November 19, 2023

Towards Socialism of the Twenty-First Century

Sanjay Roy

THE collapse of the Soviet Union was a sigh of relief to the imperialist forces of the world who were desperately trying to suffocate the emerging alternative that in a lightning pace not only could achieve the growth and development of the advanced economies of the world but more importantly could offer an alternative system against the global hegemony of capital.

In 1931, Stalin remarked that Russia was about fifty to hundred years behind the level of growth of productive forces achieved by advanced capitalist countries and that gap needs to be covered within ten years. Soviet Union soon became a super power, a power that fought the fascist forces and rescued humanity from destruction, always stood in favour of anti-colonial movements and emerged as the most reliable political force for the working people of the world. The absence of Soviet Union perhaps more loudly explains the significance of its presence particularly for people who are oppressed and exploited under capitalism.

The massive growth attained in Russia and the rights instituted for the working people particularly for women were unseen by the capitalist world and that at the same time became a cause of fear as it attracted attention of working class from across the world. Post-war capitalism had to introduce welfare measures as a response to Soviet society in order to prevent this growing attraction towards communism. The fast pace of growth came with a price. It was primarily an uncharted path of evolving an advanced social system, namely socialism in a context of underdeveloped productive forces as it were in Russia in the beginning of the last century. This required huge allocation of resources towards high growth of investment sacrificing current consumption. But at the same time this was the only country in the world which not only achieved full employment but instituted a planned effort to enhance wages capable of taking care of enhanced human needs.

The crisis of socialism was never similar to the capitalist crisis often manifested through insufficient demand, rather in socialism it was about growth of demand outpacing supply. People stood in the long queue to procure their consumables but never been seen begging in the streets, a known feature of many of the capitalist countries.

The huge pace of investment together with growing income of workers created a growing demand for goods and services and the supply fell short of the growing demand, often manifested by chronic shortage. As Jonas Kornai pointed out, this pace of investment was fuelled by the ‘soft budget constraint’ syndrome where it was assumed that enterprise failures would be subsequently taken care of by the State. Over time, the enterprise managers became the real possessors of productive forces although the financial power was owned by the planning elites. As Charles Bettelheim commenting on the Soviet development identified such disconnect giving rise to conflicts where managers were increasingly aspiring for private ownership of the means of production.

On the other hand, workers being increasingly alienated from the production process were resistant to any move to increase intensity of work or productivity. The system ultimately collapsed but left the marks of an alternative path. It might have got derailed beyond a point but will keep stimulating creative and revolutionary minds of the future to continue the fight for another world. So long the world will be dominated by few property owners exploiting and oppressing the majority of the property-less toiling people, the fight and dream of an alternative world will continue and the history of both the rise and fall of Soviet Union will continue to remain relevant.

Despite enormous achievements of Soviet Union in terms of achieving faster economic growth and in organising society driven by human needs as a real alternative to capitalism, despite the fact that the socialist bloc could emerge as a global alternative political power and provide courage and hope for movements of the toiling masses against all sorts of exploitation and oppression across the capitalist world, but at the end it crumbled from within followed by a massive take over by capitalist forces. The experiment which aimed and succeeded to a great extent in laying down an alternative path of social relations, unlike capitalism it grew not by extracting unpaid labour, but failed in uprooting capital relations altogether.

Capital rebounded back using the conflicts that developed within different segments of the society and the alienation of the workers from the process of production. By the way, the rights and entitlements enjoyed by the workers of Soviet Union were far more satisfying compared to that offered by many of the advanced economies even at the time of its decline, but these rights were later seen as gifts offered by the Soviet State in exchange of the passive support for the ruling elites.

Capital relations grow within the employer-employee relationship in the capitalist work place. Within the workplace capitalism is all about a command structure run by an army of managers and supervisors and the labour commanded by capital which Marx termed as ‘variable capital’ have the only job to follow the orders passed on to them. They are not supposed to take decisions about what to produce, how to produce and also how to distribute the proceeds. Socialism was supposed to replace this organisation of production by a work structure that depends on creative and substantive participation of the real producers. This is what democracy means in the context of socialism. It is not mere recognition of voting rights that capitalist countries and their admirers consider to be the only validation of people’s voice, it is about encouraging people to decide about their own future. This is where socialism as a system overtakes capitalism, the latter having its intrinsic structural problem as it thrives on unequal property rights and at the same time claims to establish equal political rights through institutions of democracy. Twentieth century socialism could prove that a collective agenda articulated by the socialistic state can ensure rapid growth, much better living standards and rights to working people, it can make an impoverished Russia into a super power but socialism of the future will have to prove that collective agenda is owned by the people where they are not mere beneficiaries of an improved economy but they are builders of their own future.

Twenty-first century socialism has to redefine development in a radically different way. Capitalism is a society producing exchange value and can only measure outcomes in terms of abstract values. What is produced for market and realised as values only counts in this quantification of outcomes even while measuring GDP of a country. Socialism is supposed to be a society which essentially situates use values as central to the production process and coordinates cooperation between producers to produce what is being collectively required. The frontiers of requirement changes over time but not driven by instinctive craving for individual possession of goods and services or by profits of producers. It has to also redefine human engagement with nature. Humans are not supposed to extract resources as a coloniser external to nature but should consider nature as Marx says its ‘inorganic body’ and being internal to it.

It is simply beyond the capacity of capitalism, a society spontaneously driven by profit motive, to solve today’s ecological crisis. Moreover, new technologies allow drastically reducing direct labour in production and that should ideally increase the ‘realm of freedom’ where people could engage in more creative work of their choice. But in capitalism, capital owns the saved labour time, as they own the means of production and hence make the property-less workers work longer hours to realise the value of new labour-saving machines as fast as possible before they become obsolete. On the other hand, a large section of the people would become redundant with the use of new technology. Social ownership of technology would actually reduce time to work and augment free time to pursue activities of one’s own choice. It would also prioritise social gains vis-a-vis individual profits while addressing ecological problems. Socialism will also be far better placed than capitalism in reducing waste by effectively facilitating the sharing economy and facilitating appropriate organisation of production that thrives on cooperation and exchange between associated producers conducive for development of productive forces replacing the command structure based on alienation of labour.


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