Here’s another thing I just ran across on Facebook.
Not a bad summary, but it does leave out a couple of things.
Democratic socialists in 1914 supported their own national ruling classes in WWI, rejecting socialist internationalism, beginning with the German social democracy voting in favor of war bonds.
Democratic socialists (Mensheviks) in Russia in 1917, unable to control the working class opposition to the war, collaborated with Kornilov in his openly-avowed plan to massacre the Petrograd workers. Then, when Kornilov revealed that he planned to crush the Democratic Socialists along with the workers, they turned against him–by releasing the Bolsheviks they had jailed and asking for their help.
Democratic socialists in Germany handed state power back to the bourgeoisie in 1918 after the working class had taken power in spite of them; this paved the way for Hitler.
Democratic socialists betrayed the British coal miners in 1921, fending off a general strike that could have led to the taking of power by the working class. *
Democratic socialists also refused to unite with the Communist Party against Hitler (to be fair, so did the Stalinist Communist Party), thus dividing the working class and permitting the Nazis to take power without a shot being fired.
Democratic socialists, by opposing the exportation of jobs (see photo above), give credence to the notion that the worker in another country is the enemy of the worker in their country, which helps keep the working class divided.
Democratic socialists, by their reliance on unions (see photo above), find themselves supporting the trade union bureaucrats who collaborate with the corporations against the interests of the rank-and-file.
Democratic socialists begin by trying to make capitalism more equitable and democratic, but, because they accept private property as a given, and capitalism as a given, respond to circumstances where capitalism and democracy are incompatible by giving their support to capitalism. So long as we live in a class society, the State will be an instrument of the repression of one class by another. So long as we live in a capitalist society, the State will serve the capitalists. The refusal to support a direct struggle for state power disarms the working class before its enemies, however well-intentioned the democratic socialist might be.
* The leaders of the Transport Workers Union, Williams and Thomas, were both leaders of the Labor Party, the British section of the International Social Democracy: the 2nd International, and acted with the support of the party.
46 thoughts on “On Democratic Socialists”
One of these days, I need to buy you some drinks and talk about socialism. I grasp the general concepts, but the level of knowledge and history displayed in this post frankly amaze me.
I’d be up for that.
This democratic socialist hates that thing you found on Facebook. If we’re going to quibble about political labels, it sounds more like social democracy than democratic socialism.
Two more things:
1. The government of the social democrats in Germany in 1919, together with the fascist Freikorps, hunted down and executed the great revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht. This again was the work of the Second International.
2. The Labour Party in Israel — also part of the Second International, now rechristened the Socialist International — played a major part in the land grab and brutal displacement of the Palestinians during the founding of Israel. Since then, it has prosecuted three wars against its Middle Eastern neighbors, until being displaced by the Likud Party.
Interesting. This is my socioeconomic lesson for the day. Love to learn new things. Thanks Steven.
Uh, man, I am trying to let this go, but my aspieness is fighting it. Your links speak of social democracy, not democratic socialism. Mind you, not blaming you. I’m blaming the writer of the Facebook thingie for obscuring the distinction.
Wikipedia’s not bad on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_socialism
Will, that sounds perilously similar to the distinction between the Judean People’s Front, and the People’s Front of Judea. I may simply be too far from either of these demographics to immediately see the difference, but a little help here would be appreciated.
“Democratic socialists, by their reliance on unions (see photo above), find themselves supporting the trade union bureaucrats who collaborate with the corporations against the interests of the rank-and-file.”
And anybody who relies on government finds himself supporting the government bureaucrats who collaborate with some special interests against the interests of everybody else.
I’ve seen the claim by a historian that the modern concept of bureaucratic government came when governments needed tremendous sums to build earthworks to protect cities. Cities with adequate defense were mostly safe, those without would be sacked. So merchants accepted the heavy taxes.
But bureaucratic governments are inevitably corrupt. Perhaps what we need is something more like a market. A way for people to get together with others who have similar opinions, and work together to oppress those who disagree.
When the legitimate functions of government are performed entirely by amateurs, we can be reasonably sure that they will be done sincerely.
“When the legitimate functions of government are performed entirely by amateurs, we can be reasonably sure that they will be done sincerely.”
And with a pile of luck, perhaps reasonably well. Depending on your definition of “amateur.” I would not trust an amateur surgeon, no matter how sincere. An amateur chef, no problem. Amateur auto mechanics–it depends.
I find that the current classist kleptocrats are much too sincere for my taste–they are sincerely trying to gather all resources, wealth, and power unto themselves. They have reached a level of power where they no longer even pretend otherwise.
The key element of success is a well-educated, well-informed, well-armed, and non-distracted populace. My conservative friends–who I consider prospective allies in the coming struggle, once they awaken–are afraid that the government will take away their guns, but with the disinformation (Most of our media), dumbing down (more school closures and creationism as plausible science, etc) and distraction (“who will be voted–the next American Idol!”) there is no need to take our guns.
