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Monday, November 4, 2019

On Socialism Today - Planning a Way Forward

The following article - which the author plans to submit for publication by the Australian Fabians - is an in depth survey of the background and options for democratic socialism in Australia and the world.  The idea is to spark debate in the lead up to a series of events in Victoria planned for 2020.  Your contributions to the debate are also welcome!

Dr Tristan Ewins

Socialistic sentiment can be traced back to the slave revolt of Spartacus and Peasant uprisings in Europe ; for instance that led by Thomas Muntzer in Germany.  But ‘modern socialism’ began with those labelled as ‘utopians’ by Karl Marx.  Figures like Robert Owen – who personally wanted to convince the bourgeoisie (and nobility) of an egalitarian, communal society based around the means of production.   (specifically communes of up to 3,000 people) And all those others who depended on a ‘socialist vision’ to convince people of the desirability of a socialist order ; as opposed to Marxists who based their approach on ‘the fact of class struggle’.

Generally, socialists preferred equality ; an end to exploitation ; extension of democracy to the economy.  Marxists wanted to socialise the means of production to end both exploitation and the destructiveness and wastefulness of  capitalism and its boom-bust cycle.

But Marx had another criticism of capitalism ; and that was the way in which the division of labour and demanding nature of much work traumatised workers.   This was his theory of Alienation. Today in Australia for instance we are a world away from the working conditions of the 19th Century.  But in call centres, offices and factories the division of labour can still exclude creative control and work fulfilment.  Indeed, work conditions can still be traumatising.

In Germany where the class struggle was advanced the Social Democrats arose as a combination of the Marxists (Eisenachers) and the Lassalleans.  Lassalleans (led originally by Ferdinand Lasssalle) believed in industry-wide co-operatives with state aid.  Eventually Marxism became dominant.  But by 1914 in Germany right-wing ‘socialists’ had come to predominate in unions and the parliament, and those people eschewed internationalism and supported the First World War.

Before World War One both the European and British socialists supported the class struggle and the fight for universal suffrage to advance workers’ rights.  But Britain was relatively liberal ; and this resulted in less emphasis on revolution and more emphasis on incrementalism.

Fabianism arose in the 1880s ; and came to represent a movement to influence opinion in liberal and progressive circles. Especially in the Labour Party in Britain.  Beatrice and Sidney Webb (prominent British Fabians) expressed sympathy with the achievements of Soviet Communism – but that view did not last.  Some Fabians would focus on practical public policy ; others on the more radical aim of incrementally replacing capitalism.  Again: Generally Fabians were gradualist rather than supporting a ‘sudden rupture’.

Modern Australian Fabianism shared the British Fabian principles and was formed organisationally in 1947.  The height of Fabian influence was in the Whitlam Labor Government.

After World War One the broad Left was generally divided into Communist, Social 
Democratic and Labourist Camps.   Although pockets of Social Democracy remained highly radical – as in Austria in the 1917 to 1934 period.  (Austro-Marxism)   These sought a ‘middle path’ between Bolshevism and ‘mainstream’ international social democracy. And there were anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists – who were significant in the Spanish Republican forces and the fight against the Nazi-backed fascist insurgency of Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

From the 1940s through to the 1980s Swedish Social Democracy enjoyed remarkable success (replicated to various degrees in other Nordic countries) with full employment, active industry policy, strong unions, and a strong welfare state.  For the overwhelming majority of this period Social Democrats held government. Basically workers received social security in return for a ‘corporatist settlement’ including wage restraint.  The full employment achieved under the ‘Rehn-Meidner model’ also made a stronger welfare state possible. Though Walter Korpi conceived of the  Swedish situation differently:  as a ‘democratic class struggle’, involving mobilisation of ‘Power Resources’ and compromise depending on the balance of class power. But in the 70s and 80s Sweden also had to respond to the Oil Shocks and devalue the Krona.  The ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ plan sought to compensate workers for wage restraint by giving them collective capital share.  But this implied a radical redistribution of wealth over time.  Also - because it appealed only to workers and not to citizens, it could be argued that the funds could have included a wider base. (which is democratically preferable anyway)  Capitalists went on the offensive : socialists on the defensive. And there has been a slow retreat since.

