Freedom Socialist book review — Imagine Living In a Socialist USA, by Paul Street

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It is progress that a book entitled Imagine Living In a Socialist USA has been published by Harper, a major mainstream publisher.

The brief first section, “What’s Wrong With Capitalism?” by Paul Street outlines the ruthlessness of the capitalist system, its incompatibility with democracy, and why our survival depends on pushing it off the stage of history.

What could be. Section 2, “Imagining Socialism” follows with 20 brief essays, mostly by veteran activists of the broad left: authors, journalists, professors, lawyers, a poet and a musician. Included are Frances Fox Piven, Michael Steven Smith, Joel Kovel, Rick Wolff, Arun Gupta, Mumia, and Angela Davis, to mention a few.

All agree that a post-capitalist society is possible, and would be one of cooperation where the environment would be nourished, where bigotry and inequality would cease to be the norm, where everyone’s needs would be society’s priority. Some call it socialism, others democratic socialism or revolutionary socialism, and another eco-socialism.

Curiously, Section 2 recounts almost nothing of the rich socialist tradition in the U.S. Except for Blanche Wiesen Cook’s chapter on three early socialist feminists, one is left with the impression that all of this visualizing can and should be done without mentioning socialist forerunners. Eugene Debs is nowhere to be found!

The best chapter is by Juan Gonzalez, who takes on the myth of the “post-racial” era, tells leftists to “stop propping up the bankrupt electoral system,” urges the most oppressed unionists to take over and revive their unions, and sums up recent immigrant organizing and fightback: “… any hope for fundamental change in U.S. society rests largely on the shoulders of new immigrant labor.”

Truthfully, much of this has been imagined before. One of the best works is James Cannon’s What Socialist America Will Look Like.

How to get there. About half the space is allotted to “Getting There: How to make a Socialist America” — the last section of the book. Frankly, although the title of the book is Imagine Living …, I wish that more ink was spent on the getting there.

In 1999, an anti-World Trade Organization eruption resulted in mass street battles with police worldwide. In 2006 tens of thousands of immigrants walked off their jobs to rally in cities across this country, a vitally important upsurge. In 2011 millions of mostly young people occupied city squares, embracing class consciousness as never before.

The key question is how to sustain such surges. In my view, they will dissipate again and again without the leadership of a revolutionary party. This is an idea that socialists should be debating and hopefully coming to some agreement on. Yet the topic is conspicuously absent in Imagine. I would say avoided.

As a repository for the lessons of history on political and social rebellion, a party provides theoretically educated and politically trained professional revolutionaries capable of focusing the energy of the vast majority of the populace toward the final goal. And that goal is the taking of power, by the many from the few. It will require sustained, dedicated leadership organizing. On the party question, I highly recommend Socialist Feminism and the Revolutionary Party, by Andrea Bauer.

In the “Getting There” section there are some calls to break with the Democratic Party, and a mention somewhere that a labor party would be a good idea. But largely it advocates more of what has gone before: organize with like-minded people, form and join unions and coalitions, aim for a general strike. All good ideas, but simply not enough.

Next to nothing is said about if or how socialists should participate in the electoral arena. On the issue of pacifism vs. the right of armed self-defense, one author demands an “absolute commitment to non-violence,” another says “the mass movement has to be prepared to defend itself by any means necessary.” Socialists should really be in accord on this topic.

Astonishingly, though several of the contributors are affiliated with left and socialist organizations, not one is identified as such in the bio section, and not one advocates that the reader join a specific, or any socialist organization or party. If the point of the book is to help the “S” word shed its dirty-word status, then socialists should claim and promote their own programs.

There are wonderful glimmers of wisdom in these pages, as when Kazembe Balagun states that, “Socialism is the unfinished chapter of the Black freedom struggle.” There are reiterations of classic axioms such as Clifford Connor’s “There can be no organization without leadership.” But on the whole I was left with the impression that the militant urgency and organization needed to get to a socialist USA was largely missing.

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