Which way to socialism?

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In the folklore of my home state, Maine, a story goes that a lost traveler trying to get to a tiny rural town asks two old men sitting on the porch of a country store, "Which way to East Vassalboro?" The two men look at each other and then one replies, "You can't get theyah from heeah."

Hopefully, if asked about the road to socialism, people of socialist inclinations can give a better answer than the two Mainers did to the lost traveler.

While any answer will be speculative to a degree, it still is a question that socialist-minded people have to address.

So here is what I think.

The transition to socialism will be a complex and long process. There will be pauses as well as surges. Unforeseen events will upset political calculations on both sides of the class and social divide. Advances will combine with setbacks. Momentum will shift hands. One phase of struggle will give way to another. And turning points will occur during which the balance of power will shift decisively in favor of the working class and its allies.

Working people - those who create the wealth, make things run, invent new technologies, educate our children, care for the sick and build the future - will democratize and transform the state - the government structures, courts, military.

But of crucial importance is that, at the same time, they will also breathe democratic life into every sphere and institution of society.

All this will hinge on building up the political and organizational capacity of the working class and its allies, on sustained mobilizations at the grassroots and nationwide, on an ability to resist and block attempts to illegally and unconstitutionally reverse working class and people's power, and on a sound strategic policy at each stage of struggle.

It will also depend on the presence of an experienced, tactically flexible, and united leadership (including parties and social movements) that fights for breadth of alliances, takes advantage of the slightest differences among its adversaries, seizes the initiative, shapes the popular discourse, adopts timely and appropriate policies, and above all, fights for broad working class and people's unity.

In recent years, radical social transformations have occurred in relatively peaceful circumstances in Latin America. In a number of countries, an organized and overwhelming majority of working-class and indigenous people led by left coalitions (in which communists are a part) have democratically won political positions in state structures and then utilized them to isolate elites, dislodge discredited neoliberal governments, and enact democratic and socialist measures.

The left and socialist movement in the United States should study these experiences closely. Broadly speaking, the transition to socialism in the U.S., I would argue, will likely follow (and we should struggle for) a similar path, differences notwithstanding.

The traditional imagery of the revolutionary process - economic breakdown, insurrection, dual power, bloody clashes, "smash the state," and direct path and quick rollout of socialism - provides few insights in the present era. In fact, it is disabling strategically, it dulls and dumbs down the socialist imagination, and it fails to understand the overriding necessity of a peaceful (which does not mean passive) transition in today's world.

Rather than one insurrectionary event - the "great revolutionary day" - a series of turning points will define the road to socialism. During these turning points, the relationship of forces, structure of the economy, and people's consciousness will change quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, the transition period to socialism will be composed of multiple building-block moments in a protracted process, during which socialist relations will become organically embedded, in a certain sense "naturalized," in the politics, economics and culture of our society.

Underlying this outlook is the notion that the state isn't simply a monolithic and seamless (capitalist) class bloc and weapon to be employed against the forces of anti-capitalist and socialist change. While the capitalist class is dominant over the capitalist state, the state is filled with internal contradictions and is a site of class and democratic struggles. It is not just any site, though, but a crucial and decisive site that the movement for radical change ignores at its peril.

Thus the nature of the struggle isn't "the people against the state" as is sometimes suggested. Rather an overriding task is to win positions and influence in the state through mass democratic struggles, and then utilize those positions, in conjunction with masses of people in motion, to transform the state and society along socialist lines.

Now some will say that this is highly unlikely, even utopian. But one has to ask: has the idea of the seizure of power and quick dismantling of the existing state in favor of a new "out of the ashes" socialist state been borne out by historical experience? I don't believe so.

I would go further and say that the path I have outlined isn't utopian at all. It's the only road to socialism in our time.

It's the way we can get there from here.

Photo: conbon33 CC 2.0