Monday, November 3, 2008
“Michael Harrington, in his final book, Socialism: Past & Future, pointed out the main dilemma facing the concept of socialism. “The rise of Communist states,” he wrote, “dictatorships with centrally planned, nationalized economies – did more to distort and confuse the meaning of socialism than any other event in history. It is an intolerable irony that societies that are anything but socialist should thus define what socialism is in the eyes of so many. It is an irony that has to be undone.”
“Today, a revolutionary crisis is going on in that system some of us called bureaucratic collectivism, others Oriental despotism, others state capitalism. The media in the West have interpreted this to mean the end of socialism. This is just what the apologists for capitalism want us to believe. Socialists have to reply to this charge by loudly declaring that socialism does not now, nor has it ever, existed in the so-called “Communist” world. We should understand why so many people in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are currently being attracted to capitalism. They are reacting against the old terrible system and embracing another system they do not know. But will it last? They reject the word “socialism” and “Marxism,” which were constantly forced down their throats in the dictatorships they lived under. However, the class struggle has not disappeared. Neither has the capitalist business cycle, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank ready to “help” Eastern Europe . Therefore, as a socialist, I believe that the struggle of working people for a better society (socialism), by whatever name they want to call it, has not gone away. When the people in the “Communist” world discover the economic problems of capitalism, they will like it the less.
“In fact, it could be argued that we are in the era of the end of totalitarian collectivism and on the eve of the final crisis of capitalism. True, capitalism and Stalinism were deadly enemies. But overlooked was the fact that their relationship was basically symbiotic. The horrors of Communism were the strongest argument that capitalism had against socialism. Now that this argument is gone, what reason do democratic socialists and trade unionists have to hold back and be defensive?
“At the same time we must admit that Stalinism has done terrible damage to the image of socialism that might take long to repair. The Stalinist mode of ‘socialism” has set back both socialism and the labor movement about 50 years. Only by emphasizing the primacy of democracy, i.e. social democracy, will the concept of socialism be accepted by society.”
Sixteen years later, Eastern Europe and Russia has gone through shock therapy economic reforms to quickly transfer their economies to capitalism with disastrous results. However, even the reformed former Communist parties; remade into Social Democratic parties with membership in the Socialist International have embraced basically a free market economy. The 1990s was an era of free trade and globalization.
In the first decade of the 21st Century, however, a counter reaction to globalization has created a revival of the Left in Latin America , including the recent re-election of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela , under the slogan, “Socialism for the 21st Century.” While the experience of the past, should make democratic socialists in the U.S. skeptical of any leader’s claim of building socialism in his/her country, by noting whether the new “socialist” government is emphasizing the primacy of democracy in its philosophy and in actual practice, because we do not need another authoritarian example of socialism to discredit it further in the eyes of the American public. Nevertheless, we may be seeing a socialist revival in the first decades of our new century that begins in Latin America and will then spread elsewhere. Now, with the recent financial crisis hitting the United States and the developed world, Right wing politicians are again using the negative image of socialism to tar Barak Obama and anyone else who is trying to develop a progressive economic program to resolve this crisis. In this new environment, it is vital that there exist a organization such as Social DemocratsUSA, / the authentic historical Socialist Party, U.S.A, with its history of anti-Communism, to carry the banner of democratic socialism in the 21st Century to the American people. But it can only do so under the principles spelled out in our (OK, my)Manifesto. and our short statement of principles Its message, reflecting the history and notables of the past in our Party, is the only one that would be reach out and be acceptable to a majority of the American people with its emphasizes on the primacy of democracy
It was sheer desperation that made John McCain and his allies pull out the lethal weapons in the last days of the campaign and start calling Barack Obama a “socialist.” There’s no greater curse.
They claimed Obama’s economic proposals — higher taxes for the rich, more aid for the poor, increased intervention in the markets — amount to a stealth plan for confiscating property and redistributing wealth. Electing Obama, they suggested, would plunge America into a dark new era of alien, un-American customs.
