Trade unionists, socialists, youth and activists will celebrating this year’s May Day all around the world. It is customary for speakers at May Day events to talk about the need to resist capitalism. But what sort of society are we struggling for? How would socialism work? Does the experience of the Russian Revolution’s degeneration invalidate socialism?
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party General Secretary, (CWI England & Wales), looks at these questions.
The ’S’ word - socialism - dare not speak its name in the British general election campaign. Apart from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) - with its brilliantly effective TV broadcast and general programme for socialist change - none of the big or even the smaller parties have been prepared to offer any alternative to the existing capitalist system.
And yet an otherwise deadening election campaign - with the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour ’marketing’ themselves as just slightly different brands of the same soap powder - has at least one advantage. It has revealed that they have no alternative to a system which relentlessly grinds down working people and the poor.
In the Socialist Party’s manifesto we have shown how democratic socialism would liberate production from the shackles of private capitalist ownership. How? By bringing into public ownership the 150 companies that produce most of the wealth, the working class could plan and organise society for the benefit of all. The owners of the big monopolies exercise a thinly veiled capitalist dictatorship, which determines what will and what won’t be produced, according to how much profit can be made.
A democratic socialist plan of production would immediately soak up ’unused capacity’ - probably between 20 and 30% today - which would allow the unemployed to be put back to work on a decent wage, with a minimum of at least £10 an hour and probably more.
If the minimum wage had kept pace with what is paid to the chief executive officers of the FTSE 100 stock market index companies, then it would now be worth almost £20 an hour! Together with other measures, this would generate big increases in health spending and education, and eliminate overcrowding and homelessness through a crash housing programme of at least one million new dwellings. This would allow incomes to rise, leading to a spiral of growth.
The owners of these 150 giant monopolies are, in reality, a dictatorship of capital, which has brought ruin and suffering to the majority of the British people, and promises even worse in the future. And the main parties have bent the knee to them by supporting different degrees of ’austerity’.
Capitalism in the past was a relatively progressive system, which developed science, technique and labour: the means of production. The engine of the system was the creation of profit through the labours of the working class.
Profit, said Karl Marx, is "unpaid labour", that portion of the wealth which working people create but that they don’t receive in wages. This ’surplus value’ is then divided into rent for the landlords, interest for the bankers and the rest pocketed by the industrial and other capitalists.
Most of this profit, in the heyday of capitalism in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, was ploughed back, through investment in factories and other means of production. Only a portion was kept back for luxuries, to enhance the lifestyle of the ’have yachts’. Their historical function, said Marx, was as "trustees" for the development of capitalist production. They achieved this for a time by investing this surplus into production, so ensuring that the system was driven forward.
However, capitalism reveals today that it has reached a dead end. It is no longer a progressive system as capitalist ownership of industry, and thereby the domination of society, exercises an enormous drag on the further progress of society. This is revealed strikingly in the facts and figures supplied by the capitalists and their media.
We read that profits are booming but they are not being invested back into production. Instead, they are stashed away in cash piles, amounting to a huge $7 trillion at least worldwide - more than one third of what the US produces in a year! Clearly, the capitalists are betraying their ’mission’ to develop production and thereby society. Don’t take our word for it - look at what their friends in the media say!
The Financial Times, house journal of the big financiers, wails about "shareholder pay outs of up to $1 trillion to ’blue-chip’ firms." The same paper complains: "The buybacks [are seen] as rewarding company executives and their share option plans, and argue that a focus on shareholder returns at the expense of investment could damage the performance of the economy in the future."
In other words, capitalism today has become completely parasitic, concerned more with short term results, feathering the nest of the executives that manage them and their largely idle shareholders, rather than investing in building factories and workplaces; in short, the provision of jobs.
Europe and America, the ’developed’ economies, are plagued by unemployment - mass joblessness in the case of Europe - or underemployment. The World Bank reports that there are at least 201 million unemployed throughout the world. This is an underestimate, yet they also calculate there will be at least 212 million workers unemployed by 2019.
As to those who manage to get a job, 700,000 workers in Britain have zero-hour contracts that, conveniently for the bosses, are described as being ’on tap’; in other words, "the reserve army of unemployed" described by Karl Marx 100 years ago as an essential component of capitalism.
If a story can sometimes speak louder than numerous facts, then Paul Mason’s account recently in the Guardian of a London woman hotel worker who cleaned 17 rooms in one-day for wages of £48 says everything about the brutal treatment of the low paid and desperate in Britain today.
The misnamed ’work and pensions’ secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, even wants to change the description of low-paid slave labour - for that is what it is - from ’zero hours’ to ’flexible working’. Cameron has tried to conjure away the million forced to rely on food banks by disgracefully explaining this as a "lifestyle choice" - the so-called something for nothing culture!
It is not an accident that in Britain today Poundland stores are booming - with a record £1 billion annual turnover reported - as are Lidl and Aldi, indicating the growing impoverishment and drastic tightening of the belt for working class families. This while Tesco and other ’better class’ outlets close or mothball stores.
One in three GPs plan to retire in the next five years. The NHS, already severely weakened by Tory and Labour privatisations, is now being threatened with the introduction of charges for treatment, including visits to the doctor ’whoever wins the election’.
But it is hardly necessary to convince the working class that there is something seriously wrong. Even the defenders of capitalism can no longer, as they did following the collapse of Stalinism, extol triumphantly the ’superiority’ of their system.
It is clearly failing. Therefore, they have had to fall back on the threadbare argument, put forward by Winston Churchill and others in the past, to the effect that ’capitalism may be deficient but all the other alternatives, including socialism, are worse.’
