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Why you should be a socialist

May 9, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

THE CITIES and towns of Iraq, devastated by a U.S. war. Whole regions of Africa plagued by famine. New announcements of layoffs at U.S. corporations where CEOs still rake in millions. Millions of poor people suffering in the heart of the richest country in the history of the world. These cruelties of the system that we live under aren't hard to see, and many people would like to do something to stop them. But is there an alternative?

ALAN MAASS, editor of Socialist Worker and author of Why You Should Be a Socialist, makes the case for the socialist alternative--based on the power of working people to fight for a better world, and to create a society based not on profits and power but on making a better life for everyone in it.

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IF YOU still aren't sure whether the U.S. war on Iraq was about oil and the naked display of U.S. power, you don't have to listen to Socialist Worker. Listen to Jay Garner.

"We ought to be beating our chests every day," said the retired general who was appointed by the Pentagon to run postwar Iraq. "We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say: 'Damn, we're Americans!'"

Why exactly? The most important reason, Garner told a press conference last week, was because Iraq's oilfields survived the war with little damage. "I was planning on the oilfields being torched," he bragged.

Since the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War a quarter century ago, American military interventions have been heavily cloaked with rhetoric about "humanitarian" aims. And there is a cover story for the latest Gulf War--the "liberation" of Iraqi people from the rule of Saddam Hussein, a dictator that the U.S. government actually helped into power.

But the Bush administration's hard-line "hawks" like Garner and his boss Donald Rumsfeld don't seem to care that much about the cover story. They talk openly about Iraq's oil wealth and the expansion of U.S. military power--the real reasons for the war.

In this climate, terms like "colonial" and "imperialism"--often dismissed as out-of-date left-wing rhetoric--have a new aptness. "If you want to talk about suns not setting on empires," says one of the hawks, defense analyst John Pike, "you know, the Brits had nothing compared to this."

The words of Marine Gen. Smedley Butler--who led U.S. invasions throughout Latin America during the first three decades of the 20th century--sound like they're describing today's world. "I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers," Butler recalled. "In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism."

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THE CLASS war being waged on working people in the U.S. today is almost as brazen. The Bush administration's main domestic accomplishment since taking office is a $1.35 trillion tax cut--of which 43 percent of the benefits went to richest 1 percent of the population.

The tax cuts have done nothing to create jobs or stimulate the economy. So the White House responded by…demanding more tax cuts! The new proposal, trimmed back to a mere $550 billion, is even more dramatically skewed to the superrich. And to pay for it, Congress is considering budget legislation that will slash spending on programs benefiting poor and working people.

Could it be any more obvious that the Bush administration's number one job is helping the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful still?

Just to make sure, the White House went on the offensive against unions. Homeland security tsar Tom Ridge personally intervened to threaten the International Longshore and Warehouse Union last year with military scabs if workers took action to win a fair contract. And the post-September 11 bailout of the airline industry gave away billions to the corporations, no strings attached--while demanding that unions make additional concessions.

The attack on labor highlights the intimate connections of the war abroad and the war at home. For example, Stevedoring Services of America, a hard-line leader of the shipping bosses' attack on dockworkers, got its hooks into "liberated" Iraq, using its White House connections to nab the contract to run the main port of Umm Qasr.

The Bush administration is filled with people who perfectly illustrate the interconnectedness of corporate, political and military power. Like Donald Rumsfeld, who hasn't held elected office in 43 years, but has exercised vast powers nevertheless--as a top official in Republican administrations, as a job-slashing corporate executive in the private sector, and as a central planner of U.S. military policy, whether he was part of official Washington or not.

If you ever wanted to understand what socialists mean when they talk about a capitalist ruling class that controls the resources of society and uses them to promote their own power and wealth, Donald Rumsfeld is a good place to start.

The great novelist and essayist James Baldwin could have had Rumsfeld in mind when he wrote: "The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and where they decide that their 'vital interests' are menaced; and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the 'sanctity' of human life, or the 'conscience' of the civilized world."

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POVERTY AND inequality, wars and violence--these aren't unfortunate mistakes or accidents in the modern world. The capitalist system is organized to produce them--"quite coldly and deliberately."

If that statement seems harsh, consider the example of health care. Thanks to scientific discoveries and technological innovations, the potential exists to improve and extend the lives of literally billions of people around the world. But it doesn't happen.

Even in the richest nation on earth, health care is "rationed." The most advanced treatments are available to those with money, while those without money scramble for access--when they aren't left out of the system entirely.

The obscene reason is profit. There's simply no money to be made in providing, for example, new AIDS drugs to the millions suffering from HIV-AIDS in Africa--because those millions are too poor to pay a price that will sustain an acceptable level of profit.

The health care system is organized around what will make the most money for the drug companies and the tiny minority of executives and shareholders who run them--not how to get the most advanced treatments to the people who need them. Much the same could be said about food, shelter, transportation--every aspect of life under capitalism.

