July 2, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: Supporters of François Hollande, the first Socialist candidate elected president of France since 1988. Photo by Charles Platiau/Reuters.
By Michael McGehee:
In yesterday’s Sunday Review of the New York Times was an article by their Paris bureau chief, Steven Erlanger, under the headline “What’s a Socialist?”
It was a look at the recent presidential election in France, where the socialist candidate François Hollande won, and Erlanger pondered just how socialist is Hollande?
Erlanger questions Hollande’s socialist credentials when he quotes François Marc-Olivier Padis, an editor of Esprit, as saying, “Socialism here is very statist,” and when Erlanger points out that, “The leading figures in the Socialist government are more creatures of the French establishment.” The bureau chief makes a good point when he writes that “Mr. Hollande won the presidency thanks to half of centrist voters and a third of far-right voters, all of whom detested Mr. Sarkozy.” But where Erlanger goes astray is in explaining what socialism is, writing that,
In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.
Much of Erlanger’s argument that socialism in the U.S. “has largely done its job”—which is a completely absurd comment to make—hinges on the repeated phrase “sense.” And his “sense” of what socialism is is nonsense. By getting socialism wrong Erlanger can avoid talking about the central features found in the many shades of socialism:
Erlanger seems to think that ”democratic Marxism” is about “the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class.”
One problem here is that when Karl Marx talked about how ”the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself,” he was talking about dismantling Capitalism via a revolution, which he referred to as an old mole:
“We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.”
Another problem with Erlanger’s comment is that the middle class is not an economic class on the typical Marxist radar. For them there are two classes: the working class and the capitalist class. Even for the various shades of socialist-gray who see a third class of technocrats/managers/coordinators, the point is not just to move up a rung in the ladder, but to get rid of the ladder altogether; to create a classless economy. The root of the term “socialism” is social, which carries the force of the concept that social institutions like the economy and government should be owned and managed collectively—socially.
With this understanding in place, and considering the economy is not socially owned and managed, and how there is not only an absence of egalitarian distribution of wealth but the largest (and growing) wealth gap in the industrialized world as well, it is hard to imagine that socialism “has largely done its job” in the U.S.
Erlanger then goes on to make a welfare state synonymous with socialism:
Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.
“As an ideologically based movement, socialism is no longer vital,” says Joschka Fischer, who began his career on the far left and remains a prominent spokesman for the Green Party. “Today it’s a combination of democracy, rule of law and the welfare state, and I’d say a vast majority of Europeans defend this — the British Tories can’t touch the National Health Service without being beheaded.”
Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it — you don’t allow people to die on the street.”
It is true these reforms were often fought for, quite bitterly and sometimes militantly, by socialists. But it’s simply not true that their adoption is evidence of a socialist society, and certainly not true that “socialism is no longer vital.” An honest look at the state of the working class and the environment in today’s global capitalist economy reveals that comment as without merit. It is because of the absence of a socialist economy that we see third world countries, and entire continents like Africa, exploited for their natural resources and cheap labor so that the wealth can be spirited away to private bank accounts in places like New York and London.
On one hand Erlanger is correct in writing that Hollande is not that much of a socialist, and it was interesting to read that part of that critique included noting that socialism in France is “very statist” (as opposed to the libertarian strands like anarcho-syndicalism and council communism). Readers of the New York Times shouldn’t fret about the expropriation of the economy and the turning it over to the workers to democratically control.
But on the other hand Erlanger has a very poor grasp of what socialism is.
Erlanger’s ignorance also shows in the comment that “why the prospect of ‘European socialism’ is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans,” which Erlanger says is ”a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.” The idea that these fears and obsessions have been crafted by propaganda campaigns to deceive the public, much like Erlanger’s nonsensical presentation of what socialism is and how it “has done its job” and is “no longer vital,” is not even an option worth considering. They are simply mysteries.