What is the case for real socialist change?

The fourth part of 20 chapters on some of the basic politics of Socialist Labour for discussion by its members.

The argument for real socialist change is not really about ‘violence’. It’s about developing genuine popular power within society. It’s about a vast expansion of democracy.

The core meaning of socialism is that working class people develop new institutions, rooted in their everyday lives, which challenge and replace the power of existing top-down authorities. In order to be vehicles of the will of millions, such institutions have to be democratic.

In different times and places workers have given such institutions different names – the commune, the soviet, the workers’ council, the strike committee, the self governing republic. They will probably invent new names as time goes on.

Socialism has to be a process ‘from below’, engaging the active involvement of millions. Through socialism ordinary people take control of all matters affecting their own lives. That’s not just a question of ‘politics’ in general. It extends to economic life, and thus to the socialisation of all work places. There can be no real democracy while a few people control society’s wealth.

Democracy means nothing while some people boss others about, and earn more for the privilege.  Work places, recruitment, production and planning all have to be subject to popular discussion and democratic control.

It extends to questions of ‘law and order’. Unelected judges, police chiefs and army officers can never solve the problems of crime, everyday violence and insecurity that broadly arise from inequality and poverty.

Such a change goes beyond just altering institutions. It engages the deepest levels of human society and psychology. Under capitalism, most of the time, our rulers’ and bosses’ power depends on keeping us in a condition where we’re both divided among ourselves and feel powerless.

Here lies the real significance of nationalist, ethnic and sexist divisions under capitalist society. They divert the frustrations engendered by life away from their real sources onto ‘scapegoats’.  So the Fulani, the ‘terrorists’ or foreigners are blamed for our problems, rather than the real enemy – the corrupt politicians, money bags and the bosses generally.

But underpinning such divisions is something deeper – a profound sense of powerlessness that most of us suffer from our everyday lives.  In order to live, we have to work for someone else, or hustle in the informal economy and to submit to humiliation by the bosses. The ‘market’ – where in theory we have ‘freedom’ – offers few real choices to most working people.

Everyday life is where the gap is greatest between brute reality and the idea of ordinary people exercising democratic power over their lives. Voting in elections every few years cannot close that gap.

Major, popular change is necessary, but not only because there’s no other way to get the corrupt elite and the money bags off our backs. As important are the mobilising effects, the changes that occur in people, when they join together in strikes and other popular struggles.

A century ago the Russian socialist Lenin wrote that ‘every revolution is a festival of the oppressed’. This is the most important and precious thing. People transform themselves.

We regularly see this on a small scale in strikes and social movements. People grow in confidence – they actually feel better. Strikes are the seedlings of socialism where working people begin to take some control over their lives – rather than just obeying the orders of their bosses.

Socialism has to be a collective, shared process. Confidence in our capacity to make a new world depends on the sense that we’re not isolated and helpless individuals, weakened and incapacitated in the face of seemingly all-powerful rulers. That is why mass revolts always come as a surprise-not only to ruling classes, but to ordinary people themselves.

Every honest historian of mass protests always records this, along with the accompanying feelings of joy and self empowerment. People change faster during mass struggles than at any other time.

New possibilities show themselves. Human horizons suddenly expand. Only through the experience of mass struggle and finally socialism can the powerless begin to experience their own capacities. Only then can they test and expand their own strengths, and actually become self consciously capable of democratically running a new world.

Socialism has nothing to do with violence, and everything to do with expanding freedom, reducing inequality and poverty.