Up until and including the 1970s and 1980s there remained strong pockets of radicalism in many Labourist and Social Democratic Parties.  But the Oil Shocks of the 70s and the drive to restore profits divided the Left and led to Socialist retreat.  Also the Soviet Collapse during 1989-1991 had an enormously demoralising effect on the Western Left ; despite the fact the Western Left had long distanced itself from Stalinism. It’s not unreasonable to see the Gorbachev reform movement as a window of opportunity ; and a missed opportunity.

From Hawke and Keating onwards Australian Labor has broadly internalised neo-liberal Ideology.  Small government,  privatisation, free trade, limits on the liberties of organised labour, trade agreements which give capital an effective ‘veto’ on regulation and public sector expansion.  Marxism used to have a strong base in the Socialist Left.  But increasingly the factions have lost ideological cohesion ; and have been subsumed in the mainstream political discourse.

Indeed, the experience of Hawke and Keating inspired Tony Blair and Antony Giddens with their ‘Third Way’ or ‘Radical Social Democratic Centre’.  In the 19th and early 20th Centuries ‘Centrism’ had been a largely Catholic phenomenon including limited support for trade unions, labour market regulation and welfare.  Since Giddens and Blair the ‘Third Way’ has come to represent ‘neo-liberalism with  a human face’.   Punitive welfare on the one hand, but also the principle there should be an economic and social ‘floor’ below which no-one should be allowed to fall.  Blair also marginally increased tax.  (will Australian Labor still consider tax reform for the next election?)  But he would not retreat an inch in opposing any re-socialisation – no matter how badly privatisation had failed.  (eg: of railways)  In Australia more recently ‘Centrism’ as epitomised by the ‘Centre Alliance’ struggles to maintain a credible liberalism – let alone any kind of social democracy. For instance there was conditional support for the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting legislation.  Today ‘Centrism’ in Australia can  mean a shallow populism cashing in on broad disillusionment with the two party system.   Significant parts of the ALP Right consider themselves ‘Centrist’ after the Blairite model. Blairites also generally accept capitalism as a given.

Fast-forward to 2019 and ‘What is to be done?’.

Capitalism remains more vulnerable than people think. There is much focus on public debt, but private debt is a ‘ticking time bomb’ that could lead to loss of confidence, panic and collapse.  In Australia, the US and much of the world private debt is many times the level of public debt.  The Australian economy especially has come to rest on the housing bubble. Millions are locked out of home ownership ; but sudden and radical devaluation would cause panic and collapse.  The boom-bust cycle remains a fact: but governments focused on public debt are less likely to engage in counter-cyclical measures. This could one day mean recession (or Depression) as the ‘solution’ to indebtedness.   Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has it that government can ‘create money’ at will ; but this is not without limits. It involves a  degree of redistribution which capitalists hate – but also inflation.  Progressive tax is still more effective at redistributing wealth in a targeted and progressive way.  But certainly the MMT crowd are on to something.

The Labor Party today is probably inclined to want to ‘save capitalism from itself’.  The welfare state and higher minimum wages can assist by boosting expenditure and demand.  A return to a meaningfully mixed economy can help by reducing cost structures via natural public monopolies. This could flow on to the private sector as well.   As well, this could counter oligopolistic collusion – for instance in banking.  (actually promoting competition)  Higher government expenditure can also add money to the economy ; increase demand ; and ameliorate the explosion of private debt – which is a ticking time-bomb for the economy. (here and globally) 

An expanded social wage, welfare state, collective consumption and social insurance – can also provide social justice and social security. Think reformed pensions – easing means testing and increasing payments.  Public housing.  Better-funded schools and hospitals. More money for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.  More efficient public provision of infrastructure. (because of a better rate of borrowing and a ‘public interest test’ rather than share value and dividend maximisation)  Also consider National Aged Care Insurance and a withdrawal of regressive user-pays mechanisms.  As well as a retreat of user-pays in Education.

These are ameliorative reforms that can improve peoples’ lives.  But Australia is still captive to the global economy and will suffer along the rest of the world in any ‘general downturn’ or ‘collapse’.

Over the long term we still need to think about an alternative to capitalism. Sub-Prime and the Global Financial Crisis did not only reveal instability – It also revealed the gap between Use Value and Exchange Value as Marx would put it.  That is: there was an abundance of housing amidst widespread destitution and homelessness.   This is a real capitalist failing and vulnerability.