The Obama campaign laughed it off. The Illinois senator’s proposals add up to little more than a restoration — timid and partial — of the economic consensus that governed America through much of the 20th century. For five decades, from Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, Americans lived happily with rules that most took for granted: a steeply progressive income tax, strong protections for labor unions, an expansive welfare system and intrusive government regulation of much of the economy, from banking to trucking. The republic did not fall; rather, those were peak years of the American century.
But McCain wasn’t entirely wrong. The consensus that Obama hopes to recapture is pretty close to what most socialists mean by socialism. On the other hand, it’s not what Americans usually mean by socialism. We’re accustomed to thinking of the word “socialism” as a synonym for secret police, bread lines and prison camps. We imagine modern history as a struggle between totalitarian communism and democratic capitalism, with capitalism — the pure, laissez faire kind, we assume — the winner by a knockout.
America is different. Democratic socialism emerged here at the same time it was spreading through Europe. The year 1897 saw the founding of what became the Socialist Party of America, led by Eugene Debs. This newspaper was launched that same spring as a voice of the new movement. But while the Forward became a dominant voice in the Jewish community, Debs and socialism languished on the margins of America.
The harshest blow to socialism’s hopes — yet also, paradoxically, its great triumph — was Franklin Roosevelt’s co-opting of socialist ideas for his New Deal. Socialism’s principles entered the American mainstream, even though the name remained anathema. What others call socialism Americans call New Deal liberalism.
Whatever its name, socialist thinking thrived in America for a half-century. The government undertook vast projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Interstate Highway System. Organized labor became a partner in policy-making. Welfare became a humane, reliable safety net for the poor. Medicare and Medicaid were launched.
Much has been written about the eclipse of liberalism, the rise of the right and the impact of the Reagan revolution. Most important is the economic sphere, where free-market fundamentalism has largely supplanted Roosevelt’s New Deal. Liberals react to the shift with endless hand-wringing about greed and the decline of humane values. The right retorts that the magic hand of the market makes the economy grow, creating more for everyone.
Now, finally, the reality is hitting home: In the long run, laissez faire capitalism actually doesn’t work. Sure, we got to party for a while, but under our feet the market revolution was unraveling an economy that had been doing quite well before the free-market fundamentalists took over.
Between World War II and 1973, the New Deal’s glory days, with regulation vigorous and high-income tax rates topping 70%, Americans enjoyed three relatively stable decades of brisk growth. A true middle class was born, and affluence transformed all levels of society. Then came Reaganism, kicking off three decades of virtual growth punctuated by a series of ever-harsher bailouts, bubbles and busts. Instead of creating wealth, we created an illusion of wealth, borrowing trillions of dollars and spreading them around so we could feel rich. Far from fostering genuine growth, we shipped productive industry and real jobs overseas, leaving workers here to flip burgers and run up debts.
Lowering the taxes of the wealthy, supposedly meant to generate investment and new jobs, instead spawned a generation of billionaires and an orgy of conspicuous consumption.
We should have known better. However elegant it looked on paper, the ideology of the free-market fundamentalists defied common sense. It seems incredible that anyone could seriously believe you can hand pots of money to a lucky few and expect them to invest wisely and nurture general prosperity, as opposed to hoarding or splurging on jewelry. And yet believe they do, despite all the evidence.
Every culture since ancient times has passed on its own tale of great wealth breeding madness. But we’re still learning. The latest evidence: a new report in The Washington Post that banks receiving the first round of federal bailout money — meant to spur renewed lending — are instead using more than half to pay shareholders their quarterly dividend. Much of the rest is going to buy up smaller banks. Yes, they should be lending, reviving commerce, but someone just gave them a pot of money. The magic hand, it seems, has sticky fingers.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
“Socialism is the answer” to the crises and crying injustices, the inequalities and absurdities, of capitalism. But what is it, this socialism?
Too often it is a vague and cloudy and undefined “big word”. In part, this is deliberate policy by the socialists.
