The Unorthodox Website Blog

Socialism in the 21st Century




By  A. J. Papard

The Collapse of the Soviet model:

With the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe came the destruction of a great ideal, the Socialist dream of a fairer society based on the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin. This collapse occurred during the Thatcher-Reagan era in the West; an ultra-conservative political dogma was being pursued with emphasis on the rule of market forces. ‘Privatization’ became the new buzz-word, and the spread of ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganomics’ to the former Socialist countries and elsewhere was rapid, often with disastrous results.

The fundamental flaw in Marxist-Leninist theory, equally true of the Trotskyist and Stalinist varieties, was that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ invested too much responsibility in the working class masses. The early Bolshevik cry: ‘All Power To The Soviets!’ in theory made the workers masters of their own destiny for the first time, but in practice general political apathy (a reluctance to attend endless meetings and to share responsibility for governing society) meant opportunists and careerists soon gained control of both the soviets and the Communist Party in the USSR, which was a one-party state. After the 1917 Revolution other socialist parties and factions were suppressed as well as political parties which advocated capitalism. In the second wave of Socialism after World War II, many of the Socialist countries of Eastern Europe had coalition governments; forced united front governments consisting of various political parties under the leadership of the Marxist-Leninist party which neutralized all opposition. (In the GDR, East Germany, even the neo-fascist National Democratic Party containing ex-Nazis was part of the National Front government led by the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Unity Party, as was the Christian Democratic Party). The result was the same in both one-party and united front systems: no opposition was tolerated so any ambitious person who valued their career and wanted to prosper joined the Marxist-Leninist party or one of its allies and paid lip-service to Socialism.

The influx of these opportunists and the very trappings of power itself had a corrupting influence on genuine Socialist idealists in the ruling parties. These true Socialists were also decimated by Stalin’s purges which followed the split between Stalinist and Trotskyist factions within the Soviet Party, and led in later years to Stalin’s acute paranoia where he saw Trotskyist conspirators everywhere.

What led to the final collapse of Communism was the gross inefficiency of the vast, bureaucratic state monopolies, the burden of the huge defense budget and the concentration of absolute power in the hands of a privileged, corrupt elite – a new ruling class which was content to ‘fiddle whilst Rome burned’. Ordinary people joined endless queues for basic necessities, whilst the privileged State officials, Party elite and bureaucrats were supplied from special shops stocking goods imported from the West. These parasites owed no allegiance to the Socialist system, or they wouldn’t have wanted goods from the West but Socialist products which were superior to anything the West had to offer. Instead some bureaucrat would decide the next five year plan would produce so many million heavy-duty bath mats, completely forgetting to make any bath-plugs so the water would stay in the bath. He didn’t care, his luxury bath with gold taps and gold bath-plug was imported from the West.

Eventually this corrupt, inefficient system could not sustain itself and keep up in the Space Race and Arms Race with the West, and the system collapsed. However, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater when no attempt was made to safeguard the security the old system offered its citizens: full employment, low cost housing, free education and health services, pensions, etc.. Thruout the Socialist era, imperfect as it was, all these promises were kept, then suddenly all this social security was snatched away and people were left to fend for themselves without a safety net. Market forces and criminal elements moved in, and the result has been chaos in many former Socialist countries. In Russia and Albania people were duped into buying worthless shares on the new stock exchanges in the naïve belief that their investments would bring them fantastic riches. In actual fact the only ones who got rich were the Mafia-style criminal elements in charge, which were the old Party and State bureaucrats showing their true faces.

It was obvious to many of us that you cannot disestablish Socialism after 40 or 70 years and expect capitalism to provide a better life for all. As I wrote in a ‘Marxism Today’ article years ago, foreign investors and criminal elements were bound to benefit from any attempt to re-establish capitalism in the Socialist countries – they were the only ones with access to the necessary capital to invest. Since Socialism could not be disestablished, it had to be made to work, and despite all the corruption and inefficiency, it was already giving people a level of social security unknown in the West.

