JR'S Free Thought Pages
Neo-Liberal Capitalism: A Horror Story
With some Historical Perspectives
by JR, Dec 2014
The world is full of injustice, and those who profit by injustice are in a position to administer rewards and punishments. The rewards go to those who invent ingenious justifications for inequality, the punishments to those who try to remedy it. ― Bertrand Russell
The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful. ― Bertrand Russell
Why do we continue to live this way? With economic inequalities now at all-time historical highs, 85 people now have more wealth than the bottom half of the global population, about 3.5 billion people, most of whom live on less than $3 a day. The truth is actually far worse since most of this bottom 3.5 billion have less than nothing, deeply mired in debt peonage. Democracy and the untrammelled corporatist free market are not synonymous, but rather antithetical and adversarial. "Engaged citizen" is what we mean by a member of a true egalitarian bottom-up democracy, but under global capitalism, especially the current neo-liberal incarnation, it means "wage slave", "spectator" or "consumer". Since there are very few indigenous peoples left in the world that the insatiable wealthy corporate elites can enslave, exploit and pillage, they have now turned on the people in their own countries.
During the years leading up to and following the Great Depression reformist-minded and conciliatory left wing social democrats such as the CCF/NDP Party in Canada and the Labor Party in Britain served as brokers between the needs of the working class and poorer sections of the middle class and small businesses on the one hand and the state supported corporations on the other. More Keynesian than socialist, its social and electoral base had demanded addressing the social injustice in all its manifestations, enforcement of pro-worker labor laws, reversal of privatizations of key industries, higher minimum wages, universal affordable health care, improved working conditions and political checks on the power of wealthy power elites and large corporations. Sadly the gains made, including those made by labor unions, were short lived and the 99% are now facing a race to the bottom for not only the working classes, but for many in the upper middle and professional classes as well. Anytime social democrats have been successful in elections they have faced huge obstacles in a pre-existing system of prejudiced laws and political structures that favor entrenched wealth and corporate power. This has become far worse for the viability of democracy in the past thirty years with the so-called international "free trade" agreements and globalization. In fact they have been highly corrosive of the threadbare democracy that did exist for a brief period following the Second World War.
In short, reformist strategies have failed. But throughout history, entrenched power, whether a monarchy, theocracy or the present hegemony of corporatist and financial oligarchy, has never conceded anything without an equal demonstration of power. Conservative elites have always abided by the amoral dictum "might is right" and any attempt at moral argumentation or appeals to justice have been exercises in futility. The numerous revolutions throughout history have been testaments to this state of affairs.
Capitalists of the neo-conservative breed have made a concerted effort during the past three or four decades to convince people that there is no alternative to the current socio-economic arrangement. The post World War II Keynesian social democratic capitalism we affectionately referred to as "free enterprise" has been either defeated as in The USA and Britain*, marginalized or is in the process of disintegration. What we now endure is a globalized semi-feudal form of laissez-faire casino capitalism facilitated by the corporatist state and global despotic organizations like the IMF, World Bank, EU, ECB and WTO. We've been informed by reactionary political dogmatists such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher** and neo-conservative intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) that "there is no alternative" (the infamous TINA principle) to this economic order that has been imposed on the planet. The power elites have put as much effort into the propaganda of this neo-liberal (aka neo-conservative) project than they have into actually creating a stable and feasible global economic system. As a result, the present form of capitalism has been even more inequitable, chaotic and unstable than earlier versions. Save for massive multi-trillion dollar bailouts by the corporate nanny state, it almost completely disintegrated in 2008. If it had adhered to its own sacred commandment of "flourish or die", it would have collapsed. George W Bush, during the depths of the global financial crisis, declared: "This suckers going down". Too bad that it didn't!
* The United States and Britain have become failed societies, thanks to the "trickle-down" neo-liberal agenda put in motion by reactionaries such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Moreover, the ruling corporate and financial oligarchy will continue to exacerbate these immoral and heartless states of affairs by its efforts to quell dissent and social unrest with their neo-fascist militarized police and prisons that have replaced social programs. But it is categorically unsustainable and will ultimately fail; conservative elites have learned nothing from history and don't seem to care one whit about posterity. The corrupt corporate capitalism of countries like America and Britain will eventually decline causing more inequality, leading to further class antagonisms, social unrest and civil disobedience. The class confrontations will only intensify. The once admired post World War II social democracy in Britain was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s and the Labor Party under Tony Blair was morphed into another reactionary war mongering conservative entity that continued the destructive Thatcher privatization agenda. In countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the neo-conservative onslaught has been underway for at least 30 years and their once enviable social democracies are in shambles and in the throes of disintegration. Can the people turn the ship around?
** It was the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher who postulated that "there is no society", only self-interested individuals, thereby rendering ethics, cooperation and community a delusional fantasy.
There are no shortages of valid critiques of capitalism particularly the venal brand of deregulated globalized neo-liberal crony capitalism that defiles the world today. Any mention of alternatives to this hegemonic system is challenged by cries of utopian delusion. But what could be more utopian than the current ideology? Karl Marx continues to remain the one who understood better than anyone else the advance of globalization that would render 19th century economic paradigms obsolete and destroy the traditional bourgeois life and practices as experienced to that point. Marx understood that globalized capitalism and its imperialistic partner is a chaotic unjust economic system that disrupts and transforms every aspect of human life, including politics, cultural norms, sense of community and the family. More recently, while effectively reshaping society to serve the dictates of the free market, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper want at the same time to revive traditional modes of entrepreneurial and bourgeois life. But as Marx perceived and predicted, the actual effect of the unfettered market is to overturn established family, social and cultural relationships in addition to the traditional norms of ethical life, including those of pre-existing small business bourgeois societies.
And what happens when people negatively impacted by US, British and European policies attempt to take matters into their own hands and challenge their antidemocratic imperialist hegemony? Washington specifically, in addition to their European allies inevitably respond with violence and terrorism to defend the status quo. This is why so many people around the world refuse to believe that the United States is a force for good. Why, for example, does ISIL exist? We need look no further than our own Western mirrors. In fact, in a 2013 WIN/Gallup poll conducted in 68 countries, the United States was overwhelmingly viewed as the greatest threat to world peace - as it is each year the survey is conducted.
