“A spectre is haunting Europe.”
-the spectre of Socialism.
What is Socialism in the 21st century?
I was born in 2000. As a result, I have no first-hand experience of old-Socialism. But, the stereotypes (and that’s all they are: stereotypes) promote the image of a loud, aggressive movement characterised by: so-called disruptive Trade Unions, the Winter of Discontent and men in flat caps on soapboxes. I do not think this represents Socialism in the modern era.
Socialism is a dirty word, used by the gutter press as an insult as though Socialists are going to send Union thugs door-knocking to steal your money, force you into manual labour and eat your children. Socialism is the victim of a mass campaign of slander by just about everybody. It is time for Socialism to update itself to appeal to the 21st century palate. The days of “dark Satanic Mills” are long gone. Socialism needs to evolve to form a sleek, modern movement that carries the principles of old-Socialism headfirst into the 21st century. I am not suggesting we abandon its core principles: nationalisation, trade unionism, welfare, protection of the people and social justice. Rather, that we stand up for truly Socialist values in a way that is compatible with the hyper-globalised, fast-changing, modern world.
So, how do we transform Socialism from a misunderstood, misaligned outdated ideology into something fresh and relevant to the world we live in, and yes, something that will appeal to voters?
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, whose document of principles has proudly been the same since 1904, defines Socialism as:
“The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”
But, it is 91 years since Ramsay MacDonald formed the first ever Labour government; further, it is 115 years since Keir Hardie, in pursuit of State Socialism, proposed “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy…”. The Labour Representation Committee which, without time to campaign, only sponsored fifteen candidates in the 1900 “Khaki” Election - and only won two seats.
However, in 1945, the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party noted that, despite the Labour Party’s advocacy of State Socialism;
“[The] evolution of Capitalism has revealed for all to see the fundamental error of the reformist parties which turned aside from the working class problem of ownership to busy themselves with the problem of control, only to find that Capitalism had moved on and made their schemes obsolete. … Further, they realised that State industries ... were not even particularly acceptable to working class voters … Thus the Labour Party has changed its line and is walking in step with capitalist interests.”
In short, in a democratic society in which the power to lead and to reform is bestowed upon governments by a self-determining and educated electorate, popular appeal - and thus the winning of votes - necessarily shapes and dilutes the extremities of Socialist ideals.
The more popularist Democratic Socialism, is defined by the Democratic Socialist Party of America, as:
“...a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy with social ownership of the means of production.”
In practice, the principles of Democratic Socialism incorporate elements of Socialism into the Capitalist, free-market dominated society. ‘True’ Socialists argue that Socialism and Capitalism cannot co-exist. Democratic Socialists recognise that in a hyper-globalised, democratic society, the public vote demands that the two must co-exist, giving rise to an imperfect balance of striving to build Socialist economies which are dependent upon Capitalist free-markets.
This dichotomy gives rise to an inherent and troublesome contradiction within the Labour Party.
Speaking of the privatisation of British railways, Mick Cash, press officer of the RMT union stated, in 2014;
“It remains a disgrace that the last Labour government allowed the private profiteering and exploitation on our railways to continue unchecked and it’s about time the party endorsed RMT’s programme to bring the entire system under public control, free from the racketeering and greed of the past two decades.”
However, the then party leader, Ed Miliband was quick to disassociate himself from old-Socialist policies and ideologies saying:
“Old-fashioned Socialism was somehow about wholesale nationalisation of the commanding heights of our economy. That is not what I am about.”
Miliband nonetheless accepted that the current railway system was flawed: a system where consumers pay high prices and private companies rely upon big subsidies from the taxpayer. Miliband added;
“There is a balance to be struck here because there are some benefits you can have sometimes from competition and we are not going back to the old monolithic model that was British Rail. But we do need to look at how we can have a coherent system. … What I’m about is how do we make markets work properly in the public interest.”
And there lies the dichotomy: how do we make free markets - founded upon Capitalist ideologies which in practice rely upon the exploitation of low level workers to increase revenue and profit for the benefit of the few - work properly in the public interest, for the benefit of society as a whole?
In Sweden, recognised for “its sophisticated and once visionary social security system”, Save the Children reported, in 2010, that 242,000 children (or 12.7% of children) in Sweden were living in poverty. Meanwhile, Swedish film director Lisa Ohlin, who ‘enjoyed years of tax cuts in an economy the envy of Europe’, pines for the return of the welfare state. Further, of Swedish education, she comments;
"Classes are more about storage (of kids) than anything. Teachers cannot handle the workload they have in some classes. There is poor discipline and poor attention. There is a huge fear of going over the budget.”
In short, the Swedish welfare state and public services have withered. In response, both government and opposition necessarily campaigned to end tax cuts in order to win back voters in their general election.
And thus the pendulum continues to swing, back and forth, between left and right - first into the arms of Capitalism and the favoured few, and back again to address the needs of the ‘huddled masses’ whose interests seem to be permanently at odds with the interests of Capitalism.
What is increasingly clear to me is that this is a war that can neither be won, nor lost.
