This week [November 1918] marks a century since the end of world war one. A conflict in which 70 million people were thrown into uniforms, given guns, gas, bayonets and bombs, and ordered on pain of execution or imprisonment to shoot, gut and poison each other. 10 million of them were butchered at each other’s hands and a further 8 million civilians died too. Why? What for? These millions were fed into a meat-grinder. Not for freedom, justice or democracy, but because the European capitalists of their respective nations were competing to carve up the rest of the world for their own profit.
Today, we live in a global society that has produced incredible innovations and, for the first time in human history, has enough capacity to produce things and provide services that every single human being could live a healthy life and explore their own potential. And yet something like 25,000 children under five die every day, nearly half because this system fails to provide them with the food they need. One in five children live in extreme poverty. Even in an incredibly wealthy country like the UK, 3000 people die every year because they cannot afford to keep their homes warm enough.
And the system is destroying even the conditions necessary to sustain that level of indecency. Immense destruction of the environment on which our survival and prosperity relies has already occurred. And now the scientific consensus tells us we have just a handful of years in which to dramatically overhaul how our global society organises itself and uses resources, if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.
Capitalism is a system in which, if democracy exists at all, it is confined to a tightly limited “political” sphere. Beyond that sphere, a small minority control the facilities and resources on which our society runs – the factories, farms, call centres, cargo fleets and power stations. That minority is rewarded with untold wealth and luxury for finding, or rather for employing staff to find, the most efficient and effective ways to extract wealth from the rest of us and from the planet, at any human or environmental cost. The rest of us are compelled to go along with how they want to do things if we want to keep our jobs and keep a roof over our heads. More than that, we are forced to compete ruthlessly with one another, and told that the architects of our misfortunes aren’t the bosses and landlords who exploit us, but each other – our Polish neighbour who has supposedly stolen our job, or the foreign power supposedly undermining our "great" nation.
The title of this debate is, “this house believes socialism is the answer”. The answer to what? I argue, socialism is the answer to the injustice and destruction intrinsic to the capitalist system under which the world is organised today. It is the answer of how we can better organise society in a way that sustainably meets human need, and in a way that unleashes human potential and freedom.
But what is socialism? This is a word that has been used and abused to mean a thousand things over the past two centuries. Does it mean, as someone like Bernie Sanders would suggest, a capitalist economy that simply tries to regulate the market a bit, and tax its richer citizens to provide services like health and education? Does it mean the exploitation, repression and gulags of Stalinist Russia or modern-day China?
I should spend a second on Stalinism because I’m sure my opponents will raise it. Socialism is no good as an answer if, in practice, it is just a path to the gulag. But Stalinism was not socialism. Stalinism murdered socialism and wore its name as a disguise. If you think that socialism means totalitarianism because Stalin and Mao told you so, then I have some delicious, definitely home-cooked steamed hams to sell you.
To impose its rule, Stalinism had to imprison, exile or execute thousands upon thousands of socialists. I belong to the socialist tradition that fought this from the outset, the socialism that Hungarians demanded in 1956 and Chinese students and workers demanded in 1989, only to be crushed under tank treads. When Thatcher was buying coal from Stalinist Poland's dictators, we were supporting the polish miners and dockworkers repressed for demanding freedom and democracy.
The socialism I am talking about, the only kind of socialism worth the name, means democracy. It means ending capitalism by extending and deepening democracy to the whole of society. We say today that we live in a democratic society, but the workplaces where we spend maybe half our waking lives are petty dictatorships where the owner rules. Socialism proposes that the facilities, infrastructure and resources of our society should be controlled democratically by the people who work in them and the people who rely on them. Capitalism has unleashed vast potential by creating an industrial civilisation – we say that that potential should be put to use rationally, serving our collective needs.
That vast productive potential, increasing all the time with new technologies, offers the possibility that we could produce and distribute everything we need for everyone to live a decent life, and at the same time dramatically reduce the amount of time anyone need spend on the drudgery of mundane work. What little is necessary should be shared out fairly. Against the grim conformity of the Stalinist parody of socialism, and the crushing toil of exploitative capitalism, we want a society where human beings have the chance, the freedom, to explore their fullest potential as individuals.
Political, personal and social freedoms are posed by capitalism as something distinct from freedom from want. But having these freedoms only as theoretical legal possibilities is worthless for those whose material deprivation stops them exercising them. We say that any society dedicated to freedom must provide people not only with the legal right to live freely, but the realistic material possibility of doing so as well.
But, I’m sure my opponents will say, without the profit motive, why would people work? And if they would work, why would they innovate? I think this tells us more about their small-mindedness than it does about the possibility of socialism.
Take computing. It’s well-known that a great deal of open-source, free software is superior. Windows was created by software engineers going to work every day to make Bill Gates richer. Linux, a better product, was created by many of the same engineers who worked for companies like Microsoft, coming home every day and creating something for the sheer love of the craft, to put something better into the world and know that they had been useful.
In psychology, study after study shows that people produce more creative, better work when materially their needs and met and they are secure and confident about the future, and then they are given the freedom to work together as they see fit. That’s socialism.
At the outset I argued that capitalism is dooming us to environmental destruction, and socialism offers a way out. I’m sure my opponents will retort that democracy is no guarantee of people making the right direction. That’s true. At the end of the day, no system can guarantee that the right decisions will be made.
But socialism is our best hope, our only hope. People freed from the crushing urgency of everyday survival and allowed to raise their eyes further to the future, given collective power over their lives, their communities and their society, and given better access to better education, are clearly more likely to make better decisions for our collective future than atomised business owners motivated only by a frenzy of competition with each other to extract wealth.
It’s become a cliché, perhaps, but what Rosa Luxemburg said has never been truer. If we don't answer the challenges and injustices of today with socialism, what we will get is barbarism.