Were I to receive a pound for every time I hear socialism being described as a relic of a bygone era, as a theory that is destined to fail in practice or one that is inherently incompatible with the ways of the modern world – I would be the envy of many capitalists. We hear these ill-thought-out mantras being repeated all too often, sometimes ad nauseam, in the media and by politicians, as well as by our friends, colleagues, and family members. The theory of socialism, together with its practical applications, is considered by these ‘philosophers’ to be dead and buried, having uttered its final breath with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Socialism is considered worthy of being resurrected, in a conversation, only if it is to be the subject of derision, typically considered to be confined to the realms of the idealistic but naive youth and ‘lofty intellectuals’, both groups deemed as being out of touch with how the world works.
The most base argument against socialism that I have had the bemused pleasure of coming across is the old and rather tedious one that struggles to show that socialism cannot work by pointing to the failures of regimes that at some time or other declared themselves to be ‘socialist’; they often citing the eponymous examples of the Soviet Union and China, both of which failed to build the said utopia. Those who maintain this line of well worn reasoning fail to recognise that socialism, in the post-Marxist sense of the word, is a relatively modern phenomenon that could be considered to be in its infancy, and whose implementation at a national level has only really been attempted in the last century.
Socialism did indeed fail on occasions throughout the past century, as the corrupt leaders used the philosophy as a smokescreen to further their own ends. Capitalism however, has continuously failed all but a minority of humanity for the best part of half a millennium or more. Those aforementioned detractors equate the repressions that occurred under supposedly ‘socialist’ systems with the theory of socialism itself and use these cases as a weapon to highlight the flaws in the theory, rather than attributing the subjugation of a people to those leaders who have distorted, perverted and ultimately tainted the concept of the said philosophy. A classic example of the greed intrinsic to the capitalist system has manifested itself a thousand times, from the looting of the New World and the resulting subjugation or annihilation of entire nations and cultures, through to the imperialist era to the sending of the poor of one nation to fight the poor of another nation, in order to boost the wealth and power of the rich, and enslaving or killing their fellow man as part of a purported duty to God, King and country. Witness also the modern day multinationals that simultaneously exploit whole continents, subjugating the impoverished of these countries to the irreproachable rigours of free-market economics, creating yet greater divisions between rich and poor and sowing the seeds of future conflicts.
Rarely do the critics of socialism acknowledge that capitalism, in practice, associated as it often is with the exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable, has for centuries subjected billions to a miserable existence or to a slow and painful death, having caused a level of global suffering against which the failings of socialism pale comparatively. If one is lucky, these detractors will acknowledge some of the failings of capitalism. However, they will swiftly parry with the comment that despite its faults, capitalism is nevertheless the best system available to us. It is not just lives, communities, habitats and cultures that are destroyed by the system to which the majority of the world’s government’s subscribe, it seems that the perpetuation of the fable of free market capitalism has also led to the erosion of the belief, amongst ordinary people, that a different and better world is possible and replaced it with the notion that each person should put themselves individually at the centre of their world and strive for material gain.
‘Capitalism has destroyed our belief in any effective power but that of self interest backed by force.”
These words of Irish writer and dramatist George Bernard Shaw are not merely a punchy quote but a true reflection of the status quo of the modern world. Beginning with the quest for profit and material (rather than spiritual) enrichment and the mass consumerism that reaches its peak in the days, weeks or sometimes even months before Christmas, through to the wars that are fought, (supposedly in the name of democracy), in order to satisfy a few individuals sick with their addiction to wastage of natural resources, the notion is the same: putting self-interest before the welfare of others and putting desire before need, be this either on a local or an international stage.
Those seeking to find another way, to build another world are at best dismissed as dreamers, at worst demonised as troublemakers, or even bizarrely called dictators by a US government which feels that the democratically-elected president of a country possessing large quantities of oil ”…does not have the interests of the United States at heart.” On reflection, the song ‘Bread and Roses’, written by Irish singer and trade-union activist Martin Whelan comes to mind. The song’s lyrics include the line ‘If we don’t have our dreams, what do we live for?…’
Socialism, when played out in practice, is certainly not devoid of faults and shortcomings. These failings ought however to be attributed to the men and women that are in power and not to the system itself.
Some on the right, including those on the religious right, have claimed that socialism is an evil philosophy. One cannot help but beg the question as to how a philosophy that places the welfare of the individual at its very heart, one that champions an individual’s right to have the opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential, and one that advocates working for the benefit of all, can be viewed as being a malevolent force.
Whereas socialism may at times, in practice, be as imperfect as those who implement it, when it comes to building a better world, capitalism falls short even as a theory, based as it is on the exploitation of an individual in order to benefit another. Be it the overthrow of democratically-elected presidents in Guatemala or Chile, the illegal invasion of Iraq, or the global economic crisis, the origin is still the same: the desire of the few to make money at the expense of the many. Whereas leftists are at times called naive, it always amuses me to think that surely it is the capitalists who are the most deluded in their thinking, believing as they do that the worst of men, acting for the worst of reasons will somehow work for the benefit of us all.
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek