This is a review of the new book by Workers' Liberty Can socialism make sense?
The last period has been tough for the working class, arduous for the labour movement and a nightmare for socialists. We’ve had decades of accelerated capitalist globalisation, the US hyper-power bestriding the world and the mass belief in markets as the regulator of all social affairs. But the tremendous mystique world capitalism built in the two decades after the collapse of Russian and European Stalinism fractured during the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftershocks.
The need for socialism has never been greater and yet a credible socialism is absent. Where is the compellingly-made case for the democratic control of the economy and society? Authentic socialism is still buried under the ruins of Stalinism, the fraudulent, counterfeit, anti-socialist “socialism” of the 20th century. Socialism is eclipsed, everywhere. This book, Can Socialism Make Sense? edited and introduced by Sean Matgamna for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, is an essential contribution to making the case for twenty-first century working class revolutionary socialism. It sets out some of the most fundamental objections to this conception of socialism and provides evocative answers to those questions.
The introduction is dialogical in form, meaning it is written as an interactive argument between a Marxist (A) and a sceptic (B). Why a dialogue? Because that is how knowledge develops. We ask questions — difficult questions and we seek to answer, as clearly and as coherently as possible, those questions. Five overarching objections are considered in depth, with a host of related arguments discussed: Stalinism, class, democracy, human nature and individualism.
One of the joys of selling socialist newspapers on the streets during the last century was the regular repost from hostile passers-by to “get back to effin Russia”. This equation of the Soviet Russia, the USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe, along with China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea — all Stalinist totalitarian states — has “anthraxed” real socialism. Stalinism, which Trotsky called the “syphilis” and “leprosy” of the labour movement, undermined, sapped, butchered, and discredited the old socialist movement. It turned the Stalinist-controlled part of the labour movement into a confused enemy of liberty, equality, fraternity, and unfettered reason — in short, into an enemy of socialism.
Today socialists must live and do our political work amidst the ideological ruins, the discouragement, the revulsion, and the poisonous ideological vapours that constitute the legacy of Stalinism. Old socialism, pre-Stalinist and anti-Stalinist socialism, has been buried beneath the ruins of the collapsed Stalinist, but self-named socialist, system. The book demarcates authentic socialism from the nightmare of Stalinism, rescuing the authentic democratic collectivist aspirations of the October 1917 Russian revolution from Stalin’s horror that destroyed it a decade later.
The book also tackles arguments around public ownership and planning. The equation of socialism with bureaucratic state ownership, as James Connolly pointed out, would make “the army, the navy, the police, the judges, the gaolers, the informers, and the hangmen, all would all be socialist functionaries”. Ironically, the free market capitalists reached for “bankers’ socialism” during the crash in 2008, nationalising the risks and milking the public finances to keep their ship afloat, only to make workers’ pay to bail out the system.
Socialism is both the ideal of working class self-rule but also a concrete goal that can be understood in terms of the best humanity has developed under capitalism. Socialism is human solidarity raised from a system of working-class bonding in resistance to our exploiters to be the guiding principle of all society. It is the enthronement of unfettered reason armed with enlightenment and democracy in all the social, economic and political affairs of society.
Society will collectively own and democratically control and administer the bulk of productive wealth. Every major industry will be reorganised roughly like the NHS at its ideal best — with full provision for need as its reigning principle. It will be democratically controlled by workers, by consumers, and by the overall community.
The second major objection to socialism resolves around rejecting the centrality of the working class. Far from disappearing, the world’s waged workforce increased from 0.9 billion in 1991 to 1.7 billion in 2014. We say that the proletariat, the wage-labour class of people who, to live, must sell their labour-power, is the bearer of socialism. Why? Because it alone can resolve the contradiction within capitalism between private ownership and socialised production. And how? By establishing collective social control, democratic control, over the production processes that knit together vast social networks. The working class will do that because it needs to free itself from exploitation and social mistreatment and general social mismanagement by the buyers of labour-power. But what about the state of the labour movement?
The long history of the working class, of its defeats, its declines, and its revivals, shows us what will happen in the future, though not of course in exact detail. It is sure and certain that the working class will revive. The working-class socialist movement will revive. Everything in history shows that it will. Why? Because capitalism can live only by exploiting the “labour force”.
The third major objection revolves around democracy. The book dissects the pluto-democracy under capitalism, where tremendous economic powers and social-financial forces dominate the democratic discourse, elections, the shaping of opinion and their capture of legislators. But for Marxian socialists democracy is a central, all-conditioning and all-defining, principle and central value of socialism. We advocate consistent democracy in every avenue of life: democracy as far as possible within the boundaries of capitalism and its states, democracy as the answer to national and other forms of oppression, democracy within the bounds of the labour movement, democracy among the revolutionaries and collective democratic control as the socialist economic alternative.
