Democracy, Freedom and the Realisation of the Imagination – or ‘What is Socialism’

capitalism democracy

By Joel Cosgrove (Fightback – Wellington)
(Notes from a talk in the “Introduction to Marxism” series)

We spent last week talking about capitalism (a social/economic structure which is based on the production of things for profit). The flip side of a discussion of capitalism is a discussion of socialism.

Clearly this is an hour long discussion so I’m not interested in stating a definitive answer to this question. But I am keen to start a discussion, because to be honest, I’ve been a revolutionary socialist since 2005 and I’m still learning, still pondering this question.

Let’s start with three points to build a discussion around.

• Democracy
• Freedom
• Imagination

Outside of the fact that things are good grouped in threes (which we all know people work well with), these are points that I think are important within my conception of Socialism.

Democracy
First off, I think this is a useful place to start. I think we can agree that there is more than one idea of democracy, a word which comes from Dēmokratía – Demos being the Greek word for ‘people’ and Kratos meaning “power” or “rule.”

Bryan Roper, a member of the International Socialist Organisation in Dunedin, has written a great book titled The History of Democracy: a Marxist Interpretation. In it, he talks about the polarisation between Athenian and Roman democracy, and the way in which that difference has been reflected in the application of democracy over the centuries.

To grossly generalize, in Athenian democracy you had an environment where the people were compensated to take part in the democratic process. Even though, in Greece at the time, the “people” didn’t include women, slaves or foreigners, still it was definite progress.

With Roman democracy you had an environment where those who had the time or money could take part. So what you had is a democracy where the rich could take part and the poor had no way of taking part.

It won’t be much of a surprise to say which of these examples of democracy was generally imitated. It wasn’t until 1892 that MPs in Aotearoa were given an annual salary and it wasn’t until 1944 that MPs were considered to be working fulltime. Needless to say, the history of democracy is also the history of struggle for representation by the working class. It is no coincidence that the changes above came about in a period when the Liberal government was enacting progressive reforms in the 1890s and the first Labour government was bringing increased working-class representation.

Still, within this dynamic, the history of democracy has been a history of struggle against the dominant expression of it; namely, a Roman model that structurally excludes the poor/working class. I think we can see the same thing in current practice, where hundreds of thousands of people are disengaged from the political process.

I don’t think it is a big call to say that the democratic frameworks we have currently are a bit shit. Because in part democracy is about more than putting your hand up, casting a vote every three years. It’s the environment surrounding the act of voting which frames the level of democracy we engage in. I’m not going to engage in much depth with the issue of three-yearly voting in elections. But Parliament is a relatively powerless thing, when it has no real ability to engage in the question of what is made in and what quantity. Clearly though, we need a process that involves actual participation as opposed to token involvement.

Building on that, the real gaping hole is in the workplace; namely, the lack of democratic decision making. We spend most of our time in the workplace and yet we have little say over what goes on, on what is produced. We’re not going to get on top of issues like climate change without democratization of our workplaces.

If you look back historically at the Soviets in Russia, the Factory Councils in Italy and Spain, what links them all (broadly) is a direct link between the workplace and the political decision-making bodies. But there is also a direct democracy that gives people some collective control over their lives. These are the stories that have inspired me, examples of people taking control over their lives. Yet, for some people, the fact that the Russian Revolution didn’t immediately lead to everyone having a beach house and a pool to get a tan by is some sort of indictment of the experience, as if freedom is just carefree idleness. The thing for me though, is that with this newfound freedom from their former lives under an autocratic Tsarist regime came more responsibility, not less, part and parcel with the freedoms that were won through struggle.

That unflinching determination makes sense when viewed as a fight for more responsibility, for the right to have a real say in how society is run – which echoes in part to the older tradition of Athenian dēmokratía.

Freedom/Liberty
I’m going to paraphrase both Immanuel Kant and Spiderman in saying “with freedom, comes great responsibility”. And also, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – twelve words by Marx, that he took from the French radical tradition.

For me, freedom is a term that has become hijacked by the Right. We’ve got to be aware of the neoliberal co-option of language, especially the powerful liberatory language of the Left. The dominant (right-wing) perspective lacks a collective framework for individual freedom. For me, my individual freedom is predicated on a broader collective freedom. If society as a whole is unfree, then there is little real basis for my personal freedom.

This is important when talking about socialism, seeing the world as a totality and not the individual as some abstract decontexualised Ayn Randian superman. All too often, when you look at the “freedom” of the Right, near the surface somewhere is the oppression that this freedom rests on. But for me, freedom and imagination are interlinked to a large extent. You can’t have real freedom without…

Imagination
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Einstein

This is the point where I hope there aren’t too many sniggers. But I passionately believe that without an ability to imagine, we’re stuck with the status quo that we currently have. Furthermore, I think we’ve seen a gradual limiting of the space within society in which we can dream/imagine something different, something new.

You only have to look at Margaret Thatcher’s well known phrase “there is no such thing as society,” or the survey result that came out a few years ago which showed that people could more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, to see how dangerous capitalism sees the imagination as being.

If we start with the Thatcher quote, I think we see a key battleground. Not just the right to dream, but the right to dream/imagine collectively. This collective imagination is tied back to my conception of freedom, based around a relationship between the individual and the collective. On top of that, we need to be able to imagine the future; otherwise we end up trapped in the present. As Marxists we need to be able to imagine this concept of a future society, based on our critique of capitalism and our understanding of the limitations of previous attempts at building an alternative to capitalism (France, Germany, Russia, China, Cuba etc). From there we need to be able realise and develop these ideas in practice.

This is where we gather together as a small group of people dreaming of revolution, of a fundamentally changed way in which society is run, where we have a totally different conception of democracy, freedom and the imagination than the bullshit we are presented with currently.
The challenge from this point of collective dreaming is the realization of these ideas on a small scale (let’s not pretend we are a revolutionary army of thousands), which right now, could be going on a poster run to promote the next Intro to Marxism session, opposing white supremacists in Christchurch, or helping make a banner for the anti-Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement march this Saturday.

At its core though, my point is a call for radical critical thinking and corresponding action.

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