The specter that still haunts capitalism

September 8, 2015

Despite being declared dead and buried for decades, recent opinion polls show that almost a third of Americans prefer socialism to capitalism. Socialism beats capitalism outright among people in their 20s, low-income people of all ages, and especially among African Americans and Latinos. But while the idea of socialism is in the air, what it means is vague to most people, and how to achieve it even more so. journalist Danny Katch is the author of a new book that is an entertaining and insightful introduction to what the socialist tradition has to say about democracy, economics and the potential of human beings to be something more than being bomb-dropping, planet-destroying racist fools. Here, we print an excerpt from "Ghost Stories," one of the opening chapters of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation.

A ghost is haunting the United States--the ghost of socialism. All the old powers are united in their aim to eliminate this demon: Presidents and preachers, Hillary and Rush, Wall Street CEOs, and NSA spies.

Where is the Republican who doesn't claim that his Democratic opponent is a socialist? Where is the Democrat who doesn't run away screaming from this horrible accusation?

This means two things:

1. Socialism is widely seen by the One Percent as a threat to its rule.

2. It's about time that socialists should openly make our case to the world and replace the boogeyman version of socialism with a declaration of what we're really all about.

Did you like that bold introduction? I stole it from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They won't mind--we're all comrades. Here are the opening lines of their Communist Manifesto:

A spectre is haunting Europe--the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?

Two things result from this fact:

I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.

II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.

The Communist Manifesto might be the most influential book in the history of the world, if you don't count the ones about God or teenage wizards. Within months of its publication in 1848, revolutions broke out across Europe. Terrified elites thought that the two young authors must have immense powers, either to prophesy uprisings or to create them. In fact, Marx and Engels had no idea that 1848 would become a historic year, but they did know change was in the air because they had been spending a lot of time with pissed-off workers, which was and still is an unusual habit for intellectuals.

People in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere didn't rise up that year because Karl Marx told them to. But after they had taken to the streets, the Manifesto provided some of them with a vision about what their revolt--and future ones--could achieve. This has been the aim of socialism ever since: to demonstrate how the courage and creativity that people already possess can point the way toward a different society that will be built on those qualities rather than be threatened by them.

The United States in 2014 is a long ways away from 1848 Paris. I don't expect the publication of this book to trigger another American Revolution (although, wow, that would be great for sales). Yet the opening words of the Manifesto still resonate because we too are haunted. Unlike the European upper crust that Marx taunted for being frightened of a socialist future, today it's ordinary people who are scared of the future that capitalism seems to promise.

IT WOULD be one thing if the world had a lot of problems but things looked brighter on the horizon. People can put up with almost anything if they think that someday their kids won't have to. Besides, who doesn't like a good fixer-upper project? But the scary part about the past few decades is that things are clearly getting worse. According to the global charity Oxfam, the eighty-five richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorer half of the world's population. Put another way, each of those fuckers owns as much as forty-one million other human beings, which is more than the population of a midsize country. The cruelest kings in history could never have dreamed of this level of greed--one man can only have so many fine tapestries and jewel-encrusted crowns!

In history class we were all taught the comforting doctrine of progress: Horrible things happened in the past, like slavery and the Black Death, but the world is now a more gentle and enlightened place. Yet it is in this world today that more than seven million people die from hunger each year, even though it has never been more obvious where to find the money that could save them. Then there is war. Growing up in the 1980s, I thought wars were bad things that countries used to do before they realized how idiotic they were. Needless to say I wasn't aware that even then the United States was involved in coups and covert military operations all around the world. But now we're back to straight-up old-fashioned wars that never end--in addition to coups and covert military operations all around the world. I could go on with examples of increased racism, sexism, and other supposed artifacts from the Bad Old Days, but most of you have the Internet. You see the same things I do: the police murders, the campus rapes, the vile comments at the end of the articles about the police murders and campus rapes.

