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Peter Lamb

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Peter Lamb

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Socialism has made a dramatic comeback in the 21st century. In the wake of financial crisis, mounting inequality and social decay, it seems more relevant than ever. Nobody who seeks to understand contemporary politics can ignore it. In this book, leading scholar Peter Lamb identifies the key ideas and principles of socialism and explores different (often conflicting) interpretations that have appeared in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, from the early nineteenth century until today. He explores the different ways that socialist thinkers have conceptualised community, equality and liberty and shows how, despite overlap with other traditions, socialists have combined these ideas in common and distinct ways that make the socialist tradition uniquely valuable. Lamb goes on to trace the recent re-emergence of these ideas, and explain what will be required for such a revival to be popular, powerful and sustained. This book will be invaluable to any student or scholar interested in political theory, socialism, communism or political ideologies, as well as to general readers striving to understand contemporary politics throughout the world.

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Rich in diversity, socialism nevertheless has at its theoretical base a clear configuration of tenets. Socialism has been and remains a coherent ideology, even though supporters of some of its variants find others distinctly unappealing. This coherence allows the variants to be grouped into a resilient social and political movement striving, since its emergence in the early nineteenth century, to put its tenets into practice. To retain significance, resonance and appeal, this short book concludes, socialism needs to keep but reframe its core principles, abandon some of the baggage which has allowed it to be disparaged and fight the battles of the present.
Socialism is an ideology of the left based on a distinctive combination of three main principles, equality, freedom and community, around which various other principles revolve. The notoriously imprecise political term ‘left’ emerged in the French revolutionary period. In the new assembly of 1789, campaigners for liberal and egalitarian reform sat at the left of the chamber. Liberalism is based on a defence of individual freedom, which can involve either reform or resistance to change. As it includes radical reformist liberals, the left is thus broader than socialism. ‘Left’ came to signify radical political ideas, movements and parties seeking wider and more effective participation, social change, various forms of egalitarianism and reform or abolition of capitalism (Lamb, 2016: 521).
Capitalism is a social and economic system based on a combination of three key features: private ownership of property; self-interested pursuit of such property; and the exchange of goods and the market as means of determining prices of services and goods (Saunders, 1995: 3–9). In prioritizing private property ownership, socialists argue, capitalism encourages individualistic acquisitiveness, discourages community-mindedness, entrenches inequality and allows too much individual rather than social freedom.
In response to the financial crisis that began in 2007, capitalism has survived around the globe by means of austerity for the many. While capitalism may recover in the short term, more fundamental is the inability of Planet Earth to sustain capitalist processes, which are exhausting resources, polluting the environment and bringing irreversible geographical change detrimental to the human species, among others. Socialism has been considered as an alternative by some of those enduring austerity along with their sympathizers. Notwithstanding its potential to foster human flourishing, socialism has, however, sometimes been interpreted, formulated and manipulated in ways which have the opposite effect.
A very prominent form of socialism in the twentieth century, especially after Joseph Stalin took control of the theory and practice of communism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was Marxism-Leninism. The USSR was founded in 1922 by Vladimir Lenin, with Stalin’s assistance, after Lenin’s revolutionary seizure of power in Russia in 1917 (Service, 2000: 308–23, 455–61). Marxism-Leninism drew ostensibly on Lenin’s ideas, which in turn interpreted those of Karl Marx. In reality, Marxism-Leninism implemented public ownership in the form of a centrally planned and publicly owned economy, was authoritarian in theory and practice, shunned Western democracy and suppressed opposition. Variants of Marxism-Leninism, often referred to simply as communism, emerged around the world, including the People’s Republic of China, which, founded by the revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-Tung), is one of several communist states still in existence today (Holmes, 2009: 1–13).
The US-based radical Chinese economist Minqi Li, although critical of the abuse and authoritarianism associated with Marxism-Leninism (which he refers to by the generic ‘socialism’), suggests that something valuable can still be retrieved from the ideology. ‘Only with public ownership and society-wide planning’, he argues, ‘could society achieve ecological sustainability without sacrificing the basic needs of the great majority of the population’ (Li, 2013: 41). Many radical environmentalists would challenge Li, suggesting instead that a federation of small-scale communities would be far more suitable for the task of surviving the environmental hazards that are already causing irreparable damage. Socialists, moreover, need not rely on top-down guidance. Indeed, there are new opportunities to be explored for people to have a key role in building socialism for themselves. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2018: 11–16) suggest, in the present period of capitalist decline following the financial crisis, the tendency for activists in a range of countries to widen their activities from protest to involvement in party politics reflects an opportunity to draw on dissatisfaction with contemporary capitalism to revive a genuinely democratic socialism which takes environmental concerns seriously.
Looking back to the early 1990s, however, when capitalism was in the ascendancy and the ecological problems were less obvious, the prospects for socialism appeared grim. It was fashionable to declare that, having undermined itself and been exposed as a fundamentally malign doctrine with little value, socialism was a spent force. The wide variety of its manifestations and what appeared to be contradictions among socialist ideas led some observers, moreover, to the different, but no less damning, conclusion that the term ‘socialism’ is meaningless (Beecher, 2013: 370). This book offers a very different analysis, contending that socialism remains as a coherent force on the left. This will become evident as the different variants are discussed. Let us first, however, consider ways in which socialists of various hues have responded to the apparent demise of their ideology.

