The book I’ve been waiting for….

January 31, 2014

“Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA”, edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith (Harper, 2014).

A breath of fresh air!  Just when I thought that writing about socialism had become the exclusive preserve of Marxist academics and their obscurantist jargon, we finally have a work that uses plain language to bring its ideas back to life in an American context.  Of course, any edited collection of this kind has its strengths and weaknesses, its highs and its lows.

As for its strengths: (1) A multiplicity of perspectives from just left of social democracy to Marxism-Leninism to what I would call utopian; (2) Coverage of a wide variety of relevant policy issues; (3) Avoidance of abstract theoretical elaborations in favor of dealing with practicalities; (4) A willingness to “imagine” without leaving the real world behind; (5) Great readability.

Major weakness:  The book as a whole fails to seriously explore the state of American political consciousness in the 21st century.  This too often leads to utopian assumptions about the behavioral effects of changes in the social structure, and a romanticization of the defunct Occupy movement.  The question of how we get from here to there thus remains largely unanswered.

The highlights: Rick Wolff’s economic analysis; Mumia Abu-Jamal/Angela Davis discussion of justice; Blanche Wiesen-Cook’s feminism; Steven Wishnia on drug issues;   William Ayers’ wonderful essay on education; Dianne Feeley’s thoughtful focus on Detroit’s problems and their solution; Renate Bridenthal’s “workday”; Paul LeBlanc’s historical perspective on revolutionary politics; Martin Espada’s poem; and Terry Bisson’s wonderfully honest portrayal of a socialist future in “Thanksgiving 2077”.

On a somewhat lower plane: Joel Kovel’s utopianism; the Fraads’ apparent assumption that all sexual dysfuction is due to capitalism; Arun Gupta’s somewhat scary vision of collective farms and communal dining; Mat Callahan’s rant about art under socialism; Fred Jerome’s somewhat antiquarian old-left take on the media.

All that said, this is a thought-provoking collection–essential reading for socialists, those with questions about socialism, and anyone with a political open mind.  A wonderful source book for a socialist reading group…or revolutionary cell.  Buy it–send it to #1 on!

Well, it’s Friday night–have to stop now–time for “Shark Tank”!

Pete Seeger

January 29, 2014

I need hardly point out that socialists everywhere mourn his passing.  But so do millions of others, and even conservatives have something nice to say about him.  And that is because his revolutionary consciousness arose out of a loving spirit, and was spread through his wonderful musical artistry.

Enough said; here’s one of my favorites:

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama

January 21, 2014

ITEM:  The world’s 85 wealthiest people have as much money as the 3.5 billion poorest people on the planet – half the Earth’s population. That’s according to Oxfam’s latest report on the risks of the widening gap between the super-rich and the poor.  The report, titled “Working for the Few,” was released Monday, and was compiled by Oxfam – an international organization looking for solutions against poverty and injustice.

ITEM:  For several days at the end of January, presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and corporate titans jostle with actors, rock stars and major influencers for top billing at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. The confab takes place in the Alpine village of Davos, about 90 miles southeast of Zurich, and for a brief spell each year the pristine ski resort half-sheds its Graubünden roots and becomes a ground zero for the political and business elite.”It’s a fascinating event that occurs on any number of levels…” says Boston-based Nariman Behravesh, a Davos veteran and chief global economist at IHS, a consultancy.  “There’s also the partying. You have to be careful not to overdo it,” he says.

ITEM:  President Barack Obama honored Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy of service on Monday by helping a soup kitchen prepare its daily meals.  President Obama took his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha to DC Central Kitchen, which is a few minutes away from the White House by presidential motorcade.  They joined an assembly line that was churning out burritos.

I can picture Rev. King in heaven just shaking his head at this.  For fifty years, the ruling class has whitewashed his radical revolutionary legacy (I choose that word deliberately), turning him into a bland and harmless symbol of do-good social reform.  So if he could, I’d like to think he’d send this message to Barack Obama:

“It’s all very well to promote community service, and I’m sure you think you’re honoring my memory–but my life wasn’t about handing out burritos at a soup kitchen. It was about transforming the entire society. I was a social revolutionary. I was murdered while trying to mobilize the poor, labor unions, antiwar activists, and the civil rights groups into a mass movement for change. If you really want to show respect for my political legacy, why don’t you take off the apron and go to that conference of the global elite in Davos, Switzerland, and tell them to do something about those 85 global multibillionaires owning as much wealth as half the world’s population? That would be truly honoring my memory, Mr. President….”

