Socialism Today, Human Rights Focus from Des Forges Symposium – UB Now: News and Views for UB Faculty and Staff

In the United States, the term “socialism” has been widely misunderstood and used to discredit even modest reforms. To enhance understanding of the successes and failures of socialism and its relationship to human rights, experts from universities across the country will gather for a hybrid symposium on April 7 at UB.

The annual Alison Des Forge Symposium will explore achievements and missteps in implementing socialism in China, India, Scandinavia and Latin America. It will also assess the value of socialism in addressing the global challenges of climate change, economic inequality and human rights violations.

Presenters will include Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Lane Kenworthy, professor of sociology, University of California, San Diego; and Kenneth Roberts, Professor of Government, Cornell University.

The free public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (lunch break: 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) on April 7. Registration is mandatory. Email [email protected] to register. Sessions will be held at 10 Capen Hall at UB for in-person attendees.

The symposium honors the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to bring the world’s attention to another great humanitarian crisis: the genocide in Rwanda.

Des Forges, an internationally renowned historian and native of Buffalo, was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty in the 1990s and received an honorary doctorate from SUNY at UB’s 155th General Opening Ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, having served as an expert witness in 11 trials before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. His award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,was a historical account of the 1994 genocide, and his tireless efforts to awaken the international community to its horrors won him a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with welcoming remarks at 9:15 a.m., followed by panels on “Understanding Socialism: Achievements and Missteps,” “Socialism as a Response to Global Problems,” and “Socialism and Human Rights.”

The Understanding Socialism The panel will run from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and will include the following presentations:

  • Socialism in China: past and future, Ying Chen, Assistant Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research.

The distinction between socialism in theory and in practice must be marked when discussing the concept of socialism. This lecture will present China as a main case study to discuss how socialist ideas have been implemented in a specific historical context and the resulting contradictions. Moreover, after more than four decades of neoliberal dominance in the global economy, interest in socialist ideas seems to be on the rise around the world, especially among young people, including in China. In light of this recent development, this lecture will offer some thoughts on the possible contradictions for future socialism.

  • Experiences of socialism in India: comparison of Kerala and West Bengal, Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Two states in India have been ruled by socialist/communist parties for quite some time: West Bengal (for 35 years) and Kerala (intermittently over the last half century and currently). There are obvious difficulties in implementing socialist policies in a subnational federal context, where most economic and political power remains in the hands of the (usually adversarial) central government. Nevertheless, the different experiences in the two states reveal some of the possibilities and problems of socialist strategies, which have particular relevance in the 21st century. Some of the problems that have emerged have a much wider resonance, such as the rigidity of bureaucratic structures, the lack of recognition of forms of discrimination other than those based on class, the continued exploitation of nature and the dependence on support big capital to achieve economic development. Some experiences also point to possibilities for creative solutions, such as an emphasis on decentralization, new forms of promoting democratic accountability, recognition of social discrimination, etc.

  • Would democratic socialism be better? Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Yankelovich Professor of Social Thought, University of California, San Diego.

The case for modern democratic socialism is that capitalism is bad, or at least not very good, and that socialism would be an improvement. To fully and fairly assess the desirability of democratic socialism, we must compare it to the best version of capitalism that humans have devised: social democratic capitalism, or what is often called the Nordic model. Kenworthy will look closely at the evidence for the performance of capitalist economies across a range of outcomes, concluding that social democratic capitalism achieves most of what contemporary democratic socialists say we should want.

The Socialism as an answer to world problems The panel will run from 12:30 p.m. to 1:50 p.m. and will include the following presentations:

  • Eco-socialism and the Green New Deal, Robert Pollin, Emeritus Professor of Economics and Co-Director, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Advancing a global Green New Deal is at the center of this conference. This is a realistic agenda for advancing both climate stabilization and global egalitarianism. It is therefore fully aligned with the main goals of ecosocialism. The program begins with phasing out, on a global scale, the consumption of fossil fuels to produce energy. It is therefore a question of creating a new clean energy infrastructure in all regions of the globe. Investments in clean energy will be a large-scale source of new job opportunities, and therefore of improved job quality standards and organizing efforts. The program also includes just transition measures for workers and communities currently dependent on the fossil fuel industry.

  • Why 21st Century Socialism Will Focus on Workplace Democratization, Not Government Economic Interventions, Richard Wolff, Visiting Professor, The New School, and Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Socialism, like capitalism, is constantly changing. In the last century, socialism mainly meant various types and degrees of government intervention in economies, ranging from their regulation (Scandinavia) to government substitution of private owners and operators of enterprises (USSR). This socialism had successes but also failures and problems. The resulting self-criticism has generated a new type of socialism that refocuses not on the debate between government and business, but rather on a radical democratization of workplaces (factories, shops, offices). This new socialism for the 21st century advocates the transition to worker cooperatives as the basis of economies instead of the typical capitalist hierarchy where a tiny number of “owners” or corporate boards decide – exclusively – what, how and where the workplace produces and what to do with its income. Then, everyone hired in the workplace will each have one vote with majority rule in effect. The basic idea is that for an economy to serve all people, it must put people in charge of its workplaces and its processes.

The Socialism and human rights The panel will run from 2:00 p.m. to 3:20 p.m. and will include the following presentations:

  • The “Left Turns” of Latin America: Socialism, Democracy and the Rights of Social Citizenship, Kenneth Roberts, Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, Cornell University.

The first decades of the 21st century have seen 14 of Latin America’s 18 democracies elect a center-left president, many of whom come from parties or movements rooted in the region’s socialist tradition. This so-called “left turn” was the product of a broad social and political mobilization against the economic inequalities associated with Latin America’s free market, or “neoliberal” economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s. While it has proven extremely difficult to translate this mobilization into well-defined socialist alternatives to neoliberalism, left-wing governments in Latin America have experimented with a wide range of social reforms designed to recognize or extend social citizenship rights, going well beyond beyond the logic of market programs of the neoliberal era. These experiences shed new light on the processes by which democratic citizenship rights can be extended to new spheres of social and economic relations in highly unequal societies with large informal economies and dualistic labor markets.

  • Rethinking the economy for social justice: the radical potential of human rights, James Heintz, Andrew Glyn Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The desire for an economic system that advances social justice motivates demands for transition to socialism. Yet the ethical foundations of a call for socialism are often not well developed or explored. It is often assumed that all proponents of socialism share a common understanding of what is meant by social justice. However, this assumption is debatable. The human rights approach represents a normative framework for assessing economic outcomes and institutions that incorporates an explicit definition of social justice. However, the human rights framework is frequently dismissed as too individualistic and reformist. This distrust of human rights represents a misunderstanding of the radical potential of this approach. In this presentation, Heintz will explore the relationship between human rights, with an emphasis on economic and social rights, and the relationship with the concepts of socialism.

Symposium sponsors include the Alison Des Forges Memorial Committee; UB Departments of Comparative Literature, History, Political Science, and African and African-American Studies; UB Gender Institute; UB Institute of Humanities; James Agee Professorship in American Culture, UB Department of English; UB Office of the Vice Provost for International Education, The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, UB School of Law; and Jack Walsh in honor of Connie Walsh.