Today, we find ourselves in the midst of one of the deepest crises capitalism has ever faced. While the 99% are being asked to pay for the crisis, the 1% are amassing wealth at an ever accelerating pace. The saturating level of scandal and corruption in the establishment is alienating millions from traditional politics. All of this is causing a deep questioning of capitalist society. Many are looking for an alternative to the system that we have, and a growing number are looking towards revolutionary socialism for the answer.
For many, it is clear what we are fighting against: corruption, crisis and austerity; but it can be harder to articulate or even picture exactly what we are fighting for. In concrete terms, how might a new society work? In what way would our individual lives be affected? What will socialism look like?
Marxists are not crystal-ball gazers. We cannot predict the future with absolute certainty and so we cannot say exactly what socialism will look like. For example, when talking about the family under socialism, Engels says “[the nature of family relations under socialism] will be settled after a new generation has grown up…once such people appear they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and public opinion and that is the end of it.” Society is not shaped by the speculation of past generations, but by the decisions and actions of the present.
Nonetheless it is still possible to make some deductions about what socialism will look like, since Marxists are scientific socialists, applying a materialist analysis to the development of history and society. In other words, we can make hypotheses about the future, based on the evidence from the present and the past. This is not an exact science—just as a doctor cannot tell precisely when a patient is going to die and a geologist cannot give the date and time of the next earthquake or volcano eruption, so a Marxist cannot predict exactly when a revolution will break out or the specific form that it will take. But just as by looking at a child you can see roughly what sort of adult he or she could potentially become, by looking at capitalist society we can see the potential for what a socialist society will look like.
Already, we can see the embryo of socialism within capitalism. Importantly, by examining the contradictions and barriers that capitalism—a system of private ownership and production for profit—imposes on society, we can see what the potential for a future, socialist society might be; a society where these barriers are removed, and where production is instead run on the basis of human needs.
An economy without profit
Economic development is the material premise for the development of all other aspects of society. Without sufficient development of the productive forces—of industry and agriculture; of technology and technique—a society will not have the material conditions present and means necessary to advance in the fields of science, art, culture, philosophy etc. This is the fundamental tenet to the Marxist—materialist—view of history.
Capitalism is now no longer capable of developing this most fundamental aspect of society, due to its contradictions and resultant anarchy and inefficiency. Billions of pounds were lost in the crash of 2008, which was not caused by individual greed or ideology, but due to the inherent workings of capitalism itself. Stagnation of the forces of economic production on a global scale ensued. This has thrown many countries back years or even decades in terms of their economic development—in Britain, for example, economic investment remains 25% below its pre-crisis peak and construction remains 10% lower.
Capitalism is incapable of developing the forces of economic production to their full potential. Capacity utilization of the productive forces in developed countries is currently at 70–80%, even after having seen the closure of vast swathes of production and the loss of millions of jobs. Across the world, the average capacity utilization stands at 70%. This means that at present we have the ability to increase global economic output by almost 50%, simply by using the existing capacity in the economy. Despite the fact that people across the world are desperately in need of food, shelter, healthcare and other basic commodities, this spare capacity is not being used. In fact many bourgeois economists today speak of excess capacity—i.e. that the economy is capable of producing too much (from the perspective of the market) and needs to be cut back further, hence closures and job losses.
The reason for this contradiction is profit. Under capitalism, the economic power of society is only used to produce goods which can be sold at a profit; if this cannot be done then nothing will be produced. The owners of the means of production would rather allow their businesses to sit idle than to produce at a loss, even if the things that could be produced are desperately needed. The capitalist economy is governed by profit not need, and for this reason is highly inefficient in terms of meetings society’s needs, despite what all the apologists of capitalism claim. We are frequently told that capitalism is the most efficient of all economic systems—yet if this were the case, why would factories and offices lie idle and empty, despite being able to produce an abundance of goods and services that society needs?
If profit were removed from the equation there would be no barrier to using all the means of production at our disposal to their fullest extent. This idea of an economy that isn’t run for profit gives us the first glimpse of what socialism will look like.
Capitalism = poverty amidst plenty
Global unemployment stands at 200 million officially; but in reality the number of unemployed and underemployed is closer to one billion. These people are not left without a job because they are incapable of work, nor because there are no jobs that need doing, but simply because it is not profitable to employ them.
Without the barrier of profit, these one billion unemployed and underemployed people could be given a productive job. / Image: Jonny White, Flickr
Meanwhile, figures released in 2012 showed that 24% of people in Britain have two jobs, of whom 90% required a second job because the income from just one job was insufficient. In 2012, there was a 37.4% rise in people joining recruitment websites looking for a second job. With inflation, pay freezes and low wages, this is a trend that will continue into the future. It is a glaring contradiction of capitalism that some people are forced to work two jobs while millions remain unemployed—an absurdity born of the pursuit of profit.
