Friday, September 18, 2009


The compass of my life has always pointed to the vision of a better world ahead. “Looking for the Future” is the title of the memoir I wrote in my seventies. Now I’m 87. Time has blurred the perception of a future socialist society that once I viewed as clear and certain. Idealism and hope still inspire the search, but experience and pragmatism also necessarily shape its evolution.

Now I want to question, rethink and sum up — not because I feel I will arrive at some grand conclusions, but simply to respond to a basic inner urge that I don’t want to ignore.

Even though this project is personal, it is obviously ambitious and difficult. I don’t want to start with apologies for my deficiencies. Areas in which I lack sufficient grounding will be acknowledged, and may be obvious, as I go along.

The easiest way to get started is to ask myself some key questions and try to give some preliminary answers, which could subsequently be fleshed out and debated more fully:

What do I mean by a better world?

Has the election of Obama set us on the path to a better America in a better world?

How does the present situation compare to that of America and the world in the 1930s? Are there features common to periods of social upheaval and change?

Are there new circumstances and conditions that may make a better world possible?

What kind of changes are essential to setting a new course?

Can an end be put to war?

Can the international community contain fundamentalist religious and ideological movements that war against society and promote terror?

Can progressive governments be sustained and major advances consolidated?

Is a better world compatible with the survival of capitalism? Where public and private sector economies may coexist, can governments and social institutions keep the capitalist sector under control and reverse the growth of inequality?

How do socialist ideas and 20th century experience relate to perspectives for a better world?

* * * * *

What do I mean by “better world”?

The fact that progress is always being made in some areas of culture and technology is not nearly enough to balance the deepening crises and looming dangers of the 21st Century. Still, by “better world”, I don’t have in mind a utopian vision of a time when humanity’s problems are solved. Rather I look to a time when basic changes in our country and in the world provide the means for facing up to the great challenges and making progress toward a decent future on a healthy planet earth.

That minimal vision suggests creating conditions that are far from being realized in today’s world. It means achieving in America and around the world governments that are driven by the needs and hopes of the people rather then pressures from powerful wealthy elites. It means changing priorities from narrow, so-called national interests and imperial dominance to a clear focus on cooperation to resolve crises that destroy lives and imperil the future. Atop the agenda of a better world would be issues of poverty and economic inequality, global warming, the environment, energy, public health, and education. Above all it would be a world that would oppose war and occupation of foreign lands. It would foster disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons. It would promote equal rights, opposing all forms of discrimination based on color, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Put that way, what begins as a modest outlook on the future turns out to be a tall order indeed.

* * * * *

With the election of Obama, are we now on course to a better America in a better world?

Not yet, in my opinion — but some road blocks that seemed impenetrable have been cracked open. The Obama election electrified the country and was cheered by most of the world. It certainly changed the political climate, infusing it with hope and opportunity, after the devastating reign of a supremely reactionary administration.

But early experience under the Obama administration shows that resistance to progressive change is deeply rooted in the way our society works. Whatever people want and need, whatever is good for the country, is subject to being compromised or blocked by pressure to accommodate the interests of economic, military and political power. So the bold actions demanded by the severe economic crisis, the urgent need to turn foreign policy toward peace, the efforts to do the right thing about health care, climate change, education, civil liberties, and immigrant rights all run up against a familiar drumbeat by corporate lobbyists: ‘government programs to create jobs and stimulate recovery cost too much; they undermine private enterprise; it’s socialism to compete with the health insurance industry, or to tax the rich, or to crack down on the banks and Wall Street; demanding accountability from the CIA or the military jeopardizes national security.’ The Obama Administration hears that drumbeat and its echoes in the media as well as among Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress. As a result, it too often equivocates and contradicts the goals of its forward-looking agenda.

I don’t mean to downgrade major possibilities opened up as a result of Obama’s presidency and the movements in response to critical challenges of our time. But the election of a new president, however significant a figure he may be, doesn’t alter structures of power that support corporate welfare over public interests. That’s the reality of capitalism. Nevertheless, the success or failure of Obama’s legislative agenda may well indicate whether we are entering on a time when people can change society in major ways.

