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Issue #1908      March 23, 2020

How to Understand Democratic Socialism

Despite the century of saturation by propaganda against the name of socialism throughout Western countries, its political relevance is intensifying.

Anti-communist propaganda has often taken two different (and, I would argue, logically incompatible) lines: socialism is evil; socialism is politically irrelevant.

The two lines had coexisted right from the emergence of socialism as a political fact in the 19th century. The relative prevalence of each has varied according to political opportunity – the greater and more imminent the threat posed by socialism to bourgeois power, the less tenable the “irrelevant” line, and so the more the “evil.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union and many other allied socialist states was heralded by the imperialist propagandists as the “end of history” – the final victory of the so-called liberal democracy (read: imperialism) over socialism. The mainstream political discourse leant hard towards “irrelevant.” But despite the “end of grand narratives,” the voracious imperialist need for war to prop up the ever-sinking ship of capitalism meant that a new enemy needed to be invented. The “clash of civilisations” narrative found that enemy in Islam, or rather a particular artificial construct of “Islam.”

A few independent governments overthrown, a few million people dead, a few new markets opened up to foreign exploitation later, and this epic inferno of clashing civilisations has burnt out. Which is not to say that the violence and destruction of livelihoods have ended; on the contrary, around the world terrorist violence, in many cases with direct US backing, continues. However, I am not talking about facts, I am talking about liberal politics.

Do you remember five years ago when all that was on the television was the war on terrorism, refugees, “Islamic extremism”? I do. I also remember that five years ago if China was discussed on television, they would speak of “the Chinese government.” Now far more often I hear instead “the Chinese Communist Party” and even sometimes how it is the “central threat of our times” (regards to Mike Pompeo).

Do these changes in political discourse reflect any objective shift in conditions in the Middle East or China? Not so much. Indeed the level of aggression towards these places has remained consistent. It reflects a change in the political climate in the West instead.

The alternative conflict narrative failed; socialism vs capitalism is back on the agenda. So too, is the Cold War mentality.

Figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have appeared, vocally promoting “socialism.” Their surges of popularity among large sections of the population, if temperamental, show a growing desire of the people (particularly young people) for socialism, or at least for an alternative to the current form of capitalism. Of course, what they propose is far from what we would call socialism and does not intend to change the basis of capitalist society. Yet it is clear that much of the ruling class consider even their views enough of a threat to carry out defamatory media campaigns and underhanded political manoeuvering against them.

The phenomenon of the so-called “democratic socialists” is not a new one. Engels’ 1847 draft entitled The Principles of Communism (rewritten with Marx into the famous Communist Manifesto) mentions “the democratic socialists” who share some similar ideas to communists in terms of short term policy objectives. However, they view those objectives not as a stepping stone to revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class and a thorough economic transformation, but as entirely sufficient to indefinitely curb the excesses of capitalism.

Engels describes these democratic socialists as “either proletarians who are not yet sufficiently clear about the conditions of the liberation of their class, or they are representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, a class which, prior to the achievement of democracy and the socialist measures to which it gives rise, has many interests in common with the proletariat.” This description remains strikingly accurate.

Why are the objectives and outlook of the democratic socialists insufficient? There are two main reasons.

Firstly, they do not sufficiently recognise the class basis of our society. Although they frequently obliquely refer to class and for this we can acknowledge the overall progressive nature of their rise in popularity they do not recognise the extent of bourgeois class power in economy and politics. No matter what reforms they could put in place, without destroying the power the capitalist class has over our entire society, any reform that touches bourgeois profits will be repealed in the end.

This does not mean that such reforms are entirely worthless. Many of the benefits enjoyed by working people in much of the Western world were achieved by worker’s struggles in the 1930s and ’40s, fought for by both social democrats and communists, particularly in the union movement. This was a time when the workers’ movement (both the unions and the Communist Parties) was very strong – the CPA reached 20,000 members. Many decades later, a lot of these benefits still linger. However, it is clear that with the weakening of the union movement and left politics, the capitalist class has been clawing back every one of these reforms piece by piece.

So long as the capitalist class remains in power, both via their political control over the state and their economic power, any victory for the working class will remain a precarious and ephemeral one.

Secondly, they do not have a robust scientific analysis of the economic basis of capitalism. They view exploitation as an aberration of capitalism and not its core mechanic. In this way, they uphold the essence of bourgeois political economy. They rely on redistribution via increased taxation, but no fundamental restructuring of economic relations. This dooms their policies to failure.

So long as the entire economy is based on the dominance of private property and wage labour, the profit motive will remain the overriding dictator of the whole society’s economic life regardless of the thoughtful words of the government. So long as the base of this system remains the same, any policies aimed at bettering the working class are bound to cut into short-term private profits, which will mean the bourgeoisie will only intensify exploitation in whatever other ways they can find. This includes forcing other countries to open further to increased imperial exploitation via political and economic pressure, and the threat of military intervention or its reality - aggressive war. The chequered track record of the democratic socialists with regards to foreign policy, and tendency to fall perfectly in line with imperialism on these questions, reminds us that they are unlikely to inhibit the latter effectively.

We’ll never find out precisely what a Corbyn-led UK would have looked like, and we probably won’t find out what a Sanders-led US looks like. There is every chance it would end in disappointment.

Does this all mean that we should adopt a hostile attitude towards the democratic socialists? Not at all. Indeed we can find an answer to this in the Australian context. Unlike the UK and the US, we have in fact not seen a similar ideological development of comparable magnitude. There is not yet any Australian Bernie Sanders. Despite my criticisms of the democratic socialism, it can be recognised that it does contain sprouts of an independent working-class perspective and socialist objectives, if in an unpolished form. However the continued ideological dominance of the Australian Labor Party over the Australian working class, with a class-collaborationist outlook, inhibits even this level of ideological development. If there were to emerge an Australian equivalent, it should be seen as a progressive development and an ally in this stage of the workers’ struggle.

If such a trend achieved victory at the polls, even if it did end in disappointment, that disappointment would not necessarily doom us to another two steps back. It would present us an opportunity for the working class to push forward towards greater demands – revolutionary demands.

Next article – This week …

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