Why I’m a socialist By William Bowles

25 January 2006

It’s not exactly fashionable these days to call yourself a socialist (unless you live in South America). The idea, we are constantly being reminded, has been totally discredited by the collapse of the Soviet ‘Empire’. Politics is dead, capital triumphs, a reminder of the infamous phrase that ‘history is dead’. What is true is that a lot of people are dead precisely because we have allowed those who promulgate such venomous views to capture all political space.

Even some on the ‘left’ are peddling the ‘line’ that the old definitions of left and right are obsolete (see Frank Furedi’s ‘Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right’. Furedi, the now-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party’s ‘guru’, has, it seems, seen the ‘light’. See also another renegade from the British Left, Mick Hume, editor of ‘Sp!ked’, www.spiked-online.com/ an online journal that Furedi not surprisingly also writes for).

So what gives with so many former socialists/marxists that sees them abandoning what in many instances, was a lifetime of commitment to socialism? And why have I escaped? Am I just a dinosaur, refusing to accept the ‘reality’ of the death of socialism, to be replaced by what seems to be, at least according to my reading of Furedi et al, a load of psycho-babble. Any idea that capitalism has to be removed has disappeared even from theoretical debates. Discourse takes place in a vacuum, devoid of concepts about class, race and power, never mind what they are. The debate, such as it is, is now all about vague ideas about ‘values’ and the loss of ideals.

Could it be that these characters were never truly imbued with the spirit of socialism from the get-go? After all, intellectualising about socialism is all well and good but what really drives it first and foremost is passion, a passion for justice, for humanity, that capitalism is a deeply unjust and inhumane system, that regardless of the defeats we, as socialists have suffered, does not in any way alter the reality of a system that has been screwing the planet for five hundred years and brought us to the current situation where we are poised on the edge of total chaos and destruction.

Defeated, not only in mind but also in spirit, I contend that the likes of Furedi, Hume and so forth, reveal a profoundly ahistorical view of humanity, and a cynicism veiled in slick syntax. ‘Beyond left and right’ indeed! Beyond an understanding of what motivates people more likely. Divorced from the reality of struggling to survive, which is after all, the lot for 80% of the world’s population, those of us who live in the rich part of the world and called ourselves socialists, cast about to find reasons why we have been ‘let down’ and abandoned to our fates.

Worse still I suppose is the fact that instead of taking a deep breath and taking a step back as it were, and reviewing events, they cast about looking for ‘culprits’ and in doing so, abandon analysis, in fact they abandon virtually everything that has, allegedly been the foundation of their philosophy! So much for commitment.

Okay, so what makes me different? I’m no intellectual giant, I don’t have any special access to knowledge denied to these former revos. Is it just a blind refusal to accept reality? To which I respond, just look around you folks; in the midst of such pessimism and defeatism, people continue to struggle and even take small steps forward. Just because the first great experiment in building an alternative to capitalism failed, does not alter the reality of capitalism, if anything it has revealed the fundamentally bankrupt nature of capitalism in ways that only a few years ago were unimaginable. Admittedly, what we find is truly horrendous once it has no curbs on its behaviour, but perhaps that’s a lesson we have to relearn.

I suppose the first question to ask is where did the first socialist experiments go wrong and what lessons can we draw from such an analysis? This not an easy question to answer, it has many interconnected layers, hence we have to try and deal with it on a number of levels.

Broadly, the issues fall under a number of headings:

  1. Development (or lack of)
  2. Opposition from the capitalist world
  3. The nature of socialist democracy
  4. ‘Progress’

Regardless of what Marx said about where he thought the optimum conditions for socialism would exist, what I choose to call ‘primitive socialism’ came about in the least likely of locations, in countries that were to put it mildly, backward not only in terms of material development but in education and what today, we call civil society.

Related to this were the models used upon which to base ‘development’, namely industrial capitalism of the American kind, in fact quite specifically of the kind that Henry Ford and co were creating, that is large scale, serial, assembly line production. A method well suited to the capitalist mode, whereby it mattered less what you produced than the fact that you could sell it in a ‘market’ determined first and foremost by the producers, not the consumers or even by real, basic needs.

Up to a point, such a system works well for primary products such as steel, cement, glass and above all else, electricity, without which any development at all is impossible, but beyond these basics, the entire concept of the production of consumer products starts to come into conflict with what I regard as fundamental ideas about socialist production, namely sustainability, human-scaled and centred work and the idea that development is all about developing human potential for self-realisation.

And it’s here that the second problem comes into play; opposition from the capitalist world which from day one was determined that socialism, no matter what its form would fail and most important of all, be seen to be a failure as an idea.

Hence from day one, the first attempt at building socialism, the Soviet Union, had its back to the wall. Not only did it have to contend with a vast array of internal problems and contradictions, it also had to contend with a powerful array of external enemies determined to see it fail.

