My active political life and serious study of social issues began in April of 1968 when I was 12. By the time of my 13th birthday, that November, I had already come across all of the worn-out, threadbare arguments the unstudied throw in the face of Reds. Now, when I’m nearly 58, I’m starting to get tired of them.
I need to clarify some points: First, just because a lot of people repeat the same lines, doesn’t mean they’re wrong. In fact, it means that, on some level at least, the arguments are reasonable. I get that. Second, I understand that very often the questions or arguments are sincere; unfortunately, the same argument is often advanced with a smugness that grates and sometimes makes it hard for me to separate someone genuinely interested in an answer from someone trying to score points. Third, I understand that my personal frustration doesn’t help anyone: it is, as my brother would have said, a subjective reaction (the word “subjective” was as much a curse for him as “unscientific” was for my father).
So I’ve decided to gather up the most common of these, in no particular order, and put my answers where I can just point to them. I may add additional arguments and questions as they occur to me.
1. You on the Left should stop squabbling among yourselves and work together.
..a: Work together to do what, exactly? The real issue, I think, is fetishising terms. “Red” “Leftist” “Socialist.” It’s not about the word, it’s about the content of one’s program. Let me put it in terms some of you may be more familiar with: If someone labeling himself a Christian is celebrating the life of Jesus, as he thinks, by promoting tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, charity, and love; and another is celebrating the life of Jesus, as he thinks, by promoting hatred for homosexuals, contempt for the poor, and attacks on reproductive rights of women, the fact that both use the same term to identify themselves seems beside the point, doesn’t it? More precisely, if I am fighting to break the working class from the hold of the bourgeois parties and mobilize its independent strength, and another is working to get a Democrat elected to make sure the Republican loses, then the fact that we both use the word socialist to describe ourselves seems beside the point, doesn’t it?
..b: The revolution will be made by the working class, not the “Reds.” For this to happen, what the working class needs above all is an understanding of its social role, or, to use the parlance of Marxism, its historic mission, and that is the job of Reds: analysis of events and communication. A group, calling itself whatever, that attempts to prevent the working class from coming to this understanding, isn’t a group you ally yourself with, it is a group you fight.
..c: Point ..b above, in turn, requires constant study, and the sharpening of one’s own understanding. What you call “squabbling among yourselves” is a vital part of this, like using a whetstone to sharpen a knife.
2. The problem with socialism is that human beings must carry it out.
I’ve never understood this one. I suspect it’s saying that greed and competition, rather than sharing and cooperation, are inevitable. But the whole point of socialism is that it is based on an understanding of humanity—that we are social animals above all, and that our means of gaining sustenance and shelter and so on dominate all other considerations until those problems are solved. If you disagree with that understanding (e.g., you think that greed is biological rather than social; or that people simply cannot be cooperative over the long run), then I think you’re wrong, but say so and we’ll talk about it.
3. If you can’t make predictions with absolute certainty, it isn’t science.
This generally comes up in the context of predicting when a revolution will take place, or when an economic crisis will break out. One might identify a potentially revolutionary situation, but say that we can’t know for certain if an insurrection will occur. That’s when, inevitably, someone will say, “Science is about exact predictions and if you can’t make them, it isn’t science.” Well, okay then. I live in Minnesota. Next time the National Weather Center tells me that conditions are right for a tornado, I will point out that they have not said with absolute certainty that a tornado will touch down, and so it isn’t science, and so I’ll ignore the warning. Oh, wait, no I won’t.
4. What’s to prevent a dictatorship from forming?
Short answer: The power of the armed working class. The followup question will inevitably involve the Russian Revolution. The answer to that cannot be a sound bite; volumes have been devoted to the question of what conditions provided the opportunity (almost the requirement) for dictatorial measures. I can briefly mention devastation by years of war and by the invasion of 21 armies representing 11 nations resulting in the massive destruction of infrastructure and production capacity; the betrayal of the German, British, and French revolutions resulting in the isolation of the Soviet Union, and other matters. But, really, the answer is, if you seriously want to know, you’ll have to study the issue. Start with Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.
