Can Socialism be Revived?

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.


  • Very nice post!

    I do think you miss a key vulnerability of markets: Their pricing system tends to encourage externalities; as a result some of the apparent efficiencies are false. This doesn’t only apply to environmental externalities. For instance, when services are purchased by government based on some measurement of what constitutes a payable service, the English experience suggests that for-profit delivery will result in tailoring the service to meet the barest features of the measurement. This paring down may result in service delivery that is “efficient” in the sense that the cheapest method of satisfying requirements is used, but it may also be largely useless. Profit is created by offloading components of the service whose delivery was intended, efficiency at the expense of utility. The corporation has even been described as a machine for creating externalities and profiting from them.

    But that’s a minor point. In general I’m in full agreement with the thrust here.

    Minor typos:
    weak if nonexistent –> weak if not nonexistent
    Which . . . they’ve become reluctant to do so –> Which . . . they’ve become reluctant to do

  • Perhaps a deep realization from each human being that the various economic models we operated and currently operate on never favour all of humanity. We may have to ask ourselves what forces drives us in our daily lives which really is not separate from market forces – fear, greed and pleasure in all its forms. When these forces end from its very root not just its forms transformed, we may not have to worry about coming up with a new economic model. I believe that today and everyday is an opportunity for us to participate by looking at ourselves inwardly and see what actions come out when we are not constantly driven by fear, greed, and pleasure.

    Ah humans, we are such an experimental species, I am confident we’ll eventually figure out how to live in this planet in harmony. Hopefully before we destroy ourselves 🙂

  • “The Soviets, for example, were religious in seeing markets as evil. ”

    I take it you mean that they reflexively rejected markets out of hand, which is nonsense (at least until Stalin came to power) as the NEP shows, and you ignore the constraints of War Communism, invaders, counter-revolutionaries, etc. that came before that.

    Furthermore, Wal-Mart’s advanced logistical systems make centralized planning _much_ easier (and it’s one of the reasons why they do well) than what happened in the fSU; can you imagine what a socialist government with that kind of C3 could do when it came to coordination of large swathes of an economy?

    That said, I like the idea of “deepening” democracy so that it’s incorporated into places where people work; it’s certainly a step towards, if not an element of, communism.

    However, we’ll be fighting an up-hill, nearly vertical battle against the bourgeois state, the bourgeois themselves, and, last but not least, the (enforced) ignorance of the vast majority of the working class in this or any other country. Not to mention the usual in-fighting that’s our lot.

    I think the working classes of the world will have to go through a lot more pain before enough of them start reading the writing on the wall for class society. In the meantime, we’ll have our work cut out for us.

  • I think the reason socialism isn’t on the agenda is because the most majority of people have no idea it exists. It never occurred to them that there could be another way of organization the economy. It’s never really been explained or even mentioned at school, university or in the media.

  • Two key points:

    (1) You should define “socialism” before using the word. In the simplest of terms, it means democratic control of the economy by workers.

    (2) The world has not yet seen socialism. Stalinism was not socialism; nor was it the aim of the Bolshevik revolution. Social democracy is not socialism, either.

    “What would a socialist economy look like?” Eric Ruder explains:

  • maybe, but they need a whole lot more cash- simple- power is based on cash- and nobody has the cash to take out those with it all right now- and it seems as though those with it all, will take the planet on a magically hot ride before even considering that they have got it wrong.

    I think the right had it right in the US during the last election- you can buy yourself anything.

  • Power isn’t based on cash. Power is based on force. If I have a million dollars and you have a gun, soon you will have a million dollars and a gun. Labour wouldn’t pay attention to anti-labour laws restricting workers’ incomes if those passing them didn’t ultimately have cops and soldiers to back them up.
    Cash can be used as a proxy for power for as long as those with the control of force find it convenient that this be so. They’ve found it convenient for long enough that it’s hard to disentangle–but if, for instance, finance capital ever gets into a serious brawl with the military-industrial complex, threatening it really seriously, the military will go to Wall Street and start putting bankers in detention until they change their minds.

