The capitalist mode of production has always attracted criticism, predominantly for its effects upon the poor, the underprivileged and the working classes. The unremitting greed of those who accumulate prodigious wealth directly or indirectly through their connections with capitalist production and circulation, has also brought about very negative comments. Furthermore, the enormous gap between rich and poor engendered by Capitalism has periodically produced scathing condemnation. More recently the defects of capitalist speculation, corruption and financial crisis, along with industrial pollution and ecological destruction have drawn much adverse attention.
Yet it is possible to be steadfastly against all these symptoms emanating from the domination of capital without actually understanding the unresolvable conflicts and problems of alienation which lie at the heart of this particular mode of production. Critical views of capitalisms symptoms combined with a lack of understanding of its fundamental and irreconcilable contradictions, has given rise to two associated phenomena within the social and political spheres of modern societies. They are reformism and socialism. Both of these are the result of superficial understandings and emanate predominantly from within the middle-classes. This lack of analytic understanding, I suggest is what is wrong with those who cannot see beyond reformism and ‘socialism’. Elsewhere I have critiqued reformism, so in this particular article I will criticise the concept and practice of socialism.
What is Socialism?
A fairly concise definition of ‘socialism’ is; ‘a system of political governance which replaces competition with Co-operation through state ownership of land and capital and which introduces a policy of social equality.’
We can see right away that the description contains it’s own oxymoron. A system of political governance for a start can never create social equality. Politics is already an elevation of one section of a community over the rest who are, or then become, a formal elite. Furthermore state ownership of the means of production – land and capital – becomes the province of the political and bureaucratic state elite – which is yet another source of social inequality. It is often case that the term Co-operation can sound positive and life affirming, but only if we do not stop to think about it. However, if we do stop to think, our knowledge will tell us that the socialist state of the Soviet Union insisted – gun in hand – on the co-operation of those in industry and agriculture as well as those in the numerous Gulag concentration camps. Co-operation is also enforced in the armed bodies of men and women who our elites order to wage war on other such armed contingents. In other words, the term Co-operation is just another meaningless abstraction until it is filled with content and there is clearly no social equality within the content of these and many other co-operative projects.
The concept of ‘socialism’ is also one which has become so elastic that it has been stretched to include a wide spectrum of beliefs, opinions and actions. On the one hand it is used to describe any feeble institutionalised action a pro – capitalist state may take to offset any of the negative symptoms arising from the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand it has been used to characterise the establishment of the huge nation states mentioned above (Soviet Union and China etc.) in which everything was owned and controlled by the state. The use of this term to describe such a varied selection of actions and policies indicates the confusion and superficial understandings of those who continue to utilise it as if its meaning was clear and agreed, or could now ever become so.
It is true that the term ‘socialism’ originally attracted a strong element of anti-capitalist thinking, this is perhaps why a few people still cling on to it’s use. However, this element has long since gone. It was partly emptied of this content due to its adoption by Stalinists and Maoists to describe the systems of state controlled compulsory wage-slavery they developed in the Soviet Union, China and other such command economies. The mode of production they and a few Stalinists and Maoist imitators actually ruled over is more accurately described as state-capitalist. This type of draconian outcome could have been predicted and indeed was predicted. In addition, decades earlier Marx had criticised ‘socialists’ on a number of occasions and in his own research notes on capital had commented;
“.. the idea held by some socialists that we need capital but not the capitalists is altogether wrong.” (Marx. Grundrisse. Page 503 ebook version.)
So in the case of the Soviet Union, China and their imitators, the state elite held control of the natural resources along with the means of production and workers continued to work part of the day for their own maintainance and the rest of the day for the state – instead of an individual capitalist firm. In this way the state elite dictated the type and scale of production and controlled the surplus labour and surplus value produced rather than the previous owners or shareholders of industries or firms. In other words the workers continued to be wage-slaves (one of the essential foundations of the capitalist mode of production) and were treated with as much – or even more – brutality and indifference than any former capitalist employers might have displayed.
