New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 153

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Richard Swift
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Richard Swift

Living Socialism

[image, unknown]
Photo: Bob Wales / Camera Press

The ‘crisis of capitalism’ is a familiar portent of doom from those who advocate a socialist alternative. But Richard Swift argues that socialism has nurtured a crisis of its very own – one that has stifled many socialist experiments at birth. A genuine, living form of socialism will have to build on diversity and democracy if it is to survive and prosper.

CAPITALISM makes people socialists. How it happens varies from one person to another. For some it is the experience of standing in line for a job they know does not exist. For others it is the spiritual poverty and powerlessness they feel in a society ruled by money and by those who have it. For still others it is the vision of the grinding poverty of a village in India or Ethiopia or experiencing the decay of an inner city - be it Birmingham or Boston. When human suffering can exist side by side with frivolous displays of wealth something is obviously amiss.

It just as well for the socialist Left that capitalism is so obviously unsatisfactory - for it is certainly not their clear and compelling vision of a future society that keeps people going to all those meetings. Ask a socialist what their ideal future will be like and the response is usually either a rigid formula or a vague ‘we’ll have to wait and see’.

But neither the familiar well-signposted paths nor vague and muddled thinking are adequate responses to the sceptical. The autocratic societies that label themselves socialist do not inspire much confidence that the quality of life will be improved by socialism. The dreary uniformity of ‘actually existing socialism’ may be overplayed by the media: there is no shortage of those who would have us believe that there is no alternative to the existing state of affairs. But the fact remains that state socialism has in many ways narrowed rather than expanded people’s choices - giving them a bit more security but at the expense of political rights. Even those socialist politicians that people do get a chance to elect seem to leave the same string of broken promises as any other politician.

Socialists have talked for decades about the crisis of capitalism. But it is only recently that some socialists have come to recognize that they have a crisis of their very own. The signals have become too plain to ignore. The millions of Polish workers who formed the Solidarity movement made it crystal clear that their interests were very much in opposition to the socialist government that claimed to represent them. And socialist governments in Third World countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania have a very mixed record in trying to overcome the problems of underdevelopment that they have inherited from capitalism. The development solutions they choose - often in the form of megaprojects’ designed to produce foreign exchange - continue to be of the kind imposed by bureaucrats from above. Government payrolls come first. Corruption and the abuse of power can be dressed up in at the expense of political rights. Even those socialist politicians that people do get a chance to elect seem to leave the same string of broken promises as any other politician.

Socialists have talked for decades about the crisis of capitalism. But it is only recently that some socialists have come to recognize that they have a crisis of their very own. The signals have become too plain to ignore. The millions of Polish workers who formed the Solidarity movement made it crystal clear that their interests were very much in opposition to the socialist government that claimed to represent them. And socialist governments in Third World countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania have a very mixed record in trying to overcome the problems of underdevelopment that they have inherited from capitalism. The development solutions they choose - often in the form of megaprojects’ designed to produce foreign exchange - continue to be of the kind imposed by bureaucrats from above. Government payrolls come first. Corruption and the abuse of power can be dressed up in fine socialist phrases. The commitment to meeting people’s basic needs is more often rhetoric than reality.

Even socialism’s commitment to the cause of peace has been tarnished. The Soviet Union is engaged in a massive arms race and is a major supplier of weapons to the military elites of the Third World - a close second to the US. The recent ‘Greenpeace affair’ shows the lengths to which the Mitterand Government in France is willing to go to protect its particular brand of nuclear socialism.

What has caused this crisis in socialism? Why is there such a gap between the high ideals of liberation and the mundane realities of power? It is not surprising that some gap exists. Any philosophy that has to survive in the real world will change in the process. Ideals get modified and some betrayals of principle are to be expected. Christians, for example, do not always practice what they preach - witness the torture chambers of the Spanish inquisition or the militant defense of apartheid by South Africa’s white Dutch Reform Church. But the extent of the gap between socialist principle and practice still cries for further explanation.

