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Book excerpts

August 22, 2003 | Page 7

Here we print excerpts from ALAN MAASS' Why you should be a socialist, soon to be reprinted by Haymarket Books in a new and expanded edition.

OTHER CHAPTERS BELOW:
Wars without end
The future socialist society
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress"
Can workers change society?
The need for organization

The madness of the free market

INEQUALITY ISN'T new. There have been rich and poor for thousands of years. What's different about the world today as compared to the one our ancestors lived in 200 years ago--is that the resources exist to end poverty immediately.

Yet terrible poverty continues to exist alongside incredible wealth. The reason is that capitalism is designed to protect the rich and increase their wealth--no matter what the human cost.

Take the example of food production. More than 6 million children under the age of 5 will die this year of malnutrition and its related diseases.

The number 6 million has a terrible significance in the modern world--that is the number of Jews murdered by Germany's Nazis in the Holocaust during the Second World War. A Holocaust of the world's children takes place every year--because of hunger.

What could be the cause of such a horror? Has there been some worldwide war of devastation or an international natural disaster that makes it impossible to produce enough food to go around? In fact, the opposite is true. There's enough food in storage today to feed all the people in the world.

The sick reality is that, instead of being organized to feed the hungry, the system of capitalism is organized around not feeding everyone. The owners and executives who control food production have an interest in keeping up prices--and therefore profits. That means limiting the amount of food for sale.

When there's too much food for sale, prices and profits fall. So the food bosses have convinced governments around the advanced world to store "surplus" food--to destroy it if necessary to prop up prices. As the German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote: "Famines do not simply occur--they are organized by the grain trade."

In the same way, you can say that poverty and inequality don't simply occur. They are organized by a tiny class of rulers at the top of society that benefits from the whole setup--that increases its wealth and power at the expense of the rest of us.

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Wars without end

"WE NEED the oil," said George Bush Sr. as U.S. warships steamed toward the Persian Gulf in preparation for the 1991 Gulf War. "It's nice to talk about standing up for freedom. But Kuwait and Saudi Arabia aren't exactly democracies." The motives of the U.S. government in military conflicts couldn't be put more plainly.

This has been true since the U.S. emerged as a world power a century ago with its victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War. Even then, war supporters in Washington justified the fighting with rhetoric about liberating the subjects of Spain's colonial domination in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

But the real aim of the U.S. was to be the new colonial boss--which is what it became in the former Spanish possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The U.S. was late among the world's main powers in starting an empire, but it made up for that in violence.

It started out in its own "backyard"--Latin America. Over the last century, U.S. troops have invaded Cuba five times, Honduras four times, Panama four times, the Dominican Republic twice, Haiti twice, Nicaragua twice and Grenada once.

Eventually, American troops spread out around the world--conquering less powerful nations but also fighting with other powerful countries over which would control what parts of the globe. The conflicts were both economic and military, but these empire-building--or imperialist--adventures never had anything to do with democracy and freedom.

The goal was always the same--protect and extend the power of U.S. rulers. Marine Gen. Smedley Butler's beat was Latin America. "I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers," Butler later wrote. "In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism...Looking back on it, I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

Today's generals may not be as honest, but U.S. imperialism is no more kindly or charitable. Wars are a constant feature in the history of capitalism. They are the product of the ruthless competition for profit at the heart of the free-market system--the result of economic competition growing over into political and military competition.

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The future socialist society

THE HEART of socialism is making equality a reality. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels summed up this aim with a simple slogan: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."

This basic concept infuriates the bosses and their ideologues. They simply can't grasp the idea of a society without power and privilege for a small group of people. They complain that under socialism, everyone would be paid the same.

This is true. Roughly speaking, people would receive the same thing--there's simply no reason for it to work any other way. "Ah ha," comes the response. "You'd pay a brain surgeon the same as you pay a garbageman. Then no one would become brain surgeons, and everyone would become garbagemen."

Think about what a statement like that says about the priorities of capitalist society. It says that the only reason people do the exacting work of trying to heal the sick is for money.

Without a financial incentive, everyone would be happy with the thankless and certainly unfulfilling job of picking up garbage. What a travesty. Socialism would be about giving people the opportunity to do what they really want to do--allow them to become doctors or scientists or artists or anything else they desire.

We would use our technological knowledge to eliminate boring jobs like collecting garbage as much as possible--and share out equally the tasks we couldn't. The goal would be to free all people to do the work they love--and to give them the leisure time to enjoy all the wonders of the world around them.

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"If there is no struggle, there is no progress"

WE'RE ENCOURAGED to believe that political and social change--if it happens at all--takes place at a safe, gradual pace. Let any group of people organize to show their opposition to an injustice, and they're certain to be told to be patient--to let the system work.

But this goes against the whole history of the struggle for justice and equality. Even in the U.S., which is supposed to be the most stable of countries, social upheavals are a constant theme--from the War of 1776 that threw off colonial rule by Britain, to the Civil War that abolished slavery, to the series of struggles waged by workers or African Americans or women in the 20th century.

