People’s World Series on Socialism
Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here.
The 2016 presidential elections have put the word “socialism” center stage in American politics. This is thanks in part to the enthusiasm behind presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Since Sanders burst onto the mainstream political scene with his talk of creating a culture that was not just “based on the worship of money,” but where the middle class and working families receive a “fair deal,” the conversation around just what socialism is and how much better it might be in relation to our current system (capitalism) has increased. This is especially true among young people, or those considered to be millennials. A recent poll conducted by Harvard University asked young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 if they supported capitalism. The poll found that 51 percent of the participants did not support the economic status quo. 33 percent were even willing to go a step further and said they support socialism.
As someone who identifies as a communist, this poll was music to my ears. It gave me hope that the emerging generation – my own generation – was closer to understanding that capitalism is a system built on exploitation and greed that needs to be done away with in favor of a system that does not exploit a majority of the population. While 33 percent is a pretty impressive number, it’s still not a majority. Over half of the millennials polled were ready to drop capitalism, but only about two-thirds of these were ready to embrace socialism. Another third didn’t know what system should replace capitalism.
With polls such as this, and the enthusiasm behind Sanders’ “political revolution,” it’s obvious that a good amount of people are tired of the status quo. Yet, those same people may be conflicted on whether there is a real concrete alternative to what we have now. I mean, socialism sounds nice and all, and capitalism has one too many problems, but is socialism really practical? Can it do away with the contradictions found under capitalism?
I’d like to believe that the ONLY way socialism can actually flourish is if it is as practical as possible. Meaning, it tackles all the ills of capitalism and seeks to rectify them. Socialism can’t be treated like a fantasy one turns to when capitalism ‘gets them down,’ but rather as a step towards something more productive than capitalism. It takes work. It takes understanding. It takes time. In an age of instant information, instant gratification, and Instagram, this may not be something people want to hear.
Capitalism is an economic system in which a country’s wealth, resources, and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the people who create them. Under capitalism, exploitation is the central operating principle of the whole economic system; it’s how those who own the wealth make all their profits. Exploitation and greed are not exceptions to the rule, but rather serve as regular staples in this system. Under capitalism, there are sections of the population that have been, and continue to be, super-exploited and disenfranchised based on race and/or gender. This is how they divide us and keep the 99 percent fragmented.
If socialism is to practically address the ills of capitalism, then it has to address all of the ways in which capitalism has exploited working people.
Back in the 1980s, Soviet author V.G. Afanasyev, in his book Historical Materialism, said socialism was defined by the “domination of public ownership of the means of production and the absence of exploitation.” “Socialism,” he said, “forever abolishes…all forms of social, national, and racial oppression.” It’s a nice enough definition, but it doesn’t really provide much guidance on how all of that might come to pass when we look at things from the perspective of the United States in the 21st century. It can’t really be as simple as property ownership. And capitalism’s problems go beyond exploiting workers or not giving fair wages. It embeds certain ideals, such as dog-eat-dog competition, racism, and sexism, which serve to make working people police themselves and perpetuate the system. People don’t exist in a vacuum separate and apart from a system, even if they aren’t the ones in control of it.
What does that mean? It means that, even if we were to change over to socialism as an economic and political system tomorrow, a lot of the population would still carry with them the toxic capitalist mindset of today. It would be doomed from the outset if the people and the leadership weren’t taking a comprehensive approach to combat and unlearn the “lessons” taught by the capitalist system. It’s not just economic or political. It’s also moral.
A socialist system would dig deep to understand the ways in which racism and sexism don’t just go away because power changes hands.
A socialist system would work to undo the decades of disenfranchisement African-Americans have suffered under capitalism – from the slave system and the failure of Radical Reconstruction, to the damage done by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation. Not to mention the problematic prison industrial complex that has a disproportionate amount of black Americans currently serving time in it. The ramifications of this oppression won’t go away simply by wage increases alone.
A socialist system would work to combat the “lessons” of rape culture that capitalism continues to implement that aim at normalizing sexism and violence and oppression against women.
From my perspective as an African-American woman, any kind of socialism that isn’t actively working to combat racism and sexism isn’t being practical at all, not to mention realistic. Injustices tied to race, gender, and sexual identity and orientation are not back-burner topics that will disappear with the change of an economic system.
A socialist system needs to be one that takes a holistic approach to the human condition under capitalism, and seeks to help in the process of healing working people from years of trying to survive in a system that only wanted to define them by the profit they could provide for another. Those battle scars won’t go away just because “class” is no longer an issue.
Socialism is a step on the path to true freedom from these ills. As Karl Marx, who had a thing or two to say about socialism and communism, wrote in the third volume of Capital: “[F]reedom…cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power.” Marx explained that once people – acting together – have secured the ability to regulate a system of production where there is no longer any exploitation, then they can begin to truly live. Then would begin the true “development of human power,” as he put it, “the true realm of freedom.” I couldn’t agree more.
Overall, a socialist system would look like a people at work, beginning the journey towards true liberation from exploitation. Towards a life where work and wages alone don’t define who they are or what they’re worth. Where, as time passes, the shackles of the toxicity that is capitalism are taken off because true democracy is at work – the people are in control and the government is an actual representation of that, and acts accordingly. A socialist system would look like concrete hope and movement – with measurable goals – towards a better tomorrow.
Chauncey K. Robinson is the social media editor for People’s World and a member of the National Board of the Communist Party. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and an occasional playwright and theatre director.