Before the great founders of modern socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, socialism had been mostly what they came to call “utopian socialism”. Some great benevolent thinker — and some of them were very great thinkers and splendid human beings, such as the Englishman Robert Owen — would work out a blueprint for an ideal socieity, convert as many as possible to the vision, and then set about creating such a society in miniature, out in the wilderness somewhere, far from the imperfect capitalist society that had been created by history.
For instance, some socialists set up such a community in the wilds of Texas in 1848.
The idea was that these small nuclei of a better society would grow and spread, and by their example convert the whole of the surrounding capitalist society, the capitalists and landlords as well as the working people, to the superiority of the new system. Salvation for humanity would come from outside capitalist society.
In practice, those little communist colonies, starved of resources, confined to small groups of people, floundered, and fell apart after a few years or in some cases a few decades. The “example” they provided was not the one they had set out to create, but an opposite one.
The term “utopian” came from a book published in 1516 by Thomas More — the Saint Thomas More of the Catholic Church — a one-time Chancellor of England (a sort of prime minister then), who summed up his experience of government with the words:
“I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich... that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they pleasure”.
Utopia meant “nowhere”, and “nowhere” neatly summed up the results of the utopian attempt to create model communist societies side by side with capitalism.
Marx and Engels and others inherited and built upon some of the ideas of the utopian socialists, and in particular their critiques of capitalist society.
Their new socialism, in sharp contrast to the utopians’, looked to forces within capitalist society to create socialism. To two forces in particular: to the trends of capital itself, and to the working class employed as “wage slaves” by the bourgeoisie.
The old utopian socialists were what we might call “absolute anti-capitalists”. The new socialists were anti-capitalist, of course, but recognised that capitalism had played and was playing a tremendously progressive role in the development of society.
They recognised it as the mother of the socialism they advocated and organised to achieve. It was the creator of the class in society that would create a socialist future, not in agreement with the capitalists, but in bitter class war against them.
For the old socialists, socialism was an idea, and proposals and schemes for its creation in life. The idea could have come into the head of some genius at any time in previous history. Indeed, it had. Many utopians recognised as their predecessors people in the distant past such as Thomas More and, many centuries earlier, Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher.
For the new socialists, the “Marxists”, socialism could only be the product of a long previous social evolution in which capitalism was the highest stage so far. The history of class societies had not been just a “mistake”, not just a senseless waste for lack of the benefit of the new great ideas which the utopians preached.
Class society had been unavoidable and necessary. So long as social labour — that of slaves and serfs, free peasants and artisans — produced only a small surplus beyond what it took to keep the workers alive and able to breed new workers, ruling classes would arise that would seize that surplus for themselves and enslave the producers.
So it had been through a series of pre-capitalist societies — the ancient slavery of the Greek and Roman world, the feudalism of the Middle Ages, the distinct societies of “Asiatic despotism” that had existed in China, India, central America, and elsewhere for thousands of years.
Capitalism for the first time organised social labour so that it was able to produce enough for a decent standard of life for everybody. It thus for the first time in history made socialism a real possibility.
Capitalism also created a working class which had no property in the means of production — in contrast with peasants, or with artisans and craft workers who owned their own tools and workshops. The new working class owned only its own labour-power, which it was forced to sell on a daily basis to those who owned the machines needed for them to work.
Historically, the capitalist bourgeoisie and this working class were tied together as two sides of one economic development — up until the working class “expropriated” the capitalists and made itself collectively the owner of the productive wealth of society.
The working class could not find anyone lower in the social scale to exploit. To free itself from exploitation by the bourgeoisie, it would have to free all of society.
While peasants could break up the big estates of the landlords into smaller farms, the working class could not break up and divide the factories into smaller bits. They could own the means of production only collectively, in common, as social property.
And they could not own the means of productive collectively unless they were administered democratically. A collectively-owned economy implied democratic administration; it implied comprehensive democracy.
