A Workshop: What is Socialism and How to Get There

Ann Ferguson
Richard Schmitt
University of Massachusetts, U.S.A; Brown University, U.S.A.

A. Background Considerations and Questions

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels recount how capitalism first gives rise to the proletariat and then through successive stages (unwittingly) supports the growing unity and organization of the working class. Finally the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production as well as the growing class consciousness and organization of the workers provide the opportunity for expropriating the expropriators. A new Socialist mode of production is born.

This story is excessively familiar. It is not what actually happened. Comparing the expectations of Marx and Engels with the history we are now familiar with lays bare some of the Hegelian assumptions that underlie classical Marxism. The history sketched out in the Communist Manifesto moves towards a brighter future. Marxist history assumes a fairly clear notion of progress. Over of the long run history moves towards greater freedom for all. Secondly, history is in some odd sense orderly — after all “the rational is real and the real rational.” In the long run history makes sense precisely in so far as progress is assured. It moves forward relentlessly toward the goal of freedom; for that reason we are able to make predictions, however general.

Marx makes another assumption which he also derives from Hegel. Social institutions are connected to one another in quasi logical relationships. Hence changes in one institution will spread far and wide throughout the society. The transformation of relations of production by through the abolition of private property in productive resources will have its repercussions far and wide. They will usher in a new era are of freedom, equality, and community.

Marx and Engels were certain that history made sense, that it moved towards a world of greater freedom and that entire societies could be turned upside down by making one important change. As a consequence, they had a clear strategy for bringing about socialism. “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” (Communist Manifesto) There existed a clear strategy. Its correctness is guaranteed by the central assumptions.

But what if, as now seems likely, Marx’s three assumptions are mistaken? What if:

a. Progress is not assured;

b. History does not move in a clear direction, and

c. Socializing the means of production is not guaranteed, or all that is needed to have just repercussions throughout the society?

Now it is suddenly unclear what organizing the proletariat will accomplish. Will the class-conscious proletariat serve the emancipation of all or will it give support to some sort of fascist regime? Will the proletariat continue to develop into an ever more powerful class or will its organizations disintegrate after a while? Will the proletariat be a growing force to oppose the evils of capitalism or will its leaders make common cause with the capitalists?

Without Marx’s three assumptions, the future we prepare for by organizing the working class may be the history that we have actually lived through rather than the future that Marx confidently expected.

Marx and Engels knew what they needed to do. They could afford to be quite cavalier about the details of socialism. Since the abolition of capitalism was just a question of time until the proletariat was strong enough and the contradictions of capitalism acute enough for the socialist revolution to occur, they could afford to wait and see how, in detail, the new freedom, the new democracy, the new workers state would develop. They were certain that socialist democracy would be very different from what we know and experience and participate in as democracy. They were confident that the alienation we all experience under capitalism would be replaced by socialist community. There was no doubt that the cutthroat competition characteristic of capitalist countries would be replaced by a society “in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.”

Their work for socialism consisted of getting on a train that was moving to the promised land; they could help it along but it was on a track going in the right direction. They needed not to ask what in detail they would find once they arrived. Time would tell.

We are in a considerably more difficult situation. We have given up Marxists belief in progress. Few people today believe that socialism is inevitable. History is not as transparent to us as it was to the thinkers of the 19th-century. Our experience does not encourage us to think that socializing the means of production is the Archimedean point from which to dislodge the world of globalization and multinational corporations and return power to ordinary women and men.

There is no train for us. We are blazing our path as we move forward. Where are we going? We need to have a much more specific outline of that than the traditional Marxist because we are determining the direction of movement for ourselves. Once you/wegive up the basic assumptions that are the underpinnings of the conception of socialism of Marx and Engels, you/we cannot be sure that the socialist revolution will occur and you/we cannot be sure that nationalizing major industries will bring you across the threshold to socialism. You therefore cannot afford to be as laid-back about socialism as Marx and Engels were. We need to be able to tell ourselves and others in some detail what socialism is. We are proposing a change which we do not regard as inevitable. We are not certain that our political action will lead to a better world more or less automatically. We therefore need to have a clear and somewhat detailed idea of what we are after.

We are united as socialists or leftists in our opposition to capitalism. But since different ones of us are specifically opposed to different aspects of capitalism, our accounts of socialism also differ. Some socialists focus on economic systems. For them in the heart of the transition to socialism is the abolition of the private ownership of means of production. Socialism then is described as one of a variety of possible alternative economic schemes ranging from a negative income tax to a centrally planned economy. For others, political considerations stand in the center. They stress that socialism will be democratic. Others again focus primarily on social relations and therefore speak of socialism as a community of sorts. Thirdly, for those for whom the central criticism of capitalism is moral, socialism is characterized by the absence of exploitation and corruption and the end of cutthroat competition to be replaced by mutuality and justice. Finally, others take the morality of the process toward socialism as the key question, and ask how we can show forth the end in the means, in other words, how can we build a solidarity economy, politics and alternative society within the bowels of the old capitalist system? Given the different focus of each of these questions,we may all be referring to ourselves as “socialists” but we mean very different things by that word.