ETA: I’ve done a series of blog posts on this. They start here.
5. Who gets to decide what is fair distribution, and how resources are shared?
I don’t know. How can anyone know in advance? This is like demanding of the Founding Fathers that they detail the means of separation of powers before issuing the Declaration of Independence. We have to get to a place where the solution is possible first. But do you honestly believe that all of humanity, working together without a profit motive, will be unable to figure this out? Really? Look around you at everything we as a species have accomplished, and under terrible conditions. What more can we accomplish when greed is not built into the most fundamental relations of life? Once we have achieved a common ownership of production—once we, as a people, own everything we need—I have a theory that we can put our heads together and come up with solutions for what is, in fact, a pretty trivial problem.
6. If you hate the police so much, isn’t it hypocritical to call them when you’re in trouble?
Imagine you are kidnapped, brought to an isolated compound, and forced to labor for another’s enrichment. Around the perimeter are guards whose job it is to keep you there, or shoot you if you try to escape. If a fight breaks out between captives, the guards will often jump in to break it up, because you are valuable as a laborer. If you were attacked by another captive, therefore, you might call the guards to assist you. This does not change the fact that, in the last analysis, they are working for those who kidnapped you, and that they are upholding the system that keeps you captive.
7. Why do you want to take my stuff?
..a: “Possession” does not equal “ownership.” The first is the relationship between a person and a thing, the other a relation among people. Ownership, or, more precisely, property, has to do with courts, jails, people with guns; in other words, the State. It is not possession that is being challenged, it is ownership. And if I can use my drum whenever I feel like it, why do I care that I no longer “own” it?
..b: The real answer, however, is that when Marxists talk about the abolition of private property, we are talking about it in a limited way. The general formulation in Marxist literature is “The abolition of private property in the means of production.” What that means is public ownership of factories, raw materials, and infrastructure that are used socially to produce goods that are needed socially but owned privately in order for the capitalist to then sell to realize a profit. Socialists do not want to take your favorite end table. And if it was made, for example, by an individual craftsman working with a few tools by himself in a small shop, no one wants to interfere with that, either. It isn’t about your car, it is about the local Ford plant; we want it to be run in the interest of those who work there, and of society in general.
..c The subject of the small, family farmer sometimes comes up in this regard, and the snide part of me wants to reply, “I don’t know, go ask them, and see how they both feel about it.” More seriously, there is some truth in the snide–the degree to which the small family farmer has been destroyed by agribusiness is nothing short of appalling. Socialists believe the agribusinesses should become cooperatives, owned and run in the interests of those who work them and society in general. As for the individual farmer, we believe in encouraging them to combine for the purposes of more efficient production, but, this not being a devastated and ruined Soviet Union suffering from ten years of mismanagement, there is no need to force them to do anything they don’t care to do. No kulaks; no problem.
8. But isn’t that stealing?
..a: Yes, just as the capitalist steals the surplus value from every worker he employs. The followup argument, that the worker enters into the agreement voluntarily, ignores the fact that the worker has no choice but to sell his labor power; his only choice is to whom to sell it. That sort of undercuts the “voluntary” part.
..b: An examination of history will reveal that capitalism itself came to power by stealing from the landed aristocracy. Sometimes, in some places, this stealing had a legal cover; other times it was more brutal and blatant. While capitalism cannot be “blamed” for this (no social class has ever achieved power without appropriating, ie, stealing, from the class it is replacing), we can justly raise the cry of hypocrisy when capitalists whine about socialists being in favor of theft.
..c: Even assuming you’re right, are you claiming that refraining from stealing from 1% of the population is preferable to global catastrophe? If Marxists are correct, those are the choices. For my part, I say, “Go with the stealing.”
..d. And in any case, I will not take my morality from the mouths of those who benefit from keeping me in chains.
9. Without competition/greed/the need to survive, what is to keep someone from doing nothing?
..a: Peer pressure. Seriously. How do you feel when you’re working on a joint project and someone is being a burden? In nearly all such cases, it is dealt with by glares and remarks. We’re social beings, and we don’t like it when our peers are pissed off at us.
