For the first time in well over 70 years, the words “capitalism” and “socialism” can be circulated among the general public in the United States. However, what I am going to claim in this article is that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction or respect from the working class is if socialists collectively develop blueprints for socialism: five years, ten years, fifty years down the road. By way of qualification, my ideas about socialist planning have little to do with Trotsky’s ideas and what his followers have called “socialist transition programs”.
Leftists in the US are not exactly bold or innovative. It took the economic crash of 2008 for them to even consider using the word “capitalism” in public, outside their inner circles.
Leftists in the US are not exactly bold or innovative. It took the economic crash of 2008 for them to even consider using the word “capitalism” in public, outside their inner circles. So too, it took a New Deal liberal like Bernie Sanders to throw down the gauntlet and say, “I am a socialist” in order for real socialists to think it was safe to use that word again. While the Trump victory was more a result of the vote of the small business owners than the workers themselves, clearly working-class conditions are so bad that many workers would vote for anyone who promised a chance for jobs, any jobs. So after forty five years of championing identity politics; after forty-five years of imagining that the working class has disappeared; after forty-five years of saying the working class has bought into a middle class lifestyle; for many social democratic Marxists and anarchists, the working class is now once again a hit.
Is necessity the mother of invention?
It is no secret that the conditions of the working class in the United States are among the worst in the industrialized world. The combined membership of private and public unions is barely at 10%. The second problem for workers within unions is that the overwhelming majority of union leadership take their marching orders from the Democratic Party. Thirdly, the working class has no semblance of a political party that even remotely represents its interests. There are also real problems with forming a working-class movement when workers are not concentrated in factories. When the complete assemblage of products crosses national borders, it is very difficult for a strike to be fully effective as slowing, let alone stopping, the production of surplus value.
Yet in spite of terrible conditions, the left finds itself presented with a public willing to listen and that is far less likely to red-bait. For the first time in well over 70 years the left can now claim: a) the problem is capitalism; b) the solution is socialism; c) the key agent is the working class. Will the left seize this opportunity? So far it hasn’t. Many have preferred to dissolve or marginalize radical rhetoric in the name of “The Resistance”. There is also a fourth consideration that virtually no leftist group wants to take seriously – the importance of coming to the working class with concrete plans of how socialism might work. I’ll return to this later.
Can leftists talk coherently about capitalism to workers?
Let’s imagine two workers who drive forklifts in a Walmart industrial plant. One worker, Andrew has worked there for 25 years. The other worker is an anarchist (Sean) who is 25 years old and took this job for the purpose of “organizing the workers.” Andrew is complaining about the lack of time for breaks, the erratic schedules, the low pay and a micro-managing supervisor. “The problem”, Sean says, “is capitalism”. Andrew says, “What do you mean”? What does Sean say? What many leftists will do is talk about capitalism in a lopsidedly unfavorable light. They will fail to make a distinction between profits made on paper (the finance capital of the banks) and industrial capitalism (the production of infrastructures, goods and services). This is a serious omission because most workers in the US think that a capitalist should make a profit if they make something people want.
The second problem Sean will have to overcome is that while most workers do not like to be bossed around, their solution is not to collectively cooperate and own the means of production. They simply want to own their own businesses.
Another problem might be that Sean has waited five to eight years to talk about these topics so that when his ship finally arrives, he bombards Andrew with too much information, bringing in things about capitalism that are way beyond Andrew’s actual situation.
Sean also may have read books and discussed them with people already in the choir. He has had few actual discussions with people who are not already committed socialists. In that case, he may sound more like he is talking to the people who wrote the books or to his comrades than people like Andrew, who simply don’t have a framework. But let’s give Sean the benefit of the doubt and say that if push came to shove, Sean could explain capitalism to Andrew in a sensitive down-to-earth way once he gets more practice. After all, in my experience, leftists are largely self-educated and have been practicing this speech for years.
Can leftists coherently talk about socialism to workers?
Next comes the question, “Well, what is your alternative?” Andrew has to be convinced that socialism is about collectively owning natural resources, not collectively owning each other’s toothbrushes. Neither is socialism about forcing everyone into collectives. Sean may point out that during the Spanish social revolution between 1936 and 1939, the anarchists allowed people who wanted to work for themselves to do so, provided they did not hire people for wages. Again, leftists may stumble over their words, needlessly making distinctions between anarchists, Leninists and social democrats when poor Andrew did not ask for them. Sean may also compulsively refer to historical movements or controversies (especially in Russia or Spain) that Andrew knows or cares little about. Still, I’m convinced that there are enough leftists who could explain what socialism is well enough to keep Andrew interested. While many leftists are not as articulate and smooth as Richard Wolff, David Harvey, or Michael Perelman, they could explain socialism in a coherent way.
