1990s >> 1990 >> no-1025-january-1990

Practical Socialism pt.1

Any discussion of the subject of Socialism as a practical alternative to capitalism must begin with a clear idea of what is meant by socialism. The Socialist Party defines this under the three broad headings of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use. By common ownership we mean an equal relation between all people to the means of production. By democratic control we mean that social policy and action will be decided by the whole community. Production solely for use will replace the present capitalist system under which goods take the form of commodities for sale on the markets. In socialism, voluntary co-operation will produce goods directly for needs without the intervention of buying and selling.

This definition clearly distinguishes socialism from capitalism and because the Socialist Party has maintained this as its sole political objective we are the only party able to consider sensibly how these principles of socialist organisation can be applied in the modern world.

Material Factors

At this point we have to be aware of some dangers in our thinking. Because socialism is a society which is yet to be established we might be tempted to think we have unlimited latitude in the way we consider the alternative society or that we are free to indulge our ideal personal preferences in a quite arbitrary way. This is not the case. In adopting a sound Marxian method, we have to accept that our thinking must be constrained by a background of existing material factors and unless we are guided by these we could lapse into a quite useless utopianism. Marxian literature contains extensive references to the difference between utopian socialism and practical revolutionary socialism. Marx and Engels wrote, for example, in The German Ideology:

“Communism [or socialism] is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established…an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions for this movement result from the premises now in existence” (Lawrence and Wishart, 1970 edition, pp 56-57).

This is again emphasised later on:

“In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionising the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things” (p.62).

So Marx is here saying that to dream up some ideal state of affairs and then expect society to adjust itself to this futuristic vision is quite useless. This is not practical revolutionary socialism. The only sound method is to base our proposals on the present state of things. This shifts the focus of our thought and action from the “future” to the practical work of revolutionising the existing world.

In our own day, what are the important elements which constitute the present state of things? These are the conditions of the working class and the problems they face in their continuing struggle with the capitalists or the state. These also include the availability of the vastly developed powers of production, world communications, the administrative machinery and political institutions. Therefore practical socialism has to develop its proposals from the problems faced by the working class now and the material means which are presently to hand to solve them once released from the constraints of class society.

Marx’s Day

In criticising the utopians of his own day who based their ideas on highly abstract concepts such as the “essence of man” or “ideal man”, Marx did provide an excuse for them: “In Germany, a country where only a trivial historical development is taking place, these mental developments, these glorified and ineffective trivialities, naturally serve as a substitute for the lack of historical development.” This referred to the fact that capitalist industrialisation was at its most advanced in Britain and therefore Britain provided the conditions for a revolutionary socialist movement based on the realities of the class struggle. However, in world terms, this development was relatively local and Marx’s comment can also apply to the great difference between the position that he was in and the state of things as they now exist at the end of the twentieth century.

At the time Marx was writing relatively few of the world’s population were engaged in the class struggle between capital and labour and these workers did not have the vote. Now, the vast majority of the world’s industrial population get their living as wage workers. Goods are now produced by a worldwide structure of production. The development of world communications has broken down the barriers which separated peoples in the nineteenth century. In every sphere of life there has been a development of useful administrative institutions, including many world bodies. Millions of the world’s workers are free to organise politically.

As distinct from Marx’s day, now there is not only a common interest in the establishment of socialism among workers throughout the world but the political means of attaining it exist together with the productive and administrative means of socialist organisation. So, in the nineteenth century the lack of historical development did not only apply to the utopians criticised by Marx; it was also a greatly inhibiting factor for him too when it came to putting forward practical revolutionary proposals for how socialism could be organised to deal with working class problems. What he was able to do was formulate the sound principles on which the work should be done.

Practical Movement

Marx also recognised that the success of the socialist revolution would depend on the growth of socialist consciousness on a mass scale and that these changed ideas could only develop through a practical movement:

“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution” (pp 94-5).

A great deal has been made of the remark by Marx that he was not interested in writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future. His point was to emphasise his dissociation from those utopians who construed socialism as an ideal futuristic society. For Marx, a practical movement had to formulate its proposals and set its revolutionary objectives within the framework of possibilities and limitations given by the conditions of the here and now; and this was vital for the work of changing ideas.

These conditions have been vastly altered. As we now see, the limitations on revolutionary activity since Marx’s time have been greatly reduced and, conversely, the possibilities have been greatly expanded. As we are now active in a highly developed world capitalism which has established an adequate material basis for socialism, it is our task to apply the principles laid down by Marx in pursuing the work of revolutionary socialism. In this way our practical proposals for the re-organisation of society on a socialist basis can now support analyses of working class problems with descriptions of alternative arrangements developed directly from everyday experience. This is indispensable to the work of building up the socialist movement.

The key to developing our revolutionary proposals from the known facts of everyday experience is given by the distinction Marx made between the usefulness of production and administration on the one hand and the value factors which determine their economic mode of operation under capitalism on the other. When we say that socialism will produce for use, this will not be new: every society must produce for use. Marx put it as follows:

“So far as therefore labour is the creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race: it is an eternal nature imposed necessity without which there can be no material exchanges between man and nature and therefore no life” (Capital, Vol.I, Chapter 1, section 2).

When we argue that production in socialism will be solely for use, the word “solely” is an important qualification which accepts that production for use already takes place, but under capitalism is subject to the economic constraints of class interests. When we come to the question of how production solely for use will operate in socialism we begin with the fact that a world-wide structure of useful production already exists and therefore we already have a working model in front of us. The task is to identify the useful mechanisms which co-ordinate production and distribution now as distinct from the value factors of buying and selling in the markets, which under capitalism constrain useful production. In socialism, these useful mechanisms will operate on their own, freely and directly for need. In addition, our proposals for practical socialism should include the ways in which useful institutions and decision-making bodies could also be adapted from “the existing state of things”.



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