To understand our current predicament of state controlled capitalist society we might well be advised to return to Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Despite the recent lofty levels of the stock markets, economic misery for the vast majority of the world is a continuing fact of life. This is particularly true of the two countries that have been most totally subjected to the neo-liberal onslaught, the United States and Britain. Breakdown in traditional social relationships, the family, labor unions, social safety nets and sense of community worldwide have been devastating. Dissent, civil unrest and a concomitant expansion of the military, police, surveillance systems and increasingly privatized prisons reveal the breakdown of any semblance of civility and democracy we once had. Police can arrest citizens without a warrant, incarcerate without due process and even shoot them on sight with impunity. The United States with 5% of the global population has 25% of the world's people in prisons; this is its response to underlying societal problems created by a venal unjust system. In response to a shooting incident at the parliament buildings in Ottawa several weeks ago , Canada under the extremely reactionary, authoritarian and militaristic regime of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has now responded with a knee jerk "terrorism bill" that will entail even more state surveillance and erosion of civil rights. This is the same Stephen Harper who hid in a closet calling for his mommy as the shooting incident was taking place. Harper is a dangerous man who has already caused irreparable harm to what democracy the country enjoyed and disgraced himself on the international stage. Canada has endured some terrible prime ministers since 1867 and Harper will likely be deemed the worst of the lot.
Many have lost the ability to imagine any alternatives and escape by subduing their compromised intellects to mindless entertainment and distraction with their i-phones and i-pads. I submit that, contrary to those calling for "the end of history", it's rather apparent that in the next five or six decades, capitalism in any form we’d recognize, and probably in any form at all, will have disappeared. The planet cannot endure much more of its destruction without both financial and environmental collapse. I reiterate, capitalism is not synonymous with democracy and hopefully whatever replaces it will be the genuine bottom-up direct democracy to which most of us aspire. But that "something else" may not be better; in fact there are signs we may repeat the fascist dystopias that arose between the two world wars. Environmental collapse notwithstanding, it might be even worse. It seems to me for that very reason it's our responsibility, as informed reflective critically thinking human beings - or just as thoughtful human beings - to appeal to our imaginations and try to think about what something more just and democratic might look like. Our young people need to become politically active or their futures will be hijacked.
When I was a working class kid growing up in post World War II northern British Columbia there was a generally quite justifiable belief that a meritocracy actually did exist - that if one did all the right things, studied and worked hard, earned a trade or went to university, one could have an interesting career with decent compensation and benefits, a flourishing family and personal life and still have time for philosophical reflection, political engagement and pursing one's passions. Yes, post secondary education and especially University was not free (as it ought to have been and ought to be) but at the time there were scholarships, bursaries and an abundance of decent paying summer jobs to finance this education right through graduate school. This prospect is now a fantasy with students today graduating with banal or worthless four year degrees ostensibly preparing them for a mundane workplace that leave them in debt peonage with ever-diminishing career opportunities. Does anyone take degrees in philosophy, history or literature any longer? The government is apparently selling off these student loans to the predatory private sector to exploit and profit. Add to that, the movements to privatize everything on the planet, including public education. The universities are already "corporatized" with mind numbing degrees in "marketing" and "business administration" becoming the norm.
In 2013 the Cato Institute estimated that the US government gave $100 billion, or 5% of its federal annual budget to US businesses in the form of subsidies (aka, corporate welfare). In 2006 the George W Bush regime handed out $92 billion to the wealthy corporations in subsidies but $56 million in food stamps to the destitute. A few weeks back the US announced its budget of $1.1 trillion, 60% of which was to fund imperialistic wars, the already bloated military and their some 700 military bases throughout the world. At the same time there have been large cutbacks in food stamps and social assistance to the desperately poor. What kind of depraved world is this? In Canada under the neo-conservative theocrat Stephen Harper, the trends, though not so severe, are the same. Harper like his heroes Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush , salivates at the idea of destroying unions, dismantling and privatizing our Medicare and everything else within the public realm.
The lion’s share of the U.S. government’s discretionary budget is invariably devoted to the military because a small group of people benefit from this unjust and immoral use of taxpayer's money. Health care is rationed because it's profitable for the people who own and control health care and pharmaceutical companies. Money is pumped into financial speculation rather than productive investments because of the immediate, short-term gain for the criminal financial sector and tiny minority of people who control the bulk of wealth in a capitalist society. Whenever socialists make this point, there’s a quick answer from defenders of the system - it’s all a conspiracy theory. Yes, like the invasion of Iraq, the phony war on terror and the bailouts of financial crooks who run down their stack of chips in the game of predatory casino capitalism - and are then bailed out. Actually, “conspiracies” are commonplace in Corporate America. Just consider the crimes of Bernie Madoff, who was arrested in December 2008 for bilking investors to the tune of $50 billion or so. They prosecuted this psychopath because he scammed too many of America's super rich. If his victims were the middle class or poor they would never have bothered to carry out an investigation. Madoff claimed to be "investing" people's money for them, but in reality, he was operating one of the oldest cons around—a Ponzi scheme. The obscene profits his greedy customers were so in love with were the result of Madoff taking money that came in from new investors, and using it to pay off obligations to previous ones.
Under our system of predatory monopoly capitalism, the small class of people at the top own and control what Karl Marx called the “means of production”- the factories and offices, the land, the machinery, means of transportation, and everything else needed to make useful products. Like puppeteers they also control the politicians in Ottawa and Washington, financing their political campaigns and their corporate lobbyists bribing them continuously. These pirates of capital don't make anything of real value themselves. They hire much larger numbers of wage slaves to do the actual work of producing or providing various goods or services. Without the labour of the masses, the oil would remain in the ground, the gas guzzling vehicles wouldn't be built, the patients wouldn't be treated - and the wealth of the few wouldn't exist. The preamble to the constitution of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies as they came to be known, expressed this sentiment very well:
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."
Created in 1905, the IWW still exists but is presently not politically active. The revolutionary activities of the IWW were operational primarily in Western USA and British Columbia. Their political and socio-economic theories are a variant of anarchist political philosophy, not unlike those of the anarcho-syndicalist parties that flourished in Spain (the CNT and FAI in were legendary in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War), arguing that the current forms of state government are undemocratic, mere appendages of entrenched wealth and corporate power. There are as many variations of anarchist philosophy but one thing all anarchists agree on is that our current forms of hierarchical and bureaucratic governance are clearly not democratic. They were never intended to be democratic. Give any person sufficient property, political influence and power and he will become a despot to the full extent of that authority. Many readers will be familiar with two of the IWW's most well-known icons, Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood. The IWW runs a web site here and provides some philosophical information and history. The IWW, like the communists that emerged following the Russian Revolution, argued that capitalism is intrinsically undemocratic and must be completely abolished, that there should be no bosses since employers are mere parasites who plunder the wealth created by the exploitation of workers. This was certainly true and their critique is equally as valid today in light of the neo-fascist forms of corporatism and financial corruption that pervade and control every aspect of the global economy.
