Paul Foot

The Case for Socialism

5: The New Eminence

‘In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour. In communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.’
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

THE ALTERNATIVE is socialism. The word has been so misused for so long that it is worth re-stating its basic principles.

Socialism means that the means of production are owned and controlled by society so that what is produced can be shared out according to people’s needs. Socialism is founded on the idea of equality, which means that most people will get the same.

The basic objections to such a system have been the same ever since it was first conceived, and the arguments against them are still very much the same too.

‘Human nature’, it is said, is fundamentally opposed to such a system, since human nature is selfish and greedy. In the end the ‘old Adam’ will out, and will wreck any egalitarian system.

Poor ‘old Adam’ is always hauled out to justify the horrors of capitalism. Two hundred years of exploitation don’t sound so bad if you can put it down to human nature. In fact, however, people’s natures are not at all like those of speculators in the City of London. Indeed it is hard, even in the City of London, to come across people whose natures are dominated entirely by greed, selfishness and a hatred of the rest of the human race. There are at least as many examples in everyday life of generosity and self-sacrifice as there are of selfishness and greed.

How people behave depends very much on the kind of society they live in. If the society beckons forward the greedy and the selfish, if it offers them great riches and privileges in return for collaboration in exploiting others, if it criminalises solidarity (as the Tory trade union laws have done), then people will lose their confidence in one another, shrink into their shells and denounce their neighbours. If, on the other hand, society welcomes those who act and think as part of the community, people’s confidence in themselves and in one another will grow and the dark side of their natures will diminish.

The notion of equality is greeted by Tories with shouts of ‘you’ll make us all the same’. They insist that socialists do not recognise the variety in human beings and will reduce all individual character to an indistinguishable mass. All art, architecture, literature, media and so on will, they tell us, be the same.

This sameness and uniformity, however, are increasingly the characteristics of monopoly capitalism. All around us privately controlled mass media and mass production churn out things that assume that their consumers are all the same. Differences and distinctions between human beings are far more likely to blossom in a society which rewards everybody equally and does not single out a few for special treatment. As The Communist Manifesto puts it: ‘In place of the old society ... we will have an association in which the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all.’

Another argument against the idea of equality is that it will discourage skills. This argument usually starts with a question: ‘Would you pay a brain surgeon the same as a dustman?’ If you reply ‘Yes’, the argument is pressed home. ‘Aha! This will produce a society where there are millions of dustmen and no brain surgeons.’ The brain surgeon, it is assumed, will not study or practise for his or her skills unless the rewards for this are ten or twenty or preferably fifty times that of a dustman. People would just as soon hump a dustbin on their backs as be a brain surgeon for equal money.

The socialist argument is that people are far more likely to do what they want to do, and what they are best able to do, if the reward for everything is roughly the same than if a fortunate minority are beckoned to a specific set of skills by huge rewards.

One of the propaganda triumphs of capitalism in the 20th century has been its association of socialism with austerity. Somehow capitalism, a system which has produced all through its history mass poverty on the most disgusting scale, manages to condemn its alternative as a society in which no one will have very much. The socialists, it is said, are after your possessions, your video, your TV, your sticks of furniture, probably even your daughters. Lock them all up! The Reds are coming!

The socialists reply that we are on the verge of a world of plenty. All around us are the signs that we can produce more than enough for everyone. If production is planned and its products shared fairly, there is no reason why anyone should be short of anything – nor why the environment should be polluted and destroyed in the process. The priority is to cut out the dirty work and the drudgery, to devote far more of people’s lives to education, recreation and leisure.

As for possessions, the whole point of the public ownership of the means of production is that more is produced and shared out, not less. The British socialist John Strachey (when he was still a Marxist) put this very well:

The point is that there are two different sorts of private property. The one is private property in the means of production: private property in a factory or a mine, or in the land. And the other sort is private property in consumers’ goods, in food and clothing and furniture, in houses, in motor cars, in gardens, in labour-saving devices, in access to amusements, in every sort of thing which we actually use and consume ... It ought to be impossible to mix them up. For there is one rule for distinguishing between them. Private property of the first sort carries an income with it ... Private property of the second sort does not carry an income with it. The economic system which is currently called socialism involves abolishing the first sort of private property in order to increase vastly the second sort of property.

These arguments for socialism and against capitalism have gone on all through the century, and are just as strong today as they ever were.

