Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library. “From the CUL Stacks: The Case for Socialism” was published July 28, 2010 as part of the Chicago Underground Library’s Printers’ Ball 2010 Blog-Down.
In the United States, “socialism” or “socialist” can be a dirty word. Many people would perhaps rather admit to being a parking-ticket scofflaw, or tearing the wings off butterflies.
But not Alan Maass. In his book The Case for Socialism, published in 2004 by Chicago’s very own Haymarket Books (with an afterword by the late Howard Zinn), he proudly admits his political affiliation. And he wants you to join him.
In a slim 127-page volume (it fit easily into a patch pocket of my cargo shorts, with room to spare), Maass, a writer for the weekly Socialist Worker, pursues an ambitious agenda. He argues that capitalism has to go. It must go today.
According to Maass, not only our economy but our whole way of life is rapacious, based on the principle of winner-take-all, with only a few real winners sitting immovably at the top. The result is a kaleidoscope of destructive chain reactions for those of us farther down the food chain: declining wages, abysmal health care, famine, environmental degradation, wars.
Moreover, Maass says, capitalism can never be anything other than winner-take-all, with all the attendant consequences. We need a viable alternative. For him that alternative is socialism, the core of which he defines thus: “the idea that we should use the vast resources of society to meet people’s needs.” Meeting these needs requires “the widest possible discussion about what’s needed in society and how to achieve it.”
But that “widest possible discussion” is far more open and democratic than Maass envisions our present politics allowing. To put it plainly, the levers of power are bought and are staying bought. So his ultimate point is one that would be intimately familiar to Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky: we need a workers’ revolution to disable those levers.
The Case for Socialism is fast -moving and angry. The book takes aim at a kind of consensus reality organized around the “American Dream,” and punches hard with short, blunt statements: “Capitalism is built around organized theft.” “It is a society that needs to be replaced—by socialism.” “Ultimately, socialism can’t come through the ballot box.” You wouldn’t quote Maass to your family at Thanksgiving dinner.
Unafraid of controversy, Maass uses the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as his primary case study of how socialism is supposed to work. To his credit, he admits it went completely down the toilet in the 1920s, morphing into a dictatorship that resembled nothing if not the tsarist Russia it replaced.
Contrariness aside, Maass makes rich use of all the traditional tools of journalism: shoe-leather reporting, historical research, statistics, anecdote, and storytelling ability. He has a knack for digging up information one is unlikely to hear much about. For example, six million children under the age of five died annually of hunger as of his writing, even though global food production at the time could technically feed everyone 2,800 calories a day.
If such facts and figures provoke you to question why things are the way they are, and you are ready for an alternative way of framing those questions, Alan Maass is worth a look.
The Case for Socialism is only one offering among many from Haymarket Books, a nonprofit publishing arm of Chicago’s Center for Economic Research and Social Change. A quick glance at their website (www.haymarketbooks.org) reveals books about the wars in Iraq and Gaza, works by and about figures like Lenin and Marx, Sherry Wolf’s Sexuality and Socialism, and offerings from Noam Chomsky. According to the website, “We take inspiration and courage from our namesakes, the Haymarket Martyrs, who gave their lives fighting for a better world.”