The third and perhaps the most important problem was and remains so, is the issue of democracy, specifically, socialist democracy, something that I view as quite distinct and fundamentally different from the idea we’ve been sold in the West.

Nevertheless, the biggest failure of the socialist projects has been on the issue of democratic rights and even if the capitalist version is largely smoke and mirrors, the fact is, it’s peoples’ perceptions that count. And I think the issue of rights and freedoms is closely connected to the material conditions of life. In other words, even if socialism can’t offer the abundance of consumer junk that capitalism considers so vital to the measure of the quality of life, if people living in a socialist society know that decisions are being made by them about how resources are used, and the effects of such decisions, then I’m pretty sure the issue of the lack of junk, diminishes in significance as a measure of so-called wealth.

And moreover, I think these two issues are closely connected to the issue of the environment and here I think the role of history and connections to our past play a significant role, one borne out by the intense interest that many in the developed world now express in the past but in its commodified form as ‘heritage’.

All of these aspects interact with each other in very complex ways, so for example, centralised, large-scale industrial production under the kind of centralised state control that most socialist states built, requires a hierarchal, top down discipline, well-suited to a single political party that is also the state, but in reality, not reflecting a society that preaches equality and furthermore, that banned overtime and piece-work, both essential elements of industrial production if it is to produce goods for the lowest cost. Labour as a commodity fits well into such a system, but not if labour is regarded even in theory, as being the owner of the means of production.

What I’m trying to do here, admittedly in an extremely truncated form, is construct a picture of what I believe are the essential elements that are needed in order to offer to the exhausted and cynical people of the capitalist world, a viable alternative.

It’s clear that what the capitalist world calls consumerism, has run its course:

endless consumption and the debt that goes with it, coupled to the reality of unrestrained industrial production and its devastating effect on the planet, has left people unhappy and dissatisfied, desperate to find something to believe in that doesn’t involve buying;

the loss of belonging and our place in history and in the scheme of things that sees people retreating into a past, but even here, it’s a past constructed by corporate interests;

the retreat from political involvement as a result of the onslaught of the corporate, security state, not only on us but on the planet;

the self-evident corruption of business and the state as it runs amok and uncontrolled.

Taken as a whole, they identify the key elements of any socialist project for the 21st century:

  1. We have to put an end to endless consumption, it’s not only destroying the planet, it’s also destroying our humanity. And in fact, great swathes of people in capitalist societies express a deep unhappiness and unease about life as a result of being caught up in what is, in effect an addiction to consumption
  2. Restoring the balance between human kind and the planet. Increasingly, if only for reasons of self-preservation, the effects of endless consumption are visible and at the local and global level. The challenge for socialists, is to establish the fundamental connection between capitalist consumption and climate change
  3. Justice for the poor peoples’ of the planet. This means not only tackling the relationship between the 2 elements mentioned above and the poor of the planet but tackling racism and sexism as essential elements of the process
  4. Dismantling giant corporations – see 1 thru 3 above. Gigantism that benefits the few, is a serious disease that affects every last one of us and impacts negatively on life at every level
  5. Reinventing a peoples’ politics – nobody else will do it. Democracy is about taking control of our lives, not handing it over to someone else. Voting every five years is NOT democracy, it’s a sham. It’s also clear that gigantism is a disease not only of business but also of government and the state viz. The corporate, security state, ‘big brother’, 24/7 surveillance, databases and the entire apparatus of control. Big business and big brother go hand-in-hand
  6. Recovering our past and in doing so, reconnect to our common heritage. This is absolutely vital, for understanding where we come from and how we got here, enables us to explain our current predicament and take steps to deal with it

I’ve only scratched the surface of these issues and I think they need to be explored further, but I contend that the seeds are present in the here and now. Unformed and lacking focus and perhaps direction, they nevertheless express themselves in very concrete ways and especially in the way the state has responded to them.

Hence we see Blair and his ‘anti-social behaviour’ obsession; the attempts at reinventing ‘patriotism’; the obvious crackdown on our liberties which is not just about the ‘war on terror’ but about dealing with any future resistance to the current order; the obsession with reinventing history; attempts at channelling peoples’ deep concerns about the environment inwards rather than outwards, towards the nature of capitalist production. These I think, are the most obvious expressions of a society that has reached a dead-end, not as socialists of the 20th century necessarily saw it, that is, economic collapse, but a collapse of belief without which no state can sustain itself.

And we need look no further than how the Soviet Union and the states of Eastern Europe came to an end for proof of this. The state machine almost literally packed up its bags and took a walk. There was little or no resistance even though the state possessed the technical means to defend itself. Once nobody believed in it, it was unable to sustain itself and folded like a house built of cards.

This observation is, I think, of the utmost importance for us socialists; if we apply it to our current situation, we see that until such time as we are able to offer an alternative (in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they thought the answer was capitalism), we are stuck with current system.

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