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The Prospects for Socialism Today

Writing in the Herald Sun, Chris Collins (11/1/19) argues that the Nordic countries have never been “socialist” because they have not conformed to the original Marxist definition of the centralisation of the means of production in state hands. In reality, though, there were always a variety of definitions, and even Marxists themselves have revised their understandings.

Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system ; and reducing inequalities to a fair level. In Marx’s words, to advance the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need’. That should include a strong welfare state and social wage ; involving not only natural public monopolies and strategic state ownership ; but also producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, democratic funds, and a mix of competition, markets and planning.

Socialism also means building an economy focused on ‘use values’. (ie: not just maximising abstract exchange value ; eg: preserving the natural environment). But we’re in a global economy: which means we have to live with the transnational corporations. They are at best ‘a mixed blessing’: at times spurring innovations and job creation ; but also unacceptable inequalities in wealth and power ; as well as collusion, monopolism, planned obsolescence and so on. But also arguably the consequence of bourgeois dominance is that we live in a ‘One Dimensional Society’ where substantially different social alternatives are excluded from mainstream discussion. What’s needed is robust pluralism : where socialism is part of the debate ; and hence a genuine option in the broader context of democracy.

In response to writers who attempt to put Swedish Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in opposition to one another: for key Swedish thinkers and politicians such as Wigforss, Palme, Rehn, Meidner etc the Nordic Model was definitely a kind of socialism. The ‘high water mark’ was with the Meidner Wage Earner Funds proposals of the 70s and 80s. That marked the end of a ‘corporatist consensus’ (institutionalised consultation and co-operation) which developed over several decades starting from the 1930s. The model has been in slow retreat since. But its past successes over many decades still give a sense of what is possible.

Importantly, the wage earner funds were to be structured in such a way as to compensate workers for prior wage restraint. But the extent of that wage restraint had been such that the funds would eventually deliver economic control to workers over many years. One of the biggest problems with the funds is that they focused on workers alone rather than the broader category of ‘citizens’. (Hence excluding pensioners for instance). In 1983 Australian Leftists like Laurie Carmichael wanted ‘Nordic Style’ policies in return for wage restraint under the Government of Bob Hawke and ‘The Accord’. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort was actually delivered.

That said : what kind of state is in a position to deliver on socialism?

Leninists are inclined to oppose the ‘liberal bourgeois state’ to the kind of state which existed under the Bolsheviks. A ‘workers’ state’. Trotskyists would argue it had become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ under the domination of Stalin.

On the other hand, by certain interpretations a genuine workers’ state is a democratic state ; where we can interpret ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a ‘manner of applying democracy’ ; the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the working class majority. (Widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin). The ultimate aim is to create a ‘pure democracy’ where the state represents all people; and the class system is permanently transcended. Finally, the State itself is presumed by Marxists to ‘wither away’ with the end of all class divisions and antagonisms. One flaw of this thinking, however, is the presumption that over the long run ‘only class antagonisms matter’ to such a degree that some kind of state power is necessary either as arbiter; or to enforce interests.

Arguably Sweden enjoyed a decades-long ‘equilibrium in the class struggle’ or otherwise what Korpi called a ‘democratic class struggle’. Where the class struggle was in some ways ‘institutionalised’ between social democrats, unions, employers. Concessions were made based on ‘the balance of class forces’ ; but open escalation of conflict was avoided as being in no-one’s interest. Then in the 1970s and 80s the Social Democrats and the LO (‘Landsorganisationen’ ; or Swedish Trade Union Confederation) attempted to assert their democratic leverage to achieve previously unheard of economic redistribution and democratisation. Again: even with over 80% unionisation coverage they still failed. And Social Democracy has been on the defensive there largely ever since. If anything, this gives an idea just how difficult the struggle can be.

What we need is a democratic state which is not a medium for direct OR indirect bourgeois rule. Nicos Poulanztas wrote about a ‘logic of the class struggle’ which ‘imprinted itself upon the state field’. I’m not a structuralist (as Poulantzas was); but in a way that makes sense. The state tends to defend bourgeois interests; but not totally. It is not a ‘simple instrument’. It is much more complex than that. Rather, it has its own internal contradictions and internal struggles. What we need is a state which is fully committed to the implications of democracy: as opposed to the direct or indirect rule of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that capitalism is supported by a clear majority of states; as well as by the transnationals which are an expression of and foundation for global bourgeois dominance. Even assuming a state which breaks POLITICAL bourgeois dominance at a local level; there are still the remainder of bourgeois states internationally; and global bourgeois economic power; and economic co-dependence.

