“Sell-out”, depending on who you talk to, it’s a slur or a sin, but not something anybody wants to be called, especially in any kind of radical circles. The term “sell-out” is a nasty one, either a slur or a sin depending on who you ask, so it’s with a heavy heart that I use it here. The wikipedia entry on “selling out” states this perfectly for the context and makes perfectly clear why the term applies perfectly.

In various political movements (usually communists and anarchists), a “sellout” is a person or group pretending to adhere to a genuinely pro-working class ideology, only to follow these claims up with actions directly contradicting them, often (whether actually or implicitly) supporting capitalism. Equally it could be utilised by supporters of parties for persons that subsequently formed coalitions with those they seemed to oppose, such as the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg’s coalition with the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.
“Selling Out” – Wikipedia

Defining “socialism” isn’t quite as easy. It’s a subject I’ve dealt with before, and one I’m sure will come up again (I hope…). Broadly defined, socialism refers to various ideas which seek to collectivize capital in the hands of “the people” – an incredibly wide range of ideas spanning two centuries and many ideologies (communism, anarchism, social democracy, market socialism etc). More specifically, in common usage, “socialist” has come to suggest something more moderate than “Communism” but more radical than progressives and liberals, though there’s lots of overlap. It’s an incredibly charged term which means about as much as a $10 “Rolex” from a New York street vendor, but then, so are most in politics.

Which socialists am I talking about? The socialist parties. All of them.

This isn’t to point a finger at millions of well-meaning members and supporters, but it’s time to stop pulling punches when it comes to their “leaders”. Too long has the rest of the left “looked the other way” when it came to the failings of our own parliamentarians, perhaps out of a naive hope that we might one day be among them. Even a quick skim of the world news over the last week shows a few too many examples. This isn’t just an issue of making concessions in tough times, these are fundamental ideological shifts which betray a growing set of structural problems.

In Canada, this is of course most visible within the NDP, our official social-democrats. In the race to succeed the late Jack Layton who made unprecedented gains in the last election, one figure stands out more than most: Thomas Mulcair. Perhaps most notorious for his support of Israeli militarism, he’s a former Quebec Liberal and seems to be gaining the support of many of Canada’s richest financial elites. like Anthony Munk (Barrick Gold) and Gerald W. Schwartz (Canwest, Onex). Given the near-demise of the Liberal Party over the past few elections, this kind of attention was to be expected, but as Mulcair leads in some polls, this does not bode well for the party.

To the south, Latin America has been witness to a grand experiment over the past decade. Led by the likes of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, or Rafel Correa in Ecuador, this “Bolivarian revolution” has now swept several countries. Chavez in particular has been extremely vocal in his opposition to American imperialism abroad and determined in his reforms at home. Looking closer, though, cracks have appeared. Indigenous regions in Bolivia have been rapidly losing faith after battling plans for a new highway cutting through their lands. In Ecuador, indigenous movements have lost patience over similar moves in favour of oil and mining development. Chavez himself has a much better reputation when it comes to the rights of poor and indigenous peoples, though this comes as a result of the gifts given by his “petroleum socialism”, which has in recent years nationalized oil companies and begun work on Venezuela’s colossal heavy oil (tar sands and oil shale) deposits and corresponding pipelines

Then there’s Europe, for years the shining example of prosperous and successful “Euro-Socialism”. Today, they lead the world more in embarrassing “Socialist” failures. There was the defeat of Spain’s Socialists last year, abandoned by a nationwide radical movement opposed to the austerity programs it attempted to impose. Then there’s Greece, still being torn apart by austerity programs pushed by the ruling PASOK (social-democrats) and paramilitary support from the KKE (parliamentary Communists) and PAME (militant communist unions) against raging protesters. This week in France, Socialists sided with Sarkozy’s plans for Roma (“gypsy”) internment camps, perhaps the single most terrifying example here. Across the continent the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) is catching heat for their complicity in the austerity programs. And what can be said of Britain? As the above-quoted Wikipedia entry states, Nick Clegg has pretty much come to define “sell-out”.

I could list other regions, or examples from these. China’s communists would be an obvious choice, Nepal’s (former) Maoists or Cuba’s post-Castro reforms. America, of course, doesn’t really have a socialist movement (at least, not one in any position to “sell out”) and there’s really never been anything “socialist” about Obama (no matter how much he might have sold out).

There is an undeniable pattern here. It isn’t just a trend toward making concessions on economic issues in “tough times” – the social aspects of these trends, especially against Roma, indigenous or Palestinian people are utterly atrocious. The environmental implications are terrifying (particularly from Mulcair or the “Bolivarians”). In this context, the international drive toward austerity measures certainly isn’t surprising (though disappointing), it fits perfectly. While these leftist parties might have been the last line in defense against this international agenda, it’s fairly clear that they’re far more interested in their status as political parties than any alleged “leftist” beliefs.

I write this not to lament the death of the parliamentary socialist movement, but to issue a warning to those just beginning. As those involved with the Occupy movement and others like it debate whether to get involved in parliamentary parties or start their own, it’s important to take a look decades, even centuries down the road. Problems like these can’t arise without a tremendous amount of support and success. To sell out, you must have something worth buying, and that takes time to build. The size and clout of parties like the NDP set a tempting example for those groups and movements just starting out, and it’s only human to assume that one’s noble ideas or nature will prevent the same mistakes.

Political parties are traditionally viewed as an “evolution” of movements and struggles, out of the precarious world or direct action and grassroots organizing. Examples like these call into question whether that’s really the case. Can “change” really happen because a new group of leaders implement a new set of policies? Or are the those who attempt it more likely, in the end, to be changed themselves?