From Jordan Levi, Revolution, Not Reform -- a new pamphlet published by the World Socialist Party of the US. The full text is here.
After someone understands that socialism and capitalism are polar opposites that can’t coexist, and that any country that has ever claimed to be socialist or communist was actually capitalist, they’re likely to call the idea of a genuine socialist society impractical, for various reasons. Here I’d like to just touch on what I consider to be the main criticisms of socialist theory.
Possibly the most common argument is that socialism’s somehow against human nature. There are a couple things to unpack here, but we’ll start with the implication that capitalism is in accordance with human nature. Something many people who believe this tend to be unaware of is that the working class didn’t just walk into modern capitalism voluntarily; they were forced into it kicking and screaming. Karl Marx addressed the first volume of Capital, where he mentioned the Highland Clearances. This was a process in which big landowners evicted many tenants in the Scottish Highlands, mostly from 1750 to 1860. The first phase involved the enclosure of the common lands – the consolidation of the smaller farms into larger farms – and the relocation of their tenants to newly created crofting communities, 1where they were expected to be employed in industries such as fishing, quarrying or the kelp industry. The second phase involved overcrowded crofting communities from the first phase that had lost the means to support themselves, through famine and/or collapse of industries that they had relied on, as well as continuing population growth and the expulsion of tenants, sometimes accompanied by “assisted emigration” to the industrial centers of England or abroad, where they again would have no practical choice but to submit to wage labor. This was just one of many instances that created a “reserve army of labor” necessary to create the modern working class, as a mass of individuals whose only legal means of subsistence is to sell their labor power to earn wages. Similar clearances were taking place in Ireland, too, and had occurred even earlier in England. The landlords found sheep rearing more profitable than renting land out to tenant farmers. Thomas More called it “sheep eating men.”
Another implication of the idea that socialism runs count- er to human nature is that humans are naturally greedy or selfish. The fact is, scientists have yet to find a gene that has greed or selfishness encoded into it, so it’s not something we’renaturally born with. Since it’s not something we’re born with, then it’s strictly a behavior learned from your environment, and I doubt anyone would argue that you can’t change your behavior. Is it hard? Maybe, but it’s not impossible. Greed and selfishness are a byproduct of perceived scarcity; eliminate scarcity and those behaviors will disappear. It may take a while, but it’ll happen.We have noother intelligent species to observe this with, so the best we can do is observe the animals that are the most genetically similarto humans – chimpanzees and bonobos, who each share about 98.7% of our DNA – and see if this holds true for them. To illustrate this, you can read the following excerpt from a talk given by the late Karla Rab that gives you the answer clear as day:
Chimps and bonobos both still have habitats in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Central Africa; but they don’t share the same territory. Chimps live north of the Congo River, and bonobos live south of it. That means chimps have to compete with other animals (notably gorillas) for scarce food resources, whereas bonobos have the southern region pretty much to themselves. That may explain why the two species evolved such different behaviors and life styles.
Chimpanzees are extremely violent. They live in groups. It is very rare for chimps to kill members of their own group, but when groups of chimps meet, the males sometimes wage all-out wars, then slaughter the infants and take the females as their own. Dominant chimpanzee mothers sometimes do away with the children of other chimps.
Chimpanzee females, like most mammals, go into heat reg- ularly. Male chimpanzees guard “their” females from other males when they are in heat, fertile, to prevent them from being fertilized by a rival chimp.
Within the group, they co-operate, and they share food. Primatologist Franz de Waal has demonstrated that when food is thrown into a chimpanzee enclosure, the dominant males distribute it so that each chimp gets some, even the lowest in the hierarchy. No one goes completely hungry. De Waal has written that evolution has “etched some really basic instincts into our brains: sharing, reciprocity, and the most basic one of all: Empathy.” These instincts seem to be something all primates have, including us humans.
Bonobos, unlike chimps, are very laid back. They don’t use violence to settle disputes. They have what might be called a matriarchal society. Female bonobos have high status, with the dominant female and the dominant male being co-equal. The male dominance hierarchy roughly parallels the female. Females forge the alliances, and a male’s rank depends on his mother’s.
When groups of bonobos meet, the males hoot and stand back while females cross over to one another in what may end up resembling an orgy. (De Waal has remarked that our [human] sexual urges are subject to such powerful moral constraints that it’s hard to recognize how they permeate all aspects of our social life, and that bonobo society could teach us a lot about what human sexuality might look like without those constraints.)
No one has never seen a bonobo kill another of its own kind. Bonobo children are cared for by all the females in the group. They do have conflicts, often behaving like humans by screaming at each other and showing off their strength; but they tend to find ways actually not to harm each other, either of the same group or from a different one.
