The Case for Socialism

“Afterword” by Howard Zinn
Haymarket Books
$12.00, 173 pages

It’s obvious that if you repeat something often enough, in an authoritative voice, listeners will begin to believe what you say. That’s the theory behind both advertising and conservative media.

The oft-repeated barrage of verbal assaults lobbed at Barack Obama – that he’s a commie/foreigner/infidel/Nazi – confirm this. Indeed, an April 2010 CBS/NY Times poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe that the president is moving the US toward socialism, something they clearly regard as bad, and maybe even dangerous, for the US and its people. <!—break—> What’s more, The Huffington Post reported in February that 78 percent of Republican leaders consider the Commander in Chief to be a full-blown pinko.

That these assertions are insane – and more than a little frightening – goes without saying. But they also reveal a profound lack of knowledge about socialism, the class struggle, and theories of governance.

Alan Maass’ The Case for Socialism goes a long way in rectifying this information gap, and should be required reading in every high school and college civics class. Clearly and accessibly written, it posits socialism as a viable and necessary alternative to capitalism.

The late historian Howard Zinn, in an afterword that was originally published in The Progressive, reminds readers that in the early decades of the 20th century, a vast number of US residents were cheered by socialism’s promise. For one, more than a million people read Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper published from 1897-1922. Other left-wing publications – including The New Masses, The Labor Herald, and The Call – were similarly popular until the combined effects of the Palmer Red Raids and the country’s economic collapse drove them out of business. Zinn notes that prior to Palmer’s clampdown, “The [Socialist] Party had 100,000 members and 1200 office-holders in 340 municipalities. Socialism was especially strong in the Southwest, among tenant farmers, railroad workers, coal miners, and lumberjacks. Oklahoma had 12,000 dues-paying members in 1914 and more than one hundred socialists in local office.”

Zinn implied that if it could happen then, it could happen now. And why not?
Maass opens The Case for Socialism with a simple declaration: “Capitalism isn’t working.” Not in the US and not in other parts of the world. In fact, virtually anywhere one goes, suffering is pervasive. “Almost half the world’s population – more than three billion people, the equivalent of the population of ten United States – live on less than $2.50 a day. A billion people are undernourished and go to bed hungry each night. Two in five people around the world lack access to clean water, and one in four lacks basic electricity,” Maass reports.

Here in the US, whole communities are being decimated by evictions and foreclosures, healthcare is a shambles, and hunger and homelessness are at near-record levels. Twenty percent of children are born into poverty, and illnesses correlating with inadequate nutrition are epidemic. At the same time, Maass reports that in 2009, the world’s 793 billionaires had a combined worth of $2.4 trillion. This translates into “twice the combined gross domestic product of all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Yes, three billion human beings have fewer resources than 793 others.

“The free market system is organized in completely the wrong way for the good of meeting the needs of the largest number of people in society,” Maass continues. “Capitalism is built around organized theft – the theft of a portion of the value of what workers produce by the people who employ them.” Buttressed by out-of-whack priorities, atrocities abound:

  • World governments annually spend more than $1 trillion on war. The US government’s military budget for this year is an obscene $663.8 billion;
  • The US nuclear weapon’s program cost $52 billion in 2008. This is seven-and-a-half times the amount spent on Head Start pre-school programs;
  • Companies like Bud Light, Coca-Cola, and Michelob spent upwards of $3 million for 30-second ad spots during the 2010 Super Bowl. This sum is more than most people will earn in a lifetime of labor.

Maass is banking that readers will want to do something after reading what can only be described as a roster of horrors. After all, it’s enraging stuff and he is masterful at citing examples that makes it impossible not to get riled up about the injustices and inequities he chronicles.

Unfortunately, The Case for Socialism doesn’t provide a roadmap for creating a more just socio-economic order or moving countries away from capitalism. On the other hand, it makes a compelling case for reorganizing society so that workers reap the fruits of their toil, rather than allowing business owners and bosses to cash in. You can almost feel Maass seething as he presents a deceptively straightforward query: if we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, shouldn’t we prioritize education over war, healthcare over armaments, and jobs over profiteering?

Good questions…

Maass, a member of the International Socialist Organization, is optimistic that a different world is possible, and his attitude is contagious. But what to do? While critics will surely accuse him of avoiding the hardscrabble realities of contemporary life, Maass urges readers to avoid working inside the current two-party dominated political arena. As he sees it, doing the electoral work advocated by, Common Cause, and other progressive organizations is pointless because the parties of both Democrats and Republicans are beyond reform. Despite campaign promises, he cites examples of lawmaker after lawmaker who fails in his or her efforts to make significant change. “Once in office, rather than being able to pull the levers of power to change the system, the levers of power pull them. At best, they end up managing the system they expected to change,” he writes.

Instead, Maass makes the case for a 21st century American revolution. He recognizes the value in incremental victories – the 2008 occupation of Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors is highlighted – and he lauds grassroots efforts of all kinds, from strikes to win better working conditions and wages, to mobilizations to stop evictions or promote gay marriage.

In so doing, Maass proudly claims socialism as a positive – if as-yet unrealized – political system. While right-wing pundits and bloggerheads liken socialism to the Black Plague, Maass never stops crowing about socialism’s potential. Progressives need to join the fray to make sure that the message catches fire. How else to ensure that every person on the planet has enough food, water, shelter, education, and leisure to live a fulfilling and productive life?