Without the barrier of profit, these one billion unemployed and underemployed people could be given a productive job. Everyone would be able to work just one job to a higher standard, with enough people left over for many more jobs to be created. On this basis the productive forces could receive an enormous investment of human labor and global economic output would be dramatically boosted.
There are other absurd contradictions of this type under capitalism. 6,500 people are sleeping rough on the streets of London alone, a 77% increase since 2010; other forms of homelessness are also on the rise, with applications from households for statutory homelessness up 26% at 111,960 in England, plus 38,500 spaces in hostels occupied by homeless people. But at the same time there are 610,000 empty homes in England according to the government. Why is it that we have a rising epidemic of homelessness alongside a growing number of empty properties? Properties will only be sold or rented to people who can afford to pay, irrelevant of whether they need somewhere to live. For the capitalists it is a question of profit, not need.
The atrocious human waste caused by this is supplemented by the material waste of places like Bishop’s Avenue in London, the second most expensive street in Britain, where a third of the mansions are standing empty, with some fallen into disrepair having been unused for 25 years. These properties are held as investments for profit, not homes for people to live in. Here is 350 million pounds worth of property that has been turned into a wasteland—the result of an economy based on profit.
Such an economy also stands in the way of technological development and the application of machinery. Machines don’t buy commodities, and so if the bourgeoisie are to have a market for their goods they must employ a certain number of people as workers. Under capitalism, the implementation of machinery and technology leads to labor being displaced, resulting in mass (technological) unemployment for some alongside intense overwork for the remaining. But without profit in the way, machines could be created to do the dangerous and dirty jobs that no one else wants to do, with automation freeing up many more people’s time to engage in other economically productive activities, and reducing the hours of the working week and thus generating genuine leisure time. The enforced idleness of unemployment (or underemployment) we see under capitalism would be replaced by voluntary leisure.
Profit stands in the way of distribution as well as production under capitalism. The infamous “mountains” and “lakes” of surplus food produced in the EU reached 13,476,812 tonnes of cereal, rice, sugar and milk products and 3,529,002 hectoliters of alcohol/wine in 2007. While this excess food is piled up and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is used to pay farmers not to produce food, six million children die each year due to malnutrition. There is no logical reason fertile land in some countries could not be used to produce food to be distributed to people living in harsher environments. The only reason it is not done is because it is not profitable to do so, and because of the enormous barrier of the nation state, which prevents a genuinely internationalist solution from being implemented. Under capitalism, wasting food is preferable to feeding those who need it most.
A planned economy
We are often told that competition is the secret to capitalist efficiency; but in reality competition leads to greater waste. For example, there is significant duplication of work between businesses performing similar functions—meaning that time and money is invested twice into the same things. Take supermarkets as an example: if food distribution were carried out by one organization, then economies of scale would make the process cheaper and centralized planning would make it more efficient.
Competition also forces companies to create needs for their particular products through advertising, the cost of which is passed onto the consumer. Trade secrets and intellectual property rights mean that the best ideas and innovations are not pursued as fully as they could be and lead to costly court cases, such as the infamous Apple v Samsung cases for mobile phones, which again push up prices for ordinary people. Instead of the world’s best and brightest minds being employed in tandem to produce the things that society needs, scientists, engineers, and designers are split up into different corporations and set against each other in competition, resulting in completely unnecessary duplication of effort and resources.
In any case, genuine competition in the age of imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, is something of a myth. In 2012 Barclays, UBS, Citibank, RBS, DB and JP Morgan were all found to have fixed interest rates to make bigger profits. In recent years, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic in the airline industry; Grolsch, Bavaria and Heineken in brewing; and Sainsbury’s, Asda and other supermarkets: all these were found to have colluded on prices in order to secure larger profits. The reason for these scandals is because these companies recognize that planning is a more efficient way to run the economy than leaving it to the anarchy of the free market.
The very presence of such giant multinational monopolies in every industry, with just a handful of firms dominating the market, demonstrates how free competition turns into its opposite, precisely because of the increased productivity and efficiency that can be achieved from producing on such a vast scale. Within each firm there is an immense level of planning, coordination, and cooperation, all for the sake of increasing efficiency in the name of making greater profits. Between firms, meanwhile, the anarchy of competition and the invisible hand remains, leading to an enormous inefficiency and waste on a societal level.
As an example, in the book Multinational Corporate Strategy: Planning for World Markets, James C. Leontiades cites the example of the electronics company, Texas Instruments—a multinational organization that plans all of its operations from its Dallas headquarters. The level of centralized control of the multinational is indicated by the elements of strategy decided upon in the headquarters. They include:
- A regional and global analysis of competition.
- A core of product designs that are standardized around the world.
- Centralized and coordinated research and development to avoid costly duplication.
- Production rationalized on a global basis to make maximum use of volume-related efficiencies on an international scale.
- Global pricing policies.
