Can socialism be revived? Does it have a chance to gain some traction ever again?
Unfortunately, the two great experiments in socialism attempted during the last century – social democracy and the Stalinist model of state-controlled socialism – are now spent forces. In respect to sweeping capitalism into the dustbin of history, they both failed. And socialism as an ideological, political and economic system is experiencing its lowest public support in 100 years. It just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda much of anywhere these days.
Which could lead you to draw one of three conclusions: 1) Working people are not interested in socialism and never will be: they accept their lot and simply aren’t keen about engaging in class struggle against the corporate elites 2) Working people might be interested in socialism but have little hope of overcoming the hurdles to achieve sufficient unity required to seeing it achieved; or 3) Having learned from the mistakes of the 20th century’s attempts at creating socialism, the idea needs to be reconceived to better meet today’s realities and address working people’s concerns.
I firmly think we can learn from the mistakes of the past and develop an approach to achieving socialism that working people will actually embrace.
And I believe how we approach economics will be the key to its success.
In many respects, the socialism that emerged in the 20th century arose directly from the birth of industrialization. As societies moved from agrarian economies to industrial economies, an industrial working class was born in the new age of assembly-line mass production. Large factories with large workforces, who initially earned abysmal wages and worked and lived in abysmal conditions, became the norm.
In the U.S., the Gilded Age (1869-1896) was marked by the trauma of industrialization, brutal strikes and skirmishes between workers and strikebreakers, the creation of immense monopolies and the emergence of a class of staggeringly wealthy capitalists and bankers. Frederick Taylor and his efficiency theories further transformed workers into mere extensions of their machines, alienating and radicalizing them even more. Economic and banking crises roiled the landscape (little seems to have changed).
Out of such inequity, inhumanity and injustice, socialism emerged as a popular notion. Especially as workers fought to organize themselves into unions and support political parties that furthered their aims.
But I would contend the two main manifestations of socialism that put down the strongest roots – social democracy and the Soviet model of state-controlled socialism – were both fatally flawed. And they were both flawed for pretty much the same reasons.
In short, neither model actually turned control of economies and workplaces over to workers. Which is what socialism is supposed to be all about, right?
If you look at what happened after the Bolsheviks swept to power in 1917 in Russia, Lenin and his followers couldn’t disenfranchise the working class and peasantry fast enough. The worker-supported and democratic soviets that had sprung up during the revolution were shut down, as was the Russian Constituent Assembly, while other leftist parties and media were banned or murdered off. Secret police, terror and the gulags created a society imbued with fear and submission.
The Bolsheviks embraced industrialization and, on the backs of Russia’s working population, created heavy industry and an industrial working class. But the entire economy and political system was controlled by a vicious (especially during Stalin’s long bloody reign) and tightly centralized nomenklatura. Loyalty to the party took paramount to everything else. Cults of personality emerged.
And despite having a planned economy, which did produce clear and significant benefits, it was an economy planned by a party elite that never acknowledged mistakes or were rarely held accountable for their often enormous blunders. By the mid-‘70s, this undemocratic approach to economics was leading to a declining standard of living. By the time the cynical nomenklatura sold out and embraced capitalism (catastrophically so) in the early ‘90s , the working class was not exactly clamoring to keep the Soviet version of socialism alive. And why would they?
In respect to social democratic parties, they garnered much of their support and funding from labor movements. But these parties and unions made, in effect, Faustian pacts with corporations and the capitalist elites. They would not strive to wrest control of the economy from the business classes and turn factories over to workers to own and manage. Instead, in return for concessions like social programs and favourable labour laws, automatic dues check off, arbitration and collective agreements, social democratic parties and unions focused their energies primarily on raising living standards among workers. Which is not an insignificant goal by any means.
However, this focus led to the de-radicalization of working class movements. Now class conflict was funneled through the grievance process and agencies such as labor boards instead of on the shopfloor.
Moreover, as a direct result of anti-communism during the Cold War, unions adopted the “motor league” model of trade unionism. This model was based not on encouraging militancy among workers so they could take direct control of workplaces, but on unions servicing their memberships if issues arose. Workers became consumers of union services, in other words. And workers would evaluate unions based on how well they were serviced by staff.
Yet this created a gulf between unions and workers. No longer were problems on the shopfloor channeled through direct action such as wildcat strikes or interfering with production, but are processed through the often lengthy, expensive and invariably unsatisfactory process of filing grievances.
Ironically, even collective agreements serve to help corporations. They ensure labor peace on the shopfloor for long stretches of time.
Politically, the labor movement encouraged their members to vote for social democratic parties. But this turned social democratic party into election machines that would only get active during election cycles.
For workers, the upshot was that they still have no more real control over their workplaces, and their control of the economy in general was weak if not nonexistent, predicated on a social democratic party (if they are in power) being willing or able to challenge the business elites. Which, as I mentioned in earlier postings, they’ve become reluctant to do in recent decades.
The upshot is that under both the Soviet economic model and social democracy, workers were disenfranchised. In neither model did they actually control their workplaces and the economies of their countries.
Any new model of socialism would therefore have to have address these issues and contain as its founding principle a true practice of democracy. Not just elections. But real democratic control over workplaces and the economy. If I work for a company, I want to own a share in it, decide what it produces and how the profits are distributed, and determine who my bosses are and what they do with the enterprise and how much money they make. And I want a political apparatus that ensures control over the economy by working people.
Finally, any model of socialism, needs to address and re-evaluate the role of markets. The Soviets, for example, were religious in seeing markets as evil. And it’s true that unregulated markets have been the cause of destructive booms and busts in economies, as well as the inequitable distribution of wealth.
On the other hand, markets create beneficial efficiencies, are able to deliver certain services more economically, and allow people with good ideas to bring them to a population easily. It also allows workers a variety of goods and services.
Socialism should not necessarily mean the end of markets. Just better control over them.
- The Blackberry mess and what Canada needs (September 24th, 2013)
- The rise and fall (and rise?) of Blackberry – the story that just won’t quit (September 24th, 2013)
- Dead Money (August 23rd, 2012)
- Baskin-Robbins and the Walmartization of Ice Cream (July 20th, 2012)
- Labour Losing to Capital (July 19th, 2012)