Socialism and Communism? NO! Democratic Revolution?* Yes!
Are Socialism and Communism good ideas, which unfortunately have been stigmatized because bad people who don't really believe in these ideas do bad things in their name? Or are they truly bad ideas whose implementation by genuine followers leads to very bad things? I think it's the latter, and here is why.
Socialism and Communism, as even their most pure followers would agree, call for the government to own the means of production and to organize economic production for the good of all and not for the profit of a few. There are two key ideas expressed in this formulation: #1) the government owns the means of production and #2) economic production for the good of all and not the profit of a few. Idea #2 is fine. It's idea #1 that is the problem.
What, exactly, is "the government"? Communists and Socialists both mean, by "the government," a strong central** government that makes laws and policies that everybody in the nation is obliged to follow or be arrested and face imprisonment. How are the individuals who constitute the central government selected? On this point the Communists and Socialists part ways. The Communists say that their Communist Party must be (or choose) the government in a "one party" state. The Socialists say the government must consist of politicians who won an election by the citizens (or are appointed by a politician or politicians who won such an election) and those they in turn appoint. The United States Constitution or the British parliamentary system are examples of such governments.
In either case, be it the Communist or Socialist method of constituting the central government, the result is the same in that everybody in the nation is obliged to obey laws written by a relatively small number of people, typically meeting in a capital city far away from most citizens. If the citizens disagree with a law, they are obliged to obey it or face imprisonment. Under Communism, there is no way citizens can ever change a law they don't like, except by rebelling against Communism or by persuading the Communist Party to change the law. Under Socialism, citizens can change the law by rebelling against Socialism or by waiting until the next election (which could be many years in the future) and voting for new politicians.
In both cases, ordinary people are not involved in making the laws they are required to obey. This very fact is a recipe for power to be exercised by people whose values and interests are different from those of ordinary people. Lord Acton knew a thing or two!
Why Socialist and Communist Governments Are Always Anti-Democratic
It's not just that the central government might end up becoming an instrument for domination by people whose values and interests are different from those of ordinary people; it's that Communists and Socialists, because of the Marxist theory they both embrace, intend for this to happen, in fact require that it happens. According to Marxism, ordinary people are dehumanized by capitalism; they lack class consciousness; their heads are filled with capitalist ideas and values. Worse, ordinary working class people are, according to Marx, as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. In his Capital, Volume I, Chapter 14, "Division of Labor and Manufacture," Section 5, Marx writes:
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The elitist attitude towards working class people and peasants held by Marx and Engels is also explicitly evident in their Communist Manifesto, as discussed in "The Communist Manifesto is Wrong."
Marxism purports to be a science of social change. It is based on the axiom that individuals act in their self interest, and that what is in their self interest depends on the particular nature of the means of production in a given society and the individual's relation to those means of production.
In the Marxist framework, class conflict is not correctly understood as a conflict between the majority of people who value equality and mutual aid (a.k.a. solidarity) versus the minority who value inequality and greed and domination of the many by the few. No. The Marxist framework understands class conflict to be a conflict between the self-interest of people who do not own the means of production versus the self-interest of those who do. Instead of positive values in conflict with negative values, Marxists see only self-interest in conflict with self-interest.
Everybody, according to Marx, acts only in their self interest and the changes in society are merely caused by the way changes in the means of production change what is in the self-interest of different parts of the population. As Marx put it, "The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist." In the Marxist "science" social change (leading eventually to socialism as a transition to the classless society of communism) happens because of impersonal political/economic laws driven by the material nature of the means of production and the self interests of individuals. The end of capitalism and arrival of communism happen not because this is the subjective conscious explicit aim and desire of flesh and blood working class people, but in spite of the fact that these people are "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."
To the extent that the process of going from capitalism to a classless society requires conscious human intervention, it must, according to the science of Marxism, be the intervention of people who are not "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." Who would these people be? Obviously, they are a self-selected elite, who constitute a Socialist or Communist Party, and who believe that they, and not ordinary working class people, must hold the real power in society in order to guide it to the desired goal. This is why Socialist and Communist governments are, and must be, strong central governments that demand obedience by ordinary people.
But what kind of obedience does the Marxist science demand of ordinary people in a Socialist nation? It is obedience to laws that aim to increase economic production.*** The reason why Marxists believe this is because they believe that before a society can be based on "from each according to ability, to each according to need" economic production must be ramped up to eliminate scarcity. Marx expressed it this way in his Critique of the Gotha Program:
Here's the rub. How does an elite governing class make it so that "the productive forces have also increased"? Given the presumption that people act in their self interest, the ruling elite will need to arrange things so that it is in each worker's self interest to work harder and produce more. Well, the capitalists have invented terrific ways of doing just that. The trick is to make society very unequal and lure people to work harder with the promise that if they do they will be rewarded with greater wealth (and privileges wealth can purchase) than others. Another method is Taylorism, which Lenin advocated with great enthusiasm. Taylorism is the "science" of breaking the production process into lots of separate tiny actions and making each worker do just one of those actions over and over and over. Taylorism aims to make each worker as unskilled as possible, thus making workers easily replaceable, which is important for a ruling elite that does not want to be bothered by workers making demands and threatening to bring production to a stop by refusing to work until they are satisfied.
As would have been no suprise to Lord Acton, what actually happens when Socialists or Communists are in power and carrying out their Marxist "science," is that society remains as undemocratic as any capitalist society in terms of ordinary people not having any real say (even if they have the trappings of democracy), and it remains as unequal as any capitalist society. Indeed, from the point of view of ordinary working people, it does not fundamentally differ from capitalism and it gives no indication of ever moving towards a classless egalitarian society at all. And this is true when the Communist or Socialist leaders are genuinely following their Marxist "science."
Actually Existing Socialism
Now let's take a look at what actual self-described socialists do when they have power. [The following information comes from Wikipedia here.] Take, for example, the socialist party in Greece, called the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) party. It's leader, Georgios Papandreou, became the Prime Minister of Greece in 2009. He was also President of the Socialist International since January 2006. If anybody is a socialist, he is.
Upon inauguration, Papandreou's government revealed that its finances were far worse than previous announcements, with a year deficit of 12.7% of GDP, four times more than the eurozone's limit, and a public debt of $410 billion. This announcement served only to worsen the severe crisis the Greek economy was undergoing, with an unemployment rate of 10% and the country's debt rating being lowered to BBB+, the lowest in the eurozone. Papandreou responded by promoting austerity measures, reducing spending, increasing taxes, freezing additional taxes and hiring and introducing measures aimed at combatting rampant tax evasion and reducing the country's public sector. The announced austerity program caused a wave of nationwide strikes and has been criticised by both the EU and the eurozone nations' finance ministers as falling short of its goals. ...
Whose side are we on? On the side of "three quarters of the Greek population" protesting the same austerity that our leaflet also condemns, or on the side the the President of the Socialist International who implemented that austerity? Clearly the former!
Sweeden, sometimes described as "socialist" is nothing we should emulate, as discussed here.
Yes, the Chinese Communist Party Is Applying Marxism (Unfortunately!)
Some people think that because the Chinese Communist Party is promoting capitalism to the extreme, that therefore it is not really a communist party and that Karl Marx, if he knew what was happening in China in his name, would be turning in his grave. But no, he would likely approve of what the Chinese Communist Party is doing. Here's why.
Marxism defends capitalism--even the most savage and brutal capitalism--as progressive and necessary in regions with economic scarcity. For example, Marx defended British Imperialism in India, which he fully acknowledged was extremely brutal, on the grounds that it was necessary for progress. He makes this point in his article for the New York Herald Tribune, June 25, 1853, in which he starts out by noting that,
Then he concludes:
What makes the Chinese Communist Party a communist party perfectly in keeping with Marxism is the fact that it is indeed a party of Marxist-Leninists who are (or at least try to be) totally in control of Chinese society, including in control of the capitalists. Using capitalism with all of its "misery inflicted" [to use Marx's phrase for the British imerialism he declared to be so necessary] in oder to increase economic production to the maximum before any effort to have "society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" is exactly what Marxism is all about. And it stinks!
Cuba, Where Socialism Means Increasing Inequality
Socialism in Cuba, under the rule of the Cuban Communist Party, has resulted in increasing economic inequality, as reported here and here and here (pdf) and here. The explanation is that, for Marxists, equality is not the goal; increasing economic production is the goal. Marxists believe that inequality is necessary to motivate people to work hard and produce more. The experience of egalitarianism in Spain in the years 1936-9, however, show that when there was vastly more equality then economic productivity increased, even despite the need for much of the population to be engaged in military service to defend the revolution against the fascist General Franco.
Not Socialism or Communism, but Egalitarianism
The difference between people for democratic revolution (whom I will refer to as egalitarians for egalitarianism) versus Socialists and Communists is that egalitarians, in contrast to the latter, believe that the fundamental conflict in society is between a working class culture of equality and mutual aid versus an elite culture of inequality and pitting people against each other to control and dominate them. Unlike the Marxists, egalitarians know that most ordinary people quite consciously and explicitly favor equality over inequality and favor mutual aid over being pitted against one another. Unlike Socialists and Communists, egalitarians want society to be shaped by the values ordinary people share, and egalitarians see the aim of revolution as the shaping of all of society by the values by which ordinary people, in their everyday lives, already are trying to shape the little corner of the world over which they may have some real conrol.
