Socialism is not Statism

Socialism is not Statism

A spectre haunts the world today. It is the spectre of “socialism”. Commentators of left and right, of reactionary or reformist inclination, agree that “after three decades in the wilderness, socialism is back.”

The same source goes on to say that:

Some 51% of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, says Gallup. In the primaries in 2016 more young folk voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Almost a third of French voters under 24 in the presidential election in 2017 voted for the hard-left candidate [Melenchon - ed].1

And in the UK the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn has brought the post-Blairite Labour Party to 540,000 members [April 2018], more than all the other electorally-registered parties put together.

In the USA the election of Trump has galvanised the young to enter the electoral arena. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) a previously moribund pressure group of the Democratic Party (with an average age of 68) which in the past has backed Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Barack Obama and, of course, Bernie Sanders, has seen a surge in membership which took it to 50,000 members at the end of last year.2 Their most spectacular success came in November 2018. Two DSA members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) and Rashida Tlaib, were elected to the House of Representatives, while eleven others were elected to state legislatures.

Spurred on by the egregious obscenities of a decaying capitalist system many young people (journalistically known as “millennials”) are rightly revolted by the blatant inequality they can see everywhere. As in the final centuries of the Roman Empire, or the last years of the Ancien regime in Eighteenth century France, the greed of the plutocrats has become absolutely shameless. This new generation can equally see that the capitalist system, and its never ending search for profit, is destroying all our futures with its inability to even minimally plan for a future sustainable economy.

In addition the years of ‘austerity’ have brought tax breaks for the rich and cuts in welfare for the poor and all this after a continual decline in working class incomes over the last 40 years.3 They can see that the system blatantly stinks as the supposedly democratic capitalist economy is rigged in favour of vested interests.4

As a critique this is to be welcomed and applauded. But when we investigate the spectre of the “socialism” that they support it dissolves into myth. Ocasio-Cortez has already stated that she sees no incompatibility between her democratic socialism and capitalism. Indeed her organisation, the DSA, is not anti-capitalist but "fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people”.

Ditto Corbyn’s Labour Party. It is anti-globalisation and big business but not small entrepreneurs. Its Shadow Chancellor has also admitted that he will not end austerity. Instead McDonnell has advocated that workers be given seats on the boards of large companies. This is nothing less than a programme to integrate workers into the management of their own exploitation. What all these new “socialists” plan is not anti-capitalism but a “fairer” capitalism. One that is more bearable for the working class so that it will continue to accept the system of exploitation.

This conception of socialism is a throwback to that of the old Social Democracy of the pre-First World War period which saw every advance of state domination of economy and society as a progressive step towards a socialist society. We now know this to have been mistaken. This gave us two outcomes neither of which benefitted the working class. The most obvious was the state capitalist monster of Stalinism (a monstrosity which Trotsky and other reactionaries of today mutually agree was fundamentally “socialist” albeit for opposing reasons).

The second was the “democratic socialism” of the likes of the Labour Party. Brought in to power at times of social and economic crisis they perpetuated the myth that the capitalist system could be reformed for the benefit of the working class. This social democracy gradually shed even its reformist credentials as it embraced globalisation, financialisation and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the old capitalist centres. The so-called “third way” ended up in the cul-de-sac of the speculative bubble and the gig economy. Today the Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn supporters cling to the old ideology that there is a parliamentary reformist road which can make capitalism better for the working class.

Even this reformist agenda is utopian since there is no way the capitalists will allow any real impingement on their profits. At best they will win a few crumbs which might make life a little more bearable for some in the short term.

Most of the new generation seem to believe that this reformism and parliamentarism is still worth supporting but there are some who think that by supporting the DSA or Labour they are somehow advancing a revolutionary agenda. This is a big mistake and shows a lack of understanding about what socialism really is (or perhaps a lack of confidence that the working class can once again fight on its own terms).

Marx did not argue for a fairer capitalism. He criticised the unions for fighting for a “fair day’s pay” when they should be fighting for “the abolition of the wages system”. He also understood that socialism cannot be created by a passive working class voting in the “right government” who will then use a paternalist state to legislate for their benefit. For a real change

…the alteration of men (sic) on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution: the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (Marx. The German Ideology. Coll. Wks Vol. 5 page 53.)

It is only through the self activity of millions of workers across the globe that we will build a fundamentally different society and a different world which not only abolishes classes, money, states and exploitation but allows the kind of social experiments where committees, councils, cooperatives and communes organise themselves as “freely associated producers”. Its basic principle will be “from each according to their ability and to each according to their need”.

