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Learning from History

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

In our previous articles published in Green Social Thought, we have identified the existential crisis we now face as a systemic one. We have argued that the now globally dominant capitalist socio-economic relationships and their cultural attributes are not only associated with the emergence of an existential crisis, but also causal. To achieve an ecologically sustainable future for humanity requires the building of an alternative socio-economic system, one historically and again popularly identified with some form of socialism.

We here briefly review the history of the struggle to move beyond capitalism for what we might learn to enable a successful transition to an ecologically sustainable global civilization.

The socialism we need against the “socialism” of the 20th century

An alternative to capitalism is not something new to be invented. It is as old as humanity, predating class society and resistant to it. It is resurgent today in the struggles of the indigenous peoples and their environmental allies for making the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples foundational to our common future.

The alternative to capitalism exists in the moral code that encourages generosity, reciprocity, altruism and nonviolence in the relationships between people and environmental conservatism in our relationships with the rest of nature. It predates the subordination in law and custom of these values and practices to the exploitative moral code of the now globally dominant capitalist class.

The fight for an alternative future exists in the struggles for the expansion of the commons, for mutually supportive relationships among people and for a conservative approach to our relationship with the rest of the natural world. In other words, it exists in the struggle for an ecologically sustainable human civilization.

At the same time, there is need to learn from past struggles if we are to succeed in our current ones, including responding to such observations as the following from Peter Hudis (2013, Haymarket Books) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, p.213-214.

“The tragedy of ‘Marxism’ is that a philosophy that originated (at least in Marx’s hands) with the aim of abolishing any social powers that operate behind the backs of the producers ended up creating dictatorial regimes that imposed their will on individuals without even a minimum degree of democratic control or public accountability. Nor was this only a political problem: the economic plans of the state-controlled economies operated no less outside the control of the producers, who were reduced to wage-slavery (where they were not subjected to forced labor of a more nefarious kind). The notion that a ‘new’ society can be imposed behind the backs of the populace and irrespective of specific social conditions faced by that society has done enormous damage – not least in leading large numbers of people around the world to question whether a viable alternative to capitalism is even possible…

“It can be argued that the greatest barrier in the way of a revolutionary challenge to capitalism today is not the material or ideological power of capital but rather the memory of the innumerable flawed and failed efforts to overcome it in the not-so-distant past. The past does hang like a dead weight upon the living – especially when alternative visions of a postcapitalist society that can animate the imagination of humanity are hard to come by...

“…precisely because we live in the shadow of the crimes committed in Marx’s name, it does not seem possible to fully renew the Marxian project of issuing a full-throttled challenge to capital if the conception of the new society found in his writings remains only implicit…

“Given the fact that time may well be running out on the effort to save the planet from capital’s rapacious self-expansionary nature, as seen in the ecological crisis, it has become necessary to project a much more explicit notion of what constitutes a viable notion of the alternative to capitalism than Marx himself envisaged.”

Our argument for achieving an ecological civilization is an attempt to make “much more explicit … a viable notion of the alternative to capitalism,” but with significant additions and qualifications to Peter Hudis’ thoughtful reflections on 20th century “socialism”. In doing so, we add the following observations:    

1. All efforts in the 20th and early 21st century to move beyond capitalism have been undertaken in the environment of a globally dominant capitalist market, one in which goods and services are exchanged for money, including the transfer of profits to the owners of capital. No breakaway, including the mid-20th century bloc of communist trading partners that included in their orbit nearly one-third of the world’s population, succeeded in escaping the economic, political and military constraints imposed by a globally dominant capitalism.

2. Most of those who have attempted to break away from the constraints imposed by a dominant capitalism have necessarily come from those classes who are today economically and culturally embedded within capitalism. 

3. The more formally educated a potential revolutionary, the more likely it is that capitalist values have been inculcated, and the more likely that person is to have strong, if often invisible, ties to the governing pro-capitalist economic and cultural elite, including the academic, electoral, communications and security institutions created by and for that elite.

4. It is the existential threat capitalism poses to humanity that today drives the struggle to move beyond capitalism, creating the possibility of an effective alliance between those most oppressed by capital and those most committed to moving beyond it, today constituting overlapping categories.

