Cambridge graduate and editor of marxiststudent.com Ben Gliniecki had the formidable task of having to counter as many misconceptions about Marxism as possible in an hour. He began by addressing one of the most common objections to socialism, that selfishness is an inherent part of human nature. Ben explained how there could not be such a thing as human nature, as it is a dynamic thing that is moulded by the environment people find themselves in. Imagine a situation where increases in agricultural productivity had become so high that bread could be given out for free at shops. Initially, there would be mad scrambles to empty the shelves as fast as possible, with people trying to grab as much as they could physically carry. Lo and behold, the next day the shop is filled to the brim again. More carnage ensues. After a few days though, people would start to adapt to this change, as their stockpiled bread goes off and the shop’s supply is replenished every day without fail. In this context of abundance, they now have no incentive to be greedy. It now makes sense for them to only take as much as they need – any more and it will just go to waste. Obviously isn’t as simple as that for all instances of greed in society at large, but the point is that it only makes sense to be greedy in the context of scarcity – economic or otherwise.
We then moved on to the question of whether the working class even exists any more. Ben gave us a scientific definition of class, based on relations to the means of production, and pointed out that the working class is objectively stronger today than it was in Marx’s time. This will only increase, with the constant “proletarianisation” of middle classes, as they become conscious of the fact that they can only survive by selling their labour power.
The issue of the USSR was put in a new light, when Ben pointed out the incredible achievements of the planned economy; transforming Russia from a backwards, agrarian nation of illiterate peasants into a spacefaring superpower with one of the highest amount of doctors per capita in the world in the matter of about 40 years. He has no illusions about the nature of the dictatorial regime, however, and explained how Russia’s isolation and shattered economy (due to civil war and invasion by industrialised countries) set the material conditions for bureaucracy to destroy any semblance of a genuine socialist economy; countering the prevailing notion that socialist revolution inevitably leads to dictatorship. Don’t forget that the system we live in is also a form of dictatorship – not by one person or even one party, but by capital, and those in control of it. The notion that a revolution inevitably leads to widespread violence was also tackled – the October Revolution resulted in two casualties.
The last major topic was on the purported efficiency of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction was explained, as well as the fact that capitalism is simply not improving people’s lives any more – failing one of the basic purposes of an economic system. The wonders of free market competition were also examined – if this model is so effective, why are huge corporations with revenues larger than the GDPs of small countries internally planned, down to the minutest of details? Why are we unable to tackle the pressing environmental issues facing the world?
After wrapping up with the necessity of having revolutionary organisations to bring about socialism, the floor was opened to audience discussion. Many questions were asked about the feasibility of a socialist society:
- Who will do the mundane jobs?
- How can the leadership dissolve after the revolution?
- Won’t it just be the intellectuals leading the country, creating a new form of elitism?
In response, someone pointed out that the Russian people were too overworked to take part in politics effectively, and that increased participation in democracy requires shorter working days. Other topics brought up included: the Chinese economy; the current strength of the working class; art and literature’s relationship to revolution and how claiming anything about human nature is a reductionist approach.
Ben summarised the evening by stating that socialists are not utopians that want to prescribe in advance every detail of the running of society. The details are up to the majority of the population to decide – perhaps mundane jobs will be handed out on a rotational basis, with the eventual goal of creating labour-saving devices to eliminate them. What we want to make sure is that people have control of their own lives, and that a degeneration into bureaucracy does not occur. This will require participation in the running of society by the entire population, a high level of political education (requiring shorter working days), and all elected officials to receive an average worker’s wage and be subject to immediate recall. Essentially, if everybody is a bureaucrat, then nobody is a bureaucrat.
Ben observed that people are not interested in politics right now because they feel unempowered, which highlights the crucial necessity of building revolutionary consciousness. We cannot afford to be passive observers any more, because even if you aren’t interested in politics, politics is interested in you.