Socialism from A to Z

June 29, 2016

A new book written by Jacobin contributors makes the case that socialism is the only alternative to a world of war, repression and inequality, writes Todd Chretien.

THE ABCs of Socialism is just what the doctor ordered for a generation sickened by neoliberal capitalism and its associated syndromes. Bhaskar Sunkara contributed to and edited this pugnacious collection of essays by Jacobin magazine writers neatly arranged to take on a range of questions habitually thrown at the feet of socialist organizers:

Question: But at least capitalism is free and democratic, right? Answer: Nope.

Question: Will socialism be boring? Answer: Quite the opposite.

Question: Don't the rich deserve to keep most of their money? Answer: You're kidding, right?

Readers will be immediately struck by the welcoming approach and confident tone employed by each of the contributors; no mealy-mouthed misdirection or academic mumbo-jumbo here. Instead, they are ready and willing to take on all comers with straight talk, a toolbox of historical examples at the ready, and the belief that their audience is smart enough to think for themselves.

As someone who's made many of these arguments for decades, I can't help but think the authors' easy assertiveness has something to do with the fact that, in place of the typical drag associated with American anti-communism, they have the wind at their backs as a huge number of young people are rushing for the exits of neoliberalism's ideological prison. And Margaret Thatcher is surely rolling in her grave as millions refuse to believe that "There Is No Alternative," instead asking if "Socialism Is The Alternative" to global capitalism, for our sake and for the sake of the planet.

Protesting in New York City's Union Square against the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer

It may not yet be a fair fight between TINA and SITA, but for the first time in decades, the latter is off the ropes, even getting in a few jabs. As Sunkara notes, "The ABCs of Socialism will be useful for years to come--not only as a primer for future generations of radicals, but also as an artifact of a time when the socialist left was once again filled with promise."

Normally I wouldn't comment on a book's design and layout, yet in this case these elements cannot be left as an afterthought. Rather, Phil Wrigglesworth's illustration and design bring the short-sharp-shock text to life, almost three dimensionally so. Work-a-day cartoon characters, brightly colored texts, and a sort of "Chutes and Ladders" internal structure pulls you along from chapter to chapter. I am reminded of one of those pop-up books I loved as a kid: Turn the page and a whole city block rises up. The only difference with Wrigglesworth's work is that he brings socialist ideas to life.

I am no art critic, but I was lucky enough to have recently attended an exhibit of cinema and poster and household art from the period of the Russian Revolution. What struck me then was the commitment of the artists on display to integrate their own creative sentiment with a desire to draw previously excluded classes into their world, even as they strove to meet those classes halfway by making their art "useful"--not in some crude utilitarian sense, but in a celebration of mutual respect and exchange in pursuit of popular participation, political debate and class struggle.

Review: Books

The ABCs of Socialism, edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, illustrated by Phil Wrigglesworth. Verso Books, 2016, 138 pages, $14.95.

If the ethic and effect of those works played a part in overcoming the terrible plagues of illiteracy and prejudice in those years, then Sunkara and Wrigglesworth's design takes aim at our contemporary ailments of politics-by-tweet-flame-war and an aversion to face-to-face engagement and discussion.

THE ABCs of Socialism practically cries out to be dog-eared; to be shared with friends and classmates; to be pointed to on trains and busses as an invitation to conversation; to be provocatively displayed at work on desks or in break rooms; and thrown down as a challenge on coffee tables during family get-togethers. "I dare you, Drunk Uncle, ask me if I'm a socialist!"

Hundreds of thousands of young people (and not so young people) were inspired by Bernie Sanders' advocacy of "democratic socialism" this spring. But it is one thing to support an individual politician, and quite another to transform yourself into an advocate of and organizer for the socialist overturning of American capitalism. If you want to join that team, you need to build up your chops, and The ABCs is a wonderful place to start--or to start a friend.

The book as a whole provides ample food for thought (with surprising complexities hidden in plain sight) and efficiently levels the playing field between those of us who've been at this for a while and people who have come to the party more recently.