Here we see the seed of a new society present in the old. A socialist society would embrace the possibilities that come with planning the economy; but of course, we would be able to plan in the interests of the needs of the many, instead of the profits of a few. This is the foundation of a society of superabundance, in which all the forces of economic production and investment are rationally and democratically planned in the interests of the majority. The first step towards this will be the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy—that is the land, the banks, the utilities, the infrastructure and the largest companies—all to be placed under the democratic control of the working class as part of a planned economy.
The results of a planned economy can be seen in the transformation of Russia in the fifty years between 1913 and 1963, following the Russian Revolution of 1917—despite the enormous brake on development created by the Stalinist bureaucracy. In that period, the country went from being more economically backward than Bangladesh is today to being the second most powerful nation on earth. Industrial output rose 52 times, as against six times in the USA and two times in Britain. Productivity of labor rose by 1310%, as against 332% in the USA and 73% in Britain. Life expectancy in Russia doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. And the country had more doctors per 100,000 people than any of Italy, Austria, West Germany, USA, Britain, France, Netherlands and Sweden. If this was achieved in 20th Century Russia, which was a backward, almost feudal, country at the time and was devastated by two world wars and a civil war, as well as suffering a Stalinist bureaucracy, imagine what a democratically planned economy in Britain and the rest of the economically advanced world in the 21st Century could achieve.
Cuba also provides a good example of the successes of a planned economy, even despite its limited workers’ democracy. Life expectancy at the time of birth in Cuba today (according to the figures of the 2005 Human Development Report of the UN) is 77.7 years (62 in 1959 at the time of the revolution), almost the same as in the US (77.9), and much higher than neighboring Haiti where it is only 59.5 years, and substantially higher than regional capitalist power Brazil (71.7). The adult literacy rate in Cuba is 99.8%, while in Brazil it is barely 88.6%, and it is also higher than in Chile (95.7%) and Costa Rica (94.9%). In reality, according to the same United Nations report, Cuba has the fourth highest Human Development Index in Latin America. If we look at the figures for infant mortality (in deaths per every 1,000 born alive), according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook, the situation in Cuba (5.93 today against 78.8 in 1959), is much better than even in the US (6.3), Chile (7.9), Costa Rica (9.01), and than in Brazil (26.67), not to speak of Haiti, where the rate is 62.33 deaths per 1,000 live births. These figures should not surprise us since, according to World Bank figures, Cuba is the second highest country in the world for the number of doctors per 1,000 inhabitants (5.91), while the US has only 2.3, Brazil 2.06, Chile 1.09, Costa Rica 1.32, and Haiti barely 0.25.
Again this was an economically backward country in 1959 when Castro’s revolution took place. Its history was one of being dominated by foreign powers, used as a playground for the US capitalists and as a monocultural producer of sugar. The advances since then were only possible on the basis of a planned economy free from imperialist domination.
Work, wages and money
The result of such planning, combined with a rational distribution of labor between everyone capable of work (instead of some people working two or three jobs while others are unemployed, as occurs under capitalism), would mean a reduction in the length of the working day with no loss of pay. Evidence of this can be found in the occupied Flasko factory in Brazil. Since 2003, when the factory was first occupied and the work democratically planned, working hours have been cut from 40 hours per week to 30 hours, with no loss of pay and no decrease in productivity.
With the development of technology to replace more and more labor, working hours could be cut even further. For example, in 1870 70–80% of the population of the USA was employed in agriculture, whereas today the figure is just 2%. But despite the decrease in people employed in agriculture, output from this sector has increased vastly. From 1950 to 2000, agricultural productivity was enormously increased. For example: the average amount of milk produced per cow increased from 5,314 pounds to 18,201 pounds per year (+242%); the average yield of corn rose from 39 bushels to 153 bushels per acre (+292%); and each farmer in 2000 produced on average 12 times as much farm output per hour worked as a farmer did in 1950. This development in productivity was largely due to mechanization, the development of new fertilizers and other advances in technology. Further development of this kind in other sectors can achieve similar results in terms of reducing the length of the working day. On this basis, labor requirements for each person could eventually be worked out on a lifetime basis, instead of a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
With the development of technology to replace more and more labor, working hours could be cut dramatically. / Image: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr
Marxists are often asked what will be the incentive to work in a socialist society. The incentive to work under capitalism takes the form of requiring people to work in order to earn money so that they can live their lives. This is why people demand the freedom to work—to be able to live. Socialism, by contrast, is about freedom from work. The incentive to work under socialism will be that we are working to build a society in which we will be free from the necessity of labor. This freedom could be won by the collective efforts of society to develop the economy and forces of production to such an extent that little human labor would be required to keep it moving, leaving us free to lead our lives however we like.
Capitalists have a very narrow and incorrect conception of what incentivizes people to do things—they see it all as a question of money, despite the fact that there are many things that everyone does (hobbies etc.) which are motivated simply because we like doing them; things that develop us as people, give us a sense of purpose, and help us to form bonds with others.
