What’s a Socialist to Do?


[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications] 
 
Ehrenreich & Fletcher tell socialists to go and organize. "We have to build organizations, including explicitly socialist ones, that can mobilize this talent, develop leadership and advance local struggles."[1] Generations of eloquent and courageous men and women have followed that advice and we have very little to show for that effort. Telling socialists to organize is a counsel of despair because 150 years of organizing the working class has brought us no closer to socialism.. Is there anything else socialists can do?
 
"Don’t mourn, organize!" is backed by an elaborate theory of how socialism will overcome capitalism. Socialism consists of the public ownership of the means of production. Socialization of productive resources remains impossible as long as the capitalists are the most powerful class in the society. As the German Social Democratic Party more than a hundred years ago announced: "The working class cannot develop its economic organization and wage its economic battles without political rights. It cannot accomplish the transfer of the means of production to the community as a whole without first having come into possession of political power." [2] In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels referred to this struggle as "winning the battle of democracy." [3] In the traditional Marxist view of history class conflict unceasingly agitates capitalist societies. The capitalist ruling and the working class are each trying to enhance their own power in a zero sum game where one party gains power only at the expense of the opponent. On the road to socialism, the working class needs to gain greater power than the capitalists. The goal of the socialist movement is power for the working class.
 
Now it is, of course, true, that capitalist economies are constantly disturbed by a struggle between workers and employers over wages and working conditions—clearly a power struggle. The employers seek the power forcibly to impose lower wages, longer workdays, worse conditions on the workers. The workers, in their turn, resist those pressures and seek to enhance their own power to improve their situation. [4] But these are struggles between wage workers and the owners of capital. As Branko Horvat has argued, they are struggles within capitalism and not about capitalism. [5] Witness the willingness of workers to make wage concessions when hard times threaten their jobs. Labor unions in the US have frequently been downright hostile to socialism; in Europe before World War I they were always dragging their feet when the Social-Democratic party advocated measures to advance socialism, because they were not only fighting capitalists but also dependent on them. They needed to succeed in short term campaigns in order to retain the loyalty of their members. They needed to maintain good relations with the employers in order to be able to negotiate wages and working conditions. [6] It is a mistake to confuse that power struggle within capitalism with a struggle for socialism.
 
The struggle on the factory floor is not a struggle for socialism. Socialism is not won by winning power over the capitalists within capitalism. "Socialism" is, primarily, the name for alternatives to capitalism–a social and economic order free of the glaring defects of capitalism. Indeed, it is clear today, that "socialism" is an extremely elastic term. Some very general traits of socialism are widely accepted such as the democratic control of investment capital by all citizens, or the abolition of labor markets. Under socialism, labor ceases to be a commodity (although not all socialists agree with that). But side by side with these, very general, economic ideas the term "socialism" refers to a range of other expectations (goals, hopes, ideals?) for a society after the end of capitalism. Socialism can refer either to a number of more or less carefully defined economic projects but also to a collection of fairly ill defined ideas about an alternative society and the changes needed to approximate such a good society.
 
Among the economic projects are, on the one hand, Market Socialism (often also called "Economic Democracy") and, on the other, Democratic Planning. Under Market Socialism all workplaces are owned and run by the workers thereby ending the commodification of labor. Capital, no longer privately owned, is distributed by local branches of a government investment bank according to investment priorities set by the people at large (or, for instance, in the United States by Congress). [7]
 
Democratic Planning also envisages worker owned and managed workplaces but is, in addition, deeply imbued with worries about the social effects of markets. Instead of using markets in order to allocate resources and plan production, it develops a complicated system of planning for production and consumption that begins in local, neighborhood assemblies to rise up to city wide, county wide, regional, and national levels. In addition, side by side with the controversy over markets, the Democratic Planning project insists that everyone is entitled to some interesting work. That can only be accomplished if everyone also does a part of the large body of uninteresting work that needs doing in any society. Democratic Planning therefore also provides for complex work assignments that assure everyone some stimulating work. [8]
 
A third version of socialism envisages an economy of profit maximizing firms whose financing comes from special investment banks. Stock in these banks, however, is not bought and sold in currency but in special coupons. At birth every citizen receives a certain quantity of these and is entitled to a portion of the bank’s profits. These provisions aim at abolishing a small ruling class that owns the financial resources of the society. "The coupon system is a mechanism for getting people a share of the economy’s total profits during their lifetimes." [9] Vouchers cannot be inherited.
 
