Communist Party USA

  Thomas Piketty has a new collection of essays, entitled, Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016–2021. It is not possible to overstate the positive impact that the French author’s masterwork, Capital in the 21st Century, has had on the economics profession. The book, and the massive data collection projects on global and national inequalities that were enlarged by the debates it engendered, re-opened the doors to “socialism” in post–Cold War Western economics literature. Comparisons to Karl Marx were inevitable, and sales of Marx’s own Capital leaped forward, too. Piketty demurred these associations with the comment, “I have not really read much Marx.” At the time, the remark did not seem credible. I thought he was being coy, serving up a tease to the Left, but trying to keep the discussion on himself, not Marx. However, my sorely-missed friend and comrade Art Perlo once told me, “Maybe he was telling the truth, John.” Ahem. Piketty’s new essay on socialism opens this collection. It lays out an ambitious and well-argued program for taxation, wealth redistribution, public investment, internationalism, education, science, and gender and racial equality within a social-democratic framework where, by redistributing property via democratic means, “we can help to redefine the whole set of relations of power and social domination.” He further opens: On the basis of the historical elements at my disposal, the ideal society seems to me to be one where everyone would own a few hundred thousand euros, where a few people would perhaps own a few million, but where the higher holdings (several tens or hundreds of millions, and a fortiori several billions) would only be temporary and would quickly be brought down by the tax system to more rational and socially more useful levels. From my point of view, this is an entirely appealing, data-supported, doctor-approved version of Harry McClintock’s 1923 song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Here is the most memorable verse: In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, There’s a land that’s fair and bright, Where the handouts grow on bushes And you sleep out every night. Where the boxcars all are empty, And the sun shines every day On the birds and the bees And the cigarette trees, The lemonade springs Where the bluebird sings In the Big Rock Candy Mountains! There are economic and political problems with “cigarette tree socialism.” There is no mention of class struggle in Piketty’s Time for Socialism. There is no mention of enforcing “peaceful co-existence” in his version of internationalism. Imperialism is no longer worth mentioning, even in the midst of NATO expansion toward Russia, ballooning military budgets, and a new Cold War with China. There is no agency to fight for and win Piketty’s “socialism,” such as a particular coalition of class, ethnic, or cultural forces or political parties—no force that could bring a regime of “participatory socialism” to power. Class is barely mentioned. Existing socialist countries are disdained by Piketty for not being sufficiently democratic—in the bourgeois sense of permitting wealth to participate “freely” as a political franchise. Market socialism is the goal for him, but not like that practiced in China, where the performance of the government is measured more by the results it delivers than by an ideal of “free and fair elections” in an environment of widely disparate wealth, and where the strategic concept of leadership is based on non-bourgeois forces seizing and dominating the “commanding heights of the economy” to preserve the public interest from the powers of capital. Oh, and Piketty’s socialism is never to be like the “absolute failure” of Soviet socialism—which nonetheless helped liberate Piketty’s country from existence…

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In “Time for Socialism,” Picketty overlooks the class struggle