How Would Socialism Work?

In the 300 years or so of its existence capitalism has transformed the planet over and over again. Rail, electricity, the internal combustion engine, flight, space travel, telephones and electronic computers, the list is endless. 

The world economy is 17 times the size it was a century ago. In 1900 there were only a few thousand cars worldwide. Now there are 501 million. 

Engineers built the first electronic computers in the early 1940s. In 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted that 

“computers in the future may have only 1,000 tubes and weigh only one and a half tonnes”. 

Today the smallest laptop can process more data than the most powerful computers in the world 50 years ago.

Despite this, all the technology developed by capitalism has not provided clean water for 1.2 billion people or food for the 841 million who are seriously malnourished. Nor has it prevented the Aids epidemic rampaging through Africa. 

Upwards of 28 million Africans have the HIV virus and only 30,000 of them can get treatment. Capitalism is capable of spending billions on developing weaponry that is used to bomb the poor of Afghanistan into the rubble, but it cannot solve poverty, hunger or disease.

And capitalism is threatening the very future existence of the planet. Scientists predict that, as a result of global warming, sea levels are likely to rise by up to one metre this century. This would devastate the inhabitants of the flood plains of Bangladesh and Egypt, and worldwide hundreds of millions of the very poor would be displaced. 

Even these figures are probably conservative as they are based on estimates made in the 1980s. The latest surveys indicate that the situation could be more severe as they report that Arctic sea ice has thinned by 40% in the last three decades.

Capitalism has enormously developed the productive forces but it is controlled by the unplanned and blind play of those very productive forces. It is a system where the only driving force is the need to maximise profits.

William Greider begins his book on modern capitalism by describing the system: 

“A wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys… Now imagine that there are skilful hands on board, but no one is at the wheel. In fact, this machine has no wheel or any internal governor to control the speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites.”

Under capitalism it is the blind forces of profiteering that are in the driving seat. Governments bow down before the rule of capital unless they are prepared to challenge it. Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of the environment. Every so often the world’s leaders come together to plan how to ‘save the planet’. They come up with targets to limit damage to the environment. 

The largest and most powerful economy on earth, the US, always manages to get the targets lowered. For example, scientists agree that releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases need to be cut by at least 60%. Yet all that has been agreed by governments internationally is a minimal reduction to the levels of 1990. Even this modest goal is hedged about with ways of bending the rules. For example, countries are allocated targets for carbon emissions. 

Russia has far lower carbon emissions than its target figure. This has nothing to do with measures to help the environment but is purely because of the catastrophic collapse of the Russian economy since the fall of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union a decade ago. Under the rules, Russia is able to sell its resulting ‘carbon credits’ to other countries – which then use them to count towards reaching their own target! 

Even with these attempts to create a system where the rich countries can buy fictional claims of having done their environmental duty, the US – which produces one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases – has refused to sign up. All previous experience shows that even these paltry targets will never be met under capitalism.

Capitalism is incapable of fully harnessing the science and technology it has brought into being. It is incapable of providing for the needs of humanity or of protecting our fragile planet. By contrast, a socialist society would be able to harness the enormous potential of human talent and technique in order to build a society and economy which could meet the needs of all.

That does not mean that every problem could be immediately overcome as a result of a socialist government abolishing the rule of capital. Far from it. Removing the profit motive would only be the beginning of building a new society. It is not possible to create socialism in one country surrounded by a world capitalist market, particularly an economically underdeveloped one, as the example of Russia in the last century shows. 

The leaders of the Russian revolution in 1917 – Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik party – saw the overthrow of capitalism in Russia as the prelude to an international transformation of society. They understood that, economically, Russia was not ready for socialism, but the world was. For them the success or failure of the Soviet Union depended on the working class of other countries successfully overthrowing capitalism.

This is even truer today, given the increased integration of the world economy, than it was in 1917, even for the economically more advanced countries like Britain. Nonetheless, there is an enormous amount that could be achieved by a socialist government in the immediate period after it came to power, as part of a transition from capitalism to socialism. Just cutting the working week to a maximum of 35 hours without loss of pay, or providing free, high-quality childcare for all who wanted it, would transform the lives of millions of people.

