Socialism, communism and capitalist are among the most misused words in the world. They all refer to social systems which should historically develop out of one another, at least theoretically. In this period of crisis, with its potential for massive social change, a clarification of terms is necessary for us if we are to obtain clear visions of the future.
Socialism is a word whose root is society. It originally referred to a way of living in which all the means of producing our needs would be controlled by society as a whole. This would entail the free association of the world's people, with every associate a co-owner of the entire world's vast array of resources, natural and human made. The global community would collectively make decisions on matching their needs with available resources. This would mean the end of wage labor, i.e. the selling of one's ability to work in order to gain access to social wealth, an end to separate nations and enterprises, an end to money and all forms of exchange. Once such social relations were to mature, becoming an unconscious element of daily activity, earth would become a big commune, and its way of living would be known as communism.
Capital is a social relation, a relation between people expressed through things. Goods were exchanged in previous social systems although the scope of exchange was much more limited and its occurrence much less frequent. But in capitalism, labor power becomes a commodity, something to be bought and sold. Workers sell their available time in return for the money needed to reproduce themselves as workers. In return, those few who own or control the means of production and/or investment funds, be they corporate owners or state bureaucrats, obtain control over the workers' time and energy, and thus can require them to produce beyond their needs. The capitalists' control of the products means that by selling them, they can potentially draw a profit from the surplus (beyond expenses) which is thereby produced. Some of this profit is used for their own consumption and vital but unproductive expenses, such as running the government and keeping track of money. But profits are primarily for reinvestment in profit-making activity. This is how investments grow. And growth is capital's reason for living, its ultimate priority, even if growth requires war.
Capital's survival, as well as its potential overthrow, depend on the working class. This social class includes all who own little except their labor power, their capacity to perform work. Many of these are wage slaves. Others, like housewives, conduct tasks necessary to maintain the workforce without being paid. Others are being trained to sell themselves, e.g. students. And others, languishing on the margins of society, cannot be used at all.
The working class not only produces all wealth which exists in usable form, but also enriches and empowers the owners/controllers of capital. The workers' activity exhausts them, while strengthening the impersonal forces which dominate their lives. Their own creative energies are transformed into a seemingly alien entity, capital, which stands ever taller and more imposing, and confronts them as a “given" fact of life, like the weather. Outside work, activities like commuting and passive entertainment reinforce our roles as workers for capital. Even when survival Is not In question, a wage slave's life is a boring treadmill compared with the passionate creative lives we could be living within a different social structure. This is the essence of exploitation. which most people think of as low wages and other obvious injustices.
In their effort to ensure continued growth of their capital, the ruling elite throughout the world are driven by the dynamics of global competition (as well as greed) to get the most out of their labor forces, to substitute machines where possible, and to get people to act like machines when this is unfeasible. This has led to social conflicts since the bloody beginnings of capital, as workers were forced to take drastic action to protect their living standards.
Socialism and communism were first proposed as goals by activists in the working class movement of the early 19th century. They believed class conflicts would escalate, and would present the working class with both an opportunity and a necessity to tear down the social structure and live differently. Marx and most of his contemporaries saw socialism and communism as arising out of the ensuing social conflict. Among others, Marx insisted the workers themselves must make the revolution. He saw his theoretical work as providing the movement with analytical tools to help it reach its goal, "the abolition of the wages system".
By the end of the 19th century, the movement had degenerated, in part because of capitalism's apparent success in solving its periodic crises of overproduction (depression). Most prominent socialists came to redefine socialism as an evolutionary process whose aim was the redistribution of money. In their view, a party made up of intellectuals and experts. i.e. themselves, would take over the government, and gradually have the state acquire control of the means of production in society's name.
The equation of society with the state, an institution whose very purpose is class oppression, was and is a self-serving position of power-hungry bureaucrats known today as social democrats. They still staff parties the world over which are self-labeled socialist (and even communist). Like the openly pro-capitalist parties, these parties' turns at state power have always meant austerity for the working classes, centralization of power, and the upholding of the "national interest" in commercial and military combat with other states. After all, their acquisition of power simply means they become controllers of the . national capital. A perfect example of this is the Mitterand government in France.
