What we mean by socialism

October 29, 2009

Ian Steinman spoke out about the meaning of socialism and the struggle to achieve it at a meeting titled "Socialism: What it is and why we need it" sponsored by the International Socialist Organization in Santa Cruz, Calif.

AS MANY of you have no doubt witnessed, the word "socialism" has returned to the forefront of the American political debate. Newsweek had a front cover declaring "We Are All Socialists," the Nation magazine had a forum on what socialism is today, and even the New York Times had a discussion on the meaning of the word.

Socialism, depending on who you're talking to, can mean anything from the bureaucratic dictatorship of the Soviet Union, to the social reforms of Western Europe, to even, in the case of people like those in Glenn Beck's "9/12" movement, a guttural curse word to be spat at every policy deviating slightly from the reactionary cesspool from which they emerged.

What I, an actual living socialist, will advance tonight as socialism differs fundamentally from all of these, and is the definition of socialism which stands in the revolutionary, self-emancipatory tradition of Marxism--a tradition which takes as it's foundation that it is those who work and produce and farm and create who are responsible for all the wealth in the world, and that it is they, not an elite of the super-rich or a bureaucratic clique, that have the right and power to take and manage the world's resources in society's interests.

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However, this idea--that people should be able to come together to democratically decide their future as a community, as a county, city, nation and ultimately species--one which seems on the surface so self-evident, is one which is completely at odds with the capitalist system under which we live today.

DESCRIBING CAPITALISM to us today can seem almost like describing water to fish--it so permeates our existence as to be almost invisible and is presupposed in every dominant form of discourse. Yet this was not always so. Capitalism is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon in the scope of human history.

Capitalism was born in fits of world-shaking violence out of the old feudal society. It emerged on a foundation of the extermination of aboriginal lives and cultures the world over.

As the Spanish galleons hauled off the gold of two ravaged continents, capitalism was beginning to crawl forth from the womb. As millions of African slaves, ripped from their families, were made to suffer unspeakable indignities, as they shed their blood and tears and anguish, capitalism drank deep its violent sustenance and grew. As nations from Egypt to India to China were exploited under the yoke of European colonialism, capitalism took its first steps and prepared for the epoch of its reign.

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.

With the blood money of countless atrocities, the accumulated misery of most of the world's population, were built the looms and engines and factories which would constitute private property. Industrialization, then in its ruthless efficiency, swept away all the old modes of production, the small farmers and the artisans, building from their expropriation a growing class of those left with nothing to sell but their labor--their time, in essence, their very lives--for nothing more than the ability to continue living, a working class living in a condition of wage slavery.

Capitalism is, in essence, this relationship--this process in which the vast majority of the human race is compelled in order to maintain their existence to sign over control of how, and for what, their existence counts to an elite of owners.

Yet even this is not the full extent of capitalism's tyranny over humanity, for even the capitalists do not have control over what they do.

There can be no appeal to their individual generosity or humanity, because every concession they make to any value besides the bottom line is something which strengthens their competition, which makes them less able to invest or pay off shareholders, and which buries them beneath the weight of the marketplace. What they have, workers produce, and what they pay workers, how they organize the factory, and how many workers they hire is all determined by the dictatorship of the market.

We live under capitalism in an absurd condition, under which in the name of "liberty" and "freedom," we spend most of our lives subjected to the boss' dictatorship in the workplace, in which the bosses are subjected to the dictatorship of the market, in which in sum, humanity is subjected to the yoke of the inhumane, in which the Frankenstein of the market let loose by our accumulated suffering rules over us all and restrains us from achieving any measure of genuine freedom.

SOCIALISM IS the reasonable and necessary answer to this absurdity.

Throughout history, capitalism, through its basic inhumanity and through the economic crises which are endemic to it, has bred resistance to the system spearheaded by the working class, which is simultaneously both the most exploited and potentially the most powerful force in society.

It is through the strikes and protests--through the shutdown of factories or ports or university campuses--that labor is able to wring concessions from capital. It was by fighting and not by begging, through mass protests and general strikes which shook the system, that we won the weekend, the 40-hour work week, and all the benefits of the New Deal.

Yet although these reforms are important and valuable, they do not provide a lasting solution to the problem. Though concessions may be made here and there, as a whole, any protest which does not threaten the system, does not plan to go beyond it, will ultimately be rendered helpless, and the reforms which they won will slowly but surely be taken back.

The past 30 years have been a perfect example of this--though worker productivity has soared and the economy has grown, real wages have actually decreased, and the average person is worse off now than they were in the 1970s.

Today, a 40-hour workweek seems like a dream to many Americans forced to work multiple full-time jobs, and every attempt to organize a union or fight for better wages is met with the threat of outsourcing or liquidation.

