Socialism isn’t dead because it was never alive

Berlin WallThe 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a poignant reminder of how seemingly indestructible tyrannical power can be overthrown by popular movements peacefully. It’s also given liberal commentators the chance to “remind” us all of how “unworkable” socialism is. A prime example was a recent BBC phone-in held by Nicky Campbell on the question of “Is socialism dead?“.

It’s typical of the mainstream media to frame the issue in this way. It is unimaginable for example that the BBC would ask the question “Has corporate capitalism failed?” or even “Has liberal democracy failed?”. The debate was at least a fairly open one with many people pointing to the absurdity of the original premise. The question Campbell should have been asking wasn’t whether socialism was dead or not. It should have been, “Why hasn’t socialism been realised yet?”.

The collapse of communism is frequently cited by liberal commentators and the right as “proof” that socialism doesn’t work. But you don’t have to be a political scientist to see that communism had absolutely nothing to do with socialism. Whichever particular brand of socialism you believe in, two of the most fundamental characteristics of a truly socialist system are worker control of the means of production and redistribution of wealth. The communist system had absolutely none of this. The East German system was – like corporate-capitalism in fact – run by a greedy elite who espoused socialist principles of solidarity and equality but practiced none of them. In reality, East German state-communism had more in common with corporate-capitalism than socialism.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory for a brutally oppressed people against a totalitarian regime. By helping remove the fraud of communist “socialism” from the world map, it was one of the biggest victories of the 20th Century for those who believe in genuine socialism.

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6 thoughts on “Socialism isn’t dead because it was never alive

  1. You may as well ask: why haven’t we had real Christianity yet? – all men are equal etc. like wot Jesus talks about in the Bible, not what we had during the Spanish Inquisition and so on.

    The answer your question:
    “Why hasn’t socialism been realised yet?”.
    I think it’s because all the nice attractive parts of socialism, such as the redistribution of wealth (clause 4)and REAL workers ownership of the means of production, are only ever used to suck people in and convert them to the cause, but the leaders always have something else in mind. In that sense historically at least socialism has been as much of a let down as Christianity. Socialist doctrines are the equivalent of the bible, which is no accident as the roots of socialism are in Christianity.

    I guess the real problem is that we are all so easily led. Once we buy into socialism, we switch off and trust those that are supposed to be representing our interests, when all their really interested in is consolidating power.

    What about Sweden? That’s regarded by many as some kind of socialist utopia. How would you rate it? I mean they did have a sterilistaion programme going on for forty years in which they secretly sterilised women who weren’t Nordic enough, but we can set that aside for a moment.

    And there’s Venezuela, though I would trust Chavez about as far as I could throw him. And he’s a hefty bugger.

  2. I definitely agree on the link between Christianity and Socialism (I see you’ve been reading your Benn diaries :)) and the way both have been perverted by power.

    I’m not sure it’s a question of people being easily led though. Quite often popular movements are simply put down by brutal force. Good examples are the 1917 revolution in Russia and it’s brutal hijacking by the Bolsheviks and Lenin and the anarchist revolution in Spain and it’s destruction by the fascist and communist powers. “Socialist” rhetoric is however very powerful and as we witnessed with Obama’s “Change we can believe in” can be a powerful seducer.

    Sweden definitely isn’t a socialist utopia. It’s considerably more progressive in terms of equality, social rights and worker’s rights than most western countries but it’s nowhere near socialist. Sweden has often tried to tread a steady middle ground by often semi-privatizing many things but making sure government keeps a hand in. However, it should be noted that this system is rapidly decaying under the attack of big business and the centre-right government that have been in power for the past 4 years. It’s still state-corporate-capitalism but a slightly diluted version.

    As regards the sterilizations, I’m aware of that. There are many aspects of Sweden’s history – including it’s cowardly behavior during WW2 – that are nothing to be proud about but the country has worked very hard on promoting a pristine PR image.

    I’ve had a look at that link and it’s a bit off topic for this blog post but I will do something on Climate Change shortly. One brief comment after a cursory look is there’s nothing particularly radical in there. The US government ceded sovereignty to big business a long time ago – nothing it signs in Copenhagen is going to make much difference to that.

  3. You are right to counter-pose the question as: has socialism been realised yet? The answer is no, not in any conclusive sense. This is not cause for pessimism, though, as the necessary preconditions-the historical groundwork if you like-have been firmly established. I refer to the Russian Revolution in 1917 that posed the question of power from a working class perspective. This is of vital importance because it proved beyond all doubt that the only class in a capitalist society capable of taking and holding on to state power is the organised workers. Once this principal was established the astute strategists of capital knew only too well that their hegemony was, and still is, under threat. Why else would they send in 23 armies of intervention to in an attempt to crush the revolution?

