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Local's insight about Socialism


Editor’s note: Louie Marven spoke with Joseph Gauger, 30, a participant in a Jan. 28 book discussion group of the Harrisburg chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. About 15 people gathered for a discussion on the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto. After the meeting, Gauger shared some of his own insights into Socialism with Marven. Gauger emphasized that he is speaking for himself and not on behalf of Harrisburg DSA. He grew up in central Pennsylvania.

Louie Marven: Are you a Socialist? Would you use other or additional labels to describe your politics?

Joseph Gauger: I am a Socialist and have identified as such for my whole adult life, but I would have defined Socialism very differently 10 years ago. In those days I would have included under the mantle of Socialism things like strong progressive income taxes and generous social spending--what is often referred to as ‘social democracy.’ Today I’d make the distinction that these things are not a form of Socialism proper because they don’t completely revoke private control of the economy. In short, to me Socialism represents not a redistribution of income but a redistribution of power.

Private control of economic resources limits the ability of most people in society to exercise democratic control in most areas of their lives. This is what we’re trying to emphasize in calling ourselves ‘democratic Socialists’--we are working for the abolition of private control of the means of production in order to replace it with genuinely democratic arrangements in society.

Marven: In what ways to you engage with electoral politics?

Gauger: I don’t engage much with electoral politics because I think our resources are better spent elsewhere. I’m registered to vote in Democratic primaries on the off-chance that a strong enough progressive candidate challenges a centrist Democrat, as happened in the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to vote for any candidate who supports abortion rights in a primary run against Sen. Bob Casey this year. However, in my understanding voting is more of a gesture or formality.

Effective politics involves collective action. It’s much broader than what happens in the voting booth. Building Socialism will entail a great deal of work to organize and educate people, and will require effort devoted to anti-Capitalist practice that would vindicate the idea of replacing the major institutions of society with starkly different structures. People will rightly expect us to prove to them that there is a better way. That will take a huge investment of resources, but it also presents advantages that electoral work doesn’t--campaigns to provide safe housing or protect immigrant communities, for instance, are ongoing. Elections are one-and-done. Building a mass movement through those other processes doesn’t face election day as a deadline. Every day you build on what you accomplished the day before.

Marven:: What messages, if any, did you receive about Socialism growing up? In school or at home? Was it discussed in good or bad terms?

Gauger: I grew up in central Pennsylvania, so I could really only expect conservative political narratives to come through from the conservative community around here. A high school teacher of mine did a short unit on Marxism in a world history class, but the ideas didn’t really have space to breath. I grew up in an MSNBC-viewing household, so I absorbed a lot of that center-left worldview. On the other hand, my parents have a distinct working-class skepticism of Capitalism, so I was primed to question it. It’s not hard for working people to see that they’re being exploited, but Conservatives have done an exceptional job of framing politics as a narrow field in which there’s no alternative to the current system.

My mother bought me a copy of the Communist Manifesto when I was a teenager, but there was no strong influence on me for or against Socialism the way I understand it now. It was clear when I re-read the Manifesto for the reading group that I hadn’t grasped Marx’s core arguments the first time through. If I had, I would never have taken the position I had in college, i.e. that it wouldn’t really be necessary to abolish private control of the economy.

To summarize the environment of my high school years, Socialism wasn’t presented as a living option. There was one event that primed me to reject the range of mainstream opinion, making it possible to land where I did years later: the US invasion of Iraq. The war didn’t bear on any of the central questions about the economy and society, at least not in my mind, but it irrevocably tainted my view of mainstream politics.

The push for war came just as I had the capacity to make independent judgments about what was going on in the world, just when I knew enough to take a little bit of a critical outlook toward current events. The elite media and political figures in America almost unanimously supported this aggressive, illegal war, and most of them took pains to slander and ridicule anyone who questioned the justifications for it.

The war turned out to be the worst moral disaster of my lifetime. It killed half a million people and created the worst refugee crisis of its decade, then set the stage for the worst refugee crisis of the next decade in a neighboring country. It was also the most devastating strategic blunder in terms of the supposed foreign-policy goals of the people who wanted it in the first place.

After that, nothing could ever happen to restore my faith in the people and institutions who were responsible for it.

Marven:: What are your thoughts on why DSA membership has increased so much in the last year compared to the rest of its history? (Twenty-four thousand people have joined DSA since President Donald Trump’s election.)

Gauger: I mention the Iraq War at length because it was such a vivid experience for me, but many things have happened in recent years to discredit mainstream institutions and political ideas. I’ve heard lots of DSA comrades, both in person and on social media, cite the failure of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and the likelihood that avowed Socialist Bernie Sanders would have won in her position. Clinton was favored almost unanimously by the Democratic establishment, she checked off a ton of boxes on the normal presidential-resume checklist, and then she lost to a howling oaf who couldn’t be any less qualified under that rubric for who should be the president.

For a lot of us, myself included, this vindicated the idea of noisily calling oneself a Socialist and taking a different approach to politics, both to avoid being like the people who lost to Trump and to avoid looking like them.

When I looked into DSA I saw people who were insightful and dedicated, people doing work to help others and to fight oppression. I knew that work would only be more and more necessary under a Republican presidency. I never really believed in the incrementalist, technocratic vision of progress that prevails in the Democratic Party, but after 2016 my disapproval became even more acute. It became clearer than ever that we need to strike at the power structures that lead to discrimination and exploitation, to permanently undermine those power structures. Any project that accommodates them can’t win in the long term because that arrangement makes it inevitable that the pendulum will swing back in the direction of injustice.

The 2016 election made it more obvious to us that the kind of work DSA does is necessary, and that it is likely to be successful.