Why Socialism? Revolutionary Politics for a New Century


By Dianne Feeley, David Finkel, and
Christopher Phelps

Experts agree: Socialism is a dinosaur.  Newspaper
columnists, talk show hosts, Ivy League professors, Washington
think tanks – all of them will tell you socialism is extinct. 
It didn’t work, they say.  Anyone who imagines a different system
of social organization is an impractical dreamer.  Capitalism is
the best economic system possible.  The market encourages efficiency
through competition, creates an unequaled range of consumer goods,
permits people to get ahead if they work hard, respects the individual,
and promotes democracy.  It’s not perfect, but hey, it works.

We want to share a different perspective with you. 
As unrepentant socialists, we maintain that capitalism, not socialism,
is the dinosaur.  We seek to replace capitalism – which by its
nature produces oppression and exploitation – with a new society,
a socialist democracy confident in purpose and open to new ideas,
vigorous and self-critical, free and cooperative, humanist and

Our political project is part of a long-standing,
varied socialist tradition that originated in the struggles of
working people in the nineteenth century for improved industrial
conditions and a new society.  Throughout the twentieth century,
our kind of socialism – revolutionary democratic socialism – stayed
committed to the cause of the international working class, refusing
to rely upon either ruling power, Moscow or Washington, for answers
or guidance. 

Now, at the end of the century, when the Communist
bloc is all but gone and the United States (though still in a
position of supreme global domination) is showing signs of economic
decline and political incoherence, there is a political vacuum
that creates a promising opportunity for renewing the possibility
of revolutionary socialism from below.

We should be clear about what we don’t mean by socialism. 

Certain governments calling themselves socialist or communist
have been guilty of brutal human rights violations, gross social
inequality, and political dictatorship.  Many distortions of socialist
theory arose from misguided hopes that socialism could be created
in societies of severe material scarcity, deeply distorted by
capitalist underdevelopment, without a complementary working-class
radicalization in industrial society.  Equally destructive has
been the illusion that socialists could gradually alter the government
without winning mass support through uncompromising struggles
in the interests of the majority.

Rather than persuade us that socialism is wrong,
our criticism of these errors and misconceptions only strengthens
our conviction that revolutionary democratic socialism may be
reinvigorated in the next century.  Such mistaken practices were
distortions of socialism.  They betrayed the socialist principles
of international solidarity, democracy and equality.  Our conviction
is that by keeping in mind the proven failure of such misguided
varieties of "socialism," the left can be reconstructed
on new foundations.

Socialism still offers the best hope for humanity. 
We aren’t idealists who think people can be made perfect.  We simply
think a society run by workers themselves, freed from both bosses
and bureaucrats, would be far more democratic and liberatory than
capitalism ever has been.  We think that a society premised upon
the enhancement of life rather than the perpetuation of profit
would stand the best chance of putting a halt to the environmental
devastation now ravishing the globe.

But we can’t get there on our own.  A society that
strives for basic equality and democratic participation will only
come about through the coordinated activity of many people.  That’s
why we’ve written this pamphlet: to explain our views frankly
and to invite you to contribute your voice and talents to the
socialist movement. 

1.  Capitalism Triumphant, Capitalism in Ruins

Who are the talking heads in the media who tell us
that capitalism has been proven right?  Not laid-off auto workers
in Michigan or Latina anti-toxic activists in Brooklyn.  Not welfare
rights organizers in rural Louisiana or homeboys in South Central
Los Angeles.  Not Mexican women working for a few dollars a day
in maquiladoras across the Rio Grande. 

The national media is staffed by professional elites,
drawn from a privileged layer of the population, attuned to the
world of their advertisers.  They are far removed in their thinking
and everyday life from the experience of people at the bottom
of the social pile, where capitalism’s toll makes itself felt.

Sometimes the media mantra to the market is interrupted
by undeniable evidence of social crisis, as when L.A.  burned in
the spring of 1992.  But commentators absolve the system of blame
by condemning criminals, bemoaning the demise of the family, and
advocating speedier police response next time.  Apparently there
is no relation between the two: between the conflagration and
the gasoline, between riots and the market, between mass disaffection
and structural racism and deprivation. 

In a few weeks, L.A.  and the rest of Black and urban
America were again forgotten, invisible.  TV’s talking heads were
back to praising fiscal austerity and corporate restructuring
between commercial breaks.  Nero, as they say, fiddled while Rome

The old joke still makes sense: If you think capitalism
is working, ask someone who isn’t.  Capitalism may be ideologically
triumphant, but in practice it’s a disaster, a social order in
conflict with human dignity. 

Marxists have often talked about capitalism’s "contradictions,"

but never have they been more painfully in evidence than right
than now.  Millions find no work while manufacturing plants lie
idle.  Homeless people sleep on the stoops of abandoned buildings.
The hungry rummage through garbage bins outside of well-stocked

Fortunes are spent on high-tech weapons to bomb small
countries while "lack of funds" excuses overcrowded
classrooms and rotting schools.  More young African Americans are
in prison than universities, while white-collar crime in the savings
and loans industry is rewarded with huge bailouts. 

National borders do not contain the process.  Companies
lay off workers in the US and relocate to countries like Sri Lanka
and Guatemala, where they pay workers a dollar a day and dump
pollutants into lakes and neighborhoods.  Africans starve while
big grain cartels sit on their storehouses of corn and wheat so
as not to "glut" the world market.  Corporate agribusiness,
claiming efficiency, pushes millions of small farmers and Third
World peasants off the land, destroys life-sustaining topsoil,
creates vegetables without taste or nutritional value, and sprays
Chicano farmworkers with carcinogenic pesticides.

The result is systematic insanity.  A system obsessed
with acquisition denies a basic income to millions.  A global economy
centered on accumulation underdevelops entire regions of the world. 
A culture which worships growth rushes toward the terrifying likelihood
that it will leave the earth an environmental wasteland. 

2.  What Capitalism Is

It may be hard to believe, but there is a method
to this madness: it lies in the basic dynamics of capitalist society,
which is organized for profit above all else. 

