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The New Socialist Handbook
Everything You Need to Know About Why It Matters Now
By Dan Tucker
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $19.99 $24.99 CAD
- ebook $2.99 $3.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 26, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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- Different types of socialism (democratic socialism vs. social democracy vs. eco-socialism, etc.);
- How socialism became a dirty word;
- Which countries are socialist or have socialist programs;
- The way socialism exists in the U.S. today (Medicare, Social Security, etc.);
- Socialist suggestions for today’s issues (healthcare, infrastructure, economy, etc.);
- What can you do to bring about change? (getting involved in politics, educating yourself, demonstrating, etc.)
WHY DOES SOCIALISM INSPIRE such fear and loathing in US politics?
“Malnutrition. Power outages. Bread lines. A medical system without medicine,” threatens a 2019 fundraising letter from a junior US senator. “A form of legalized theft,” writes an assistant professor at a Christian university in Ohio. “Big government is really Borg government,” intones a writer at Federalist.com, invoking images of robotic fascism by making a delightfully nerdy but historically dubious reference to the zombie-like collective mind introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ominous descriptions like these, and worse, are commonplace in the media.
But then how is it that, in this environment, only six decades removed from the McCarthy-era witch hunts of the 1950s, a self-described socialist has run credible campaigns for president in two consecutive elections, and in 2018, two members of the Democratic Socialists of America were elected to seats in the US Congress? Indeed, how is it that we are even still talking about an economic and political theory put forth by two obscure German men in the latter half of the nineteenth century, one of whom, Karl Marx, was thrown out of at least three countries?
Much as they acknowledged the astonishing transformative and positive powers of capital, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were also connoisseurs of capitalism’s problems: the exhilarating boom periods that inevitably end in gut-wrenching, fortune- and life-destroying busts. They saw around them in mid-nineteenth-century Europe the vastly unequal distribution of wealth, destined to grow ever more extreme as the earning power of capital—of money, and the people with it—far outstripped the ability of laborers to earn it. The casualties of capitalism’s zero-sum game of winners and losers filled the slums and workhouses of European cities. There was no concept of the “1 percent” or “99 percent” yet, but the chasm separating a small minority of the privileged from the vast majority of people was readily apparent.
In twenty-first-century America, where the superwealthy are buying private islands and safe houses in New Zealand in the event of some kind of, uh, unpleasantness in the rest of the world, almost half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Many are working two or more jobs. Most are one serious illness or accident away from financial catastrophe. According to a 2016 poll conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, 47 percent of American consumers said that an unexpected expense of $400 either would have to go unpaid or could only be covered by borrowing or selling something. Four hundred dollars! That’s tip money for a day at the dog spa for Beast, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s Puli! No wonder the insights of Marx and Engels resonate today.
Marx and Engels posited that there was a better way to share the risks and rewards of human enterprise, one that draws on an intrinsic part of human nature and of economic history: the human capacity for cooperating rather than competing in order to sustain oneself and promote the well-being of one’s community. Their description of exactly how socialist institutions would work was pretty light on the details, but in general, they believed all workers should have both a voice in the way in which productive enterprises, and society, are run, and a share in the ownership of whatever they produced. They foresaw a virtuous circle in which these cooperative institutions would educate and shape citizens whose values would improve with each generation.
If this all sounds a little kumbaya, then may I introduce you to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, (see the Know Your Socialist Thinkers chapter) which would punch you in the face if it could. In this critique of the nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), Marx held that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, which can be solved only by changing those conditions—that is to say, by remaking the world. Marx and Engels were not shy about how they thought that was going to happen: by violent revolution. The sometimes-belligerent Marx (much to Engels’s frustration, as it delayed Marx’s writing) spent an inordinate amount of time attending revolutionary meetings and squabbling with his fellow radicals rather than completing his theoretical work.
This tenet of Marxist thought more than any other has brought controversy and disrepute to the socialist movement—though for many on the far left, it is an inviolable part of identifying as a socialist, and anything less is weak tea, doomed to failure. Is it possible, in any case, to seize power politely? Later in his life, Marx came to think that conditions had changed sufficiently in countries like the United States and Great Britain to allow for the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism. But this schism between the followers of Marx who believe that nothing less than the complete transformation of society is required for socialism to take hold—by violence, if necessary—and those who believe that socialism can be achieved incrementally, by working through existing political structures, remains active to this day.
In this book, we’re going to do a drive-by past the political and economic underpinnings of Marx and Engels’s socialism—short and sweet, only to look, no touching. Their theory sprang out of a particular time and place, so next, we’re going to set it in the context of nineteenth-century Europe. We’ll look at the lives and ideas of some of the major interpreters and proponents of socialism, including Marx and Engels. Think that socialism never had much of a toehold in the United States? I’ll try to disabuse you of that notion with a short and surprising history of socialism in America. Finally, I’ll present you with a summary of the most common, persuasive, or otherwise entertaining reasons that people either love or hate socialism.
The mission of this book is not to sell or condemn. Its purpose is to allow you to familiarize yourself with the fundamental tenets of socialism and decide for yourself whether there’s any merit to the system. At the very least, you’ll be equipped to make a pithy, informed comment in tedious political discussions. I’m going to try to avoid using jargon; where absolutely necessary, I’ll call out some of Marx and Engels’s terms and provide definitions in a glossary.
More than anything, I hope this book will encourage you to contemplate your own thoughts about how we humans should organize ourselves for life on this planet. Do you believe people are capable of cooperating toward a greater, common good? Do you believe that people are only capable of acting as agents of self-interest and greed? A combination of the two?