Socialist democracy

A socialist economy would have to be a planned economy. This would involve bringing all of the big corporations, which control around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under working-class control. 

Of course, it would not mean bringing small businesses, such as the local shops, many of which are forced out of business by the multinationals, into public ownership. Nor would it mean, as opponents of socialism claim, taking away personal ‘private property’. On the contrary, socialists are in favour of everyone having the right to a decent home and the other conveniences of modern life.

A genuine socialist government would not be dictatorial. On the contrary, it would extend and deepen democracy enormously. This would be much more far-reaching than the parliamentary democracies of capitalism where we simply get to vote every few years for MPs who do whatever they like once elected. Instead, everyone would get to take part in deciding how society and the economy would be run. 

Nationally, regionally and locally – at every level – elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. Therefore, if the people who had elected them did not like what their representative did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.

Elected representatives would also only receive the average wage. Today MPs are a privileged section of society. Their lives are remote from those of ordinary people. This is no accident. From the earliest days of the Labour Party, the ruling class tried to buy-off socialist MPs. 

Its method is usually subtler than brown envelopes of cash: it is a high salary, a very comfortable lifestyle and the drip, drip of ceaseless flattery about how ‘sensible’ and ‘wise’ it is to be ‘moderate’ and ‘realistic’. The result has been that countless numbers of MPs have decided that the best way to emancipate the working class is one by one – starting with themselves.

That is why members of the Socialist Party who become MPs will only take the average wage of a skilled worker. In the 1980s, three MPs (Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall) were elected as Labour MPs on the policies of Militant (the Socialist Party’s predecessor). All took a worker’s wage. Today Joe Higgins, a TD (MP) in the Irish parliament, and a member of our sister organisation in Ireland, takes a worker’s wage and has been described by the tabloid press as “the red that money can’t buy”. A socialist government would ensure that no elected representatives received financial privileges as a result of their position but, instead, lived the same lifestyle as those they represented.

There is another crucial sense in which democracy would be far fuller in a socialist society. Under capitalism most of the important decisions are not taken in Westminster or local council chambers, they are taken in the boardrooms of the big corporations. By contrast, a socialist government would bring major industry into democratic public ownership. 

It would be necessary to draw up a plan, involving the whole of society, on what industry needed to produce. At every level, in communities and workplaces, committees would be set up and would elect representatives to regional and national government – again on the basis of recall at anytime if they disagreed with their decisions. Everybody would be able to participate in real decision-making about how best to run society.

Many people will argue that this is utopian, that people would not be bothered to participate in such bodies. Yet in every mass struggle – from the Paris Commune of 1871 onwards – the embryos of this type of structure have come into existence. In Britain during the struggle to defeat the poll tax, when 18 million refused to pay the iniquitous tax, hundreds of thousands of people took part in meetings to plan the campaign. While the anti-poll tax unions were only temporary bodies, organised to fight against a single Tory attack, they nonetheless give a glimpse of working people’s capacity to organise.

Even today, thousands of working-class people attend their tenants’ associations and other community meetings. And organisations in a workers’ state would be completely different to the toothless bodies that working-class people are currently allowed to take part in – the committees would actually have the power to say how the economy and society is organised.

In addition, for a planned economy to work, it would be vital that the working class had the time to take part in the running of society. Therefore, measures such as a shorter working week and decent, affordable childcare would be a prerequisite for society to develop towards socialism.

Another argument against a planned economy is that society is now too complicated to be planned. Some people argue that, in the past, when the majority of people’s aspirations were more limited, it may have been possible to plan an economy. But that today, when people want washing machines, videos and fashionable clothes, they claim planning just would not work.

Yet modern technology would, in reality, make planning far easier than it was in the past. In Russia, following the revolution in 1917 – when working-class people took power for the first time – an attempt was made to build a new society in a situation of extreme economic and cultural backwardness. 

