Socialism’s Relevance Here and Now in Australia

Talking about socialism here and elsewhere

Dr. Tristan Ewins consistently seeks, from within the ALP, as an open socialist to the left of Australian laborism, to promote discussion about the meaning of socialism in Australia in the 21 st century.

Click here for his latest piece , “ALP Socialist Left Forum: The Prospects for Socialism Today”, that brings together discussions, debates and other exchanges on various Facebook pages and other sources.

We should develop the discussion further in the Australian context, and promote it more broadly, particularly reaching out to activists in the labour and green movements, and especially those who are active in both. It’s worth the effort, to sort out what we agree on and what we don’t, understand more deeply, and become better at explaining the great and immediate potential of socialism to workers who reject it at the moment.

Talking socialism, and acting on it, elsewhere

Before commenting directly on Tristan’s article, it’s worth noting that in the USA and Britain there is a lot more discussion about socialism in the context of political leaders, and the movements they are associated with, declaring themselves to be socialists. And the broader population is showing serious and growing interest. See this, for example.

You can also bet that the character of “socialism” and probably “socialist strategy” are a big part of the discussions happening in Venezuela and Mexico right now, and of course in Cuba as its mass participation in re-writing its socialist constitution reaches its final steps.

And, there is this from the Canadian veteran socialist intellectual, Sam Gindin: “Socialism for Realists”, click here.

Sam’s article is relevant because, although he comes at it in a different way to Tristan, he also focuses on socialism as an alternative society.

Socialism as an alternative society: foundation principles

One thing I like about Tristan’s effort is that he reminds us and takes us to, briefly, some foundation principles. These include, “Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system”, the Marxian principle “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”; the varieties of social ownership, the withering away of the state, and, “‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a ‘manner of applying democracy’ … the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the working class majority. (Widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin.)”

His primary reference points are Nordic social democracy on one hand and Stalinism on the other. For Tristan, it seems that Nordic social democracy in its history has 21st-century possibilities while Stalinism does not.

I agree on the latter and I think the former is far more problematic in the Australian context, and probably that is true in the Nordic countries also.

I agree with Tristan that we should be talking about the “foundational principles”. Even now, when we are a long way from socialism as an alternative society. And this is where Sam’s article fills some gaps.

I do think there are two problems in Tristan’s approach. First there are some holes and second, talking socialism only in terms of an alternative society neglects its immediate relevance.

Some holes in Tristan’s brief discussion

First, lets look at some holes, perhaps serious ones, in what Tristan says about the “foundation principles”.

First, socialism is an alternative society that is the antithesis of present-day capitalism. As such, there are new foundation principles that are explicit and central in addition to Tristan’s summary: first socialism restores and regenerates the natural world (this is actually a nineteenth-century Marxian idea); second, socialism elevates the potentiality and power of women within its development; third, socialism nurtures individuality and identity on the bedrock of tackling the common exploitation of nearly all.

But I think there is something terribly important missing in Tristan’s discussion of socialist democracy and the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat”. And I use the word “terribly” quite deliberately.

The missing concept is the counter-power of the capitalist class of the day that will, as it always has been, determined to destroy the development of socialism. This means that capitalist forces muts destroy the masses of potentials, starting with common access to food and water, clothing, shelter and culture. They will try to restore their command and control of the society, using whatever means are available and possible, including violence.

How should working people, as the 90 per cent majorty emerging as the new governing class respond to this? Accept it? Rely primarily or only on an electoral process? Exert their own command and control over the forces that wish to go backwards?

I don’t think we can talk about new and more powerful forms of democracy that enable the working class to govern the direction of the society, without grasping hold of what the “old” working class will do to destroy that process, including masses of people trying to make it happen. DEmocratic counter-fore must be part of the discussion.

I dont think Sam Gindin’s article grasps this dialectic either: force and counter-force.

Socialism’s immediacy in the Australian context, with an example

Socialism as an alternative society is some distance away. However, it also exists in the immediate presence in 2 important ways that are relevant for the here and now, not least because the present is the first part of the bridge to the better future.