Some politicians imagine that eliminating the federal
deficit, overhauling the tax code, establishing term limits or
imposing campaign finance reforms will fix the social crisis. 
But the cause is much deeper than bad policy or poor decisions,
and will not be solved by tinkering around the edges. 

Nor is the problem an evil plot, as some on both
left and right have alleged.  Powerful people frequently benefit
from social inequality, economic waste and ecological degradation,
but under capitalism such things happen whether or not anyone
plans them.  At fault is not a calculating conspiracy but the very
driving force of capitalism: the relentless pursuit of private

What is capitalism?  In precise terms, it is a generalized
regime of commodity production characterized by market exchange,
including the purchase and sale of labor power.  Production under
capitalism is organized for private profit, which is extracted
from workers’ labor and realized in the sale of goods at the highest
allowable price. 

This system of social and property relations works
to benefit a ruling class made up of owners, financiers, merchants
and executives who control key institutions of production and
exchange: banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges, service
concerns such as airlines and trucking, extractive industries
such as coal and oil, and manufacturers and distributors of commodities
like cars, computers and toothpaste.  This ruling class appropriates
the surplus of the value created by the working class – the majority
of us, whose living comes not from owning capital but from working
for those who do.

By virtue of its dominant social position the ruling
class has a common and basic interest in defending private property
and maximizing profit rates.  But it is not a giant conspiracy. 
Sometimes real differences emerge in its ranks.  Sectors of capital
clash over appropriate measures for the maintenance of profit
rates, and they enter into political contest by underwriting different
candidates in elections and lobbying for different public policy
measures.  Precisely through the open expression of such differences,
consensus is established within the dominant class. 

Capital has also been checked from below by a legacy
of popular struggle – on shop-floors and in politics, in thought
and in social action – carried out by working people and their
allies.  Working class struggles have resulted in historic gains:
the eight hour day, workplace safety regulation, legal recognition
of unions, public education.  Such reforms are important, but they
will always be precarious so long as capital rules.

Capitalism pits a wasteful, duplicative array of
companies in deadly struggle against each other to maintain market
shares and profit margins.  In every arena of economic activity,
firms strive to grow by accumulating more capital, mechanizing
and speeding up production, and sinking their competitors.  Ownership
tends to concentrate in giant corporations, as the weak are swallowed
by the strong.  But the growth of huge capitals only intensifies
capitalist competition.  Out of the dozens of auto companies in
the US early in this century, for example, only three – Ford,
Chrysler and GM – survived after fifty years and even those three
are now threatened by competition from abroad. 

Dynamic instability is the result.  Despite the relentless
efforts of governments and central banks, periods of economic
growth (uneven in themselves) are followed by recessions in which
unemployment rises and income falls.  Overarching these short-term
cycles of boom and bust are "long waves" of capitalist
expansion (from the Second World War through the late 1960s) alternating
with depressions (the 1930s) or stagnation (the 1970s until now).

Even capitalists feel the effects of crises and competition. 
Indeed, massive bankruptcies and loss of fortunes for some capitalists
are a prerequisite to clear the way for a new long wave of capitalist
growth.  But as a class, capitalists continue to do well.  They
rarely suffer like the social majority at the bottom, those who
bear the brunt of every crunch so that profitability and growth
may be restored.  As the French social critic Anatole France put
it, "The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as
well as the poor to sleep under the bridge and beg in the streets."

3.  Capitalism and Freedom

Apologists for capitalism like to say that it facilitates
individual liberty.  They have a point, historically speaking. 
Centuries ago, the rise of capitalism coincided with the end of
feudal serfdom.  After long struggle, humanity managed to free
itself from monarchical despotism, and more representative institutions,
such as legislatures and parliaments, emerged. 

But capitalism also brought with it a great contraction
of freedom.  In the Americas, the quest for gold and souls initiated
by the conquistadors brought dispossession and destruction of
indigenous peoples, who still must struggle today for cultural
and political self-determination against governments and corporations
eager to obtain access to the remaining natural resources on native
land.  As a result of the slave trade, 12-14 million African captives
were taken across the Atlantic and sold into bondage to raise
crops for European markets and industries. 

The measure of individual freedom won under capitalism
came only through vigilance and struggle.  In the U.S., the abolitionist
movement, slave revolts and the Civil War were needed to end slavery. 
Even then, women were denied equal citizenship.  Blacks were drawn
into sharecropping, little better than slavery, and remained disenfranchised
and subject to a strictly enforced network of discriminatory laws
under segregation.  Only later did mass political movements enact
basic civil rights for women and Blacks. 

Under capitalism, people have won basic civil liberties
– such as freedom of speech, association and religion, and due
process of law – which, even if they are only imperfectly realized
in the United States and are routinely violated in many parts
of the world, are genuinely valuable foundations for citizenship. 
They will be an integral part of any authentic socialist democracy.

But the kind of individualism that capitalism produces
on its own is superficial and cynical: getting ahead and getting
what’s mine.  Capitalism means the freedom to choose among bosses,
along with the freedom to work for long hours at poor pay or go
homeless.  Even in boom years, capitalism is degrading.  For most
people, work is boring, pointless and tiresome, subject to managerial
authority, without real participatory power.  People hate their
jobs and fear losing them.  Is that real freedom?

When capitalism’s basic drive for profit comes into
conflict with human dignity, profit usually wins.  Every requirement
for individual and social fulfillment – a living wage, comprehensive
health care, a well-rounded and lifelong education, a sustainable
environment, equality for women and people of color, security
in jobs and income – is either absent, deeply compromised, or
precarious under capitalism. 