In fact there are some capitalists who recognize this themselves. One Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amabile, has written a book called The Progress Principle which argues that it is a feeling of making progress and moving forward, both professionally and personally, that really motivates people at work. According to Alfie Kohn, a social scientist at the Harvard Business Review, capitalist management jargon refers to four factors that motivate or incentivize people to work hard: personal growth, recognition, responsibility and challenging work—monetary reward is conspicuously absent from this list. It is these forms of incentive that socialism would push to the fore, over and above monetary gain.
Instead of alienating us from our work, socialism will gives us a real stake in the economy and in society, by giving us collective ownership over it. The work itself, not just the wages derived from it, will therefore have a more direct purpose and be clearly for our own benefit and the benefit of others around us, instead of for fat cats in a far off boardroom. The president of one of Venezuela’s occupied factories testified to this when he reported that, in his factory, workers actively seek to improve the production process because they know their ideas are capable of improving people’s lives.
If money plays little role in incentivizing people under socialism, does this mean wages will be abolished? The answer to this is no—not immediately; but what it does mean is that wages could gradually disappear as the economy develops. Workers will still be paid in money (the value of which, in turn, is linked to the real economy) at first—this is not something than can simply be abolished by decree overnight. Indeed, pay differentials will likely exist in a transitional socialist period, as consciousness and the forces of production are changing and developing. This was the case in Russia just after 1917, where the Bolsheviks allowed pay differentials where necessary, but strictly limited to a ratio of 1:4.
However, over time wages could be replaced by coupons, which in turn could be replaced by nothing at all, as people would be able to take anything they need. The closer society comes to a state of superabundance, the less wages are required to ration consumption, since there would be enough of everything for everyone.
As it is with wages, so it is with money more generally. Trotsky explained the necessity of an unregulated currency, with a money supply linked to the real level of production in the economy, even under socialism. Clearly many of the functions of money under capitalism would change or disappear—the need for money wages is one example—but it could still play a role as an indicator of the health of a planned economy.
Under capitalism, the flow of money and the use of price signals acts to indicate where there is scarcity or abundance within the economy. Where, for example, demand exceeds supply, prices of commodities rise above their actual values, generating super-profits for capitalists in that sector. This encourages capitalists elsewhere to invest their money in these sectors, and thus increases the supply back into equilibrium with demand. In the early stages of socialism, this role of money and price signals will still be required; but, instead, the main levers of the economy—the banks and big firms—would be under the control of the workers’ state, which could direct investment accordingly to eliminate any scarcities. Price signals will, therefore, be an indicator of supply and demand of goods in different regions and sectors, and the rate of inflation will flag up any potential economic problems. The flow of money will be a measure of how far trade under the planned economy is expanding.
Gradually, as more and more of the economy comes under a common, democratic plan of production, commodity production and exchange will diminish, and money as a whole will wither away as these functions of measuring the health of an economy will be superseded by administrative, instead of financial control.
The state and democracy
Just as money will eventually wither away under socialism, so too will the state. A genuine proletarian state will, by its first act, begin the process of its own destruction. This is because expropriation of the means of production and their administration under democratic workers’ control as part of a planned economy will begin the elimination of class distinctions, defined as they are by the distinction between those who own property and those who don’t. A society in which everyone owns and works the means of production is one without classes; it is a society that will no longer require a state apparatus made up of armed bodies of men who are used by the exploiting class to keep the exploited in check.
Prior to class society, which arose around 10,000 BC at the time of the neolithic revolution, society was organized along primitive communist lines. Classes did not exist at this time because the productive forces were incapable of producing more than what was required for subsistence living, thus a possessing class and a dispossessed class was an economic impossibility. Engels, basing himself on the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, describes the way in which these primitive communist societies operated. Crucially, in the context of a study of the Iroquois gens, he points out:
The authority of the sachem [leader] within the gens was paternal, and purely moral in character; he had no means of coercion… The gens deposes the sachem and war-chief at will… The members of the gens owed each other help, protection, and especially assistance in avenging injury by strangers… The gens has a council: the democratic assembly of all male and female adult gentiles, all with equal votes.
This is a description of a society without state structures such as the police, army, courts, prisons, or a political establishment separate from and standing above society. Because the productive forces were held and worked in common by this tribe (out of necessity to survive) everyone’s economic interests were aligned, meaning that no state instrument with coercive powers was required to enforce one class’s will against another.
Expropriating the commanding heights of the economy, placing them under democratic workers’ control and management and running them as part of a planned socialist economy, would similarly remove the economic division of people into classes, thus removing the material basis for the state. We would return to a communist form of society, but on a higher level, with advanced productive forces instead of primitive ones.
This picture of what the state under socialism will look like contrasts sharply with what happened in the USSR under Stalin. The monstrous bureaucratic state that choked the planned economy in that country was not a healthy workers’ state, since it lacked any workers’ democracy, which is fundamental for the running of a healthy socialist economy. Capitalism aims (but often fails—as has been discussed) to use competition to keep inefficient production to a minimum. Under socialism, without competing businesses, a more effective mechanism for ensuring efficiency and preventing corruption is required—that mechanism has to be democratic control of the economy by ordinary people. As Trotsky once said, the planned economy needs workers’ democracy as a body needs oxygen.
