Rescuing the word: socialism
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
I was prompted to write these words on the actual meaning of socialism after reading a digitised poster on my Facebook news feed. In stark black and white it asserted:
A DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST IS NOT A MARXIST SOCIALIST OR A COMMUNIST. A DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST IS STILL A CAPITALIST, JUST ONE WHO SEEKS TO RESTRAIN THE SELF-DESTRUCTIVE EXCESSES OF CAPITALISM AND CHANNEL GOVERNMENT’S USE OF OUR TAX MONEY INTO CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR EVERYONE. DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISTS BELIEVE THAT BOTH THE ECONOMY SHOULD BE RUN DEMOCRATICALLY TO MEET HUMAN NEEDS, NOT SIMPLY MAKE PROFITS FOR THE FEW.
The use of all capitals is the online equivalent of shouting. This view of “democratic socialism” won’t tolerate contradiction even though the message about getting big business and governments to behave themselves is extremely mild and would sit comfortably with virtually every small “l” liberal on the planet. What struck me about this brief manifesto was the observation that a “democratic socialist is still a capitalist.” What sort of socialist, democratic or otherwise, can still be a capitalist? I presume the “capitalist” reference is to supporters of capitalism but, this clarification notwithstanding, the words socialist and capitalist would appear as antonyms in any thesaurus worth its salt.
New wave of “socialism”
The online poster is part of a wave of memes, blog entries and even syndicated columns in the capitalist press that sing the praises of “socialism” or, more specifically, latter-day “democratic socialism”. One short YouTube opinion piece prepared last year by AJ+ (a venture by Doha-based national broadcaster Al Jazeera) listed “5 Ways America [the USA] is already Socialist” *. It acknowledged that socialism is a dirty word in the US media and AJ+ sought to define it.
“SOCIALISM: (NOUN) A POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC THEORY OF SOCIAL ORGANIZATION THAT ADVOCATES THAT THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND EXCHANGE SHOULD BE OWNED OR REGULATED BY THE COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE,” the program insists, again in all caps. Somehow the word “regulated” has snuck in and been given equal status to the concept of ownership.
The video goes on to lay out the features of current US socialism. They are:
- the weekend – because workers had to fight to get this and other benefits from the bosses
- many of the greats of US history and literature are/were socialist – Jack London, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, etc.
- public infrastructure like highways and bridges, schools and universities and so on, that date back to the days of the New Deal
- the military – unfortunately, the biggest US public enterprise of them all
- corporate welfare – governments bailing out big business when they are down on their luck
Part tongue in cheek, the video sets out what the new wave of democratic socialists want. They want to restore the role of the public enterprises that have existed for a long time under the overarching state monopoly capitalist economic and social system. And they want to tax the “1%” to pay for the needs of the less privileged – a common sentiment of memes coming from sections of the “left” in Australia, the UK and the US lately.
The popular media in favour of “democratic socialism” appear to be taking their cue from the promotion of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party and the surprisingly successful campaign by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic candidate at the US presidential election later this year. While Jeremy Corbyn’s promotion may have caused a spike in sales of Marxist works in bookshops across the UK, Bernie Sanders’ followers, in particular, are keen to remind people that they are dyed in the wool capitalists.
Bernie Sanders’ interviews on the subject fuel this understanding of “socialism”. He doesn’t run scared of the word but, instead, empties it of its content. He goes straight away to questions of distribution of wealth and rights to jobs, education, healthcare and other social services to avoid the central question of social ownership. Socialists from the time of Marx and before recognised that the ownership of property is at the heart of socialism and Marx was among those that further recognised that the capitalist ruling class would not willingly give up the privilege flowing from their ownership of the “means of production, distribution and exchange”.
They realised that nothing truly fundamental was going to be done about conditions for the working class or the distribution of wealth in society until workers and other exploited people owned and controlled society’s productive assets. Wresting control over that property would be resisted vigorously by the existing owners. In Marx’s time, many of these owners had inherited their wealth from the vanguard that led the charge of colonial dispossession and theft in Asia, Africa and the Americas – the first wave of “primitive accumulation”. Workers didn’t have a vote or any other say regarding their generally miserable lot.
Modern capitalists generally have controlling interests in massive transnational corporations but, while the public relations they use might be more sophisticated and sound more “democratic”, they are not about to allow purported representatives of the underprivileged to start regulating their privilege away. As Australia’s Aboriginal people will tell you, there’s no point having “ownership” of land and other assets if you have no say in how they are used or who derives the benefit and in what proportions.