Thus, Socialism also exists as a programme of challenge and change to the destructive logic of capitalism as it is happening right now.

A “political and economic alternative programme” that challenges 21st century capitalism’s logic exists inside the many struggles that many people are currently engaged in. Within those struggles, there are more, or less, articulate demands that describe a better deal for nature and humans in many different “fields”. Some of these, perhaps more than others, reflect the possibilities of progress towards a new society, or at least a more powerful challenge to the destructive trajectory of capitalism as we know it.

For Australians there is a distinctive feature for any socialist programme at any time in its development: it must incorporate the aims and demands of our First Nations peoples, and ensure a most powerful place for them in leading the pursuit of the programme.

Bringing greater coherency and unity to these many separate counter-demands of the people into a widely known and supported Programme is of the utmost priority for all of the struggles that are under way right now. That is socialism in immediate action.

Finally, socialism exists as a praxis that can be pursued here and now – a way of thinking and acting for big and small organizations, and for individuals, to break from the ways of thinking and acting that are acceptable in the current society. Effective immediate struggles of workers and citizens are born in ways of thinking that are rooted in a “critical outlook” with some specific characteristics.

Above all, and for the sake of brevity, “critical analysis” looks at problems with an eye for their “opposites” and for the relationship of each problem to other problems and phenomena (things, events etc.) And it sees any stat eof affairs as being in flux, changing and capable of being changed. And this way of thinking can be learned.

I finish with an example: wage stagnation and associated inequality have a lot to do with exploitation. But how this exploitation (of humans by a minority of humans) works can only be grasped by connecting wages to profits and also to private investment. Exploitation is NOT the payment of wages below a legal minimum; it is the payment of wages at less than the total value created by the waged workers and the difference being expropriated by the capitalists to enable ongoing and further accumulation that belongs only to them. This take on exploitation is a socialist way of understanding the problem: and, happens to be true and verifiable, especially in the daily realities of all workers and those who wish to work, but are denied the possibility.

Socialism exists in the present. Not just the future.

Understanding exploitation

This obituary for Erik Olin Wright makes me regret not paying more attention to his thoughts and writing. There was something of his that I read back in the early 80’s that provided some insights about union strategy at the time, that at short notice I do not recall. This says more, not good, about me rather than the quality of Wright’s work.

There are two reasons. First, as the obituary emphasizes, Wright focused on the primacy of class in understanding what’s happening in society. More of that please.

Second, that meant he focused on exploitation. The obituary elaborates a little on that.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I believe that the quality of understanding of what exploitation actually is very poor in the Australian left, especially in the union movement. I have said before that younger union activists have a stronger and more confident grasp of discrimination than they do of exploitation. This leads to serious strategic problems, including in the nature of demands that workers are encouraged to make on employers and governments. (For example see here, and here.)

It is quite common to hear or read exploitation discussed as the underpayment of wages relative to statutory minimums. The conclusion reached or suggested is that workers who are paid according to or better than the prescribed minimum are not exploited.

Of course, this is a nonsense that far too often is studiously and deliberately avoided. Among other things it leaves begging the possibility, and reality, of workers on relatively high wages, say above the average or the median, might be exploited at higher rate than workers on a relatively lower wage.

Yes, it is possible to work out, to some degree of precision, what the rate of exploitation is. It’s not just a conceptual thing, as valid as it is in that form.

If all workers are exploited, can there ever be fairness in a wages system within a capitalist society. Of course, that all depends on what moral or ethical value you attach to exploitation. Is it good, or is it bad? Or something else.

I don’t know whether Erik Olin Wright, as a marxist thinker for the 21st century, tackled these sort of questions.

I also don’t know from the obituary whether his focus on “exploitation” included the interactions and mutual dependencies between capitalism’s exploitation of the big majority human beings and of the natural environment.

Yet more learning to get stuck into in 2019.

Davos Forum 2019 – working out how to keep the 90% under control despite everything

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