Of course, this is a fantasy.  And as long as we sit back and let it happen, any change will continue to be a fantasy.

FDR and LBJ: Fighters for Economic Justice. Yes, both of them.

January 12, 2014

Part of the conservative offensive against the left in America has been a concerted campaign to rewrite history.  Of course, we have also been guilty of that crime where we have taken power–the most egregious example being Stalin’s Soviet Union.  So we need to struggle against that kind of revisionism wherever we see it.

In particular, I am thinking of how the radical right has tried to cast both Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the most negative light possible, denouncing them as Big Government overreach, fuzzy-minded liberalism, and as economic failures.

Unfortunately, some on the left have joined in that attack from the opposite side.  The line is that these weren’t really attempts to improve the lot of those on the bottom of the economic pyramid, but merely reformist band-aids to save capitalism. False.  Yes, the motivation was to save capitalism, and as a socialist, I believe that is neither possible nor desirable.  But I do not question the sincerity of the ideals and values behind these programs.  Watch:

FDR never had the chance to follow through with his program; and with the Vietnam War, LBJ destroyed his Great Society.  That said, socialists should appreciate the fact that what these presidents proposed needs to be remembered as a positive example of what government might do–could have done–to advance towards the goal of economic justice.

I am currently reading an interesting book by John Nichols entitled “The ‘S’ Word–Socialism”.  His thesis is that socialism is as American as….well, you name it.  I will have more to say about that later.  But even if both FDR and LBJ were committed capitalists, what they had to say in these speeches confirms Nichols’ argument–what we are fighting for is squarely in our national tradition.

The Local Left Goes After Tintin!

January 1, 2014

First of all, Happy New Year to all of you.

As you may know, the radical right borrowed the term “political correctness” from the Communists and turned it on its head to bash the left.  That was a brilliant political strategy, and it’s been effective in distracting critics from its own racist proclivities and providing an effective weapon in the so-called “culture wars” in the United States.

That said, extreme PC is indeed an albatross around our necks.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t fight against the use of clearly pejorative descriptive terms, and discussions of which people should or should not use the “n-word”, to cite one example, are useful.  But certain segments of the American left have a tiresome fixation on linguistic propriety, as if the battles we face were purely semantic rather than political.  And worse, some have gone beyond speech and applied PC standards to the written word.

Permit me to present a purely local example.  Amherst, Massachusetts, near where I live, is a hotbed of PC.  A sizable number of its residents are white, upper-middle class “progressives” who like to hear themselves talk, generally do little of actual political substance outside their intellectual ghetto, and salve their consciences with symbolic actions of various kinds.  You may know of similar locations in your area of the world (examples welcome).  The latest episode in this story involves the formation of a small committee of residents who will be meeting with the board of the local library to insist that the children’s book series “Tintin” be placed in a special location, since its stories allegedly have racist and imperialist implications and may pollute the minds of the uninitiated.

Here is the letter I wrote to the local newspaper–and also sent to the head of that group:

I consider myself politically a person of the left.  And I have always resented the phrase “political correctness” as it is thrown at us by those on the right to justify their racism.

But I have always been annoyed by the endless stream of initiatives to “ban this” and “ban that” coming from certain citizens of Amherst.  It is made even more unpalatable by the smug, arrogant, and self-righteous “progressive” rhetoric always accompanying those proposals. The latest and perhaps the worst is the call to deport Tintin, that alleged agent of imperialism, to a corner of the local library where his adventures will not taint the innocent minds of children.

As a former owner of Cherry Picked Books in Easthampton, and having recently opened a children’s used bookstore in Ludlow, the alarm bells go off whenever I hear about censorship.  So I am outraged by this proposal from some self-appointed guardians of the oppressed, and especially because it comes from my own side of the political fence.  That they cravenly sugar-coat this as a “principled middle ground” and an attempt to promote “conversation” is nothing but hypocrisy.  Censorship is censorship. 

I have a couple of the Tintin books in stock; I also had them in my old bookstore.  Would the Amherst Thought Police suggest that I now put them in a far corner with a sign saying ”Imperialism is bad for your mental health”?  Or should I go all the way and burn them on the sidewalk outside–perhaps along with my “Babar the Elephant” books–as a symbol of my commitment to ending imperialism and racism?

I call on the board of the Jones Library to reject this suggestion out of hand, and stand up for what librarians have always courageously defended against those who would impose their politics on the rest of us: The right to freely choose what we read.

To be continued….

Six things committed socialists (probably) won’t tell you…

December 26, 2013

(1) If you’re “middle class”, under socialism you’re going to have to do with less.

