by Parson Young
In conjunction with the Taipei Philosophy Book Club, New Bloom presents a new column, ‘Keywords’. ‘Keywords’ will review key terms from critical theory and philosophy as they are relevant to Taiwanese politics.
“SOCIALISM” is a term that’s often conjured up in public discourse, yet seemingly amorphous in our political vocabulary. Taiwanese Social Democratic Party leader Fan Yun publicly discusses her approval of socialism. US politician Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate, calls himself a “Scandinavian socialist.” The President of France Francois Hollande’s political party is called the Socialist Party. On the other hand, the former USSR referred to itself as a “socialist country”—as does today’s China. This one single term seems to cover so many different political philosophies. What is the basic demand of socialism, then? Under a Marxist analytical framework, what kind of socialism is the most effective, most able to create lasting beneficial change for society?
Engels and the Origins of the Term “Socialism”
BEFORE WE BEGIN, I would strongly recommend readers to check out Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. This short book, published in 1880, remains the most complete and concise introduction and overview of socialist thoughts today. Engels was Marx’s lifelong friend and political partner, and was one of the foundational figures in Marxist philosophy. The entire translation in English can be accessed here. Unfortunately, the only Mandarin translation of this book is the version translated by Chinese “Communist” Party’s Liberation Press, which can be accessed here. I’ve read through this version and found no significant errors in translation or distortions made to support Maoism. Please remember that I am firmly in support of Taiwan’s right of independence and self-determination, and in no way believe that Maoism is a correct extension of Marxism. Why? Well, that is a topic for another installment of “Marxist Basics with Parson”!
Engels began with utopian socialism to illustrate the foundational idea of all socialist ideas: justice and fairness. At the beginning of the idea of “socialism ”, social justice thinkers such as Rousseau—whether they came from a Christian sense of justice, or a critical view of European feudal society—proposed to establish an eternally just kingdom that can liberate all mankind. These thinkers all agree that this kingdom needs to be based on rationality, and that society at the time, controlled by the Church and feudal lords, was decidedly irrational. “Socialists” at the time believed that there should not be a class division when it comes to the right to own properties. Freedom of property should be something that applies to all men.
Later, when technological innovations transformed agrarian Europe into early industrial Europe, improvements in the means of production also allowed non-noble urban elite professionals to amass large amount of wealth, becoming the first capitalist class in history. Engels recounted the quick cooperation between the nobles and the new but few large capitalists to attempt to monopolize means of production, and to exploit workers and the small capitalists. The establishment of private property gives legal legitimacy for economic oppression, and also turned society into one obsessed with accumulating wealth, intensely fetishizing money.
At this time, utopian socialists such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen began to realize that private property is the central source of social oppression. In order to establish a fair and just society, the natural conclusion was that humanity needs to be liberated from private property. Socialism at this time became a term for a fair and just society of communally owned properties. These anti-private property thinkers and their followers also began to imagine methods to overthrow the rule of private property. Engels pointed out that although these ideas are well-intentioned, none of them offer a concrete, material strategy that led to lasting liberation. A useful socialist idea needs to be built on a scientific basis in order to create concrete strategies, and Marxism is such a kind of scientific socialism.
UNDER MARXIST ANALYSIS, socialism needs to be built one a few material conditions:
- The means of production, developed under capitalism, has the ability to supply the need for the entire society.
- The means of production are owned by a few capitalists in title, but they do not participate in actual production. The true act of production lies in the hands of the workers under their employment.
- Most of the economy must be industrialized. In other words, most laborers need to survive through wages, and all the fruits of their labor need be given to the capitalists. This is different from an agrarian/feudal society where farmers get to keep a portion of their own products.
- The division between the exploiters and the exploited (class consciousness) becomes increasingly clear.
