Tuesday 17 August 2010

Branch Meeting: Is Socialism Dated?

Last night my Labour party branch had its first lead off based discussion in a very long time. The talk I gave is below and went down well with the comrades present. As the surrounds were very different from a typical SP branch meeting (where you can expect agreement around the basic ideas of what socialism is), you can never take that for granted in Labour. So it's pitched at a level that assumes little acquaintance with the ins and outs of the different traditions that call themselves socialist. The discussion afterwards drew in the class nature of the Tory cuts, the relationship between the working class and socialism, the injustice of economic exploitation, how to relate socialism to the everyday concerns of Labour supporters and the wider constituency, and so on. In my summing up I said the reference to socialism needs to get off the back of our membership cards and be upfront in our manifesto - a cheesy line I'm rather proud of! Lastly, apologies to the purists for no mention of bloody revolution, references to class justice, and the "need" for a Leninist-Trotskyist combat party of the working class.

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

Wow, surplus value at a Labour meeting.

How did the discussion go?

jgw said...

What it doesn't mention - and what you don't mention that it doesn't mention - is the need for self-activity of the working class, a movement controlled by the rank-and-file that challenges capitalism directly where workers - and others - directly experience exploitation and oppression.

Of course, advocating that sort of thing will get you expelled from the Labour Party, so I've not suprised you didn't mention it. But it is, of course, crucial.

Lawrence Shaw said...

As a participant, I thought the follow-on discussion went well and is a good first step towards reintroducing the concept and practice of political education and analysis within our local Labour branch rather than it simply being an electoral machine to get people into the council chamber.

The main theme that stuck with me from the discussion was that although most people in the room agreed that capitalist exploitation was bad, tax evaders were evil and Labour has to fight for equality and re-distribution of wealth, there was also an air of defeatism. This was mainly centred around the idea that as the mass media is controlled by the bosses, therefore any vague leftist agenda adopted by Labour was doomed to failure. IMO, the wounds of the 80s and early 90s still weep.

This defeatism was countered with the assertion that many Lib Dem votes in previous years have been cast under the mistaken illusion that the party was a "left" alternative to Labour. Now the Lib Dem support is unravelling and trhe party has been largely exposed as a bunch of opportunists, it was generally agreed it was up to Labour to take that left/progressive ground back. It was also felt that there was huge public support for action against tax evasion and other progressive measures against the fat cats...

What also surprised me was the general level of agreement that true democratic socialism - and democratic workers control - was an ideal model for us to be aiming for as an alternative to plutocracy capitalism.

On the downside as Phil said, it did not compare the level of analysis of, for example, a Socialist Party branch meeting and the discussion was short and fairly ill-disciplined in comparison to most political meetings I have attended.

But it is a first step towards bringing politics back into the Labour Party at grassroots level with local councillors in the room and taking part in the discussion, and that can only be a good thing. Until the rest of the left can get over itself, rebuilding Labour is the best hope for defending against the disastrous ConDem cuts.

Gary Elsby said...

Is socialism dead?
Is Stoke-on-Trent socialism dead?
You see Phil, it's ok to talk a good job, but actually doing one is another matter.
There are three CLPs in Stoke and their view is what, to change the world?
The deadline for resolutions, or rule changes (one or the other. We fought for both in Central)is 17th September.
The only attempts at policy changes or rule changes at annual conference came from Stoke Central (we were bone idle, apparently, according to our critics).

So what life changing revolution is going forward this year?
2009 was to build mass council housing and this still runs good.
Socialism was not dead in Stoke on my watch.

Gary Elsby said...

Lawrence, nice stuff.
So why David Miliband?

Lawrence Shaw said...

Gary, I can't comment on the past as I only rejoined Labour fairly recently and I didn't live in Stoke Central when I was previously a member.

IMO, the selection of supporting DM comes down to the ongoing feeling within the local Labour membership that power is more important than politics and it was felt that as DM has the biggest public profile, he would be best placed to win the next election...I really think it is as simple as that and not a ringing endorsement of his ultra-Blairism.

I don't like it, but ultimately I can fully understand this notion. Poltically I'd rather have Diane Abbott (or even better John McDonnell) leading Labour. But pragmatically speaking, a D. Miliband-led Labour party in power is still better than a Tory government intent on destroying the state.

