The socialist worldview

published 24 Jan 2014
Photo: 
USSR propaganda

I previously published a piece which looked at the political left from an anthropological and external point of view, this article takes a theoretical, internal view of the left.


When people have basic differences in the internal model that they use to navigate the world around them their behaviours and opinions can easily seem irrational and senseless to one another. Understanding somebody’s basic world-view is necessary in order to make any sense of their behaviour: at some level all belief systems that humans adhere to are rational and understandable. When people act in ways that appear strange, it is almost always possible to trace it back to a basic difference in assumptions about how the world works – fundamental differences in internal conceptual models. Before one can make any sense of the internal world of the left, it is necessary to understand their basic shared world-view and how it differs from the more common liberal-democratic model of society.

What distinguishes socialists from the mainstream of the population, more than anything else, is a shared model of the world that differs markedly from the model that is prevalent amongst the general public. Most people do not carry around explicit models in their heads.  They have fuzzy worldviews that are inferred from cultural participation and can include contradictory factors. However, it is easy to identify a common model that underpins most political commentary in the Western world today. Modern states are modelled as democracies which translate popular opinion, with varying degrees of imperfectness, into policy. The state provides public services and regulates the free market system which rewards economic initiative and productivity. Corruption and the repressive, venal and authoritarian nature of political and economic leaders are the principle sources of imperfection which cause real world societies to diverge from the ideal democratic model. Progress towards better societies can be achieved by progressively overcoming these imperfections: by ousting tyrants, jailing corrupt leaders and building better democratic institutions. This model is so pervasive that it is implicit in the great majority of discussion of all political and economic issues throughout the Western media.

Socialists use a quite different basic model of the world which dates back to 1848 and Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. It models societies not as democracies, but as a set of distinct classes with conflicting economic interests. On one side there are the owners of capital – the bourgeoisie; on the other side stand the workers - the proletariat. The conflict of interests between these classes is a structural feature of the economy and will always reassert itself: a never-ending class-struggle which drives social evolution. In this model both the world of private business and the state are considered to be instruments of the bourgeoisie (as the Communist Manifesto puts it: “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”). On the proletarian side of the divide there is the workers movement – consisting of trade unions, socialist political parties and so on. Progress towards a better society is made by participating in the class struggle on behalf of the proletariat.  There is a intermediate area between the classes - occupied by small business owners (the petite bourgeois) and by managerial workers, however they were considered largely irrelevant to the overall dynamics - it was assumed that they were few in number and weak and would join either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie in times of class conflict. 

The basic shape of the class model is more or less shared by every faction of the historical socialist movement. Although it is very simple, it has enough detail to generate all of the great theoretical cleavages that the socialist movement has experienced since 1848. Most of these can be boiled down to the question of where exactly things should be placed on the model - or in the jargon of socialism, what their “class nature” is. So, the deepest and longest running dispute on the left, between the social democrats, the revolutionary Marxists and the anarchists, relates to the class nature of the state. All of them agree, following Marx, that the state is a bourgeois institution, which serves to enforce the rule of the capitalists. However, it is on the question of whether the state can be moved from its current class position where the trouble arises.

Thee paths to socialism Social Democracy, Revolutionary Marxism, Anarchism image: chekov

The social democrats favour a strategy of attrition where political power is gained through elections and legislative reforms gradually move the state from the bourgeois side of the model to the intermediate area in the middle and finally, one day, to the proletarian side, where it can help usher in socialism. The revolutionary Marxists contend that, although socialists may be able to capture power in parliament, the state is made up of many permanent bodies: the army, the police and the civil service, which will conspire against any elected socialist government to preserve the state’s bourgeois nature. Therefore, state power must be seized through a revolution which will move it almost instantly onto the proletarian side, where it can be used to crush the remnants of the bourgeoisie. The anarchists, for their part, believe that the state is entirely defined by its class nature: it is an instrument of class domination and nothing else. It cannot be reformed or seized, it must be destroyed and replaced with institutions created from the bottom up by the workers.

The class nature of the USSR

With the rise of socialist states in the 20th century, theoretical debate on the far left was dominated by the analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union and its various satellite states. Where should the Bolshevik state be positioned? The communist parties (or Team USSR as I call them) considered it to be thoroughly proletarian, if flawed, and that it had achieved the elimination of bourgeois power in Russia. The major socialist theoretical opposition came from Leon Trotsky and the Trotskyist parties which he inspired. Trotsky himself considered the Soviet Union to be a ‘degenerated workers state’. Although the state had become corrupted by Stalin’s bureaucracy, the economy still belonged on the proletarian side of the divide - all that was needed was a purge of Stalin's bureaucracy to restore the worker's state. However, many of his followers disagreed. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism, promoted most notably by Max Shachtman and his followers, saw the USSR as occupying the intermediate zone, being neither socialist nor capitalist, with the bureaucracy, or nomenklatura, replacing the bourgeoisie as the exploiter class. Finally, Tony Cliff, the founder of the UK Socialist Workers Party, placed the Russian state and economy squarely on the exploiters' side of the line in his theory of state capitalism, with the system being merely a variation on capitalism with the same class-dynamics and exploitative relations.  There were many other variations on these analyses, of course, but those three had the greatest impact in real-world politics. 

