Another world is worth getting organized for

September 16, 2015

To be effective as a socialist, you can’t stand apart—you need to be part of a collective.

BERNIE SANDERS surprised many in the corporate media with his early success in the endless presidential election season. Not only is Sanders not backed by Wall Street--but he calls himself a socialist, which has long been a no-no in the so-called land of the free.

Actually, socialism has been losing its forbidden status for a while. Opinion polls in recent years have shown that among people in their 20s, the poor of all ages, and African Americans and Latinos in particular, socialism is viewed more favorably than capitalism. Two years ago, Kshama Sawant--a far more radical socialist than Sanders--won a highly publicized City Council election in Seattle.

The reasons why socialism is becoming less taboo in recent years are as clear as the news headlines: banks destroying the world economy, racist scapegoating and violence against Black people and immigrants, the continuing destruction of planetary ecosystems necessary for our very survival, to name but a few.

The previous generation was raised on the idea that socialism was a failure, based on the experience of countries that called themselves communist or socialist. The conclusion was summed up in the slogan "There is no alternative" that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used so often to brush off criticisms of her conservative policies, it became known by the acronym TINA.

ISO members rally for justice at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington
ISO members rally for justice at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

But TINA is being rejected by millions of people living through the obvious and multiple failures of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street and now Black Lives Matter have inspired people not only with their defiance in the streets, but the insistence that the whole system needs to be changed.

Around the world, the same mood of unrest has produced revolutions (and counterrevolutions) in the Middle East, radical new parties of the left (and of the right) in Europe, and record numbers of strikes in China.

But there is another side to the story. More people in the U.S. may be open to socialism than at any time in recent memory, but the number of them who are members of socialist organizations actively working towards getting rid of capitalism is still very small. It's time for that to change.

SOCIALISM IS a more distant goal than the immediate demands of many protest movements, but it is important to understand that everything we fight for today is connected to the failures of capitalism and the need for a new kind of society.

The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, may have erupted last year in response to police abuse and violence, but just by asserting the idea that the lives of all Black people should matter, the struggle confronts an economic order that has relied on racism throughout its history--as a justification for slavery 200 years ago and as a means of keeping workers divided today.

Similarly, activists trying to curb climate change face the fact that dozens of scientific reports detailing the disastrous consequences of fossil fuel extraction aren't enough to force those in power to reject an economic model that puts short-term profits ahead of long-term well-being and even survival.

Historically, socialists have been some of the most effective protest organizers because their anti-capitalist vision has kept them from accepting the logic of TINA and lowering their sights to whatever is deemed "realistic."

To be similarly effective today, we need more revolutionary socialists--and not just inside movements, but everywhere else: in classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods, helping to organize wider layers of people into a force for change.

Legendary rapper Boots Riley recently talked about how power--specifically, working-class power--is the missing ingredient in many protest movements today:

So we call these things demonstrations, right? Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down, this is a bunch of people on the street. It's only a demonstration, it's not the actual thing that we're going to do. It's just the threat.

But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, [the protest itself] was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that's what you had to do...All you have to do is get in the streets, and we'll shame the people in power.

Riley was pointing to the revolutionary heart of socialism--a different brand of socialism than the one practiced by Bernie Sanders, as he seeks the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

Our brand of socialism understands that the people running this world into the ground will never be shamed into changing their disastrous system--but working people, if they can unite and fight together, have the potential to create a better one. This is true not only because workers have the power to shut down industry, but because they have the ability to transform the whole economic system into something that is democratic and sustainable, rather than a heartless machine that only cares about profit.

Of course, there are other versions of socialism. Sanders' goal is not to overturn capitalism, but to make it more bearable by passing whatever laws the corrupt two-party system will allow. Then there's the ruling Communist Party of China, for whom socialism simply means heavy government control over the most rapidly expanding capitalist economy in the world (at least until recently).

These versions of socialism are the opposite of the vision put forward by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto and encapsulated in the first rule of the International Workingmen's Association they helped to form: "That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

That vision is a vision of socialism-from-below, to use the memorable phrase coined by the American socialist Hal Draper in the 1960s. It can't come about on behalf of workers through the actions of an elite, even if it has good intentions.

"I do not want you to follow me or anyone else," declared the great union organizer and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs. "If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out."

For Debs, as for Marx and Engels and for groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO, the publisher of this website), the only way to win socialism is for millions of working people, students, and the oppressed to become socialist leaders themselves, all of them consciously fighting for a revolutionary future.

TO BE an effective socialist, you need to be a part of a collective, and not just because thousands of people can get more things done than one individual.

Organization is also necessary because those thousands all come to socialism with their own life experiences and ideas, which need to be brought together, through democratic procedures designed to encourage discussion and debate, to come up with the best possible theories of understanding the world and strategies for changing it. In the same way, education and training can be passed on, so new activists are turned into socialist leaders.

Some people believe that by not joining an organization, they maintain their "independence." But we are all impacted every day by the terrible education we receive from life under capitalism--in school, at work, in our daily lives. Unless it's countered, these ideas and experiences shape what we think and how we approach the world in ways we don't even realize. Getting organized with other socialists who can challenge all the prejudices and misinformation perpetuated in society is one of the best ways to foster real independence--and leadership--in all those settings.

For those who underestimate the importance of political education, discussion and debate, it can be puzzling why socialists spend so much time tending to our own organizations. But having a methodically developed infrastructure is what allows socialist groups to avoid watering down our politics to be acceptable to some version of the status quo--and to organize productive discussions free from the poison often encountered in other forums, including online.

We encourage you to be a part of the ISO--not as the final conclusion you draw, but as one of the first decisions you make about where you want to get a political education.

Thanks to Bernie Sanders; thanks to the crisis of capitalism; thanks to the countless struggles, large and small, that we encounter in the world today; there's a hint of socialism in the air. That's a good start, but now we have to build the forces on the ground to make socialism a realistic alternative to a capitalism system that proven itself a dismal failure.

Further Reading

From the archives