PUCL Bulletin, March 2003

Revisiting Socialism
-- By Surendra Mohan

The supremacy of the market in economic relations and the dominance of consumerism in all other social relations prevail today all over the world. They have seriously challenged not only the welfare state model of social democracy but also the validity of the communist model as was put into practice in the Soviet Union and China.

On the other hand, the Southern Hemisphere where the evolution of productive forces was suppressed by the rise of imperialism and capitalism continues to wallow in poverty, backwardness and hunger. The former colonial world of the Northern Hemisphere has made big strides in technology and in the living standards of large sections of the population. However, during the last two decades, disparities in incomes and wealth between the few and the many have increased ever in the wealthiest countries of that hemisphere.

As for the sharp division in the living standards in the two hemispheres, it has, possibly, surpassed even the period of colonialism.

All sensitive minds and world over have rejected these conditions. The urge for another kind of world order has grown with the turn of the century. The absolute irrationality of a system in which the advance of technology has given new boosts to productive forces while their fruits are cornered by a very small segment of the population makes it totally unacceptable. So is the destructive use of advanced technology in exploiting the natural resources of the globe for gratifying the consumption needs of the present generation. For, it denies to future generations those resources which nature cannot replenish. The wastefulness of human knowledge, energies of the people and the productive forces in order to build arsenals of armaments which can eliminate scores of generations of human beings is not only irrational but also defies all norms of human civilisation.

When it was argued in the early 1950s that ideologies had been made redundant by the advances in technology, the assumption was that technology is value-neutral. Also that the course its progress has adopted was the only one available. That it was fully autonomous and human beings could not change it. This was not just the liberals understanding of the phenomenon; scientific socialism also agreed with it. The means of production were changing it argued, and they would determine the relations of production as well. It postulated that when the means of production, which had brought about the capitalist relations of production, attain their maximum capacity, a qualitative change would then occur in the relations of production and capitalism would be replaced by socialism. It was not appreciated, however, that the advance of technology in a particular direction would go on sustaining the system, using up the surplus value of the vast masses of the less developed countries. Nor where the disastrous consequences of that advance in destroying the natural resources given full attention, even though the description of the new order included as evocative vision of harmonious relationship between man and the natural environment.

However, socialists of all hues would have to recognise that a technology which led to the present situation, and the means of production which were its authors as well as its product, cannot be the foundation of a new, human system based on the expropriation of the expropriators. Sustainable growth is incompatible with it; so is a socialist society in which consumerism can have no place. The new social order in which "each will get according to his needs" will clearly define the needs, and ostentation cannot be part of the definition. It is not only a question of which class exercises hold over power, but the choice that class will make about the technology it desires to employ. In fact, most of the armament industry, and the technology associated with it, will be totally redundant. Moreover, the huge productive capacity of the present technology by which the United States, for example, claims to be able to feed the entire human population, may not be of much use.

For, its retention could deny to most human beings the opportunity to work "according to their capacities"; and the enjoyment associated with work, with creation and achievement, might be greatly restricted.

In this sense, a technology which enables the masses to engage in mass production of goods would have to be evolved, in place of mass production of goods by a few with the help of very sophisticated, modern technology. The latter is based on extremely specialized knowledge and skills, thereby creating alienation between the vast masses of the people and the means of production. Its major tendency is centralization which, in respect of power return to the people, in their Soviets or gram Sabhas. That is, the parameters of a non-consumerist lifestyle, availability of work to all and the need for all to engage in it, power and its distribution among the people and the sustainability of the natural environment should help in the formulation of the technology appropriate for a socialist social order.

While gender equality and equality among peoples of all races, nations, regions and all other social formations and all economic relationships were implicit in the socialist idea, some of these have not been fully respected in practice. Hence, the rise of feminist groups or women's empowerment movements. If one scans, for instance, the structures in communist parties or their governments wherever they achieved power, to determine the proportion of women, it would become obvious why leaders of women's movements are dissatisfied. One finds an identical situation in the trade unions.

Among those societies where feudalism still defines gender relations, or where the patriarchal social system has nor substantially weekend, and this is the case in most societies in the east and the south, special efforts are necessary to ensure that gender equality obtains. Yet, even in capitalist systems in Germany and Sweden, women's representation in Governments and parties is quite substantial. But this is not the case in the US and some other Western societies.

Castes in India, tribes in Africa and races in South and North America provide similar paradoxes. So do religious minorities wherever they have some presence. Economic backwardness, illiteracy, feudal social relationships and the legacies of colonial rule had created conditions of gross iniquities. The kind of universalism and humanism which socialists have always espoused will have to be brought about wherever such iniquities dominate. Unfortunately, even in some post-literate societies of West Europe, racialism has become a force. Socialists and communists have been active there since the 1850s. Yet a different picture obtains now. In the Soviet Union too, these tendencies had shown up, owing mainly to the centralist nature of authority wielded there, in spite of significant improvements in the living standards in various regions. In India, caste iniquities did not receive the necessary attention in the beginning; and the credit for inscribing them on the socialist agenda goes to Ram Manohar Lohia.

In the developing economies, significant disparities have appeared in the unorganised and the organised sectors of the economy. These must be removed by providing social security, education, and health on a priority basis. Both the capitalist and the communist systems accumulated capital for industrial growth from agriculture; the consequent imbalances have to be corrected by deliberate planning, including dispersal of technology in villages.

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