..b: “Work” can be reasonably divided into two classes: what is done for love, and what is done only out of necessity. If unemployment were not an issue, if the full power of humanity were to cooperate on creating and using technology to relieve us of the burden of tedious or unpleasant occupations that were needful to society, just how much of those would be left that require a person? Me, I’ll gladly put in my three hours a week supervising the robots who are cleaning up after dogs.
..c: Continuing from ..b, if some things have to be done, and no one is excited about doing them, then let’s set it up so that the more unpleasant the task (as determined by the difficulty finding people to do it), the fewer hours are required. If we haven’t yet fully automated coal mining, then maybe an hour a week divided among thousands of people would do what is required; whereas a less unpleasant task, such as tech crew for a space shuttle, might involve six or seven hours. Adjust hours and jobs by trial and error until everyone is happy. If you want to know who administers this, see (5) above. This is just to show that solutions are possible; it isn’t intended to predict what will end up happening.
..d: The real point, however, is that I simply don’t believe people are as grasping and as ready to take advantage as many seem to think. We really do like to cooperate—anyone who has been in Minnesota in the winter knows this. We live in a society where greed, where “taking advantage,” is not only encouraged, but quite nearly required. In so very many cases, if you want to do better in life, you must do so at someone else’s expense. What if it were the case that, if you want to do better, you must bring everyone else up with you? Think about that for a while.
10. Do you support violence to instigate social change?
I don’t know. Do you support violence to prevent social change?
11. The problem is human nature.
Please forgive the tone of my response to this one, but, for the son of an anthropologist, it is especially annoying. To the extent that the “human nature” argument has any validity at all, it is a variant on #2 above. It has, however, the additional feature of being disguised mysticism. It is never accompanied by scientific evidence, or by any actual explanation. Where does this purported “human nature” come from? God? Those who haul out this hoary old bugbear bring with it pronouncements that not only have no evidence, but are contradicted by the most casual observation. Case in point: “Humans are better at destroying than building.” That would certainly explain why we are all still living in caves. Only we’re not—we’re living in structures that are getting better all the time, usually in complex cities with huge infrastructure; seems to me that we’ve built significantly more than we’ve destroyed. Do we also destroy? Of course we do. And, every time we do, the reason for the destruction is knowable without resorting to vague handwaving: wars over resources, wars over markets, wars over profit are the most contemporary reasons. But these can all be traced to class society, and will end with the destruction of class society.
In general, “human nature” is used in three ways: 1) As a shorthand for those characteristics that are intrinsic in human beings among people who all agree with what they are. 2) As a lazy excuse for not investigating whether certain characteristics common among people have their origins in our biology or our social forms. 3) As faith-based hand-waving to dismiss arguments one cannot answer.
The history of the human race is the history of increased knowledge, greater equality, multiplied productivity, and advances in economic forms brought about by social revolution. Why should this stop? If “human nature” means anything at all, it means the drive to survive, and to improve one’s lot in life. And it is “human nature” that we are social animals, and thus inclined toward cooperation. The reasons for competition, war, class conflict, and other things that prevent cooperation are available for study by anyone who wishes to learn. To take casual, uninformed, unverified surface observations and, using them, make sweeping claims about “human nature” is intellectual laziness, and unscientific.
12. We don’t actually have capitalism, you know.
We don’t actually have drinking water, either; on account of there’s something besides hydrogen and oxygen in it. And there’s no such thing as winter, because sometimes it warms up a little. Also, we don’t have automobiles, because there are regulations that require extraneous devices be put on them. For that matter, none of us are human beings because we’ve all been changed by advancing technology and civilization. Unscientific rubbish, of course; purity is not a requirement for something to be what it is. But useful rubbish, because it forces us to ask: when we identify an economic system, what do we mean?
