Is there a future for Socialism?

25th April 2001

We’re halfway between Easter Week and May 1st, as good a time as any to ponder the health of Irish socialism. More like to wonder whether socialism exists at all and whether it has any future.

Socialism is now synonymous with social welfare, the concern with the poorest sections of society. But that is not what socialism is about at all.

Socialism is about the ownership of wealth by the people who produce it. This is a very uncomfortable position for modern socialists as it is a position that has largely been abandoned.

Instead various shades of red talk about ‘the social market’, ‘stakeholding’ and even ‘the third way’.

Some of this change in outlook happened out of common sense and some of it came from the utter failure of socialist ideology to come to terms with economic reality.

We need to accept some of these flaws before contemplating the future for socialism.

Firstly, and most spectacularly, was the rejection of the market. The day that socialists decided they were going to replace the market was the day socialism was doomed. That was around day one.

They might as well have opposed the weather because the market is the natural mechanism for human economic interaction. It isn’t good or bad – it just is. Once socialists had handed the market over to the right it was never going to be an even fight.

The second big mistake was to see workers as producers when, of course, workers are both producers and consumers. This was a whopper as well, just when mass manufacture made possible cheap commodities.

The third mistake was the failure to put the individual and the collective on an equal footing.

When you combine all three mistakes in the worse possible way you end up with Stalinism. And we all know where that road led.

For all those errors socialism has a very good record. The industrial wing of the ideology, for example, is the trade union. In my humble opinion democracy is not possible without trade unions.

You can have your votes, you can have your parliament, you can have your independent courts and you can have your free press. But if you didn’t have industrial power, you wouldn’t have diddly squat.

The other great socialist contribution is the idea of universal rights. Universal access to health care and education is a socialist success.

The emphasis on egalitarianism whether in gender, race, religious, sexual orientation or nationality has been the great theme of socialism and has informed opinion right across society.

But for all that we are in a period when capitalism is in the ascendant, when to call yourself a socialist is to identify yourself as a crank and a has-been.

Since the fall of communism when Fukuyama pronounced ‘The End of History’, the future has been consigned to a liberal, free-market model.

It is fair enough to note that old-style capitalism is also dead. The ownership of the massive global corporations is more widely based than ever before. They are largely owned by financial institutions based on pension funds and depositors.

On one level the goal for socialism should be simple – that these corporations and financial institutions should be controlled and operated by the people who financed them and that they work for the broader interest of society as well as the narrow interest of profit.

So the goal of socialism should remain the same – the ownership of the means of production.

But forget about nationalisation or State monopoly. Embrace the idea of democratic enterprise encompassing a coalition of workers, consumers and shareholders operating in a competitive market.

Maintain the fight for the politics of a common humanity.

Socialism is moribund now – exhausted after a century of struggle, of victories and defeats. The threads of the future are there to be woven together and technology might make the difference.

As well as that…

Shareholding as socialism?

SOME observers and politicians have pointed to shareholding as a form of socialism where the ownership of capital would be widespread.

I don’t think so. The problem can be seen best when you look at Eircom. The forthcoming deal with Vodafone is to be put to a ‘referendum’ of the shareholders. Very democratic.

As a shareholder I am resolved to vote no. If my fellow citizens who, ahem, invested vote no, then we can retain Eircell within the company.

There are 500,000 or so of us. An unstoppable force, you might think. Except that we would be outvoted by the banks and the other companies that have a shareholding. Because we are just small fry.

So shareholding as democracy, never mind socialism, is a joke.

We live in an era of manager capitalism. Everywhere senior executives wield the power of major companies while awarding themselves huge salaries and share options.

They are lionised by their underlings and the hacks of the financial press who hope to get there one day. Their pay bears less and less relevance to their performance. They get away with it because they spread the dosh to their appointed lieutenants.

Socialism, me hat.