Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism
By Dennis Loo (4/25/14)
Editor's Note: This is a follow-up to address a major question from students who attended the Raymond Lotta talk about communism, socialism, and capitalism at Cal Poly Pomona on April 9, 2014. This is Part One.
Anyone who runs for office in the US and claims that they will "make the system work" (to serve the people) is not telling you the truth. A few of those who say this may be sincere but they cannot deliver on this promise. The system is working the way it's designed to work and it's working in a manner that fulfills democratic theory’s assumptions. Democratic theory isn't a fabulous idea that just needs to be implemented properly. Democratic theory is actually an impoverished theory, deprived from its inception of what it allegedly promises to fulfill, authentic popular rule. The problem isn't the practice, in other words; the problem is the theory itself and the conditions that gave rise to it and sustain its prominent place as the governing public theory. I say governing public theory because those who actually run things know very well that behind closed doors is where the real deals are made and that “governance by the people” is a charade meant to deceive the people.
Democratic theory, contrary to its proponents and even almost every one of its critics, rules out of hand from the very start that the people should ever actually come to over time progressively govern every arena of society. Instead, democracy and voting specifically are viewed as the only way that the "ruled" can throw out those who "rule" when the rulers become overly tyrannical. Democratic theory, in other words, provides no means by which the "ruled" can ever become the "rulers" themselves. For a much more developed discussion of these points, see this link where I discuss the crucial difference between treating democracy as an end in itself versus as a means to an end.
What I'm going to focus on here is a different angle from that link's discussion. This angle relates to a question raised by commenters on the Raymond Lotta talk about communism, socialism, and capitalism. The question is: how do you and can you prevent a new set of exploiters from rising to power after a revolution that establishes socialism? This question is actually closely related to the question about democracies and democratic processes because they both bear on the question of the masses of people’s role in relation to leaders and to the exigencies of collective life and organizing that collective life. In answering this question, a whole array of related issues come up.
It is probably helpful in setting the stage for this to begin by pointing out the difference between genuine socialism and social democracy. Many countries’ leading parties tout themselves as socialist. In France, for example, one of the governing parties is the Socialist Party. But they are broadly and correctly derided as “champagne socialists” because their “socialism” is a thin veneer covering a bourgeois party. Their policies are not any more different from that of other bourgeois parties in France than that between the Democratic and Republican Parties in the US, that is to say, not different at all. The only real difference is their rhetoric, rhetoric that is designed to make them more appealing to their primary social base(s). In the US, the Democrats and Republicans sound different from one another. But their actual policies are indistinguishable. Anyone who thinks that they can find a distinguishable difference between Obama’s foreign and domestic policy to that of his predecessor would have to conclude after the end of their investigation that Bush’s policies overall were actually less right-wing than Obama’s. And this is because the party labels don’t mean anything other than as false advertising designed to deceive people.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t real rivalry and acrimony between the GOP and the Democratic Party. They have sharp differences about how best to rule and they contend with one another over that. But in the final analysis, they are both governing parties of an imperialist empire and their decisions are guided and ultimately determined by that basic fact. Their differences, in other words, are over strategy and tactics, not over their goals or over sharply different visions for society.
Social democracy is the ultimate reformist strategy and as such embodies within it the misconceptions that reformist strategies contain. Systems cannot be changed from within and the only way that change can occur is through actions designed to mobilize people in collective action to get rid of the system and replace it with a radically different system under a radically different kind of leadership. Any other actions are futile. When the Bolsheviks as part of their larger political strategy ran individuals for political office prior to the 1917 October Revolution, they did not run on a platform of "vote for me and I will make the system work." They ran on a platform that the system itself is unredeemable and that if elected they would use their posts as a platform to further expose the system’s bankruptcy.
Social democracy has been the ruling paradigm for decades in Scandinavian countries, in New Zealand, and, to a much lesser degree, in Australia. It is highly influential in many other countries. Social democracy does not seek to overthrow and eliminate capitalism. It’s designed to retain capitalism but to render it supposedly more humane by providing more social services and a social safety net for those that capitalism tosses aside in its drive to maximize profits.