The term ‘socialism’ was also emptied of any lingering anti-capitalist content by those middle-class ‘socialist’ reformers who enjoyed privileges under the capitalist mode of production and thus wished to retain it. Many from this section of society were offended by the heartlessness of many aspects of capitalism and wished to use state intervention as a means to keep any extremes in check. The New Deal in the USA and the 1945 Labour Government in the UK being prime examples of the implementation of these ‘socialist’ style reforms in the 20th century. This desire to moderate any rampant capitalist exploitation from above, they claimed was a socialistic one and indeed by any strict definition it was. Because of this confusing spectrum of uses, I suggest those who wish to bring clarity in the anti-capitalist struggle, can have very little reason to continue to use the term ‘socialism’ as a rallying call or as a concept which describes their views. Those anti-capitalists who continue to cling to its use out of some misguided loyalty to tradition, are clearly not revolutionary with regard to the language they use or how they choose to portray themselves. Indeed, seriously considered, revolution and tradition are even incompatible as abstract concepts let alone when applied to the anti-capitalist struggle.
So who are the Socialists?
There are many who describe themselves as socialists. It is to be expected, from what has been written earlier, that those who do so comprise of a wide spectrum of socio-political positions. ‘Socialists’ can be found among all economic classes. Yet the most influential category, under the capitalist mode of production, are to be found among the educated middle-classes. It is from among this mileu that the two main types of ‘socialists’ can be found. The first type are the genuine petite bourgeois socialists and the second type are the opportunist petite bourgeois socialists.
Genuine middle-class socialists are those who subscribe to and sincerely wish for a future socialistic type state-moderated capitalist mode of production as an end. They honestly aspire to bring about a more benign public/private partnership; a socio-economic mix of state-capitalist and private capitalist co-operation within nation states or federations of states. These individuals have been unable to recognise that a radical change in the mode of production has become necessary and that the only way to achieve that is by a revolutionary transformation. So even genuine ‘socialists’ of the public (ie state) ownership persuasion represent a conservative element within the struggle between capital and labour; between workers and capitalists. Unless such individuals undergo something of an epiphany, they will invariably act to protect the system in order to retain their ‘positions’ and pursue their goal of attempting to reform its worst aspects. They invariably fail to recognise the extent to which the upholders of the system will resort to dirty tricks and violence in order to prevent its demise as well as resist or subvert any reforms they do not approve of.
Indeed, it is precisely the deviousness and violence of the elite upholders of a system in crisis which introduces the necessity for revolution. The elites and their supporters will not sanction the transformation of the system they benefit from despite the fact that from the perspective of humanity as a whole, it does far more harm than good. Just look at the heartless vigour they are exercising over austerity and the privatisations of public resources in Europe and elsewhere. Revolution, therefore, is no more than the political term used to describe the socio-economic process of creative destruction that becomes absolutely necessary to end one mode of production and replace it with another.
The second group who may from time to time call themselves ‘socialists’ are merely those opportunists paying lip service to a socialist future in order to gain votes or credibility among potential working class voters. Tony Blair and his accolites spring to mind here. These ‘socialists’ are often political chameleons who change their political complexion according to the environment they find themselves in. These in times of social or political unrest will also act to conserve the system because their social and political ambitions are to personally prosper within the system.
Both the genuine and opportunist ‘socialists’ can be found enjoying privileges within the political theatres such as parliaments, left political parties such as the British Labour Party and of course trade unions. In these arenas they can be found promoting their brand of reformist ‘socialist’ nonsense which they assert is in the best interests of the working class and the poor. It is nonsense because the fundamental problem with the capitalist mode of production lies not in the myriad of negative symptoms which arise from it, but from the causal defect at the core of it. The problem lies in the historic dispossession of the vast majority of humanity (the workers) from direct control of their means of production and what is produced.
Dispossession and alienation.
Throughout most of the long evolutionary history of the human species, there has been a direct connection between the work done by individuals and groups and the ownership of the results of that work. In the early socio-economic communities if an individual chose to create an object out of the materials the natural world provided then the object belonged to the individual. The individual decided how to utilise the chosen object because it was a product of his or her own labour. If a group (family, local community, tribe etc) created an object or a number of objects these objects of labour belonged to the group. The group would collectively decide how to utilise them. The connection between their labour and the object or objects created was direct and could only be given away or alternatively taken away from them by force.
The advent of slavery and feudal semi-slavery ushered in periods in which what the economically active population produced was proportionally confiscated as tribute or tax/rent in kind. But with perhaps the exception of slavery and imprisonment, even during those periods there was still a direct connection between what was produced and ownership of the results. Not so now. Apart from within the home, the fundamental connection between what communities of people make and who gets to own the results has been broken. Modern ‘socialists’ in the main do not recognise that this fundamental fact is the substantive problem within the capitalist mode of production.