    The people can defeat military force, sometimes. There are other kinds of force, even other kinds of violence, than military.

  • I am referring to an advanced industrial nation, that can transform peacefully. Of couse military is the root of all power, but we are in a war of ideas, and cash is the power, owning the social constructive tools in a Lacanian sense is where the wars are now and especially with the collapse, the front lines for minds and ideas are being seeded now with a view to creating fields of opportunity. The lacan harvest will occur when the current system totally delegitimizes itself, which is just around the corner. But cash is what could enable the current to cling on for awhile. I would have thought mass evictions in the USA may have at least disturbed the sleeping giant, but alas still fast asleep they remain. Cash would enable the alarms to be amplified and add more to the fight than passion.

  • As a peaceful activist, cash truly is the missing ingredient, a billion channel universe and all I can see shaping viewpoints is a couple of alternative sources. It starts with ideas, before gun fire one has to know who to shoot, so that to me is power.

    Ghandi is my word of the day.

  • “before gun fire one has to know who to shoot”

    Right. But then one has to have the intention to go through with the shooting if it proves neccessary.

    Even Ghandi admitted to that much.

  • Interesting analysis, but Bruce old friend you failed to mention the rise of green parties internationally and how they took votes away from social democrats because of the latter’s slowness to get on board on the environmental issues. (Recall Glen Clark) Also, the CP and Stalinists generally with the emphasis on industrialization in eastern Europe displayed no understanding or appreciation of the damage they were doing to the natural world. Any future brand of socialism has to be environmentally friendly. That means, for instance, supporting a carbon tax, which the NDP here in Canada opposes for expedient reasons.

  • Ah. On that level, fair enough Mr. Tulloch.

    Incidentally, on the level of minds and ideas and cash, I’m wondering what’s going to happen with the media oligopoly. Newspapers seem to be having more and more financial problems, which they are generally reacting to in unimaginative ways (because imaginative ways would probably threaten their control of message). If, as we’re pretty sure around here, economic crisis continues and popular purchasing power keeps slipping, will there be some kind of tipping point where the papers really start disappearing from the newsstands? Heck, if buying power among the majority slips far enough, will there be a crisis in the advertising industry more generally? Already I’ve noticed a trend in TV ads to pitch to the well-to-do. Up to now that’s probably still worked for the secondary purpose of indoctrinating people into the desire for consumer goods . . . but if the perceived disconnect gets wide enough, if most people are both poorer and more pessimistic, ads for the wealthy may end up just annoying them and turning them off rather than filling them with aspirations. The media may find itself with a model (selling audiences to advertisers) that no longer works or is at least seriously impaired.

  • Today was another reminder that socialism for the rich is alive and well. GM with its IPO succeeded in generating a whole pile of cash, and why is that? Did they radically alter their company in the past few months to warrant such a huge injection of private cash and jetison the government ownership?

    No it was pure socialism that brought it about- buyers of stock realize that GM will never go broke as the government has labeled them too big to fail and so the stock is sold and the share price rise as socialism if anything but dead. Of course this is not mentioned once in the media today- not one article even raises that specter.

    With that crutch firmly in place are workers more safe? Of course not, bad management has now been given the stamp of approval and more wage concessions, and layoffs will continue.

  • Rentier Fungicide

    All this pessimism about social democracy is without merit: just because a spate of left-leaning parties were temporarily enthralled (i.e. “ideologically captured” or actually held in thrall) by financial interests does not mean that that is how things are going to turn out.

    The fact of the matter is that our survival as a species depends on a return to and a deepening of social democracy — I suggest, at any rate, that that is the medium-term implication of Peter Victor’s excellent book “Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design Not Disaster”. What is interesting about that book — which I love — is that Victor, I take it for political purposes, at least on the surface eschews the Keynesian analysis that he and his one-time mentor, Gideon Rosenbluth, used to show us the way forward.

