Record inequality, crippling debt, a devastating pandemic, unfulfilling and unsafe jobs, discrimination and abuse, environmental and weather disasters, skyrocketing costs of living: this stark snapshot of “business as usual,” of human suffering and climate destruction under capitalism, are enough to drive any individual into overwhelming despair. The past decade has made it clear that capitalism is in crisis for all but a handful.
As of October 2021, the wealth of the United States’ 745 billionaires—or the country’s top 0.0002%—increased by over 70%, from $2.1 trillion to an astounding total of over $5 trillion, during the COVID-19 pandemic. That 2,750 people have as much wealth as over one half of the planet, or 3.9 billion people, stands testament to the criminality of this system. No amount of “self-care” can overcome the senseless material deprivation and devastation faced by billions of people, and the profound anxiety and alienation that as a result strain our relation to work, not to mention our relationships at home and in our communities.
But that does not mean the current state of society is hopeless. Recent events and history alike prove that is far from the case. A better understanding of the material causes driving economic, political, and social processes over the last decade—as well as over the last several centuries of capitalism—reveals how we can concretely fight back. Millions of working people and youth have refused to resign to this situation, and have fought back against corruption, greed, and climate destruction. As scientific socialists, we think that the greater organization and unity of these forces behind a clear, socialist program is not only possible, but absolutely necessary to drive society forward.
In reply to multiple recessions, racist police brutality, rampant sexism, climate change, and degraded working conditions, workers and youth made their mark on the 2010s: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, Fridays for Future, Red For Ed and the reemergence of mass labor struggles. This list encompasses far more when taking into account the international struggles that have both inspired and been inspired by these recent movements in the U.S. The growth of social and labor movements demonstrate that millions of radicalizing workers and youth are ready to test new methods of struggle against their oppressors and the capitalist class, with more people identifying as “anti-capitalist” and, increasingly, as socialist. According to a 2021 Axios and Momentive poll, 54% of adults aged 18 to 34 years said they had a negative view of capitalism, while 51% percent supported socialism. Bernie Sanders and the call for a political revolution against the billionaire class has influenced the political views of millions during an incredibly turbulent era, and democratic socialist organizations like DSA and Socialist Alternative have grown as a result.
Socialism’s re-emergence as a popular political identifier produces questions and important debates about what socialism actually is. How can it work, and how will it address inequality, oppression, and climate change? What is necessary to actually achieve it and overthrow capitalism? Can we get there by reforming the current system, or do we need to break entirely from it for the working class to be able to assert itself? Did socialism “fail” in the Soviet Union, China, and throughout the developing world? All of these questions deserve much study and discussion. Right now, one of the most important tasks Marxists have is to patiently and thoroughly respond to them, and to win more people to the struggle for socialism.
The socialist movement has deep traditions stemming from the scientific economic and political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Throughout the latter 19th and 20th centuries, Marxist theory and class-based struggle won numerous victories for workers and the oppressed, the most groundbreaking of which was the Russian Revolution. Movements have of course also experienced setbacks. The lessons derived from this history inform what kind of politics and organization we need to take on capitalism and win socialism in the twenty-first century.
Capitalism Is Killing Us
Over the 500 years or so of its existence, capitalism has paved the road for technological breakthroughs that have transformed society again and again. Railways, automotive vehicles, and airplanes have revolutionized transportation and commerce. Discoveries and inventions from the internal combustion engine to the generation of electric power propelled agrarian economies through industrialization; since then, increasingly complex computing, robotics, and rocket technology have allowed for automation and space travel. From the telephone and radio to satellite networks and the Internet, advancements in communication have connected billions globally, to information, goods, services, and each other. Such feats of human ingenuity have increased exponentially during the capitalist era.
For example, engineers built the first electronic computers capable of storing information in the early 1940s. In 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted that “computers in the future may have only 1,000 tubes and weigh only one and a half tons.” Today an ordinary smartphone is millions of times faster than NASA’s car-sized Apollo mission computers in the 1960s; even a TI-84 calculator is 350 faster and has 32 times more RAM than the computers that put men on the moon!
New technology obviously has the power to dramatically shape the society of the time. It also reflects the society from which it emerges: its changing priorities and material needs, how it’s organized, and as a result of its organization, its increasing productive capability. The explosion of technological advances made under capitalism reflects this. Both the higher concentrations of workers living in and near cities and expanded access to resources and specialized goods through increased trade have allowed populations to produce more since the 18th and 19th centuries. This has brought about more efficient socialized labor processes in factories, more precise tools, and eventually automation. As a result, global gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the market value of goods and services produced, is over 20 times what it was a century ago. Compare this to global population growth, which has increased a little over 4 times! In other words, today’s workforce is much more productive.
Unfortunately, the standard of living for much of the working class, while improving for some sections, has largely not kept up with this rise in productivity. Wages have not risen at a comparable rate. In fact, in the U.S. productivity rose 3.5 times more than hourly wages and benefits between 1979 and 2020. Meanwhile, in the same period of time, CEO pay rose by over 1322%, or to 351 times what an average worker makes. We can compare that to CEO pay in 1965, when it was 21 times that of ordinary workers—still far above what is necessary to live very comfortably!
Meanwhile, public services, research and development, and welfare safety nets are severely underfunded. Despite all of the incredible technology developed under capitalism, this system has not sufficiently provided food for over 700 million malnourished people, or clean water and sanitation for over 2 billion. It has failed to contain the coronavirus before it infected over 280 million and killed 5.4 million by the end of 2021, two years after the first cases were identified—all as the pandemic continues to exacerbate every other problem faced by billions of working class and poor.
That is because capitalism’s driving force is not the well being and advancement of humankind, but the maximization of profits for a small minority that controls the world’s wealth and assets. Historically, capitalism has enormously developed the productive forces of our society: our means of transportation, technology, communication, science, and the factories in which new goods are made. But the defining features of capitalism—private ownership and the nation state —have shackled the further development of our economy and society. When it comes to applying and allocating that accumulated capital, it’s not according to any plan based on mutual cooperation and benefit. Whether we’re talking about developing or distributing personal protective equipment or vaccines during a pandemic, building greener infrastructure to minimize climate disaster, or providing food or life-saving drugs, most decisions boil down to whether it will increase the wealth of the world’s richest elite.
American journalist William Greider opens One World Ready or Not by describing modern capitalism: “A wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys… Now imagine that there are skillful hands on board, but no one is at the wheel. In fact, this machine has no wheel or any internal governor to control the speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites.” Under capitalism, the blind, groping forces of profiteering are in the driving seat.