In fact the eventual world domination of the capitalist mode of production, commencing several centuries ago, only became possible due to the severing of four previous socio-economic communal connections to production. 1. The severing of workers from direct control of productive land. 2. The separation of the workers from direct control of the tools of production. 3. The disconnection of the workers from independent sources of subsistence. 4. The dissolving of any previous direct feudal ties or personal servitude to the conditions of production (ie the ending of serfdom and slavery).
This fourfold severing, which was actually a form of incremental dispossession, created a working class almost completely devoid of materials, tools, means of subsistence and communal obligations. These dispossessed workers were then ‘free’ to work for those who now controlled these means of production – the capitalists. That sort of ‘freedom’ is the bourgeois way of looking at this historic separation of the bulk of humanity from collective control of production. However, there is another viewpoint. The progressively dispossessed workers were (and are) not free, they are actually compelled by the lack of alternatives to become wage-slaves. This historic disconnection at the heart of production cannot be reversed by reforming the existing system or by the introduction of what its advocates call ‘socialism’.
The entire evolution of the capitalist mode of production has proceeded by developing the productive forces of society in such a way that those who work (the working classes) and create all the wealth, do not have a direct claim on the wealth they produce. Under the capitalist mode of production all the majority of workers get in exchange for the vast amounts of commodity and infrastructure wealth they produce and service, are wages or salaries which are only sufficient to survive at a moderate level when they manage to get employment and even less when they cannot. The huge resources working people collectively produce are appropriated by the capitalists and their elite buddies who now store them in the form of luxury goods, property, land, bonds, banked money-capital and of course use some to invest in further surplus value (profit) realising ventures.
Yet all this wealth, including the money capital, is nothing more than the combined value of stored up previous products of labour in various money or commodity forms. Therefore, to paraphrase Marx, the stored up value of capital is the product of collective labour and the product of collective labour now for the first time in history predominantly appears as capital. The product of collective labour now belongs entirely to someone else! In other words it is alienated from those who create it. The working classes are the creators of all wealth yet under the capitalist mode of production they are made to appear as the incidental secondary (precarious) and disposable elements of the production processes. In fact they – along with nature – are the primary elements.
Under the capitalist mode of production, every worker is also now a potential pauper. This is because if a capitalist concern cannot realise surplus labour/value (thus profits) from employing him or her, then the worker will be laid off. Thus under the normal or crisis conditions of capitalism sooner or later a proportion of workers will be unable to purchase the adequate necessities of living and be forced to beg for alms (state benefits, food banks etc) or other forms of charity. Thus alienation from capital dominated production can lead to alienation from life’s necessities and in extreme cases (as with some economically motivated suicides) from life itself. Capitalism has alienation and pauperism built into its very economic foundations.
As long as this system persists a relatively small capitalist and pro-capitalist elite can dictate what is produced, how much is produced, where it is produced, how much pollution and ecological destruction results from it and whether countries go to war to obtain resources and markets. The form of representative democracy and the law developed under capitalism are designed to secure and promote this mode of production – with all its major features intact! Representative democracy and bourgeois property laws are designed not to question capitalisms basis or to seek it’s transformation into something more egalitarian and which re-connects workers with the products of their labour.
For all these reasons it represents a real advance within the workers movement to have gained a consciousness of the real basis of the capitalist mode of production and therefore the limited nature of placing demands upon the capitalist state, which ‘socialists’ routinely do. It is a real advance in understanding to recognise the need for humanity to develop a post-capitalist mode of production. It therefore represents a serious failure and retreat to avoid including that understanding in any campaigns to defend workers conditions. Such a failure places any such demands within the framework of bourgeois ideology and amounts to no more than reinforcing the illusion that the capitalist mode of production is not fatally flawed and can go on forever. The perpetuation of that particular reformist illusion is now the predominant content of the term ‘socialism’ and it is the role of ‘socialists’ within the workers movements to promote it. Those who doubt the counter revolutionary nature of ‘socialism’ and socialists during severe structural crises of capitalism should consider the role both (including the ‘national socialists’) played in Germany during the 1930’s. Or at least read ‘Nazis: a double warning from history’ on this blog. For a more contemporary example consider the role played by the ‘socialist’ Hollande and his cabal in even banning peaceful demonstrations by trade unionists. So, what is wrong with ‘socialism’? In my opinion – all the above and more!
Roy Ratcliffe (June 2016)