Why Socialism? Revolutionary Politics for a New Century

By Dianne Feeley, David Finkel, and Christopher Phelps

Posted August 24, 2006


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 ecological.

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 burned.

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 supermarkets.

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 profit.

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 people.

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 life.

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 itself.

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 society.

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 bargaining.

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 life.

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 questions.

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 as-yet-unorganized.

  • 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.