Let’s examine two conditions for individual freedom,
health care and child care, and see how capitalism stands up:

  1. Health care warrants a comprehensive approach,
    applying scientific knowledge to prevent problems in individuals
    and communities before they occur.  For example, frank sexual education
    and free condom distribution would help prevent AIDS.  Measures
    to eliminate air pollution would cut asthma.  Slowing down dangerous
    work in factories and on farms would diminish accidents.  Strict
    control of toxic waste and bans on harmful pesticides would reduce
    cancer dramatically.  Removal of old lead paint and replacement
    of lead pipes would cut lead poisoning and increase children’s
    mental capacities.  Under capitalism, such proposals lose out to
    private profit, at great social cost.  Public pressure sometimes
    makes a difference here or there, but the basic tendency is in
    the opposite direction.  Preventive medicine is unrewarding to
    health care professionals, because their income hinges on sick
    patients.  It’s unrewarding to insurance companies, who benefit
    from people so fearful of illness that they see no alternative
    but to tolerate price-gouging.  It’s unrewarding above all to the
    drug producers, who want people to buy medicine. 

The point is not that these interests plot to promote
poor health, but that they have little, if anything, to gain from
preventive approaches.  They sincerely believe that they are fostering
health, but their energies are exerted only where dollars are
to be made.

Medical care, the responsibility of profit-driven
hospitals, is carried out under the sway of the pharmaceutical
companies and insurance industry.  It becomes a private burden
instead of a public responsibility, a privilege rather than a
right.  An overwhelming majority of all Americans do not have comprehensive
coverage, meaning they are not insured for long-term care.  State-of-the-art
medical technology therefore does nothing for the 100,000 who
die every year because they cannot afford health care. 

Lives are not the only sacrifice.  Equality also suffers. 

Abortion is legal, for example, but inaccessible to tens of thousands
of women who can’t afford it.  Half of the working poor in this
country have no health coverage at all.  Poor health prevents social
equality and democracy.  As the African-American socialist and
scholar W.E.B.  DuBois wrote, "Given the chance for the majority
of mankind to be educated, healthy and free to act, it might well
turn out that equality is not so wild as many seem to hope."

Health care reform is in the air in Washington, but
the proposed Clinton reform and its Republican variants will do
nothing to challenge the basic class structure and profit motive
at the heart of the health care crisis.  Nor will they emphasize
preventive campaigns.  A single-payer, Canadian-style system for
supplying medical care would be a cost-effective step in the right
direction, but it is ruled out of the political debate by the
insurance lobby and medical elites, despite support for it by
a majority of the population in every survey.  By keeping health
care a private issue, even in policy debates, capitalism damages
countless individuals whose freedom it claims to fulfill. 

  1. Child care, like health care, is crucial to the
    social development of children and a necessary condition for the
    equal participation of women in social life.  Women are not just
    able to enter the workplace today; the majority must do so in
    order to survive.  Many two-parent families would fall below the
    poverty line if one partner stopped working.  Less than eight percent
    of all US families fit the traditional model of stay-home mothers
    and employed fathers.  There are 20 million working mothers in
    this country, many of whom are heads of households. 

The state of organized child care is inadequate.
Fewer than one percent of all businesses nationwide provide on-site
or near-site day care.  Center care is usually the highest in quality,
but it is also the most expensive and is accessible mainly to
professional women.  Working-class women usually must turn to home-care
providers, which too often (though not always) entails inadequate
staffing, hazardous conditions, low-level nutrition, and minimal
educational activity. 

Some mothers leave their children in the care of
neighbors, relatives or older children, or else take on piecework
at home.  Not all of these arrangements are detrimental, but few
reflect the parents’ unfettered choice, based on the rational
assessment of the child’s needs rather than economic constraint.

Pay and benefits are extremely poor for child care
workers, who are overwhelmingly female and disproportionately
women of color.  As a group, child care workers are well-trained
and educated, but they are often paid minimum wage.  Most receive
no health insurance or other benefits. 

Devalued because they are mostly women and because
the work that they perform is "women’s work," child
care workers are too often treated as baby-sitters rather than
the educators they are.  Minimal staffing prevents them from paying
adequate attention to particular children, inhibiting the interactive
environment that best educates and nurtures children.  High staff
turnover is the result of these poor conditions, feeding parental
anxiety about caregivers and adversely affecting childrens’ linguistic
and social development. 

The corporate and military priorities of the state,
combined with the imperative of capital accumulation, means that
funds are simply not available to fully address the child care
crisis under capitalism.  Affordable, neighborhood-based child
care centers which involve parents and child care workers equally
in decisions are simply not profitable by bourgeois standards.

A few liberal politicians are talking about a tax
break for working parents, but that seems unlikely.  Even if it
did occur, a tax break would hardly help.  The problem is that
child care under capitalism is a private burden, when it ought
to be a shared responsibility resolved through public coordination.

Not just in health and child care, but in a range
of social arenas – education, housing, senior care, the arts,
the environment – capitalist society provides inadequately for
poor and working people.  Under capitalism, individual freedom
is only the privilege of those who can afford it. 

4.  Racism and Capitalism

The myth that capitalism creates freedom is most
easily exposed where racism is concerned.  As the Black liberation
leader Malcolm X told an interviewer in 1964, "You can’t
have capitalism without racism."

Despite all the faddish attention now paid to Malcolm
X, it’s all but forgotten that in the last year of his life he
was an opponent of capitalism.  After breaking from the Nation
of Islam, criticizing its racialist theology and political inaction,
Malcolm spoke out against capitalism and the Democratic Party. 
Malcolm still held that most whites were racist, but whenever
he met a white person who he was sure didn’t have racism in their
outlook, he said, "usually they’re socialists or their political
philosophy is socialism."

Malcolm was not the first African-American to see
the indissoluble tie between racism and capitalism.  Today, when

"enterprise zones" and other business shams are promoted
as answers to the severe crisis that people of color face, the
condemnation of capitalism put forward by Black socialists like
C.L.R.  James and W.E.B.  DuBois remains as powerful as ever.

Racism and "race" are complicated concepts. 
They denote unstable sets of cultural meanings, constantly reshaped
by new developments and political struggles.  Today, blatant and
crude forms of racism (the traditional stereotypes of people of
color as dumb, inferior, oversexed or lazy) are out of public
favor, though they still resurface with unacceptable regularity
in hate crimes, neo-Nazi propaganda and bathroom graffiti. 