Socialists oppose capitalism because it exploits workers, because it spreads alienation, because it is unjust. Philipe van Parijs suggests that we remedy those three failings of a capitalist system by giving every resident of the country a minimum income. That will make it possible to choose between an undesirable job and staying home or going to the beach. Persons now have a choice whether to accept alienating work or not. It will encourage greater inventiveness because, being assured the basic necessities, entrepreneurs take smaller risks with innovative projects. This universal basic income is not usually called "socialism" but its effects may well be like those of the transfer of control of productive resources to all members of the society. [10]
 
The authors of these different economic schemes are explicit about their goals. Worker controlled businesses put an end to the commodification of labor. Wage labor is no longer a commodity if everyone is not only a worker but also an owner. When investment capital is distributed by the government, and investment priorities are democratically decided by all, the capitalist ruling class disappears from society. The power to direct the economy passes from a small ruling class of capitalists to the entire electorate. Distributing a share of the nation’s investment capital to every citizen aims at a society which enables the full development of all members. That is also the goal of the fairly complex work assignment policy suggested by Democratic Planning where everyone is obligated to do some boring work for the sake of being able to also do interesting work. Universal Basic Incomes frees workers from the threat of starvation which employers use against them to get them to accept undesirable work. Wage labor is not abolished but exploitation reduced.
 
Socialism as an economic project takes rather different forms in these discussions. The goals served by these projected economic arrangements also are not agreed upon by all. There is widespread, but not universal, agreement that investment capital should be controlled by all. It is less clear that all theorists agree about the mechanisms to control investment capital. Not all theorists want to banish labor markets [11] although some regard this as essential to socialism. Individual development is often mentioned as an important socialist goal but not all theorists have developed elaborate schemes for distributing interesting work to everyone. More importantly, these economic arrangements are only partial outlines of socialism—and at least some of the authors discussed are fully aware of that. [12] There are a number of other socialist goals which Market Socialism, or Democratic Planning or a system of vouchers for ownership of the national investment bank not only cannot accomplish alone but the economic proposals are likely to function as expected only if some of the other socialist goals have already been reached.
 
These following traits are often ascribed to socialism: socialism will create community in contrast to capitalism which fosters extreme individualism. [13] Closely related to this socialist community is the hope that a socialist society will be pervaded by an ethic of solidarity. In a capitalist society, the economic system encourages selfishness. Socialists are animated by sentiments of solidarity; they are prepared to take the needs of their fellow citizens as seriously as their own. [14] In existing societies, people often stand by while their fellows are harmed by private or government violence or the savagery of the capitalist market. In a socialist society, we hope, solidarity will inspire men and women to assist their fellows in need. [15] More generally, many writers deplore the profound moral corruption of existing capitalist societies. The economic system that compels each of us to put our own interests above those of others, or of the community as a whole, makes it excessively difficult to resist the temptation to advance our private advancement by corrupt means. Socialism removes those temptation to a significant extent. [16] In addition, work, in a fully developed socialist society should no longer be drudgery; we look forward to a society where "work is play." [17] Alienation pervades capitalist society in many forms. In one of these forms, alienation deprives most men and women of the free space in which to be as creative and imaginative as they could be under better conditions. To extend that space for creativity to everyone is one more goal of socialism. [18] Finally, extensive liberty and justice are thought to be defining characteristics of socialist societies. [19]
 
"Socialism" refers to a range of mainly economic projects, some developed in more detail that others, as well as to extremely general, barely articulate hopes, expectations, wishes and ideals. Some authors of economic socialist projects, I suspect, believe that these ideals, mentioned briefly in the previous paragraph, will be realized more or less automatically once labor markets have been abolished and/or investment capital is being distributed according to the wishes of all citizens. But it is clear that the opposite is true: the abolition of the labor market, economic planning in popular assemblies or by means of a limited and carefully supervised market will replicate many forms of capitalist corruption unless citizens have already distanced themselves from capitalist individualism and have adopted an ethic of solidarity. For instance, unless there has been some move towards a pervasive ethics of solidarity, the competition between worker owned firms in Market Socialism may well turn out to be as destructive as the competition between capitalist firms today. We have no reason to assume that worker owned enterprise would be less hungry for their competitors and ready to swallow them up than existing capitalist monopolies. What will keep the markets in Market Socialism free from oligopolistic practices? Under capitalist governments, anti-trust regulation is firmly in the hands of the capitalists; oligopoly grows apace. Will government anti-trust actions be any less corrupt than they are in the US today? Surely not unless the players in the socialist market are more public spirited than our capitalist masters.
 
