Back to Socialist Basics

Fundamental socialist values which point to a form of society a hundred miles from the horizon of present possibility are needed to defend every half-mile of territory gained and to mount an attempt to regain each bit that has been lost.

This is the late G.A. Cohen, the ex-Marxist egalitarian political philosopher, writing in 1994 about the situation faced by the UK’s Labour Party, which was, as Cohen tells it, in danger of losing its realistic, practical effectiveness as a result of having abandoned its (possibly) unrealistic, impractical socialist values.

Well, say what you want about the tenets of pre-1992 Labour socialism, but at least it’s an ethos. The Democratic Party of the United States, in spite of what you might have heard on right-wing talk radio, doesn’t have any socialist values, or any “hundred miles from the horizon” values at all — and is thus lacking an essential tool which would, in Cohen’s formulation, help it to defend its current territory and regain the territory that’s been lost. In other words, to parlay its momentary electoral advantage into actual progress on the issues the Left holds dear, rather than serving merely to put the brakes on what might otherwise be a more violent rightward skid.

Next time you’re tempted to personally fault Barack Obama for “negotiating with himself” — for asking for a realistic half-mile, rather than an unrealistic hundred miles, and wondering why he only gets about a yard and a half — ask yourself whether this might not be a built-in weakness of the Democratic position: there’s nothing for them over the horizon to point to. There’s no moon for them to ask for, no crazily unrealistic principles to serve as a starting point for negotiation.

The Right, of course, has no shortage of crazily unrealistic principles: keeping only to the domain of economics, the list for American right-wingers in 2013 looks a lot like the list for Tories in 1994:

Considered as practical proposals, the theories of Friedman, Hayek, and Nozick were crazy, crazy in the strict sense that you would have to be crazy to think that such proposals (e.g., abolition of all regulation of professional standards and of safety at work, abolition of state money, abolition of all welfare provision) might be implemented in the near, medium, or long term. The theories are in that sense crazy precisely because they are uncompromisingly fundamental: they were not devised with one eye on electoral possibility.

Twenty-nine years later, of course, they don’t look quite so far from the realm of electoral possibility, at least in the United States, because for twenty-nine years the Republican Party has been pressing them relentlessly, along with other, no less crazy, principles, including the idea that all government spending is pernicious in practice as well as evil in essence, and the idea, given much support by Nozick, that redistributive taxation is tantamount to slavery.

Against this, the Democratic Party’s response generally begins by accepting the terms of the argument, acknowledging the (often spurious) support given for these crazy principles, and countering with a proposal that essentially amounts to “Let’s not be too hasty.” Is it any wonder that today’s Democrats occupy an ideological space that’s to the right of Richard Nixon, when not only socialism and egalitarianism but even the (once perfectly realizable) legacies of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society are ruled out of bounds, not just as realistic destinations but even as distant beacons by which to navigate?

Even if you’re inclined to accept that the Democratic Party counts as leftist in any meaningful way, you’d have to be playing fast and loose with language, history, or both to assert that it’s got any “socialist basics” to get back to. But given the structural impediments to mounting a third-party challenge that can both outflank the Democratic Party on the left and achieve near-term success on a national scale, it might be time the Left helped the Democratic Party to find some socialist values — and if I were a cynic, I might say that this could end up being easier than it sounds: the party, after all, wouldn’t have to struggle too mightily with overthrowing its non-socialist values, because it doesn’t have any values1 at all.

1. At least, that is, values that are “crazy precisely because they are uncompromisingly fundamental.” Now, that’s not the same as embracing values that are crazy precisely because they are politically toxic — as anything making explicit use of the word “socialism” is likely to be politically toxic in a country that doesn’t have a living tradition, as England does, of non-Marxist socialism, not to mention a country where red-baiting is never really out of style. Any values that are imported from socialism would have to be described in more palatable ways: as more strictly egalitarian modifications of liberal orthodoxy, as elaborations on Christian teachings, or both. Cohen, in his other writings, has a lot to say on both of these topics, and so will I.