New Internationalist

Stumbling Blocks

Issue 153

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SOCIALISM | Socialist path

Stumbling blocks
Anyone who tries to follow a socialist path today will find their way
blocked by some pretty hefty obstacles left behind by socialists who have
travelled before them. Here are some of the more substantial ones.

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[image, unknown] Perplexing Planning [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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[image, unknown] Gross growth [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] Control from above [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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[image, unknown] Bloated bureaucracy [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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[image, unknown] Solid science [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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[image, unknown] Military might [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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[image, unknown] Cultural conservatism [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] Numbering jargon [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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Illustration: Clive Offley

Go to the top Control from above
Socialism is supposed to involve control of society by the workers who produce its wealth - people like you. Yet in most socialist societies the workers are actually represented by the party, which is controlled by a small central committee, which in turn is run by an even more select political bureau, the ‘politbureau’. This finishes up controlling everything from bread production to personal thought.

Many present-day socialists have discarded this old model in favour of a more democratic approach. They propose control from below, with a decentralized approach which builds in checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power.


Go to the top Solid Science
The idea that socialism is an exact science has led many socialists to believe that one they have discovered the ‘correct line’ they cannot go wrong. But such blinkered thinking obscures the truth and limits the chances of overcoming real difficulties. If some views are correct (usually your own) and others incorrect (usually other peoples’) there is little room for the mutual respect and open debate needed to discover what is best for everyone.


Go to the top Cultural conservatism
Many socialist leaders, for all their revolutionary fervour, are distrustful of new ideas - from rock music to abstract painting. They can also be hostile to new ways of thinking about social issues such as the environment, education or the relationship between men and women. As a result ordinary people in countries like Czechoslovakia and East Germany often see their own cultural traditions as stodgy, and look to mass-produced US-style culture as the wave of the future.

Socialists have an understandable suspicion of economic competition but should have sufficient confidence in their ideas to expose them to the ideological marketplace.


Go to the top Numbing jargon
Some socialists seem incapable of communicating with the workers whose cause they espouse. Phrases like the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or the ‘labour theory of value’ may mean something to those in the know but are likely to turn everyone else off - either frightening them or boring them rigid. If an advocate can’t translate such terms into everyday English then the chances are that he or she doesn’t really understand them themselves.


Go to the top Gross growth
Many socialist countries do try to imitate capitalism in the mania for growth - massive factories and large-scale projects and the copying of Western nuclear and military technology all contribute to a ‘big is beautiful’ philosophy. Not surprisingly they are plagued by many of the same problems as capitalism - pollution, alienation and exploitation - and the original vision of an egalitarian society is trampled in the rush to increase the Gross National Product.


Go to the top Perplexing planning
The irrationalities of the capitalist marketplace produce a stock response amongst many socialists - central planning of production of 12 different brands of deodorant. But to plan in detail for a complex industrial society, or even a peasant-based agricultural one, has proved an impossible task and resulted in shortages, shoddy goods, and countless economic bottlenecks. Many socialist countries are now adapting to a system which includes small-scale free enterprise and a feedback from consumers about what they actually need - even if it’s six type of deodorant.


Go to the top Bloated bureaucracy
Socialists have more faith in government than in market forces. But his has blinded them to some of the weaknesses of government - and created vast armies of bureaucrats and clumsy systems of administration. Some socialist governments have recognised the limitations of government. Nicaragua, for example, encourages local communities to organize their own health services and Yugoslavia has a fairly well-established system of worker self-management.


Go to the top Military might
Socialism and peace are supposed to go hand in hand. But socialist governments have a far from unblemished record when it comes to military adventures. The Soviet Union is a major arms exporter and as active participant in the arms race and has a grim history of ‘interventions’ in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Socialist governments in Asia - Vietnam, China and Kampuchea - have even been fighting amongst each other. Today’s socialists, and particularly those influenced by feminism, are increasingly critical of military solutions, no matter whose finger is on the trigger.


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