There is no space to discuss this matter fully. David Schweickart believes that the goal of firms in economic democracy is to increase the profit per worker/owner while, under capitalism the firm’s goal is to increase the profit of the owners. Capitalist firms, therefore, want to grow—growth allows more or less the same number of owners to exploit more workers. The firm in economic democracy does not increase the profit per worker/owner when it grows because total profit is divided among more worker/owners. For this reason expansion is in the interest of capitalist owners, but not of the worker owners in a a socialist society. Firms under economic democracy, he thinks, will be less competitive with one another. The market place will be less Hobbesian than it is under capitalism. But even Schweickart admits that "it is theoretically possible for a majority of workers to vote to lay off some of their colleagues and to replace a minority of higher-paid workers with lower paid ones but the natural solidarity engendered by democracy sharply mitigates against such behavior." (My italics) [20] All instances of large cooperatives—Mondragon, the plywood co-ops of the Northwest in the US, the co-ops in Northern Italy, the kibbutzim—have hired wage labor: workers who were not owners and who earned less than the worker owners. Economic forces alone will not make the democratic economy beneficial for all; moral changes must precede the institution of socialism.
 
Similarly, we must be prepared to find that the Democratic Planning process is as tainted as the distribution of tax money by elected officials in the US or Britain to-day, unless the society is more of a community than ours. If socialist human beings are at all like us—as Lenin [21] and John Roemer [22] insist they would be—the distribution of investment funds would be as corrupt as the current distribution of bailout funds to large banks and industrial enterprises. By themselves, the economic socialism projects do not promise to usher in a better world. Unless socialist citizens are not as greedy and self-interested as we are today, the distribution of public moneys may well look very much like the massive disbursement of public funds to the major financial institutions that we are witnessing today.
 
One task of socialists is to establish new institutions. An economy where all enterprises are owned and controlled by its workers needs to be organized. A nationwide system of economic planning requires setting up the requisite organizations and administrative bodies to run this planning process. National investment banks need to be founded. But at the same time establishing some or all of these institutions is not sufficient for establishing the good society we work and hope for; we ourselves need to change. Founding these new and different institutions requires profound transformations of the persons who will originate and maintain these new institutions. Socialism requires not only new institutions, but new women and men.
 
The changes in human nature demanded by socialism have been debated at least beginning with Wilhelm Reich’s call for a "thorough and extensive analysis for the reasons for the continual failure of the workers’ movement." [23] Most commonly theorists have ascribed this failure to the "false consciousness" of the workers [24] and have interpreted that false consciousness as false beliefs about the workers’ situation and their interests. Marcuse provided a more sophisticated understanding of false consciousness. Capitalism has distorted peoples’ sense of what they need. Men and women in capitalist society have mistaken ideas of what they need for a good life, of what is truly valuable in human existence. These are not intellectual mistakes; human desires are misguided, human emotions and attitudes self-destructive.
 
Reich’s vocabulary is very different from Marcuse’s but their ideas are similar. Reich, too, looks for the causes of political failure in the emotional life of the German workers. German society was sexually repressed. Sexual needs went unmet and sexual desires were censored and heavily invested with guilt. "The result is conservatism, fear of freedom, in a word reactionary thinking." [25] Capitalism was not holding us back by distorting all needs, as Marcuse thought, but by suppressing specifically sexual needs. Both thinkers assume implicitly what Gibson-Graham insists on explicitly, that our thinking is anchored in our emotions, in personality or, if you will, in the language of Wilhelm Reich, "character structure."[26]
 
Some necessary changes in human personality or "character structure" are suggested by action research Gibson-Graham did with the inhabitants of a one-industry area in Australia after the industry had moved away. The prevailing feeling was one of despair. People felt victimized but, Gibson-Graham found, they were invested in their victimhood and unwilling or unable to surrender it. Before they could rouse themselves to any sort of action, their personalities had to change. No longer clinging to their self-image as victims, they could take a more hopeful view of their possibilities and their capacities—individually and as a group. [27]
 
The human changes needed for a socialist society go far beyond changes in morality. Men and women need to change their sense of themselves as well as their sense of what is "natural" and "what makes sense." For most Americans, socialism is not a project they can take seriously. Capitalism is, for them, "natural." It describes how the world is, how human beings are. A society based on principles of solidarity is perhaps a pretty dream, but no more. But, of course, what seems "natural" to people can and does change. We just don’t know much about how such changes take place. [28] Before we can bring about fundamental social and political change, peoples’ sense of what is natural, what is real, or at least really possible and what a mere chimera must change.
 
