Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is Socialism Irrelevant?

(First published in The Rising Nepal daily on September 21, 2021)

Yuba Nath Lamsal

Former American president and one of key actors in writing the US ‘Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson back in 1787 said: “Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable- without governments, under governments and under governments of force”. Jefferson’s assertion was based on his observation of European society as he was serving as American ambassador in France.
This speaks of the political and social conditions of different European nations and their behaviour. There were still some countries in Europe that had as Jefferson said ‘governments of wolves over sheep”. At times, other continents were much better and more prosperous than Europe. Asia (China and India combined) accounted for more than half of the global GDP until early 17th century. The industrial revolution that began in Europe made the situation ups and down from which Europe emerged as dominating world power establishing colonies worldwide by the use of machine and merchandised power.

Industrial revolution
In the early stage of industrial revolution, Europe was under the spectre of feudalism. Capitalism was growing in the womb of feudalism. The impact of renaissance was slow in Europe but was growing firmly. Thinkers and philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hegel, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contributed with their critical thinking of reason to bringing about a new renaissance in political, economic and social sphere while machine power conquered the world.

The Magna Carta had already given rise to cognitive sense in Britain. Inspired by ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ of American War of Independence, Jacobins ignited the fire of revolution in France with the slogan of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. The French Revolution proved a turning point in political uprising in almost every part of Europe against the dominant feudal dispensations, in effect, heralding a new era of liberal political order.

Since then great changes have taken place in the world. Now we are in the age of fourth industrial revolution -- from steam engine to electricity, computing and the present era of artificial intelligence. The technological advancement has also changed the life style, thinking and nature of the society.
In the realm of politics, feudalism and fascism were replaced by capitalism. Adam Smith provided theoretical basis for capitalism in which free market, private ownership and individual liberty play the key role. The American slogan ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ caught the mind of people across the world like wild fire, trying to create liberal democracy as the universal political lingua franca. However, Karl Marx, a German philosopher, challenged the validity of capitalism as a system of inequality, exploitation of labour and profiteering by a handful of capitalist and bourgeoisies in the expense of workers. Marx, along with his comrade in arm Frederic Engels, came up with a new theory of socialism, a system of collective ownership in production and state’s strong regulation in economy.

In the aftermath of World War II, the idea of socialism based on Marx’s maxim "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” gained ground in many developing and newly liberated countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. According to Karl Marx’ theory, only a handful of people benefit in capitalism and the vast majority of workers get exploited. Marx advocated the revolt as the natural right and only option for proletariats and workers, ‘who have nothing to lose but chains of exploitation’, to establish socialist form of government. Enthused by Marx’ theory, now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was the first country to experiment socialism under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s leadership later to be followed by several other countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It was also the Soviet Union where the socialist system first collapsed, which, too, was replicated in other countries in the world. Presently, there are only a few countries in the world where the Marxist model of socialism still in practice. However, it needs to be debated why socialist model failed despite the existence of a large majority of the working class population in these countries.
Firstly, it needs to be seen whether the socialist governments established in different countries were exactly in a manner what Marx had theorised. According to Marx, socialism is the product of class struggle. Class struggle sharpens only when capitalism fully develops, wherein bourgeoisie and proletariats clash and vast majority of proletariats overpower the handful of bourgeoisies. None of the countries where socialism was declared were ripe for that as capitalism had not even started.

In Soviet Union or Russia, the number of proletariats was negligible and the combined force of workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie and even a portion of middle class deposed the Tsarist rule in Russia. Socialism in east European countries was Soviet Union’s gift. Peasantry was the primary force behind Chinese revolution under Mao Zedong’s leadership and Ho Chi Minh followed suit in Vietnam. Similar cases are Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Now Socialism is retreating worldwide but the philosophy as such is still vibrant and kicking. China, Vietnam, Cuba and only a few countries alone have maintained the socialist system. However, are these countries really socialist as Marx has explained?

Socialism seeks to build a classless society but more classes were created and individual rights of dissent were denied in the name of discipline and democratic centralisation. Democracy was denied and only centralisation was enforced. The collectivisation in production and ownership discouraged incentives. The government could not ensure ‘from each according to ability’ but has to provide ‘to each according to his needs’. As the government failed to maintain balance between the demands and supply, economic chaos erupted and public trust on government eroded -- the scenario was further blown out by western media. The public rose against the government and the system collapsed first in the Soviet Union then followed in Eastern Europe and several other countries in the world.

China is a unique case allowing capitalist economy under the communist political system. Unlike Soviet Union, China and Vietnam allow individual ownership and private property to certain degree. As private citizens enjoy incentives, it keeps on motivating Chinese for more production, which has contributed Chinese economy to continue its growth.

Private incentives
In the wake of rising popularity of socialism in different countries, capitalism, sought to change, update and adjust itself to cope with the newer trends giving capitalism more human face with social welfare benefits. While capitalism updated and innovated and even embraced some of socialist characteristics, socialism failed to update, innovate itself and embrace changes. Too much centralised system in economy, lack of private incentives and denial of individual liberty and freedom hindered production and productivity giving serious blow to socialism in several countries in the 1990s decade once again giving upper edge to the capitalism in the global ideological battle.

Western capitalist pundits called the collapse of Soviet Union and setback of socialism as the triumph of capitalism over socialism. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama went even one step further calling it the ‘End of Ideology’. However, capitalism is also not in the purest form but has mutated into hybrid avatar. Similarly, the appeal of socialism is relevant and strong even today. But socialism needs to be updated, innovated and changed in tune with the call of time and context to maintain its relevance.

(Lamsal is former chief editor of this daily and former ambassador to Denmark)