Saturday, September 20, 2008

Questions of the Day - What Socialism Means

Originally posted on the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist blog

This excerpt was originally published in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, Questions of the Day.

Socialism is the only system within which the problems which now face workers can be solved; but what will it be like? Socialism is a system in which the means for producing and distributing wealth will be owned by society as a whole. Under capitalism the land, factories, offices, mines, railways and other instruments of production and distribution are monopolised by a section of society only, who thus form a privileged class. Socialism will end this, for, with the means of life ownedin common by the entire community, it will be a classless society in which the exploitation and oppression of man by man will have been abolished. All human beings will be social equals, freely able to co-operate in running social affairs.

Drawing up a detailed blueprint for Socialism is premature, since the exact forms will depend upon the technical conditions and preferences of those who set up and live in Socialism; but we can broadly define the essential features of Socialism.

Socialism can only be democratic. At one time Socialism was known also as 'social democracy', a phrase which shows well that democratic control would extend to all aspects of social affairs, including the production and distribution of wealth. There is an old socialist slogan which speaks of 'government over people' giving way 'to the administration of things'; meaning that the public power of coercion, and the government which operates it will have no place in Socialism. The State, which is an organisation composed of soldiers, policemen, judges and gaolers charged with enforcing the laws, is only needed in class society for in such societies there is no community of interest, only class conflict. The purpose of govenmeat is to maintain law and order in the interests of the dominant class. It is in fact an instrument of class oppression. In Socialism there will be no classes and no built-in class conflicts: everybody will have the same basic social interest. There will be genuine social harmony and community of interest. In these circumstances there is no need for any coercive machine to govern or rule over people. The phrase 'socialist government' is a contradiction in terms. Where there is Socialism there is no government and where there is government there is no Socialism.

Those who wrongly assume that government and administration are one and the same will have some difficulty in imagining a society without government. A society without administration would indeed be impossible since 'society' implies that human beings organise themselves to provide for their needs. But a society without government is both possible and desirable. Socialism will in fact mean the extension of democratic administration to all aspects of social life on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. There will be administrative centres which will be clearing-houses for settling social affairs by majority decision.

But will not the administrators become the new ruling class? Democratic organisation does indeed involve the delegation of functions to groups and individuals. Such people will be charged by the community with organising necessary social functions. They will be chosen by the community and will be answerable to it. Those who perform the administrative functions in Socialism would be in no position to dominate. They will not be regarded as superior persons, as tends to be the case today, but as social equals doing an essential job. Nor will they have at their command armies and policemen to enforce their will. There will be no opportunity for bribery and corruption since everybody, including those in administrative jobs, will have free access to the stock of wealth set aside for individual consumption. The material conditions for the rise of a new ruling class would not exist.

The purpose of socialist production will be simply and solely to satisfy human needs. Under present arrangements production is for the market with a view to profit. This will be replaced by production solely and directly for use. The production and distribution of sufficient wealth to meet the needs of the socialist community as individuals and as a community will be an administrative and organisational problem. It will be no small problem but the tools for solving it have already been created by capitalism.

Capitalism has developed technology and social productivity to the point where plenty for all can be produced. A society of abundance has long been technically pcssible and it is this that is the material basis for Socialism. Capitalism, because it is a class society with production geared to profit-making rather than meeting human needs, cannot make full use of the world-wide productive system it has built up over the past two hundred or so years. Socialism, making full use of the developed methods of production, will alter the purpose of production. Men and women will be producing wealth solely to meet their needs, and not for the profit of a privileged few.

Using techniques for predicting social wants (at present prostituted to the service of capital), a socialist society can work out how much and what sort of products and services will be needed over a given period. Men and women will be free to discuss what they would like to be produced. So with social research and after democratic discussion an estimate of what is needed can be made. The next problem is to arrange for these amounts to be produced. Capitalism, with its modern computing machines and input-output analysis, has developed the techniques which a socialist society can use.

When the wealth has been produced, apart from that needed to renew and expand the means of production, all will freely take what they feel they need to live and enjoy life. This is what we mean by 'free access'. There will be no buying and selling, and hence no need for money. What communities and individuals want does not vary greatly except over long periods, and it will be a simple administrative task to see that the stores are well-stocked with what people need. If any shortages develop they will not last long. Planned reserves will be held as a safeguard agzins; unforeseen natural disasters.

'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need' is another long-standing socialist principle. It means what it says: that men and women will freely take part in social production to the best of their abilities, and freely take from the fruits of their common labour whatever they need.

Confronted for the first time with this proposal for free distribution according to need, many people are sceptical. What about the lazy man? Or the greedy man? Who will do the dirty work? What will be the incentive to work? These are objections socialists hear time and time again. These are perhaps understandable reactions to what seems, to those who have never thought about it, a startling proposition. As a matter of fact, behind these objections is a carefully cultivated popular prejudice as to what human nature is. We dealt with this earlier in the section on human nature. Suffice it to say here that biological and social science and anthropological research conclusively show that so-called human nature is not a barrier to the establishment of Socialism.

Work, or the expenditure of energy, is both a biological and a social must for human beings. They must work to use up the energy generated by eating food. They must work also to provide the food, clothing and shelter they need to live. So in any society, be it feudal, capitalist or socialist, men and women must work. The point at issue is how that work should be organised. A very strong argument against capitalism is that it reduces so central a human activity as work to the drudgery it is for most people, instead of allowing it to provide the pleasure it could, and would in a socialist society.

To suggest that work could be pleasant often raises a laugh; but this only shows how much capitalism has degraded human life. Most, but certainly not all work under capitalism is done in the service of an employer so that people almost without thinking identify work with employment. Working for an employer is always degrading, often boring and unpleasant and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous. But even under capitalism not all work, as we have defined it, is done in the course of employment. Men and women are working when they clean their cars, dig their gardens, or pursue their hobbies and enjoy themselves at the same time. So close is the misleading association of work with employment that many would not even regard such activities as work. They think that anything that is pleasant cannot by definition be work!

There is no reason at all why the work of producing and distributing useful things cannot be as enjoyable as are leisure-time activities today. The physical conditions under which work is done can be vastly improved. So can the relationships between people at work. Human beings, as free and equal members of a socialist community, will no longer have to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer for a wage or salary. The degrading wages system will be abolished so that there will be no such thing as employment. Instead work will be done by free men and women co-operating and controlling their conditions of work, getting enjoyment from creating things and doing socially useful tasks.

In a socialist society there will be no social stigma attaching to any kind of work. Nor will there be pressures, as exist at present (because they are cheap and therefore profitable to the capitalists) to continue industrial processes which are harmful or dangerous to those engaged in them. In any event, with human needs and enjoyment as the guiding principle, there will be no need for anybody to be tied to the same job continuously. The opportunities for men and women to develop and exercise their talents and to enjoy doing so will be immense.

Finally, Socialism must be world-wide because the productive system which capitalism has built up and which a socialist society will take over is already international. There will be no frontiers and people will be free to travel over the whole earth. Socialism will mean an end to all national oppression - and, indeed, in its current political sense to all 'nations' — and to discriminations on the grounds of race and sex. All the people of the world, wherever they live, whatever their skin colour, whatever language they speak, really will be members of one vast human family. Socialism will at last realise the age-old dream of the Brotherhood of Man.