Letters to the Editors from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialism on one island?
Is a socialist Britain really still an “impossibility” (Editors’ reply, Letters, Socialist Standard, January)? If the people understood what socialism was, and voted to make a go of it, is there proof: That if we resorted to all the available land for food production, there would not be enough? That we are incapable of producing satisfactory goods we need no matter what? Has there been a scrupulous and fair evaluation into such matters? Advances in productivity may have now reached a state where self-sufficiency in food, goods and essential services is no longer the “impossibility” it once was in Russia, etc due to economic backwardness.
Food is being destroyed, stockpiled or not grown because over- rather than under-productiveness has become a problem for capitalism. Goods can also be mass-produced now with comparative ease. If financial restraints were removed entirely, considerable latent productive forces could be brought into play-—including millions of people unemployed and wasting their labour in banking, etc. new techniques could be adopted, like widespread recycling of metals and other materials. It does not happen now simply because of the financial cost.
The world market needs countries to keep playing the capitalist game. If they can opt out, it would be global capitalism that loses—not socialist countries utilising a far more productive, efficient and flexible system. Your “world car” was merely an example of global market forces—not “interdependence”. Various parts are produced in different countries due simply to more favourable economies and tax systems, cheaper and better prepared workers, grants to attract foreign firms and other incentives that boost profits. You cannot extrapolate from this market that British socialism could not meet all needs. Socialism is superior in many ways, and as no sensible attempt to establish it has ever been made, only proper evaluation of hard facts can shed light on what the outcome might be.
There is no proof that retaining limited financial links would cause a socialist country to fail. Twenty-four million tourists brought £12 billion here in 1995. If this helped socialism to thrive by allowing a few imports of items which Britain could not provide, then it makes sense. British socialism succeeds. Visitors go home impressed. The world’s media report socialism works well. Other populations inevitably consider how they would benefit from joining in. Socialism soon expands. The Socialist Party must handle money to end capitalism. A socialist Britain would be doing the same.
Political, economic and other factors make even development of socialism world-wide unlikely. If supporting evidence does not exist, maintaining that one-country socialism is impossible may be a mistake. Furthermore, must not activists ease off promoting socialism if other countries were lagging behind, thereby causing supporters to despair and feel let down?
To start with your last point—which in fact is the whole point—we fundamentally disagree that “political, economic and other factors make even development of socialism world-wide unlikely”. We think the opposite is true.
Leaving aside for the moment that one aspect of the idea of socialism is a world-wide society without frontiers, passports and separate nation-states, why should the idea of a society of common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit, when it begins to take off, progress quicker in (to take your example) Britain as opposed to France or Germany or America or Japan or Argentina or South Africa or . . . ? What’s so special about the 1 percent or so of the world’s population who live on these islands off the northwest coast of the Eurasian landmass?
Life, problems, concerns–and the objective solution–are the same wherever capitalism exists. This is why it is unreasonable to suppose that people in one area will come to see through capitalism without this happening to people in the other areas too, at more or less the same rate.
Already, under capitalism, people are beginning to think in world terms. More and more people are coming to appreciate world music and world theatre. Millions more follow world sporting events, and there is a growing consciousness that all humans are part of one world, that we share a common planet. As more than one astronaut has remarked, when looking down on the Earth you can’t see any frontiers. Millions of people throughout the world are concerned about world poverty and world hunger and problems such as global warming and tropical deforestation.
This is a reflection of the material fact that we are increasingly living in one, interdependent world, albeit a capitalist one at the moment. It is this interdependence which has long meant that there are no national solutions to today’s universal social problems. Capitalism is a global problem, to which the answer is global socialism.
If people in one country were lagging behind (for some reason you will be able to imagine better than us) this would not be a reason for easing off but for stepping up spreading socialist ideas amongst the people of that part of the world.
We should perhaps add that we are not so naive as to imagine that the changeover from world capitalism to world socialism will occur over a single weekend. The changeover can be envisaged as taking place over a relatively short period of time of, say, five years (we don’t know) so the situation might well occur of socialists having won control in some parts of the world but not everywhere. Naturally, they will manage as best they can in the circumstances, no doubt ending class ownership and bringing in democratic control of all aspects of social life including production. Their other main priority would be to do what they could to accelerate the winning of power by socialist majorities in the rest of the world.