The ultimate way to measure how we are moving in the wrong direction is with a thermometer. Global temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, and coastal cities are flooding because of carbon emissions from oil, gas, and coal. That's bad enough, but what's worse is that the response of those in charge to the existential hole that humanity finds itself in has been to literally keep digging--for more fossil fuels. In 2014, the United States announced--in triumph instead of shame--that it had become the world's leading oil producer. The future of all life on this planet is losing to the short-term opportunity for a few people to make even more money. This fact alone should make the case against capitalism a no-brainer.

DECLARING CAPITALISM to be unfit to serve humanity, however, does not automatically prove that an alternative will be any better. In fact, it is commonly assumed that socialism has been proven a failure over the last century. Some of this is convenient propaganda for defenders of the status quo, but it is certainly true that neither the "communist" dictators of Russia and China nor the mild "socialist" reformers in Sweden and France succeeded in creating the liberated democratic societies that Marx and Engels described in the Manifesto.[1]

As a result, many people who are turning against capitalism do so with the assumption that socialism is also a dead end. But socialism is the only viable alternative to this society that anybody has ever come up with, which means that anti-capitalists who reject socialism are reduced to vaguely calling for the system to be replaced with...something better. This doctrine of "something better-ism" can unite people for a time against what they don't like, but it isn't so great at pointing a positive way forward.

Despite what you sometimes hear, young people today care about the world and protest as much as any previous generation. In the years since the banks crashed in 2008 there have been uprisings in country after country, from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to Occupy Wall Street and police brutality marches across the United States. The key difference between now and the sixties is not that our marches are smaller, but that they project less confidence that we can make a better world. As badly as capitalism is screwing things up, we are not sure that we could do a better job.

Therefore we are haunted--whether we know it or not--not only by the future horrors of capitalism but by the past failures of socialism. In one of his later books, Marx writes that the defeats of generations long dead weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.[2] Yes, that's right. Karl Marx even predicted the current glut of zombie movies.

And yet despite everything, socialism is making a comeback. Polls show that socialism is more popular than capitalism among some sections of the population, which is an incredible development. Even though many people would agree with Homer Simpson's memorable declaration that "in theory communism works--in theory," they can also plainly see that capitalism is not working--in reality. But because few people have ever had the opportunity to learn what socialism means, much less be involved in a socialist organization, the word can mean almost anything to the left of slave labor camps.

Of course, this is in part due to the Republican habit of crying socialism at unemployment insurance, environmental regulations, and any other policy based on the idea that government programs should extend beyond bombing and jailing. I'm surprised some right-wing freedom lover hasn't yet held a press conference to declare traffic lights a Big Government conspiracy.[3]

AS A result, the word socialism is in the air more than it has been in generations, but with very little content, a floating piece of pink crepe paper rather than a bright red flag at the head of a demonstration. It's more of a ghost today than it was in 1848. The aim of this book is to give this specter some flesh, starting with two simple but far-reaching concepts about socialism:

1. Working people control the government.
2. The government controls the economy.

Number 2 has been the main feature of countries that call themselves socialist or communist, but without Number 1--without democracy at every level of society--state control of the economy has nothing to do with socialism. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg were all freedom fighters living under kings and dictators. They were socialists because they concluded that full democracy was impossible under capitalism. By democracy, they didn't mean having a vote on one day in November, but taking an active part in all of society's important decisions.

Because we are so used to picturing the masters of both government and economy as narrow centralized powers that rule over us from a handful of buildings, it is hard for us to picture changes in society that go beyond replacing the people in those buildings with others who are hopefully more honest and noble. Socialism wouldn't just replace those people but the system that centralizes so much power in a few buildings. It would broaden the bases of decision-making to thousands of buildings and public squares and community centers. It is a system in which the people control the government by changing what government means.

