Socialist Politics and the Peace Dividend

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Bill Resnick

AGAINST THE CURRENT’s peace dividend editorial (ATC 27) was mostly knowledgeable and good: the peace dividend (including conversion and social service expansion) will become a hot issue, the left must get involved and raise far reaching demands, and nothing can be won without popular struggle.

But the editorial missed a wonderful opportunity to follow the sound advice of your previous (ATC 26) editorial, “The 1990s: A Socialist Agenda” In discussing the revolutionary left in what is certainly a new era, ATC identified two crucial tasks: to renew a vision of democratic socialism, and to develop analyses and proposals that offer a convincing socialist alternative to social democracy, whose reforms “reinforce the social order.”

But the peace dividend editorial did neither. Take for example the discussion of conversion (from military to other production). The editorial points out that some forms of conversion will be a “blow to unionized industrial workers.” It also advises readers to question even the most radical conversion bill in Congress, which seems to be pushing “West German style co-management.” But then, remarkably, there is nothing more about conversion except the abstract admonition to “challenge” “capitalist logic.”

I assume ATC favors conversion. Couldn’t we then have argued for a different form of conversion? Say the Lucas Aerospace example of worker self-organization towards takeover and planning for the converted enterprise? Or some of Tony Mazzocchi’s ideas about a Superfund for workers who lose jobs? Conversion provides a perfect venue to begin acquainting people with radically democratic and socialist alternatives. Just stating reservations without offering even a paragraph outlining an alternative to social-democratic plans amounts to carping from the sidelines, a purely negative response that makes any reformist vision seem attractive.

Most of the editorial reviewed the various proposals for cutting the military budget, advising socialists to support the Common Agenda proposal — the biggest cuts the fastest. But this isn’t enough. More services could create a more humane society, or maybe even a genuine welfare state. But Sweden is not democratically governed by the associated producers; and a vision of ample services, as much as they are needed, is not a vision of socialist possibilities.

Pouring vast sums into services could end up doing little more than inflating the social service bureaucracy. Conversely, it could facilitate the construction of genuinely democratic organizations that really help people and advance possibilities of grassroots democracy. Europe’s revolutionary left is trying to do the latter; Swedish radicals have successfully implemented a fundamental democratization of some service sectors in some cities. We too can seek community and worker control, service user involvement, and dignified well-paid jobs for non-professionals without being seen as unrealistic or ultraleft.

What distinguishes revolutionary socialists from liberals and social democrats is not so much the extent to which they’d cut the military but the uses they’d make of the resources. Social democracy is aligned with (and in the United States to a considerable extent an expression of) the state social service bureaucracy, it’s at best ambivalent about democratic process and popular empowerment; it mostly demands more professionalized services. In contrast, a revolutionary left can stand for popular self-management and democratized services, thus raising the possibility of fundamentally different society and in this way renewing a vision of socialism that poses an alternative to social-democratic.

The editorial concludes by calling for “Bringing people into the streets for mass, militant action … [as] the way to begin.” It argues that “powerful pressure from below” won the gains of the 1930s and 1960s. Right on. But the people in the streets were not just seeking those services, rights, and programs. In both periods America was in turmoil. For many millions of people bourgeois rule came to be discredited and power to the people was felt as desirable and workable.

Of course, the movements of the 1930s and 1960s began with simple demands. They became dangerous as they grew and as people were radicalized. At their peaks, these rebellions became deep challenges to the system. People rebelled against domination, demanded dignity and recognition, expressed confidence in collective institutions, and – however intuitively and imprecisely – believed that capitalist political economy could be replaced by something more humane.

Legislation and services were then given as concessions to head off the radical trajectory of those movements rather than because the uprisings themselves were focused exclusively on expanding services. Indeed, the editorial in ATC 26 recognized the ideological and political roots of militant movements:

“Lacking a coherent vision of another way of life … as well as more humane and liberating, we can’t effectively build a movement to fight back against the structures and ideologies of oppression that we face.”

Though such a vision need not be “coherent,” basically this statement is right on the mark – which means that we have to try to rebuild that radical sensibility or we won’t have militant mass action or indeed much action at all. While surveys indicate popular desire for more services, sentiment is very mixed. Thatcher and Reagan’s attacks on public services as bureaucratized and self-interested were fairly successful because they played well to popular misgivings about welfare state institutions. People will not be inspired or fight for social services as they have existed in the past — which is what social democrats seek.

So demonstrations are a fine way to begin. But just referring to them as “mass” and “militant” in our editorials won’t give them this character. Even if they are well attended, the marches social democrats are already organizing will have little oomph or resonance, won’t inspire or educate, and won’t renew that sense of working-class entitlement and power that underlies increasingly confident movements capable of even winning reforms in the system, let alone changing the system itself.

Movements don’t become militant and mass spontaneously. The 19309 and 1960s movements became so because radicals at the heart of those movements raised and fought for the initial demands, while also by word and deed inspiring others to reject bourgeois forms and develop radical commitments.

If we want militant mobilizations and a base for independent politics, we’ll have to re-mobilize people around a new vision – one predicated on working-class entitlement, dignity, power, and community. That can be done in understandable, persuasive, thoroughly down-home language and can be done in every movement A left deeply and ac-lively involved in peace dividend struggles can work for radical forms of conversion and democratic forms of the welfare state, rebuilding ideals and the will to fight That’s what revolutionary and democratic socialists must do.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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