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.

I like the idea of being fully transparent about influence, if not even confessorial. I’m so bored with the idea of composers being sui generis romantic geniuses; I am obsessed with the idea of us all being inheritors, mimics, state employees, fonctionnaires, craftspeople. I had a revelation a few years ago: the pieces of music that move me most were written by people in the direct employ of the state or the church. Bach, Gibbons, Byrd, Weelkes, Taverner. With the exception of Britten and Adams, I’ve never been as fucked up by any music by a citizen composer than I have by these employees who didn’t have the time to go into the woods and commune with nature etc. Their asses had deadlines, and the responsibilities of the ecclesiastical calendar, and the choir turning up and whatever o’clock, and the music still hits me in the solar plexus.

Nico Muhly

This was written on September 12, 2001, and, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed — it’s the ultimate cold shower for those moments when, caught up in the rush of current events, we sit down to pen our “what is to be done” essays.

Of course the World Trade Center bombings are a uniquely tragic event, and it is vital that we never lose sight of the human tragedy involved. However, we must also consider if this is not also a lesson to us all; a lesson that my political views are correct. Although what is done can never be undone, the fact remains that if the world were organised according to my political views, this tragedy would never have happened.

Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics


Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Einstein, apparently

Kafka shreds, you guys

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls converged so quickly that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run.”

“But you’ve only got to run the other way,” said the cat, and ate it up.

A Little Fable

On reading too much

Paul Dirac, the great physicist, refused to accept the books that Robert Oppenheimer tried to give to him; “reading books, the Cambridge theoretician announced gravely, ‘interfered with thought’.”

The first time I heard this anecdote I was struck by its self-evident absurdity. Reading is thought. And so it is. But it’s not your thought.

I’d be the last to claim that all thought is linguistic, or verbal. Plenty of it is visual, spatial, mathematical, musical. But your internal monologue is a large part of your conscious experience. This seems especially likely for people with a facility for language — exactly the people who, like me, are in danger of reading too much.

If your experience of reading is anything like mine, then what you’re doing when you read is letting someone else write your internal monologue for you. You are not the author of your own stream of consciousness.

Now if it weren’t for reading, your consciousness would be severely limited. We all benefit from being able to think through the thoughts of Shakespeare, and a hundred or a thousand other authors besides. But there must come a point when enough is enough. We’ve only got time to think so many thoughts. Some of them should be our own.

I tend to usually have a couple things going on at the same time, so I can go back and forth between them. I very easily get upset at the things I’m doing, so I have to have something else happening at the same time, so I don’t become completely distraught over what I’m working on. Usually, eventually, almost without fail, all of it gets thrown away anyway.

Jim O’Rourke


I do think the gun lobby has a point when they say that an armed society would be a polite society, in the sense that if everyone was packing heat, from bus drivers to schoolteachers to first graders, then violent criminals — be they armed robbers or mass murderers — would have to think twice about whether they’re really up for testing their marksmanship against a bus/mall/classroom full of armed, trained killers. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction works in international relations, why not interpersonal relations as well? It’s madness, but it’s hard to say for sure that it couldn’t work.

Likewise I think it’s abundantly clear that the “ban all guns now” lobby has an equally good point when they say that a member of a totally unarmed society would have a much harder time going out in a blaze of psychopathic, murderous glory if he (why always he?) had to rely on knives, sticks, or krav maga, rather than weapons capable of annihilating an entire Revolutionary War army regiment. Issues of rights and liberties aside — and these are big issues, I agree — this practical point should be obvious and uncontroversial. I don’t think anyone who says “guns don’t kill people, people do” actually fails to recognize that the gun does play a fairly important role in the killing process.

The problem is that we are very far indeed from either of these stable equilibria. Though the NRA may fantasize that we are a couple of handgun safety classes away from the Wild West situation described in the first paragraph, the fact is — and they know this, when they look at the data — that while the USA has an enormous number of guns per capita — we own half of all the guns in the world — they are far from evenly distributed. Just under a third of Americans own guns at all, and 20% of them own 65% of America’s guns. So something like 7% of the American population owns about a third of all the world’s guns.

We are at least as far from a universally armed society as we are from a universally unarmed society. And the contentiousness of this issue means that we are not going to make it to either extreme any time soon. It’s hard to see how a five per cent — or even a fifty per cent — bump in either direction could be politically practical given the emotions (and political will) on each side. And even a fifty per cent movement wouldn’t be enough to stop these massacres from taking place. We Americans have proven time and time again that we have the desire to kill, and as long as some of us have guns and some of us don’t, we’re going to find a way.

So it’s got to be all or nothing. But it can’t be. So then what?