May Day Special : Carl Davidson on Socialism in Today’s Society

May Day poster from Holt Labor Library.

…in light of the faux ‘socialisms’ bandied about in the headlines and sound bytes of the mass media in the wake of the financial crisis, especially the absurd claim in the media of rightwing populism that the Obama administration is Marxist and socialist, I felt something a little more rigorous might be helpful.

By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / May 1, 2009

The current discussion around socialism in left and progressive circles in the U.S. needs to be placed in a more substantive arena. This is an effort to do so. I take note in advance of the criticism that the following eleven working hypotheses are rather dry and formal. But in light of the faux “socialisms” bandied about in the headlines and sound bytes of the mass media in the wake of the financial crisis, especially the absurd claim in the media of rightwing populism that the Obama administration is Marxist and socialist, I felt something a little more rigorous might be helpful. Obviously, criticism and commentary is invited.

1. Socialism’s fundamental building blocks are already present in US society. The means of production, for the most part, are fully developed and in fact are stagnating under the political domination of finance capital. The US labor force, again for the most part, is highly skilled at all levels of production, management, marketing, and finance. The kernels of socialist organization are also scattered across the landscape in cooperatives, socially organized human services, and centralized and widespread mass means of many-to-many communication and supply/demand data management. Many earlier attempts at socialism did not have these advantages.

2. Socialism is first of all a democratic political system where the interests and organizations of the working class and its allies have attained and hold the preponderance of political power and thus play the critical leading role in society. It is still a class society, but one in a protracted transition, over hundreds of years, to a future classless society where exploiting class privileges are abolished and classes and class distinctions generally wither away, both nationally and globally.

So socialism will have classes for some time, including some capitalists, because it will be a mixed economy, with both public and private ownership, even as the balance shifts over time. Family farmers and small proprietors will both exist and flourish alongside cooperatives. Innovative ‘high road’ entrepreneurial privately-held firms will compete with publically-own firms, and encouraged to create new wealth within an environmentally regulated and progressively taxed system. Past efforts to build socialism have suffered from aggravated conflict between and among popular classes and lack of emphasis on building wide unity among the people.

3. Socialism at the base is a transitional economic system anchored in the social mode of production brought into being by capitalist development over several centuries. Its economic system is necessarily mixed, and makes use of markets, especially in goods and services, which are regulated, especially regarding the environment. But capital markets and wage-labor markets can be sharply restricted and even abolished in due time. Markets are a function of scarcity, and all economies of any scale in a time of scarcity have them, even if they are disguised as ‘black’ or ‘tiered’ markets.

In addition to regulated markets, socialism will also feature planning, especially on the macro level of infrastructure development, in investment of public assets and funds, and other arenas where markets have failed. Planning will especially be required to face the challenges of uneven development and harsh inequalities on a global scale, as well as the challenge of moving from a carbon and uranium based energy system to one based on renewable green energy sources. The socialisms of the last century fell or stagnated due to failure to develop the proper interplay between plans and markets.

4. Socialism will be anchored in public and worker ownership of the main productive forces and natural resources. This can be achieved by various means: a) buying out major failing corporations at penny stock status, then leasing them back to the unions and having the workers in each firm—one worker, one vote—run them, b) workers directly taking ownership and control over failed and abandoned factories, c) eminent domain seizures of resources and factories, with compensation, otherwise required for the public good, and d) public funding for startups of worker-owned cooperative businesses.

Socialism will also require public ownership of most finance capital institutions, including bringing the Federal Reserve under the Treasury Department and federal ownership. Lease payments from publically owned firms will go into a public investment fund, which will in turn lend money to community and worker owned banks and credit unions. A stock market will still exist for remaining publically traded firms and investments abroad, but will be strictly controlled. A stock transfer tax will be implemented. Gambling in derivatives will be outlawed. Fair trade agreements with other countries will be on a bilateral basis for mutual benefit.

5. Socialism will require democracy in the workplace of public firms and encourage it in all places of work. Workers have the right to independent unions to protect their social and daily interests, in addition to their rights as worker-owners in the governance of their firms. In addition to direct democracy at the plant level, the organizations of the working class also participate in the wider public planning process and thus democratically shape the direction of ongoing development on the macro level as well. Under socialism the government will also serve as the employer-of-last-resort. Minimum living-wage jobs will be provided for all who want to work. Socialism is committed to genuine full employment. Every citizen will have a genuine right to work.