Despite piecemeal half measures to provide selective and temporary relief, capitalism’s inability to solve poverty, hunger, disease, or climate crisis are not for a lack of resources or ideas. These are willful failures of a system that has long outlived its progressive utility, and is now literally killing us.
A 2018 UN Report claims 2.8 million workers die per year, including several hundred in the U.S. each day, due to hazardous workplace conditions. Millions more face verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse on the job. Horror stories emerge from Amazon distribution centers, where workers regularly collapse from exhaustion and are denied bathroom breaks. In one outrageous case workers were forced to sort and deliver packages during deadly tornado storms in Illinois. Brutal sweatshops that pay just several cents an hour and employ child labor make products for Adidas, Nike, H&M, GAP, and other major clothing retailers. The International Labour Organization estimates that occupational diseases and cancers, which are preventable with strict safety protocols, affect 160 million each year. The coronavirus pandemic continued to expose just how little workers’ lives mean to their bosses, as “essential workers” were forced to work without adequate sanitation measures, protective equipment, sick or hazard pay.
This is to say nothing of climate change and the ecological havoc wreaked by capitalism, as we reach or surpass climate tipping points that guarantee dramatic consequences for the planet and its inhabitants. Rising sea levels, long-term droughts, and famine threaten to displace hundreds of millions. Already we’ve seen an 83% rise in global weather disasters over the last 20 years, resulting in the deaths of 1.2 million as well as the devastation of homes and public infrastructure; over the last 40 years, average wildlife populations have dropped by 60%.
The conversion of the Amazon rainforest into a savannah, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the collapse of the Gulf Stream are not natural developments. One hundred giant companies like Shell, Exxon, and BP have been responsible for 71% of industrial carbon emissions over the last three decades, while 33 global banks have invested $1.9 trillion into fossil fuels since the 2015 Paris Accords were signed. Despite the existential urgency, capitalism continues to put short-term profit-making over the planet, and every year delays a desperately needed rapid transition to renewable energy. Since 1995 and up to the most recent “Conference of the Parties” summit (COP26), top polluting countries—China, Russia, India, and the U.S.—failed to make meaningful commitments to phase out coal or cut methane emissions, as imperialist competition overrode global cooperation.
The Russian Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described imperialism as the monopoly stage of capitalism: wealth is concentrated with a few giant corporations and super-rich capitalists that link up with and are controlled by a few very large banks that can manipulate the economy. In their thirst for increasingly profitable returns on investments, finance capital must resort to going beyond national boundaries, setting their sights on foreign markets, resources, and labor. For territories not yet under the thumb of capitalist rule, it has meant forced colonization. In the case of rivalries between superpowers, it can mean a complicated web of trade deals or economic sanctions; but when that fails to produce the desired results for different sections of the ruling class, it has meant bloody war. In any of these scenarios, the working and oppressed classes are forced to pay with their livelihoods or their lives. “What other solution of the contradictions can be found under capitalism,” Lenin asks, “than that of force?” War, in all its economic and physically violent forms, is an inevitable feature of capitalism.
Corporate politicians are lying when they say there is no money to cancel student debt, grant healthcare for all, or pass a Green New Deal, when every year the U.S. military budget is increased by billions to protect U.S. interests overseas. But it’s not just foreign populations that fall victim to state violence as national ruling classes spar for domination over global capital. At home, hundreds of people are killed every year by police, many of them disproportionately people of color, low income, or disabled. Police are employed to protect the interests of landlords and businesses, over-policing and evicting residents in areas ripe for profitable development, without any real community control over public safety or justice for the working class. Meanwhile, millions are stuck in an alienating prison industrial complex that produces cheap labor and strips inmates of their rights, reinforcing societal prejudices against Black and Latino people and the poor.
There is nothing redeemable about this system, which shed its usefulness as a progressive force for society centuries ago. Over one hundred years ago, in the middle of the first brutal World War, the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg recalled the words of Marxist theorist Frederich Engels of the century before her, writing that capitalist society “stands at the crossroads: either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” She continues: “A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means.” The same could be easily said of society today, having continued down that very destructive path. But the path to an alternative remains right in front of us. The future of civilization and humanity still depends now, as it did then, on the working class taking matters fully into our own hands.
What is Socialism?
Of course, it is not enough to be anti-capitalist. To win more people to the fight against this disastrously oppressive system, we also need something to fight for. Following the 2008 recession and Occupy movement, in 2016 Bernie Sanders harnessed public outrage against corrupt politics and corporate greed, calling for a “political revolution” against Wall Street and the 1%. Since then he and other “democratic socialists” have popularized demands for a $15/hour minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, taxing the rich, canceling student debt, and a Green New Deal. Such reforms are a key part of any socialist program today. Fighting for them will not only vastly improve people’s lives, but also build stronger movements to challenge the system altogether, by strengthening our experience and capacity for struggle.
It is therefore often believed that socialists simply want to better share out the wealth. Sanders and others on the left, like Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, propose far-reaching reforms within a regulated market. Such a vision takes cues from the welfare states of northern Europe and the “New Deal” era of pro-worker reforms in the U.S. This would certainly be a marked improvement for millions of people; but for reasons this article will explain in more depth later, this vision falls short of what can actually be achieved, and is even utopian.
In short, Marxists would disagree with this overly simplistic definition of “socialism.” In proposing a redistribution of wealth through an expanded the public sector within the framework of a capitalist society, it contradicts itself. Leaving the market forces of private ownership intact, even alongside more worker-owned cooperatives, would not allow for a truly equal society in the long term, but would be doomed to repeat the processes of monopolization. Competition for market share and profits would continue, as this “market socialism” would tend to resemble market capitalism.
That is because it does not decisively resolve the main conflict between the ruling and oppressed classes. Instead, it supposes they could co-exist in harmony. But capitalism by definition relies on the exploitation of workers, extracting the “surplus value” (profit) made after their labor produces a good or service. While some might argue that “capitalism made your iPhone,” the basic reality is that workers produced this device—and they would do so under socialism. The difference is that those workers would be paid better wages while working fewer hours in safer conditions, using materials mined sustainably under the direction of local populations. All of this would be possible because super profits would be eliminated, as workers collectively determine what to do with the resulting wealth.
For Marxists, socialism is therefore a fundamentally different system that must break entirely with the existing global capitalist order. Not only do we need a “political revolution,” but a social revolution as well, with an economy controlled entirely by workers. Only in this scenario is a true redistribution of wealth possible.
