Life and Times – Winners and losers
‘I was drunk when I wrote the messages below and I apologize for the troll-like nature of my comments’, wrote Pete from Texas, USA, after filling in the Socialist Party’s online membership questionnaire and receiving a reply from me. I was impressed by his confession and therefore happy to carry on the conversation with him and respond to the further, apparently sober comments he was now making.
Previously he had written such things as ‘socialist experiments end with a substantial portion of the population sent off to death camps’, ‘ the idea of no one being in charge and no money, and free goods and services means no wealth will be generated’ and ‘the party is a direct competitor to religion, as it takes a profound level of religious belief and suspension of rational capacity to convince yourself you actually believe what you say you believe and, when a Christian tells me that they believe Jesus ACTUALLY walked on water, I see the same glossy eyed intellectual vapidity I see when a socialist blathers on about the idiocy of your platform.’ Strong and some of it pretty insulting stuff, even if written in an alcoholic haze. However, having apologised and said he appreciated the far more respectful way in which his points had been answered, Pete then went on to make, in several exchanges – and respectfully this time – a number of further points.
He made no bones about the fact that he was a supporter of capitalism, especially of the ‘Nordic’ type, since he saw it as ‘capable of producing innovation and improving quality of life for the vast majority of the population’. With regard to the moneyless, wageless world system that we view as socialism, he did not see how ‘a relatively modern society can exist without money and with free goods and services’, since how would we know what needed to be produced and how that would be organised? And what if people wanted more than could be produced? So he wondered whether we were proposing a return to ‘a pre-technology society … working together in small groups, sharing with each other, having a leader that was chosen due to respect and ability’. He asked further: ‘How would the democratic process work in a moneyless, wageless, marketless society?’ And he also stuck by the idea in his previous message that ‘USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, China’s Great Leap Forward, The Killing Fields of Cambodia, etc have to be regarded as examples of socialism’ and ‘resulted in the MOST extreme humanitarian disasters of the 20th century’. He went on: ‘My argument is that when such systems are implemented, reality very quickly proves that they don’t work. But the people involved are religious zealots to the cause and as such refuse to believe that their theory is the cause of the failure…In the end, the Marxists put on their own version of the Spanish Inquisition.’
In response to these entirely pertinent questions, I first made it clear that, while we might agree that ‘Nordic-style capitalism’ is arguably relatively benign as the system goes, it’s still based on money, buying and selling and the market and so has absolutely nothing whatever to do with what we are advocating. Nor were we advocating ‘living off the land’. In fact, we saw socialism as a world that would use the advanced technology developed by capitalism to give a decent comfortable life to everyone – something that capitalism fails to do. This would be possible because production would not be based on the profit imperative as at present but on human need, which would cut out much of the wastefulness of capitalism (administration of the money system, competitive production, weapons of war, etc.) as well as eliminating the insecurity of working for a wage to stay alive, the need to compete with our fellow human beings in myriad ways and the enmity between peoples living in different parts of the planet.
But what if, as Pete had conjectured, more people wanted a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce than could be produced to go round? My answer to this was that, while in socialism you would be able to take freely what was reasonably necessary for a comfortable existence, you couldn’t have absolutely anything you happened to want just because you wanted it. And especially you couldn’t have something that society considered essential to its own fundamental collective wellbeing, where there wasn’t enough of it for free personal access. And this led me on to the essentially democratic nature of socialism. If it was clear that there was a social need for a scarce product or service to allow society to operate smoothly, efficiently and in the collective interest, then a democratic decision might be taken not to make it available for personal use. How would this be enforced? Well, socialism will be a free-access society but it won’t be a society without rules – democratically agreed ones – and also therefore the means of enforcing those rules (no doubt at the most benign level possible). On the matter of how ‘demand’ will be determined, I made no bones about the fact that this was a big question and I referred Pete to Chapters 4 and 5 of our pamphlet Socialism as a Practical Alternative. But I made the point that, first and foremost, demand will be real demand based on need not, as now, on ability to pay.
Finally, on to the question of so-called ‘past examples’ of socialism, the way I put it was that I don’t know what I’d need to do to convince Pete that Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were as far away as they could possibly be from the moneyless, stateless society of free access that for us was socialism. I went on (perhaps a little rudely): ‘Look. Hitler called himself a socialist (a national socialist, ie, Nazi) and surely you wouldn’t somehow want to tar us with that brush? If you’re just looking at labels, you could of course. But if what’s in the bottle is piss, even if the label says whisky, you know it’s not.’
A further exchange between us got on to America’s ‘gun culture’ of which Pete was a moderate advocate with the argument that there should be as few restrictions as possible on people’s behaviour. My reply was that, in a sane society, it would just seem mind-blowing for a person to carry around a weapon which, if something went wrong in the mind of that person, could be used to cause lethal mayhem. But that was when our discussion seemed to peter out. And I somehow don’t think Pete is going to become a member of the World Socialist Movement any time soon. You win some, you lose some.