John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism

John Molyneux

Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism

Chapter One:
What do you mean by socialism?

MOST PEOPLE’S ideas of what socialism would be like are dominated by the Stalinist tyranny in Russia or the experiences of Labour or other ‘left-wing’ governments. That is, they view socialism as either the control of all social life by a bureaucratic and oppressive state or as die status quo modified by a few reforms and somewhat more state intervention.

In the face of these uninspiring alternatives it is tempting to embark on a detailed account of how life would be organised in a genuinely socialist society. In fact Marxists, beginning with Marx himself, have resisted the temptation to draw up a blueprint for socialism as pointless and misleading. If the future society is to be truly socialist, then its details can be decided only by the workers who build it.

Consequently, Marxists have limited themselves to the statement of certain general principles which could be scientifically derived from the study of trends and forces at work under capitalism. These principles clearly differentiate the Marxist conception of socialism from its Stalinist and reformist corruptions.

For Marxists, the fundamental aim of socialism is the creation of a classless society. This is not a single act but a lengthy social process which begins under capitalism. Its starting point is the tendency of capitalism to develop the forces of production (i.e. to raise the productivity of labour and to concentrate the means of production in larger units).

Secondly, capitalism produces its own grave digger, the working class, which grows with the growth of capital. The first step, the decisive breakthrough to socialism, comes with the conquest of political power by the working class; that is, with the destruction of the capitalist state apparatus and the establishment of a workers’ state – what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat. By this he meant not a dictatorship over the working class but the direction of society by the working class itself. Looking at the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx specified mechanisms through which this could be achieved: the replacement of the parliamentary talk shop by a working body; the election and recallability of all state officials; no official to earn more than a skilled worker’s wage; abolition of the standing army and formation of a workers’ militia. The Russian revolution showed us the organisational form of workers’ power – the soviet or workers’ council – which arises directly from working-class struggle.

Following the consolidation of its state power and the defeat of the inevitable capitalist attempts at counter-revolution, the working class has to secure the transition to a fully socialist, classless society.

The working class will use its power to take all important industries and businesses into social ownership and place them under workers’ control. All the working population will be drawn into administering the new society. This will make democratic planning of the economy possible, ensuring an enormous growth in the wealth of society and that this growth serves people’s needs.

It will liberate women by establishing their complete legal equality and by socialising the burden of housework and child care so that this formal equality becomes reality. It will free society from the stains of racial, sexual and national bigotry.

It will use the enormous advances of modern science and technology to eliminate the dangers and drudgery of work. It will systematically reduce the working week and simultaneously raise the educational and cultural level of the people. This will pave the way for the disappearance of any group of privileged experts and for overcoming the divisions between mental and manual labour.

It will steadily widen the range of goods and services available free of charge – a process leading to the disappearance of money and to distribution on the principle, ‘each according to their needs’.

All this must be done in conjunction with spreading the revolution internationally. We know from the Russian experience that the transition to socialism cannot be completed in one country.

Once this has been achieved and capitalism has been destroyed worldwide, the immense resources of our planet will be harnessed for the peoples’ needs. The state will wither away for lack of anyone to repress or privilege to protect. A new epoch of human history will open – the epoch of real freedom for a united humanity.

But you can’t change human nature ...

So what is the most common objection to this vision of socialism?

‘Socialism will never work, you can’t change human nature.’

Before answering this point directly, it’s worth noting just how this argument is used. Whenever conservatives are confronted with protests against exploitation and oppression, they always turn to the human nature argument. War? Well it’s human nature to fight. Racism? It’s human nature to fear ‘outsiders’ and people who are ‘different’. The oppression of women? Human nature again: men and women are ‘naturally different’.

Slavery, too, was once supposed to be a product of human nature. It was the nature of blacks, it was said, to be slaves. The same with feudalism, and usually God was brought into back up the argument. Remember the words of the hymn:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.

It was the God-given nature of some people to be lords and others to be serfs. ‘Human nature’, God-given or otherwise, has always been the favourite alibi of the oppressors.

But what is this unchanging human nature supposed to be? Clearly human beings do have certain more or less fixed and permanent needs. To survive at all they need air, food, drink shelter, etc. They also have sexual and emotional needs. To live humanly, rather than just exist, they need social contact, affection, love and a measure of freedom. However none of these features of human nature will cause the slightest problems for socialism. On the contrary, socialism will meet these permanent human needs immeasurably better than capitalism or any other previous form of society.

But of course this is not what people mean when they bring up the question of human nature. They mean that human beings are ‘naturally’ selfish and greedy and this will make a society of solidarity and equality impossible.

Again it is important to know the source of this idea. It comes from the Christian doctrine of original sin and has no scientific basis whatsoever. In fact even in our present society it’s not difficult to observe numerous acts of kindness, generosity and self-sacrifice which would be impossible if people were selfish by nature. But under capitalism these features of the human personality are obscured because a society based on production for profit encourages greed, indeed demands it, at every turn.

