Which way to socialism?


In the folklore of my home state, Maine, a story goes that a lost traveler trying to get to a tiny rural town asks two old men sitting on the porch of a country store, "Which way to East Vassalboro?" The two men look at each other and then one replies, "You can't get theyah from heeah."

Hopefully, if asked about the road to socialism, people of socialist inclinations can give a better answer than the two Mainers did to the lost traveler.

While any answer will be speculative to a degree, it still is a question that socialist-minded people have to address.

So here is what I think.

The transition to socialism will be a complex and long process. There will be pauses as well as surges. Unforeseen events will upset political calculations on both sides of the class and social divide. Advances will combine with setbacks. Momentum will shift hands. One phase of struggle will give way to another. And turning points will occur during which the balance of power will shift decisively in favor of the working class and its allies.

Working people - those who create the wealth, make things run, invent new technologies, educate our children, care for the sick and build the future - will democratize and transform the state - the government structures, courts, military.

But of crucial importance is that, at the same time, they will also breathe democratic life into every sphere and institution of society.

All this will hinge on building up the political and organizational capacity of the working class and its allies, on sustained mobilizations at the grassroots and nationwide, on an ability to resist and block attempts to illegally and unconstitutionally reverse working class and people's power, and on a sound strategic policy at each stage of struggle.

It will also depend on the presence of an experienced, tactically flexible, and united leadership (including parties and social movements) that fights for breadth of alliances, takes advantage of the slightest differences among its adversaries, seizes the initiative, shapes the popular discourse, adopts timely and appropriate policies, and above all, fights for broad working class and people's unity.

In recent years, radical social transformations have occurred in relatively peaceful circumstances in Latin America. In a number of countries, an organized and overwhelming majority of working-class and indigenous people led by left coalitions (in which communists are a part) have democratically won political positions in state structures and then utilized them to isolate elites, dislodge discredited neoliberal governments, and enact democratic and socialist measures.

The left and socialist movement in the United States should study these experiences closely. Broadly speaking, the transition to socialism in the U.S., I would argue, will likely follow (and we should struggle for) a similar path, differences notwithstanding.

The traditional imagery of the revolutionary process - economic breakdown, insurrection, dual power, bloody clashes, "smash the state," and direct path and quick rollout of socialism - provides few insights in the present era. In fact, it is disabling strategically, it dulls and dumbs down the socialist imagination, and it fails to understand the overriding necessity of a peaceful (which does not mean passive) transition in today's world.

Rather than one insurrectionary event - the "great revolutionary day" - a series of turning points will define the road to socialism. During these turning points, the relationship of forces, structure of the economy, and people's consciousness will change quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, the transition period to socialism will be composed of multiple building-block moments in a protracted process, during which socialist relations will become organically embedded, in a certain sense "naturalized," in the politics, economics and culture of our society.

Underlying this outlook is the notion that the state isn't simply a monolithic and seamless (capitalist) class bloc and weapon to be employed against the forces of anti-capitalist and socialist change. While the capitalist class is dominant over the capitalist state, the state is filled with internal contradictions and is a site of class and democratic struggles. It is not just any site, though, but a crucial and decisive site that the movement for radical change ignores at its peril.

Thus the nature of the struggle isn't "the people against the state" as is sometimes suggested. Rather an overriding task is to win positions and influence in the state through mass democratic struggles, and then utilize those positions, in conjunction with masses of people in motion, to transform the state and society along socialist lines.

Now some will say that this is highly unlikely, even utopian. But one has to ask: has the idea of the seizure of power and quick dismantling of the existing state in favor of a new "out of the ashes" socialist state been borne out by historical experience? I don't believe so.

I would go further and say that the path I have outlined isn't utopian at all. It's the only road to socialism in our time.

It's the way we can get there from here.

Photo: conbon33 CC 2.0 


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  • Socialism, especially the International variety, kills more people than any other ideology on earth !!

    Posted by Justin Schneider, 12/20/2011 5:16am (4 years ago)

  • Comrade Rothbard: The market order has stages, too, but in the final stage the mass of people will simply be too wealthy, pampered, and well-fed to want to have socialism. ///////

    Japanese have low 'life satisfaction'


    The Japanese are some of the wealthiest people in the world , yet.... Somehow the enormous wealth that capitalism creates is not enough for people.

    Posted by charles, 05/26/2011 2:36pm (5 years ago)

  • @Rothbard LOL! I am laughing at you and your ignorant comment. Labor theory of value blatantly showed all the contradictions of capitalism. As a result the bourgeoisie economists desperately, and pathetically, developed the marginal theory of value "subjectivism." This silly theory is pure micro economics based on "needs" and determines value by individual commodity, by commodity basis. It regarded value no longer as a function of cost of production but as a function of the independent influence of demand upon costs of production. This subjective economics is nothing more than arbitrary when it comes to defining value. Furthermore, to argue that value is subjective, then you are making a "objective" claim about economics, thus rendering that argument a logical fallacy, and actually proving Marx's point. Marginalists do NOT disprove Marx's analysis at all.

