Posted by Curt on 23 August, 2020 at 10:48 am. 488 comments already!



The recent film by Agnieszka Holland, Mr. Jones, portrays the Soviet Russians’ attempt in the 1930s — with the assistance of sympathetic Western journalists like Walter Duranty — to cover up the famine caused by collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine. The film is a heart-wrenching and damning account of the Soviet experiment — and of the dishonesty that enabled it.

And yet, 87 years after Gareth Jones showed the world the crimes of socialism, there are still Western enablers who engage in a different kind of coverup of the same facts. As a result, a growing number of young people consider themselves socialists, and socialist politicians have risen in prominence. One was almost nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States.

It is only thirty years since socialist regimes collapsed economically around the globe, leaving in their wake a death toll of tens of millions. We have seen the same pattern repeated in Venezuela in only the last twenty years. How do today’s defenders of socialism try to cover up this history and justify the ideology that supported such murderous regimes?

One tactic that today’s socialists employ is to portray the lessons of history and world affairs as irrelevant to their cause. They claim that the Soviet Union, Communist China, Communist Cuba, and today’s regime in Venezuela are not real examples of socialism at all. Real socialism, you may have heard them say, has never been tried.

What makes people think this is true? What do they mean by “socialism” and is their view even plausible?

What is “socialism”?

Socialism, in a standard definition, means public ownership of the means of production, which implies the abolishing of private property and ending the capitalist system of free trade and free markets. This is often understood to mean state ownership of the means of production.

By that standard, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and other authoritarian regimes all count as “socialist”: in every case, insurgents seized control of governments which then expropriated private farms, factories and shops from their capitalist owners — many of whom lost not only their property, but their lives. What’s more, these insurgents were led by figures (Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc.) that were explicitly committed to socialist ideology.

The economic failure, famine, and bloodshed suffered by each of these countries flowed directly from the same policies advocated by today’s socialists. Just as socialists demand, businesses were torn from the hands of their creators, those who both knew how to produce and who had a personal financial stake in improving their ability to produce. These businesses were then managed by bureaucrats who lacked both of these qualifications, and who also lacked the tool of the free market pricing system to calculate how much of which goods to produce. Production decisions were determined not with an eye to creating value above cost, but to the demands of arbitrary edicts from central planners. It is no accident that this system created shortages and starvation, and that regimes had to crush the resulting dissent to retain power.

Socialists try to insulate the system they advocate from this evidence of failure by using a talking point that (as we shall see) they have used since the beginning of their movement. They put a spin on the “public ownership of the means of production” definition. Real socialism, they say, doesn’t mean state control of the economy; it means control by “the people,” especially by the workers.

For instance, Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and author of The Socialist Manifesto, claims that real socialism means “democratic” control of the workplace by worker collectives. He claims that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not a socialist society because it did not involve democratic control.1 Likewise, Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and author of Why You Should Be a Socialist, claims that, for similar reasons, none of the authoritarian socialist regimes of the twentieth century were socialist, and claims to “hate government and capitalism alike.”2 Richard Wolff, who has been described as “America’s most prominent Marxist economist,” agrees.3 He argues that the Soviet Union was really an example of “state capitalism”: while the nominally socialist party controlled the state, the state was “still capitalist in the employer-employee organization of its economy” because “a minority of persons . . . [the central planners] functioned as employers of an employee majority.”4

Using their definition of “socialism,” these thinkers would have us believe that since state control of the economy is not control by “the people,” no full-scale socialist political system has ever existed in history. If true, this would allow them to excuse their ideology from any responsibility for the murder and oppression of the brutal, allegedly “socialist” systems of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century. It also allows them to pose as the torchbearers of a noble ideal that has simply been corrupted by political operators of the past.

Is there any plausibility to the claim that “socialism” doesn’t really mean state control of the economy, but something else? Are today’s socialists really envisioning a wholly new system than what the revolutionaries of the past actually implemented? Or are they simply playing games with the word “socialism” to avoid the obvious facts?

Fantasy speculation about the role of the state

Not everyone proposing a novelty is indulging in fantasy. A newly envisioned invention, like an airplane, can be based on known facts about birds, kites, and gliders. But even then, experiments are needed to prove the efficacy of the idea. And if the proposal is, say, a perpetual motion machine, which has no experimental basis and goes against the laws of physics, the proposal is selling a fantasy.

Although the proposal that “real” socialism doesn’t require the use of state power might sound new or innovative to the uninitiated, a few questions and a little knowledge of history are sufficient to show it is just as much a fantasy as a perpetual motion machine.

