Sunday, 31 August 2008

What is Socialism?

We live in reactionary times. Times, in which, the political left appears to be unable to respond to the dominance of the political right. Capitalism is everywhere triumphant. The left is in crisis. So what has happened?

Firstly we need to go back to 1989 the year in which the Soviet Union collapsed. The champagne corks must have been popping in every capitalist boardroom. Why? because as long as the Soviet Union existed it was possible to believe in a viable alternative to capitalism. That gave the left an awful lot of strength. There isn't the time and space here to go into the pro's and cons of the Soviet Union. Was it really a workers state? Was it state capitalism? Was it just a brutal dictatorship? Suffice to say the Soviet Union was not a bad as Western Capitalist propaganda made it seem. People had housing and healthcare and it was a much more equal society than anything we have ever experienced. An awful lot of good people gave their lives trying to create a better world. Their efforts deserve to be acknowledged.

But back to the left. After 1989 it became seized with doubt - trapped like a rabbit in the headlights of the oncoming capitalist juggernaut. But how did things fold so easily? I think there are a number of reasons. One key one is the fact that a lot of the old Marxists and Socialists, people like E P Thompson simply died out. The people who replaced them didn't have the experience of war, conflict and struggle that those those old Socialists did, they were tough cookies. Socialists had gone soft and Socialist politicians in Europe had been sucked into the Eurocracy, expense accounts, and (largely) meaningless debates in Strasbourg.

So where do we go now? What next for the left? Well socialism of course! But hang on isn't that a bit 20th century? Isn't socialism dead as Martin Kettle claimed recently? Well no it isn't. Broadly speaking there are two kinds of socialism; Socialism with a big 'S' and socialism with a small 's'. Socialism with a big 'S' - the Socialism that arose from the work of people like Marx, Engels and Lenin.
By the the late 1960s Socialism had become dogmatic, doctrinaire and sterile That does not mean that Marx, for example, was dogmatic, just that Socialism had become riddled with a particularly deadening kind of dogmatism. Socialism had ceased to be empowering and vibrant. Changing economic circumstances and disillusionment with the Soviet Union helped to bring about the decline of this mainstream Socialism.

But socialism with a small 's' is, and always has been, alive and well. Socialist ideas pre-date Marx by a very long time. Wat Tyler was a socialist, so was John Lilliburne. Because socialism with a small 's' is simply the politics of putting people first - of need not greed. You don't need to have read Das Kapital to understand that kind of socialism - anyone can.

Of course Socialism is so unpopular that some people believe the 's' word should never be mentioned. If they can think of a better word to describe the politics of need not greed then I'd like to hear it. 'Progressive' politics just isn't enough. If David Cameron can call himself a progressive - he's not really - then that's a good reason for not using the word. The fact that Cameron would never dream of calling himself a socialist is good enough for me.

To be honest I'm glad that doctrinaire Socialism is dead. Too much focus on theory, rather than practice, too much self indulgence, too many varieties, too many meetings, too much sectarianism - too much baggage by half. We need to learn from the mistakes that Socialists made in the past without underestimating the great value and contribution of socialists like Marx. We need to unite and move forward with the simple politics of social, economic and environmental justice. That's what socialism, at its core, is really about.


Anonymous said...

This is what Socialism is - people striving to work together against the excesses of the capitalists.


Howard Thorp said...

I couldn't agree more. But socialism has to be inclusive if it is to make a difference. It can't be simply a matter of joining this party or that party. That is what dragged Socialism down.

Anonymous said...

So why be a member of the Green Party then? Does this meet middle class credentials?
Yes, capitalism does create poverty; but the issue is complex, as I know you've explained. For example, what does the Green Party think of the price of domestic heating fuel? Are the current crippling prices we're paying a good deterrent that will stop older and less mobile members of society from putting some heating on, thus ensuring that they don't add to the impact of global warming? Or is this a capitalist dream, in that we can force the most needy to continue to pay up in order to live, thus guaranteeing the profits of the owners?
I'm not saying the Socialist Party has all the answers, but some of the answers depend on the working class banding together and realising what they're fighting against.
The middle class concerns of securing organic produce are a world apart from this...........

Howard Thorp said...