    Exactly the same thing happened in Cuba in 1959. The Cuban Communist Party (PSP) played no active role in the revolution that toppled the Baptista regime. Castro led the guerilla based July 26th movement from the Sierra Madre to victory in Havana. The Commintern directed PSP had lost all credibility in the 1933 Havana transport strike. The dictator at that time was Machado who actually fled the country having lost his nerve as the strikes escalated over a short period. Orders from Moscow instructed the PSP to end the strike and negotiate with Machado, who returned from the US hardly believing his luck. In the eyes of the Cuban masses the PSP was never forgiven. The dead hand of Stalin was behind this betrayal which proves the Soviet Union had ceased to be a force for change. The reason Castro was forced to breathe new life into the PSP in 1961 was because the US blockade left him no other way out. I know this looks like the worst kind of apologism for the undeniable human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Cuba, but the fact remains that revolutions have been forced to turn in on themselves by external pressures. The point is that they have occurred and as such can provide important lessons for the future.

    There seemed to be some confusion in Campbell’s phone-in show regarding the assumption that revolution is automatically equated with socialism, or Marxism. A revolution by its very nature defies categorisation. They generally start as social movements without an ideological base. Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran were not strictly defined by socialist ideas. There were Jesuits in the Sandinista movement and of course Iran was Islamist, Even Ho Chi Minh claimed to be influenced by George Washington. The role of a revolutionary Marxist party is essentially subjective.

    Take the example of Russia in 1905. On January 9th the workers marched to the Winter Palace to petition the absolutist Tzar for change. Trotsky was a participant as a member of the Russian Social Democratic Party. They knew perfectly well that the Czar would send in the troops and the workers demands would not be met. But they had to allow the workers to find out for themselves through material experience. Trotsky is very clear on this when he writes:

    `The inertia of the army must be overcome. The revolution achieves this by pitting the army against the popular masses. A general strike creates favourable conditions for such conflict. It is a harsh method but history provides no other.`

    I understand your desire for peaceful transformation of society. Only a reckless idiot would hope for anything else. But when the stakes are raised to the point where power is in the balance, history shows us that nation states do indeed-as Marx said-turn into armed bodies of men.

    I found it amusing when Campbell seemed to falter momentarily when groping for a materialist reference point to illustrate his concept of western freedom. “I remember coming back from Russia in 1988, where I had been doing a show for channel four, and walking into a shop, and being struck by the choice…of four different kinds of…relish”. I may have exaggerated the pauses but he appeared to falter for a split second. We had already had the story of the US serviceman who used the advantageous exchange rate to buy the contents of an East German shop. Freedom in the west is defined by consumer choice. Essentially-if you follow the Hegelian definitions-this is an abstract concept of freedom. Concrete freedoms that develope the mind, reading, exchanging ideas, an appreciation of music, pictorial art, or the theatre, are never used as a reference point for freedom.

    The other point which is ignored is; what about the 3.4 million people on state benefits for whom consumer choice is meaningless? Also the 13.5 million people who earn 60% of the median wage and will face the prospect of a protracted wage freeze, or worse still lay-offs. It is alright for Campbell on his inflated BBC salary. I hope I have’nt bored you, all the best.

  4. Hi Ged, thanks for the thoughtful comment and it certainly wasn’t boring.

    I agree that there’s much reason for optimism. Communism and Capitalism have both clearly failed now and there’s much scope for imagination as to alternatives.

    As you say, history shows that the public yield awesome power. The corporate and government elites know that very well which is why so much effort goes into trying to prevent democracy from functioning properly. It’s a good sign that they spend so much money on PR and propaganda in a way because it proves how fragile they see they power at the moment.

    I agree also that history shows that ideology is not the driving force behind popular revolutions and Campbell was wrong to assume that revolutions, socialism and Marxism go hand in hand. As you point out, they’re usually movements simply for justice. The Fall of the Berlin wall is a good example because the Church was one of main driving forces behind it. Regardless of ideology, people were drawn to the church for it’s message of peaceful change. More on this here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004v8xt

    You say that: “I understand your desire for peaceful transformation of society. Only a reckless idiot would hope for anything else. But when the stakes are raised to the point where power is in the balance, history shows us that nation states do indeed-as Marx said-turn into armed bodies of men.”

    I think Marx misses the point here that states are aggressive, violent institutions full-stop. Just look at the history of Europe and it’s a tale of bloody state conquest. They are violent by nature, not just when “power is in the balance”. The state is always going to defend it’s power by violence but I think history proves that’s it’s peaceful means that have always been the most effective.

