Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On socialism

As you probably don’t know, France is ruled by a Socialist Party. Of course, this party is no more socialist than the Institutional Revolutionary Party is revolutionary. It is a pro-statu-quo party defending the interests (and the self-righteousness) of the urban elites and, to a lesser extend, of civil servants. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe, it talks about social reforms and implements a few societal ones, mostly aimed at its upper-middle class clientele. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe it is also a tool to select candidates to political offices and distribute jobs and petty privileges to its members, a role it fulfills in ever more conformist a way. In that matter, as in the actual policies it implements when in charge, it is not different from its right wing rivals.

Its relationship with what is generally called socialism was rhetorical from the start and is becoming more and more historical with time. This, more than the Cuban or North-Korean carcinomas in situ highlights the failure of socialism both as an ideology and a political practice, even within the ephemeral framework of our civilization.

The word socialism was coined by Robert Owen, a Welsh entrepreneur with a humanitarian bent, in 1817 in a report to the House of Common titled "Plans for alleviating poverty through Socialism". The idea was to create communities of some 1,200 persons all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community. There should be perfect equality of wages. In times, those communities would cover the world because... because it was just so great, you know.

Needless to say, the House of Common was nonplussed, even if it was to create, some 17 years latter, special houses for paupers... in a very different spirit since they were explicitly designed to provide worse working condition than the worst job available outside them. Owen nevertheless persevered, creating various communities, all of which failed spectacularly. The best known of these was New Harmony, in Indiana, which lasted only two years and of which Josiah Warren wrote :

"It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of all reforms, and conservatism felt itself confirmed. We had tried every conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in miniature. --we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ...our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation..."

The failure of Owen and of its many imitators, notably Fourrier and Cabet,, resulted in the marginalization of utopian socialism, even though the idea of intentional communities still survives and enjoys, from time to time, ephemeral renewals of interest. These experiments, which were numerous in America during the XIXth, century continued the religious communal experiments of the past centuries, but with a key difference. Unlike in Catholic monasteries or Anabaptist communities, the main goal was not to get the faithful away from the world so that they could reach salvation, but to set an example that the world should, eventually, follow.

In that, socialism, despite what some modern authors such as Michea say, was, from the start, a child of the mythology of progress. Its goal has always been to end misery and inequalities through the application of reason and the domination of Man over Nature. Its main difference with what was called the left during the XIXth century was its attitude toward individualism.

Neither Owen’s utopian socialism, nor the two factions which battled for the control of the first socialist organizations (Marxism and Bakounine’s anarchism), were particularly high on individualism. This should be obvious for Marx, and while Proudhon and Bakounine rejected anything which remotely looked like a law or a political authority, their vision of society looked nothing like Ayn Rand’s. To quote Proudhon :

Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers' associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic.

In fact, until the end the XIXth century, socialism considered itself as a third force, without any connection with the (then counter-revolutionary) right, but also with the left, which was the party of change, progress and freedom of trade. Even though socialism, in all its incarnations, is clearly a child of the Enlightenment since it aims to free humanity from its condition. Yet, it was ambivalent toward the cult of change and of "innovation" so characteristic of the left. To quote the Communist Manifesto :

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels obviously did not consider this permanent disruption a pleasant process. They did, however, consider it a necessary stage on the road to socialism. To quote them again.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

In short, it is because bourgeois rule is destructive that it creates the conditions for the advent of socialism and humanity’s escape out of history. It is, of course, pure premilenialist logic, but, at least, it assumes that the atomization and permanent disruption brought about by the Industrial Society is a bad thing – the work of the Devil.

We are light-years away from both classical liberalism and Socialist Party members like Donique Strauss Kahn, who claims that "socialism is hope, future and innovation".

Traditional socialism was a critic of modernity, even if a flawed one. It came, however, to ally with the liberal left at the end of the XIXth century to keep the reactionary right to get back into power, at least in Europe. In France it happened during the Dreyfus affair. At first, French Socialist viewed the whole thing as a "Bourgeois civil war" and refused to take side. Faced with the real possibility of a far right coup, however, they decided to ally with the liberal left (then called Republicans, in opposition to the royalist right).

