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UNDERSTANDING SOCIALISM AND THE 2020 ELECTIONS

By Wendy Z. Goldman and Ginny Hildebrand

Editor’s note: What follows is a transcript of a conversation between long-time activist and TMC member Ginny Hildebrand (GH) and Wendy Z. Goldman (WZG) is a social and political historian of Russia at Carnegie Mellon University. This is the first of two-part interview. 

GH: How would you explain the current burgeoning interest in socialism here? 

WZG: I think it’s the result of forty years of reaction and lost ground that began with Ronald Reagan’s election. Millions have seen the effects of unrestrained capital: the boom and bust cycles, the loss of jobs to countries that pay lower wages, environmental depredation, the destruction of our small towns and businesses, and unchecked income inequality, not to mention horrific wars for control of the oil rich Middle East. The inability of capitalism to address systemic racism is another major issue: African Americans have historically been consigned to “a reserve pool of the unemployed.” They are often the last to be hired and the first fired. Like immigrants, they are demonized for many problems that are not of their making. Many people recognize that solutions to these problems involve constraints on unbridled capital, either by seeing a job as a human right, regulating predatory lending practices, forcing companies to pay a living wage and their fair share of taxes, investing in infrastructure, and getting insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industries out of health care. Young people, people of color, and others are interested in whether it’s possible to replace the drive for profits – the guiding principle of capitalism – with humanistic values. This is the very basis of socialism. 

GH: Are the programs advocated by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) representative of what a socialist USA would look like? 

WZG: It’s difficult to know what a socialist USA would look like and there are many different versions of socialism. But Sanders and AOC have opened up realistic possibilities and plans that challenge the dull rhetoric peddled for years by Democrats and Republicans. I think many Americans would support their proposals for placing controls on capital, putting the environment before profit, and ensuring a living wage, universal free college or technical education, and healthcare for all. Yet any elected official will be heavily constrained by an already existing system, including a Congress and Judicial system that are generally hostile to fundamental reforms. The supporters of these socialist elected officials and candidates imagine a society in which our guiding principles are shaped by basic welfare of people, and the people are democratically in control of policies to that end. That’s socialism. 

However, elected officials, even in the highest offices, cannot substantially subvert the fundamental principles of capitalism and the free market. Capital will fight tooth and nail to retain its privileges and its right to profit at any cost. If real change is going to come, it must emerge from movements from below. We have seen movements for civil and reproductive rights, and others, like “Occupy Wall Street,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “#Metoo,” fundamentally change the conversation in the United States and push elected officials to the left. 

GH: Well then, is there any country, like in Scandinavia, where socialism works? 

WZG: It is more useful to think of countries on a continuum rather than either side of a strict divide. Sweden, Britain, France and Canada all have more socialist features than the United States. For example, child care systems are widely developed and accessible to all, the wealthy pay a larger percentage of tax, and health care is not tied to employment (an absurd idea when you think of the numbers of unemployed and partially employed people in our country) but available to all at a nominal fee. However, private enterprise, both large and small, still flourishes. Yet in these countries, too, these programs, which working people won, are under fierce attack. Margaret Thatcher saw her larger mission as the systematic dismantling of the welfare state. In France today, the pension system is under attack and workers went on strike to protect it. 

I witnessed some very positive aspects of socialism when I was working in the Soviet Union on my Ph.D. dissertation in 1984-85. The constitutional right to a job created a society in which unemployment and homelessness did not exist, relative income equality created a basic level of respect for all citizens, free education (through the university level) and free health care were unquestionable benefits, and the basic values of society were not based on acquisition and unending competition. Soviet cities were far safer than ours, and the country was less divided. I still think it possible to emulate some of those features and at the same time, pair them with a robust democracy. 

GH: But isn’t the historic repression of political rights, dictatorship, and now the return of private property and profit to Russia some of the reasons why there is so much hostility here for the idea of the USA moving toward socialism? 

WZG: The issue of Stalinism and its effect on the movement for socialism is very complex. 

Wendy Z. Goldman is a social and political historian of Russia at Carnegie Mellon University. Her many books include, Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia, and Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. Ginny Hildebrand is a longtime activist, socialist and TMC member.

NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 2. March, 2020. All rights reserved.

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