Scientific racism, the supposition that "races"
are biologically fixed and can be ranked according to inherent
intelligence or morality, has also been discarded by all credible
social thinkers.  Yet subtler racist notions continue to be treated
as legitimate topics of inquiry, and a sweep of cultural prejudices
directly racist in implication persist along with structural and
institutional inequity along racial lines. 

The standard drug abuser is often portrayed in the
media as poor and Black, for instance; the typical illegal drug
consumer is actually white and suburban.  Poverty is so often associated
with Black single mothers on welfare that, as writer Toni Morrison
observes, "Black people have become the way in which we talk
about poor people." Americans of Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese,
Korean, Chinese and Japanese heritage, whether fifth-generation
or newly-immigrated, are lumped together in a racialist category
as Asians and burdened with the myth of "Asian success."

Revolutionary socialists argue that racism is not
eternal, that it has not always existed in the way that it now
does, and that it can be eliminated.  We hold this conviction because
we know that racism – as distinguished from the ethnocentrism
and cultural prejudice which preceded it – was and is generated
by a particular historical system.  If the basis of that social
system is uprooted, we believe, the precondition will have been
met for getting rid of racism. 

In addition to and in the process of exploiting wage
labor, capitalism generates the oppression of various peoples,
including women and people of color.  Widespread belief among "whites"
(itself a term of dubious scientific utility) in the inferiority
of people of color emerged at a particular moment of history:
the global expansion of capitalism.  Racism helped justify the
enslavement of Africans, brutal attacks on indigenous peoples,
and the imperialist conquest of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As capitalism developed into a full-fledged industrial
and urban order, racism served other ends which have kept it alive. 
Racist myths serve as scapegoats for social problems; people of
color can be blamed, directly or indirectly, for "stealing
jobs," for crime, for moral decay.  In setting different sectors
of working people against each other, racism also depresses wage
levels and encourages individual competition for jobs instead
of class solidarity. 

The reservation, ghetto and barrio, while having
distinctive dynamics and histories, are all analogous to internal
colonies; they are subordinate social and cultural arenas serving
as a source of cheap resources (in the case of native minerals
and land) and a reserve labor pool (in the case of the ghetto
and barrio) to be manipulated by capital and the government. 

Racism, thus, is integrally connected to processes
of profit-making.  The enslavement of Africans, genocidal campaigns
against native peoples, colonialism, imperialism, and underdevelopment
of the "Third World" cannot be understood apart from
the historical development of world capitalism.

Race cannot be reduced to a simple function of class
and economics, however.  Some Marxists historically made the mistake
of paying exclusive attention to class at the expense of nation,
race and ethnicity.  Sometimes socialists called upon people of
color to give up their particular grievances and fight only for
general class interests.  The erroneous notion that racism is a
purely economic problem has also led to the overstated claim that
socialism will solve it automatically. 

There’s an aspect of truth to these mistaken approaches. 
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that destroying racism
for good will take a revolution; the capitalist state and its
politicians and agents have long understood it.  Challenges to
"whites only" restrictions at mid-century were invariably
attacked as communist plots.  Black, Chicano and Indian activists
in the 1960s and early 1970s – even if they weren’t revolutionaries
– faced frame-ups, murder, infiltration and disruption from federal
intelligence agencies and local police, who understood quite well
the radical threat they posed. 

No matter how many incremental gains are won in bourgeois
society, the fight to eliminate racism will not succeed without
a wider revolution.  Just as the emancipation of the slaves in
San Domingo (now Haiti) took place in conjunction with the French
Revolution and the emancipation of slaves in the United States
came about only in the course of a massive Civil War, so the full
liberation of people of color in the United States is linked with
the liberation of the white working class and will only transpire
in combination with a socialist revolution. 

But we don’t expect that ideas and ways of behavior
as deeply seated as American racism can be uprooted simply by
abolishing capitalism.  Socialism will wipe out the material basis
for racism by establishing a society of plenty and equality, but
the full potential of that gain will only be achieved through
an ongoing, long-term struggle against racism. 

As the left wing of the Russian Revolution of 1917
and other revolutionary socialists have maintained, oppressed
peoples must be accorded the right to self-determination denied
to them by world capitalism.  In the United States, this principle
requires permitting people of color to organize themselves in
their own caucuses and organizations if they so choose, so that
they can unify themselves and better address the particular problems
that they uniquely face as a result of a long history of oppression. 
If these struggles adopt a perspective that combines independence
with unity, a genuine united front (a coalition respectful of
difference and resistant to collaboration with capitalist parties
or methods) may be built through joint mass action. 

Such politics, far from "fragmenting the class,"
represent the only approach capable of unifying an increasing
multiracial, multinational and female working class.  They provide
a hope for unifying students with workers, working men with feminist
women, and Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans with all other
oppressed groups – by recognizing the special condition of each
constituency and preserving the integrity of each movement.

It should be underscored that it is the responsibility
of white socialists, first and foremost, to champion and support
struggles of people of color and to challenge racism wherever
it exists.  Needless to say, white American society, including
the official labor movement, does not have an unblemished historical
record on this score.  But racism can be overcome when: 1) whites
see that people of color and their allies will not tolerate it,
and 2) white working people see that in order to remove the capitalist
ruling class that stands between them and their freedom, common
struggle is necessary. 

5.  The Politics of Corporate Hegemony: Vigorous Conservatism,
Craven Liberalism and the Collapse of the Left

If socialism really is a more rational way of arranging
things, you might ask, why hasn’t it been adopted?  Why do people
view it with suspicion?

The catastrophic experiences of the Communist states
has taken a toll on the credibility of socialism.  Apathy and inertia
are also factors.  Even so, with capitalism making such a hash
of things, why hasn’t a massive opposition to it arisen?

While capitalism has developed in a manner that is
unjust and irrational, its ruling groups have in the past few
decades managed to strengthen their political and cultural grip
on the society.  As a result, most people can’t even conceive of
a possibility of a new society, and cynicism has replaced radicalism
as the typical response to the deterioration of social life. 

Workers face an extremely fierce opponent which has
succeeded in reducing their social power.  In the past two decades,
U.S. capital has sought to drive down wages and push back other
social benefits won by militant struggles in the 1930s and 1940s,
all while eroding the minimal welfare state that developed after
the New Deal.  This aggressive stance taken by trans-national capital
has been disastrous for living standards worldwide. 