With the 1910's, the capitalist crisis came back worse than ever. In the font of the first global depression and a subsequent world war. Many split off from the social democrats who generally supported the various national war efforts. Among these were people like Lenin and Trotsky, who agreed with the concept of socialism as state control, but dismissed the idea of peaceful evolution. They thus favored an elite and relatively secretive party whose aim was to lead the workers to socialism by seizing state power. They admired mass production, scientific management and the discipline of the factory, and therefore modeled their party on the basis of industrial hierarchy.
Where the vanguards have seized power, as in the Soviet Union, Cuba, Angola and so-called socialist states, state capitalism reigns. Material survival of sorts is guaranteed in return for draconian controls over every feature of daily life. The state is just as demanding of hard work and low pay as private bosses. And, since state capitalist entitles are ultimately managed by the world market (just like IBM and Exxon), they are getting incorporated into the global debt structure and making deals with multi-nationals. Many multi-national executives have been attracted by the prospect of a stable (strike-free) workforce and favorable investment terms in places like Zimbabwe (Citicorp Bank), Bulgaria (Pizza Hut—Pepsi), and China (Volkswagen).
In the U.S., the vanguards are broken up into small warring sects. They organize support campaigns for all sorts of struggles except the war against wage labor. They use guilt-tripping and peoples' desire for immediate action to recruit troops for their machines. Their achievement of substantial influence, let alone-state power, is unlikely, but they can divert and confuse (not to mention give revolution a bad name).
An updated distortion of socialism is the prevalent view within the American left, «s exemplified by Berkeley's congressperson Ron Dellums, "socialist" writer Michael Harrington, and the Citizens Party. They see socialism as the ownership of each enterprise by a workers' cooperative, the break-up of large enterprises, and support for small ones, nationalization of some sectors, and coordination of the whole mixture by state planners. In other words, they propose to deal with the problems of "free" market (dog-eat-dog competition) and inefficient state control by combining the wont features of both.
But workers' control and/or ownership of an enterprise does little to relieve the market pressures which all companies face—outcompete rivals or go under. Workers in a co-op situation often resort to speeding themselves up, cutting their own wages, even laying themselves off, so the enterprise has a chance to survive. And forcing companies to become and/or stay small does very little to improve their competitiveness. In the meantime, state regulators will have tremendous difficulties reconciling their need to centralize decision-making with the decentralized co-op ownership pattern. Besides, any effort at planning the economy would quickly find that the U.S. is merely a part of a world mechanism, and beyond its borders, other plans are in effect. Unfortunately, this ball of confusion is what the media presents as "socialism".
No wonder the meanings of words have been distorted. But all is not lost. The true meaning of socialism has been articulated on word and practice throughout the last century. The anarchist movement, an element of the early socialist movement, is currently experiencing a global resurgence. It has consistently contested the legitimacy of state power and authoritarian social structures. Socialists such as Rosa Luxembourg, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst, Paul Mattick and Guy Debord have kept alive the concept of socialism as the abolition of wage slavery and the establishment of a global community. And in one case after another, movements have arisen which have challenged the very nature of existing social relations. For periods of up to a year, workers established social control of productive resources in places like Spain, Russia, Poland, Italy, Germany, Brazil, China, Canada and even the U.S. (the Seattle General Strike of 1919). In many more instances, people have contested social control. And currently, with a new world depression, we see a new wave of rebellion.
As Rosa Luxemburg showed, capitalism is itself the "transitional stage" between all previous forms of society and the beginning of what Marx called "really human history" - the history of freely associated human individuals, infinitely rich in their diversity but beyond all divisions into classes and nations.
Most of those who call themselves leftists dismiss the possibility of an anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist transformation. This is usually due to a mixture of a lack of understanding of capitalism and socialism, cynicism about human nature and a desire for power. After all, many "activists" are college grads who have merely shifted their career ambitions to new fields.
A social insurrection will neither be televised nor led by the nose. More likely, the leaders will scramble to catch up to the "ignorant masses". They were left behind when Russian workers set up workers' councils (soviets) in 1905 and factory committees 1n 1917; when French students and workers conducted a general strike and occupation of campuses and factories in May, 1968; and when young black, white, and Asian proles drove the cops out of their neighborhoods and proceeded to redistribute goods in England during the Summer of 1981. When the various autonomous movements around the world begin to cooperate, begin to clarify their understanding of the past and visions of the future, when they assert their collective desires, that'll be the day capitalist will be terminated and socialism realized.
(Commie Rag, January 1983, No. 3)