THE CASE FOR SOCIALISM

by ALAN MAASS, editor, Socialist Worker

Human need, not corporate greed

Socialism is based on the idea that we should use the vast resources of society to meet people’s needs.

It seems so obvious--if people are hungry, they should be fed; if people are homeless, we should build homes for them; if people are sick, the best medical care should be available to them. A socialist society would take the immense wealth of the rich and use it to meet the basic needs of all society. The money wasted on weapons could be used to end poverty, homelessness, and all other forms of scarcity.

There’s no blueprint for what a socialist society will look like. That will be determined by the generations to come who are living in one. But it seems obvious that such a society would guarantee every person enough to eat and a sturdy roof over their heads. The education system would be made free--and reorganized so that every child’s ability is encouraged. Health care would be made free and accessible to all, as would all utilities like gas and electricity. Public transportation would also be made free--and more practical and efficient. All of these basic needs would become top priorities.

A socialist society would not only take away the existing wealth of the ruling class, but also its economic control over the world. The means of production--the factories, offices, mines, and so on--would be owned by all of society. Under the current system, important economic decisions are left to the chaos of the free market and to the blind competition of capitalists scrambling for profits. Under socialism, the majority of people would plan democratically what to do and how do it.

Not surprisingly, socialist ideas bring loud complaints from defenders of the capitalist system. Most come down to the same thing: Public ownership and planning would involve a bunch of bureaucrats ordering people around and telling them what they should want.

It’s a ridiculous accusation when you consider that the majority of people under capitalism have no meaningful choices about the things that matter the most in their lives--what they do at work and how they do it, what they can buy, how they spend the bulk of their time. These decisions are made in the corporate boardrooms, in the Oval Office, in the judges’ chambers--without anyone’s input.

Socialist planning would involve the exact opposite of this: the widest possible debate and discussion about what’s needed in society and how to achieve it. Instead of leaving decisions about what gets produced and how to a handful of executives, all workers would have a voice in what they do at their workplace. And larger bodies of democratically elected representatives would be able to fully discuss overall social priorities.

If a socialist society mistakenly produced too much of one product, the extra could be given away and resources shifted into making something else. When capitalists make this kind of mistake, factories are shut down, workers are thrown onto the street, food is destroyed to push up prices, and so on. Socialism would put an end to this absurd waste.

In order for planning to work, a socialist society must be democratic--much more so than the current system. Democracy and capitalism don’t really go hand in hand. In fact, repressive dictatorships run many so-called models of the free market in less developed countries. Even in countries that brag about how democratic they are, democracy is limited to electing representatives to government every two or four years.

Unfortunately, the record of the former USSR, China, and other so-called socialist countries has created the impression that socialism is a top-down society run by party bosses. This has nothing to do with genuine socialism--or, for that matter, with the whole experience of working-class struggle. Socialism will be democratic in a more fundamental way.

There were many revolutionary upheavals during the twentieth century--Russia in 1917, Spain in the 1930s, Iran in 1979, to mention only a few--and each one created a similar system for the majority in society to make decisions about the organization and priorities of the struggle. Each time, democracy revolved around a system of workers’ councils--representative bodies elected from workplaces. All of the different examples of workers’ councils over the years have shared common features: the ability of workers to immediately recall elected representatives; wages for representatives no higher than those of the people they represent; elections at mass meetings rather than in isolated voting booths.

We can’t predict the exact form of workers’ councils in a socialist society. What is important is the democratic principle that these bodies have represented in past struggles. The basic principle common to all revolutions is that representatives must be held accountable to those they represent. This can only be accomplished if discussion and argument thrive in every corner of society--and if representatives are responsible to the outcomes of those discussions. Such a system would be many times more democratic than what currently exists.

The heart of socialism is equality. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels summed up its aim with a simple slogan: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."

This basic concept infuriates the bosses and their ideologues. They reject the idea of a society without power and privilege for a small group. They complain that under socialism, everyone would be paid the same amount. This is true. Roughly speaking, people would receive the same thing--there’s no reason for it to work any other way.

"Aha!" comes the response. "You’d pay a brain surgeon the same as you’d pay a truck driver! Then no one would put in the work to become a brain surgeon."

Such a statement is telling about the priorities of capitalist society--that the only reason people would try to heal the sick is for money. Without financial incentive, the logic goes, no one will pursue work that requires a lot of education, training, and skill.

What a travesty! Socialism would be about giving people the opportunity to do what they really want. It would encourage them to become doctors, scientists, artists, or anything else they might desire--unlike now, where people’s access to education is limited by their access to cash.

