Saturday, September 30, 2006

On Socialisms

In response to some comments I wanted to clarify a point on what exactly socialism, and specifically Marxist scientific socialism, is. The best way to do this is by looking at the history of the use of the term. Wikipedia has this to offer:
The term "socialism" was first used in the context of early-19th century Western European social critics. In this period, socialism emerged from a diverse array of doctrines and social experiments associated primarily with British and French thinkers—particularly Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and Saint-Simon. These social critics saw themselves as reacting to the excesses of poverty and inequality in the period, and advocated reforms [and] principles for the reorganization of society along collectivist lines.

Wikipedia: Socialism
Even today there are many definitions of socialism. However there is a common thread. It is simply that socialism involves organizing society and the economy in such a way that places human need and development at the center (as opposed to, for instance, capitalism, where profit is at the center of social and economic activity). This is why anarchists on the one side, and nationalist-populists on the other can sometimes be heard calling themselves socialists. They all strive for a social order that is not governed by capital.

Marxism & Scientific Socialism

Marx in the mid 19th century defined what Engels called "scientific socialism." Marx was quite aware of all the various "utopian" socialist ideas. He was also a student of political economy (which at the time was a new form of economic thought, e.g. Adam Smith). What he was able to do in Capital was to develop a scientific model of capitalism with a scathing critique of political economy (which serves as a scientific apology for the capitalist system) from which it has yet to recover, and offer an alternative.

Many Marxists today essentially follow this concept of scientific socialism. Built on a strong understanding of capitalism, Marxism understands that the heart of capitalism is profit - which is derived from the exploitation of labor, and is the only way to create capital (which is different from capital equipment - those being the means of production). By having a rigorous understanding the material conditions of capitalism is the only way to create a society which does not share the characteristics that lead to capitalism.

We often hear the word "materialism" today as synonymous with "consumerism" or "greed." Marxemphasizedd materialism in his writings on these subjects but it is something completely different. What Marx means by materialism is the scientific definition: that observable events in nature are explained only by natural causes without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.

This is at the heart of Marxism - the ideas are based on a concrete understanding of the way the actually existing world works and presents a model on how to fix the problems. This is fundamentally different from utopian socialism(s) which ignore reality and instead rely on adeityy or other supernatural force. Marxism is fundamentally materialist and humanist, based on a scientific understanding of political and economic realities and placing Man at the center of the problem and its solution.

Capitalism, Democracy & The Market

Most people who argue against socialism often confuse these three concepts. They often serve as a sort of holy trinity which, as they are all supposedly antithetical to socialism, can be used to shoot down any reasonable arguments for socialism.

Since having silly arguments is boring and unproductive for all involved, I thought it would be useful toclarifyp exactly how these concepts differ from each other.

Democracy - rule by the people; a form of government or governance in which a wide majority of people participate, voting being one of the primary mechanisms. Democracy was first used by the ancient Greeks in 1,200 BC

Market Economy - In general, goods and services are owned and may be exchanged quid pro quo for money or other goods or services. A market does not logically presuppose the existence of "private property in the means of production" in the sense that private individuals or family households are the owners of land and capital and thus the recipients of profits, interest, rent etc. This type of system can be seen to exist in many historical periods on a limited scale, increasing in importance in the 1500s in conjunction with the rise of capitalism (as capitalism relies on private ownership of commodities and their exchange).

Capitalism - A historically specific mode of production in which capital has become the dominant means of production. Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are mostly privately owned, and capital is invested in the production, distribution and other trade of goods and services, for profit. Capital is created via commodity labor, a process unique to capitalism and one which makes capitalism unique and distinct from other economic systems before it. Capitalism is the first economic system under which workers are free to sell their labor on the open market. However, as capitalists control all the means of production, they are not free NOT to sell their labor, as they cannot produce for themselves without owning those means. Capitalism developed in England in the late 1500s.

Socialism Today

There are many types of socialists today. Social Democrats, Maoists and Trotskyites are major currents. I will close this post with a definition of socialists goals derived from the Socialist International's 1989 Declaration of Principles:
Democratic socialism is an international movement for freedom, social justice and solidarity. Its goal is to achieve a peaceful world where these basic values can be enhanced and where each individual can live a meaningful life with the full development of his or her personality and talents and with the guarantee of human and civil rights in a democratic framework of society.

Freedom is the product of both individual and cooperative efforts - the two aspects are parts of a single process. Each person has the right to be free of political coercion and also to the greatest chance to act in pursuit of individual goals and to fulfil personal potential. But that is only possible if humanity as a whole succeeds in its long-standing struggle to master its history and to ensure that no person, class, sex, religion or race becomes the servant of another.

Solidarity is all-encompassing and global. It is the practical expression of common humanity and of the sense of compassion with the victims of injustice. Solidarity is rightly stressed and celebrated by all major humanist traditions. In the present era of unprecedented interdependence between individuals and nations, solidarity gains an enhanced significance since it is imperative for human survival.

Socialists do not claim to possess the blueprint for some final and fixed society which cannot be changed, reformed or further developed. In a movement committed to democratic self-determination there will always be room for creativity since each people and every generation must set its own goals.

The concentration of economic power in few private hands must be replaced by a different order in which each person is entitled - as citizen, consumer or wage-earner - to influence the direction and distribution of production, the shaping of the means of production, and the conditions of working life.

A democratic society must compensate for the defects of even the most responsible market systems. Government must not function simply as the repair shop for the damage brought about by market inadequacies or the uncontrolled application of new technologies. Rather the State must regulate the market in the interests of the people and obtain for all workers the benefits of technology, both in work experience and through the growth of leisure time and meaningful possibilities for individual development.

Declaration of Principles of the Socialist International
As a Trotskyite I have some problems with the underpinnings of the social democratic ideology. In essence it is an ideology with collaborates with capitalism and thereby advocates a dual-power situation which ultimately undermines its other principles. Put simply, how can society achieve the goals of socialism when all the power is concentrated into the hands of the few and the economy is organized around the profit motive?

Nevertheless, the main principles and goals of democratic socialism echo those of all socialists - a desire for true freedom both political and economic, solidarity, world peace and a society based on collective social responsibility for the welfare of all.

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