In the past few days, there has been a certain amount of talk on this blog about revolution and socialism, so perhaps it would be appropriate to say something on these topics. Settle down. This is going to take a while. You might want to re-read the collected works of Marx in preparation. It is only forty volumes or so. At a bare minimum, I recommend that you read my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” archived on box.net and accessible via the link at the top of this page.
First of all, let us be clear about the meaning of the words. By “socialism” I mean, at its simplest, “collective ownership of the means of production democratically controlled and administered.” The phrase “collective ownership of the means of production” did not, so far as I know, pass Bernie’s lips during the last election cycle, for all his talk about being a socialist, but that is what I mean. I am not talking about Social Democracy, which is to say private ownership of the means of production, a relatively low Gini Coefficient, and a generous safety net with all the trimmings -- what we here in America like to think of as the Scandinavian way.
By “revolution” I mean the violent, extra-legal seizure of the means of production. I do not mean “a really really big change,” such as the digital revolution, or the feminist revolution, or the revolution of rising expectations, and I certainly do not mean a revolution at the ballot box. If all this talk of socialist revolution is just a way of proposing the election of socialist candidates to State and Federal legislative bodies, I am all for that, but it does not need any extended analysis or discussion. It just needs for people to get off their asses and vote.
If that is clear, let us begin. How might the American economy make a transition from capitalism to socialism? There are three plausible ways, so far as I can see. The first is expropriation with compensation. The State seizes the factories, farms, mines, retail establishments, digital corporations, etc., and pays the legal owners a fair market price. Forget about it. We are talking multi-trillions of dollars, not a few paltry hundreds of billions. Wikipedia tells us that “The financial position of the United States includes assets of at least $269.6 trillion (1576% of GDP) and debts of $145.8 trillion (852% of GDP) to produce a net worth of at least $123.8 trillion (723% of GDP) as of Q1 2014.” Buying out the capitalists is not an option.
The second way is to expropriate the expropriators, if I may borrow a phrase from Chapter 32 of Volume One of Capital. One relatively peaceful mode of transition would be a one hundred percent estate tax on all estates above, let us say, one million dollars, which is equivalent to a generation of the median household income of an American family. Over time, as huge accumulations of capital were taken over by the state, ownership of the means of production would become collective and social, not individual and private. There would still be huge inequalities of income and wealth, but these could be diminished both by taxation and by changes in the wage structure. What Thomas Piketty, reflecting the French usage, calls Patrimonial Capitalism, which is to say accumulations of inherited wealth, would disappear.
The third way is violent revolution, which is to say the extra-legal seizure, by force, of the means of production by the people. It sounds quite exhilarating, and rather simple, although of course momentarily dangerous, but let us pause for a moment on our way to the barricades to ask exactly how we imagine this violent revolution to go down. Those old enough to recall the Sixties, or romantic enough to wish they had been there, might suppose that what is called for is a sort of grand sit-in, with guns. The People [it is always best to capitalize when talking about this subject] pick up their hunting rifles, their assault rifles, their shoulder operated grenade launchers, and their side arms [for close in work], and march to the nearest factory or office building. Pushing their way past the terrified rental cops, whom they invite out of brotherly love to join them, they take possession of the executive office suite, shooting ruthlessly any Assistant Managers foolish enough to resist. They put their feet up on the polished desks [I am drawing images here from the 1968 Columbia University seizure of the Admin Building by the SDS] and declare the corporation liberated in the name of the People.
What then? Never mind the inevitable response by the State. We will come to that in a moment. Our intrepid revolutionaries, we may assume, have taken possession of the local production plant of PortaToilet Corporation [not everyone can be so fortunate as to be in the band that seizes the world headquarters of Apple.] What next? Well, first on the agenda is to gather the workers and inform them of the change in management. Henceforward, they own the company. After congratulations all around, the democratically elected leader of the corporate seizure [we are assuming that the man or woman who actually led the assault generously and selflessly submits to the will of all] tells everyone to get back to work, picks up the phone, calls the principal supplier of parts for PortaToilet’s production process, and orders another thousand dozen parts. “Why isn’t my usual contact calling?” the executive at the other end asks. “He has been deposed. This is Comrade X, the new Commissar of the people-owned production facility previously called PortaToilet.” The supply manager slams down the phone and places a call to the Governor.
