The following is an interview of me (MDY) conducted by Cedric Muhammad (CM), who is an aide to the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, the National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. An abbreviated version of the interview appears in The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper (available at www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Business_amp_Money_12/
article_100637.shtml). — Michael D. Yates
CM: How would you define the essence of socialism or a socialist worldview? Is there a significant difference between it and communism?
MDY: The essence of socialism is two-fold. First, a socialist society is one in which the decisions concerning production, work, and distribution are democratically determined. In every capitalist nation, those with the most money, a tiny minority, make these decisions. The rest of us have no control over the goods and services our labor produces. Most of us, in our work, just carry out the orders of others. And those with the most money get the lion’s share of what we make. What socialism means is that we, the people, have direct control over these matters.
Second, a socialist society is one in which there is equality in as many aspects of life as possible. How can it be just or tolerated that a hedge fund operator, David Tepper of Pittsburgh, makes four billions dollars in one year, while more than twenty million people in the United States live at less than one-half the official poverty level of income, which is about $12,000 a year for a family of four with two children? If we examine ownership of assets like stocks, bonds, and homes, we see a disparity that translates into inequality in nearly every sphere of life. This inequality, which is rapidly growing, has pernicious effects, not just in terms of democracy, but in health, schooling, employment prospects, even the birth weight of infants.
Building a democratic and egalitarian society will be a herculean task, involving a radical transformation of all our basic institutions. One critical aspect of this change will be the creation of “socialist” human beings. When we engage in the production of material things, we also produce ourselves. That is, we are made in part by our work activities. In our society, as presently constructed, we create human beings fit for our economic system: avaricious and self-seeking, insecure and in a state of constant worry and anxiety, altruistic only when it is to our advantage, hyper-competitive, violent, habituated to routine work and control by others, ignorant and easily manipulated. So, a primary goal of socialism is to create institutions that produce human beings who will, by their normal actions, both bring forth and then reproduce a democratic and egalitarian society.
To give democracy and equality meaning, a socialist society will ensure that life’s basic necessities — food, clothing, shelter, work, healthcare, security in old age — are guaranteed to all as matter of right. And it will encourage us to fully develop our human capacities, by revolutionizing the way we work. We cannot have a few persons plan things and the rest of us carry out their orders, performing mindless and trivial labor, for too many hours and too many years. Onerous and repetitive tasks will be shared by all, and everyone will help plan the work we all must do, including raising children.
In terms of the second part of your question, which asks about a difference between socialism and communism, I see socialism as that period in which we no longer have capitalism — the rule by a minority of people who own our productive wealth — but are striving to create a democratic and egalitarian society. As we deepen the transition from capitalism to socialism, we will be moving toward communism, a society in which most human activities are voluntary and little if any coercion is necessary to get things done. A society, in the words of Karl Marx, that can inscribe on its banner: “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”
What has been the place of Monthly Review in the American and international socialist community?
Monthly Review began publication in May 1949 as an “independent socialist magazine.” The first article in that issue was by Albert Einstein and it was titled “Why Socialism?” These two words sum up what the magazine, and later Monthly Review Press, are all about. We try to examine the economics, politics, and cultures of the United States and the rest of the world from a radical perspective, and at the same time point to the need to supercede capitalism and begin the long journey toward socialism. Within both the U.S. and the international socialist community, Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press have enjoyed widespread respect, and influence beyond our subscription and book sale numbers. There are several reasons for this. First, those who have written for the magazine and published with the Press are among the outstanding thinkers in the world. Second, both magazine and Press serve as repositories of the best writing on the harmful social consequences of capitalism and the need for socialism, so that when conditions give rise to opposition movements, those leading them have available useful analyses that can serve as guides for both understanding and action. Third, our international reach is reflected in six “sister” editions of the magazine: Spanish, Greek, Turkish, and three Indian versions of Monthly Review. I venture to say that no other radical publication is better known around the world.
What do you feel are the dominant economic issues and challenges of the day?
This would take a book-length answer! Here, let me briefly discuss four issues and challenges.
