Friday, October 23, 2009

Should we drop the word "socialism"? (1999)

Correspondence from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Should we drop the word "socialism"?

Dear Editors,

Thank you for a friendly, though brief, review of my pamphlet Autonarchy. Allow me to make a few comments on the review and the SPGB generally. I am writing this in a spirit of fraternity, not hostility, and hope you'll construe it in the same spirit.http://www.autonarchy.org.il/You end your review by saying that my definition of Socialism as "State ownership and rule by a Socialist Party" is not what the SPGB would recognise as Socialism, but rather it is State Capitalism.. Having lived in London from 1964 to 1990 I am familiar with the various views on State Capitalism. I know Tony Cliff well, but I chose to be a member of London's Solidarity group, not of the SWP. However, what follows is my personal view and does not implicate Solidarity.

I am fully aware that all over the world there were (and still are) many small groups of dedicated socialists who for many years denounced the USSR as anything but Socialism. I myself belonged to two such groups, one in Israel, and one in London. These groups deserve great respect for their courage, honesty, dedication, and insight. However, this cannot change the fact that for most people on this planet the term "Socialism" means, and will always mean, "the political system that existed in the USSR, and in all Eastern Bloc states". The reason for this is quite simple: The USSR, with its immensely powerful propaganda means, declared repeatedly that it was the embodiment of Socialism. So did every state of the Eastern Bloc, as well as China, Vietnam, North Korea. This propaganda barrage went on day and night for many decades. Moreover, all Capitalist regimes too denounced the USSR and all Eastern Bloc states as "Socialist".

Did you ever stop to consider the effect this view, propagated for decades, by every government and media on both sides of the Iron Curtain, had on the vast majority of the world's population? I suggest you do so. Seriously. You and I agree that what existed in the USSR and all Eastern Bloc states was not socialism. But for 99.99% of the world's population these regimes were socialism, because this is what these regimes said and what their enemies said. Any political organisation which today advocates Socialism as an alternative to Capitalism will be considered by 99.99 percent of the population everywhere as advocating the regime in the defunct USSR and the Eastern Bloc states. It is not a regime most people desire, and we know it is a bad alternative to Capitalism.

Of course you'll say "But our definition of Socialism is different". It is indeed. But what matters is what most people understand by this term, not what 0.0001 percent understands by it. This is what Hegel meant when he said: "world history is world judgement". Your definition of Socialism matters a lot to you, but it is not what the vast majority of the people understand by that term. Actual history hijacked the term "Socialism" and no one can rescue it. I know you'll say: "But this is a travesty of the term". I agree. So you'll continue: "We shall explain to people what we mean by Socialism, and they will accept that". I'm sure you'll explain your version, but it will cut no ice with 99.99 percent of the population anywhere. You'll spend all your time and resources in an everlasting debate over semantics of a term. You might—at best—convince a handful.The majority will accept the meaning which this term acquired in actual history. A minority will be put off by the multiplicity of meanings and endless arguments over the meaning of a word. I am fully aware that all this will not convince a single one of you to drop their allegiance to the term. Fine. Just hear me out.

Socialists who seriously intend to promote a viable alternative to Capitalism, capable of capturing the hearts and minds of many millions of people all over the world have two problems with the term "Socialism". First, the term has been irredeemably sullied by a long history of abusive practice in the "Socialist" States and is irretrievably associated with this practice. Second, the original, unsullied, meaning of the term has become fuzzy, and dated. Anyone who wants to present an alternative to Capitalism today must spell out in clear, precise, and unambiguous terms, that alternative.

