Theses on the Path to Socialism
This note was motivated by an interesting discussion on Doug Henwood’sFacebook page regarding Karl Kautsky’s political legacy. A prior version of the post ended in item 15. The remainder was updated on 3/11/2019.
- One can learn from history, but more than that is required to build socialism. It will take a gigantic leap in mass creativity to resolve the singular, novel problems the struggle faces today, let alone those that it will face tomorrow.
- To learn from history means two things: (1) to study it in light of the present needs of the struggle and (2) to socialize this knowledge (i.e. to help working people appropriate this knowledge) in and through today’s struggles as widely and deeply as possible.
- In principle, the more educated, organized, and united the working class is before taking the reins of the State, the more likely to withstand the tsunami of opposition that will be unleashed against it.
- However, while the task of socialism is to endow the workers’ movement with the sharpest historical consciousness and careful political planning, the struggle will necessarily be subject to a host of surprising circumstances or shocks and, more importantly, to wild swings in the people’s energy and morale.
- It is incumbent upon the leadership of the movement (and there will be a leadership, though better if it is committed to historical self-effacement) to anticipate these ebbs and flows in the disposition of the people and prepare conditions by careful organization and planning to increase the chances of success in each of the struggles.
- As a rule, when the people are disposed to struggle, the task of socialists is to help them prepare and organize their political campaigns most carefully. While it is a responsibility of socialists to warn people when their movements are misguided, make them aware of potential difficulties and risks, socialists should not seek to discourage or demoralize the people, but rather be supportive of them in their struggles.
- When people are most demoralized, the task of socialists is to go back to the basics in terms of the preparatory work of organization from the bottom up, drawing the hard lessons from prior experience. This preparatory work consists of helping the workers organize to carry out local, temporary, narrow, concrete struggles to improve their living and working conditions within the confines of the existing social order. It is only on the basis of a substantive development of this basic-level organization that the workers get themselves ready to take up broader political struggles.
- A democratic socialist State will seek to minimize the use of coercion even against its most ruthless adversaries, because the productive forces spent in coercion are diverted from the most essential tasks of reconstructing social life. While seeking to minimize coercion, a democratic socialist State, with due respect to its own laws, must be ready and willing to use coercion decisively against those who may take illicit action to disrupt the social order under construction. The rulers will not, except in isolated individual cases, respond to persuasion. They will only answer to the language of coercive power or credible threat thereof.
- The material content of all social power is cooperative labor power. The highest form of social power flows from labor cooperation elicited by logical and factual comradely argument. Cooperation elicited by coercion, by psychological manipulation, or by exploiting necessity leads to lower forms of social power that wind up backfiring.
- To minimize coercion, the workers need to (i) enlighten themselves (i.e. appropriate extant science and technology subordinating them to their needs), (ii) build up and strengthen their organization (i.e. develop a complex organizational ecosystem, with overlapping networks of working-class mutual support), and (iii) unite broadly while fostering division, disorganization, and demoralization among the rulers.
- Ability to disrupt the social order is cheap. The social order itself is already highly disruptive of human life and of the metabolism between human society and the rest of nature. Entropy is not our friend. Organization is. Ability to construct a new social order, to reorganize social life on a new democratic basis is dear. Again, the ability of people to consciously structure a new social order depends on their self enlightenment, organization, broadest unity, and militancy.
- The ultimate concern of the ruling class is not profit but profit-making, i.e. the social order they rule. Their real concern is not quantity, i.e. the speed with which their capital grows, but quality, i.e. their ability to exploit labor recurrently, which requires the permanent fragmentation and impoverishment of the direct producers: the workers.
- As a consequence, any serious political challenge will confront the kitchen sink, i.e. the ruling class will seek to sabotage, disrupt, disunite, throw a monkey wrench in economic and social conditions overall, and then blame socialism for the mess. The rulers will resort to terror with 100% certainty, and the most serious and formidable terror is not that of paralegal thugs, but the terror of the State apparatus. Hence the need to conduct the struggle in ways mindful of the essential need to win over the rank-and-file workers in the State apparatus.
- The working class should be fully aware of what a serious social transformation entails. It is the high responsibility of working-class leaders to help people gain awareness of this fact demonstrated by history many times over and confront it by drawing the necessary practical conclusions from it.