Socialist decline and recovery

In 1989, a large demonstration in Beijing calling for reforms to Chinese communism was quelled when the state resorted to brutality, bloodshed and repression. In the same year, a series of revolutions erupted in the Eastern European Marxist-Leninist states. By the early 1990s, not only had those states fallen but the USSR, which dominated them, had imploded. Whether this reflected weaknesses in Marx’s theories became a moot point.
Marx’s work revolves around three main nodes: the analysis of capitalism in terms of social class; a theory of historical trajectory; and a movement for emancipation from exploitation (Wright, 1993: 15–21). The notion of exploitation, which Marx formulated in his early work of the 1840s, builds on the broader meaning of the immoral use of other people for a person’s or persons’ own ends. Marx was concerned more specifically with the use by the property owners in class-divided societies, without appropriate recompense, of the labour of people who need to work to earn a living. He argued that in the labour process of capitalism this occurs either consciously among members of the two classes or systemically as the owning class benefits from exploitation of the proletariat (industrial working class) with varying degrees of recognition that this is happening (Burnham and Lamb, 2019: 101–20). In the latter case, the labour and lives of the proletarians are in a condition of alienation from their work, products and indeed their human nature (Burnham and Lamb, 2019: 67–100). By ‘alienation’ he meant that they had lost control of productive activity and consciousness that cooperation in such activity is a feature of the human species.
The emphasis on the system, or structure, is a prominent feature of Marxist writing, but the extent to which Marxism-Leninism replaced the capitalist system with one which introduced a new form of exploitation is debatable. Nevertheless, if so, this justifies neither the view which began to circulate in the 1990s that Marxism itself had been undermined nor the argument that socialism in general was in its death throes. Overcoming or at least minimizing exploitation remains a basic goal for socialism. In the twenty-first century, this has led socialism to challenge and be challenged by neoliberalism, which advocates the minimization of restraints on, and regulation of, global capitalism.
This supposed demise of socialism was celebrated by neoliberal thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama who pronounced the end of history, meaning liberal capitalism would henceforth face no significant challenges. ‘Socialism’, Fukuyama (1992: 106) declared, ‘is no more appealing as an economic model for developing countries than it is for advanced industrial societies.’ Perhaps more alarming for socialists were views expressed by some of their own political philosophers. ‘As a system’, AndrĂ© Gorz (1994: vii) announced, for example, ‘socialism is dead’.
The alleged advantages of victorious capitalism were not, however, accepted without question. Saral Sarkar (1991), for example, stressed that many people in capitalist developing countries could only dream of the economic living standards of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which, he acknowledged, was nevertheless an awful authoritarian regime which wasted natural resources. Change was needed, but capitalism was not the answer. Socialist feminists, too, insisted that the direction of change need not be towards capitalism. Feminism is concerned with the exclusion of women from roles and circumstances which enable empowerment and flourishing. While Marxism-Leninism had not allowed women to flourish, capitalism, against which socialism continued to campaign, was linked with patriarchy, or in other words male domination. Capitalism was thus biased towards the exclusion of women from positions of power (Haug, 1991).
Feminist socialism is one of many variants of the socialist ideology, ranging from the radical revolutionary to the moderate social democratic. Social democrats hold that a form of socialism at least tolerable to people of other ideological persuasions can be introduced by means of regulation, achieved through parliamentary politics. Some social democrats in the early 1990s argued that a revived or resuscitated socialism need not attempt to uproot capitalism but rather could subject it to significant reform and control. In 1994, such a mild social democratic view was voiced by the new British Labour Party leader, Tony Blair.
Blair argued that while the Marxist strand of socialism, based, as he saw it, on central control of industry and production, was dead, the traditional ethical strand was very much alive, albeit in need of revival. As a practising Christian and a member of the Christian socialist movement, Blair thought in terms of family, insisting that individuals were interdependent and social beings, undetachable from their society. This, for him, was the basis of a democratic form of socialism having as its values social justice, the equal worth of citizens, equality of opportunity and community (Seldon, 2005: 516–19).