So what would a socialist society actually look like, and what is needed for it to actually work? Those fighting for socialism today cannot possibly map out the future with such precision; but over a century of theoretical study and historical experience have confirmed several basic aspects:
- a working class-run government with universal and direct suffrage and representatives subject to recall;
- a democratically planned, central economy, made possible by the democratic public ownership of key industries and the banks;
- guaranteed quality public housing, healthcare, transportation, and education for all, as well as the sharing out of work to guarantee robust social services;
- cooperative internationalism respecting nations’ rights of self-determination.
Genuine Democracy for the Billions – Not the Billionaires
A socialist economy would have to be planned democratically in order to work. Far unlike what’s been pitched by decades of capitalist propaganda, a genuine socialist government would not be dictatorial. On the contrary, socialism would extend and deepen democracy far beyond the limited version that capitalism can grant, i.e. a democracy for the rich. In the case of the United States, democracy is roughly understood as electing representatives every two or four years. As Lenin remarked, “Elections held in such circumstances are praised by the bourgeoisie… as being ‘free’, ‘equal’, ‘democratic’ and ‘universal’. These words are designed to conceal the truth, to conceal the fact that the means of production and political power remain in the hands of the exploiters, and that therefore real freedom and real equality for the exploited—that is, for the vast majority of the population—are out of the question.”
And yet even such a “democracy” is blatantly undemocratic: voter suppression has always been baked into our political system which has always privileged the wealthy. Despite gains won by women’s and civil right movements during the 20th century, the right to vote remains limited and threatened by rightwing attacks in the 21st century. The electoral college, racist voter ID laws, an unelected and archaic Supreme Court, gerrymandering, restrictive voting timeframes, polling location shutdowns, and costly recall campaigns driven by the corporate elite all threaten what little say we have in governing, while particularly disenfranchising people of color. But this is besides the point that we don’t have much choice for “representatives” under capitalism: those who willfully do the bidding of billionaires and corporations, and those who cave into the establishment’s pressure.
Instead, under genuine socialism, everyone could take part in deciding how society and the economy would be run, on the basis of open and constructive debate. This would require a dramatic reduction of the work week with no loss of pay, universal childcare, and a full array of language and accessibility tools. With the participation of the whole of society in decision-making, the iron grip of the rich over our workplaces, schools, and communities would be broken. Of course, it does not make sense for every individual to attend to every decision there is to make in such a complex, globalized society. Therefore, democratically-elected representatives would still be necessary for decision-making at local, national, and international levels. Even in the workplace, your “manager” would be elected from among the best workers, and would rely heavily upon collective decision-making rather than unilateral calls out of step with workers’ observations or interests. With the right of immediate democratic recall, these leaders would also be far more accountable than anything seen under capitalism.
Today most politicians comprise a privileged section of society doing the bidding of the capitalist class; and like most bosses, they live remote from the daily hardships faced by ordinary people. A socialist government and workplaces would ensure that no elected representatives received financial privileges as a result of their position but, instead, lived the same lifestyle as those they represented. This would help prevent the formation of the sort of privileged bureaucracies we see throughout capitalism, or in a deformed “socialist” state like the Soviet Union.
That is why International Socialist Alternative believes that workers’ elected representatives should only receive the average wage of those they represent, and ensures its members in public office follow suit. For example, Socialist Alternative and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant accepts only the average pay of a skilled worker in her district—$40,000, as opposed to the full $140,000 accepted by other council members—and donates the rest to workers’ and social movements. This also applies to any SA members elected to union leadership positions.
The Case for a Democratically Planned Economy
There is another crucial aspect to socialist democracy. Under capitalism, most of the important economic decisions are not made directly by congressional bodies or the president. They are made in the boardrooms of giant corporations. Only by bringing those companies into democratic public ownership can economic decision-making be brought under working class control.
This does not mean bringing small businesses, like small local shops and restaurants, into broad public ownership. Many community-based businesses, co-operatives, and small start-ups struggle to compete with much larger ones, and may be forced out of business or bought out and corporatized as a result. Rather, it’s the dictatorial power of huge companies that need to be urgently brought under democratic public ownership during the transitional stages of socialism.
Bringing a company into public ownership means taking its resources—factories, machinery, distribution networks, technologies, infrastructure—and its existing financial reserves out of the hands of wealthy investors and into the hands of the workers at the source of its wealth. Once that critical step is taken, democratic committees can replace the capitalist bosses, reflecting the expertise of the workers in that industry who are intimately familiar with how it operates, what it produces, and what can be improved. And so the aim to maximize profitability would be replaced with the aim to maximize that industry’s ability to meet society’s needs. This would lead to a substantial increase in the general standard of living of the vast majority of people: there would be no reason to keep wages down, work weeks unnecessarily long, or social services starved.
Imagine what would be possible if workers ran the major industries. In the context of minimizing climate catastrophe, workers can cooperate to ensure cleaner, more efficient production and global trade, and oversee a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy while guaranteeing safe well-paid jobs and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. In the context of a pandemic, workers could rapidly retool industrial plants to build much-needed medical and personal protective gear, and freely distribute vaccine formulas and disease research. Rather than suffering under the mismanagement of privatized, for-profit healthcare, instead doctors, nurses, and hospital workers could coordinate the distribution of equipment and information, while ensuring safe, adequate staffing and quality care to all patients.
Capitalism also results in the unnecessary proliferation of similar products. Companies fiercely compete to produce the first and seemingly best goods for the highest possible price, and then spend over half a trillion dollars every year to convince consumers to buy them. As a result, half of an aisle at the local pharmacy is devoted to thirty brands of toothpaste. Socialism would instead aim to produce the necessary amount of the best-quality products based on general need, and thereby save a huge amount of resources that could otherwise improve and innovate new goods and services. This is far from unrealistic: much of the information required to achieve such a feat of planning is currently under the control of Amazon’s corporate executives! Instead of giant corporations using online tracking to bombard us with tailored ads to convince us to buy products, these tools could enormously aid in democratic planning.
This also does not mean, as is commonly claimed, that socialism would result in a lack of choice or poor-quality goods: a society where everyone dresses in a gray uniform. Instead, it would mean a genuine choice of diverse products, rather than the illusion of variety fabricated by competitive corporations. Further still, instead of the wasteful planned obsolescence of technology or fast fashion clothing, workers can take the time to make high-quality long-lasting products according to actual demand, and under safe and equitable conditions far from today’s hellish sweatshops.