On page 2 of the Socialist Standard you print the principles of your alternative to Capitalism which the SPGB upholds since 1904. But society has changed significantly since 1904. First there were all the changes after WW1, then all the changes after WW2, then the changes after the '60s. Many ills of capitalism are still with us and that system must be replaced, but being unemployed in 1998 is very different from being unemployed in 1904. The social, economic, and political problems of 1998 are very different from those of 1904. Sticking to a language and a programme drafted in 1904 renders you irrelevant today. By all means stick to the principle of Common Ownership and rejection of Capitalism, but take account of the new socio-economic reality and adapt your language and tactics to it. I am saying this as a person who wants to see you become far more influential in Britain today.
Moreover, "Common Ownership" is a fuzzy term. How exactly will this "Common Ownership" be exercised? Who is included in this "Commonality"? You must give detailed answers because one form of "Commonality" was implemented in the USSR and people—including those in the USSR—rejected it. Next, you advocate "Democratic Control". How—precisely and in detail—will this Democratic Control be exercised? Here too people will rightly mistrust everyone who talks about the idea without providing detail about its substance.

Anyone calling her/himself "Socialist"—however that term is defined—will not escape the mistrust induced by the use of this term in the USSR. Anyone offering alternatives to Capitalism must see to it that this alternative is formulated in detailed terms. Otherwise they will be mistrusted. Rightly. The Autonarchy pamphlet provides a new term for the alternative to Capitalism. It preserves and updates the original spirit of Socialism but replaces the term. This relieves one from endless—futile—arguments over "Socialism", and offers a detailed political system based on Direct Democracy in the State, at work, and in sites of education.

Moreover, the call for Direct-Democracy at the place of work and at the place of education, can start right away, today. It will immediately win adherents in places of work and education. Many will accept the idea and begin to implement it in their daily life. The struggle to implement Direct Democracy in the home, in neighborhoods, at work, in education, and in the State as a whole, does not require the economic collapse of Capitalism! Autonarchy initiates a struggle to implement an alternative to Capitalism right away. Setting up CDDs (Committees for Direct Democracy) everywhere can start here and now.

Autonarchy is both a long term objective and a tactic to be implemented immediately. It is a mobilizing call for a struggle not over wages but over decision-making authority at the place of work, education, and in the State as a whole. The struggle for Direct Democracy is not something remote from people's daily life. It is a struggle for gaining control over one's daily life, in the home, at work, in education.

I have no shred of doubt this struggle can win widespread support within a few years. Society is ripe for Direct Democracy, and for the struggle to implement it. Think it over. Direct Democracy is not some utopian scheme that popped up in one mind during a dream. Nine million French workers demanded exactly what the pamphlet advocates when they went on a general strike for twenty days in May 1968.
AKI ORR, Kfar-Shmaryahu, Israel

Reply:
1. As an organisation which campaigns exclusively for socialism (as we understand it of course) we are in a unique position to know how people react to the word. Your claim that 99.99 percent of people think that socialism is what used to exist in Russia is an absurd exaggeration (that would mean that only about 6000 people in Britain take the opposite few). But we get your point. Many more people think that Russia was socialist than agree with our definition of socialism.

You think that we should therefore give up the word and find some other term to describe our aim. Don't think that this hasn't occurred to us. Various other terms have been suggested—"world co-operative commonwealth", "world of free access". Others, outside our ranks, have come up with "economic democracy", "self-managed society", "free society".

Our experience is that, when people first hear us saying we stand for socialism, most do indeed take us to be standing for "state ownership and rule by a socialist party" (a far broader concept than what existed in Russia) but, when we explain what we do stand for, quite a number say "oh, you mean true socialism" or "pure communism". Significantly, those who have experimented with other terms are often met with the same reaction.

This reflects the fact that, despite the former regime in Russia dragging the name of socialism through the mud by associating it with dictatorship, secret police, gulags and the rest, to many people the word "socialism" still retains an association with maybe vague ideas of social justice, equality, democracy, community and production for use not profit. In other words, despite Russia, socialism still has an underlying positive image for many people.

Besides, we are part of an unbroken tradition going back to those who first used the word and which has retained the original meaning they gave to it despite and in face of Russia and Labour and similar governments. Why should we surrender the word, especially as Russia has failed and Labour-type parties are now openly pro-capitalist? The field is now free for us to assert the word's original meaning.

Having said this, we don't make a fetish of the word. On occasions we are prepared to use some other term to express what we stand for since what is important is what we stand for and not what it is called. So we have and do use alternative terms such as "world co-operative commonwealth", "world of free access" and "free society". However—sorry, we must be honest—we don't think we'll give "autonarchy" a go; take it from us, it would be a hopeless non-starter. "Anarchy", or words associated with it, tends to have an even more negative image among the working class than "socialism" or possibly "communism".