Democracy, in turn, if it were to be real, and not confined to important but superficial things such as infrequent elections, implied collective ownership and democratic control of the economy on which the lives of the whole of society depended.
Democracy was thus central to Marxist socialism, in contrast to the utopians’. The new socialists would be a political movement, concerned with all aspects of the running of society, and aimed at organising the working class to take political power. In one of the early foundation-texts of Marxist socialism, the Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels at the beginning of 1848, the goal of the socialist working class is defined as “to win the battle of democracy”.
That meant more than winning the vote, though winning the vote for the “lower classes” was in most places still to be done in 1848. It meant subordinating the economy to democratic, conscious, working-class control. It meant turning markets into tools in limited areas of the economy, dethroning the market as idol.
Marx and Engels and their comrades believed that the organisation of the working class, and its political education into a scientific overview of society, was the defining work of socialists.
The final overthrow of the capitalists and their system — the socialist revolution — would be the culmination of the work of “agitating, organising, and educating” the workers.
The wage-working class was, in their view, now the protagonist of history. Among its tasks was to organise the other working people who, though not wage-workers, were not exploiters of labour like the capitalists — small farmers, shopkeepers, “professional” workers — around its own democratic-collectivist programme for the reorganisation of society.
To prepare the “subjective” side of the socialist revolution by way of educating and organising the wage-working class, those without property in the means of production, was the precondition of socialism. Socialism could not happen until that education and organisation had first been done.
But, quite apart from the political readying of the working class, the capitalist system itself also prepared the socialist revolution.
Capitalists exist in a condition of war of varying intensities with each other – for markets, profits, survival. Especially in times of the periodically recurring economic crises, the stronger devour the weaker. Capitalism, on that level, is a cannibal-piranha society. (We have seen this very recently, with the Government encouraging and assisting the amalgamation of giant banks).
Tremendous concentrations of wealth are created. Whole industries come to be controlled by a few giant companies.
In this way, society becomes more and more collectivist — but under the control of the bourgeoisie, and for its essential benefit.
In our own time, we have seen this reach new levels with the growth of global corporations disposing of more income and more power than the governments of some sovereign states. The issue becomes not one of whether there will be social organisation of the economy, but of who will control the socially-organised economy, and in whose interests it will be run.
Because the working class was defeated repeatedly in its battle in the 20th century to take control of society — defeated by fascism and Stalinism and by bourgeois-democratic governments — the “socialisation” of the economy by the bourgeoisie has reached tremendous levels. We have just seen the most vehement advocates of free markets run to the governments that were no less vehement marketeers, to use the state to rescue them from the natural consequences of the capitalist market system — of the principle that profit is God and the market is his representative on Earth.
Everywhere, governments are stepping in to substitute for bankrupt bankers and financiers. But this is not socialism.
This is “social”, meaning governmental, running of key aspects of the economy, not for the mass of the citizens, but in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. This is state capitalism, not socialism.
In the 1940s, the Labour government in Britain did similar service to the owners of the mines and railways, buying them out.
Socialism is the opposite of this state capitalism. It is the assumption of political power by a government of the working people which will expropriate the existing owners and administer society in the interests of all the working people — a workers’ government. The capitalists will not let us achieve that peacefully. Only by way of a working-class revolution will it be possible.
What will our socialism be, positively? What will it look like?
It will be a humane society run for the people, by the people, by elected and democratically-controlled representatives of the people. It will put people before property. It will cherish all the children equally, eliminating poverty and unequal education.
It will be multifariously democratic in all aspects of society. The economy will be collectively owned and democratically administered. Markets will be confined to limited areas, for the fine-tuning of distribution within the context of an overall planned economy.
Production will be for use, not profit. The tremendous advances in medicine will be available to all. The obscenities of drug companies robbing the sick will be relegated to the same niche in human memory as the old Aztec human sacrifices they so often resemble in their consequences, when they condemn people to chronic illness of death by depriving them of equal medical care because they can’t pay the blood-money demanded by the drug companies.
