Danny Katch's Socialism...Seriously is an entertaining and witty introduction to socialism, finds Ralph Graham-Leigh
Danny Katch, Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation (Haymarket Books 2015), 165pp.
This book is a well written and funny introduction to revolutionary socialism. Katch is a US humourist and activist and his wit, sincerity and passion run right through the book. He avoids use of jargon, making the book accessible to those without any prior knowledge of leftist thought, while simultaneously making it an amusing and sometimes uplifting read for those who are already familiar with his basic argument.
The book is concise and structured in four parts. The first part is a brief introduction in which Katch explains that socialism is worth exploring for two key reasons: firstly, most people agree that a system which prioritises meeting all people’s needs, from food and shelter to culture (i.e. ‘socialism’), is more sensible than a system which requires extreme exploitation of resources, high levels of threatened and actual violence, and under which the people who do the work are paid as little as possible while a small minority of owners gain greatly (i.e. capitalism). Katch argues that even many opponents of socialism accept that it is a desirable goal in theory, and oppose socialism because they argue it is impractical or unachievable. Secondly, Katch argues that in the US socialism is clearly still seen by many as a threat, as it is so often used by right-wing politicians as a smear against their slightly-less-right-wing opponents.
The main sections of the book cover capitalism and socialism respectively. Katch’s view of capitalism is based on four key points:
1Capitalism is no more ‘natural’ than any other economic system. Systems usually seem like the ‘natural order of things’ when viewed from the inside and capitalism is no different
2Theoretically, capitalism works because it is based on voluntary exchange in a free market. However, it is actually based on coercive exchange as most people are forced to sell their labour (or undertake unpaid labour in the home), which distorts the market, leading to inefficient competition and periodic crisis. By selling their labour, workers are exploited as they do not receive the full value of what their labour produces. Capitalism has also created great surpluses, which could allow people to live fulfilling lives freed from the drudgery of meaningless work. However, the accumulation caused by the distorted, coercive market prevent these benefits from being enjoyed by all except a tiny minority
3Actual democracy is not compatible with capitalism, because capitalism depends on most people being forced to sell their labour. If actual democracy, a system in which people get a meaningful say in the decisions which most affect their lives, were in place, people would probably choose to stop being exploited
4Capitalism produces revolutions. Katch argues that capitalism inevitably produces revolutions, due to its regular crisis, instability and inability to meet most people’s needs. Most of the time the revolutions are defeated or co-opted, but they will always occur, the most recent examples being the 2011 revolutions in North Africa and Middle East.
Socialism and revolution
Having set out his position on capitalism, Katch then discusses socialism. He argues that society is split into three classes: capitalists who own the means of production, workers who survive by selling their labour, and a middle class of managers and small business owners who combine some aspects of both capitalists and workers. Capitalists are the most powerful class but are in constant competition with each other, while the supervisory class has more individual autonomy than workers but little collective power. As workers are individually powerless but collectively very strong the ruling class therefore makes great efforts to keep workers divided along gender, sexuality, religion, racial, cultural and lifestyle lines. Katch explains that most people in the US are workers by this definition, even if they work in non-unionised offices not factories.
Katch then examines revolutions. He states that revolutions often only achieve the changing of elites, as in the American Revolution. A successful socialist revolution cannot be achieved by a handful of thinkers or activists; it can only be achieved by the mass of workers themselves, who then learn through the process of revolution itself how to govern themselves and how to shape society.
Katch cites the Russian revolution in the period before Stalin as showing what could be achieved by an initially successful revolution. He argues the October revolution was not exclusively planned or led by the Bolsheviks; instead it was to a significant extent a spontaneous uprising by the masses, who were learning to govern through their democratic workers’ councils. The revolution brought about beneficial changes in society, such as legalising homosexuality (p.119) and divorce, turned painting, sculpture, ballet and theatre from elite pursuits into culture for the masses, and stimulated innovation in cinema, design and psychology. Many of these gains were reversed by Stalin after the revolution was ultimately destroyed by the civil war, foreign intervention and isolation when the revolution failed to spread. He also refers to the experiences of workers organising themselves in strikes and campaigns, and to his own experience in the Occupy movement in 2011.