Capitalism actually stifles people’s creativity. Only a minority of people are asked to put their minds to the running of society--and most of them do it for the purpose of making themselves richer, not for achieving any common good.

We would use our technological knowledge to eliminate boring or dangerous jobs as much as possible--and share out equally the tasks we couldn’t automate. The goal would be to free all people to do the work they love--and to give them the leisure time to enjoy the wonders of the world around them.

Imagine what society would be like if it mattered what ordinary people thought--if it mattered what an assembly line worker thought about the pace of work and whether it was necessary or what a hospital worker thought about the availability of medical resources and how to use those resources. That’s a world where people would become fully alive in a way they never will under capitalism.

Can the system be fixed?

The basic idea of socialism--that the resources of society should be used to meet people’s needs--seems like the simplest of proposals. The more difficult question is how to achieve it. How can society be transformed?

In high school civics class, the textbooks explain that political change takes place "through the system." The U.S. government represents the "will of the people," we’re taught, and people who want to "make a difference" should use the democratic process--by working for political candidates they like and maybe even running for office themselves.

But to judge from the 2000 election, the chances of "making a difference" aren’t too good. The main qualification for a serious candidate for president, for example, had nothing to do with "political vision" or any of the overblown phrases thrown around in the media. Instead, it was the candidate’s ability to raise outrageous sums of money from wealthy donors. George W. Bush got the jump on the other candidates. By the beginning of 2000, almost a year before the election, he had raked in $67 million--three times the existing record set by Bill Clinton in 1996.Republicans have always been better than Democrats at getting money from rich donors, but the Democrats regularly rake in big bucks from corporations. And there are plenty of players who give money to both sides. During the 1992 election, for instance, Atlantic Richfield, Archer Daniels Midland, RJR Nabisco, Philip Morris, and the Tobacco Institute all gave more than $100,000 to both parties.

During the 1998 election campaign, contributions to the major parties hit a record $1.6 billion. Business gave 63 percent of the cash--compared to less than 3 percent from unions, which are regularly denounced by Republicans as trying to control Washington. Election 2000 was no different: From the presidential race on down, the important contests were all but decided by a special class of voters--the millionaires who voted with their checkbooks.

Big business doesn’t give away all that money for the hell of it. They expect something in return. A few years ago, Republican House leaders were caught allowing business lobbyists to actually write the legislation that gutted environmental regulations. Within months of taking office, George W. Bush was in hot water for letting his oil industry pals set energy policy for the nation. Even if most politicians aren’t so brazen, this is basically how things are done in Washington.

Of course, money aside, a politician can’t win an election without the votes of ordinary people. This is why candidates campaign on how they’ll improve people’s lives. But this is a fraud. Politicians under capitalism are the public face of a system set up for the rich. Their job is to say one thing to the majority of the population, then to do another for those they really serve. You don’t need to look any further than Bill Clinton’s presidency for a prime example of this.

After 12 years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, Bill Clinton was a breath of fresh air to millions of people. He promised "change." He promised to "put people first." He promised universal health care. He promised to fight discrimination against gays and lesbians, to fight racism, and to defend a woman’s right to choose. He also promised labor unions that he would ban the permanent replacement of striking workers.

But Clinton began to break his promises even before taking office. Within months, most of his promised agenda had disappeared. We ended up with "don’t ask, don’t tell" for gays in the military, for instance, and he didn’t lift a finger as legislation to ban the use of scabs during strikes went down to defeat in the Senate--which was controlled at the time by the Democrats. He took two years to screw up health care reform, compromising on one provision after another in the hope of staying on the good side of the health care bosses. And this was only the beginning.

Clinton signed into law legislation that Ronald Reagan or George Bush could only dream of. In 1995, Clinton agreed to a proposal to balance the federal budget that required across-the-board spending cuts. Departments like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency suffered the consequences. And the next year, Clinton signed the Republican Party’s version of welfare "reform." Clinton promised to pursue bipartisanship--a code word for more "lite" versions of Republican proposals.

Politicians like Bill Clinton are a dime a dozen. The only characteristic that distinguishes Clinton is the skill with which he talked out of both sides of his mouth.

Politicians claim they’re answerable to "the people." But they’re really answerable to the bosses who control U.S. society. President Woodrow Wilson admitted as much at the beginning of the twentieth century:

Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce…. The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.

Nearly a century later, Wilson’s words ring as true as ever. Both of the main political parties in the U.S. are run in the interests of those who control the purse strings--and they, overwhelmingly, are the bosses.

Of course, Republicans and Democrats aren’t exactly alike. On any given issue, most Republicans are likely to be more conservative than most Democrats, but the differences between the two parties are minor in comparison to the fundamental similarities that unite them.