Capitalists also organize supply chains around securing the cheapest possible raw materials, component parts, and labor to maximize their profit. Unfettered by the irrationality and anarchy of this system, under socialism workers would cooperate to organize distribution and labor on the basis of need and collective benefit. Today millions seek full employment as millions more work inhumanly long shifts. While millions face homelessness and housing insecurity, millions of housing units remain vacant. Many commute long distances to work, when they could be employed closer to home; and the pandemic has demonstrated how some could even work from home without impacting productivity.
A planned socialist economy can make huge strides towards solving these contradictions within months. It would require a centralized inventory of workers and their skills, which can be used to connect them to the nearest opportunities for work. Those who are overworked can share their hours with those who are underemployed, allowing for a maximum 35-hour work week and extended vacation with no loss of pay. New automated technology would not have to result in layoffs, when workers can simply be allowed to work less. This would give working class people more time to participate in running society.
A democratically planned economy would be able to reorganize work in such a way that it provides everyone with a well-paid job requiring the least commuting time, and to direct work to the most essential projects needed for society and the environment to thrive. This would of course extend to science and technology. No longer would ground-breaking research hit a wall because investors saw no short-term profits to be made. Engineers previously working on destructive military technology could instead work on constructive solutions to stabilize the planet’s ecosystems and develop technology to bring carbon emissions to zero. There will no doubt be new inventions and discoveries, from renewable energy and medicine to artificial intelligence and space flight.
Some will argue that such a transformation is utopian, and that people would not be bothered to participate in such economic planning. But such pessimism pales before a history that has offered numerous examples of workers stepping up to run cities, devising democratic structures like those described during mass struggles. This includes the Russian soviets of 1917, and in the U.S., the Seattle general strike of 1919, the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike, and the wave of sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Today thousands of working-class people attend tenant councils, school board meetings, and local community and faith-based groups. Organizations in a worker-led state would be completely different to the toothless bodies that working-class people are currently allowed to take part in—the committees would actually have the power to say how the economy and society is organized.
What Socialism Could Achieve: Realizing A Socialist Program
We’ve already talked about how a democratically planned socialist economy could eliminate unemployment by sharing out the work, and by diverting huge amounts of wealth towards public services. This makes possible many of the popular reforms that we support today.
The “Green New Deal” and Medicare for All, popularized by Bernie Sanders, could go even further. We need to transform major industries on a sustainable basis, which includes retraining millions of workers in polluting industries with the promise of good union jobs in renewable energy. Publicly-funded research facilities and universities should prioritize developing technology to bring the economy’s carbon emissions to zero and reverse air and water pollution. This would have a hugely positive effect on public health to start.
We also need to build sustainable state-of-the-art hospitals and affordable social housing to ensure everyone has access to safe, sanitary living conditions and free, quality healthcare on demand. We can work towards guaranteed housing starting with rent control tied to wages and a permanent end to evictions. As banks are brought under public ownership and community development is planned according to democratic committees, free public housing for all will become a reality under socialism.
Beyond this, to ensure high-quality public education for all, we must rebuild new schools to replace crumbling, poorly ventilated buildings. They should be rooted in their local communities and connected to an array of public health and recreational services. Free higher education can ensure more well-trained teachers and thus smaller class sizes; more nurses and mental healthcare professionals; and more chefs to ensure access to nutritious meals for all students. Finally, to make the distribution of materials and labor more efficient, we need to massively expand public transit to be high-speed and eco-friendly. All of this new infrastructure must not only be able to withstand extreme weather events, but must also reach the poorest areas of the country so that every person has access to these basic necessities and high-quality services.
Out-of-control police brutality in the U.S. has led many to challenge not only the lack of accountability, but also the bloated state of the country’s police budgets, championed by both the Democratic and Republican parties. Under socialism, public safety budgets and protocols would be entirely controlled by communities. Guaranteed food, shelter, work, and education–in other words, the elimination of poverty–would eliminate most crime. Social workers, mental healthcare professionals, and rehabilitation clinics can address many of the anti-social behaviors that remain, while mass educational programming can work to undo prejudicial attitudes and unhealthy behaviors. The old capitalist state institutions of policing and prisons would have no place in this society, and democratically-elected courts would no longer rule according to the old phrase “property is nine-tenths of the law,” but instead according to genuine working class justice.
Under socialism, we would also be able to eliminate military spending. Today even as national economies are shrinking, military spending continues to increase, as countries prepare for long-term crises like climate change and an intensifying “Cold War” between the U.S. and Chinese imperialist superpowers. In 2020, military defense spending reached $738 billion in the U.S., the largest by far in a total of $2 trillion spent globally. By the time it withdrew troops, the U.S. had spent approximately $5.8 trillion on the invasion of Afghanistan and other conflicts in the oil-rich Middle East following the September 11 attacks. The senseless twenty-year war that followed only served to massively destabilize the region, while killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and displacing millions more. Now a weakened but still dominant U.S. imperialism is twisting the country’s priorities around fierce competition with the rise of Chinese imperialism.
Contrary to what each country’s ruling capitalist class will say, these massive military budgets, invasions, and trade wars aim to defend and extend their imperialist interests—not those of ordinary people in their country. They turn national working and oppressed classes against each other to fight their unjust wars, while we bear the brunt of economic sanctions. Ending imperialism—and building a thriving socialist world—depends instead on the cooperation and unity of the international working class, first in its struggle against the ruling elite, and then in the construction of a worldwide planned economy.
The Importance of Internationalism: For a Socialist World
The transition to a planned economy may well start in one country; but to succeed, it will need to spread internationally and give rise to global socialist planning. New international structures would need to be established to facilitate the maximum coordination of workers’ councils in different industries across borders.
Big businesses and banks already do quite a bit of “planning” across their sprawling multinational structures to try to maximize their own market shares and profits. To inflate revenue or mislead investors, some companies “cook the books” by delaying expenses, fixing prices, laundering income, or creating subsidiary companies. Multinational corporations have built programs to procure the cheapest possible components worldwide, and plan extensively to avoid paying taxes. Meanwhile, business-friendly governments have been unable to negotiate solutions to global tax competition. Global Alliance for Tax Justice estimates that “Countries are losing a total of over $427 billion in taxes each year to international corporate tax abuse and private tax evasion.” Such schemes have been exposed by the Panama and Pandora Papers, which detail the involvement of major banks, companies, and politicians in hiding the full scale of their profits “off-shore” to avoid taxation.