The police and military have always functioned as the strong arm of state oppression of workers, invariably siding with employers, corporations and other forms of wealth, entitlement and power. Invariably the police and military have been the nemesis of the political left, unionism and other mass movements for civil rights and justice, suffering persecution, blacklisting, incarceration, extradition, injury and death. Although big business, employers and government often conspired to infiltrate left wing political organizations and unions with agent provocateurs they could quite legally and openly suppress workers and their associations because it is they who have written all the laws. And as was done during the Red Scares, McCarthyism and red baiting following the two Great Wars, they could simply declare their organizations or political parties illegal, as they did in Canada with the Communist Party. The communists and other leftist factions, despite their ideological differences, were lumped together as revolutionary and seditious, relentlessly attacked in the press and harassed in the workplace and their offices by the police as both capital and government ganged up on them. In 1931 Tim Buck, the leader of the Communist Party of Canada and seven other prominent members were given five year prison sentences to be served in the notorious Kingston Prison. Their crime: espousing the wrong political sentiments. While incarcerated there was an effort by prison guards, ostensibly under instructions from the Conservative government of Prime Minister R B (Iron Heel) Bennett, to murder Buck. He very narrowly evaded several bullets fired into his cell during a staged riot. Unemployment (always a boon for employers) and social misery in Canada during the Great Depression was rampant throughout the country. The self-righteous and arrogant multi-millionaire Prime Minister R B Bennett who blamed the slothfulness of workers for the Great Depression, used the police and military to quell dissent, including the On-to-Ottawa Trek which was stopped in Regina as the RCMP and other hired goons attacked, tear gassed and beat with clubs the desperate and destitute men, badly beating up, injuring and incarcerating their leader Slim Evans. The rotund and well-fed Bennett did nothing for people who were literally starving, in fact blaming them for their laziness and lack of grit in finding work. One of his many ineffective non- solutions were the "Relief Camps" where men were paid 20 cents a day for mostly make-work programs, cheap labour for businesses and even building golf courses for the wealthy.
Although they endorsed unionism, the IWW were sceptical of labour union leaders who were mere fakirs, phoneys and con men who cared more about their own interests than the rank and file. Union officers they argued should serve limited terms in office and be paid no more than the union members they profess to represent. The IWW considered the conservative trade unions as elitist, proposing a "One Big Union" regardless of trade, skill, ethnicity, race or gender. In this sense the IWW was a similar program to that of the former Knights of Labour.
Precious few know these facts or anything else about working class history. Why? It's because the history of labour and the struggles of ordinary people have rarely, if ever, been taught in our schools. Most people simply stick their heads in the sand in blissful ignorance or have internalized all the propaganda that`s been fed to them by the conservative biased culture - the education system, churches and big business controlled media. The typical uncritical conservative historian has traditionally focused on the rich and powerful, those in authority such as kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, the wealthy elites and military leaders. One rarely gets promoted or moves up the economic ladder by exposing injustice and unpleasant truths. Until reading Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States, I had never encountered a history book devoted exclusively to ordinary people and their far more interesting, often desperate and destitute, lives. Since retirement I have amassed a huge library of books on labour history, radical left wing political movements and the lives of countless relatively unknown courageous and inspiring working class revolutionaries and anarchists. I highly recommend a new groundbreaking well-researched book published last year (2014) by a native American scholar and college professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. She has taken her cue from Zinn's great work; it's titled An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States. Get it, read it and become enlightened.
When you try to engage anyone in debate about these issues, most change the subject or simply walk away fearing that you are some sort of conspiracy theorist, lunatic or revolutionary kook. Like many of the religious, they simply do not want to know. But ignorance is not bliss, other than for the benefit of those in power, both religious and secular, who prefer their subordinates and underlings to remain in such a state of submission, ignorance and credulity. Organized religion, Marx's "opiate of the masses", has been one of the standard carrot and stick antidotes used by conservative elites to suppress understanding the truth about the cozy relationship between capital, religion and the state. One's worldly existence with all its pain and suffering is a preparation for the next and will be assuaged in an opaque location called heaven; so submit to God's will, his divine plan and don't fret about the gross injustices of the present. Faith, I dare say, is for fools and idiots.
A cursory examination of the type of politicians and bureaucrats who serve the state in our undemocratic parliamentary system these days is instructive. The vast majority of the members of our political aristocracy have had prior careers in the financial community, the big banks, brokerage houses, corporate law firms and other sectors of big business or have simply sponged off inherited wealth. Democracy in either its republican or parliamentary incarnations has always been a farcical sham, a rigged game originally created by theft of land from indigenous peoples, genocide, slave owning and self-serving wage slave driving elites and bosses.
Since the mid 1970s working people have seen their lives transformed by ever diminishing pay and longer more stressful work hours. The workplace has become more toxic than ever. Working people have precious little time for reflection, political engagement or the intellectual life. Consequently many, including our young people, have become cynical and apathetic, believing (quite correctly) that elections are an exercise in futility. Nothing substantive changes following the voting ritual and elections are generally won by propaganda, marketing and big money. Sadly and even more disconcerting and depressing is that the unions and political parties such as the NDP that once claimed to champion the interests of common people, have sold out. Grass roots movements like the ones emerging in Spain and other European countries are sorely needed. A recent Oxfam report predicted that by 2016 the top 1% will control more wealth than the rest of the global population. Economic inequalities are already unprecedented historical levels and a revolutionary groundswell for genuine direct democracy is desperately needed.
So what really happened to the uplifting ideas of socialism, the political ideology of caring, sharing, cooperation and the "brotherhood of man"? What happened to Oscar Wilde's "soul of man under socialism"?** In Canada since the death of the illustrious Canadian Tommy Douglas* his wonderful uplifting vision has disappeared from the lips and pens of putative social democrats like the NDP. But socialism still exists, in an ironic and repugnant inverted form. Rather than a welfare state for all citizens, we now have a perverted socialism restricted to big business and the rich. Ignore the conservative rhetoric and pleas for small government, their mythology of the meritocracy and the Adam Smith mantra of "the invisible hand of the marketplace". It's bullshit and always has been hot steaming bullshit. Without the support of big government, corporatism, elitism and the traditional entitlements of the wealthy would not be possible.
* In 1944 when Douglas, then leader of the CCF (precursor to the NDP), won the election in Saskatchewan he inherited a province that was bankrupt and mired in corruption and crony capitalism, thanks to the mismanagement of the Liberals and Conservatives. Every move he tried to make was met with demands for paybacks and under the table bribes. He cleaned that mess up and, not being a dogmatic Marxist, invited private investors to kick start both the oil and potash industries in Saskatchewan. The proviso was that they would face high taxes and royalties. The entrepreneurs came anyway and still made healthy profits. Douglas used these taxes to introduce hospital insurance for the provinces citizens and balanced the provincial budget every year until his resignation in 1961 to become the federal leader of the NDP. The health care plan he introduced in Saskatchewan became the template for a universal plan for all Canadians that was introduced in the 1960s by the socially conscious Liberal administration of Lester Pearson (but not without the arm twisting of the NDP that held the balance of power at the time). I think Douglas would embrace free markets provided they actually existed and if companies were restricted in size and power to avoid the massive parasitic monopolies that dominate in today`s neo-fascist corporatist states. Small businesses are a good thing and perhaps business enterprises could be restricted by the re-introduction of anti-trust laws that once existed before the neo-conservative hijack of healthy forms of free enterprise.
