Video review: Illustrate to Educate?

Illustrate to Educate is the overall title of a collection of short YouTube videos which try to explain in simple terms and with the aid of colourful pencil illustrations and diagrams a wide range of ideas and topics as diverse as Buddhism, Halloween, Democracy, Easter, Climate Change, and, most recently, the Israel-Hamas conflict. The presenter of these videos, Dan Zimmerman, has been much praised for the clear and non-partisan nature of his videos (viewed by many thousands of people) and for the way he generally strives to present more than one side to a subject or an argument. We can see this confirmed in two of his recent videos, ‘What is Socialism’ ( and ‘Marxism Explained’ ( So definitely a good idea, but what about the actual content of these videos?

Well, unfortunately, the content does not always stand up to scrutiny. In the one on socialism, for example, the presenter fails to develop one of the key ‘meanings’ (in fact the original meaning) of the term itself: a co-operative, moneyless society based on common ownership. He does hint at it at the beginning by stating that socialism ‘advocates for the collective ownership and control of the means of production and distribution’. But then he veers off, suggesting that ‘socialism’ can mean all sorts of different variations of the buying and selling society that we already have. Take your pick – ‘nationalisation of industries’, ‘public-private partnerships’, ‘a planned economy’, ‘more equal’ distribution of wealth. We are then told that ‘socialism’ has been ‘implemented in various forms in countries around the world’. The examples given here are – perhaps inevitably – the state capitalist systems of the former Soviet Union, of China and of Cuba, all heralded as ‘collective ownership’ (which it isn’t) and as ‘a more co-operative approach to economic decision-making’ (which it isn’t either). But, at least, the presenter does then rightly go on to say that such regimes may create ‘loss of individual freedom’ and oppression (even while continuing to call them ‘socialist’).

So the educational value of that particular ‘Illustrate to Educate’ video is definitely open to question, given its only passing mention of the original meaning of the idea of socialism, the one originally popularised by one of its key advocates, Karl Marx. However, the opportunity to make up for this presents itself in the ‘Marxism Explained’ video in the series. And this one is certainly a lot better. In it, Dan Zimmerman correctly states Marx’s analysis that the struggle between society’s two classes, capitalists and workers, defines economic relations in capitalism and goes on to explain that, according to Marx, the imbalance in the monopoly of ownership and control of the means of production and resources by the capitalist class means that workers have little power and are often easily replaceable. He further talks about how capitalism employs social institutions such as government, education and the media to reinforce the status quo.

So far, so good. But then, unfortunately, this video too starts to go astray. For example, it refers to Marx foreseeing two stages of the development of future society, first socialism and then communism – this despite the fact that in his writings Marx makes clear that his use of the two terms is interchangeable and both mean a moneyless, wageless society based on common ownership.

The maker of the video also needs to reassess the question of the possible collapse of capitalism. He presents Marx as arguing for an inevitable collapse of capitalism either through its tendency to monopoly of ownership and consequent stifling of competition or because of the effects of the economic crises or depressions it is subject to. But nowhere in Marx is there a claim that concentration or monopoly of ownership will automatically bring with it the collapse of the capitalist system. As for crises or depressions, Marx did see them as an inherent feature of capitalism – something confirmed by history since his time – but, rather than these signalling the end of capitalism, his argument was that they would simply lead to a realignment of the existing system. Nothing, therefore, in Marx’s writings to support the view that he was in any way an ‘inevitabilist’. His argument was simply that a new social system would happen only with a conscious and democratic majority ending it to replace capitalism with socialism. Nothing in Marx either to support the view of his ideas on revolution put forward by Dan Zimmerman that a revolution will happen by an ‘enlightened vanguard’ using capitalism’s failures to seize control of the means of production and lead workers to socialism (or communism). Such an idea, common among those on the left of capitalist politics, did not originate in Marx but came much later – from Lenin and Trotsky in fact when they distorted Marx’s ideas.

In its final minute, this video does at least make clear that Marx’s vision is of a society ‘without competition, money and private property’ and one in which ‘social classes and class struggle would not exist’. But then it spoils things again by expressing the view that such a society ‘has never materialised and history suggests it is an unlikely and unworkable concept’. It has not happened so far and so never can – a lame argument to say the least.

So, despite Dan Zimmerman’s claim to present videos that are ‘objective’, with this one he is at best only part way there. It is obviously good to be presented with more than one side to an argument, as Dan Zimmerman attempts to do, but you can only be truly even-handed if you have a detailed grasp of the topic you are presenting. This involves consulting, understanding and absorbing the writings of your subject of study, and one can’t help wondering to what extent this has happened here.


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