First, and here I speak just of the United States, we still confront an enormous racial divide. Black Americans, nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, still have lower incomes, wealth, and wages than do whites. Their pay is inferior to that of whites, even for the same work, and they are more likely to be poor. They are less likely to own homes, and their rental housing is more likely to be substandard. Their unemployment rates are typically double those of whites. Despite the fact that the gap between the amounts of schooling of black and white men and women has narrowed dramatically, the economic rewards to this education have not narrowed proportionately. Black men and women comprise a remarkably higher share of the prison population than do whites. They face lower life expectancies and higher rates of infant mortality. That these differences continue to exist and show no signs of disappearing speaks volumes about the nature of U.S. society. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is unconscionable that its goals have yet to be realized.
Second, the rapid growth worldwide of inequality in wealth and income within almost every nation and between rich and poor countries has made the world a playground for the wealthy and a house of horrors for the poor. In the United States, for example, of the total gain in household incomes between 1979 and 2007, 60 percent went to the richest 1 percent of individuals, while just 8.6 percent accrued to the poorest 90 percent. Productivity in the economy has risen dramatically and people are working hard, but the gains from this have gone to a minuscule minority of super-rich individuals. This makes a sham of democracy, greatly reduces economic mobility, gives rise to hopelessness among the have-nots, increases social tensions and insecurities, and leads to a host of physical and mental illnesses. With vicious cuts in social welfare spending, probable reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits, and continuing de-unionization, we can expect inequality to worsen further. The economic future of most of the people in the United States and in the world does not look bright. In addition, the gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries continues to grow, with the most powerful nations stealing, in consort with the elites in poor places, the wealth of the “wretched of the earth.”
Third, there is a crisis of employment. The fraction of the labor force in the United States either fully unemployed, working part-time involuntarily, or too discouraged to even seek work has exceeded 14 percent since 2009, which is more than twenty million people. And this excludes those in prison, the homeless, and most persons receiving disability income. Those with jobs labor for wages that have stagnated for forty years; today nearly 30 percent of all jobs pay a wage that would not support a family of four at the official poverty level of income. More than 200 million persons are unemployed worldwide, and another nearly 500 million employed persons cannot purchase basic necessities. Youth employment prospects are especially bad, with unemployment rates for those under twenty-five reaching 50 percent and more in developed countries such as Spain and Greece. In the United States, the unemployment rate for those sixteen through nineteen hovers around 25 percent, while the rate for those twenty through twenty-four is more than 13 percent.
Fourth, we are in the midst of a catastrophic environmental crisis, caused in large part by the relentless quest for profits by global corporations. The problems include global warming, soil erosion, air and water pollution, over-fishing, and species extinctions, all of which threaten our food and water supplies, as well as our habitable land mass. These will impact the poorest people the most, increasing inequality still further. Most scientists agree that we have very little time to address these issues before they become irreversible.
Have you identified any areas of compatibility, unity and coalition building between the American and International Socialist and Islamic communities?
Both communities will find fertile ground for unity and coalition building in opposition to the unending “war on terror.” The United States and its allies have been waging war against Islamic communities in the United States and around the world under the rubric of “fighting terrorists.” This war has meant brutal discrimination against Islamic communities and individual Muslims in the United States, complete with the use of provocateurs, arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Entire countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — have been laid waste, and others have been subjected to horrendous drone attacks that have murdered thousands of Muslims. Other countries, such as Iran, are under siege by the United States, subject to killing economic sanctions. We all must do what we can to bring this war on terror to an end.
In addition, I have read that Islam is a religion of moderation in all things. If this is so, then there are many avenues that socialist and Islamic communities can travel together. Moderation can hardly be called a characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism is a voracious beast, knowing no bounds either in terms of the aspects of human existence that it tries to bring under its sway (converting everything into something to be bought and sold) or in its growth imperative. The bottom line is everything, the bigger the better. Acquisitiveness is a primary virtue in capitalism, so the very nature of the system rules out moderation. Socialists do not believe in everyone living a life of equal misery, but we do not approve of the gigantic waste of people and resources that this system guarantees.