In concrete terms, this means implementing measures such as the full right of recall for all elected officials, who must also earn no more than the average worker’s wage, so that they have the same material interests as the people they are supposed to represent. We must not be made to wait five years before being able to kick out representatives who have made decisions which aren’t in the interest of the majority—proletarian democracy involves more control than that. Lenin also spoke of the need to get everyone involved in the work of administration of the new society, so that a special class of bureaucrats does not establish itself, separate from and above the rest of the working class. If everyone is a bureaucrat then no one will be a bureaucrat.
The formation of trade unions represented a big victory for the working class, as these are democratic organisations created by the working class for the working class. In that sense they embody the seeds of socialist democracy. Marxist author Rob Sewell makes this point in his book In the Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism, where he says, “The trade unions are the basic organisations of the working class. But they are much more than that. They are the embryo of the future society within the old.” He goes on to explain that this means they are better able to fight for the interests of the working class:
Time and again the workers have moved to transform their organizations into organs and schools of solidarity, struggle and socialism, to use the phrase of Frederick Engels.
The occupied Flasko factory in Brazil again offers us an example of the concrete elements of workers’ democracy in practice. The elected factory council is subject to an immediate right of recall. This council meets weekly to discuss the plans for the factory, and the minutes of those meetings are published for all workers to examine. Furthermore the factory budget is voted on by every worker in the factory, each and every month. This model, just like the soviets in Russia in the early 20th Century, places economic control in the hands of the people themselves, without forcing them to rely on anyone else.
The soviets were elected workers’ councils in which workers participated and were elected to run their workplaces, localities and regions. Such a democratic method is much closer to the working class than a bourgeois democracy, because it gives people immediate control over their lives in a way that parliamentary democracy can never do. Take the upcoming General Election in Britain as an example—whichever party forms a government, it will be a government that implements austerity. We have no real choice in this matter because the economy is in private hands, and to keep the capitalist economy working the government must submit to the will of those who own the commanding heights of the economy—i.e. the capitalists. Only by giving control of the economy to the working class can we guarantee genuine democratic choice.
The Paris Commune
As well as the Russian soviets, the earlier Paris Commune of 1871 is also an example of a proletarian state, which is very different to the state as we understand it under capitalism. Marx describes the Commune as follows:
The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.
The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
Having once got rid of the standing army and the police—the physical force elements of the old government—the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power,” by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.
The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subservience to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.
Of course, for ordinary people to be able to genuinely participate in the democratic running of society, in the way described above by Marx, they must also have the time to do so. Under capitalism, the length of the working week and the pressure of day-to-day life mean that the vast majority are completely divorced from political activity. For someone working long hours or two jobs, the last thing they are capable of or willing to do with their evenings and weekends is study the intricacies of economic planning or statecraft. This is compounded by the knowledge that, even if such study were carried out, it would make no difference because ordinary workers have no say whatsoever over how the economy or society as a whole is run.
In a socialist society, where technology, automation and the efficiency of a planned economy has reduced the hours of the working day, ordinary people will finally have the free time necessary to participate fully in how society is run. By placing the economy under genuine democratic control of the working class, people will also have the motivation to participate thanks to the knowledge that their thoughts and actions can make a tangible difference.
As Marx’s description of the Paris Commune above illustrates, proletarian democracy also consists of replacing parliamentary bodies with executive ones—replacing talking shops with real activity. For example, the 1926 general strike in Britain saw the strike committee of the North East refuse the government’s request to distribute essential supplies to the region, because they had already established a system to do it by themselves. This strike committee did not simply talk, pass resolutions and then pass responsibility on to others—its representatives made decisions, took the responsibility for implementing them and experienced the consequences along with everyone else. This is genuine proletarian democracy and is starkly different to the cavern of hot air that is the Houses of Parliament.
At the heart of socialist democracy, therefore, is the ability for society to actually be able to implement the decisions it makes. This is the fundamental barrier to democracy under capitalism—even if society votes for demands such as full employment and investment in this or that sector, how can such demands be carried out in practice, when all the real decisions over what jobs are created and where investment goes lie in the hands of unelected bankers and bosses? In the final analysis, therefore, genuine democracy requires for economic control to be in the hands of the 99%, rather than in the hands of the 1%.
The police, the army and the law
Marxists understand the state to be armed bodies of men standing above society—institutions such as the police and the army. Under capitalism the state is a weapon of the bourgeoisie, which uses the police and army to maintain its rule; but a proletarian state would be a weapon of the workers to use against the attempts of the capitalists to continue exploiting and oppressing them. This is what Marxists mean when we demand the arming of the working class. It means completely reconstructing the police and the army along proletarian lines—giving control of these organizations to the workers via the democratic election of officers and their subjection to the discipline of the organized working class.