It’s not surprising that so much attention focuses on Obama. His rise to the presidency was historic and no president in generations has had to deal with such severe crises. In the first months of his administration, his popularity remains high. As hard legislative battles unfold, some of his supporters worry: Is he committed to his inspirational promises or is he backing away? Is he progressive or centrist? Is he really bold or simply pragmatic? Why doesn’t he act as forcefully as FDR did during the Great Depression? Why especially is he beefing up the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

How much headway may be made during the Obama presidency, both overcoming critical domestic problems and moving toward a more peaceful world, depends on sustaining and expanding the popular push for change that elected Obama and opened up major new opportunities for progress. That is where the judgment on Obama’s commitments and leadership will eventually be determined.

In a series of unusually probing addresses, both as candidate and as President, Obama has projected an outlook on change that has many elements of a different and far better future: notably his Philadelphia speech on race, his Cairo speech on relations with the Muslim world, and his recent speeches on disarmament of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Contrary to the history and continuing pursuit of US imperial dominance, he has struck a new note of respect for the rights and dignity of nations, especially noteworthy in regard to Latin America where US intervention has been most persistent and oppressive. If this thoughtfulness and vision define the trajectory of his presidency, it will indeed be historic despite difficulties and contradictions along the way.

* * * * *

How does the present situation compare to that of America and the world in the 1930s? Are there features common to periods of social upheaval and change?

For perspective on social change, it may be more worthwhile to compare historic periods than to compare the attributes of Obama and FDR. The present economic crisis is the most severe since the Great Depression, but so far it is not as devastating. The turmoil of mass unemployment and hunger drove millions into action in the early thirties. Veterans and unemployed marched on Washington; “Hoovervilles” sprang up; demonstrations for unemployment insurance brought out throngs in cities and town squares in defiance of police violence. Labor began to make huge advances, organizing the unorganized and moving toward formation of the great industrial unions. That is not descriptive of present day America, although a majority voted for major progressive change and millions worked together to achieve that mandate.

The crises of today are actually more profound in important respects, with the very fate of humanity threatened in ways not generally apparent back in the 1930s. Still their immediate impact is less acute and the response accordingly lacks the urgency the situation demands.

The world of the 1930s was different too. To many people everywhere it seemed that an alternative to the very sick capitalist society was emerging. The ideas of socialism, a society in which power passed to the workers, gained widespread popularity after the Russian revolution. The Soviet Union would evolve in ways that tragically contradicted the socialist ideal. However its existence as a possible alternative to capitalism catalyzed economic and social changes during and after the Great Depression. The struggles that erupted during the depression drew inspiration from a vivid American home-grown tradition of labor radicalism, anti-monopoly and socialist movements: a freshly remembered history of powerful strikes met with deadly violence by industrial magnates, of battles waged to gain equal rights under the constitution for black Americans and for women, of courageous opposition to the first World War led by socialist Eugene V. Debs, and of militant resistance to "alien and sedition" laws against foreign-born Americans.

Today capitalism is in trouble, but alternative visions for fundamental change have only begun to appear as we confront the present challenges.

During my lifetime, several features characterized the upheavals that produced dramatic changes in society, whether the reforms of the New Deal or the repudiation of Jim Crow in our country, or revolutionary outcomes such as the break-up of colonial structures after World War II, or the overthrow of South Africa’s apartheid regime, or the removal of unpopular authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. In general, basic reforms and revolutionary changes in society are driven by major crises that shake up the existing order and cannot be resolved without departing sharply from the status quo. Major changes become possible when masses of people decide that existing conditions are no longer tolerable.

When things reach such a stage, division occurs among the powers that be — some see the urgent need to adjust to new circumstances or even to retreat from some positions that have become a liability; others fight to hold on to power and privilege by obstructionism and schemes to divert the demand for change toward even more reactionary ends.

Ultimately the extent and direction of change depends on the scope and persistence of the movements engaged in the struggle and the kind of political leadership that comes forward.

* * * * *

Are there new circumstances and conditions that may make a better world possible?

Today’s world is strikingly different from what was anticipated by those who held the reigns of our government when this new century began. With the neocons calling the shots, there was a dramatic upturn in the aggressive assertion of US power. The claim to global dominance as the sole superpower and the arrogant projection of a new American Century may then have seemed beyond effective challenge. Yet that outlook crashed badly in the very first decade of the 21st Century. The ultra right Bush Administration miscalculated and overreached, especially in the disastrous Iraq War, and an emerging new reality in world power relationships became apparent. Instead of overwhelming the world with the “shock and awe” of US military invincibility, the Iraq War showed that an era was coming to an end: military conquest and occupation of foreign lands are not a viable foreign policy since they inevitably evoke popular resistance, opposition worldwide, and ultimate rejection at home. Meanwhile, new economic powers are rising rapidly, especially, but not exclusively, in Asia. Most countries of Latin America, long dominated by US corporate interests and military interventions, are now taking control of their own destiny.

