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What is Socialism?

Toward a mass movement

In this month’s column, you will be able to explore with me some aspects of “socialism,” often in the news because of Bernie Sanders—but rarely given an accurate explanation.

As capitalism developed, ethically outraged people proposed various alternatives to its depravities, typically terming their ideas “socialism.” These models, dismissed as being “petit-bourgeois socialism” by Marxists, were quickly superseded by the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engels based on Marx’s rigorous analysis of capitalism and the theory of dialectical materialism.

Then “scientific socialism” itself became subject to interpretation by three main camps: 1) Social democracy); 2) Stalinism, based on the experience of the Soviet Union and adhering to “Marxism-Leninism” and 3) Trotskyism, adhering to “Marxism-Leninism” as interpreted by Trotsky.

Here I will explain how I see the differences among these three camps, with their associated problems, and then offer I what consider to be a “socialism” we should strive for.

Problems with the Marxist-Leninist approach

First, a one-party state is inimical to democracy. It must be possible to vote the “socialist government” out of office—people must be able to organize opposition. Cuba, for example, does very well for its people, and it is far more committed to responding to the desires of its populace compared to the US, but it is nonetheless top-down politically – not socialist.

The role of the state can be highly positive, in facilitating – not dominating!—construction of a just, liberated society. Thus, the Marxist concept of the “withering away of the state” in an eventual “communist” society is in my view simply wrong.

In my view, traditional Marxism overemphasizes the role of the economic struggle between the capitalists and the working class in transforming society. Left out (until recently) are non-economic struggles for a decent life. The concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is wrong in negating the role of the middle class in building a socialist society. Society is a lot more complex than it was in Marx’s day, when it was clearly dominated by the struggle between the capitalists and the working class. This would lead straight to the rule of society by the politically advanced “party of the working class” on behalf of the workers themselves.

Overall, Marxism-Leninism has provided serious revolutionaries with ready-made formulas for political work. Unfortunately, it is not sufficient to follow what is presented as “scientific socialism” and to avoid asking the questions that are essential to overcoming the weaknesses of Marxism-Leninism..

Problems with social democracy

Social democracy has a Marxist orientation, but it leaves capitalism in place while trying to control it. In particular, it leaves the “commanding heights of the economy” (big banks, huge corporations) in the hands of the capitalists who remain, in effect. the (political) ruling class. While living conditions may be improved for the masses, fundamental social change is impossible under social democracy.

The primary allegiance of social democrats is to capitalism, rather than to humankind. Their priority is to make sure that the economy functions properly. Accordingly, when push comes to shove, they will side with their country (i.e., with “their” capitalists) to build and maintain the Empire. This is what happened in World War I.

Bernie Sanders is a social democrat, not a socialist. Still, what he advocates constitutes a major progressive change in American politics. While not tempering their own politics, socialists should support Sanders’ presidential campaign as a step forward in a highly reactionary situation.

Defining characteristics of socialism and a socialist program

Socialism means complete democracy—not “top-down” government. There is no such thing as “undemocratic socialism.” People must take into their own hands the building of a multi-faceted democratic mass movement to transform society into a socialist one, rather than waiting for a transformation by government or by “advanced” political parties.

An essential role in the creation of the new society must be played by the middle classes. Control by society of the big financial institutions and corporations must be eliminated by nationalizing them (with financial compensation given to their owners).

Full play must be given to all struggles for human rights, ranging from the struggles against racism, the oppression of women, homophobia and more.

Socialists must vociferously oppose imperialist wars to build and maintain the American Empire, and give support to peoples subject to American economic and military domination.

Finally, as a highest priority, socialists must work to combat climate change, which is on the verge of destroying our ecosystem.

Dave Jette is the author of A Reformation of Dialectical Materialism, which incorporates feminist theory into a traditional Marxist framework.

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