Under capitalism the state is a weapon of the bourgeoisie, which uses the police and army to maintain its rule. / Image: Flickr
Examples of such measures were seen in Turin, Italy in 1920 when Red Brigades, made up of worker volunteers, were formed under the control of factory committees. The FIOM union occupied factories and posted vigilante groups to guard the factory gates. They did not rely on the forces of the bourgeois state—they created an alternative to that structure under the control of the proletariat.
Similarly, after 1917, Trotsky was tasked with rebuilding the Red Army in Russia from scratch in the most difficult of conditions. He implemented a system of Commissars throughout the army, whose role as leading cadres of the Bolshevik party was to maintain the political discipline of the regiments and the generals who commanded them (who, for reasons of scarcity of military-technical ability, were often generals who had previously served the former reactionary regimes of the Tsar and Kerensky). In this way the military was constructed as a weapon of the proletariat, not the tool of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
In time, as classes disintegrate under the conditions of socialized production, these bodies will wither away, because they will no longer needed by one class to maintain its dominance over another. Administrative tasks will remain; but, with everyone as a bureaucrat, these will not lead to one group in society standing separate from the rest. The enforcement of social norms of behavior etc. would be achieved by social pressure from within society, rather than a coercive force standing outside it—in much the same way that civilized behavior is regulated in a friendship group or as it was in primitive communist societies.
Engels describes such a primitive communist society, based on Morgan’s study of the Iroquois, as follows:
No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits—and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today—the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households—yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy—the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free—the women included.
For the vast majority of the time during which humans have been on this planet, around two million years, we have lived in societies such as this, and we have regulated our behavior from within society rather than by bodies standing outside and above it. Socialism would mark a return to this natural human way of organizing society—cooperatively instead of antagonistically.
Besides those bodies that enforce the law, there is the institution of law itself, which Marx pointed out cannot be higher than its economic base. So the existence of the Law will continue as long as the state does, but like the state it will eventually wither away also.
The Soviet jurist Evgeny Pashukanis discusses this in his book A General Theory of Law and Marxism:
The withering away of the categories of bourgeois law will, under these conditions, mean the withering away of law altogether, that is to say the disappearance of the juridical factor from social relations.
One characteristic of law under socialism, as it is in the process of withering away, is that it would no longer take on an entirely abstract form, as it does under capitalism. Bourgeois law insists that justice is blind—in other words, that it will treat unequal things entirely equally. Thus contract law assumes the two contracting parties to be entirely equal, even if in economic and social reality this is not the case. Such an attitude within bourgeois law simply entrenches inequality and injustice. Law under socialism, on the other hand, would not be blind—it would have its eyes wide open and be looking to defend the interests of the working class.
Just as ownership of the means of production will cease to be a question of individual ownership under socialism and become a matter of collective property, so too will law become less a matter of individual rights and more about the collective rights of society. It will be against these rights that behavior will be judged as criminal or otherwise under socialism.
The saying goes that property is nine-tenths of the law—so the abolition of private ownership of the forces of production will certainly see a decline in legal disputes and crime. How can one steal from a shop, when the goods in said shop exist in superabundance, freely available for people to take on the basis of their needs? It would be as absurd as accusing someone of stealing oxygen by breathing in the air they need to survive!
Under capitalism, the vast majority of legal work exists solely to draw up contracts and establish clarity over private property rights. With property now in collective ownership, under socialism, this enormous quantity of legal labor would become obsolete and could instead be redirected towards more socially necessary tasks.
Furthermore on the question of crime, the closer we get to a society of superabundance in which everyone has a job and a direct, democratic stake in the economy and their own lives, the smaller will be the motive for crime to be committed at all. To the extent that it is, those who commit crime can be treated as victims of society’s ills, rather than rabid animals to be locked up. Pashukanis explains this point as follows:
Imagine for a moment that the court was really concerned only with considering ways in which the living conditions of the accused could be so changed that either he was improved, or society was protected from him—and the whole meaning of the term “punishment” evaporates at once.
The question of law also raises the question of the legislators themselves—the political parties. Socialism does not mean a One Party State; but it does mean a change from parties as we understand them today—that is, grouped around differing class interests, because those class distinctions will be being rapidly eroded. While the Conservatives have traditionally represented the interests of the bourgeoisie in Britain, Labour was founded by the trade unions to represent the interests of the working class. In the USA, the Democrats and Republicans represent different wings of the bourgeoisie who have slightly different views on how best to maintain the rule of capital. Under socialism, political parties will no longer be founded with the aim of representing a particular class interest, but rather different ideas about how best to plan the economy, where best to channel investment and research, what the priorities are for society, etc. We will see parties based on ideas and desires, not classes.
An end to nationalism, sexism and racism
The nation state as we understand it today was established with the development of capitalism out of feudalism, very often in an arbitrary way (the borders of many African countries are simply the product of ruled lines drawn on a map by the imperialists). Today, the nation state is a fetter on the development of the productive forces as it gives rise to protectionism, competition between states and immigration controls. It also acts as a fetter on the development of human culture by fostering poisonous nationalism that rejects foreign cultural ideas and by limiting the free movement of people and the blending of their cultures.