It is the global dominance by capital that in our view best explains the “flawed and failed efforts” of 20th century revolutionary beginnings. We need to identify and acknowledge those flaws and failures in order to avoid them in the present and future. At the same time, it is our experience that those who choose to litigate history thereby expose their own “flawed and failed” knowledge. We include ourselves among those who have made this mistake in our attempt to understand and explain past failures to move beyond capitalism. What we have learned from further reading of the record left by those in struggle for a world beyond capitalism is admiration for their intelligence and courage and gratitude for their sacrifice.

Our arguments for a green social democratic (ecosocialist) alternative to capitalism draw not only upon Marx’s writing and that of historians and social scientists before and since him, but also on the historical experience and example of the people in struggle against the continuing ravages of capitalism.  

“Socialism” and capitalism as coexisting social systems

Socialist alternatives to capitalism have origins which are nearly as old as capitalism itself, beginning in the form of various utopian theories about societies or communities that would replace or coexist with capitalism. A century before the political triumph of capitalism in England, discussion of a socialist alternative was stimulated by the publication in 1516 of Thomas More’s Utopia, which presents images of a society that harkens back to biblical communalism.      

While in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England spread its (by then) economically and politically dominant capitalist system from its birthplace to the English colonies in America and Australia, feudalism – particularly monarchical political power - remained dominant throughout much of the rest of the world. Even upon the publication in 1848 of the Communist Manifesto, in which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had already prophesied the replacement of capitalism by socialism, the political dominance of capitalism had not yet fully matured in Germany – or indeed anywhere in Continental Europe. 

Only through the efforts of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1871-1890) - on behalf of monarch Wilhelm I - did capitalism come to dominate the recently unified German states both economically and politically, including a limited parliamentary democracy, state protectionist support for industrial capitalist expansion, and the introduction of welfare state measures (usually taken from the programs of socialist political parties) to stave off socialist opposition (a model subsequently copied by capitalist governments wherever they felt themselves threatened by the possibility that a working class majority would replace capitalism by socialism).   

Remarkably, the first occurrence of a ruling socialist alternative to capitalism was the brief Paris Commune of 1871. (See the account of the Paris Commune by Karl Marx, with introduction and postscript by Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in France (1871), which can be found online at Recruited into the National Guard to defend the bourgeois dominated National Assembly of France against Bismarck’s Prussian army, then threatening at the gates of Paris, the working class of Paris was well-armed. Although soon abandoned by its erstwhile bourgeois allies, frightened by the prospect of a democracy that might include a majoritarian working class, the workers’ militias were left to fend off the surrounding Prussian troops. In doing so, the working class of Paris took political – that is, legislative - power, successfully defended the city, put into law the political promises their bourgeois allies had made and took the first steps towards establishing socialism before being overwhelmed by the combined forces of the opposition. That opposition included a treacherous capitalist class which by then had again allied itself instead with monarchical France and, for as long as necessary, even the invading Prussian army.   

This failed effort of the working class of Paris became part of the learning curve of Marxist intellectuals and workers whose later achievements included the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 in Russia and the creation across the Soviet Union of a model their successors claimed to be socialism which survived until 1991. This model, in turn, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of its allied – some say subordinate - states, inspired imitative, modified and contrary socialist movements and governments in nearly all countries and regions of the world.    

But were the Soviet Union and its imitations socialist societies?  Canadian economist Michael A. Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The conductor and the conducted, concluded (p184) from a study of the mature post-1950s socio-economic system of the USSR that “a society divided into conductors and conducted (even if there were no exploitation as such) has little to do with anything Marx looked forward to”.  Instead, as Marx clarified in his study of the short-lived Paris Commune, his version of socialism is a system in which working people develop themselves in the process of transforming their society – one that precludes the intercession of a self-appointed Communist vanguard.

An earlier critique of socialist alternatives, particularly 20th century alternatives, was offered in 1989 by the American socialist Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future. He argues that from the beginning of the cold war (launched from the capitalist West against the communist East after the Second World War), the historical record might seem to suggest that most actually existing socialist and capitalist systems are co-existent alternatives rather than successive stages in social evolution of human society. There are grounds for making such an argument either in those cases where self-described “socialist” governments have existed alongside capitalist ones, sometimes separated by “iron curtains”, or when both “socialist” and capitalist forms of economic activity have existed within the same political boundaries (as, for example, in Scandinavia or, indeed, in any capitalist society).  