For society to exist, articles of human need (food, clothing, shelter, &c) must be created and distributed. There are many different ways to drive the production of goods. They could be created by sheer, naked force: work in the copper mines, or you will be beaten or killed; we call such systems slavery. Or by arrangement of land ownership—if you are going to eat, you must grow food, some of which you will give to your lord in exchange for being permitted to live on and work the land. We call such systems feudal. Another way of seeing to it that goods are produced puts exchange at the center—that is, I am going to gather what is needed to produce something (tools, raw material, and labor) and then I will produce it with the intention, not of using it, but of exchanging it for something that I can use—for example, money. We call this “capitalism.” An item that is mass-produced for exchange is called a commodity. When commodity production is the dominant economic form of a society, we refer to that society as capitalist. For production-for-exchange to work, the capitalist must be able to appropriate the surplus value, otherwise he has no incentive to produce, and production stops.
What does dominant mean in this context? Well, it doesn’t mean unfettered—that is, unaffected by regulations forced from the government; or by the activity of the working class. Such a thing has never existed and cannot exist. Nor does it have to do with a headcount of the people involved: in the United States and many other countries today, for example, it is actually a minority of capitalists and a minority of the workforce that is directly involved in commodity production. Nor does it mean exclusive—there can be and usually are other forms of production happening along side capitalism: individuals who create craft items for barter; co-ops who produce goods for each other’s consumption; there is even socialism, which is defined as production based on need, rather than exchange, and so on. But if all of these other modes of production suddenly, for some reason, vanished from the United States; the economy would scarcely notice; whereas if all production for exchange vanished, society would collapse. For this reason, we refer to our society as capitalist.
13. What is the difference between socialism and communism?
I refer to communism as the goal, as a society that functions based on “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” The society that exists after the State has withered away; in which money, at least as we understand it now, is no longer useful; a true cooperative culture. I use communism to mean, in essence, a world-wide classless society: there is no “working class” as such, because labor and the fruits of labor are shared. National boundaries no longer exist. I am aware that some people consider this Utopian; for me, it is sad to think that so many people believe that a society in which we can finally begin to address the creation of a true human culture, in which poverty, untreated disease, and homelessness no longer exist, in which there is true equality, in which the full creative force of each individual can express itself according to that individual’s wishes, is Utopian. To me, it is simply the starting point for the adulthood, or at least the adolescence, of humanity.
I refer to socialism as a step toward that goal: as a society in which the working class controls the mechanisms of the State as well as the means of production, in which banks and basic industry are nationalized under workers control and the effort of society is to increase the productive forces, improve how they benefit everyone, and, above all, insure that there is no danger of a capitalist counter-revolution. While the notion of socialism in one country is an absurdity, it is entirely reasonable, during the transition period, for a set of nations to work cooperatively to build socialism and defend themselves against attacks by the remaining imperialists.
Though it isn’t part of the question as it is usually asked, I use “workers state” to refer to the post-revolutionary condition of a given nation, where the working class, through the revolutionary party, has taken state power, and has to face the tasks of reaching out to the working class of other nations, and begin to build socialism.
14, What will you do with those who want to accumulate wealth?
This is one that I have a lot of trouble answering, because it’s so hard to get my head around. I feel like I’ve just said, “Hey, let’s quit playing baseball and play some basketball,” and after explaining the rules of basketball, someone says, “But if you don’t touch home plate, what’s to prevent someone from throwing you out?” Let me try, though. What we mean by wealth under capitalism is an accumulation of commodities. Since commodities (by the strict definition) will no longer exist, there cannot be such an accumulation. I suppose, then, this question could mean, “what about someone who wants to accumulate a lot of stuff?” To that, well, my immediate response is, if someone wants more things than he could ever use, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone else, why not? I mean, there are certainly people who enjoy collecting sea shells or pezz dispensers, and they seem pretty harmless. If there is someone who wants more stuff than he can use and particularly wants to deny it to others for no reason except to be mean, that seems like sort of a strange, off-the-wall kind of sickness, but I admit it could exist. In that case, how would this person, with no state power, go about enforcing this wish?