BTW–while we’re dissing social democrats–The main-line Communist Party, based on nothing more than their entire history, would be the last people I would trust. I would sooner execute a Mao, a Lenin, or a Stalin than have them execute me. I’m not much for stepping in time. And if you want to mention Trotsky, well, we never saw him with a lot of power, did we?
Worker’s collectives, syndicates, and yes, worker’s unions (industrial, not craft), yes. Central Committees, Politburos, Party Congresses–no. No, no, no.
Social Anarchist? Could work. Might be more about evolution than revolution. Otherwise, the system of privilege will persist–and that is the real problem.
I welcome ANY response.
That list of crimes against the people committed by “Democratic Socialists” is contingent to those culpable individuals and groups. IMO it has little bearing on the validity of their political and economic policy.
Presumably the far more grievous crimes against the people committed by soi-disant Marxists in Russia, China, and Cambodia have no bearing on the validity of Marxism, after all. Nor does the conduct of some fortunate “enlightened monarch” during the feudal period reflect particularly well on feudalism.
But to the extent that so-called “democratic socialism” is actually just a slightly modulated form of capitalism I think that’s really all that needs to be said from a Marxist perspective.
Miramon, not disagreeing with your larger point, but really, it’s “social democracy” that’s a form of capitalism. The beginning of the Trotsky piece that Steve links to: “This pamphlet addresses itself to the Social Democratic workers, even though personally the author belongs to another party. The disagreements between Communism and Social Democracy run very deep. I consider them irreconcilable.”
The adjective and the noun matter. Social democracy is something vague, like social justice, that’s compatible with capitalism. Democratic socialism is precise: it’s the opposite of authoritarian socialism.
Sounds a bit like you are saying, “there have been some bad democratic socialists in history, therefore democratic socialism is bad.”
Miramon: “That list of crimes against the people committed by “Democratic Socialists” is contingent to those culpable individuals and groups. IMO it has little bearing on the validity of their political and economic policy.”
Um. You claim, then, that political and economic policy are somehow divorced from political activity? Can you tell me what political activity IS if not the practical application of political and economic policy? And your next paragraph merely underscores the point; in order to carry out their crimes, Stalin and Mao had to explicitly break from Marxism. The essence of Marxism is its basis in the working class as having the power and duty to transform society; Stalin and Mao quite openly turned away from the working class–Stalin to the petty bourgeoisie, Mao to the peasantry. And if you require proof of this, ask yourself why it is they both specialized in executing Marxists?
But, no, I’ll make it simpler: Can you find me, in all of history, one case of a revolutionary situation where the Social Democracy did not betray the working class into the hands of the bourgeoisie? One. And, unlike the case of Russia, which remains the only working class revolution to date, in the case of the Social Democracy we have a lot more: Britain in 1921 and again 1926; Post WWI France. Italy. Spain. Germany. Greece. Etc. In every case, they had the policy of class collaboration, which ended up with them leading the working class back into the camp of capitalism–usually with catastrophic results.
Significance, I hate the fact that we’ve got two similar names for different beliefs, but okay, here goes in broad strokes:
There’s capitalist democracy, aka bourgeois democracy, which is run by the bourgeoisie. That includes the US.
There’s social justice democracy, aka liberal or nice bourgeois democracy, which is run by the nice bourgeoisie. That would be the democracy promoted by American liberals.
Then there’s social democracy, aka bourgeois democracy with high taxes to take care of people, which is run by the very nice bourgeoisie. That’s the northern European model.
The trick is to get from capitalism to socialism. Marx is supposed to have said “The road to socialism is democracy” but no one’s found a primary source so far as I know, so he might not’ve. But he clearly thought it was possible to get from capitalism to socialism democratically.
The alternative is revolution. I don’t like it because it tends to fail (Newton’s third law applies). Even when it succeeds, the result is authoritarian socialism, one-party rule that often has a strongman leader.
I like the Wikipedia article’s explanation:
_Democratic socialism is distinguished from both the Soviet model of centralized socialism and from social democracy. This distinction arose from the authoritarian form of government that emerged in the Soviet Union alongside its centralized economic system in the 20th century. A distinction is also made between social democracy and democratic socialism in that the latter is committed to systemic transformation of the economy while the former is not.
Democratic socialism rejects the social democratic view of reform through state intervention within capitalism, seeing capitalism as incompatible with the democratic values of freedom, equality and solidarity. From this perspective, democratic socialists believe that the issues inherent to capitalism can only be solved by a transition from capitalism to socialism, by superseding private property with some form of social ownership, and that any attempt to address the economic contradictions of capitalism through reforms will only cause problems to emerge elsewhere in the economy.