Can leftists convince workers that their social class is capable of transforming society?
Towards the end of the social psychology courses I teach, when we discuss social movements, I ask my students who are mostly working and middle class if they think they could run the place where they work if their bosses went on vacation for a month. Surprisingly, most say they and other workers could do it. However, when I ask if they think they could coordinate their efforts with other workers who might occupy a different point on the supply chain, most think that they couldn’t do it. While most working class people might be skeptical of the idea that the owners are in their position because they deserve it or have knowledge of how things work, most of them still think that middle class and upper middle-class people who are in managerial positions are there because they are smarter and know more about what is really going on. Short of revolutionary situations like strikes when capitalists and the state withdraw and workers are forced to take over, workers are not likely to be convinced beforehand that their class could transform society.
Are socialists capable of presenting to workers a plan as to how to implement socialism?
It is this fourth question that concerns me most and where I believe the left is in terrible shape. Andrew says, “Ok, capitalism is the problem, and socialism is the solution. I don’t know about our working class taking over, but anyway, how would you get there?” Here Sean is really at a loss for words, though he’d like to imagine that his loss for words really doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about it. Instead he thinks it isn’t the right question to ask. So here I pick up an imaginary dialogue:
Andrew: So how do we get to socialism? What’s your plan?
Sean: Well, Marx said we shouldn’t make any blueprints of the future because only a future generation of communists would be able to figure that out.
Andrew: So, you don’t have a plan?
Sean: Well no. We need to focus on bettering our existing conditions now and let the socialists in revolutionary situations deal with what to do in the future.
Andrew: Wait, ok, let me get this straight. You think working people like me are the best hope for building a socialist future, right?
Sean: Right. All of us workers together.
Andrew: But you don’t have a plan. So you expect me and all the other workers in this plant to commit ourselves to a whole new economic system, but you haven’t figured out the steps it would take to get there. So how long has capitalism been around?
Sean: About 500 years.
Andrew: And how many countries is capitalism currently operating in?
Sean: In most parts of the world. The Scandinavian countries have some socialist tendencies and in South America….
Andrew: So basically, you are telling me that we are up against an economic system that is 500 years old, that it exists throughout most of the world and we are going to overcome this with a new system of socialism. But you don’t have a plan as to how to get there.
Sean: We’ll figure it our as we go.
Andrew: Look Sean, if I hire a general contractor to work on my house, that general contractor doesn’t just start building. I would hire an architect and the architect draws out some plans. No decent contractor would start a job without a plan. You are proposing something way more complicated and challenging than building a house – yet you have no plan.
Sean: The problem with plans is they are rigid. Social life is much too complicated for that. If we have plans, then bureaucrats with power will get too attached to them and impose them on new circumstances where the plan no longer will work.
Andrew: Look, you don’t understand how things actually work. When an architect draws up plans, they are rough drafts to start with. As the contractor builds the actual house, they run into unforeseeable difficulties with building materials, unsuspected soil erosion, the owners changing their minds in mid-stream, things like that. They have to make slight adjustments as they go. But no general contractor would throw up their hands and say, “What a waste of time to have hired an architect to make the plans” – because the actual building process requires adjustment. The plans help to reduce unforeseen problems, not eliminate them.
Sean: Don’t you understand what happened when socialists made plans under Stalin? They had five-year plans and they were a disaster.
Andrew: That was before my time.
Sean: Mine too, but I read about it. So Stalinists carried out his plans and peasants and workers were killed or made miserable.
Andrew: Were they well thought out plans?
Sean: No. Stalin kept changing his mind.
Andrew: Did the people responsible for carrying out the plans have a say in the plans.
Sean: No. It was top-down
Andrew: So if the plans were not systematic and the people being affected by the plans were not consulted, the problem is with the planners and the planning process, not the plan.
Sean: No. It was a sign that plans don’t work. The problem with all plans is that they sacrifice the present for the future.
Andrew: What are you talking about? Of course you should sacrifice the present for the future. How do you expect to get anywhere?
Sean: But in revolutionary situations, time slows down and the present becomes more alive with possibilities. You don’t understand the magic that happens in revolutionary situations.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Sean: Normally people are filled with petty preoccupations like following their football teams, movie stars and the lives of musicians. Marx called this “class-in-itself”. This is like passing the time, waiting for something magical to happen. You live for the future because the present is miserable and you try to get away from it with escapes.
