Thursday, February 09, 2017

Blast from the past: Rescuing Socialism from Humpty Dumpty (1995)

 Humpty Dumpty, as Alice discovered, had his personal vocabulary.   "When
I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "It means
just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."  It is the
purpose of this essay to reclaim a single word from the Wonderland
lexicons of all manner of Humpty Dumptys who have misappropriated it.
When a word can mean anything you want it to mean, it has been rendered
meaningless.

 Few words can have suffered such varied renditions as "Socialism". For
the greater part of the twentieth century it has been the espoused creed
of leaders of vast numbers of Mankind. All manner of crimes have been
justified in its name: almost every economic theory as at one time
carried its banner. Yet the irony is, no one can claim experience of
Socialism for it has never existed in practice.

 If Socialism as a word is to have any meaning, by its nature it must be
a precise one. As a science by which the nature of society might be
understood and from which hypotheses about the future can be
extrapolated, Socialism cannot be extracted from its nineteenth century
grounding in the works of Karl Marx. Just as evolutionary theory and
research has developed from the fundamentals established by Charles
Darwin, so the basic principles established by Marx must be recognised
in understanding Socialism. It is possible of course to claim, maybe
even to demonstrate, that those principles are flawed or even wrong.

 However, that would negate Socialism as a useful concept, changing it
into something other would not preserve some intrinsic value. If it
could be demonstrated that new species arose because some previously
unrecognised extra-terrestial intelligence dropped them fully formed
onto the earth, it would be meaningless to call that process evolution.

 So what is Socialism? Simply stated, it is the description of a certain
set of economic and social relations. A worldwide society devoid of
classes, money, national boundaries and Government (as opposed to
administration of items). The means of production would be held in
common, with people giving voluntarily to that society whatever they
were able and taking that they required to satisfy their self defined
needs. The productive forces in such a society would be so developed to
meet those needs, liberated from the restrictive necessity to accrue
surplus value, profit.

 There have been various claims throughout the twentieth century for
having implemented Socialism. None of these claims can be validated as
they all, like eighteenth century would be voters, fail the property
qualification. It is not enough to take productive property into state
ownership, for this merely transfers property from private to public
control. The essential relationship between that property and the actual
producers, the workers, remains unaltered. Marx identified two types of
property, described by Paresh Chattopadhyay as "economic property" and
"juridical property". The crucial element in defining society is the
"economic" as this relates how one class retains whilst another class is
excluded from the means of production. Whereas the "juridical" is the
social factor, recognised in law, of legal individual private property
rights. The former is a relationship that leaves the worker still a
worker exploited by the fact of contributing involuntarily part of the
value they produce as surplus value, profit. This remains the case even
if the means of production are held by the state officially on behalf of
the worker. All that has occurred is that private ownership became state
ownership which, can be returned to the private sector and at no point
is the relationship between producer and the means of production
essentially changed. Indeed, all that has been tampered with is the
"juridical"element, a factor that existed in Roman law long before there
was capitalism.

 Perhaps an illustration is required to demonstrate that "...capital is
not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation...which is
manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social
character..." This will show the difference between "economic" and
"juridical" property. A productive enterprise transforms raw materials
into saleable commodities: trees into furniture, iron ore into cars etc.
In simplistic terms, the raw material arrives at the entrance to a
factory, undergoes various processes throughout the factory and emerges
from the exit as a product ready for sale. The raw material remains
inert unless subjected to labour which transforms it into the finished
article. It is the labour that gives the item its value. The process is
enacted not to produce any particular commodity, the final product is
irrelevant. It is the realisation of the acquired value of the commodity
through sale that is the objective and the consequent profit it entails.
For the labour is bought at a rate less than the value it creates in the
product so that the eventual sale brings a greater return than that paid
for labour. This is surplus value, profit, the whole purpose of the
enterprise. This surplus value accrues to the holders of the productive
process, those with title to the "economic" property that is the social
relation for making profit.

