Saturday, September 30, 2023

The End — or the Beginning? (1995)

From the September 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialism is dead! So say all the capitalist political pundits. Yet not one of them is able to point to a single example of how the late 'communism' of Russia and the 'socialism' of the Labour Party differs (or has ever differed) in any essential detail from the private capitalism they extol.
At the beginning of the present decade a new sense of optimism was being promoted by the politicians and the media throughout Europe and the United States. The “evil empire”, as some western politicians referred to the authoritarian state-capitalist tyranny in Russia and her satellites states, was rapidly disintegrating, ending, it was hoped, decades of fear and terror.

Western propagandists insisted that what the world was witnessing was the death agonies of socialism. They were persisting in the lie that Socialism or Communism—which terms describe the system of democratic political and social equality envisaged by Marx and the pioneers of the Socialist movement—was the rotten political corpse that was decaying in Moscow.

Even when western correspondents, like the BBC’s John Simpson, were directly drawing attention to the riches and dissolute life-styles of the Russian ruling class and contrasting this with the misery and impoverishment of the Russian workers, they were using the lie that Russia was communist, that it was the result of a contradiction-in-terms known as “Marxist-Leninism” and that there could be such a thing as a “Marxist government”—the latter being the terminology laid down as policy by the World Service of the BBC.

It was a time for euphoria among the capitalist class and their political agents, many of whom, it has to be said, were ignorant enough to believe their own propaganda that communism had died by its own hand in Russia. Theirs, they believed, was the victory; henceforth the world—including the huge potential market and the teeming natural resources of the vast “Soviet” territories—was their oyster.

More good news
There was more good news, too, for those capitalists and their political agents who saw capitalism as being best served by governments that interfered as little as possible in its workings. In the early days of capitalism the rapacity and sheer social irresponsibility of this school of economic thought had existed political opposition from the working class and die labour unions. On die continent political parties opposed to non-interference by government in the affairs of capitalism (the policy of laissez-faire as it was known) surfaced towards the end of the last century. In Britain the Labour Party came into existence in 1906.

Before die turn of the century, some of the continental parties paid lip-service to Socialism but, despite claim and counterclaim, none of these political parties advocated the abolition of capitalism with its wages and money systems in favour of a Socialist system firmly rooted in common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use. To a greater or lesser extent, the economic philosophy of these organisations was directed at amending capitalism by intervening in its administration in the belief that the grosser aspects of poverty, such as social destitution, unemployment and slums, could be planned out of the system. Henceforth, in those states of capitalism where political democracy prevailed, the political struggle was between die Left and the Right and the substance of their political conflict concerned only the view of each as to the role government should play in the administration of capitalism.

But in the post-war period the lines between Left and Right became blurred and sometimes even obscured. The belief prevailed in both camps that the interventionist doctrines of John Maynard Keynes could be used as the means of ironing out the traditional boom-slump syndrome of capitalism. The economic experts believed they had discovered a new means of controlling the system, a means that would enable governments to check capitalism’s periodic crises. Problems like acute unemployment could be planned out of the system and this would provide revenue, through increased production and greater productivity, to establish schemes of social welfare that would themselves have a beneficial effect on the economy.

That the experts and the politicians of the Left and the Right were wrong is a matter of historical record. Initially, making good the destruction and scarcities caused by the war convinced the Keynesian faithful that their system of “demand management” was really working but inevitably the crises of capitalism recurred: unemployment grew steadily, tax revenue fell as unemployment and other social security benefits soared. Government were forced not only to increase taxation but to debase the currency by printing money to meet demands on the Exchequer.

The result was spiralling inflation which became a post-war economic phenomenon. It provided an excuse, albeit a false one, for the increases in unemployment and it led to strenuous demands by the agents and servants of capital for public spending cuts which meant systematically reducing welfare and health benefits.

Left goes right
The entire political philosophy of the Left was being debunked. On the Right, the concept of a compassionate capitalism which had proved a vote-winner became political anathema. “Trickle down economics”, as the academic harlots of American capitalism euphemistically dubbed the return to the old forms of financial barbarism, became the new buzz-phrase. Its implications were simple enough: if government allowed capitalism to accelerate the rate of exploitation, through cheap labour and the abolition of those benefits which unions had won for their members, then the capitalists’ appetite would be so satiated with profits that more crumbs would be allowed to fall down to the workers. Thatcher and her gross political playmates called it monetarism but one of its first earnest practitioners was Dennis Healey, the last Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain.

The Left had to face facts; where capitalism had to meet high on-costs resulting from taxation and ancillary benefits to its workforce, it was less able to compete, especially against the dynamic low-waged economies of its newly-emerged competitors. “Less able” effectively means loss of orders, increased unemployment and reduced social services.

In the past, when, for example, Labour was in office in Britain, governments attempted, with limited success, to curb wage increases in order to make British capitalism more competitive. Despite wage “freezes”, “compacts” and legislative restrictions on pay increases, every single Labour government in Britain, and most elsewhere, left office with more people unemployed than there had been under the previous administration.

The knowledge that a government cannot legislate rules of civilised behaviour for its national segment of world capitalism is now well-known to serious politicians on the Left. That is why Labour and social democratic parties have largely abandoned policies of nationalisation and other forms of state interventionism and now openly contend with the Right on the straightforward basis of their alleged better abilities to run capitalism than their opponents.

The end of history
That knowledge formed part of the back ground to the demise of state capitalism in the East, where wasteful, low-productive employment was a general substitute for the dole. Now it seemed that on all fronts capitalism stood victorious. Its eastern competitor, with its frightening military capacity, was dismantling its massive structures of state control of industry and commerce while, elsewhere, the more venial Left was defeated and where it retained a measure of political influence (as in France) it did so by openly espousing free market policies.

Some of capitalism’s secular saints, its pensioned “experts” and visionless “philosophers” were quick to assure their masters that we had reached the end of history. Henceforth capitalism would be inviolable, its tenure unbroken and unchallenged by any alternative form of social order. Communism, the legend ran, had been tried and failed; Socialism had been tried and failed. The fools fell victims to their own ignorance.

That humanity should face an endless future of unbridled greed, competition and conflict must strike terror in the minds of the working class in general and young people and parents in particular. One has only to look at the emaciation of the unions, the change in labour practices from jobs to contracts and the implications of more generalised part-time wage-slavery to see part of capitalism’s vision for the future of the working class.

End of an era
Socialism, or Communism—the two terms mean the same thing—defines a social order in which the resources of the Earth and the tools of production and distribution are owned in common by the entire human family. It means human beings co-operatively and democratically using these means to produce and distribute all the needs of society. It means people contributing their skills and energies voluntarily to the productive and distributive processes and taking from the store of commonly-owned wealth the goods and services they need without any form of payment whatsoever.

Not only has this form of free, classless, wageless, moneyless and stateless society never been tried anywhere, it obviously could only exist on a world-wide basis. So what is the corpse over which the ghouls of capitalism sing their paean of exultation if it is not Socialism?

The ghost that now rots in the cesspit of history is that of the dream that capitalism could be made less gross, less brutal, less rapacious, less wasteful of human life if it could be rationally controlled by governments. We have to allow that good men and women entertained that dream; that they strove to make it reality and that they failed. Today the vultures that inherited their cause, the Blairs and company, are without a dream beyond their personal placement in capitalism’s pecking order.

The nightmare continues without the illusionary dream; history has not ended but that phase which entertained the futile hope that a system based on the exploitation of the working class could function in the interests of that class is gone. It has cleared the way for the struggle for Socialism.
Richard Montague

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