Given Islam’s proscription against charging interest on borrowed money, Islamic communities might want to join socialists in finding ways to stop the rapacious titans of global finance from diverting to themselves as much of the world’s income as possible. Their actions destroy communities, ripping to shreds the social safety net and pushing hundreds of millions into poverty.
Earlier this year you met with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and were presented with an introduction to the Economic Blueprint of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. What were you impressions of both the Minister and that Program?
It was an honor for me to be invited to participate in this meeting, along with so many accomplished people. We conducted a lively discussion of critical economic issues in a comradely manner, with mutual respect and politeness, all the more remarkable in that those present analyzed these issues from a variety of (sometimes incompatible) perspectives. I doubt if a group of socialists could have done the same! I was impressed with Minister Farrakhan’s energy and knowledge about the many economic issues we discussed. His concern and love for those in need was evident. At the meeting, I also learned a great deal about the history of the Nation of Islam and the many economic and social enterprises begun by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and continued by Minister Farrakhan. That evening, Minister Farrakhan proved a gracious and generous host in his home, where we enjoyed a fine meal and good conversation. He and his family went out of their way to make everyone feel welcome. It was certainly a day to remember and reflect upon.
In terms of the Economic Blueprint, I found it interesting and worth developing further. While it was initially aimed at the Black community, it is applicable to a very large fraction of the entire society. Its most fundamental principle is that we must control resources to address our economic and social difficulties. And we must be part of a project that is larger than ourselves, one that is motivated by ideals of human solidarity and not simply by self-interest. Certainly, I think that the community self-help plans that comprise the Blueprint will be badly needed in the future as we are abandoned by our political leaders and left to the vagaries of the marketplace.
Concretely, the Blueprint asks those to whom it is aimed to stop spending money foolishly, on unneeded or harmful products. Put money aside for both future growth and emergencies. This seems like excellent advice. Our society is built upon mindless consumption, fueled by billions of dollars spent on deceptive advertising, much of it aimed at children. However, the Blueprint doesn’t stop with advocating saving money. The saved money should be pooled by the community for investment purposes. Here, the idea is to establish what we might call a development bank. Very large sums of money could be raised from the small savings of millions of people. Then the development bank could begin to use the funds to make investments beneficial to the community. For example, land could be purchased and agricultural enterprises begun. Distribution mechanisms could be established to get the food into the homes of those in need, and stores could be set up for sale of food. Fishing businesses could be similarly begun.
The Blueprint has been partially realized, first by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and then by Minister Farrakhan, notably through the purchase of farmland and the growing of organic food. At our meeting, we discussed the possibility of building on this. Perhaps cooperative businesses could be started, such as urban farming and housing, both of which could include the training of those in need of meaningful work.
Minister Farrakhan made an important point. Although the blueprint focuses on community self-help, the larger society, as embodied in the government, owes something to the people who built the nation. So, we must demand that our national government ensure the economic security of its people. As the Nation of Islam’s ten-point platform of 1963 demanded, and that of the original Black Panther Party reiterated, we must insist on full employment, access to land, decent housing, good education, an end to police brutality in our communities, and an end to an unjust criminal justice system.
I hope that Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam continue to implement the Economic blueprint, deepening and updating it for the twenty-first century. And I hope that we can work in harmony to help with this and to hold our government responsible for putting in place programs that promote full human development for all people.
What is your assessment of the Cuban Revolution and the impact of Hugo Chávez?
The Cuban Revolution represents a quantum leap in the development of socialism. On a small island and in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions that violate numerous international and U.S. laws, Cuba has managed to guarantee its people direct access to food, excellent education, and world-class healthcare. The distributions of income and wealth are among the most equal in the world, and most production is organized for use by the people and not for the profit of a few.
The economy is centrally planned; the government maintains strict control over foreign trade and certain vital national industries. However, growing amounts of production, especially in agriculture, are run by worker cooperatives. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba faced economic catastrophe, the people and the revolutionary leadership found creative ways to avert starvation while maintaining an egalitarian society. One of the outstanding changes made during this “special period” was the introduction of organic agriculture, not just in the countryside but in the cities. Urban farming applicable to every country in the world has been pioneered in Cuba to the point that most of the vegetables and fruits consumed by metropolitan inhabitants are grown in the cities themselves.