For our discussion in the workshop we will summarize these four general questions as:

The Economic Question: Whether or not ou r vision of socialism focuses or takes as key certain economic changes (e.g different forms of property). How do workers’ cooperatives connect to markets and the public/state sector in our vision? Are all private corporations outlawed or just large ones?
The Political Question : Whether our vision focuses on political changes, e.g. different forms of radical democracy, such as participatory and proportional democracy, de-centralized democracy, and whether we support any form of nation state, or a stage theory of the state and radical democracy: anarchists, Leninists and other state socialists, autonomist debates.
The Moral Question : Whether the vision focuses on the importance of moral changes, for example, dealing with the corruption problem of a political class in a socialist nation state, and then
The Solidarity Transition Question , i.e. how we can change the social construction of human nature in the process toward socialism to emphasize solidarity rather than individual greed and status hierarchies.
All of these suggestions are very general. Consider these questions: how will socialist democracy differ from the democracy we know in the United States or Western Europe or many Latin American countries today? Many socialists reply that their democracy will allow everyone to participate in decisions impinging on individual lives. This will have us going to meetings about garbage collection, the maintenance of streets and streetlights, about schools, about the Board of Health and its inspection of food stores and restaurants, dog licenses, etc. But how can we be sure that these meetings offer us more genuine participation than existing democratic processes provide for those who talk to the school board, or to the principal of their children’s school or to any other city bureaucrat? Going to more meetings does not make democracy more democratic; it just makes it more burdensome. How do we create a form of participatory democracy that avoids ‘burn out’ and problems of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, i.e. informal leaders who, since not elected, cannot be replaced and whose disagreements may split the unity of the community or organization?

What reason do we have to think that workers’ governments will be less corrupt than the governments of the capitalists? The reasoning behind that presumably is that once the capitalist class has disappeared, so will corruption. But capitalists did not invent corruption; it was familiar long before. How, in detail, will a socialist government be different so as to make corruption a thing of the past?

How will we manage to transform human beings to be considerate of those worse off than themselves instead of acting as they act today when they try to get more for themselves at the expense of those who are poor and suffering? It is all very well to say that socialism will provide greater equality. But that requires that everyone who has more is willing to share with those who have less. What about socialism will bring about this transformation of human beings?

We often describe socialism as a system that is based on cooperation not on competition. Someone once asked: can you have competitive sports under socialism? Can we? How do we draw the line between destructive and acceptable/socialist competition?

And a kind of summing up question: Do you really believe that all of the goals mentioned above can be accomplished by simply expropriating the expropriators?

B. Workshop Discussion Exercises

The above questions about socialism are really urgent. They are difficult for us to take seriously because our traditional jargon gets in our way and leads us to give the same old answers to questions like these. In order to make it easier for us to distance ourselves from the commonplaces that tend to derail our serious reflection about socialism, we propose to discuss three questions as a group in the workshop:

1. The Personal Example Question: Describe the life of someone you know personally who is really suffering under current conditions. What do you think that person needs to alleviate his or her suffering? What change of existing conditions would provide what this person in your estimation needs?

(Here is an example of the sort of story I’m thinking of: 10 years ago my friend James was released from prison after serving 20 years for a rape he committed before he was 20. James is a black man; his victim was white. In the last 10 years, James has had innumerable jobs and failed to get many other jobs for which he was clearly qualified because no one wants to hire a convicted rapist or keep them in a job once that history has come to light. In all this time, he has rarely made more than $10 or $11 per hour. He is getting older, he has no savings. His wife does not have a green card. Their economic condition today, as well as their future, is very gloomy, even though both are incredibly persistent in finding work and in trying to make an honest living.)

2. The Transitional Revolutionary Space Question: Describe some alternative economic and social practice you know about, what the actors in it are doing to address some particular issues connected to the transition to socialism problem and to build solidarity, and what problems or contradictions you see between ideal values of socialism and what is realistic to assume can be achieved in the particular transition in question.

(An example would be the practices of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and contradictions between promoting traditional indigenous values to challenge neo-liberalism and promoting women’s equality which runs counter to those traditions. Other examples would involve: experiments in autonomy from the state, e.g. in rotating spokespersons in the “good government” councils of the Zapatistas vs. the use of the nation state and a parallel process of empowering grassroots communities in Venezuela by Chavez. Both can be seen as practices aiming to find a way to meet the strategic need for leadership vs. the desire for non-hierarchical participatory democracy.)

3. The What is to Be Done Question: How would the changes we desire be brought about in our existing conditions? For example, what would this mean for social practices to change habits based on destructive individualism and competition, machismo/sexism, race/ethnicism, problems of survival for economic cooperatives in competition with large corporations for profit, etc. Is it possible to conceive of a viable process of getting to socialism in which the means used ‘show forth’ or express the end values rather than the traditional Marxist-Leninist left view that the end justifies the means?

C. Discussion Method

All of us are infected by the “say it abstractly” disease. In order to make it hard for ourselves to yield to the temptation to be excessively abstract, we will use the following procedure:

We will pass out copies of the first set of general questions to think about and summarize them briefly. Then we will have a group discussion of these last three exercise questions where we write the problems and proposed solutions suggested by the group on a large piece of paper. The group will then try to come up with a common characterization of pressing current problems as well as a common strategy for alleviating them that those identifying as socialists and anti-capitalists might agree on.

There will not be time in an hour and a half to have everyone propose a concrete story to reflect about. We will begin by asking for two stories–one from the US and one from Latin America. We can after those stories have been told, ask the “Transitional Revolutionary Space” and the “What is to be Done” questions about both situations.