Other international capitalist structures exist, such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations, and many others; but these are neither neutral nor benevolent. Instead they mirror the interests of dominant imperialist countries, determining global fiscal policy and trade, military alliances, insubstantial aid, and predatory lending to less developed countries.
From its birth, the socialist movement has broadly recognized the need to overthrow capitalism on a global basis in order to usher in a new socialist world. This international outlook was captured in the memorable lines of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the World Unite!” But internationalism is also much more than a slogan for Marxists. It is central to any serious attempt to build the socialist movement. Historically, four different international organizations took on the massive project of organizing the international working class, to collectively share the lessons from national struggles, discuss and debate strategy, and support each other in fighting for a common socialist program worldwide.
Based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, the original leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917 – Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party – saw the overthrow of capitalism in Russia as the prelude to an international transformation of society. They understood that, economically, Russia was not ready for socialism, as it was mostly agrarian and only newly industrializing after centuries of feudalism. But the world was ready for such a transformation. For them the success or failure of the Soviet Union depended on the working classes of other countries successfully overthrowing capitalism. This is even truer today, with the increased integration of the world economy, than it was in 1917. With supply chain and production now conducted on an international level, the scope for coordinated international working class struggle has never been larger.
This is why Socialist Alternative is a part of International Socialist Alternative, with sections in over 30 countries. It is especially important to build a strong movement in the U.S. to challenge the American imperialist ruling class, which has been one of the greatest obstacles to international workers’ struggles over the past century. Having taken on the role of the world’s top banker and policeman after World War II, the United States’ history as a global superpower has nothing to do with its mythical exceptionalism or “freedom,” but its brutal interventions throughout Central and Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East to extend its control over the world’s resources and markets. In the process, it’s mowed over workers’ and oppressed peoples’ movements.
In all these situations, Marxists side with those working class people oppressed by foreign imperialist forces, and defend the right to the self-determination of nations, while advocating that such struggles from below also extend to their own national capitalist class. This is not at odds with fighting for a unified international working class struggle. Rather, Marxists are confident that a powerful socialist movement could inspire millions around the world to take up similar struggles in their own countries, in the same way the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement of the early 2010s, or how Black Lives Matter inspired global protests against racism and state repression.
Lessons of Russian Revolution of 1917
Marxists also emphasize the centrality of working class internationalism because it’s not possible to create socialism in one country, surrounded by a world capitalist market. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 is the only time the working class has succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and attempted to build a socialist society. Even though we live under vastly different conditions and circumstances today, socialists carefully study this historic event to understand how ordinary people can rise up to not only take control over society, but run it far better than the profit-driven and power-hungry capitalists. A closer look at this example also reveals that, despite the best efforts of capitalist propaganda to convince us otherwise, the defeat and degeneration of socialism is far from inevitable. What’s key is international socialist revolution led by the working class across the world.
The odds were stacked against revolutionary socialists in a situation of extreme economic and cultural backwardness in 1917. Russia was devastated by World War I. For decades leading up to the revolution, political dissidents faced severe repression, and most Russians lacked even basic democratic rights under the absolutist rule of Tsar Nicholas II. Only 8% of the population was part of a new industrial working class, while the majority was illiterate and many workers lacked administrative skills. Despite this, a mass revolt led by women and striking factory workers demanding “peace, land, and bread” began on International Women’s Day (March 8) in 1917, ultimately forcing the Tsar to abdicate. Out of this revolt, new democratic structures formed around elected workers’ councils, or “soviets,” which made collective decisions across factories and barracks and across cities.
Alongside these working class structures, a new provisional government was formed, but it failed to achieve the movements’ demands. That’s because it consisted mostly of Russian capitalists, who were bound to feudal tsarism’s ties to European capital, alongside socialists who advocated a gradual transition to socialism by way of reforms through a stage of liberal democracy, like that which prevailed throughout the West. Standing in contrast to the latter was the revolutionary socialism of the Bolshevik Party, who instead argued for a total socialist transformation that required breaking from capitalism, which Socialist Alternative continues to argue for today. The provisional government’s aim to establish a liberal democracy favoring the capitalists ultimately contradicted the aim of the workers, women, and disaffected soldiers who led the February Revolution. Together with the political leadership and organization of the increasingly popular Bolsheviks, they took the revolution a step further and seized power during the bloodless October Revolution later that year, establishing a worker-led socialist government to the dismay of pro-Tsarist aristocrats and capitalists everywhere.
The Russian people continued to face a desperate situation. The Bolshevik Party understood that the Soviet Union’s survival depended on the success of revolutionary workers’ movements elsewhere, and they launched the Communist International to assist such struggles. Sure enough, civil war further devastated the economy of the new Soviet Union. Much of the movement’s socialists and worker activists were killed as foreign imperialist armies sought to isolate the world’s only workers’ state. This meant that in many cases, the soviets had no choice but to retain the specialists and administrators of the old absolutist regime, even at the cost of bribing them with privileges. In the town of Vyatka in 1918, for example, no fewer than 4,476 out of 4,766 officials were the same individuals who had previously served the Tsar.
Under these conditions, the system degenerated, and a hideous bureaucracy developed under the misleadership of Joseph Stalin. Stalin broke with Marxism when it came to the centrality of working class leadership and internationalism. Instead, both were subordinated to his project to build “socialism in one country,” and those who challenged the bureaucracy were labled as “counter-revolutionary” and either imprisoned, banished, or murdered.
The Soviet Union’s planned economy was kept intact, although distorted and undemocratic. Instead of being guided by the workers, decisions were made by a few privileged bureaucrats who intended to maintain their standing in this new society. Nonetheless, up until the early 1970s, the nationalized economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe states produced impressive economic advances, especially in heavy industries. In less than 50 years, only newly emerging from feudalism, this society was the first to put a man in space! The state also provided basic education, housing, healthcare, and other social amenities to the majority of the population. For the Soviet Union, which began very backward economically, such rapid advances were unparalleled and exceeded that seen in any capitalist country.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became clear that the outdated, rigid, bureaucratic framework could not cope with the complexities of technological change nor the social demands emerging in this more developed society. Workers’ struggles in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere triggered a political avalanche throughout Eastern Europe. Initially, these sweeping mass movements had features of political revolution: workers demanded democratization of the factories and economic planning from below. Such was the deep revulsion against the grotesque Stalinist caricature of ‘“socialism,” however, that a counter-revolutionary tide driven by Western capitalism was soon able to engulf more progressive demands for a truly democratic form of socialism. Sensing impending collapse and fearful of losing their material privileges, sections of the bureaucracy were ready to abandon this degenerated ‘socialism’ and stake their future on a transition to capitalism.
