Strong Medicine: Toxic Capitalism and the Socialist Cure

From a talk given at the Imagine Revolution Conference, 2002

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When I was asked to give this talk, I felt like a kid offered my weight in candy. Wow! You want me to consider the wonders that socialism will bring, and then give a talk about it? How many hours can I speak?

Of course, considering what the socialist future will be like, although a blast, is a serious question, too. It matters. And it’s connected to several other questions that I’ll also address:

• The first thing is, do we really have to go as far as revolution? Can’t we just organize for a kinder, gentler capitalism?

• Then there’s the one that’s the clincher for many people—wouldn’t socialism here look like the Stalinist regime in the USSR? How can anyone be sure it’s not going to happen?

• And finally, once we cover how great socialism will really be, there’s the vital question of how do we get there from here?

Can capitalism be fundamentally reformed?

I’m going to be brief. Capitalism stinks. It doesn’t work for the overwhelming majority of the world’s people, including the majority of Americans, a fact that is a no-brainer. The devastation caused by the WTO, the World Bank, and the war zones in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Columbia, just to name a few current examples, prove that daily.Closer to home, we have only to consider a few basic facts. In the richest country in the world, around 15% of people live in poverty.(1) Almost 15% have no health coverage.(2) Racism, sexism and homophobia are permanent features of society; and police brutality decimates communities of color. Over 13% of Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are incarcerated.(3) The overall rate of incarceration is 60% higher than only a decade ago—and between 5 and 17 times higher than in other highly industrialized countries.(4) Millions of people are homeless.

The profit system has proved itself unworthy to exist. And now with rampant environmental devastation and global warming, it threatens the very existence of the planet.

As for the likelihood of reforming it, capitalism has been around since the beginning of the 16th Century. If it was capable of transformation into a humane and sustainable system, it would have happened by now. As my colleague Tamara Turner says, “Capitalism can’t have its cake without eating ours, too!”

So, if we’re logical about it, being anti-capitalist is easy. But to become a socialist requires believing that it is a real, workable and desirable alternative.

Won’t socialism in the US look like Stalinism in the USSR?

That plausible lie emanates from the Bill Gates and Alan Greenspan school of thinking and is actually historically impossible. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution with Vladimir Lenin, observed in 1935, “actually American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States … differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II.(5) What he meant was that Russia before the revolution was a terribly backward country, whereas the US today is the richest country in the world. After our revolution, we will be starting at a technological, educational, historical point far ahead of where the Russians began. We also have the advantage of a revolutionary history and a Bill of Rights secured for us by the common people who were the backbone of the anti-colonial revolution.

You see, socialism is by definition shared wealth. The revolutions that took place in Russia and other economically backward countries could only go so far, because they were held back by poverty. Whenever there is scarcity, a scramble for the good things that are in short supply is inevitable, and a consequent division into the haves and have-nots occurs. And that’s not to mention the military might brought to bear against every revolution by the imperialist countries, the US more than any other. That is what Salvador was talking about.

Revolutions in the rich, presently imperialist countries like the US are necessary to open the door to real, worldwide socialism. Without a capitalist US to crush or smother other revolutions, they will explode everywhere, like fireworks on the Fourth of July. And they will be able to move forward into shared wealth instead of being stuck at trying to equalize poverty.

When you consider that the wealth of the richest three individuals on earth is greater than the combined gross national product of the 48 least developed countries (with their 600 million people), this perspective is no utopian dream, but just logical fact.(6)

What is socialism?

Quite simply, it is public ownership of all major corporations—industry (manufacturing, services, and energy), banks and insurance companies, agribusiness, transportation, the media, schools and medical facilities. That doesn’t mean small businesses or individual belongings, but the giant enterprises that dominate the economy. These are privately owned, but their assets and profits have all been created by working people. In all fairness, they should belong to us!

Socialism is also by definition democratic. It is economic as well as political democracy. You really can’t have one without the other. We don’t have real democracy today because all the political power is in the hands of those who hold the wealth. Our last presidential election proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Revolutions are made when the majority of people decide they’re fed up and decide to do something about it. In the US, the first thing we the people will demand will be real democracy which means the end of politics as usual, i.e., corporate rule through the twin-party system.

Something that seems to pop up spontaneously in revolutions is workers councils at the workplace which take control of individual enterprises, industries, and government, from local to national. The people will either directly make policy decisions on what to produce and how, or have immediate recall rights over their representatives. Why? Because I say so? No. Because can you imagine American workers who have just taken over the reigns of society accepting anything less? And just who could take it away from us?