    Posted by Kenneth, 05/24/2011 10:24pm (5 years ago)

  • Interesting how Marx was supported by a Captalist. There is a balance between Capitalism and Socialism. One should be paid for Creativity of products and services that provide work for others.
    Unfortunately as the Socialist take over the OLD order of tyrants they replace them with their own Tyrants.
    My perspective of Socialism is not to work my rear off so others can sit on theirs and demand more services which is just another form of tyrany.
    Regardless of the brand of Socialism those with Higher I.Q.'s will control and direct those with lesser I.Q.'s and receive more of the available wealth in the process.

    Posted by SwampFox2u, 05/24/2011 10:00pm (5 years ago)

  • Working people - those who create the wealth, make things run, invent new technologies, educate our children, care for the sick and build the future - are not going to want to pay for a massive welfare crowd, like Maine already has.


    Do u think working people can't anticipate that they may be individually unemployed at some point through no fault of their own, and in need of welfare themselves ? There is a mass of unemployed people under capitalism.

    Posted by charles, 05/24/2011 4:28pm (5 years ago)

  • 'Democratize and transform' THIS state? I strongly doubt it, and see no evidence for it.

    I think we might win some positions in Congress and state legislatures, and even use those to up the ante in winning a some major reforms, to wage struggle on a higher plane of conflict.

    But there are so many 'thousands of threads' tying this state to capital, once you've snipped most of them away, piecemeal or in big batches, then you're really creating something new, not 'democratizing' or 'transforming' something old.

    In short, I think we need to break it up and replace it with one without all those 'thousand threads.'

    Posted by Carl Davidson, 05/24/2011 3:12pm (5 years ago)

  • Rothbard excepted, more and more people are wakening to the reality of class struggle because capitalism is going to hell in a handbasket. Webb's revisionist ideas deserve consideration, whether they are new or not.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 05/24/2011 1:56pm (5 years ago)

  • The state is not only "...a crucial and decisive site that the movement for radical change ignores at its peril."
    Marx/Engels and Lenin proved that the state is an crystallization of an economic formation at successive stages and phases of economic development which IS a radical political movement which the old (capitalist)state itself ignores at ITS peril. This is the dialectic,the latter dynamic more significant than the former.
    The state is always in a condition of flux, always changing, evolving like every other reality. Its state of change allows an opportunity, independent of the sum total of human will(that human will especially, which ignores historical materialism in economics,politics,sociology,psychology, and physics-but not only)to manipulate the independent variable, this new historical materialism, which we (workers)are natural heirs to, to make a change of guard of what class controls the state, to get an effect of a new class(as opposed to the domination of the state by capitalists) dominating the state in its self interest, the interest of the workers.
    History is dictating this tremendous need of workers uniting, not Marx/Engels, not Lenin and not even the CPUSA.
    We are only following the natural process discovered by Marx/Engels, the foundations of which were established by all of science and spirituality,with the human brain and through human hands,which in an important way created this brain.
    This brain is starting to know better-"Which way to socialism?".

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 05/24/2011 1:02pm (5 years ago)

  • Sam:

    In Vermont, the tale of the two Mainers has an extension (only they are Vermonters, of course!):

    After observing that they think "you can't get there from here", the irritated traveler barks back: "Don't you know ANYthing??".

    "We ain't lost, friend"

    Which, to overwork the metaphor a bit more, leads me to the question, how to confront the things we do not know about economic development in a technological society.

    We ain't lost: we know some basics: working class income and wealth should be rising in proportion to productivity. That has to happen. If it takes the working class and its friends to win political power to achieve that, then so be it.

    Managing the scientific and technological revolution for the benefit of all requires both public guidance AND well-run, transparent markets to encourage innovation. Ask the question: how do you determine a successful vs an unsuccessful non-profit enterprise?

    Things we do not know, that we have to know a lot better to raise the ante in the democratic struggles:

    We do not really know how to combat the inefficiency of government, even though we know that private market failures can have even worse outcomes.

    We do not have reliable means to determine the value (beyond cost of inputs) of public goods: Is it health outcomes in the health care industry? Can such outcomes be quantified so we do not have to have endless arguments about subjective qualitative judgements?

    How do you measure educational outcomes? When human capital is the chief input to a service, even one provided by large corporations, how, in theory, should that input be compensated?

    Similarly, it is actually a critical question in economic data measurement to overcome the gaping holes (filled with dummy variables) for the unknown values of the public good component in many quasi-commodity goods and services ranging from pharmaceuticals to software. Due solely to government copyright and patent protection, they are allowed to dress up like commodities for a while, but cannot sustain a rebirth of commodity-based capitalist relations.

    In the era of globalization such protections are often ignored altogether anyway, thus pressuring capitalists to trade in things that can increasingly be had virtually for free: something they will not long do.

    thnx for essays on socialism. I think every one should write one they can believe in and sustain us in what may be some dark nights ahead.

    Posted by John Case, 05/24/2011 11:03am (5 years ago)

  • Working people - those who create the wealth, make things run, invent new technologies, educate our children, care for the sick and build the future - are not going to want to pay for a massive welfare crowd, like Maine already has.

    Posted by taxed, 05/23/2011 8:05pm (5 years ago)

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