The Enduring Appeal of Socialist Ideas

By Jane Duncan · 13 Jan 2014

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Picture credit: General secretary of Numsa, Irvin Jim courtesy You Tube.
Picture credit: General secretary of Numsa, Irvin Jim courtesy You Tube.

At its special national congress last month, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) took a significant decision not to support the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the next elections. Numsa is the largest union affiliated to the troubled Congress of South African Trade Unions, and its clout is considerable, so its decision is a turning point for the country’s politics.

Numsa supports socialist ideas and, as a result, at the congress, it resolved to explore the establishment of a movement for socialism ‘…as the working class needs a political organization committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa’. The union may well spearhead the formation of a mass workers’ party, which could become the first truly mass based political alternative to the left of the ANC.

Many media commentators were ambivalent about this development, welcoming the break as a sign of political diversification, but expressing deep discomfort at Numsa’s ideological trajectory, which was portrayed as being loopy, eccentric and out of date.

Media responses to the Numsa declaration reveal a much bigger truth about the public sphere they help to constitute. There can be little doubt that socialist ideas continue to enjoy huge support in South Africa. The most significant progressive organizations have either committed themselves to socialist ideas, or have socialists within them.

Yet any visitor to South Africa, unfamiliar with its political landscape, would not realize how hugely popular socialist ideas are from the media: in fact they’d probably conclude that socialism was consigned to the dustbin of politically bankrupt ideas long ago. The nearly complete absence of systematic public justifications for socialism, given the huge currency in South African politics, is confounding.

The media are awash with arguments for capitalism, in spite of the many indications of system failure, most recently in the 2008 economic recession. Yet, still, capitalism is considered to be the ‘common-sense’ position from which serious debates proceed. Business media and business journalism are in relatively rude health, while labour journalism is in a parlous state.

These realities suggest that there is a fundamental mismatch between the ideas that circulate in society and the ideas that circulate in the media. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called ‘debates’ on economic policy, which are usually little more than debates about various shades of capitalism.

Yet on the ground, an increasing number of people are searching for genuine political alternatives. This is a hugely positive development of recent years, as millions of people have taken it upon themselves to become change agents, rather than outsourcing this responsibility to a professional, bureaucratized and often corrupt political class. These activists know they will be ostracized in the elite public sphere, as they operate on an ideological terrain that is hostile to socialist ideas.

When spaces do emerge for a real contest of ideas, media bosses may find them threatening and squash them out of existence. In all the media hullabaloo about the removal of Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, by the new owner of Independent Newspapers, Iqbal Survé, there has been little reflection on the staff allegation that he removed her because she was too ‘left leaning’.

Dasnois became known as an editor who attempted to counterbalance systemic centrist and right-leaning biases in media discourse. This did not make her biased, merely fair-minded.  In any event, the silencing of progressive ideas, including socialist ideas, does not make commercial sense, as a newspaper reduces its mass audience appeal if it does not reflect the real debates taking place in society. The Dasnois affair strongly suggests that Survé’s agenda at Independent Newspapers is more conservative than transformative.

Ironically, Dasnois has been attacked for editing a newspaper that, in the words of Songezo Mjongile of the ANC, is ‘a mouthpiece of neoliberal fascists’. Yet Mjongile remains silent on other media spaces that are much more out rightly neoliberal. Perhaps this is because they fail to reflect the real levels of dissent against the ANC on the ground, and this distance from grassroots ferment serves the party well.

In spite of their importance in South African politics, left debates are often caricatured in the media and important nuances are missed. For instance, Numsa and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are often lumped together as being part of the left. Yet, the EFF’s stance is anti-capitalist, not socialist, which means that it does not, as yet, offer a fundamentally different vision of how society should be organised. This means that Numsa’s reservations about the EFF do not stop at reservations about Julius Malema’s personal proclivities, as the media debate seems to suggest.

Numsa’s approach to socialism is mass-based. This may allow them to avoid many of the traps that more vanguardist left groups have fallen into, and which have often turned the left into an object of derision, rather than a serious political contender.

Media commentators have mocked Numsa for embracing a failed ideology. But they ignore the fact that capitalism too has failed, and millions of South Africans live that failure daily. Furthermore, what failed in the soviet bloc countries was not socialism. This is not well understood as the concept itself is ill understood and prone to distortion.

Socialism is a simple idea: workers who form society’s productive base should control the means of production. They, more than anyone, understand the productive process and should lead how it is organized.

It should be clear from this definition that democracy is fundamental to socialism: yet what emerged in the Soviet bloc was anti-democratic, and a perversion of the original vision. However, the South African Communist Party discredited itself by parroting the Stalinist line for decades, and to this day has never quite shed this disgraceful legacy.