    In “The Canadian economy with full employment, no growth, no poverty, and no government deficit: a Keynesian exercise” in the Int. J. Environment, Workplace, and Employment, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2004 107, they make the case for Keynesian social democracy as follows:

    “We use a simple Keynesian model to represent Canada’s macroeconomic dimensions in year 2000, and investigate how the conduct of governments, households, and business firms would have to alter to give us no growth, yet also no poverty, no unemployment and no government deficit. We describe one example of how this goal can be achieved.

    Compared to the actual figures for the year 2000, the government sector would have to spend substantially more on its purchase of goods and services and on transfer payments to the poor, business firms would have to spend substantially less on investment in plant and equipment since there is no growth, and there would have to be extremely small changes in the marginal propensity to consume, the marginal tax rate and marginal propensity to import.

    Achievement of this reasonable-looking outcome is obstructed, first by the growth orientation of the business firm, and its reflection in the growth orientation of politicians and leading media; secondly by the inability of the Canadian government sector to coordinate the goals and activities of its component governments; thirdly by the imperfect mobility of labour and physical capital. Needless to say, these obstacles interact to inhibit the development and implementation of policies that would protect the environment, reduce poverty and unemployment and balance government revenues and expenditures. It is urgent that these obstacles be overcome.”

    All that sounds like social democracy to me: it may not be the social democractic parties which actually lead the charge, I concede, as all the changes we require to survive are precisely the policies that the Layton NDP opposes, since they require a reinforced federal presence and role in ensuring national standards (which is obviously counter to Layton’s absurd and counter-productive aim of capturing the Quebec separatist vote — the separatists and other decentralists in Canada actually ARE the problem, since they prevent the national-level adjustments we need to find climate change and resource exhaustion).

    But, an instinct for self-preservation will either drive the other parties in social democratic directions, thereby marginalizing the NDP further, or we will fail altogether as a civilization in the fight against climate change.

    Interesting that nobody in these debates about social democracy and socialism has brought up Lars Osberg’s excellent piece defining what social democrats believe in:

    ““The market can be a good servant, but it’s a bad master”

    Here is the link to his reflection, posted on his Dalhousie webpage. Really, if the NDP stuck to these principles, they would get more votes, more seats, and more respect. See:

  • Rentier Fungicide

    err that was supposed to read:

    ” to fight climate change and resource exhaustion).”

  • rentier fungicide

    Hi web-guru!

    I guess I was not clear in my previous entry — I only wanted to replace the line “to find climate change and resource exhaustion” with “to fight climate change and resource exhaustion” — if you can bring back my original comment that would be great, but if it has been lost in the ether or is unpublishable for some reason (I cannot see why), no worries.

  • Osberg said:

    “Social democrats have a positive agenda that
    stresses basic human rights for all Canadians and democratic control of the destinies of our local

    This is the annoying thing about soc-dems: they automatically assume that by waving the magic wand of “democracy” that everything will be made better when in fact “democracy” is part of the problem. Modern bourgeois democracy has no problem with “democractic control”, especially so long as those with more more money get to exercise more democracy than those with less.

    (Not to mention soc-dems having no problem with exploitation of the working class:

  • “No it was pure socialism that brought it about- buyers of stock realize that GM will never go broke as the government has labeled them too big to fail”

    I’m pretty sure that the former stockholders of GM lost almost all of their money during the bankruptcy. Just because the company survived, doesn’t always mean the stockholder’s got off scott free.

  • In the case of GM, I believe if the market held sway it would have be liquidated to pay off the creditors and shareholders. This would have happened because the costs of unemployment and destruction of other companies are all externalities, hence the government had to step in.

