The false narrative of “Socialism for the rich”

In the course of his campaign for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primaries, Bernie Sanders has recently asserted that the U.S. already has socialism — for the rich at least, while the poor are dealt the card of capitalism.

Sanders seemingly defines “socialism” here as government action, especially welfare programs. This quote originates with a remark from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s February 23, 1968 speech “The Minister to the Valley.” Following in Sanders’ footsteps, many American progressives and social democrats have begun to repeat the remark, along with Sanders’ call to action of reversing the state of affairs (to capitalism for the rich, socialism for the poor).

The problem is, this use of the word socialism is hopelessly inaccurate to what socialism has historically meant for our movement. Yes, the meaning of words change. But socialism is still something which is very much alive.

Socialism is a mode of production where the workers hold political and economic power, and socialize production and consumption under their rule. The socialist movement is the movement to achieve this revolutionary state of affairs by overthrowing the capitalist system. To try to distort its meaning into reform of capitalism is to obscure what our revolutionary socialist movement seeks.

Socialism is not a word without history and we should not reject its past as if it were. Rather, we should recognize and defend it. To give up the word to the reform of capitalism would be to give up the revolutionary tradition of socialism.

When discussing socialism, one must understand where the movement struggling to establish the socialist mode of production originates. Friedrich Engels, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, defines the socialist movement thusly,

Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production.

By “the anarchy existing in production,” Engels means crises resulting from internal contradictions of capitalism, especially the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) and overproduction resulting from a lack of planned production. Marx and Engels did not describe socialism in depth because they were not utopians. They only identified what was precluded by tendencies of capitalist development in their time.

They also did not describe communism in depth, as it was not a utopian aim but a recognition of the long-term trajectory of historic development. Of communism, Marx’s best overview is expressed thusly, in 2 excerpts from The Critique of the Gotha Programme:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor[…]

[…]after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can[…] society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Marx, in these excerpts, is giving a general overview of production and distribution under communism. Under capitalism, the worker has the product of their labor appropriated by the capitalist; under communism, the workers of the world cooperate in production, the planning of which is determined by the needs of society as a whole, not by profit.

But in the Critique, Marx does divide revolutionary development into lower-stage communism (what Lenin later termed socialism), and higher-stage communism.

Lower-stage communism refers essentially to the transitional period between capitalism and communism,

[w]hat we have to deal with is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

For example, despite the victory of the proletariat and the assertion of a working class dictatorship (meaning that the proletariat and its aligned classes hold political power), this era of working class dictatorship is still an era of transition. This is because, despite the proletariat’s successful seizure of power, there remains an extensive period of time where the working class must transform all spheres of bourgeois or old society. Additionally, the bourgeoisie continues to cling to its dreams of regaining power — dreams the proletariat must combat in order to maintain its progressive rule.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a literal dictatorship in the sense of the rule of a single individual or clique dominating society. It is instead democracy for the laboring classes, and dictatorship in the sense of their monopolistic hold on power. It recognizes that no election can truly be considered free unless the present historic enemy of democracy — capital — and the associated political strength of the bourgeoisie are removed.

This era of transition is one wherein the proletariat is faced by 3 primary tasks of development: repression and abolition of antagonistic classes and elements, the development of productive forces and social appropriation of them, and the abolition of class distinctions by combating classed divisions of labor.

Marx describes a general outline of production and distribution in this stage, corresponding to the maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution,”

[…]the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual amount of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual labor hours; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social labor day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common fund), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor costs. The same amount of labor as he has given to society in one term, he receives back in another.

Higher-stage communism, by contrast, is the era wherein the tasks of development have managed to destroy the bourgeoisie, abolish class distinctions, and develop the productive forces and successfully socialize them.

In this era, the state, as a specialized apparatus distinct from society as a whole to protect the proletariat, can wither away, though institutions of authority may remain. Its tasks in repression and development have been completed, and there is no longer a contradiction within society between different classes and their respective interests.

So, to put a long explanation into a short sentence, what is referred to by socialism is the transitional period between capitalism and communism and the associated dictatorship of the working class.

Having clarified this, let us ask the question: What is socialism not?

Socialism is not, as we hope is clear, “when the government does things.” The assumption of this as the definition presumably comes from calls of state seizure of production by socialists. This does not, however, merely mean nationalization by bourgeois states. State power is held by the bourgeoisie as they are the dominant class in society. The state’s structure in this context is shaped in a manner conducive to bourgeois power; election success relying on positive coverage and funding, which come by kneeling to bourgeois interests, the protection of private property, and the promotion of social cohesion within a framework of capitalistic commodity production. Sound familiar?

Nationalization of firms and industries is not socialism when a capitalist state does it, as it is not the proletariat controlling them, but the bourgeois state apparatus. In fact, the bourgeoisie, in certain conditions, favors nationalization as being in their interests, since they tend to retain their posts in nationalized corporations.

Nationalization can represent the injection of new, secure investment, and the state is not antagonistic to them. Of course, it can sometimes be progressive, such as when an anti-imperialist state nationalizes formerly colonial industries. Contextualization, however, is essential.

Social reform within a capitalist framework broadly is not socialism. In fact, when social reform is put into effect within the capitalist mode of production, it actually serves to promote the continuity of bourgeois hold on state power by promoting social cohesion within the bourgeois order.

In Principles of Communism, Engels derides advocates of capitalist social reform as:

…adherents of present-day society who have been frightened for its future by the evils to which it necessarily gives rise. What they want, therefore, is to maintain this society while getting rid of the evils which are an inherent part of it. To this end, some propose mere welfare measures — while others come forward with grandiose systems of reform which, under the pretense of re-organizing society, are in fact intended to preserve the foundations, and hence the life, of existing society.

He calls for communists to “unremittingly struggle against these bourgeois socialists because they work for the enemies of communists and protect the society which communists aim to overthrow.” This category of bourgeois “socialists” certainly applies to the Democratic Party and social reformists broadly.

Social programs which favor the poor within a capitalist framework are not socialism. They are attempts at maintaining the social cohesion of bourgeois order and stifling revolutionary tendencies.

Social programs which favor the rich or the bourgeoisie are certainly not “socialism”. Rather, they are simply the normal function of the bourgeois state in upholding bourgeois order and class dictatorship. Corporate welfare, subsidies, bailouts, government contracts, and so on are not socialism. They are not even abnormal for capitalism. They are simply the average operations of the organ of the bourgeoisie’s class rule.

Socialism, as we have established, is the dictatorship of the proletariat with the resultant repression of the bourgeoisie and its aligned classes, development of socialized production, and ending of class distinctions. When one uses the term socialism, they must have this meaning in mind.

Words change meaning, this is inarguably true. But to take a word with history and use it with no regard for that, in so many contexts for which it does not apply, is to hopelessly confuse political discourse.

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