issue 156 | February 1986
It's refreshing to actually see the word 'socialism' in the NI (NI 153) and to read such a thoughtful analysis of the subject. If anything, Richard Swift's 'Living socialism' article put to rest once and for all those half-baked charges that the NI has a pro-Soviet bias.
There is a socialist bias in the magazine but it's not a doctrinaire one. The U.S.S.R. and its satellites deserve harsh criticism for their anti-democratic perversion of the socialist vision. They would do well to remember a famous quote from libertarian-socialist Emma Goldman, a quote which somehow you missed in your magazine: 'If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution'.
While I recognise that it is not easy to explain complicated political theories in clear terms, I think you have done Trotsky an injustice (NI 153). His theory of 'permanent revolution' consisted of two fundamental ideas. Firstly, that in a pre-industrial society such as Russia early this century, the bourgeoisie (the peasantry and the middle class) alone was incapable of overthrowing Tsarism and establishing the sort of 'democratic' systems that already existed in Britain and the United States. Without the support and leadership of the urban industrial working class (the proletariat) they could do nothing. But the prominence of the proletariat in this 'democratic revolution' meant that change would not stop with the downfall of the Tsarist state. The workers would inevitably move onwards towards socialism, attacking private property and the other institutions of bourgeois democracy. To use Trotsky's own words: 'the democratic revolution goes over immediately into the socialist and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.'
The second element in the theory - which distinguishes it so sharply from the Stalinist policy of building 'socialism in one country' - was that a socialist revolution begun in pre-industrial Russia could not survive unless it sparked off similar revolutions in the more highly industrialised countries of Western Europe.
Freedom for all
Does Richard Swift really believe (NI 153) that socialists have 'no clear or compelling vision of the future'? Can he not see, for example, the link between health care for all and socialism? You seem to think that by finding a gap between the ideals of socialism and the reality there is no need for further discussion - but the fact is that we should be looking for systems with a better record than ours and not seeking perfection. Clearly, we can't all be free, we can't all be powerful and we can't all do what we would like to do.
In any system some people suffer - it might be the blacks in inner cities in the West or it might be intellectuals in Russia. It comes down to whom you support. As journalists your freedom would be restricted in Russia so you might naturally be prejudiced against its system, but then the victims of capitalism in Birmingham's Handsworth district would no doubt deny the benefits of our 'free society'.
Jackie and John Gunton
Back in the U.S.S.R
In the leading article on socialism (NI 153) you claim that the socialist movement needs more groups like Solidarity, and later you refer to Amnesty's complaints about lack of human rights in the Soviet Union.
But this is only one side of the coin: Solidarity was supported by the Western bourgeois press as part of their anti-Soviet line. And Amnesty's allegations are based on a view that individual freedoms are more important than things which benefit many people, like schools, food, health and jobs. In the U.S.S.R. individual freedoms are not allowed to be detrimental to the public good.
Why does a reputable publication like yours, in common with the rest of the national media, persistently refer to communists as 'Marxist'? (NI 153). To be accorded such a compliment is an insult to that much maligned gentleman in Highgate cemetery who must be turning in his grave. As I understand it, the communism as practised in the U.S.S.R and its satellites is as far removed from true Marxism as is the North Pole from the South Pole.
Nazis, Pol Pot and the Dergue of Ethiopia
I usually find the NI informative and well-written but as a socialist I thought the NI 153 was superficial. For instance, Marx - whose thoughts are claimed to influence governments which control perhaps half the world's population - is summarised in three lines.
The lack of explanation of the term 'socialism' creates confusion - after all it covers the spectrum from Social Democrats to Revolutionary Socialists. It is also used by governments to describe themselves and thereby to make even repressive regimes (eg National Socialism) more acceptable at home or abroad. Hitler's Nazis join the likes of Pol Pot, the Dergue and the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Eastern bloc in sullying the good name of 'socialism'.
Here's what I mean by confusion: Anthony Barnett talking about 'socialism' of Czechoslovakia in 1968 being suppressed by 'Soviet socialism'. I rest my case ... but look forward to the next issue of NI.
'Socialism' (NI 153) should mean social ownership and control of the means of life; production directly for need; equality of access, and co-operation.
These four principles imply the negation of the following features: commodity production for marketing; a wages system; minority control and ownership; commerce; the state; all institutions based on monetary exchange, and competition.
Any society having the above features can only be a species of capitalism. But every country in the world now has these features, the only differences between them being those of the degree of state control in the economy and culture. So to call certain countries and political movements 'socialist' is to abuse the word and to give critics copious material for attacking what is really capitalism.
While I agree that most people would probably embrace at least one of the varieties of 'socialism' mentioned in your November issue, I was disappointed that no reference was made to the idea of a socialist society in which neither the market nor the state would exist: a moneyless, wageless, classless world community in which people would contribute entirely voluntarily to the production of wealth and would freely take from the common store according to their self-determined needs.
Peter Donaldson accuses those who he says are 'unable to distinguish between the great potential benefits of the market as an instrument from the distorted way it works under capitalism' of a 'failure of imagination'. Yet it is a failure on his part that he should narrow down the political options to a sterile choice between state capitalist central planning, laissez faire market capitalism or some combination of the two. And it is a failure of imagination that he cannot see how in a society without a market or a state, 'individual initiative' can be truly freed in a way that not possible under the prevailing system of world capitalism.
I don't know when Anton Gratz was last in Budapest (NI 153) but I was there recently and the picture painted in 'Cafe society' bears little relationship to what I saw and heard. Gratz's account tells the Western readers what they expect to hear about Eastern Europe: of shortages, cynicism, people joining the party to gain promotion and of course everyone terrified of speaking openly and being overheard.
I met Hungarian writers, students, academics, doctors and teachers - not a complete cross-section, I know, but good enough for me to gain some distinct impressions.
First, there are no shortages of consumer goods - the idea of somebody carrying a bag full of detergent because it was in short supply is ludicrous. Secondly, people do not feel afraid to speak out in criticism of the government or to discuss critically the problems found in the socialist system. The universities are open to all Western schools of thought and literature, and debate is open and well-informed. Thirdly, there are problems with the system: with the health service, with a housing shortage, with rigidity in the political structure and the economy is stagnating. But what struck me is the openness with which these and other problems are being confronted and researched.
Dr Laurence Ray
Brave new seeds
Chris Brazier's point on the role of agricultural research in helping to solve the world food problem (NI 151) needs updating. The 'high-yield strains of rice developed in laboratories' referred to were the result of screening large numbers of rice lines in the field in South East Asia 10-15 years ago. Although initially the best types were highly nutrient-demanding and therefore unsuitable for poor farmers, this type of research has been adapted and expanded into a world-wide network which breeds and screens crops for tolerance to disease and adverse soil conditions in the poorest areas. Work with beans, cassava, legumes and sorghum has shown that sophisticated genetic engineering is not necessary - tolerant crops able to yield well in farmers' fields already exist or can be bred and selected by simple screening techniques, if the screening is carried out under conditions representing those in real life.
This approach holds promise for increasing food production and self-sufficiency in marginal areas.