Historically, Man has always lived in fear of not having enough, which has led to all sorts of pathologies, including and especially the competitive desire to have more stuff. Once this fear is removed by combined effort of humankind, there is simply no reason to expect those pathologies to continue. And with no means available to gratify them if they do exist, there is no danger in any case. Remember that, traditionally, wealth has been property, which means it has been protected by the armed might of the state. In a socialist society, wealth is social. We accumulate it for all of us, to be used by all of us, and there is no need for a state to protect it.
15. Okay, I understand what you’re saying, but revolutions are violent and terrible events.
Let’s set aside the question of just who revolutions are terrible for, and against whom the violence is directed. And we’ll also ignore the issue of the systemic violence of war and oppression that capital has inflicted on us for hundreds of years. The real point is that, so far, society has found no other way to advance itself. The image of a group of revolutionaries simply deciding to take State power, popular as it might be, reflects Blanqism, and has nothing whatever in common with Marxism. Marxists believe that at a certain point in the relations between an historically exhausted class and an historically progressive class, they will clash. With the best will in the world, neither I nor anyone else can prevent that. What we—by which I mean, those who act consciously in an effort to influence history—can do, is work for the revolution to be successful. Because however unpleasant you might consider a revolution (and I certainly concede that the aftermath of a revolution is difficult under the best of conditions), a failed revolution is far more horrific in its results, and doesn’t carry with it the promise that the difficulty will result in better lives for those who follow. Obviously, you may disagree that revolution is inevitable; that is something we can talk about. But please remember that Marxists do not see their role as creating revolution, but rather as guiding it to a successful conclusion. I realize that I’ve gone through this whole thing so far without a quote, so here’s one from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
16. You mentioned the Russian Revolution in an earlier question, but what about China, Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and the other Communist countries?
The real question, to me, is, what do these countries have in common that would lead one to call them communist? So far as I can tell, the only thing they have in common is that at the head of the state is someone who identifies as a socialist, a communist, a Marxist. Is that really how we analyze a social-economy, by the name the leader of the state calls himself? I can call myself an astronaut, but that won’t turn my car into a spaceship. What defined the Russian Revolution was not that the Bolsheviks were Marxists, but that, for the first time (or the second, if we count the Paris Commune) the working class took power in its own name. This has not happened in North Korea, or Cuba, or even China.
Venezuela is a purely capitalist state in every sense, led (at this moment) by a bourgeois nationalist who uses Marxist rhetoric. Cuba is similar, in spite of the nationalization of certain industries, except that because of the period of its activity and the hostility of US Imperialism, it had to draw itself into the orbit of the USSR in order to survive, which necessitated certain measures demanded by the Stalinists. The Chinese revolution was huge and complex and earth-shaking. The capitalist government of Chiang was overthrown, but, unlike the Russian Revolution, the leadership (Mao, heavily influenced by Stalin) based itself on a peasant, rather than a working class program, thus producing a deformed workers state. That it was unable to actually build socialism was inevitable, as Trotskyists warned at the time: the peasantry, as a class, cannot play an independent historical role. Of course, China has long since abandoned any shade of its radical past beyond the name of the ruling clique. North Korea, Vietnam, are products of their own history, but generally the result of efforts to fight imperialism. Each country has its own unique history, which must be studied in order to make generalizations that reflect the actual conditions.
So what we find these countries have in common is nothing more than socialist, or communist, or Marxist rhetoric among their leaders. Why the rhetoric? It is hard, after a hundred years, to understand the tremendous wave of hope and excitement felt by millions upon millions of workers at the news of the Russian Revolution. It is no wonder that opportunists will use that to advance their agenda, especially if that agenda includes elements of anti-imperialism. But if we are to understand society well enough to consciously change it, we need to dig deeper than just accepting what political leaders say at face value.
17. In such a complex society as ours, reducing all of our problems to a single cause, capitalism, just doesn’t make sense.
..1 To be clear, there are problems socialism will simply solve, eg imperialist war, exploitation of labor, income inequality, unemployment, preservation of basic human rights. There are other problems that socialism can provide the opportunity to solve, that are insoluble under capitalism: eg racism, sexism, climate change, health care, housing, mental health (many of which can and must be attacked as part of the fight for socialism).