Think about revolutionary France. The Revolution was diverted into Bonapartism. (The rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon I). And eventually with the Congress of Vienna there was total Restoration of the “Ancien Regime” in France, and the consolidation of monarchies and their traditional bloodlines elsewhere in Europe. Liberal Democracy did not really take hold through much of the world until the Bolsheviks put much of the European bourgeoisie under such pressure as to implement the crucial concession of universal suffrage. This had long been a key Social Democratic and Marxist demand. We’re talking about a period spanning over 100 years. (Throughout which we had other revolutions and struggles ; eg: 1830, 1848, 1871). Thereafter the bourgeoisie and its representatives have spent another 100-odd years thinking of ways to divide the working class against itself to prevent it from realising the potential of the suffrage. The splintering of the working class culturally and economically has made it increasingly hard to realise the solidarity we need to bring about the change we want. Narratives on ‘political correctness’ and ‘left elites’ have just this effect ; and sometimes by neglecting class interests we play into the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Critics of socialism often declare that they don’t want ‘statism’ or state domination. And this they associate with socialism. Well, no – we don’t want Stalinist-style ‘statism’. (Though I hate the term ‘statism’ as it is commonly used to stigmatise any place for the state ; even a democratic state). But ‘wresting capital by degrees’ from the bourgeoisie still sounds like a good idea – if done properly – and if only it were possible. The problems of exploitation and economic polarisation still demand our attention as practical and moral questions. And after all, radical redistribution of wealth is what the Swedes were attempting with the Meidner wage earner funds in the 1970s and 1980s.

Arguably the Mixed Economy represents progress towards that goal. Though the ‘mixed economy’, social wage and welfare state can be supported by far more ‘moderate’ forces who want nothing more over the long term than to ameliorate inequality and ‘save capitalism from itself’.

“Wresting capital by degrees” from the bourgeoisie can imaginably involve a mix of public, co-operative and other democratic ownership – as opposed to ‘Stalinist Statism’. But the process cannot be finished because bourgeois interests reinforce each other globally. Currently, there is no (acceptable) ‘way out’ of capitalism. But if we mobilise we can at least force compromises which are in workers’ and citizens’ interests. And we can convince the bourgeoisie that compromise is sometimes in its own interests. (Again; ‘saving capitalism from itself’). For example: natural public monopolies can reduce cost structures not just for citizens/consumers/workers – but also for business. And a state-owned savings and loans bank (with a charter promoting competition and ethical banking) could inject competition into the sector of benefit both to business, and to most ordinary people.

Importantly – forcing compromise through struggle is in some ways more involved than just ‘gaming the system’. Over the long term who knows what’s possible? Again: think about Revolutionary France – and the hegemony of liberal democracies which only finally arose more than 100 years later. We can only hope it will not take a catastrophe such as the First World War was to provide enough impetus to drive qualitative change; to challenge the class system and the ‘defacto rule’ of Capital.

If anything the Global Financial Crisis gave a sense of capitalism’s enduring instability; and that (should another crisis occur) radical interventions may be necessary ‘to save the system from itself’. But public dissatisfaction with “bailouts at the peoples’ expense” may drive strategic socialisations sooner than we think.

Socialism is not ‘inevitable’ as the old Marxist Centrists used to insist. We cannot anticipate all the policy innovations which may help ‘save the system from itself’. But over the long term a more generalised breakdown cannot be ruled out either. Socialists need to stand prepared for all manner of contingencies. Global organisation and dialogue are necessary to best prepare for those contingencies. That means not responding to discourse on ‘globalisation’ as an excuse for defeatism. It means working out the possibilities of domestic social democracy/democratic socialism; but also building the organisation and dialogue necessary to give rise to internationalist responses. The current Socialist International is not an effective vehicle for this. Can it be reformed? Or do we need new forms of international organisation and dialogue?

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.


