Socialism: myths, prejudices and reality

The celebration of the election of the Paris Commune, 28 March 1871. Image from Wikimedia. (Public domain)

Terry Bell

26 November 2015

The global economic crisis continues and makes for a widespread and desperate need among the lowly paid, the poor and the hungry for something better to look forward to.

As such they provide a ready audience for charlatans who promise salvation, if not in this life, then certainly in the next. And ambitious politicians too, use this as an opportunity to promote themselves and their parties or groups as a means to earthly salvation. Vaguely worded promises labelled “socialism” are often their stock in trade.

The same selling of socialist slogans has also applied in oppressive regimes where the victimised masses have turned to leaders, often from the military, who raised the red banner proclaiming a better life for all. A classic recent example of this was the rise to power of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. A former amy officer, jailed after a failed coup, he returned to win elections, proclaiming himself to be a socialist.

So what is socialism? It means, in simple terms, a society in which every individual, enjoying equal opportunities, is free to do exactly as they please provided that, in the exercise of that freedom, they do not impinge on the rights of anyone else; that the economic and social order is based not on competition, but on collective action and communal ownership.

There have been numerous societies throughout history, in Africa and elsewhere, that have operated in this way, where decisions were made by the community at large and where all were accountable to the community. A brief flowering of this sort of organisation of society in modern history occurred in Paris in 1871. It was this that inspired Karl Marx — to whom homage is paid, to one degree or another, by all socialist groups — to develop his theory of what was possible.

In 1871, the workers of Paris rose up and proclaimed a commune. They abolished the standing army, instead setting up popular militias; established the right of people to elect, recall and, if necessary, replace, representatives. It was also ruled that no elected representative should earn more than the averagewage of a worker and that free and equal education should apply for all. The major anomaly — and a sign of those times — was that the right to vote that had previously been denied to all workers, was given only to men.

This organic creation of a communal state provided an inspiration not only to Marx, but to other early socialists. And the fact that it only lasted for 71 days before being crushed in an orgy of bloodshed by the established French army and its Prussian allies, provided another lesson.

For Marx this was vindication of the ideas he had begun formulating. In a pamphlet written in 1847, 161 years ago, he noted: “We are not among those…who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse…..We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality… no society will freedom be assured as in a society based on communal ownership.”

At the same time he said that there were those who claimed to be socialists who would “refuse to countenance personal liberty” and who would “like to shuffle it out of the world because… is a hindrance to complete harmony”. Were he to return today, he, along with his close collaborator, Frederick Engels, would probably be astounded to find how many of these “top-down” socialists exist. However, socialism is still seen as the only alternative to dominant capitalism. And with more and more unemployment, poverty and suffering under the capitalist system, the idea of an alternative becomes very attractive.

But on the socialist front, Marx and Engels in particular argued that the change from one system to another had to be achieved by the exploited majority who provided the profits to a system based on competition. Workers had to liberate themselves in order to establish a system based on collaborative labour to supply human needs. Education and organisation were key.

As the radical American economist, Richard Wolff recently noted, socialism means “abolishing the distinction between bosses and employees”. In other words, a society of equals where democracy is maximised. This has clearly not been the case in what the South African Communist Party (SACP) refers to as “really existing socialism” that Wolff and many others correctly label state capitalism.

It is one of the great — and enduring — myths about economic systems and the social consequences that flow from them that the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and such countries practiced, and practice, an alternative system to capitalism. Cuba also fits this model along with more modern variants such as Venezuela. Even Sweden occasionally gets a regular “socialist” mention.

This is because many people still regard state ownership, through the nationalisation of mines and industry as forms of socialism. Social welfare programmes, such as public health care and pensions are also widely labelled in this way.

But the dea of providing a little bit of “socialism” — help to the exploited and poor — in a capitalist context, probably owes a lot to the decidedly capitalist Count Otto von Bismarck. More than a century ago, he encouraged the idea that such measures constituted socialism by supporting the term “state socialism”. This was something that was to be taken up 50 years later by the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of Germany under Adolph Hitler.

Today, as the global economic crisis continues, there is a resurgence of interest in a “socialist” solution to unemployment, poverty, hunger and exploitation. And the latest arrival on the scene is the Rainbow Party in Zambia that, on one level, shares much in common with developments in South Africa.

Like the “commander-in-chief” of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, the Rainbow Party leader, Wynter Malemba, comes from the ranks of the governing party. Both profess to support socialism and both have expressed admiration for Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez.

Chavez, like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso before him, is probably best described as a benevolent dictator. But Chavez was erratic and failed to listen to, let alone heed, the advice of the workers and the poor he professed to be serving.

Having nationalised the oil companies at a time when the oil price was high, Chavez had a virtual torrent of dollars which he used, for example, to import and subsidise food, an action that severely damaged Venezuela’s agricultural sector. He also embarked on a series of grandiose projects, few of which were followed through.

As a result, Chavez’s electoral support started slipping, and, as the oil price collapsed, he borrowed — and drove Venezuela into huge debt. “Another failure of socialism,” crowed the capitalist lobby. And those socialists always on the lookout for an icon to support, blamed external factors and started looking elsewhere.

But there is no elsewhere to look. The only socialism is a collaborative system that arises from below; it cannot be imposed from above, whether benevolently or brutally. On a micro scale, examples of socialist enterprises exist in ventures such as the Fasinpat (Factory without bosses) ceramics factor in Argentina that is democratically controlled by workers, responsive to their community.

In the same way, it is only when the overwhelming majority of people seize the right to control their destinies; when workers, collectively, control the means of production, distribution and exchange that a global socialist system will come into being. It will have to start somewhere, then spread and not, like Paris in 1871, be violently crushed.

First published in the Bulletin & Record, Zambia. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.