However, “democratic socialism” is sometimes erroneously used as a synonym for social democracy, where “social democracy” refers to support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state._
It’s an open question whether the “Democratic Socialists” had any choice. On the one hand you had the Army and paradoxically, the specter of Alliance intervention. On the other, you had a people who had just lived through one of the worst wars in history and the flu epidemic, facing low-grade civil war between Communists and Freikorps, which continued as the first drive by gang shootings during Weimar. On the third hand (first foot?), you may not realize how badly the Blockade harmed civilians in Germany. We make a big fuss about the Lusitania, but if our “neutral” shipping had attempted trade with the Central Powers, the British would have sunk our ships on the surface. Quite a few people starved. All together, people in that situation might be in a revolutionary mood, but not if they have a less risky alternative.
You could just as easily blame the rise of Hitler on a lack of cooperation from the Communists with the Social Democrats and Catholic Center. The fascists got a lot of support from mainstream conservatives. Or paradoxically that the SD and Center were not deluded enough to think the Communists were not trying to destroy Weimar’s brand of republic, but the conservatives were naive enough to think that the Nazis would actually support a democratic form of government (as long as it was “guided” by the “right” people.)
“The trick is to get from capitalism to socialism.”
I’m starting to think the point should be to get a system that isn’t run by sociopaths. A capitalist system that wasn’t run by sociopaths would be an improvement. A socialist system that was run by sociopaths would probably not be an improvement.
The details of how the system is organized are important, but we might not be ready to think that out. Imagine you wanted to write a computer program, and you started by getting a bunch of friends to discuss what the code should look like.
You need a clear idea of your goals. But the details have to be worked out largely by trial and error, testing as you go to see what needs to be changed. Start with limited test cases and do more thorough testing as you get closer to a working system.
“The alternative is revolution. I don’t like it because it tends to fail (Newton’s third law applies). Even when it succeeds, the result is authoritarian socialism, one-party rule that often has a strongman leader.”
Revolutions tend to fail when they are premature. If you declare a revolution against a strong government that the large majority of the population accepts, you will probably fail. If a revolution starts against a government whose own employees are disgusted with it, the revolution will probably succeed.
I think it’s too soon to say about socialist revolutions. They have usually been destroyed by outside forces, and in every case I know of that outside forces did not destroy them, they were corrupted by socialist leaders. Just as Steven argues that “Democratic Socialists” are always bad because every time in history they have in fact been Democratic Socialists with their own agenda and did not support the agenda he prefers, I could argue that communism is bad because every time in history communist leaders like Stalin and Mao and Castro have taken over.
But this is a bogus argument! Just because it’s been that way a limited number of times in the past, doesn’t mean that it has to be that way every time. There might be an example someday where things work out better, and then we can look at that example and try to figure out what made the difference. It would be wrong to say that just because we don’t have an example yet, that it cannot ever happen.
“Democratic socialism rejects the social democratic view of reform through state intervention within capitalism, seeing capitalism as incompatible with the democratic values of freedom, equality and solidarity.”
I think this is not a good tactic. In general, we do better by trying to increase the good stuff more than by trying to eliminate the bad stuff. If we try to make government and economics stuff that work well, then every improvement is a victory. But if we try to eliminate the bad stuff and stop the bad guys, every bad thing that happens is a defeat.
There might be some things that get called capitalism that are useful in their place. Fire is a useful tool but you don’t want it to burn down your house. Should we stamp out all fires everywhere? We might find good alternatives to fire for some purposes, and use it carefully for the applications we need when we haven’t found better alternatives yet.
“I’m starting to think the point should be to get a system that isn’t run by sociopaths.”
Jonathan Schwarz once said American democracy is a contest between sane and insane billionaires. It would be reasonable to think of social democracy as a state in which the sane billionaires rule.
“Democratic socialism rejects the social democratic view of reform through state intervention within capitalism, seeing capitalism as incompatible with the democratic values of freedom, equality and solidarity.”
I’ll happily quibble with that too, and maybe I’ll end up going to Wikipedia and tweaking that sentence, because you didn’t get what I got from it: the goal of democratic socialism is to use the democratic process to end capitalism, unlike social democrats, who wish to ameliorate it. Democratic socialists agree that it’s good to be ruled by sane billionaires if that’s your only option, but we reject the idea that humans need to be ruled by any billionaires at all.
“You could just as easily blame the rise of Hitler on a lack of cooperation from the Communists with the Social Democrats and Catholic Center.”
Yes, you could. But consider — if you accept that the Communists were right and everybody else was wrong, then the problem was not that the Communists didn’t cooperate with their putative allies. The problem was that everybody else should have cooperated with the Communists, and didn’t.
Do scientists compromise about the truth? Do they say “Yes, maybe phlogiston is real, maybe the earth is flat, we’re all entitled to our opinions”? No, of course not. And it’s the same way when your political stand is scientifically proven. When science proves that you are right, it would be a travesty to compromise with people who are wrong.