For over 100 years Socialism has been an economic ideology; the exchange of money from the hands of the rich to those of the poor, for a fairer society. But Socialism, in all its forms, needs to be no longer just about the economic politics, the left and right. Even Democratic Socialism, in it's expanding of traditional Socialist horizons to include political and social fairness, cannot escape the embrace of the antiquated left and right economic debate: who pays for fairness?
Throughout this epoch, the debate has turned around the conflicting interests of the rich and the powerful - as advanced through capitalist ideals and economic policies - against those of the poor and the vulnerable - as best served through socialist ideologies and economic policies.
However, dwindling global resources are rapidly closing the gap between left and right as it has become increasingly apparent that regardless of political ideologies and good intentions, nations simply cannot afford to continue to subsidise growing populations with decreasing resources.
Which brings me to my second question …
How do we transform Socialism into something fresh and relevant to the world we now live in?
Politics is shifting. It is moving from the relationship between rich and poor to the relationship between state and individual. Instead of saying “how much should the rich pay for the poor?” - the left-right argument - we should instead be asking: “to what extent is, or can government be responsible for financing the welfare of the poor?” - the up-down argument. These are the battles of the future and it is important we shift our focus towards these new political battle lines.
In short, the C21st Socialist must recognise and adopt consideration of the up-down spectrum as being a core ethic - of equal importance to traditional economic left-right values.
How do we embrace these arguments, and where do we draw these new battle-lines?
As a cornerstone, we could take guidance from the principles of Human Rights.
Traditionally, ‘up-down’ has been viewed through the prism of the libertarian-authoritarian argument. This focusses upon the power battle between state and individual, but from the perspective of left-right - spanning from authoritarians: Stalin on the left and Pinochet on the right - to the libertarians: collective anarchists on the left and the classical liberals on the right.
In contrast, Human Rights attempts to transgress individual political ideologies and spectrums, seeking instead to provide a consistent needs based framework, which attempts to define the the nature and extent of the obligations and responsibilities that exist between nation-states and their citizens, and distinct from the back-and-forth of a rigid left-right economic spectrum.
The sadness of Blair’s Human Rights Act is that it was our attempt to explore and embrace this new spectrum. And it backfired. Instead of provoking thought about the up-down argument, we have lapsed - due to a common misapprehension as to the nature and function of Human Rights - into the traditional left-right debates: criminal-victim, security-privacy, unions-employers ... and have completely sidestepped the true spectrum of Human Rights: state-individual.
However, as world populations increase and global resources decrease, it is increasingly important that we consider the nature and extent to which governments are, indeed can be responsible for the individual, and equally, to what extent the government has the right to interfere in the lives of individuals in its apportioning of increasingly meagre resources, from money, space or fuel - to welfare, education and health care - in short, the up-down spectrum.
I will use welfare as an example.
What is the purpose of welfare? Yes, of course - to shelter; to feed the needy. The current argument, the left-right argument, focuses upon how much can one reasonably raise the taxes of the rich to subsidise the welfare of the poor. This discussion is hampered by competing social and communal interests, as different sectors of the community vie for priority status in government thinking. Who is awarded this status depends on the swing of the pendulum between left and right.
However, the modern up-down argument sets aside this conflict of interest, and asks instead, to what extent is any government, left or right, responsible for subsidising the welfare of the poor.
Thus, this begs the question, what is the purpose of any government, left or right?
In his Two Treatises of Government (1680-1690), political philosopher and economist, John Locke, the ‘father of modern democracy’, holds that the power of the government is limited to the public good. It is a power that has “no other end but preservation” of society. Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (early 1800s) interpreted this to mean that it is the duty of governments to promote the common good through any action which serves this goal. Bentham took this to include torture, where it serves the higher common good. Libertarian Robert Nozick (1970s-80s) however, construed Locke to mean that governments exist only to protect people from infringements of rights, even if this gives rise to grave inequalities within society.
Modern Human Rights serves both: to safeguard individuals against abuses of power by the state, whilst also seeking to define and to reconcile the conflicting interests between the needs and rights of the individual, and the state’s duty to preserve and protect the common good.
Thus, if it is the common necessity of all political parties, whether left or right, to reduce individual dependence upon an increasingly burdened welfare system, then our political distinctions lie not in whether we do it - left-right, but in the how and why - up-down.
Whilst the Right wing persist in reliance upon prioritising the needs of capitalism; the needs of trade and industry over those of the individual and without which, so they claim, our economy would collapse, Left wing opponents are castigated for their willingness to allocate large amounts of taxpayers money to welfare, allegedly at the expense of growth and a sustainable economy. Right v Left - and so the pendulum swings back and forth with each successive government.
As regards recent Conservative cuts to Tax Credits, Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, stated that;
“[S]omeone could recoup the loss from the Work Allowance changes by working 3-4 additional hours a week at the national living wage to which they are entitled.”
This stance conveniently chooses to ignore the reality that there are people already working full hours, but still having to rely upon state handouts, in the form of tax/universal credits.