He then briefly discusses uses of the words communism and socialism – both used interchangeably by Marx and Engels – and explains social democracy, reformism and the historic split between Trotskyists and Stalinists. He declares himself a revolutionary socialist ‘on team Leon’ (p.128) but very sensibly says he isn’t hung up about terms, and would happily use whatever the latest term is for his approach. This summary of leftist thought is brief and well-written, and by leaving it to the final chapter of Part 3, he elegantly enables himself to use the generic term ‘socialism’ throughout the rest of the book, avoiding getting stuck in arguments about terminology.
What does socialism look like?
The final part of the book addresses the questions, ‘Will Socialism Be Boring?’ (answer: probably not, as capitalism itself involves a lot of mindless drudgery for most people, socialism is a society that would be organically created by the interaction and meaningful participation of huge numbers of people, and so there will still be creative tension from conflict between different needs) and ‘Is Socialism a Religion?’ (answer: no). The conclusion covers the ‘Five habits of
Highly Effective Relatively Undamaged Socialists’, which appear to be useful suggestions for socialists to remain relatively undamaged.
While Katch is based in the US, he is an internationalist and his argument and examples are not parochial. He doesn’t like using the term ‘Americans’ to refer only to the US, justifying this by saying: imagine how the other Europeans would feel if Germany started calling itself ‘Europe’. He sees the struggles of all oppressed groups as part of the same wider struggle and throughout the book he not only emphasises the need for solidarity with all the oppressed, but also demonstrates this with his asides. For example, on gender issues he argues that all enforced gender roles are unreasonable, arguing everyone should look and talk and act in a way they feel comfortable with (p.14), criticises hypocritical morality about women’s bodies (p.32) and praises revolutionary Russia’s legalisation of divorce on the grounds that it freed women from domestic violence and servitude. He cites a Russian rural rhyme about a woman who is no longer beaten by her husband because he fears her divorcing him (p.141). On religion he says he is an atheist but criticises those who use atheism as ‘liberal cover for demonising Islam in particular’ (p.148).
He also has a healthy attitude to fellow leftists, explaining the irony that Trotskyists, who focused most on worker self-emancipation, were the socialists most removed from the workers, and stating that some Trotskyists coped ‘by developing a keen sense of humour and others by becoming miserable cranks. You’ll still find both at many a leftist gathering’ (p.131). His view is that a revolutionary isn’t someone in the jungle in combat fatigues or someone who sits on the sidelines looking cool disdaining ‘small’ actions while waiting for an inevitable uprising. A revolutionary is someone who gets involved in small struggles and prepares for a revolution but understands that the people, not revolutionaries, make the revolution happen.
The book is very funny for a political book. There are wry asides on almost every page and some great laugh out loud moments. For example, when Katch refers to HSBC’s $1.9bn fine in 2012 for money laundering, including for drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda he comments: ‘That is so villainous that we can only assume company board meetings took place inside a secret lair inside a remote island volcano’ (p.21). In the text he mentions the ‘tiny Trotskyist movement kept plodding on through the decades’ and in a footnote:
‘sort of like the Little Engine That Could, although the Trotskyists would have ruthlessly critiqued the mantra ‘I think I can, I think I can’ for being wishful idealism that doesn’t factor in the poor little train’s material conditions’ (p.131).
The weakest part of the book is Katch’s imagining of a ‘fairly crappy day under socialism’, which seems unnecessary given that he then explains that a socialist society cannot really be imagined or planned in advance, and Katch himself admits his imagining could be seen as ‘corny’. However, this is only a minor quibble with an otherwise great book. He also smuggles in many references to further reading, and overall makes this an excellent accessible introduction to leftist arguments, which could also be a fun tonic for old comrades in need of a well-rounded socialist pick-me-up.
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