Capital faces a general crisis of profitability,
requiring it to try to reduce costs in order to compete.  Almost
every major US corporation – GM, IBM, Kodak, Sears, K-Mart – has
carried out deep cuts in its workforce and put facilities to rest. 
But this "downsizing" has not yet resolved the crisis
of profitability.  Mass layoffs and capital flight have become
regular features of economic life.  Manufacturing jobs in the US
are vanishing, replaced by service jobs that pay far less. 

Real wages for US workers have been falling for about
40 years.  At the same time, people are working harder.  In her
recent book The Overworked American, economist Juliet Schor showed
that between 1969 and 1987, a total of 163 hours – nearly a full
month – was added to the average worker’s yearly workload. 

The corporate offensive has sharpened class distinctions.
The 85 percent of all Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year
saw their income stagnate or decline in the last decade.  In the
same period, millionaires’ income shot up by 243 percent.  Coca-Cola’s
top officer, for instance, made $2.96 million in salary and bonuses
in 1990. 

The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.  In
1959, the top 4% of the population earned $31 billion in wages
and salaries, the same as the bottom 35%.  Thirty years later,
with the employers’ offensive in full swing, the top 4% of the
population earned $452 billion in wages and salaries, equal to
the bottom 51%.  These figures don’t even include income from property,
stocks, bonds, interest and dividends – from which the rich benefit
far more than workers, needless to say.

Simultaneously, the spectrum of "respectable"

political discourse, that range of ideas within which most people
interpret events, has become very conservative.  Between the 1960s
and the 1980s, political dynamism shifted from traditional liberalism
to the reactionary right.  The New Right – rooted in the white
middle class, Protestant fundamentalism and the South – combined
stock right-wing commitments to anti-communism and the free market
with a new social and religious agenda. 

Romanticizing the patriarchal norms challenged by
the women’s movement, it has sought to deprive women of their
reproductive rights and push gays and lesbians back into the closet. 
It helped gut business regulations and slash programs for the
poor.  It promoted a revival of aggressive militarism and sought
to roll back gains made by the civil rights movement by attacking
affirmative action and reviving thinly-veiled race-baiting. 

According to the right wing, the social crisis is
the result of laziness, divorce, too much cultural freedom, and
lack of respect for parental, religious and state authority –
and of course too much government regulation of business! This
is a view that needn’t be particularly coherent, or even rational,
to make headway in a climate where there is such deep-seated fear
of crime, economic insecurity, immigrants and AIDS.

In practice, of course, right-wing leaders often
betrayed their stated goals.  Under the administrations of Ronald
Reagan and George Bush, the military and corporate rich stuck
their snouts in the public trough, causing deficits and taxes
to increase.  For that reason, the right wing movement began to
fissure, leading in 1992 to the first Republican presidential
defeat in twelve years. 

But conservatism remains a vigorous presence in American
life.  The fundamentalist Christian right is especially zealous,
putting forward homophobic ballot initiatives, harassing and murdering
health clinic workers, and seeking control of public school boards.

In the absence of a vital and independent left, political
debate in the United States is trapped between this reactionary
right and a mainstream liberalism that has caved in to the rise
of the right wing by becoming more conservative itself.  The Democratic
Party has always been attentive to business needs, but now it
has abandoned most of the lip service that it used to give working

Democratic leaders signaled their total subordination
to corporate capital with the promotion of neo-liberal Bill Clinton,
who is just as committed as his predecessor to austerity for working
people.  Clinton’s campaign sloshed with more corporate funding
than even Bush attracted. 

It’s true that most Democratic politicians don’t
have the religious moralism that conservatives bring to issues
of abortion or school prayer, but the Democrats are equally dedicated
to corporate profit – and whenever that commitment comes into
conflict with their cultural liberalism, profit wins. 

Democrats now pontificate about "sacrifice"
and "responsibility" as they cut social programs and
increase the tax burden on working people.  Their rightward turn
wins New Democrats applause from media pundits who treat abject
capitulation as if it revealed great political courage. 

The treachery of the Democratic Party is nothing
new.  Even in the epoch between the 1930s and 1960s, when it was
classically liberal, Democratic Party politicians stonewalled
on civil rights and prosecuted a vicious war in Vietnam.  That
is why the failure of grass-roots popular movements to mobilize
is of far greater importance than the Democrats’ betrayals. 

Too many movement leaders have disavowed revolutionary
aims, only to see meager returns on their lowest-common-denominator
politics.  Union bureaucrats content to take concessions and embrace
new management schemes in return for hollow promises of plant
stability and job security have presided over a catastrophic decline
of the union movement in social clout and membership.  And although
the civil rights movement and worldwide anti-colonial revolutions
of the 1950s and 1960s converged to break down Jim Crow segregation,
the lives of the majority of Black people remain little changed
by the layer of urban Black politicians and professionals that
emerged in the 1970s.

Rather than taking advantage of the superb opportunity
to project a plausible alternative to politics as usual, too many
radicals and socialists have clung to the Democratic Party as
if it were their only option.  Their presence as the subordinate
and ultimately illusory "left" wing of an increasingly
corporate-dominated and rightward-moving Democratic Party has
not just been futile; it’s been counterproductive.  Unable to tap
the social disaffections and frustrations generated by corporate
capitalism and a gargantuan military state, the left has allowed
a moment of great promise to be lost to despair and a shallow,
demagogic "populism" of the sort orchestrated by billionaire
Ross Perot in 1992. 

6.  Socialism from Below: The Democratic Alternative

Although to many people the prospect of a revived
socialist movement or working-class political party seems but
a pipe dream, capitalism is showing its impracticality and obsolescence
in a host of ways at this very moment.  A rebirth of socialism
is possible, just as periods of calm in the past have been interrupted
by resurgences of radicalism. 

Socialism will only be worth the effort, though,
if past socialist conduct is subjected to an unflinching criticism. 
Many reservations that people have about socialism are the result
of a perfectly healthy revulsion against the pathologies, absurdities
and monstrosities which have masqueraded as "socialism"
throughout much of this century. 