Of great importance, the power of the pre-revolutionary military was destroyed and a new armed forces brought into being. This military has not only defended the nation but has helped other countries in their own wars of independence, most notably in South Africa, where Cuban forces helped defeat the South African army and end apartheid. What the Cuban army has done internationally has been matched by Cuban medical personnel, who have traveled around the world aiding victims of natural disasters, providing medical supplies, doctors, and nurses to under-served parts of the world, and helped countries such as Venezuela establish their own popularly controlled healthcare systems. With the help of Venezuela, Cuban doctors have restored vision to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in Latin America who were suffering from curable eye diseases but did not have the money to pay for surgery.
Proof that Cuba has achieved things no other poor nation in the world has accomplished is demonstrated by the country’s very low rate of infant mortality, high life expectancies, and nearly universal literacy. The quality of daily living for an average Cuban compares very favorably with that of similarly situated persons in any of the world’s poor places. This is not to say that Cuba is a paradise. There are many problems. Democracy is considerable at the local level but could be deepened nationally. The expansion of tourism has helped to create greater inequality, as those who cater to foreign visitors earn higher incomes than those who work at jobs outside the tourist sector. Because of U.S. sanctions, many needed goods and services are in short supply. There are heavy pressures on Cuba’s leaders to introduce more market-based production and distribution, as have countries like China and Vietnam, and if the leaders succumb to these, there will be still greater inequality. Even in the area of race, where, compared to the United States, tremendous strides have been made, there are still disparities between white and black Cubans. These will need to be addressed. Overall, however, Cuba’s successes have been profound, and they show us what human beings might someday become when what Karl Marx called “the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest” cease to operate.
The late Hugo Chávez was one of the world’s most important contemporary political leaders. Following in the footsteps of Cuba, he snapped the chains of U.S. imperialism, and with the common people of Venezuela, embarked on the path of what he called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” A remarkable man, intellectual and practical, with an insatiable drive to learn and a commitment to the poor, Chávez’s world view was formed by childhood poverty, strong family ties, the progressive nationalism he absorbed in the military, and imprisonment for his radical convictions. As president, he began to use Venezuela’s oil wealth to benefit the people and not simply enrich a few elite. He nationalized important sectors of the economy, introduced worker and community economic control, built internal democracy, and championed Latin American opposition to the detrimental role U.S. economic and political interests played in his and other poor nations. A key element in Chávez’s desire to build socialism was to ensure the health of the people. This has been one of Chávez’s singular achievements; millions of poor Venezuelans have received (free) medical care for the first time. In cooperation with Cuba, Venezuela has begun to construct a system of patient-centered, decentralized, and preventive health care. Remarkably, peasants and workers are themselves trained to be doctors, in a work and study program pioneered by Cuba.
What Chávez did met with unrelenting hostility from the United States, which helped engineer a failed coup against him. This war has continued against his successor, Nicolás Maduro, who will have his work cut out for him as he tries to develop further what Chávez began.
Is the much talked-about “withering away of the State” still unrealized in socialism or just simply misunderstood?
The withering away of the State has not been realized in any socialist society. Nor does it seem that the tendency is in that direction. For various reasons, some of which were beyond the control of socialist countries, leaders have put more focus on increasing production, often using capitalist-style management and incentives, than on creating socialist human beings. The notion that production must be raised, whatever the human costs, so that in the future attention can be paid to the social relationships that define the character of a society, had its beginnings during the autocratic rule of the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin. The problem with this strategy is that when workplaces are organized along capitalist lines, with money and other material incentives used as the main motivators, a new managerial class comes into being, with power over others, and it will do whatever is necessary to maintain that power. Also, because the socialist countries have been surrounded by hostile enemies, they have been forced to build up strong militaries, and this is often not conducive to democracy. Hopefully, as capitalism proves incapable of satisfying even basic necessities for most of humanity, much less supporting societies in which we are free to fully develop our capacities and achieve a modicum of happiness, we will develop a socialism in which our material needs are fulfilled and we become increasingly able to relate to one another in an egalitarian and democratic manner.
Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review and editorial director of Monthly Review Press.