Alan Maass’ 2004 The Case for Socialism (an updated version of the 2001 Why You Should Be a Socialist) purports to be an expose of the capitalist system and a way to convince people to become socialists and community activists. And, in some ways, it achieves these ends: Maass presents a variety of statistics and figures to show that the average worker is getting the shaft while CEOs are wallowing in riches. He is a gifted writer and knows how to illustrate a point and dig up historical quotations to suit his ends. But what Maass does not seem to understand, nor do his followers at the International Socialist Organization, is that he is merely preaching to the choir and his methods are unpopular, immoral and unrealistic.
Some of the issues discussed here I have discussed before in “On Revolution and Reform”, such as my criticism of Lenin’s violence. The quotations used there and here and different, however, and I approach the issue fro ma slightly different angle. Those who find this essay of interest may do well to read my earlier writings on the subject of revolution.
Rhetoric Versus Substance
Maass has a very hyperbolic method of writing. He does not simply present the facts, but drives them home with adjectives that make us cringe. And this is where I fear he divides the followers from the potential followers: those not already in agreement are likely to be turned off by this approach. The facts are enough to convince anyone that something is fundamentally flawed with the American system of business. Why add the vitriol and animosity to an otherwise even voice? This does nothing but reinforce the stereotype that leftists are a violent, hateful group of activists (in a world where even “activism” has become a dirty word). Is the goal to be accepted or to stay on the fringes of society? Because a confrontational voice will never be allowed in the public sphere.
Revolution or Reform?
“A communist is a socialist in a violent hurry.” – G. W. Gough, 1926
At Marx’s graveside on March 17, 1883, Engels said he was “before all else a revolutionist”. And we may recognize that “Marxism as a political doctrine has above all been about the making of socialist revolution.” [Miliband: 154] But there is an important distinction to be drawn here: socialists need not follow the words of Marx to the letter, and pure Marxism is not the only road to socialism. Indeed, even his most ardent supporters will admit he was not fallible.
Maass is what I call a “revolutionary socialist”. I have called myself a “reform socialist” at times. The differences between myself and Maass are great, and we have a very different basis for our beliefs. Maass will have you believe the system is flawed to the very core and must be replaced. He says he wants a revolution. And he believes one can happen here, in America (he cites the Revolutionary War and the Civil War as precedents). I would maintain that our system has problems, but can ultimately be modified and improved. I truly believe that the government is capable of expressing the will of the people. And I do not feel a revolution is necessary, and probably not even possible. What was possible in 1776 or the 1860s is not going to happen again. You bring a gun? They bring a tank. Setting aside the fact that violence is not a preferable solution to any problem.
Revolution is unlikely in democratic countries — “bourgeois democracy and constitutionalism generate considerable constraints for revolutionary movements”. [Miliband: 162] The 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, while welcomed by the socialists, were a move from dictatorship to the bourgeois democracy they claim to be against. Any comparison between Egypt and America is likely unhelpful and not analogous. They are a step in the right direction and should be praised, but are no indicator of future successes in America or England.
Maass also fails to mention or comprehend something else: the world today is more integrated than in times past. Revolution would not involve simply changing the way America works (which is unlikely enough), but the capitalist system runs through all countries globally and the system could not be overturned without a global plan. Does Maass intend global takeover? Even such “communist” countries as China rely heavily on the international system of business. Their financial success depends on capitalism working in other places.
When Maass says revolution, he means literal revolution. His followers might try to play off the word as simply a metaphor for great changes (such as the Copernican Revolution or Industrial Revolution), but Maass is very clear on his intentions. He lays out that “the final act of a revolution” or “the climax” is “armed insurrection to topple a government and seize political control.” [Maass: 99]
Revolutionary socialists have a long tradition of supporting violence, especially when they feel the ends justifies the means. Trotsky himself wrote in 1920’s Terrorism and Communism that “who aims at the end cannot reject the means”.
Russian historian Ronald Grigor Suny comments on the old saying that to make an omelet one must break some eggs:
“Eggs and omelets have been repeatedly used metaphorically to justify violence and terror. In real-world politics we break eggs because we want omelets. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once retorted that he had seen the broken eggs, but no one he knew had ever tasted the omelet. There are those who believe that it was a waste of eggs to make such an impossible, Utopian omelet, and others who believe in the omelet but not the breaking of eggs. But if one concludes that there are some omelets that are worth broken eggs, one should at the start make sure that all the ingredients are available and, as anyone who has made breakfast knows, remember that eggs must be broken delicately, not smashed so that yokes, whites and shells all get cooked together.”
