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“Imagine Living in a Socialist USA”: New Book Envisions Greater Democracy, World Without Capitalism

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We end today’s show looking at a new book titled “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.” The book features essays by many prominent people, including Michael Moore, Angela Davis, Frances Fox Piven, Martín Espada, Rick Wolff and Democracy Now! co-host Juan González. The book comes out at a time when polls show Americans aged 18 to 29 have a more favorable reaction to the word “socialism” than “capitalism.” The book is co-edited by the legendary book agent Frances Goldin, who has worked in the publishing world for more than six decades and will turn 90 years old in June. In 1951, at age 27, Goldin ran for New York State Senate on an American Labor Party slate headed by W.E.B. Du Bois. Goldin joins us now along with one of her co-editors, Michael Smith. He is a New York City attorney and a board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show looking at a new book titled Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. It is co-edited by the legendary book agent Frances Goldin, who has worked in the publishing world for over six decades. Goldin turns 90 years old in May. She has said she has long had two goals left in life. One was to help free Mumia Abu-Jamal. The other was to publish a book about socialism in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: While Frances Goldin is still working to help free Mumia Abu-Jamal, her book on socialism was recently published. The book features essays by Michael Moore and Angela Davis, Frances Fox Piven, Martín Espada, Rick Wolff and our own Juan González. Frances Goldin joins us now, along with one of her co-editors, Michael Smith. He’s a New York City attorney, author, and board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! So, Frances, tell us about why this has been an aspiration of yours to publish a book on socialism.

FRANCES GOLDIN: Well, I have been pretty depressed about the route our country is taking. It was shocking to me, after all the years of struggle and the gains that we’ve made, with regard to people voting, with regard to women having rights to abortion if they wanted it, all these hard-won gains being destroyed by the right, which is—they’ve decided that Democrats are not going to vote for them, so they’ve—the way they’re fixing it is to prevent people from voting. And there are many, many states that have laws passed that make it very hard there. They’re stopping early voting. They’re not allowing weekend voting. You have to bring in your right arm and take a quart of blood in order to cast a ballot. This is outrageous. That was one major reason, because we were running to hell in a handbasket. We weren’t moving toward democracy; we were moving toward fascism. And that scared the hell out of me.

And the other reason was the ignorance of the general population as to what socialism really is. They didn’t have a clue. And, of course, the media made sure they didn’t have a clue. And I thought it was important in plain English—not in academese, but in plain English—and for that, I credit our editor, Steve Wishnia, who did a wonderful job of making all of these theories into plain English, so that students, high school students, college students, and the masses of people who read their daily news could understand what we were trying to say about what socialism would be like, not in Russia, not in China, but in our United States. And I think the book succeeds in making clear how people would benefit, not be harmed, by socialism, because it has to be the most democratic form of government ever conceived.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Michael, how did Frances get you involved in this project? And also, to the surprise of many, the book is being published by HarperCollins, the Rupert Murdoch publishing company. How did that happen?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: The demon of the publishing world, as Alex Cockburn said. I knew Frances from Mumia defense work. Incidentally, the profits, if we make any from this book, are all going to Mumia’s defense. Frances said, “I don’t want a small, left-wing publisher. I want a major publisher.” So she went to Oxford, and the guy said, “This book isn’t balanced enough.” So Frances said, “What the hell do you mean, 'balanced enough'? What do you want? A half a chapter on fascism?” But we lost there.

So then she went to Harper. And Frances has dealings with Harper through her agency. They turned her down. They said, “Well, we don’t think—our marketing people said that we can’t sell enough books.” So Frances says, “Let me remind you of something. I gave you Barbara Kingsolver. I gave you the book that sold second most, next to the Bible, in the world, Goodnight Moon. And I want this book published.” So they called her back, and they said, “Frances, your passion has won out. Come up and see us.”