Racist prejudice would not survive under socialism. / Image: Socialist Appeal
The creation of free-trade zones, such as the European Union, is an admission by the bourgeoisie that economic development requires the dismantling of national barriers; and the current crisis of the Eurozone is evidence that the dismantling of national barriers is impossible under capitalism. Socialism is a system that unites the working class across borders and that tears down national barriers and competition between states. This doesn’t mean a destruction of local differences and culture—having different regions united within one state under socialism would not destroy their individuality; it simply destroys the artificial tax, migration and other barriers between people.
This is a point made in an article written by the French Workers’ Party over 120 years ago, titled Patriotism and Socialism. In a discussion about the merits of internationalism the article says:
Internationalism will never stop us being patriotic. It will see the complete blossoming of humanity. Just as we saw at the end of the last century, when, although we became French, we still came from Provence, Bourbon, Belgium or Brittany.
In other words, although the bourgeois revolutions in places like France and Germany overcame local divisions and cemented the existence of nation states, that did not destroy people’s local identities and traditions. Similarly, internationalism means removing barriers to cooperation between people of different nationalities, but it does not mean imposing a one-size-fits-all identity on the whole world.
Other divisions between people would recede in a socialist system, for example prejudice against women. Engels explains that the origin of women’s oppression is in private property. Socialism, by abolishing private property, removes the material conditions for that oppression. Likewise with the traditional family, which, under capitalism, plays the role of the most basic unit of economic exploitation. Under socialism, the family could be freed from bourgeois constraints and domestic tasks could be socialized, taking this burden of unpaid labor off of the shoulders of (predominantly) women and making it the responsibility for society as a whole. Cooking, cleaning, washing and childcare could all be provided as public services, thus releasing women from the constraints of traditional family life. This would not remove the possibility of continuing to live a traditional family life, if so desired, but it would cease to make it a necessity. Under such conditions, laws governing marriage, divorce and abortion would be absurd.
The Bolsheviks made strides in this direction after the October revolution in 1917. Trotsky explains the aims of the socialist state in an article for Pravda in July 1923 entitled From the Old Family to the New:
The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.
As Trotsky explains, such changes would also go a long way towards breaking down many other prejudices, such as homophobia, which under capitalism are used by the ruling class to cause divisions within the working class. Indeed the Bolsheviks began many of these reforms, including the legalization of homosexuality, after 1917 under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.
Racist prejudice too would not survive under socialism. Racism too is used as a tool by the ruling class to divide the working class among itself so that bosses can exploit workers more easily. It is no coincidence that anti-immigration, racist rhetoric comes to the fore in periods of capitalist crisis when the bourgeoisie find it necessary to squeeze the living standards of workers even further.
Under socialism there will eventually be no material base for racism, as there will be no class divisions. Although a very distorted example, the USSR gives us a glimpse of some of the progress that can be made under socialism in this sphere. Much of Soviet propaganda art featured images of a racially diverse set of people fighting for socialism, to emphasize the point that the battle for socialism is carried on by the working class around the world. Furthermore, the USSR offered free education to citizens of African states and established the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University, named after the left-wing Congolese revolutionary leader. Meanwhile in the arch-capitalist United States racial segregation lasted until the mid 1950s.
As well as removing the material basis for these different types of oppression and prejudice, the process of revolution and of building a socialist society will itself break down these prejudices. In the context of socialist revolution it is class questions that come to the fore, while divisions between races, genders, and so on all recede into the background.
The miners’ strike in Britain in 1984–85 provides an example of the effect of a revolutionary process on gender relations. Loretta Loach in her book about women in the miners’ strike explains how relations between men and women were radically transformed within working class communities at this time, as a result of their common struggle against the arch-capitalist Thatcher government:
As the hardship bit deeper, the stronger became the women’s resolve. They began to march with their men, and attend rallies and meetings, learning all the time. Previously non-political, reserved women emerged as gifted creators, and spoke at meetings in order to raise money to continue the task ahead of them.
In the fight for socialism what becomes important is the commitment to socialist revolution, a character trait that is not confined to any particular gender or race. All other divisions are broken down in the process of common struggle.
Flourishing of science and culture
In the USSR, massive literacy program and the nationalization of public libraries were undertaken. With more people able to read and write, the literary, theatrical and poetic culture of the people will be able to reach new heights very quickly.