** Taking the cue from Oscar Wilde, one might consider two fundamentally different “souls” of socialism. There is the hierarchical socialism ruled from above as in the political structure of capitalist states - whether that means social democratic parties vying for office in capitalist democracies and trying to implement more humane and liberal policies within the framework of the free market or a political elite that runs society in the name of socialism through bureaucratic control of the state. And there is genuine socialism from below - a bottom up tradition that has its genesis in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and puts the self-emancipation of the working class at its heart. Engels provided his insights on the centrality of democracy and workers’ power to socialism:
"It goes without saying that society cannot itself be free unless each individual is free. The old mode of production must therefore be revolutionized from top to bottom. Its place must be taken by an organization of production in which, on the one hand, no individual can put on to other persons his share of the productive labour … and in which, on the other hand, productive labour, instead of being a means to the subjection of men, will become a means to their emancipation, by giving each individual the opportunity to develop and exercise all his faculties."
So are there any examples of socialism existing in the world today? The answer is no. Perhaps this is a good thing because any socio-economic ideology that becomes a salvation plan for humanity inevitably ends in dogmatism, rigidity and disaster In the struggles of the past, we’ve only seen partial glimpses of what a future socialist society could look like and in most cases it so-existed with predominantly capitalist regimes, mitigating the sordid exploitive aspects of capitalism for the working classes. Those glimpses, along with the whole tradition of working-class struggle, show not only that socialism is possible, but also the outlines of how it can be organized to ensure real democracy and freedom. If you examine the most significant social upheavals of the last one hundred years such as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the few short years of an experiment in real workers’ democracy until the reactionary Stalinist counterrevolution; the revolutionary wave in Germany in the early 1920s; Spain’s revolution in the 1930s; Portugal in the 1970s; to name a few - the centerpiece was mass participation. The heart of these struggles was the actions and experiences of the masses of people who took part in them.
One characteristic common to all of them is that at their high points, before they were turned back, they created similar systems for the majority to make decisions about how to organize the struggle and the basic functioning of society. Each time, working-class democracy revolved around a structure of workers’ councils. In Russia, for example, workers’ councils (known by the Russian word soviet) developed spontaneously out of the 1905 revolution, and again in 1917. They first appeared as elected workplace committees, formed to organize around economic issues. But the need to respond to wider political questions led the councils to make links locally and then regionally.
It was natural for the soviets - created in the midst of struggle against the old order - to become the basis for workers to exercise their power in a new order. There was a direct connection between the councils’ representation from workplaces and the need to decide how to use the wealth produced at those workplaces. And on this basis, it was possible for the soviets to reach out to other groups in society and offer them a voice. John Reed, the American socialist and author of Ten Days That Shook the World, an eyewitness account of Russia in 1917, described the spirit of the soviets: “No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity.” Russia’s soviets and all of the examples of workers’ councils in other countries over the years have shared similar features - immediate recall of anyone elected as a representative, so workers can control the people they vote for; not paying representatives more than the people they represent or allowing them to rise above anyone else’s social level; elections taking place at mass meetings rather than in the isolation of the voting booth. Anyone who has seen the great 1981 movie called Reds, in which Warren Beattie played John Reed and also directed will get a sense of the euphoria and optimism surrounding the Russian Revolution and the prospect of real socialism but also the frustrations, huge obstacles and repression that confronted them in a hegemonic militarized capitalist world.
Despite their empty rhetoric against the nanny state, Conservatives have never had a problem with big government and their ever-growing and militarized trigger happy police forces and military provided that it serve their interests - and it always has. The police and military "serve and protect"; yes, but whom? Government now exists exclusively to defend the interests of wealthy elites and predatory capitalists and to absorb the costs and collateral damage of their dirty crimes, including desecration of the environment and endless imperialistic wars fought by the working class, while all profit is funnelled upward to the big corporations and the wealthy at the pinnacle of the wealth pyramid. The inverted forms of socialism we do have result from massive tax breaks, hiding ill-gained money in offshore tax havens, outright incentives and grants by the governments they control. If they fail, as many big banks and investment houses throughout the world did in 2008 they are gifted with multi-trillion bailouts, courtesy of the exploited victimized hoi polloi. The phoney rules of the dog eat dog laws of the capitalist jungle and "flourish or fail" dictum are reserved for the job market which has now become a race to the bottom. The US and Canada are quickly becoming banana republics.
During the last major financial crisis of 2008, dodgy positions on more than $60 trillion worth of over-leveraged credit default swaps were unwound at the same time, creating a chain of events that brought the international banking system to a halt, resulting in a wave of bank bailouts and austerity budgets still with us today. All because banks were betting money they didn’t have at ever larger margins. It seems it’s all systems go again as the U.S. Congress relaxed regulations put in place to prevent a similar crisis as part of its 1.1 trillion-dollar budget bill passed recently, 60% of which is allocated to the military.
The following is what Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT) said on Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, Dec.12, 2014 about the aforementioned US government’s new $1.1 trillion government spending bill:
“This is a bad bill for a number of reasons… the outrage of repealing a section, by the way, whose title is: Prohibition Against Federal Government Bailouts… in other words, these guys [bankers] will be able to make incredibly risky investments, if they win they make a lot of money, if they lose the taxpayers in this country bail them out. That is totally crazy. But, that’s not the only objectionable aspect of this bill. This bill is a trillion dollar bill, sixty percent of the money is going to military spending. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Kids can’t afford to go to college. Childcare is a total disaster. We’re spending 60% of our money on the military that can’t even account or audit its budget. So, that’s another objection. And, the third objection, which has not gotten a lot of attention, but is very, very important. There is language in this bill, which repeals a 40-year-old federal law protecting worker’s pensions. And, if this bill goes thru, millions and millions of workers who have worked for 20 or 30 or 40 years on a job may find out that the pensions they expected are cut by 30, 40 or 50 percent.”
Neo-liberalism (aka neo-conservatism), the hegemonic ideology of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economic feudalism depends upon a big government and strong-arm state, a powerhouse, to “guarantee economic freedom,” for a tiny plutocratic elite like the experience in union-busting Chile, where one-half of the population live on less than $3/day whilst 1%-5% own everything in sight. It is a plantation economy with an offshoot of slavery that is legalized by paying a very low minimal wage, all made possible by the dictatorial hand of fascism’s focus on neo-liberalism, the best government is the least government, deregulation, the free hand of the market and privatize everything, including our drinking water.
This is the toxic world view of our current devout Christian Prime Minister Thievin' Stephen Harper who is determined to take us back to the Gilded Age. Levels of global economic inequality have already surpassed that venal era of unrestrained exploitation and plunder.