Needless to say, socialism has conceptual weaknesses. The classical Marxist definition fails to take account of the new twin realities of structural unemployment and reduced workforces: realities that make over-reliance on the factory as the epicentre of organising inappropriate. These weaknesses are not insurmountable, but they do require ideological rethinking and renewal.

However, what is also not well acknowledged are socialism’s successes. As a transformative ideology, it encourages ordinary people to see that they have the inherent ability to shape their own lives, and makes them realize that life can be lived very differently to how it is lived now. To this extent, it provides a substantive vision for equality and democracy.

Socialism is not just an economic philosophy. It adopts a ‘whole of society’ approach, encouraging people to re-imagine social relations afresh. It argues that people do not have to accept a dog-eat-dog, everyone-for-himself (less so for herself) society. Societies based on care and compassion, that encourage both mutual solidarity and individual creativity, can be built.

These basic insights have inspired mass movements across the globe, from the labour to the women’s and environmental movements. These movements have won important gains, not only for workers, but for society as a whole. Women’s equality, environmental justice and secularism - all ideas inspired to an extent by Marxism - have become mainstream political ideas, and society is the richer for that. It is to these legacies that Numsa now turns.

The political landscape shifted fundamentally in December in favour of greater genuine political diversity. Up to that point, mainstream South African electoral politics gravitated towards the political centre. With the exception of the EFF, several newer parties have offered pretty much ‘more of the same’, especially on economic policy.

This means that in spite of terribly depressing recent developments, culminating in the Marikana massacre, this current period is filled with great promise. But the media and other opinion makers must come to accept that this diversity may not be on terms and conditions that they have become used to, or even feel comfortable with. But that, after all, is what diversity is truly about.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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MN
13 Jan

Socialism in 2013

I don't think that socialism is out of date. But I do think that NUMSA's version of socialism is very out of date.

This article does point to one of its key limits, which is also a limit of classic Marxism:

"The classical Marxist definition fails to take account of the new twin realities of structural unemployment and reduced workforces."

If Numsa are going to be able to meet the challenge of today they will have to think very seriously about this. After all, we are in a situation of mass unemployment and all that Numsa seem to do is to talk about the workers!

But while their version of socialism is at least 50 years out of date, their break with the ANC is the most refreshing development in our politics in many years. Hopefully their ideas will develop as time passes.

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Simon
13 Jan

A Question

My question is sincere.

We all know that extreme capitalism has been an ecological disaster in all of the world and a social disaster in most of the world post-2008.

We also all know that the best (ecologically and socially) societies in the world are the social-democracies of Northern Europe that mix capitalism and socialism.

We also all know that there are no examples of successful socialist countries anywhere in the world today. We also all know that previous attempts to build socialist societies have all ended in disaster.

Even today countries that call themselves socialist are often, like North Korea, bizarre dictatorships.

I would image that a large portion of Numsa's members are in the car industry. That industry is strong (and pays its workers well) in social democracies in Scandinavia, Germany etc. It has collapsed in the fully capitalist societies (like the USA). And socialist societies have either had to rely on cars built before socialism (e.g. Cuba) or they have produced cars that are (like the Trabant in the USSR) a joke. Does Numsa really believe that socialism will save the car industry here? We can agree that pure capitalism will kill it and move to a low wage economy in a more repressive state. But why does Numsa not consider social democracy. Why do we not consider social democracy?

This is a serious question. I am not writing out of "Rooi Gevaar". If someone could show me that socialism could work I would be thrilled. But I do not see a single example, historical or current, of a democratic and prosperous socialist society.

My other concern is that while I have met honest, decent, and principled people who are socialists in South Africa, and in England too, I have also met a lot of people who identify as socialist who are paranoid, brutish, self righteous, dishonest and sometimes even thuggish and cultist. Often their energies seem to go primarily in brutal internecine wars. The SWP in England are a typical example of this. Their equivalents in South Africa are just the same.

This reality makes me wonder if there is something inherent to socialism that attracts and supports authoritarian personalities and their politics. The idea of being ruled by the SWP, or the local equivalents, is terrifying.

Again, this is a serious question. Can we have socialism without authoritarianism? If so I would be delighted, but my own experience makes me less than certain.


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Mike
13 Jan

Not Exactly an Answer...

In South Africa, 'socialism' means different things to different people. Our conditioning ensures most of us equate it to Marxism.

A brief scan of Wikipedia and its entries on Socialism [http://tinyurl.com/jnfe5], Democratic socialism [http://tinyurl.com/2utqcl], and Social democracy [http://tinyurl.com/2bmp7l] should open readers to its many forms.

