The people's flag - the story of socialism

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The people’s flag – the story of socialism

It is a very long journey from Karl Marx to Ed Miliband and François Hollande. But they all say they follow socialism. How has it worked as an alternative? asks Richard Swift.


by Volker Straeter

Government-organized socialism has been the main way that people have tried to build an alternative to capitalism. We now have a few hundred years’ experience of this so we can look at the positives and negatives. From the beginning, most socialists have thought that the state – or an idealized version of the state – is the central place of justice to fight against the dirty, unstable capitalist market. There are different types of leftist thinking, but the strongest one is the idea of a rational state against an irrational market. We need to understand this. People have not looked enough at how possible it is for the state to bring in and manage a socialist alternative. This is what the Left usually do not think about: the legitimacy of the political state and the way it uses its power.

In the 19th century socialist republics wanted democracy. Socialist theorists understood that capitalism was a threat to the idea of a full democracy. They wanted everyone to be able to vote (at the time, it was only men with property who could vote). They wanted the state to become a democracy. At that time, everyone thought socialism would bring more, not less, democracy. The people who were against socialism did not want this democracy – they were afraid they would lose their power if everyone had power.

Karl Marx (and others who started socialism) saw the state as the central point that could change the direction of economic life. But Marx was not sure about the importance of the state. He thought the state control would be a phase, leading to a form of communism with no state - based on the democratic self-rule of producers. He did not like the bourgeois form of the state and said this needed to change completely before socialism – so he was enthusiastic about the direct democracy of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Marx wrote about the state. But, unfortunately, he described this phase of change as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.

The word ‘dictatorship’ had a different meaning in the 19th century – it was more limited. It meant directed control that would be strong enough to fight against the people who supported capitalism – especially people who made money from private control of production. But different people understand Marxism (like the Bible and the Qur’an) in different ways. Lenin and his Bolsheviks (and many others) used Marx’s idea of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ to justify all the very strict police-state controls they needed to protect their idea of socialism.

Both social democratic and communist Left groups share this idea of using state power to bring in socialism from above. It has not been good for the strong socialist hopes of the 19th century. Anarchists and Left libertarians say we must bring in socialism from below. This argument has been going on for two hundred years – and mostly, the ‘from above’ argument has won. But the ideas of a different way of bringing in socialism - from below - have always been there too. Now it is the main idea against the slow changes of the centre-left.

Communism and social democracy

Most people now agree the main problem with the politics and economics of communism was that everything relied too much on the central state. This produced an unpleasant alternative to capitalism – not much democracy, personal freedom or economic success. Because everything was planned from the centre, there was no place for feedback from below to help decide what and how much to produce.

So the communist economies always produced too much or too little. The Soviet Union (and later, China) then introduced industrialisation by force. This meant they could survive attacks from Hitler’s fascism and other enemies. At first there was equality and security in daily life. But, by the end, people wanted more freedom and more opportunity and economic possibility.

These communist systems have now changed into a kind of one-person capitalism. There is now a lot of economic growth (especially in China) but also, a lot of inequality. The political freedoms of ‘advanced’ capitalism are not there – they are hidden under these new forms of state capitalism. Most people have more money, but there are no more rights eg. trade unions and social movements, to fight against exploitation and inequality. Russia and China’s ideology is not now the communist ideal of equality or rule by producers, but Great Power nationalism and for individual people to get rich.

The other type of state socialism that has been in competition with communism is social democracy. This is moderate socialism. It slowly separated from the (mostly European) revolutionary movements as it became an important power in parliament at the end of the 19th century. The Left was divided – they couldn’t agree on how fast and how big the changes should be, and if they should use direct action by people’s groups or get people from the working class into parliament to change things. But slowly the Centre-Left learned that the best way to success in elections was to work with the power of capital not against it. The Centre-Left and Centre-Right now mostly agree about the big questions: militarized foreign policy, free trade, business rights, a significant redistribution of wealth, growth being more important than the environment and the power of the national security state.

Modern capitalism

The centre-left parties today are very different from each other. Not many are as committed to modern capitalism as Britain’s New Labour. But most of them want people to see them as modernizers of capitalism not an alternative to capitalism. They want to make the system fairer. They do not understand how powerful businesses are to change the economy they want to create; they do not see how irrational and unstable capitalism is; and they cannot see that it is impossible to change this system. They want change, but have chosen a conservative way to do it - the state is tied to the capitalist power structure. They do not understand these things, or they accept them as the price of political realism.

When people from the Centre-Left get into good positions in government, they have to use a lot of energy to manage the undemocratic structures (eg. security). So they have little energy left for their vision of society. In an advanced capitalist society, the state is restricted by the economy of business – and it needs this for keeping the economy going eg. for growth, taxes and jobs. So important business people have a lot of power to stop alternatives – or even small changes that might be a threat to their business.

The only hope of fighting against these forces is a radical government with a lot of support from society. The Centre-Left are not working on building this support – they are trapped in the politics of parliament and think they are good when they make very small changes. The Left criticize many things in politics, but then they do the same. And the social movements and ecological groups have to build the support for change alone. They are the ones who do not lose their power through compromise.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).