Socialism… Seriously

Review

 

Rating: 3.5/5

Time to read: several hours

Level: Beginner

Socialism Seriously is overall a great book for those with little or no knowledge of Marxism. The book is humorous, easy to read, and presents a basic idea of a multitude of Marxist concepts while handling some of the most common capitalist critics of socialism.

This book provides a very basic introduction to socialism, namely the concepts behind it as well as what it would (and does) look like in practice. Katch also spends a good portion of the book criticizing capitalism and all of its shortcomings. His sense of humor (something not very common in explanations of theoretical works) makes his writing all the more easier to understand, and therefore is an exceptional book in terms of readability.

However, one major problem I found in his writing is his ahistorical portrayal of the Russian October Revolution. Namely, Katch (typical to anti-communist bourgeois propaganda) demonizes Stalin and his invaluable contributions to the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution and instead praises Trotsky, who only became a Bolshevik within a few months of the October Revolution and was an opportunist traitor (for more information regarding this, check out the links at the bottom of this post). For this reason, I recommend reading his section regarding the Russian revolution very critically, or skipping it altogether if you’re short on time. Nonetheless, I believe the rest of the book is definitely worth the read, especially if you’re new to Marxism.

I rated this book 3.5/5 because of Katch’s humorous and easy-to-read writing style, his presentation of basic critics of capitalism, and explanations of socialism; his false narrative of the Russian revolution (based on the west’s demonization of communism in general) brought down the rating.


Glossary

 

Bourgeoisie: the owners of the means of production and the ruling (oppressing) class under capitalism

Means of Production: anything that requires a multitude of people to work in order to produce commodities (e.g. factories)

Proletariat: the oppressed property-less (property refers to means of production) workers under capitalism who operate the means of production and produce commodities

Surplus Value: the excess wealth generated by workers after they have been paid and the costs for supplies and repairs have been covered; also known as profit.


Overview

 

In order to understand the basics of socialism, it is necessary to first understand a little bit about capitalism. Capitalism is a system in which the means of production are owned and operated in order to reap a profit from the labor of the workers it employs. Although it does not necessarily have to be privately owned (such as in state capitalism), the vast majority of time the means of production are owned privately by a handful of individuals. However, regardless of who owns it, under capitalism the means of production serve the interests of the owner as a tool by which the owner appropriates the surplus value (or profits) generated by their workers.

A real-life example would be helpful in understanding the appropriation of surplus value. Say a worker at McDonald’s creates and sells 20 burgers/hour, with each of these burgers selling at $5.00. The worker is paid $10.00/hour. Thus, although the worker generates $100.00 worth of goods every hour, they are only paid a small portion of this amount per hour (one-tenth in this example), while the extra $90.00 is appropriated by the owner of McDonald’s and is mostly invested back into the company. This reinvestment is necessary in order to exploit more workers and expand production to reap more and more profits. Under capitalism, this surplus value is appropriated and reinvested by the owner in order to remain more competitive and gain more surplus value in the long run, exponentially increasing their wealth.

Standing in direct opposition to this is socialism. Instead of having individuals privately own the means of production, they are democratically owned by the workers through the government. Additionally, the surplus value of workers is not used to increase personal wealth, but instead go back to the workers who get to decide what to do with it (i.e. how much of it to reinvest and how much to pay the workers). This boils down to a system in which the people democratically control the government, which in turn controls the economy–as opposed to having industries privately owned and ruled in an authoritarian manner. However, the democracy under socialism is radically different than that under capitalism. Under socialism, the proletariat have complete control over the government and the state, and thus the people democratically control themselves rather than having representatives of the oppressing class dictate their lives.

Such a revolutionary change of course requires revolutionary action, and thus socialism can only be (and has only been) achieved through violent revolution, led by the proletariat to seize power from their oppressors. Thus, to identify as a socialist is to work towards such a system in which the people rule democratically over themselves and have control over their own lives. Socialism means freedom and democracy for the vast majority of the people, while capitalism grants freedom and democracy only to the relatively few members of the bourgeoisie.