Labels generally present problems. North Korea [http://tinyurl.com/3wnww34], labelled a fascist state, describes itself as 'democratic' while the ANC, a right-of-centre neoliberal party, is a full member of the Socialist International [http://tinyurl.com/ojx9w2u].

The author of this article acknowledges difficulties inherent in socialism in the line quoted by the first commenter:

"The classical Marxist definition fails to take account of the new twin realities of structural unemployment and reduced workforces."

However, she also points out:

"Numsa's approach to socialism is mass-based. This may allow them to avoid many of the traps that more vanguardist left groups have fallen into, and which have often turned the left into an object of derision, rather than a serious political contender."

Socialism is not downloaded as an executable from the Web. It's a pretty easy concept to accommodate - without suffering a panic attack - when viewed as a participatory social philosophy rather than as an imposed, 'cookie-cutter' system of economic or political governance.

Marleen
15 Jan

You'd be Surprised

First of all, keep in mind that many propaganda has been doing the rounds about current socialist states. Remember, that countries such as Cuba, Venezuala, Uruguay and Vietnam had big problems even before they became democracies. Vietnam is still dealing with the consequences of the war, people truly underestimate what a large, devastating impact it had and still has on this country. Then there is Venezuela, Cuba and Uruguay that have a long history of oppression and dictatorships even before they adopted socialist policies. It's just hard to judge how successful socialism is in these countries, considering that they are still dealing with the back log of problems caused by previous regimes. I can tell from experience, that although there are many issues Vietnam has to deal with, it is definitely making progress, it has become a self sustainable country, and many people have been lifted out of poverty.

I've also lived in Russia for a long time, and believe it or not, many Russians long back to the USSR days. You'd be surprised to know that the USSR was a self reliant country as well, able to produce it's own food and vehicles. All of that has changed under democracy, and the bulk of their economy is based on oil. Yes the vehicles were low quality, but I strongly doubt that was a direct result of socialism. Further, they developed a really remarkable public transport system that is still functioning today. Although many trains are somewhat old, I've had less hold ups on the Moscow metro than on the UK tube. Also, in Russia today, many families still have houses that they got from the government before they became a 'democracy'. Then, unlike many capitalist developing states, Russia boasts with a 100% literacy rate. Also refer to the former republics, you'll find the same trend.

Where many Russians feel that Socialism was lacking, was that obviously life was less consumer driven, meaning you had less luxuries to choose from in shops. Also, in some regions people had less freedom to choose what they wanted to study. Yet, education was free for all, both basic and tertiary. And then obviously, there was the imperialist aspect and dictatorial tendencies of the regime, especially under Stalin. However, 40 years passed after Stalin, which were less draconian than we were told over here. Finally, there was the censorship issue, but that is still well and alive today, even under democracy.

In my opinion, all of the negative aspects I mentioned about Russia can be prevented in a socialist society. Full Socialism can actually also function within a democracy. In fact democracy is considered to be the main difference between communism and socialism. An example of such a party in SA is WASP, it's well worth doing some research on this movement...

Hope that helps!

Marleen
15 Jan

The War on Democracy

I also want to recommend the film, 'The War on Democracy'. That will give you an idea as to what many South American states like Venezuela had to deal with before they became socialist. It also gives a staggering view on how the USA funded coups against democratically elected socialist leaders, and manipulated these states into adopting capitalist policies to benefit their (the USA's) business interests. In a nutshell, all problems prevalent in socialist states are not the direct result of socialism. Really an eye opener.

Marleenvanwyk@yahoo.co.uk

DWAHTS Verified user
11 Jul

Socialism

Socialism and Capitalism go well together, it's essensial to regulate the financial industry and political lobby of pure capitalism. You can a wonderful democracy and socialism can be implemented where needed only. It's worked in varying degrees, like it did the UK and lack of this marriage is what lead to 2008 financial crises. Check out www.dwahts.weebly.com



D. van Wyk
14 Jan

Examples Please?

Can the author of this article provide even one example of a democratic and prosperous society successfully organised along socialist principles?

Socialism is the opiate of the intellectuals. It is a fantasy, a very dangerous fantasy which always leads to economic ruin and political dictatorship.

If we really want to build a democratic and prosperous society we need to do it like everyone else - fix our institutions, educated our children so that they can compete with the Germans and Chinese etc, etc. There are no magic short cuts.

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Marleen
15 Jan

Examples

Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Uruguay.

MN
15 Jan

These are Social Democracies, and Not Socialist Societies

Sorry Marleen but all the countries that you mention are social democracies. Not one of them is a socialist society. Of course they are all vastly better placed than more fully capitalist societies but that doesn't mean that they are socialist.

Marleen
15 Jan

Socialism

Socialism is usually rooted in democracy. It's what distinguishes it from communism. See my comment above about other states, whether they are successful or not is more complex than you think...