Socialists first got a glimpse of this in the 1871 revolution known as the Paris Commune, which created a new form of government in which officials were paid no more than the average worker's wage and were immediately recallable if voters were unhappy with them. "Instead of deciding once in three years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent them," Marx wrote, the Commune gave people the same ability as bosses to replace workers and managers when they weren't doing their jobs. "And it's well known that companies in matters of business generally know how to put the right man in the right place and if they make a mistake to redress it promptly."[4]

Just as democracy should exist beyond Election Day, it should also exist outside government buildings. Socialism is about giving people a say in how every aspect of their lives is run, which is not only noble but also more effective. Those of us who were lucky enough to observe and participate in Occupy Wall Street experienced a taste of this potential: committees sprang up overnight to create kitchens, libraries, beautiful art, and whatever projects anybody wanted to pursue, from supporting striking workers at Sotheby's auction house to challenging deportations in Queens and foreclosures in Brooklyn. One Occupier later wrote that "the skill and imagination on display mounted ever more as an indictment of the alienated world outside that kept us from sharing what we could do with each other, tricked us into selling our time and talents for money."[5]

ONE WAY to think about socialism is a society where there is no world outside of sharing our skills and imaginations. Imagine an Occupy Wall Street that is a thousand times larger and based in our workplaces and communities.[6] Occupy Health Care would be nurses, technicians and other medical staff, doctors, and patients taking over hospitals and clinics and deciding how they should be run. Occupy Our Food would bring together farmers, slaughterhouse and factory workers, and dieticians, ecologists, and vegans to debate out a safe, sustainable, ethnical, and enjoyable system for feeding ourselves. Soldiers on the front lines of this country's endless wars would form De-Occupy Everywhere and refuse to carry out any more deadly missions.[7]

This type of radical participatory democracy is the heart of the socialist vision. Long before there was Occupy, there were soviets. That's a word you may recognize from Russia's former official name--the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--but you probably don't know that it means workers' council. Before it lost its socialist character and became a dictatorship, the Russian Revolution was led by democratically elected soviets. These local bodies sprang up in factories, military barracks, and peasant villages across the country to conduct the revolution in their local areas and elect delegates to the regional and national soviet government.

"No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented," wrote the great socialist journalist John Reed.[8] As with the Paris Commune, delegates to the soviet could be voted out immediately by unhappy voters. Housewives, domestic servants, and other working people who didn't labor in factories could organize themselves into bodies and gain representation in the soviets. Only employers and police were excluded.

Soviets and similar bodies have popped up in many other revolutions in the past century, including in Spain in 1936. Here is how George Orwell described Barcelona that year in his thrilling Homage to Catalonia:

Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said "Señor" or "Don" or even "Usted"; everyone called everyone else "Comrade" or "Thou," and said "Salud!" instead of "Buenos dias."...And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no "well-dressed" people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

You may know George Orwell as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, which are taught in many schools as anti-socialist propaganda pieces. But Orwell himself was a socialist, who rejected dictatorships that called themselves communist, but recognized and supported the real thing when he saw it. The socialist revolutions in Russia and Spain didn't last. Neither did Occupy Wall Street. But that doesn't prove that the task of socialism is impossible any more than the history of dozens of failed slave insurrections proved that plantation slavery would never end.


1. "Communism" and "socialism" used to mean the same thing in most contexts for Marx and that's how I treat them in this book. We'll get back to this question in chapter 9.
2. The quote is from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about the 1848 revolution in Paris. It's a tough read if you don't already know the history, but with some background information it's one of the sharpest and wittiest histories of a revolution you'll ever find.
3. Sound bites from this imaginary press conference: "Where does it say anything about traffic lights in the Constitution?" "Don't tread on my treads!" "I suppose it's a coincidence that the top light just happens to be red!"
4. The idea that companies always hire the right managers is obviously false. Funny how this isn't used against Marx more often by defenders of capitalism.
5. This is from Nathan Schneider's "Thank You Anarchy." I'm less grateful than Schneider to anarchism, but I'll get into that in chapter 9.
6. Those who participated in Occupy Wall Street also know that we would have to imagine a version of the movement that created more effective structures for making democratic decisions.
7. If that sounds far-fetched to you, check out a book called Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War by David Cortright.
8. John Reed is played by Warren Beatty in the epic movie Reds. Sometimes I dream there's an epic socialist movie about me, but it always turns into a rom-com with a horrible name like Guess Who's Commie to Dinner? And I'm played by Zach Galifianakis.

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