Is this acceptable in a so-called civilized and just world? I highly recommend a wonderful book I just finished reading by 91 year old Brit Harry Leslie Smith called Harry's Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down, and What We Can Do to Save it . This remarkable and exceptionally astute man has experienced and witnessed pretty much all the misery, destitution and death that the 20th century had on offer. The story of his childhood reads like Dickens Oliver Twist. What progress that was made for ordinary people and the underprivileged like Harry following the Second World War is in the final stages of rapidly being eradicated by a coup of criminal bankers, financial parasites, corporate pirates and their enabling poodle politicians. The assault differs little from the same rapacious conservative entitled elitists that screwed us over so many times before throughout history. Their methods may be different, but the dire results for the vast majority of humanity is essentially the same. Read Harry's book and wake up.
Here is a passage from pp. 20-21:
...I learned the reason why my family like millions of other honest working families was so sorely abused by the caprice of economics. It wasn't because we were unlucky, lazy or intellectually deficient, as we were led to believe by those who governed us, instructed us, employed us or provided us with religious comfort. No, it was more sinister and cynical than even the 19th century philosopher Thomas Malthus' dictum that "to prevent the recurrence of misery is beyond the powers of Man". The problem was that our nation was stratified and defined by an exacting social class caste system. It was a perfectly constructed pyramid that was built upon one premise: that the multitudes were not equal to the few who ruled them. Since the masses were deemed inferior by those who stood above them economically, it was not considered appropriate that we share the wealth of this nation.
From pp. 129 on the economic recovery for the 1%:
President Obama, David Cameron, the Australian prime Minister Tony Abbot and the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper all read from the same hymn book and sing that the economy has recovered but that is as fragile as blown glass so don`t expect much if you are working or middle class.
It has been said by Karl Marx and others that "capitalism is the power by which labour is robbed of the greater portion of its earnings." In other words, capitalism is a form of theft. But please let's quit deceiving ourselves to soothe our conscience. The land we presently live on, what we call our "private property" was stolen from indigenous populations who were then subjected to genocide and incarceration for those who survived in concentration camps called reservations.
John Steinbeck wrote in his great novel of the depression years, The Grapes of Wrath:
"There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange."
The point of socialism, put succinctly, would be to stop the theft. Socialism is based on a few straightforward principles. The world’s vast resources should be used not to increase the riches of a tiny parasitic elite, but to eradicate poverty and homelessness and every other form of scarcity forever. Rather than engaging in futile wars of greed that promote the power and enrichment of the tiny class of oligarchs at the top, the working majority in society should cooperate in the project of creating a world of plenty. Those that do the work should control and manage the productive forces and share the benefits. The important decisions should not be left in the hands of people who are either rich or controlled by people who are rich, but should be made by everyone in a non-hierarchical direct democracy. Instead of a system of profit for a tiny elite that crushes civility, justice, equality, empathy, compassion and caring, we should create a world whereby we control our own destiny.
We also need to bring up our children to be generous, empathic, caring and compassionate, not self-serving, greedy and hyper-competitive so that they can exceed the avarice of their neighbour in an immoral dog-eat dog capitalist dystopia. Generosity may be innate in some but it's not spread equally within society, especially among the rich. The rich are rich because they were either born into wealth or had been taught the necessary unsavoury character traits to attain that status. Generosity seems to shrivel dissipate the higher you get up the income pyramid. Statistics from charitable organizations bear out the standard adage that people who can least afford it typically give the most of themselves and regularly donate to charities. As one of the characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath put it: “I’m learning one thing good … If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”
The examples that we do see throughout societies built on competition, violence, war and greed are better explained by economic and social circumstances, not some commonality of human nature. It's the reality of scarcity—that there isn’t enough to go around—gives rise to the dog-eat-dog mentality. But scarcity is not the problem; the problem is distribution in a world of obscene inequalities where 1% of the world's population have more than the 99%. Take the question of crime. First, many crimes that ought to be considered the most heinous—imperialistic wars, forcing people to work under conditions of near slavery in unsafe conditions, polluting the environment, financial fraud and offshore tax havens—aren’t even against the law. But even if we limit ourselves to what most people understand to be “crimes,” economic need far surpasses any other reason for the preponderance of crime. A good man will steal to feed his family. “The first great cause of crime is poverty,” the great radical lawyer Clarence Darrow said in a speech to prisoners in 1914, “and we will never cure crime until we get rid of poverty.” According the American Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. But when it comes to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it turns out that, to paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm, "some people are more equal than others". Following the financial collapse in 2008, the Wall Street banks were deemed “too big to fail” by their puppets in Congress, unlike ordinary Americans who run into financial trouble. Millions of people have “bad debts” on their books, and they could be banished from their of their homes as a result. But if you are rich and powerful enough, bankruptcy is not a problem.
Imagine yourself at a casino where you start gambling on games of chance you don’t quite understand, where the arcane rules are being made up on the spot. You bet hundreds of times more money than you have, and then you bet again on the bets. You lose both times. You’re not only bankrupt yourself, but you’re taking down other players who let you play with their money - and the casino itself, which didn’t ask to see your chips when you started gambling. You’d consider yourself lucky to stay out of jail, right? Ah, but unfortunately you aren’t a Wall Street executive! In the world of high finance in sewers of corruption and thievery like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, when you lose, the federal government steps in to guarantee your losses. You get to keep your big multi-million dollar salary, stock options, bonuses, lavish penthouse and executive offices. And moreover, you’re invited to work with an equally venal government to devise the insidious “rescue” programs of your own company. This is basically what took place in the financial world during the 1990s and 2000s, when Wall Street witnessed an explosion of high-stakes gambling on immensely complicated financial markets, far removed from the goods-and-services-producing “real economy.” This rigged game is called "free enterprise" by the financial corporate criminals and government lap dogs who run it.
The entire world of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and everything else concocted by Wall Street in this latest boom and bust was directed toward one thing - making a minuscule group of people incredibly rich. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi put his finger on Wall Street’s general uselessness to society when he compared the banking giant Goldman Sachs to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” It’s impossible to regard the financial world’s binge as anything other than theft of incomprehensible sums of money that could have been devoted to meeting society’s needs throughout the world.
The mechanism employed to facilitate this great plunder and theft has been 500 years of colonialism and imperialistic war and every American war has been accompanied by a propaganda campaign to justify it. But when you look beneath the surface, the motives of the U.S. government in military conflicts are that plain as they were when they invaded Mexico in 1848 and stole the top half of the country. But the United States truly emerged as a world power in the closing years of the 19th century with its victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War. Even then, war supporters talked about liberating the subjects of Spain’s deteriorating colonial domination in the Caribbean and the Pacific. But the real aim, as with the theft of indigenous peoples land and the genocide of its inhabitants, the United States wanted to be the new colonial boss - which is what it became in the former Spanish possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. This policy had a divine Christian based validation in the notion of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine.
