Socialists and the Left
Many people don’t realise that not only does the Socialist Party deny being part of ‘the left-wing’, it actively opposes it.
During the last century capitalism saw many profound economic and political convulsions and these gave birth to countless political movements which claimed to either be able to ‘fix’ the system or to have transcended it in the name of socialism. For various ideological reasons many journalists, historians and other cultural commentators accepted this self-identification by such groups without considering the definition and history of socialism. The upshot was that any ‘radical’ movement, from the Labour Party to the Bolsheviks and from the Khmer Rouge to the Social Democrats, could call themselves socialist. The term socialist and/or communist had lost its meaning in a swamp of Orwellian double speak. Not that this was the only word to suffer such a fate, as the terms democratic, scientific, freedom, liberation, justice, equality and countless other progressive ideas were also gobbled up and spat out by capitalist culture and its ideologues.
What was left was a choice between so-called right-wing capitalism and left-wing capitalism or, in other words, no choice at all. Through all of this one organisation obstinately stayed outside of this ‘mainstream’ political consensus – the World Socialist Movement (WSM). It continues to be dismissed for being ‘sectarian’, impossibilist’, ‘elitist’, ‘purist’ and other even less flattering names. The fact remains, however, that despite the Left’s mass following and success in attaining power, both constitutionally and through violent coups, it has changed nothing and in many parts of the world has made things worse for the working class.
Back to 1789
Anyone who thinks our opposition to the term ‘left-wing’ is merely semantic should remember the origins of the battle between socialists and the Left. The political designations of left and right go back to the events of the French Revolution of 1789. The French National Assembly was composed of those who supported the king (who sat on the President’s right) and those who supported the revolution, who sat on the left. Ever since that time political analysts have tried to fit all ideologies into these binary categories of ‘reactionary’ (right) and ‘progressive’ (left).
From the beginning this was not a very helpful tool for understanding political perspectives and developments as the ferocious debate between the Marxists and anarchists of the First International illustrates, since they were both supposed to be members of the left-wing. It is only recently that mainstream political commentators have started to give up on this simplistic fiction, because of the development of ‘populism’ and ‘environmentalism’, both of which refuse to fit neatly within the old categories. The WSM have long since regarded both the left and right as being merely different ways of supporting capitalism and have always opposed both.
Initially most groups calling themselves socialist shared an understanding that the concept referred to ‘the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.’ Eventually some groups, unwilling perhaps to abandon capitalist features like money, authoritarian institutions and national identity etc., began to talk of reforming the current system rather than a revolutionary abolition of it. Their elevation of the state as an institution that could serve the working class instead of oppressing it was at the root of the divergence between socialists and the Left. Such was the way that the ultimate political oxymoron was conceived: ‘state socialism’ .
Bismarck’s ‘welfare state’
The first champion of ‘state socialism’ was Ferdinand Lassalle, who was prominent in organising the first socialist party (Social Democratic Movement) in Germany but came to believe, in contrast to Marx, that the state was a politically neutral organisation that could continue to exist in socialism. Ironically it was Otto Von Bismarck (German Chancellor and bitter opponent of socialism) who, after meeting Lassalle, instituted some of his ideas by creating a welfare system in Germany in the 1880s. He did this to try to stall the growing popular support for the Social Democrats.
Ever since that time the capitalist state in various countries has organised welfare systems (pensions, health care, unemployment benefit, etc.) not because they are an expression of socialism but because they are beneficial to a modern capitalist economy. However, any benefit to the working class is undermined because of the capitalist’s hatred of taxation and the chronic underfunding this always causes. The same is true of the state ownership of various businesses mainly connected with infrastructure. To prevent the rise of monopolies within services and production vital to all the parts of the bourgeoisie, state ownership (nationalisation) was and still is a widespread economic necessity for many capitalist states.
The term ‘public ownership’ suggests that the state is politically neutral and can be associated with some form of socialism when, in fact, the very opposite is true. Those who work in the ‘public sector’ will be the first to tell you that their wages and conditions are always in the firing line when the frequent calls to curb public spending are heard. What further compounded the Left’s misunderstanding of the political role of the state were the events unfolding in Russia in 1917.
Lenin’s state capitalism
The Communist Manifesto proposed the state ownership of key industries in order to accelerate the levels of production to those required to establish socialism, but this was never understood by Marx to be socialism itself. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, this was their main economic strategy to transform the country into an industrial powerhouse. Lenin announced that state ownership was ‘socialist’ and argued that it represented a transitional stage to something else called ‘communism’. He went further in declaring that his party’s coup d’état represented a socialist revolution that had swept away capitalism. To add to the confusion he used Marx’s phrase ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ to justify his autocratic regime. Lenin was being dishonest since he knew that the establishment of socialism in Russia was impossible at that time and that what he was creating was state capitalism.
All the crimes and suffering caused by the Bolsheviks continued to be ideologically justified in the name of socialism. Because of the rise of the reformist Left (which had backed the financing of the First World War in Germany) socialist consciousness had already been fatally eroded, so that many of Europe’s intelligentsia hailed the Russian Revolution as ‘socialist’.
To this day many still believe that socialism means the state ownership of the means of production. It remains a key ideological feature among the Left, who continue to insist that it will help bring about the reform of capitalism, which will benefit the majority (and even lead to socialism). But it’s a fantasy that’s detrimental to human happiness and even to the planet. Since 1914, when the Left betrayed the working class and supported the Great War which led inexorably to the Second World War and then the ‘Cold War’, we have witnessed the constant failure of leftist policies.
In the 21st century the working class are still producing the whole cake while having to beg the rich for a few crumbs. The state exists to prevent the working class from accessing the product of its own labour. This organised theft is legitimised by governments, both left and right, who go through the motions of democracy insofar as this is tolerated by their capitalist masters (as long as their interests are not threatened). The left put on their suits and support business and war to further their political careers whilst leading the world to catastrophe.
Socialists will continue to attack the delusional cul-de-sac of reformism which has failed so miserably, and state capitalism, which usually leads to the gulag.