Arguments for socialism: Utopian fantasy or realistic option?

[Green Left Weekly, #269, April 9, 1997]

February next year is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Marx and Engels' famous Manifesto of the Communist Party. This event can be regarded as the birth of the modern socialist movement. Yet, despite all the drama and turmoil of the past century and a half, today the socialist movement seems at its lowest ebb ever. Among capitalist commentators, it is the received wisdom that socialism is a dead issue. Many erstwhile radicals have come to the same conclusion.

However, if we look beyond the superficialities of journalism, while the "spectre of communism" may not exactly be haunting the leaders of world capitalism, such conclusions seem facile and premature, to say the least.

For a start, certainties about the death of socialism would be more compelling if the world capitalist system were not in such obvious crisis, if the terrible costs to humanity of its continued existence were not becoming so starkly clear.

In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the mood in so many media articles was triumphant: in the great Cold War contest with "socialism", the capitalist west had won. For a time, the notion of the "end of history" gained some currency. All this was short lived. Although the ideologists of the system certainly believe that capitalism is eternal and as natural as rain and sunshine, the triumphalism has long since gone. In the face of the endless and mounting problems, it was unsustainable.

Watch the TV news any evening: an endless litany of violence, disasters and crises, at home and abroad. While they are presented as if they are acts of God, these are simply the routine manifestations of the terminally sick capitalist social order.

In the '50s, '60s and early '70s, world capitalism enjoyed a broad economic upswing. Capitalism remained capitalism, of course, but overall the working class in the richer countries won real improvements in their conditions of life. This was the period of the welfare state. The popular mood was relatively optimistic.

That's all gone now.

Since the mid-1970s, world capitalism has been in a long-term depressive phase. International competition is sharply intensifying. The welfare state is a luxury that is no longer on offer. In every capitalist country, the broad agenda of capitalist opinion is the same: "reform" the labour market, i.e., drive down wages and conditions and demolish the welfare system, as fast as is politically feasible.

Government social expenditures have to be slashed and diverted towards the corporations through subsidies, concessions, contracts and consultancies. This is the basic explanation for the endless cutbacks, sell-offs and lay-offs and the mantra of "efficiency" intoned ad nauseam by our political and business leaders.

Despite all the undoubted scientific and technological advances, capitalist society is undergoing a massive regression. The whole thrust of mainstream politics is to the right, to take us back to the 19th century, to eliminate every element of decency in class society won in over a century of popular struggle.

At the same time, the ecological crisis is rapidly worsening. It is the direct product of the corporate drive for profit at all costs. Capitalism is utterly incapable of meaningfully addressing the problem. At a time of deepening austerity, no capitalist state is going to contemplate the gigantic financial outlays and wrenching economic reorganisation necessary to solve the environmental crisis.

This is the future under capitalism. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; it won't get better; there is no limit beyond which they won't go — in fact, it is much more likely to get radically worse if our rulers aren't stopped. The inexorable realities of world capitalist competition compel the capitalist class and its political leaders to pursue their agenda even if it undermines the stability of the whole system.

The socialist argument is simple: it is a utopian fantasy to hope for any profound improvement of the rigours of capitalism; the only realistic option is to fight with all our energy to eliminate capitalism and build a new social order which prioritises people's needs rather than corporate profits.

Society's means of production, distribution and exchange must be seized from the corporate gangsters who own them and placed under democratic social control. On this firm economic basis, we can proceed to build a cooperative, collectivist, solidaristic human society and leave the horrors of capitalism behind us.