Saturday, May 02, 2009

21st Century Socialism: What It Is, Why We Need It

Eleven Talking Points
On 21st Century Socialism

By Carl Davidson

May 1, 2009

The current discussion around socialism in left and progressive circles in the U.S. needs to be placed in a more substantive arena. This is an effort to do so. I take note in advance of the criticism that the following eleven working hypotheses are rather dry and formal. But in light of the faux ‘socialisms’ bandied about in the headlines and sound bytes of the mass media in the wake of the financial crisis, especially the absurd claim in the media of rightwing populism that the Obama administration is Marxist and socialist, I felt something a little more rigorous might be helpful. Obviously, criticism and commentary is invited.

1. Socialism’s fundamental building blocks are already present in US society. The means of production, for the most part, are fully developed and in fact are stagnating under the political domination of finance capital. The US labor force, again for the most part, is highly skilled at all levels of production, management, marketing, and finance. The kernels of socialist organization are also scattered across the landscape in cooperatives, socially organized human services, and centralized and widespread mass means of many-to-many communication and supply/demand data management. Many earlier attempts at socialism did not have these advantages.

2. Socialism is first of all a democratic political system where the interests and organizations of the working class and its allies have attained and hold the preponderance of political power, and thus play the critical leading role in society. It is still a class society, but one in a protracted transition, over hundreds of years, to a future classless society where exploiting class privileges are abolished and classes and class distinctions generally wither away, both nationally and globally. So socialism will have classes for some time, including some capitalists, because it will be a mixed economy, with both public and private ownership, even as the balance shifts over time. Family farmers and small proprietors will both exist and flourish alongside cooperatives. Innovative 'high road' entrepreneurial privately-held firms will compete with publically-own firms, and encouraged to create new wealth within an environmentally regulated and progressively taxed system. Past efforts to build socialism have suffered from aggravated conflict between and among popular classes and lack of emphasis on building wide unity among the people.

3. Socialism at the base is a transitional economic system anchored in the social mode of production brought into being by capitalist development over several centuries. Its economic system is necessarily mixed, and makes use of markets, especially in goods and services, which are regulated, especially regarding the environment. But capital markets and wage-labor markets can be sharply restricted and even abolished in due time. Markets are a function of scarcity, and all economies of any scale in a time of scarcity have them, even if they are disguised as 'black' or 'tiered' markets. In addition to regulated markets, socialism will also feature planning, especially on the macro level of infrastructure development, in investment of public assets and funds, and other arenas where markets have failed. Planning will especially be required to face the challenges of uneven development and harsh inequalities on a global scale, as well as the challenge of moving from a carbon and uranium based energy system to one based on renewable green energy sources. The socialisms of the last century fell or stagnated due to failure to develop the proper interplay between plans and markets.

4. Socialism will be anchored in public and worker ownership of the main productive forces and natural resources. This can be achieved by various means: a) buying out major failing corporations at penny stock status, then leasing them back to the unions and having the workers in each firm—one worker, one vote—run them, b) workers directly taking ownership and control over failed and abandoned factories, c) eminent domain seizures of resources and factories, with compensation, otherwise required for the public good, and d) public funding for startups of worker-owned cooperative businesses. Socialism will also require public ownership of most finance capital institutions, including bringing the Federal Reserve under the Treasury Department and federal ownership. Lease payments from publically owned firms will go into a public investment fund, which will in turn lend money to community and worker owned banks and credit unions. A stock market will still exist for remaining publically traded firms and investments abroad, but will be strictly controlled. A stock transfer tax will be implemented. Gambling in derivatives will be outlawed. Fair trade agreements with other countries will be on a bilateral basis for mutual benefit.

5. Socialism will require democracy in the workplace of public firms and encourage it in all places of work. Workers have the right to independent unions to protect their social and daily interests, in addition to their rights as worker-owners in the governance of their firms. In addition to direct democracy at the plant level, the organizations of the working class also participate in the wider public planning process and thus democratically shape the direction of ongoing development on the macro level as well. Under socialism the government will also serve as the employer-of-last-resort. Minimum living-wage jobs will be provided for all who want to work. Socialism is committed to genuine full employment. Every citizen will have a genuine right to work.