There may even be reason to ask whether contemporary capitalism could long exist without the co-existence of some form of socialism, either as a temporary relief from the worst of capitalism or as authoritarian states attempting to build socialism from the top-down. While the former acts as a relief valve, the latter serves as a convenient villain, both diverting attention from the ills of capitalism. We argue, however, that most self-anointed socialist governments that have succeeded, at least for a time, in co-existing with capitalism combine economic dependence on participation in capitalist market relations and corresponding cultural characteristics.

While today a successful transition beyond capitalist market relationships will have to be global in scope, so must be the corresponding cultural revolution. No such transition is possible without the achievement of global solidarity of the people in conscious struggle for an ecologically sustainable alternative. It is to the historical failures to achieve such an alternative that we should look to clearly identify the cultural characteristics that continue to bind humanity to a system of exploitation. If humanity is to move beyond merely ephemeral independence from capitalism, our revolutionary activity must include our cultural development as an essential condition. We must change ourselves in the process of changing our world and vice-versa.  

For emphasis, the order in which Marx presented a similar argument has been reversed. Many of his followers have apparently expected that by changing the world (by which these Marxists mean the formal relationships of production – the way we interact to make a living - we would automatically change ourselves. In practice, it appears that more is needed. We must change our world and ourselves simultaneously if either change is to endure. 

Among early proponents of socialism were members of the classes ultimately displaced by emergent capitalism. They brought with them their cultural values. They were joined over time by members of the new oppressed classes created by capitalism, primarily the working class, whose cultural values also included the traces of those they brought with them from pre-capitalist society. The displaced classes included members of the feudal nobility and their intellectual and military servants, as well as former serfs and guild members, with corresponding habits and dispositions. 

Not all members of the disappearing feudal ruling classes, of course, took the direction of opposition to capitalism. Most were able to convert their feudal property or privileges into capitalist property and privileges, a pattern that repeated itself in subsequent social revolutions and counterrevolutions. When new class relationships emerge, the members of the old ruling classes often find it easier to make a soft landing, including a place among the new ruling classes. To those new ruling classes, the former bring at least traces of the former ruling cultural values.     

Nor did all members of the formerly exploited classes under feudalism take the direction of opposition to capitalism. Some found their way into the new capitalist class and its middle-class retinue. Most adopted the cultural values of the new ruling class.

The early socialist opposition to capitalism included some of the skilled members of the feudal guilds who were being displaced by the less skilled working classes needed by burgeoning capitalist production and distribution. They brought with them to socialism their organizational skills and independence, but also hierarchical values from the feudal society in which they were previously embedded. 

The new capitalist society also included those driven off the land by enclosure laws designed to supply capitalism with an expanding number of economically dependent workers. Many brought with them communal values that thankfully persist to this day.

As means of transportation improved and populations expanded beyond the resources of European capitalist and feudal states, emigrants from these countries carried their property views and other cultural values into the lands of indigenous peoples, where indigenous, capitalist and feudal cultural values commingle to this day. Increasingly, however, the moral high ground has been sought and found by representatives of indigenous cultural traditions. Joining them are those of the settler population most committed to the achievement of an ecologically sustainable society.   

Such historical facts help to explain why socialism has been a moving target – an idea with a seemingly unlimited variety of meanings, including such mutually exclusive uses as national socialism and socialist internationalism. Our aim here is not to negate the use of socialism as a word defining the social aims of individuals, political parties or governments. It is specific well- known case examples of socialism in practice that most concern us, exemplified by the authoritarian versions of “socialism” that prevailed in the former USSR and its Eastern European allies, and the repeated capitulations to capitalism by center-right variants of “socialism” in most capitalist countries. These have seriously discredited socialism.

Our aim, of course, is not to litigate history. It is to emphasize by negative example the essential requirements for an enduring, ecologically sustainable alternative to capitalism. In the economic sphere, this must be the growth into a dominant role of non-market economic relationships, and in the cultural sphere, the development into a guiding role of commitment to radical democracy, imagination, science and education.

In our next article we will consider historical experience to identify some of the ways socialist and related movements can fail.

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada