Does socialism exist in the world today?

November 22, 2010

What most people call "socialism" has very little to do with workers' control of society--or what a real socialist society would entail. Eric Ruder looks at why.

MORE THAN a third of Americans have a positive image of "socialism," according to recent Gallup and Rasmussen polls, but I think it's safe to say that most Americans, even those who feel socialism would make a big improvement in their lives, have only a vague idea of what socialism might look like.

As a socialist, therefore, people often ask me, "So what's your model for socialism?" And more often than not, they want to know what "socialist country" I would point to as coming the closest to embodying what I'm for.

People often find my answer to this question puzzling, at least at first. When I explain that there is no country in the world today that I would describe as socialist, it seems confusing. What about Sweden or France? What about Cuba or, before 1989, the former Soviet Union and East Germany?

I understand the head-scratching. For decades, the world has been presented with two models for socialism, even though neither of these has lived up to the promise of human liberation, economic security and real democracy that socialism is supposed to offer.

Does socialism exist in the world?

On the one hand, the social democracies of Europe--such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark--appeared to present an alternative to free-market capitalism, and especially during the boom years after the Second World War, workers in those countries enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.

But decent pay and generous benefits were dependent on some fairly specific favorable circumstances--cheap energy supplies, abundant raw materials, proximity to the export markets of Western Europe and a high degree of industrial specialization. The threat of radical workers' movements elsewhere in Europe also persuaded the political and economic elite that granting substantial reforms to workers was the best way to fend off the possibility of revolution.

And in the 20 years since the early 1990s, the social democratic countries have been pursuing neoliberal economic policies of privatization, cuts to social spending and market deregulation that would make Milton Friedman blush.

According to a recent report in the Christian Science Monitor, in 2009 in Sweden,

the country's center-right government began selling off state-owned pharmacies, one of the country's few remaining nationalized companies, as part of an ambitious program of liberal economic reforms started in 2006. In the same week, a study by the Swedish Unemployment Insurance Board revealed that almost half of the country's jobless lacked full unemployment benefits. Many opted out of the state scheme when the cost of membership was raised last year; others were ineligible.

State pensions, schools, health care, public transport and post offices have been fully or partly privatized over the last decade, making Sweden one of the most free market-orientated economies in the world, analysts say.

"Sweden has always been on the side of the market economy. This is not socialism," says Olle Wästberg, director of the Swedish Institute in Stockholm, and a former Consul General to New York. "In many fields, we have more private ownership compared to other European countries, and to America. About 80 percent of all new schools are privately run, as are the railroads and the subway system."

ON THE other hand, the former Soviet Union--and the many countries in Eastern Europe that had identical economic systems--were held up as a model for socialism by some on the left, despite sharp limits on dissent, the absence of democracy, the persistence of economic inequality, and the oppression of women, national minorities, and gays and lesbians.

The collapse of Stalinism and the Eastern bloc in 1991 led to a round of triumphalism among boosters of Western-style capitalism and to the demoralization among those on the left who agreed with the idea that "Communism had failed."

Cuba, once a chief beneficiary of economic aid from the Stalinist East (and still struggling under a withering embargo by the U.S.), has shared a similar economic and political setup as the Stalinist regimes, despite its different origins in a 1959 revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator. Like Sweden, Cuba is today implementing various neoliberal measures in an attempt to compete in the global economy.

What "qualifies" these regimes--both the Western European social democracies and the Stalinist countries--as "socialist" is the widely held (but misleading) identification of socialism with state ownership of the economy.

But socialism can't be boiled down to state ownership of all or part of the economy. In fact, all the Western capitalist countries have made, to a greater or lesser degree, direct investment in a significant chunk of their economies, especially in times of crisis when they seek to spread out losses across the whole population in the interest of preserving what they consider to be essential national industries or firms.

The genuine tradition of socialism, however, starts from a different conception of what socialism is: Workers' control over production and a democratic say by the producers of society's wealth about how to allocate resources in pursuit of social goals.

We are constantly told that the free market is the best way to carry out this allocation of resources, depending as it does on a myriad of decisions of consumers sending signals to producers based on what they purchase.

But the truth is that the big banks and large capitalist enterprises have all sorts of ways to bend markets to their will. Establishing a monopoly, for example, enables one or two large firms to dominate an entire sector (U.S.-based Boeing and Europe-based Airbus are examples of this in the aircraft industry).

This gives those who control the flow of capital enormous leverage, both within the economy as well as in the political realm, enabling them to buy and sell politicians much as they do raw materials, advertising and workers' labor.