And then: Can a system based on cooperation accommodate and survive greed? Can a system that rewards only self-interest avoid cataclysmic conflict and produce citizens that are capable of anything but selfish behavior?
What, ultimately, is the purpose of government?
These are the kinds of questions I hope this book gets you to think about. Your answers will undoubtedly shape your opinions about the viability—and desirability—of socialism in any form.
NOTE TO READERS
Please be aware that economic terms used by Marx and Engels frequently have different meanings than we associate them with today. Commodities, for example—in Marxist terminology, they’re not just hard resources like gold or oil, but any product that is produced by human labor and then sold in the market. The meanings of the words communism and socialism also shifted over time; initially, Marx and Engels used them interchangeably, but they came to signify different phases of social, economic, and political development. In this book, we’re considering only the latter. I’ve used initial capitals for Socialist and Communist when they’re used to refer to specific political parties, but lower-case socialist and communist when they’re used to refer to systems of thought. In most cases, I’ve cited books and publications by their English titles; one exception is Das Kapital, which seems to be the title most people know and in English is too easily conflated with money (with all due respect to Thomas Piketty).
SOCIALISM COMES IN A WIDE variety of flavors and sizes, but its essential definition is pretty simple: an economic system in which the public as a whole, rather than private individuals, owns or controls the factors of production, including natural resources, labor, entrepreneurship, and capital goods.
There’s more to it, right?
Well, you knew this was coming. First of all, socialism isn’t just an economic system. It exists at the nexus of economics and politics, two inextricably intertwined disciplines. Systems of government and economic systems influence, reinforce, and sometimes bump up against one another in conflict, in the Marxist conception. For socialists, it’s generally the economic system that dominates, but political will may also bring about change to an economic system, in a dance of mutual influence.
And its ambitions extend beyond political economy. Marxian socialism attempts nothing less than to provide a scientific theory for the comprehensive understanding of the history of humankind. It advances a theory of class relations and of human endeavor that seeks to explain economic history and liberate human beings from unfulfilling labor, allowing them to work and live in harmony with their true natures. It goes into tremendous, painstaking detail in examining the breathtaking power and the terrible cruelties of the capitalist system. It shows how capitalism contains the seeds of its own imminent destruction, while socialism simultaneously seeks to instigate a worldwide political and economic revolution.
It’s the theoretical equivalent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound, which in equal measure dazzled and steamrollered listeners of the Ronettes and the Supremes in the 1960s.
Moreover, there’s a world of variety, nuance, and conflicting beliefs within the universe of socialist thinkers, and even within the writings of Marx and Engels themselves. The published works of Marx and Engels in the mid-to-late 1800s consist of millions of words (volume one of Das Kapital alone is about 375,000 words).
So for the purposes of brevity, and sanity, I’ll summarize some of the key tenets.
Marx and Engels believed that examining the material of our lives—the raw natural resources that we use, the things that we make, wear, use, eat, and discard—offers the most accurate way of understanding the deepest nature of our lives. They called it “scientific socialism,” unsurprising given the general ascendancy of the sciences in their recent memories: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. The way these materials we need for survival are created, used, and exchanged, and the complex web of social relations that come about as a result of these exchanges—modes of production, to Marx and Engels—shape our lives more than any other single factor. Engels summed it up nicely in a eulogy he delivered at Marx’s graveside in Highgate, London, in 1883:
Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.
Isn’t that a heartwarming eulogy? Before you get all judgy, he actually said some incredibly nice things about Marx too. The point here is that he effectively summarizes historical materialism as a tool for understanding the past. The essence is that you can learn more about someone by going through their trash than you can by reading their Facebook posts.
In Marxist thought, the prevailing way in which humans satisfy these material needs—their mode of production—defines their relationships to one another, drives their political and legal institutions, and permeates their belief systems.
One illustration of the way in which mode of production defines relationships is the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. If a capitalist wants to increase his income (and he must), he can introduce a new product, improve the technologies used to produce it, or lower the cost of production by reducing wages or relocating production to an area of the world where labor is cheaper. This defines relationships between capitalists and workers. In feudal societies, by contrast, where the powerful gained wealth principally by extracting money from the peasants who farmed their land, the only way to increase wealth was by acquiring more land. Since it could not be purchased, the only way to do so was by forcibly conquering it. This defines the relationship between feudal kings and their military officers and also, come to think of it, explains most seasons of Game of Thrones, although nothing can explain that last episode.
While Marx and Engels held the view that human beings are shaped by the prevailing mode of production, they also believed that the future is both indeterminate and contingent on individual action. This relationship between individual actors and economic structures is at the heart of Marxist theory. Structures both constrain and enable individuals: They have the ability to help us reach our potential as human beings as much as they can contribute to our exploitation.
THEORY OF LABOR AND SURPLUS VALUE
Natural resources, capital goods, and labor: Each has a cost to the business owner in creating a commodity, a good for sale on the market. Each good that the business owner sells can be valued for its utility (its use value) and can bear a certain price in the market, its exchange value. But, Marx wondered, why does a quantity of one commodity exchange for a particular quantity of another? Marx and Engels believed that “socially necessary labor” was the “third thing” that differentiated the exchange value of commodities. Capitalists paid workers less than the value of their work, profiting on the difference between the exchange value and the laborers’ wages. He called that difference surplus value and identified this appropriation of the laborers’ value by the capitalist as the root of the injustice at the heart of the capitalist system.
In The Communist Manifesto
- On Sale
- May 26, 2020
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal