[This article draws on the plenary “Are we socialists, and what do we mean by “socialism”?]
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 is a guest blogger for the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. 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.