Since 1990, this restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and satellite nations has been an unmitigated disaster. One small glimpse of it was given by an interview the journalist Robert Fisk conducted with a young Russian woman, Natasha. She was desperate for money and had, like tens of thousands of others, become involved in international prostitution. Fisk suggested to her that she and her friends were victims of “the worst side of men.” Natasha disagreed: “They were victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union, she said, a way of life – free schooling, free universities, free apartments – that had been taken from them.”
Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, led a heroic fight against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, and was assassinated as a result. As far back as 1936, Trotsky put forward two possible outcomes for the Soviet Union: “A successful uprising of the Russian working class, a political revolution and the restoration of democracy; or the return of capitalism with calamitous consequences for the mass of the population.”
These consequences were in store for not only the working class in the USSR, but across the world. Capitalists used the collapse of Stalinism in 1990 to discredit all socialist ideas and to claw back many of the gains working-class people made in the post-WWII period, during which the Soviet model acted as a certain counterweight to capitalism. Capitalist leaders returned to the naked, unabashed brutality of capitalism of the past. In the long run, however, their overconfidence has undermined their system and delegitimized their own institutions. A new generation plainly sees the need for an alternative, and more people are reconsidering these distorted narratives about socialism.
Reform or Revolution?
Today many are attracted to the major economic and social reforms advocated by Bernie Sanders and the Squad. At least two-thirds of Americans favor a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and taxing the rich according to most polls, and this sentiment has only grown with the pandemic, environmental, and economic crises of the early 2020s. And yet these are not the policies adopted by the majority of Congress.
These are reforms capitalism is unwilling to grant short of tremendous social pressure. So the key question facing progressives and socialists hungering for reform and systemic change is “how do we win?” A follow up to this question, debated on the left a century ago as well as today, is “do we really need a revolution to achieve these changes?”
Many hope that these socialist policies can be achieved by slowly reforming the existing system by working from within. But the last 150 years of history has shown that this gradual reformism cannot possibly lead to socialism. Bernie Sanders has referenced social democratic countries in Scandinavia, and he’s correct to point to the huge victories the working class has won there through struggle, such as socialized medicine, free college education, and paid family leave. But all reforms won under capitalism are temporary, and require continued organization to defend.
As we’ve demonstrated above, capitalism is not a stable or rational system. It’s subject to booms and busts that can overwhelmingly hit working and poor people the hardest while the rich remain relatively unscathed. Big business has many tools to make us pay for the crises of their system: paying us less while raising rents, prices, and interest rates; cutting or privatizing public services; and delivering massive bailouts to big business, while small businesses are shuttered and workers lose their jobs. Even if social democratic welfare states could magically offer their own population stability, there are workers in another parts of the world who pay the price. Countries like Norway have made their wealth off of fossil fuels, and have expropriated land from indigenous populations. The Swedish company H&M’s profits are squeezed from underpaid workers in Bangladesh.
But stability is not possible even for advanced capitalist countries. As our counterparts in Sweden have written, “Public housing has been privatized to a high degree, state planning abolished and subsidies have disappeared.” The various public services and safety nets extolled by Bernie Sanders have eroded and in some cases have been virtually eliminated. Much like what we witnessed in the U.S. and other capitalist countries, Sweden’s big businesses and banks received a stimulus at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but cuts to healthcare remained unchanged!
While huge reforms were won in Europe, capitalism was not overthrown. Instead, the capitalists were forced to temporarily make concessions in order to contain powerful labor and social movements during and after World War II. For a whole historic period after the War War II, U.S. capitalism was the strongest in the world. Having avoided the worst destruction to its own infrastructure, it profited fabulously off the war and loans granted to rebuild Europe and Japan. By making extensive use of the state, capitalism was able to rebuild these economies. The U.S. economy also boomed as a result, and could more than afford to concede rising living standards to its population.
But that period is over. By the 1970s, the rate of profit began to decline, and capitalism moved to end this temporary social contract by clawing back these concessions. A new “neoliberal era” introduced deep tax cuts for the rich, privatized various public sector industries, deregulated the financial sector, slashed welfare and social programs, and relentlessly attacked unions. We’re now reckoning with decades of this unsustainable policy. As one disaster after another pulls at the fraying seams of their system, a divided capitalist class is groping for solutions, unable to rely on these methods to reap and rule in the same way as millions across the globe lash back in anger.
Bernie and AOC have painted FDR’s New Deal as something that should be emulated as a step towards socialism. They set high expectations for the Biden administration, which has not only broken its many promises, but continues Trump-era policies. Biden is no FDR. He has no intention of shaking up the political stalemate in Washington to pass desperately needed reforms in the wake of the pandemic and economic crises. But FDR was also no socialist. Nor was he a “friend of labor.” He was a fiscal conservative whose main objective during the Great Depression was to save capitalism and avoid an increasingly powerful labor movement from following in the footsteps of the Russian Revolution.
As long as the balance of political power is tipped towards the capitalists, who continue to shatter profit-breaking records, we can expect continued defeats for Biden’s botched “Build Back Better” agenda without the challenge of a strong mass movement from below. That is what ultimately forced the hand of FDR: every major welfare and jobs program that passed under the New Deal corresponded to major strikes and demonstrations led by militant workers across the country. Over the decades that followed, similarly massive movements turning towards the same tactics won major victories. The Civil Rights movement dismantled Jim Crow, won voting rights, and passed anti-discrimination and legislation. The women’s rights movement forced the hand of a conservative Supreme Court to win Roe v. Wade. The environmental movement forced the conservative President Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water and Air Acts by bringing 10% of the population in the U.S. into the streets!
In reality, Bernie’s program can only be won through mass struggle—not by relying on the Democratic Party to deliver it. Socialist Alternative helped win the first $15/hour minimum wage in a major city by activating Seattle’s working people to build a grassroots movement independent of big business and the Democratic Party. We were able to do the same and won a huge tax on Amazon and other corporate giants, combining this movement with mass BLM protests to demand funds for affordable housing. Every step of the way, the Democrats on the council worked behind the scenes to undermine and roll back these victories, proving their own allegiances with big business over working people.