Nevertheless, these differences are important in terms of how the two parties are seen by most people. It’s been many years since anyone thought of the Republicans as anything other than the party of big business. But the Democrats have the reputation as the party of the people--the mainstream party that looks out for the interests of labor and minorities.

The truth is quite different.

The Democratic Party’s image dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. These reforms laid the basis for many of the programs that we associate with the federal government today--like Social Security and unemployment insurance. These reforms were important victories, and it’s no wonder that workers look back on the politicians associated with them as friends of labor.

That’s now how Roosevelt thought of himself, however. "[T]hose who have property [fail] to realize that I am the best friend the profit system ever had," Roosevelt said. In fact, Roosevelt carried out the New Deal reforms as a conscious effort to head off a social revolt sparked by the Great Depression. In return, he got labor’s votes--cementing the labor movement’s misplaced loyalty to the Democrats, which lasts to this day.

The Democrats played much the same role during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson today have an entirely unearned reputation as antiracists because they eventually supported some civil rights reforms. But they had to be dragged into it. Kennedy did his best to ignore the growing civil rights movement in the U.S. South, and it was only after the Black struggle grew to explosive proportions that Johnson--a Southern Democrat with a long record of opposing civil rights--pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two key pieces of 1960s civil rights legislation.

The Democrats succeeded in co-opting a number of leaders of social movements, eventually putting them in the position of managing the system. For example, in the late 1960s, the Democratic Party--once the party of Southern slavery--opened its doors to Black politicians. The number of Black elected officials shot up to more than 10,000. Most major U.S. cities have had an African American mayor for some period of time. But these politicians--elected with the hope that they would challenge racism--have carried out the same attacks. They’ve ended up imposing the cuts in social services and defending racist police.

But, in spite of their record, at every election the Democrats have been able to count on their reputation as champions of workers and the poor. Consider the fact that Bill Clinton--after all of his broken promises--had the uninterrupted support of organized labor and liberal organizations. In fact, these groups at various times disarmed opposition to Clinton’s policies. On the eve of Clinton’s signing of welfare reform legislation in August 1996, Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, called off a planned demonstration in Washington, D.C., at the urging of the White House.

In fact, the bosses got away with welfare reform without much of a fight at all. That’s because the liberal organizations that could have organized a response insisted that it was more important to stand behind Clinton for fear of getting something worse--a Republican victory in the 1996 election.

This is a perfect example of the politics of "lesser evilism." The argument--which emerges at every election--is that people should hold their noses and vote Democrat to avoid the greater evil of a Republican victory. The problem is that in voting for the lesser evil, you usually get the lesser and the greater evil. Bill Clinton is a case in point. He certainly talked a better game than George Bush or Bob Dole, but in office, he enacted legislation that could have come from their playbooks. So, though the "lesser evil" won in 1992 and 1996, the Republican agenda--getting "tough on crime," enforcing "fiscal responsibility," gutting the social safety net--took center stage.

Politicians won’t make any concessions to our side if they know we’re in their back pockets. If they think they can take the support of liberal organizations for granted, then they’ll sign laws like welfare reform without a second thought--on the assumption that they can win a few more votes in the next election by appealing to the right.

That’s why we need an independent alternative to the twin parties of capitalism.

The limits of reform

Not every country that calls itself a democracy is dominated by two political parties that stand for capitalism.

Most countries of Western Europe have mass parties associated with the labor movement--and by the late 1990s, these parties were running the governments in France, Germany, Britain, and elsewhere.

So would we come closer to socialism in the U.S. if we could vote for a political party that stood for the working class rather than the capitalist class? Such a party would certainly be an advance over what exists now, but ultimately, socialism can’t come through the ballot box.

We’re encouraged to believe that government stands above society--that it’s the negotiator between competing groups like employers and workers. But this is an illusion. Governments in capitalist societies are tools of the ruling class. One reason for this has already been shown--that the bosses have a lot bigger say in what our elected representatives decide to do--but there’s more to the question.

Governments consist of much more than elected representatives. Bureaucrats--who aren’t answerable in any way to the rest of society--make crucial decisions affecting people’s lives. Then there’s the judicial side of the U.S. government. Federal judges all the way up to the Supreme Court never face an election. And standing beyond all this are what Frederick Engels called "bodies of armed men"--the police and the army. Formally, the Pentagon may be answerable to elected politicians. But, in reality, it’s a power unto itself.

Because of this, even politicians with every intention of "making a difference" find that rather than pulling the levers of power, the levers of power pull them. They end up managing the system they expected to change.

