[OPE] Talkin' socialism

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Mon Jun 30 2008 - 16:56:37 EDT

At the risk of heresy, the Marxian "law of value" of itself I think has no particular practical relevance to the socialist economy, other than providing some generalistic insights such as that the investment of definite proportions of working hours are physically necessary, to create a certain output of goods and services, which affects the possible ways in which they can be distributed, since those working hours have to be put in by real, living people. That is a real constraint, but it tells you nothing much yet about all the possible ways in which labour and products can be allocated (property rights, etc.). 

Beyond that, there is a relevance, only if you have an ethic according to which people should be claim goods, assets and services in proportion to the work they do, or have done. In that case, you might need special techniques of labour-accounting to ensure "fair" exchange, which are possible. But why this exclusive ethic? Any legal expert can tell you this isn't going to succeed as the sole allocative principle. Isn't the main economic criterion that people get what they need to live and grow, within a framework of egalitarian justice, allotting each their fair share of work and its products, if there's enough for each anyway, and blocking the personal accumulation of ill-gotten gains in an quantity that you cannot even personally use or consume in any reasonable way?

After his careful scholarly exegesis of Marx's concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the great American Marx-scholar Hal Draper devoted another volume of his magnum opus "Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution" to the "Critique of other socialisms", covering Marx & Engels's opinions on utopian socialism, sentimental socialism, Lassallean state socialism, Bismarckian socialism, Proudhonist anarchist socialism, Bakunin's anarchism, reactionary anti-capitalism, and Boulangism (plus variants thereof). These were the trends that existed in his own time, not necessarily our trends.

Draper shows that Marx & Engels, who had already indicated some different socialist trends in the Communist Manifesto, were well aware that workers and intellectuals produced all kinds of socialisms, and that they sought to examine them critically, because some socialisms in their opinion were vastly preferable to others, and some were just silly nonsense. One thing that this clarifies very definitely is that the socialist movement was from the very start, and has always been, a pluralist movement, with different trends of thought vying with each other in a sort of fairly anarchic free-for-all, continuing even in times when free speech was outlawed.

The idea that there is only one correct Marxist socialism, a "true Marxist socialism", is of a later vintage, and associated much more with dictatorial personalities (although Lenin confidently announced the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in Russia, he can hardly claim to have been a dictator however, since half the time his own party did not even agree with him, so that he threatened to resign, and he didn't even know if he would survive). This is really more like a hard-core religion. But anyway the more monolithically socialism was thought of, the more this subsequently led to splintering and fragmentation among different socialists, each claiming to have the true socialism (or communism as the case might be). But that is just to say that the socialist movement, for better or worse, remains a pluralist movement anyway, in which workers and intellectuals produce all kinds of socialisms, with all their merits and faults.

>From this perspective, it just doesn't make much sense to dispute whether a particular attempt at socialism in a particular country "was really socialist or not". What is important is how the population involved viewed this themselves, and they themselves have the last word, after all it is, or was, their lives. If they mainly regarded themselves as socialist or their country as socialist, it is confusing and unfruitful to argue that they really weren't socialist, or that their country wasn't socialist. All you can say is that this is, or was, "their" socialism, which you might accept or reject, whole or in part. 

Imagine having a conversation with Fidel Castro and arguing that Cuba isn't really socialist, for some reason. He might take you on a trip around the island, if he was game to it, to show you what was achieved under his leadership, and he'd be likely to say "this is our socialism, this is what we have built with our lives despite many blockades and attacks, and I am proud of it". And at that point, you don't get very far anymore with semantics or doctrinal disputations. The only reasonable critical questions you can ask are, "has it 'delivered the goods' so to speak to the people, in terms of egalitarian justice, possibilities for personal development, the expansion of the realm of human freedoms, human dignity, economic efficiency, and so forth", "has it produced better people and better lives", and "what could you do differently, to resolve problems, or make a better society under the given circumstances?".

Paul Cockshott righly points out that we shouldn't be so dismissive about the first socialist experiments in countries like the Soviet republics, China, Cuba and so forth, because a lot of progress was achieved anyway, which the bourgeois classes were unwilling to carry through in their time, or even actively prevented. The socialists there brought the new world into being. And you can learn a lot from those experiments about what happens, when commerce is abolished in particular areas or totally, what allocative techniques or organisational forms were used, and how successful they were. Some might be totally unhelpful, others worth saving because they were a really good idea. Personally due to my interest in history I have done quite a bit of "saving", but I am not so blind in the present, as failing to recognise there are new circumstances entering into the future picture now.

Marx never believed you could establish socialism simply through some kind of putsch or coup d'etat. He ridiculed the "equality of poverty". His view was that capitalist development, both in its progress and in its contradictions and crises, inexorably generated new social relations pointing to its socialist successor; that aside, he argued for a democratic workingclass party, which should aim to be the tribune of the people and conquer state power, for the purpose of consciously reorganising society, with a view to ultimately reaching communism. Each epoch offers different and new potentials, challenges, and opportunities for this purpose, but in the end obviously we have to make it ourselves as we are able, being the people we were made as, and are making ourselves, with our own problems, ideas, contributions and dreams. 

Socialist ideology has never really captured the popular imagination in America to any great extent, which I regret and, in heady moments once, aimed to change. But okay, the workingclass and petit-bourgeois settlers there, often heavily religious, weren't really concerned with it, they shaped a trading culture from humble beginnings around what was practically necessary to make a life - "in their own right" -better than they had in the country they had left, for some inglorious or valid reason. Labour revolts also were brutally suppressed, as you can read in Philip Foner's works etc. The gun culture ruled. This all set its stamp on the personality and character of their offspring: the promise of freely doing your own thing someplace else, that you couldn't do in the place you had left, and defending that. Psychologically of course that implies themes of righteousness and redemption, a certain harshness of sentiment, but also an openness to the Other, viewed with a set of distinctions functionally aimed at making a better life, the way it is practically understood.

In an age of worldwide emigrations and globalisation, this way of thinking naturally has had a certain global appeal.  The "words" denoting an ideology however become a problem for "literal" Marxists or socialists, or for people who cannot distinguish between the meaning of words, and the meaning of actions, or for people who cannot see into the soul that animates their own people. But if you are prepared to look and think beyond words and styles, there are tremendous opportunities for an egalitarian, democratic and libertarian movement over there, that can challenge the violent rule of the oligarchy. If, outside of scholarship or work in which conceptual precision is important, I insist on a word that nobody agrees with or understands, what good does it do? I might as well recite a mantra, "noing, noing" etc. Might try it, as there is no progress here right now.


Monday finds you like a bomb
Thats been left ticking there too long
Youre bleeding
Some days theres nothing left to learn
>From the point of no return
Youre leaving

Theres a million mouths to feed
And Ive got everything I need
Im breathing
And theres a hurting thing inside
But Ive got everything to hide
I'm grieving

Hey hey I saved the world today
Everybodys happy now
The bad things gone away
And everybodys happy now
The good things here to stay
Please let it stay

Doo doo doo doo doo the good thing

- Eurythmics, "saved the world today" (sentimental socialism?)


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