The Russian peoples faced a desperate situation. Many of the most active socialists had been killed fighting the civil war. At the same time, illiteracy was widespread and most workers lacked administrative skills. This meant that in many cases, the soviets (workers’ councils) had no choice but to keep on the specialists and administrators of the old absolutist regime, even at the cost of bribing them with privileges. In the town of Vyatka in 1918, for example, no fewer than 4,476 out of 4,766 officials were the same individuals who had previously served the tsar.

The economy of the Soviet Union has been devastated. It was under attack from imperialist armies and was isolated as the world’s only workers’ state. Under these conditions, the system did degenerate and a hideous bureaucracy developed. The economy was, therefore, a mangled distortion of a planned economy. Decisions, far from being taken by society as a whole, were taken by a few privileged bureaucrats at the top.

Nonetheless, up until the early 1970s the nationalised economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe produced impressive advances, especially in heavy industries, though consumer goods were generally in short supply and of poor quality. Despite their many shortcomings, however, they also provided basic education, healthcare, and other social amenities to the majority of the population. For the Soviet Union, which in 1917 was an extremely economically backward country (something like India today) these were major advances unparalleled in any capitalist country.

The restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union has been an unmitigated disaster. The economy has collapsed by 50% and life expectancy has fallen in ten years to the same level it was in the 1950s. The human suffering that has resulted from the reintroduction of capitalism is immense. 

One small glimpse of it was given by an interview the journalist Robert Fisk conducted with a young Russian woman, Natasha. She was desperate for money and had, like tens of thousands of others, become involved in international prostitution. Fisk suggested to her that she and her friends were victims of “the worst side of men”. Natasha disagreed: 

“They were victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union, she said, a way of life – free schooling, free universities, free apartments – that had been taken from them.”

Whilst there was widespread dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union because of the nightmare of Stalinism, at least it provided the basics. In a negative sense, the reintroduction of capitalism has shown how much better a planned economy (even a fatally distorted one) was in providing a far higher standard of living for ordinary people than capitalism has been able to do.

Capitalism today has provided the tools which could enormously aid the genuine, democratic planning of an economy. Firstly, there is a far higher level of education amongst working class people than there was at the beginning of the last century. And capitalism has developed all kinds of technology that could be used to assist in planning. We have the internet, market research, supermarket loyalty cards that record the shopping habits of every customer, and so on. Big business uses this technology to find out what it can sell. Could it not be used rationally instead to find out what people need and want?

In any case, big businesses themselves do plan. Capitalism is an anarchic and blind system. But the big corporations use their own international structures to try and maximise their profits. All the car companies fix the prices of components in their profit-and-loss columns in order to cook the books. Ford uses a huge internet programme to procure the cheapest possible components worldwide.

The multinationals use extensive planning to avoid paying taxes. One study of 200 US corporations found that 

“the average multinational firm with subsidiaries in more than five regions uses income shifting to reduce its taxes to 51.6% of what they would otherwise be”. 

Similarly, BMW claimed in 1993 that 95% of its profit was made overseas. From 1988-92, BMW reduced its taxes from 545 million deutschmarks to 31 million in this way (from around £200m to £11m).

The general trend of capitalism, with its increasing monopolisation, is towards internal planning. However, under capitalism this process will never be finished. A blind system based on profit and competition will never be able to plan beyond a certain limit. But a socialist government would strengthen and develop the methods of planning currently used to maximise profit and avoid taxes in order to plan society for the benefit of all.

Doesn’t the collapse of the Soviet Union show that planning doesn’t work?

Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian revolution. He went on to lead a heroic fight against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. As far back as 1936, Trotsky put forward two alternatives for the Soviet Union: 

“A successful uprising of the Russian working class, a political revolution and the restoration of democracy, or the return of capitalism with calamitous consequences for the mass of the population.” 

He went on to explain: 

“The fall of the present dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture.”