To this end, several authors take up burning questions of today. Nivedita Majumdar refutes the charge that socialist ideas are merely Western and not of global applicability, while Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Nicole Aschoff and Alyssa Battistoni situate socialist strategies in the heart of the struggles against racism, sexism and environmental catastrophe.

Collectively, this set of chapters argues for the necessity of a generalized political theory and practice that locates class, capital and oppression squarely in the same playing field rather than conceiving these momentous challenges as separate silos linked only by moralism or rhetoric. As Battistoni puts it, "There is nothing Eurocentric in rejecting the destructive logic of capital and fighting for a better world to replace it. It is the genuinely universal and humane choice."

Other chapters draw the curtains obscuring the clunky inner workings of capital itself. Vivek Chibber explains why workers are both the source of profits and potentially the weak link in the system and Erik Olin Wright undermines the association between human freedom and the free market.

Mike A. McCarthy demonstrates why taxes on the rich and corporations are not only "fair," but they represent the recovery of only a small portion of what the capitalists have pilfered from society as a whole under a set of peculiar rules. "The total income generated in a capitalist society is the result of a collective social effort, made possible by a specific social and legal architecture, and channeled through both publicly funded and privately controlled and financed institutions."

In sum, the rich don't deserve to keep their money because it is not really theirs to keep in the first place.

Elsewhere, The ABCs takes up questions of everyday life. Adaner Usmani and Bhaskar Sunkara bust the myth that humans are naturally selfish, even if most often ordinary people choose, quite rationally, to keep their heads down by developing "strategies to get by" in a system that targets them for exploitation, oppression, and when necessary, repression. Solidarity and collective struggle are risky, but "our shared nature," argue Usmani and Sunkara, ultimately makes this choice a real historical potential. Of course, none of that means social cooperation rules out conflict.

As Danny Katch puts it, "If your case for socialism rests on the idea that people will stop getting into arguments and even occasionally acting like jerks, you should probably find another cause." Katch is a funny guy, but his point is serious and should be taken to heart by anyone entering politics. Our job as revolutionaries is not to find a small group of friends with a common view of the world with whom we are comfortable; rather, it is to find a way to construct powerful movements, organizations and parties based masses of people who share common interests but who have different lived experiences. There is nothing automatic about working-class unity across race, gender, nationality, language and other different starting points.

And we certainly don't have to like all the same music. Which is a good thing because Sunkara spends a whole chapter disparaging Kenny Loggins, failing utterly to appreciate the importance of the Footloose soundtrack to some of us who survived Reagan's counterrevolution in the 1980s. Sure, his point is to distinguish between individuals' right to keep his or her own personal property (e.g. Kenny Loggins records) and the socialist case for "abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use--factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure--and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power." That's fair enough, but isn't that exactly what Kenny Loggins was singing about?

Been working so hard
I'm punching my card
Eight hours for what
Oh, tell me what I got

I've got this feeling
That times are holding me down
I'll hit the ceiling
Or else I'll tear up this town.

Now I gotta cut loose, footloose... REVOLUTION!

OK, I admit I may be reading something into that.

AT ANY rate, speaking of revolution, my one criticism of The ABCs is that this question is left curiously at the doorstep.

For instance, Chris Maisano effectively answers the question "Isn't the U.S. already kind of socialist?" by debunking the idea that the very existence of public agencies (the Post Office, fire departments, police departments, county planning departments, etc.) implies a really existing bit of socialism. "Bits" of socialism cannot float in a capitalist ocean. Rather, Maisano writes, "Key questions about that state activity always need to be asked: does it reinforce or undermine the power of those who own capital?"

Maisano refreshingly sweeps aside decades of anarchist-infused aversion to dealing concretely with the nation-sized questions of class and state authority by arguing that "winning government power and using it to break the dominance of the capitalist class is a necessary condition for beginning the transition to socialism." From my point of view, this is an absolutely correct starting point--it's basically a paraphrase of the Communist Manifest where Marx and Engels argue that "the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy."