- Any serious social transformation will elicit a brutal response by the rulers. Again, the rulers will seek to derail the transformation. The rulers need not wait passively until the working class develops its power fully before it tries to abort their political development. At which particular points may the rulers intervene to disrupt this development is a contingent issue. The rulers may panic or they may sleep at the wheel. To exemplify, new forms of fascism do not require that the working class represents a clear and present challenge to the social order as in 1930s Weimar. It suffices that the challenge appear to the rulers as a concrete possibility.
- What should the nature of the interplay between State and political formation of the working class (i.e. the party) be during the construction of a democratic socialist society? (By “the party” I do not mean here a single organization claiming the monopoly of political representation of the workers at the exclusion of other organizations, but their actual political formation, perhaps in the form of several organizations vying for the workers’ political representation.)
- In principle, the difference between these two institutions is clear. The State stands as the legal and political organization of society as a whole. The party seeks to represent the interest and goals of the workers as a class, an overwhelming majority of society, but not the whole of it.
- In the transition to socialism, the State represents the legal and political organization of the whole of society. But, unlike the myths of bourgeois political representation, there should be no pretense here that society constitutes a harmonious unit. The rights of capitalists are respected within the confines of existing law, and their rights as individuals and as citizens (including here their political freedoms, human rights, etc.) should be inviolable. But capital as a social relation is not acceptable, because it is inimical to the workers and to the survival of humanity.
- However, the State represents a social body divided into classes and groups in a structural, mutual, irreconcilable antagonistic relationship. There is a strong temptation among social-democrats to pretend that this is not the case, to idealize the State as floating above class conflict, to downplay social antagonisms as fruits of a misunderstanding that can be resolved through dialogue, etc. This attitude can only lead to confusion among workers — though rarely among capitalists.
- Yes, there may be temporary stops along this path of development, some of these stops will be relatively prolonged as some cycles in the class struggle take whole generations, but a society engaged in a process of socialist construction will be always seized by an ongoing internal conflict that can only end for good with its complete disintegration (whether or not capitalism can be restored is another question) or with the consolidation of a global socialist order.
- In the process of construction of socialism, the internal social antagonism finds temporary resolutions in impasses or, rather, the forms of resolution of the conflict are temporary compromises (de-facto and/or de-jure) that reflect a relatively stable balance of forces between classes, but these compromises will be revised in the longer run.
- Changes in the population and its composition, changes in the character and extent of the productive forces of labor (including here changes in environmental conditions), and spiritual changes in society will end up stressing and exhausting these relative stable compromises, and new political crises will ensue. There should be no confusion about the irreconcilable character of the opposition between the social classes.
- The construction of socialism is a painstaking, Sisyphean process that requires an intense collective focus and organizational effort. Disrupting this process, something that the class adversaries will insistently pursue, is relatively easier. The conditions to blow the planet to pieces or to restore a capitalist society (not necessarily a stable or highly functional one) are those that lead to the disorganization of the workers, their division and disarray, their impoverishment, and their ideological retreat to mutual prejudice, sexism, racism, ethnic nationalism, religious bigotry, individualism, etc.
- Even if its representatives are in highest office, the party seeks to advance the interest of the workers, and such interest — as evidenced in periods of acute political crises — is diametrically opposed to the interest of the capitalists. There is no guarantee of success in the process of building socialism, but a key element is concentrated attention on political conditions, on the strengthening of the workers’ party, on the development of its leadership position in society by taking the intellectual, moral, and political high road. From the viewpoint of the party, State actions and policies are not technical matters; they are eminently political in that they alter the class balance of forces. For example, in economic policy-making, to the party, the notion of “efficiency” translates as: No squandering of productive forces devoted to building socialism!
- Of necessity, the relationship between State and party is complex. As the leading political party in society, its role is not to administer the State or govern. Its role is not to usurp the official functions of the State but to lead and mobilize society — chiefly through intellectual, moral, and political suasion — and thereby the machinery of the State, which remains subject to its own norms and procedures, to take the steps needed to build democratic socialism. If successful, this process will lead to the gradual dismantling of the State as a separate structure, the absorption of its “political” functions by the associated producers.
[Julio Huato is a member of the Steering Committee of the Union for Radical Political Economics and of the editorial board of the journal Science & Society; received a Ph D in finance and international economics from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, a master’s in economics from the New School for Social Research, and a BA in economic planning from the Universidad de La Habana; teaches economics at St. Francis College; originally from Mexico, has lived in Brooklyn, New York since 1997.]