Many socialists would have it that it can all be blamed on the capitalists - the CIA. the International Monetary Fund or the corrupting influences of blue-jean culture. There is some truth here. Socialism, whether militant or moderate, is subjected to intense economic and sometimes military, pressure from its opponents. This has a very real impact. Moderate socialist governments tend to water down their socialist reforms in order to get a clean bill of health from the IMF. More militant socialist governments are pushed into adopting a rigid - often militarized - structure of rule in order to resist an external enemy. South African military pressure on the fledgling socialist experiments in Mozambique and Angola is having this effect. And the idea of letting ordinary people run the state, ‘control from below’, is one of the first casualties.

There are also more subtle forms of pressure put on new socialist governments - and often just as effective as the military sledgehammer. The old corporate order lives on in habits and ways of thinking; people are slow to change. Socialist leaders are often heard to complain that the individualistic attitudes of the people are undermining their socialist policies.

Slogans on the wall in Marxist West Bengal are not enough to solve the problem of child poverty.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

But people tend to be more interested in results than in further sacrifices. One suspects that the old arrogance and pomp of power that infect the upper echelons of any government are at least as serious a problem as ‘individualism’ in villages and factories. The ‘cult of the leader’ promoted by some socialist states - in the Third World as well as Eastern Europe - hardly reassures people that the sacrifices they are being asked to make are for themselves and not just for their leaders.

Some socialists will argue that the distrust that people have of government (and vice versa) is just a legacy of the capitalist era. But somehow all this is a little too easy. It lets socialism off the hook without the serious examination that is clearly called for. The same problems have recurred too often for the claims of innocence to carry much weight.

To examine the issues more deeply it is Important to recognise that a socialist state and a socialist society. are not the same thing. People will not ‘own’ socialism unless they feel it in their neighbourhoods and workplaces; unless they are creating it for themselves in ways they see as desirable. And the malaise is not restricted to the one-party states of Eastern Europe. Social-democrat parties in the West have shown the same fatigue and lack of willingness to rethink old ‘welfare-from-above’ formulae. They have, as a result, found themselves on the defensive - and vulnerable to an economic and political conservatism that has been able to tap a popular hostility to government.

So what has gone wrong? Opponents of socialism would have it that the original idea was flawed. This is hard to evaluate as the original idea has never really been tried. The vision of Marx and other socialist thinkers of the 19th century was ofa socialism that would extend the democratic freedoms that working people had already won for themselves. Socialism would go beyond the right to vote and speak your mind - although these rights would certainly be preserved. Socialism would remove the class barriers to democracy - allowing factory workers and waitresses the same say as the highest and mightiest when it came to the economic and political decisions that affected their lives. A redistribution of wealth would be accompanied by a redistribution of power. They never even imagined that socialism could possibly be less democratic than the existing system of privilege.

But doesn’t the bureaucratic muddle that so often tries to pass for socialism prove that this original idea was indeed flawed? There is some truth here. Socialist thinkers of the last century were blinded by their faith in industrial growth and progress. They believed that science through technology would create a world of plenty. A socialist society would magically provide whatever people desired. This would eliminate conflict over scarce resources and provide the basis for perfect harmony between different people and even different regions of the globe.

This pie-in-the-sky approach left socialists with few tools to face the real problems that they would eventually encounter. How do you reconcile the overall planning of an economy with the right of people to have their individual needs satisfied? What are the best political arrangements for giving people as much say as possible over the decisions that a society has to take if it is to work as a social unit? How do you prevent an industrial economy from destroying the natural environment that sustains life and in many ways makes it worthwhile? How do you break down the domination of women by men or of people of colour by white people? How can socialism maintain its ideals in an international climate shaped by those hostile to it?

The stock responses of socialist governments and parties have either been to pretend that such problems do not exist or to claim that there are simple and ‘correct’ solutions that can be imposed from above. But neither response is of much value. Problems which are ignored will always find one way or another to resurface. And attempts to impose solutions from above will only encourage people who do not understand their correctness’ to find ways to resist. The result is a stalemate between a socialist government that is trying to mould society - and a society that resists being moulded.

The political leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern European complain, for example, about low Labour productivity and a lack of industrial discipline. But workers in these countries see no reason to break their backs carrying out decisions over which they have little say in order to earn money that will not buy what they desire. Consumer goods have had a notoriously low priority in the ‘five year plans’ of state socialist governments.