Like human women, female bonobos have “hidden ovulation” which means they don’t come into heat as chimps (and most other mammals) do; no one can tell when they’re fer- tile. Bonobos use sex not just for making babies, but as both a bonding mechanism and to reduce social tension. And because no one knows when they’re fertile, male bonobos don’t “guard” females when they’re in heat (as chimpanzees do) so the females have more time to themselves, and more time to form female-to-femalebonds.
In one experiment, 14 bonobos (one at a time) were placed in a cage with food, flanked by two cages with no food, one of which contained a familiar group member and the other a complete stranger. The bonobos with food had the option of eating it all themselves, or to share by opening its neighbor’s cage and inviting them in. Nine of the 14 individuals that took part chose to share with the stranger first. Bonobos are willing to sacrifice part of their meal “even when they them- selves will not receive any benefits and might even have to pay a cost.”
Both bonobos and chimps are hierarchical, but males and females are co-equal among bonobos, where among chimps females are submissive to males. At the top of the bonobo hierarchy, there is a dominant female, not a male.
Another common argument is s that in a socialist econo- my no one would have any incentive to work. First off, this argument implies the common myth that capitalism incen- tivizes labor. The choice to either submit to wage slavery or be homeless could hardly be considered an incentive. It’d more properly be called coercion. Secondly, this ignores the fact that work was done before capitalism, and that much is done within it, for free. Socialism can’t be established without a vast majority of citizens understanding that it would require all our collective cooperation. The incentive to work in a socialist economy would be the understanding that the work needs to be done to keep the system running properly. There would be no more useless, unfulfilling jobs; Every job would be a necessary part of society, and everyone would understand that and be happy to contribute.
Another argument is that socialism would suppress individual rights. First, we’d have to define exactly what should be considered a “right,” because I’d argue that capitalism suppresses individual rights by allowing children to die of starvation or treatable diseases. Second, a socialist economy would be a direct democracy, where every citizen would have equal say in how the world’s resources are utilized to meet everyone’s needs. If we have enough resources for some people to have five houses and a yacht, then so be it, but: (1) it’d be hard to justify anyone needing that, (2) that’d be difficult to maintain without maids or robots anyway, and (3) I doubt that’d even be sustainable in the first place.
Now, if you don’t consider living a right, but you consider consuming more than you need and is ecologically sustainable a right, then you’re actually not concerned about individual rights at all, you’re concerned about being able to satisfy your commodity fetish and fuck people over for your own benefit.
Another argument is that without price signals, resources couldn’t be distributed efficiently. This implies that price signals are an efficient way to distribute resources, which is false. When almost 15,000 children under the age of 5 die of starvation every day and 1% of the world owns 47% of its wealth, it’s ridiculous to claim that that’s efficient. Secondly, rather than having to figure out how many resources we have and converting them into prices, we’d just save ourselves the extra step by calculating everything in kind. You don’t convert the ingredients in your kitchen into prices before you cook something, you just use them.
Another common argument I hear is that we don’t have enough resources on the planet to sustain everyone or that the planet’s overpopulated. For one, this ignores the fact that capitalism necessitates overconsumption and planned obsolescence. We would use vastly fewer resources than we do now, because production would be geared towardsneeds rather than wasting resources on useless products like fidget spinners and selfie sticks or products not built to last as long as possible. For two, we could use methods that aren’t considered “cost effective,” like vertical farming, to drastically increase our productive power. As far as overpopulation, that’s a myth started by Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. What’s important to know is that 1. the world’s 2010 population of about 7 billion could comfortably live on a landmass the size of Texas alone, leaving the rest of the world entirely uninhabited, and 2. the world’s population will peak at about 8 billion around 2040, and then decline.
To sum this all up: yes, socialism is practical. The next question is whether it’s possible to establish.
How Could Socialism Be Implemented?
Assuming you believe the idea of a socialist economy to be at least somewhat practical, the next obvious question would be how it could be implemented. What could we do to get there? This is a matter of intense debate, and I understand that no one can foretell the future, so trying to give an exact blueprint would be jumping the gun, but I think we can confidently give a general idea of how it canhappen.
Friedrich Engels once said in a speech that the only wayto establish socialism is through the ballot box,and I whole- heartedly agree. A violent revolution would be defeated instantly, and abstention from voting wouldn’t change anything. The only way we can change the system is by informing every working-class citizen wecan about the truth, the lies, the costs, and the benefits of each system, and organizing all of them to mobilize and take political action to win the upper hand for the majority so we can implement socialism. With modern technology, that’s become easier to accomplish than ever before. We can inform everyone via whatever medium they prefer, be it physical books, eBooks, audiobooks, videos, seminars, you name it. After that, all it would take is all of us organizing ourselves under one polit- ical party or coalition of political parties that are truly dedicated to peacefully establishing socialism by only voting our candidates into office. Once the vast majority of citizens and politicians are truly socialists, the next stage will begin: the often misunderstood “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that the word “dictatorship” had a different meaning in Karl Marx’s time. Back then, it was synonymous with “political domination” or “rule,” and he used the terms “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “rule of the proletariat” interchange- ably. The term wasn’t in contrast to democracy and wasn’t synonymous with autocracy at all. Wilhelm Weitling, a colleague of Karl Marx, believed communism should be established by a single dictator, and Marx actually criticized him for this. What Karl Marx meant by the term was majority rule to establish socialism and abolish classes entirely, but Lenin distorted this too with his belief in political vanguardism, leading to the popular definition of the word dictator today. He believed educating the proletariat to start the revolution would take much longer than organizing a small group of specialists to start the revolution themselves and then help the proletariat get accustomed to socialism. Ironically, Marx actually criticized Mikhail Bakunin for this very belief. Even more ironically, Bakunin accused Marx of authoritarianism, even though Bakunin was secretly authoritarian and Marx, politically, was vehemently democratic.
