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my letter to The Nation on "Re-Imagining Socialism"

The following letter that I wrote will be published in The Nation.

I wrote in response to the article "Rising to the Occasion" (published elsewhere as "The 'S' Word") by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed) and Bill Fletcher, Jr. (spokesperson for the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization and co-founder of Progressives for Obama), and forum of articles in reply, under the title "Re-Imagining Socialism," by Robert Pollin, Tariq Ali, Immanuel Wallerstein, Rebecca Solnit, Christian Parenti, Doug Henwood, Mike Davis, Michael Albert, et al.

You can find these articles at:

-- Chris

* * *

The articles to which I am primarily responding include:

Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., "Rising to the Occasion"

Rebecca Solnit, "The Revolution Has Already Occurred"

Robert Pollin, "Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic"

Christian Parenti, "Limits and Horizons"


* * *

Dear editors of The Nation,

Ehrenreich and Fletcher's article "Rising to the Occasion" and the Nation's forum of articles in reply exhibit a glaring disparity between the breadth and depth of the crisis being depicted and a striking timidity of response: in particular, Pollin's reversal of the 1960s-era slogan, "Be realistic, demand the impossible!," that we should now instead "be utopian, demand the realistic," support and seek to push further Obama's reforms.

But there was an earlier formulation of reality and utopia by C. Wright Mills in his 1960 "Letter to the New Left," the injunction that any purported Left "be realistic in our utopianism." After the 1950s-era declaration of the "end of ideology," Mills recognized that the only realistic possibility of political responsibility was to be found in the "utopian" and frankly "ideological" program of socialism, what Ehrenreich and Fletcher treat as the dirty "S" word.

Mills warned that socialism needed to be reinvented, but could only be so on the basis of the best of the Marxist tradition. Mills enjoined his readers to "forget Victorian Marxism" but nevertheless "re-read Lenin and Luxemburg," and recall what socialism once meant, what Marxism had sought to achieve.

But what we have now is the rehash of the worst associated with socialism since the 1920s-30s and 1960-70s, the undigested Stalinism and authoritarianism of the nation-state, as well as the opportunistic compromises of the Popular Front and worshiping of the accomplished fact that didn't bring about "socialism" and actually made us forget what it meant.

For the global problems of capitalism will not find solutions derived from Lula's Brazil or Chavez's Venezuela, Swedish policies in the 1970s-80s, take-overs of closed factories in Argentina, or community gardens in Detroit's emptied lots.

Such a perspective amounts to what Mills called the politically irresponsible combination of "liberal rhetoric and conservative default" in the on-going absence of a true Left, the radical politics of a Marxian socialism.

While there are indeed much worse things than living under the Swedish welfare state or eating home-grown vegetables, this is not a realistic prospect for saving the majority of the world's people, nor even the majority of Americans, from the ravages of capitalism.

When Parenti -- who co-authored with Featherstone and Henwood a fine critique of "Left anti-intellectualism" in "Action Will Be Taken" (2002), invoking Adorno's critique of unthinking "actionism" -- now notes the virtue of Marxism so even a semi-literate Indian public could grasp the dynamics of international capitalism better than their American counterparts, we have arrived at the reversal of Marx's 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, that hitherto we have tried only to understand the world while the point is to change it. For we cannot even understand our world and its problems on the basis of such a weak political perspective for changing it.

Only what the present "Left" deems "utopian," "full-throttle socialism" and "anarchism, as in direct democracy," not only in "little bits and pieces," but "enlarged and clarified" -- but beyond anything envisioned by our authors here -- starting and pursued to conclusion in the core of global capital, such as the U.S., where the crisis and its potential solution find their nexus, has any real hope of a true diagnosis of our problems and a prognosis for overcoming them.

While the revolution envisioned by Marx and his best followers has never yet occurred, it still might and indeed must take place, if we are to begin to address the manifest problems of capitalism recognized clearly so long ago. This is our true limit and horizon, however constantly failed and betrayed, whether we recognize it or not.

Chris Cutrone, for the Platypus Affiliated Society