Around the world, states ruled by single parties
and dictatorial autocrats draped themselves with the trappings
of Marxism.  In the United States, minuscule groups announced themselves
"the vanguard" of the working class.  In some cases socialists,
who ought to stand for equality, tolerated self-aggrandizing (usually,
though not always, male) leaders.  Stifling of democratic norms
was justified in tough language as the "centralism"
crucial for political effectiveness.  Others tried, with miserable
results, to dispense with leadership in the belief that it is
automatically authoritarian.

A vulgar anti-intellectualism has too often discouraged
theoretical inquiry on the left, while a phony sort of academic
radicalism has assigned a special and unique importance to "discourse"
and forgotten how to talk in plain language about how to change
the world.  In the absence of immediate revolutionary prospects,
a tiny minority on the left have acted out infantile, self-indulgent
acts of rage; many more have habitually resorted to professional
lobbying and other reformist political styles that don’t challenge
people to act on their own behalf. 

To rebuild a broad, pluralist left capable of sidestepping
such traps will require a flexible new culture and way of thinking,
not just a set of political "lines" or a traditional
program.  No one can pretend to have a sure formula for how to
overturn the existing order and build a new one.  But we are confident
that the struggle for a different society will have to begin with
the rejection of elitist, condescending, top-down varieties of
socialism.  It is time for socialism from below.

Socialism from below is a vision of a new world,
based on one central conviction: that human beings can construct
a society without exploitation and oppression through, and only
through, the maximum extension of democratic control, not only
in the political-electoral arena but throughout economic and social

This view is counterposed both to social democracy,
the Swedish-style model which argues that socialism will be created
(or capitalism made humane) through incremental changes within
the capitalist state; and to Stalinism, which identified socialism
with the control of society by a self-styled communist party. 
These two forms of socialism from above have tragically dominated
socialist thinking for most of the past century, so that their
crisis is now falsely understood to mean the death of socialism

Many deduce from the failure of the Soviet Union
that a planned economy is impossible.  But planning ought not be
confused with command.  The failure of the Soviet Union illustrates
the futility of authoritarian administration, not democratic planning. 
In a society based upon democratic political competition, workers
would have a direct stake in the economy.  With free expression,
the flow of information would be rapid and open, permitting more
rational decisions to be made.  Plans would reflect social priorities,
not the stunted aims of a bureaucracy committed to the preservation
of its rule.

Socialism from below does not claim to offer a perfect
society for "the day after the revolution." Rather,
it is dedicated to expanding the opportunity for self-organization
infinitely.  Its key premise is that liberation is taken, not given. 
That process begins here and now with the consistent struggle
for greater democracy.  Even though gains won in this society are
tightly constrained by capitalism, the working class must organize
for basic self-defense in the unions; create alliances with all
movements and struggles against oppression; and prepare itself
for a revolutionary fight for power.

The principle of self-emancipation applies not only
to workers as a class but to all those who are subjugated, denied
human rights, treated exclusively as sexual objects to the neglect
of their other capacities, or made targets of discrimination –
whether it’s because they are people of color; lesbian, gay or
bisexual; disabled; young or old. 

Socialism will not "award" these freedoms. 

They will be won by people on their own, together, in collective
and democratic action.  We seek a revolution that is constantly
self-renewing, even as a new society is constructed which facilitates
and encourages radical democracy.

Women will be able to organize at the workplace to
ensure that equal pay becomes a reality and sexual harassment
a thing of the past, while in neighborhoods and homes a powerful
women’s movement and new feminist consciousness will put an end
to the abuse and neglect that women currently suffer in a male-dominated

People of color will, through their own organizations,
shape the ways that a new socialist society will redress the decades
of disinvestment, unemployment, poor education and toxic waste
dumps that their communities have suffered.  Even though these
victories will not be automatically or necessarily rapid, they
will for the first time be possible with the removal of the capitalist
class that now prevents them.

Democratic planning and control of the economy will
be exercised through mass representative institutions, based on
the shop-floor and workplace and extending to community organizations
as well.  A society not based upon private profit or the power
of a bureaucracy would no longer tolerate restrictions on human
rights.  The right to creative, safe and dignified work would no
longer be compromised by the "free market." Freedom
of speech, press, assembly and political organization would not
be pitted against the need for security (as if sacrificing political
freedom has ever guaranteed economic prosperity).  Medical care
would be universal and free of charge.

The realm of freedom – time for culture and imagination,
relaxation and leisure, self-expression and education – would
expand dramatically as social wealth is diverted from the obscene
enrichment of a few toward the vast benefit of many.  People would
be free to live and love without the sexist and heterosexist prejudices
and restrictions fostered by all exploitative systems. 

When the social consequences of investment rise to
the forefront of economic decision-making, as has never been the
case in capitalist or bureaucratically-ruled societies, ecology
will be integrated with economics.  Conserving and recycling resources,
growing food without poisonous additives, clean and efficient
mass transportation – all are stymied by the needs of today’s
agribusiness, chemical and automobile industries.  Modern technology
and science have created the potential for sustainable abundance,
but only if public rationality is the basis for their use rather
than private profit and class rule. 

Furthermore – and this is crucially important – socialism
from below will have no need to colonize, loot or annex other
peoples.  All nations will be able to exercise their right of self-determination
free of imperialist occupiers.  The World Bank and International
Monetary Fund, which crush billions of people throughout the world
under a mountain of debt, will be abolished.  Resources stolen
from the so-called Third World will be returned to those peoples
to reconstruct their own societies, and mutual development rather
than parasitism will be the norm of global relations. 

7.  Why Revolution is Necessary

The emancipation of humanity from capitalism will
only come about when workers and their allies act in the offices,
factories and streets on their own behalf.  It cannot be achieved
through any shortcut, though many have been tried.