2. You also suggest that because we stick to the same basic principles as when we were set up in 1904 we are irrelevant since today things are very different from then. But are they? Read—taking into account the declamatory political style in vogue when it was written, of which it is a fine example—what our principles say: that present-day society is based on the ownership of productive resources by a small minority class; that there is a conflict of interest between this minority and the majority class whose work produces the wealth that keeps society going; that this conflict can only be ended by the majority organising consciously, democratically and politically to make the means of production the common property of the community under the democratic control of all the people.
What's wrong with that? Is or is there not a minority who own and control the means of production? Is or is it not the work of the majority that keeps society going? Is or is there not a conflict of interest between the dominating minority and the rest of us?

It is true that there have been tremendous advances in technology that have transformed everyday living (telephones, television, cars, etc) and that consumption levels for most workers in certain parts of the world have risen (even if less than profits), but work is still employment by another and just as alienating and stressful and unemployment just as devastating and excluding.

3. You ask us to be clear as to what we mean by "common ownership". Well, for a start, we don't mean state ownership; what you call the "commonality" is all the people not the state which represents only a section of society. At present the ownership of the productive resources by which society lives is divided up amongst separate individuals and institutions (firms, states, even co-operatives). Common ownership is the opposite of this situation: it means the absence of any such sectional control over access to and use of productive resources.

With common ownership, nobody or no institution exercises exclusive ownership rights over resources; it is, in effect a condition of "no ownership". Such resources are simply there at the disposal of all the members of society as a whole, to be used in accordance with their decisions. To make such decisions—i.e., to exercise democratic control—the members of society need to set in place procedures which allow every member of society the chance to have an equal say in the way things are run. Although this can be envisaged as involving "direct democracy" in neighbourhoods and workplaces, for wider decisions (as we pointed out in our review of your pamphlet) it would also have to involve "indirect" democracy via elected delegates.

If such procedures for exercising "democratic control" did not exist, then it would not be possible to talk about "common ownership" either, since, in that case, ownership of the means of production would be in the hands of those who did have the power to make the decisions about how to use productive resources. So, for us "common ownership" and "democratic control" of the means of production by all the people are one and the same thing; they are in the end just two ways of describing the same situation.

Further, with common ownership, what is produced, as well as the means to produce it, is commonly owned, so that it does not need to be sold. It, too, is simply there, to be distributed to where it is needed, whether this be another workplace for further transformation into a finished product or a distribution centre to which people can come and take what they need. Common ownership means the disappearance of buying and selling and so also money, markets, banks, wages, profits and the rest.

4. We knew Solidarity of course. One of our disagreements with them was precisely because they didn't regard "common ownership" and "democratic control" as being one and the same thing. They put all the emphasis on "democratic control" or, as they put it, "self-management", and believed that this could be achieved without ending the money-wages-profits system which is the essence of capitalism.

In 1972 Solidarity published under the title Workers Councils and the Economics of A Self-Managed Society a long article originally written in 1957 by Cornelius Castoriadis (who went on to become a French intellectual guru in his own right). This pamphlet painted a picture of factories and other workplaces being controlled by elected Workers Councils in the context of the continuation of the money-wages-profits system. Thus, in a given factory, the workers would elect a Council which would decide on the level of wages, the price of the product, the amount of profits to be re-invested, etc. This was Solidarity's conception of "socialism"; echoes of it can be found in your view that the struggle today is over "decision-making authority" in society (rather than over the ownership and control of the productive resources by which society lives). It was the completely impractical idea of direct workers' control of a capitalist economy.

If Solidarity had also envisaged the end of the whole money-wages-profits system this would have been socialism. But then "workers council" would have been a misnomer since socialism, being a classless society, involves the disappearance of the working class just as much as of the capitalist class. "Democratic councils" would have been a more appropriate term. A society where the means of production belong to everybody and run by democratic councils, that's socialism
- Editors.