Violence can be used for good, but unnecessary violence is a moral wrong regardless of who wields it. Why wage physical war against the rulers if we cannot be certain we have the moral authority? In Flying Close to the Sun, former Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson writes that she “accepted the same desanctification of human life practice by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity—and each life within it—was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandon myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.” Much as the liberals of 2008 denounce America for using torture (thus lowering themselves to the level of the enemy), we must wonder if violence does not also make us something of a lower creature. To paraphrase John Lennon: if you are talking about destruction then you can count me out.
And if successful, who benefits from revolution? The working class? The proles? Maass is writing on behalf of the lower classes and the workers, but we know that revolution, more often than not, benefits those closer to the top. Maass calls it a “caricature” to say revolutions are typically “a small group of armed fanatics seizing control of the government and running it to enrich themselves.” [Maass: 98] But, is this not exactly what usually happens? Using the American Revolution as a key example, look who took over power from the king — the aristocracy, as well as wealthy slave and land owners in America. Those of the lowest class saw no significant changes. Again, the 2011 North African uprisings may offer a clue.
Reform works if the right areas are targeted. Miliband recognizes that the revolutionaries tend “to press for reforms which they did not believe to be attainable” to undermine the reformist cause. [Miliband: 160] They can turn to their reformist brethren and say, “See? They won’t listen.” But this is like asking the Sun to stop shining when instead one should ask for a parasol. The revolutionaries may reject reform by pointing out that “social reform has been an intrinsic part of the politics of capitalism”. [Miliband: 155] That may be true, but is social reform bad? Is social reform an intrinsic part of socialism? Clearly it is, so such critiques are meaningless.
One way to reconcile these differences, though I think a rather poor one, is to redefine reform as revolution. Marxist intellectual Istvan Meszaros does this, defining revolution as “a profound ongoing revolutionary transformation of all facets of our social life”, rejecting the idea of “one big push that settles everything once and for all.” [Meszaros: 103] He sees the process as one of not merely eradicating, but implanting, over and over again. What is reform other than an ongoing series of small revolutions? Calling something a “revolution” when it is not may have a bigger semantic punch, but is also little more than a rhetorical device.
In short, a reform may take years, decades or centuries… but if revolutions have not worked and will not work, it is better to take the long path to success than a short path to destruction.
Using the Ballot Box
Along with the idea the system cannot be modified, Maass says that “socialism can’t come through the ballot box.” [Maass: 79] In some respects, he is right. He stresses that voting is a small part of the process, and this is true. Education is the key — getting the community to be aware of their rights and options. Most decisions made to hurt the people are done with the idea that people will accept them as “necessary” or “beyond their control” or “just how it is”. But that is not always the case. If the American public knew the extent of NAFTA’s implications, it would never have come to pass. If Americans had educated themselves on Iraq rather than listen to Bush’s spin, we may never have gone to war. The information was there, we just needed to read it. And media reform (not “media revolution”) is possible, without having to overthrow anybody.
Evidence exists of socialism coming in through the ballot box. What of Evo Morales in Bolivia? Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua? Other leaders in Latin America and elsewhere? For the best example, we need not look any further than Zapatero’s achievements in Spain. Elected in 2004, Zapatero faced the Catholic Church’s conservative stronghold head-on and won. Within the first few years his achievements included: advancing welfare for those most in need (the “Dependency Law”), increased funding for higher education, increased minimum wages, legalization of same-sex marriage, the right for homosexuals to adopt children, getting the terrorist group ETA to declare a ceasefire for about fifteen months, mass legalization of undocumented immigrants and withdrawing troops from Iraq. And on March 9, 2008, Spain went to the ballot box again. Despite the Catholic Church’s strong opposition due to his pro-homosexual stance, the votes produced another Zapatero win.
Granted, these achievements are more focused on social reforms than economic reforms. And the underlying system remains the same. But socialists in Spain have made more progress by casting their vote in 2004 than socialists have made in forty years rebelling in America. The solution is intelligent, viable candidates… not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Was the Russian Revolution a Good Example?