Let us turn to the up-down argument: if the preservation of society requires that all governments reduce welfare dependence, then I assert that it is implicit, within the context of a human rights culture, that democratic governments are under a duty to pro-actively facilitate individuals in the pursuit of independence from a welfare state. Incorporate in this objective is acceptance of the duty to protect individuals from exploitation and abuse from profiteering companies; namely to ensure that all workers in full time employment are paid a proper living wage. Evidently, the right to fair wages reduces the welfare bill and increases self sufficiency amongst workers.
It follows, that the C21st Socialist ought to pursue the principle of a proper living wage as being essential to both promoting human dignity, ie giving workers the esteem of being able to finance their families without state handouts, and also reducing individual reliance upon welfare.
The Tories will argue, left and right, that the paying of a true living wage will cause companies to suffer hardship, and further, discourage investors, without whom, our economy will collapse.
However, the up-down argument demands that we call a spade a spade; in short, if we are going to address the problems of the future, we must first be honest about what these problems are.
Continuing the example of tax/universal credits which currently top up the salaries of those who are working full-time hours for less than a subsistence level wage. It would be fair to say that, in reality, governments are propping up industry and 'Fat-Cat' companies, and not the individual worker.
This gives rise to the question as to why governments are having to subsidise private industry. Are not these industries, who cannot afford to pay their workers a proper living wage, failing?
In the case of essential industries, it might be argued that Nationalisation of failing industries would better serve the public good; non-profit making companies who can afford to pay a proper living wage, thereby benefiting the individual worker. It is an additional benefit, that these public companies could provide a basic, reasonable quality service for an affordable price, thereby benefiting society.
In the case of genuine profit-making companies, one must question as to why such companies require subsidies - by way of government tax/universal credits to low-level workers - at all. If the answer lies in the mere fact that governments are responding to the threats of private companies to withdraw trade and investment in the face of reduced profits arising from paying workers a fair salary, then we must question as to how the public interest can ever be served by any government who would sacrifice the welfare of its poor and needy (the Right), or the financial viability of government itself (the Left), in response to ruthless blackmail by private enterprise.
Finally, if private commerce is not self-sufficient, and cannot survive without government subsidies, then one must question whether Capitalism is successful at all.
Have we not simply exchanged subsidising the many, for subsiding the chosen few? In the words of Martin Luther King Jr;
“This country has Socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.”
In short, Capitalism and Socialism, both crippled by the stalemate left-right debate, have failed.
The up-down argument demands that we must think again. In a world of growing populations and reliance upon resource intensive production and distribution against dwindling supplies, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate how we measure our success, as individuals and as a society.
We must stop fighting about an already failed answer. We must instead look for a new question.
We must embrace the challenges presented in the re-defining of our ideals by reference to the modern up-down argument and C21st realities - an opportunity ripe for the picking; we must call a spade a spade - neither a symbol of free enterprise nor of the workers struggle. In this nation of thinkers, inventors, creators and workers, are we really so limited that we can see nothing beyond the entrenched Capitalism-Socialism divide of the past? Can we really not divine a future for ourselves that rests upon something other than resource intensive industry and commerce?
For my own part;
I aspire to a society in which we embrace human qualities - education, culture, wisdom - over property and possessions and the trinkets of Capitalism.
I aspire to a society in which we cherish our rich culture and history, not the latest iPhone.
I aspire to a society in which governments define preservation of society and the public good as being that which best facilitates each and every individual within a given society to participate fully and fairly:
“From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
But most of all, I aspire to a society in which success is measured, not by the pursuit of wealth and gain, but rather by reference to who and what we are, and how we affect those around us.
So, as we celebrate the passing of another year and welcome in the New Year, let us embrace a new, up and down approach to Socialism - C21st Socialism. Like it or not, these are the arguments we are going to have to have. These are the debates of the future.
We are presented with a completely wonderful, unique opportunity. The opportunity to change the direction of humankind. The millennium is still new to us and the door to a better world stands before us. It is time to shake off the chains of 200 years of Capitalism - 200 years of the left-right stalemate - and 200 years of infinite growth on a finite planet. We have serious choices to make. Choices with consequences that are more far-reaching, more everlasting, than we could ever comprehend.
If we play our cards right we can create something beautiful - or at least lay down the foundations for our descendants to do so. But - if we do not - then we are sentencing humanity to spend the rest of eternity fighting a battle that cannot be won. It is our duty to make these choices today. If we do not, the door will close. There will be nothing left to debate over - population growth and resource shortages will make sure of that.
Humankind has a new future just within its grasp.
All we have to do, is reach out and take it.
Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels, 1848
Preface to Milton, William Blake, 1804
Keir Hardie in Merthyre Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby
Ed Miliband accused of Socialism …, by Peter Dominiczak, The Telegraph, 24 May 2014
Even in Sweden, the social security system is failing …, by S Alfredsson, The Guardian, 30 Jan. 2013
Swedes tire of tax cuts as welfare state shows strain, by D Dickson & A Scrutton, Reuters, 17 Mar. 2014
Locke’s Political Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised 29 July 2010.
[IDS]’s ‘Christmas Message’ to poorest families …, by Adam Withnall, The Independent, 22 Dec 2015
Louis Blanc, 1851; Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875