By Colin Foster
Socialism means democratic control by the producers — the workers — over what is produced and distributed.
That’s how it will end poverty, class inequality, exploitation, boom-slump cycles and the trashing of the environment. That is how it will ensure good social provision for all, in place of the chaos and inhumanity of the free market.
To make planning democratic, the process will have to be quite complicated. People in particular industries and localities will have to discuss and draw up proposals for planning targets. A balance will have to be found between local, national and international decisions.
Won’t this make life an endless round of meetings? Won’t it lead to decisions being dominated by the minority who can be bothered to sit through all those meetings? Even if that minority are to begin with only the most active and dedicated people, won’t they in time become a bureaucracy with vested interests?
This is a real danger. But a lot can be done to avoid it.
Meetings can be held in work time to maximise attendance. Each workplace group will be able to elect its own delegate, mandate him or her, get regular reports, and replace its delegate whenever it wishes. Socialist democracy will thus mean much more real control than any democratic procedure in society today.
All elections to administrative and managerial positions will be for fixed, short periods. Rotation of responsibilities will cut against vested interests. Administrators and managers will be paid at workers’ wages, so that they do not have privileges to defend.
Three things are necessary for this sort of democracy to work:
* that everyone has a decent standard of living, so that they are not preoccupied by the struggle to survive or the struggle to get a better job;
* that the working week is short enough for every worker to have time and energy to take part in the democratic debates;
* and that everyone has a high basic level of education.
Without these things, as Marx once put it, “all the old crap” will indeed revive. But those things are possible. Capitalism has generated the technology and the productive capacity that make them possible.
Making sure that democracy operates is one thing. But once the whip of wage-labour is taken away, how do we make sure the necessary drudgery is done?
Socialism will not be able to take away the whip of wage-labour straightaway. At first, wages will be made more equal, but there will still be wages. People will have to work for the same reason that they have to work today: that they won’t have enough to live on if they don’t.
The difference will be that everyone will have the right to a decent job, and that workers will have real control over their conditions of work and what they produce. But there will still be drudgery, and it will still have to be done.
Over time, socialism will whittle away wage-labour. More and more goods — food, transport, housing, education, entertainment, clothing — will be distributed free (“to each according to their need”) so that people do not need to rely on wages to buy them.
Meanwhile, people will become more and more aware that their work is to serve the common good.
Most people will want to contribute to the common good, and the pressure of majority opinion will be enough to push along any minority that doesn’t.
The development of science and technology will allow us to reduce drudgery to a basic minimum, shared out equally; and creative work, over and above that drudgery, will become something people want to do, not sharply separated from “leisure”.
Does that seem utopian? Remember that the 19th century socialist Blanqui was confronted with the objection “Under socialism, who will empty the chamber pots?” (which, he retorted, just meant “who will empty my chamber pot?”). One of the less spectacular achievements of technology, the flush toilet, has made the objection obsolete; and not even the most sceptical can think it is utopian to think that everyone will clean their own toilet in the future!
Won’t all the meetings and debates make for inefficiency? And isn’t a modern economy too complex to plan? Won’t we end up like the Soviet Union, with shops full of large metal buckets, but empty of toothbrushes?
Not everything will be done by meetings! There will be managers and administrators, and they will take decisions. But they will be elected and accountable, and they will not be a fixed class of people separate from everyone else.
Certainly at first large areas will have to be left to the market economy and the balance of supply and demand. Many smaller enterprises will remain in private ownership.
We will win fuller social control over what we produce as we become more cooperatively minded, more educated, more skilled. But even in the earliest stages we could avoid the monstrosities of the Soviet Union.
What stopped toothbrushes being produced in the Soviet Union to meet a need that everyone knew about was a huge hierarchy of bureaucrats, each passing the buck, blocking change, and looking after their own section interest. In a workers’ democracy, production would be quickly adjusted to meet the need, and any manager who was obstructive would be out of his or her job.
But there’s a lot that’s not worked out about this idea of socialism.
It is true that no perfect model of the future socialist society exists. The main “models” — those countries that claim to be socialist — are not socialist at all.
But society has progressed before without anyone have a blueprint! Capitalism is undoubtedly an advance over feudalism; but no one in feudal society had even a vague idea of how capitalism would work.
We do have general principles about how socialism would work, and soundly-based theories about why the modern working class is the class that — for the first time in history — can make socialism. And general principles are all that is possible in the nature of the case.
If socialism is to liberate the working class, then it will liberate creativity that we cannot possibly predict in advance.
For socialism will not just change society. It will change people.
We can see a small beginning of that change in the transformations that big class struggles — like the miners’ strike of 1984–5, or the French general strike of 1968 — make in people’s minds. Socialism will be a much bigger and more permanent change in the way people live, and so it will make bigger transformations.
Socialism will be the basis for a revolution in human nature: we will remove the fear of being done down by our fellow-beings which affects even the most prosperous workers today.
That is socialism, in short: the liberation of humanity from poverty, insecurity, wage-slavery and state tyranny; the achievement of conscious control over our destiny.