What is the socialist answer?

The socialist alternative to capitalism is a society rooted in solidarity, equality and democracy, explains Alan Maass, author of The Case for Socialism.

Marching on May Day in Madison, Wis.

"CAPITALISM IS evil, and you cannot regulate evil," Michael Moore concludes in his new movie Capitalism: A Love Story. "You have to eliminate it and replace it with something else."

The film is an incredible indictment of the current system. But what is the "something else" that should replace it.

We propose socialism.

Socialism is based on a simple idea--that the vast resources of society should be used to meet people's needs. We should use the tremendous achievements of human beings in all the realms of life, not to make a few people rich and powerful, but to make sure every person in society has everything they need to lead rich and fulfilling lives.

It seems so obvious--that if people are hungry, they should be fed. If people are homeless, we should build homes for them. If people are sick, all the advances in medical technology should be available to them. But capitalism produces the opposite.

To begin with, a socialist society would take the vast wealth of the rich and use it to meet the basic needs of all society. According to the United Nations, the cost of providing food, shelter, clean water, primary education and basic medical care to those who go without around the world could be covered with the fortunes of just the world's two richest men--Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

What else to read

For an introduction to socialism and the socialist tradition, read The Case for Socialism, by SocialistWorker.org 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 A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.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.

Plus, all the money wasted on weapons and war would be used to end poverty and homelessness and all other forms of scarcity.

How about we abolish advertising? Is there really enough difference between Sprite and Sierra Mist to justify the millions of dollars spent to convince us to buy one over the other? Imagine what all the people employed today to peddle Coke over Pepsi could do if they were asked to use their talents to educate the public about what the government is up to, or about critical scientific or technological questions like climate change or nutrition.

Rather than sell commercial time to multinational corporations at $3 million for 30 seconds--the cost of getting an ad broadcast during the 2010 Super Bowl, according to reports--television could be returned to the public domain where it belongs, and the money that paid for the ads could be devoted to increasing the funds for every K-12 school.

Socialists don't have a blueprint for exactly what a socialist society will look like--we believe it will be up to the generations to come who live in one to figure that out.

But it seems obvious enough that such a society would begin by guaranteeing that every family has enough to eat and a sturdy roof over their head. The education system would be made free, and reorganized so that every child's ability is encouraged. Health care would be made free and accessible, as would all utilities like gas and electricity. So would public transportation--and a far better funded and more efficient system it would be.

This wouldn't be accomplished overnight. But these aims would become the top priorities of society, and therefore, we could trust that they would happen--unlike today, when social priorities are an afterthought compared to the priorities of private wealth and power.

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A SOCIALIST society would not only take away the existing wealth of the ruling class, but also its economic control over the world. The means of production--the factories, the offices, the mines and minerals, and so on--would be owned by all of society.

Rather than important economic decisions being left to the chaos of the free market and the blind competition of capitalists scrambling to make a profit, under socialism, the majority would plan what to do democratically.

Under capitalism, the overall direction of the economy is unplanned. Businesses makes their investment decisions behind closed doors--in fact, they often employ the same level of security that governments do to protect advanced weaponry.

This secrecy is part of a gamble--that their company will be first to introduce the year's most popular model, the new product, the next trend. Success means a leg up on the competition, a greater share of the market, more sales--and more profits.

In economic good times, success seems contagious. Companies throughout the economy make ambitious investments and watch the money roll in. Their executives are toasted in the pages of Forbes and Fortune for their uncanny foresight and entrepreneurial skills. Eventually, though, when enough companies jump in, the market gets saturated, and profit rates start to sink. The investment binge of the preceding period goes into reverse.

This is the boom-slump cycle of capitalism. We're encouraged to think that economic recessions are just part of the way of things--"something known as hard times," the novelist Upton Sinclair once wrote, "a natural phenomenon like winter itself, mysterious, universal, cruel."

But there's nothing "natural" or "mysterious" about capitalism's economic crises. They are the direct result of the drive for more profits--and what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels called a "crisis of overproduction."

Marx and Engels believed that the headlong expansion of capitalism during economic good times laid the basis for slumps to come--because capitalists eventually produce more products than they can sell at an acceptable rate of profit. When profits begin to fall, companies rush to cut costs--and that means cutbacks, layoffs and factory closures.

Of course, there's a crying need for all the goods that are supposedly in "oversupply." If people are homeless on the streets of New York City, then there can't be "too much supply" of apartments.

But because the capitalist economic system is organized around profits, the priorities of the system are topsy-turvy. From the standpoint of Corporate America, it is possible for there to be "too much supply," even when people go without--because there is "too much supply" to sell their products for a decent profit.