In fact, most of the rights and liberties that workers take for granted today are a product of these upheavals. Unemployment insurance, for example, was introduced as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program of the 1930s.

Roosevelt didn't come up with the idea. He was forced by the crisis of the Great Depression and by massive social pressure to adopt an idea put forward by workers. Political leaders like Roosevelt always end up with the credit in the history books for the reforms they were forced to carry out. But this doesn't change the fact that they were forced to act.

Struggle is the key. The great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made this plain with these words: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

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Can workers change society?

IF WE were to judge only from what we see around us, it might be hard to have confidence that the majority of people can organize to win fundamental change. After all, most working people aren't revolutionaries. A significant number will vote for George Bush and the Republicans in the 2004 election.

And even those who oppose Bush accept most of the time ideas that justify the status quo--from the old cliché that you can't fight city hall to the belief that people at the top of society are somehow specially qualified to run it. This is partly because we're continually exposed to different institutions--like the mass media or the education system--that are in the business of reinforcing these prejudices.

But even without this, working people are forced to participate in a rat race that they have no control over--pitted against one another and required to compete just to keep their job or maintain their standard of living. As a result, the idea of people uniting for social change can seem distant and unrealistic.

For most people, the experience of their lives teaches them that they don't have any power over what happens in the world--and that they don't know enough to have an opinion about it anyway. The act of fighting back is the first step in challenging the prejudices learned from living in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.

The caricature of revolution passed off by many historians is of a small group of armed fanatics seizing control of the government and running it to enrich themselves. But this has nothing to do with genuine socialism--the heart of which is mass participation.

Revolutions don't happen overnight--with the majority of people suddenly deciding to topple a government. This is only the final act--the climax of a much longer period of struggle.

At the beginning of the process, the goals for change can be modest--a few reforms in the way the system operates. But the struggle to change this or that aspect of society raises deeper questions.

People begin to see the connections between the struggles they're involved in and other issues--and the nature of the system itself. Each of these struggles gives workers a further sense of their ability to run society for themselves.

The act of taking over political power is the final step of a revolution that has already been felt in every workplace, in every neighborhood and in every corner of society.

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The need for organization

IDEAS CAN change very quickly in struggle. But they don't change all at once. In every struggle, there are differences over what to do next. Some people will see the need to step up the struggle--and to make the link to other political issues. Others will argue that militant action makes matters worse.

The outcome of these debates shapes the outcome of the struggle. And the bigger the struggle, the more complex and urgent the political questions.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917, for example, the hated Tsar was toppled in a matter of a few days. That part of the revolution was almost completely spontaneous. The accumulated hatred for the Tsar and his regime was all that was necessary to spark the demonstrations that snowballed into a mass movement.

But what came next raised questions that couldn't be answered with spontaneous action. The governments that came to power after the Tsar included people who called themselves socialists--and who claimed that the revolution had to be demobilized for the people's victories to be consolidated.

Were they right? What should be done to make sure the Tsar never came to power again? How could democracy and justice be spread even further? Should they? These questions were hotly debated throughout Russian society.

The reason they were ultimately given socialist answers is because a tried-and-tested revolutionary socialist organization existed to make its case. On the basis of its past experience and its roots among workers across Russia, the Bolshevik Party was able to recognize and make sense of the situation in all its complexity--and express the aims of socialism that workers favored.

The defeat of the Russian Revolution--and the rise of a new ruling class led by Joseph Stalin, which continued to use the rhetoric of socialism to justify a tyrannical system that was the complete opposite of socialism--has left the image of socialists as undemocratic, led around by a few party bosses.

The opposite is true. To achieve its aims, a revolutionary socialist organization has to be more democratic than other political organizations under capitalism. We need to bring together the experiences of every socialist--and to make those experiences part of the common basis that we all organize on.

But a socialist organization has to be both democratic and centralized--to be prepared to act together in struggle. Why the need for a centralized organization?

Because the other side is centralized. The basis of their power is the profit they make at the workplace--highly organized systems built around exploiting workers. Their side organizes political propaganda through the media. Their side responds to resistance with a highly organized and disciplined police force and army.

We need an organization for our side--one that can put forward a common set of ideas, using its own newspapers and magazines and books. We need an organization that can coordinate actions, not just in one workplace or even one city, but around the country--and ultimately around the world.

We need socialists in every corner of society inhabited by working people, and we need these socialists working nonstop--organizing struggle and carrying on political discussions. As individuals on our own, we can't accomplish much--not even with the best grasp of what's wrong with the world and how it could be different. But as part of an organization, we can make a difference--and do make a difference in the here and now.

We need to make more of a difference. We need socialists in every workplace, on every campus, in every neighborhood--involved in every struggle throughout society. But there's a further task. Socialists need to show how the day-to-day fights of today are part of a long-term fight for bigger political changes.

As Marx and Engels put it more than 150 years ago: "The Communists 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."

Socialists are among the best fighters in the struggles of today. But we're also involved in the struggle for the future--ultimately, for a different kind of society where exploitation and oppression are never known again.

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