B. Socialists are good at criticising and rubbishing the society we live in. You are less forthcoming about your own positive alternative to it.
A. The elaboration of a detailed picture of a future socialist society would be arbitrary and pointless, because we can’t know in detail how things will evolve.
B. That puts people like me at a disadvantage. We defend what is, what we know, what critics also can see and know and denounce. You “defend” a vague and shadowy future, and say that in detail it is unknowable. What, positively, would a socialist society as you conceive of it be like?
A. Socialism is human solidarity, beginning as a system of working-class bonding in resistance to capitalist exploiters, and raised up, projected, to being the guiding principle of all society. It is the elimination of class exploitation by making the means of production, exchange, and communication collective social property, rather than, as now, private property run for private gain. It is the enthronement of unfettered reason armed with love, enlightenment, entrenched respect for individuals, and democracy in all the social, economic and political affairs of society. The socialists are the consistent democrats.
B. Love? Have I suddenly fallen down the rabbit-hole into a sloppy romance for pre-pubescent girls?
A. Love! Society will collectively own and democratically control and administer the bulk of productive wealth. Every major industry will be reorganised roughly like the National Health Service at its ideal best — with full provision for everyone’s need as its governing principle. It will be democratically controlled by workers, by consumers, and by the overall community.
The privileges and perks of managers, officials, bureaucrats and shareholders will be abolished. There will be democratic self-rule in all aspects and on all levels of society and in the economy, in short, in all the circumstances and conditions of our lives — democratic self-rule that will be far more flexible, responsive and accountable than any government is today. Each electorate will control its representatives and be able to use a right of recall and re-election at any time. There will be a comprehensive living democracy in the social and economic affairs of humankind, where now at best there exists only pluto-democracy, money-dominated democracy — shallow, often socially and economically impotent, mere-political democracy. The whole industrial structure can thus be planned, in broad outline, to meet human need.
That means no rich and no poor, no profit-as-goal and no wage-slavery. No private palaces and no homelessness. No jobless and no-one overworked on the treadmills of profit. The working week will be cut to a level which enables all to have ample free time to devote to social and political affairs and to self-development as individuals — by study, sport, art, handicrafts, friendship, travel, or whatever they wish that does not harm or hinder others. Socialism means liberty as well as economic planning. It includes economic planning by way of liberty, democracy, and enlightenment. To put it in well-known words, it is the realisation of liberty, equality, sorority, and fraternity.
B. That’s still too vague and shadowy!
A. There is nothing vague or shadowy about it! Maybe the vagueness and shadowiness you perceive are an aspect of your wilful refusal to see this clearly.
B. Or maybe it’s a result of built-in imprecision and vagueness in the ideas you expound. You know, on some levels — love as the cement of society, indeed! — what you say sounds almost religious to me.
A. Religion gathers into its maw many good human impulses, needs, and desires. As Karl Marx long ago noted: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world”. Religion turns life on its head, looking to supernatural agencies to intervene in this world. Socialism reclaims from religion the human desires which religion translates into mysticism, nonsense, prostration before imagined celestial beings.
Socialist ideas are built up from the history of capitalism, from working-class battles and other experiences, and from Marx’s analysis of capital. Socialism will build on the science, the technology, the economic cooperation, the working-class solidarity, developed within capitalism, but free them from being poisoned by exploitation and all that goes with it. Stop them from being thwarted by the profit-drive. The economy will be run in a cooperative way, for the benefit of society, and not for private profit. Operated in the interests not of profit for a few, but of everyone.
Positively, at the most basic level, I see socialism as a world run like a good, caring, prosperous, egalitarian family is run now: sharing, taking care of everyone’s needs, treating all the children of the society equally, educating everyone, fully and properly. A world run according to human solidarity, without racism, sexism, or built-in disadvantage or privilege for anyone or for any groups or classes of people.
Socialism would end the compulsion upon which capitalist society rests, for the workers to sell their labour power — their active lives, most of their active hours of life — to people intent on making money out of their labour power, that is, on exploiting them. Now employers put them to work, on the employer’s terms, for hours each day during which the workers create for the employer much more than the value of the wage the employer pays. The bedrock class struggle — the workers’ struggle for higher wages and shorter hours, and the bosses’ resistance to that — is a tussle over possession of the wealth which workers create over and above their wages and which then becomes, automatically, the property of the buyer of labour power.
B. What you call working-class solidarity is narrow, obtuse ganging-up on someone else, the people you call the plutocrats. And, often, on other workers.
A. Working-class solidarity here and now is a weapon in the class war: workers stand together and look out for each other. It is also a manifestation inside capitalism of the human solidarity of the socialist society we will build, without disadvantaging any subsection of humankind, as women and people of colour are disadvantaged now, even after the progress made towards gender and race equality in the 20th century. Working-class solidarity embodies here and now the common humanity of human beings living in the dog-eat-dog conditions of capitalism. As I’ve said, socialism will be a world run according to what William Morris called “fellowship”.
B. That daft medievalist!
A. He was a Marxist!
B. That daft Marxist, then.
A. You know, much of your slant on society and on socialism depends on sheer dumb prejudice and shell-backed ignorance. The socialist world would be governed by the idea of unlimited and unstinting human solidarity and fellowship, whereas in capitalist society, the dominant ethos is that each person seeks ways to rob the neighbours, to steal an advantage, to monopolise possession of a desirable job. It is what Frederick Engels and earlier socialists described as the war of all against all.
B. It is human life as it is and as it has to be. It is human nature embodied and expressed in social relations and social arrangements. It is the natural state of human affairs.
A. It is only the natural state of capitalist affairs.
B. In any case, as somebody probably said, the strongest argument against socialism is the socialists themselves! Misfits and oddballs!
A. Socialists are people who by political instinct and conviction side with the oppressed and exploited, victims of malign power and of cruel indifference. We fight racism. We fight for women’s equality with men, and against all the privileged of capitalist society. The left in history has been a tremendous force for progress, enlightenment, liberty, tolerance, and freedom. It has fought tyrannies and tyrants, and the rule of priests and prelates. It has fought for civil rights and civil liberties, for free speech and free thought, and against censorship. It has organised and shaped labour movements that have established and broadened working-class rights against employers and their states. We have fought fascism, Stalinism, plutocracy, capitalism. The real left, in any situation, are the consistent democrats.
We now look back and wonder at old tolerance for old evil, cruelty and stupidity. Others, living in the better world socialists will win, will look back at us and ask: how did they tolerate a world in which millions of children die each year from avoidable diseases and malnutrition.
Socialists who spend their lives fighting these and other present-day obscenities are frequently depicted as odd, neurotic people who should “get a life”. A more enlightened age will think it was the people who kept their heads down, remaining “quiet”, “private”, narrow-focused in the face of social obscenities, who were the odd ones. People like you!
B. Your ideas are fond and blatant ideologising. That is why socialism is unpopular now. People have seen through it.
A. Well, yes, of course. Marx and Engels put it well: the ruling ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class. The class struggle also takes place on the level of ideas and conceptions of class and of society.
B. And the fact that so many of us see it differently settles your hash!
A. Events such as the 2007-8 economic semi-collapse of capitalism speak powerfully for our picture of reality, the Marxist picture.
B. But they say nothing positively in favour of your view of socialism.
A. Socialism is rooted in capitalism. Marx put it well: it will “set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant”.