The fact that no superpower can dictate the terms of “world order”, that multipolarity is the inevitable and growing reality in international affairs, increases the pressure for cooperative approaches to humanity’s critical problems. This makes, too, for greater flexibility, more elbow room, for people and nations to seek their own diverse paths forward. There is a more favorable climate for sustaining populist governments, as is evident already in Latin America.

A second, actually most important, change dominating American and world affairs is the profound economic crisis. In the United States and in most countries, joblessness and poverty are at levels unseen since the Great Depression. Among the bubbles that have burst is the myth that capitalism and globalization have resolved the chronic problem of recurring economic crisis. Suddenly the heralded “free market economy” — a euphemism for unfettered capitalism — proves instead to be a formula for unbounded greed, corruption, and total disregard of consequences inflicted on the public. Fierce institutional resistance to regulation and shameless government giveaways to banks and financial institutions, especially in the United States, are causing great anger as unemployment and suffering mount. Internationally pressure is rising to alter the global financial institutions and arrangements that impose the will of US and European big capital. These arrangements not only squeeze poorer nations into poverty and dependence, but make the world economy fully vulnerable to any downturn in the US economy.

A huge potential engine of change is the late emerging awareness that global warming and pollution have become a do or die issue for humanity. This developing crisis of survival ought to move the world, if anything can, toward urgent and basic reform. Only international cooperation based on fairness and mutual interest can change the grim outlook. That requires containing and curbing the capacity of multinational corporations to operate in violation of necessary standards of public health and welfare. The question here is whether climate change will reach the point of no return before society changes enough to do what’s necessary. (Paul Krugman views that dilemma in his column, “Boiling the Frog”, New York Times, July 12, 2009.)

The point in considering relatively new circumstances and crises is not to predict the outcome — I certainly can’t. They do constitute arguments and possibilities that influence prospects for a livable future.

There is another phenomenon, not new, but a continuous current of change in our culture, in the ways that we live and communicate. It is worth considering that in recent years, in contrast to the very conservative cast of our government, cultural attitudes have changed dramatically to favor respect and equality for women, people of color, and gays. The Internet and new communication technologies have reached into every corner of the earth. The impact of these innovations reflects and even aggravates society’s fault lines and inequalities, but people are connected to each other to a degree that is qualitatively new, unimaginable for most of my lifetime. The voices of the people can now be heard in every situation, and that’s a basic ingredient of any hope for a better world.

* * * * *

What kind of changes are essential to setting a new course ?

Getting firmly on track toward a better future requires moving to reign in Wall Street and changing arrangements that have given the IMF and World Bank such destructive power over the economic fate of poorer nations and the state of the global economy. The demand for regulation and reform has emerged in the present crisis because Wall Street’s culpability and chronic greed are so undeniable. There is great anger because the priorities for economic recovery favor financial giants while unemployment and foreclosures mount. Outstanding economists Stiglitz and Krugman have been hammering away at the need for more stimulus to stem the tide of joblessness, strong measures for government regulation of the banks and Wall Street, and major revision of international monetary and trade institutions to make them more representative and accountable. So far the administration’s proposals for regulatory reform fall short and Wall Street’s hubris is greater than ever. Goldman-Sachs and Chase, having stepped over weaker rivals, are piling up enormous profits and doing it in the same old ways. An opportunity for change may already have been missed as the financial sector has been rescued at public expense from a full-blown crash. But the problems are so deep that the need for serious government intervention will assert itself with each new shock that descends on the public, especially on the poor and the unemployed.

In countries with labor movements stronger than ours, there are new eruptions of militancy, the refusal to take job loss or wage cuts lying down. Quite a few countries have made political and economic changes that empower working people more fundamentally than the reforms that are today on our developing agenda. Still there is much in the legislative program that Obama has advanced that can begin to make a difference if people fight for it hard enough. The fate of the battle for universal health care is cardinal. It would be a big and promising step forward if the public sector becomes the main actor, if the health insurance industry’s monopoly is ended, and if the principle of taxing the wealthiest prevails.