So no bargaining, no negotiation! Do what’s right regardless of the consequences! If the result is Hitler and WWII, it is not your fault. It’s due to the people who should have obeyed you and did not.
Or possibly some other approach might work better. It’s hard to know what’s best, unless of course science has proven you’re right.
“… the goal of democratic socialism is to use the democratic process to end capitalism, unlike social democrats, who wish to ameliorate it.”
My own thought is to make improvements. “Fire is a good servant but a bad master.” I don’t want capitalism to be the primary concept people use to organize society. But to eliminate it entirely? I think it should be eliminated when the time comes that for every application people think of using capitalism to implement, they have another method that they know works better.
Eliminating capitalism entirely would be like eliminating feudalism entirely. There are times and places where we still want to have interlocking systems of loyalty. We keep doing things that could be called feudalism, because they work in those contexts. But we try to only use it where it works well. We don’t organize the whole society around it.
J Thomas, you seem to be using capitalism and feudalism in metaphorical ways. Would there be trade in a socialist state or between socialist states? Probably. But it wouldn’t be capitalism which creates enormous privilege for a few. It would just be the flow of goods and ideas between those who have them and those who need them. Will people be loyal to friends, family,society, etc.? Of course, but they won’t create hereditary lords who can make the rest of us live as slaves or serfs, etc.
Will, I don’t think there’s any general agreement about what any of these terms mean, hardly more than about what fascism means.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a capitalist government or a feudal government. There have been governments that claimed to look favorably on capitalism, just as there have been governments that claimed to look favorably on marriage or some particular religion etc.
Do you say it isn’t capitalism until after it creates enormous privilege for a few? I can imagine capitalism that didn’t do that, just as I can imagine socialism that didn’t do that.
One of the things we want to do is give people some responsibility, and then if they do well give them more. Give more responsibility to the people who show evidence that they will use it well. Capitalism has done that with some flaws. It doesn’t give everybody an equal chance, and there are externalities etc. We could do that another way, like we could have bureaucrats who track people’s decisions to decide which of them deserve more responsibility, or we could give it to people whose families have done well before, trusting the families to carefully train their members to be competent and not damage the family reputation, etc. Capitalism has sometimes worked pretty well for that, though it currently has glaring errors.
To my way of thinking, capitalism is supposed to be a system that more-or-less automatically gives more responsibility to people who have successfully carried out responsible tasks — success judged according to the rules of the system.
And to my way of thinking, socialism is supposed to be a system where government employees make most important decisions, and they are chosen to make those decisions by some governmental process. Individual initiative outside government is squashed whenever it gets big enough to notice.
But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what you think of as the most important thing about socialism, it may not even be real to you.
Back up and look at goals. In a pure capitalist system, theoretically it’s the people who have contributed most to the system who get the most say in what the system produces and who it gives stuff to. People who contribute nothing deserve nothing. In practice this fails even worse than it sounds, because when it rains soup and you happen to claim ownership of the biggest empty swimming pool, you get your rewards without actually contributing much. A pure capitalist system is flawed in its approach to deciding who gets the benefits.
In a pure socialist system, each government worker is supposed to decide who gets benefits based on compassion. If he does a bad job his supervisor will try to show him how to better balance compassion and necessity. It will distribute rewards much better depending on how well it works in practice.
I tend to disapprove of pure systems. Let’s try out different things and each time we build something, try to build something that looks like it will work.
J Thomas, this is going to sound glib, and I’m sorry, but dictionaries are useful when talking about feudalism and capitalism. Some things cannot coexist. That’s why social democrats choose the bourgeoisie in times of tension.
Capitalism An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.
We have already separated ownership from control, ownership of the means of production is basicly the right to collect rent from those means, the amount of rent decided by management.
The managers are private individuals and not responsible to the government except to follow government laws. Managers are chosen by some arcane process specific to each corporation.
Feudalism: A political and economic system of Europe from the 9th to about the 15th century, based on the holding of all land in fief or fee and the resulting relation of lord to vassal and characterized by homage, legal and military service of tenants, and forfeiture.
A political, economic, or social order resembling this medieval system.
By the second paragraph, any system involving metaphorical lords and vassals can qualify.
Socialism Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.
Interesting that socialism applies mainly to theories. The central concept in the first definition is that government controls the means of production and distribution.
“Ownership” is a concept that in practice is mostly enforced by government anyway, so if the government is not enforcing ownership by capitalists or by you, of course it will enforce its own — after all, in the other cases it basicly gives stuff to the people it says owns things. If it decides they don’t own them after all then their ownership is gone.
The Marxist definition was not clear.
Socialism a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done
(in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.
The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which the means of production are collectively owned but a completely classless society has not yet been achieved.
I think the concept has not gotten enough clarity among the public for the dictionary writers to fully agree. It looks like they’re mostly saying what I said about it.
