In early 2016, an Oxfam study showed that just 62 people owned as much wealth as half the world’s population—a truly staggering figure. Now, less than two years later, global economic inequality has since skyrocketed to the point where only six billionaires own more than the poorest 3.75 billion people. The capitalist media say the economy has been in recovery for nearly a decade, yet the social conditions facing working people get worse and worse.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s thirst for short-term profits at any cost continues to deepen the environmental crisis worldwide. We need renewable energy and mass transit more than ever, and millions of unemployed and under-employed people want steady work. Yet this sick system doesn’t prioritize our needs. Capitalism continues to pollute and global unemployment remains high while the planet burns. And now there is a buffoon in the White House who denies climate change is even happening!
The rise of Donald Trump is the logical culmination of capitalism in its most predatory phase. The opening for Trump’s brand of racist, right-wing populism was created by an out-of-touch political establishment and a system that has massive inequality, women’s oppression, institutional racism, and environmental crisis built into its very foundations. We need to challenge the Trump agenda with a movement built from below against all of his attacks, while also fighting for a society based on human needs and solidarity, rather than exploitation and corporate domination.
Young people are angry about the future capitalism offers: dead-end jobs, debt, discrimination and environmental destruction. Bernie Sanders’ call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” in 2016 helped to ignite growing interest in socialist ideas, especially among young people. Polls show that a majority of people under 30 now prefer “socialism” to “capitalism.” To end this rotten system and build a new one, however, we need to get organized.
Since Trump’s election, many young people are radicalizing and feel the urgent need to do something.” Socialist Alternative has grown rapidly over the past year, and the Democratic Socialists of America have gone from 8,000 to 25,000 members. Socialist newspapers, magazines and books have seen their readership expand dramatically, along with the debate about how to win fundamental change.
Capitalism and the Working Class
We need to understand how capitalism works in order to fight against it.
Capitalism is rooted in the exploitation of the working class. Working people produce all of society’s vast wealth, but we only receive a small part of that in our wages. Meanwhile the employers, especially the top executives and capitalists, extract the lion’s share of the fruits of our labor, fueling massive inequality and social crisis.
Competition under capitalism forces corporations to ruthlessly maximize profits, putting big business at fundamental odds with the interests of working people and the environment. Corporations look to offload every possible cost on our backs, because every dollar spent on wages, health care benefits, workplace safety, or environmental protection, is one less dollar for their profits.
The corporate-dominated media wants us to believe that we’re all “middle class” now and that the “working class” is a narrow and dated idea. As socialists, however, we would say that the working class is made up of the vast majority of people. All people who have to go to work in order to live, from a well-paid engineer to a low-paid dishwasher, are all part of the working class that capitalism exploits.
Socialists see the global working class, which is increasingly female-majority and multi-racial, as the key force to change the world. We build everything; we make everything; we transport everything; we provide all the services, teach all the kids, operate all the cash registers, clean all the floors, fix the computers, tend the sick, and cook and serve the food. We do everything that makes this system run, and if we’re sufficiently well organized, we can force the employers to make concessions by mobilizing ourselves as an independent political force and shutting down key areas of the economy. Ultimately, we can use this power to end this bankrupt system once and for all, and to fundamentally transform society.
Youth and Internationalism
This is the first generation in the United States since the 1930s that will have lower living standards than their parents. Young people are often the “detonators” of explosive wider struggles of working people. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign were all driven by youth, and this trend will continue. Capitalism has promised a future it can’t provide, and now a recent survey has shown that a majority of young people in Europe say they would participate in an “uprising” against the system. From the “Arab Spring” to the Spanish “indignados” movement to Jeremy Corbyn’s powerful election campaign in Britain last year, the youth revolt is an international phenomenon.
Capitalism is a system that reaches every corner of the globe. Big corporations search for markets worldwide while pitting different sections of workers against another and cutting every possible corner to extract cheap materials and labor. Each company wants to out-exploit their competitors, and the ruling classes of each country rival each other. This process leads not only to super-exploitation but also economic protectionism and war. Yet the capitalists are willing when necessary to put their competition aside and unite with each other in order to extinguish popular revolts against their rule. For all these reasons the socialist movement needs to be international.
Socialist Alternative stands in political solidarity with the Committee for a Workers International, which organizes against capitalism in over 45 countries and on every continent. We share experiences, our perspective for struggles today, and our historical outlook rooted in the experiences of the workers’ movement. We feel it is necessary to learn the lessons of international struggles so that we can equip ourselves to defeat the right wing and the billionaire class.
Reforms and Socialism
As Marxists, we fight for every gain that working people can win under capitalism. This can be seen in our leadership in the fight for $15, with Socialist Alternative member and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant leading Seattle to become the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. In July of this year, we helped make Minneapolis the first Midwest city to pass $15, this time under the leadership of socialist City Council candidate Ginger Jentzen. And in July, Sawant and Seattle Socialist Alternative helped bring about another nationally important victory, this time passing a local measure to tax the richto help fund affordable housing, education and other vital services.
But as Kshama herself has pointed out:
There are limits to reforming a system that is dominated by these massive and rapacious corporations. On the basis of capitalism, victories like raising the minimum wage are only temporary. Big business has many tools to make us pay for the crisis of their system.
After World War II, in an era of reconstruction and huge economic growth, and under the enormous pressures of mass socialist and communist parties and radical labor struggles, important gains for working people were won in most Western countries. But the tenuous economic landscape of today is radically different, with capitalism incapable of enjoying a sustained upswing, relentlessly attacking unions and working conditions, and demanding deep cuts to social services in order to just maintain profitability and survive.