Suppose that you were elected president and were determined to impose a tax on the rich to pay for a system of universal health care. Within minutes of taking office, you would get a visit from your appointed treasury secretary and the chair of the government’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, whom you didn’t pick. They would tell you that Wall Street wanted nothing to do with your plan unless you compromised. If you persisted, the bosses would take further action--perhaps sending their money out of the country so it couldn’t be taxed and causing turbulence on the financial markets until you cried "uncle."

The "realistic" response of politicians is to make concessions--to try to find some arrangement that’s acceptable to all sides. But when this becomes the priority, politics turns into the art of compromise instead of a campaign to accomplish something. And pressure to compromise shapes the plans and outlook of the people trying to make change in a system rigged against them.

Beyond all of these considerations, many of the most important decisions about people’s lives have nothing to do with decisions made by elected officials or government bureaucrats. For example, no politician voted for the tens of thousands of layoffs happening around the U.S. The only people who had a say in that decision are company executives--answerable, if at all, to the tiny handful of people rich enough to own a significant chunk of the company’s stock.

This is why the system can’t be reformed. Elected representatives are only one part of government under capitalism. And in a number of tragic examples in countries around the world, they’ve turned out to be a dispensable part--when sections of the ruling class have decided to ditch democracy and rule by brute force.

Chile provides the most famous example of this. The socialist Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 on a fairly mild program of reform that included nationalizing parts of the economy. Many people took this as a sign that socialism could be voted into existence. But for the next three years, Chile’s bosses--and their international partners, especially in the U.S.--did everything they could to sabotage Allende. They succeeded in forcing him to compromise, but even this wasn’t good enough. When the time was ripe, Chile’s generals made their move--launching a bloody coup that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Chilean workers.

The truth is that even if they aren’t bought off, politicians don’t have the power to make the kind of change that would really transform society. Instead of trying to elect well-intentioned politicians to make what changes they can, we need to overturn the whole system. That is what a revolution is all about: taking away the power of the people at the top of society to make unaccountable decisions that affect our lives; getting rid of a state machine that is organized to preserve this power; and organizing a completely different and more democratic system of workers’ councils to decide how society should be run.

This doesn’t mean that socialists don’t care about reforms. In fact, outside of revolutionary upheavals, socialists spend most of their efforts mobilizing pressure to win changes in the existing system. Reforms make workers lives easier and increase their power in the here and now. And they make people more confident in the struggle to win further change. As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing social order, our final goal, to social reforms?

Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to [socialists] the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal--the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists…an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.

Socialists fight for reforms, but reforms by themselves aren’t enough. They can always be taken back if the movement retreats. We need revolution because capitalist society can’t be permanently changed in any other way.

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress"

Socialists who talk about the need for a revolution in order to fundamentally change society are often accused of being unrealistic and utopian. The argument starts in different ways--people are bought off by the system, they’re made stupid by television and popular culture, the U.S. government is too powerful to challenge. But it always ends with the question: How can a revolution ever take place in the U.S.?

Actually, the question isn’t whether a revolution can take place in the United States. The question is whether another revolution can take place.

In a little more than two centuries, the U.S. has had two revolutions. The first, in 1776, overthrew colonial rule by Britain’s monarchy. That struggle spread to every corner of society and produced a new nation organized around a representative government and perhaps the widest system of democracy known to the world at that point. There were gaping holes--the terrible crime of slavery was left untouched, for example--but the new United States was an advance over what existed before.

The U.S. experienced another social revolution 90 years later: the Civil War of 1861-65, which destroyed the Southern system of slavery. Today, credit for "freeing the slaves" usually goes to Abraham Lincoln and perhaps a few army generals. But the North never would have won the war against slavery without the active participation of masses of people. Black slaves themselves played a crucial role in sparking the struggle, as did the agitators of the abolitionist movement in the North. And it was the courage and sacrifice of soldiers in the Northern army--many of whom started without a clear idea of the war’s aim, but became convinced over time of the need to abolish slavery--that transformed U.S. society.

The Revolutionary War and the Civil War weren’t socialist revolutions. They were revolutions against national oppression and slavery that left the economic setup of capitalism intact. Nevertheless, these struggles fundamentally shaped U.S. society--and they disprove the picture of a country that’s always been stable and quiet.

What’s more, the years since have produced other uprisings that have shaken U.S. society to its foundations--the struggle for the eight-hour day during the 1880s; the "great red year" of 1919, when one in five U.S. workers was on strike; the 1930s movements, including the battle to win mass unionization; and the 1960s, which opened with the civil rights movement in the South and closed with struggles that questioned everything about U.S. society, from the brutal war in Vietnam to the oppression of women and gays and lesbians.