The book confronts another widely raised objection to socialism, namely human nature. If human beings are just animals — naked apes — then (so the argument goes) you can’t change human nature. Competition, individualism, selfishness, predatoriness — nourishes capitalism.
Socialists do not deny or idealise human nature, or the facts of our biology, nor humanity’s place within the natural environment. But human beings are self-aware, self-controlling, self-shaping, self-reshaping. We can aspire to a society governed by something higher than the dog-eat-dog morality that capitalism teaches.
Human nature is socially malleable and has all sorts of possibilities. The question is what a given society, or a given state, encourages to develop. Capitalist society prizes and rewards those who prey on other people. That is not, or not just, human nature. That is also nurture — what capitalist society makes of a human nature that also has vastly different possibilities which capitalism inhibits and stifles.
To those who believe that wealth and power are the only spurs to action in humankind, socialists answer: what a miserably diminished view you have of human beings! It is a piece of humanity slandering social-Darwinist self-approving bourgeois superstition! Actually much of the history of human ingenuity has been driven by different goals.
But who will do the dirty jobs in socialist society? In reality, most such work can be done now, or soon, by machines and robots. Even the most automated society will never eliminate all the unpleasant jobs. Under socialism such work will be minimised and shared out. And there is a natural-ecological imperative for socialism. The justified, necessary and healthy fear of ecological ruination and social regression as a consequence faces us with stark urgency. There is a serious possibility that capitalism, which first opened up the socialist “option” in history, will close it again by way of doing irreparable damage to the ecological system on which humankind depends.
Opponents of socialism point to the improvements brought by capitalism over may decades and the individual liberties enjoyed by many more people in the modern world. This assumes that the desirable traits are inseparable from capitalism and cannot exist without the present arrangement of society. It assumes that under capitalism the gains will continue indefinitely and go on improving.
Socialists believe that the social and human gains won under capitalism can survive the overthrow of capitalism, and that they can develop much more fully once the limits imposed on them by capitalism and private ownership of the economic bases of society are broken. Marxists base our socialism on certain social and economic achievements of capitalism — in the first place the development of the productive forces to a very high level of productivity. But the fundamental fact of capitalism is that it exploits the workers. Every individual has to work and whether they become a teacher, lecturer, doctor, nurse, charity worker, journalist or other job and whether they find this work fulfilling or not, they will be exploited. It will stifle their individuality and restrict their creativity because the social system acts as a constraint on human flourishing. The book alludes to how this can be reconciled through becoming a socialist, a tribune of the exploited and oppressed, by fighting for what you know is right and necessary.
The liberation of humankind from class society, and of the working class within that society is the greatest cause in the world.
The book is partly made up of debates between Marxists and the opponents of socialism such as Roger Scruton, Kenneth Minogue and David Marsland. This is because, as the philosopher Hegel put it, “Genuine refutation must penetrate the opponent’s stronghold and meet them on their own ground: no advantage is gained by attacking them somewhere else and defeating them where they are not”.
The clash of ideas is how people learn. The cultural on the left is impoverished by the refusal to debate. Developing a political culture that discusses real issues, where socialists fight for clarity, is essential to the renewal of the labour movement.
The book includes a selection of texts from the tradition of classical Marxism (including a text by Rosa Luxemburg) , which lasted for approximately a century from its foundation in the mid-1840s by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels until not long after the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940. Texts written by some of the finest representatives of revolutionary socialism (and a few who later became rogues) such as Luxemburg and also Engels, Paul Lafargue, August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, William Morris, Eugene Debs, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Ernest Belfort Bax and Henry Hyndman. Albert Einstein the great scientist also makes the case for socialism.
The book is entertainingly written. It is coarse and obtuse in places, politically incorrect for some and profoundly jarring for others. But the vocabulary is rich, the metaphors illuminate and the results enlighten, whether you are a jaded ex-radical or a raw newcomer. The book is accessible but also demanding: it requires careful reading and willingness to learn. It breaks down complex arguments but demands the reader make themselves familiar with the rich tapestry of modern history. Can socialism make sense? Not only does socialism make sense — it is an unavoidable imperative. Socialism is necessary for the majority of the world’s population to live well. Socialism is essential for general human flourishing. Socialism is indispensable to preserve the planet we live on. Socialism is required for social and personal liberation. Socialism is necessary for the next stage of human evolution.