As curtains fell on the Soviet Union – many celebrated the fall of, what to them had symbolized, Socialism. People have voted by their feet, Capitalism works, Socialism leads to dictatorship; became the cliché – for the man on the street, to persons holding Academic Chairs. The trumpeters of ‘free market’ economy announced the End of History – Human organization, they purported, had reached its logical end – a capitalist democracy; the rest of mankind, was to follow suit.
Were they right in their wishful evaluations? Had Socialism really become dead rubber? I contend – No. Unfortunately for the man on the street, and ironically, for people of higher academic learning – Socialism came to represent the communist dictatorships, across the world. The oppression, brutality and misery inflicted on the masses by totalitarian regimes, ruling under the guise of Socialism – was showcased as the poster of Socialist ideology. The false dichotomy, people were offered, required no complex mathematics – To paraphrase it in the words of the famous American Economist, Milton Friedman: In a Capitalist country you can be fired, in a Communist one, you can be fired on. For the common man – the choice was obvious.
As the clichés started accumulating – Socialism, itself became a synonym for suppression of dissent, bureaucratic rule, corruption and poverty. On the opposite side, were – democracy, liberty, free markets, and what not! While the narrative was crafted on the actions of ‘Communist Dictators’ and ‘Capitalist abundance’ – no heed was paid to the theoretical, nor the practical opposition – offered by the ‘left’ itself, to mislabelling monstrous dictatorships as Socialism. The Socialist literature, right from its inception – was set aside. The Anarchist tradition was practically put under the carpet, and the pages of left resistance to ‘Communist dictatorships’ and dogmatic ideologies – were torn apart from history. Socialism, Marxism, Government controls, Bureaucratic red-tapism: were all mixed to prepare a distasteful cocktail – that any sane person would abhor.
In reality, things were, and are, starkly different. Socialism –as codified in the General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, in October 1864 – was basically the ‘emancipation of the working classes’. In the words of none other than the Soviet literary genius, Maxim Gorki – Socialism was the ‘religion of liberty, equality and fraternity.’ – the very ideals of the French revolution. Far before, in the 19th century itself, the Russian Anarchist – Mikhail Bakunin; had proclaimed in his ‘Stateless Socialism’ – ‘the great principle of the French Revolution: that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop all his humanity’ – as the – ‘Basic principle of Socialism’. In the same paper, he continued his diatribe on State Communism in the fiercest of words: ‘Freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and Socialism without Freedom is slavery and brutality’. There is abundant literature of such sorts to be found, well before the advent of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent satellite states. Even during, and after the Russian Revolution – prominent Left theoreticians opposed and critiqued; what mistakenly came to be regarded as Socialism: both by its proponents, and opponents – for the exact opposite reasons. In 1920, Bertrand Russell travelled to the Soviet Union as a member of the British Labour Party – This, well before Stalin had taken over. The revolutionary fervour was still palpable throughout the world, and the disillusionment had not fully set in yet. After his visit, Russell wrote ‘The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism’ – deciphering therein; the good, bad and the ugly, of the post-1917 Russian polity. While Russell praised the courage and simplicity of the revolutionaries, and the practical troubles originating from war and conflict – he was particularly unequivocal in lambasting the dogmatic and dictatorial nature of Bolshevism. This was also foreseen far earlier, by the French Anarchist, Joseph Proudhon; who in a letter addressed to Karl Marx; dated 17 May 1846 – pleaded him: not to become another Martin Luther – ‘let us not,…make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion…’ – something which the German Anarchist, Rudolf Rocker in 1925 referred to as the ‘metaphysical economics of Karl Marx’.
Even during the heyday of the Russian Revolution; intellects saw what they saw – slowly and steadily, an edifice of state capitalism being created in the name of Socialism. And, who better than the Socialist revolutionary – Rosa Luxemburg, to lift the veil. Her work, ‘The Russian Revolution’, wasn’t a work of hindsight apologetics – Rather, it was a scintillating decoding of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution – written right at its beginnings, in 1918. Still a general accusation against Socialism – curbing the freedom of expression – she stands up to Lenin’s government, in defence of free expression, in these historic words:
‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party…- is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.’
Again, on the oft thrown blame against Socialism – of being anti-democratic – She refutes Lenin and Trotsky, in these words,
‘We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeoisie democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but spur the working-class into not being satisfied with the shell,… to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeoisie democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether’.
More than 50 years later, in his seminal work – ‘An Essay on Liberation’ – Herbert Marcuse, reiterated the same, ‘…if democracy means self-government of free people, with justice for all, then the realization of democracy would pre-suppose abolition of the existing pseudo-democracy.’ The climactic end – ‘…transformation of the indirect democracy of corporate capitalism into direct democracy…’
What I put to trial – is the blanket understanding: that Socialism is a dogmatic economic doctrine, put to test in the numerous one-party states – which command(ed) their masses with an iron whip. Rather, a genuine study bears witness that Socialism encompasses a very broad spectrum; which though, sometimes at variance with each other, congregate around the basic idea – that the workers should be in control of their work. That, by merely owning the means of production – which is no more than dead labour, the minuscule bourgeoisie can’t be allowed to command the lives of the overwhelming majority – who eat by the sweat of their brow – who create wealth and are equally impoverished, in return. Profoundly stated by Rosa Luxemburg in her presentation of the Spartacus League (1918): ‘The essence of Socialist society consists in the fact that the great labouring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.’ Thence, her rightful slogan – ‘No more exploiters and exploited.’
Despite abundance – which should have created a world full of happiness and equality, the words of Karl Marx; from 1844, Estranged Labour, ‘The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.’ – resonate in every capitalist enterprise.
Likewise, the framing of a worker’s life, by Mikhail Bakunin in ‘The Capitalist System’ as ‘a continuous and dismaying succession of terms of serfdom – voluntary from the juridical point of view but compulsory in the economic sense.’ – is to be seen in every sweatshop and cubical.
The worker controls neither his work, nor his life – He remains alienated from his own labour, his society and himself. For all practical purposes, his freedom is a nominal charade, only to be seen on papers. Eventually, one who runs the machine – himself becomes one.
As such, neither has human organization seen the ‘End of History’, nor is the mainstream understanding of Socialism – as a dogma of a bygone era, factually true. Human nature craves for spontaneity and freedom – it abhors monotony and serfdom – And as such, the general liberating principles of Socialism shall not fall so easily under the weight of corporate capitalism.
P.S: While George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 have become epitomic representations of Stalinist Russia – people often oversee, what he wrote in ‘Why I Write’ – in 1946, ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism, and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’
As with reading Orwell, so with understanding Socialism – people remember the former, and forget the latter.