Marx’s weakness was that he did not propose any concrete alternative vision to capitalism. He assumed ‘the class struggle would take care of things’.   So maybe in part the ‘Utopian Socialists’ were on to something?  The context of class struggle had to be engaged with ; but also concrete visions for the future.  Today perhaps we need ‘provisional utopias’. We cannot afford to be ‘a force of pure negation’ with no vision for the future. Especially after the real historical experience of Stalinism.

But capitalism is a globally-reinforcing system.  You can’t just ‘go it alone’ in revolutionising the entire economy.  There are economic AND political constraints.

But what can be done is to begin a process of ‘revolutionary reforms’.  Say in the spirit of the interwar Austrian Social Democrats.  Even today in Austria there is a legacy in Vienna of 60% public housing – and overwhelmingly high quality public housing.  A ‘democratic mixed economy’ would stabilise capitalism (through strategic socialisation and redistribution) while at the same time advancing towards an alternative.  As in Austria this would also involve a counter culture: a rebuilding and reassertion of the labour movement ; but also a coalition with other social movements.  What Gramsci would have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’. That also involves establishing online presences ; other publications ; public meetings ; progressive radio and television ; social events of various kinds ; plays ; workers’ sport ; radical music etc.  Establishing footholds where-ever possible.

Importantly the decline of industrial labour (with ‘deindustrialisation’) has widely meant a decline in class consciousness.  Service sector workers can be just as exploited ; but are more likely to think themselves ‘middle class’ or lack class consciousness.   We can and should fight this. But the industrial working class might not any longer be seen (in the Marxist sense) as a ‘finally redemptive’ ‘universal historic subject’.  The labour movement is central: but the modern Left also needs alliances.

And should another Global Financial Crisis occur the big finance houses should not be ‘bailed out at the public’s expense’.   Where the public sector steps in (if that occurs) it should retain a share in ownership.

Of course when it comes to advanced socialist transition bourgeois economic and political resistance has to be expected.  

The ‘democratic mixed economy’ should be the short to medium term model.  That includes a key place for natural public monopolies, strategic government business enterprises , consumers and workers co-operatives of various sorts (including multi-stakeholder co-ops which bring workers, governments and regions together) , mutualist associations . As well as ‘collective capital formation’.  ( The Meidner Funds were such ; In Australia superannuation was a very pale imitation which may actually endanger welfare into the future by narrowing its base) ‘Multi-stakeholder co-ops’ are an important idea - as they could enable expansions of economies of scale to retain competitiveness under capitalism.   All these are part of a concrete alternative. 

There is also a need to restore and consolidate industrial liberties ; to increase organised labour’s power ; its ability to deliver ; and hence its coverage, strength, and ability to contribute to change.

Furthermore: how do we tackle ‘alienation’ today in Marx’s sense?    Even with deindustrialisation, workers still find themselves alienated in modern professions – for instance call centre workers.  The ‘post-industrial utopia’ has so far failed to emerge.  At the least we can improve wages and conditions for the most exploited and alienated workers with low-end labour market regulation.  (and maybe government subsidies where the market will not bear higher wages)  Perhaps enabling a reduction of the working week for  many.  (though others would crave longer hours)  ‘Free time’ is perhaps one alternative (for now) to Marx’s vision of a communism where workers regained creative control ; and labour becomes ‘life’s prime want’.  (a quote from Marx)  But ‘alienation’ is a feature of broader Modernity and not only capitalism.  The rise of co-operatives could at least facilitate worker control – also ameliorating alienation.

In the final instance we need to think of where improvements in productivity could lead. Either to greater equality, plenty and free time for everyone.  Or in the capitalist context only the intensification of growth, profit and exploitation.  And possibly greater inequality if we do not socialise much of the gains of productivity.  What Marx called the ‘coercive laws of competition’  means that competition forces a focus on productivity for capitalist profit and short term economic advantage.   The problem is finding a way out of this ‘circuit’.   (as well as the intensification of exploitation ; and a 'lagging behind in wages' in labour intensive areas where productivity improvements are hard to come by)   We need to think where free trade and internationalism fit in to this problem.  There are environmental implications as well. Capitalism by its very nature will trend towards the ‘endless growth’ option.   Perhaps if the emphasis is on information and service industries it could be more environmentally sustainable.