 In classical capitalism the owners of the factory might be an
individual, a family, a partnership or a group of shareholders. It is
clear that in terms of the factory's raison d'etre it is irrelevant
which of these are the legal owners. This is the capitalism with which
Karl Marx would have been quite familiar. The twentieth century has
brought forms of ownership that apparently blur such a simple
distinction. Transport the factory to the Soviet Union and the claim
would be that the social relations had significantly altered. The
Dictatorship of the Proletariat, having abolished private ownership in
all its forms, had freed labour from its former exploitation, ie it
being robbed of part of the value it created. However, it had done
nothing of the sort. The State fulfilled the function of owner, buying
labour and accruing the surplus value created. Essentially, the factory
operates in precisely the same manner, the "economic" property is
unaltered. What has changed is the "juridical" property, who has legal
title to the factory. Even if the Soviet authorities used all the profit
for the benefit of the workers, building hospitals, schools etc., the
essential element, the accumulation of surplus value, remains central.
How a capitalist spends profit is irrelevant, it is still capitalism
according to the "economic" property no matter how the "juridical"
property is altered. In this country, miners remained bought labour
after nationalisation as much as before under private ownership. The
same is true of co-operatives who must realise profit or go bankrupt.
The legal ownership of things, factories and machines etc., does not
determine the operation of "economic" property. The only way a
significant change can be made is to bring all "economic" property under
the democratic control of society so it can be deployed to produce to
meet need and not profit.

 The consequence of this analysis must be that the central political
conflict of the twentieth century, that between Left and Right, has been
a sham. It has been trumpeted as the struggle between Socialism and
Capitalism: on the large scale in the Cold War, on the small in the
numerous petty battles between Labour and Conservative Parties under
various guises in many countries. The lauded recent triumph of
Capitalism is a hollow victory in that it was bound to win in one form
or other, private or state. All operate within the same paradigm, from
National Socialist to Communist Party and all liberal shades between. To
want Socialism is to desire moving forward beyond the present model to
an original, unexplored one. This is not to decry the fall of tyrannies,
after all Socialism is about the pursuit of freedom, only to understand
what has proved false was always a falsehood. Socialism cannot have been
defeated or proved invalid as it has never been tried.

 Which brings us to the crux of the argument. Socialism, as a further
stage in social development, is outside or beyond the present Left/Right
dichotomy. Essentially, Socialism can be aspired to by most who
presently subscribe to either prevailing trend. For example, those
characterised as the radical Right can argue the state "...has housed
him (the fettered individual) in soulless tower blocks, subjected him to
failed educational and egalitarian experiments and narrowed to vanishing
point his opportunities for self-government, self-improvement,
self-help, spontaneity, diversity and individuality". There is nothing
in this quotation a socialist could disagree with. The difference lies
in the solution. Whereas the Right libertarian would propose the free
market, the socialist must point out that such a beast is a unicorn, a
magnificent creature that never has nor could have existed. The cure for
the ills diagnosed is the true freeing of enterprise, productive as well
as personal, from the constraints the pursuit of profit imposes of
necessity. Just as inequalities of wealth cannot be taxed out of
existence, so they cannot be "untaxed" away.

 What is required is one of Mankind's leaps of the imagination, a
realisation by the vast majority that they have nothing to lose by
choosing Socialism. Marx identified the working class as the liberators
of society. In the latter part of the nineteenth century they were
largely recognisable as the horny handed sons of toil. A century later
the worker has become as diverse as the modes of work. However, they are
still in that crucial relationship with the means of production, having
to sell labour for less than its actual value. If this were not so,
there could be no profit at all in the world. The suburban mortgage
holder, the council house tenant, the Sub-continent villager have that
relationship in common no matter how heterogeneous all other aspects of
their lives might be.

 It is that common element that makes Socialism a possibility. People
must decide to pursue the dream and not invoke some fallen idol: Lenin,
Stalin, Trotsky, Mao –  Wilson, Callaghan, Blair! The contention is that
it cannot be left for someone else to realise the dream. As Alice said
(referring to the Red King), "I don't like belonging to another person's
dream...I've a great mind to go and wake him and see what happens." The
dream of the Red King is a nightmare whilst Alice's vision is of
Wonderland, where she decides the modus operand!. Socialism is neither a
fiction nor a polymorph: if ever it is anything it will be what people
decide within its own defining form.

DAVID ALTON

(THE  PHILOSOPHER VOL. LXXXIH NO. 2   OCTOBER 1995)






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