..2 In the mid 19th Century some of the problems that concerned liberal and radical US thinkers were: Abolition of slavery. How to keep from forcing Northern citizens to act as slave-catchers. How to provide infrastructure (ie, the railroad) to the west. How to create tariffs and trade laws that would help build up industry, especially in the northeast. A national banking system to benefit eastern capitalism and western expansion. Strengthening the power of the federal government in order to benefit eastern industry. Every single one of these could not be solved until the slave power was broken, because the domination of the slave power in Congress, especially the Senate, was blocking them because they conflicted with the expansion of slavery. At that time, to say, “every one of your concerns reduces itself, in the last analysis, to the need to break the power of the slave-owners” would have been exactly correct. (This leaves out the Great Unspoken: the policy toward the native peoples, but I think my argument still stands.)
18. Why do you think destroying capitalism will automatically end racism?
I don’t. Furthermore, I have never in my life met anyone who did. My theory is that, with many of you, any time someone says, “racial oppression has its origins in class society,” your ears shut down and you fill in the rest of the sentence with what you expect to be there: something about the revolution will fix it and we should ignore it in the meantime. I’ll repeat: I’ve never met anyone who said that. And anyone who did, is wrong.
Racial oppression has its origin in class society. The theory of race first appeared in the work of such anthropologists as Francois Bernie in the 17th Century, but was largely ignored until the late 18th Century work of Johann Friederich Blumenbach started to take hold in the early 19th century for its value in justifying African slavery, after the unprecedented and highly influential attack on slavery by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The more modern forms of racial oppression were deliberate and created for profit. I am linking to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. not in order to say, “MLK said it so you must believe.” I differ with many, many things he said—his name at the end of a quote does not make it convincing to me. But this is the most succinct, precise, elegant, and accurate summation of the history and causes of 20th Century racial oppression I’ve ever come across. The part I’m referring to starts in paragraph nine. But read the whole speech; it is amazing. I’ll wait. (And I should also add a recommendation for the book he refers to, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.)
That speaks to the causes of racism and racial oppression. As to the cure, no, the institution of full legal, political, and economic equality will not end racism. It will, however, create the conditions for ending it, mostly through education. I argue that socialism is necessary, but not sufficient. When racism is no longer profitable, it will become possible to eliminate it for good, but it will still take work. It is ingrained in so much of society that expecting it to simply vanish is idealism.
And in the meantime, am I suggesting that it be ignored, that no fight for racial equality take place, that those who are doubly and triply oppressed just suck it up and deal and wait for the Great Day of Liberation? Not even close. The fight for equality must be, above all, put on a class basis, and be made under a socialist program, and used as part of the fight to unite the entire working class against the system of greed and exploitation, and that means the entire working class must demand justice and full equality—two things capitalism is unable to provide. This fight helps bring us together, and, just incidentally, is the only way we can make any sort of real progress toward equality. If, in the course of this fight, we run into bigotry or other forms of backwardness among white workers, then this is exactly the way to address it. We begin the attack on racism with the simple question: Whose interest is being served by your race hatred? Does it help you? Or does it help the boss who is trying to keep your wages down and make sure you don’t work together? Those who believe that racism is endemic to the white working class are invited to look into the great steel strike of 1946, and what it produced in benefits to workers, in class solidarity across racial lines, and in combating racial prejudice, especially among white workers who, a generation before, had been rural southerners, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. And then look into the early years of the UAW, especially in Detroit. Study the Wobblies, and the rise of the CIO. One central demand in all of these cases was: the same pay, benefits, and working conditions for everyone regardless of race. If you do not believe that winning those demands is an important step toward racial equality, then your sense of entitlement must be off the chart. We know that working class unity can combat both racial inequality and racism itself, because it has done so.
Of course, those who benefit from class oppression, who are enjoying their six-figure (or more) salaries, are unlikely to go along with any program that seeks to improve the lives of the oppressed—their idea of equality means trying to reach the level of those above them, not working to raise those below them. That’s okay. We don’t need them. The working class creates all of the wealth there is, and, when united under a program based on what we need rather than what capitalism can give that represents a force that is unstoppable.