Reports of the demise of the Left are premature. Even as many wait for the prosperity bubble to burst, the boom inaugurating the new century has salted the fortunes of a relative few. The need for a socialist alternative to the existing form of capitalist politics remains as urgent as ever.
In the face of today's prosperity and progress, no rational person can deny that the United States is poisoned by unfairness and inequities -- by exploitation and neglect of tens of millions of its citizens.
As George Packer notes in his excellent new generational memoir, "Blood of the Liberals" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 405 pages, $26), at century's end wealth and power have "become more and more unequal," while the two political parties left standing are "uninspired, intellectually dead, legally corrupt." One cannot help but wonder, then, whether the socialist ideal, seemingly dead and buried, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks proclaim in their dry historical survey, "It Didn't Happen Here" (W. W. Norton & Company, 376 pages, $26.95), might not be due for a revival.
Several recent books accept the premise that, despite the economic well-being of some, even many, America continues to perpetuate a permanent underclass. Francis Wheen's new biography of Karl Marx, "Karl Marx: A Life" (W.W. Norton and Co., 431 pages, $27.95), has the courage to suggest that Marx, and the socialism he espoused, remain relevant.
Wheen, with spirit, notices that the criminalities of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, et al., cannot be laid at the door of his subject. Shuddering at the parties proliferating in his name in France, Marx said: "I, at least, am not a Marxist." Wheen acknowledges that Marx has been "so calamitously misinterpreted as to thrust the discussion back to a clean slate."
Marx, he insists, "would have been appalled by the crimes committed in his name." Wheen discovers in Marx's teachings views that are salutary for today. He correctly attributes to Marx the perception "that human beings cannot be isolated or abstracted from their social and economic circumstances."
At once, he renders Benjamin R. Barber's pale collection, "A Passion For Democracy" (Princeton University Press, 293 pages, $16.95), both too abstract and divorced from the heart of America's deep-seated inequalities. Marx was impatient with the liberalism of his day, as George Packer is by his; well should he be!
Barber celebrates American "individualism," even as he reveals himself quickly "impatient with those who distrust government," no marginalization for him. He finds in our society today no insurmountable obstacle to "participatory citizenship." Communism failed, Barber contends, not because it is not valid, but as a result of its "unachievable principles."
Compelled to admit that considerable inequity persists, liberals like Barber resort to pragmatism. "Radical communist idealism of the kind represented by Marx," Barber writes, "is dangerous because it calls us to a standard of liberty -- one rooted in perfect equality -- that we cannot meet." He proposes a lowering of sights. Honesty forces him to admit, however, that "those with nothing to lose ... may be understandably impatient with such a strategy." Politics first, then economics, he decrees. The realities of class and power elude him.
Barber's reasoning falters at other moments. He suggests that the American political assassinations of the 1960s were carried out with such efficiency, and selectivity, as to "support the terrible suspicion that a larger public, against its better instincts, in some way wished these deaths." Liberalism succumbs to paranoia -- the idea that a nameless, faceless population willed the deaths of a generation of leaders. Anything is better than agreeing with the majority of Americans -- and the House Select Committee of the Seventies -- that conspiracies were responsible.
Lipset and Marks proffer a plethora of explanations for why socialism did not take root in America. Their book never addresses what was lost, whether the defeat of socialism was a good or a bad thing. They describe the bad choices of socialists, who were unable to forge lasting connections with the labor unions; they minimize the corporate use of the state and the courts to abort that unification. The role of the FBI in condoning mob control of industrial unions is not mentioned. They see as part of the American tradition a preference for individualistic anarchy over "state control," as if the Soviet Union were their model for socialism.
They do examine how the American Communist Party discredited the socialist ideal. With its Moscow orientation and subordination of the needs of American workers to Stalin's policy that his state alone prosper, the Communist Party ensured its own demise. Yet they fail to test the lasting consequence of one of the Communist Party's worst errors. The Party urged that the CIO and other unions find common cause within the Democratic Party, a self-defeating stance.
They notice the Popular Front -- and Norman Thomas' reply to why socialists failed to respond under their own banner to the Depression ("it was Roosevelt -- in a word"). Yet they refuse to draw the conclusion that the defeat of the socialist ideal at that juncture was not necessary. They accept too readily that Roosevelt was "progressive."
Lipset and Marks admit that "distribution of wealth has grown more unequal." But they never notice that too many human beings have been utterly written off in this society of plenty. Worst of all, they assume as their unproven premise that socialism would have had to be authoritarian and "coercive." They speak of "cleavages based on religion, ethnicity and race" as mitigating against class solidarity as if people being pitted against each other were not a familiar tactic enlisted by those in power to divide and conquer.
Simultaneously, at every turn they congratulate the existing order since "in absolute terms the less privileged are better off than before." They assert that apart from property relations Americans already believe they enjoy "a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society." They neglect to mention how the mainstream press seems bent still on perpetuating that myth.
The high point in their otherwise pedestrian book comes in a perhaps apocryphal anecdote. A heckler shouts that a vote for socialism is a wasted vote. Candidate Eugene Debs replies: "That's right. Don't vote for freedom -- you might not get it. Vote for slavery -- you have a cinch on that." The import of "It Didn't Happen Here" is that it never could. Finally, Lipset, Marks and Barber write about the prospect of radical change as if they were considering the marriage customs of the Ainu.
It is in fact through Marx that we can best understand the realities of the America of today. "In a prosperous society," Wheen notes, quoting Marx, "the big capitalists ruin the small ones," while competition between workers increases and in our society where people are increasingly paid by the hour, "a day's missed toil is as worthless in the market as yesterday morning's newspaper."
How better to understand Bill Gates than to apply Marx's view that "the big capitalists would always try to thwart or sabotage competitiveness?" Barber compulsively quotes Thomas Jefferson. But it is to Marx we may be forced to go for direction on how to enlarge, as Packer puts it, "the control of workers and consumers over corporations."
Packer, weary of the struggle, despairs, even as he notes the irony that "just when we need a serious challenge to global corporate capitalism, the old beliefs are discredited and the energy for new ones spent." Yet that need not be so.
To start, we might liberate ourselves once and for all from the false premise of identifying the ideas of Marx with the history of 20th century Communism. Like a thief in the night, the Soviet Union -- and those countries slavishly modeling themselves on it -- stole the socialist legacy as yet unrealized. Then they wrapped themselves unjustifiably, horrifically, in Marx's name.
Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 15 books, most recently three studies of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magic realism.