FRANCIS Dixon’s continued and unfortunate tendency to cast aspersions about the politics of someone he clearly did not know should not detract from the central issue which has arisen from this correspondence – namely, the indivisibility of socialism and democracy.
Dixon’s listing of critics of communism who have equated it with totalitarianism could easily be matched with examples of human rights abuses committed by states with systems of representative democracy, but that would not take the debate forward. The key question for socialists today, fully understood by Cyril Claydon whose death and obituary sparked this correspondence, is how to make fundamental changes in economic and political relations while strengthening pluralism and democracy.
Socialism as an economic idea and ideal grew world-wide in the years up to the 1970s because it offered an alternative to the anarchy and irrationality of capitalist systems with their inherent characteristics of boom and slump, exploitation and inequality. At the political level, socialists who in their early forms had tirelessly fought for the extension of the franchise, exposed the weaknesses of democracy based solely on parliamentary and municipal elections leaving decision making about major economic matters and workplace issues firmly in the hands of the unelected owners of capital. To illustrate this in the contemporary context, one could ask how many of the 2,400 Pfizer employees were consulted about their futures when the US corporation announced it was to close the research centre at Sandwich? For socialists the issue was and is how to extend democratic control so that it permeates all aspects of life, including economic and industrial arenas.
Successive Labour government’s, while introducing many progressive reforms, have failed to seriously confront the power of capital and since Kinnock and Blair’s periods of leadership Labour has ditched any commitment to extending public ownership, the fundamental premise on which socialist ideas were constructed. In almost the same period of history, the communist experiment begun in Soviet Russia in 1917 placed nationalisation and central planning at the centre of its politics but failed to base this on control by workers and users. Critically, it also failed to introduce democratic electoral systems leaving it defenceless against accusations of operating a one-party state, mistakenly denied by communists for decades.
The challenge for socialists today is to build mass support for policies that tackle the immediate problems facing working people including unemployment and cuts in services, along with a rediscovery of forms of public, social and co-operative ownership as instruments of social change.
This, and a commitment to extend forms of democratic control and participation, will continue to pose an alternative to capitalism which contrary to much current thinking is not immutable.