The first economic steps will be ones that even the poorest workers states (those where workers took political power from the capitalist class, even if they weren’t rich enough to set up socialism) have been able to take. Cuba, for instance, has guaranteed employment and housing, free medical care, child care and education through advanced degrees, elder care, and sports, music and arts opportunities for everyone. At our level of economic development, none of these things will be hard to provide on a global basis, and there is no excuse for everyone in the world not to have them—today!

The most basic difference between socialism and capitalism, besides the obvious one of who owns the wealth, is that capitalism is not under anyone’s control, even the capitalists. As Mel explained, it regularly runs amok from boom to bust, and every depression/recession drives the war machine.

Socialism short-circuits this insanity with a planned economy, in which we only produce as much of any product as is needed. Instead of store shelves being filled with 20 identical deodorants with different labels, we’ll poll people to find out what products they actually want, and produce as much as needed, without all the waste of market competition.

Technology will no longer be cornered in order to drive up prices, or buried when advances would interfere with profits. The organized use of resources and the end of war will make the earth a far richer place in a hurry.

We will be able to turn to rebuilding the environment, dealing with toxic waste, stopping the destruction of cultures and species, developing renewable energy, stopping the hogging of global resources by the US and Europe, and assisting the rest of the world to develop in a sane, sustainable, humanitarian manner.

Our costs of production will plummet, and with them the length of the workday. As James P. Cannon, the founder of Trotskyism in the US theorized, we’ll go rapidly from the four-hour work day to a lifetime labor contribution of maybe a year or two.(7) He thought most people would probably elect to get this time out of the way in their youth, so they can spend the rest of their lives doing whatever they want! Imagine the freedom of never knowing the struggle for survival that occupies so much of our lives today!

The human side of socialism

The richness of such a culture is almost unimaginable coming from our frame of reference. But I remember my trip to Cuba in 1997 with the Feminist Brigade that was jointly sponsored by Radical Women and the Federation of Cuban Women. We came to realize that Cubans, having lived in a workers state for 40 years, had a different frame of reference than the “rugged individualism” we are taught to prize. They find individual development and fulfillment in building the welfare of their communities and human society as a whole. For instance, Cuban doctors volunteer to work in some of the most poverty stricken places on the planet, something they can afford to do because the state pours money into free higher education for its citizens and teaches the values of sharing wealth and knowledge instead of hoarding it.

Contrary to myth, it is not “human nature” for people to be at each other’s throats. Rather dog-eat-dog attitudes are learned behavior taught by a ruling class based on theft, competition and greed.

The demise of discrimination

In becoming whole people, and a whole society, we will naturally get rid of all the hateful divisions that mark society today. There are those who argue that the bigotries of racism, sexism, homophobia, and national and religious antagonisms are so deep-seated that it is naive to think socialism can get rid of them easily. But all of these things are driven by poverty and under-privilege.

Those who say it will take eons to create equality don’t take into account how revolutions are made. Those who get the least out of this system are in the forefront of the movement to change it. And just as what started with the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s developed into the revolutionary politics and struggles of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party in the ‘70s, people of color will be at the heart of the struggle for socialism. Likewise, any revolution without women in the forefront, ain’t happening—that is a lesson history has already taught us. We will also smash homophobia, the oppression of children, ageism, and all other forms of discrimination, because those of us who suffer these blights will demand it. And because we have been in the thick of the fight, we will carry the weight to say so.

There are many other divisions that will naturally be abolished. Marx believed we will get rid of urban blight by decentralizing society so that everyone can live in the country, while having access to the cultural advantages of the town. And that the distinction between intellectual and manual labor, and between artists and the rest of us will disappear, too.

Since socialism in the US can only happen when we make a revolution, people will determine what society will look like. They will demand democracy, freedom, rich individual choices, and the truly equal opportunity and equal benefits that will turn racism, sexism, and all that old garbage into anachronisms practically overnight.

But all of this is just the beginning. In just a few years, society will be ahead of what we can even imagine today!

How do we get there from here?

As inspiring as these visions are and as useful in orienting us to what we are working towards, the key question is, how do we get there?

Most of all, by understanding the role of leadership, and not being afraid to take it, or follow it, either.