We have seen at least four personality changes suggested as paths to a different and better world. According to Reich the suppression of sexual needs is central; Marcuse speaks of desires in general for what makes life good. Gibson-Graham point to another crucial aspect of the personality: the capacity of human beings for hope. She also draws attention to differences in humans’ understanding of what the real world will allow, whether socialist solidarity is something we can reasonably hope and work for or whether it inescapably conflicts with human nature. These hypotheses may point in the right direction; they also make clear that the topic requires much more detailed attention. One may agree that socialism will requires changes in human nature but that is just the beginning. We need to discover what sorts of changes will be needed. [29]
 
Naomi Scheman also takes up the question of how persons undergo fundamental changes. She inquires into the experience of a woman who, in the course of participating in a conscious raising group, finds herself very angry at her father, brothers, husband and other specific men, and against the institutions of patriarchy, in general. She had not felt that anger before; in discovering it she undergoes a significant change. Anger against men and against patriarchy is now acceptable where it was strictly prohibited before. This new found anger is possible because her idea of the good life changes from being a good housewife and mother and a man’s help meet to being in charge of her own life. In becoming angry, she changes and acquires a sense of new possibilities, of what she could make of her life. These changes in individual women are possible, Scheman thinks because they are shared with a group. The reinterpretation of oneself that actually makes one a different person can only take place in a like-minded group. [30] Women’s anger came to light and to life only in the founding of new kinds of institutions: the consciousness raising groups.
 
The longevity of capitalism may well be connected, in similar ways, with its ability to repress the anger provoked by capitalist exploitation, by alienation, by ecological devastation as well as the upheavals in individual lives created by periodic economic crises and imperialist wars.
 
So far Scheman rings one more change on the themes introduced by the other authors cited—on transforming needs and sexuality, and giving up the victim’s role and passivity, transforming the dominant view of what is possible and what it makes sense to hope for. Her account is important because women chose to participate in the feminist movement. Personal change was freely chosen, even if not always clearly anticipated. That is an important thought to counterbalance the claims of a Marcuse that the distortion of human personalities is mainly the result of impersonal economic and technological forces. On the contrary, individual choices to join the Second Wave Feminist Movement played an important role in the changes wrought in women’s personalities.
 
But then Scheman raises a further, and extremely important question: what made it possible for women to discover and articulate their anger in the 1970s when most women could not do that earlier? A necessary condition for these individual transformations was the explosive growth of second-wave feminism. [31] But what allowed that to develop? Here are some obvious suggestions: The women who built the planes and ships and produced the guns and shells for the US to end WWII victoriously went home at war’s end different women. When they found themselves as homemakers in Levittown, mostly in the company of infants and toddlers, the pressure for change became powerful. It is not clear whether these suggestions, however obvious, are correct or how one would find those that are.
 
Scheman’s observation is, however, very important: personal changes become possible only when history is prepared to support them. Reich, Marcuse, Gibson-Graham and others have reflected on the ways in which human personalities might change. But Scheman reminds us that historical conditions must be favorable. Now Marx, of course, believed that too but the historical conditions he considered essential were the collapse of the capitalist system. The historical conditions Scheman alludes too are the flowering of second wave feminism—an alteration in widespread ideas about what is just and fair, what women and men deserve. More importantly, the requisite historical condition consisted of a profound alteration in dominant values. Transformations of human personalities that might make profound alteration of social and economic institutions possible occur only in times of deep seated changes in the values and outlooks of many people.
 
Scheman’s observations and those of Gibson-Graham derive from experience of the women’s movement and the profound changes it has brought about in society. Nor are these isolated events. In the same period, the position of blacks in US society has undergone profound changes which have not yet come to an end. At the beginning of the same period, homosexuality was a shameful condition to be concealed at all costs. Today gay rights, while still opposed frantically, are slowly gaining. When asked their opinion about gay marriage, many young people respond with "what’s the problem?" Values held for long periods change rather suddenly; viscerally anchored attitudes are transformed.
 
Gibson-Graham points out that these historical transformations are neither planned nor centrally organized. We witness them without fully understanding their origins. The radical transformations of socially shared values about racial differences, about gender differences, and different sexual choices are not at all transparent. One can write the history of these changes without fully understanding the motive forces behind those choices. That insight has a several important implications. Social change happens, often as the result of the strenuous effort of many different persons. But it is not at all clear why these efforts succeed at the moment when they do. Black people have rebelled against slavery ever since they set foot on these shores. Why did they have to wait until after World War II to make real headway in the struggle for emancipation? The same questions apply to women and to homosexuals. It is not clear what it is about the final efforts that makes them more successful than all the campaigns that preceded them. Hence it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict what changes may occur in our future or to be sure what we must do to produce the sorts of changes we desire. [32] Workers have fought exploitation and alienation for several centuries. Why have they not yet succeeded? Considering the fights for liberation that have born fruits and those that ended—so far—in defeat we must admit that we understand these transformation much less than we had thought. Marx and Engels boldly claimed to understand and, to some extent, master social change. Today their claims seem excessive and refuted by historical events. We fall back on a more modest stance before history which, we acknowledge, we understand only very imperfectly. Efforts to ameliorate the world and to push back against the cruelty of capitalist economic arrangements are as important as ever but we can be less certain ahead of time what will prove successful or when.
 