The imminent collapse of Capitalism:

In fact, the West has little to gloat about. Communism may have collapsed, but Capitalism is not far behind. The problems caused by globalization to the environment and the Third World mean it is unsustainable. Huge international corporations with assets bigger than many countries’ budgets move capital around the world, producing goods with cheap, exploited labor in the Third World and selling them as ‘designer goods’ at inflated prices in the developed world. People can be thrown out of work at the whim of a company board meeting which decides to close one factory and open another one somewhere abroad where they can pay starvation wages in some sweatshop.

The World Trade Organization, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are a stranglehold on democracy, dictating private enterprise policies to the whole world. In the days of the Soviet bloc, developing countries could get aid from the Socialist countries if they were non-aligned or willing to follow the Socialist road. Now these countries have no such choice, they have to go cap-in-hand to the WTO, World Bank and IMF who make them privatize their industry and services and then saddle them with national debts they can never ever hope to repay. The privatized industries are then sources of cheap labor for the international monopolies, and so the exploitation of the poor Southern hemisphere by the rich Northern hemisphere is complete. Is it any wonder there is hatred of the West and USA in particular, resulting in extremists resorting to war and terrorism? Especially since the big powers use nuclear terrorism themselves to defend their system of exploitation.

The private enterprise market system simply cannot sustain itself in the long run. In the goal for ever increasing profits, job security even in the West has gone by the board, trade unions have been tamed, ‘contract labor’ on a short-term basis with few workers’ rights is becoming the norm. The general trend towards increased unemployment and the running down of social security systems are simply the first signs that the capitalist system is on the verge of collapse. When millions are out of work with insufficient public spending to provide them with adequate social security, food riots will lead to the breakdown of society and anarchy. The choices will then be stark: fascist dictatorship or some form of Socialism.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century technological advances have meant that more goods can be produced by less workers. This trend has vastly sped up since the introduction of computers and the microchip. Back at the dawn of this computer revolution in the 1950s, science fiction writers wrote about us all having more leisure time around the turn of the century. We envisaged working a few hours a week and having more time to enjoy ourselves. We did not realize ‘more leisure time’ meant millions of unemployed whilst those lucky enough to have jobs work the same hours as before, or even longer.

If this trend continues, and market forces alone are allowed to dictate what happens in society, the end result will be that a majority of the population will be unemployed. A minority of mainly young people will have contracts for employment for five or possibly ten years, and most people will be unemployable by the time they reach 30 or 35 since their contracts will not be renewed but awarded instead to a younger, cheaper labor force. Many industries will have already have decamped to the cheap labor of the Third World.

The social security system of State benefits will collapse completely under the pressure. With more people out of work there will be fewer people paying taxes anyway.

In the short-sighted drive for ever increasing profits, the goal is to produce more goods with less labor costs. But this is a recipe for the classic slump which plagues all capitalist economies. Too many goods chasing too little money leads to a cut-back in production and more lay-offs, which means the economy is in recession with rising unemployment and falling prices as capitalists try to find a market for their unaffordable goods. Nobody wins in this situation.

Karl Marx wrote in ‘Das Kapital’ about the surplus value of labor, which is the source of the capitalist’s profits. The microchip represents the stored surplus value of the labor of those who designed it, and it increases the surplus value of the labor of those who use the microchip to produce more goods. Without labor, nothing has any value at all. If gold coins fell from the sky into our hands every day they would have no value at all. However, if thousands of miners have to excavate tons of earth and rock to find one ounce of gold, which then has to be processed and fashioned into the end product, gold becomes valuable – solely because of the labor needed to produce it.

The increased productivity of labor due to technological advances are a great opportunity to benefit the whole of society, but capitalism and market forces are totally incapable of sharing these benefits. Government intervention in the form of legislation is essential, stipulating a shorter working week, longer holidays and an earlier retirement age in order to achieve full employment by sharing out all available work. This goes completely against the capitalist drive for maximum profits. Even though the hours worked will be less for everybody, wages must be maintained at high enough levels to allow a decent standard of living for all, and pensions must also be well above subsistence level in order for there to be a sustainable market for the increased goods in circulation as a result of high levels of production.