The working class and oppressed groups can learn
useful lessons, expand their base of power and enhance their skills
while struggling to change this society, but they can only begin
to create socialism by decisively removing the ruling class from
social, political and economic control.  Make no mistake: social
reforms are worth fighting for.  But as revolutionaries, we are
attentive to both the nature of particular reforms and to the
way in which they are pursued, favoring only those reforms and
strategies which help build class solidarity and collective power.
We therefore reject the route of "social democracy," 
which attempts to gradually reform capitalism by electing progressive
politicians, lobbying legislatively and conducting routine collective

The problem with social-democratic strategy is that
it relies upon a layer of representatives – professional politicians,
political staffers, union officials, and the leaderships of pressure
groups and parties – whose interests are distinct from and, in
key ways, opposed to those of the working class. 

Because reformist leaders value their security and
stability, they usually oppose militant action by their memberships,
even when it makes the best strategic sense from the standpoint
of the rank and file.  Instead such leaders favor accords with
capital that help to keep the social peace.  Especially in a period
like the present, when mass movements are in a shambles and capitalism
is in crisis, reformist officials become vehicles for the imposition
of austerity on the working class. 

In 1981, for example, Socialist Party candidate Francois
Mitterand was elected to the French presidency on a platform espousing
the radical "structural" reform of French capitalism. 
When the Socialists began implementing their program, French capitalists
threatened an investment strike.  Confronted with determined resistance,
unwilling to confiscate private property or lead a mass movement
to break capital’s force, the Socialists backed down.  By the end
of the decade, the Mitterand government’s policies were indistinguishable
from the Republican program in the United States: privatization
of state-owned industries, social service cutbacks, anti-immigration
laws and union-busting.

Even in more favorable periods, with mass support
and leaders committed to their principles, social democracy is
vulnerable to defeat due because it is reluctant to dismantle
the state military apparatus or overturn capitalist relations
of production.  For example, the "Popular Unity" cause
came to power in Chile in 1970, seeking to bring about socialism
through a powerful electoral coalition and radical parliamentary
reforms.  President Salvador Allende, a Socialist, and the leaders
of the mass left-wing parties argued that the military would "stay
out of politics" so long as revolutionary leaders respected
the legal norms and kept weapons out of the hands of the masses. 
When General Pinochet staged a coup backed by the U.S. in September
1973, Allende and tens of thousands of workers were murdered.
The movement was destroyed.

Thus the paradox of reformism: it’s not the way to
win reforms.  Especially in periods of capitalist crisis, when
the system’s ability to absorb demands is minimal, substantial
social gains can only be won through the militant collective action
of working people and mass movements aiming at the democratic
conquest of social power.  Without such pressure from below, the
election of well-intentioned politicos is basically meaningless. 

In the absence of revolutionary politics, the aim of socialism
can be sacrificed at crucial moments to the error of moderation.

Again, we don’t object to reformism because it advocates
reforms, but because it has such a sorry record for obtaining
them.  We have no callous desire to "bring the system down"
by letting people starve, as is sometimes attributed to revolutionaries. 
On the contrary, we aim to show people that by organizing and
struggling, they can win.  We work to revive the type of mass social
movements – like the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil
rights movement of the 1960s – which are unafraid of engaging
in large-scale confrontation with corporations and the state,
which enable people to impose their own demands upon the power
structure without relying upon undependable officials, and which
understand their ultimate aims to be revolutionary.

8.  Working-Class Politics Today

But isn’t the age of workers’ revolutions over?  Is
all this talk about the working class old stuff, more appropriate
to the nineteenth century than today?  Even many on the left of
the political spectrum have come to believe so.  They argue that
the hope for liberation from below is a charming but hopeless,
even dangerous, dream; or that the American working class is bought
off and reactionary, if it has not disappeared altogether; or
that to focus on class inevitably means that race, gender and
other important considerations are suppressed. 

We see such thinking as double-edged.  Often it represents
a healthy reaction against a rigid and schematic Marxism, unworthy
of the name, which sought to stuff all social categories into
the rubric of class, explained all social ideas and problems by
reference to economics, and ignored many personal dimensions of

Yet much of the new critical current – often called
"identity politics" – makes equally serious mistakes. 

It typically fails to think strategically about how change can
be brought about, missing the need to forge alliances on a firm
foundation, or to think systematically about the need for dismantling
capitalism.  Too often it disguises in high-sounding jargon a debilitating
theoretical retreat from radical goals.

This backtracking from revolutionary politics takes
much of its legitimacy from the new global conditions created
by the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989.  But the collapse
of those regimes does not debunk socialism; those states had long
ago developed dominant social layers with exclusive privileges
and power, and were in no meaningful sense socialist. 

The movements that overthrew Stalinism were the culmination
of decades of dissident organizing, interaction with anti-nuclear
and ecological radicals in the West, and, in the end, mass demonstrations
and popular action from below.  Their success actually confirms
the power of social revolution in our time.

The new theoretical reaction against revolutionary
working-class politics also comes, ironically, at a time when
the reality of class divisions in U.S. society is more pronounced
than ever.  The idea that American workers are "privileged"

or "bought off" is implausible in an epoch of downsizing
and restructuring.  Indeed, Americans have a much higher degree
of class awareness than routine academic and media portrayals
suggest.  A 1983 survey by the National Opinion Research Center
found that more people identified themselves as working class
(48%) than middle class (43%).  Among people under 35, the proportion
seeing themselves as working class was even higher. 

At the same time, a precipitous forty-year decline
in the proportion of workers in unions – the institutions that
give workers a chance to come together, defend their interests,
and conceive of an independent politics of their own – has meant
that the working class has not been able to shape a coherent political
fightback, despite a number of courageous separate struggles in
airlines, mining, auto and other sectors. 

It is undeniable that working people, like individuals
from all classes, can be racist and sexist.  We abhor such tendencies
and fight against them wherever we find them.  But the struggle
against the oppression of women and people of color is in no way
damaged by recognizing the centrality (not exclusivity or sufficiency)
of the working class to the overthrow of corporate power and the
creation of a society free from exploitation and oppression. 

