Putting the social into socialism
Australian Options, 60, Autumn 2010, pp. 24-26.

A deal of cheek is required to call oneself a socialist in 2,010. A hundred years ago, aristocrats announced: ‘We are all socialists now’. Most meant no more than support for municipal services. Yet, even that had been an advance. Bertrand Russell grew up believing that poor relief was a sin. The battle was not easily won. During the 1930s, local tories condemned the aged pension for sapping the national fibre. By 1960, such views were not to be heard. We were all mixed-economy socialists then.

Even so, socialism had suffered a loss of moral authority. Among the sources for this decline were:

  1. the resurgence of capital during the trough of unemployment from the early 1940s, underwritten by cold war propaganda for ‘free enterprise’;

  2. the inability of the centrally-planned economies to supply consumer goods, and their dictatorial regimes;

  3. poor service from government-run agencies in the West.

Since 1989, real existing socialism has dissolved.

Not that anyone could say that capitalism has become a touchstone for the good, the true and the beautiful. Nonetheless, the current crisis generated more attacks on ‘extreme capitalism’ than calls for a socialist society. Mike Moore’s Capitalism – a love story dared to breathe the word in the belly of the beast. He intends no more than European-style social democracy. ‘Socialism’ still has next-to-no appeal to working people here.

What is to be done? Nothing? Become a parasite on sufferings, struggles and successes elsewhere? I try to contribute in two domains: first, to our understanding of Marxian analysis; secondly, to our appreciation of socialist values. These efforts have to be combined through their engagement with the class struggle in the only place where we can weaken monopolising capitals, namely, in Australia.

Most socialists are not Marxists, never have been and never will be. It is possible to be a socialist but not a Marxist. However, you cannot remain a Marxist if you are not an active socialist. Academics are the living proof.

Marx’s critique of political economy remains the essential starting point for the analysis of capitalism. Two of its pillars underpin any effective politics:

  • one, there is no such thing as a fair day’s pay;

  • two, the state organises capital and disorganises labour.

These truths will not unravel the intricacies of capital expansion. But they do stop us going too far astray when we deal with FairWork Australia as WorkChoices Lite. Here is not the place to explore what Marx provides. I have launched missiles from

Moral authority
When I joined the ALP in 1957, I received a membership badge which declared: ‘The unity of Labor is the hope of the world’. That maxim encapsulated the labour movement’s moral authority over the barbarity of capitalism as exposed in two depressions, two world wars and fascism within sixty years. At that time, R. H. Tawney’s Equality was the old testament for parliamentary socialists. R. M. Titmuss’s dissection of welfare was soon to provide the new testament. Today, Christian anti-socialist prime ministers Blair-Rudd deny those moralists a place in a modern economy.

Nineteenth-century utopians dreamed up road maps for how to get to socialism. They also had blueprints of what that society would be like. It is far from my intention to come up with a twenty-first century version of either. Instead, I shall recall the three interlocking principles that secured the appeal of socialism for working people.

  • I. social equality;

  • II. all-round development;

  • III. creative labour.

This tripod supplies an ethical critique of the Rudd-Gillard ‘productivity’ (that is, profitability).

I. social equality
In dealing with any particular proposal, socialists should ask: is this policy more or less likely to increase social equality across the generations? The potency of this question is revealed when we unpick its phrasing:

a. ‘More or less likely’
We will never know whether a policy has had its promised effect if its evaluation is left to self-regulation or to government agencies which check the paper work and not the practice. To make sure that the outcome will come closest to social equality across the generations, we have to test for ourselves. In OHS, for instance, workers must be active on their jobs, backed by militant officials. That is the opposite of Killard’s ‘Model Act’.

b. social equality
The standard objection to equality is that humans are not all the same. True. That is why socialists promote ‘social equality’. We have more than enough to do in reducing the inequalities that can be shrunk. However, much of what our opponents see as nature is the outcome of nurture.

Professor Fiona Stanley has provided what John Howard might have labeled ‘practical socialism’, as distinct from the symbolic kind. What is ‘practical’ for the worker is not what the parliamentary cretin promotes as ‘pragmatic’.

Stanley’s team in Perth has developed programs to improve the physical condition of parents before they conceive, the health of the mother during pregnancy, and the socialising of the child during pre-school years when so many brain connections are formed.

If every new born had the pre- and post-natal conditions available to the well-to-do, much of what is presented as genetic inferiority would disappear.

Stephen Jay Gould criticised people who lament how many J. S. Bachs we miss out on because schools do not devote resources to gifted children. Gould observed that we lose far more geniuses to infant morality. Stanley calls this the ‘real brain drain’. Most of what schools provide for ‘gifted’ should be the experience of all. A ‘rich’ learning environment must not be confined to the wealthy.

c. across generations
Social equality is not a matter of dividing the resources that exist today. Decent and affordable housing, wellness and education transmit their benefits into the future more surely than do cash benefits.

II. all-round developm ent
Connected to the quest for ‘social equality’ is an appreciation of individualism as all-round development. Our individuality is not a precious jewel located in our breasts or brains. Our ability to discuss individuality is the outcome of our socialisation. Had we never been in groups, we would never have learned to say the word ‘individual’.

The totalitarianism of ‘buy, buy, buy’ has given rise to the plea of ‘leave me alone so that I can express my true self’. The antidote to that anxiety is not to retreat from social engagement. Rather, the path forward is to alter the quality of our connections away from a culture dominated by market signals.

Bourgeois individualism sagged in stages. In its glory days, individualism was what a genius achieved in the arts, exploration or politics. The cliché about ‘Renaissance Man’ was of a many-sided personality, exemplified by Leonardo. Of course, that outcome was never a prospect for the serfs and slaves who provided the wealth that paid for his art. But the notion that one’s individuality was what one achieved became widespread. The divisions of labour needed for capital to expand cut back on that promise. Individuality was reduced to a talent for a single task. Similarly, capital’s drive into oligopoly and the corporation marginalised the entrepreneur into the organisation man. Harry Braveman detailed the degradation of work under monopolising capitals.

III. creative labour
The want of all-round development by individuals flows from capital’s denial of the benefits from social production. Socialism can have little appeal if work is to be no different from its commodity form in wage-slavery.

The protest against its iron-cage persists, but in negative forms about bullying, casualisation and the time-life balance. Workers cannot erase the penalties of wage-slavery without a vision of human labour as a social good. We have to regain our understanding of human labour as affirmative. Collective labour made us human. Through it, we remake ourselves as individuals, as classes and as a species. Discovery by doing is the foundation of science. The Communist Manifesto made this point by calling for the integration of work with schooling.

The usefulness of these precepts is twofold. First, they offer a gauge for evaluating proposals from any quarter. Secondly, they give us a foundation on which to develop policies that match the hour-by-hour needs of working people. Doing so will show socialism as the majority opinion.

Throughout these tasks, we shall need Marxism to spotlight what we are up against. Capital is a tool-kit for alerting us to the ways in which capital will twist every reform to serve its expansion.