Socialist Evolution

by John B. Judis | July 4, 2005

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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