Consider this: Can the worsening of racism and xenophobia
today – the resentment of affirmative action, the opposition to
immigration and the neo-fascist movement around the world – really
be blamed on a left that is overly vigorous in seeing working
people as the decisive class?  Not at all.  Racism’s resurgence
has a lot to do with the absence of a confident revolutionary
left capable of providing an alternative way of understanding
and responding to the social crisis.  Victims blame one another
when they see no chance for a social order without victims.

Recognition of the centrality of the working class
to human liberation does not mean that independent political and
cultural movements should be subordinated to labor or told to
wait until "after the revolution" to make special claims
for redressal of their situations.  To the contrary, socialists
of our persuasion are busy in many movements in addition to the
trade unions, and we support the right of all oppressed groups
– including women, people of color, and gays and lesbians – to
organize their own independent struggles. 

Because these struggles are interlinked, we try in
every movement to raise socialist perspectives and views.  We do
not want popular movements to fit narrow purposes or be set against
one another.  We believe, for instance, that the cause of women
will be profoundly damaged if feminism is dominated by a world
view that is inattentive to the particular needs of working women
and women of color.  Similarly, we raise views like feminism, anti-racism
and environmentalism within the labor movement – not just because
they fit our values, but because we are persuaded that they will
enhance labor’s inclusiveness and effectiveness.  The inherent
reciprocity of radical social movements is enhanced when socialists
help to point out potential bases of unity.

The revolutionary potential of the working class
and its allies has been demonstrated many times.  United States
history is full of examples of militant workers and radicals in
struggle, from the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers
of the World to the sit-down strikes of the CIO and the Dodge
Revolutionary Union Movement.  World history, too, reveals the
revolutionary potential of workers and the oppressed: workers’
councils in the aftermath of World War I, the May 1968 revolution
in France, the rise of COSATU in South Africa in the 1980s, and
the mass-based Workers’ Party in Brazil today.

A revived working-class radicalism in the U.S. will
need organizational backbone while remaining open to experimentation
and flexibility, free from the bureaucratic business mentality
that corrupts many union leaders now.  This means recognizing that
fights for better inner-city schools, expanded student aid, neighborhood
renewal, better housing, child care, strict ecological safeguards
and bans on sexual harassment are working-class aims, even if
they do not emerge out of shop-floor organizing or trade union
demands.  Within the unions, it means fighting for democratic accountability
of officials, resisting concessions, developing international
alliances, and organizing the unorganized. 

Only with the formation of an independent party in
the United States that makes a clean break from the politics of
big business, whether Democratic or Republican, will working people
be completely able to put forward their own politics on their
own terms.  The prospect of a third party no longer seems entirely
remote.  We take heart from the increasing number of Green elected
officials, from the exploratory efforts of Labor Party Advocates,
from local initiatives like the New Progressive Party of Wisconsin,
from the leadership for independent Black politics exhibited by
former Jesse Jackson aide Ron Daniels, and from the election in
Vermont of Bernie Sanders, the first socialist independent to
sit in the House of Representatives in forty years.

9.  Why Join a Socialist Organization?

To put this ambitious political perspective into
practice will take conscious effort.  That’s why we want to appeal
to you to join our organization and help build the socialist movement.

First a word of caution: Some things not even socialism
can do.  Socialism won’t solve your personal problems or bring
you eternal peace.  It won’t help you lose extra pounds or dice
carrots faster.  It won’t even give you ready-made answers to political

That’s fine with us.  We expect socialism to be created
by real people with all their problems, not angels.  We try to
acknowledge our errors and to learn from those mistakes and each
other.  We don’t expect to agree on every point or to have all
the answers.  No one in our group has to sacrifice their independence
or mechanically carry out a "line." We believe a socialist
group should allow for personal expression – expand freedom, not
stunt it. 

We also try to generate a common political orientation. 

The main reason to join a socialist organization, of course, is
work toward socialism.  The abolition of class rule and establishment
of workers’ democracy will not come about unless there are socialists
organized to push for it in a group capable of generating high-quality
political analysis and carrying out effective action. 

But there are many other reasons why belonging to
a socialist organization is worthwhile:

  • To Integrate Divergent Experiences.
    Good local activism in particular social movements is crucial,
    but it’s much more effective when activists from the East and
    West coasts can meet, learn about different regional experiences
    and draw inspiration and lessons from each other.  In the right
    kind of socialist group, workers mix with intellectuals; older
    comrades share historic knowledge with young revolutionaries;
    environmentalists talk to gay liberation activists, health care
    advocates to feminists, and Teamsters and U.A.W. members to the
  • To Win Others to the Cause.
    Under advanced capitalism, most of the key institutions responsible
    for generating and spreading ideas – schools, churches, TV, radio,
    movies – exclude, ignore or caricature revolutionary views.  Only
    visible socialist organizations with resources and publications
    make the alternative to capitalism known.

  • To Stay the Course.
    There’s little money, fame or glory in being a revolutionary –
    certainly not in times like these.  With all of the pressures put
    on radicals, it’s hard to "keep your eyes on the prize,"
    as the civil rights anthem put it.  It’s a lot easier to remain
    true to your principles when you have comrades to turn to for
    moral support and fresh thinking.
  • To Develop Coherent Politics.
    Through debate and analysis, socialists help one another understand
    what’s happening in the country and the world and how best to
    face the challenges that the left and working people confront. 
    Only socialist organizations develop Marxist and feminist theory
    in connection with contemporary political practice in a manner
    conducive to better activism.

Membership in a socialist group, in other words,
ought to complement your practical and theoretical work – not
compete with your activism, drag you into sectarian irrelevance,
or hold you prisoner to rigid schemes inappropriate to the world
around you.  We’re trying to develop a group with that type of
revolutionary socialist politics: democratic and radical, feminist
and internationalist, rational and effective, looking ahead to
a new century. 

We need your participation, talents and ideas.  Won’t
you join us?

AUTHORS’ POSTSCRIPT: Our thanks to Steve Bloom, Milton
Fisk, Eric Hamell, Frank Thompson, Charlie Post, Abra Quinn, Barbara
Zeluck, and the Madison and Portland branches of Solidarity, whose
written criticism of a draft of this pamphlet helped to improve
it substantially.