This way of looking at the past is very different from what passes for history in school. To begin with, the way history is usually taught--remembering the names of famous people and the dates when they did something important--is upside down. The course of history depends, first and foremost, not on what a few "great men" did or thought but on the struggles of huge numbers of people, especially during the times when they organized themselves in rebellions and revolutions. It’s not that figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are unimportant. But what they did and what they’re remembered for today was shaped by the actions of masses of people who aren’t remembered at all.

Something else flows from a socialist view of history. We’re encouraged to believe that political and social change, if it happens at all, takes place at a safe, gradual pace. Let any group of people organize to show their opposition to an injustice, and they’re certain to be told to be patient--to let the system work as it has in the past. But this goes against the whole history of the struggle for justice and equality. For example, in the first half of the nineteenth century, virtually every U.S. politician, North and South, believed that the enslavement of Blacks would die out eventually if the Southern slave system was left alone. Yet, the power of slavery only grew. It took a civil war to put an end to this horror.

The U.S. is supposed to be the most stable of countries. But revolutions and social upheavals are a constant theme. And most of the reforms that workers take for granted today are a product of those upheavals. For example, unemployment insurance was introduced as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program of the 1930s. Roosevelt didn’t come up with the idea. He was forced by the crisis of the Great Depression and by massive social pressure to adopt an idea put forward by workers.

Of course, political leaders like Roosevelt always end up with the credit in history textbooks for the reforms they were forced to carry out. But this doesn’t change the fact that they were forced to act--regardless of their political affiliation. Consider this: Republican president Richard Nixon launched more antidiscrimination and affirmative action programs than Democratic president Bill Clinton. That’s not because Nixon was more liberal--on the contrary, he was a miserable right-winger. But Nixon was under pressure to act from the mass social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s--something Clinton didn’t face.

The great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made all this plain with these words:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

A power greater than their hoarded gold

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most societies around the world have been divided between exploiters and exploited--between a ruling class of people that runs society in its own interest and much larger exploited classes whose labor is the source of their rulers’ wealth and power. Under each system, the biggest conflicts have been between these classes--over who rules, who gets ruled over, and how. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.

In all of these societies, the oppressed have dreamed of a future world of equality and justice where their oppression would end. And they have fought for it--from the slave rebellion against the Roman Empire led by Spartacus to the peasant uprisings in Europe, among others. So the ideals of socialism aren’t new. But the possibility of achieving them is the product of only the last few centuries--in most parts of the world, of just the last 100 years.

Why? Because socialism can’t be organized on the basis of scarcity. Unless there’s enough to go around, there’s certain to be a scramble over who gets what. That scramble is bound to produce a class society--a society in which one group of people organizes the system to make sure they get enough, even if others go without. Only under capitalism has human knowledge and technology been raised to the point where we can feed every person on the planet, clothe them, put roofs over their heads, and so on.

So, under capitalism, there’s no longer any natural reason for poverty to exist. But abolishing poverty means getting rid of the system that causes it--and that requires a social force capable of overthrowing it. Marx and Engels argued that, in the process of its development, capitalism produced "its own gravediggers"--the working class, with the power to overthrow the system and establish a new society not divided between rulers and ruled.

Why did Marx and Engels talk about the working class? Not because workers suffer the most under capitalism or because they’re morally superior to any other group. Socialists focus on the position that workers occupy in the capitalist economy. Their labor produces the profits that make the system tick. The working class as a whole has a special power to paralyze the system--to bring the profit system to a halt by not working.

You can see this power in situations that fall well short of revolution. In March 1996, General Motors provoked a strike of 3,200 autoworkers at two Dayton, Ohio, factories that made brake parts for most GM vehicles. It was a huge blunder. Within a week, the walkout had crippled GM’s production across North America. All but two of the company’s assembly plants had to close. GM lost about $1 billion in profits in 15 days. Management gave in.

By the same token, a general strike by workers throughout the economy can paralyze a whole country--and bring a government to its knees. That’s what happened in Poland in 1980 with the revolt of the Solidarnosc trade union. The upheaval began with a strike by shipyard workers in Gdansk, but it soon spread to involve 10 million workers across the country. Within weeks, democratically organized workers’ committees sprang up to organize the strike and to make decisions about how to provide essential services. The so-called socialist government--a dictatorial regime with a long record of vicious repression--was powerless to restore order for more than a year. Before the strike, Polish workers would never have guessed that they could rock a seemingly all-powerful police state. But they cut off the lifeblood of the system: the wealth they created by their labor.

