By Bill Fletcher Jr
Ask a Socialist
December 15, 2011
What is especially interesting about the history of capitalism is that with its rise there also emerged the impulse towards alternatives. These alternatives were not necessarily elaborated as eloquently as were the theories behind capitalism and, specifically, democratic capitalism, but they were nevertheless important. The oppressive and often criminal nature of rising capitalism brought with it revolutionary movements that challenged either the system itself or components of the system. These revolts took various forms, such as the slave revolts that spanned the entire period of the African slave trade.
Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic offers a glimpse into the world of the North Atlantic and the development of capitalism. It was a world of significant resistance carried out by men and women; slaves and the free; mutinies and worker conspiracies. And in most cases there was a deep desire, sometimes elaborated, toward a not-always-defined freedom from the exploitation and oppression that accompanies capitalism.
With this as a backdrop, one can see that the desire for a utopia has always been a component of progressive and revolutionary anti-capitalism. Utopia was not simply a dream, but it represented the ideological and spiritual outlines of the ideal alternative. It became something for which movements fought. For many, that utopia took the name “socialism.”
In the 19th century, there were two diametrically opposed approaches to the question of socialism. On the one hand, there were the formations of local communities based on ideal socialist principles, such as equality and shared work. These were generally referenced as examples of “utopian socialism.” These communities attempted to live side-by-side with capitalism, hoping to demonstrate a viable alternative. Yet in their failure to tackle the system itself, these communities were strangled by the ever-growing amoral beast of capitalism.
In contrast, there were revolutionary movements, initially based in Europe, that sought to gain power for workers through struggle. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were only two of those associated with this approach. These movements also co-existed (and usually not very well) with revolutionary anarchists who envisioned the immediate end of not only capitalism, but any governmental/state system.
The 20th century was the moment for the great socialist experiments, beginning with the Russian/Soviet Revolution in October 1917, and continuing on with China, Vietnam, Cuba and numerous other locales. Time and space do not permit anything approaching an exhaustive look at the twists and turns of the socialist experiments of the last century and the many conclusions that we could draw. For the purposes of this essay, let us say that revolutionary transformation proved to be far more difficult than the overthrow of a particular state structure.
Among other things, capitalism is not simply about a ruling class of capitalists, but about toxic practices, many of them day-to-day, which people have learned over generations and, as the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would say, have come to be accepted as “common sense.” These practices and expectations operate like the ghostly hands of demons in a graveyard reaching out and placing often unexpected constraints on the ability to break free of such haunted spaces.
We also discovered that socialism was about far more than economics. It must be about the expansion of democracy and the actual control over the lives of working people by the workers themselves. This means that there will be mistakes, setbacks, and detours. But the people themselves need to take these on, since there is no omnipotent individual or organization that can ensure success in a process that knows no guarantees.
Socialism, then, is not a utopia but a step in a process that takes us in the direction of an idea- that is, a society free of all exploitation and oppression, and with the elimination of all oppressing and oppressed classes. For me, it is summarized not in the text of a great socialist treatise, but, ironically perhaps, in the words of a fictional character, Captain Jean Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, in the film Star Trek: First Contact. In explaining to someone from the 21st century the economics of the 24th century, he says, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves…and the rest of humanity.”
Such an era, however, is a very long way off, and humanity will have to earn admission to that new historical epoch through the trials and tribulations associated with transforming the way that we live our lives and the way that we treat the planet.
Each day we must struggle to get one step closer.