In Venezuela, a country which under Hugo Chavez has adopted a number of socialistic policies as part of the Bolivarian revolution, the effects of the enormous education and literacy program, which has taught 1.5 million people to read and write, can be seen in the booming of Venezuelan fiction writing. According to the journalist Boris Munoz, Venezuelan fiction has “opened up to find a bigger audience, through noir novels, historical novels, without renouncing its own Venezuelan idiosyncrasies.” Another literary critic, Antonio Lopez Ortega, describes Venezuelan fiction as “the Caribbean’s best kept secret,” while in 2006 a Venezuelan won the prestigious Herralde Award for the Novel for the first time, as well as making the final shortlist for the foreign fiction prize of the Independent newspaper. Furthermore, at the La Paz International Book Fair in 2006 Venezuela chose to distribute 25,000 books for free to the people of La Paz and the neighboring town of El Alto, rather than sell them to the wealthy international visitors, in the interests of broadening access to culture. Such developments and attitudes have only been possible in a country that has used the wealth of its natural resources in the interests of the many instead of for the profits of the few. On this basis imagine what could be achieved in the realm of culture in a fully developed, healthy socialist society!
And this question goes beyond simply expanding literacy program. Socialism offers young people a brighter future full of possibility, which, when compared to the gloomy prospects for the youth under capitalism, will provide the inspiration for great advances in art and philosophy. It is no coincidence that the greatest bourgeois philosophers were writing at the dawn of capitalism, when society was emerging from the decrepit feudal system towards a brighter capitalist future. Similarly the greatest artists—Da Vinci, Beethoven, Shakespeare etc.—produced their masterpieces thanks to inspiration from the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie against the old feudal order. Such cultural advances will take place with the advent of socialism; but with the additional benefit of several hundred years of human development behind them, these socialist masterpieces will express ideas on an infinitely higher plane than anything we have seen before.
A planned economy will allow rational investment in scientific research to yield far more effective results than is the case under capitalism. Cuba’s world renowned healthcare is the product of planned investment in scientific development, and its effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated, most recently with the superior quantity of aid provided by Cuba to countries affected by the Ebola virus and the figures for the number of doctors per capita, as mentioned earlier.
When it comes to scientific questions around climate change it looks as though socialism is the only thing that can save us from destroying the planet. What we need is an internationally coordinated plan to deal with climate change—one in which profit and national borders are no barrier. While this is the direct antithesis to capitalism, it describes socialism exactly. With internationally planned scientific efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change, we could solve the most serious problem facing all life on earth today.
The technology already exists to harness the energy from wind, waves and sun, which could be used to power the entire planet. In 1986, a German physicist Gerhard Knies found that in six hours the earth’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year, meaning that an area of the Sahara the size of Wales could provide energy for the whole of Europe. To exploit this opportunity would be to remove all dependence on fossil fuels, thus dramatically reducing carbon emissions—something the planet desperately needs. This is not done because it would be an unprofitable exercise for those capitalists who have built and invested in enormous fossil fuel companies. Capitalism is incapable of planning for the future, interested as it is only in short term gain. From a capitalist’s point of view, destroying the planet is an acceptable price to pay for higher profits, not least because it is the world’s poorest people who will be the ones who bear the brunt of extreme climate change. Only through rational long-term democratic planning can we do what’s required to save the planet.
Scientific advances in space exploration could be pursued far more efficiently using a planned economy, instead of every nation producing, launching and maintaining its own satellites and other equipment. In fact, even now, private companies trying to launch missions to Mars have had to turn to government funded projects like NASA for help with funding and expertise. A rationally planned public sector is a more effective way to continue space exploration, as the USSR proved by being the first nation to put a man in space and by being on the verge of launching an entire space station capable of reaching the outer limits of the solar system, while the USA were still only at the stage of putting a man on the moon.
The end and the beginning
Will there be Marxists under socialism? Will Marxist theory have any role to play after the victory of a socialist revolution? Currently Marxism is primarily a political tool, and those who study the ideas and try to put them into practice are political activists above all else.
However in a socialist society, dialectical materialism, the philosophy of Marxism, will still be a vital tool for analyzing the developments of that society. And further, it will become a conscious element in scientific research and cultural creation. At present this philosophy is implied in different areas of science, such as research into quantum processes and chaos theory, but by making it an explicit element in our understanding of society, the consciousness of human beings will develop much further and faster under socialism. Just as the philosophies of liberalism and rationalism have played this role in capitalist society, so Marxism will play this role under socialism.
Socialism means the end of a society in which human beings are oppressed and exploited by other human beings. It means an end to private property on a grand scale and an end to private profit and the anarchy of the free market. But socialism does not mean an immediate end to all of the world’s problems and the creation of a paradise in which everyone lives happily ever after; nor does it mean the end of history and all future development of human society.
In fact, socialism is just the beginning of history. It promises a system that is capable of developing the forces of production to such an extent that humans can stop destroying themselves and their planet, and instead begin to take conscious control of their own lives.
The philosopher Hegel said that real freedom does not come from attempting to transcend the laws that govern the world, but from understanding them; since, once understood, these laws can be harnessed to our own benefit. The theory of Marxism provides us with the understanding of the physical, social and economic laws that govern the world, and the practice of socialism will provide us with the freedom that comes from harnessing them for ourselves. What we do with that freedom will be the question that drives all future human development.