Red flags? Sure… Call me “comrade”? Okay. Give the closed-fist salute? Can do. Inter your Muslim population in “reeducation centers”? Uh…nope. Well, how about universal surveillance of the population by government security agencies everywhere possible, especially in large cities? Forget that! Well, arrest a man for authoring a manifesto critical of an allegedly socialist government, keep him in prison, and have him still under guard when he dies of cancer. Wait a minute–there’s something wrong here.
‘Socialism’ and the label of socialist are claimed by a wide range of governments, political parties, and individuals across the world. Reasons vary, but it is universally the case that this term is claimed because it carries widespread cachet with millions of people in locales across the planet. The actual politics of the various governments, parties, and persons utilizing the term can and do substantially vary. So, what is socialism?
The writings of two authors have helped my own reflections on this subject. The first was a publication I read when just coming into political activism, which from the beginning meant for me, socialist politics. The Two Souls of Socialism was probably Hal Draper’s most influential piece, though he wrote far more magisterial, analytical books about various aspects of Marxist theory. In his Two Souls, Draper develops and counterposes “socialism from above” versus “socialism from below.”
Socialism From Above
Top-down socialism is familiar to us as the kind of political-economic system based on the post-Leninist USSR, its character being cemented during the long rule of Joseph Stalin. An unelected Party headed by a more-or-less charismatic leader decides and implements all major policies, often micromanaging even relatively trivial matters. All institutions are led by people approved or directly installed by the Party, including those that ostensibly represent the interests of working people–the traditional and historic base of socialism. There are either no elections or ones that routinely return 99% votes in favor of continuing rule by the Party/leader already in power. It should be noted that in some societies of this type, such as contemporary Cuba, elections at lower levels appear to be genuinely contested though no candidates not meeting with Party approval may stand for office.
The claim that this is socialism and expresses the will of the working class is based upon the fact that the means of production are owned and administered through the state, implementing the policies and practices handed down by the ruling Party/leader. There is no capitalist class and no private ownership of major enterprises. Thus, the Party and leader portray themselves as embodying the interests of the proletariat.
Socialism From Below
The core idea within the expression “socialism from below,” is that socialism can only be created by the broad mass of people in a society, specifically those who do the labor that creates all wealth–the working class. As Gene Debs famously remarked, “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.” It is to the consciousness of working people themselves–often referred to in socialist parlance as “the masses”–that socialists look, and not just in an abstract way; as Marx laid it out, consciousness is formed and built through the activities of working people themselves as they struggle against the conditions of exploitation imposed upon them within capitalism. Thus, the key to building socialism is found not in leaders, vanguard parties, or invading armies, but the actions of working people seeking to liberate themselves from scarcity and denial of basic human needs.
Where can this be found? The quick answer is that no society now exists that we can call socialist, not because it is a perfect, unreachable goal but because it has been very consciously–and often violently–opposed by rulers of capitalist societies. It is well to remember that shortly after the Russian revolution, that nation was occupied for a time by invading troops from France, the United States, and of course Germany. They were not there to assist the Russian people, but in the case of the Germans, to conquer parts of Russia ceded to them at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and on the part of US and French forces, to assist supporters of the Czar in attempting to reinstitute the absolutist rule overthrown by the revolution. Western powers have often invaded, interceded, or given direct aid to governments resisting the efforts of working people to win a more humane and democratic society–contrary to the hypocritical rhetoric of the United States and other capitalist powers pretending to support “democracy and human rights.”
What we can point to are efforts by working people to organize themselves on behalf of their own interests, parties, and some governments that possess at least partial socialist consciousness. It is important to keep in mind that as with all other human activities, this is not a matter of “pure” or completely formed outcomes, but something in flux. As Venezuela’s former leader Hugo Chavez famously (and correctly) observed, their society was not socialist, but it was their intention to build such a society. The attempted overthrow of the democratically elected government there by forces allied to and directed by the United States, is similar to other actions emanating from Washington DC in past decades–the most infamous being the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, resulting in the fascist torture state of Augusto Pinochet.
