Unrealism and the future

Submitted by AWL on 28 February, 2007 - 7:17

By Clive Bradley
In the 1990s, when some of the United States’ mainstream environmental organisations, the so-called Shameful Seven, backed Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement, they defended their actions as a ‘coming of age’, a necessary realism. Environmentalists of many varieties, not to mention their enemies, repeat the cry.
It is a familiar story: “realists” are supposed to bring about the meaningful changes, and radicals are irrelevant.
Nowhere than on the question of the environment is the fallacy of this argument clearer. With the NFTA, the environmental pluses were few indeed, and cancelled about by what was negative or omited, for example on the matter of workers’ rights. But this is only an example of a general problem. The state of the planet calls for radical action. ‘Realism’ might make some gains; but the gains are so small, and so slow, that in the meantime the problem continues to get worse.
Hope for our future requires us to be “unrealistic”. The action we need to take, globally, to reverse environmental degredation is enormous, and involves a fundamental restructuring of the world, economically and politically. It may not be a ‘realistic’ ambition, but it is the only one which will work, and if some of us maintain this ‘unrealistic’ perspective, we can hope to persuade more and more, until it is unrealistic no longer. Realism has a habit of suddenly looking foolish, and the wide-eyed idealists of the past come into their own. Even before then, more often than not, it is the activism of radicals which provides the real impetus to the little victories of the “‘realists”.
We need to assemble the forces of unrealism.
A discredited hope?
We would describe this restructuring of the world as necessarily socialist. Equality; an end to militarism and the rule of the few; democratic control at the grass-roots; the rational planning of the economy: these are the fundamental elements of socialism. The causes of the impending ecological catastrophe point to this solution.
The idea of socialism has often been considered discredited since the fall of the Berlin wall; and for the people who lived in those systems, it was discredited long before that. There was a socialist experiment in the USSR and its satellites, it is said, which failed, and in the Cold War conflict between the two systems, capitalism emerged triumphant. The people of the East thought so, seeing in Western capitalism a wealth of consumer choice unavailable to them, and the pundits of western capitalism were quick to revel in their victory.
In the decade since, that triumphalism has looked less secure. “Mafia capitalism” in the former USSR is so unappealing that many Russians look back nostalgically to the past. The success stories of capitalism, the tiger economies of the East, have run into terrible difficulties. But still, so far, there has not been a revival of socialism, although criticism of capitalism is more and more widespread.
This is not the place to go into the nature of the command economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For the writers of this pamphlet, they were not a failed experiment in socialism at all, but an abominable travesty of it, further, in some ways, from genuine socialism than the capitalism of Western Europe and North America. The totalitarian state-run systems which collapsed at the end of the 1980s were the product of a particular history, a history which allowed them to talk the language of “socialism” while bearing no relationship to it.
For us, socialism is an expression of the inevitable striving for democracy and control over their lives of working-class people all over the world. It is the natural wish of exploited and oppressed people for a fairer world in which resources and the products of our labour are shared, and held in common, rather then the private property of a tiny minority. It is made possible by the forces capitalism itself creates, principally the working class.
It’s true that such a society has never been achieved. There is, unfortunately, no wonderful example of what we want which we can point to (although the early days of the Russian revolution — before economic blockade, Western-backed counter-revolutionaries fighting a crippling civil war, and then the victory of Stalinism, destroyed it — were a very promising beginning). But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible; that argument is a vicious ideological trick of those who support a system which, looked at globally, is fundamentally barbarous, and which now threatens the planet.
As long as capitalism wreaks its havoc, however, and working-class people resist, socialism is a live idea. Maybe one day we’ll have a better word for it, as “socialism” has so many awful connotations — Western social democracy as well as Stalinism. But the current relative demoralisation of the forces of genuine progress and democracy will not last forever. The bureaucratic, undemocratic, often totalitarian parody of socialism practiced in Eastern Europe is, hopefully, dead. But socialism itself is not, and we can expect new, powerful struggles by the international working class movement to emerge in this new century.
The future grows out of all the “little” struggles which working-class people are involved in, over environmental or other issues; we have tried to look at some of these struggles in this pamphlet. Socialists try to keep in mind the ‘big picture’, the social change on a world scale we’re fighting for, the “unrealistic” ambition. We don’t imagine this as one sudden explosion of simultaneous world revolution. Struggles now, for reforms, or over immediate issues, carry the seeds of future, more revolutionary movements, at least potentially. Our aim is to help build the links between these immediate struggles, even sometimes very small ones, and the powerful, mass socialist movement we need to change the world.