Most disturbing about Maass’ account of socialism is his appropriation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a good example of what socialism can be. Maass is fully aware that the Russian Revolution in most people’s minds leads to thinking about Joseph Stalin and totalitarianism. Common sense would say it is not wise to mention something that will conjure up bad memories, but Maass prefers to try and defuse the situation by saying the revolution was a success, Lenin was a hero and things went bad once Stalin took over. (Or, the revolution worked but fell to a counter-revolution when other countries failed to follow their example… a communist country surrounded by capitalism will never succeed, say defenders.)
And Maass does point out changes that are pretty incredible for 1917: Jews that were persecuted under the czar were now leading “workers’ councils in Russia’s two biggest cities. Laws outlawing homosexuality were repealed. Abortion was legalized and made available on demand.” All this and “socialized child care”. [Maass: 102] So progress was certainly made, at least briefly.
But this view of post-revolution Russia as a utopia is a farce. Once Lenin came to power, his primary goal was not democracy but how to maintain control. His “purges” are well-documented, imprisoning or executing those in parties (some of which were even more communist or socialist than Lenin) that did not agree with him. As socialist Ralph Miliband points out, “The sheer scale of the repression is a… feature of Stalinism which distinguishes it most sharply from Leninism.” [Miliband: 145] Not a difference in kind, but in degree.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood to the right of several groups and parties, but wished to appear as the most “communist” party available. “Such a shift to the right”, says Robert V. Daniels,
“created the problem of disposing of the die-hard revolutionary extremists. They had to be curbed and purged, and Lenin set the wheels of his party into motion to accomplish just this. The Workers’ Opposition was denounced as a ‘petty-bourgeois anarchist deviation,’ condemned and broken up… Suppression of critics on the left was particularly necessary for the Communist leadership if it was to continue to represent itself as the exclusively correct ‘proletarian’ regime.”
Says Suny, who tends to be sympathetic towards Lenin, “Whatever else might be said about Russia’s revolutions — both Lenin’s and Stalin’s — they were extraordinarily violent. They maimed or destroyed the lives of millions as they rushed into a rough modernity, held back the flood of fascist barbarism and built a peculiar and crude version of socialism.”
Suny further clarifies the actions of Lenin by saying “violence in war is fundamentally different from violence in peace. Violence in conditions of anarchy or near anarchy, where sovereignty and the nature of the state are targets, is not the same as violence by a constituted sovereign state directed at large numbers of its own population in an effort to transform radically the social and political structure. For Lenin, terror was a weapon against real enemies armed to overthrow his government–and even those not armed with guns but with ideas still presented an existential threat to Soviet power.” Violence is different in different situations, but is it ever justified to prevent democracy (enemies armed with ideas)?
Leonard Schapiro sums the matter up by declaring that Lenin’s “one lasting achievement remains that of having created an instrument of state tyranny, which in time completed the work he began — the elimination of moderation, tolerance, freedom, and responsibility from the political life of his country.”
To say Lenin had brilliant writings is true and to say he was a great leader may also be true, but we cannot discount all the horrors unleashed simply because some good was also accomplished.
For more figures and citations concerning Lenin’s purges, see my “On Revolution and Reform”.
Does Maass offer a strong case for socialism? At times, yes, but overall no. He is wrong when he calls for an armed insurrection. He is wrong when he downplays the power of elected leaders to help the average man. And he is wrong to use Lenin and the Russians as his primary inspiration, when he knows full well where that ended up and knows no one wishes to be reminded.
Maass is right to call attention to social and economic inequality. And for that, he may be commended — he lays out the facts in such a clear way that they simply cannot be disputed. So he is right when he says we must take up the banner of socialism to confront capitalism and its ills. We must enact laws to empower the people, we must put reasonable caps on what capitalism can do in order to make profit. War and death to make a dollar is wrong, but it is equally wrong to wage war or cause death in the name of peace and equality. The moral high road may not be as swift as Maass wishes, but socialism’s day will come and no blood need be shed.
Daniels, Robert V. The Nature of Communism.. Random House, 1962.
Maass, Alan. The Case for Socialism. Haymarket Books, 2004.
Meszaros, Istvan. Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads Monthly Review Press, 2001.
Miliband, Ralph. Marxism and Politics. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Schapiro, Leonard. “The Russian Revolution: Some Neglected Aspects”, History Today. August 1951, pages 7-13.
Suny, Ronald Grigor. “Revolutionary States”, The Nation. March 3, 2008.
Trotsky, Leon. Terrorism and Communism. Verso, 2007.
Wilkerson, Cathy. Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. Seven Stories Press, 2007.