But Sweden is also a warning.  Again: there has been retreat since the Meidner Wage Earner Funds.  The ‘corporatist consensus’ delivered for several decades in Sweden.  But since the bourgeoisie ‘got cold feet’ and organised more overtly against Swedish social democracy – there has been a retreat.  Swedish social democracy now has to work with Swedish Liberalism to keep the right-wing parties out ; and the price has been a retreat of the Swedish welfare state and progressive tax.  In short: Socialists and social democrats have to be ready for capitalist backlash.

Class struggle creates change. That remains true.  But so too do broader coalitions, cultural and electoral strategies.  The Fabian Society in Australia  is placed to mount cultural interventions ; and hence influence the electoral strategies of the Labor Party and the broader Left.  We won’t get all that we want all at once.  But we need a critique of capitalism.  We have to be prepared for future crises.  We have to think what a transition would look like: under what circumstances and what time frame?  But all the time considering the reality of power – economic and political ; including the power of the  State.  And all in a global context: where global progress remains limited without global consciousness and organisation.  Which is something the Fabians also need to be thinking about.  Building ties with Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, could be a fruitful endeavour.

The Fabian Society re-embracing its place as an organisation of democratic socialism means engaging with these problems.  For the short to medium term it is to be hoped we have an important strategic place in developing a ‘democratic mixed economy’ ; critiquing capitalism ; and imagining ‘revolutionary reforms’ which could decisively shift economic and political power over the long term.


  1. A good historical overview Tristan.

    Where next?

    I'd argue for a Green New Deal. A transformed society where energy saving efficiency measures throughout the economy are imposed to try to save the planet from global warming.
    This means an end to conspicuous consumption and ostentatious spending by the rich. An end to planned obsolescence in white goods. Where clothes are repaired and socks are darned, rather than shirts being thrown away because a button comes off. Where the status symbol of having the latest model sports car is old hat. Where people use public transport and families only have one car, if needed; perhaps because outer suburban or rural. In short, a more 1950’s standard of living.
    Some energy saving high technology might endure, because it saves energy.

    A Green New Deal will create jobs in renewable energy. But thermal coal should not be used to generate electricity any more. Some jobs will have to go. The Whitlam government when it liberalised tariffs had an adjustment scheme. To get acceptance of the Green New Deal we need to run an adjustment scheme, not throw people on the scrapheap.

    And we could have a culturally rich society, with cinema theatre music and literature for the masses. We don’t need to go peasant illiterate communist like North Korea, but we could turn the streetlights off between midnight and dawn.

    We all have to do our bit to save the planet. And the wasteful lives of the 1% must be curbed.

  2. Hi are you aware of the strong and growing Labor socialists movement brisbane?

  3. Capitalism can be a much better social system than today and socialism is an unavoidable replacement. Socialism will not come by revolutionary force but by the evolutionary improvement of capitalism. Socialism will be based on equal human rights and the market economy. It will be a significantly better system and more productive than capitalism can be so that it will send capitalism down in history.

    I have elaborated it in the article "Full employment is a turning point for capitalism" here

  4. Panicking capitalists and neo liberals reading this article would be saying but where is the money and the capital coming from to do all of this.

    1. a) if you have industry policy for full employment that makes a massive difference. Increased consumption, increased revenue.

      b) the medium-long term aim is to reach OECD average tax levels.

      c) You do it with progressive taxation ; conspicuous consumption of the wealthy falls ; but overall consumption increases with full employment and fair welfare.

      d) Business should be paying more for services and infrastructure it benefits from ; genuinely clamping down on tax avoidance would make a big difference. Corporate tax should be around 35%.

      e) The strategy would be to increase tax by 1.5% of GDP a term. Though maybe more next term because Morrison has cut tax so much. And areas like Aged Care, mental health, Medicare dental - need funds desperately.

