The case for socialism

September 3, 2008

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister and friend to Ronald Reagan, famously declared that "there is no alternative" to capitalism and the free market. Today, amid the disaster of war in the Middle East and a slumping economy, her boasts ring hollow. Shaun Harkin explains why socialism offers the alternative.

ENDLESS WAR, growing class inequality, racism, disregard for environmental destruction, lies, corruption and more have become synonymous with George W. Bush's presidency. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to tax cuts for the wealthy and bailouts for Wall Street, the Bush administration has been shameless in promoting an agenda that has made the rich richer--and the rest of us much worse off.

Workers today must deal with skyrocketing food and gas prices, growing personal debt and the threat of job loss. The callousness of Bush's treatment of the mostly African American victims of Hurricane Katrina and the vicious attacks on undocumented immigrants have further demonstrated the deep fault lines of race and class in U.S. society.

These multiple disasters are having an impact on how people view the world. A Time/Rockefeller Foundation poll found that 88 percent of people say Americans are working as hard or harder to just get by, 78 percent think the "social contract" of the 20th century has been broken, and 82 percent of people think the government should increase spending on things like public works projects to create jobs.

The case for socialism

Barack Obama's campaign for president has coincided with, and encouraged, this great desire for change. And John McCain's idiotic talk of continuing Bush's policies will be met rightly with disbelief and disgust, making Obama seem all the more reasonable.

Yet it's also becoming abundantly clear that an Obama administration would have no intention of delivering fundamental change. He's moved to the right to position himself as the "responsible" candidate--and has gotten huge donations from Wall Street as a result.

So the question is: How do we restructure our society to meet the needs of the vast majority of humanity and rid the planet of the scourges of war, exploitation and oppression? Socialism--a society based on workers' control and dedicated to meeting human needs--is the alternative that we urgently need.

FOR DECADES, the ruling class in the U.S. and the Western world have had a ready response to those who advocated socialism: "Look at the dictatorship in Russia--that proves that socialism doesn't work." Then there's so-called Communist China, beloved by Corporate America for its high profit rates, low-wage labor and totalitarian state that crushes all independent political activity of workers and ethnic minorities.

What else to read

For an introduction to socialism and the socialist tradition, read The Case for Socialism, by Socialist Worker editor Alan Maass. Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism provides a lively and accessible account of the ideas of Karl Marx, using historical and contemporary examples.

The best introduction to Marxism remains The Communist Manifesto, written 160 years ago by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.

Hal Draper's The Two Souls of Socialism makes the case for the genuine socialist tradition that looks to the self-activity of the working class to change society.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States recounts the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S.

The reality is that the regimes that called themselves socialist or communist for half a century were anything but that.

The counterrevolution in Russia led by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s snuffed out the last vestiges of the 1917 revolution. The old USSR, locked in military competition with the West during the Cold War, reproduced the same class structures that existed in the West. Thus, a bureaucratic state capitalism emerged in the East to compete with corporate monopoly capitalism in the West.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Stalinist system, almost every country in the world has embraced the "Washington consensus" of free trade, privatization, deregulation and "flexible" labor policies--often packaged under the label of neoliberalism. It seemed that the entire world had come to agree with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum about free-market capitalism: "There is no alternative."

Today, the picture has changed. Washington's promise of peace and prosperity based on democracy and capitalism has given way to permanent war. Moreover, the U.S. economic model of neoliberalism--whether embraced by other countries or imposed on them via institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, or by the U.S. military--is discredited.

Corporate free trade policies have led to rising fuel and food prices that have sparked riots around the world. The world's biggest banks, reeling from hundreds of billions of dollars in housing-related loans, have cut back on credit, which is slowly strangling the economy. As the U.S. sinks further into recession, the rest of the world is being dragged down, too.

This latest capitalist crisis wouldn't have surprised Karl Marx, who demonstrated nearly 150 years ago that the system periodically--and inevitably--goes into slump.

Economic crisis weren't new to humanity, of course. Ancient society and the Middle Ages had seen terrible periods of economic collapse. What was different about capitalism, Marx showed, was that crises were created not by scarcities of food or commodities, but by too much of them. That is, the logic of blind competition for the sake of profit meant that capitalism tended to produce too many goods to be sold at a profit. As a result, periods of economic growth would come to a halt as large numbers of capitalists were forced into bankruptcy and jobs were cut.

What's more, Marx argued, capitalist crises tended to worsen over time as competition compelled employers to replace workers with machinery wherever possible, thereby undercutting the labor-power which make profits possible.

Today, even honest mainstream economists acknowledge that Marx was the first to scientifically analyze what they euphemistically call the "business cycle"--that is, the periodic movement of the economy from boom to slump. What they reject, of course, is the case for socialism that Marx and his closest collaborator, Frederick Engels, laid out.

THE STARTING point for the case for socialism is simple: Society should be organized on the basis of human needs and equality, not for profit. Marx and Engels summed the goal of a socialist society up with the slogan: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."