Andrew: Oh, like me watching ball games.
Sean: Well you said it, I didn’t. Let me finish. In revolutionary situations workers discover our collective creativity as we stumble and bumble our way into a new social system. Marx called this “class-for-itself”. People figure out what to do on the spot.
Andrew: And this is what you mean about time slowing down time because the present isn’t something you want to get over with?
Andrew: You don’t have any idea of what those workers went through. If I am lucky enough to have a job and keep it for a long time, when we Walmart workers go to our jobs and the place is closed, we don’t say, “This is my chance to show the bosses we can run things without them.” We say, “What does this mean? Is there a holiday? Am I going to get paid? Has the plant relocated?” All I want is for things to get back to normal. I am nervous and don’t know what to do. And you think me and these workers are going to say we are going to take over? You’re crazy!
Sean: Well then how do you explain that workers and peasants took over during the Russian and Spanish revolutions? Thousands of people overthrew capitalism and the existing state.
Andrew: I don’t know about that, but I bet you that those people were scared. Maybe some of them wanted to be a hero, but I’m sure it was mixed with fear and wanting things to get back to normal.
Sean: But my point is workers did this even though the leaders had no plan!
Andrew: And you think this is an advantage? It’s a sign of your incompetence as leaders of this socialist world you want to create. So whatever workers did it was in spite of the so-called leaders of socialism.
Sean: So, what would the leaders having a plan have done?
Andrew: The plan wouldn’t have solved all the problems, but it would have reduced nervousness because there would be some structure, some framework that people had heard of, to fall back on. The plans of socialist groups like yours would have to be adjusted to the actual situation, but we would be grateful to have your plans.
Sean: But how would we keep the plans from becoming rigidified?
Andrew: There are no guarantees. It would depend on how open you people are and how open we workers are to listen to you. If everyone stays open, we make plans and try them out. Some parts of the plan will work and others won’t work because there are unusual circumstances that no one could have foreseen. Then we rework the plans in the light of new experiences. It’s the same principle as the architecture and the contractor.
However, what you want to do is much harder. If you socialists were serious, you would have the “blueprints” of a plan worked out. You should figure out how food is going to be produced; how energy will be harnessed and distributed; how transportation systems would be in place and how people would be housed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where are your plans for these things?
Sean: No. Workers will learn to do this when the situation arrives.
Andrew: Now! That is your job right now. I don’t know what you people do with your free time.
Sean: Well, we criticize capitalism. We show how it alienates people, commodifies relationships, robs people of the fruits of their work.
Andrew: Look man. We don’t need your fancy words for all this. What matters is we know things are bad! Do you think it helps us for you to say: “No, no things are even worse than you think? Here’s why.” You will never get people to join your parties, groups or whatever they are on the basis of saying how bad things are. What do you think happens? Do you think we are going to stand up and say, “Things are so bad, I’ve had enough! I’m going to rebel!”? No, people say, “This is too much. I don’t want to hear it anymore”. And then we go watch a ballgame, have a beer and root for a team.
Sean: You mean because it is an escape?
Andrew: Maybe, but more because sports is a situation in which competition is fair and it’s possible to have a good ending. If you want to get people to follow you, you have to have long-term solutions and you need some happy endings – or at least a chance for a happy ending. Why do you think people go to the movies? We want happy fuckin’ endings. What do you offer? “We’ll see?” Forget it.
Sean: But we have happy endings. There is lost of socialist utopian literature in science fiction.
Andrew: I don’t know much about this, but what I’ve seen is that they are really bleak. Do the stories that do have optimistic endings have a plan as to how to get to this ideal state?
Sean: Mostly no
Andrew: Well, I suspected not. You socialists don’t want to get your hands dirty. You don’t want to deal with short-term messy situations. What are you going to do, three years, five years, ten years down the road? It’s like planning for when you get old. You have to figure out what your expenses are, how much money you need and how you will distribute your sources of income as things change over time. You’re too young to understand that. But any worker over 40 does care about this.
Seriously, you socialists are really out to lunch. You work people up, tell them you should run everything and then you provide us with nothing tangible to show how to get there. You really are naïve and arrogant at the same time. I’m sure throughout history you have broken a lot of workers’ hearts with this routine, setting them up to fail. But you are not going to break my heart because I see through you.
It’s easy to say capitalism is fucked up; it’s harder to say what you are going to replace it with. But the hardest of all is how are you gonna get there? If you aren’t going to show me any blueprints, don’t be bringing up this subject anymore. I’m not hiring you to work on my house.
Sean: But Marx said….
Andrew: Marx was wrong. We need plans now.