How the Left has won
When we think about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, we take the long view – we scan the four centuries from 1400 to 1800, looking for signs of fundamental but incremental change. To be sure, we assume that the great bourgeois revolutions of the seventeeth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were both symptoms and causes of this transition; in that sense, we proceed in our thinking as if capitalism were created by social movements, political activism, ideological extremism. Still, we know these early modern movements can’t be compared to the communist parties that created state socialism in twentieth-century Russia, China, and Cuba, because in these more recent instances, self-conscious revolutionaries organized workers and peasants to overthrow capitalism and create socialism....
In short, capitalism was the unintended consequence of bourgeois revolutions, whereas socialism has been the avowed purpose, or at least a crucial component, of every revolution since 1911. This difference has become so important that when we think about the transition from capitalism to socialism, we take the short view: we look for ideological extremes, social movements, vanguard parties, self-conscious revolutionaries, radical dissenters, armed struggles, extra-legal methods, political convulsions – as if the coming of socialism requires the abolition of capitalism by cataclysm, by insurgent, militant mass movements dedicated to that purpose. As a result, we keep asking Werner Sombart’s leading question, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” And we keep answering defensively, on our way to an apology.
Let’s uproot our assumptions, in keeping with our radical calling. Let’s look for the evidence of socialism in the same places we’ve always looked for the evidence of capitalism: in changing social relations of production as well as legislative acts and political actions, in the marketplace of ideas as well as porkbellies, in everyday life and popular culture as well as learned assessments of the American Dream, in uncoordinated efforts to free the distribution of information and music – the basic industries of a postindustrial society – from the “business model” quotes of the newspapers and record companies as well as social movements animated by anticapitalist ideas. By now we’re accustomed to studies of the “culture of capitalism,” or the culture of the market, which of course aren’t the same thing – you can’t have capitalism without markets, but you can have markets without capitalism – so let’s get used to studying the culture of socialism in the market.
While we’re at it, let’s stop assuming that socialism is by its very nature democratic or progressive, and realize, accordingly, that sometimes we’ll find it where we don’t want to, in strange, unlikely, and regressive places – for example, in the teaching of the Catholic Church on economic justice, or in neoconservative tracts sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, or in the All-Volunteer Army.