The international capitalist ruling class will go to any extreme to preserve these property “rights”. In fact, they have crafted political systems where neither parliaments nor congresses, prime ministers nor presidents can change these fundamentals. In most instances such changes are even unconstitutional. Increasingly, they are proscribed by multi-lateral trade agreements. While the non-Marxist “democratic socialists” don’t like to talk about the state in this sense or even classes beyond lamenting the downward income spiral of the “middle class”, i.e. the more affluent among the working class, some acknowledgement bursts through.
In a recent campaign speech, Sanders stressed that, even if he were to win the presidential election in November, he would not have the power to do very much. More thoroughgoing change will require a veritable grass-roots political revolution. Unfortunately, a “revolution” that doesn’t recognise that the ruling class will have to be stripped of its state power and its ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange is not likely to deliver its desired outcomes of peace, equality and other aspects of social justice. Progressive voters are being set up for disappointment even in the event of a victory for Bernie Sanders.
The latest of many
Sanders is only the most recent of a long list of “socialists” promising to do nothing at all, in reality, about the dominance of the capitalist ruling class. Australian workers have had over a century’s experience of the Australian Labor Party with its meaningless commitment to “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields” (from the ALP National Platform).
As long ago as 1913, Lenin felt obliged to give a language lesson citing the Australian example to make his point:
What a peculiar capitalist country is this in which Labour predominates in the Upper House and recently predominated in the Lower House and yet the capitalist system does not suffer any danger! An English correspondent of a German Labour newspaper recently explained this circumstance, which is very often misrepresented by bourgeois writers.
The Australian Labour Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact it is a liberal-bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.
This strange and incorrect use of terms in naming parties is not unique. In America, for example, the slave-owners of yesterday are called Democrats, and in France, the petty bourgeois anti-socialists are called ‘Radical Socialists.’ In order to understand the real significance of parties one must examine, not their labels, but their class character and the historical conditions of each separate country.
It is true that these misnamed parties have attracted the loyalty of generations of sincere labour movement activists. They worked well with Communists in trade union leaderships to achieve significant gains. As mentioned before, state monopoly capitalism is not fundamentally undermined by the existence of public services or other crumbs from the table. At one stage it served monopoly ends to have governments provide many services to workers to enable them to survive and produce the next generations of workers.
For much of the last century, capitalism faced intense ideological challenge from socialism and, despite the constant barrage of propaganda from the ideological apparatus of the bourgeois state, many workers recognised the economic, technological and cultural achievements of the socialist countries. The truth of this statement can be ascertained from the fact that a massive grab-back of gains made in previous decades coincided with the demise of the world socialist system. Social services are once more becoming the preserve of transnational corporations or charities. It’s a case of “now your socialist friends have disappeared, it’s no more Mr Nice guy.”
For all its triumphalism at the collapse of the Soviet Union and those other pioneering socialist societies, and despite the evolution of mighty brainwashing institutions like the modern mass media, capitalism still has a richly deserved bad reputation. There is a widespread recognition that capitalism is leading us along a path to endless war and environmental devastation. Its grip on public debate is strong but people who sense the growing inequalities and other negative consequences of capitalism and imperialism are keen to put some distance between themselves and these “excesses”. This tension between underlying capitalist ideological hegemony and its perfectly predictable consequences is behind the development of the modern “democratic socialist” - the socialist who is still a capitalist.
As previously mentioned, the modern “democratic socialist” doesn’t talk much about class and class struggle. Talk of the greed and corruption of the “1%” and the misadventures of the “middle class” is about the extent of it. For Labor in Australia, this “middle class” has become that group of swinging “aspirational voters” who determine the outcome of elections. But if class analysis is considered “outdated”, Marxist in some pejorative sense and subsequently neglected, a discussion of state power simply doesn’t arise at all.
In this view of the world, the “state” is the “government”, its various agencies and instrumentalities. It is not recognised as the mechanism by which one class maintains its dominance over another. In capitalist societies, the various administrative, coercive and ideological means to thwart potential working class power go unrecognised. They are “above classes”, the “independent umpire” as the story goes in the case of the courts, including those charged with resolving labour disputes.
Despite Bernie Sanders’ warning that changing society will take more than voting in a brace of better political representatives, “democratic socialists” continue to peddle this “impartial” state snake oil. Progressive governments have come and gone because they have failed to confront this question of state power. Some recognised the role of state power – the forces gathered around Chilean president Savador Allende, for example – but were too slow in mobilising defences against the predictable US-backed coup of 11 September 1973.