Basicly, an economy where most of the citizens are employees, and managers are government employees.
If you had a socialist system that was kind of decentralized, so that many managers did not have much supervision from above, they could act pretty much like capitalist managers except that they would not get exorbitant rewards unless they stole those rewards. Also their advancement to managing more stuff would depend not on how well they played the game of selling, but on how they got promoted in the government bureaucracy.
J Thomas, if you want to think these things can be mixed, I won’t object again. To bring this back to the original subject, social democrats would agree that they can be mixed; democratic socialists would not. In the social democrat model, there’s still room for exploiters to exploit, so long as no one’s treated too badly; in the democratic socialist model, there’s not.
Apologies for the dictionary suggestion. I have a cold, and I hope that if I was thinking clearer, I would’ve remembered that dictionaries tend to be accepting of imprecision because they have to favor usage.
As someone who sort of oscillates day to day between democratic socialism and social democracy, I find this entire discussion fascinating.
Will, apologies for continuing while you have a cold, but I feel like I’m on a roll.
We have multiple questions that are getting mixed together.
One is, how do we decide who gets which goodies. This is a complicated question in practice because people don’t all want or need the same things. It is easier and cheaper to handle the details now than it ever was before, because of the cheap information technology. But we still have to decide what rules to follow. Also, there are always cases where we must make exceptions to the rules, and the people who decide on the exceptions have a chance for corruption.
There’s a related question how to decide what and how much to make. It’s less wasteful to make what we know people want than to guess what they want and then find out. But people don’t always know ahead of time. And there’s the question how much to give them of what they want. Somebody has to decide about that.
Then there are lots of decisions about how to actually make the stuff we want to make. Somebody has to do that too.
We want a system that will be efficient in all the places where efficiency matters. And we want it to be fair in all the places where fairness matters.
In general, capitalists claim that their systems will be efficient. There are lots of examples where those claims are wrong, but that’s the claim and to test it we’d need something to compare it against. Is it more efficient than some alternative?
In general, socialists claim that their systems will be fair. Since in particular examples it’s hard to judge what’s fair, I have no idea how to judge that in practice. We can argue that they don’t have as many examples that are obviously unfair — like people who have billions of dollars they couldn’t possibly have earned. But usually there are lots of examples of people who get to decide things who benefit by deciding them unfairly, and there are examples like Stalin and Mao of individuals who basicly own whole nations and treat their populations unfairly. We can argue that it isn’t really socialism, but that’s No True Scotsman.
It’s a tangle. I wouldn’t much mind a system that lets socialists decide how to fairly distribute a lot of stuff, and then have capitalists make and distribute the stuff that way, provided the capitalists don’t get too big a slice of the results.
I’d likely prefer that to a system where capitalists decided who deserved to get stuff, and then socialists made and distributed it like the capitalists wanted.
But I’d prefer a system where the public says what they want, and then the system produces and distributes it in some reasonably fair way.
Somebody has to make a lot of decisions about how to do things, and I want those somebodies to be competent at it. I don’t much want them chosen by vote, I don’t much want them chosen by bureaucratic in-fighting. I’d prefer that they demonstrate their competence and I’m not at all clear how to do that.
Somebody has to do a lot of work and I’d prefer they be competent at it. If they get rewards that are too big, then people will figure out ways to look competent when they aren’t because they want the rewards. If the rewards are too small, maybe the competent ones won’t want to do it. Some of the rewards could be social rewards where we tell them how great they are for working toward the common good. I don’t know how to handle that either.
I want a way that’s efficient and fair in practice, and I don’t see what it takes to do that. I don’t see that the important split is whether it’s people working for private corporations or people working for governments who do that stuff. And it doesn’t matter to me whether the people who make important decisions used to be proles or not. Those aren’t the important questions. I’m not sure how to ask the important questions.
Matt, glad to hear it’s fascinating. For what it’s worth, wavering between the two is reasonable. The transition to democratic socialism would probably require passing through a period of social democracy because people tend to be wingwalkers: we don’t like to let go of what we have until we’re sure we’ve got something new to grab.
J Thomas, you haven’t grasped the fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism. It’s not about distribution. Kings and bandits and capitalists can all be convinced to distribute some wealth under some circumstances. It’s about who owns natural resources and large businesses, and are therefore able to control them and profit from them. Under socialism, there’s no place for people like the Koch Brothers. Under capitalism, the sane and insane billionaires will always be trying to use their wealth to make the rest of us do what they think is right.
As for who gets what, people would have to vote on that. My suspicion is there would be the equivalent of a generous Basic Income, an amount that everyone could get by on, and then there would be ways to provide more for those who needed more, and there would be some that would be stockpiled in anticipation of future need. The goal for me is the Star Trek future: whatever you need is available on request, and the social recognition people seek is the recognition for doing good things, not for having great wealth.
