The urgency grows to lift people out of hunger, poverty, sickness and ignorance. Our planet's eco-system must be rescued before it deteriorates beyond the point of no return. Even under wasteful and destructive capitalism, the productive forces exist that could, if planned and utilised to meet human need instead of maximising capitalist profit, ensure sufficient food, nutrition, health care and education for all.
Indeed, never before in history have the rapid advances in science and technology provided such opportunities for the all-round development of every human being.
But while it has proved possible, from time to time, to curb capitalism's tendencies to crisis, deprivation and war, those tendencies have always reasserted themselves because they arise from the nature of the capitalist system itself. The capitalist economic cycle produces gluts, crises, cut-backs, redundancies and then shortages before beginning all over again.
The anarchy of the capitalist economy in general militates against society's need for planned, balanced, equitable and sustainable development across countries, regions and the whole world.
Nonetheless, the experience of social-democratic policies and the attempts so far to build socialism – albeit in very different conditions to those in Britain – provide some valuable lessons.
They demonstrate, for instance, that public ownership, economic planning, collective provision and the redistribution of wealth can provide substantial economic, social and cultural benefits to the mass of the population, even when these are restricted, distorted, exploited and subverted by monopoly capitalist interests. Experience also indicates that unless such policies are mobilised as the basis from which to make deeper inroads into capitalist economic and state power, they will prove to be partial and temporary. Their weaknesses and inadequacies will then be used to discredit any alternative to private capitalist ownership, the 'free' market and social inequality.
After centuries of capitalism, the first attempts to build a socialist society arose fewer than 100 years ago in conditions of world war, in less developed societies facing the advanced, hostile and powerful forces of imperialism. Both the achievements and the failures of these pioneering socialist systems have to be considered in this context, and lessons learnt accordingly.
During its near 70-year existence, the Soviet Union showed how socialist state power, planning and public ownership could transform society in the interests of the mass of the population.
The Bolsheviks and their allies took state power in Russia in 1917 and used it to withdraw from the imperialist war and defeat counter-revolutionary forces. Fourteen foreign armies, including those of Britain, the United States (US) and Poland, invaded Russia in 1918 to 'strangle Bolshevism in its cradle', in the words of Winston Churchill. This imperialist ambition to destroy Soviet power was to continue through most of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union were transformed from semi-feudal, semi-capitalist monarchist dictatorships into modern societies with near-full employment, universally free education and healthcare, affordable housing for all, extensive and cheap public transport, impressive scientific and cultural facilities, rights for women and degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities. This was achieved through a world-historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning.
But the struggle to survive and to build socialism in the face of powerful external as well as internal enemies also led to distortions in society that might otherwise have been avoided. In particular, a bureaucratic-command system of economic and political rule became entrenched. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the trade unions became integrated into the apparatus of the state, eroding working class and popular democracy. Marxism-Leninism was used dogmatically to justify the status quo rather than make objective assessments of it.
At times, and in the late 1930s in particular, severe violations of socialist democracy and law occurred. Large numbers of people innocent of subversion or sabotage were persecuted, imprisoned and executed. This aided the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions aimed at the Soviet Union, the international communist movement and the concept of socialism.
Yet central organisation and rapid, massive industrialisation enabled the Soviet Red Army to smash Hitler's war machine, halt the Nazi genocide and liberate much of Europe from fascism,
Following World War Two, the US Marshall Plan financed the rebuilding of capitalist economies in western Europe. The Soviet Union, with 26 million dead and much of its land and productive capacity destroyed, was left to its own devices.
The Soviets once again constructed a society of full employment, housing, public transport and high-quality health and education services for all. This same feat was accomplished in the newly socialist countries of war-ravaged eastern Europe, where the Soviet model of society was promoted in both its positive and negative aspects.
At the same time, the socialist countries launched programmes of solidarity with progressive and national liberation movements around the world that operated over three decades.
But under pressure from the arms race launched by the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Soviet bureaucratic-command system was unable to utilise the full fruits of the scientific and technological revolution (STR) beyond the military, space and medical fields. From the mid-1970s, economic growth in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe began to fall behind that of the most advanced capitalist countries, notably Japan and West Germany. The ruling communist parties failed to counter the appeal of capitalist 'consumerism' materially and ideologically, as their own citizens made unfavourable comparisons that took no account of imperialism's super-exploitation of the Third World.
While women participated more extensively in politics, science, education and employment than their counterparts in capitalist society, they encountered limits to their promotion. Some professions lost their status as women came to predominate in them. National autonomy in party, state and cultural affairs was limited in practice by centralised control.
