Keeping the Faith: Socialism in the Waiting Place

Being on the left requires us to be impatient and active, but we also have to learn to keep the faith and settle in for a long struggle that involves a lot of waiting and frustrating setbacks.

Socialism, like Christianity, is a faith that lives in waiting. I think of all the enslaved people and abolitionists who lived and worked for a future of liberation, and yet died long before that liberation ever came. Millions of us have dreamed of a bright tomorrow that is yet to come. And when we’re honest with ourselves, when we’re not out trying to inspire others, we can admit that tomorrow is still many nights away.

This is the Waiting Place. 

“…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.”

— from Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

When I joined the Democratic Socialists of America in 2017, just after Trump entered office, times were dark. But it really did seem like a brighter future was just around the corner. We still had Bernie. And even after Bernie lost, there were the uprisings in the summer of 2020, when we watched the people burn down a police station, and marched—Black and white—in every state. In the streets, we sometimes felt like we were as powerful as we would need to be. It turns out we weren’t.

It turns out that the Right will almost certainly ascend in the midterm elections, and the Democrats are once again poised to lose the presidency. DSA’s membership has stopped growing for the last several months. Sunrise Movement co-founder William Lawrence writes that the organization was founded on the idea that there would be a “window of federal opportunity” to combat climate change in 2021; that window has closed for the moment. “From the vantage of March 2022, white Christian nationalism looks more viable than multiracial social democracy in this decade.”

I think about a sermon my friend Liz Smith gave about Advent and the waiting place in the Christian liturgical tradition. Advent in the dark weeks of winter is a kind of waiting. Waiting for Jesus to be born. And yet by April he’ll be killed again. And then we’re set for another year of waiting. 

This is a little like the cycles of campaigns. A thing is born. We roar into the world like lions. And maybe we even win something. We celebrate. But then the energy is gone and we get ready to birth something and watch it die all over again. 

In these moments, I am grateful for the movement elders, the old socialists who lived through the rise and fall of the New Left, who endured neoliberalization and Reagan, who survived AIDS (but whose comrades did not). And all that time, they kept the flame alive so that a bunch of us, fresh and arrogant, could make the world bloom in roses again for a time.

It is no surprise to me, therefore, that in the Americas, many of the fights for liberation have not taken the form of class-conscious movements, but rather, of religious rebellions (see Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition). From the prophecies of Tecumseh, to the slave conspiracies of Haiti fueled by African spirituality that survived the crossing, to the Black Christianity that undergirded the general strike of the slaves and the Civil Rights Movement—the defining American uprisings were founded on a spiritual logic. At its best, the confidence in theory that inspired the certainty of orthodox Marxism merely emulated the conviction of the faithful in the coming of justice.

It is a measure of this magic which seems, at times, to be missing from the version of the Left typified by DSA. The mainstream orientation of DSA was both a product of Occupy Wall Street, and a critique of it. We saw the birth and death of that movement, and thought that if we had enough structure and rigorousness, that we could build something that could not die.

This is why it is so important for us to study thinkers like adrienne maree brown. Like DSA, brown’s writing exists as both a product and a critique of Occupy.  But where we moved to embrace order, brown took a different approach. She embraced the cycle of life and death of movements, likening the process to the renewals of cycles in nature:

“Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way, at least not one we can always track. It happens in cycles, convergences, explosions. If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves—how do I learn from this?”

Abandoning the language of failure, a movement that decays is like an organism returning to the soil, leaving a residue in it that can lead to new growth in the spring. brown’s is a theory that embraces the logic of spirituality, and places sometimes ineffable wisdom at the center of strategy. Viewed from this perspective, perhaps pieces, chapters and formations of the movement are dying, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they are entering winter and awaiting their next rebirth.

These lessons in resiliency are beginning to spread. Pete Davis’ book Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing is a meditation on what he calls “long-haul heroism.” He celebrates, especially in organizing, the feats accomplished by people who simply kept at it. People who put in the “spadework” of years, of a hundred meetings, and not just the heroic moments of climactic confrontation:

“The heroes of the Counterculture of Commitment, long-haul heroes—through day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out work—become the dramatic events themselves. The dragons that stand in their way are the everyday boredom and distraction and uncertainty that threaten sustained commitment. And their big moments look a lot less like sword-waving and a lot more like gardening.”

It’s this kind of work to which we must turn our attention. We must be profoundly gentle with each other, we must be diligent, humble and patient. We must fight with fervor against burnout, and invest in the strategies that will allow people to continue to fight for socialism over the very long term. That might mean prioritizing fewer campaigns over a longer time period, embedding ourselves in community institutions through many years of consistently showing up, and most of all, developing a culture where consistency, kindness and humility are the signs of militancy, rather than urgency, abrasiveness and certainty.

More than once this week, I have had to revive a comrade whose spirit was crushed under the weight of waiting. I’ve turned to this poem, born of a spiritual tradition, which was written to commemorate the assassination of the Socialist Salvadoran priest Óscar Romero in 1980:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

We may have to wait before the time is right to win a revolution, but it will be an active waiting, a time spent making the path ready, training up the next generation, and winning immediate fights to survive until our time comes.

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash.

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