Rich nations profit off the less developed ones.  Widespread poverty is a necessary consequence of capitalism.  Our middle class consumerist lifestyle depends on destroying the environment.  At least in the short run, socialism is not a zero-sum game–it requires a redistribution of wealth and power downward, and a thorough transformation of our methods and purposes of production.

(2) Freedom is an endless meeting.**

Democratic socialism requires individual participation in decision-making at work, in school, and in the community.  That means meetings.  I used to live in a community governed by the New England Town Meeting system.  So every few months, I spent a couple of hours in a hard chair in a school auditorium.  If you can’t handle that on a much more frequent schedule, say goodbye to democracy and “meet the new boss–same as the old boss”.  Or worse.

(3) Speaking of freedom, it isn’t going to be the same kind of thing you think you have now.

Our conventional notion of freedom is based on the idea that our decisions in life are and should be just ours to make because for the most part they affect only ourselves.  But, as a socialist, I would argue that ALL our decisions impact on others, and theirs on us, some of course more than others.  Being aware of that is part of what I would call a socialist consciousness.  And that puts quite a different spin on the meaning of freedom.

(4) We wish we had the power and influence that conservatives say we have.

Conservatives have won most of the political and cultural battles of the last thirty years.  But they still need an enemy to beat up to keep the troops motivated, so they pretend that “socialists” such as Barack Obama are in full control, and that the left is a dominant force in American society.  If only (sigh).

(5)  Uncle Whiskers spent a lot of time taking capitalism apart, but not much time on how or with what to replace it, and was wrong in his predictions about its collapse….

….which is the one of the main reasons that….

(6)  ….21st century democratic socialism would have to be improvised on the fly–there are no blueprints or role models.

We have a whole lot of examples on how socialism can go wrong, and we have some examples of successful local experiments, mostly in less developed nations.  The former are helpful only in instructing us what to avoid, and the latter have limited applicability to the United States or Europe.  So if socialism ever triumphs, what follows is going to be based on a creative script that we would have to write.  That makes the prospect both stimulating and scary.


There will be more to say about most of this.  If you’re still on board, good for you!  If not–imagine how long this entry would be if it were about capitalism…..

(**Borrowed from the title of Francesca Polletta’s book on participatory democracy.)

Welcome back, loyal readers…..

December 23, 2013

Yes, I’m back–at least for now–which is, of course, what you’ve all been waiting for.

Why?  Well, akismet has blocked 3,108 spam comments so far.  I hate to see such diligence become wasted effort.  I also note from my enhanced stats that I have had readers in almost fifty countries, including Guam, Guernsey, Mauritius, the United Arab Emirates–and one, yes one, in China!  So if the international community is fixed on my every word, who am I to disappoint it?  On the other hand, maybe those nations are the source of the 3,108 spam comments.

Anyway, for new readers, and as a reminder for old ones, let me restate my purposes in posting this blog:

“I decided to start this blog because the word “socialism” is being tossed around by people in very strange ways…[but] this is not going to be a tutorial, or a lecture on the ‘true meaning’ of socialism, whatever that may be.  The purpose is to present a purely personal and necessarily imperfect and incomplete view of this ideology.  I will not be setting myself up as a pundit on current events (well, maybe occasionally).  I don’t just want to preach to the choir, and I certainly don’t want to pick fights with those who disagree.  In fact, I want to hear from them–if they can avoid personal attacks, as I promise to do.  So civility will reign.  Also humor, modesty, a sense of historical irony, and a willingness to admit when I’m wrong.  That ought to set this blog aside from the vast majority of political blogs.”

I recommend to new readers at least a quick scan of my previous posts, which will give you a clearer idea of my approach and style.

This time around, I will start with something positive: Happy New Year to all of you–and Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it.  But that said, I will begin on a (somewhat) negative note.  Previous posts have of course generally put a positive spin on socialism.  So are there no downsides?  There certainly are.

I am a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal, and I heartily recommend it to all, but especially to socialists.  First of all, it is a sophisticated and highly informative newspaper, because it is aimed primarily at the economic ruling class.  Secondly, it is extremely well-written.  Thirdly, it contains almost no celebrity news.  Finally, it tells you how capitalism works–often quite honestly.  Of course, you need not take the “funny pages” (i.e. the “opinion” section) seriously.  On Sundays, it publishes an article entitled “Ten Things ——- Won’t Tell You”.  It is an informative and entertaining critique on all kinds of subjects.  So next time I’ll begin with a rather more clumsy title: ”A Few Things Committed Socialists (probably) Won’t Tell You”!


