Melvin Little's short piece (see below) deserves a response if only because it reveals certain strains of thought current in social-democratic circles and because it extends to others the means of replying and helping to clarify socialist thought. I hope that our readers will respond in this discussion.
We should begin by noting that a relatively small number of socialists debating the alleged differences between socialism and communism in 2006 might be an exercise in futility, something like debating the finest points of gnostic theology, and that the further we are removed from working class and popular movements the more meaningless and futile these debates become. It is Little's responsibility, then, to work out what the main contradictions of our historic moment are and to tell us about the movements he is actively engaged in which seek to transform this moment into something democratic or, if you will, into something revolutionary. What is the practical activity to which Little's essay responds?
Instead, Little tells us that the alleged difference between socialism and communism is "Democracy." He does not define the term or, more importantly, tell us whose "Democracy"and rights are at stake. We are left with an abstract "Democracy" which we might recognize by its opposite, by what it is not, because this opposite "...is just as non-appealing as the command economy, one party system, and the micro-management of the individual that existed in the former Soviet Union." This must be a "Democracy" which does not belong to a class and does not reflect a certain means of production and distribution--an abstract "Democracy," then, and one which has never existed.
What the argument lacks in specificity--whose "Democracy" and rights are at stake? what are the specific characteristics of this "Democracy"?--it also lacks in scholarship. In a few lines Little gives his version of what the USSR was like. Recent and non-apologetic scholarship of the USSR provides very different insights into daily life and the class nature of the USSR. Indeed, it was always a society engaged in internal struggles and so criticism must be pointed to specific time periods, specific trends and specific forces. Absent such specificity, Little is weaving, or reweaving, a cold war fable.
What catches my attention is Little's use of the term "command economy" and I suspect that in this is the source of my disagreements with him and many of the errors we see in socialist and social democratic circles.
Every economy is indeed a "command economy" and the remaining questions concern who commands and how that command is organized and carried out. The "unseen hand" of capitalism is certainly a commanding force and the worker understands very well, if only instinctively, that our golden rule is that "he who has the gold makes the rules." In a socialist society the commanding forces may exist as a mobilized working class or as planning commissions and bureaus. In the syndicalist utopia it is the general convention or assembly of the syndicate or industrial union. These are the means, real or imagined or hoped for, through which classes exercise their will, or commands.
And so it is that Little's conflation of the social democracies and socialism says more about the present day confusion among social democrats than it does about any historic fact or process. It is good that Little qualifies this with "Well to me..." but he is too modest here: he speaks for a broader "socialist" constituency which is essentially made up of militant liberals.
Is it true, as Little says, that "powers tend to moderate in democracies" and that "a mixed economy works?" If "powers" did indeed "moderate in democracies" then Little could have no complaint. The American Constitution provides for a democratic government and it would only be a matter of adhering to certain principles in order to find that moderation which would produce enough rights and power for all. And it would be a relatively simple matter, then, for countries with enlightened and democratic constitutions to impose their enlightenment and democracy upon others.
But just the opposite occurs. Those who control the economic relations which underpin society and a nation's military and judicial might have only limited interest in democracy and moderation. The limits of their interest extend to the point that their power may be threatened. They impose upon their own societies and other countries those economic and political relationships which benefit them. "Democratic rights" may inded have been the inspiring call and banner of past revolutions, but those revolutions have run their historic course. We now confront questions of class power and these questions occur in the context of a permanent arms and war economy under the aegis of the American empire.
Just so, we turn to the question of the "mixed economy." Little is obligated to tell us where and how such a "mixed economy" works if this is his model. We have examples of states managing social and vital services alongside of consumer cooperatives and capitalist enterprises, but nowhere have we seen such arrangements exist peacefully and productively over a long period of time. There have come decisive moments in every society during which struggles have erupted over how property is prioritized and how the power which comes with owning and controlling property may or may not be circumscribed; this is unavoidable. And we seen in recent times that the social democracies, allegedly built on such "mixed economies," have been used by the capitalists to carry the social costs of reproducing labor power. Now some of these social democracies--and some of the social democratic parties which give them political coherence--are among the first to support the American empire in its adventures or privatize or actually defeat working class power. Little should show us where this is not the case.
It is instructive that when the USSR sought to create in some fashion a mixed economy the small capitalists necessary for such an economy found a political voice and the means of crushing their rivals. They won their "mixed economy" and, not satisfied, overthrew the existing order and instituted gangster and careerist capitalism. Such is the class struggle.
Little objects to the use of "force" and wants "*socialism* in its purest sense through democratic means." I do not pretend to know what is "pure" in life, and much less in the class struggle. Workers move forward and backward, often simultaneously, and our revolutions interrupt themselves with self-criticism, idealism, looking backwards and purges. And we face the full might of the state, wars and the appropriation of our struggles by those who are basically hostile to us. There is nothing "pure" here.
But Little counterposes "force" and "democratic means" as if they are eternally opposite. It is a kind of theology, you know--an eternal good and bad at war with one another. If Little believes that "If any movement...tries to implement their ideas through force, then their movement loses the right to call itself 'democratic'" then Little is opposed to feminism or the civil rights movement or strikes--all use "force" to gain our objectives; all act, with "force," as militant minoirity movements within the confines of larger and hostile societies.
Little says that he wants something more than social democracies provide or promise. He wants "greater participation" for workers and the regulation of corporations and a "living wage job" for everyone and he wants this through a "mixed economy" with cooperatives. This has been the social democratic agenda for five generations and it certainly provides for a better life than what we have now in the USA--but it is not enough and it is not realistic.
Little says that he wants more than the agenda he is arguing for. We do not hear in this vision what means of production and distribution these cooperatives will appropriate or how cooperatively held property will exist in relationship to privately held property--only that a worker will have some security there. We do not hear how these social gains will be protected from hostile forces without the use of state power-- that is, force--or how such a state can exist without the use of force and still be democratic. These unresolved questions mark a curious set of contradictions in social democratic thinking.
I hope that we will hear from others in this discussion.