I don’t feel like I need to cite untreacherous examples of democratic socialism or social democracy or whatever you want to call this halfway liberal-socialist thing because I’m not trying to defend them. As I said, it’s easy to attack them on theoretical grounds in any event. But Marxism has its own historical problems in its actual execution. IMO it’s somewhat pot-kettleish to cite contingent historical cases of failure for other parties if you’re a Marxist.
As it happens pretty much every historical attempt at Marxism has been couped, corrupted, subverted, or self-destructed, leaving tyranny, death, and destruction in its wake. It’s easy to blame any given failure on contingent factors like external enemies or internal errors of theory and practice. But then you are still left with a legacy of failure. So I think there’s just no good basis for citing examples of other party failures as evidence for why their policies are bad if all of your own attempts have likewise failed. Better to just attack their policies directly.
Anyway — as an aside — I really don’t think you can blame Churchill or the White Russians for the reign of unjudicial terror executed by Dzerzhinsky during Lenin’s tenure — presumably under Lenin’s direction until he became too ill to work — or for that matter for Stalin’s rise to power. Stalin may not have been a Marxist himself, but he came to power within the system of a supposedly Marxist revolution, and was fondly favored for some time by Lenin until it was too late. Perhaps Trotsky would have fixed everything if he’d won out or if Lenin had remained in good health; but unfortunately there’s no way to know for sure. I suppose Stalin couldn’t have succeeded if the politburo and central committee had actually been composed of a majority of diligent and dedicated Marxists; but what does it say about the Russian Revolution if the majority of party leaders weren’t really Marxists at all, or if they gave up on their principles in order to hold on to power?
“Anyway — as an aside — I really don’t think you can blame Churchill or the White Russians for the reign of unjudicial terror executed by Dzerzhinsky during Lenin’s tenure — presumably under Lenin’s direction until he became too ill to work — or for that matter for Stalin’s rise to power…” No. The social democracy also had a lot to do with it–both by refusing to end the war and thus leaving Russia impoverished, and, in other countries, by betraying the working classes that could have come to Russia’s aid. There was never a belief that Russia could survive without the aid of the advanced capitalist countries.
Speaking of “the politburo” and “the central committee” as if they are static objects–politburo = politburo is unscientific. The effects of the wars of intervention and the betrayal of the international social democracy had effects on them too–both on their makeup over time, and on the individuals (Kamenev and Zenoviev being the perfect examples).
But, seriously, if you want to understand the matter, it takes study. Perhaps I’ll reread The Revolution Betrayed and post my observations here. Because the fact is, understanding the fate of the Soviet Union may be the single most important aspect of history to understand for those of us who hope for a better future.
I would be interested in reading your analysis of The Revolution Betrayed.
“It’s not about distribution. Kings and bandits and capitalists can all be convinced to distribute some wealth under some circumstances. It’s about who owns natural resources and large businesses, and are therefore able to control them and profit from them. Under socialism, there’s no place for people like the Koch Brothers.”
I say that “ownership” is not the issue, it’s control. And of course profit, but with control you can suck resources out of a business without ever admitting it affects profit.
It follows that if somebody has control of some stuff he can use it to gain control of more stuff. Replacing billionaires with political empire-builders is not necessarily an improvement.
I remember a long time ago, I was riding an airliner first class because I needed to go right then and they didn’t have a cheaper seat. The man sitting next to me told me he was a general from Lebanon. He started smoking a cigarette, really a tiny cigar, and I pointed out it was a no-smoking area and told him to stop. He ignored me, so I told him again. He took out a notebook and asked me to write down my name and address. I asked him why, and he said he might want to send me a postcard someday. So I wrote down my name and address while he gaped at me, and then I told him to put out his cigarette, and he acted kind of shocked. It took me awhile to understand that nobody in Lebanon would treat him that way, they would be too afraid of him. But the worst he could do to me was send me a letter-bomb. He called a stewardess and got her to give him another seat.
There are a lot of countries where you don’t expect important people to follow the rules. If you get their negative attention they can hurt you badly or kill you. I’ve heard stories like that here in the USA. They say that Frank Sinatra used to travel with bodyguards, and if he got upset at anybody he’d tell his bodyguards to beat them up, and he didn’t have any repercussions from that, particularly in Las Vegas. And of course you wouldn’t publicly oppose an important banker from the bank that holds your mortgage etc. And if you get on the wrong side of your local police you can expect trouble. But mostly important people let us say whatever we want, and in public they mostly follow the rules for the public. You won’t be jailed unless you’re accused of an actual crime. Etc. Some of that comes because many of our most important people have no direct government connection.
It might be good to get rid of all the important people and run the government and the economy only with unimportant people, but I’m not clear how to do that.
“Under capitalism, the sane and insane billionaires will always be trying to use their wealth to make the rest of us do what they think is right.”