As we have explained, the regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were not genuinely socialist, but a grotesque caricature. This meant that their collapse was inevitable and could only have been prevented if the bureaucracy had been overthrown and replaced by genuine workers’ democracy. To work efficiently a planned economy must be based on workers’ democracy. Economic planning in Russia and Eastern Europe took the form of central command from above by bureaucratic ministries and managers acting on the orders of the privileged ruling caste. There was not a trace of democracy at any level.

In the early decades of the Soviet Union’s existence, and despite the lack of democracy, the economy took huge strides forward. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became clear that the outdated, rigid framework of the Stalinist system could not cope either with technological change or the social demands of a much more developed society. 

Even as the Soviet Union (under its ‘leader’ Leonid Brezhnev) appeared to reach the pinnacle of its influence as a superpower, degenerative processes were eating away at the foundations. Sections of the bureaucracy, moreover, sensing impending collapse and fearful of losing their material privileges, were ready to abandon ‘socialism’ and stake their future on a transition to capitalism.

In the 1980s, workers’ struggles shook Poland, followed by a mood of mass opposition in East Germany, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. This triggered a political avalanche throughout Eastern Europe. Initially, the sweeping mass movements had features of political revolution: workers demanded democratisation of the factories, economic planning and the state. Such was the deep revulsion against the grotesque Stalinist model of ‘socialism’, however, that progressive demands for democratic advances towards genuine socialism were soon engulfed by a counter-revolutionary tide in favour of ‘the market’ – that is, capitalism.

The capitalists worldwide have used the collapse of Stalinism to try to discredit socialist ideas and to claw back many of the gains working-class people made in the post-war period, during which Stalinism acted as a certain counterweight to capitalism. The neo-liberal offensive, the return of the naked, unashamed brutality of capitalism, began in the 1980s but has accelerated massively since the Stalinist system fell apart. The capitalists gained a propaganda victory from the collapse of Stalinism. In the longer term, however, their over-confident brutality in the following decade has gone a long way to undermine their system and to encourage a new generation to see the need for an alternative.

Socialism more than sharing out wealth

It is often argued that socialists simply want to share out the wealth. This, it is asserted, would only mean increased misery for the rich – as the wealth would not be enough to obliterate poverty. But we are not interested in merely doing this. Of course, it would be nice to take some of Bill Gates’s $36 billion (£24 billion), but in order for socialism to work it would be necessary to do much more than that.

Some of the immediate measures that could be taken include:

1. Eliminating arms spending

The US has promised to rebuild Afghanistan after bombing it to smithereens. Yet the $297 million (£200 million) it has pledged in 2002 is equal to just seven hours of US defence spending. Arms spending has accounted for $1 trillion a year worldwide since the end of the cold war. This alone could provide $1,000 a year for every family on the planet. Just 25% of the cost of president George W Bush’s Star Wars programme would provide clean drinking water for the billion people who are currently without it.

2. Sharing out work

Even at the end of the economic boom in the late 1990s there were still 35 million unemployed in the European Union. At the same time, those in work are working longer hours than ever before. This is madness: a socialist government would immediately share out the work (see Chapter Three).

In addition, it would use modern technology to limit the number of hours it was necessary to work. A socialist government could immediately introduce a maximum 35-hour week, with no loss of pay. Capitalism’s remorseless drive for profit means that new technology has been used, not to shorten the working week, but to throw workers on the scrap heap. 

Greider explains: 

“During the last generation the world’s largest multinational corporations have grown sevenfold in sales. Yet the worldwide employment of these global firms has remained virtually flat since the early 1970s, hovering around 26 million people. 

The major multinationals grew in sales from $721 billion in 1971 to $5.2 trillion in 1991, claiming a steadily growing share of commerce (one third of all manufacturing exports, three quarters of commodity trade, four fifths of the trade in technology and management services). Yet the human labour required for each unit of their output is diminishing dramatically.”

There is currently serious overcapacity in almost every sector of the market. As the economist Will Hutton declared in The Observer: 

“We are living in a world of glut, we have too much of everything from grain to cars.”

