Modern Socialism #2: What Is Socialism?

GreshamCollege-AneurinBevan_VernonBogdanor234 Last time, in the first bit of this series, we sketched out what the thing we call Modern Socialism is and why we think it’s needed. This time, we’re more interested in socialism in general.

A question that seems stupidly obvious to begin with, but gets harder to answer the more you think about it – what actually is socialism? If you’re over-precociously trying to modernise something, you better have a cast-iron grasp of what it is, and what it isn’t. So, as quickly and painlessly as it can possibly be made – an attempt to nail down an increasingly fuzzy and flippantly-employed socio-political concept.

There are really two types of left-of-centre political position. The first is what’s called social democracy. The second is what’s called socialism.

Confusingly, the terms are often used interchangeably – or in distorted, politically motivated ways. But there’s a fundamental difference between the two. Social democracy aims to make capitalism nicer. Socialism aims to replace capitalism with a nicer system.

Social democracy is about making capitalism more humane, egalitarian, and, appropriately, ‘social’. It’s not about overthrowing, deposing or revolutionising anything. It’s not about explosive transformations and ripping everything up and starting again. Instead, it’s about working within a political and economic system dominated by private ownership, getting business leaders, trade unions and other constituent groups in society to co-operate to arrive at a pleasant half-way house between fully planned socialist economies and out-and-out free market capitalism.

Social democrats are usually happy for the rich to be rich and the poor to be poor, as long as the gap between the two doesn’t get too large, and for most goods and services to be provided by the private sector – but they’re usually also strongly in favour of public-funded, public-run healthcare, education and social welfare programmes, and they sometimes (although increasingly rarely nowadays) advocate public ownership of especially important companies and industries.

By applying the clout of the state and civil society, social democrats believe, we can curb capitalism’s worst excesses, and push it towards more community-minded, socially useful ends than the blind, obsessive pursuit of maximal profits.

Socialism is about getting rid of capitalism – decisively ending the situation in which a small elite made up of rich private individuals owns the vast majority of the economy, enjoys a colossal chunk of the wealth it produces, and only achieves all that by exploiting the millions upon millions of ordinary people who actually do the work.

That means tackling and levelling out the dizzying inequalities of wealth and power that exist in the world as-is. Rather than there being one section of civilisation living to needless, ecology-imperilling excess and another suffering in poverty, socialists would see the wealth and resources currently hoarded by those at the top taken and spread out, redistributed. The end result would be a society in which rich and poor would cease to exist, and everyone would live in a comfortable goldilocks zone somewhere in the middle.

Under socialism, today’s awesomely powerful private companies would be broken up. In the grand, economic, legal sense at least – contrary to all sorts of right-wing scaremongering, socialists don’t want to nationalise your spice rack or your Dolly Parton CDs – no individual would own anything, because everyone would own everything.

In a radically decentralised, radically democratic economy, enterprises would be part-run by representatives of the people who worked in them, used them and lived near them. And when, inevitably, some services needed administrating at a national level, they’d be state-owned and run in a democratically accountable, public-spirited manner.

That’s all relatively straightforward. Alas, that’s because it’s an oversimplification. Reality is rarely as neatly divisible as that, and the two concepts tend to blur into one another at the edges.

For example – how do you tell a left-wing social democrat apart from a reformist socialist? Say, a Polly Toynbee from an Owen Jones? How would you class Clement Attlee’s welfare state-forging post-war Labour government?

The kinds of policies social democrats and socialists would put forward in power might well look very similar – particularly given that bringing socialism about is a much taller order, and would take a lot more than a single term of office to achieve.

The only way you can try and tell the two apart is by judging the intent behind those measures – is the aim to make capitalism a bit nicer, or to build towards something beyond it?

For example, today’s Guardian lists a raft of policies the paper’s readers apparently want to see in a Labour manifesto – including the introduction of a living wage, the renationalisation of the railways and utilities companies, higher taxes for the rich and the banking sector and the abolition of tuition fees. Imagine what the first-term manifesto of a socialist government might look like, and there wouldn’t be all that much difference.

But Guardian readers aren’t generally strident anti-capitalists – just genuine, principled social democrats. But they’re operating in a political landscape in which even fairly mild social democracy is now viewed as the height of leftist extremism.

To go back to the Labour government of 1945-’51 – Clement Attlee himself was probably a social democrat, as were many of his ministers. But his health minister, Aneurin Bevan, was a socialist, as were many other party members. They were travelling on the same train, but getting off at different stations. And so, in some cases, there is no clear answer to be had.

That so many people would label the Guardianistas demands, and the Miliband-led Labour Party, as being unmistakably ‘socialist’ just shows how far mild social democracy, let alone socialism, has been purged from the political mainstream in the neoliberal era.

We never had it in spades in the first place. The pre-Blair Labour Right often got called social democrats by lazy default, which was an insult to the achievements of proper social democracy in places like Sweden and Finland – in fact, the Harold Wilsons and the Jim Callahans were just watery ultra-pragmatists all about gaining power and not doing anything with it.

But in the advent of ‘triangulation’, ‘The Third Way’ and Tony Blair, Labour exorcised itself of almost everything that was meaningfully social democratic and cheerily got on with being the cuddlier of the two main neoliberal parties.

In the wake of the mainstream’s general rightward slide over the past few decades, the term ‘socialist’ is now only regularly used in two ways, neither of which really reflect its true meaning.

The first is to vaguely describe anything a bit left-wing, anything to do with nationalisation, raising taxes and the like. This can be in an innocent, descriptive manner, or it can be done with ideological intent – like when the Daily Mail tries to slur Miliband-helmed Labour’s ever-so-slight inch leftwards by branding him and it as dangerously socialist.

And the second is to describe an extremely specific strain of old-style revolutionary Marxism. The Marxist-Leninist Left talks about ‘socialism’ as if it only refers to their version of socialism, and the whole wagon train of complex economic theories and philosophical underpinnings that come with it.

The upshot is that a lot of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to socialism as a concept are immediately turned off, scared away by its association with a dogmatic, split-prone, petty-minded Old Left, mentally stuck in the 1970s if not the 1920s.

Marxism is a highly influential type of socialism. Throughout the twentieth century, it was the dominant interpretation of socialism. But it’s not the be all and end all of socialism. You can believe in a radically egalitarian and democratic society beyond capitalism without being a Marxist. And one of the main reasons this blog exists – and the sole reason this very series of blog posts exists – is to talk about, and, to some extent at least, put forward a case for a radical socialism that isn’t Marxist.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth rescuing from the various Marx-derived socialisms of the twentieth century, though. And in the next entries in the Modern Socialism series, The Bemolution will discuss the Big Bearded One himself, the political thinkers that came after him, and what an accessible radical socialism can salvage from their work.

Modern Socialism #1: The Craze Not Sweeping The Nation