  • @Rentier- for sure markets will still be needed, but regulated markets. I think no matter what system you look at historically , there have been markets in some form or another, it is the degree of and the nature of regulatory mechanisms that matters. Even Soviet communism had markets, whether they were formal or informal there was a degree of scarcity that was not equally shared, and it was markets that were used as an allocation method.

    The question I have with markets is the regulatory regime the determines their social, economic, and environmental efficiency in making some-kind of informed democratic allocation.

    I guess the question is- is something like the tea party, if they were elected into office, actually democratic?

    @Darwin- yes you have a point, outside of the impact on workers I have never had good look at how the bankruptcy of GM actually went but I do know that many worker concession were obtained through the process, which was good for future share holders.


  • That’s a history we here know well and I don’t think any of us are happy about where we are at present, for which reason a look at the path we have followed is always worthwhile. I’ve always been puzzled, however, about the relationship between socialism and money. If we want to get rid of money in the future, Do we still need it for a long time until we get to a perfect society in which it won’t be necessary?

    Is money control? If everyone’s behaving, and everyone contributes to society to the extent that they can, or sufficiently, and if there is a society in which no one sees his neighbor fall, and if no one is imposing rules on anyone else, then What need is there for money?

    Philosophically, I don’t believe in money which I see as existing for one reason only, namely so that some can have more of it, and more of what it buys, than others. Are those who hoard money today not thinking in terms of having enough steam to run fast and far from the monsterous system that they have been feeding and which devours everyone and everything in it’s sight regardless of ideology? (Yes, There are lots of greedy, bad people as well who just like money and power and glory.) Do we need that steam, or power, to escape from a monstrous system if that system doesn’t exist?

  • This article in today’s Star, by Thomas Walkom (a left-leaning writer who’s background, I believe, is economics) about GM was interesting. It’s titled “Sure the GM bailout worked. For GM”:

  • “If we want to get rid of money in the future, Do we still need it for a long time until we get to a perfect society in which it won’t be necessary?”

    Until we get to a point where money really is superfluous, I think we’re stuck with it.

    “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”

    “Is money control?”

    “On the other side, the power which each individual exercises over the activity of others or over social wealth exists in him as the owner of exchange values, of money. The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.”

  • Like OMG,

    Money is a means of social accounting. Marx’s critique is about the role money plays in capitalism not about money itself. Or put differently I challenge any of you to find where Marx says barter = socialism. It is Pretty Sucky Socialism (PSS) that won’t let me move my needs around in time and space. And the second you say I can do that is the second you are talking about a unit of account which is the second you are talking about money.

  • “I challenge any of you to find where Marx says barter = socialism.”

    And where did I state that it was, Travis? (For that matter, where does Marx maintain that money as such must remain under communism?)

    Had you bothered to read, you’d have seen that my first quote was responding to Arby’s question about _when_ money would be superfluous, not that it _must_ be (or that Marx said it or endorsed the idea or even thought it possible or desirable). In any event, the quote does leave the question pretty open, no?

    The second quote answered his question about money and control. Don’t you think it apropos?

    Tell me, is your quick-draw aimed at me in particular or just those to your left?

  • “Tell me, is your quick-draw aimed at me in particular or just those to your left?”

    Weird that is the first time in my life someone suggested there was something left of me (pun intended). Of course I refuse to admit anyone to the club of left of me so the group is vanishingly small. But enough about me and clubs.

    As you framed the quote it seemed as though you thought money was a consequence of capitalism. I was just saying money is in fact a consequence of the most rudimentary social division of labour which neither I, nor Marx, nor I would hope socialists are against.

  • On quick draw,

    google “tuer, tuer, tuer”

  • I’m beginning to wonder who you _think_ is doing the “tuer, tuer, tuer” . . . .

  • Can’t put a response to that in ink. Nor can I say who should be. But I know who has been metaphorically and concretely !@#$%^ over the last 30 years. I suspect this puts us on the same team, no?

  • In much the same way soc-dems and communists are on the same team, yes.

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