Of course, other groups in capitalist society can, and do, fight back. For example, during the 1960s, the biggest upheavals in the U.S. involved African Americans fighting for civil rights and against racism. These were magnificent struggles that won real and lasting changes. And they inspired other parts of society to fight. But, by themselves, Blacks didn’t have the power to transform the whole system. First, they were a minority of the population. And, organized as a community, African Americans had the moral power to embarrass and persuade--but not the kind of economic power to hit the bosses where it hurts.

Struggles organized on the basis of class have the potential of uniting the working majority in society. They hold out the promise of overcoming divisions among the have-nots--and of uniting people to fight on a common basis, not only for the demands they share, but also for the demands of specific groups. What’s more, workers’ struggles represent a direct threat to the wealth of the ruling class--the source of their power over society.

But workers only have power if they’re united. "Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in Black skin," Marx wrote about slavery in the United States. His point can be extended to every form of bigotry and discrimination. That’s why it’s crucial for socialists to champion all fights against oppression. These struggles are just in their own right. But they’re also critical in building working-class unity.

Unity has to be fought for. But there’s something about the nature of work under capitalism that pushes workers to fight--and to organize that fight in a collective way. First of all, the whole dynamic of capitalism is for the bosses to try to increase their wealth by squeezing more profits out of workers. That means trying to get workers to work harder for the same or less pay. This drive for profit puts the bosses on a collision course with workers.

Moreover, capitalism forces workers to cooperate with one another at work--and that goes for resistance as well. Individuals can stand up for their rights at work, but only to a certain point. It’s too easy to get rid of troublemakers if they stand alone. Solidarity is necessary to win the bigger fights.

Because capitalism brings workers together in large numbers, it’s easier for workers to discuss and debate the way forward and to make collective decisions about what needs to be done. And the cooperative arrangements of work lay the basis for organizing a future society based on collective control. Workers can’t divide up a workplace--with one taking the drill press, another a computer terminal, another a Xerox machine. They have to work together to make use of the resources around them.

"Solidarity forever" and "An injury to one is an injury to all" are old slogans of the labor movement. But they’re more than good ideas. They are absolutely necessary for workers to win.

When Marx and Engels were writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the working class was tiny--perhaps two or three million people, concentrated in Britain, a few countries in northwestern Europe, and along the northeastern coast of the United States. Today, there are more workers in South Korea than there were around the world in Marx and Engels’ time.

Everywhere across the globe, people’s lives are shaped by the fact that they have to work for a boss to survive. But the flip side of this reality is that workers have enormous power. They have shown that power in struggles in every corner of the world. The final words of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto are more relevant today than ever before: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

Can workers change society?

If we were to judge only from what we see around us, it might be hard to have confidence that the majority of people can organize to win fundamental change. After all, most working people aren’t revolutionaries. Most of the time, they accept a number of ideas that justify the status quo--from the old cliché that you can’t fight city hall to the belief that people at the top of society are somehow specially qualified to run it.

This is partly because we’re continually exposed to different institutions that are in the business of reinforcing these prejudices. The mass media are one example. Watch the local television news, and you’ll see sensationalized stories about crime and violence--while discussions about the real issues that affect people’s lives get shortchanged. The poor are stereotyped and scapegoated, while the wealth and power of the rich are celebrated. Even shows meant as entertainment tend to reinforce the conventional wisdom.

Likewise, it’s easy to see how the education system encourages conformity. Except for the minority of students being trained to rule society, the experience of school is usually alienating. Students are taught to compete against each other--and ultimately to accept the conditions they see around them.

With all the selfish and mean-spirited ideas actively promoted by these voices of authority, it’s a wonder that any sense of solidarity survives under capitalism. But it plainly does. This is most obvious in the outpourings of charity in cases of social crisis, like a famine or an earthquake--even when they take place halfway around the world. The kindness and generosity of ordinary people is boundless. But even on a day-to-day basis, society simply couldn’t function without a basic sense of cooperation and sacrifice among ordinary people--within families, among coworkers, and so on.

Capitalist society obscures this basic decency--because the system is organized around greed. Obviously, those in charge get ahead by being as greedy as possible. But working people are forced--whether they like it or not--to participate in a rat race that they have no control over. They’re pitted against one another and required to compete just to keep their job or maintain their standard of living--much less get ahead.

As a result, the idea of people uniting for social change can seem distant and unrealistic. For most people, the experience of their lives teaches them that they don’t have any power over what happens in the world--and that they don’t know enough to have an opinion about it anyway. Powerlessness produces what appears to be apathy among people, about their own future and the future of society.

