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Socialism in the 21st Century
by Hannah Sell
Introduction to the January 2006 edition
Just six months after the first edition of Socialism in the 21st century was published two million people took to the streets of Britain on 15 February 2003 to oppose the impending war on Iraq. It was probably the biggest single demonstration in Britain’s history and it formed part of what was certainly the biggest ever simultaneous global movement.
This magnificent movement shook governments to their foundations and graphically showed the internationalism and willingness to struggle of millions of ordinary people; yet it did not prevent the war in Iraq.
In the minds of millions this raised the question: are we – the working class, the poor, the oppressed – powerless to change things in the face of massive, seemingly all-powerful, corporations and the governments that do their bidding?
The answer is an unequivocal no. The world’s poor and oppressed have enormous power if we unite together and rise from our knees. While it would have taken more action to stop the war machine, particularly mass workplace stoppages – the potential for which was glimpsed in the heroic school student strikes that took place – the anti-war movement nonetheless terrified the ruling classes worldwide. In Britain Blair clung to power by a thread. It was not for nothing that the New York Times declared on 17 February 2003 that there were now, "two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion. "
And while the Iraq war can be said to have strengthened a potential superpower – mass action - it also enormously weakened and undermined the other superpower – US imperialism. George Bush and his entourage imagined that invading Iraq would strengthen the power and prestige of US imperialism. Instead it has revealed all of its weaknesses on the international stage and increasingly at home. Around 60% of the US population now say that the war was wrong and only 40% support George Bush.
It is not only against the war that the ‘new superpower’ has flexed its muscles. Struggle on other issues has also increased. More and more people are fighting back -from the Nigerian workers who over the last five years have taken part in seven general strikes and mass protests against fuel price hikes, to the Bolivian working class and oppressed struggling for nationalisation of their oil and gas industries, to the New York transport workers, and the French and Dutch workers who defied their governments to vote ‘no’ to continued privatisation and cuts in the referendums on the European constitution.
And when we rise from our knees we can win victories. In Britain, the mere threat of 1.5 million workers taking strike action forced the government to partially retreat over plans to increase the retirement age for public sector workers. There are other examples of workers in Britain – like the nursery nurses in Scotland and the bus drivers in Stoke – who have been able to win victories as a result of strike action. In Ireland, with assistance of the Socialist Party, Turkish immigrant workers – employed by the construction company Gama – who had had the bulk of their wages illegally withheld, were recently able to win thousands of euros in back pay, at the same time as revealing to the world a cesspit of similar scandals. In the aftermath of the Gama strike the Irish Ferries dispute erupted, with 100,000 workers taking part in demonstrations during a national half-day strike demanding decent pay for immigrant workers on Irish Ferries.
Worldwide there are a very many more examples of the oppressed defeating their oppressors. But there are not enough. The most common story is still of the privateers, asset strippers and thieves getting away with riding roughshod over the rest of humanity. And even when we do win victories they are never permanent. Capitalism’s remorseless drive to maximise profits equals a relentless ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of working-class peoples conditions of life and work, which can only be resisted by determined struggle.
If further evidence were needed that capitalism is incapable of taking society forward; the last four years have provided it. Not only the ongoing nightmare of the occupation of Iraq – which has led to the death of many tens of thousands of Iraqis and over 2,000 ‘coalition’ soldiers – but also the inability of capitalism to take any effective action to prevent the decimation of our environment. In some ways, the most graphic illustration of capitalism’s crisis is its inability to cope with natural disasters - whether the tsunami at the end of 2004, or the South Asian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina last year. The countless thousands who died unnecessarily, and those still homeless -including in the US, the richest nation on the planet - stand as a complete condemnation of the profit system.
By contrast, the preparedness of ordinary people worldwide to give to assist the victims of disaster, repeatedly putting the puny efforts of governments to shame, stand as a testament to the strength of human solidarity.
It is therefore no surprise that the years since the first edition of Socialism in the 21st Century was written have seen an increased interest in anti-capitalist ideas in general, and specifically in a socialist alternative. The anti-war movement, in particular, radicalised a generation, and has led some of them to actively seek out socialist ideas.
At this stage, it is still a minority who have become conscious socialists, but it is a growing minority. Socialism in the 21st Century was written with the aim of assisting workers and young people who were interested in socialist ideas to find out more. There is no doubt that this second edition has a potentially broader audience than the first.
Today, in Britain, around 150 companies completely dominate the lives of 60 million people. Worldwide, the richest 356 people enjoy a combined wealth that is greater than the annual income of 40% of the human race. This book gives an outline of how a democratically planned socialist economy could harness the vast wealth of capitalism to meet the needs of humanity instead of lining the pockets of a few. At the same time, it raises some of the most important tasks that face socialists in this period – such as the need to lead struggles to defend workers’ living conditions against the rapacious greed of the multinationals and the need to build new mass workers’ parties which represent the interests of working-class people. It links these tasks to the struggle for ‘socialism in the 21st century’.