Health care is one of many concrete issues that point toward a socialist solution. After enduring months of Republican threats to Medicaid‑which now covers 1 in 5 people‑ordinary Americans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that everyone should have health care as a right. The international experience shows that socialized medicine operates both more efficiently and provides far better health outcomes, with the U.S. system scoring consistently on the bottom rungs in study after study.
This is not because of U.S. nurses or doctors, who provide a high level of care, but because of the dysfunction and inefficiency of the broken, for-profit American system. This points to the need for a single-payer, Medicare-for-All alternative, which means putting the private insurance systems out of business altogether. We strongly support this. But as socialists we would go further, and call for bringing the hospital and pharmaceutical industries into democratic public ownership as well in order to end the subordination of human health and lives to profit.
But bringing the multi-trillion-dollar health care sector into public ownership will require a massive, determined movement of working people.
We face a deepening crisis of global climate change. Addressing it will require that we bring the massive, polluting energy industry into democratic public ownership as well and retool it for renewable energy. Because we can’t control what we don’t own. This also goes for the big banks, the airlines and other key sections of the economy. Bringing the top 500 corporations into democratic public ownership would represent a decisive step toward a socialist system where society can collectively decide how to allocate resources for human need.
As Rosa Luxemburg explained in 1900 in her pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, these two choices are not just “different roads” to the same destination. To be successful, demanding reform cannot be an end unto itself—serious reforms only come about as a by-product of serious social struggle. The capitalist class needs to be genuinely fearful of a wider revolt before it will grant major concessions like Medicare for All or a federal $15 minimum wage.
If the struggle for reforms is not used to develop the consciousness of working people and prepare the ground for a thoroughgoing socialist transformation of society, the capitalists will look to roll back those reforms that have been won, or to destroy those working class forces that defend them. The ruling class will not hesitate to engage in economic war or even military coups against elected left governments. Left governments seeking to carry out their programs will run headlong into the brick wall of the capitalists’ control and ownership of the key resources in society, as well as the brutal capitalist state apparatus.
This is what happened to the SYRIZA government in Greece in 2015, which was elected to fight savage austerity being imposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Unfortunately, SYRIZA did not have a clear socialist program. Their leaders thought that they could negotiate reforms for Greece within the framework of capitalism, and convince the European ruling class to give them a better deal than previous Greek governments. The Greek working class was itself prepared to fight but SYRIZA capitulated. The lessons of this defeat must be learned by the workers and socialist movement internationally.
Building A Party of Working People
Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Workers International consistently work to build broad parties of the working class, which often begin with the perspective of fighting for basic reforms. But we also aim to build a clear revolutionary organization that can participate within these mass parties and to patiently make the case for a full socialist program.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 won the support of millions precisely because it advocated for bold reforms including Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, an end to mass incarceration, and tuition-free college. Sanders also advocated for “democratic socialism,” though in reality he meant a reformed capitalism. We actively supported his campaign but explained that defeating the billionaire class and winning a society based on solidarity and human need will require a social revolution. More immediately, we urged Sanders not to accept the outcome of the rigged Democratic primary, but to keep running all the way to November. This was the way to both challenge Trump’s odious right wing populism, and to launch a new party of, by, and for working people.
What About Russia?
We need to learn the lessons of past working class struggles. Many people skeptical of the viability of socialism think that the Russian Revolution led directly to authoritarian rule, and that this is an inevitable result of revolutionary change. On the 100th anniversary of this earthshaking event, however, we need to understand the real lessons of 1917, the rich history of the Bolshevik party and its democratic traditions, and how genuine socialists fought heroically against Stalin’s rise to power.
Many of the gains and reforms working people won internationally during the 20th century, including the 8-hour workday, voting rights for women, free education, national health care, and a broad social safety net, came in the aftermath of the global revolutionary wave unleashed by the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution was thoroughly democratic with workers, soldiers, and peasant councils (called “soviets”) built from below, and with all left parties represented.
The key leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, perceived the revolution in Russia as a prelude to a European and worldwide revolution, and understood that socialism could only be based on an international and voluntary federation of socialist countries that included the most economically developed societies. They understood that capitalism globally would fight back against the new workers’ state, and that one socialist country (and particularly one as economically backward as Russia) could not survive on its own.
The tragic isolation of the Russian workers’ state after numerous opportunities to spread the revolution—especially to Germany—failed to succeed, allowing the rise of Stalinism. A layer of conservative bureaucrats increasingly moved to undermine soviet democracy and to control the distribution of scarce resources, thereby enabling themselves to become privileged.
Despite the seizure of power by this privileged bureaucracy, and its rolling back of many of the progressive gains of the Russian Revolution, there are many positive lessons we can learn. One is the potential power of working people to end capitalism. Another is that it was necessary to build a cohesive and politically clear revolutionary socialist party for the movement to be successful. While any struggle against capitalism in the U.S. today will of course have huge differences from Russia of 100 years ago, studying the history of the socialist movement is crucial for any activist entering into the movement.
Seize the Time!
With the huge interest in socialist ideas and the potentially explosive movements that could emerge against Trump, the left has its biggest opportunities to grow and make an impact on U.S. politics since the 1970s.
We will work with everyone on the left to build a broad movement to defeat Trump and the billionaire class. At the same time, we see the need for international organization and struggle to successfully end capitalism. If you want to learn more about the fight for socialism and want to get involved now and win victories for working people, then you should consider joining Socialist Alternative today.