So Frances and I and my wife, Debby Smith, who is the other co-editor, go up to their office on 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue. We meet with the executive vice president, a British guy. He’s got one of those offices that looks like a living room, you know, with a couch and a chair and tables, a desk, everything. We walk in, and on the couch are two pillows. One’s got a drawing of Queen Elizabeth II, and the other pillow has got a drawing of Karl Marx. So I said, “Mr. Burnham, this is an auspicious beginning.” And he laughed. He’s a congenial British guy. And he said, “What’s your definition of socialism?” I said, “Well, it’s not only political democracy, but it’s economic democracy, where people take over and run the resources that affect their lives.” And he said, “Will you take $10,000 as an advance?” And I said, “Will you plow it into promoting the book?” And he said, “We’ll try.” And I said, “Well, we’ve got a deal.” So that’s how we got, of all places, Harper’s.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that issue, that question, “What is socialism?” Michael, for people who—in this country, the media rarely talks about it, to say the least—if it’s ever mentioned, in a disparaging way.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: You know, Paul Le Blanc—the book is set up in three sections. The first is an indictment of capitalism. That’s easy. All you’ve got to do is tune into Democracy Now! every morning, and you realize what’s going on. The second part, and the meat of the book—and we can talk about this in a second—but it’s got 20 chapters on everything you can imagine, every institution in this society, and how it would be different if we didn’t have capitalism. And the last part of the book are six essays on how we get from where we are to where we want to be, how to make that transformation. And your essay, Juan, I have to say—it’s a book full of wisdom, not the least of which is your essay on immigrants and the role that they’ll play in that transformation.

But in any case, in a word, Paul Le Blanc writes—he’s a historian, and he wrote one of the chapters on how to transform it. He says, socialism involves people taking control of their own lives, shaping their own futures, and together controlling the resources that make such freedom possible. … Socialism will come to nothing if it is not a movement of the great majority in the interests of the great majority. … People can only become truly free through their own efforts.” That’s a good Passover message, by the way. That’s our definition of socialism. It’s true democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Frances, one of the—to me, the most striking essays—there were many in the book—was the one by Mumia and Angela Davis on the prison-industrial complex. First of all, how did you manage to put together that collaboration between the two of them, one incarcerated and one traveling around the world, and also the importance of that particular essay?

FRANCES GOLDIN: Well, it was easy, because Angela Davis was a supporter of Mumia’s freedom. So they were not unknown to each other. Also, she wrote a book about the end of prisons. So it was a natural for us. It was not easy, because he’s in prison, she’s free. They had to collaborate by stuff going back and forth. It was very complicated.

But what they came up with was an entirely different approach to how we deal with so-called crime. And it’s more like what was done by Native Americans when they had people which broke laws—who broke laws. And they were tried, so to speak, by their peers—by their mothers and fathers and doctors and chiefs, etc.—who embarrassed them in front of the community and made them feel bad about what they had done and what they could do to overcome their crime. So it was done—it was called “the commons.” It was done by the community, in the community, for the community. And that’s why she says, get rid of prisons; just have local tribunals, where the people who know this person, man or woman, can put them on the right track.

It’s revolutionary, but makes a lot of sense, because our prison system locks up millions of people who have never committed a crime in their life, the prime one being Mumia Abu-Jamal, who never killed anybody. And the woman who is grieving her departed husband, she grieved for the person who really killed the guy, and not for Mumia, who had nothing to do with that murder, and who has, incidentally, become one of the leading intellectuals in the United States. And I am now working on his seventh book. And all of his books have been in print for 30 years, and every one of them remains in print and continues to sell.

AMY GOODMAN: In January, we interviewed Kshama Sawant, one of the few Socialists to hold elected office in the country. She is an economics teacher and former Occupy Wall Street activist who was elected to Seattle’s City Council after she ran on a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We asked Sawant why she decided to run as a Socialist.

KSHAMA SAWANT: The important thing about running as a Socialist is, you know, for one, to show that there is a definite openness for clear alternatives, not only to the big business parties, but the system that they represent, the capitalist system. And if you look at recent polls, they show that people, especially young people, are much more open to socialism than you would find out from the corporate media. People are also fed up with the political dysfunction.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the new Socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Michael Smith? And also, as we wrap up, because we have less than a minute right now, when people say, “You choose democracy, or you choose capitalism,” the contradiction in that?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Capitalism is incompatible with democracy. Fascism is compatible with capitalism, but not—democracy and capitalism don’t go. And we can see that trend. We did a book—Michael Ratner wrote the introduction—on Bill Kunstler’s writings, one of the founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and we called it The Emerging Police State. And people said, “Well, it’s a little over the top, you know?” But it’s exactly what’s happening. And as Juan points out in his chapter, we either develop some socialist leadership and build a left-wing alternative here, or we’re going to have fascism. That’s the direction things are going in. So, Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA will help people get from where we are to where we want to be.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Frances Goldin, literary agent, she was the literary agent for Adrienne Rich, she was for Barbara Kingsolver, Mumia Abu-Jamal, housing activist for over 60 years, and she will be turning 90—I understand that we were making you a little older than you were—in June. And so we wish you a happy pre-birthday. Michael Smith, thanks so much for being with us, as well, co-editors of Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. That does it for the broadcast. Yes?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Brooklyn Folk Festival, the weekend after next in Brooklyn.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll let people know.

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