Resisting the incoming tide
Daniel Lazare pours scorn on the House of Representatives’ utterly incoherent, but revealing, resolution condemning the ‘horrors of socialism’
To no-one’s surprise, the US House of Representatives has cemented its standing as perhaps the most reactionary legislative body on earth by adopting a resolution “denounc[ing] socialism in all its forms”, on the grounds that it has “led to famine and mass murders and the killing of over 100,000,000 people worldwide”.
The resolution, approved last week by all 219 Republicans and a majority of the lower house’s 212 Democrats, says that “socialist ideology necessitates a concentration of power that has time and time again collapsed into communist regimes, totalitarian rule and brutal dictatorships”. It then indicts a long list of leftwing perpetrators - not only Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but such comparative small fry as Castro, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
It is an eclectic mix that includes one genuine revolutionary (Lenin), two ‘Thermidorian’ reactionaries (Stalin and Mao), weird Stalino-Confucian offshoots like the Kims, plus assorted third-world nationalists and reformers whose chief crime in American eyes is daring to say no to US diktat. A few names are notably absent: eg, Trotsky, whose historical role is too complicated for Republican knuckle-draggers to grasp; and Ho Chi Minh, the man who helped bloody the nose of American imperialism and whose memory is therefore too painful for today’s ultra-rightists to even bring up.
The document invokes a couple of American founders for support. It quotes Thomas Jefferson on the importance of guaranteeing to each and every individual “a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it” - something that socialism will supposedly take away - and James Madison, the so-called ‘father of the constitution’, who declared in 1792 that government is unjust when “the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest”.1
Anyone with a sense of history is no doubt rolling in the aisles as a consequence, since Madison violated the personal liberty of some 300 slaves on his Virginia estate, while Jefferson did the same to more than 600 on his own plantation some 30 miles to the north-west. Jefferson also forced at least one slave, Sally Hemings, to have sex, while keeping their half-dozen children in captivity until the age of 21.
After all, this is the same Jefferson who once declared that “a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years [is] more profitable than the best man of the farm”, because “what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labours disappear in mere consumption”.2 In his eyes, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness evidently means the right to breed human beings at will and sell their children off as livestock.
As for the resolution’s assertion that the US “was founded on the belief in the sanctity of the individual, to which the collectivistic system of socialism in all of its forms is fundamentally and necessarily opposed”, the fact is that the founders violated such sanctity at every turn by surrounding slavery with so many constitutional protections as to render it all but impregnable. This is why the United States would eventually be forced to wage a four-year civil war to remove it - something that the British parliament was able to accomplish with a stroke of the pen with regard to British possessions in the Caribbean.
The resolution’s other points are equally absurd:
- The figure of 100 million deaths is straight out of Stéphane Courtois’ best-selling Black book of communism, whose tendentious methodology and pro-fascist overtones (it argued that the Soviets were worse than the Nazis they defeated in 1945) have come under withering assault since publication in 1997;
- The “tens of millions” who supposedly perished in the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war are a gross exaggeration, even when deaths from famine and disease are taken into account;
- As inexcusable as the Great Leap Forward was, the most commonly cited figure of 30 million famine-related deaths in 1958-61 is proportionally less than half the death toll from the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, which saw nearly 12% of the population perish, as opposed to 4.6% in China;
- Needless to say, the resolution ignores such socialist achievements as unionisation, national healthcare or mass education. Was competition with the Soviets one reason why the post-war boom of 1948-73 led to a golden age for the working class? If Chinese per-capita income is four times that of India ($8,826 versus $1,940), while its ranking on a widely-used human development index is more than 40 places higher (90 versus 131), does socialism have something to do with it as well?3
The answer, of course, is yes. Considering that India suffers 3.9 million additional deaths per year due to its higher mortality rate, as Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze have noted, it appears that India “manage[s] to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame”.4 Plainly, socialism is also a factor in this regard, a minor historical detail that America’s House of Representatives does not want spoiling its infantile worldview.
So the resolution is crude propaganda that twists the truth as much as Pravda or Izvestia did during the dark days of 1937-38. Picking it apart is child’s play. The more important question, however, is: why? What do the far-right Republicans who control the House hope to gain from such a stunt? Why did a majority of Democrats - supposedly the liberal alternative - go along with it? And why ram it through, when polls show socialism surging in popularity? Is it not the job of the House to reflect democratic sentiment rather than contradicting it?
The short answers are: (1) because they want to embarrass the Democrats; (2) because Dems are cowardly opportunists who are all too embarrassing in their own right; and (3) because Congress in general stands for government of, by and for the financial elite at the expense of the working masses. The resolution is designed to stop socialism in its tracks before the movement gets out of hand.