The United States was late among the world’s main powers in starting an empire, but it made up for that in violence. It started out in its own “backyard” of Latin America. Over the last century, U.S. troops have invaded Cuba five times, Honduras four times, Panama four times, the Dominican Republic twice, Haiti twice, Nicaragua twice, and Grenada once.
Eventually, American troops spread out around the world—conquering less powerful nations but also fighting with other powerful countries over which would control what parts of the globe. The conflicts were both economic and military, but these empire-building—or imperialist—adventures never had anything to do with democracy and freedom. Countries like the United States don’t go to war to stop tyrants or any of the “humanitarian” reasons that politicians talk about. They go to war to preserve and expand their economic and political power. General Smedley Butler’s beat was Latin America. As a Marine Corps officer in the opening decades of the twentieth century, he headed a number of U.S. military interventions, and he was under no illusion about what he was doing:
I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism … Thus, I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in … I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for U.S. imperialism is no more kindly or charitable today.
Socialists are accused of being “knee-jerk” opponents of U.S. imperialism. And we are—because we believe that the U.S. government will never act in the interests of justice and democracy. We believe that it’s up to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and elsewhere to settle accounts with their local rulers and determine their own fates, free from the meddling of the “great powers.
Guns and bombs are only one part of what socialists call “imperialism.” The other side of the U.S. government’s military reach into every corner of the globe is its domination—along with a handful of other powerful governments—of the world economic system. The two things go together, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed in 1998: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.
McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank are international financial institutions set up by the United States to control whether poor countries receive desperately needed economic aid. As a result, they can exercise a blackmailer’s power to demand government policies that they consider “appropriate.” Though they were thrust into the background by the economic crisis of the late 2000s, the IMF and World Bank have a long record of imposing what they called “structural adjustment” on poor countries around the world, forcing governments to slash government spending and sell off state-run companies and services to private buyers whose chief aim is wringing a profit out of them.
This is all part of the era of "neo-liberalism," as it became known - of letting the free market rule, which in reality means the un-challenged domination of the world’s biggest economies, especially the United States. A couple decades ago, it might have seemed like the worst flash points of poverty were in remote regions untouched by the modern economy. That isn’t the case today. As a consequence of neo-liberalism, it’s not unusual in even the poorest countries of central Africa to find modern factories built by Western corporations sitting side by side with shantytowns because the jobs in the factories don’t pay a living wage. This is characteristic of how capitalism has produced more misery and suffering around the globe to satisfy the balance sheets and profits of multinational corporations that have been granted blank cheques to pillage resources and exploit labour with impunity. This is what is really implied by "free trade".
If the typical conservative politicians really wanted to get “tough on crime,” as they so often claim, they would take measures to eliminate the economic and social desperation that gives rise to crime, and promote policies that provide well-paying jobs, youth programs, child care, health care, and help for anyone in society who needs it, including those suffering from addiction. Instead, the standard by conservative politicians is answer is more prisons, harsher punishment and longer sentences. "Lock them up and throw away the key" is a standard answer. This attitude serves an ideological purpose: it deflects attention from the underlying and systemic social causes of the problems in the world around us, and puts the focus on individual weakness, poor character, laziness, poor decisions or lack of willpower.
Socialists turn the blame around and focus on the social roots of crime. As the scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote:
Why imagine that specific genes for aggression or spite have any importance when we know that the brain’s enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.
Can this rigged global system of venality and systemic injustice where democracy is just another commodity that has its price be fixed without a revolution. Not likely.
One reason it cannot be fixed is that, as I've already pointed out, the corporate elite and their snakes in suits dominate the system of legalized bribery that funds the mainstream conservative parties. But there’s more to this question. Governments consist of more than elected representatives. There are the unelected bureaucracies and backroom deal makers and wheeler dealers that make crucial decisions affecting people’s lives. There are also international organizations and regular meetings they regularly hold like the one every year at Davos where the super wealthy and their political pimps decide how they will carve up what's left of the world's wealth and resources and insure it ends up in the right hands, namely theirs. There’s the judicial side of governments - provincial/state and federal judges all the way up to the Supreme Court who never face an election. These people are appointed by incumbent governments to serve the interests of corporations, banks and long-standing wealth, much of which is passed down from one generation to the next. Most of that generational wealth was acquired by bribery, subterfuge, cronyism and outright theft. And standing behind all this is what Frederick Engels called “bodies of armed men”- the police and the army who exist to maintain that wealth, entrenched entitlements and power. Formally, there is a pretense that the Pentagon and the Federal Reserve are answerable to elected politicians, but in reality, they are a power unto themselves. Because of this, even people with every intention of making a difference by reforming the corrupt system when they try to get themselves elected find that, once in office, rather than being able to pull the levers of power to change the system, the levers of power pull them like a marionette show. At best, they end up managing the system carrying out pre-existing policy and agendas they promised to change in their election campaign speeches.
Indulge yourself in a thought experiment. Let’s presume a man such as Barack Obama actually arrived in the White House sincerely prepared to fight for the policies supported by a majority of the people who voted for him. We’ll pretend that Obama intended to hold the bankers and other financial criminals to account with tough new regulations, anti-trust legislation and compensation restrictions, to champion a strong government role in the health care system, to curb the abuses of private industry, and to get all American troops out of Iraq and elsewhere as soon as possible. What would happen? Within minutes of taking office, this alternative version of Obama would have been challenged by a visit from his Treasury Secretary and the chair of the government’s central bank, the Federal Reserve and the Pentagon. They would inform him that Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and Corporate America want nothing to do with his agenda unless he agrees to compromise would take action if he persisted - for example, moving their corporate operations overseas or sending their money out of the country to avoid US taxation, thus causing turbulence and chaos in the financial markets and economic misery for the masses. As for the Pentagon, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would deliver a similar message - no cooperation unless the White House moderated or reversed its position. Even the president of the United States - the most powerful man in the world - can’t personally dictate political changes if they threaten the interests of the ruling elite in any serious way. Banks, corporations, the Pentagon, the political establishment - together they have too many weapons at their command, inside and outside the government, for even the most determined politician to overcome by themselves. They would also remind the President that it was their millions of dollars that got him elected.
And remember: This fantasy version of the conservative Obama isn’t even very radical. If I or any of other progressive or reformist minded people were somehow magically placed in the the White House instead of Obama - or any other political office, for that matter - we’d face even more ruling-class resistance. The problem is that without a more fundamental change in what government represents and how decisions get made in back rooms, a socialist president would be subverted and shackled in anything he or she wanted to do. These are the odds that face someone trying to accomplish something substantial by working within the system. The political system in the United States - or any corporate capitalist country, for that matter - isn’t a neutral vehicle that can be redirected toward meeting our goals. The deck is stacked against anyone who tries to pose a serious challenge to the interests and priorities of the ruling class from within an institution designed to protect its rule. The situation is no different in most other capitalist countries such as Canada and Britain.
