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The Fun, Accessible Intro to Socialism We Have Needed

Issue 279

Danny Katch has authored the introductory primer to Socialism we have all been waiting for.

John Tarleton May 11, 2023

On Feb. 5, a two-mile long train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. It was owned by Norfolk Southern, one of big four rail companies in the United States that combined to make $78.4 billion profits last year.

A massive explosion that followed the derailment blanketed East Palestine in the hazardous chemicals that were being carried on the train. The same toxic chemicals entered local tributaries that feed into the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people who live downstream. After being painfully slow to acknowledge the tragedy and quick to point fingers at each other when they did, Republicans and Democrats in Congress eventually began making noises about forcing the railroads to update the braking technologies used on trains, which date back to the 1860s. This would barely dent their profits, but they have lobbied the past three presidential administrations to be spared the expense. 

The railroads’ lack of concern for public safety has been matched only by their drive to price gouge shippers and exploit their workers, who are denied sick days and are required to be on call to work 90% of the time. 

Similarly rapacious behavior can be seen across industries, from airlines that deliberately overbook their flights and leave travelers stranded, to pharmaceutical companies that bankrupt sick people with soaring prices on life-saving medicines, to energy companies that continue heating up the planet because it’s more profitable to burn fossil fuels than to make a transition to renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, the super rich don’t want to pay taxes so our threadbare social safety net barely functions.

It’s a great set-up for CEOs and wealthy investors (and the politicians they buy off). But isn’t there a better way to run a society than to allow a small group of greedy sociopaths to maximize their profits at everyone else’s expense?

Even a bad day under socialism, Katch cleverly argues, would still be better than a good day under capitalism. 

Danny Katch certainly thinks so. In 2014, he published the first edition of Socialism…Seriously. At the time, he was trying to explain an ideology and a way of doing politics that seemed hopelessly antiquated to most observers. Much has changed since as support for socialism (however nebulously defined) has surged in the past decade. 

Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns revived a dormant left in the United States and brought the “S” word back into mainstream politics for the first time in decades. The rise of the Squad in Congress and the election of scores of socialists to state and local office — many of them young people of color — demonstrated socialism’s broader appeal, especially to a younger generation. The surge in union organizing since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has ignited hopes of a labor revival that could anchor a rising socialist movement. 

In the second edition of his book (which boasts on its cover of having “50% more socialism”), Katch offers a primer in the socialist critique of capitalism, its theories of how to overthrow capitalism and its vision of what a world beyond capitalism could look like. And while Katch is as serious as the next socialist about changing the world, his writing is filled with a humorist’s wisecracks and light-hearted asides that make the book a pleasure to read and model a generosity of spirit that we could use more of on the left. 

To bring to life an ideal that has never been fully realized anywhere, Katch begins and ends his book with a couple of postcards from a democratic socialist future. They are set in the Year 2040. In the first, we follow a day in the life of a young coffee-shop worker who is having a lousy day in their own personal life — no social system can resolve all the challenges of being human — but, as their day unfolds, you gradually realize all the ways they are free from the routine injustices of capitalism. Even a bad day under socialism, Katch cleverly argues, would still be better than a good day under capitalism. 

At the end of Socialism…Seriously, we meet the same character on a sweltering summer day made worse by climate change. In a socialist future, who qualifies for air conditioning exemptions? And why did his mother have to die of COVID-27? Even a world free of capitalist exploitation and all the cops, prisons, slumlords, insurance claims adjusters, etc. that come with it won’t be an easy one to live in. Not after all the damage we have done to the Earth. But with his humorous dissecting of the inanities of capitalism and his ability to make socialist ideas accessible and attractive, Katch makes a compelling case throughout his book for why we should still do everything we can to bring such a world into existence.

Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Surviving the 21st Century
By Danny Katch
Haymarket Books, 2023

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