Socialist Evolution

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JULY 4, 2005

Socialist Evolution

I first met Jimmy Weinstein, who died last week at age 78, in the
spring of 1969, when my little world--and that of the New Left--were
both coming apart. I had just learned that I would not be welcome
back at graduate school. I dreamed of becoming a full-time
activist, but Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to which I
belonged, had become infatuated with insurrectionary violence and
disdainful of books and ideas. Jimmy was just the person I was
looking for.He was then in his forties, a former communist and a noted
historian. He was tall, thin, and balding, with a goatee, owlish
glasses, a wry smile, and a penchant for puns and quips. (He would
title his critique of SDS's Weatherman group "A Short Reign and No
Thunder.") His father's real-estate investments in Manhattan had
made him wealthy, but, unlike other leftists, he was unapologetic
about his class background. He lived modestly, but he loved good
cars and, at the time, drove a white Mercedes.

Jimmy was trying to promote a new socialist theoretical journal
based on the idea that the New Left, out of ignorance, was
replicating the errors of the old. While the old left had looked to
the Soviet Union as its model of a better society, the new was
looking to Cuba and China. By contrast, Jimmy wanted to return to
what he saw as the authentically American socialism of Eugene
Debs's pre-World War I party. He wanted a socialism that would
eliminate the inequalities of wealth and power created by the
market, but would do so by strengthening, rather than abolishing,
U.S. democratic institutions--an idea that set him apart from many
New Left radicals.

Jimmy envisioned socialism as public ownership and control of the
countries' industries through some combination of national planning
and workplace self- management. No one would own stocks and bonds
in big companies. The oil industry, for instance, would be a branch
of government like the post office once was; the unemployed would
be put to work fixing up the country's infrastructure; and
government-paid health care would be available for all. Beyond
that, details were fuzzy.

Jimmy hired me to help run the business and to copyedit manuscripts
on the new journal, but I also got to participate in the
"collective" that chose which articles we'd run. We decided to call
it Socialist Revolution--"socialist" as opposed to communist, but
"revolution" because we didn't want the SDS hard- liners to dismiss
us as wimps. We published a number of essays that were turned into
influential books, but, as the New Left disintegrated, the title of
our journal became an embarrassment. Jimmy and I each went our own
way after five years, but, in December 1976, I rejoined him in
Chicago, where he had started a socialist weekly called In These
Times.

Most of Jimmy's seminal political experiences had occurred before I
met him. He joined the Communist Party in 1948 after getting out of
the Navy and enrolling in Cornell, where, among other things, he
chauffeured a taciturn Julius Rosenberg between Ithaca and New
York. He didn't know what Rosenberg was up to, but he had his
suspicions. (He would later inspire Ron Radosh to write about the
Rosenbergs and would defend his conclusion that Julius was a spy.)
After graduating, Jimmy worked for years as an organizer in an
electronics factory. He finally quit the party in 1956 after Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev's revelation about Josef Stalin's crimes.
He didn't become a neoconservative, but much of his writing was
devoted to explaining how the American Communist Party had
undermined the American left.

Jimmy's most lasting contributions were two books he wrote in the
early '60s, after leaving the party. Most historians at the time
believed that Debs's Socialist Party had been fatally co-opted in
1912 by the rise of progressivism. But, in The Decline of Socialism
in America, Jimmy showed that the party had actually grown steadily
afterward--only being undone by the rise of the American Communist
Party. His second book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State,
was one of the first to advance the idea that many progressive
reforms of the early twentieth century were the products of
upper-class reformers attempting to dampen working-class
militancy.

Jimmy had several offers to become an academic historian, but he was
never interested. Theory and history had to yield practical
results--and he was sometimes wildly optimistic about what these
would be. He thought Socialist Revolution would give birth to a new
socialist party. And he believed that In These Times would inspire
a vibrant socialist caucus inside a Democratic Party. (He had no
patience for single-issue or identity politics.) When reality set
in- -in the latter case, Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide--he
laughed at his own folly but then fashioned a new scenario by which
the left would reemerge.

Jimmy remained a socialist to the end, but he gradually modified his
view of socialism. He no longer envisaged a planned market-less
economy, or even a world without capitalists. In The Long Detour,
which appeared in 2003, he described socialism as a set of
principles--"the fulfillment of democracy" and the achievement of
liberty and equality. Socialism was not so much an end result, but
a passionate ideal against which the politics of the present had to
be measured. Those who pursued that ideal weren't necessarily
"socialists." They could be liberals like two of his favorite
politicians, former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and the late
Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Jimmy's socialism became what is
now called "values." But those values still provide a useful
contrast not only with the right's business conservatism, but also
with the vacuous centrism of many Democrats.

I saw Jimmy for the last time in May in Chicago, where he lay felled
by a brain tumor that was gradually sapping his mind and body. We
talked fitfully about the past. I found myself completely
inadequate to the occasion. As I was leaving, I grasped his hand
and told him I hoped I would see him again in July, when I came to
Chicago for the afl-cio convention--"or," I added gracelessly,
"whenever." He smiled ruefully and said, "Yes, whenever," and gave
my hand a last, fateful squeeze.

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