Part of the problem is that socialism has been both too radical and not radical enough. Socialism has been too radical in its easy dismissal of ‘bourgeois democracy’: freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, freedom of political association and the right to contest open elections. Too radical as well in replacing all market mechanisms with a system of highly centralized planning.

But it has not been radical enough when it has simply accepted that the centralized system of production inherited from capitalism could be adapted to a socialist society. Nuclear power stations, assembly-line factories and high-tech weapons systems are not meant to be run democratically; they have hierarchy built right into them and can only be run from the top down.

An economic democracy needs industrial tools that encourage democratic decision-making. This does not mean throwing out all existing technology. It means rather being selective and understanding that technologies are not politically neutral. The French socialist Andre Gorz, for example, makes the case that the micro-computer presents new possibilities for a socialism from below.

‘The establishment of a capillary network of small and medium sized enterprises - production co-operatives, craft co-operatives, under local or regional management - answerable to their own communities and required to adjust output and ways of operating according to the actual choices of local people is helped enormously by micro-electronics, which makes small units competitive with big companies’

Another area in which socialism has not been radical enough is in its thinking about the quality of everyday life. Socialists, preoccupied with controlling the power of government, have been too quick to accept conventional thinking on a number of important issues. The family, sexuality, how the space in cities should be organized, the best kind of education system to have - all are questions which allow scope for innovation and creativity. Instead there has been a drift in socialism towards uniformity: a failure of the imagination. It is little wonder that many think of socialism as just more of the same.

But the real achille’s heel of socialism has been the issue of democracy and the role of the state. Social democrats and marxist-leninists alike rely heavily on government as the agent of change - a reliance that has proved expensive as well as unpopular. And it has handed opponents of socialism a powerful weapon: the identification of socialism with a lack of freedom.

Most people today see socialism as the system that the Bolsheviks created in the Soviet Union. The world’s two great propaganda machines - based in Washington and Moscow - agree on this one crucial point if on few others. Washington, for its part then tries to undermine socialism wherever it appears - Grenada, Chile and Nicaragua. And Moscow insists on moulding socialism in its own top-heavy image - Hungary. Czechoslovakia and Ethiopia. The din of the Cold War between these two dragons is so great that it is almost impossible to hear the voices of alternative kinds of socialism. But the voices are there for those who care to listen.

Any alternative socialism - an alternative to the ‘statism’ of orthodox communism and social democracy - must be open to innovation and new ways of thinking about power. Instead of clinging to a sacred doctrine of fixed principles a living socialism would try to avoid the mistakes of the past and be willing to take up new challenges - particularly those coming from feminism and the environmental movement.

If men cannot treat women (and people treat people) with decency and respect, the chances of an non-exploitative society are not very good. If economic life cannot be organized to work with nature - rather than dominate and pollute it - there is little hope of eliminating relationships of domination between people. Both feminists and environmentalists claim that centralized power and hierarchy are incompatible with the social changes they want to see. If socialism is to meet these challenges it must return democracy to its original place at the centre of socialist politics. Socialism must try and extend the limited democracy we already have so that it means more, rather than fewer. choices. A socialist society must tolerate and encourage different living arrangements. work situations and cultural styles. It must stand for diversity rather than uniformity; for self-government and self-determination rather than control from above.

There are some positive signs that this is happening. A democratic opposition in Eastern Europe - most recently in the form of Poland’s Solidarity movement - is bravely proposing an alternative to the socialism of the state. Many Communist parties, both inside and outside Europe, are rethinking their blind loyalty to the Soviet Union and recasting their socialism to one more in tune with a democratic culture.

In the Third World some socialist governments are experimenting with new modes of decentralized participation whether it be localized planning in Mozambique or the community health movement in Nicaragua. And in Europe and North America the Green movement is engaging socialists in a challenging dialogue on an industrial system that many see as out of control.

Most impressive of all perhaps is the ferment of ideas and movements in many countries at the grassroots of society. Self-help groups, the movements for wholesome food and preventive health care, the advocates of community control and self-management, the groups against racism and sexism, the housing initiatives from both tenants and co-operatives and the growing peace movements - all are trying to expand control from below and improve the quality of life. This is the potential raw material of a living socialism - a socialism that people ‘own’ themselves.

The odds are long. But any crisis - and the crisis of socialism is no different - should be a source of fresh thinking and the beginning of renewal.


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