More generally, the point is that it is the material social conditions in which people live that shape their personality and behaviour. As Marx put it, human nature is nothing but ‘the ensemble of social relations’. The proof of this is seen in the enormous differences in what people in different societies have thought of as ‘natural’.

To the American Indian, private ownership of land was ‘unnatural’. To the 18th-century landowner it was the most basic human right. To the Ancient Greeks, homosexuality was the highest form of love. To the Victorian Englishman it was the lowest. To the traditional Hindu, arranged marriage has been the norm for centuries. To most Westerners it now seems ‘unnatural’. Change the social conditions and you change ‘human nature’.

Even more important is Marx’s point that it is not just that changed circumstances produce changed people, but that people change in the process of changing their circumstances. You can see this in an ordinary strike. Most strikes begin because workers want more money. But as the strike goes on, feelings of solidarity and collective pride often grow and become just as important as the original issue.

Revolution is a strike writ large. In a revolution millions of people stand up for the first time and take control of their society. Their ‘human nature’ will grow accordingly. ‘Revolution is necessary’, wrote Marx, ‘not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.’

Won’t we always need bosses?

‘Workers’ control? It would never work. Workers are too stupid to run industry. Someone always has to be boss.’

This familiar objection to the very basis of socialism contains a mixture of elements. In large part it is just anti-working class prejudice of the kind that is widespread in the middle class, almost universal in the ruling class, and unfortunately not unknown in the working class itself. But it also points to a real problem, not an insoluble problem, but a problem nevertheless.

First let’s deal with the prejudice. The fact is that most workers as individuals, and even more so as a collective, know far more about the immediate process of production than does the management hierarchy above them. After all it is they who actually do the work. The main function of foremen, supervisors, managers, etc. is not to tell workers how to do the job, but to ensure that they do it. They are ‘necessary’ for the simple reason that in a system based on exploitation workers have an entirely reasonable inclination to do as little alienated labour as possible. Many of the other ‘special skills’ of management – advertising, marketing, winning contracts by wining and dining other executives, devising productivity schemes, ‘handling’ strikes and disputes and so on – flow from the requirements of production organised on a capitalist basis.

In a socialist society these special skills would become as redundant as medieval jousting is now.

It must also be remembered that much of the knowledge required for running industry that workers lack has nothing whatsoever to do with their lack of ability. It is simply kept secret from them because employers think – rightly – that it wouldn’t be ‘safe’ for trade unionists, shop stewards etc. to know what is going on.

The main obstacle to workers’ control, apart from capitalist power, is not workers’ lack of knowledge but their lack of confidence in their own abilities. This is hardly surprising for the whole capitalist system, through its schools, its media, its bureaucracies and officials, operates to crush this confidence.

However it is the struggle for workers’ control, die revolution itself, which will remove this obstacle. In revolution workers discover their power, and their confidence soars. The day after they have smashed the state, the prospect of running British Leyland won’t seem so daunting.

So much for the prejudice. What then is the real problem? Class society creates a division between manual and mental labour and capitalism accentuates this division. Moreover, capitalism fragments production itself into innumerable small repetitive operations performed by different workers. The result is that, in general, workers do not have the scientific and technical knowledge needed for complete mastery of the production process, nor will they have it immediately following the revolution. Consequently many of the ‘experts’ who are highly privileged in relation to ordinary workers will still be needed in the first stages of workers’ power. Indeed it may prove necessary to retain their co-operation by continuing to offer them certain limited privileges.

Does this undermine the possibility of workers’ control? No, because even if the experts remain, they can still be placed under the control of the workers. Under capitalism technical specialists are highly paid, but they don’t actually run enterprises. They work for managers and employers who may have little technical knowledge, but who can judge the work of the specialists by how it contributes to their profits. Under workers’ power the specialists will still work for managers and employers – but the managers will be the elected factory council and the employer will be the workers’ state. These bodies may lack technical knowledge, but will judge the work of the specialists by how it contributes to social need.

Workers’ control therefore is a practical proposition. Indeed, looking at the current state of British and world industry, it is the only practical proposition.

Don’t revolutions mean violence?

It is certainly likely that a revolution would involve some violence for the simple reason that the ruling class is not going to surrender its wealth and power peacefully. For the same reason, to reject revolution because it involves violence is to reject the possibility of getting rid of capitalism. And however much violence there would be in a revolution, it pales into insignificance compared with the violence involved in allowing capitalism to continue.

Capitalism is inseparable from violence and generates it at every turn. Thus the daily process of capitalist production exposes workers to injury, disease and even death – all in the pursuit of profit. There is the violence of condemning thousands of millions to poverty, and hundreds of millions to starvation in a world overflowing with wealth. There is the violence of military dictatorship – the only form in which capitalism can survive in many parts of the world, and the violence of imperialism which supports and maintains it.