Reforms on a local, individual scale are harder than ever to achieve and hold, the scope of what common sense will deem possible is being increasingly reduced to where a decent existence becomes an impossible demand. And it is when the people's demands go beyond the reforms that the establishment deems acceptable, when what is humanly necessary goes beyond what business is willing to concede, that the real struggle emerges.

There have been many times in history when this struggle has broken out in ways which shook the world and forced the world's rich to hold their collective breath. In 1871, the Paris Commune rose up as the first democratic workers' government in history, and gave one tremendous historical example of what is possible, before it was crushed by the French and Prussian armies.

In Russia in 1917, for a few short years, the soviets--Russian for councils--ruled and began to sweep away all of capitalism's refuse, beginning to abolish sexism, racism and homophobia in ways which, a hundred years on, we have not achieved under capitalist democracy. This revolution, too, was strangled, from without, by more than a dozen invading armies, including the United States, and from within by a growing new bureaucratic class.

Other glimpses of revolution occurred in Germany in 1919, France in 1968, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1980. In all of these, a new power emerged to challenge the old state in the form of workers' councils--bodies of elected, recallable workers' delegates who began to take control of the industries, the productive forces of our society and run them democratically.

These workers' councils are a genuine participatory democracy, in which all delegates are accountable to those they represent and actually have the power to shape society and human destiny. It is not merely another form of democracy, but a qualitatively different organization of the state, in which the dictatorship of the minority in the interest of capital is finally supplanted by the rule of the majority in the interests of humanity.

They are powerful examples of what is possible, and ones in the face of which the old state inevitably vacillates between extreme violence and resignation to defeat, attempting to exterminate them by force, and failing that, being rendered impotent with the knowledge that the consent of the governed has abandoned them--that a new power has arisen, that a truly mass revolution has begun to cast them and all their petty ideological illusions into the same refuse pile into which they cast the kings and queens of old.

Workers' councils are the real embryo of a socialist society. Socialism exists only in the mass uprising and seizure of power by the working class, for the working class, on a world scale--one which renders the attempts of a minority to institute counter-revolution like those forced on all previous revolutions impossible.

Everything else, the parodies of Marxism-Leninism that exist in China and North Korea, the attempts of a select elite to conspiratorially institute utopian society from above, the attempts to expand the revolution by the bayonets of an army or the attempts to lobby bought-off legislatures in the name of a working class that is left passive--these are all dead ends which have not and cannot emancipate humanity from the chains which bind it.

YOU MAY say, and you would be justified in doing so, that this all sounds very good, but the reality we are presented with makes this all seem so unrealistic in the face of present conditions, class consciousness and struggle that is nowhere near these levels. There certainly aren't any workers' councils forming today, and so many previous struggles against the state have ended in defeat that we should expect a similar fate for future ones.

And you would in some ways be right, if we were to confine ourselves to passively waiting for spontaneous action--if we were to act as mere observers waiting for our specific theoretical predictions to be proven true, we would be waiting forever.

Yet we are not here having this meeting so a few more can become enlightened about the inevitable. We are here because to bring about this new form of society, we need to build the kind of organization that can act to make revolutionary situations a reality and that can provide the leadership in them to push the struggle forward to victory.

Every supposedly spontaneous action is in reality the culmination of years of built-up grievances, agitation and propaganda, of small struggles here and there providing examples of the way forward. An earthquake does not occur out of nowhere--it is the product of years, decades of stress, building and building until finally a small movement sets loose world-shaking consequences. Similarly, in every great spontaneous upheaval of the masses, the patient work of organized socialists working within the movement for years played an essential role in bringing it about.

As we enter a new age of crisis and turbulence, we will need this kind of organization more than ever.

We need an organization that unites militants from across different arenas of struggle, union work, LGBT rights, antiwar organizing, immigrants rights--the whole spectrum of struggles against injustice which face working-class people.

We need an organization in which these people come together to critically examine their experiences--to compare and contrast and vigorously debate how to move things forward, how to mobilize people around immediate demands and unify the struggles in ways which point out the contradictions and injustices inherent to the system as a whole.

Only an organization which is welded together by vigorous democratic debate and unified dedication to action can provide a strong enough challenge to capitalism to achieve real gains and ultimate victory for the working class.

This is the organization that we in the ISO are seeking to build, and one which if you share our vision of what a just society needs to look like, you should join us in building.

Socialism is, in summary, a system and an idea that takes as its foundation that people should be able to democratically come together to determine how and for what people work--to meet human needs and structure our resources and our society in such a way as to allow for every individual to reach their real potential. It is people coming together to take back their lives from the inhumane forces which control them.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it best when he said: "The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces--in nature, in society, in man himself."

Everywhere around us, we see the havoc blind forces are wreaking on our educations, our health, our livelihoods, and the havoc they wreak through the whole world with wars and starvation and exploitation. The question I pose to you is this: Will you take action and step up to the historic task of building the organizations and movements that will make that next great victory of consciousness and triumph of human potential over human misery a reality?

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