It is beyond our scope here to try to work out in detail what socialism will be. In any case, we can’t realistically do that. Too many things are unknowable for us. Marxism distinguished itself from the utopian socialists also by avoiding blueprints for an ideal future.
Yet, we know what socialism is not. It is not production for profit. It is not the subordination of human beings to the operation of inhuman market forces. It is not letting profit-makers control essential things like the provision of drugs to the sick.
It is not Stalinist state tyranny. It is not the ownership of the means of production and of society by a state that is itself “owned” by a Stalinist-style oligarchy.
Socialism, in a word, is the establishment of human solidarity, as the organisational axis and core ethic of a new society. Here and now, solidarity is the core of all labour movement, meaning workers standing together against the bosses.
Solidarity is both our great organising weapon now, and the simple definition of what will be the core of a humane, working-class-run, socialist society.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
What we are reminded of here is that the history of the quest for a cooperative commonwealth is a story of missed opportunities and roads not taken. I've concluded that the essense of the challenge activists for economic democracy face is that we can never negotiate a cooperative commonwealth based on orthodox economic terms.
So what does this have to do with Social Democracy in the 21st. century? Plenty. Historically the Social Democratic Party here in America was committed to an actual demonstration of a non-statist cooperative commonwealth, many within the party going so far as to plan an actual colonization effort of an American state to do so.
It's in our genes....shining city on a hill and all that.
The prairie populists of Canada and USAmerica once had a unique opportunity for a breakthrough past the restraints of the orthodox economics of the early twentieth century. It was a time when new denominations of socialist thought arose alongside that of guild socialism. Social democratic Fabianism, which would be an early adopter of Keynesian policy prescriptions, came to dominate socialist thought and shape the limits of a socialist agenda. It also displaced guild socialism and its historic project of building the decentralized and non-statist social economy that the greater part of the American people wanted. Fabianism more-or-less adopted the conventional wisdom of orthodox economics and through this route social democratic parties the world over have been drawn into the corporatist agenda.
Populists and socialists in USAmerica and Canada squandered their opportunity to build the cooperative commonwealth in North America when the larger part of the movement gave way to a Fabian form of social democracy. This split the populist movements on North America's prairie country. In Canada in particular the populist movement would eventually find itself split between the CCF, the Progressive Conservatives and Social Credit. Today Social Credit is often dismissed as the ideology of right-wing monetary cranks. But lately Social Credit has been undergoing a revival among many on the European Left, particularly within the UK Green Party, which has a "sustainable economics working group" with a sizable congregation of devotees of Social Credit. Thanks to Richard Cook, formerly of the Carter Whitehouse, Social Credit principles are once again getting a hearing in these United States.
According to Frances Hutchinson, a British Green Party activist and academic, Social Credit has its origins in guild socialism. According to Hutchinson Social Credit was "formed within the broad alternative school of thought which opposed the growing domination of finance over the economies of the developed and underdeveloped worlds. It was equally opposed to economic and military warfare, to wasteful production, the degradation of farming to a commercial activity and to environmental degradation."
What precisely is Social Credit? According to Hutchinson, it is a means "..to approach the creation of alternative structures of production and distribution in order to meet local needs free from the restraints of distant financial institutions." According to advocates of Social Credit, the way in which central banks and financial institutions interact with productive firms creates a shortage of purchasing power. Social Creditors believe the structural problems creating this shortage of purchasing power can be overcome with a new means and new criteria for the creation of money that will allow a sufficient pool of purchasing power to liquidate the costs of production.
Perhaps it is time for the cause of Economic Democracy to recover its two wings. It may be that the cooperative movement has suffered most from the constraints of orthodox economics, and that the cooperative commonwealth is in need of a full pair of wings in order to fly. Perhaps the remarriage of Social Credit and the cooperative cause is just the kind of breakthrough that can allow cooperatives and cooperative communities to develop on their own terms.
By Alan Advans