In the coming weeks, the International Socialist Organization will host forums around the country on Marxism and the struggle for a different world. Here, introduces the central themes of those meetings—Marxism’s explanation for the exploitation, oppression and violence at the heart of the free-market system, and its vision of another world based on solidarity, justice and freedom.
THE BRITISH Marxist Terry Eagleton has observed, “You can tell that capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism. It indicates that the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon that it is. Moreover, whatever was born can always die.”
Certainly, in the last several years, “capitalism” has become a frequent subject of mainstream discussion. Radicals like myself are fond of citing opinion polls showing that young people today have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. But as remarkable as the results is the fact that the question is even asked. For decades, we were told that there was no alternative to the free-market system. But the financial crisis of 2008 shook capitalism so violently that questioning its legitimacy became acceptable.
There is no shortage of reasons to question that legitimacy. We can charge capitalism with being a profoundly unequal system; the world’s 85 richest individuals control more than half of the world’s wealth. We can charge it with being a racist system; the American gulag now houses more than 2.2 million men and women—disproportionately Blacks and Latinos.
We can charge it with failing to meet the basic needs for subsistence of the majority of its population; more than 80 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day, and 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And—if not most damningly, at least most dangerously—we can charge it with threatening the very ecosystem on which all life of the planet depends.
The list of charges is long, and these are but a small sample. But the revolutionary potential of Marxism is not simply that it offers the most searing and comprehensive indictment of capitalism. It is that it is able to explain how this system came into being, how it organizes every aspect of our society—and, crucially, how it can be overthrown.
… Capitalism has failed to meet even the most fundamental needs of its own population. For millions of people, the idea that another world is possible—or at least that this one is not sustainable—has gained resonance. We have seen the first waves of struggle against that system—whether in Egypt, Greece or here in the U.S. As a result, the questions of struggle and an alternative have re-emerged as a result of the concrete actions of working people.
Many people who were inspired by the struggles of the past few years—from the Arab Spring revolutions to the rebellions against austerity and inequality that took the form of the Occupy Wall Street in the U.S.—have become disappointed by recent setbacks, and even questioned whether the struggles are cause for hope at all.
But we could never expect to overcome such an entrenched system in one blow. Instead, we should see struggles such as these as tentative beginnings, which illuminate the possibilities and the difficulties ahead. Daniel Singer described the process by which ordinary people will attempt to take control of their society:
They are the product of circumstances, but also, within the limits set by their physical and social conditions, products of their own action. The “associated producers” on whom we rely to forge a different kind of society, will not be proletarian heroes, red knights in shining armor, with a purity and political consciousness out of hagiographic tales. They will be ordinary people, like you and me, with all our quirks and imperfections, our habits conditioned by the world we live in, our tastes distorted by television and advertising.
As these ordinary people search to gain control over their work and their fate, they will begin to reshape society, they will be affected in the process, and, so transformed, will resume their task. In this mutual reaction, in this advance of step by step and stage by stage, lies both the difficulty and the grandeur of the project.
Singer describes the messy, complex, difficult, uneven and halting—but nonetheless hopeful—process that has opened up in the last several years. It is the only way forward; there is still a world to be won.