* * * * *

Can an end be put to war?

Putting an end to war is the only way to turn the page on humanity’s worst legacy.

It is alarming that the United States is expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the very outset of what is heralded as a new era in our relations with the rest of the world. The official rationale is that we have to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban to overcome worldwide terrorism and prevent new attacks on the United States. That is neither a complete nor convincing explanation, since a decisive military victory in Afghanistan is even far less likely than it proved to be in Iraq. The continuing exercise of US military power remains part of the strategic outlook of the establishment even as it turns away from grandiose neocon ambitions that proved bankrupt in Iraq. Whatever adjustments may ultimately have to be made to achieve some regional modus vivendi, the administration and its generals want to reassert US military muscle and avoid the perception of general retreat in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. This is likely to be another tragic miscalculation making it harder than ever to get out of the quagmire.

While many countries are still ready to resort to military force if they conclude that their security or interests are seriously threatened, the United States may be the only power that still manages to fight prolonged wars. That observation doesn’t hold for some civil wars or uprisings in occupied lands, which are very difficult to bring to a conclusion.

Abolishing war is enormously difficult, because the factors that serve as incentives for war are deeply embedded in existing society: conflicting interests over control of markets and resources, especially lucrative and dwindling energy reserves; nationalist, religious, ethnic and racial hatreds that fuel violent regimes of occupation and apartheid; a military-industrial network that profits from the endless overkill production of weapons of war.

Still worldwide opposition has grown to the point that makes it much harder to launch a war and difficult to prolong it against universal condemnation. There is strong resistance to any resort to military action in the ongoing dispute with Iran. The recent horrific Israeli war in Gaza sparked worldwide protest and an unprecedented wave of disavowal from millions of Jews; it has even begun to open a degree of seperation between Washington and the far right regime of Netanyahu and Lieberman.

Two other factors have the potential to restrain the resort to war.

One is the growing recognition that nuclear proliferation cannot be slowed unless the United States, Russia and lesser nuclear powers commit to serious steps toward nuclear disarmament and general arms reduction. The fear of nuclear holocaust was certainly a factor in preventing the cold war from going hot. The Bush Administration manipulated that fear toward an opposite end. In the name of the “war on terror”, Bush reneged on the historic Reagan-Gorbachev joint statement on the elimination of nuclear weapons, broke the test ban treaty, and actually sped up nuclear arms production — which in turn provided the impetus for a new burst of nuclear proliferation. Now there is the possibility that the specter of terminal nuclear madness may once again lead to rational measures for peace and survival.

The other factor is that economic and political power is not the monopoly of any one state or group of states. Historically the competition of rival nations for markets, resources and territory was a prime cause of major wars. At this point the consequences of a world war would be so colossal, probably terminal, that a more likely development is that most nations would block (or take advantage of) any power willing to gamble on war. We can see that now as major Asian, European and Latin-American countries steer a separate course while the United States carries its burden of costly wars.

All of this does not add up to a compelling prospect of a world free of wars. Ultimately there would have to be significant institutional changes, economic and political, so that world community would take on real meaning. New arrangements would have to alter or replace the IMF and the World Bank. It remains to be seen if the United Nations can become the instrument of peace that the people of the world have hoped it would be.

* * * * *

Can the international community contain fundamentalist religious and ideological movements that war against society and promote terror?

Terror inflicted on non-combatant populations is a scourge that demands an international response. It is embraced by messianic crusaders, often merging fundamentalist religious fanaticism with the struggles of masses living in conditions of oppression and misery. The answer to such terror is not the state terror of war that kills far more civilians than suicide bombers can. The wars in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Pakistan have further alienated and dislocated populations who bitterly resent living in conditions of military occupation, humiliation and hopelessness.

It is in the interest of all countries to find and bring to justice perpetrators of terrorism, including (but not only) those linked to Al Qaeda. That holds for all terrorists acting on the basis of religious or ideological fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. However, the phenomenon of terrorism can only be diminished significantly through a long-term commitment to creating conditions of equality, reducing poverty and lowering sectarian barriers to mutual understanding and friendship. That brings us back to the main question, whether it’s possible to alter the way the world works to favor the many instead of a few super-rich elites. The best hope is the rapidly growing desire among people everywhere, especially younger generations, to join in a culture that welcomes diversity and the commonality that connects all people.

