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Monday, February 11, 2019

The Prospects for Socialism Today

Dr Tristan Ewins

Writing in the Herald-Sun, Chris Collins (11/1/19 ) argues that the Nordic countries have never been “socialist” because they have not conformed to the original Marxist definition of the centralisation of the means of production in state hands.  In reality, though, there were always a variety of definitions, and even Marxists themselves have revised their understandings.

Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system ; and reducing inequalities to a fair level. In Marx’s words, to advance the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need’. That should include a strong welfare state and social wage ; involving not only natural public monopolies and strategic state ownership ; but also producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, democratic funds, and a mix of competition, markets and planning.

Socialism also means building an economy focused on ‘use values’. (ie: not just maximising abstract exchange value ; eg: preserving the natural environment)  But we’re in a global economy: which means we have to live with the transnational corporations.  They are at best ‘a mixed blessing’: at times spurring innovations and job creation ; but also unacceptable inequalities in wealth and power ; as well as collusion, monopolism, planned obsolescence and so on.  But also arguably the consequence of  bourgeois dominance is that we live in a ‘One Dimensional Society’ where substantially different social alternatives are excluded from mainstream discussion. What’s needed is robust pluralism: where socialism is part of the debate ; and hence a genuine option in the broader context of democracy.

In response to writers who attempt to put Swedish Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in opposition to one another: for key Swedish thinkers and politicians such as Wigforss, Palme, Rehn, Meidner etc the Nordic Model was definitely a kind of socialism. The 'high water mark' was with the Meidner Wage Earner Funds proposals of the 70s and 80s. That marked the end of a 'corporatist consensus' (institutionalised consultation and co-operation) which developed over several decades starting from the 1930s. The model has been in slow retreat since. But its past successes over many decades still give a sense of what is possible.

Importantly, the wage earner funds were to be structured in such a way as to compensate workers for prior wage restraint. But the extent of that wage restraint had been such that the funds would eventually deliver economic control to workers over many years. One of the biggest problems with the funds is that they focused on workers alone rather than the broader category of 'citizens'. (hence excluding pensioners for instance)  In 1983 Australian Leftists like Laurie Carmichael wanted ‘Nordic Style’ policies in return for wage restraint under the the Government of Bob Hawke and 'The Accord'.  Unfortunately nothing of the sort was actually delivered.

That said: what kind of state is in a position to deliver on socialism?

Leninists are inclined to oppose the ‘liberal bourgeois state’ to the kind of state which existed under the Bolsheviks.  A ‘workers’ state’.  Trotskyists would argue it had become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ under the domination of Stalin.

On the other hand, by certain interpretations a genuine workers' state is a democratic state ; where we can interpret 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' as a 'manner of applying democracy' ; the 'democratic dictatorship' of the working class majority.  (widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin) The ultimate aim is to create a ‘pure democracy’ where the state represents all people ; and the class system is permanently transcended.  Finally, the State itself is presumed by Marxists to ‘wither away’ with the end of all class divisions and antagonisms.  One flaw of this thinking, however, is the presumption that over the long run 'only class antagonisms matter'  to such a degree that some kind of state power is necessary either as arbiter ; or to enforce interests.

Arguably Sweden enjoyed a decades-long 'equilibrium in the class struggle' or otherwise what Korpi called a 'democratic class struggle'. Where the class struggle was in some ways 'institutionalised' between social democrats, unions, employers.  Concessions were made based on ‘the balance of class forces’ ; but open escalation of conflict was avoided as being in no-one’s interest. Then in the 1970s and 80s the Social Democrats and the LO (‘Landsorganisationen’ ; or Swedish Trade Union Confederation) attempted to assert their democratic leverage to achieve previously unheard of economic redistribution and democratisation.  Again: even with over 80% unionisation coverage they still failed. And Social Democracy has been on the defensive there largely ever since.   If anything, this gives an idea just how difficult the struggle can be.

What we need is a democratic state which is not a medium for direct OR indirect bourgeois rule. Nicos Poulanztas wrote about a 'logic of the class struggle' which 'imprinted itself upon the state field'. I'm not a structuralist (as Poulantzas was) ; but in a way that makes sense. The state tends to defend bourgeois interests ; but not totally. It is not a 'simple instrument'.  It is much more complex than that.  Rather, it has its own internal contradictions and internal struggles. What we need is a state which is fully committed to the implications of democracy: as opposed to the direct or indirect rule of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that capitalism is supported by a clear majority of states ; as well as by the transnationals which are an expression of and foundation for global bourgeois dominance. Even assuming a state which breaks POLITICAL bourgeois dominance at a local level ; there are still the remainder of bourgeois states internationally; and global bourgeois economic power ; and economic co-dependence. 

