Socialism dead? An idea whose time it never was, a "project" of elitist intellectuals ending the century as ideological trash? Not quite so fast. Permit me, as one who consistently opposed the Soviet perversion of socialism, to say a few words over the body of this fallen dream.
I know the failure of the Soviet experiment has left the impression that socialism itself has been tried, and that it failed. It is not much good to mutter, "Yes, but it wasn't my kind of socialism," or, "It wasn't really socialism." It was sold to the world as socialism, and public opinion bought it. All socialists suffered in consequence.
But why should socialists give up their dreams? Think of the Christians, who practiced torture, burned heretics, engaged in the killing of "witches," expelled and hounded Jews, and gave their blessing to slavery and war (not to mention capitalism). What Christian leader would say there is no hope for Christianity in the future because the message of Jesus, the "experiment" he launched, has been so distorted?
We know communism failed in the Soviet Union, but look at the United States. Our unemployment rate has been rising by about 1 per cent a decade since 1950. When I was at UCLA about forty years ago, our economics courses taught that for the labor force to be "mobile," we had to have an unemployment rate of 3 per cent. That was one of the reasons I became a socialist; it seemed like an awful lot of people out of work just to keep the work force "mobile" and disciplined. But the figure has gone up: Today we not only have an unemployment rate of about 7 per cent, but our economists would be happy if that were an accurate statistic. Actual unemployment is substantially higher because people have given up looking and are not counted as unemployed, and many Americans are in the "underground" economy, paid "off the books" for a variety of reasons. Many economists believe the true unemployment rate is well above 10 per cent.
And what kind of employment? In the past fifteen years, we have seen a startling shift downward in the living standards of most Americans, including, for the first time, "middle-class" Americans. While the rich have, indeed, gotten a great deal richer, it isn't just the poor who have gotten poorer; everyone except the rich has suffered a decline in real income. People are being forced out of productive work where wages had been high (steel production, for example) into service industries where wages are low (fast-food service, for example). The number of Americans who subsist on food stamps, or who have lost their medical coverage, or their homes, or who are actually living on the street (or in their cars) is higher than it has been since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Los Angeles "riots" after the Rodney King verdict were not about race but about class, as some Federal officials admitted at the time. People were hungry. A friend of mine reported seeing neighbors going back and forth from a store that had children's supplies, taking boxes of diapers or food.
But we have also seen a sharp increase in racial tensions in the urban areas--not just tension between black and white, but also tension among groups in the minority; Latino and Asian populations in conflict with each other or with the African-American population.
Our capitalism has, in the past fifteen years, failed to provide jobs, housing, and medical care for an increasing number of our people. The men who run this country can trot out academics to explain how well-off we are. Certainly most of America is in far better shape than the former Soviet bloc. But given the fact that the American experiment in capitalism suffered very little from the two world wars that devastated Europe, the reality here is grim for too many of our people--and with no economic excuse. If the homeless on our streets, the beggars who wordlessly shake their cups asking for change, were …