Throughout history, many have dreamed of a society based on equality. However, it required the industrial revolution and the vast capacity for production developed during capitalism to make socialism a possibility.

The resources already exist to transform the way we live. No one needs to go without health care, food or a decent place to live. The great wealth of our society could go toward education, public transportation, developing renewable energy sources and many other projects that would benefit the quality of life for the vast majority. Just imagine what could be done with the money squandered on the Iraq war--$1 trillion, according to two economists' estimate.

Marx and Engels argued that abolishing class society would pave the way for the real beginning of human history. Free from exploitation and oppression by a tiny minority of wealthy and powerful people, future generations can grow up free from hunger and war and liberated from the distorting and crippling ideas of nationalism, racism and sexual oppression. Engels called this "the leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom."

But socialism can't be established by a few political leaders or an enlightened minority. Marx argued that socialism must be the "self-activity of the working class."

Yet how can that be, when we're indoctrinated with the idea that working-class people are too stupid, lazy and selfish to ever fight for fundamental change, let alone rule themselves?

Such notions, of course, encourage us to do nothing and leave it to "our betters" to run society. However, "our betters" have completely different and antagonistic interests from us. In the opening pages of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued: "Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie (ruling class) and proletariat (working class)."

The bourgeoisie controls society through their ownership of the means of production--the means of producing society's wealth. Workers have no choice but to work for one or another boss. Capitalists generate profit through exploitation of workers, squeezing more and more productivity even, as is the case today, when they're being paid less for it.

Furthermore, we have no say over what we produce or how we produce it. Marx pointed out how the "despotism of capital" in the workplace demonstrates just how little real democracy actually exists in our society.

But workers aren't just victims. The power of the working class is our ability to withhold labor. When workers go on strike, they demonstrate how much capitalists actually depend on them.

Without workers, nothing can be produced: kids can't be taught, the subway system won't run, no products can be delivered to Wal-Mart, the sick can't be treated, and cars aren't built. The ability to take collective action gives workers the potential power to take control over the economy and reorganize society based on our own needs.

But it's not as simple as that. Collective struggle requires conscious political engagement in a battle of ideas to overcome individual isolation, fragmentation and divisions, such as racism and sexism, which capitalism fosters within the working class. The tremendous struggles of workers in the 1930s--which Obama liked to recall during his primary campaign--are a powerful example of how the working class has organized collectively on a mass scale and successfully fought for change.

However, we don't need to go that far back for examples of workers' power. On May Day 2006, immigrant workers across the country marched to challenge scapegoating and demand legalization. That "Day Without an Immigrant" stands as a powerful example of how much the U.S. economy depends on immigrant workers, and, by extension, all workers.

IF CAPITALISM functioned as a stable system, challenging it fundamentally would be more difficult. But it isn't--capitalism is prone to economic crisis and war, which periodically force workers into opposition and resistance.

The ruling class, wrote Marx, "is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink down into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society."

The 1930s strike leader and socialist Farrell Dobbs described the process of working-class radicalization this way:

Wiseacres of the day spoke pontifically about the 'passivity' of the working class, never understanding that the seeming docility of the workers at a given time is a relative thing. If workers are more or less holding their own and expecting they can get ahead slowly, they won't tend to radicalize. Things are different when they are losing ground and the future looks precarious to them. Then a change begins to occur in their attitude, which is not always immediately apparent. The tinder of discontent begins to pile up. Any spark can light it, and once lit, the fire can spread rapidly.

However, the ruling classes of the world will never simply walk away from their wealth, power and privilege, no matter how irrational and destructive their actions are. Rather than taking over the existing state, workers must abolish it and replace it with one based on their own democratic rule.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie"--that is, the final arbiter of differences within the ruling class and a collective defender of the interests of capital, through what the Russian revolutionary Lenin called "special bodies of armed men" who stand above society as a whole.

The brief seizure of power by workers in the Paris Commune of 1871 prompted Marx and Engels to add: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.'"

By contrast, workers' power would be organized through a system of democratically elected workers' councils, where all leaders would be recallable at any time. Workers would collectively control production and democratically decide how to organize economic planning to meet their own needs. The Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution of 1917, although short-lived, showed this process at work.

Since then there have been several revolutionary upheavals in which workers grasped toward state power--Germany in 1918-23, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, Portugal in 1974, Iran in 1979, Poland in 1980.

Yet the lack of revolutionary organization--a working-class party forged in all the ups and downs of struggles prior to the revolutionary crisis--meant that the ruling class was able to divert these challenges or use counterrevolutionary force to smash them. While the revolutionary upsurge of the working class is inevitable, history shows that a revolutionary party is needed to carry through the struggle to achieve workers' power.

A central leader of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, powerfully described a workers' revolution:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state--be it monarchical or democratic--elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists.

But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime...The history of a revolution is for us, first of all, a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

Today, crises and war are again highlighting the need for revolutionary change. What's needed now is an organization that can link today's resistance to exploitation, oppression and injustice with a struggle for a different kind of world.

Further Reading

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