The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez survived a coup attempt by the very same forces that murdered Allende and crushed the aspirations of the workers of Chile for working class state power – socialism. The Bolivarian Revolution has had the good sense to organise militias to defend the gains of the past 18 years. Great strides in the interests of the workers and other less privileged people have been made in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia but the question of state power remains unresolved. The enemies of these governments are constantly regrouping and causing problems for these more independently-minded, pro-people governments.
Along with the current batch of “democratic socialists”, some supporters of “Socialism for the 21st Century” ignore the question of state power. Regulation and reform are everything. There is definitely a relationship between reform and revolution. Reforms beyond a point tolerable to the ruling class will bring on a crisis and a “nodal point” for revolutionary change but it seems many “socialists” are no longer interested in these vital questions of state power and revolution. This is a major handicap on the movement for change. After all, the thing that “revolves” or changes in the revolutionary transformation from capitalism to socialism is the ruling class. The many struggles for partial demands are important but the question of state power is basic.
On the question of language and meaning, I feel compelled to write something about the ideological position of the Communist party of Australia. Some detractors claim that the Party’s position around partial demands, the many day-to-day struggles of the workers and other exploited people indicates that we are not concerned with these questions of state and revolution. That is absolutely untrue. The notion behind this criticism appears to be that a revolutionary party needn’t bother with the “small stuff” affecting people’s lives and should remain exclusively focused on the “one fine day” when the masses erect barricades and take up arms.
Critics suggest that the Party’s Program, which from the time of its foundation in 1971 has predicted a democratic, anti-monopoly stage in the development of socialism in Australia, is “reformist” or “revisionist”. The same people claim that the CPA posits a “stage” beyond capitalism but not yet socialism. Of course, Lenin wrote a classic entitled Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, so another distinct “stage” supposedly occurring between capitalism and socialism is non-Leninist, at least. It would be helpful to the discussion if these critics would actually read the Program. Chapter 7, which deals with the move to revolutionary change, is worth quoting at length**:
The people’s government stage in the process of transition to socialism would weaken the power of monopoly and extend the democratic rights and participation of the people. But it cannot end there. Social change is a continuous process and the need to construct a socialist society will inevitably arise.
The socialist stage requires the replacement of capitalist class power with working class power and further steps to break the control and ownership of the economy by capitalism. In this stage working class control of the state apparatus will be achieved. The state itself would have to be rebuilt to ensure that the needs and interests of the working class can be fulfilled. A working class government would commence the restructuring of political and economic relations along socialist lines.
In the second stage, the alliance of forces established to challenge the power of monopoly must be consolidated to achieve new targets. The working class must act not only on its own behalf, but also demonstrate that it is capable of playing the leading role in social development by recognising, supporting and developing the political and economic demands of the other progressive anti-monopoly social groups.
The process of change will be strenuously opposed by those forces whose privileged position is being challenged. The defeated capitalist class will undertake ideological and political manoeuvres and apply pressure, a flight of capital will be organised, sanctions imposed, sabotage and other activities undertaken to make the process of transition complex and difficult. It is necessary for the revolutionary movement and the working class to master and be prepared to use all forms of struggle. Any limitations on forms of struggle will create weaknesses which will be used by the ruling class to retain its hold.
The best defence of the gains won by the people is the activity and unity of the working class and the unity of the working class with all other progressive forces. Equally vital for success is a close and dynamic relationship between the members of the Communist Party and the people involved in struggle.
I think the position of the Party on the relationship between a people’s government comprised of left and progressive forces supported by massive grass-roots organisation in the community and the workplace and the subsequent revolutionary change to socialism is perfectly clear. In the people’s government stage, state power still resides with the capitalist class. The revolution has not been completed, the process has only begun.
A sane person would hope the revolutionary change to working class state power can be achieved peacefully. We don’t have a crystal ball capable of predicting such events but history doesn’t favour such optimism. The CPA’s Program anticipates confrontation of some sort and warns that “It is necessary for the revolutionary movement and the working class to master and be prepared to use all forms of struggle.” All forms clearly includes the armed defence of the gains of the people.
It is also plain that the CPA doesn’t share the democratic socialists’ enthusiasm for the survival of capitalism or their blindness to the reality of the capitalist state. We don’t suffer from Humpty Dumpty’s erroneous belief that a word “means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Socialism means an end of private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. It means replacing capitalist state power with working class state power.
** Program of the Communist Party of Australia, Adopted by the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Australia, September 30, October 1, 2, 3, 2005, Published by the Communist Party of Australia, Sydney, printed by New Age Publishers Pty Ltd, ISBN 1 876919 20 5, pp 57-58