Marx did not waste many pages criticizing the unfairness and evil of capitalism in Das Kapital. Instead, he was fascinated by the massive productive power made possible under capitalism. Marx spent his entire life figuring out how we can create a society without private property and exploitation, but still preserves the productive power of capitalism. Marx and Engels concluded: the social majority that holds the productive power (the working class) needs to expropriate, nationalize, and control the means of production monopolized by the capitalists in order to establish a society without private property, exploitation, or oppression. The working class must first take control of the state, already controlled by the capitalists, and use the political power of the new worker’s state to expropriate the monopolized means of production. For Marx, a society governed by a worker-run state is the only true kind of socialist society.
Lenin reminds us in State and Revolution that the means of production needs to be preserved during a working class revolution in order to use the forces of production to serve society. This is different from anarchist or Maoist theories that emotionally advocates for the destruction of everything that was owned by the capitalists. The workers’ state, though initially used to expropriate means of production and combat reactionary counterattacks, will gradually wither away when society increases production and the productivity of labor, creating more leisure time in which people can be productive without “being at work”. Gradually society no longer needs to combat reactionaries. At this state-less stage of human society would be what Marx would call a Communist society. Therefore, in Marxist philosophy, socialism would be the first stage of a society without private property, communism would be the second stage, the final stage being the realization of a classless society.
Looking Back at the “Socialists” of Today
UNDER A MARXIST analytical framework, none of the “socialists” I mentioned in the introduction can be called a real socialist. Leftists such as Fan or Sanders, though calling for social welfare on top of their lungs, fail to recognize that exploitation under capitalism cannot be done away by partial reforms. No matter how close a country’s economic system can work like the Scandinavian countries, it still cannot eliminate the serious social problems stemmed from exploitation. Further, even when the citizens of Scandinavian countries appear to be undergoing less exploitation and enjoy adequate elsewhere, the colossal capitalists from the region, such as Ikea, all have a history of abusing their workers abroad for higher profit. In the society we live in today, exploitation is the only way to generate profit. This is not something that can be solved by technological improvement or cultural shifts. This is a fundamental systematic problem. Fan and Sanders are fighting for the right cause, but they do not have a complete understanding of the problem, and therefore cannot propose concrete and effective solutions. It goes without saying that politicians such as Hollande who call themselves socialists but are in fact enthusiastic enforcers of austerity are clearly not socialists.
What about today’s China? We all know that China has transformed into a capitalist country. These wolfish, authoritarian politicians still shamelessly call themselves Communists with legendary and unfathomable gall. I will forever refer to them as “Pseudo-Communists”.
What about China under Mao, the former USSR, and Eastern European states? Are they socialists? The answer to this question is slightly more complicated, but it is still “No.” Dictators such as Mao or Stalin did not hand the state to the working class, but rather creating a new ruling caste based on bureaucrats and small amount of party members. This kind of state not only doesn’t wither away, but becomes even more oppressive and brutal. Although the means of production had been nationalized and private property outlawed, the working class still remained under exploitation from a new ruling caste. Trotsky referred to these governments as Proletarian Bonapartists, meaning that the fruits of a successful socialist revolution are highjacked by a few for personal power. This makes regimes under Stalin or Mao awful examples of socialist societies. To be sure, the USSR before Stalin, under Lenin, would be an example of a society transitioning towards a true socialist society, until the rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death undid the reforms ushered in by the Leninist period.
Is Socialism Possible in Taiwan?
WE LIVE IN a time when Eric Chu went to Beijing and actively begged for Chinese conquest, the DPP is becoming more like the KMT, and the new “third power” parties are beginning to fracture. Taiwan is facing an unprecedented existential crisis. At the same time, Taiwan’s economy is waning along with global capitalism, displaying permanent, solidified inequality that’s seen elsewhere in the world. On top of these, Taiwan still remains firmly controlled by the rivalry between US and Chinese imperialism. I have argued in a previous article for New Bloom that Taiwan already has reached a suitable socio-economic and oppression structure for a socialist revolution to happen. The people of Taiwan can only truly control their own destiny if Taiwan is no longer under the oppression of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.