While social democrats want to provide a more charitable state and society, communists want to emancipate all of humanity. Social democrats do not think that the people can really run society and they do not believe that capitalism can be or should be abolished. Communists recognize that no one can or should be a condescending savior. Social democracy is an attempt at a middle-ground strategy rather than a revolutionary one. One of the examples of why social democracy is an incorrect approach to the problem of capitalism is that even the staunchest social democratically run countries have bent to the influence of neoliberal policies (free market fundamentalism) and increasingly adopted neoliberal measures over the last three decades. This has sparked riots in places like France.
Capital is not in its essence a thing such as money or assets but a social relation between the capitalist and the proletarian. The essence of that social relation is exploitation. The results of that social relation include things like money and profit for the capitalist class. Under capitalism the means of production have been privatized and are owned by the capitalist class. Since the capitalist class owns and controls the means to life, workers must sell their labor to the former in order to live. The middle class or petty bourgeoisie fill a role in between the bourgeoisie and proletariat as small business owners, professionals, managers, artists, etc. but the defining classes under capitalism are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The capitalist class exploits the proletariat’s labor and this human exploitation (and exploitation of the environment) is the source of surplus value and the capitalists’ profits. Those who aspire to great wealth – or at least a lot of wealth – hope to occupy the position of the big capitalists where they can enjoy the fruits of the work of their employees.
As long as this relationship between the owners of the means to life and the rest of us remains society’s central organizing factor, a relatively small group of people will dominate and control the lives of the rest. You cannot end this relationship through merely redistributing the lopsided allotment of resources a little bit more equally. Even if, hypothetically, you were to completely and equally distribute the material resources of a society to everyone, if you did not address the unequal non-material resources such as differential training, education, and social capital, then within several years time the resources would again become unequal and be moving towards restoring the previously highly unequal situation.
What socialism – real socialism – does is end the private control by capitalists over the means of production and turns it into state property.
Doing this does not abolish classes since you cannot simply abolish classes in one sweeping action and therefore the possibility of exploitation resuming continues as long as social classes and other divisions continue. I’m going to underscore that point because it bears repeating: as long as social classes continue, the material basis will persist for a new group of exploiters to emerge as the personification of those classes’ differences to be a new group of rulers. If those who are now in charge of the state behave as if they are the new capitalist class and lord it over the still existing working class, then they can be the new capitalist overlords, albeit under a different name. The material basis for this to occur and to be an ongoing danger of capitalist restoration is the fact that even with a socialist revolution led by communists, you cannot abolish class distinctions and the legacy of the gap between mental and manual labor in one fell swoop. You cannot undo the fact that whole groups of people have been differentially trained.
For example, people from the most oppressed groups of people who have not been taught and trained in how to read and write or who have been only taught rudimentary skills and have only been treated as those who will end up doing manual work, cannot compete on a level playing field with those who have been exposed to the best that money can buy without being assisted and supported and led in gaining those skills over time. They will be shunted aside and can be readily misled by those who know how to manipulate words and images in order to sound good and to deceive others of their real intentions. Bridging the gaps between mental and manual labor, between town and country, between men and women, between those of privileged racial or ethnic strata and those who are oppressed, and so on, and exposing and uprooting the various ideas that correspond to exploitive relations, is something that would a) have to be addressed consciously under a socialist society and b) require social campaigns organized at the grassroots level that pursue these inequalities with passion and science in order to undo them progressively over time.