They invoke the ’spectre’ of what happened following the Russian revolution. "Look, the attempt of the workers to take over society ended with a monstrous totalitarian regime".
The truth is that, initially, Russia carried through a revolution, beginning with the ’Ten Days that Shook the World’. The political system - the election and recall at any time of all officials who received no more than a worker’s wage - was the most democratic and fairest yet seen, which threatened to spin over into an international movement.
It did not develop because the revolution was isolated in one country, and an economically backward one at that. In this situation, a bureaucratic degeneration took place personified by the rise of Stalin, with the working class elbowed aside and power concentrated over time into the hands of a bureaucratic, dictatorial elite. This was a gross caricature of democratic, liberating socialism which the Bolsheviks originally stood for and what we advocate today.
Andrew Neil, on the BBC Daily Politics programme, sought to frighten viewers by jeering at Dave Nellist, spokesperson for TUSC, that we stood for "Bolshevik expropriation" of the big capitalists and implied that we would not be able to "afford" compensation, as we claimed.
We would defend stubbornly what Lenin, Trotsky and their followers did in taking over industry and establishing a workers’ state in 1917. But conditions in Britain are entirely different to then. We live in a highly developed, culturally advanced society.
What outraged Neil was our call for the taking over of the banks - public ownership - so that they could be run in the interests of working people. Precisely because we understand that the capitalists and those who represent them like Neil would start shrieking about unfair "expropriation", we added that we would give "compensation" on the basis of "proven need."
In other words, the small and perhaps medium- sized shareholders would receive compensation at much more generous rates than welfare recipients today. Others may even be compensated, that is assuming that they could not find gainful employment!
How would this be paid for? By the extra resources which we have already said could be generated by a socialist and democratic plan of production.
There is overwhelming evidence to indicate widespread hostility to the marauding and outright corruption of the big banks and the corporate elite. There is massive support for the maintenance of the National Health Service, as there is for the renationalisation - taking back into public ownership - of the railways.
That is why the last Labour government, through gritted teeth, had to take over and refurbish the East Coast line after the privateers had ruined it, with commuters up in arms. This was so popular with workers and rail passengers that the Tories decided that this example of popular public ownership should be squashed. They have sold it back to the spivs and speculators who ruined it in the first place!
Poll after poll indicates intense hostility to privatisation, which is synonymous in public perception with rip-offs from giant ’privateers’. However, the script has already been written: privatisation will continue, probably even if Miliband is elected. What will happen then would be job losses and a worsening of conditions at work, combined with the hiking of charges to the customer.
The history of privatisation - since the Thatcher-inspired sell-off of the utilities in the 1980s, carried on by Blair and New Labour - is one of growing discontent with so-called ’free enterprise’. Even the Tories, only yesterday fervent apostles of the ’free market’, seem to have embraced ’planning’, which is back in vogue.
Osborne and Cameron incessantly intone on the necessity for their "long-term plan" to relentlessly cut the deficit and maintain austerity, in reality planned poverty.
Yet capitalism - which means the blind play of the productive forces - is, by its nature, incompatible with real planning. Like inequality, which is woven into the very foundations of capitalism, the chaos of the system cannot be magicked away or fully controlled, even by the government, not even by Cameron or Osborne. They are slaves, forced to carry out the demands of the capitalists: "You can’t buck the market," claimed Thatcher.
We cannot fully control what we don’t own. Even in the so-called postwar ’mixed economy’ - which at one time encompassed in the state’s hands 20% of industry - Labour and Tory governments were still compelled to bow to the market, to carry out in the final analysis its bidding.
The 80% in the hands of the capitalists will always dictate to the 20% and not vice versa. Former US President Clinton once exclaimed: "You mean to tell me that the success of the economic programme and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of f***ing bond traders?"
But the hysteria of those like Neil towards any suggestion of real socialist measures being implemented indicates a morbid fear that this is an idea whose time has come. The Occupy movement, with its tremendous slogan of support for the ’99%’ and opposition to the 1% - in reality the 0.5% - struck the nail on the head.
The new generation are reaching out. They are more certain of what they don’t want - capitalism and its effects - than the alternative of real democratic socialism. But experience will teach them and increasing numbers of workers, and the Socialist Party will assist them in searching for the positive alternative of a new economic and social system, which is socialism.
Ed Miliband in this election has not taken one step outside of the system, has refused in reality to challenge the wealthy and powerful who are responsible for the chaos, the ills and stunted lives of millions of working-class people.
He has occasionally denounced the worst excesses of capitalism: the energy industries, greedy landlords, etc, which has alarmed the bosses. They are not certain that he will not be pushed into taking some radical measures.
But his central theme is to criticise the so-called "predatory" wing of capitalism. Like those who usually futilely spend their time on beaches looking for buried treasure, Miliband’s quest has been to discover "responsible" capitalism. In vain!
The capitalists, no matter how some may be ’sympathetic’ to the plight of the working class and poor, in the final analysis, seek the maximisation of ’profit’ as their central goal. Occasionally, in an economic upswing, they can then allow a few crumbs from their rich table to trickle down to some sections of the working class.
Now, however, is not one of those periods. On the contrary, they are waging a brutal class war as Warren Buffet stated: "There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."
Capitalism cannot fully utilise even its own creations, such as new technology. In fact, this threatens the working class with even more mass unemployment and worsening conditions and, as a result, an intensification of the class struggle.
Yet these marvellous developments in science and technique are an expression of what Friedrich Engels called "the invading socialist revolution".
It is gives us a glimpse of what is possible through democratic socialism. However, that can only be achieved if we fight for and convince working people, particularly the youth, that socialism is not just the wave of the future but is absolutely essential today.