Are We “Spiritually Fit” Enough to Change the World?

June 9, 2013

Unless I’m misinterpreting my “stats”, I note that my readership seems to fall off when I take a less critical and more positive tone in my posts.  But contrarian and troublemaker that I am, that doesn’t stop me.  In fact, here’s another one.

The author of this article, which appeared in our local newspaper, is a prominent long-time political activist on the Left here in western Massachusetts.  I don’t think she considers herself a socialist, and sometimes she’s a bit too PC for my taste, but her heart is in the right place.  Late in life she decided to become a minister in the Congregationalist church–a liberal Protestant denomination– thus combining politics and spirituality.  I very much like what she is saying, and I strongly urge you to read it and offer your comments.



HAYDENVILLE — In 2005, two months after starting my new job as pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Our church, like so many others, mobilized. We prayed week after week for our brothers and sisters in the disaster zone, we provided money and supplies and we sent two teams of folks to New Orleans help rebuild devastated communities. For close to a year, our church was Katrina-focused — devoting countless hours, dollars and services to that tragedy.  As a pastor, I approached the Katrina disaster as a once-in-a lifetime experience. I threw every ounce of mission money, time and energy at that catastrophe, believing that we would not see a sorrow like that for a very long time.

I was wrong.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the pace of natural and human-created disasters has quickened. We barely catch our breath from the last tragedy before we hear devastating news about the next.  Just in the last 12 months, we have faced the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.; Hurricane Sandy along the Atlantic coastline; the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.; the bombing at the Boston marathon; the factory explosion in West, Texas; and most recently tornados in Oklahoma.

It seems that awful news bombards us daily. With an armed citizenry that sometimes turns violent, along with epic droughts, floods, hurricanes and super-storms, we are living through a time of one awful natural or human-created disaster after the next. We are confronted with heartbreaking news when we read the newspaper, watch TV news, receive email updates, or read text alerts on our cell phones.

With each new sorrow, we want to open our hearts and our wallets and respond with love, generosity and service. We want to be helpful. We want to take in the news, feel the pain, hold those affected in our thoughts and respond in some meaningful way.  But we are ill-prepared to do so. We have not prepared our minds and bodies to witness, absorb and respond to this much trauma. We are simply not equipped to live in the world today.

We are not emotionally and spiritually fit enough to take in the number and intensity of natural and human-created disasters barraging us every day and respond with generosity and acts of loving kindness and service. And yet we do need to respond — time and time again — to the awful news that fills the airwaves and fills our days. Before we have recovered from the last disaster, before we have regrouped from the last shock, before we have metabolized the last sorrow, we have to rise again and respond again — with real feeling and by offering real help.

I believe it is an essential part of our human identity to feel compassion for and try to help our brothers and sisters facing loss and trauma.

I think that in order to prepare our minds and bodies to comprehend and contain the sorrow, to take in the horror and respond in meaningful and helpful ways, we must commit to a program of spiritual and emotional fitness. It is the only way to prepare for the assaults we receive daily and equip ourselves to respond with acts of open-hearted kindness and generosity.

A program of spiritual and emotional fitness might — if we are people of faith — include joining a synagogue, mosque, sangha or church to find hope amidst the pain, and strength in the struggle.  It might mean finding or creating a support group to discuss the daily news and plan meaningful and helpful responses to engage in together. It might mean volunteering at the Red Cross to help locally or be sent to disaster areas. It might be creating a realistic budget so we know how much we need to live on and how much we can give away monthly or yearly.

An intentional program of spiritual and emotional fitness seems to me to be the only way to ready our psyche, fortify our compassion muscles and open our internal channels so we can respond to the increasing number of natural and human-created disasters now occurring with frightening regularity.

If we were going to run a marathon, or climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, or bike across America, we would train and get in shape. Because we are now living through times of frequent natural and human-created disasters, we cannot afford to be spiritually flabby and emotionally weak. We have to do the emotional and spiritual equivalent of getting in shape.

I think we need to commit ourselves to a program of emotional and spiritual fitness so we can respond to the sorrows in our world today, so we can be ready vessels to channel goodness and grace, so we can bring comfort and assistance and so we can move through the world as agents of hope and change.

We are not facing a sprint. We are facing a marathon that is stretching out into the distance.

So we need to be ready — emotionally and spiritually fit. I think we need to start preparing today.

(The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a monthly column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at

The Power of Positive Thinking About Socialism

June 6, 2013

Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -

–Emily Dickinson

How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not “the thing with feathers.” The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.

