#ISS14: Are we Socialists, and what do we mean by “Socialism”?

Speakers: Khalid Mahmood, Labour Education Foundation, Pakistan; Derek Keenan, Strathclyde University; Corinne Schärer, Unia, Switzerland.

Date: Thursday 10th July, 2014.

Suggested Reading




by usilive

We try to build socialism in one session, with a discussion of what we mean by socialism

Khalid Mahmood
Khalid Mahmood

Socialism means production for need rather than profit, where capitalism is production for profit. Capitalism increases productivity, but this just means more exploitation for higher profit.

A revolution means an awakening of the people, raising them to their feet so that they can become true human beings. They will feel that the world truly belongs to them.

Under capitalism people are not free at all as they compete with each other in an animal struggle for existence. It is an inhuman and immoral philosophy. Socialism is based on respect and solidarity.

The situation in Pakistan

Pakistan is a country of 170 million, with 70% living below the poverty line. Society is feudal, with landowners owning large amounts of land while people commit suicide due to hunger. This is worse right now, during Ramadan and Eid, when people’s poverty leads them to feel helpless and to commit suicide.

Pakistanis are taught that they form the Muslim nation of Pakistan. In reality, they are a combination of peoples: Punjabis, Blochs, Pashtuns, Kashmiris and many others. Pakistan was created on religious lines by British imperialism.

Pakistan is a society is under military control. The capitalist class is useless. Currently there is an electricity crisis, because this class is incapable of producing what is needed. This is because they are corrupt and their focus is on social control.

The vast bulk of the national budget goes to servicing debt, and paying for the military. Only 10-15% of the budget is spent on social need, and much of this is lost through corruption.

There has been a rise in religious extremism in Pakistan. This is after military dictatorship in the 1980s, as agents of US and Saudi imperialism. This dictatorship created the Mujahedin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

This left three related problems: the Kalishnikov, heroin and religious extremism.

The Taliban was created by the state to enforce capitalist hegemony against the USSR. Now that same Taliban, no longer needed, is under attack by the Pakistani military and the West. Innocent people are caught in the cross fire

The Left in Pakistan is hugely divided. This is largely because of their relationship to religion, and never finding the solution to how to be a socialist in a religious society. The answers they offered didn’t match the questions on the people’s lips


Derek Keenan

Dek Keenan started by showing the wide range of people who have claimed to be socialists: from Stalin to Blair, Pol Pot to Gramsci: if the term can encompass so many things, does it mean something?

Dek introduces his favourite socialist: Bakhunin, who said “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”

True socialism has three essential features: democratic, libertarian and revolutionary. The democratic principle is not about the right to elect representatives, but about the ability to run our own lives, and democratise every aspect of human life: starting with the workplace and economic democracy.

It is essential that our socialism is critical of hierarchical social relations: a world without bosses, whether in the social or economic sphere. The division of society into order-givers and ordertakers must be ended.

Socialism must start as it means to carry on: means and ends are interrelated. We can’t use authoritarian methods to create a society without bosses. The state is anti-working class and cannot bring about progressive social change.

Slavoj Žižek says that “it is easy to imagine the end of the world and than the end of capitalism.” Why has our belief in social change collapsed so fundamentally?

Capital is confident and appears to have won the class war

Socialists have lost confidence and their utopian vision. News from Nowhere, by William Morris, and How we shall bring about revolution, by Pataud and Pouget, give a vision for the future and ideas about how to bring about change. Books like this used to inspire the movement, and we need to rebuild belief in a better world.

The end of socialism?

A loss of vision, belief and optimism, with the collapse of “really existing socialism”, and the seamless transition of social democracy into an acceptance of neoliberalism. People have lost their belief that change is possible.

But there is hope! there are examples of workers transforming society. From the Paris Commune to the Soviets of 1905 and 1917, through to the Spanish Revolution of 1936 to 1938, and the Portuguese revolution of 1974. More recently, the Zapatista rebellion of 1994, the worker-controlled factories of Argentina, and worker self-management in the Bolivarian revolutions of Latin America show that change is possible.

Socialism is self-management of the workplace and society. People’s conscious direction of their own lives, which the free market pretends to offer.

Politics is too important to be left to politicians. We cannot wait for saviours to come and liberate us. The vanguard party must be abandoned, and we need to embrace a plurality of movements and parties, and make autonomous activity from below central.

We need a leadership of ideas – such as this school.

Some questions for the movement:

  • Can unions be schools of socialism?
  • Do unions need to be transformed into vehicles for social transformation? Is this possible?
  • Is another democratic, libertarian, revolutionary unionism possible?
  • The global working class: inside, outside and beyond the trade unions?
Corinne Schärer
Corinne Schärer

Corinne arrives late, having been to support the picket lines of the more than one million public sector workers who are striing today. She starts by saying that It’s great to come from a picket line and back to a discussion about what we mean by socialism: it feels like a great meeting of action and theory.

Corinne is on the executive of the Swiss trade union Unia, and will focus on how the union works with left wing parties in Switzerland. Corinne is a Green party member, which is unusual in the union movement, and has  been in the regional parliament for the canton of Berne.

Unia is a powerful union and political force, and has become the most important part of the labour movement in Switzerland. This is both good and bad: it is a union and not a political party, and can’t substitute for one. Unia was formed out of a merger between unions with different political tradtions: one with close ties to the Socialist Party, and one that was more independent.

Unia has focused on developing a pragmatic vision for a change in society, rather than a Utopian vision. Members want to know where they’re going, and to understand how it will be achieved. The unions goals are the same as that of the socialist movement: decent working conditions, fair distribution of income and wealth, an equal society through equal opportunities, equal rights and the participation of women and migrants.

