House socialists and field socialists


I wholeheartedly support the populist programs that Bernie Sanders advocates—from single-payer health care, to free college tuition, to taxing the rich and more. But borrowing from Malcolm X [see excerpt below], Bernie is a house socialist and I’m a field socialist.

Bernie doesn’t want to replace or overthrow capitalism. Like all house socialists, he thinks capitalism can be fixed or tamed with reforms. By contrast, we field socialists understand that the essence of capitalism—private ownership of major industry, resources, banks, and the exploitation of labor by appropriating surplus value (profit)—is antithetical to democracy.

In fact, for all of Bernie’s talk about “democratic socialism,” he and other house socialists turn a blind eye to the lack of economic democracy that is the very hallmark of the capitalist system. Because Bernie is in favor of tweaking capitalism but opposed to dismantling it, he ignores the systemic lack of democracy in the workplace and the economy—the very aspects that most affects people’s lives.

Bernie rightly denounces the unequal distribution of wealth, where the top 1% owns more than the rest combined. But like all house socialists, Bernie fails to identify important institutions as being controlled by and serving the interests of the 1%. Congress, the Democratic and Republican parties, the national media, the police and the military are all captives of the 1%.

In a class-divided society, all important institutions are wielded as tools of the dominant class. Field socialists understand that these institutions answer only to the needs of the 1%, even though much effort is made by official propagandists to convince us that they serve us all. Bernie and other house socialists aid the 1% in the criminal charade of pretending that government institutions, the police and the military exist and operate independent of the class divisions in our society.

This is why it’s no surprise that Bernie and other like-minded house socialists are military hawks. They see the U.S. army as “our” army rather than a weapon of the 1%. This is why Bernie has voted for nearly every war appropriations bill. This is why Bernie supports drones and U.S. military involvement in the Middle East; why he supported military action in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

This is why Bernie supported sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that caused the deaths of more than half a million children and he supported U.S. military action in Kosovo in 1999. This is why Bernie refuses to denounce the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine but supports billions in military aid for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other brutal U.S. client states that serve to extend the reach and protect the interests of the 1% overseas.

Field socialists oppose imperial war-making, understanding that the individuals and institutions of the 1% that exploit us here at home cannot be trusted to defend our interests abroad. In contrast to the hawkish house socialists, field socialists demand: “All US Troops Out Now!”  “Dismantle All US Military Bases Abroad!” “Not One Bomb, Not One Bullet for the Wars of the One Percent!” “Money for Jobs, Not for War!” (For a complete field socialist election platform, see here.)

Because house socialists like Bernie limit their critique to reforms of the existing system, they are unable to propose concrete, workable solutions for the big problems we face. Take climate change, for example. Sure, house socialists say we must do more. But they emphasize tweaking economic incentives in the hope of persuading energy monopolies to change their behavior.

House socialists support keeping the energy industry in the hands of private, profit-mad corporations. But gentle persuasion hasn’t changed corporate behavior up to now and we shouldn’t expect it to succeed in the future. As long as there are profits to be made by disregarding rules and incentives, corporations will do so. No incentives and no amount of persuasion can induce a leopard to change its spots; you have to replace the leopard. (For a field socialist analysis of climate change and the energy monopolies, see here.)

Few Americans realize that there are different kinds of socialists. Since house socialists are less of a threat to the powers-that-be, they tend to get a wider hearing than field socialists. In many European countries, house socialist parties have mass followings. House socialists have served as prime ministers in France, Sweden, Portugal, Norway, Luxemburg and elsewhere. Yet, capitalism hums merrily along in Europe as in most of the rest of the world. If electing house socialists to high office made a crucial difference to addressing global injustice, climate change or endless war, we would have seen it by now.

Unfortunately, there’s no field socialist to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. Nor do we in the U.S. yet have a mass labor party—rooted in the working class and linked to militant, fighting trade unions—which could serve as a real alternative to the parties of the 1%. Given this void, it’s not surprising that those fed up with the status quo might put their hopes in Bernie Sanders, a house socialist seeking to be the leader of a big-business party. But beware: while a vote for the house socialist candidate of a capitalist party might make some people feel good, no one should expect it to change much.


Malcolm X on “The House Negro and the Field Negro”

Below is an excerpt from Malcolm X’s presentation on “The Race Problem.” The talk was given on Jan. 23, 1963, to the African Students Association and NAACP campus chapter, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.

So, you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called “Uncle Tom.” He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro.

The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house—probably in the basement or the attic—but he still lived in the master’s house.

So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.

But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses—the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. [Laughter.] If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.

If someone came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” naturally that Uncle Tom would say, “Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?” That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, “Yes, let’s go.” And that one ended right there.

So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He’s just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he’s a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He’s sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction.

And when you say, “your army,” he says, “our army.” He hasn’t got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say “we” he says “we.” “Our president,” “our government,” “our Senate,” “our congressmen,” “our this and our that.” And he hasn’t even got a seat in that “our” even at the end of the line. So this is the twentieth-century Negro. Whenever you say “you,” the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, we’re in trouble.”

But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, you’re in trouble.” [Laughter.] He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.