“World” is a vital word here. One of the earliest symptoms of the USSR’s retreat from the ideals and programme of the Russian revolution was its adoption of the absurd idea of ‘socialism in one country’. To a global capitalist world there can only be a global answer. It is only at a global level that vital decisions about the use of the world’s resources can be made.
If we are to rectify the damage being done to the planet, we need to set our sights this high. It often seems simply impossible to achieve, that the distance between where we are and where we want to be is too great to travel. Yet we need that “unrealistic” ambition.
This is not to say that nothing can be done short of such a global system. People can fight for, and win, change - even significant change - in the here and now; indeed, it is largely as a result of such fighting that we have the democratic freedoms, the health service, the education system, and to some extent the standard of living we enjoy in a country like Britain. On environmental issues, too, immediate struggles can win important victories.
A democratic world
A socialist system, then, is one which organises resources and production rationally, through conscious planning, internationally, and as democratically as humanly possible. Instead of profit, human need would be the guiding principle — not just immediate, but long-term needs. Instead of a few powerful people making decisions, using “blind” — if, in practice, modified and controlled — market forces as their main guide, decision-making would be “from the bottom up”, as far as possible, involving the whole of society.
Ultimately, and ideally, socialism implies some kind of “world government”. But until that is possible, we would imagine a federation of workers’ governments working together.
The objection that such a reorganisation of the world is utopian, an impossible dream, and runs counter to human nature and capacity is a profound failure of the imagination. We have at our disposal, already, an enormous amount of information which, if humanity put its mind to it, could be harnessed to make rational, environmentally safe — or safer — choices about the production and distribution of goods and services. Choices could easily be made about the use of our natural resources, the sources of energy we employ, the ways in which we produce things, and the distribution of wealth, based not on profit but on the real needs of the Earth and the people who live on it. There is no natural reason why such decisions have to be made by big, powerful corporations, their shareholders, or governments concerned to appease them. That the world is like that now is because of history, and the inability of the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world to carry out radical change. Overcoming this inability is itself a huge problem; but there is no reason in principle why we should not, and capitalism be allowed to drag us down into oblivion.
In a world of six billion people, with the technologies we possess for good as well as bad, with the potential that exists — now — to feed, clothe, provide medical care and leisure time for all, it is irrational to organise our society as wastefully, unequally, and destructively as we currently do. What prevents us from a saner, safer, and fairer world system is only the power of the people who rule us. We have to learn how to contest and defeat that power.
No easy road to freedom
Aiming for a rational, democratic world is one thing; achieving it is a good deal harder. It would of course be difficult to run the entire world on democratic principles, allowing everyone a say in what choices are made: there is the danger that nothing would ever be decided, and civilisation would collapse in a hubbub of constant discussion. Recent technological advances, like the Internet, perhaps provide an avenue through which mass-scale political involvement — involving literally billions of people — could be possible. But there there are probably certain limits to ‘direct democracy’ and the straightforward participation of everybody in decision making, particularly in economic matters. It is a matter of making things as democratic as possible. At the very least, it is possible to have a system far more democratic than this one.
Socialism will certainly have to rely on political parties (for example making proposals about the allocation of resources which can be voted on by the electorate, as well as political matters). The difference to our present Parliamentary democracy will be that there is far greater participation in politics by most people, our representatives are subject to an enormously greater degree of control, and the economy itself will not be an alien field, outside popular decision-making.
Many times, workers in major struggles have shown the basic type of democratic institution through which such popular control can be exercised. Workers’ councils have flowered in revolutionary struggles since the nineteenth century, including the ‘soviets’ (the Russian word for ‘council’) in the early days of the Russian revolution - pioneered in an earlier revolution in 1905 - through to the workers’ councils of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and many other places. What all these historical cases have in common is a focus on direct democracy, control over representatives, taking over the running of communities, the abolition of bureaucracy, and — in many examples — the formation of popular militias instead of an armed force separate from the people.
Although far too much credit is given to it, the market does provide a relatively simple method of determining economic choices and allocating resources. A modern, technological society - in one city, never mind the whole world - is much harder to run collectively than a small rural village. The immediate task of a socialist government, or of workers’ governments in collaboration, would not be to ‘abolish’ the market; the market works, to some extent, in its place. It is a question of taking the main spheres of economic activity into democratic public ownership, the ones which have the biggest and most detrimental effects on our lives. We are not advocating a crazy “nationalisation of everything”. For a long time after capitalism has been overthrown as a system there would probably have to be a “capitalist sector” to the economy. But it would be subordinate, and not allowed to control the economy as a whole. If we have control over what used to be called the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, we can begin to make the world a better place.