This is why, in contrast to Socialists and Communists who need to control people with a strong central government, egalitarians reject the very idea of a central government. Egalitarians want ordinary people who value equality and mutual aid to have all of the power. The way to do this is voluntary federation, in which local community assemblies of all the people in a community who value equality and mutual aid are invited to participate as equals in the writing of the ONLY laws (and economic policies etc.) that people in that local community must obey; and delegates from local assemblies are given the task of crafting proposals (not laws!) for the local assemblies (in a region whose size could be anywhere from a handful of local communities to as large as the entire planet) to accept and act upon or not as they wish. (In practice, of course, proposals would go through a process of amendments by the delegates and suggestions from local assemblies to the delegates in order to obtain the consent of as many local assemblies as are necessary to implement the proposal.)
Socialists and Communists reject the notion of voluntary federation. The premise for it--that ordinary people are the conscious source of the values that should shape society, values that are the opposite of capitalist values--is one that has no place whatsover in the Marxist theory that guides Socialists and Communists. The proof of this is that one can search in the Marxist literature as long as one wants and one will never find this premise expressed. Instead one will find only statements about how the material interests (not values) of working class people are different from the interests of capitalists. The Socialists and Communists see their goal not as ensuring that ordinary people have the real power in society, but rather as social engineering society supposedly in the interests of ordinary people. It is a fundamentally elitist outlook: "We know what's best for you; now obey us."****
Socialism and Communism have attained the status of deragatory words among billions of people because Socialist and Communist governments have demonstrated the utter contempt for ordinary people that underlies the thinking of their Marxist leaders. Billions of people equate Socialism and Communism with the suppression of democracy, and they have good reason for doing this. They also are leery of "democracy" when it is advocated by leaders of the capitalist nations because they know that this "democracy" is fake democracy, with all the trappings of elections but none of the substance of ordinary people having the real say in society.
As I discuss in A Misunderstanding about Democracy, democracy is a way for people with shared fundamental values (and only for people with shared fundamental values) to cooperate for shared fundamental goals that shape society by these values. Voluntary federation of people who share the values of equality and mutual aid is the only way that such people can effectively cooperate to shape society by those values. It is also the way such people can cooperate to prevent (forcibly if neccessary, with a militia organized by many local communities with voluntary federation) people with opposite values from shaping society by their contrary (negative) values.
It is time to start Thinking about Revolution, not for Socialism or Communism, but for egalitarianism. The success of such a democratic revolution will depend on understanding why it has nothing whatsoever to do with Socialism or Communism.
* Democratic revolution means the same thing as what I (and PDRBoston.org, which I edit) now call egalitarian revolution.
** Communists call for a centralized state to increase economic production "as rapidly as possible" in the Communist Manifesto (by Marx and Engels) as follows:
Marx advocated a strong central government unambiguously. In the "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League" by Marx and Engels, written in 1850, they declare:
After the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx and Engels added to their theory the idea of immediate recall of elected Central Government officials. In 1891 Engels wrote, in his introduction to Marx's The Civil War in France:
While immediate recall is a good principle, it is not a substitute for the more important need to reject the authoritarian principle that says "You must obey the highest level of government (typically the Central government) no matter what." Revolutionary movements aiming for genuine democracy had by this time already rejected this authoritarian principle (go here to read about this history and here to read about why it is vital to reject the authoritarian principle.) Marx and Engels, however, embraced the authoritarian principle. In their view the "deputies and officials" should be empowered--at least until they are recalled--to command (make laws for) everybody else. This is the opposite of how genuine democracy--voluntary federation--works, as described here.
For Marx, a strong centralized government was needed because it was, in his view, necessary in order to increase economic production to the point where scarcity would be abolished; only then could the state "wither away" in the classless society of communism. Marx was wrong; when economic productivity is a widely shared goal then decentralized power (voluntary federation, i.e., genuine democracy) is far more conducive to economic productivity than anti-democratic domination by a strong central government.
*** I fully agree with the principle of "From each according to ability, to each according to need." This is the basis of the sharing economy discussed in Thinking about Revolution, co-authored by me. But it should be noted that Marx did not invent this idea, he merely popularized it in his Critique of the Gotha Program (quoted above), in which he emphasized that society could NOT be based on this principle until far FAR in the future. Here are his exact words:
As early as 1775 in his Code de la Nature ou le Veritable esprit de Ses Lois a Frenchman named Morelly wrote, long before Karl Marx was even born, that his aim was "To distribute work according to capacity; products according to needs." The same idea appears even earlier, in the Bible (Acts, 4:43-35): "Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostle's feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." According to the authors of this Monthly Review article, "Back in 1987, a poll of the U.S. population indicated that 45 percent of the population believed that Marx’s famous words from the Critique of the Gotha Programme delimiting communism—'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs'—were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This, of course, said more about the absolute ideals of most Americans, and what they thought they should expect, than about the U.S. Constitution itself.19"
**** Che Guevara expresses this elitist view in his essay, "Socialism and Man in Cuba." In this short essay, Guevara repeats over and over again the theme that ordinary people are defective and must be re-made into a "new man and woman," which is the task of the vanguard Marxis revolutionary party:
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