The result has been a gradual ideological absorption of socialism by liberalism – and ironically the marginalization of the liberal parties in all European democracies. This was by no way a fast or smooth process. In France, where the Communist Party remained strong well into the eighties, it was completed only during the presidency of François Mitterand, even though the trend was visible as soon as the late sixties. Of course, this has been helped by the Russian Revolution, the victory of which pushed traditionally minded socialists onto the way to totalitarianism. Once it was associated with the soviet cancerous nightmare, traditional, working-class oriented socialism was bound to collapse with it, leaving the field to liberalism, with its celebration of permanent change, progress and its cult of the individual.

Of course, traditional socialism was bound to fail. As I have said, it was a child of the enlightenment and it aimed to get humanity out of history into some kind of secular heaven. This heaven is certainly more decent – to use Orwell’s word and concept – than its liberal counterpart, but that does not mean it was ever possible on a finite planet.

Had the Russian Revolution failed, a decent socialism, of the kind Orwell advocated might have established itself in Europe, with both democratic institutions and sharp limits to the mercantile logic. It would still have pursued growth, however, and would still have collided, with potentially disastrous consequences, with the limits of Earth’s resources.

Marx and Engels disliked Malthus, and not only because Malthus’ thesis was morally abhorrent – it was, by the way. Socialism, as befits a "modern" ideology as always sought to free humanity from its historical condition, and that is impossible as long as resources remain scarce. Marx, like many authors of his time, thought scientific and technological progress, would ultimately make scarcity a thing if the past. We know now that it was a delusion. The fossil resources, which gave our civilization, an unprecedented prosperity are being depleted at an alarming rate, and it is only a matter of time before the amount of energy available to our society begins to decrease in absolute terms – it is probably already the case for net energy.

Our ability to to keep our society working will decrease at the same pace and eventually, our civilization will fragment and collapse, leaving only ruins in the jungle Whether said society is socialist, liberal or anticapitalist is totally irrelevant to the process.

In that respect, the eco-socialist ideologies which are being developed here and there, are mostly attempts to salvage the messianic ambitions of socialism, that is the very element that doomed it to failure. Often, they amount to nothing more than saying that it’s all the big bad capitalists’ fault, since everybody knows that North Korea is a gigantic wildlife preserve as well as a workers’ paradise.

This does not mean, however, that socialism has nothing to offer the future. It needs, however, to get away from dogma and go back to its roots, that is the moral revolt against the destructive and dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution, a revolt which was not that different from the romanticists’, even if it had a different focus. This is the approach of Orwell, Lasch and Michea, and this moral indignation will remain valid long after socialist dogmas will have be made irrelevant by the fall of the industrial economy. This moral indignation is not only an appeal to society being decent, albeit if it also that. It is the refusal to let mercantile logic invade the whole of society. It is no more a new idea than the romanticists’ call for a re-enchanted world but socialism is the first ideology to express it clearly.

Despite its failure, at least in that particular civilization, it leaves a heritage worth preserving and transmitting. The same way reason should not be allowed to invade the entirety of a civilization’s mental space, mercantile logic should remain strictly subordinate to this civilization’s core values, and notably what Orwell called common decency, that is the basic, unwritten but nearly universal rules our species evolved to make life in society livable. This does not mean, by the way, the elimination of private property – which is the surest way to tyranny – but its subordination to the interests and values of the community.

If we manage to transmit this heritage across the coming dark age to future civilizations, the efforts of generations of activists, no matter how flawed and misguided they might have been from time to time, will not have been vain.

But of course, don’t expect any "socialist party" to play any role in that, they are too busy drinking champagne and celebrating "future" and "innovation".


  1. An interesting take on socialism. What do you mean by Malthus's thesis being morally abhorrent? are you referring to where it logically needs or something else

    1. Malthus opposed helping poor people, saying in substance that they should starve to death so that their "better" might avoid scarcity. He was, for instance, a firm opponent of the poor laws. I frankly don't see how such views could not be morally abhorrent

  2. is Bakunin spelt defirrently in French ?
    Enjoyed the article >