But this is not the same as the situation you seem to be envisaging of the people of one country deliberately aiming to establish socialism in just that country while the rest of the world remains solidly capitalist. In our view, this is neither desirable nor at all likely to happen. So we are not called upon to speculate about whether people in Britain would be prepared to go without tea, coffee, chocolate, oranges, bananas, rice, soya, rubber, cotton and other products that won’t grow in these climes, or about whether they will be able to manage without new supplies of iron ore, aluminium, nickel, copper, manganese, mercury, chrome, tungsten and other rare metals.
Stone age economics?
I read with great interest your reply to Bryan Fair’s letter in the January issue of Socialist Standard in which it was stated that a Socialist Britain is an impossibility because of international economical interdependence.
I hope you will forgive me for stating the obvious from this, that is, if all countries worked towards being independent of each other for all their needs, indeed, not only would a socialist Britain be possible . . . but a complete socialist world would be possible!
You also stated that countries such as Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua have tried to escape from the laws of the world market economy, yet to my knowledge, none of these countries have ever really gone down the road to a Stateless Moneyless Society, which I think, must include autonomous self-reliant communities.
Probably, the hub of the difference between myself and your thinking is that I do not believe for one moment, that in a future socialist world, workers would clock in and out of massive factories making goods to deliver across to the other side of the planet. Surely, mass culture of any sort must be eradicated if true socialism is to shine through.
It is, however, quite feasible to understand that people would work within small communities for their own needs and the needs of others which they can relate to within their own community. This is not to say that surpluses can not be passed on to other communities and there be some international activity between communities, and migration between communities.
When you talk about “self-reliant communities” we don’t suppose you mean this literally in the sense that each “small community” should actually have to provide for all its needs from its own resources. If we ignore the resources which will have been inherited from capitalism and which will be able to be used for a while, for many communities this would mean having to go back, not to the iron age or the bronze age, but to the stone age since they wouldn’t have any access to metals or metal ores.
Since we can’t believe you really subscribe to so absurd a position we will interpret your phrase as a rhetorical flourish and assume that what you envisage is “self-administering” communities which would try to meet as many of their everyday needs as practicable from local sources. That local communities should be the basic unit of democratic self-administration is a principle we can go along with but, when it comes to production, it is as well to be aware to what extent local communities are interconnected and interdependent and that this places severe limits on what needs could be met locally.
The fact is that people in small communities aren’t able to produce all they need, or anything like it. The final stage of the production of a range of goods for everyday use could be done locally–food, clothes, shoes, furniture–as well as repairs but neither (most of) the raw materials nor (in most cases) any of the metals to make the tools and machines used in this final stage could be produced locally.
You don’t like the idea of mass production but most people would consider access to such items as a cooker, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, a telephone, a radio (and a TV) as essential, but you can’t be suggesting that these should be assembled individually on an artisanal basis. To meet needs, they would have to be produced en masse. This doesn’t mean that they need be produced under the conditions that exist today in factories under capitalism. Far from it. Factories in a socialist society can and will be structured and run quite differently: slower pace of work, shorter hours, more automation, non-polluting technology, democratic participation in decision-making, even be set amidst trees and gardens.
Nor, to answer your point, would they be “making goods to deliver across to the other side of the planet” (except, perhaps, for some factories producing very specialised equipment as for hospitals or scientific research). They would be making goods to supply all the local communities in a given area.
People also, rightly, consider running water and mains electricity as necessities. Although some water and some electricity could be supplied locally, the machinery and equipment to do this (pipes, pumps, tanks, generators, transformers, cables, wires, etc) couldn’t. Even environment-friendly technology such as solar power involves highly sophisticated equipment that will be beyond the capabilities of local communities to produce on their own.
So, local communities cannot be independent or self-reliant as far as meeting their material needs goes; they are interdependent. This is not a question of communities passing on their “surpluses” to one another (most, if left to themselves, wouldn’t have any surplus); it is a question of them being interlinked in a single network of production which in the end embraces the whole world.
This does not mean that everything has to be controlled from a single world centre. Only a few functions would have to be dealt with at world level such as, for instance, communications satellites. Most could be carried out (as in practice at present) at a level that can be called regional (in world terms). It is at this level that production of intermediate goods and machines and equipment can be envisaged as being produced, for distribution for use either in other factories or by local communities.
Local communities can only be the basis for consumption and for democratic decision-making but not for production. Of course the actual degree of centralisation and decentralisation will be up to the people around at the time to decide in the light of their traditions, experiences and preferences. One thing, however, is clear (but you realise this anyway): even the ultra-decentralised structure you advocate could only be achieved in a world where resources no longer belonged to private individuals, corporations and states and where production was no longer carried on for sale on a market with a view to profit. In other words, in a socialist world.