–Woody Allen

No one who knows me would ever describe me as generally hopeful, optimistic, or upbeat.  Quite the opposite much of the time.  I also can’t stand the delusional self-help books, such as The Secret, that assert you can change yourself, the world, and even the universe just by thinking positively.  But in talking about politics, another quote comes to mind: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”  So said Antonio Gramsci, Italian Marxist, in one of his writings from the prison where Mussolini’s fascist regime had incarcerated him.  Although he was released after two years, its effects on his health led to an early death in 1937.  So if he could do it, why can’t I?  Or you?

Socialism is a philosophy of hope and possibility.  We know humans aren’t perfect by any means, but as inherently social beings we have the capability of building a world that recognizes the right of every human on Earth to adequate food, clothing, and shelter, the right to health care and education, the right to a clean environment, and the right to lead a productive life.  All we need to do is decide to build it.  Even the normally acerbic Uncle Whiskers, in a lighter moment, dreamed of a communist society…

“…where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Or in the beautiful words of the beautiful Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Conservatism is an ideology of hopelessness: Humans are an inherently self-interested and profit-seeking species unwilling and unable to build a society based on anything other than selfishness and greed.  Libertarianism is an even more anti-social ideology of total self-involvement.  Anarchism is nothing but libertarianism stood on its head.  Liberalism is an ideology of impotence: Capitalism is a flawed and unfair system, but it’s the best we can do, so we need a paternalistic and overgrown regulatory/welfare state that fixes it for us.

We need to affirm and emphasize the hopeful and positive aspects of our message.  We are not going to win any support with a constant litany of criticism, negativity, and anger.    I wrote earlier about the danger signals of a “Weimar Moment”, but that also presents a political opportunity if we can put forward alternatives that lift people’s hopes rather than just stirring up their resentment.  History shows that revolutions happen not when the downtrodden are at their lowest, but when they see a light at the end of the tunnel.

So in that positive spirit, I will conclude with an appropriate song.  While you listen, consider the fact that it was written during World War II.

This Is Not About Socialism–Or Is It?

June 3, 2013

You wouldn’t expect a sports columnist to write thoughtful and incisive social commentary.  Actually, I don’t expect that from most political pundits.  But today in my local paper–the Springfield, Massachusetts Sunday Republican–one did.  His name is Ron Chimelis.  Here’s an excerpt:

If anyone were to ask my opinion on dangers facing the nation, I would find a place on the list for our loss of a sense of humor . . . I find its gradual disappearance sad and also a bit frightening . . . At one time, the ability to laugh a little was as noteworthy as breathing.  Nowadays it seems disturbingly out of step in a society on edge, one that constantly fears what our politicians, financial barons or our own neighbors might do to us next.  A sense of humor is an outgrowth of optimism, another quality we find in alarmingly short supply. . . I do worry that our seething resentment and hostility, which can be found anywhere from social media to social gatherings, is fracturing us more….

He makes a particular point of the scarcity of political humor, citing this quote from the great satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer: “Today everything just makes me angry–it’s not funny anymore.  Things I once thought were funny are scary now.”  (This from a man who wrote a song about nuclear war in the 1960s )

Chimelis goes on to note that

…radical groups that have poisoned the world come from all shades and political persuasions.  They all had only one thing in common: They had no sense of humor, no self-contained mechanism that let them back off the hate and hostility and resentment for even a brief moment of levity….Losing [a sense of humor] means we have lost something irreplaceable.  I find nothing funny about that.

Abbie Hoffman, whatever one may think of his naive ideas about “youth culture” and his misguided celebration of the delights of hallucinogens, was a genuine 1960′s revolutionary who made us laugh.  And he laughed at himself.  His whole demeanor at the Chicago Eight/Seven conspiracy trial in 1969 was a comedy act.

When I read the blogs I am following, or the Facebook posts of self-styled radicals, or almost any political statement from the left, too much of what I see is impotent anger, hateful rhetoric, tedious academic jargon, self-righteous lectures, or insults aimed at those who disagree.  There is, of course, some thoughtful analysis to be found here and there in this political wasteland.  But one thing I never see is humor.  Or that even rarer commodity, wit.  (Exceptions: guerilla graffiti artists like Banksy, and, occasionally, political cartoonists like Ted Rall or Tom Tomorrow.  Stephen Colbert used to be wonderful, but celebrity has gone to his head.)

In 1989, Abbie committed suicide.  Perhaps he saw what was ahead.  Unless socialists revive some of his spirit, start laughing at the opposition and ourselves, we don’t deserve to take over the world.

Mark Bergfeld

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