Talking about socialism in Detroit

Some of you might think that a discussion of socialism is premature — an example of being out of sync with the times. After all, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, we have been taking a battering from all sides. And since the tragedy of 9/11, things have gone from bad to infinitely worse.

“Isn’t the first priority,” you are probably saying to yourselves, “to defeat the Bush agenda? So why should we entertain the idea of a socialist future at this moment?”

Good question! And I agree with you that battling the Bush administration — not to mention the auto companies — is job #1, no ifs, ands or buts.

However in the course of these day-to-day struggles, I would argue, communists and socialists have to raise with more vigor, more conviction and more persuasiveness our longer-term solution. We have to bring the vision of socialism to a much larger audience.

Why? Because socialism isn’t just a good idea. It is a political imperative for humanity in the 21st century, despite its defeats in the 20th century.

Socialism is necessary!

Consider the following:

• Our government alone stockpiles 10,640 nuclear weapons that are infinitely more powerful than the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing nearly 200,000 innocent men, women, and children.

• More than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean fresh water.

• Fifty percent of wetland habitats have been destroyed.

• Arctic communities, native cultures and wildlife such as polar bears could become extinct by the end of this century due to the melting of northern ice caps.

• Half of the world’s children are suffering extreme deprivations from poverty, war and HIV/AIDS.

• Of the 57 million people who died in 2002, 10.5 million were children younger than 5 years old.

• 921 million people live in slums, according to a UN study.

• In the richest country in the world, 45 million people are without health care, 37 million people live in poverty and 2.1 million, mainly African American and other minorities, are in prison.

• Total employment in manufacturing has fallen by 3 million over the past two decades and average weekly earnings of manufacturing workers have remained stagnant since the mid-1970s.

• 100,000 more autoworkers are scheduled for layoff in the coming months, Delphi workers are facing the real prospect of massive wage cuts and benefit losses, and the entire benefit system of hundreds of thousands of UAW members hangs in the balance.

Disturbing? Alarming? Frightening? It should be.

At first glance, we can easily trace these crises to the corporate suites and the corridors of political power. But we have to look deeper and when we do, we see that these crises are organically generated and sustained by the system of capitalism — a system that incessantly and ruthlessly exploits labor and nature, a system that turns our most human and elementary needs into commodities to be bought and sold, a system that is increasingly wasteful, parasitic and irrational, a system that engenders racial and gender inequalities, a system that employs its military might in preemptive and destructive wars as it stretches its economic reach globally, and a system that attempts to bend every institution in our society to its singular, overpowering urge and logic to maximize corporate profits.

If capitalism were a new kid on the block we might say, “Let’s give it a little time to show its stuff, let’s see if it is capable of solving the immense problems facing humanity, and of taking advantage of the new possibilities of working and living in the 21st century, such as those offered by economic wealth and scientific advances.”

But the fact is that capitalism’s clock has been ticking for nearly six centuries. It has had plenty of time to show its advantages, plenty of time to find solutions to the problems that are still haunting humankind, plenty of time to create peace, equality and economic security for all of the world’s inhabitants.

If we were going to issue a report card on capitalism’s performance, there would be little for the ideologues of capitalism to crow about.

Of course, some zealous defenders of capitalism will counter, “Look at what has been achieved in North America, Western Europe and East Asia.” But that is a flimsy defense, at best, and it’s easy to pick holes in it.

For one thing, capitalism is a global system, and has been since its dawn. It can’t be judged solely by its performance in this or that country in the global north.

To be sure, capitalism has had its successes. Production and trade have expanded enormously, new workplace, transportation and communication technologies have come on line, and living standards have substantially increased over the centuries, and not for the monied classes alone, on capitalism’s watch. All this is undeniable.

But — and this is a big “but” — its successes have to be set against its seamy side: slavery, various forms of labor servitude, ruthless wage exploitation, territorial annexation, racism, gender oppression, anti-Semitism, fascism, two world wars and the division of the world into a small number of core capitalist countries and a much larger number of peripheral and dependent states that are, for the most part, languishing in unrelieved poverty.

What is more, even judging capitalism on its performance in the global north offers less than compelling evidence that it deserves an extension of its lease for another century. Even in the United States, a whole way of life is crumbling under the weight of capitalist globalization and neo-conservative policies, at a speed that is truly breathtaking.

Hundreds of millions of workers, employed and unemployed, go to bed wondering what tomorrow will bring. The “specter of insecurity” now touches nearly every worker in the global north as well as the global south.

In our country, the old core industries that led the expansion in the aftermath of World War II have been systematically dismantled. And along with them, the communities in which these industries were located have been torn apart.

In yesterday’s world, Detroit was the Motor City, famous for the grid of auto plants that filled much of the city’s physical space, and for a musical sound — Motown — that came out of those plants, electrified the country and inspired even the most lead-footed among us to “dance to the music.”

Today the city is a shell of its former shelf. The auto plants are closed, Berry Gordy’s Motown music fled to Hollywood long ago, streets are lined with abandoned houses, empty lots are everywhere and, much like New Orleans, it is the crash site of the tragic intersection of racial oppression, class exploitation and grueling poverty.

While Detroit is an extreme example of a fast disappearing way of life, it is on the same spectrum as many other big cities and small towns across our land that are angrily bidding farewell to an era that offered some hope, some prosperity, some security.



As ghastly and bloody as capitalism’s record is up to now, its future and the consequences for humankind could easily be worse. For capitalism’s destructive power — military, political, economic, ecological and even cultural — is immensely greater in this new century than it was in the last. Unless restrained and eventually dismantled, this power is capable of doing irreversible damage to life in all of its various forms.

A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg, the great communist leader, famously warned that humanity had a choice, “socialism or barbarism.” A century later, her words have even more meaning.

Another world is possible and necessary.

Sam Webb (swebb@cpusa.org) is national chair of the Communist Party USA. This article is adapted from remarks delivered at a meeting in Detroit, Dec. 5.