Hyphenating his position as ‘social-ism’, Blair (1994: 4) sought to ‘move beyond the battle between public and private sector and see the two as working in partnership’. On this basis, the notion of ‘The Third Way’, or ‘Die Neue Mitte’, became popular among theorists such as Anthony Giddens and politicians such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schröder. They argued that traditional social democracy, with its focus on nationalized industries and services, was discredited and outdated, as were the obsessively free-market ideas of neoliberalism. To retrieve the ethical tradition, social democracy needed to be thoroughly modernized (Giddens, 1998, 2000). Drawing on the idea of the radical centre which had been circulating in recent political thinking, Giddens (1998: 44–6) stressed that the centre was not necessarily moderate. The centre could propose substantial social change, the appeal of which would not be restricted to the traditional right or left. The Third Way achieved considerable electoral results in Europe. Having distanced himself from the principle of common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and styled his party as New Labour, for example, Blair won three successive general elections.
Nevertheless, the electoral success of the modernized social democracy did not mean that henceforth the ideological spectrum would extend no further to the left. Even before the Third Way was pronounced, there were signs that socialism might have a radical future. At the end of 1994 in Chiapas, southern Mexico, for example, activists of the Zapatista movement suddenly took direct revolutionary action against the Mexican capitalist state, catching the attention of people unattracted to the old forms of socialism. Reflecting later upon the appearance of his movement, the charismatic, masked Zapatista leader who styled himself Subcomandante Marcos (2004: 5–6) stressed that there had been ‘two major gaps in the movement of the revolutionary Left in Latin America’. First, there were the indigenous peoples from whom his movement had emerged. Second, there were minorities such as LGBT people who were not only excluded from the discourses of the Latin American left but also disregarded and sometimes even opposed by communist parties.
The Zapatistas helped inspire a campaign against global capitalism. The anti-capitalist movement gained momentum after the famous ‘battle in Seattle’ of 1999, when thousands of protesters demonstrated outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Callinicos, 2003: 4–5). Particularly in Latin America, considerable support grew for left-wing parties and movements, some of which went on to win political office and power. Some were radical, such as those in Venezuela and Bolivia led by Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, respectively (Burbach, 2014). Others were more moderate, such as the Workers’ Party in Brazil led by presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and Dilma Rousseff, which nevertheless achieved reforms that were impressive considering the oppressive conditions in the country before their election to government (Morais and Saad-Filho, 2011). After the end of history had been declared, socialism had thus begun to stage a range of significant revivals. The wide variety within socialist ideology in this short period, moreover, reflected the richness it had exhibited throughout its history.
As is the case with any ideology, theory, on the one hand, and experience of political activity, on the other, have a reciprocal influence. An emerging example of such a linkage was identified by Ralph Miliband (1994: 194–5), who, in Socialism for a Sceptical Age, argued that the present age had become one of ‘wild capitalism’, wherein gross inequalities and austerity were accepted as normal. This ethos and the conditions it sought to justify would not, he opined, be tolerated now that a revolution in communications had made people far more aware of their world and better able to organize. The ongoing developments in communications since he wrote have indeed fostered new forms of politics, discourse, organization and action. Nevertheless, socialists must face the reality that information and communications technology is used very effectively by their opponents. Reflecting on what the revival of social democracy had and had not achieved, Tony Fitzpatrick (2003: 61–71) discussed the commodification of information, and the strengths of employers, especially large corporations, in this respect. In other words, information was perceived in terms of profit and loss and workplace surveillance had increased with information technology. Internet activity and the use of email had made the lives of workers and consumers far easier to track. Information about workers was valuable to ensure their work practices were not too expensive, while information about consumers could be used to sell them more goods and services. Exploitation had extended to transforming human thought and action into a series of binary-coded decisions that simplify human relations. Marx (1977: 61–74) had written in the 1840s that the capitalist system alienated humans from their labour, their selves and their species. With the commodification of information and the freeing of industry from systematic organization and accountable authority, this alienation had only intensified.
As Gorz (1994: 38–41) noted, few people now desired systematic organization of their lives; but they still sought emancipation, by means of which they could achieve self-development and self-determination collectively, through solidarity and cooperation, in an ecologically sustainable society. Whilst, as mentioned above, he conceded that socialism had died as a system, this did not, for him, mean that socialism was dead per se.
To survive and flourish, socialism would need to move with the times. It was no...

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