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In a world ruined by war, poverty and oppression
Why socialism makes sense

August 31, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

TODD CHRETIEN is a member of the International Socialist Organization and the Green Party's 2006 candidate for the U.S. Senate in California. Here, he makes the case for socialism--and explains why you should be a part of the struggle for a different kind of society.

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IF YOU'RE reading this, chances are you have decided that the world is messed up.

You can't believe that George Bush is the president and you might have even bought one of those calendars that counts down the days until he's gone (511 days, 510 days, 509 days...).

You're crossing your fingers that he's not dumb enough to attack Iran, but you've learned not to bet any money against Bush doing stupid things. The first word that pops into your head whenever you see a picture of Bush rhymes with sucker.

You're pretty sure that whoever becomes president after Bush couldn't possible be worse, but you've got a sinking feeling in your stomach that the fundamentally screwed-up priorities of the system won't change much.

You probably have trouble ranking the world's biggest problems, but all of the following are on your list: the occupation of Iraq, global warming, 2 million people in U.S. prisons, women treated as less than men, the raids against immigrant families, 47 million people without health care, and corporate power run amok.

What else to read

For a book that give 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 is a new book that 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 A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.


The worst thing is that you feel like you should be doing something to change it, but the disaster seems so big that it's hard to imagine having any success.

Well, you're not alone. Millions of people feel exactly the same way.

The good news is that Bush and his pals are way up the creek without a paddle, and the Republican tide that came in after September 11 is finally receding. Every major poll shows tens of millions of Americans have left-wing opinions about Iraq, health care, abortion rights, saving the environment and union rights. Besides membership in the Bush cabinet, being a CEO is about the lousiest thing going.

The bad news is that the rich and powerful still run the media, dominate American democracy with big money, and have built enormous armies of police, prisons and spies to trample on civil liberties.

The question is: what can we do about it? Here are some ideas to start with.

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Capitalism is not natural.

For most of human beings' time on earth, people lived in small, peaceful communities where cooperation and mutual reliance were the basis for survival. That remained true for well over 100,000 years.

It's only in the last 5,000 years or so that developments in technology (first in domesticating animals and farming, then in industry, now in computers) allowed people to create more food and other products than they could use immediately. That "surplus" allowed a small minority of people to begin living off the labor of others.

In order to defend their privilege of not working and enjoying the wealth that others created, they began to build up police forces of one kind or another. From Greek and Roman slaves to Aztec peons to European serfs to modern wage workers, since the rise of the first class societies, there haven't just been rich and poor--there have been rich because there are poor.

Capitalism, which began in some small parts of Europe a few hundred years ago and has only just recently all but wiped out the last forms of local, indigenous cooperative societies, is no different than the Roman Empire--in that those who work are poor, and those who do not work are rich. Caesar would feel right at home in the U.S. Senate.

However, capitalism is different--in that ruthless and continual competition between the rich has driven technological development to heights undreamed of in earlier times. Today, a single Fortune 500 company controls more wealth than the richest Egyptian pharaoh or Chinese emperor.

In fact, capitalism has created so much wealth that there is no longer any reason for anyone on earth to go without proper food, shelter, education, health care and a fulfilling life.

This wasn't true even a hundred years ago. Before this, there were famines and plagues, because agriculture was unable to produce enough food if conditions were bad for a year or two, and medicine wasn't advanced enough to cure diseases.

Today, there are famines and plagues because the agro-business giants and the U.S. government hoard food, or pay farmers not to plant crops in order to keep prices high and profitable. Incredibly, tens of billions of our tax dollars are spent every year in order to keep the price of milk high--even as 20 percent of American children live in poverty.

The same is true with pharmaceutical companies. For instance, anti-AIDS drugs are not yet perfected, but they can radically improve the lives of those infected with HIV, and they can help prevent the virus' spread. However, the big American drug companies insist on charging patients thousands of dollars per year for these life-saving drugs.

Why? Profit.

The Brazilian government has shown that the same drugs can be produced for about 10 percent of the price that the American companies charge, but the American companies use international laws about "private property" and "copyright infringement" to keep those cheap drugs off the world market.

Every year, the United Nations reports that roughly 6 million children under the age of five die due to malnourishment and/or easily preventable diseases, mostly spread by dirty drinking water. In other words, every year, capitalism carries out a children's Holocaust through neglect and greed.

And it is all perfectly legal. George Bush may be thick as a brick, but generally speaking, the people who run Corporate America have developed ingenious ways to protect their position.

Racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-immigrant scapegoating are just a few of the means they have at their disposal. The corporate media and the mainstream political parties push these ideas for all they're worth.

For instance, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, most Americans opposed the war. In order to start the war, Bush and his Republican gang, as well as the majority of leading Democrats, along with Fox News and even the New York Times, had to create and then repeat bald-faced lies over and over and over again: weapons of mass destruction, Saddam and al-Qaeda, Muslims are irrational, etc. Just like in George Orwell's 1984, they turn the truth into its opposite.

Just look at how the mainstream media is treating Michael Moore's new movie Sicko. CNN actually broadcast a whole report attacking Moore's movie as "propaganda," even while it accepts millions of dollars in advertising money from the same HMOs criticized in the film! So much for "objective journalism."

They use similar strategies for whipping up sexism, homophobia and racism. Unfortunately, all too often, they are successful in--as the great African American abolitionist Fredrick Douglas put it--"dividing both to conquer each."