So elected representatives are only one part of government under corporatist capitalism. And in a number of tragic examples in history, they’ve turned out to be the dispensable part—when sections of the ruling class decided to circumvent democracy and rule by force. One of the most infamous cases took place in Chile. A socialist candidate Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 on a mild program of reform that included nationalizing parts of the economy. Many people took this as a sign that socialism could become a reality. But for the next three years, Chile’s conservative forces - the corporate sector and wealthy private elite bosses—and their international partners, especially in the United States—did everything they could to sabotage Allende's program. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared to President Richard Nixon: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” Allende made compromises, but they were not enough for Honcho Henry and Tricky Dick. When the time was ripe, Chile’s generals made their move, launching a CIA supported coup that claimed the lives of Allende and tens of thousands of Chilean workers. Similar incidents of sabotage such as these occurred in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and other Latin American countries in which democratically elected socialist leaders were murdered by the CIA. M16 and other agents provocateurs from Western capitalist countries. In the Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution the Western capitalist countries created economic chaos and incited and supported a civil war that lasted for several years until the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky eventually prevailed. Even Canada shamelessly sent over 4000 troops to Vladivostok to support the forces who were attempting to reinstate the Czarist tyranny.
Our rulers prefer to dominate a political system that provides the facade of democracy, but which gives them pretty much full control and influence over what decisions get made and how. If any force arises to threaten this rule, they’re quite willing to dispense with democracy and rule by brute force. Taken together, these facts about the political system under corporate capitalism illustrate why communists were right (and socialist's wrong) about any prospect of reforming such a system and why capitalist society, especially the current neo-liberal brand of global capitalism cannot be changed in any meaningful way by working through corrupt political structures designed to defend the status quo. Instead of trying to get well-intentioned politicians elected to make what changes they can, the goal will need to be far more ambitious — a grass roots social and political struggle to overturn and remake the entire debauched system. That is what a revolution (violent or non-violent) is all about—taking away the power of the people at the top of hierarchical faux democratic societies to make existing unaccountable decisions that affect our lives, getting rid of a state machine organized to preserve the system as it currently exists today. This doesn’t mean progressive don’t care about reform. We need to do what can be done to mitigate the worst aspects of zombie capitalism with reforms until a real direct form of non-hierarchical democracy can be created.
As the German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote in a 1915 pamphlet, a poignant statement that turned out to be tragically prophetic: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads; we must choose between either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” In 1919 she went on to ask whether it was possible to usurp the bottom-up social revolution and transform the existing capitalist soci0-economic order that is our ultimate goal by way of social reformism? Her answer was "certainly not". The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to progressives the only means of engagement with the ongoing class war and working in the direction of the final goal - the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor where workers control the means of production and distribution.
Rosa Luxemburg, who by the way was assassinated by reactionary elements in Germany in 1919, also wrote that: "Between social reforms and revolution there exists … an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim. Socialists fight for reforms. But reforms by themselves aren’t enough - because they can be taken back if the movement retreats. We need a revolution because capitalist society cannot be fundamentally and permanently changed in any other way. Luxemburg, a libertarian communist, warned Lenin of the tendency toward hierarchy and bureaucracy in any political ideology, including Marxism. She informed Lenin how revolution can move seamlessly from the dictatorship of the working class to the dictatorship of a party, to be followed by the dictatorship of a committee of that party and eventually by the rule of a single man who will soon enough dispense with that committee. When Stalin took control of The Soviet Union following Lenin's death in 1923, her warnings were disturbingly prophetic.
During the same era of World War I, Eugene Debs the 1916 Socialist Candidate for President of the United States declared in a speech: "I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth. I am a citizen of the world...I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and mind, and that is the world-wide war for social revolution." For that statement Debs was charged with sedition against the land of the free of President Woodrow Wilson and sentenced to ten years in prison. His health suffered greatly during this imprisonment and died at the age of 71 in 1926 not long after his release in 1921 following a commutation of his sentence by the Warren G Harding government.
This was not the first time Debs was incarcerated. As president of the American Railway Union, he led a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad in 1894. Two months later he was jailed for his role in a strike against the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company. While in jail, Socialist and future Congressman Victor Berger talked with Debs and introduced him to the ideas of Marx and socialism. When he was released from prison, he announced that he was a Socialist.
The caricature of revolution passed off by many historians is of a small group of armed fanatics seizing control of the government and running it to enrich themselves. In the first instance, this obscures the main source of violence in society - the violence committed every single day in a multitude of ways in a society based on oppression and injustice. The great writer Mark Twain gave the lie to all the pious lectures about violence in revolutions when he defended the French Revolution of 1789, with its principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, against those who dismissed it as a “reign of terror” incited by blood-crazed mobs:
There were two Reigns of Terror, if we would but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death on ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions … A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror, which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over, but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
In addition to the hypocrisy about violence and revolution, there is another misconception—that socialism is something achieved by a small conspiratorial group. Such groups have organized revolutions. But a socialist revolution can’t be carried out by a minority - even a minority that genuinely wants to improve the lives of the majority. That’s because the heart of socialism is mass participation. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state—be it monarchical or democratic—elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime … The history of a revolution is for us, first of all, a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
Conservative right-wing writers like Edmund Burke and those that followed who pass judgment on revolutions tend to focus on the endpoint - the armed insurrection to topple a government and seize political control. But this is only the final act of a revolution. It’s the climax of a much longer period of struggle in which the tyrants, plutocrats and exploiters of labor face a growing crisis, at the same time as workers become more confident of their own power in numbers.
At the beginning of the process, the goals for change can be modest - a few reforms toward ethics, civility and fairness in the manner in which the system operates. But the struggle to make substantive changes in an unjust inequitable social and economic order raises more profound questions. People begin to see the connections between the struggles that they’re involved in and other issues - and the nature of the system itself and how it is perpetuated and maintained against a huge majority. Organizing these struggles provides workers with a further sense of their ability to run society and the economic by and for themselves. The act of taking over political power is the final step of a revolution that has already been felt in every workplace which are microcosms of the in justice that prevails within the socio-political order itself.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the only socialist revolution so far to succeed and survive for any length of time. Though the experience of workers’ power was brief - a matter of less than ten years before the revolution was defeated - it offers a better glimpse than any other of what socialism could look like. Because of this, the Russian Revolution has been the subject of countless lies and slanders. Chief among them is the idea that the 1917 revolution was a coup, organized by the master manipulators Lenin and Trotsky. Nothing could be further from the truth. The seeds of the revolution lay in the mass hatred of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II—and the misery of poverty and war that he presided over. The Russian Revolution began in February 1917 with nearly spontaneous demonstrations to commemorate International Working Women’s Day. These spread dramatically in just a few days, until the capital of Petrograd was paralyzed and the tsar toppled.
