What Socialism means to me - Dave Middleton
World on fire

PART ONE

Has socialism become an outdated term? I have never doubted that a socialist system would be immensely preferable for all but a tiny minority than free market, capitalist, liberalism. But recently I have come to doubt that we can ever achieve socialism.

I realise that reading that many people will throw their hands up and accuse me of being pessimistic. Others will say I am showing signs of my age. Still others will attempt to convince me that, of course, I am wrong. And I sincerely hope I am. History, that great leveller, finds a way of taking us by surprise. 

But it seems to me that those who describe themselves as socialists mean such a variety of different things that the term itself is virtually useless. When questioned about socialism answers tend to be couched in a whole series of caveats. Most ‘socialists’ are comfortable enough telling us what is wrong with capitalism (as if we had not noticed) rather than explaining how socialism could improve matters.

More importantly, the majority of ‘socialists’, in the UK at least, seem to have little or no idea of the mechanism by which their particular version of socialism will come into being.

Of course, some people talk about taking control of parliament as a potential route, others talk of revolution. Neither are outlandish but, like my chances of winning a million pounds from my Premium Bonds, whilst possible, are highly unlikely. So if neither parliament or revolution then what?

Unfortunately there is not an easy alternative. Considering the state of the world and the way in which the ruling class seems impervious to the climate emergency, the most likely reason for the collapse of capitalism will be a series of catastrophic climate disasters which will be so disruptive to human activity that the economy will simply collapse. Of course such a series of events will likely wipe out the majority of the human race, making the demise of your local Tesco seem rather insignificant.

If climate disaster does not get us, and it is probably no longer a case of if but when, then the ruling classes of the major powers (USA, China, Russia, Israel) will maintain their affection for nuclear weapons. Let us be clear that, when Sir Keir Starmer says he would not only keep, but use, nuclear weapons, this is not just a ploy to convince Daily Mail readers that he is as mad as they are, but an admission that, far from seeking peace, like Biden he is more than happy to blow the world to kingdom come rather than cede any part of the capitalist empire. There is no first strike capability that would not evince a massive and catastrophic response from our so-called enemies. To date that knowledge has kept fingers safely off the big red button, but the current crop of political leaders seems so lacking in moral fibre that mutually assured destruction is very clearly back on the agenda.

PART TWO

Currently many people are excited about the possibility of an electoral challenge to the Labour Party – either the Workers Party of Britain (George Galloway) or a number of pro-Palestinian independent candidates. Before this we have been enthused by the global protests over the Gaza genocide. Last year there was great enthusiasm, and talk of a looming general strike, on the back of a wave of strikes. Go back a bit further and we had mass demonstrations declaring Black Lives Matter. We have also had the Greta Thunberg inspired School Strikes. All of these movements and probably a few I’ve missed have seen enthusiasm among large sections of the left. All with the exception of the electoral candidates who do not even have a date yet, have had various levels of success. But none of them have brought capitalism crashing down. Indeed, most of them have not even generated a discussion of a new system, merely how to make the current one more tolerable.

Am I being cynical pointing this out? Possibly. Should I engage in the politics of simply telling people what they want to hear instead? Some would no doubt advocate that. 

It’s not that we are having no success at all. Let’s be honest. Without the worldwide protests, it is unlikely that Israel would be finding itself as isolated on the international stage as it is. Without strikes, workers would have had imposed on them worse conditions and lower, below inflation, pay rises last year. Greta Thunberg singlehandedly put the climate disaster on the agenda, achieving more in a few months than the Green Party had managed in decades. Black Lives Matter ensured that racism was being discussed, even if the structural inequality at the root of their discontent was not being adequately dealt with.

But none of this has anything specifically to do with socialism. Trade unions, for example, are a shield against capital, but not an offensive weapon any longer. Indeed, it is perhaps in the failure of trade unions that we see the biggest failures of the socialist movement (if indeed such a thing ever existed). The same movement that gave us notions of solidarity and equality is now so embedded within the capitalist worldview that it now resembles an HR Department rather than a force to bring capitalism to its knees. 

It is not that the working class no longer exists. But like the word ‘socialism’ the phrase ‘working class’ has become equally meaningless. Seemingly the ‘working class’ now is a feeling that people have and, as such, lacks any analytical value whatsoever. We could narrow the class to the industrial proletariat, often thought to have disappeared, but new ‘socialists’ do not want to be bothered with old-fashioned notions like Marxism, or indeed any theory. 

