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
- 1Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist, 14 Feb 2019
- 2In 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.
- 3In 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%.
- 4You 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.