 This is the real lunacy of capitalism. We have too much grain – which means more than can be sold at a profit – yet in Africa 20 million people are starving.

A socialist government would harness technology to lower the number of hours it is necessary to work. This would give working-class people more time to participate in running society. Combined with a massive programme of socially necessary projects – such as increasing the numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses – unemployment could be eliminated.

3. Ending competition and duplication

Private ownership of the means of production results in constant duplication. Companies fiercely compete to produce a certain product first and best. Socialism would eliminate this and thereby save a huge amount of resources. There would also be no need for marketing, on which capitalism spends $1 trillion a year. 

This does not mean, as is commonly claimed, that socialism would result in a lack of choice or poor quality goods: a society where everyone dresses in a grey uniform. It would be possible to have far more choice of the things which people desire to have a variety of (such as clothes, music, holidays etc) than under capitalism. However, society might choose not to have 200 brands of washing powder.

Meeting the needs of humanity and the environment

On the basis of these three measures alone it would be possible to improve living conditions immeasurably in a very short period of time. But the highest stage of socialism means more than that, what Marx called a society of ‘superabundance’. This would be a society that truly meets the needs of humanity. Given that we live in a world 30% of which has no electricity, a world where 50% of humanity has never made a phone call, it would take an enormous development of the productive forces to create a society of superabundance.

But does this also suggest that socialism would lead to the destruction of the environment? On the contrary, the fight for socialism is given added urgency because it is the only way of rescuing the world from environmental disaster. Capitalism, in its wanton chaos, is destroying the planet.

That is not to say that socialism would return to a more primitive society. Far from it. Socialism has to further develop technology and science. Two thirds of the world’s population live in absolute poverty. Socialists are not interested in sharing out the misery, we want a decent life for all. That requires utilising technological and scientific innovations.

However, there does not have to be a contradiction between this and safeguarding the planet. What is needed if we are to save the world is long-term planning that would be able to develop alternative technologies that did not harm the environment. This could only be achieved on the basis of democratic socialism. 

Capitalism operates purely on the basis of the profit motive. To increase the price of products by claiming that they are ‘environmentally friendly’ is one thing, it is quite another to stop environmental devastation. It will never be in the interests, or within the capabilities, of any multinational to plan long term or to put the general needs of humanity for an inhabitable world and safe food above the narrow, short-term need to make a quick profit.

By contrast, a democratically run planned economy would be able to take rational decisions on the basis of aiming to meet the needs of humanity. It would decide what technology to develop and use, what food to produce, and when and where to build, while taking into consideration the need to protect and repair our planet for future generations.

It is not possible or necessary here and now – amid a society where profit is god and humanity is bent and distorted under its endless dictates – to draw up a full or accurate picture of a socialist society. Future generations, who will be more informed and knowledgeable than us, will do that. 

But looking objectively, instead of through the dollar-tinted spectacles of big business, only an ingrained pessimist could argue that the replacement of the anarchy of the market with a society based on rational and democratic planning would not be a vast improvement. We can only begin to visualise what science and technique could achieve if they were turned away from making profits for the warmongers and the drug companies and towards the common good.

Nor can we fully imagine how human relations would be lifted onto a higher plane in a new society. But it is possible to see that many of the nightmarish aspects of human relations today are rooted in the society we live in. Any society based on vast inequality will inevitably be divided and prejudiced. The capitalist class needs divisions amongst those they oppress in order to maintain its rule.

For example, racism has been an integral part of capitalism since its infancy when it was used to justify the slave trade. Later, racism was adapted to justify the colonial powers carving up the world between them. Today racism is still ingrained in capitalist society. The increased wealth and privilege of a small minority of black and Asian people is used to disguise the fact that we still live in a deeply unequal society. 

In the US, the average annual income for a black American is 61% less per year than the average white income. This is the same difference as it was in 1880! In Britain, on average, black and Asian workers earn three quarters of the wage of their white counterparts. And black people are five times as likely to be stopped by the police.

