Is Socialism Dated?
Before we can answer this question, we have to ask what socialism is. As a political tradition there are very many definitions of socialism. For Andy Burnham ir's about meeting people's aspirations and offering real equalities of opportunity. For the Fabians socialism is identified with extending the state over greater areas of economic life. And for the supporters and admirers of the USSR, China, Cuba and North Korea, socialism equals the state's domination of the economy and the monopolisation of power by a so-called communist party.
The tradition of socialism I come from is something different. It is firstly about building a different kind of society to the one we have now. We in Britain enjoy political freedom and a democracy of sorts. A socialist Britain means improving both of these and extending democratic control to the economy. Instead of allowing people to make vast sums of money from producing the necessities of 21st century life, socialism is about putting that capacity into the hands of society - an economy of the people, for the people and by the people, if you like. Going hand in hand with economic democracy is the implementation of a democratic plan. Capitalist economies are anarchic and chaotic: to survive the law of the jungle is produce, produce, produce and hope the market rewards effort by returning a profit. On the one hand this war of all against all, this competition drives innovation and has given us many technologies that make life easier. But at the same time the market leads to large-scale waste and leaves untold masses of people without the necessities of life. While Europe and America have enjoyed grain mountains and wine lakes, millions in the global south face food shortages and uncertain water supplies. This would not happen if the economy was owned and democratically run by the people.
Now, this all sounds fine and dandy. Who wouldn't want to live in a society like this? Isn't socialism just a nice idea that fails in practice? We all know what happened to the Soviet Union.
I don't think so. Socialism is more than just a fine idea: it is based on concrete, actually existing trends in the capitalist societies of today. In short, socialism is a real possibility given how things stand. Right now modern societies are unconsciously evolving in a direction that makes socialism more possible. Despite the best efforts of Cameron's cutting crew, capitalism here and everywhere else in the advanced countries are in large measure dependent on public spending. The privatised railways couldn't run without government subsidy. Business relies on the state to ever greater degrees to plan, build and run the infrastructure it depends on. The responsibilities the state has assumed in terms of benefits, health care and much, much more exist partly because production for profit cannot even guarantee the most basic of existences. As capitalism has developed and grown ever more complex the state has had to take up more of the slack. Away from the state, the unconscious tendencies are asserting themselves in private economic activity as well: as markets mature there is the ever-present movement toward monopoly. Big companies collaborate in an attempt to drive out the uncertainty of competition, and production is planned by vast numbers of private bureaucracies - except the planning that takes place is for profit and not the public good.
But these trends will not automatically build a socialist society. It requires a conscious actor too. That's where the labour movement comes in. Under capitalism it is the workers (defined as anyone who relies on their wage or salary to survive) who makes all the wealth you see around us. And yet at the end of the month only a part of this wealth is returned to workers in the form of their wage. The majority of the wealth they produce accrues to their employers. It follows from this that while the employers have an interest in maintaining this state of affairs, working class people do not. The labour movement came together to defend the economic interests of workers, such as shorter work days and working weeks, higher wages, securing more control of their workplaces, challenging management's "right" to hire and fire. The logic of these sorts of demands and struggles point to another kind of society where production is socialised and exploitation - in the sense described above - ceases.
So there you have it. Not only do you have unconscious tendencies constantly developing the foundations of a socialist society, you have a movement - our movement - who, in fits and starts, can work toward this objective.
Returning to title of this talk, is socialism dated? I would say absolutely not. For as long as market considerations dominate the thinking of politicians, as long as business wield massive amounts of economic power without a hint of democratic checks and balances, for as long as workers do not receive the full value of their labour power, socialism is ever present on the horizon of possibility.