Far from being a coup, the revolution depended on mass action—on thousands of confrontations like the one described by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution between a crowd of workers and the Cossacks, the most brutal and feared unit of the tsar’s army:
The workers at the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg district, after a morning meeting, came out on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kayurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams. This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together. Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers’ questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline, there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second. The officers hastened to separate their patrol from the workers, and, abandoning the idea of dispersing them, lined the Cossacks out across the street as a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from getting to the [center of the city]. But even this did not help: Standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from “diving” under their horses. The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse.
If Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party they led ended up as leaders of the new workers’ state, it was because they earned that position. The Bolsheviks eventually became a majority of the representatives to the soviets, the workers’ councils. At the time, no one with any knowledge of the situation questioned this mass support. As Martov, a prominent opponent of the Bolsheviks, wrote, “Understand, please, what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat—almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.” Even the final act of the revolution—the armed insurrection in October, in which workers took power from the capitalist government left behind after the tsar—was carried out with a minimum of resistance and violence.
The popular character of the Russian Revolution is also clear from looking at its initial accomplishments. The revolution put an end to Russia’s participation in the First World War—a slaughter that left millions of workers dead in a conflict over which major powers would dominate the globe. Russia’s entry into the war had been accompanied by a wave of patriotic frenzy, but masses of Russians came to reject the slaughter through bitter experience. The soldiers that the tsar depended on to defend his rule changed sides and joined the revolution—a decisive step in Russia, as it has been in all revolutions.
The Russian Revolution also dismantled the tsar’s empire—what Lenin called a “prison-house” of nations that suffered for years under tsarist tyranny. These nations were given the unconditional right to self-determination. The tsar had used the most vicious anti-Semitism to prop up his rule—after the revolution, Jews led the workers’ councils in Russia’s two biggest cities. Laws outlawing homosexuality were repealed. Abortion was legalized and made available on demand. And the revolution started to remove the age-old burden of “women’s work” in the family by organizing socialized child care and communal kitchens and laundries.
But just listing the proclamations doesn’t do justice to the reality of workers’ power. Russia was a society in the process of being remade from the bottom up. In the factories, workers began to take charge of production. The country’s vast peasantry took over the land of the big landowners. In city neighborhoods, people organized all sorts of communal services. In general, decisions about the whole of society became decisions that the whole of society played a part in making. Russia became a cauldron of discussion—where the ideas of all were part of a debate about what to do. The memories of socialists who lived through the revolution are dominated by this sense of people’s horizons opening up. As Krupskaya, a veteran of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin’s wife, described it:
The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events. I used to mingle with the crowd and listen. These street meetings were so interesting that it once took me three hours to walk from Shirokaya Street to the Krzesinska Mansion. The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audience—usually some of the cooks or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight, you could catch snatches of talk—“Bolsheviks, Mensheviks …” At three in the morning, “Milyukov, Bolsheviks …” At five—still the same street-corner-meeting talk, politics, etc. Petrograd’s white nights are always associated in my mind now with those all-night political disputes.
The tragedy is that workers’ power survived for only a short time in Russia. In the years that followed 1917, the world’s major powers, including the United States, organized an invasion force that fought alongside the dregs of tsarist society—ex-generals, aristocrats, and assorted hangers-on—in a civil war against the new workers’ state. The revolution survived this assault, but at a terrible price. By 1922, as a result of the civil war, famine stalked Russia, and the working class—the class that made the Russian Revolution—was decimated. The basic element necessary for socialism to survive—abundance, rather than scarcity—was crushed.
Neither Lenin nor any other leader of the Russian Revolution had any illusion that a workers’ state could survive this barbarism without the support of revolutions in more advanced countries. The Russian revolutionaries believed that the international struggle for socialism could be started in Russia—but that it could only be finished after an international socialist revolution. A wave of upheavals did sweep across Europe following the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, toppling monarchies in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire and shaking many other societies. But workers didn’t succeed in taking power anywhere else for any length of time. So the Russian Revolution was left isolated.
In these desperate circumstances, Russia’s shattered working class couldn’t exercise power through workers’ councils. More and more, decisions were made by a group of state bureaucrats. At first, the aim was to keep the workers’ state alive until help came in the form of international revolution. But eventually, as the hope of revolution abroad faded, the leading figure in the bureaucracy, Joseph Stalin, and his allies began to eliminate any and all opposition to their rule—and started making decisions on the basis of how best to protect and increase their own power. Though continuing to use the rhetoric of socialism, they began to take back every gain won in the revolution—without exception. The soviets became rubber stamps for the decisions of the regime. The tsar’s empire was rebuilt.
This counterrevolution wasn’t carried out without opposition. In particular, Leon Trotsky led the struggle to defend socialist principles. To finally consolidate power, Stalin had to murder or hound into exile every single surviving leader of the 1917 revolution. Russia under Stalin became the opposite of the workers’ state of 1917. Though they mouthed socialist phrases, Stalin and the thugs who followed him ran a dictatorship in which workers were every bit as exploited as in Western-style capitalist countries.
Sadly, many people associate socialism with Stalin’s tyranny. That’s certainly what supporters of capitalism encourage us to believe. After all, what better argument could there be against socialism than the idea that any attempt to win change is doomed to produce another Stalin? But Stalin’s triumph in Russia wasn’t inevitable. It was the result of a workers’ revolution left isolated in a sea of capitalism—strangled until it was finally defeated.
Moreover, none of the slanders can erase what was accomplished by the revolution in Russia - history’s most radical experiment so far in workers’ democracy.
The Russian Revolution took place a century ago in the most backward country in Europe, a feudalistic country dominated by a brutal monarchy for centuries. The revolution provided inspiration and hope for the burgeoning workers movements in the West. But within conservative elites, big business and the plutocratic classes it created fear and trepidation that it would spread. The capitalist countries in the West did everything they could to put a stop to people's revolution, including sending arms, troops and financial assistance to reinstate the deposed monarchy and it's tyrannical regime. The history of the twentieth century is filled with social explosions in which the struggles of workers took center stage, accelerating after the First World War. From Spain, France, and Portugal in Europe, to Iran in the Middle East, to Chile in South America, to Hungry and Poland under the thumb of the former Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, these upheavals - along with dozens of others - showed the power of workers to challenge the status quo and pose an alternative. Though they failed to establish socialism, these revolutionary upheavals brought the mass of the population to life. And that is what socialism is about - a society created by the vast majority and organized around the priorities decided on by that majority. As the British author of children’s books Arthur Ransome wrote of the new world he witnessed during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia:
We have seen the flight of the young eagles. Nothing can destroy that fact, even if, later in the day, the eagles fall to earth one by one, with broken wings … These men who have made the Soviet government in Russia, if they must fail, will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them. Even if they fail, they will nonetheless have written a page of history more daring than any other which I can remember in the history of humanity.