The Perils and Promise of Political Labels

Smart hitters and dumb hitters

When I was growing up in Jamaica, Queens, New York, I played hardball in the sandlots with a pitcher who was small in size but more than made up for it with his determination to become a top-notch pitcher and lead-off hitter.  It was only when I was about 18 years old (we played together for ten years) that Jesse told me about the techniques he used as a hitter and pitcher. Up until I was 18 we often played against each other so he had to keep his trade secrets to himself. As a lead-off hitter he felt it was a requirement to take pitches in the hopes of wearing the opposing pitcher out in the long run of the game. He also “took pitches” (meaning he didn’t swing at them) because he wanted to make sure he hit “his pitch” (an optimal area of the strike zone, where a hitter will hit the ball well.) Jesse divided the strike zone into a nine area-grid, according to whether the pitches were high, middle or low in the strike zone and whether they were outside, in the middle or on the inside of the plate. He designated the three areas that were his best places to hit and the three areas which were his weakest. He would only swing at these pitches when he was behind on the count. This technique had its limits because if a pitcher was very good, you would never get a pitch you could hit. If you waited too long you’d be called out on strikes. As a pitcher, Jesse was very aware of the zones of other hitters and used it to his advantage.

At the other extreme were hitters such as myself who loved to swing the bat at any pitch in the strike zone. Tiring the pitch out or waiting for the right pitch, thinking about variables like who is following me in the line-up or how many runners were on base meant little me.  I just loved to swing as much as possible, would never take a strike unless I was fooled by a pitch. Walking seemed like personal defeat to me. I turned out to be a pretty good hitter because sometimes pitchers made mistakes and I would make them pay for it. But a pitcher like Jesse could get me out most of the time because he rarely made mistakes and he knew my strengths and weaknesses as a hitter better than I did. I was a dumb hitter. I will use this baseball metaphor to describe the situation of many socialists in the United States today.

A Question for Green Party members

A couple of weeks ago I posed this question to the Jill Stein Dank Meme Facebook group. My question was “since the Green Party now claims itself to be an anti-capitalist party and an eco-socialist party, why doesn’t Jill Stein use the words “capitalism” and “socialism” in her speeches and interviews? After all, if Bernie is a Democrat and he used the word “socialism” to describe himself, why wouldn’t a left-wing party want to use the opportunity to use the word capitalism and socialism in a more forceful way?”

The response I got from the people following this Facebook group is more important to me than any explicit response from Jill Stein. The response was an expression of a left that has been successfully red-baited for so long, has been so used to “taking pitches”, that it takes a Democrat, who most of us would agree is not a socialist, to use the word in a favorable way. The fact that half the people under 30 look favorably on socialism came as a big surprise to many of us. At the very least, this says is that we haven’t been paying attention to how Americans really feel. Secondly, maybe we have come to believe the capitalist myth that Americans are not interested in socialism. Maybe it’s both.

The perils of political labels

Socialist ideology vs taking action

One response I got was to disparage my attempt at defining the label “socialism” by contrasting it to “taking action” which to them seemed more “real” than any arguing over socialist theory. What is the grain of truth in this? People do fall in love with their belief systems and I have all too often been exposed to Marxists who will argue endlessly about their “holy books”, and their textual interpretation of them. They have their patron saints and heretics and forecasts of judgment days when capitalism collapses. Yet many of these same Marxists have an extremely difficult time talking to the working class and explaining socialism in a comprehensible, down-to-earth way.  After 45 years of inundation with Marxism I can safely say that Marxism has either become a religion in the worst sense of the word, or it has became an academic discipline, which to me may be worse.

However, to frame a political belief system, such as socialism, as opposed to action is a very naïve way of understanding what it means to take action. Taking action, which is uniformed by a theoretical analysis, is the worst kind of empiricism. Politics aside, the conduct of any individual, which tries to make itself innocent of interpretation, is not even an action; it’s a behavior. An individual’s action, let alone a group’s action, implies a reasoned plan, even if unconscious, about what to do and what not to do in taking action. Marxists who think critically about our own tradition understand that theory informs practice, and political practice teaches us new things about the world, which then informs our theory. What separates socialism as a theory from socialism as an ideology is the willingness of socialists to test our theory collectively in a very concrete political manner over and over again over weeks or months.