The increasing failure to mobilise the party, the working class and the people to solve these and other economic, social and political problems led eventually to stagnation and political collapse in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, from 1989. Significantly, there were no mass movements to defend the socialist system against counter-revolution.
Yet the weaknesses and failures of the Soviet model of socialism have since been overtaken by the calamities of capitalist restoration. Public economic property has passed into the hands of Western TNCs, state bureaucrats and home-grown gangsters. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, pensions and trade union rights. Public and welfare services have collapsed. The peoples of the former Soviet Union experienced the biggest reductions in life expectancy ever recorded. National and ethnic differences have exploded into terrorism and war. In some countries, the brutal trafficking and sexual exploitation of women is widespread.
Determined not to experience counter-revolution and its consequences, China's communists have placed great emphasis on economic and social development. State power is being used to combine economic planning and public ownership with private capital and market mechanisms. The aim is to build a socialist society in its primary stage. Already, state-directed policies have lifted more than 600 million people – almost half the population – out of extreme poverty since 1981, a feat unequalled in history.
The foreign policy of the People's Republic of China has sought to uphold the principles of national sovereignty and peaceful co-existence, while carrying out foreign investment policies that also benefit host countries substantially.
Yet, as the Communist Party of China (CPC) itself acknowledges, problems in Chinese society of social inequality, the lack of universal welfare provisions, corruption and underdeveloped trade unionism need to be further addressed and rectified. Advances have been made in extending democratic rights without the CPC weakening its leading role in political life. The importance of renewing democracy inside the party and in wider society should not be underestimated.
The Cuban model of socialism seeks to involve the masses of people in the defence of national sovereignty against US imperialist subversion, mobilising them also to solve economic, social and environmental problems. The result is a society with the most advanced health and education services in the Third World, bold policies to expand food production and minimise carbon emissions and an internationalist foreign policy to assist oppressed and disadvantaged peoples around the world. Most recently, Cuba has embarked upon policies to develop and diversify industry and services.
The experience of communists and socialists attempting to build socialism indicates the importance of mobilising wide support for progressive and revolutionary change, making inroads into the economic and political power of the monopoly capitalists, taking the bold steps necessary from government office to state power, exerting popular sovereignty and involving the mass of the people at every stage in the revolutionary process, including the exercise of political power.
Each country must find its own path to socialism, applying general principles to specific national conditions in their international context. Each will develop its own model of socialism in tune with the culture and aspirations of its people. In Britain and its constituent nations, taking the road to socialism can only be done successfully if those differing national conditions are taken fully into account.
History also demonstrates that taking state power and beginning to construct a socialist society can occur in one or more countries at a time, reflecting the reality of uneven economic and political development under capitalism. This explodes the abstract and defeatist myth that socialist revolution can only be a single-stage and wholly or primarily global process.
For as long as capitalist ownership of the economy exists, whether or not the so-called ‘free market’ is dominated by monopolies, its operations will produce crisis, destruction, inequality and waste on an enormous scale.
Capitalism's drive to maximise profit leads it to turn every area of human need – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, sex, leisure – into a market for the production and sale of commodities for profit. However, when sufficient profit cannot be realised, even the products and services to meet society’s most vital needs will not be produced.
Capitalist competition invariably means unnecessary duplication, takeovers, 'rationalisation', closures, asset-stripping, commercial secrecy, excessive packaging and large-scale contrivances of style and fashion – all of which represent a waste, limitation or destruction of society's productive resources. Whole economic sectors have developed – advertising, property management, business consultancy – that perform little or no useful function in society, except to promote the interests of monopoly capital and, ultimately, to transfer income to it from the working class and intermediate strata.
The reality of monopoly power is that it is used to block or take over more efficient but smaller competitors, especially those that seek to share the benefits of economic activity more equitably with workers or consumers. Anti-trust, anti-cartel and similar laws have utterly failed to halt the march of the capitalist monopolies towards national and international domination. Breaking up the monopolies, even if achievable, would merely set the clock back for the process to begin again.
Only public ownership of the economy's major sectors and enterprises – the economic essence of socialism – can put an end to monopoly power and fundamentally change the basis on which economic decisions are taken. Pointless and wasteful competition and duplication would be eliminated. The development and deployment of society's productive forces would be planned in order to meet people's real needs and aspirations. Jobs, houses and vital or useful goods and services would be created as the primary purpose of planning and production, not as the incidental consequence of maximising profits for shareholders.