Internationally, direct colonial rule may have ended but imperialism still dictates to the poor countries of the world via the multinationals and their agencies – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Capitalism is more than happy to adapt the ideology of racism to its own ends whether that it is to justify the nightmare of poverty that is Africa under capitalism, or to distract workers in Britain from the real reasons that our public services are crumbling.

Discrimination against women is also embedded in the structure of capitalism. In Britain the position of women has improved dramatically compared to two generations ago. Nonetheless, although women now make up over 50% of the workforce, on average they still earn only 72% of male wages. Even though most women work they still tend to bear the brunt of domestic tasks. Even when women work full time they spend an average of eight hours a week more than their partner cooking and shopping.

It is not ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ that women earn less and carry the majority of the domestic load. What is considered ‘normal’ is determined by the society we live in. The oppression of women is rooted in class society. The way that capitalism is organised and structured – in particular the role that the family has played and still plays as an economic and social unit – perpetuates and reinforces women’s oppression.

When ordinary people talk about ‘family’ they mean real individuals – parents, children, partners. However, under capitalism the family is also a social and economic unit based on the dependence of the ‘non-productive’ members of the household on an individual wage earner (traditionally the man). The family plays an ideological and an economic role. It is used to discipline and socialise young people, and to prepare them for their given role in capitalist society. It is also used to reinforce the idea of bearing personal responsibility for society’s ills.

When Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society”, only the family and individuals, she also said that the family was a “building block”. In doing so she summed up the attitude of capitalism to the family. Thatcher believed that it was the duty of the family to bear the burden of looking after children, the sick and the elderly. Conveniently, this meant that she could cut back on the social services that had previously partially played that role. 

A greater part of the burden was then dumped on individual families, primarily on women. Thatcher was trying to return to the conditions of Victorian capitalism when no welfare state existed. Today, women, largely as a result of their increased role in the workplace, are in a far stronger position than in the Victorian era. At the same time, the Tories and now New Labour have cut the welfare state to the bone leaving an increasing burden on working-class people, especially women.

It would be naive to suggest that a socialist government could just sweep aside sexism or racism and other prejudices, all deeply ingrained in this society. However, it could very quickly take economic measures – such as decent wages and jobs for all, free high-quality childcare, free universal education, good housing, widely available inexpensive high-quality restaurants and other measures – which would enormously ease the situation.

Longer term, the change in economic relations, the abolition of class divisions and the construction of a society based on democratic involvement and co-operation would also change social relations. Society would move away from hierarchies and the oppression and abuse of one group by another. Human relations would be freed from all the muck of capitalism.

Of course, there would be a transitional period where the new society still had to deal with the problems it inherited from the old. Nonetheless, many problems could be overcome quite quickly on the basis of the massively increased resources a democratic planned economy would provide. In the longer term, the highest stage of socialism would mean the development of a society free from all the divisions and oppression created by class society.

That does not mean that a socialist society would be monolithic or without controversy. Discussion and debate would be on a far higher level. Passionate arguments would undoubtedly take place. But they would be between parties and groupings with a common starting point – the betterment of humanity as a whole. 

This would be incomparable with capitalist society where political debate is restricted to a few at the top who spend most of their time disguising, supporting and justifying the indecent wealth and power of a tiny minority. It is possible to imagine a debate in a socialist society – which could be about, for example, the best method of energy production to meet the needs of humanity and the environment (wind or solar power, nuclear fusion or some other) – which could increase the understanding of the whole of society and lead to the best way forward being hammered out.

Capitalists’ brutal record

The capitalists try to argue that a socialist government could only come to power by force. This is a red herring. It is they who have the most brutal record of violence imaginable, stopping at nothing to overturn democratic elections if they threaten the rule of capital. Thatcher has openly stated that she believes that General Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile in 1973, with the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people, was justified because of the threat of ‘communism’.

Time and time again the capitalists have been prepared to use violence to protect their rule. Nevertheless, this resistance could be nullified by mobilising the mass of working-class people in support of a socialist government. The working class is potentially by far the most powerful force in society. 