Any system dominated by these forces, maintained by a state that defends the interests of the ruling class, will not allow for a gradual transition to socialism. Bosses will not be convinced to gradually give up more and more of their profits. Capitalism demands that they accumulate more and more capital to remain profitable in a competitive economy. This means it demands greater exploitation to extract greater profits, or else companies risk falling behind. Whether a “democracy” or dictatorship, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its primary role of defending private property and ensuring profitability. Again and again we see big bailouts for corporations during crises, while working and poor people are told to tighten their belts and brace for austerity.
Lenin and the Bolshevik Party recognized this fundamental relationship between the ruling class and the state in 1917, and fully backed the soviets in their struggle for power against the weak, pro-capitalist Provisional Government. As the October Revolution demonstrated, a socialist revolution could fundamentally end the exploitative relationship between bosses and workers, and completely replace the pro-capitalist state with a new democratic, worker-led government which would side wholly with the working class and oppressed.
However, the organized strength of working and young people can certainly win important victories in the meantime. These are the forces that Bernie and the Squad should be organizing and mobilizing to win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a federal $15/hr minimum wage, and more. These are also the forces that, with enough experience, momentum, and confidence in their own political independence, can usher in socialist change. A critical step in this process will be to build a new mass political party that can unite behind such a progressive program, and unite various struggles against social oppression to the struggle against capitalism.
Another crucial factor in the struggle against capitalism is the existence of a strong revolutionary Marxist party, which can also play a role in building and strengthening a new independent mass party. This was the key to workers’ historic victory in Russia. In other countries, where the revolutionary party was weak and inexperienced, or where the completion of a working class-led revolution was subordinated to the class conciliatory approach of gradual reformism, the capitalist class has been able to violently cut across electoral mandates and revolts from below.
One tragic example came in Chile in 1973. After Salvador Allende was elected president from a coalition of socialist left parties, he pursued major reforms and nationalized several large-scale industries, with the support of powerful working class organizations. Inflation and unemployment went down, salaries went up, and basic necessities like milk were provided to families for free. But this attempt to incrementally restructure the economy threatened landowners, financiers, and foreign business interests, namely those of U.S. capitalists. Initial gains quickly came under siege. The Chilean right wing and global ruling class moved to destabilize the economy, and Chile struggled to maintain these reforms as the price of its chief export, copper, dropped.
However, this failed to dull mass support for socialism. Furthermore it was clear to revolutionary workers that a violent counter-revolutionary backlash was on the horizon, and that a total struggle against capitalist forces were necessary. Instead of turning to the mass social power of the workers, who were denied arms to defend themselves and seize power, Allende’s reformist government tried and failed to compromise with its capitalist opposition. A bloody military coup, backed by the CIA, destroyed the powerful organizations and leaders of the Chilean working class, and installed the right wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Had the revolutionary workers’ movement not been blocked by its own socialist and communist leadership in the parliament, such a crisis could have been averted.
There are many more examples illustrating the need for socialist revolution. Socialist Alternative is committed to building an organization united behind a clear revolutionary perspective and program, in addition to strengthening and uniting broader movements and mass organizations. All of our members play a role in bringing forward the lessons and strategies of militant working class struggle, wherever people are organizing against injustice, oppression, and exploitation.
Fighting Racism, Sexism, Oppression and the Far Right
The main obstacle to achieving a socialist society is a ruling elite determined to preserve its class position of power. Well aware it is a small minority, it has devised strategies to divide and prevent working and oppressed people from organizing to overcome its control and recognize their common oppressor.
In the U.S., this has mainly taken the form of anti-Black oppression. Racism was baked into American capitalism’s DNA from the start. Early in this country’s history, the colonial upper class faced a united struggle of poor white servants and black slaves during Bacon’s Rebellion, which produced the divisive Virginia Slave Codes in an attempt to crystalize unequal racial castes. Ever since, a predominantly white ruling class has made use of slavery, Jim Crow, and the War on Drugs to not only amass generations of wealth, but also convince the white working class that they had little in common with the Black working class and poor. This has expressed itself differently over time, from slavery and Jim Crow to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. At each stage of our history, capitalists have had to adapt their racist “divide and conquer” strategy to protect their profits as powerful united antiracist struggles challenged their system. Internationally, racist ideology was also adapted to justify the colonial and imperialist powers’ carving up of the world in the name of “civilization,” “democracy,” and “freedom.” Today it still dictates the economic fate of poor countries via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
While liberal sections of the ruling class pretend to adopt anti-racist attitudes while permitting racial pay gaps, its right wing continues to aggressively promote racism to justify its agenda. Just like Bush’s “War on Terror” demonized Muslims, Trump has whipped up anti-immigrant sentiments to account for economic setbacks and unemployment suffered by the white working class as capitalists chase cheaper labor. He’s also spurred on Asian hate crimes by painting COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu,” all to further justify ramping up a New Cold War with China. And yet, multi-racial protests spanned Trump’s presidency through 2020’s mass uprising demanding Justice for George Floyd, demonstrating that much of the country rejects and is willing to stand up to these racist narratives and police violence.
Discrimination against women and gender oppression is also embedded in capitalism, and other class-based societies before it. Sexual harassment, lesser pay, femicide and transphobic violence, and limited reproductive rights hold back a huge section of society. The way that capitalism is organized and structured – in particular the role that the family has played and still plays as an economic and social unit – perpetuates and reinforces this.
Under capitalism, the family plays an ideological and economic role. Its traditional structure is based on the dependence of the ‘non-productive’ members of the household on an individual wage earner. This has forced centuries of standard gender roles and stereotypes upon its members, thus sowing division between men, women, and gender non-conforming people. The small “nuclear” family was framed as essential to survival and security during the Cold War, as an alternative to communism and an economic lever for consumerism. It has also been used to reinforce the idea that on an individual level, we bear personal responsibility for being unable to thrive in a system that is, in reality, unequal by design.
The family, along with the education system, has ultimately been used to discipline, socialize, and prepare young people to assume their productive role as adults in capitalist society–including the role of reproducing the working class. The repression of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy is therefore not simply a moral imperative. It derives from capitalism’s attempt to chain women to the household, where they’re often expected to take on the bulk of domestic work and raise the next generation of workers, in a world where they are divorced from any economic power.