Unia wants to make a better world. To do this it need to fight capitalism, and to have its own political agenda. Unia works in strategic alliances with socialist and left parties, without being tied to one party. They are unionists and not politicians, but they need allies who are politicians to change legislation. For instance, Unia also works with the Greens, who are quite left wing – even if they are a bit middle class!




“Democratic, libertarian, revolutionary – socialist unionism under neoliberalism”

by Josiah Mortimer

Blair. Alex Tsipras. Pol Pot. Gramsci. Stalin. What do they have in common?

Answer: they’ve all called themselves socialist at some point.

Socialism is clearly a slippery thing to define, then.

Khaled Mahmood, Labour Education Foundation (Pakistan), says it means ‘production for the satisfaction of human needs and not profit’. But what does that look like in reality?

It’s easy to see what’s wrong with the current system. Capitalism entails a lack of freedom – instead we are slaves to ‘capitalism, competition and greed’. Such an ideology is inculcated into the young virtually from birth.

Pakistan knows the worst of capitalism, with military control upholding the power of corporations and corrupt politicians in a country where 70% live in poverty, leading people commit suicide due to their hunger. The majority of Pakistani women are illiterate, and most children in rural areas have stunted growth.

Yet over 60% of Pakistan’s budget goes to (largely foreign) debt repayments. Why? Rulers present and past have taken out huge loans for themselves, then stashed it in offshore accounts. Another 30% of the budget goes to the military.

Social policy gets just 10% of government spending. That includes 0.5% on health and 1.5% on education. What kind of justice is that?

In such a despotic context, Derek Keenan (Strathclyde University, UK) can safely assert that ‘the state is not the friend of the working class’. Socialism, for Keenan, must be anti-state – a libertarian socialism that entails a world without bosses, either in economic or political spheres. ‘The two can’t be separated’. Getting back to basics, state ownership is not the same thing as socialism.

In Bakunin’s words, “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”. An order based on unmerited hierarchy cannot be the basis for utopia.

Socialism must be libertarian and democratic, therefore. But it must also be revolutionary – ‘those with power now won’t give it up freely.’

Yet people are often scared to talk about these ideas. As the Marxist Slavoj Zizek has noted, it’s much easier to imagine end of life on earth than a radical change in capitalism. Where’s the utopian dream of William Morris, or Pataud and Pouget whose book was confidently titled ‘How we shall bring about the revolution’?

Perhaps it’s a loss of vision following the collapse of the USSR that has crushed all talk of a hopeful future. We’ve seen new elites rise under red flags, neoliberal hegemony, and left retreating into mantras or accepting society as it is. The post-crash lack of left revival speaks for itself.

It’s not for lack of inspiring examples, however. The Paris Commune, workers’ soviets in 1905 and 1917, the Spanish Revolution from 1936-38, Portugal’s 1974 revolution, the Zapatista movement from 1994-present, workers’ control in Argentina in the early noughties, and workers’ self-management in the current Bolivarian revolution (while fighting state bureaucracy and capitalism) – all these cases show there are alternatives to grasp at. Why aren’t we?

There’s a simple underlying current in these examples: worker and community self-management of the workplace and society, and directly democratic structures of administration. In the long run, they strive for a transformation of social relations and the abolition of wage labour.

But for Keenan, these can’t be achieved from up high – salvation isn’t a party affair, comrades. ‘A new Lenin is not around the corner, and if he was he might be about to mug you’. It’s a line worth remembering, because politics is too important to be left to politicians.

Where does the GLI stand in relation to all this? It can play a crucial role in stimulating and leading new ideas on the left and in the union movement – embracing a plurality of social movements and socialist organisations to catalyse autonomous activity from below. But looking deeper, can the unions really be schools of socialism? ‘It never struck me as so in 30 years, though I did get told off a few times!’ Keenan (half) jokes.

To twist a phrase, is another unionism possible – one that is democratic, libertarian, revolutionary? It’s a big ask, especially when the vast majority of the working class in world is not in or anywhere near a union.

There may be lessons from Switzerland. Corinne Schärer of the Unia union says her union has become the most important organisation in labour movement in the country over the last 15 years, and is taking on an increasingly political role. ‘We are not a political party – you can’t substitute a party and we don’t want to – but you do need a political agenda and vision’.

So-called ‘fixed stars’ guide the union’s political work, setting a 15-20 year progressive path after two years of extensive discussion from across the union and parties.

Parties still matter. ‘We need left-wing people in Parliament, so we support the idea of having strong Socialist and Green parties’, both of which are now solidly left-wing – the former mostly down to Unia and youth activists getting organised.

Not just in Switzerland but in Europe and the rest of the world, the left has to work together, particularly with the rapid rise of the right. Whether unions will ever be revolutionary, however, is another question altogether.

And that’s possibly because, as Bill Fletcher from the American Federation of Government Employees pithily puts it, ‘when you’re trying to drain a swamp but you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to think beyond survival.’

That, perhaps, is a better explanation for the lack of socialism in the union movement at the moment than any.

Josiah Mortimer was a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College, 7th – 11th July 2014. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.


Dek Keenan – What do we mean by socialism? from usilive

Suggested Reading

Derek Keenan

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1984. Workers Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society, Wooden Shoe.

Keenan, Derek. 2014. Syndicalism: An international and historical perspective.

Ness, Immanuel. 2014. New Forms of Worker Organisation: The Syndicalist and Autonomist restoration of class struggle unionism, PM Press.

Ness, Immanuel and Azzellini, Darion. 2011. Our to master and to Own: Workers Control from the Commune to the Present, Haymarket.

Pataud, Emile and Pouget, Emile. 1990. How we shall bring about the Revolution: Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth, Pluto.

van der Walt, Lucien. 2014. “Reclaiming Syndicalism: From Spain to South Africa to Global Labour Today“, Global Labour Journal: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, p. 239-252.