There is the violence of capitalist war which has claimed at least 100 million victims this century and which threatens the ultimate violence of the nuclear holocaust.

No system based on the exploitation of the overwhelming majority by a tiny minority can maintain itself without violence. No system based on the competitive struggle for profits, one firm against another, one country’s firms against another’s, can avoid war. The only way to end this ongoing violence is for the working class to use the collective violence of revolution to overthrow capitalism. But having said this, it’s still important to challenge the capitalist image of revolution as an orgy of mindless bloodletting.

Revolution is violent. It is the forcible imposition of the will of one section of the population, the working majority, on the other, the ruling minority. But precisely because it is a question of the majority repressing the minority rather than the other way around, it is likely to involve relatively little bloodshed.

The bourgeoisie cannot fight its own battles; it is numerically weak. It depends on others, basically workers in uniform, to fight for it. All the violence the ruling class inflicts on the working class is done by one section of the workers against the rest. A powerful working-class movement that is united, ready to fight, and correctly led, can prevent this. It can break the power of the ruling class by winning over the rank and file of the army. When this happens the ruling class is unable to mount the level of resistance which would necessitate the use of very extensive violence by workers. It was because just such a process had taken place in the Russian revolution of 1917 that the October insurrection in Petrograd cost only a handful of lives.

It is also important to remember that revolutions don’t begin with acts of violence by revolutionaries. They arise from the class struggle itself and erupt when the class antagonisms in capitalism boil over.

If, however, the working class fails to use the necessary force at the decisive moment, then it lays itself open to the immeasurably greater violence of capitalist repression. Thus, during the Paris Commune of 1871, 30,000 Communards were slaughtered in a few days. The fascist counter-revolutions of Italy, Germany and Spain took the lives of millions. The Chilean coup often years ago and die Polish coup of 1981 show the same basic feature. In all these cases the failure to press home the revolution is punished by a one-sided civil war of hideous violence and barbarity.

Anyone put off revolution because of its alleged ‘violence’ is simply being duped by the utterly hypocritical arguments of bourgeois politicians who preach ‘non-violence’ to the workers, but never practice it themselves.

‘Under socialism they’d make us all the same ...’

‘Under socialism everyone will be the same.’
‘Socialism means grey uniformity.’
‘Socialism denies freedom of choice to the individual.’

This is a litany of complaint that must be familiar to every socialist. But before answering it, let’s consider the record of capitalism on this question, for supporters of capitalism have always claimed the defence of individuality and individual freedom as its supreme virtues.

In fact individuality under capitalism has always been the preserve of the privileged few. From school uniform and rote-learning to army uniform and square-bashing, from terraced housing and tower blocks to production lines and typing pools, the tendency of capitalism is precisely to impose ‘grey uniformity’ on the working class. It is the same in the fields of art, entertainment and sport. Capitalism produces the ‘spectator’ and the ‘mass audience’ – the majority of the population reduced to the role of passive observers to the activities of a few ‘stars’ purveyed by a centralised mass media.

All this derives from the fundamental features of the system – its divisions into classes and its organisation of production for profit. The fact that the ruling class is a tiny minority of society means that it can survive only by maintaining the working class majority in a state of mass conformity. The organisation of production for profit means that the individual creative labour of millions is stripped of its individuality and creativity and turned into so many hours of abstract labour power. Competition compels the capitalist to treat workers not as human beings but as items in die accounts, as mere appendages to machines. The individualism of capitalism was always only the individualism of the entrepreneurs – their freedom to exploit and accumulate without regard to social need.

But even this individualism is largely a thing of the past. In the age of the giant bureaucratic corporation the capitalist manager also becomes just a conforming cog in the accumulation machine.

The bogey of Stalinist Russia is always raised here as an example of ‘socialism’ crushing all individual freedom. But Russia is not socialist but state capitalist – a highly centralised form of exploitation which is an extreme expression of the anti-individualist tendency inherent in capitalism.

Marxists, it must be emphasised, are not opposed to individualism as such, only to bourgeois individualism which operates at the expense of the rest of society. Individualism that contributes to society, that makes it more varied, lively and humane, is something we are all in favour of.

The starting point of socialism is the collective action of workers. But that collective action is simultaneously an increase in the individual activity and freedom of each worker involved. It is the means through which the individual workers can assert their needs, stand up for their rights, refuse to be just entries on a balance sheet and begin to control their own lives.

The victory of the socialist revolution would raise this individual freedom twofold. Through workers’ councils each individual would participate in running society. Through workers’ control each individual would shape his or her working environment. Through the provision of proper contraception, abortion and nursery facilities women would be able to make a free individual choice about having children. With equal pay and work for all, marriage and sexual relationships would also become a matter of free choice rather than economic dependence.

Through the abolition of poverty and the drastic reduction of the working week, each individual would be free to develop his or her talents to the full. Indeed, one of the main reasons for fighting for socialism is precisely to secure a society in which, as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto, ‘the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all’.

John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 June 2015