This is not, incidentally, a result of the primacy of ‘identity politics’ over ‘class politics’. Those suggesting that we should only concern ourselves with one of those are leading their followers up a blind alley. Class can only matter in the sense that something called the ‘working class’ has a structural relationship to capital, which means that it is not only in a constant conflict with capital, but that it has the latent power to challenge capital on terms not entirely of its own making but certainly not those that capital would choose either.

PART THREE

Give me hope. Give me a reason to carry on. We march, we strike, we demonstrate, we ‘tell the truth’ on social media, we sign petitions, we vote, we join parties, we canvass, we attend meetings. We do all this because we believe. We believe in a better future. We don’t do it for us, but for our children, for our children’s children. We do it because the world is so obviously wrong that we have to do something. That is what makes us ‘socialists’.

But what does all this activity amount to? Those of us engaged in the ‘movement’ are a minority. It simply isn’t true, nor has it ever been, that we are many and they are few. The many do not march, they do not join parties (though they go to a fair few), they do not believe a better world is possible, or in some cases even desirable. The few, the real few, don’t have to. They have a nice life already thank you very much.

But the majority do not. They may have tolerable lives. They may even have fulfilling lives. But their lives are built on sand. At any moment our lives can be changed by circumstances over which we have no control. 

In order to maintain a tolerable life most people have debt: mortgages, credit cards, loans. That debt is fine provided you can pay it back. But your life can come tumbling down at any moment as your debts, like waves on the beach, engulf you.

A higher interest rate, a pay cut or worse a loss of work can mean that the tolerable life soon becomes intolerable. Everybody knows this. Even those in supposedly safe jobs know that the possibility of redundancy is never far away. It is a massive incentive to do as you are told, to not rock the boat, to stay on the right side of the boss. Obviously, there are limits, but in general the majority of people do not want to strike or demonstrate. They just want to keep their jobs and be able to do the things that their peers do.

According to some on social media, people who buy into the system – a system that will chew them up when it feels like it – are thick, too stupid to understand that they are being oppressed. That is until they strike at which point they become heroes. 

Most people are not thick or too stupid to understand their position in life. They are in their terms ‘realistic’. What’s the point, they say, in fighting the system, when the system always wins. So the ‘socialists’ remain a tiny minority shouting from the sidelines as everybody else goes about their lives. Poverty, real poverty, is reserved for a small minority, so even those who do not have much can see a worse life if they are not careful. Less realistic, then, than pragmatic.

PART FOUR

Revolution is unlikely in the UK. Partly because we no longer have a viable proletariat, though even now it is considerably bigger than in Marx’s day. But mainly because, despite everything we can see that is wrong with society, life remains tolerable and the dream remains that a lottery win might make it even better than tolerable.

The strange thing is people don’t actually reject socialism as such. What they reject is the effort that we demand of them. Giving up their evenings to attend meetings or their Saturdays to attend demos. This does not mean they are happy with capitalism. They just have no idea how to change it.

And in truth neither do most ‘socialists’. And, therein, lies our biggest problem.

What mechanism will bring capitalism down and replace it with socialism? Indeed, what is this thing called socialism we talk about?

Unless we can answer those questions with more than platitudes, then we are reduced to periods of great optimism followed by the gradual realisation that the system remains.

In reality it is probably the case that most of what we do has little, if any, impact on the social system. When capitalism goes into terminal decline, it will not be because of the way we have voted, or a picket line that we have organised, or even a mass demonstration. It will be when the demands made on the system cannot be delivered.

Those demands could be anything. The condition for revolutionary change is not small groups of self-proclaimed revolutionaries plotting in the back room of a pub. But rather when the ruling class can no longer rule. And, this bit is important, there exists at the same time a class that can rule in their stead. Capitalism goes through periodic decline but generally bounces back. Empirically the periods of ‘bust’ are getting longer and the periods of ‘boom’ shorter and less effective. We cannot know for certain when the bust period will become terminal, but we will know it is revolution when all those people who are currently too busy living normal lives are suddenly on the streets demanding change of one sort or another.

Almost certainly, this process will not start in the UK. And equally certainly ‘socialists’ will not be at the head of this movement when it starts. Whether they emerge as leaders will depend on how the unrest pans out. And that we cannot know in advance. All we can say with any certainty is that the conditions of life in a capitalist economy mean that it simply cannot deliver the good life people aspire to. When enough of those people feel there is something worth fighting for, then, and only then, will we be looking at revolution.


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