The Future of Socialism

Al Whitlock al_whitlock at
Thu Nov 11 14:43:05 MST 1999

Serendipity seems to rule - I received the attached at the same time as
Charles post.  It is very different.

Al Whitlock

The Prospects for Socialism

By Cyril Smith

'I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the
thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it
comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for
what they meant under another name.'

    William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (1887)

Fifteen or twenty years ago, most of us would have understood the title of
this paper, and written pages on the subject without the slightest trouble.
Our answers would have differed widely, of course, but their vocabulary, the
categories they used, would have been well known to us all. Words like
'socialism', 'class', 'property', 'crisis' would have tripped smoothly from
the tongue. We would have wasted little effort asking ourselves what they
meant. For example, I, as a Trotskyist, would have explained how 1917 marked
the beginning of the world transition from capitalism to socialism. The
degeneration of the Russian revolution had held things up, and we knew that
what others called 'actually-existing socialism' was really a monstrous,
oppressive, bureaucratic nightmare. But we could explain this degeneration,
and the rise to power of the Stalinist bureaucracy, as results of the
isolation of the revolution in a single backward country. The spread of the
proletarian revolution to the 'advanced metropolitan countries', as we
called them, would soon make it possible for the bureaucracy to be
overthrown and for the advance to a new social order to be resumed. What was
needed was a world party, founded on the scientific truths of
Marxism-Leninism, which in each country would lead the working class to
'take state power'.

Basically, socialism meant an economic system in which state ownership and
democratic planning replaced the anarchy of private ownership in the
organisation of production. And 'prospects' - or 'perspectives', the
non-existent English plural into which the Comintern had translated the
Russian word perspektiviy - were something like a historical weather
forecast. Since the course of history was law-governed, it was amenable to
scientific investigation by those who employed the 'correct' method. (We
were always keen on being 'correct', that is, conforming to an accepted body
of theoretical knowledge.) Of course, any theoretical framework whose
categories have been frozen solid gets into difficulties when the world
changes, as is its embarrassing habit. Assuming its tenets had been true
before the change, upholding them under the new conditions demands some
fancy theoretical footwork. (When somebody mumbles something about
'dialectics', you can be sure of trouble.)

I take it as agreed here that the world has indeed profoundly changed. Those
who try to convince themselves that it hasn't are clinging to the old
'Marxist' language like a comfort blanket, under which they can hide from
the horrors of the modern world. But those old ideas just can't be patched
up to fit the new world. Certainly, some things are the same. More than
ever, money exercises inhuman control over all forms of sociality and of
production. Capital is still more powerful in distorting and destroying the
lives of billions of people. Global deterioration of their well-being
accompanies the ever-accelerating advance of technology. While the
productivity of labour races forward, a hundred million children go to bed
hungry each night. State power takes the shape of tyrannies of appalling
brutality. The threat of war involving nuclear destruction still hangs over
the world. Trotsky's description of 'a crisis in human culture' is even more
apposite than it was in 1938.

But the forms of this 'crisis' are not those of thirty years ago, let alone
sixty,  and we must stop pretending that they are. Transnational
corporations now hold unprecedented power, rivalling that of states;
industry has massively translocated to new areas of the world; production is
controlled by purely financial enterprises of a wholly new kind, which
decide the fate of entire continents; profit-driven technology threatens to
degrade the natural environment and to disrupt life-support systems;
developments in the former bureaucratic states shows how Mafia-type gangs
come to dominate all the other states and financial systems. These and other
changes have basically altered the conditions for any possible social and
political transformation, and thus demand a fundamental re-examination of
the way socialists look at their tasks. Both the destructive character of
the existing world order and the possibility for human advance are quite
beyond anything Marxism considered. That is why, I believe, the old
categories of Marxism now show themselves quite inadequate to grasp the
twentieth century. Indeed, they have become a major obstacle to finding any
possibility for socialist action. Trying to make such a re-examination, we
must turn to an unknown writer of the nineteenth century: Karl Heinrich
Marx.1 Discovering his ideas is not as easy as you might expect. For the
millions of words devoted to 'Marxism' during the past century and more,
rather than helping us to understand Marx's ideas, in fact form a massive
barrier which must be penetrated if we are to find out what he was trying to

First, let us say what he was not trying to do. He was not an economist,
making theoretical 'models' of capitalism'. He was not a philosopher, with a
unified 'theory of history'. He was not a sociologist, developing a science
of social structure. He certainly did not manufacture 'an integral world
outlook', 'cast from a single sheet of steel'. And, as we all know, neither
was he the author of a Utopian blueprint for an alternative kind of world.
An important part of what he wanted to achieve was to demonstrate that all
such 'theoretical' projects were themselves symptoms of a false,
'alienated', way of living. They were forms of thought which saw themselves
as separated from their objects. They reflected a world in which the social
relations between us dominated our lives independently of our wills and
consciousnesses. Built into their foundations is a hidden assumption: that
the actual producers, the 'doers', had to be directed by a ruling class, who
were the 'thinkers'. Universal human self-emancipation-and Marx's concern
was nothing less than this-could not be grasped by theorists, for it was a
practical task, in which the masses would become the subjects of history.

'Philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways' for a long time.
A few of them have still not quite given up. But this activity is itself
alienated, that is, governed by its own products. Instead of trying to be
theorists, stuffing the world into our preconceived categories, and then
giving up in despair when it obstinately refuses to fit, Marx tells us to
undertake the strenuous effort of allowing reality to unfold itself. Only
then will it reveal its human meaning. As he explains in the Theses on
Feuerbach, he takes as his standpoint 'human society and social humanity'.

What does 'human' mean here? Marx's achievement was precisely to distil, by
means of his critique of philosophical science, the conception of humanity
for which the philosophers had sought in vain. 'Communism is the riddle of
history solved.' Humanity is not a fixed essence, but is essentially
self-creating, and, only because of this, self-conscious. But alienated life
is dominated and fragmented by private property. Especially in its bourgeois
mode, this social form denies everything that is characteristically human in
the lives of most people. That is why, as he said (Capital, vol. III), it
was not 'worthy and appropriate for our human nature'. All the struggles of
society may be seen as the expression of the efforts of this human content
to free itself from its inhuman shell. To live humanly means to create
consciously a free association of social individuals.

Marx did not study an economic system called 'capitalism', and its
replacement by a different one called 'socialism'. His subject was capital,
which stands over us all as a vast, inhuman social power. This set of social
relations determines the way that humans treat each other, and themselves,
not as free ends in themselves, but as mere means, as things. Conversely,
things-for example, money -take on the character of subjects, dominating
individual human lives. The life-activities of individuals, their human
creative potentials, are subsumed under these inhuman powers, and are turned
into enemies of humanity. Implied in this study was the possibility of our
emancipation from capital. When the producers of wealth, those engaged in
human creative life-activities, take conscious control over their productive
powers, the free development of each individual will become the condition
for the free development of all.2

At the end of the twentieth century, in some ways for the first time, we can
see the possibility for realising these fundamental notions of Marx, not in
our heads, but within the horrors of global capital itself. The scale, the
global scope and the speed of technological advance have given us the
material potential to answer many of socialism's traditional difficulties.
They have also increased the dangers for even the survival of human life
posed by the continued power of capital. If we search for
universal human emancipation from private property we will begin to find the
potential for freedom within the forms of the globalised world order.
Theorists in the 'post-modern' fashion insist that the many separate forms
of resistance to 'neo-liberal' economic policies and their attacks on human
values are no more than discrete fragments. The collapse of the old
'Marxist' dogmas opens the way for us to 'strip off the mystical veil' which
hides the reality of these struggles, and to reveal their universal meaning.
Contained implicitly in each of them is the striving for 'universal human
emancipation' against the inhuman shell in which it is imprisoned.

But this meaning remains invisible so long as we try to impose some external
shape on reality. 'Marxism' kept revolution and emancipation rigidly
separate. Convinced that it was the sole proprietor of 'socialist
consciousness', and vigorously combating all competition, it tried to keep
each struggle for freedom under tight control. It failed. Clinging to the
old ideas of revolution makes it impossible to grasp any 'prospect for
socialism', even when it is right under your nose. And the social, political
and economic forms in which the new world makes its appearance cannot be
predicted, for they can only emerge from the free creative activity of
masses of people.

The ideas of Karl Marx, declared dead by large numbers of 'official'
commentators, are only now coming into their own. The world does not need
some new 'programme', to be realised by a historical computer. Instead, as
the contradictions between humanity and inhumanity thrust millions of people
forward to fight for control over their own lives, we have to redevelop the
ability to grasp the new world within these struggles, to reveal that they
are actually struggles for humanity against the inhuman power of capital.

Of course, Marx can't answer the problems of the coming century. His task is
rather to make it possible for those engaged in the coming struggles to find
the real significance of their own actions. If those of us who have survived
from the 'old' socialist movement can listen to him critically, he might yet
help a new generation to reach consciousness of themselves, breaking through
the 'mind-forged manacles' which have bound us all for too long.


1. In Marx at the Millennium (Pluto, 1996), I tried to show how Marx's
revolutionary humanism had been completely lost in the Marxist tradition,
even while Marx was still alive, and how relevant it was to the problems of
our time. See also my paper 'Friedrich Engels and Marx's Critique of
Political Economy', Capital and Class, 62 (June 1997). Comrades from various
strands of the Marxist tradition have been working to  clarify some of the
issues which arise in the search for Marx's revolutionary humanism. The
discussion is reported in the four issues which have so far appeared of
International Socialist Forum, which can also be obtained on the website

2. To get back to Marx's conception of what a human relation between
individuals and social relation would be like, his continuity-discontinuity
with Hegel is very important. 'Marxism' got this completely wrong. For some
ideas about this, see my contribution 'Hegel, Economics and Marx's Capital',
in History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism: Essays in Memory of
Tom Kemp, ed. by T. Brotherstone & G. Pilling (Porcupine, 1996).

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