Sunday, 10 March 2013

Introduction to Socialism (part 2)

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Transcript, selected links and slides with quotations...


·         Hi.
·         Welcome to part two of this introduction to socialism
·         In part one we looked at socialist ideas in the 19th century. Today we will be looking at societies that were referred to as socialist in the 20th century.
·         So let’s start.

·         Firstly, we had Soviet Russia, later becoming part of the Soviet Union.
·         Here, the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin took power in a coup as the Russian government struggled to deal with widespread agitation by Russia’s lower classes. The Bolsheviks then instituted a one-party dictatorship and a largely state-planned economy.
·         It is worth noting here that there has always been a lot of confusion, both internally and externally, over whether the Soviet Union should actually be described as Socialist.
·         In fact, whilst Lenin re-named Russia the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and later named it as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR), he also regularly explained that the country was in fact not ‘socialist’.[1]
·         Lenin, who was influenced by Karl Marx’s theories to an extent, thought Russia was not economically advanced enough for a genuine socialist revolution.[2] He believed Russia had to develop economically, or Germany had to lead a world revolution, before real socialism – meaning direct worker control and direct democracy - could be enacted in Russia.[3] In the meantime it was the role of the Bolsheviks to develop Russia economically and maintain political control.
·         This included suppressing Factory Committees and Soviets which were trying to build socialism from below.[4]
·         He regularly lashed out at his socialist opponents, including writing a pamphlet called ‘Left-wing communism – an infantile disorder’.   
·         For these reasons, many prominent socialists did not consider the Soviet Union to be socialist at all and instead referred to it as state-capitalist, with some considering the collapse of Bolshevik rule a victory for socialism.
·         However, by Lenin’s time, the word socialism had also become associated with state control of industries, so the Soviet Union was in some way ‘socialist’ if we apply this new meaning of the word.
·         The libertarian socialist, Bakunin, who as discussed in part 1, had criticised Marx’s ideas and predicted oppressive Marx-influenced dictatorships, would probably have derided the Soviet Union as ‘’state-socialist’ – which for Bakunin was a contradiction in terms.
·          On a related point, the Bolsheviks referred to themselves as the Communist Party.
·         Meanwhile Western governments including those in the US and UK also described the Soviet Union as a Communist society even though the Soviet Union matched no traditional definition of communism. This was possibly to give the word communism a bad name by associating it with Bolshevik rule.
·         Whatever the reasons, the result of the word Communism being so widely used with regards to the Soviet Union, was that Communism also took on a second popular definition: that is a one-party state, with a planned economy or heavy government involvement in the economy.
·         This has been re-enforced by other authoritarian states, such as China and North Korea, also referring to themselves and being referred to as ‘communist’.

·         Moving on, another example of a country referred to as socialist is Sweden.
·         One of the main political parties in that country, which has been in power for the majority of the last century, is the Social Democratic Workers Party (also known as the SAP).  This party refers to its policies as either social democratic or democratic socialism – terms which were formerly used as synonyms for traditional libertarian socialism, anarchism or communism. However, the SAP uses the terms differently.
·         The SAP leadership thought of socialism as government action designed to achieve social well-being, rather than as a social system based upon abolishing private ownership of the means of production. 
·         Following this, while in power during much of the 1900s, the SAP kept multi-party, parliamentary democracy and private capitalism to some extent, with Sweden being home to some of the world’s best known corporations including Ikea and H&M.
·         However, the SAP also enacted welfare policies, state provision of services such as healthcare, and state companies providing transport and energy. 
·         Note that during the 20th century, mixed economies with similarities to Sweden became prevalent throughout the world.
·         It is also worth mentioning that since it became common for mixed economies to be referred to as socialist, many people have begun referring to ANY government intervention in the economy as ‘socialist’.
·         This includes welfare spending but also, when a corporation gets a subsidy, or a bank gets bailed out by the government, some refer to this as socialism – or in these particular examples, one term used is ‘socialism for the rich’.   
·         What is noteworthy here is that if we describe any government spending in the economy as socialism, then many thinkers who have considered themselves anti-socialist, such as the famous Austrian economist and philosopher Freidrich Hayek, have actually been to some extent socialists as they have favoured state welfare for the poor and other government programs to prevent unrestricted markets causing excessive social and environmental damage. 
·         Additionally, by this definition, several government leaders who considered themselves anti-socialist were also socialists. For example, Margaret Thatcher - who strongly criticised socialism - actually increased total public spending after taking power from the labour party, which had referred to itself as socialist.

·          Moving on, a final type of socialism I want to discuss is Revolutionary Spain during the 1930s.
·         A fascist coup occurred in Spain 1936, which sparked an anarchist-influenced revolution throughout much of the country, during which many urban and rural areas were taken over by anarchist collectives. Direct worker control of workplaces and broader direct democracy became widespread.  
·         The anarchists also formed militias to fight the fascist and state communist armies, which were both supported by foreign governments.
·         It is worth mentioning that one of the most popular 20th century British writers, George Orwell, fought with the anarchist militias and wrote a very interesting book on his experiences called ‘Homage to Catalonia’.
·         However, unfortunately for Orwell and his comrades, eventually, the anarchists were defeated by the foreign supported armies.  
·         Note that due to the direct worker control of workplaces and broader direct democracy, anarchist Spain came very close to the traditional libertarian socialist ideal favoured by figures such as Bakunin.

·         OK, so that brings us to the end of our discussion of the different uses of the word socialism.
·         As we have seen, the term is used extremely broadly.
·         In fact almost every modern society in recent history has matched someone’s definition of ‘socialism’.
·         However, we can identify two main types of socialism.
·         Firstly, traditional mainstream socialists favour direct worker control of workplaces as well as broader direct democracy in communities.
·         More recently, socialism has taken on a second meaning which is: state involvement in the economy – often for redistributive purposes, but not necessarily.
·         Thanks for listening. Comments and questions welcome. See you soon.



[1] (For example, during his third year in power, he said in a speech, “Capitalism has been smashed, but socialism has not yet been built; and it will take a long time to build.”  http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/apr/07.htm These kinds of statemesnts were made right up until his death.
[2]We, too, lack enough civilisation to enable us to pass straight on to socialism” http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/mar/02.htm


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