The word socialism is too confusing to define: to each his own socialism

Another response I received was that socialism is so hard to define that we shouldn’t waste time on it because it sheds more heat that light. We should let organizers or activists use their own definitions and not get into a war with words. It’s certainly true that if you ask Americans the difference between a socialist, an anarchist, a communist, a Leninist, a Trotskyist, you are not going to get very far. But at least as big a problem is that you can’t ask many people on the left about these differences without getting a great deal more heat in the bargain. Where does this leave the people under thirty in the United States who are interested in socialism? Will they get a clear and simple explanation from a social democrat, Marxist-Leninist or anarchist about these differences? No. Instead they will receive an unsolicited review of Trotsky’s transition program; a denunciation of Edward Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism and a barrage by anarchists over the CNT’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution by joining the government. More academic Marxists argue over whether Engels did or didn’t carry on Marx’s legacy. Those socialists who don’t want to step into this cesspool certainly have a point in wanting each socialist to define things in their own way. So are the relativists right? Should we give up the use of these terms because they are a combination of obscure and loaded? I don’t think so.

The Promise Of Political Labels

The various political systems of socialism are well worth preserving and talking about with others because they can help us analyze what is going in the world and understand what has got wrong in the last 160 years. The root word for politics is “policy” which means charting a future direction. Socialist theory might give budding young socialists hope for steering our future political course as well as a process for getting there.

My purpose

I will attempt to define as simply as I can the differences within socialist theory and practice very briefly.  I am fully aware that many of the people who are reading this might be just as capable as I am to do this or they may be even more capable. My reason for doing this is to show rhetorically how it might be possible to explain to the American public what socialism is all about in a clear and exciting way in the months and years ahead. So what I’m asking you to do is not to evaluate my appraisal of these theoretical as fellow socialist theorists, but rather as organizers. Does this framework I lay out help you to explain socialism to the public, which I think we all want to do?

I hope that this might be the beginning of a dialogue in which we all share experiences in print with our successes and failures in engaging with Americans about the prospects for 21st century socialism. Please don’t waste your time writing me about what I left out, left in, oversimplified or underestimated. I would much prefer you write your own version of how to explain socialism to the American public and improve it for all our readers.

Overcoming a bad reputation

In order to define the following terms with relative clarity, we first have to understand the misconceptions people in the US have of them. Here are some common misconceptions of these terms:

Anarchist:

  • A bomb throwing bearded Russian who blows up buildings.
  • Someone who stands for a complete lack of social organization
  • A naïve utopian who doesn’t understand that decentralized groups can’t work in today’s complex world

Socialist:

  • State control over natural resources
  • High taxes
  • People who willingly trade off freedom for security
  • A utopian who does not understand that human initiative in starting a business is what motivates people

Communist:

  • The state owns everything
  • There is only one party
  • People cannot get consumer goods
  • People cannot dissent
  • Religion is suppressed
  • Someone who is a naïve utopian about human nature. Trading cannot be suppressed because, as Adam Smith said, trucking and bartering goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers.

To begin with, we need an overarching word that can cover all the different kinds of socialism. I nominate the word “socialism” because it has the least heat and it can cover the most ground. The way I see it, there are four kinds of socialism: social democracy, Marxist Leninism, council communism and anarchism. All four types have first emerged as strategies for dealing with concrete historical conditions.

Social democracy

Social democracy first arose as an option when a very successful social democratic party in Germany in the late 19th century had joined with a strong union movement but managed to get itself elected into parliament. Its success made the leaders (including Marx and Engels) think that it might be possible for socialism to be victorious by simply being voted in. As capitalism continued its economic panics and wars at the end of the 19th century, it was not so far-fetched to imagine that people would use their vote to bring about a new economic system. In hindsight what the social democrats learned then, and social democrats today must continually face, is that collaborating with bourgeois parties weakens the socialist policies and the socialist party becomes complicit in the policies of the very regime of which it has now become a part.

Anarchists (Wobblies, the Russian and Spanish revolutions)

While the social democrats were more prevalent in England and Germany, anarchism was more rooted in the southern European countries of Spain, Italy and France. The anarchists were the great rivals of the Marxists in the First International and continued to be influential in the European workers’ movements throughout the 19th century. The anarchists believed in a decentralized form of social organization and were cynical not only about capitalism, but also about the electoral system and the state as a socializing agency.

