of press these days. This past weekend, it captured national attention after a big debate at the NDP’s national convention in Vancouver. It seems many wanted to remove the term from the party’s official constitution, to give the party a more moderate image and hope to attract voters. The convention voted otherwise, and so for now, they’re still “socialists”. Since the NDP’s stunning win of over a hundred seats in the recent Federal Election, this was probably inevitable, but it does raise a lot of questions.

As long as I can remember, the moderate left has been possessed with a kind of paranoia about not being seen as “moderate enough”. This kind of fear kept the NDP in the shadow of the Liberals for years, as they simply copied out all the best parts of the NDP’s (watered down) platform. This gave the NDP the illusion of being next to useless – why vote for them when the Liberals are promising all the same things, and might actually win? The NDP’s recent success has as much to do with the implosion of the Liberals as it does with the (very real) leftward shift of Canadian opinion, and Layton knows it.

This is a big part of the reason I haven’t worked with the NDP in a very long time. Not only is this strategy self-defeating, it borders on outright dishonesty. And the ultimate result, either way, is that nobody on the “organized left” is willing to actually argue a “leftist” position. When this happens, centrists and “right-wingers” win by default, and the population at large is left without any radical alternative.

The next part of the story comes from Europe, where established “Socialist” parties are taking a beating. In Spain and Portugal, ruling Socialists have lost recent elections over the outright disgust of Spanish society over their handling of austerity measures, whom either voted Conservative (Spain) and Centrist (Protugal) or refused to vote and took to the streets and squares instead.

What does “Socialism” mean when a ruling Socialist party is willing to push austerity cuts on the population on the behalf of EU and IMF? Not a whole lot. And despite the very clear dislike of capitalism present in the new wave of European radicalism (particularly in Spain), not a whole lot of it is using the “S-word”.

The final part of this story comes from our neighbours to the south, the Americans. We’re all familiar with the culture of red-baiting, and absolutely over-use of terms like “socialist” (eg. “Obama is a socialist”). In spite of all this, a recent poll of Americans showed that even if you use the dreaded s-word, a surprising number are all for it. Only 53% of Americans believe capitalism is “the best system”, about half that are unsure, and about 20% said socialism. Among young people, it’s nearly even, with 37% saying capitalism, 33% socialist and 30% undecided. Pretty startling numbers if you believe Fox and CNN reflect “America”.

Since Reagan, Republicans and others have repeatedly attacked many parts of “the government” – schools, public services, health care etc – as essentially “socialist”. Unfortunately for them, those are the parts of the government that people actually like and tend to rely on. The predictable backlash has been that people really aren’t all that scared of the idea anymore, especially if the alternative is Reagan-style “big government” (more cops, prisons, armies and corporations).

Like so many other terms in modern politics, “socialism” has been used and abused to the point of meaning almost nothing. The 20th century left socialists with a legacy of failure in nearly every arena of statecraft – from the autocrats of China and Russia to moderates of the west. And while there’s clearly a demand for an alternative to capitalism, socialism in general seems far less clearly defined than it did a century ago.

If there’s a future for socialism, it’s going to have to be a lot more grassroots. The dream of a workers’ state has proved absolutely unworkable in nearly every form. With all the general strikes and popular uprisings in the last year, there hasn’t been much in the way of a “party” rising to lead, especially a socialist one. Perhaps, though, with the death of the (dreadful) notion of a governing party which can make all our dreams come true, the actual issue of workers controlling production can be discussed.

If the word “socialism” won’t do, how about syndicalism? Or mutualism? “Economic democracy”? Open-source? Autonomist Marxism? Or (gasp) anarchism? What does it take to get a serious discussion of an economy that isn’t run by government bureaucracies or investors and profiteers? We’ll probably never again be able to use the term “Soviet” (worker’s council), and if many corporations get their way the term “co-operative” will become just as tainted. Whatever words we use, it’s that idea that matters.

Liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” – Mikhail Bakunin (Marx’s famous anarchist adversary)

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