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“Imagine Living in a Socialist USA!” Rehabilitating a Forbidden Word

Editor’s Note: Discuss Deena Stryker’s Lunch With Fellini, Dinner With Fidel on August 2nd at the FDL Book Salon.

Portrait of Francis Goldin

Frances Goldin, editor of Imagine: Living In A Socialist USA

As a faithful reader of many so-called ‘progressive’ journals and books, my frustration with the Empire into which I was born increases daily. So many voices in the wilderness! So many groups devoted to decisive change, each with its own leader and agenda, often acting together but incapable of forming an organized whole. A mortally wounded European welfare state facing real fascists can still call upon the vigor and might of trade unions harking back more than a century. But when Volkswagen tries to unionize its U.S. factories, American bosses can prevent it, caring little that the German car manufacturer might decide to pass on creating more U.S. jobs. Enabling such behavior is a government that arms local police forces with military hardware and perfects ever better means of spying on its citizens.

Part of what makes such behavior possible is the limited exposure that progressive books can achieve. Publishing is dominated by companies beholden to corporate interests that also invest heavily in blockbuster films and reality TV to distract people from politics, knowing that progressive publishers lack the financial means required to capture widespread attention. In this landscape, the phrase ‘progressive literary agent’ is almost an oxymoron, but for Frances Goldin agenting has been part of a life of activism.

In 1950, she campaigned with the socialist W.E.B. Du Bois, he running for US Senate, she for New York State House. This was the beginning of the Red Scare, and their meetings were often attacked, but Goldin was not cowed, having been brought up in a tough Queens neighborhood. Proud of her Russian immigrant working-class background she told me: “We were discriminated against not only by the Christians, but by Jewish shopkeepers who looked down on workers.”

While raising a family, Frances Goldin helped defeat Robert Moses’ 1964 plan to build a Mid-Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed the Lower East Side. In what she considers one of her greatest achievements, she helped create a land trust that signed 199 year low rent leases for the 300 inhabitants of Cooper Square, sheltering them from future such projects.

Goldin started her working life as a secretary for a law firm that represented many writers (they were the executors of the estates of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, among others). In six years she learned a lot about publishing, and when a friend of a friend handed her the manuscript of ‘Hustling and Other Hard Work” a story about Black lives, she ran with the opportunity to find a publisher for it. One thing led to another and by 1977 she was able to set up her own agency, whose roster today counts some of America’s finest progressive writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Norman Finkelstein, Juan Gonzalez, Frances Fox Piven and many others.

Having topped ninety, Frances Goldin can safely call herself the oldest literary agent in New York, and yet, hobnobbing with sophisticated authors did nothing to dent her activism. She has been a steadfast supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist who has spent decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 2011, during a visit to the Occupy barricades, she saw a way to advance what she refers to as her two remaining goals: seeing the United States adopt basic socialist principles such as universal health care, and freedom for Mumia. Never one to dither, with the help of long-time activists Michael and Debby Smith she signed up thirty-one prominent progressives to each write about a different way in which socialism would change American lives, the book’s royalties to be donated to the campaign for a retrial of the world-famous prisoner.

I met with Frances in a basement classroom of a Philadelphia neighborhood church when she participated in a meeting of the Free Mumia Committee, run by an impressive team of young activists. Her white hair had a streak of purple in the front, she wore a purple Free Mumia shirt, and told me she was looking forward to meeting with the prisoner the next day. Suddenly passionate she  said: “He is an extraordinary person, not only as a writer but as a human being who managed to rise above his decades-long confinement and continue writing.” The author of eight books written in prison, Mumia co-authored Imagine’s chapter on justice with Angela Davis.

Typical of a wide-ranging work that combines theory with practice, here is a quote from Golden’s preface:

The mainstream media and the powers that be have made the word ‘socialism’ frightening, foreign, unpatriotic, and menacing. It threatens their ill-gotten gains, so the idea of workers sharing in the wealth that their sweat and toil has generated has to be labeled ‘un-American’.

And, from Paul Street’s first chapter:

Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power…One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction….Capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.

Cover of Imagine: Living In A Socialist USA

A new anthology challenges readers to imagine socialist futures.

For someone who spent six years behind the Iron Curtain (voluntarily), the analysis of a crucial element in the failure of the Soviet system was of special interest:

Soviet state enterprises largely retained the basic four-part capitalist organizational system. Instead of corporate boards of directors, a council of ministers reserved for itself the same basic decisions. As in a capitalist corporation, the council was a different group of people from those doing the direct work of producing goods and services– so the relationship between it and those direct workers was also exploitative. Instead of private shareholders choosing a board of directors, the Soviet government and Communist Party selected the members of the council of ministers and influenced its distribution of the surpluses that it appropriated from state enterprises. Finally, the council basically hired the enterprise’s workers.

The flaws of the Soviet system, coupled with the climate crisis have together invigorated the community movement around the world, and in terms of industry, led to a new interest in cooperatives, of which the Spanish company Mondragon is the flagship. However these realities appear to have had less impact on the organized American left. In the second chapter, Joel Kovel cuts to the chase: “The Future Will Be Ecosocialist, Because Without Ecosocialism, There Will Be No Future.”

At the other end of the spectrum of political concerns, in “Personal, Emotional, and Sexual Life Without Capitalism,” Harriet Fraad and Tess Fraad-Wolff describe how:

Capitalism’s reach stretches into the bedroom. Pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry; pornographic images and videos are widely accessible via the Internet. Millions of men and some women are purchasing solitary experiences even in sex, which is supposed to be about reciprocal connection; they are sitting alone with manufactured images that often contain degrading, racist, sexist, or violent messages about gender relationships and sexual intimacy.

Imagine a sexual life where people prefer the experience of intimate connection with an equal human being over profit-driven, degrading pornographic images. Imagine teaching children that sex is a mutually pleasurable connection. Here we might learn from social-democratic Sweden, which begins sex education in the first grade. It starts by teaching about how the flowers need to be pollinated to grow, continues through learning the intricate workings of the human body, and culminates in high school with talking about respect and caring for each other as well as any future children. Imagine the celebration of all kinds of mutual loving connections: gay, straight, and transgender.

No less an authority than Frances Fox Piven sees “Welfare in a New Society as an End to Intentional Impoverishment and Degradation.” While a dead serious Michael Moore quotes Marx:

Labor cannot emancipate itself in white skin where it is branded in black skin. The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Moore continues:

John Brown expressed socialist sentiments before his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. ‘All captured or confiscated property and all property the product of the labor of those belonging to this organization and of their families, shall be held as the property of the whole, equally, without distinction, and may be used for the common benefit,’ he wrote. He imagined a United States where all ‘shall be held as under obligation to labor in some way for the general good.’

Other contributors include Ajamu Baraka, Juan Gonzalez, Arun Gupta, William Ayers, Michael Ratner and Paul Le Blanc, who envisions “The Third American Revolution: How Socialism Can Come to the United States.”

Astonishingly, ‘Imagine Living in a Socialist USA” has been largely ignored by the progressive press, even as reader reviews on Amazon testify to its timeliness. Having been conditioned to shy away from the word ‘socialism,’ increasing numbers of Americans feel helpless to counter neo-liberalism’s excesses until a group of well-known writers shows how a government committed to solidarity can change their lives. As for those who already know that socialism is not a dirty word, it should encourage them to organize broadly, instead of endlessly analyzing the ways in which we are betrayed at home and dishonored abroad.

Photo courtesy Deena Stryker.

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Deena Stryker

Deena Stryker