A planned economy, so that production is for need, not profit, and equality, so that the goods produced are distributed fairly, are essential for socialism. But if the argument stops there, as it so often does, the project has a fatal weakness – which the history of our century has exposed. A centralised plan, and something which calls itself equality, can be imposed from above, without the active participation of the working people. They have been so imposed in Russia and Eastern Europe. Similarly, Labour parties, especially in Britain, have tried to impose these things in the industrial countries of the West.

Both experiments have called themselves socialist (though neither Communist nor Labour parties are inclined to use the word any more). Both have made a mockery of the planned economy and a sick joke of equality. The reason is simple. In both cases ‘socialism’ was attained or attempted without the involvement of the exploited class. The soul of socialism, the self-emancipation of the working class and the democratic control of society from below, was missing. What masqueraded as socialism was either state capitalism, or ‘reforms’ which left capitalism intact, if not stronger.

To go back to where we started, Karl Marx was (perhaps excessively) reluctant to provide detailed accounts of what socialism would be like. Marxist scholars have picked through his writing to try to find The Complete Definition of Socialism. There isn’t one. There isn’t more than the odd sentence holding out a principle or an idea. Marx was certain that socialism would not come according to a prescription laid down by him or anyone else. Socialism could only come when the exploited class rose against its rulers. The industries had to be seized by the workers. The state which ran society for the rich had to be broken up and replaced with something completely different.

If socialism were only a planned economy and equality, then well-meaning socialists would think they could command it or legislate for it – it wouldn’t matter much which. When Beatrice and Sidney Webb, two grand old British parliamentarians, went to Russia in 1935 and beheld the full horror of Stalinist Russia in mass production, they loved it. They wrote a stunningly tedious book entitled Soviet Communism: A new civilisation? After thinking about the title, they removed the question mark. Here was a planned economy and something which looked like equality, imposed from above. Beatrice and Sidney (who was by that time called Lord Passfield) reckoned they could bring that sort of society about in Britain with laws that would pass through both houses of parliament.

The importance of the essential ingredient of socialism, which both Stalin and the Webbs left out, cannot be overstated. It is its democratic spirit, its control from below, its conversion of the cooperation which takes place in production into control of that production. There is about this process not a breath of tyranny. Freedom and democracy are vital to it. Fred Engels put it like this:

In making itself the master of all the means of production, in order to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production. It goes without saying that society cannot itself be free unless each individual is free. The old mode of production must therefore be revolutionised from top to bottom. Its place must be taken by an organisation of production in which, on the one hand, no individual can put on to other persons his share of the productive labour ... and in which on the other hand productive labour, instead of being a means to the subjection of men, will become a means to their emancipation, by giving each individual the opportunity to develop and exercise all his faculties.

There it is in a nutshell: the planned economy, the equality and the revolutionary emancipation all rolled into one. Without the third element, the other two become not an incomplete socialism but the opposite of it.

The subjection of human beings by the organisation of productive labour has increased a hundredfold since Engels wrote that passage. The greater the exploitation, the more miserable the lot of so many workers, and the greater the case for socialism. The worst crime of capitalism is its enslavement and corruption of the human spirit. It binds that spirit to the yoke of productive labour, lobs it back and forth between boom and slump, insults and degrades it as if it were no more than part of the machinery. ‘We are,’ says the Guatemalan peasant in the film El Norte, ‘just arms and legs for them.’

What a waste it all is! How many men, women and children are flushed down the pan of history without even for a day savouring their own abilities, dreams and joys! Sitting in a churchyard long ago, contemplating the gravestones and writing a rather boring poem which has been learned by rote by infuriated school students ever since, Thomas Gray was suddenly struck by outrage at all the wasted talent buried there:

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Many, many years later Leon Trotsky, when he’d got a taste of what is possible after a revolution, wrote even more poetically of what can be achieved once people are in control of property, and not the other way round:

Lastly, in the deepest and dimmest recesses of the unconscious, there lurks the nature of man himself. On it, clearly, he will concentrate the supreme effort of his mind and of his creative initiative. Mankind will not have ceased to crawl before God, Tsar and Capital only in order to surrender meekly to dark laws of heredity and blind sexual selection. Man will strive to control his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the height of his conscious mind, and to bring clarity into them; to channel his will-power into his unconscious depths; and in this way he will lift himself into new eminence.


Last updated on 5.2.2005