First, note that the socialists paper over the coercion and even violence that would obviously need to happen to expropriate private property from peaceful citizens to set up their system in the first place.  (The mask drops when they start advocating “lawbreaking and sabotage” as worthy tactics in revolutionary social change.5) By itself this calls into question any assertion that socialism can be implemented without bloodshed: socialist ends cannot be detached from socialist means.

But even if we could imagine that private property holders were simply persuaded to give up their holdings peacefully, the notion that the ideal socialist system would work without coercion or oppression is hard to imagine, if it is even coherently meaningful to begin with. Consider Richard Wolff’s explanation for how a system of worker co-ops would gradually wean itself from the need for a state:

An economy based on worker co-ops would revolutionize the relationship between the state and the people. In their capacity as a self-employed collectivity, workers would occupy the spot traditionally held by the workplace in state-workplace relations and interactions. . . . The workers would collectively and democratically hold the purse strings to which the state would have to appeal. The state would thus depend on citizens and workers rather than the other way around. . . . The state would have fewer ways and means to impose its own momentum and goals upon citizens or workplaces. To that extent, the state’s “withering away” would become more immediately achievable than in any other variety of socialism known thus far.6

As I’ve argued elsewhere at greater length, the allegation that “democratic control” ensures freedom from coercion and oppression is an old fallacy that turns on an equivocation between a government with elected representatives and a society run by majority rule. The latter is what socialists advocate when they claim that factories should be run by workers, regardless of what the factory’s original creators have to say about it. This constitutes a direct violation of the rights of a minority of individuals. So if workers really do end up holding “the purse strings” of the factories and the power to make the state appeal to them, it makes little sense to say that the state would “wither away” as an entity independent of the workers.7 Rather, the workers would in effect be running a state.8

When Wolff is pressed to provide a real-world example of the system he envisions, he and other socialists often point to the Mondragon Corporation, a Spanish worker-owned manufacturer of a variety of industrial and consumer goods.9 But Mondragon is an international corporation that sells its products to private firms all over the globe, and employs an increasing number of foreign workers who are not members of the collective. At the same time, its workers increasingly depend on pensions from the Spanish state.10 Invoking the Mondragon example evades the question of whether a company like Mondragon could survive in the absence of a more general capitalist system that buys its products and provides market prices by which to calculate resource allocation, and the system of state-sanctioned private property rights that makes this possible.11 It also evades the question of whether a company run “democratically” (unlike most corporations) could exist in the absence of a coercive state that taxes capitalists to fund worker pensions.

The idea that real socialism involves social control of the economy without the state is not new, but you need to be aware of some history to realize this. It goes back at least as far as 1877, when Frederick Engels claimed in Anti-Dühring that after the proletariat seizes control of the state and thereby the means of production, the state would “wither away” or “die out.”12 Evading the important role of a state in protecting peaceful coexistence among individuals by protecting their rights, Marx and Engels held that the only role of a state is to enforce the exploitation of one class by another. Working from this fantastic premise, they deduced without evidence that once the state comes to represent the proletariat, class distinctions would disappear and, with them, the need for the state.13Lenin toed the same line in a lengthier work of no greater depth, but since he was himself a political operative who needed to rationalize his revolutionary actions, he argued that state control of the means of production was necessary as a transitional measure on the way to the achievement of real socialism.14 The same argument was then invoked for years by Stalin as he continued to starve and murder people in the name of eventually achieving the ideal of real socialism.15

All of this means that Lenin and Stalin and the other founders of the brutal Marxist regimes justified their actions using the exact same fantasy as today’s socialists do. They promised that the system they advocated would eventually eliminate state oppression as well. We saw what it actually delivered.

Why should we believe socialists today who also claim that their proposals to nationalize industries will take us further from and not closer to the specter of the Soviet catastrophe? They offer no better evidence than hucksters who sell perpetual motion machines. In fact what they’re doing is much worse, both because they actively evade the evidence, and because what they sell isn’t just dysfunctional — it’s deadly.

The real meaning of socialism

Socialism means public ownership of the means of production. But to understand what this means in practical reality — and why it cannot mean what the socialists propose — we must appreciate what “public ownership” actually refers to.

There is no magical entity called “the public.” A society is composed of individual human beings. In reality, the only mechanism by which the actions of an entire society can be coordinated is by means of a government. And so the only way for anything resembling “the public” to systematically deprive capitalists of private property and to abolish capitalist free trade is for the state to do it.  Every socialist acknowledges this, whether they advocate violent revolution to establish a collectivist state or a majority vote to establish the same.

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