* * * * *

Can progressive governments be sustained and major advances consolidated?

A discouraging fact is that hard-won political advances are often reversed and have to be fought for all over again. Forces of reaction and greed never quit. Their great wealth is a huge advantage in manipulating opinion and disrupting progress. The problems of society are severe and winning an election does not insure a progressive or liberal government against failure. Nor has a socialist revolution proved irreversible. Success depends on acting on problems in a way that builds on popular participation, especially of the working people and poor who have been held down historically. It requires rallying that support to further limit the capacity of the super-rich old guard to obstruct. There also is potential strength through solidarity, mutual sustenance as more countries and regions choose new paths forward.

An encouraging fact is that important social reforms, once established, are not often surrendered by the people even as political fortunes fluctuate. However, the timeline for safeguarding the future is such that recycling political power once more to the Bushes, Berlusconis and Pinochet-like monsters could bring humanity to the point of no return.


Is a better world compatible with the survival of capitalism? Where public and private sector economies may coexist, can governments and social institutions keep the capitalist sector under control and reverse the growth of inequality?

A better world as I see it — a world capable of coping with humanity’s critical challenges — is not one in which the capitalist mode of production for profit has been discarded. It is one that is no longer a slave to capitalism and in which the publicly owned sector of the economy is growing. That requires governments whose economic policies actively favor the public interest and shield society from the destructive potential of the chase for private profit. Clearly the balance between public and private will be different between countries — it already is. In a healthier international climate, some countries may opt for a socialist economy in which the public sector has established clear dominance. In others, almost certainly the United States, it will be a prolonged struggle to uphold the public interest against increasing inequality inherent in capitalist “private enterprise”. That tension is starkly evident today in China’s rapidly growing economy. No one can proscribe how this complicated and varied process may play out in different countries and the world as a whole. In the long run much will depend on non-governmental movements and institutions, especially trade unions, which would be a constant force to make and keep governments democratic.

* * * * *

How do socialist ideas and 20th century experience relate to perspectives for a better world?

Socialist ideas and movements have been and are a great catalyst to human progress. They have pioneered and fought for virtually every major social advance in modern industrial society. They have elevated labor as the main driving force for social justice. They have inspired and joined in the struggles of the exploited and oppressed in every corner of the earth. The most prescient analysis of capitalism was developed by Karl Marx a century-and-a-half ago, born out more clearly than ever by current events. Marxism contributes to a philosophical understanding of the material world and the dynamics of change in nature and society. As interpreted and developed by a succession of followers, Marxism and Marxism-Leninism guided major socialist revolutions in the 20th century (principally Russia and China) and continue to be an influence in varying ways on existing regimes of diverse character (e.g. China, Cuba, South Africa, and Venezuela).

The world, however, looks very different today than many of us anticipated so confidently when I was young. That is due in significant measure to the distortion and ultimate demise of the Russian revolution. I have argued elsewhere that the Soviet Union should be viewed not alone through the prism of Stalinism’s horrors, but of its historic significance and contributions — not least of which was to the defeat of fascism and the collapse of colonial empires. I believe that the Russian and Chinese revolutions stand as heroic milestones in the struggle to overcome the ravages of capitalism, even though they have dashed hopes that human freedom could be achieved without great complications and tragic setbacks. I also think it was not inevitable that the USSR had to go under. The world would be far better off today if efforts to reform and democratize the Soviet Union had come earlier when they might have been successful. But that history can’t be replayed. If a better world is possible, the path forward is different now than it might have been.

Looking back now at the preliminary answers to the questions I asked myself at the beginning, there are clearly departures from things I once took pretty much for granted. I have blurred over what once were sharp distinctions in how I regarded “reform” and “revolution”. It seems to me that if a better world is to be, people in different countries will have to find a variety of ways forward that no theory can fully predict. As for the United States, we are at a very critical point. There is a chance, by no means an easy one, to make headway on significant reforms that could begin to offer promise of a brighter future. Even though many countries are likely to advance on a more radical trajectory, what happens in the USA is very important to the world. If reaction manages to slam shut the door of hope that opened up in the past year, it will be devastating. We have to keep moving forward.

Summing up…

So, as I reach my tentative conclusion, is a better world possible? Maybe!

Leon Wofsy

July 2009

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