Saturday, December 02, 2006

What is Socialism?


What is Socialism?

So far this column has been dealing mainly with what Marxism has to say about capitalism and how it can be overthrown. But, of course, Marxism is not only against capitalism, it is also for socialism and now seems a good point to say something about the kind of society Marxists aim for and struggle to bring into being.

Interestingly, Marx wrote relatively little about the future socialist society ( though what he did say was profound and important). There are no detailed plans or instructions as to how the government should be organized, or how much people should be paid, or what forms of transport should be adopted or anything like that. But there is a good reason for this.

For Marx socialism was not a blueprint for an ideal society which he had dreamt up, it was the form of society which would necessarily emerge from the victory of the working class in the struggle against capitalism. From this it follows that the precise features of socialism cannot be foreseen, first because they will depend on the specific circumstances in which that working class victory takes place, which cannot be known in advance, and second, because these matters will, precisely, be decided by the workers of the future themselves. Moreover the workers of the socialist future will be very different from the workers – or any of us – today because they will have been profoundly changed by the process of overthrowing capitalism.

Just saying this, however, points to the fundamental feature of socialism as understood by Marx which differentiates it completely from the fake socialism of the Soviet bloc, China, North Korea etc., namely that it is a society really run by working people themselves. When Marx spoke of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as the transitional phase between capitalism and socialism he meant not a dictatorship over the proletariat or a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat by an individual, party or elite, well meaning or otherwise, but the rule of society by the working class as a whole, real collective workers’ power.

To rule society the working class has to create its own, new state apparatus. Marx understood this very clearly because he saw it done in practice in the Paris Commune of 1871, and today we know better than Marx what this will probably look like, not because we are cleverer than him, but because we have the additional historical experience of the early years of the Russian Revolution, and of a number of near revolutions in Germany (1918-23), Italy (1919-20), Spain (1936-37), Hungary (1956), Chile (1972) and elsewhere.

From this experience we know that it means the creation of a network of representative bodies or councils (called ‘soviets’ in the Russian Revolution ) based on the working class in struggle, above all in its workplaces, but also (depending on circumstances) reflecting the army, the community and so on. And that these workers’ councils become the core of the new state, to which the government, military forces, ministries etc. are responsible and accountable.

If the working class is really to run society this new apparatus has to genuinely reflect the collective interests and will of the working class. This means operating on highly democratic principles and again we know some of these from the experience of The Commune and the Russian Soviets, e.g. that council delegates should be immediately recallable by the bodies (mainly workplace meetings) that elected them, and that they should be paid no more than a skilled worker’s wage.

It is also clear that to sustain itself workers’ political power must rest on a firm foundation of workers’ economic power (all political power rests ultimately on economic power). To this end the working class will use its state to establish collective ownership of the major means of production, distribution and exchange which will need to be managed by the workers themselves, through democratically elected committees.

It should be noted that in this view of socialism it is workers’ power that is the basic principle from which follows the need for state ownership, not state ownership as such. State ownership by itself, without workers’ power and workers’ control, is state capitalism not socialism. We also know, both from Marxist theory and from what happened in Russia, that although workers’ power may be established first in one country it must spread internationally if it is to survive.

Achieving this will doubtless involve great struggle, but if we allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about an internationally united socialist society run by working people themselves, then certain things will necessarily follow. Production will be democratically planned to meet human need. And if the immense productive forces already developed by capitalism are made to serve people’s needs it will be possible to abolish the poverty, malnutrition and deprivation that have for so long afflicted the majority of the world’s population. No one will have four mansions, five cars and two private jets but everyone will have the necessities required for a decent life.

Indeed they will have more than just a decent life for such a society will also provide the education, leisure and, above all, the stimulating work to unleash a massive development in the intellectual life and human personality of hitherto ordinary people which in turn will feed into the further development of society.

Such a socialist society will be a society of peace because the root causes of war in the past – the struggle between lords, dynasties, corporations and states for land, resources and profits – will have disappeared.

It will also, once the remnants of the old class system fade away, become a truly classless society – like the classless societies of the hunter gatherers but with modern technology and international – because with production owned and controlled by the associated producers the very basis of class, exploitation of one group by another, will have been eliminated. This in turn will pave the way for the disappearance of the state i.e. of any special apparatus of coercive power standing over society. Real human freedom will be realized.

This still doesn’t tell us whether the people of the future will choose to live in houses that hug the ground or reach for the sky, will travel by bus, bicycle or invention as yet unknown, or will eat peaches and cream or strawberries and yogurt but it does tell us why socialism is a goal worth fighting for.

John Molyneux
November 14, 2006