There’s lots of misunderstanding about what leadership is. It’s not that I tell you what to do and you hop to it. (That’s capitalist management practices.) It is a relationship in which people who want to go in a certain direction turn to those who can help them carry out their own aims—they turn to people who know what needs to be done to win, and aren’t afraid to say so. Armed with those tools, the people then take leadership themselves, and can move mountains!

The fact is that humans are a clan species. We succeeded in evolution because we worked together cooperatively for survival. In any society, any organization, there will be leadership, or all would be chaos. If we do not have good leadership, we will get stuck with bad. So, we need to build the best that we can.

All that leadership means in radical politics is that there is a need for people to study Marxism, which proves that capitalism is just a passing phase, that it must fall or destroy the earth. And that the means of overthrowing it already exist—namely in the power of the workers of the world. There is a need to study history and learn its lessons—why some approaches failed—for instance anarchism, in the 1930s Spanish Civil War and why others succeeded, like the workers revolution of Russia (before Stalin) with its democratic soviets, equal rights for women and gays, and guarantee of self-determination for oppressed nations.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1938 in a statement that is even more true today than when he wrote it, “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

All too many leftists shoot the movement in the foot by refusing to talk about a radical analysis within the mass movements, and by pressuring other radicals to shut up about it. This is all in fear of “turning people off.” But how did we socialists come to the movement? By getting the idea from someone. Isn’t it an insult to think that everyone else is too dumb to get these lofty ideas, and has to be roped into mass movements first, then somehow tricked into becoming radical?

Some people are turned off by radical ideas. But the important people are those who are not, who see the logic of social change, and are thrilled to learn there’s an effective way to make it.

That is where socialist parties are supposed to come in. It’s our job to audaciously put forward the socialist alternative, so that the people who are looking to the future are presented with that choice.

Will revolution be possible in this country without a thoroughgoing struggle to smash racism? No. Then we have to call for that in our program and work for that now, as well as for the future.

Is women’s liberation a prerequisite for any revolution, as well as one of its main aims? Yes. Then we have to call for it, and turn to women and people of color and all the oppressed, knowing they are going to be in the forefront of the fight.

Is queer liberation essential? Then we have to say so, no matter who is scandalized. Is international solidarity the very breath and survival of the movement? Then we have to focus on that and educate about it determinedly.

Can this revolution be made by anyone other than the workers? No. Then we have to fight within the unions to break the hold of the Democrat party, which is dedicated to the good of the corporations and the preservation of the profit system. We have to present the socialist alternative there above any other place, because it is only labor that has the power to change society.

So, imagining socialism is really a pretty straightforward proposition. It’s a matter of having the courage to exercise good leadership—to come out and say what is needed and how we can get there. It’s a matter of communicating to others the basics of what we’ve talked about today.

• We spread the word that socialism is not only a workable alternative, but the only alternative—that capitalism has proved itself incapable of permanent, significant reform and that reformism is the real utopian delusion.

• We spread the word that the socialist future will not look like the poverty-stricken third world initial attempts at it—heroic as they were—because it will be based on the highest, not the lowest economic development.

• We spread the word that socialism is the next step of human evolution, in which we as a species can fulfill everyone’s needs, and then proceed to find out what humanity is really capable of.

• So you see, what the movement really needs is YOU to help carry on the word. Come get involved in this grand idea and great movement! The greatest humanitarians on the planet have been a part of it, and it’s the best possible place to spend your talents and your time. Welcome!

1. Genaro C. Armas, “Government Looks at a New Measuring Stick for Poverty,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA: 11/24/2002). There is widespread opinion that current Census measurements ignore some of the real costs of living, thereby under-counting those who live in poverty.2. “Health Insurance in America,” United States Department of Commerce News, U.S. Census Bureau (Washington, D.C.: 9/30/2002), p. 1.3. Prison Policy Initiative, “Incarceration is not an equal opportunity punishment” (PO Box 80887 Springfield, MA: 8/21/2002), p. 1.

4. The Sentencing Project, “New Prison Population Figures Show Slowing of Growth But Uncertain Trends” (514 Tenth St NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C.: 2000), p. 5.

5. Leon Trotsky, “If America Should go Communist,” Liberty, (March 23, 1935). From Trotsky Internet Archive,, p. 1.

6. Ahmed Shawki, “Between Things Ended and Things Begun” (P.O. Box 258082, Chicago, IL: International Socialist Review, June-July 2001), p. 2. Based on statistics taken from United Nations Development Program, “Human Development Report, 1999” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 3, 28-32, 37.

7. James P. Cannon, America’s Road to Socialism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), p. 103, 104.

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