Of course someone has to pay for all this, and it is the profits of private companies and their dividends to shareholders which will suffer. However, in the long term they will suffer anyway if mass unemployment means they cannot sell their goods and eventually go bankrupt. With profits drastically reduced, private enterprise will cease to be such an attractive option. Only Socialism is able to sustain full employment and a decent standard of living for everyone when technological advances increase the productivity of labor. We may well end up with a society where everyone works just a few hours a week, enjoys free education, a totally free health service, free public transport and a high pension when they retire at 40, as well as a high wage whilst in work to pay for the essentials of life and for their vastly increased lesuire pursuits. In this society there will be no room for company profits or shareholders’ dividends.

International Socialism:

The problem with government legislation to limit the hours of the working week, reduce the retirement age, protect wages, etc. is that it makes home-produced goods more expensive than goods from abroad. This means exports suffer, whilst a flood of cheap imports threatens once again to bankrupt companies and throw millions out of work. Since the problems created by the technological revolution are worldwide, it requires global action to solve them.

Increasingly it will become necessary for countries to come together in economic groups like the European Union, which will eventually become (hopefully Socialist) federal super-states leading ultimately to a world confederation under the United Nations. Thru democratically elected federal parliaments, these super-states must enact the necessary legislation to prevent a flood of Third World cheap labor imports. By means of taxation imported goods can be put on the domestic market at similar prices to home-produced goods, and the money raised by such taxation can then be reinvested in the Third World to increase productivity and wages there. International legislation is needed to bring the working conditions and standards of living of the Third World into line with the advanced technological countries. Socialism in one country is not really feasible, at the very least there has to be a Socialist bloc of countries trading with each other, and helping the developing countries along the road to Socialism.

Market Socialism:

In the UK ‘New Labour’ has removed Clause IV from the constitution of the Party. This clause was all about common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, distribution and exchange. But ‘public ownership’ does not necessarily mean the return of bureaucratic state monopolies. Nationalization was not mentioned in the Labour Party’s excellent 1918 version of Clause IV. The former Socialist federation in Yugoslavia achieved a successful market socialism, in which competing publicly owned companies and cooperatives stimulated competition and achieved the best of both worlds: the competitive efficiency of capitalism and all the social benefits of Socialism. This unique brand of Socialism was unfortunately thrown away in the anti-Communist fervor which swept Europe at the end of the 1980s, and the Yugoslav federation was torn apart by nationalism and religious bigotry. However, the Yugoslav Socialist system is the economic model for Socialism in the 21st century.

In the UK we saw a glimmer of the Socialism of the future with the Cooperative movement which competed with private companies to provide goods and services, and also in the competition between the publicly owned gas and electricity industries. The friendly ‘Mr Therm’ advocating the benefits of gas, and the ‘It’s cleaner by electric’slogan of the Electricity Boards were examples of publicly owned industries competing in the market place. In London there was similar competition between London Transport and British Rail.

The new ‘Market Socialism’ will have no place for inefficient State monopolies. Local authorities may start up public enterprises which will compete in the market with similar public companies based in other localities. Worker and consumer cooperatives are another form of common ownership which keeps competition and therefore efficiency alive. National publicly owned companies can also compete against each other – for instance, instead of nationalizing the car industry, Fords and Vauxhall could retain their identities and continue to compete in the market place, but become wholly publicly owned and controlled, with no shareholders to siphon off profits.

There is still a case for some nationalized industries. Recent privatization of Britain’s railway network was a disaster, and they should be re-nationalized within a coordinated national transport industry. This could retain separate identities and competition between road, rail and tramways, for instance. Also, in a Socialist society all financial institutions (banks, building societies, insurance companies, etc.) should be owned and run by the State, which would use the huge amounts invested to fund social services and keep taxation to a minimum. Interest on investments would be abolished, but their real value would be guaranteed and protected against inflation.