While anarchism was also present in the United States after Eastern European migration in the 1880’s, anarchism in the US became strongest when applied to unions with the founding of the IWW in 1905. Anarchists were among the great revolutionaries during the Russian and Spanish revolutions. The great problem for the anarchists is that there is little resolution as to whether coordination across localities is necessary. The purists say no, and the more realistic ones say yes. Anarchists in both Spain and Russia sided with the second way, and in the case of Spain, workers and peasant organization coordinated the activities of at least one third of a million people between 1936-1939.

Marxist Leninism

Marxist Leninism emerged under the historical conditions, which were very unfavorable to the kind of Marxist practice that existed in Germany: a repressive Czarist state, with a tiny working class, no unions and no political representation. This at least partly explains why the Bolshevik party was secretive and why they came to believe a vanguard party was necessary. The great showdown between the Mensheviks and the Bolshevists was over whether a socialist revolution could take place in a country without going through a capitalist phase. The Mensheviks said no, it’s necessary to wait for capitalism to develop the wealth, which will make socialism possible. The Bolsheviks disagreed and said we can go straight to socialism because of the possibility of a revolution in Germany. Their belief was that Germany, as an economic powerhouse, would help them to industrialize.

As most of us know the revolution in Germany failed and the Bolsheviks were left with a very large country with little mass transportation, little capitalism and industry, and all the while being surrounded by capitalist enemies. This at least partly explains the legacy of authoritarianism that was visited on the council communists and the anarchists between 1917 and 1921. It is harder to explain the Stalinist years up to the 1950’s. Today Marxists-Leninists have to face the legacy of the Stalin years that has been associated with them. Also, they need to address the question of whether or not there is a place for a secret vanguard party in capitalist countries with at least nominal political representation and whose citizens are very skeptical of authorities in any form.

Council communists

The word “soviet” means council. Council communists emerged before and during the Russian revolution as a tendency that criticized the authoritarian nature of the Soviet state and supported the workers’ councils that were formed in Russia and later in Spain. Like the anarchists, the council communists agreed that the basic unit of organization was the general assembly. From this assembly, councils should be formed and these councils were filled with delegates, not representatives. Delegates had no decision-making power; their positions were rotated and they were subject to immediate recall.

Unlike the anarchists, council communists felt they were upholding the real Marxian traditions against the Bolsheviks. For council communists, unlike the anarchists, centralization was a necessary part of social organization. However, that centralized body was necessary, provided it was strictly controlled by the general assemblies and local and regional councils.

What about markets?

A central dilemma for council communists, anarchists and, to a lesser extent, social democrats, is the place of a market. Markets are not synonymous with capitalism. There have been markets throughout history long before capitalism. Are there some circumstances in which general assemblies and workers councils should not plan social production and leave them to some kind of market mechanism? Market socialists propose there is an important place for markets. The purists say no. David Schweickart’s book, After Capitalism, delineates a system which combines workers’ councils, markets and the state.

Conclusion: Stepping Up to the Plate

There are some socialists who talk about capitalism and socialism regardless of whether it was the 70’s, the 80’s or beyond. They don’t change their tone or vocabulary, no matter the circumstances. This was like I was as a baseball hitter: heartfelt but out of touch, and rhetorically insensitive to time, place and circumstance. But his article is not addressed to those who have no trouble swinging away. It is addressed to those of us who don’t swing enough.

Most socialists I know have been taking too many pitches and we are in danger of being called out on strikes. We are living in a historical period in the United States in which world capitalism may be in its worst shape ever. In my college classes I use the word “capitalism” to explain psychological problems. I try to get people used to using it, and I find students respond to this. Yet what I’m doing is easy. Students are dependent on me for a grade and I have 18 weeks to work on them. The real challenge is to use it in public, to publicize capitalism in everyday life with people I may not know. I have tried in my everyday speech with people to open with “How is capitalism treating you?” instead of “How ya doing?” I’ve gotten some surprisingly positive results but I have to confess I don’t do it as often as I would like. This is one of my New Year’s Resolutions. If we don’t start naming the system that oppresses us now, when are we ever going to do it?  The capitalist pitcher is tired and is making mistakes. The pitch is coming our way in the next few months and is in our hitting zone. What are we waiting for?

As for the term “socialism”, if someone like Bernie Sanders, who isn’t even a socialist, can stand up in front of thousands of people and say he is a socialist, isn’t it time we used every opportunity to use the word? The young public is open to the word. This is the same public that has the potential to make a revolution. Isn’t it time to stop taking pitches and start swinging away?

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.