The elementary point of socialism will be to take profit out of the equation. Therefore, the resources of society could be commonly owned and controlled by everyone in society, with decisions made according to what's needed and wanted, not how much money can be made.

Instead of decisions about the economy being left to a few unaccountable people in corporate boardrooms, a socialist society would be one where priorities and how to implement them are planned.

How? To begin with, all workers would have a voice in what they do at their workplace--rather than management dictating what takes place. And larger bodies of democratically elected representatives would have a discussion about overall social priorities.

For this kind of planning to work, a socialist society must be democratic--much more democratic than the current system. Though we hear it all the time, it simply isn't true that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. Many of the models of the free market in the less-developed world are run by repressive dictatorships. Even in societies that brag about being democratic, democracy is limited to electing representatives every two or four years.

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SOCIALISM WILL be democratic in a much more fundamental way.

But for most people, this seems to contradict what they've been taught about socialism. The record of the former USSR under Joseph Stalin's rule, of China and other so-called socialist countries existing to this day would seem to show that socialism is a top-down society run by party bosses, with the secret police or army handy to keep people in line.

The truth of the matter is that none of these countries are socialist by the standards of the basic principles of Marxism--summed up by Karl Marx this way: "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

It doesn't matter what the rulers of the ex-USSR and other so-called "socialist" countries call themselves. The question is whether workers control society. In the USSR and the other bastions of "socialism," the experience of workers wasn't one of control and freedom, but of exploitation, oppression and alienation from any kind of social and political control.

The state did own the means of production in the old USSR. This is thought to be a defining characteristic of a socialist society, but the real question is: Who owns the state? If the answer is anything other than the mass of people, exercising their control through some system of grassroots democracy--if there is an elite, however well- or ill-intentioned, exercising power over how society is run--then that is a society which violates the most basic definition of socialism.

By these standards, are there any examples of socialism in the world today? No, there isn't--nor, in fact, has socialism been realized in any society of the past.

But the whole tradition of working-class struggle has shown not only that socialism is possible, but how it can be achieved.

The shape of a future society can be glimpsed in the times of the greatest social upheavals of the last 100 years--from the 1917 revolution in Russia and the few short years of an experiment in workers' power until the Stalinist counter-revolution; the revolutionary wave in Germany in the early 1920s; Spain's revolution in the 1930s; the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, and that's only to mention the highest points of struggle.

The importance of these struggles wasn't the theories of a few leaders, but the actions and experiences of the masses of people who participated in them and propelled them forward.

One characteristic common to all of the biggest revolutionary upheavals of history is that they each created a similar system for the majority in society to make decisions about how to organize the struggle and the basic functioning of society. Each time, democracy revolved around a structure of workers' councils.

In Russia, for example, workers' councils (known by the Russian word "soviets") developed spontaneously out of the 1905 revolution, and again in 1917. They first appeared as elected workplace committees, formed to organize over economic issues. But the need to respond to wider political questions led the councils to make links locally and then regionally.

It was natural for the soviets--created in the midst of struggles against the old order--to become the basis for workers to exercise their power in a new one. There was a direct connection between the councils' representation from workplaces and the need to decide how to use the wealth produced at those workplaces. And the level of grassroots participation was obvious from the ratio of soviet delegates to those they represented: one delegate for every 500 workers.

Russia's soviets and all of the examples of workers' councils in other countries over the years have shared similar features--immediate recall, so workers can control those they elect; not paying representatives more than the people they represent or allowing them to rise above anyone else's social level; elections taking place at mass meetings, rather than in the isolation of the voting booth.

The exact shape of such a system in a future socialist society can't be predicted. But what's important is the democratic principle these bodies have embodied in past struggles. The basic principle common to all revolutions is that representatives of the people have to be held accountable to the people.

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IN HIS movie, Michael Moore proposes that capitalism is the problem and needs to be eliminated--and that the solution is democracy.

He's right. But the question is what kind of democracy. If our vision of a future after capitalism is limited to the kind of "democracy" the so-called "Founding Fathers" enshrined in the U.S. Constitution--with elections only every two or four years, with economic power remaining outside the control of elected representatives, with so many opportunities for the wealthy to manipulate the system--then that's not enough of a change.

But a socialist democracy--rooted in the participation of everyone in society through a system that springs from the grassroots--holds the promise of building a society based on solidarity and equality, with the highest priority on people, not profits.

There's a long road to such a world, with many more questions that need to be answered along the way. But it's a world worth struggling to achieve.