If a socialist government mobilised that power in support of its policies an entirely peaceful transformation of society might be achievable. However, we are realistic. The ruling class will be prepared to use whatever means at its disposal to maintain its power and privileges. A socialist government could only defend itself if it mobilised the active support of the working class. And it would only be by demonstrating its power in practise that the working class could successfully defend its democratically elected socialist government.

If a socialist government were successfully established in Britain, would it come under attack from the rest of the capitalist world, in particular the US? There is no doubt that the ruling class of the US, the world’s only superpower, would feel threatened by a socialist government and, if it thought it could get away with it, would use its overwhelming military might to try and crush a workers’ state.

The ruling classes internationally are prepared to use any means to hold on to power. In a rare moment of straight talking one US strategic planner blurted out the real attitude of US imperialism in 1948: 

“We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period… is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality… we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.”

In a more recent moment of clarity, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times accurately declared: 

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

What could be clearer? The priority of the US Army is not the protection of democracy, of the weak and the innocent; it is the protection of US imperialism’s profits by any means necessary. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that we are powerless before the ‘hidden fist’ of US imperialism.

It is true that the US ruling class was able to successfully use the horrific events of September 11 to temporarily win the support of the majority of US workers for the war on Afghanistan. (Far from being a war on terrorism, it has, in reality, meant the death of tens of thousands of innocent Afghanis and has done nothing to bring genuine democracy to the war ravaged country.)

However, it is one thing for imperialism to win support for taking action against the reactionary, anti-democratic Taliban regime. It would be an entirely different question to justify an attack on a popular socialist government which was making open appeals to the US working class for support. 

After all, the US’s defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s was a result of a combination of two factors – the movement in South Vietnam and the growing opposition to the war amongst the US working class. And the peasant-based, guerrilla struggle in South Vietnam had far less immediate resonance with workers in the US than a socialist government in an industrialised country would have.

The power of imperialism is potentially more limited today than it was almost a century ago when the Russian revolution took place in October 1917. Russia was a poor country, devastated by war and facing attack from 21 capitalist armies desperate to crush the newly-born Soviet Union.

Yet the Soviet Red Army, poorly equipped, hungry and tired, was able to declare victory in a little under three years. Why? Primarily, because of the working-class support internationally. Inspired by Russia, Europe was plunged into a series of revolutionary movements. 

A strike by Hungarian munitions workers in January 1918 spread like wildfire to Vienna, Berlin and throughout Germany, involving over two million workers. Their central demand was peace. In Finland an independent workers’ republic was proclaimed. After months of fighting it was crushed with the help of German troops. 

Then on 4 November 1918 mutiny broke out at the German naval base of Kiel, igniting the German revolution. Within days every major city was in the hands of workers’ councils. Mass strikes and a naval mutiny swept France. British soldiers mutinied, and the red flag was hoisted over the Clyde in Scotland. Strikes involving four million workers convulsed the USA in 1919.

These events, hardly mentioned in official history books, are a graphic illustration of how a workers’ revolution will always have an incalculable effect internationally, provoking howls of outrage from big business and, at the same time, inspiring working-class people to come to its defence and follow its example.

On the battlefields, the Red Army were dropping thousands of leaflets appealing to the enemy troops. British and American soldiers began to mutiny. On the Black Sea, French sailors flew the red flag. The imperialists were compelled to withdraw their forces. For genuine socialism to have developed as a result of 1917 it would have been necessary for working-class people to have taken power in other countries. The potential for this existed – revolutionary movements took place in Germany, Hungary and other countries – but, tragically, they were defeated.

Today any genuine socialist government would face the same task, that of spreading the revolution internationally. However, the problems which imperialism faced in 1917 would be magnified 100 times today. 

The main reason for the governments of Britain, Germany, France, the US and other countries abandoning their assault on the Soviet Union was a fear that their armies and populations were being infected by the ‘socialist plague’. With modern communications it would be far harder for the US or other capitalist governments to justify to their own populations taking action against a democratically elected socialist government.

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