But it will get out of hand - and soon. All the necessary prerequisites are in place. Since 1975, CEO ‘compensation’ at America’s 350 top companies has zoomed from 26.6 times an average worker’s earnings to 398.8 times - a 15-fold increase.5 Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage has fallen 37% over the same period, while 32% of New York City households are now “severely rent-burdened”, meaning that they must spend 50% or more of their income on rent due to the explosion in real-estate prices.6 Average US life expectancy has meanwhile plunged by 2.9 years since 2019 to the lowest level since the 1990s. The reasons are many: the inept response to Covid-19, obesity, guns, a surge in highway fatalities, and “diseases of despair” like suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism. Together, they add up to a decline in real living conditions that is unprecedented outside of wartime.7
Hence, it is hardly surprising that support for capitalism has fallen from 65% to 57% since May 2019 or that 36% of Americans say they have a positive impression of socialism, with support particularly high among young people aged 18-29 (44%), among blacks, Hispanics and Asians (52%, 41% and 49% respectively), and among those with lower incomes - 45% versus 33% for the middle and upper brackets.8
This is actually a slight decline from 2019 - most likely due to the collapse of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the overall rightward drift. But the results are still unprecedented in terms of post-war politics, and the fact that they are taking place in the heartland of international capitalism makes them all the more striking. As even the rightwing Heritage Foundation says of the post-2008 period,
During the past several decades, college tuition has more than doubled. By the early 2020s, the average student graduated with a loan debt of $30,000. Homes were nearly 40% more expensive than in the 1980s. Healthcare costs continued to soar. In 1960 the average annual health insurance cost per person was $146; in 2016, it topped more than $10,000.9
Police are still out of control, as the January 7 murder of Tyre Nichols shows, inflation is still raging, while global warming is wreaking havoc. How long this can go on before American workers mobilise in response is unknown. But it cannot go on forever. As daunting as it is to take on a system as vast and dysfunctional as international capitalism, “there is no alternative” (to quote a certain Iron Lady) and the struggle must be joined. Indeed, the process is already underway, thanks to economic decline, a growing assault by the ultra-right, war in Ukraine and the prospect of even worse to come in the western Pacific. A revolutionary era is beginning to dawn. For the moment, only the bourgeoisie is radicalised. But that will change.
The Democratic collapse is meanwhile shocking for even the most jaded observers - 109 Dems voted for the resolution, propelling it to victory by a margin of nearly four to one. Top leaders were all in favour: ex-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; current minority leader Hakeem Jeffries; Susan DelBene of Washington State, the newly-elected chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, etc. Assistant Democratic leader Jim Clyburn - a black Democrat from South Carolina, who played a key role in torpedoing the Sanders campaign in March 2020 - voted for it as well. So did Ro Khanna, a ‘progressive’ star from California’s Silicon Valley, who co-chaired the Sanders campaign and who counts Alphabet Inc, parent company of Google, among his top campaign contributors. Only in a political system as mindless and corrupt as in the US can a congressman endorse and condemn socialism with equal fervour.
Also voting yes were California Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell - former members of the House intelligence committee, who led the Russiagate charge in 2017-20. This was a Democratic effort to drive Donald Trump out of office by linking him with Vladimir Putin - a rhetorical crusade that has since led to an all too real shooting war in eastern Ukraine. Needless to say, Schiff and Swalwell are not only hawkish against Russia, but against China as well. Other Dems tried to temper the resolution’s language by exempting social security and Medicare, and blaming fascism as well for the murder of six million Jews. But when that failed - anti-fascism is out of vogue in Washington - they hopped on board regardless.
A majority of the party is thus shifting to the far right. Among other things, this is a setback for the Democratic Socialists of America, whose strategy is to move the Democrats to the left in the hope of one day transforming them into a genuine labour party. But, now that Dems are veering off in the opposite direction, the DSA is adrift, along with American liberalism in general.
As for Congress’s loyalty to the financial elite, the “horrors of socialism” resolution is evidence of what has been obvious for years: that money greases the skids on Capitol Hill, that members run for office in order to get rich, and that nothing dazzles the political class more than extreme wealth. As gridlock deepens, backroom deals proliferate and opportunities grow for well-heeled lobbyists to work their magic. That is why members of Congress are three times likelier to extend a helping hand to wealthy campaign contributors than to ordinary constituents, as an academic study found in 2016.10 The more democracy deteriorates, the more Americans must pay to get anything done.
The upshot is the best ‘government that money can buy’ - one in which all bank accounts are equal in direct proportion to their volume. When money is the only standard of human value, ordinary people must be punished for the crime of not measuring up. That is why the spectre of communism must be exorcised: a movement devoted to the intrinsic worth of every last individual threatens an entire mode of production.