This is why it isn’t enough for socialists to talk about why socialism will make an excellent alternative to capitalism. It’s also necessary to talk about the struggle to get there-because struggle transforms people and gives them confidence in their own power. As Marx put it:

Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fit to found society anew.

The act of fighting back is the first step in challenging the prejudices learned from living in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. This can be seen in even the smallest strike. Strikes almost always start over a specific workplace issue--for instance, the demand for higher wages or better conditions. But whatever the original grievance, striking workers who may have thought of themselves as law-abiding citizens are acting in a way that goes against what society teaches them.

Fighting back also requires unity. Striking workers are often forced to question the divisions built up in their ranks--between Black and white, men and women, native born and immigrant. As a strike goes on, feelings of solidarity and a sense of the wider issues at stake start to become as important as the original issues.

The changes that take place can be profound. Take the "War Zone" labor struggles in Illinois in the mid-1990s. The center of the War Zone was Decatur, Illinois, a small industrial city where workers were on strike or locked out at three companies--the food processor A. E. Staley, the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, and the tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone.

Several months into the struggles, activists organized a multiracial march to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday--in a town where the Ku Klux Klan had organized, both before and since. The War Zone workers were drawing on King’s statements about the fight for civil rights to explain what their struggles were about--and to show that they had come to see that their fight for justice in the workplace was linked to other fights in society.

In the course of any struggle, activists committed to the fight around a particular issue have to grapple with questions about their aims. What kind of change do they want, and how do they achieve it? Their answers evolve with their experiences.

Think of the Black college students who joined the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In 1960, one member of the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) could tell a reporter that she was motivated by traditional American values. If only Blacks were given educational opportunities, she said, "maybe someday a Negro will invent one of our [nuclear] missiles." A few years later, many SNCC members considered themselves revolutionaries. They had experienced the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate bus lines, the murder of civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer voter-registration project in 1964, and the Democratic Party’s betrayal of civil rights delegates at its 1964 national convention. These experiences convinced them that the struggle against racial injustice could only be won by linking it to the fight against other injustices--and for a different kind of society altogether.

This transformation was repeated throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. White college students who had volunteered for Freedom Summer used the skills they learned from the civil rights movement to organize the struggle against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Veterans of the anti-war movement in turn launched the struggle for women’s rights, including the right to choose abortion. The modern gay and lesbian movement was born in 1969 with the formation of the Gay Liberation Front--an organization named after the liberation army in Vietnam.

Though the media love to dismiss them today, the struggles of the 1960s are proof that ideas can change with enormous speed. In periods of social upheaval, millions upon millions of people who focused their energy on all sorts of things suddenly turn their attention to the question of transforming society. The biggest struggles of all--revolutions that overturn the existing social order--produce the most extraordinary changes in people. What’s most striking about the history of revolutions is the way that ordinary people, who are trained all their lives to be docile and obedient, suddenly find their voices.

The caricature of revolution passed off by many historians is of a small group of heavily armed fanatics seizing control of the government--and running it to enrich themselves. But this has nothing to do with genuine socialism. A minority--not even a minority that genuinely wants to improve the lives of the majority--can’t carry out a socialist revolution. That’s because the heart of socialism is mass participation. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state--be it monarchical or democratic--elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime…. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

The right-wing writers who pass judgement on revolutions also tend to focus on the toppling of governments--the armed insurrection to seize political control. But this is only the final act of a revolution. It’s the climax of a much longer period of struggle in which the rulers of society face a growing crisis--at the same time as workers become more confident of their own power.

At the beginning of the process, the goals for change can be modest--a few reforms in the way the system operates. But the struggle to change this or that aspect of society raises deeper questions. People begin to see the connections between the struggles they’re involved in and other issues--and the nature of the system itself. Each of these struggles gives workers a further sense of their ability to run society for themselves. The act of taking over political power is the final step of a revolution that has already been felt in every workplace, in every neighborhood, and in every corner of society.

A revolutionary socialist party

Ideas can change very quickly in struggle. But they don’t change all at once. In every battle, there are arguments over what to do next. Some people will see the need to step up the struggle and to make links to other political issues. Other people will argue that militant action makes matters worse. The outcome of the arguments shapes the outcome of the struggle.

This is where the intervention of socialists--who can express the experience of past struggles and suggest a way forward--is crucial. An organization of socialists can unite people so they can share their experiences and hammer out an understanding of how to fight back from day to day--in a workplace or community or at a school. The strength of such an organization is in the range of experiences and political understanding of all of its members.

None of this would be of much use to a political party like the Democrats. The Democratic Party exists for one reason: to get Democrats elected to office. For that, it needs its supporters once or twice every couple of years to turn out to vote.

