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Liberalism’s Crisis, Socialism’s Promise

Socialism isn't the negation of liberalism. It's the realization of liberal values made impossible by capitalism.

New York magazine contributor Jonathan Chait recently published a series of articles attacking the new generation of “Marxists” — as epitomized by Jacobin — for absolving “Lenin, Stalin and Mao” of their crimes.

Chait seems to assume that all socialists are Marxists and that all Marxists are of one cloth. He contends that “Marxist governments trample on individual rights because Marxist theory does not care about individual rights. Marxism is a theory of class justice.”

Chait blames the contemporary revival of socialism for refusing liberalism’s gifts and for supporting speech restrictions on college campuses, including efforts to shut down Trump rallies.

The title of Chait’s opening salvo, “Reminder: Liberalism is Working and Marxism Has Always Failed,” reflects his obliviousness to the forty-year crisis of New Deal liberalism and its replacement by a neoliberal regime of economic deregulation, privatization, attacks on union rights, and upwardly redistributive tax cuts.

Chait worries that the increasing attraction of young people to socialism and the Sanders campaign will push them down the slippery slope to authoritarian communism.

But millennials’ newfound interest in socialism results not from dewy-eyed visions of five-year plans. Rather, they recognize that “the triumph of capitalism” has left them a world of contingent, low-wage labor, burdensome student debt, and insecure futures.

Chait conjures up images of young Marxists embracing the gulag. In reality, most Sanders enthusiasts support a return to the very New Deal liberalism that Chait claims to treasure. They don’t want “free stuff.” They want a progressive tax system that would expand public goods and decrease individual vulnerability to the market.

These “liberal” gains occur only when a strong socialist left forces moderate political elites to expand social rights. But in a globalized economy, this can only happen once the Left rebuilds the power of labor over capital on an international scale.

Achieving that requires new forms of political organization and strategy. This is why young organizers and intellectuals are drawn to socialist ideas and outlets.

Let’s Read Marx Marx’s Way, Not Chait’s

But what of Chait’s charge that Marxists are hostile to political and civil liberties? To be sure, the state ideologies of Marxist-Leninist regimes dismissed political and civil liberties as mere “bourgeois rights.” But democratic socialist activists and dissident communists unwaveringly defended these rights, both as goods by their own virtues, and as necessary to working-class political organization.

Marx did hold in On the Jewish Question that the absence of social and economic democracy made civil and political rights less valuable and that civil rights under capitalism often prioritized property rights over individual rights. “Freedom of speech,” in Marx’s account, is much more valuable to the corporate owners of the mass media than to the poor. The value of one person, one voice, one vote is eroded when financial resources are convertible into political power.

But Marx also warned in The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France that authoritarian regimes that eliminated basic political and civil liberties were a threat to freedom. His 1875 pamphlet Critique of the Gotha Program attacked Ferdinand Lassalle’s leadership of the United Workers Party of Germany (the Social Democratic Party’s forerunner) because he backed the authoritarian Bismarck regime.

Lassalle pointed to Bismarck’s social insurance schemes (including national health insurance) that benefited workers. Marx held that the workers’ movement should never embrace a government that took away its political rights to organize freely.

The Communist Manifesto itself ends with a clarion call for workers to overthrow aristocratic regimes and then win the “battle for democracy” by fighting for communism.

Fulfilling Liberal Values

Democratic socialists believe that capitalist democracy is too capitalist to be fully democratic. In fighting to extend democracy into the economic sphere, socialists aim to go beyond liberal democracy while fulfilling its aims: the flowering of human individuality and the ability of all to have an equal voice in governing the institutions that affect daily life.

These goals can only be achieved if society provides institutional guarantees to political and civil rights and to those goods necessary to develop human potential (things like health care, housing, education, child and elder care).

Socialists extend the liberal concept of democratic self-determination by fighting to extend democracy in the workplace and to achieve social control over what we produce and how we produce it and allocate the social surplus created.

Chait, who seems to have read little of Marx, let alone twentieth-century Marxist thought, conflates everything from left social democracy to libertarian anarcho-communism with Stalinism.