You seem to have a thing about class going on here. Not that class isn't important - it is. But you seem to have allowed yourself to be persuaded by the Daily Mail argument that organic food can only be afforded by the middle classes - not true. As I said earlier poor people in the UK are killing themselves by eating too much cheap processed food.

Why do you assume the Green Party is middle class? Have you ever been to a meeting or conference? Did you know that the GP has a trade union group? I attended a GPTU meeting at the last but one conference and not a middle class person in sight (except for me of course)! Anyway, beating capitalism isn't going to happen by people like us arguing about how middle class the GP is.

As for the GP and fuel poverty, Caroline Lucas - who is about to be elected as our leader - has called for a windfall tax on energy. If you look at our videos on Youtube (channel=greenpartyew) you will see what we are doing in Kirklees by insulating the homes of thousands of people.

As a socialist (note the small 's') I chose to join the GP because it is the only mainstream political party whose aims and objectives I can agree with. I have no desire to spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Marxism etc. Been there done that. Socialists (note the big 'S') have been doing that for years and where has it got them? I want to do something practical now, and make a difference - that is why I joined the GP.

Anyway, people on the left should be working together. Sectarianism has always been the bane of Socialism and the left.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting but naive assessment of the problem, and from someone who joined the Labour Party after the "Labour" was squeezed out of it, I can see how this has come about.
It is unclear which conference you are talking about, in terms of the GPTU meeting, but maybe next time you go you could host a raffle to find a word to replace "socialism"; one that doesn't wring it dry of the meaning, but re-engages the actual principles (pitted against the legacy that Thatcher left us with!). I'm not sure what the prize would be........

Howard Thorp said...

Firstly, as I have said before I don't publish anonymous comments. I've made an exception this time but if you don't get a comment published in future its because you haven't identified yourself.

So its naive is it? I've been expecting this one for a while. This is a blog - not a textbook so I'm not going to go into chapter and verse on this one. The GP is not a socialist party and doesn't claim to be. Most members, surprise, surprise come from the environmental side of politics. Something that has always been a bit of a blind spot with most Socialists whose obsession with endless growth and lack of understanding of the way environmental systems work puts them firmly in bed with their capitalist enemies.

Of course it would be much easier for me to go with the flow of the times and accept Socialism is dead. Then I wouldn't have to waste my energy having arguments about what socialism is.

Anonymous said...


• noun a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

(According to the OED)


Howard Thorp said...

Yes, but there is more to Socialism than that. What about the role of the state? Anarchists, for example, and I have a lot of sympathy with them, would say no to state ownership of the means of production etc . Can we trust the state, even a democratic socialist state to act in our best interests?

Howard Thorp said...

Just in case I didn't make it clear in the blog I do believe that:

'the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole'.

That is what I mean by social and economic justice - but also with the added dimension of environmental justice - which means doing things in a sustainable way. But it does not necessarily mean state control.

Anonymous said...

The Socialist Party does campaign on environmental issues.....

And your comments about socialism and sectarianism are rather ill-considered.


Howard Thorp said...

Sorry Glenn Maybe I'm a bit jaded but I've been involved in socialist politics for over 35 years now. I've had friends in the SWP, WRP and RCP - all good people who believed in making a better world. People who devoted a significant chunk of their lives to the socialist cause and have had precious little to show for it.

People used to joke about the 57 varieties of socialism, but it was fair comment. Why so many socialist parties? Answer - sectarianism. They each thought that they, and only they, had the right ideologically sound approach.

That was never for me. I respect what Socialists have done. People like Marx have made a huge contribution to our understanding of how to create a better world. But doctrinaire dogmatic Socialism ain't going nowhere - period. Nor would I want it to.

Now the simple straightforward socialism of social, economic and environmental justice, that has a future - because it something that (almost)everyone can identify with. No textbooks needed.

Anonymous said...

Have you managed to consider another term, then, that captures the opposition to capitalism, and truly conveys what "social, economic and environmental justice" you write about?
Or do we all simply subscribe to the Mail readers view that "Socialim is dead" aka it's BAD........
Peter Joyson

Howard Thorp said...

In my blog I challenged anyone to come up with an alternative to using socialism - so far no one has.....

Anonymous said...