That conclusion seems profoundly unsatisfactory; we still want to know what to do. But we need to give up the traditional attitude of the "scientific" Marxist who knows what capitalism and socialism are and what one needs to do to go from one to the other. Consider, once more, the second wave feminist movement. Not only was it not planned and directed by powerful leaders. It is not clear what the goals were. There certainly was nothing like the "socialization of means of production" to capture the goal in one phrase. Different women resisted sexism where they were and where it hurt especially. They had no rules about how to liberate women; they liberated themselves in different places and in different ways. In the process the lives of women changed, and so did women and men. Not all struggles bore fruit but the entire movement did. In similar ways, socialists must stop trying to "build socialism." They must, instead, resist capitalism where they are, in ways that are open to them, and where resistance seems particularly unavoidable because the injuries are unbearable. In this process, experiments with new institutions, with new ways of life and sociality may bear fruit and the socialist movement, in the words of Marx and Engels, "may succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of the ages and become fitted to found society anew." [33]
 
We do not know what socialism is nor how it is to be constructed. Our task is much more diffuse, much more messy and uncertain: to resist capitalism where we can, to liberate ourselves in any way we can, to experiment with new institutions and to keep the faith, to resist the temptation to lose hope.
 
 
 
NOTES
 
 



[1] Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr. "Rising to the Occasion: Reimagining Socialism: A Nation Forum" The Nation
 
    (accessed 6/12/09 at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090323/ehrenreich_fletcher?rel=hp_picks)
[2] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle ( Erfurt Program) (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Co., 1910): 159.
[3] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978):490.
[4] David Schweickart, "What to do when the Bailout Fails" Tikkun (accessed 06/14/2009 from http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/may_jun_09_schweickart)
[5] Branko Horvat,  The Political Economy of Socialism: A Marxist Social Theory (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe: 1982): 439.
[6] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905 – 1917: The Development of the Great Schism (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975).
[7] David Schweickart, After Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield: 2002).
[8] Michael Albert, Parecon (London: Verso, 2003)
[9] John E. Roemer, A Future for Socialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994): 50.
[10] Philipe van Parijs, What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
[11] Roemer, Future for Socialism.
[12] Schweickart, After Capitalism: 12.
[13] G.A. Cohen, "Back to Socialist Basics" New Left Review 207(1994):3 16.; Michael Luntley, The Meaning of Socialism (LaSalle, Il.: Open Court, 1990).
[14] Milton Fisk, "Social Feelings and the Morality of Socialism" in Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt, eds. Towards a New Socialism (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2007):117 – 144.
[15] Norman Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference (London: Verso, 1998).
[16] Diane Elson, "Market Socialism or Socialization of the market" NLR 172(1988):3- 44.; Robert J. van de Veen and Philipe van Parijs, "A Capitalist Road to Communism" Theory and Society 15(1987): 635 – 655.; Andre Gorz,  Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology (London: Verso, 1994).
[17] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).; Hillel Ticktin, "The Problem is Market Socialism" in Bertell Ollman, ed., Market Socialism: A Debate (New York: Routledge: 1998):55 – 80.
[18] Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (London: Verso, 2003).
[19] Carlo Roselli, Liberal Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
[20] Schweickart,  After Capitalism: 128.
[21] V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1932):43.
[22] Roemer, Future for Socialism:46.
[23] Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Giroux and Strauss, 1970): 4
[24] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967):xiii.
[25] Reich, Mass Psychology:31.
[26] Gibson-Graham, A Post-Capitalist Politics: Chapter 2.
[27] Gibson-Graham, Post Capitalist Politics: 139.
[28] Gibson-Graham, Post-Capitalist Politics: 33.
[29] Notice, however, that none of these authors insist that individual human beings need to change before social institutions change. On the contrary, in each case the human change is part and parcel of institutional transformations. Alternations of social institutions, however, are of relatively little import as long as the persons animating the institution are not affected and changed by their participation.
[30] Naomi Scheman, "Anger and the Politics of Naming" in Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority and Privilege (New York: Routledge,1993).
[31] Scheman "Politics of Naming": 33.
[32] Gibson-Graham, Post-Capitalist Politics, Introduction.
[33] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, German Ideology Tucker, 193.

 

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