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  1. Christopher J Ward

    I thoroughly enjoyed and agreed with most of what was written in this article. I regard myself as basically a social Democrat but I think your argument is quite valid except when we get to the notion of class. Today, class distinctions are somewhat blurred at the edges but the basic divide is between those who have money and power and those who have been immiserated by the system. The atomisation of our society is such that mobilisation for a common good lies beyond the labours of Hercules. Technology has become useful for shackling people and dumbing them down, as recent social research has demonstrated. In addition, the mobilisation it affords to disparate points of view means that it relies too much on unsustainable emotion and fewer facts.

    There are other factors to consider and I am not in any mood to engage in debate as politics today are more toxic than I can remember and that goes back a long while! Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not working class: they were of the bourgeoisie and soon became heavily reliant on repressive measures and the secret police. The Tsar’s Okhrana soon became the Cheka and ultimately the KGB. I suggest that was a complete betrayal of the people when combined with famine and a distinct lack of political discourse outside the so-called dialectic. Most so-called socialists simply refuse to acknowledge just how many lives were taken by tyrannical “socialist” governments from 1917 for at least 70 painful years. Therefore the argument that socialism doesn’t work because it’s never really been tried rings hollow.

    I’m of the firm belief that a considerable number of industries and services should be in government hands, whether dictated by social necessity or national security and there is the rub – who decides and on what basis. As someone who has served this country, the fact that we don’t have a strategic reserve of resources and continue to exploit the good the bad and the filthy while congratulating ourselves on saving the planet is abhorrent. Unfortunately, we cannot uncouple Australia from world politics and while I find globalisation to be anathema, we are stuck with the system until it fails completely and the cost will be very high. On a sombre note I conclude with someone whose disenchantment became profound:

    After the uprising of the 17th June
    The Secretary of the Writers Union
    Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
    Stating that the people
    Had forfeited the confidence of the government
    And could win it back only
    By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

    Bertolt Brecht

  2. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Thanks Chris ; the problem was that Stalinism itself became a ‘globally reinforcing system’ ; and movements wanting the USSR’s support adopted the ‘Stalinist model’. The Swedes show a different socialism is possible ; but also movements like the POUM in Spain which Orwell became involved with. Remember that democracy collapsed several times in France as well – giving way to Empires and the Vichy regime before finally settling with the present Republic. Much of Marxist analysis still makes sense. We can maintain that without swallowing Leninism hook, line and sinker. The problem is that revolutions tend to unleash or attract dynamics which lead to their own devolution. Foreign intervention and destabilisation leads to greater centralisation and Terror ; Terror and centralisation undermine revolutions from within ; on numerous occasions we’ve ended up with Stalinist regimes. Similar dynamics were unleashed in Revolutionary France. But remember Marxist critics such as Kautsky, Martov, Lxuemburg. And socialism was never an ‘exclusively Marxist’ movement either. Consider Jaures, Rosselli etc as well.

    The movement given rise to during Bernie Sanders’ election campaign shows that social media has significant potential as well.

  3. Josephus

    In one respect it is a pity that Marxism, and later the USSR and its satellites, collapsed, as fear of their influence globally had forced some measure of social equity in emulation of the few socially progressive aspects of the Peoples’ Democracies,eg free education and health care. Before that era Bismarck had realised the world’s first social security system , in Germany. Post 1990 the privatisation scourge has destroyed much of our education, health care, aged care, while self- serving the Banks far outnumber cooperatives. Perhaps we need another nemesis!

    ‘What is robbing a bank compared to founding one’, yet centuries ago honest, decent and usually religious men founded banks without cheating or levying huge profits, and were trusted by Courts.

  4. Shaun Newman

    Well said Dr Ewins, I regard myself as a Democratic Socialist one need only compare the taxation regimes in the Nordic countries to the Australian model of basically unregulated capitalism to see that the Nordic model is much better for ‘people’ and much worse of ‘corporations.’

  5. Dr Tristan Ewins

    The collapse of the USSR also saw the Soviet people robbed of the industries they had built up through their labours alone over decades. Gorbachev was trying to take the USSR in the right direction. Unfortunately decades of repression meant there was no-one left to defend the positive aspects of the system when Yeltsin took over. Or at least: there was no social base for a popular movement towards that end.

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