Orthodox Marxist-Leninists did build on Marx’s sometimes reductionist view of politics as solely class conflict to argue that, in a classless society, the question of how to organize a society would be purely administrative and technocratic. But almost all socialists today believe that political and social conflict would continue under socialism, albeit in more humane forms than under capitalism.

Democratic debate and deliberation, rather than a single omniscient party, would determine how society organizes things like caregiving, housing, cultural life, and transportation.

Nor is Chait aware of a long “liberal socialist” tradition that can be traced back to the pre–World War I French socialist leader Jean Jaurès and the Italian antifascist author of Liberal Socialism, Carlo Rosselli. Both held that only a democratic socialist society can produce the most noble goal of liberalism: the ability of each human being to freely develop their capability.

In a 1977 Dissent essay, “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation?,” Irving Howe argued that liberals who understand that corporations are undemocratic, hierarchically governed institutions (rather than organizations created by a series of “free contracts”) often embrace democratic socialism.

Socialists critique the dominant Lockeian romantic conception that each of us own our own land, tools, and labor and can determine our destiny through individual effort. They point out that liberal values can only be achieved if corporate property rights are excised from the liberal canon.

And contemporary antiracist, socialist feminists would argue that only a society with democratized gender roles and true equality before the law can achieve liberalism’s professed aims.

Does Marxism Lead To The Gulag?

Chait demonstrates his ignorance of Marx’s work when he equates Marx’s vision of communism with the authoritarian communism of the former Soviet Union and Maoist China.

Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts held that communism was only possible after the full development of capitalism. He predicted that if communists forced agrarian, feudal societies (like Russia and China) to industrialize, it would turn the state into “the universal capitalist” that exploits the population as the “universal working class.”

What Marx could not have foreseen was that it would be easier to overthrow landed oligarchies (particularly when the oligarchs could not protect the peasantry from foreign invasion) than to transition from capitalist democracy to socialism (though, at times, in the 1970s and 1980s such a shift seemed possible in Chile, France, and Sweden).

Chait fails to recognize that neither the Marxist nor the capitalist tradition developed a peaceful and humane path to equitable economic development in pre-industrial societies. The horrors of “primitive accumulation” (slavery, genocide against indigenous peoples) in the capitalist world do not seem to bother Chait.

Capitalism Versus Democracy

Chait is also silent about the failure of liberalism to achieve its aim of equal rights for all. He does not recognize how capitalism, racism, and patriarchy preclude the equal moral worth of persons that is the moral foundation for liberalism itself.

This is why socialists are active in struggles to end voter suppression, police brutality, and mass incarceration and to defend and expand reproductive services.

Chait celebrates Obama’s “egalitarian social reforms . . . higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures.”

But these measures are tepid in nature, as compared to the more robust (though also flawed and exclusionary) social welfare reforms enacted in the 1930s and 1960s when a more powerful left and labor movement put some backbone into liberalism.

The Right Is The Main Threat To Freedom

Chait also blames Marxism (and Jacobin readers!) for the alleged suppression of speech on campus, especially for the tactic of shutting down Trump rallies. But socialists hold diverse views as to whether and how to regulate speech on campus.

Chait evinces little concern that many students from historically underrepresented groups do not feel recognized as full and legitimate members of their campus communities. Nor does he recognize that sexual harassment and sexual violence remain major threats on college campuses.

Only militant student protests transformed the composition of the college student body and faculty in the 1960s. And conservatives — and some liberals — criticized those protests for being “illiberal.”

Perhaps Chait recognizes the need to oppose speech that incites people to racist or homophobic acts. But he reserves his ire not for an anti-liberal nativist movement supporting an explicitly racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic candidate, but for those who protest the politics of hate.

Many liberal democracies ban racist or hate speech. One can oppose such bans (as do I), but when speech veers into repressive action (such as racist violence against others), then force must be repelled by force. The failure of the German state during the Weimar Republic to stop fascist violence against peaceful gatherings of democratic citizens undoubtedly contributed to the Nazi rise to power.

Straw-man arguments all too often substitute for nuanced analysis. Apparently we’ve been reduced to stating the obvious: reading Marx does not inexorably lead one to worship Stalin. Most socialists are committed to a political project built around fulfilling the promise of liberalism — liberty, equality, and solidarity — that capitalism precludes. And that’s why we oppose liberalism of the Jonathan Chait variety.