What exactly this “dictatorship” would entail would be entirely up to everyone involved at the time, but it would definitely be decided democratically and transparently to make sure it’s in the interest of the vast majority. I believe that blockchain technology could potentially be the perfect platform to build a voting application that could be used to accomplish that, unless a better technology is developed by then. I don’t believe that socialism can be established over- night, it would have to be a process involving lots of delib- eration and action with the entire population. Karl Marx proposed some measures that may generally be applicable at the time in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, but I’m not sure if I agree with all of them. I believe one of the first tasks would probably be to pass laws or ratify a new constitution immediately claiming all private property as common property and installing a new administration based on bottom-up rule and full transparency. We would also need an accurate count of our population and available as well as projected resources. With that information we could then democratically decide on what to focus on producing, based on a hierarchy of our needs and capabilities,and develop a plan to improve anything we may fall short on, as well as deal with any immediate threats, like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Once we’ve developed our productive capabilities enough to be able to stop using money and provide universal free access to everything, we’ll have finally reached what Karl Marx referred to as the “higher” stage of communism.
How Would Socialism Be Different In Practice?
Once someone has a rough idea of how socialism could be established, their next thought would most likely be how ex- actly a socialist economy might be different than a capitalist economy in practice. There are too many variables to cover in-depth – and the specifics will have to be figured out by ev- eryone involved at the time of the revolution – so I’ll mainly focus on general differences and those I consider to be most important. The “first stage” would most likely be very different from the “higher stage,” but they would still have at least general similarities.
First, many jobs would no longer exist. With the abolition of production for profit, various jobs would become obsolete immediately, such as insurance agents, bail bondsmen, debt collectors, stockbrokers, advertising agents, border patrol agents, financial jobs, casino jobs, cashiers, and real estate agents. Not to mention that – with the crime rate being significantly lower – our need for other jobs would decrease as a result, like security guards, military personnel, prison staff, psychologists, police officers, etc. Our need for some jobs may increase, even if only temporarily, but I doubt it would be anywhere near comparable to the number of jobs that would be done away with. With cost-cutting no longer being a factor, there also wouldn’t be any intentional understaff- ing. Nobody would be coerced to do the work of two or more people anymore to save their slave master money. At a more advanced level, we could have at least most of the me- nial jobs done by robots and have a large part of our work- force focused on developing and maintaining them. Secondly, the abolition or reduced need for those jobs would also free up a vast amount of resources we could use for different purposes.
Another crucial difference is that, cost no longer being a factor, we would produce everything with the highest possi- ble quality, efficiency, safety, and sustainability. Renewable energy that may not be “economically viable” right now could be used to increase our productivity and reduce waste. Food would be as healthy as possible. Planned obsolescence would be abolished so that electronics, vehicles, homes, fur- niture, etc. would be built to last as long as possible and be easily recyclable to save resources.
In addition, our workweeks would be much shorter – I’ve heard as little as 10 hours on average. Granted, with the sys- tem being a direct democracy, we would definitely have to dedicate a certain amount of time periodically to legislation, but, for the most part, we’d have a lot more free time to do things we enjoy, like spend time with our families or on our hobbies.
As far as everyday life is concerned, the biggest difference would be that absolutely everything would be free. No one going into crippling debt for childbirth or healthcare. No more outrageous prices on childcare, diapers, or formula. No young adults having to take out student loans to go to college or mortgages to own a home. Universal free access would eliminate all financial stress so that we could focus all our energy on improving society rather than just surviving. This would also eliminate commodity fetishism for products that are desired strictly for their perceived prestige, regard- less of their actual utility. No one would want a car that only gets 15 mpg or diamonds that are acquired from child slavery. I believe this would also cause a massive shift in our social values. Instead of idolizing the rich, we would show respect to the most accomplished. The intelligent, the genu- inely talented, those providing the most value to society via inventions, innovations, and scientific discoveries. Without advertising from beauty products, beauty standards would also be likely to change for the better. People would only look for valuable qualities in their partners, rather than just financial wealth.