If the things that are now run by billionaires instead get run by the government, will we have sane and insane politicians and/or sane and insane senior bureaucrats competing to make the rest of us do stuff?
Not that it’s good for unaccountable billionaires to do it, but I want to fix the problem and while getting rid of billionaires may be a necessary step, I don’t at all see that it’s sufficient. We need to get rid of big business, not just have the government own and run big businesses, and we need to get rid of big government.
“My suspicion is there would be the equivalent of a generous Basic Income, an amount that everyone could get by on, and then there would be ways to provide more for those who needed more, and there would be some that would be stockpiled in anticipation of future need.”
That sounds good to me. How much of our resources should go to science? To medical research? To the military? To infrastructure? To football stadiums? It’s so complicated I can’t see the public voting on much of it. But whoever makes the choices and doesn’t get a lot of supervision can arrange them to suit himself, and from there to make himself more powerful.
J Thomas, much of the reason I stress democracy in the socialism I want is because to succeed, socialism must be controlled by the people and not by individuals who feel entitled to tell the people what to do. You need leaders who convince people, not leaders who force people. Should there be bureaucracies under socialism, everything about those bureaucracies must be transparent so corrupt individuals can be quickly exposed.
As for the details, you may speculate endlessly, but speculation is premature. All we can anticipate are some of the principles, and for me, those are transparency and accountability.
And now I’ll try harder to bow out.
“You need leaders who convince people, not leaders who force people. Should there be bureaucracies under socialism, everything about those bureaucracies must be transparent so corrupt individuals can be quickly exposed.”
I agree! That is definitely needed.
“All we can anticipate are some of the principles, and for me, those are transparency and accountability.”
I agree those are needed too.
If it takes a violent revolution, the people who sacrificed the most, risking their lives from the earliest days for the cause, are likely to feel they deserve special privileges afterward. Some of them will have firm ideas how things ought to go, and will not at all respect the opinions of people who disagree. It’s generally better if that can be avoided.
To do it without a revolution, you need a large majority of the public to agree. We’re talking radical change. To get a large majority we would need a strong education program. It isn’t enough to get agreement that the existing system is bad. We probably already have a large majority on that. We would need an agreement about what to replace it with. Meanwhile others would try to separate the working poor from the long-term unemployed, the working poor from the middle class, the proletariat from everybody else, etc. Right down the line, between each pair there’s the sense that those bums don’t deserve as much as I do because I contribute a lot and they don’t. It might not be too hard to get a stingy pinch-penny basic income that the poorest can almost survive on. More than that is likely to take generations of rethinking.
Still, sooner started, sooner accomplished.
“And now I’ll try harder to bow out.”
I certainly won’t disrespect you for not responding.
Will Shetterly, mark me down as one of those who would be happy to have things run by the very nice bourgousie.
Nonetheless, I think the differences between the various options need to be discussed at a level above picking out examples of representatives of competing options behaving badly.
Significance, there were those who were happy with the idea of having things run by the very nice nobility, so I understand your choice. The first problem with it is it assumes you’ll keep having good kings. Which is to say, I completely agree that we should be discussing the implications of the systems rather than their good and bad examples, and looking to which gives the best results in the long run given our current resources, both natural and technological.
Will, I’m pretty sure that Significance was referring to your quote
“There’s social justice democracy, aka liberal or nice bourgeois democracy, which is run by the nice bourgeoisie. That would be the democracy promoted by American liberals.
Then there’s social democracy, aka bourgeois democracy with high taxes to take care of people, which is run by the very nice bourgeoisie. That’s the northern European model.”
Whenever you accept that somebody has power, you have to figure that they might turn mean or be replaced by somebody mean. So if there is such a thing as somebody with authority, we have to be ready to throw them out on evidence of wrong-doing, and of course they might try to hide their wrong-doing. Anything we test them on to decide who to choose, will get a bunch of people trying to game the system (at least if the rewards make it seem like it’s worth trying to win).
I used to listen to pre-med students comparing notes about the med school’s admission policies. “When they ask you why you want to be a doctor, don’t say anything about helping people. They don’t want that. Tell them that you want to make a lot of money.” “They like people who want to be specialists.” “McCoy likes people who do target shooting.” “Abbot likes Flemish painting but he gets mad if he finds out you’re faking it.” Their whole future depends on passing the interviews, so they study hard.
It’s hard to remove somebody from a position of power. If you try and fail they are likely to remember you without much fondness, and they will still be powerful. They might turn bad at any time.
When I think about that as a problem, my natural thought is don’t give anybody too much power. But that’s called anarchism, and it has a bad reputation. How can you get anything done without power? How can you make sure the laws are enforced equally? How can you stomp on bad guys? How can you reward your friends for being good guys? It just doesn’t seem practical.