    2. Finally, there is no doubt that the credit system will serve as a powerful lever during the transition from the capitalist mode of production to the mode of production of associated labour; but only as one element in connection with other great organic revolutions of the mode of production itself. On the other hand, the illusions concerning the miraculous power of the credit and banking system, in the socialist sense, arise from a complete lack of familiarity with the capitalist mode of production and the credit system as one of its forms. As soon as the means of production cease being transformed into capital (which also includes the abolition of private property in land), credit as such no longer has any meaning. This, incidentally, was even understood by the followers of Saint-Simon. On the other hand, as long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, interest-bearing capital, as one of its forms, also continues to exist and constitutes in fact the basis of its credit system. Only that sensational writer, Proudhon, who wanted to perpetuate commodity-production and abolish money, was capable of dreaming up the monstrous crèdit gratuit, the ostensible realization of the pious wish of the petty-bourgeois estate.

      CAPITAL Volume III, chapter 36, page 607

  5. You asked: "how do we tackle ‘alienation’ today in Marx’s sense?"

    First off,you have to grasp the fact that the wage system 'alienates' the social product of labour from its producers, the working class.

    Secondly, you have to prove to workers that this is happening every day within the division of labour needed to sustain the capitalist system of exploitation.

    Thirdly, you have to help organise labour politically and industrially in classwide union in order to have the power to gain control and eventual social ownership of the collective product of their labour.

    Fourthly, you have to make the connection between wealth and nature. Not only does labour need to democratically control what it produces, as climate change is demonstrating, labour need to learn to live in harmony with the Earth as it produces and distributes the wealth of nations on the basis of need, not sale. In other words, the commodification of wealth must cease along with the commodification of social relations e.g. skills being bought and sold in the labour market. That means and end to the privatisation of natural resources and their common ownership in an association of free producers whose first principle is that the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all.

  6. There are some very useful and insightful comments here. Well done to everyone. Fwiw, here are my two bobs worth.

    Firstly, the schism between communists and socialists (social democrats) was never really over different notions of socialism, but rather over the latter's support for nationalist participation in WWI, which led to the slaughter of around 20 million workers and peasants. That war ushered in the Bolshevik revolution in a backward country, lacking both the economic, technological and cultural capacity to build socialism, anyway other than by force. The disastrous consequences have forever tainted the words socialism and communism.

    Nevertheless, it is now vital, for the very survival of our species, that the world has more socialism and less capitalism. We urgently need social ownership of power generation and distribution, means of communication, public housing, health and education. These are necessary for the provision of basic 'needs' for all. They should never be left to the market to produce/distribute only for profit.

    Nevertheless, while Marx spoke of communism as a system providing "to each according to their needs", this ignores the question of 'wants'. Capitalism remains a dynamic mechanism for producing and delivering 'wants'. For the foreseeable future, until we, as a species, have evolved culturally, to the point where commodity fetishism has run its race, there is going to be a need for a vibrant capitalist/entrepreneurial sector of the economy.

    As for the inherent (to capitalism) problems of alienation and wage slavery, the best hope lies in having a large and prosperous socialised/democratised public sector, such that people only have to work in the privatised/capitalist sector, if they so wish.

    Overall, I think it is naive and unproductive, to imagine a situation where the vast majority of the world's population will embrace any manifesto/program for socialising the entire economy. If we, as socialists/communists do that, we are doomed to become nothing more than chardonnay socialists or caviar communists. What is urgently needed is a realiseable left manifesto for addressing the world's ecological/economic/social crises, without calling for world revolution or the total upheaval of society.

    1. You're right, Comrade. After Engels died in 1896, the leaderships of the various socialist factions dumped the critique of wage labour and basically embraced wage labour and the continued commodification of wealth. The Bolshevik/Menshevik split was over whether to support the ruling classes in their first world war.

      Lest we forget:

      "On the basis of socialised production the scale must be ascertained on which those operations — which withdraw labour-power and means of production for a long time without supplying any product as a useful effect in the interim — can be carried on without injuring branches of production which not only withdraw labour-power and means of production continually, or several times a year, but also supply means of subsistence and of production. Under socialised as well as capitalist production, the labourers in branches of business with shorter working periods will as before withdraw products only for a short time without giving any products in return; while branches of business with long working periods continually withdraw products for a longer time before they return anything. This circumstance, then, arises from the material character of the particular labour-process, not from its social form. In the case of socialised production the money-capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate."

      CAPITAL Volume II

      "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves...the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule." - Marx, 1864

      "Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organisation of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution."

      from CAPITAL volume I, chapter one

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  9. Though the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split initially well before WWI over issues of organisation.

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