    Finally, I can’t pretend to understand Hegelian definitions of what constitutes freedom (I need a bit of education there) but I agree with what you’re saying. Freedom of speech in liberal societies is all very well but if you’re trying to feed your family on the minimum wage, I’m sure a choice of “4 different types of relish” in a supermarket isn’t much consolation. This is why some of those in communist countries are nostalgic for the relative economic security that communism provided. The freedom provided in liberal capitalist societies is basically the freedom to starve to death. I think the Manic Street Preachers did a song about this theme called “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children”:

    http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/manicstreetpreachers/freedomofspeechwontfeedmychildren.html

    They sang the song live in Cuba here:

  5. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m new to the internet – since july this year – so I’m still a bit bedazzled by the limitless scope for the exchange of ideas, and seemingly inexhaustable sources of information.

    Cards on the table! as Wilf Self said on last week’s Question Time. I’m currently not formally aligned to any political party but I was in the Militant Tendency from 1983 to 1995. I suppose you might label me as an armchair Marxist. I will, however, be out canvassing for dave Nellist in my home town of Coventry at the next election. Old habits die hard. I was lucky enough to be in a position to spend time in Nicaragua back in 1985. That is where my limited knowledge of the siege effect imposed on fledgeling revolutions by the US stems from.

    What you say about the inherent violence of nation state’s being a constant, rather than sparodic, reality is accepted unreservedly. After all we only have to look at the recent G20 demonstration in London for conclusive evidence. Kettling and the death of an innocent by-stander.

    As for Hegel you are not mising much really. The reason I read his work was because of an unattributed quote in the first sentence of Marx’s classic work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart, I’m quoting from memory:

    `Hegel says somewhere that, all great events and personages in history occur, as it were twice. But what he neglected to mention was, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.`

    That started me on a mission to locate the quote and I found it in Hegel’s The Philosophy of History (p313). Ive got this one to hand:

    `…since in all periods of the world a political revolution is sanctioned in men’s opinions, when it repeats itself. Thus Napoleon was twice defeated, and the Bourbons twice expelled. By repitition that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency, becomes a real and ratified existence.`

    He mentions this in the context of the mistaken assumptions on the part of the Roman conspirators, Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero; who believed that assasinating Caeser would arrest the decline of the empire. Marx formulated his much derided view of historical development, historical materialism, out of Hegelian dialectics. These are all mystifying terms I know, but it is like the difference between a still image and a movie. The still image conveys information but is subject to the constraints of a frame. The moving image provides a continuous thread to follow. Once grasped it is a useful tool. Of course, it challenges the orthodox view taught in schools and universities that places emphasis on dates and great individuals in isolation. Rather than being a narrow doctrinal viewpoint,historical materialism, is actually a creative way of exploring the past.

    Take Russia today for example. One of the enduring questions concerns counter revolution. Bourgeois historians dismiss the notion holding that once the Tzar was killed Russia could never return to autocratic absolutism. But if you trace a line from 1905 to the present you can detect elements of bureaucratic Tzarism. Last week the historian, Kagan, described Russia as an `autocratic capitalist` state. Putin for Tzar Nicholas does indeed smack of farce. The point is that historical categories do not run in a strict sequence. In 1905 Russia was a fuedal outpost in modern capitalist Europe.

    Marx talks about `moments` in history where different economic categories, long since considered dead and buried, suddenly re-appear albeit in another guise. If you look at last fall and the credit crunch we had the spectacle of a labour government nationalising banks. It was only 1995 that they confidently ditched Clause four and vowed nationalisation was a thing of the past. Within finance itself we see rampant mercantalism alive and well. In this sense I mean Mercantalist Estates as they existed before capitalism. If capitalism can be defined by the mechanics of production, mercantalism was the exchange process minus production. In the carry trade for example there is no material product at the end. The exchange is simply money for money.

    Also the retail and investment banks took on the exhaustive features of plantation slavery. If plantation slavery exhausted the land and made commodities of people then the banks exhausted the central banks in the same relation. Furthermore, what is present day racism if not a direct consequence of the slave trade?

    In the fall of 2008 we find the UK prosecuting a war in Afghanistan. After having intervened unsuccesfully twice; in the 1830’s first, and then in 1878. And that was at the height of empire. They also invaded Persia, or as we call it Iran, in1857. The follwing quote from an article written by Marx on the subject in 1857 makes interesting reading:

    `So soon as the Company [East India] casts a greedy look on any of the independent soveriegns, or on any region whose political and commercial resources or whose gold and jewels are valued, the victim is accused of having violated this or that ideal or actual convention, transgressed an imaginary promise or restriction, committed some nebulous outrage, and then war is declared, and the eternity of wrong, the perennial force of the fable of the wolf and the lamb, is again incarnadined in national history.`

    Iraq springs to mind, as does Afghanistan in the 1970’s, and Obama’s comments about Iran fit the bill as well. First time as tragedy second time as farce. All the best, Nick, I look forward to further discourse with relish.

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