J Thomas, yes, Significance was choosing social democracy. And given the worse options, I would, too. But while I have more faith in democracy than Steve, I agree with him that social democrats will turn, well, unsocial if they need to.
Of course they will. They have their own agenda which doesn’t completely mesh with yours.
So either accept them as temporary allies and use whatever support they give you while they give it, or convince so many people to join your point of view that you don’t need social democrats.
Or I suppose a third possibility would be to take over with a minority, and force the majority to do what you want while you teach them why they ought to like it….
Hm. Well, as long as we’d be transitioning peacefully through systems, then I’m in favor of carrying out that transition as far as we can – so maybe you can describe me as a democratic socialist who believes we need an intermediary period of social democracy to acclimate ourselves?
This is, of course, the problem with boiling down complex systems of belief into easily quantifiable and categorizable two-word labels. You lose all the nuance the way overcooked vegetables lose their nutrients.
As somebody who has been struggling with the pro-austerity pro-capitalist and overall right-wing tack of the local social democrat party in the Canadian federal election I appreciate seeing I’m not the only one to get that this is a problem, and one with long roots.
The desire of social democrats to work within Capitalism to make it a slightly gentler one all too often turns it into a collection of the same old corporate lords, just with a more labour-friendly seeming face.
skzb: “Perhaps I’ll reread The Revolution Betrayed and post my observations here.”
I’d like to see this. I’m using it myself for my paper, and another POV would be of interest.
“But, no, I’ll make it simpler: Can you find me, in all of history, one case of a revolutionary situation where the Social Democracy did not betray the working class into the hands of the bourgeoisie?”
If, as you say, this happens in every revolutionary situation, then do you know of the reason(s) why? That is, is it inherent in all revolutionary situations, or due the nature of revolutionary parties, or something else altogether?
L. Raymond: I’ll be starting on The Revolution Betrayed next week. I suspect the answer to your question will appear as I go through the book, but, in brief, I would say there is nothing more difficult than building a revolutionary party. No impossible, but difficult.
“My point is that, interesting as it might be to you and skzb, it is not clear to me how the details of Trotsky’s betrayal have usefulness today. It is a fairly unique instance.”
I would disagree with its being unique. Mr. Brust said there hasn’t been a single revolutionary situation “in all of history” in which the revolution wasn’t betrayed by Social Democracy (I’m not informed enough to agree with or argue the point). If you yourself are in fact interested in fomenting this sort of revolution, knowing why this betrayal is inevitable would be of paramount importance so you could head it off.
“At this point, you should give me specific examples of things we might learn that are useful. I am too lazy and short of time to go through the whole Trotsky betrayal thing to try to find some gems of wisdom. If you have those gems, I would appreciate hearing them.”
To me, the most interesting thing is how those who wish for a workers’ revolution dismiss agrarian revolutions as deviations from proper Marxism and not worth study, despite the fact they’ve been remarkably successful in seizing power. If you’re looking for the blueprint for a successful revolution, to compare those that fail due to having been invariably betrayed to those that succeed in overthrowing the existing government should be your first step.
“Accuse me of being a dilettante, I will take the hit.”
“To me, the most interesting thing is how those who wish for a workers’ revolution dismiss agrarian revolutions as deviations from proper Marxism and not worth study, despite the fact they’ve been remarkably successful in seizing power.”
The only part of that I would argue with is, “not worth study.” There has been considerable Marxist study of agrarian revolutions going all the way back to Engels’ *The Peasant Wars in Germany* written in 1850, and also works on the Chinese revolution, and so on.
As to the whys and wherefores, perhaps there will be a chance to go into the question during the course of this book. Otherwise, hell, maybe I’ll do a reread of Trotsky’s *History of the Russian Revolution*, all three volumes and deal with it there. That’s a threat. :-)
I’ve lost count of how many websites I’ve visited in which opposing Marxist viewpoints were presented as right/wrong, no questions asked – as Maoism way v Trotskyism or Trotskyists v Maoists, or even Marxists v. Maoists, with the site owner making the distinction himself (they were all guys, for some reason). They made me nuts, because I hate when people see *everything* as black and white. They’re the ones I had in mind with the “not worth studying” comment; those people just dismissed the “other” side as being wrong without going into details, or if they did offer an explanation, it was along the lines of, “Here’s an email exchange I had with an unenlightened idiot who thought he was more clever than me.”
“As to the whys and wherefores…”
I have a number of books that examine the question, not to mention a dozen RAND publications that go into it, but that’s a bit too much to summarize for a dilettante. But maybe I’ll throw some of it into the oncoming melée.
“That’s a threat.”
You’re gonna chew bubble gum and deconstruct Trotsky?
The late great Roddy Piper ad libbed that line. Basically Carpenter told him to say something appropriate and that’s what he did, with a vengeance. And that movie is at least partially the story of a class reaching revolutionary consciousness.