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At a recent gathering of socialist-minded folk, we were all left uncharacteristically speechless when one seasoned activist stated (I paraphrase), “You should know that I no longer call myself a socialist. It’s not for me a useful term. People associate that word with too much historical baggage, and frankly, crimes against humanity. Let’s face it: None of us, as Americans, would be content to live as citizens in any of the so-called socialist countries in the world today. These days I present myself simply as a humanist trying to do my part to better the human condition.”
These words are most sobering for us on the left and need to be understood. We may self-righteously cite the ravages of McCarthyism and the historic success of capitalism at derailing all attempts to form a legitimate socialist or labor party in the United States, but in the end we still have to face the fact that the history of our movement worldwide has done at least as much disservice as good. It is fine and proper to cite our militant defense of civil rights and liberties, our early and fervent opposition to fascism, our contributions to winning the Second World War, the rebuilding of state and industrial infrastructure in Eastern Europe after the ravages of war, aid to anti-colonialists in Africa and Asia, strong defense of humanity in our protests against war and nuclear weapons, etc., etc. All this is great-truly great-and should never be forgotten.
At the same time we also have the negative legacy to contend with: egregious violations of person and principle, of religious, cultural and national freedoms, of socialist ideals, leading to many millions of episodes of individual assassinations, mass starvation, unjust imprisonment, exile, repression, and the rise of privilege under the guise of party and class. That the worldwide capitalist class has exploited these events to denigrate the very idea of socialism is undeniable, yet we minimize this history at our own peril. For if and as we do, we take on the coloration of apologists and deniers and thus weaken our profile amongst a world of activists who look to our ideas for answers.
Communists in particular must own this burden, for the largest share of these crimes were committed under regimes led by Communist parties. The “crimes of socialism” are not, after all, the onus of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the other more enlightened social democratic countries of Europe.
One reads the Communist press, and articles and books by Communist authors, and there, to be sure, can discover from time to time, some expressions of distance from the “mistakes and excesses” of those regimes, some disavowal of these “exceptions to socialist norms” and other such euphemisms. When our critics say we have never publicly denounced these crimes, we are often reduced to saying, “Not true. We issued a formal Party statement on that in December 1974,” or some such mealy-mouthed, unconvincing mumbling.
It is high time to be bolder about our idealism, and more adamant, consistent and public about reviewing the history of “actually existing socialism” in such a way that no reader, no activist, no one browsing our websites, could possibly mistake us today as defenders of a criminal past. We must commission our best minds to develop clear and inspirational language and policies that affirm the successes of the socialist experiment past and present, while firmly separating ourselves from its all too many inglorious pages.
Such statements and links should be permanently available on our websites and incorporated into the thinking and activism of our membership. Although we are in fact the successor generation to 90 years of the American Communist movement, we need to present ourselves to the world as fresh, original thinkers building a hopeful, secure future, but unafraid to face the ugly truths of our past. We need, if you will, to launch and sustain our own Truth and Reconciliation process that will continually evolve a self-critical attitude of “best practices” of socialist work. If we maintain our silence and our resistance to revisiting the sordid side of our socialist past, we will remain forever subject to capitalist finger-pointing, and in a way they will be right. Let us finesse them by airing our own honest and difficult assessment and doing our part to restore the good name of socialism.