Hmm. It seems that “collective ownership of the means of production” does not mean “sitting in the Vice-President’s office with your feet on the desk.” It means, at a minimum, being able to get everyone in the vast network of supply and distribution of which this one factory is a part to acknowledge one’s collective ownership, to honor one’s purchases, to accept one’s check, to get the local bank to cash the check, and so forth and so on. That is a tiny part of what Marx meant when he talked about the progressive socialization of the processes of production coupled with the private ownership of the means of production under advanced capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Governor has been alerted to what is going down. She activates the National Guard, which moves on the seized facilities across the state with tanks, assault rifles, light artillery, gas grenades, and as much of the Air National Guard as can be found. The battle is fierce, and our revolutionaries fight nobly, but they are vastly out gunned, and pretty soon the mopping up begins.
“Ah,” you say, “you do not understand. This will be a national uprising by scores of millions of working men and women. They will bring over to their side the Army, the Marines, and even the Air Force.” Never mind that these are by and large the folks who just voted Donald J. Trump into office. We are taking a vacation today from that nightmare. But just explain something to me. If you can call on scores of millions of working men and women to lay down their lives for The Revolution, why don’t you save a lot of lives and just have them vote socialism into being?
And there’s the rub. At least for the moment, this country is after all a democracy. If the capitalist control of the media can be overcome, if the Republican efforts at voter suppression can be circumvented, if the Democratic betrayal of the Working Class can be successfully resisted, then why not just vote socialism in? Why a violent revolution? And if you cannot overcome the Capitalist control of the media and the Republican voter suppression and the Democratic betrayal, how exactly are you planning to mobilize scores of millions of men and women and bring the Armed Forces over to your side? “But we are counting on young people, and we all know that young people do not vote.” Oh fine. You are counting on young people, who, as we all know, cannot be bothered to vote. These same young people nevertheless are going to acquire weapons, learn to use them effectively [not as easy as it looks in the movies], and then stop texting long enough to march into battle from sea to shining sea. That is your plan?
“But, but,” my imaginary interlocutor splutters, “what about Russia, China?” What about them indeed. Two of the greatest world-historical events of the twentieth century were the successful revolutions in Russia and China, among the world’s largest nations, and both in the name of Karl Marx. These are no Scandinavian exceptions.
Alas, a closer look cools one’s ardor. Let us set aside China and look at the Russian Revolution, the quintessential proof, or disproof, of Marx’s theories, depending on whom you ask. I am sorry to disappoint the enemies of socialism among you for whom Russia is proof positive of the inevitable defeat of Marx, but Russia is no proof of anything at all, save the capacity of the Russians to f**k up a free lunch.
The problem is that the Russian Revolution was the successful seizure, by a small but brilliantly led cadre, of a fatally war-weakened central government of a largely feudal society with a tiny nascent capitalist sector located in a few cities west of the Caucuses. There was nothing even vaguely socialist about it, and it would have been impossible in any of the fully developed large nations of Western Europe. Once in command of the organs of the state, and having successfully fought off the attempt by the American government to overthrow them, the Bolshevik leaders faced a problem both theoretical and practical. [“Bolshevik,” by the way, means “majority.” “Menshevik” means “minority”.] Lenin and his comrades had read their Marx. They knew that socialism, to which they were committed, could only grow out of advanced capitalism, and Russia was scarcely in the earliest stages of capitalist development. Was it possible to “skip a stage” and go directly from feudalism to socialism? The theoretical answer was clearly no, as some of the Bolsheviks argued. But it is a little much to expect a group of revolutionaries who have just, at great personal risk, taken over a vast country to hunt up a handful of local capitalist wannabes, hand over the country to them, and say “Here, turn this into an advanced capitalist nation. We will be back in a century or so to seize it from you.” So the skip-a-stagers won, and the result, as could be predicted, was state capitalism, not socialism.
The Bolsheviks also faced a second problem which is equally pressing for any American socialists. Marx had the wit to see that the further development of capitalism would necessarily involve its thoroughgoing internationalization. He was convinced that the transition to socialism would be world-wide. The reason is easy enough to see, and much more evident now than it was when Marx was writing. The transnational ownership of productive capital and the world-wide flow of financial capital make it difficult to see how one country alone, even one as big and rich as America, could transition from capitalism to socialism in an otherwise capitalist world. The Bolsheviks called this the problem of “socialism in one country,” and when Stalin’s henchman planted a hatchet in Trotsky’s head in Mexico, the advocates of socialism in one country won the argument in Russia. But of course, they did not win the struggle, for, as Marx was fond of pointing out, “objective factors” rather than subjective desires are the determining forces in the economic sphere.
The conclusion is clear. Our only hope for socialism in America is through the ballot box and the peaceful transition via expropriation of the expropriators.