In other words, the powers that be convince people to hate members of other racial or ethnic groups, or degrade women, or blame immigrants for the lack of good jobs--so they don't finger at the real culprits who exploit and oppress all of us.

Basically, capitalism is an unfair system that puts profits before people. You'd be surprised how many people are perfectly aware of this--which is why the elite have to spend so much time and effort keeping our minds off it.

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Is change possible?

Okay, you say. I already agreed, the system sucks. But can it really be changed?

From before the time of Jesus, since we have written records, we know that people don't like to be treated like dirt. They tolerate it for longer or shorter periods of time, but eventually, inequality gives rise to struggle.

Spartacus led a slave revolt against Rome; millions of desperately poor French peasants overthrew their king; 100,000 ex-slaves joined the Union Army to help defeat the slave South; women all over the world fought for and won the right to vote; Jews from the Warsaw ghetto rose up against the Nazis; and the Palestinian people refuse to accept occupation.

Like every country in the world, American history is the history of struggle against the rich and powerful for a better society. Often, those struggles are defeated, but any progress we celebrate today "towards a more perfect union" owes itself to the fact that some of those struggles won important, if partial or temporary, victories.

For example, as bad as racism is today, the only reason that slavery was abolished at all was because of the Civil War.

As pathetically low as it is today, the only reason we have a minimum wage is because millions of workers joined unions and fought against corporate greed.

As disgusting as sexism remains, the only reason that abortion remains legal (if just barely) and millions of women go to college and work in every type of job is because women (and men) stood up to demand equality.

And the only reason George Bush hasn't already invaded Iran (and probably Venezuela and several other countries) is because the people of Iraq have risen to defend their national sovereignty, U.S. soldiers are beginning to speak out, and millions of Americans have taken to the streets to hold him back.

But there's a funny thing about how the fight for reforms in the U.S. are explained to us in history class. Even though it was almost always the case that radicals were at the heart of organizing for social justice, and only mass actions won any gains, we're taught that liberal politicians deserve the credit--and, in fact, that radical ideas and organizations only alienated people.

For example, today, we learn that the media and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party eventually turned against the Vietnam War in 1968, and that's why Nixon decided to start withdrawing troops in 1972. It's common today to hear that the antiwar movement in the 1960s was "too radical" and scared people away.

The reality is that socialists, revolutionary Black nationalists and radicals of all sorts were at the core of the mass movements of the 1960s, including the antiwar movement. They insisted that, as Muhammad Ali put it, "I have no quarrel with the Vietnamese" and that the real enemy was at home, and they built a powerful movement that scared the politicians into taking action.

At the end of the day, the real problem wasn't that the movement was too radical, but that it wasn't radical and powerful enough. It ended the war, but it left the system that caused the war intact. Now, 30 years later, as the saying goes, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.

Today, millions of people oppose the war in Iraq. Even if the Democrats in Congress won't act to end the war, we have to figure out how to get those people into the streets. We have to publicize the growing resistance in the U.S. military, and we have to make it plain--as Ali did about Vietnam--that we have no right to occupy Iraq.

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What do socialists have to offer?

Adopting the socialist understanding that the root cause of the problems we face is the division of the world by capitalism into rich and poor doesn't automatically solve any of those problems.

However, it does give you a general framework to understand who is to blame. It points you away from strategies that rely on the good intentions of the wealthy and the powerful for solutions. And it points you toward organizing strategies that stress the potential for ordinary people to stand up and fight for themselves.

Karl Marx once defined socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. What he meant was that genuine radical change can only come from mass struggle.

This is necessary because the ruling elite will never voluntarily give up their power. And because only direct participation in their own liberation will give millions of people the opportunity to learn how to overcome the racist, sexism, homophobic and nationalist divisions that capitalism places among them.

No politician or bureaucrat or great leader can substitute for the working class fighting for itself.

Of course, having this long-term view in mind doesn't for a moment mean that socialists sit around waiting for the revolution. In fact, most of what we do is to work alongside people who don't believe that socialism is possible or even desirable, but who nonetheless want to fight for concrete reforms in the here and now.

We do this for two reasons. First, we want to unite with everyone who wants to fight for a better world in the here and now--be it ending the war, bringing solidarity to strikes, stopping executions and so on. Socialists believe that unity in action is the best way to win these concrete reforms.

At the same time, we want to try to convince people we work alongside that the only way to win lasting social and economic justice and to end war and racism for good is to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a socialist system based on workers' democracy. We need to put people before profits.

The last thing to say about socialist ideas is they aren't worth a nickel unless they are put into practice.

Given that we're not holding our breath for Bill Gates to make huge donations to our movement, the only thing we have going for us is organization. It's a simple fact that combining our efforts helps to amplify the voice for radical change.

While we believe that only mass actions can challenge the power of the system, we also know that most movements in history have started with a committed minority of organizers. The point isn't to form an organization separate from the movement, but rather to pool our resources, experience and energy to involve as many other people as we can, and to challenge the political influence of the mass media and mainstream politicians.

We have a long fight ahead of us.

Despite the horror in Iraq, Bush might well attack Iran and spread the war. The economy looks like it's headed for a recession that will mean terrible suffering. Racism and sexism poisons our society.

It feels like things are starting to change, but nothing happens automatically. Every person who decides to dedicate themselves to fighting for peace and justice--especially in a time when all too few people have taken that step--can make a big difference.

So as you look forward to Bush's village recovering its idiot, consider coming to ISO meetings, reading our publications, talking to our activists, or joining us in the streets.

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