Politics 29 October 2018 | 15:49

Socialism v barbarism: a false choice

29 October 2018 15:49

If intelligence is defined as the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head without resolving them, political maturity is the ability to accept the existence of ambiguity in political life. No ‘ism’ can ever achieve a final irreversible victory, and interpreting all events as part of a struggle between good and evil is the politics of the kindergarten.

Yet political ideologues do often interpret events in this way. A case in point is the twentieth century use of the slogan “*Socialism or Barbarism” by parts of the far-left. Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg originally attributed the term to Friedrich Engels in her ‘Junius Pamphlet’ of 1916, where she quoted Engels as describing “bourgeois society” as at a “crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism”.

A few weeks ago this binary was effectively resurrected by Corbyn-supporting website the New Socialist in a mealy-mouthed defence of the dictatorship in Venezuela. Today it was again given another outing by left-wing Guardian columnist Owen Jones, this time to discredit liberal opposition to the new fascist President of Brazil. In Jones’ case this seems an especially stupid point to make when Venezuelan migrants are trying to enter Brazil on an ongoing basis to avoid starvation in their homeland (Jones was a noisy propagandist for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, even travelling to the country to act as a ‘monitor’ in dubious elections).

To be sure, the binary of Socialism versus Barbarism made a certain sense when Luxemburg deployed it. She was writing from the vantage point of the First World War, when Social Democratic parties across Europe had slavishly lined up behind monarchs and Jingos to vote for a bloody slaughter that would result in the loss of nearly 20 million lives.

Yet the phrase doesn’t carry quite the same weight today. Luxemburg was writing 100 years ago. Today we know more than she did about the trajectory of the Socialist experiment. For one thing, we know that Socialism and Barbarism are not antithetical concepts, that central planning does not work, and that no bureaucrat or planner, however intelligent, can conceivably foresee the wants and desires of 66 million people (using Britain as our example).

One may call oneself a Socialist to indicate a particular disposition – just as one might call oneself ‘anti-war’ – but a credible Socialist theory of the economy that is applicable to the twenty-first century does not exist. Scratch those who claim otherwise and you will find either nostalgia for nationalisation, or some half-baked fantasies about some imaginary planned future using the algorithms of super-computers (as to the appeal of that, think of something a million times more powerful than Facebook but controlled by the state).

Yet paradoxically this prevailing confusion as to what anti-capitalism is helps us explain why quotes about ‘Socialism versus Barbarism’ are back in vogue. In order for Socialism (or the model of Socialism touted by a small band of hot-air merchants) to triumph, the only conceivable alternative must be Fascism. Faced with a tide of encroaching jackboots, some contemporary iteration of GOSPLAN is endowed with an appeal it might not otherwise possess. Politics thus resembles the rather morbid game some of us played as children:

  • How would you least like to die, by burning to death or by drowning?
  • “I don’t wish to answer.”
  • “You must answer or you lose”.

It comes as a relief, then, to discover that we do not have to make grown-up political decisions on this basis. There is a choice facing humanity, but it is not Socialism verses Barbarism but rather ambiguity and pluralism versus dogmatism and a static view of nature and mankind. Indeed, I would submit that almost everything worth preserving in the world is a result of the space that falls between the two extremes now being touted as our only possible alternatives.

*By ‘Socialism’ I mean a full transition away from capitalism, as opposed to Social Democracy which argues for a mixed economy.