Notes

 

Realities of Capitalism

  • We are often asked whether the government is helping or harming the economy, but rarely are we questioned about the rationality of the whole system (19)
    • We have little to no freedom in what we can vote on (57)
    • Almost 10% of the u.s.’s voting age population is disenfranchised (58)
    • Political inequality goes hand-in-hand with economic inequality
    • Vast discrepancies in wealth lead to vast discrepancies in power (60)
    • The increasing wealth of the rich comes at the expense of the rest of society (61)
  • Corporations have more rights than humans–the ability to travel freely across borders, not being censured, etc. (53)
    • HSBC Bank was caught laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda
      • They faced no criminal charges and were only fined $1.9 billion, which is only about 5 weeks worth of profits for them
    • Most corporations pay lower tax rates than someone making a salary of $40,000/year
      • Boeing and General Electric haven’t paid any taxes over the past 5 years
  • All profits are based on exploitation–the owner of the means of production appropriates a portion of the wealth generated by the workers rather than giving it all to the worker who produced the goods (43)
    • In order to make profits, capitalists must bring together workers to exploit them. The capitalists must then compete with one another to produce the most amount of profits, and in doing so they lower the wages and conditions of the workers. This then pushes the workers to come together and create their own extra-institutional organizations to fight for their rights, proving that the workers are capable of leading themselves. This eventually leads to the downfall of the capitalists, as it unites the workers together in a common cause against their oppressors (91-92)
  • The United Nations estimates that if unpaid domestic work across the world (⅔ of which is done by women) were paid at market rates, it would be worth $16 trillion, or 70% of the world’s total economic output (46)
  • Recessions bring about an ironic combination of increased foreclosed homes and homeless people (52)

Debunking Capitalism

  • Why is anyone who wants to work unemployed, given that there are so many things to be done?
  • If societies are based on aspects of human nature, then why not build them around positive things like love or happiness, instead of negative aspects, like greed or selfishness?
    • Capitalism is nothing like nature–animals often act collectively
    • Why should humans return to living “based on nature” after developing for thousands of years? Wouldn’t it all be the same then?
  • Capitalism is just another step in the evolutionary process of economic systems
    • If social darwinism is true, then that means that capitalism is just another evolutionary phase and is not lasting
  • Capitalism forces us to take a job–our only “freedom” is choosing who is our master, which only wealthier individuals have the freedom to choose (41)
    • Capitalism would cease to function if everyone actually had the freedom to decide who to work for (40)
  • The social “science” of Economics isn’t based on scientific research, but instead simply serves as a way of justifying capitalism (44)
  • If capitalism really rewarded profits based on risk, then what about those whose occupation are the most risky? (i.e. construction workers, firefighters, etc.) (45)
  • The “freedom” existing in capitalism is mostly limited to the minority who dominate society (49)
  • Arguments of socialism not working can often be boiled down to arguments against democracy (78)
  • Capitalism is boring–we work all day and have little or no time to ourselves. How could socialism possibly be worse? (140)

What is Socialism?

  • Socialism is a system in which working people control the government, and the government controls the economy (8)
  • “The free development of each becomes the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx) (150)
  • Equality under socialism means raising the overall intellectual and cultural levels of all of society rather than just a handful of rulers (143)
  • Socialist revolution is the process by which ordinary people become radical leaders (103)
  • There being few successful socialist revolutions does not mean that socialism is impossible–just as dozens of failed slave revolts in the past didn’t mean slavery would last forever (12)
  • Identifying as a socialist or communist does not limit your horizons, but instead broadens them–it gives you a structured way of analyzing the current system and organizing against it (132)

Bolshevik Revolution of 1917

  • Almost no soldiers remained in the Russian capital to defend the fall of the government due to such wide support of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution (118)
  • The first acts of the new Soviet government called on factory workers and peasants to take control of their workplace (119)
  • Soviets, or workers councils, sprang up all across the Soviet Union, to which the Soviet government was held accountable to (11)
  • Within weeks of its establishment, the new soviet government legalized abortion, homosexuality, and divorce (119)
  • In the 1920s, following the revolution, the Soviet Union saw explosions and breakthroughs in art, cinema, graphic design, and psychology
    • In the Soviet Union, art was opened up to the masses of workers and peasants, after being a solely elite form of entertainment under the previous capitalist government (143)

Additional Resources

 

Here’s a book on a more in-depth perspective on who Stalin really was, rather than the anti-communist portrayal of him in western mainstream-media: Another View of Stalin

Here’s an article that shows the views of various communist leaders on Trotsky and his opportunism, as well as a Nazi leader’s (Joseph Goebbels) statement on how the Nazis worked with Trotskyists to spread propaganda against Stalin and the USSR: Trotsky the Anti-Communist

And finally, here is a recent poll (April 2017) conducted in Russia asking respondents to rank the top ten greatest people of all time in free response format, and–you guessed it–Stalin came out on top while Trotsky didn’t even make the list: Russian poll

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