Think about revolutionary France. The Revolution was diverted into Bonapartism.  (the rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon I) And eventually with the Congress of Vienna there was total Restoration of the "Ancien Regime" in France, and the consolidation of monarchies and their traditional bloodlines elsewhere in Europe. Liberal Democracy did not really take hold through much of the world until the Bolsheviks put much of the European bourgeoisie under such pressure as to implement the crucial concession of universal suffrage.  This had long been a key Social Democratic and Marxist demand. We're talking about a period spanning over 100 years. (throughout which we had other revolutions and struggles ; eg: 1830, 1848, 1871) Thereafter the bourgeoisie and its representatives have spent another 100-odd years thinking of ways to divide the working class against itself to prevent it from realising the potential of the suffrage. The splintering of the working class culturally and economically has made it increasingly hard to realise the solidarity we need to bring about the change we want.  Narratives on ‘political correctness’ and ‘left elites’ have just this effect ; and sometimes by neglecting class interests we play into the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Critics of socialism often declare that they don’t want ‘statism’ or state domination.  And this they associate with socialism.  Well, no - we don't want Stalinist-style 'statism'. (though I hate the term 'statism' as it is commonly used to stigmatise any place for the state ; even a democratic state) But 'wresting capital by degrees' from the bourgeoisie still sounds like a good idea - if done properly – and if only it were possible.  The problems of exploitation and economic polarisation still demand our attention as practical and moral questions.  And after all, radical redistribution of wealth is what the Swedes were attempting with the Meidner wage earner funds in the 1970s and 1980s .

Arguably the Mixed Economy represents progress towards that goal.  Though the ‘mixed economy’, social wage and welfare state can be supported by far more ‘moderate’ forces who want nothing more over the long term than to ameliorate inequality and ‘save capitalism from itself’.

"Wresting capital by degrees" from the bourgeoisie can imaginably involve a mix of public, co-operative and other democratic ownership - as opposed to 'Stalinist Statism'. But the process cannot be finished because bourgeois interests reinforce each other globally.  Currently, there is no (acceptable) ‘way out’ of capitalism. But if we mobilise we can at least force compromises which are in workers' and citizens' interests. And we can convince the bourgeoisie that compromise is sometimes in its own interests. (again ; 'saving capitalism from itself')  For example: natural public monopolies can reduce cost structures not just for citizens/consumers/workers – but also for business.  And a state-owned savings and loans bank (with a charter promoting competition and ethical banking) could inject competition into the sector of benefit both to business, and to most ordinary people.

Importantly - forcing compromise through struggle is in some ways more involved than just 'gaming the system'. Over the long term who knows what's possible? Again: think about Revolutionary France - and the hegemony of liberal democracies which only finally arose more than 100 years later.  We can only hope it will not take a catastrophe such as the First World War was to provide enough impetus to drive qualitative change ; to challenge the class system and the ‘defacto rule’ of Capital.

If anything the Global Financial Crisis gave a sense of capitalism’s enduring instability ; and that (should another crisis occur) radical interventions may be necessary ‘to save the system from itself’.  But public dissatisfaction with “bailouts at the peoples’ expense” may drive strategic socialisations sooner than we think.

Socialism is not ‘inevitable’ as the old Marxist Centrists used to insist.  We cannot anticipate all the policy innovations which may help ‘save the system from itself’.  But over the long term a more generalised breakdown cannot be ruled out either.  Socialists need to stand prepared for all manner of contingencies.  Global organisation and dialogue are necessary to best prepare for those contingencies.   That means not responding to discourse on ‘globalisation’ as an excuse for defeatism.   It means working out the possibilities of domestic social democracy/democratic socialism ; but also building the organisation and dialogue necessary to give rise to internationalist responses.   The current Socialist International is not an effective vehicle for this.  Can it be reformed?  Or do we need new forms of international organisation and dialogue?


  1. The socialism Marx and Engels wrote about would not be brought about by electing socialists to govern the political State under the wage system. Instead, it would come about because workers moved as a class to emancipate themselves from the bondage inherent in the wage system.
    Socialism would be a different mode of producing and distributing wealth. Use-values would no longer saddled with their exchange-value in order to be sold in the market for a price fluctuating with supply and demand around said exchange-value (the socially necessary labour time embodied in goods and services). Instead, use-values would be distributed on the basis of labour time put into creating the social store of goods and services. The medium of exchange would no longer be a commodity--it could not be traded for a price on the market, socially necessary labour time would have no price, it would no longer embody the alienated wealth of the producers. Why? Because the producers would socially own and democratically manage the collective product of their labour.

    1. Mike

      Your point:

      "Use-values would no longer saddled with their exchange-value in order to be sold in the market for a price fluctuating with supply and demand around said exchange-value (the socially necessary labour time embodied in goods and services)."

      probably relates to a Communist economy - ie "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs".

      A socialist economy is different, ie "from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution".

      Under communism there are no commodities (just products - use values). Under socialism products will still serve as commodities (exchange values and use values).

  2. Thanks again Tristan, for kicking this important discussion along. I have responded as follows for others who are interested:

  3. Actually, Mike, I concur with Marx that labour time becomes irrelevant. How much the price of a woman's milk from her own breast to a baby? If we exist by giving what skills and knowledge we have and take what we need, there are no cumbersome calculations or credit/debt balances required. And, in the end, what else can we actually do when faced with needing to regenrate the nature that sustains us in order to survive as a species?

  4. The only problem is deciding at what point we reach 'abundance' ; and to what extent it is relative. And that under capitalism you have 'coercive laws of competition' (Marx) ; And no single country can completely 'opt out' of capitalism on its own. So - what can you achieve? ; and how quickly can you achieve it? Finally: what kind of international co-operation and co-ordination are necessary at certain points in the journey?

  5. I concur with most of this but we need a clear definition as to what "Mixed Economy" means. As a transition, then maybe we can mix capitalism with (eg) cooperatives and not-for-profits.

    But in the long run "Mixed Economy" cannot include mixture with capitalism.

    Under Socialism - "Mixed Economy" can be a mix of market and non-market.

    Under Communism - markets probably will wither away.