In particular, public ownership is the only viable basis on which energy and public transport can be planned and developed in an integrated way, to combat global warming and climate change while ensuring renewable power supplies.
But fundamental distinctions must be drawn between the different types of public ownership as operated in different stages and conditions.
Democratic or progressive public ownership would be conducted on a fundamentally different basis from capitalist public ownership – in the interests of the working class and the people, not of monopoly capital. A left government would seek to extend it to viable enterprises and sectors, with compensation paid primarily to pension funds and small investors and on the basis of proven need. Its pricing, contracting and investment policies would be consistent with the priorities, needs and interests of society as a whole. Its administration would be democratically accountable to the elected representatives of the people at every level, with workers and local communities fully involved in decision-making.
Socialist public ownership would be based on the same approach, but after the achievement of state power. It would be carried out in all major sectors of industry and commerce in the drive to end monopoly capitalist wealth and power and build a socialist society based on democratic and, where necessary, centralised economic planning.
Social ownership of economic property puts an end to the exploitation of the working class, whereby surplus labour is performed for the benefit of the capitalist class.
When there is social ownership, surplus labour takes place to meet the needs and aspirations of the working class and society as a whole. This will have to mean that workers and their representatives are fully represented in the economic and political spheres of decision-making, ensuring that surplus labour is not exploited for the benefit of a privileged class or group.
Since society first became divided into classes, the ruling class of the time has used the oppression of sections of the exploited classes to maximise exploitation and reinforce its rule. Under capitalism, the oppression of women, black workers and other groups has reaped super-profits and helped ensure the reproduction of existing class relations economically, ideologically and politically – not least by fomenting or perpetuating divisions within the working class itself.
Such oppression is sustained by sets of prejudicial ideas and assumptions, for example those of sexism and racism. These ideologies apply across class boundaries, affecting members of the oppressed group in every class, although their impact is felt most severely by those in the exploited classes.
Putting an end to capitalist property relations and the exploitation of labour would remove the material basis for social oppression. No class in society would gain from the super-exploitation of any section of the working class, or have the means by which to secure it. The reorientation of priorities in production to meet the needs of the people would further reduce the scope for conflict over scarce provision, whether of jobs, housing, public services or essential goods.
The experience of socialism confirms that prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, nationality, sexual orientation, age etc., can survive the abolition of capitalism, at least for a period, weakened but not altogether eliminated. But socialism furnishes the material basis, and therefore the potential, to bring all forms of social oppression to an end.
With the abolition of capitalism, the most powerful forces for the perpetuation of racist, sexist, homophobic and other reactionary attitudes are disarmed, leaving the forces of socialism with the responsibility to consign them to the rubbish heap of history, promoting a culture of equal rights and liberation instead.
In capitalist society, it is the interests of capital that predominate, regardless of proclamations about the sovereignty of the people or of parliament.
The electoral franchise and other democratic rights are subverted by huge inequalities in wealth and power between different classes and sections of the population. Politicians and political parties are bought or intimidated, issues and debate are distorted by the mass media, the electoral system is often rigged against small, new or left-wing parties, and elected parliaments can be marginalised or dissolved.
The European Union (EU) represents a new model whereby monopoly capital can circumvent democratic representation and accountability. The EU parliament is elected by constituencies so large as to break any meaningful organic link between electors and representatives. It has few powers that it would dare exercise. The fundamental capitalist economic and political character of the EU is set in constitutional concrete. Any real sovereignty is shared between unelected and unaccountable bodies – the Council of Ministers, the EU Commission and the European Central Bank.
The essence of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, is that the democratic will of the people should prevail over the vested interests of a powerful minority and their state apparatus. This revolutionary concept originates in the English Revolution, with the Levellers and the soldiers’ parliament, and in the French Revolution with its constituent assembly and constitution. It was also seen in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the workers', peasants' and soldiers' soviets (councils) of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, and in all mass movements against exploitation and oppression.
In Britain today, for example, the struggle to exert popular sovereignty can be seen in the mass movement against imperialist war, in progressive campaigns against EU power and in local broad-based campaigns to defend jobs and public services. But popular sovereignty will only prevail when state power is taken out of the hands of the capitalist class by the working class and its allies, whose interests represent those of the people and society as a whole.
This lays the basis for the active involvement of the people in all aspects of decision-making. Such mass participation is the surest guarantee that democratic rights will be enormously more extensive and more real in a socialist society, free from the distortions of monopoly capital’s wealth and power.