IF THE various countries that are supposedly socialist aren't, then what is the alternative? I have been asked more than once if this means that we all need to go back to sewing our own clothes, growing our own food and building our own houses. Perhaps, people often believe, the problem is the size and complexity (not to mention the environmental destruction) wrought by industrial production itself.

But in this regard, capitalism has done us a favor. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

The growth of society's "productive forces"--that is, the capacity to efficiently produce the necessities of life--means that for the first time in history, it's possible to meet humanity's needs for food, clothing and shelter while still allowing people adequate time to develop their level of education, to take part in decision-making about society's overall direction, and to enjoy a degree of leisure previously unthinkable.

The problem is that under capitalism, all decisions about what to produce and how to produce are subordinated to a simple consideration: how to maximize profits. So long as the economy is organized around this principle, the exploitation of workers, environmental devastation and international economic competition that spills over into military conflict will persist.

The socialist alternative to this is to put workers, instead of capitalists, in control of decisions about what to produce, how to produce it and how to distribute the collective output of society at a local, regional, national and international level.

Of course, the capitalist owners of industry can't be persuaded to simply hand over control of the economy. It must be fought for. And the socialist movement has learned, through bitter experience, that voting socialists into office in the hopes that they can successfully carry out an expropriation of the capitalist class is a strategy doomed to failure.

But the self-emancipation of the working class, as Marx termed the process by which workers carry out a revolution, is essential not just because the capitalist class and the state won't concede unless they face a revolutionary challenge.

The struggle by which workers emancipate themselves economically and politically also plays an indispensable role in workers learning about their own collective power and the interests that they share with other workers who may differ from them in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or religion.

As Marx put it in the German Ideology, "This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it rid itself of all the muck of ages and fit itself to found society anew."

It has been nearly 100 years since a revolution succeeded in overthrowing the old order in order "to found society anew"--during the 1917 Russian Revolution. But within a matter of 10 years, the Russian Revolution turned into its opposite, strangled by the failure of the revolution to succeed in even one of the many Western European powers shaken by mass workers' revolts in those tumultuous years.

In reality, the problem facing the Russian working class was not industrialization, but the lack of it. Years of civil war and invasions by 14 different imperialist countries seeking to expand into what they perceived as a vacuum created by the revolution essentially destroyed the Russian working class, making it impossible to maintain workers' control over production and workers' democracy in the administration of society's overall affairs.

This is what enabled Joseph Stalin to concentrate power in the hands of the bureaucracy--and ruthlessly eliminate his opponents who understood that Stalin aimed to overturn all that they had achieved.

WORKERS' CONTROL of production and distribution requires workers to erect their own democratic state on the ruins of the old, to seize control over production and distribution and to reorganize these spheres of economic life around the principle of meeting human need instead of maximizing profit.

Again and again, workers, in the course of resisting capitalism, build counter-institutions that get their start as organs of collective struggle, but which are able potentially to evolve into alternative institutions of state power.

The rich history of such institutions is hidden from view by the work of historians who focus more on heads of state than on the struggles of regular people to shape the world around them--and who ignore that such counter-institutions spring up again and again as an organic part of workers' struggles.

A short list of merely the most famous of these historical episodes would include Paris in 1871, Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918 as well as Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1981.

In each of these examples, workers organized strikes and other kinds of resistance against their conditions of exploitation and oppression, but they went a step further. They set up workers' councils (called by many different names, but in essence fulfilling the same function) to coordinate their efforts.

At the same time, these formations gave workers a means of carrying out production under their own control and insuring that the products of their labor were used to feed and sustain their challenge to the status quo, rather than supply the defenders of the old order with the resources to defeat the workers' councils and the vision of a new society they represented.

In a socialist society, workers' councils at the school, hospital, warehouse, and factory level would be essential to give workers a say in the day-to-day running of their workplaces. Each workplace council would also send elected delegates to coordinate decision-making on an industry-wide and economy-wide basis.

Because these delegates would be drawn directly from and accountable to the base, because they would be paid the same as the rest of the workers in that workplace and known by their co-workers, and because they would be recallable if they failed to exercise the will of those who elected them, such councils would give workers the ability to have a real and deciding say in every aspect of society.

Needless to say, the political and business establishment in the examples cited above didn't relinquish their wealth, power and privilege without a fight. Thus, achieving workers' democratic control over production requires a confrontation with the state to succeed in the long run.

As a result, the transition from capitalism to socialism can't be a gradual or incremental process by which the state enacts reforms and progressively takes ownership of more and larger chunks of the economy. Rather, socialism represents a revolutionary break with the present system--and depends on the active struggles of workers and their subsequent engagement with every aspect of governing society in their own interest, under the guiding principle of human need before corporate greed.

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