In Adam Curtis’ hypnotic documentary HyperNormalisation, the filmmaker makes the case that, as the old socioeconomic consensus began to decay in the 1970s and the financial industry assumed management of every aspect of American society, the failure to answer to its assault could largely be laid at the feet of former members of the radical left. Unable to formulate an alternative vision of society, and reeling from powerful blows from a growing neoliberal movement in both government and the private sector, they failed to mount a counterattack and retreated instead into introspection, self-absorption, and irrelevance.
Curtis does not entirely share our politics, but he marshals a convincing argument that the ineffectiveness of the left at a time when it was desperately needed was not only due to the strength of its opposition and its failure to build a viable mass movement, but also to its inability to formulate a philosophical response—to provide an image of an alternative society to counter the tendency towards inertia that served the interests of the wealthy and powerful. This paralysis still haunts us today as the Democratic Party—caught flat-footed by the election of Donald Trump and the challenge mounted by Bernie Sanders from its own progressive wing—continues to position itself merely as the only alternative to the racism, misogyny, and abandonment of social responsibility embodied by the Republicans.
It is true that building a mass movement is the foremost imperative to building socialism today. It is also true that far too often, socialists can get bogged down in fighting battles over doctrine and direction that are of virtually no relevance as long as we hold little actual power. But we owe it to ourselves, and to the world we hope to create, to at least consider what that world is going to look like. If we lack the vision to articulate our conception of a better future, we cannot hope to present that vision to the people we need to convince—the very people who we want to benefit from a socialist revolution. This is more than a matter of developing an effective ‘elevator pitch’ for our politics; it is a matter of imagining for ourselves what we want the future to look like, and what role we are willing to play in making that future happen.
While there is much we can do to prepare for the day when our ideals can actually be realized, history has shown repeatedly that opportunity can come in an instant, and that great moments can be squandered by those who are not adequately prepared to bring their ideas into effect when circumstances present themselves. When socialism has succeeded, it has often been because the people working to seize these rare moments had clear and specific visions of not only how to take advantage of their chances, but what they wanted a transformed society to look like. At other times, from the glorious days of the Paris Commune to the heady days of the Occupy movement, movements have had incredible energy and determination, but lacking both individual and collective vision, they fell once that energy began to flag.
No one should feel a responsibility to plan out an entire society all on their own, and no one needs to develop a vision of society that is complete and perfect, or in total accord with the visions of every other socialist. (We have to have something to argue about after the revolution.) But we should feel an obligation to think about these things, because nothing helps build belief and confidence like a clear idea of what we want. This is as true in politics and movement-building as it is in every other aspect of life. The greatest socialist thinkers have been visionaries—men and women who not only want to change the world, but have also given a great deal of consideration to what they want to change it into. A movement that has a robust collective vision of the future it’s striving for is a movement that will be ready to seize the time when the opportunity arises.
What does your future look like? How are issues of education, health care, infrastructure, and social services handled? What is our relationship with other countries? How do we create a world without prisons? What are the steps we must take to eliminate sexism and racism? How does the everyday business of living continue in a world without capitalism? What are the first problems that will need to be addressed if we achieve victory, and how do we continue the revolution for others? These are all complex questions that don’t need to be settled right away, but they’re also of crucial importance to not only finding the motivation and foundation to build the movement we need, but to building the very society we envision once that movement experiences its first wins. We need to ask ourselves constantly not only what we want, but why we want it, and what we are willing to do to get it.
The road to socialism is a long, hard struggle, and learning to lose is an invaluable lesson; we must be prepared to stay hopeful through the many defeats we have suffered and will continue to suffer. But we must also be prepared for the even greater challenges of victory. Building a socialism that works requires effort, but it also requires vision. Imagining the world you want to see, walking through it as if it were already here, is the first step to making it happen.