Capitalism does one thing very well--protect and increase the wealth and power of the people at the top of society. Meeting the needs of everyone else is secondary, which is why so many people's needs go unmet. From every other point of view--producing enough to go around, protecting the environment, building a society of equality and freedom--the capitalist system is entirely irrational.

In many ways, socialism is exactly the opposite. The simple organizing principle would be to use the vast resources of society to meet people's needs. It seems so obvious--that if people are hungry, they should be fed; that if people are homeless, we should build homes for them. Yet capitalism produces the opposite.

A socialist world would take the vast wealth of the rich and use it to meet the basic needs of everyone in society--and much more besides. Instead of the important decisions about the direction of society being made either by the rich, or people who are controlled by the rich, socialism would give the vast majority control over their own lives, through a system built around genuine democracy at the grassroots level.

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SO HOW can we achieve socialism? How do we go about changing society? When socialists propose to fundamentally transform society through a revolution that takes away the power of a minority ruling class and creates new democratic institutions for the majority to govern, we're often dismissed as utopians.

The "realistic" alternative, we're told, is to look for ways to work "from within"--to make small changes in the current system, hopefully leading to bigger ones. That "realism" doesn't look very realistic today--where the alternative in Washington to the pro-corporate warmongering Republicans is the only slightly less pro-corporate, warmongering Democrats.

But even if the U.S. government were somehow taken over by pro-working class politicians, it's important to remember how little power they would actually have. Control over economic life would remain in the hands of an unelected elite--corporate executives, Wall Street bankers, filthy rich investors. They make decisions that effect working people in the most direct ways, and we have no means to control them or vote them out of office.

Capitalism's rulers have other institutions at their command. The mass media, for one--what socialists a century ago used to refer to as the "head-fixing industry." Neither politicians nor the media's corporate owners resort very often to outright censorship. But the entire media machine is designed to promote ideas that justify the status quo, and marginalize those that are critical of it.

The education system under capitalism is shaped to produce the training needed to keep the system operating--not to encourage real questioning of how society is organized. And when the head-fixing industries fail, there's always the police and the army--which society's rulers rely on to physically defend their power.

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IF THAT picture of capitalist society is accurate, than two conclusions flow from it. First, the real "utopians" are the people who imagine that fundamental changes can be made to the existing system "from within."

All the parts of capitalism--its economic organization, its political institutions and beyond--are shaped by the primary aim of power and profit. They can't be taken over and used for the exact opposite purpose.

This isn't to say that reforms to the way capitalism functions are impossible--and that they aren't very important to working people when they do happen. Thus, for example, Jim Crow segregation in the American South was defeated, thanks to the organizing of the 1960s civil rights movement.

But in general, these reforms will always be concessions from above--concessions fought for by large groups of people standing up for their rights. And as long as the primary logic of the system to promote power and profit remains intact, the changes that working people fought so hard to win can be taken back.

The other conclusion that flows from the socialist analysis of capitalism is that their side is organized--so our side needs to be, too. We need, for example, to be prepared to counter the lies of the corporate media that justify the status quo. Newspapers like Socialist Worker are aimed at doing exactly this.

This isn't simply about providing an alternative way of looking at the world. People need to be able to use these ideas to raise an alternative in concrete struggles. Presenting a real challenge to the Bush administration's drive to war around the world, for example, means not only exposing the truth about the war, but making sure that truth reaches people throughout society--and making sure those who question the war can make their voices heard.

This doesn't happen by itself. Organization is necessary to provide the connection between the voices of opposition that emerge in an isolated fashion--and to develop a common understanding of how to deepen that opposition.

Socialist Worker's publisher, the International Socialist Organization, aims to be a part of that process--by being involved in struggles, not only against the war, but against all the injustices that take place in society.

But socialists set themselves another task--of showing how the day-to-day fights of today are part of a long-term struggle for bigger political changes. Socialists, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement."

We want to be activists in the here and now. But we also want to make our vision of a future socialist society something that's relevant to today's struggles.

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THE STAKES are high today. America's rulers are intent on more wars around the globe, not less. They want to defend their wealth and power from any challenge, around the world, but also at home--and they don't care what cost ordinary people are forced to pay.

At times, their power may seem too great to be challenged. But that's what African Americans thought about the Jim Crow rulers of the U.S. South. That's what the people of Eastern Europe thought about tyrants who ruled over them--falsely using the name of socialism to justify their dictatorships. That's what Blacks under South Africa's apartheid system thought--the same as every victim of history's oppressors.

But these seemingly unbeatable regimes were beaten--because of the actions of masses of people in standing up against them.

These struggles may have started small, with a handful of people doing the hard work of organizing. But what they revealed as they took root and grew was the potential that lies at the heart of the struggle for socialism--the ability of the working class majority to struggle in solidarity to make a better world.

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