It’s also useful to cite a couple of examples from history of popular upsurges that socialists regard as heading in the direction of socialism, or having briefly achieved rudimentary socialist goals. The Paris Commune is such an example, notable for the very active, leading role of women–a profound break from the tradition-bound, patriarchal society of that time. Another is the spontaneous formation of workers’ councils during the brief period when Hungarians rose up against the Stalinist [socialism-from-above] regime installed by the USSR. Many articles and pamphlets have been written about this, showing the ability of working people to self-organize, democratically arrive at decisions, and cooperate in defending their gains.
Reviewing Draper’s distinction between socialism-from-above vs socialism-from-below, the question that comes to mind is whether socialism can ever be imposed upon–or given to–working people. In Marx’s own conception, socialism was nothing other than the self-rule of working people. Given this, we should ask in what meaningful sense “socialism from above” can be viewed as socialism at all. There is a temptation to equate desirable social reforms effected via representative forms of government, with socialism: Medicare, the National Health Service, public libraries, the postal service, Social Security…almost anything that is universally available to members of a population and financed via general taxation, is sometimes spoken of as being at least “socialistic” if not outright socialism. This begs the issue of self-rule and, more crucially, the presence of capital. This last point requires some careful analysis, and leads to the second author whose works helps clarify what socialism means.
What Is Capital?
Of the several books I read by István Mészáros, the one I found most clarifying was his work, Beyond Capital. He has two major points to make about capital: first, it is a social relation, one that in various contexts is called “surplus value,” “alienated labor,” or “exploitation.” However named, it is a relationship of theft, one in which part of the value produced by human labor is appropriated by someone else. Considering who that “someone else” might be leads to his second point, which is that Marx’s own expression was “personification of capital.” This is important, because capital may not be personified in a class of owners, as is most typically thought; it can also be a leader, a political state, or a political party. In each instance, the defining consideration is whether that entity, that actor, appropriates human labor for its own purposes. When working people must answer to the diktats of a party, a leader, or a state, their labor is alienated, being appropriated for purposes not determined by themselves.
Can The State Be Socialist?
This consideration is obviously important when considering whether nations and governments sometimes called ‘socialist’ in fact are such. The short answer is that no political state can be considered socialist for the simple reason that it rules over the population. Even if elected, it still appropriates human labor for its own purposes. Marx really wasn’t kidding when he wrote about the necessity of the state’s withering away; he recognized that so long as there is any actor distinct from the collaborative, free association of working people themselves, capital would still exist. Thus, the aim of all socialists must be to make the state wither away, something that won’t occur just because of some inexorable law of social development.
Before ending this brief consideration of the social relation that is capital, it is useful to note that many well-meaning self-identified socialists regard nationalization as a touchstone of socialism. This is especially characteristic of social democracies, which endeavor to regulate corporate concerns where possible, and for the political state to directly administer them, where regulation is deemed insufficient. What is key to recognize here is that capital has not been abolished. Even where all business activity falls under the aegis of the state, this must not be equated to or confused with the direct self-rule of working people by and for themselves.
Socialism Is What Democracy Looks Like
To the extent possible under conditions of class exploitation and accompanying political repression, socialists everywhere attempt to create and sustain “parallel institutions,” ones that simultaneously provide services that benefit the working class and serve as signposts pointing towards the kind of society we strive to bring into being. Socialism is sometimes called “direct democracy,” and given the technological realities of internet and modern communications, it is more feasible than ever before in human history, to bring about the old dream of equitable, cooperative self-rule. If we can stop the current insane cycle of war-exploitation-ecocide that is being ramped up by capital in its personifications across the planet, we will have a real chance to achieve the society human beings need and deserve. We have come to a point where, passing beyond Rosa Luxembourg’s famous prediction of “socialism or barbarism,” it is today a matter of socialism or extinction. As ever, the matter is in our hands; we must be resolute, organized, and rise up to save our planet and all life upon it.