From the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
In these strange days of postmodernism, is the concept of authenticity a relevant or helpful idea? In politics, the implicit ideas all have a history that explains both context and evolution. In the tracing of this history a starting point is helpful. Can we call this point authentic or must it always be arbitrary? Certainly any subsequent variation or evolution can only be judged in the light of that original. What might be important is to have evidence that any variation will possibly violate the original concept. Sometimes the source is indisputable (living people or extant texts) but original sources can also be interpretations of other people’s work, as with Socrates, The Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. Analysis of the content and internal logic of the idea itself is important since the author(s) may not be completely aware of the consequences of their own interpretation. It is entirely possible that the use of the same analysis might contradict the conclusions of the author. So we have three criteria by which to define the authenticity of an idea: Source, Idea and Evolution. I will attempt an analysis of Socialism using these criteria with special reference to the work of Karl Marx.
Socialism has a long history; some say it is as old as humanity. Many pre-historical hunter-gatherer communities seem to have been based on elements of socialism/communism. Traditionally the modern concept of socialism has its roots in the work of Winstanley, Fourier and St. Simon. Known as socialist Idealists their primary concern was the immorality of private property and the social injustice that it created. It was not until Karl Marx and Frederick Engels worked together and then with the First International that a comprehensive definition of socialism was attempted.
Marx had claimed, or more precisely others had claimed on his behalf, to have discovered the laws of both historical evolution and capital accumulation. He used the form of analysis known as dialectics which had been developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Building on the theories of the British economists, Adam Smith and Paul Ricardo he produced the paradigm of classical economics in his work Das Kapital. It might be claimed that this represented the crystallisation of three traditions: German philosophical Idealism, British economics and French Idealistic socialism. A truly international synthesis befitting the context of the world’s First International Workingman’s Association.
As a result, and in the light of, all this analysis – economic, historical and philosophical did a definition of socialism arise? ‘The common ownership and democratic control of the means of production’ is, for me, the authentic expression of what socialism is. Twentieth-century history would argue and reinterpret two key words in this definition out of all recognition – ‘common’ and ‘democratic’. In what is sometimes called ‘the century of ideology’ we are told that fascism and Soviet ‘communism’ were somehow connected to, or even resulted from, the definition and ideology of socialism. My contention is that this view is profoundly mistaken because, in part, it completely neglects the importance of authenticity in the creation of the concept of socialism. As to why this happened, and still happens, is only explainable in terms of ’political consciousness.’
Socialist consciousness is not purely the result of intellectual study. It also demands a psychological reassessment of values and paradigms. What has been called ‘false consciousness’ is caused primarily not because of a lack of intelligence but by the inability to imagine profound political alternatives. This in turn is mostly due to a political/historical context. If you do not truly understand capitalism then you can never imagine its antithesis – socialism. When the left substituted ‘state ownership’ for the original ‘common ownership’ it was because of this. For Marx state ownership could only ever be a prelude to the revolution and was never considered as a form of socialism.
The bourgeois mind could never imagine a stateless, moneyless society – state capitalism was their political limit (Lenin, Mao, Castro etc.). The same is true of their interpretation of democracy. Representative (bourgeois) democracy was replaced by something infinitely worse – centralised democracy or the rule of the elite. Socialism is democracy – the direct control of the means of production by the majority.
|From the Sep 1984 Socialist Standard.|
So in both respects we can state that this was not an ‘evolution’ of the idea of socialism but a ‘perversion’ of it. And we know this, in part, by reference to the ‘original’ definition based on the ‘authentic’ origins already discussed. There is also the critique that these leftist definitions are not authentic in terms of the original motivation for socialism – social justice and the freedoms this implies. The terrors of the Soviet Union were no surprise to those with authentic consciousness. In conclusion we can say that in terms of the source (Marx), idea and evolution that the leftist version of socialism is invalid by reference to authenticity (and, of course, political history).
Some time ago I was engaged in a debate on Facebook about the definition of socialism. My opponent contended that my definition was too narrow and what’s more it did not coincide with the one given in Wikipedia! Apart from an affront to my ego (thirty years of study and activism) I was saddened by the apparent triumph of the leftist version. But I remind myself that any quest for social justice will always lead to socialist conclusions and it is up to socialists to convert this desperate need into revolutionary action based on authentic motivation and consciousness.
Once this is achieved in the majority no political elite can arise with the potential to corrupt the cause. In this, political consciousness is not dissimilar to the arts – once understood a great painting, novel, film or piece of music will enable you to discern subsequently that which is fake, misleading and superficial (inauthentic). Some time ago the Socialist Party ran ‘The Campaign for Real Socialism’ in an attempt to revive authentic socialist consciousness. As a lover of the ales from which the name was derived all I can say is: ‘I’ll have my usual – in a straight glass’.