Compensation to shareholders and multi-national corporations for assets taken into public ownership would take into account profits and dividends already made on their initial investments, so would be modest. Pension funds would all be taken over by the State, and high value pensions guaranteed to all.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat:

What the Yugoslav federation failed to do was take the pluralism and competition existing in the economic field and mirror it in the political field. In view of the ethnic and religious tensions which ripped apart both Yugoslavia and the USSR, perhaps it was not possible to maintan these federations in a democratic society. However, it is essential that there is always a genuine multi-party system with choice and free elections, because a one-party state or prolonged coalition government, like state monopoly industry, becomes bureaucratic, inefficient and ultimately corrupted by absolute power.

The concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a perfectly sound idea, and is really an alternative expression for ‘democracy’, which is the ‘dictatorship of the majority’ (assuming the proletariat forms the majority of the population, as it usually does). However, minorities have rights too and these must be protected, so perhaps ‘dictatorship’ is an outdated term to use.

The idea behind the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a self-governing society. As Marx, Engels and later Lenin perceived it, the working-class would exercise power thru its political organizations: the trade unions, youth organizations, the Communist Party, etc.. However, they overlooked the political apathy of the masses and the opportunism of the careerists. The Soviet and East European workers preferred to go home rather than attend meetings, so the ambitious careerists seized the opportunity, packed out the meetings and soon had control of all the workers’ organizations and the State itself. Marxist-Leninist theory said this was impossible, because the working class would always outnumber any capitalists, careerists and opportunists who tried to seize control, but in practice it was very easy because the working masses were too apathetic to fully exercise their democratic rights and their collective power.

We saw in the UK how easy it was for Trotskyist factions to take over trade unions, playing on the apathy of the workers to pack out Union meetings and elect themselves to senior positions. This is exactly what happened in the Party and State organizations in the Socialist countries. It is hard enough to persuade people to place a cross on a ballot paper once every five years or so in a general election, let alone get them to attend regular meetings of local soviets to govern the country. People just don’t want that level of commitment and responsibility. Marx, Engels and Lenin and the rest of us Communists just couldn’t understand this – we were political animals and just couldn’t envisage the working class being given power, and letting others take it away from them. However, that is exactly what happened in the Socialist countries.

As soon as the Party elite and the officials of State bureaucracy awarded themselves privileges such as special shops, Communism was doomed. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the trappings of power corrupted even Socialist idealists. The huge influx of capitalist opportunists and careerists into the Party created a new ruling class who used the Marxist-Leninist Party and the Socialist State to exploit and suppress the people.

Socialism in future therefore needs to maintain a genuine multi-party democracy, so people can always vote out a government in a general election. Tony Benn, ex British Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, has said this is the main test of democracy – not just how you vote politicians in, but how you can get rid of them. In the Socialist countries, once they were selected as candidates by the Party, trade unions, etc. and endorsed by the electorate in an unopposed ballot, you could never get rid of them without a popular uprising.

A Socialist Constitution:

Whilst discarding the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and its implication of no rights for minorities, it is essential to have stability in any Socialist system. You cannot build Socialism under the conditions which have existed in the UK since World War II, with a Labour government taking industries into public ownership, then a subsequent Tory government privatizing them again. At some stage, when Socialism is working and proving popular, a Socialist Constitution must be put to the electorate in a referendum. A two-thirds vote in favor would be required to establish a Socialist Constitution, and this would allow all political parties to contest elections provided they promised to uphold the Socialist Constitution. In Britain, for instance, the Tory Party could contest and win a general election, but they could not dismantle Socialism unless and until they replaced the Socialist Constitution by winning a two-thirds majority in a referendum. A simple parliamentary majority of a few MPs or a few thousand votes would not be enough to dismantle Socialism.

There is nothing undemocratic about this. In the USA two capitalist parties have competed in elections for years, but nobody suggests this is undemocratic. In the UK we have an unwritten Constitution which upholds the Monarchy, all I am suggesting is this is replaced by a written republican Socialist Constitution which would give stability and protect minority rights, voted for by a substantial majority in a referendum. Under this Socialist Constitution all manner of political parties could exist and contest free elections. If they win and form a government, they could administer their own brand of Socialism or whatever they choose to call it, so long as they didn’t violate the Constitution by privatizing industries and services. This system would prevent the kind of corruption which destroyed Socialism in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries – as soon as a government started to become corrupt or inefficient, it would be voted out of power in a general election and another party would be chosen by the electorate to administer Socialism.

