Part 1

A crying need for change

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., SocialistWorker.org contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on "What Would Socialism Be Like?" This three-part article is based on her talk. In the first part, she answers the time-worn charge that socialism wouldn't work with this question--who can say that capitalism is working?

Domestically grown oranges are disposed of in Australia because they can't be sold at a profit (John Schilling)Domestically grown oranges are disposed of in Australia because they can't be sold at a profit (John Schilling)

I OFTEN think that one of the tremendous tricks of capitalism is getting us to accept an absurd state of affairs as normal--inevitable even. But to quote one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, "If you tilt your head just slightly, it's ridiculous."

To give just one example, the United Nations came out with a report a couple years ago--a study of global wealth that found the world's richest 1 percent owned 40 percent of all wealth and the top 10 percent owned 85 percent. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent--half the world's population--own barely 1 percent of all wealth.

"These levels of inequality are grotesque," said Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam. "It is impossible to justify such vast wealth when 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. The good news is that redistribution would only have to be relatively small. Such are the vast assets of the rich that giving up a small part of their wealth could transform the lives of millions."

This really gets to the heart of what is so crazy about capitalism--this gap between potential and reality. Take food production. There's enough food produced in the world to make everyone fat, yet millions of people starve. The logic of the system is that the food must be destroyed rather than given away at a loss, or otherwise profits would suffer.

That's why my first response whenever anyone says socialism will never work is to ask: Exactly on what planet is capitalism working?

Leela Yellesetty looks at what the Marxist tradition has said about the question--as well as what the experience of past struggles and movements can tell us about the answer.

But it's not enough to hate the capitalist system. You need to believe a better world is possible.

Especially when things look really bad, like today, this is the last-resort argument of defenders of capitalism: Even if the system has problems, this is as good as it gets. I want to convince you that capitalism is not as good as it gets--and that a better world, a socialist world, is in fact possible, not to mention necessary if we want to survive as a species.

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THE MARXIST tradition has not had a whole lot to say about exactly what socialism will look like. Why?

It's worth noting that Karl Marx was not the first socialist. As long as we've had class society, there have been people who dreamed of a better world, and the utopian socialists of Marx's day not only dreamed, but came up with elaborate blueprints of what their wonderful future world would look like.

The utopians had a lot of good insights, but ultimately, there were limitations to their approach.

First of all, they were what philosophers would call "idealists"--meaning that they thought the key to changing the world was the right idea of what to do. The problem is that a future socialist society needs more than good ideas. It needs the natural and technological advances that make it possible to produce the necessities of life and all the other things that people need and want. And it needs an organized human force that can create a new society.

To their credit, many of the utopians realized that simply having a good idea wasn't enough, so they tried to convince the wealthy to adopt their plans and commit themselves to constructing the socialist utopia. There was a problem with this, though--to the extent that these utopias involved helping out the poor and therefore cutting into the bottom line, the wealthy weren't all that interested.

As much as many of them sympathized with working people, the utopian socialists saw workers mainly as victims, and not as people who could run society for themselves. Rather, an enlightened ruler or a technocratic elite who know what was best would have to rule on their behalf, at least until the masses could be properly educated.

Marx and Frederick Engels took issue with this idea. Even if we accept that it's true that people need to be educated, he said we still have to ask: Who educates the educator? Rather than ideas developing in a vacuum in the minds of a few important individuals, Marx and Engels argued that people's ideas are shaped by the material conditions of the society in which they live.

Put another way, as Marx once wrote, human beings "make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." That is, you have to start with the reality of how society is organized to try and understand how change happens.

Marx himself didn't come to his own ideas in a vacuum. He was living at the very beginnings of capitalism. That's not something we're often reminded of--how new capitalism is relative to human history. Not too long before, it was generally accepted that the king was anointed to rule by god, and the serfs did what they were told, and that's just how it was.

Capitalism marked a tremendous advance over this preceding system of feudalism. Yet even in its infancy, the antagonism between the working class and capitalists was becoming apparent, leading to a wave of class struggle across Europe in 1848--just weeks after Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto was published.

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SO WHAT were the key insights that Marx and Engels put forward?

They were the first to find a material--not just a moral--basis for socialism. They maintained that capitalism produced, in the working class, its gravedigger--a class with both the interest and the ability to paralyze the system and create a new society, because the working class produces all the wealth that the capitalists siphon off.

Second, unlike all other classes in history, the working class has no interests apart from those of humanity as a whole. Unlike the bourgeois revolutions--like France's revolution of 1789, for example--that replaced the rule of one minority class by the rule of another minority, a working class revolution would ultimately abolish class distinction altogether.

Last and crucially: It is in the process of becoming united and struggling against capitalism that the working class rids itself of what Marx called "the muck of ages"--that is, all the rotten ideas drilled into us by the existing system--and becomes fit to found society anew. For this very reason, the central premise for Marx from the beginning was that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. There is no other way for socialism to become a reality--if you agree with Marx's definition.

Not everyone does, even if they claim to be following Marx. The debate between socialism from above vs. socialism from below has continued over the years in various forms. The Stalinists who came to rule over the former USSR said their regime was socialism--and there are socialists who believe that we only need to elect socialists into a majority in the government.

Against such advocates of socialism from above, the U.S. socialist Eugene Debs warned: "If I can lead you into the promised land, I can just as easily lead you back out again."

Those who follow in Marx's tradition believe that genuine socialism is first and foremost about worker's democratic control of society. That means, like Marx, we don't draw up detailed plans of what a socialist society would look like. After all, it will be up to the people who live in that society to figure out and decide democratically.

But while it would be silly to make detailed plans for how, for instance, the municipal water system would work under socialism, we can and should say some general things about what socialism would look like. Here are a few things that I think would be high on the list:

-- We'd have real universal health care--that is, everyone gets health care for free. Period.

-- We'd bail out homeowners instead of bankers. But why stop there? We could also take all the homeless people and put them in houses that are empty. It's not rocket science: Just put the people in the houses.

-- We'd stop throwing away food and get it to people who are hungry.

-- We'd end all wars and use the money for education and social services.

-- We'd devote massive resources and scientific research to saving the environment.

These are just a few steps a socialist society would take. They're all quite simple to accomplish, using just a fraction of the wealth in the hands of the rich and the resources existing in society. For that matter, they're not all that radical--most people already support them. Only under a sick system do they seem so impossible.

Another kind of society is possible. And the reason we can say this with certainty is a series of historical experiences of struggles and movements that have shown--if only for a brief time--what amazing things are possible when the working class runs the show. Those examples are the subject of the next part of this article.