"Trades Union Congress: Building a real leadership against the bosses

This year's Trades Union Congress promises to be more interesting than in previous years. The main resolutions reflect issues such as the battle in the public sector over the government's pay restraint policies and job losses, which are worsening as the economy slows under the impact of the global credit crisis.

The increasing authoritarianism of the government and its attacks on civil liberties will be an important debate.

Important issues facing women workers everywhere will also be discussed, including the 'right to choose', as abortion rights for women come under renewed attack.

On the issue of the anti-union laws, Unite points out that it is getting more difficult to defend members in struggle against the bosses.

Its resolution points out that increasingly: "workers whose terms and conditions and job security are undermined following takeover by private equity firms are offered no protection under existing TUPE provisions".

Workers' rights

PCS is calling for public-sector trade union unity, photo Paul Mattsson

The bakers' union BFAWU, in the same section of the agenda, gives an example of diminishing workers' rights. 600 workers in Lyndale foods in Lancashire in June this year found themselves marched off the premises by security guards "without a minute's warning" when the company went into insolvency but "restarted trading with the same directors" on the same day "passing redundancies and pension losses onto the taxpayer".

Unite and the RMT both refer in their resolutions to recent judgments of the European Court of Justice which "are a fundamental attack on collective bargaining and the right to strike". The RMT refers to them as "the most serious attacks on trade unions since Taff Vale".

What they are talking about here are the decisions by the court to back the right of employers to pay lower wages to "posted workers". These are workers who are sent to work temporarily in another EU state.

The employers are increasingly using these methods to drive down wages across the EU but now the courts are backing them, by saying it is illegal for trade unions to take industrial action against this.

The RMT says that these "unelected judges are using the 'free movement' provisions (of the EU) and have disembowelled the concept of a Social Europe and undermined the ability of unions to protect workers".

It calls on the TUC to organise a day of action, demonstration and lobby of parliament on the issue and a European-wide day of action.

In the same section the CWU has put down an amendment calling for the dropping of the requirement under the union recognition laws which calls for "a minimum level of participation in a bargaining unit". This is in reference to the employers increasingly using this to prevent union recognition.

The POA, reflecting the way it has been disgracefully treated by the Labour government, which has once again outlawed prison officers' right to strike, calls on the TUC "to organise a series of one-day general strikes" to force the government to "remove the anti-union legislation from statute".

In the economic section, Unite points out the impact of rising prices in energy and their effect on living standards.

It calls for a windfall tax on the energy companies and increased regulation of financial institutions.

The RMT, in an amendment to this, calls for public ownership of "utilities and services, including water, gas, electricity, coal, oil and the transport sector and a massive extension of council housing".

It remains to be seen what will happen in the compositing process but this promises to be a very interesting debate.

The pro-capitalist wing of the unions will no doubt seek to take out all of the RMT measures. But the left side of the debate puts back on the trade union movement agenda at least the beginnings of the case for the socialist transformation of society.

The call for a new workers' party, and the central role the unions should be playing in that, if the above sort of programme has any chance of being implemented, will hopefully be heard from the rostrum during this debate.

One debate that promises to raise the temperature will be on the issue of public-sector pay.

Unison's resolution calls for the TUC to coordinate the public-sector unions on pay and supports those unions taking action.

The PCS takes this further when it calls on the TUC to "coordinate industrial action amongst those unions in dispute over pay".

This has been the position of the PCS for some time. In effect the PCS is saying, with a note of exasperation, to all the other public-sector union leaders - get your act together and let's have unity in action.

Trades councils
The RMT has a resolution calling for the TUC to give trades councils more rights, including the right for the annual trades council conference to send one resolution to the British TUC conference, as the Scottish and Wales TUC do at the moment.

The TUC conference will be an important event, enabling an alternative voice to be heard. A voice that calls for real leadership against the bosses in defence of workers' rights and living standards, instead of the bland voice of the right wing that is desperate both to not embarrass the Labour government and to continue its cosy relationship with the boss class.


Also in The Socialist 2 September 2008:

'Them and us' economy hits the rocks

Inequality - the world's deadliest disease"


Howard Thorp said...

Thanks for the information about the TUC conference - I wish I was able to attend. Please identify yourself when you add a comment

Howard Thorp said...

Apologies Ged I missed the end of your comment.....