Is there an alternative to capitalism’s great injustices? Activist and journalist Danny Katch has written an introduction to socialism that manages to be not just accessible, but hilariously funny. Socialism …Seriously is essential reading for the budding socialist in your life, and maybe even a few skeptics. Make a donation to Truthout to order your copy today!
The following is the introduction to Socialism …Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation:
Socialism is a good idea, but
… it doesn’t work in practice.
… human beings are too greedy for it to succeed.
… the rich and powerful will never allow it.
Most of us have heard one of these declarations in school, on television, around the dinner table. Whatever the specific reason, the lesson we are meant to take away is that socialism ain’t gonna happen. Interestingly, the argument always begins with the reluctant concession that socialism is, in fact, a good idea. There’s even a rightwing bumper sticker that goes a step further than good and reads: “Socialism … A Great Idea until You Run Out of Other People’s Money.” I realize that the guy with this message on his vehicle alongside Confederate flags and various other “I’m an asshole” signifiers doesn’t mean it as a compliment. But it says something that even the most hostile opponents of socialism often start out by admitting that it sure sounds nice.
Perhaps they do so because the inverse is so obviously true. Capitalism is a bad idea. Imagine if we start a society on an uninhabited tropical island, and I propose that the people who do all the work will be paid as little as possible while the people who don’t do anything but own stocks will have more money than they could possibly spend in their lifetimes. You would all be looking at each other and shaking your heads. “Wait, wait, hear me out,” I might say. “We’ll also treat air, water, plants, minerals, and other animals as objects to be exploited even more ruthlessly than workers!” Now you’d slowly back away because there’s obviously something not right with me, even as I continue on: “Wait, don’t go! We can maintain peace by creating massively destructive weapons and violent prisons. Why is everybody leaving?”
In this most capitalist of countries, growing numbers are concluding that capitalism doesn’t work. Some of them have read sharp critics of the system like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Others have just lived in this world with open eyes and hearts. This is a positive step forward from the political climate in recent decades, in which critics of capitalism were too marginal to even be considered dangerous. But it’s not enough to know what we’re against. If we’re not for something different, we’re just daydreaming – or whining, if your personality is more like mine. Capitalism isn’t going to collapse from criticism alone. People have cursed and denounced this thing for centuries and it’s very good at deflecting opposition with a big “but” of its own:
Capitalism is a bad idea, but
… it’s the only system that works.
… it fits with humanity’s greedy nature.
… don’t waste your life trying to change it.
One of the last major social systems to be permanently overturned was based on plantation slavery. A key turning point took place when the slaves of Saint-Domingue defeated armies from France and Spain to create the nation of Haiti in 1810. For hundreds of years before the Haitian Revolution, enslaved Africans had understood the injustice of this system and had fought rebellions to try to escape it. But after Haiti, these rebellions – from Brazil to Virginia – became revolutions attempting not to escape slavery but to end it. There is no socialist equivalent to the Haitian example to prove to the world that capitalism is no longer necessary, and books are no substitute for revolutions. My more modest aim is to introduce some of today’s daydreamers and whiners to a concept that the world desperately needs.
What is socialism? I can’t just give that away on page ix. What kind of an author do you think I am? Okay, fine. A short answer is that socialism is a society whose top priority is meeting all of its people’s needs – ranging from food, shelter, and health care to art, culture, and companionship. In contrast, capitalism only cares about any of that basic human necessity stuff to the extent that money can be made off it.
Socialism is both more rational and moral than capitalism, but the question has always been if it is practical and attainable. That requires a longer answer. My pitch for you to read the rest of this book is that it will introduce you to the different aspects of socialism – its analysis of capitalism, theories about what a different world can look like, strategies for how to get there, and a history of movements, parties, and revolutions. All in a little over a hundred pages, which is barely longer than the “Terms and Conditions” you have to approve before upgrading iTunes. Unlike Apple, I want you to actually read the following pages because I’m not trying to trick you into signing away whatever rights to privacy you have left. That’s just one of the many supposed crimes of socialism that capitalism perfected long ago.
If you do keep reading, you’ll probably have questions about some sections and disagreements with others. I’ll make suggestions in some footnotes and the main text about other books you can read that go much deeper than this one into various topics. You might want to learn more about the Haitian Revolution, for example, which for some mysterious reason is overlooked by the educational system of this country that was built by slaves. The best place to start is The Black Jacobins, an inspiring and beautifully written account by the brilliant Trinidadian socialist, C. L. R. James. Please read those footnotes, by the way, as they contain not just book recommendations but also silly tangents, hilarious jokes, and – in our very first footnote – a helpful tip on where to find the tastiest $30 artisanal free-range turkey burgers.
Finally, a word about my tone, which can seem unusually lighthearted for a book about overthrowing capitalism: It’s possible that there hasn’t been a socialist book with this many jokes since Vladimir Lenin’s little-known Big Bathroom Book of Bolshevik Humor.  The wisecracks aren’t just sugar to help the political medicine go down – they’re part of the politics. Capitalism is destructive and inhuman, but it’s also silly, and mocking its absurdities reminds us that a system this dumb can’t possibly be indestructible.
Those of us criticizing capitalism should be able to make fun of ourselves as well. Politicians can dress up every two-bit proposal about corporate tax breaks with big ideas about freedom and liberty – let the radicals who actually have big ideas put them out with a humility and humor befitting those whose dreams still far outpace our accomplishments. Jokes are also a safety precaution against the relentless negativity that is an occupational hazard for activists who spend their lives organizing against war, poverty, and other horrors that most people try to avoid contemplating for too long. We’re looking for a positive path for humanity, not just trying to add to the chorus of news cranks and internet trolls.
Later to the haters. Socialism is for lovers.
1. In hell. (Hilarious joke number one! I’ll be down here all book.)
2. Sample joke: “How many Cossacks does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: None, because Tsar Nicholas II refuses to invest in the countryside and as a result most rural villages lack electricity.” It was funny at the time.
Copyright (2015) by Danny Katch. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.