Books for changing the world

Imagining Socialism

Naomi Klein, acclaimed journalist and author of award-winning books like The Shock Doctrine, recently noted that “in times of political crisis, seemingly impossible ideas suddenly become possible.” As we face simultaneous, and mutually re-enforcing, global health and economic crises, the need to put forward our own “seemingly impossible ideas” about how society should be humanely and compassionately organized is more pressing than ever. If we don't, Klein reminds us, the ideas that benefit the 1% will continue to rule the day.

Here we offer an excerpt from Socialism...Seriously by Danny Katch, about why imagination matters so much:

Socialism isn't a planned community that can be created in advance but the society that humanity will figure out for itself once it is freed from the profit-centric rules of capitalism. But at a time when socialism has become such a vague ghost, it’s not a total waste of time to dream a bit about what concrete forms genuine democracy and equality could take.

People have pursued the dream of a world based on cooperation for thousands of years. Some have given up all their money and joined monasteries to endlessly meditate. Others have spent lots of money and gone to Burning Man to endlessly do drugs. Karl Marx’s contribution was the idea that the working class could be the force that could bring this about for everyone, not just for a few people dropping out of society to join a commune.

Workers have this potential because of their numbers and economic power, but more importantly because the only way they can successfully take on their bosses is to organize collectively. It wasn’t out of thin air that I came up with those committees and councils in my imaginary socialist day. They have been created in countless workers’ revolutions and uprisings over the past century and a half. That’s why socialism won’t be formed out of the minds of today’s socialists but out of the decisions made by tomorrow’s workers in the course of their fight for their freedom.

But some imagination is necessary to see how we might get to a hopeful future from a dismal present. Socialists view the world not just as it is but as it can be—for good and for bad. When governments enact laws, we look for how they might abuse their new powers. But when people come together to fight for even the smallest improvement at work, at school, or on the streets, we see the germs of a new form of society.

When protest happens on a larger scale in strike waves and revolutions, socialists are suddenly not the only people who see this potential. But on most days it seems very far away, and socialists are very few in number. In this atmosphere, it might seem corny to imagine a day under socialism—even my own neurotic version where everybody whines and argues despite being surrounded by material abundance and supportive communities.

“Look at the movies that we see all the time,” radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek told a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world—an asteroid destroying all of life, and so on—but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” It isn’t just the Hollywood dream factory that has lost the capacity to dream. Naomi Klein reports that even most of the climate scientists whose research has proven that our current economic structures are driving most species to extinction are unable to picture those structures being overturned. “Changing the earth’s climate in ways that will be chaotic and disastrous is easier to accept,” Klein writes, “than the prospect of changing the fundamental, growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism.”

Facts and research aren’t enough to successfully challenge the only way of life we’ve ever known. We need imagination to show how different the world can be and we need power to make that world a reality. Socialists are ultimately judged by how well they can get those two wild horses of power and imagination to run in the same direction.

Revolutionaries have long warned about capitalism’s civilization-threatening tendencies, most famously when Rosa Luxemburg declared during World War I that society faced the choice between “socialism or barbarism.” But socialism is so much more than just avoiding Armageddon. It would be the first time that humanity’s potential would not be shackled by a lack of resources or a system that keeps those resources in a few hands. It was in that spirit that Marx wrote that the end of capitalism would mark the closing of the “prehistory of human society.” Socialism, in other words, is necessary both to prevent the decline of human civilization and to begin a new one more worthy of the name.

For further reading, check out Socialism 101: A Reading List

  • Socialism . . . Seriously

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