With enough imagination and will, the mass of the population can surely find ways to exercise control over their lives and their world. New forms of participation (real participation, rather than puny “focus groups”, or opinion polls or suchlike) can be invented.
Socialism is not a panacea for all problems. Of course there will still be problems, conflicts, clashes; if socialism required a completely harmonious world where everybody loved each other it would indeed be an idle dream, and probably rather boring. For a long time, people would probably maintain a sense of their own national identity, and nation states would continue to exist. There might even be tensions between them, although with full, meaningful democracy, those tensions need not lead to serious conflict, let alone war. And eventually, with democratic structures to guarantee the freedom of nations, as well as the individual freedoms of their citizens, such tensions would die out.
A genuinely democratic society might make mistakes, even environmentally costly ones. But by eliminating the power of the wealthy, and the big corporations, it would be far easier to rectify those mistakes quickly.
Socialism and the environment
Because socialism is about the creative participation of the mass of the people in political and economic life, lasting solutions to ecological problems will come out of rich, democratic discussion. That said, here are four major areas in which socialism could make an immediate difference.
1. The ecological crisis is inseparable from social inequality within and between countries. Socialism would radically reduce, and ultimately end, this inequality. In the first place this is a matter of redistributing wealth. Globally, the richest fifth of the population receive 82.7% of the world’s income, and the poorest fifth 1.4%. It has been estimated that a simple redistribution of the world’s wealth, immediately, could give every person alive the standard of living of a worker in southern Europe. In practice, redistribution would probably be less radical: such is the wealth of the wealthiest people in the world that the average person in the “North” need suffer no reduction in their standard of living for “Southern” poverty to be abolished.
2. Because socialism would break the power of the big corporations, including transnational corporations, and bring them under democratic public ownership, there would no longer be powerful vested interests to prevent serious measures being taken to redress environmental degredation. The resources made available could, immediately, be put to transforming industry (including in the ‘South’) into more environmentally-friendly forms. Even without world-wide socialism, a start could be made on this front. The empowerment of people who have suffered, or are worried about, environmental dangers, would mean greater public knowledge of what needed to be done, and where.
3. Alternative forms of energy which don’t produce greenhouse gases (or produce a lot less) or other poisonous substances could be developed regardless of their immediate profitability. Of course, a socialist society still needs to produce a surplus, but this would not take the form of private profit. For the first time it would be possible to weigh up the pros and cons of different choices in the knowledge that once a choice is made, real action can be taken.
4. An end to military spending, made possible by democratic relations between nations (and breaking the power of the arms manufacturers) would free resources to do many things, along with ending inequality: irrigate the deserts, replenish the rainforests, etc. “Take the price tag for safeguarding two thirds of the Amazon rainforest: $3billion,” according to one expert. “Cancel just six US ‘Stealth’ bombers and you have the cash to do it.”
Building the future
None of this is easy or can be achieved overnight, still less can it be achieved without a serious conflict with the world’s current power structures. Those structures, both political and economic, are extremely strong, and won’t relinquish power without a struggle. They can’t be persuaded, even to bring about vital ecological change, and certainly not to hand power over to the majority of the world’s people. They will be have to be defeated, overthrown, by mass, popular action. It is a daunting task, but a necessary one.
An urgent one, too. Every decade that passes without a socialist movement which can fundamentally change the world means greater and greater environmental degredation. Of course, reforms, agreements, and new developments - even the adoption of new technologies - can slow down the process of decay. But we don’t have forever. The more people who can commit themselves to building a socialist movement, and the faster masses of people across the globe are convinced of its necessity, the less damaged will be the world that a socialist society will inherit.
One of the things the international ruling class most heavily depends upon for its power is the sense of weakness, even apathy, among those they exploit and oppress. Their success in persuading us that a different, equitable, democratic organisation of international society is impossible is an example of this.
But as the poet Shelley put it, “we are many, they are few.” Everything which gives those currently without power a sense of their own strength, which rouses the masses, the world’s poor, the working-class movement, to action, to the belief that something can indeed be done, brings us closer to saving the Earth.

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