6. Socialism will largely be gained by the working class and it allies winning the battle for democracy in politics and civil society at large, especially taking down the structures and backward laws of class, gender and racial privilege. Women have equal rights with men, and minority nationalities have equal rights with the majority. It also defends equal rights and self-determination among all nations across the globe; no nation can itself be fully free when it oppresses another. Socialism will encourage public citizenship and mass participation at every level, with open information systems, public education and transparency in its procedures. It will need a true multiparty system, with fusion voting, proportional representation and instant runoff.

Given the size and diversity of our country, it is highly unlikely that any single party could adequately represent all popular interests; working class and progressive organizations will need to form common fronts. All trends are guaranteed the right to speak, organize, petition and stand for election. With public financing as an option, socialism can restrict the role of wealth in elections, moving away from a system, in effect, of “one dollar, one vote” and toward a system more reflective of “one person, one vote.” These are the structural measures that can allow the majority of the people, especially the working class and its allies, to secure the political leadership of government and instruments of the state by democratic means, unless these are sabotaged by reaction.

Some socialisms of the past used only limited formal democracy or simply used administrative means to implement goals, with the failure of both the goals and the overall projects. Americans are not likely to be interested in systems with elections where only one party runs and no one can lose.

7. Socialism will be a state power, specifically a democratic political order with a representative government. But the government and state components of the current order, corrupted with the thousand threads connecting it to old ruling class, will have to be broken up and replaced with new ones that are transparent, honest and serve the majority of the people. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights can still be the initial basic organizing principle for a socialist government and state. The democratic rights it has gained over the years will be protected and enhanced. Government will also be needed to organize and finance the social development benefitting the people and the environment already mentioned; but the state power behind the law will be required to compel the honest use of resources and to protect people from criminal elements, individual and organized.

Forces who try to overturn and reverse the new socialist government illegally and in violation of the Constitution will not be able to do so; they will be broken up and brought to justice. Our society will need a state power for some time to come, even as its form changes. Still, government power has limits; under socialism sovereignty resides in the people themselves, and the powers of any government are necessarily restricted and subordinate to the universal and natural rights of all humankind. Attempts to ignore or reject these principles have severely harmed socialist governments and movements in the past.

8. Socialism will be a society in harmony with the natural environment, understanding that all economies are subsets of the eco-system and ignore it at their peril. In its economics, there are no such things as “externalities” to be pushed off downstream or to future generations. The nature of pending planetary disasters necessitates a high level of planning. We need to redesign communities, promote healthier foods, and rebuild sustainable agriculture—all on a global scale with high design, but on a human scale with mass participation of communities in diverse localities.

Socialism will treasure and preserve the diversity of nature’s bounty and end the practice of genetic modification to control the human food supply. We need growth, but intelligent growth in quality and wider knowledge with a lighter environmental footprint. A socialism that simply reproduces the wasteful expansion of an earlier capitalism creates more problems than it solves.

9. Socialism values equality, and will be a society of far greater equality of opportunity, and far less economic inequality. In addition to equal rights before the law, all citizens and residents will have equitable access to a “universal toolbox” of paid-up free public education for all who want to learn, for as far as they want and are able to go; universal public pre-school care; a minimum income, as a social wage, for all who create value, whether in a workplace or otherwise; our notions of socially useful work, activity that creates value, has to be expanded beyond market definitions.

Parents raising children, students learning skills, elders educating and passing traditions to younger generations–all these create value that society can in turn reward. Universal single-payer health care with retirement benefits at the level of a living wage is critical to start. Since everyone has access to employment, the existing welfare system can be abolished; individuals will be free to choose the career path and level of income targets they desire, or not. There are no handouts for those able to work, but there are also no irrational barriers to achievement.

10. Socialism is a society where religion can be freely practiced, or not, and no religion is given any special advantages over any other. Religious freedom remains a fundamental tenant of socialism, but naturally neither its practitioners nor anyone else can deny anyone the benefits and protection of civil and criminal law, especially to women and children.

11. Socialism will require an institution of armed forces. Their mission will be to defend the people and secure their interests against any enemies and help in times of natural disasters. It will not be their task to expand markets abroad and defend the property abroad of the exploiting classes. Soldiers will be allowed to organize and petition for the redress of grievances. Armed forces also include local police, under community control, as well as a greatly reduced prison system, based on the principle of restorative justice, and mainly for the protection of society from individuals inflicted with violent pathologies and criminal practices. Non-violent conflict resolution and community-based rehabilitation will be encouraged, but the need for some coercive means will remain for some time.

[Carl Davidson, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is webmaster for, where this article was also posted. He also blogs at Keep On Keepin On. Together with Jerry Harris, he is author of Cyber-Radicalism: A New Left for a Global Age.]

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