To protect the Constitution there would be a freely elected President who would have control of the State security forces. They would owe allegiance to the President and the Constitution, and their job would be to protect the Constitution and insure no political group of Right, Left or Center could violate the Constitution or abolish/interfere with free and truly democratic elections. When, and if, the people decide they have had enough of Socialism, all they have to do is elect a party commited to holding a Constitutional referendum, and then vote for an alternative Constitution in sufficient numbers to win a two-thirds majority.

Socialism and Communism:

It follows from the disastrous experiment of Marxism-Leninism in the Socialist countries, that the evolution of society from Socialsm to Communism, envisaged by Marx, Engels and Lenin, is now such a remote possibility in the foreseeable future as to be totally unrealistic.

Marx’s theories of dialectical and historical materialism traced the development of human society from the stage of primitive communism, thru tribalism, feudalism, capitalism to socialism and eventually communism proper. In the latter stage, the State has withered away and society becomes completely self-governing, an anarcho-syndicalist kind of utopia where there is an abundance of everything and money, crime, police, armed forces and all the other paraphernalia of the State have been abolished. Communist society runs itself completely democratically under the principle of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’. It is the Marxist-Leninist equivalent of Heaven or Paradise transferred to Earth, but without the authoritative figurehead of God (Marx and Lenin replaced that function as posthumous icons worshiped as secular gods, whose very word was absolute Truth).

I no longer believe that this perfect society is achievable. Had the Socialist experiment succeeded, the one-party State would have been a preparation for Communist society when the State withers away and people govern themselves collectively thru force of habit. The fact that Socialism failed, and that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ became the ‘dictatorship of the bureaucratic ruling class’ means Communism can never be achieved in my opinion. It is just too idealistic. It might work in a commune of like-minded idealists, not in the real world of apathetic people who’d rather watch football or Coronation Street than take a share of the responsibility for governing society.

What the Socialist experiment proved was that the masses are just not prepared to get involved in every day politics and decision making. Unless and until the majority do become politically active and are prepared to shoulder responsibility, there will always be the need for the State and its organs to govern and protect society from criminals and would-be dictators.

Post 1989 situation:

In the Socialist countries Stalinist terror eliminated or subdued those who were not initially apathetic. When the masses finally did rise up and overthrow their oppressors at the end of the 1980s, instead of establishing true Socialism, which would have protected the social security they already enjoyed (full employment, low cost housing and public transport, etc.) and allowed them to progress to higher standards of living in other fields, they embraced petty bourgeois nationalism, religious sectarianism and capitalism.

Utter chaos, confusion and babarity followed, especially in parts of the former Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia where wars and genocide broke out. Careerists who had worked their way to the top of the Party and State organs changed their colors and became nationalists overnight, just to cling on to power, and the people fell for it. Instead of getting rid of these monsters who had exploited them for years and keeping the Socialist system and making it work, they got rid of Socialism but kept the same corrupt ruling class in power. Instead of implementing the Marxist principle guiding the Socialist stage of human development: ‘to each according to their work’ they adopted the capitalist free market maxim: ‘to each according to what they can grab’. Greed, nationalism and religious intolerance destroyed what was left of the great Socialist experiment, and left millions of people destitute, unemployed and at the mercy of their new capitalist and nationalist exploiters.

Communism has collapsed, and capitalism is heading the same way. Globalization, the manipulation and exploitation of the world’s human and natural resources by international capital, has created a new division of the world, not East/West, Socialist/Capitalist but North/South, rich/poor, exploiters/exploited.

The technological revolution must be harnessed for the benefit of people thruout the world. This can only be achieved thru international treaties and legislation, and only thru Socialism. It is not compatible with profit-led private market economies. The future lies in international federations administering Market Socialist economic systems.




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