Socialists have very different goals, so our political party will have to look very different. We need socialists in every workplace to agitate around fightbacks on the shop floor. We need socialists in every neighborhood to take up the questions of housing, police violence, health care, and everything else that comes up. We need students to agitate on college campuses. We need socialists in every corner of society inhabited by working people, and we need these socialists working nonstop--organizing struggle and carrying on political discussions.

This commitment to struggle is part of our socialist tradition. Socialists have always been at the forefront of the fight for a better world. They have been leaders in the union movement, in the movement against racism, in the fight against war, and in many others.

To achieve its aims, a revolutionary socialist organization has to be more democratic than other political organizations under capitalism. We need to bring together the experiences of every socialist--and to make those experiences part of the common basis on which we all organize.

But a socialist organization has to be centralized. Why the need for a centralized organization? Because the other side is organized. The basis of their power is the profit they make at workplaces--highly organized systems built around exploiting workers. Their side organizes political propaganda through the media. Their side responds to resistance with a highly organized and disciplined police force and army.

We need an organization for our side--one that can coordinate actions not just in one workplace or even one city but around the country. We need an organization that can put forward a common set of ideas--using its own newspapers, magazines, and books. Socialists have to be able to fight around the same program, whether they’re teachers, autoworkers, or college students, and whether they live in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles--and, ultimately, in Seoul, London, or Johannesburg.

The bigger the struggle, the more complex and urgent the political questions. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, the hated Tsar was toppled in a matter of a few days. That part of the revolution was almost completely spontaneous. No socialist organization picked the date for the demonstrations that snowballed into a mass movement. The accumulated hatred for the Tsar and his regime was all that was necessary.

But the issue of what came next raised questions that couldn’t be answered with spontaneous action. The government that came to power after the Tsar included people who called themselves socialists--and who claimed that the revolution had to be demobilized in order to consolidate the people’s victories. Were they right? What should be done to make sure the Tsar never came to power again? How could democracy and justice be spread even further?

These questions were hotly debated throughout Russian society. The reason they were ultimately given socialist answers is because a tried-and-tested revolutionary socialist organization existed to make its case. On the basis of its past experience and its roots among workers across Russia, the Bolshevik Party was able to recognize and make sense of the situation in all its complexity--and to express the aims of socialism that workers favored.

Sadly, the need for socialist organization has been proven many times since--but in the negative. Too many times, mass mobilizations of workers have thrown the status quo into question--only to allow it back in because socialists weren’t in a position to make the case on how to go forward. Such an organization doesn’t form overnight. It spends decades preparing itself to be a voice at the crucial time.

This, then, is the case for why you should be a socialist. As individuals on our own, we can’t accomplish much--not even with the best grasp of what’s wrong with the world and how it could be different. But as part of an organization, we can make a difference.

This isn’t an abstract question. There are towns in the Midwest where Ku Klux Klan members no longer parade around because socialists took the initiative to shut them down. There are former death row prisoners alive today because socialists, along with others, drew attention to their cases and helped to show why they shouldn’t be executed, in many cases because they were innocent. There are workplaces where supervisors can’t get away with murder because individual socialists have stood up to them. Socialists can, and do, make a difference right now.

We need to make more of a difference. We need socialists in every workplace, on every campus, in every neighborhood--involved in every struggle throughout society.

But there’s a further task. Socialists need to show how the current day-to-day fights are part of a long-term fight for bigger political changes. As Marx and Engels put it more than 150 years ago:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

Socialists are among the best fighters in the struggles of today. But we’re also involved in the struggle for the future--ultimately, for a different kind of society where exploitation and oppression are never known again. That is the vision of a society that we put forward--and the struggle to make that vision open to larger numbers of people is the way that socialists put the best of themselves forward.

We live in a rotten and barbaric world. For millions of people, just surviving each day is intolerably difficult. For the rest of the vast majority, the struggle to get by leaves almost no time for leisure--much less for putting our minds to making the world a better place to live. Capitalism has produced poverty, famine, environmental catastrophe, and bloody war.

To hear defenders of the system explain it, these horrors are inevitable. It may not be a perfect world, we’re told, but it’s the best we can do.

What a sick society it is that tells us that 6 million children dead of malnutrition each year is the best we can do. Or that more than 1.5 million Iraqis killed by economic sanctions is the best we can do. Or that a world threatened by ecological devastation is the best we can do.

We know that we can do better. The resources exist to eliminate all of these horrors--and to build a socialist society free of poverty and oppression where we all have control over our lives.

That is a world worth fighting for.



Adapted from Alan Maass, Why You Should Be a Socialist (Chicago, International Socialist Organization, 2000).

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