Boffy said...


Why on Earth would arguing for working-class self activity get you expelled from the LP??? That is what the Co-op Party's basis is, for goodness sake, and its an official affiliated Party!

The real reason that the idea of self-activity is not discussed, is not because it would get you expelled, but because from its inception the LP has been an electoralist Party, whose basis is that voters are like consumers. You make your choice of what set of politicians you want, like choosing what supermarket to go into, and then you consume what they provide for you. If in the edn you don't like what you bought, the only choice you have is to go to the other supermarket.

That is the message that workers are presented with by bourgeois society in all its aspects. Its why challenging that message is important. Its like workers in the supermarket also telling customers that rather than buying ready made Mash, they could buy potatoes, and mash them themselves, or that maybe they could even grow their own potatoes.

Labour Councillors and LP members in Branches can show people that they don't have to rely on the Council doing things for them, but that they can organsie and do them themselves, and in that way ensure they really do meet their needs, and are proeprly under their control.

Chris said...

A rather strange title at a time when capitalism is delivering austerity to working class people. A time when capitalism seems incapable of delivering progress. A time when capitalism is dismantling its human face and showing again its claws.

But your decision to join the labour party seems like a good one to me, Marxist ideas such as you presented here are still largely a mystery to most people.

We do however need more concrete ideas, rather than nice words. The danger is that you satisfy a psychological need but fail to prompt any action. By doing this there is a possibility you do more harm than good and instaed of providing inspiration you just provide escapism.

You could have given examples of places where workers have taken ownership of their productive powers and how this has been a success.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of numptys, clinging on to the carcass of the Labour Party. Get in the real world instead of pretending to be 'socialists' from the comfort of your computer.

Gary Elsby said...

Under the branch delegate system, you could have taken your speech around all seven branches backed up by a motion calling for action from your own branch.
That view would then have back-up as it was presented to the CLP.
The 'all member' system would see any sort of action stifled by Meredith bussing in sleeping members for a counter vote.

Socialism is dead, if all you do is talk about it.
On your next outing, folow it up with action via a motion calling for change. Socialism is then not dead.This can be done for conference motions (dismantled cleverly into composites)with a TV audience also.

Lawrence Shaw said...

"Anonymous". Pot? Kettle? Accusing people of hiding behind their computers when you yourself sit there throwing stones behind an online cloak of anonymity?

Can you please identify yourself and the "real world" you live in please?

Dylan said...

We are witness to the disintegration of capitalism.

We live in a time of capitalists beyond capitalism.

Capital itself no longer requires labour to make profit.

You are, imho, wrong to say "workers (defined as anyone who relies on their wage or salary to survive) who make all the wealth you see around us". that was the past.

Today Capital circulates and is self perpetuating, backed by the state, cronyism and the military. Surplus value has little to do with use value it has been disconnected. uncoupled. Workers are unproductive in this sense. no longer productive, no longer a commodity needed by Capital to make profit. Capital itself in circulation provides interest and profit to itself. it is self-augmenting.

We are witnessing the final disintergration of capitalism toward something else. Unemployment at 20 percent we will be told is structural. Its a long slow slope downward for us all, cuts or no cuts.

i hope for a socialist solution but i do not agree with you that "Right now modern societies are unconsciously evolving in a direction that makes socialism more possible."

great blog btw

Mike said...

What of workers who get more than their fair share from the pot of wealth? Don't we have reason to defend the system?

It is no longer in my own economic interests to fight capitalism, because of the welfare state and minimum wage and heavy unionization that brings such a huge gulf between ourselves and the sweatshops, factories, mines and plantations of the third and second world.

First world *workers* are subsidised by the third and second world such that we are between classes.

modernity said...


Taking socialism into the heart of New Labour, now that would be brave, I suspect you'd be thrown out of the LP if they weren't desperate for fees!

btw, what is the LP membership now? have you got the figures?

uni-talian said...

"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."

Would be nice to think that would be the case, but can we be sure? The grain and wine surpluses in Europe are down to the EU, which is a creature of elected governments... as are US tariffs etc. Would co-operative run businesses be more sympathetic to external competitors...?