The struggle against racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression are crucial to building a powerful socialist movement. To overcome the ruling class’s divide-and-conquer strategy, socialists and the labor movement have an especially important leading role to play in uniting the multi-racial, multi-gender working class. Unions should mobilize workers behind the demands of various social movements, as well as broader economic demands that go beyond the workplace, while organizing in opposition to far right white supremacy. The reverse is also true: while it would be naive to suggest these prejudices could be eliminated overnight, a socialist transformation of society is the only chance we have to truly extract them from the fabric of our culture. Removing the profit motive would lay the material basis for addressing climate change, ending endless wars, and eliminating the nightmarish discrimination that strangles our social institutions as a result of centuries of capitalist exploitation.
Immediate economic and democratic measures–such as fair wages, jobs for all, free high-quality childcare and universal education, and affordable housing–would immediately lift millions out of poverty to a more dignified standard of living. This would especially improve the lives of people of color, women, and LGBTQ people who make up the most economically exploited layers of society. And without economic inequality to justify discrimination, this new society can begin to truly root out these harmful ideas.
Widening inequality and worsening attacks on workers’ living standards has fueled the growing anger and frustration with the political establishment, and a desperate search for an alternative. This has led to increasing political polarization, which has deepened with the inability of Obama, Trump, and now Biden to respond to capitalism’s crises. Now the far right is looking to cash in on growing instability where it can. It’s ability to use bigotry and culture wars to whip up its base presents a huge threat to working class movements, especially where it spurs on right-wing vigilantism and terrorism. Meanwhile, rather than organizing a mass public opposition, the Democratic Party does absolutely nothing. In fact, it has done more to marginalize Sanders and the left, appealing to a diminishing “moderate” center, than it ever did to stand up to Trump. This continued allegiance to corporate liberalism over the working class continues to leave millions further behind, leaving them vulnerable to right-wing ideas.
There is only one way to effectively fight the growth of the far right. The organized left, including organizations like the DSA and its officials as well as the labor movement, urgently needs to offer a fighting working-class political alternative based on the collective power of the working class. This era of polarization has also seen a larger shift to the political left, especially among younger workers and teens. More desperate sections of the ruling class will not hesitate to use the far right’s base to disorient and demobilize the stirring labor and social movements that threaten their control. These forces can easily outnumber the far right. But we need to be organized and prepared to fight for a more compelling program based on economic and social demands that takes today’s crises head on.
Fighting for a Socialist Future: Where To Begin?
An inspiring and complex history of socialist and workers’ movements is left out of public education, and for good reason: the capitalist class can’t afford working class youth’s rediscovery of these traditions. The two-party system in the U.S. in particular benefits from workers’ resignation that this system can never change, or that it always existed this way. But various working class organizations and parties have presented formidable challenges to capitalism over the last two centuries, and one can certainly take hold today.
2020 marked the George Floyd rebellion and pandemic-related backlash of essential workers against bosses’ disregard for safety. We’ve seen an uptick in mass demonstrations and strikes, and general support for labor unions and BLM grow. Although he refused to break with the Democrats, Bernie Sanders’ grassroots presidential campaigns showed that millions of people are willing to devote their limited time and money to building a real challenge to corporate greed in Washington, D.C. Many have also turned to mutual aid to address the gross inequity, systemic racism, and fatal shortcomings of the government laid bare over the pandemic. Mutual aid can be useful as a tactic in mass movements; but by sharing out the limited resources of the working class and poor, it is unable to fundamentally resolve the problems of capitalism, i.e. who controls or distributes the vast untapped resources of society.
To move forward and win lasting changes for the working class, we need to draw the key lessons from recent struggles. Rank-and-file-led teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and Arizona achieved more success in improving working and learning conditions than did decades of relying on the Democrats. The same was true of the huge labor struggles of the 1930s, as well as the Civil Rights, women’s, and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s. Just in the last few years, some of the biggest victories for workers, renters, and the poor have come through movements independent of the Democrats, epitomized by the struggles of Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in Seattle.
The kind of organization that this moment needs can take the form of a new membership-based political party uniting the multigenerational, multi-racial working class and poor. It’s independence from big corporations and the two corporate parties would empower it to truly stand up to these forces. Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, decisions about the party’s platform and strategies would not be made top-down by a self-appointed leadership, but decided democratically at mass conferences. It also would not limit itself to electoral campaigns on the capitalists’ playing field–although it should run candidates bound to its platform, who in turn could use their offices to organize movements that can win its demands. In sum, a new mass working class party could unify the enormous power of unions, youth movements, and social struggles like Black Lives Matter behind common action, and fight for bold reforms by mounting grassroots electoral campaigns, mass demonstrations, walkouts, and strikes.
It’s not likely that such a new party will be “socialist” at the outset, and some members may not even be fully won over to the idea that capitalism is at the root of society’s ills. Even so, it would represent a tremendous step forward, and beyond serious campaigns, could even assist with coordination of mass projects and emergency responses. Socialists will have an important role to play in arming such a mass organization with socialist ideas and methods. Major victories would encourage more people to become politically active and learn through the experience of struggle.
Socialist Alternative has learned from its own experience how such an organization could empower the working class. Kshama Sawant was first elected as a City Councilmember in Seattle in 2013; she won as an open independent socialist, before the seismic campaign of Bernie Sanders. This bellwether victory proved that there was an opening for independent left politics and deep dissatisfaction with the two-party system and economic inequality. But every victory won through the council office–$15, landmark renters rights, the Amazon Tax, and so on–was made possible due to the organization behind her, with members organizing in their workplaces, unions, schools, and communities for these campaigns.
Socialist Alternative has similarly participated in and at times helped to lead struggles across the U.S. for $15, new unions, rent control, wage increases and fair union contracts, big business taxes, and community control over the police, using the same Marxist methods to unite workers and youth in struggle. Internationally, our organization led the successful repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban. The ISA has led anti-corruption protests in Russia, demonstrated against Bolsonaro’s right-wing regime in Brazil, resisted armed Israeli occupations of Palestine, and launched a global solidarity campaign against repression in China and Hong Kong. We also mobilized over three hundred of our members from across the world to the COP26 protests against corporate climate destruction to build support for an international socialist program.
While Socialist Alternative strives to build support for Marxist ideas and methods, we think a much broader mass working class party–one that includes various left-leaning and progressive organizations and movements–is necessary to take on the capitalist class. We also take the project of building a revolutionary party alongside this aim very seriously. Such an organization will be necessary to win a complete break with capitalism, and to defend the socialist future that working and young people have long deserved.ns If you agree, and believe that independent and international class struggle points the way forward, you should join International Socialist Alternative today!