Because political decisions must be made all of the time, and because those decisions are deeply consequential, you want to and need to have those who are experienced and/or expert and/or have insight into these questions be a critical part of the process by which you make decisions. But you also need and want for there to be wide and direct engagement and grappling with these questions by the broad masses of people. You don’t want this engagement to be merely window dressing, which is the way things are done now where the masses are presented with the simulacrum of democratic consultation (e.g., town hall meetings and voting). When Mao spoke of the goal of the Cultural Revolution being transforming world outlook he meant that the masses of people in order to become truly the masters of society had to be directly engaged in discussing, debating, and making decisions and carrying out those decisions in order for world outlook to be transformed.
You cannot thoroughly understand anything by merely reading a book or books about it. You cannot thoroughly understand anything by merely practically and concretely engaging in it either. You have to do both. You have to do it and you have to study it and you have to engage in the process in order to learn how things actually work. This is a process that the whole of society needs to be part of in the most direct ways because they cannot learn what they need to learn, they cannot put their stamp on every element in social life, unless they are doing this in an ongoing way. They will always be vulnerable in the meantime and during this transitional period to those who either consciously or unconsciously are moving socialism towards capitalist norms rather than moving it forward towards communist norms. Being able to decipher the real intentions of people is something that people cannot be taught how to do by simply giving them a RAM chip upgrade.
Another dimension to this involves the matter of incentives. All societies that have ever existed and all of them into the future will need incentives to get people to work. In tribal society the incentive was that the tribe had to rely on the work of everyone to survive and there is no such thing as someone deciding that they were going to opt out of that when they felt like it. See this article for a much more developed discussion of the question of material and non-material incentives.
In capitalist society the incentive is supposedly exclusively material. For society to move towards and eventually accomplish a classless society means that over time (probably at least decades) non-material incentives need to eventually replace material incentives. You cannot entirely abolish material incentives in socialism because material incentives will continue to have some ongoing relevance. Those who have spent a great deal of time learning and training in specialized skills will not want to be paid and should not be paid exactly the same as everyone else. If you tried such a policy you would have a lot of resistance and opposition from significant sectors of the society. But what you could and should do is immediately end the extreme distortions of wealth that we find in capitalist society.
Real socialism, in other words, is going to be marked both by the legacy of capitalism and the persistence of both capitalist relations and capitalist ideas in varying degrees and by incipient communism with its respective relations and ideas. These two forces will be in tension and struggle with each other over which will have the upper hand over a long period of transition. That conflict is inevitable and actually occurs hourly and minute-by-minute in our present system but it does so under the overall oppressive rule of the bourgeoisie. New systems do not appear out of thin air but grow embryonically from within the extant system and at some point rise to fight for power.
Under capitalism the higher form of social relations that communism represents must fight uphill tooth and nail constantly and the continued existence of the various horrors of capitalist relations and ideas are allowed to ride roughshod over the interests of the people and the planet. Think what a difference it would make if the oppressive weight of capitalism were lifted because the capitalist state and economy have been overthrown and a socialist state in which all of these problems can now be addressed on a radically different basis and perspective now exists in its place.
If socialism is seen, on the other hand, as the ultimate welfare state the way that social democrats see it, then the struggle to transform society to eventually be able to abolish classes and all of the accompanying ideas such as sexism and racism will not be engaged and those who are oppressed under capitalism and the longer historical legacy of social divisions will not be unleashed to become humanity’s emancipators. Invidious distinctions between people will be allowed to expand rather than narrowed.
There is one final point that I need to make that is enormously significant. Many people when they learn about the possibility of a different system respond by saying: “That sounds like a good idea, but it seems much too far-fetched. It will likely never happen.” This is a view that demands a satisfactory response. That is the subject of part two of this series.
 Some very prominent leaders of the progressive Left (e.g., Norman Solomon) in the US literally shut down much of the anti-war and impeachment movements when Obama was first running for the White House in the name of putting all of their efforts into electing someone who they claimed would listen to the anti-war, et al movement. That strategy's bankruptcy is by now clear to all who have been paying attention. As I and a few others warned at the time when Obama first became a national political figure, Obama is not who you think he is and you need to pay close attention to his words and deeds. If you do, you will see that he is not saying what you think he is.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)