Maisano makes clear that he places little faith in using current state structures to redistribute the capitalists' wealth, pointing out that any socialist transition would "not only entail creating directly democratic bodies that supplant or complement representative institutions like Congress, but dramatically overhauling state agencies and administrative structures."

He adds that we would need the popular power to "transform the often alienating and repressive bureaucracies that currently administer public services," but leaves the question of whether than can be done along the path of reform (certainly very radical ones) or revolution. Here we come upon a long-running debate in the socialist movement and, even if we cannot test the two theses in practice at the moment owing to our weakness, how we respond can have a profound impact on what strategies we pursue today.

Although dealing with the question of political violence in general, Jonah Birch's chapter can be read as providing a response to one aspect of the reform or revolution question, writing:

The socialist movement wants to eradicate war because it is brutal and irrational...But in a world filled with exploitation and oppression, one has to differentiate between the violence of those fighting to maintain injustice, and those fighting against injustice. One cannot, for example, conflate the violence of South African apartheid with that of the armed elements of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

Birch is not arguing that force is always necessary, or advisable, but any survey of history compels us to recognize that the capitalist state nearly always reaches for the night stick, tear gas, or the gun, not to mention prisons, whenever the class forces it defends come under any threat. Accordingly, we must adopt strategies that account for this, not as a remote possibility, but as an extremely likely occurrence.

RETURNING MORE broadly to this dilemma, Joseph M. Schwartz offers a spirited defense of those who (starting with Marx himself) believed socialism could only be based on the most radical practice of workers' democracy. He excoriates attempts by Stalinist regimes to impose socialism from above. However, in doing so he looks to another branch of elite or technocratic socialism as a counterweight; namely, efforts by social-democratic governments in France and Sweden in the 1980s to manage national capitalism using the instruments provided by the existing capitalist states into which they were elected.

He forthrightly acknowledges that their eventual defeats and reversals only confirmed the "Left's prediction that either socialists would move beyond the welfare state to democratic control over capital or capitalist power would erode the gains of postwar social democracy." But this only carries us full circle back to the question of reform or revolution and the importance of clearly understanding the classic case of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Schwartz invokes Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge and their critiques of soviet power in Russia under the Bolshevik Party in order to ask "how to move beyond capitalist oligarchy to socialist democracy" without ending up with saddled with a tyrannical state bureaucracy. This is a critical question, but in my estimation Schwartz too easily elides Bolshevism into Stalinism.

There are smart people on both sides of this discussion, but I'm not so sure that Luxemburg and Serge would take the side that Schwarz implies they would. Suffice it to say here that Serge himself joined the Bolshevik Party in early years of the revolution and Luxemburg claimed, her criticisms notwithstanding, that "[a]ll the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism."

Schwartz is absolutely right to refer to the problems that arose after the Russian Revolution, its subsequent degeneration, and the rise of a whole series of bureaucratic regimes after the Second World War, from China to Eastern Europe, and beyond. These are not problems the socialist movement can, or should, sweep under the rug, if for no other reason than we should expect the capitalist press to put them front and center any time workers begin to exercise even a iota of their own power. But I would flag this chapter as one that deserves a vigorous rejoinder.

Fittingly, The ABCs of Socialism ends with a kind of invitation to "write your own conclusion," with four pages of red blank lines for notes. Not content with one-way mediums (of which they have enjoyed considerable success), the Jacobin crew has launched dozens of reading circles in the U.S. and internationally in the last couple years. This book will spark intense discussion in the existing ones and, with luck, lead to more such circles popping up.

I often conclude reviews by saying something like "putting my own criticisms aside, read this book." My only amendment this time is that I hope thousands of people buy and share this book with their friends, classmates, co-workers and families, not in order to put their collective criticisms aside, but in order to transform them into vibrant and passionate debates that lead to initiatives, organization, and action--all in the service of strengthening the power of the working class to, as comrade Loggins says, "tear up this town."

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