One of the most frequent conversations I find myself having with other leftists is how useful using terms like ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ are. Often I’m told that referring to this concept in describing my own politics and the politics of organisations I’m involved with is alienating to most members of the public and specifically to the working class.
Basing your politics openly in this way – so the argument goes – automatically consigns you to irrelevance. At the same time, ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’ are paradoxically treated both as utopian dreamers and at the same time associated with dictatorial regimes responsible for the repression and deaths of millions. Socialists/communists would argue that those regimes are as far from the original ideas of socialism/communism as could possibly be imagined.
Far from the use of these terms fundamentally holding back left wing politics, I am going to argue that they are critically useful for presenting an alternative to the social and economic misery of capitalism, and for describing the political movement that sets out to achieve it. Particularly I am going to focus on refuting three claims: firstly that socialism need be associated with authoritarianism and mass murder, secondly that socialism is an unrealistic goal given objective facts about economic reality or human nature, and thirdly that it necessarily alienates the working class from left-wing politics in general.
These aren’t drawn from any specific individual arguments made, but rather are drawn from common themes I’ve identified in countless discussions I’ve had since becoming a socialist a few years ago. To avoid ambiguities, I am not going to discuss socialism as the end-goal of a class-less state-less society. Rather, I am going to discuss socialism as the ideology and political movement that seeks to achieve that society. For all intents and purposes, I treat socialism as interchangeable with communism and addressing a revolutionary transformation of society.
This first claim, that socialism is tarnished as an ideology by the regimes set up in its name in the 20th century so much that it is no longer useful as a signifier, is deeply problematic. A look through the history of the political movements that have at least identified loosely or shared considerable ideological common ground with socialism shows that to equate this ideology with regimes set up in its name is at a factual level completely inaccurate. If the USSR is taken as an example, the repression of the Left Opposition in the late 1920s and murder of its supporters in the following years shows very clearly the main problem in describing a regime that systematically marginalised then killed socialists as being socialist itself.
Libertarian-socialists and anarchists often look to acts carried out by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War to create the USSR, such as the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising, the formation of the Cheka as a secret police and the ban on factions within the Communist Party. In both cases, socialists were opposed to and were even victims of the actions of a state claiming to be socialist. Given this, it is hardly surprising that some of the most detailed and useful critiques of the USSR come from those within the socialist left. To dismiss socialism as a whole because of these developments erases the history of socialist resistance to authoritarianism as it emerged in the USSR, and with it any credible alternative to capitalism at all.
It is very telling that in order to distract from the even greater death toll of capitalism and imperialism than anything ‘socialism’ is accused of, apologists for the capitalist system must resort to this extremely crude and misleading argument. Furthermore, if capitalism becomes synonymous with freedom and socialism with tyranny, this makes it much harder to criticise authoritarianism under capitalism. Milton Friedman, about as pro-capitalist as economists come, even went as far as to describe Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile – one which initiated sweeping liberalisation of the economy – as more conducive to the development of democracy than any ‘socialist’ dictatorship would be (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzgMNLtLJ2k). Lacking the integrity of many socialists in holding to account authoritarian regimes set up in their ideology’s name, Friedman describes one type of military dictatorship as being more desirable to another. There is a double standard at work when an attack on socialism does not apply its standards to the capitalist system it defends instead.
Rather than accept this narrative that we must live under one oppressive system to avoid the horrors of another, it is essential to fight for a genuinely liberating and democratic way of organising society. Only socialism, in its real and not its bastardised and authoritarian sense, offers this.
I describe socialism’s real sense as being totally different to its authoritarian bastardisation because there are numerous examples of it as a movement where it has in the past and does today demonstrated its libertarian and democratic potential as an ideology. These same examples also disprove the claim that socialism is unrealistic as an objective for a political movement. The Paris Commune of 1871, soviets established in Russia in 1905 and 1917, and the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain in the 1930s all show a form of socialism in practice and working. Where these movements were destroyed it was not because, left to their own devices, human nature or a poor understanding of economics got the best of them, it was because they were actively and militarily crushed by a ruling class that had everything to lose in those movements surviving.
What we understand to be ‘natural’ behaviour or economic laws – beyond a handful of truisms such as ‘people need to eat’ – are not fixed but reflect societal and historical change as it has occurred. That history consists of what Marxists usually refer to as material conditions, the class system those material conditions support, and the ideology of the ruling class that dominates political discourse. In short, what is meant by whether or not socialism is ‘realistic’ only tells us that we don’t have it already. To dismiss the kind of major change in how societies, economies and political systems that socialism calls for as being ‘unrealistic’ denotes the capitalist system, one that’s only several hundred years old, as an eternal one. Whether or not socialism can be achieved on a scale larger than the contemporary examples I’ve referred to has little to do with almost metaphysical conceptions of economics and human nature, and everything to do with changes in economic and broader historical circumstances. Particularly, socialism relies on the development and organisation of class struggle.
The third assertion is that in order to engage workers in class struggle and not to put them off left wing politics in general, it is necessary to – for lack of a better term – tone down the socialist politics. The idea is that rather than focusing on something as abstract and theoretical as building a socialist society, socialists would be better off sticking to campaigning on immediate issues like pay and conditions in the workplace, the NHS or Bedroom Tax in order to appeal to as wide a group of people as possible. The problem is that this shouldn’t be an either/or issue. Very central and basic to Trotskyist practices, and even anarchist practices as highlighted in the Solidarity Federation’s document Fighting for Ourselves, is the idea that in campaigning on immediate issues you raise the need and the strategy towards the working class seizing power. In campaigning on the immediate issues that affect workers you connect those issues to the question of why something is a problem to begin with that now needs to be campaigned on. The task for socialists is surely not to cease to be socialists but rather the opposite. Even the assumption that socialism is alienating to workers, at least at the present time, is dubious. It seems to rest on an assumption of ‘what workers think’ and a far too specific appraisal of the level of class-consciousness. Obviously, there isn’t a situation in the UK now where millions of workers are imminently going on a wildcat general strike to bring the capitalist system to its knees, but at the same time there are dangers in making the opposite generalisation. One person’s response to you raising socialist ideas may be very different from another person’s response: one more receptive than the other but not totally convinced, both vehemently opposed to the idea, and so on.
Behind generalisations about socialism, and the working class’s receptiveness to it, are two possible arguments. The first is that the generalisation made is just a euphemism for the politics of the person making that generalisation. In this case I’d rather a leftist simply says what they think and why – so an actual discussion can take place about the viability of socialist ideas. The second possible argument is that the person making the claim about workers being put off by socialism genuinely does believe that: while they themselves are a socialist they are deeply sceptical about being able to talk about their beliefs and be taken seriously in a political context. This stance is considerably more intellectually honest than the first possible meaning of this line of argument, but nonetheless is one I disagree with. To socialists in that position I can only offer my own experiences. In talking to others about politics I’ve had more success winning people to socialist ideas when my starting point is socialism itself rather than something more moderate or social-democratic. First of all, because socialism as my ideology is something I’m deeply passionate about, I can talk about it with more confidence and competence than if I were to talk about something more along the lines of slightly-less-brutal-capitalism. With the latter I not only have to convince other people, on many levels I would still have to convince myself. There’s no reason to shy away from socialist ideas, especially when they’re well connected with immediate campaigning issues.
Obviously these are only a small number of the many arguments socialists have to respond to from others on the left, and these only reflect the ones I’ve heard most frequently. This remains as important a discussion to have as ever before, for the simple reason that clarity in what it is we stand for as socialists is essential to getting anywhere close to the society we want to live in.