The class nature of the soviet union Three divisive theories - degenerated workers state, bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism image: chekov

Although these theoretical disputes may appear academic and inconsequential in themselves, they had great practical implications for the participants – because if an entity belonged on the proletarian side of the line, it was a socialist’s duty to defend it, regardless of what criticisms he might have. Conversely, entities on the bourgeois side of the line were the enemy. So, for example, if a party held the orthodox Trotskyist position that North Korea was a degenerated workers state - on the proletarian side of the line - the party’s members might find themselves holding placards on the streets with slogans that called for defence of North Korea’s nuclear program. Those people are not insane – their weird behaviour is a result of a specific feature of their theoretical model of the world.

Not actually insane - the consequences of the degenerated workers state theory image: unknown

Despite the voluminous texts in which these theories were expounded in excruciating detail, it is easy to see the pragmatic considerations that drove their development. Trotsky considered himself to be essentially the leader in exile of the USSR. He was not going to advocate anything that helped their international enemies – his beef was purely with the resident leadership, hence the degenerated workers state theory. Bureaucratic collectivism, for its part, was a theory that made it much easier to operate in the USA and other NATO countries since it did not traitorously take the side of the USSR in the cold-war.  State capitalism, was a theory which allowed far-left political groups to occupy a niche that was neither pro-USSR nor pro-capitalist. In the period between Kruschev’s famous 1956 speech, which denounced Stalin’s crimes, and the protest movements of the late 1960’s, the environment was fertile for a "neither Moscow nor Washington" position. Sure enough, the Team USSR parties shed many members to the upstart state capitalists through that period.

Once the practices that pragmatism demanded had been translated into weighty theoretical form, the theories took on a life of their own, being applied even in situations where they made no sense at all. For example, in Ireland in 1999, the Socialist Workers Party wrote to the Socialist party, both Trotskyist parties, seeking an electoral alliance. The Socialist Party party declined the offer in a pamphlet length letter, 6,000 words of which were dedicated to a critique of the SWP’s theory of state capitalism in comparison to the SP’s degenerated workers state theory. This was a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall and the disappearance of the USSR!


The Class Model of Society Examined

It is easy to pick holes in the basic socialist class-model of society and many have enthusiastically done so. It purports to be a model that describes fundamental social dynamics (“the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” - the first line of chapter 1 of the communist manifesto) yet it is based purely on an economic relationship and does not include any cultural factors. It lumps the population into 2 or 3 great undifferentiated masses and assumes that economic forces will tend to push them together into groups with identical economic interests. It makes no allowances for conflict between societies: Marx assumed that the national divisions within classes would eventually dissolve as capitalism spread around the world.The analytic method of deriving an entity’s position in the class model – and whether it should be supported – by deducing its class nature from abstract first principles, is extremely primitive. It allows virtually any conclusion to be arrived at without danger of refutation and it is incapable of dealing with institutions that have complex dynamics.

These theoretical limitations have long been understood by Marx’s followers. Lenin’s major contribution to Marxist theory, “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”, written in 1916, was an attempt to reconcile the Marxist class model with the observed facts that the predicted divisions within classes had not broken down, instead competition between the international bourgeoisie had seen the mobilisation of their respective national proletariats in a great war, where they killed one another by the million. Other theorists such as Kautsky, Luxembourg and Gramsci attempted to elaborate the model by incorporating cultural factors and more subtleties into the treatment of the state. Marx himself painted a far more nuanced picture than that which has been transmitted and attempted to address many of the above limitations – such as the class nature of the state - in later works.

However, none of the attempted patches made much of a difference to the evolution of socialism, nor were they particularly successful on a theoretical level. In some cases, events proved them disastrously wrong: Lenin’s theory of imperialism predicted that capitalism was in its death throes in 1916. In most others, the theorists were able to identify significant factors that were outside the basic class model, but were never really able to successfully integrate them into a whole. There conclusions can be summed up as follows: the basic class model was still valid but other stuff was also important and the various factors might interact in complex ways. Not a whole lot of help in answering practical questions. In any case, such theoretical innovations made relatively little impact upon the broad socialist support base. The resilience of the class model owes much to its simplicity and its foundational nature – it was described on the first page of the Communist Manifesto, a page that has probably been read far more widely than any other page of political theory in history.

Not only does the class model provide an analytic framework through which one can understand society, it also provides an answer to the question of what needs to be done to move towards a better society. But there’s more to it's appeal than just that. Certainly, simplicity and a clear course of action are necessary requirements of any political model becoming widely adopted. However, the class model of social dynamics has something else going for it: for all of its limitations, it’s bloody good. It predicts and explains many observed features of modern capitalist society, features which are utterly mysterious when viewed through the liberal-democratic model. Indeed, properly constrained, it is an exceedingly powerful predictive model. This is the intellectual attraction of the far-left, it provides its adherents with an analytic framework which really does help them in understanding why things happen the way that they do. On the other hand, the limitations of the model are such that it turns out to be a very poor guide to action, while the primitive analytic methods that have been passed down make it very difficult to address these limitations.


 The second part of this article will look at the strengths and weaknesses of the basic class model of society and some of their implications when it comes to political activity.

Comments (1)

Josh Ocular

This was worth waiting for. I very much enjoyed the 3-stage model differentiating SD, RM, @ interpretations of transition to utopia. But I do wonder whether it give sufficient credit to Engels' "withering away of the state".

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