There will be no quick fix. It will take the development of both a political movement of a communist minority and a wider class movement which takes up the programme propagated by that minority to overthrow the old world and build society on new foundations. The reformist road is not just mistaken. The bigger danger is that it gives a lease of life to a system which urgently needs to be overthrown. Every day that capitalism, with its wars and climate catastrophes, continues to exist threatens a shorter span for the entirety of humanity. And that is one spectre we definitely want to exorcise…

17 February 2019

  • 1. Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist, 14 Feb 2019
  • 2. In 2019 it appears to have fallen to 30,000 but this may just be due to the way they register their accounts. It is not just the largest current organisation of the left in the USA but may even be the largest in over a century.
  • 3. In Britain the portion of GDP going to wages fell from a peak of 64% in the mid-1970s to a low of 52% by the mid-1990s. Since 2008 hourly wages have fallen in real terms by a further 3.7%.
  • 4. You can get a glimpse of how powerful lobbies ensure that vested interests dominate policy making in the US by registering with such sites as Al-Monitor.


Feb 28 2019 02:05

The socialism Marx and Engels wrote about would not be brought about by electing socialists to govern the political State under the wage system. Instead, it would come about because workers moved as a class to emancipate themselves from the bondage inherent in the wage system.
Socialism would be a different mode of producing and distributing wealth. Use-values would no longer saddled with their exchange-value in order to be sold in the market for a price fluctuating with supply and demand around said exchange-value (the socially necessary labour time embodied in goods and services). Instead, use-values would be distributed on the basis of labour time put into creating the social store of goods and services. The medium of exchange would no longer be a commodity--it could not be traded for a price on the market, socially necessary labour time would have no price, it would no longer embody the alienated wealth of the producers. Why? Because the producers would socially own and democratically manage the collective product of their labour.
Daniel De Leon, as well as Marx, did propose a system of labour time vouchers as a way of distributing the use-values within the socialist mode of production. The principle of economic coordination in Marx’s communism is participatory planning, or planning from below, based on socially necessary labour-time calculation. Marx sketched it in Critique of the Gotha Programme as follows:

Within a collective society based on the common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour. The phrase ‘proceeds of labour,’ objectionable even today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning. What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another. (Marx, 1989a: 85–6, emphasis in original)

De Leon’s contribution is here:
I think it's perfectly appropriate to have a plan ready for implementing a new mode of production, one beyond the wage system. Socially necessary labour time vouchers make the relation between humans producing useful goods and services to fulfill their needs transparent. The wage system and commodity sale do not. How many hours of labour are in that ale or automobile or library service?

see also:

On the question of value, there is value, as in appreciation and value as in the exchange-value of a commodity. Appreciation is a use-value, as use-value is in the mind of the human being. Apples and oranges are use-values. They can also be commodified and sold. The commodified use-value contains a common substance--socially necessary labour time. What gets confusing is when price is added to the commodity. Price fluctuates with supply and demand around value. Labour supplies the commodity, and if it is supplied in a quantity which exceeds labour's demand for same, the price sinks. The opposite is true too. Not many paintings by the one and only Vincent Willem van Gogh. Lots of demand to privately own them though. Value is the same as other paintings which contain as much labour time, but the price of those may not be as high because of less demand. Thus, the commodity has both exchange-value and use-value. And thus, in a socialist society, as it first emerges from the womb of Capital, may require a certain certainty that others are contributing to the socially necessary labour time which is embodied in the social store of goods and services--to guard against what is commonly known as 'the free-rider syndrome'. I think that a quite likely possibility, at least Marx and Engels convinced me of it through my readings of their intent, starting with my close reading of Critique of the Gotha Program.

"Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. [1] The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.
With the exception of the section on value-form, therefore, this volume cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty. I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.
The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence, or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Up to the present time, their classic ground is England. That is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas. If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural labourers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!” [It is of you that the story is told. – Horace]"
On the other hand, if we are all on the same page when we establish common ownership of our wealth, we may just decide to voluntarily put our time into creating the social store of wealth and withdraw from it on the basis of our need just because we want to. I'm certainly on board with that proposition. As the SPGB currently suggests, workers would have a mindset ready to distribute the collective product of labour on the basis of need if they established social ownership and democratic control of the collective product of their labour and had done so at the behest of the SPGB : producers would just put in the labour time necessary to fill the social store of goods and services with no fear that some able bodied people would do nothing to contribute their time and effort. If that happened, I would have no objection.
The point of changing the mode of production or socialism would be to free ourselves from the bondage and mystifications inherent in commodity production and sale via the wage system. Socialists began to lose that vision about the time Engels died and Bernstein became a leading light in the socialist movement. Lenin, only made matters worse.

“Socialism will not be and cannot be inaugurated by decrees; it cannot be established by any government, however admirably socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken. That only is socialism, and thus only can socialism be brought into being.” Rosa Luxemburg, 1918

“Socialism could only be the work of free creation by the workers. While that which was being constructed by coercion, and given the name of socialism, was for them nothing but bureaucratic State capitalism from the very beginning.”
Ante Ciliga, 1938