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Millions of people get some of their news from Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Made popular by Jon Stewart during his residency in the host’s seat, the show utilizes sarcasm, humor and reality to get the news out to its audience. The politics of the show are for the most part liberal/progressive and have probably helped turn today’s twenty-thirty something generation (who are its largest demographic) in a predominantly liberal and progressive political direction. In addition, the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont seems to be drawing its greatest energy from many of those same young people. Although Sanders’ politics are not what I would call genuinely socialist, the portrayal of him as a socialist in the mainstream media has opened up the question of socialism to its broadest audience in the United States since the 1960s and early 1970s.
In light of this new exposure to the idea of socialism, Danny Katch’s newest book, titled Socialism Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, is quite timely. The book is an introduction to radical socialism for the Daily Show generation. In it Katch combines humor, wit, and a combination of recent events and current media personalities from Naomi Klein to Dan Savage and Slavoj Zizek with a rational, understandable and concise explanation of what socialism is, how it works and how we might achieve it. Even though Katch’s approach to his subject is through humor, the discussion he undertakes about socialism is serious.
Part of Katch’s approach involves creating fictional possibilities of a socialist and democratic future. He begins one chapter with a projection of someone’s possible day in a world where socialism is the system in place. Although he acknowledges that his vision is just that, he then takes that vision of this world where people come before profits and describes how socialism as envisioned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would create such a world. When looking at the Left and progressive movements of today and their focus on fighting oppressions based on race and gender, Katch discusses each of these various forms of oppression and moves the reader to the most basic oppression under capitalism: the oppression of those who draw a wage from a corporation or other institution to live.
Knowing that an understanding of socialism is not quite possible without an understanding of how capitalism truly works, Katch uses the writing of capitalism’s first theoretician Adam Smith as his starting point for a comprehensive discussion of capitalism. While I was putting this review together I received an email in response to another review I wrote recently. The writer of the email insisted I was wrong about capitalism and did not understand that capitalism itself “was freedom”.
Despite clear and ample evidence to the contrary, the belief that capitalism is the best economic system to experience freedom is common enough. This remains the case despite the fact that not only does it tie everyone under the system to the fate of those who are at the top of the system, it literally enslaves millions in its sweatshops around the world. Katch takes the question of freedom under capitalism versus the question of freedom in a socialist system head-on. Given the current universality of the misinformed belief that capitalism equals freedom, Katch’s dissection of it is very important. It is also spot on. How, he asks, can one be free to live their life to the fullest when they must spend most of their time trying to take care of basic needs like shelter and food, when education is prohibitively expensive or poorly funded, and when debt rules one’s existence? Truly democratic socialism, writes Katch, would end this lack of freedom by making the workplace democratically run and ending a market ruled by the need for greater and greater profit.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto over 150 years ago. Its appeal was immediate and it has remained one of the most popular books ever written. In the years that followed the two men wrote, together and separately, some of the most incisive critiques of society, economics, and philosophy in human history. Many others have expounded on the works of Marx and Engels, some with their writing, some with their revolutionary organizing, and some with both. Their legacy is still being written. Danny Katch (and the rest of us) have the benefit of this knowledge and history. This brings us to a couple points Katch makes towards the end of Socialism Seriously. One of these points is the importance of history to understanding the present and changing the future. History, writes Katch, is simultaneously empowering and sobering. The lessons it teaches are ones we should heed, even when we don’t like the truths those lessons reveal. That being said, I do disagree with a couple points Katch makes regarding approaches different leftist radicals take when organizing for change. That, too, is part of what makes a movement vibrant—disagreement and synthesis.
Borrowing from Marx and Engels, Katch begins the body of his text with the words “A ghost is haunting the United States—the ghost of socialism. All the old powers are united in their aim to eliminate this demon: Presidents and preachers, Hilary and Rush….” From this brash introduction, he continues, writing one of the freshest arguments for a socialist revolution to be published in a long time. Eminently readable and quite timely, Danny Katch’s Socialism Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation brings Karl Marx’s timeless critique of capitalism into the twenty-first century of internet television, social media and supercapitalist exploitation. Like the title of this review (which is a direct quote from Katch’s text) says: “We have nothing to lose but our nightmares.”