Politics & Policy

Socialism by Any Other Name

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant speaks at a Trump protest rally, January 20, 2017. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)
Those who claim the mantle seem to be ideologically confused.

Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant wants you to believe she’s a socialist. Even though councilmembers are nonpartisan, she declared her affiliation with the Trotskyite Socialist Alternative party during her first campaign back in 2015. In her inauguration speech, she reminded Seattleites that she “wear[s] the badge of socialist with pride.”

Sawant’s fellow Socialist Alternative members, in turn, want you to believe that a socialist revolution is coming. In the November general election, a second member of the party, Ginger Jentzen, won a large percentage of the vote in her race for a city-council seat, this one in Minneapolis. “It wasn’t an aberration,” the party cried in its monthly newsletter, and perhaps they’re right. During his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders convinced many impressionable young progressives of socialism’s beauty and limitless possibility, dragging Democrats farther left in the process.

Still, if a socialist revolution is on the rise, Sawant, Jentzen, and the Socialist Alternatives won’t be its torchbearers and certainly shouldn’t be trusted as bellwethers. Why? Because they don’t seem to understand what socialism is. The party’s principles — published on the second page of every edition of its monthly newspaper, à la The Daily Worker — tell us as much, riddled as they are with contradictions and ideological inaccuracies.

One bullet point calls the $15 minimum wage “a step toward a living wage for all.” But socialism doesn’t promise a living wage for all, so much as the abolition of wages entirely. Another point advocates shortening the work week to “share out the work with the unemployed and create new jobs.” Yet just four bullet points earlier, the party demands “a minimum guaranteed weekly income of $600/week for the unemployed.” Marx would argue that socialism guarantees nobody is unemployed if executed properly, thus eliminating the need for unemployment benefits. More importantly, the unemployed don’t receive a living wage under capitalism or socialism. To quote Lenin, “he who does not work, shall not eat.” There’s scant trace of workers seizing the means of production — a central tenet of true socialism — either, and way too much emphasis on cultural issues, which would be irrelevant to a strictly economic theory.

In short, what Socialist Alternative stands for isn’t really “socialist” at all. It’s extreme progressivism with socialist trappings, from Marxist-sounding language (“the market is God and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit,” to quote Sawant’s inauguration speech) to iconography that is evocative of the Soviet Republic (it seems every page of the newsletter features either the color red, a star, or both).

This, one suspects, is by design. By depriving socialism of its essential rigidity, narrowness, and straightforwardness while retaining its iconography, groups such as Socialist Alternative and individuals such as Senator Sanders have made it more fashionable. Simply put, today’s American “socialism” isn’t about the redistribution of wealth through workers’ seizing the means of production, but about accelerating the timeline for radical liberal change. For young liberals disillusioned by capitalism and by both parties’ failure to achieve the political ends they desire, it is all gain and no pain.

Take Sawant’s election. Yes, she ran as a socialist, and yes, Seattle is one of the most business-friendly cities in the U.S. But her platform betrayed her. During the race, Sawant promised three very specific legislative reforms, each of which sought to address a different frustration with the way Amazon, Microsoft, and other mega-corporations have changed Seattle. In consequence, those who voted for her did so not because they believed socialism would solve their problems, but because they believed higher wages, stable rent, and a tax on the millionaires who have driven up the cost of living would. In Minnesota, a similar story unfurled. There, Ginger Jentzen ran on the rent-control issue — a key one for many of the poor citizens of her district. Drop Sawant or Jentzen into another U.S. city and they probably wouldn’t have done as well.

Perhaps the leaders of this movement are approaching socialism with such strategic timidity because they know it can’t succeed in America in its true form. As an ideology, it carries too much historical baggage to capture much widespread democratic success, so what else are its adherents to do? Adding a modifier — “democratic” or “alternative” — helps beat back the stigma. Making the platform more attractive to special interests ensures a greater degree of political viability.

This electoral compromise can, in a sense, be viewed as a victory for capitalism. Socialism is now so unpopular that, to be electable, its adherents must pretend that it is something utterly and essentially different from what it has always been. If the Sawants and Jentzens of the world hope for a real socialist revolution in America, they have a lot of convincing to do — and a lot of Marx to read — yet.


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