6. Socialism will largely be gained by the working class and it allies winning the battle for democracy in politics and civil society at large, especially taking down the structures and backward laws of class, gender and racial privilege. Women have equal rights with men, and minority nationalities have equal rights with the majority. It also defends equal rights and self-determination among all nations across the globe; no nation can itself be fully free when it oppresses another. Socialism will encourage public citizenship and mass participation at every level, with open information systems, public education and transparency in its procedures. It will need a true multiparty system, with fusion voting, proportional representation and instant runoff. Given the size and diversity of our country, it is highly unlikely that any single party could adequately represent all popular interests; working class and progressive organizations will need to form common fronts. All trends are guaranteed the right to speak, organize, petition and stand for election. With public financing as an option, socialism can restrict the role of wealth in elections, moving away from a system, in effect, of “one dollar, one vote” and toward a system more reflective of “one person, one vote.” These are the structural measures that can allow the majority of the people, especially the working class and its allies, to secure the political leadership of government and instruments of the state by democratic means, unless these are sabotaged by reaction. Some socialisms of the past used only limited formal democracy or simply used administrative means to implement goals, with the failure of both the goals and the overall projects. Americans are not likely to be interested in systems with elections where only one party runs and no one can lose.

7. Socialism will be a state power, specifically a democratic political order with a representative government. But the government and state components of the current order, corrupted with the thousand threads connecting it to old ruling class, will have to be broken up and replaced with new ones that are transparent, honest and serve the majority of the people. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights can still be the initial basic organizing principle for a socialist government and state. The democratic rights it has gained over the years will be protected and enhanced. Government will also be needed to organize and finance the social development benefitting the people and the environment already mentioned; but the state power behind the law will be required to compel the honest use of resources and to protect people from criminal elements, individual and organized. Forces who try to overturn and reverse the new socialist government illegally and in violation of the Constitution will not be able to do so; they will be broken up and brought to justice. Our society will need a state power for some time to come, even as its form changes. Still, government power has limits; under socialism sovereignty resides in the people themselves, and the powers of any government are necessarily restricted and subordinate to the universal and natural rights of all humankind. Attempts to ignore or reject these principles have severely harmed socialist governments and movements in the past.

8. Socialism will be a society in harmony with the natural environment, understanding that all economies are subsets of the eco-system and ignore it at their peril. In its economics, there are no such things as “externalities” to be pushed off downstream or to future generations. The nature of pending planetary disasters necessitates a high level of planning. We need to redesign communities, promote healthier foods, and rebuild sustainable agriculture—all on a global scale with high design, but on a human scale with mass participation of communities in diverse localities. Socialism will treasure and preserve the diversity of nature’s bounty and end the practice of genetic modification to control the human food supply. We need growth, but intelligent growth in quality and wider knowledge with a lighter environmental footprint. A socialism that simply reproduces the wasteful expansion of an earlier capitalism creates more problems than it solves.

9. Socialism values equality, and will be a society of far greater equality of opportunity, and far less economic inequality. In addition to equal rights before the law, all citizens and residents will have equitable access to a “universal toolbox” of paid-up free public education for all who want to learn, for as far as they want and are able to go; universal public pre-school care; a minimum income, as a social wage, for all who create value, whether in a workplace or otherwise; our notions of socially useful work, activity that creates value, has to be expanded beyond market definitions. Parents raising children, students learning skills, elders educating and passing traditions to younger generations--all these create value that society can in turn reward. Universal single-payer health care with retirement benefits at the level of a living wage is critical to start. Since everyone has access to employment, the existing welfare system can be abolished; individuals will be free to choose the career path and level of income targets they desire, or not. There are no handouts for those able to work, but there are also no irrational barriers to achievement.

10. Socialism is a society where religion can be freely practiced, or not, and no religion is given any special advantages over any other. Religious freedom remains a fundamental tenant of socialism, but naturally neither its practitioners nor anyone else can deny anyone the benefits and protection of civil and criminal law, especially to women and children.

11. Socialism will require an institution of armed forces. Their mission will be to defend the people and secure their interests against any enemies and help in times of natural disasters. It will not be their task to expand markets abroad and defend the property abroad of the exploiting classes. Soldiers will be allowed to organize and petition for the redress of grievances. Armed forces also include local police, under community control, as well as a greatly reduced prison system, based on the principle of restorative justice, and mainly for the protection of society from individuals inflicted with violent pathologies and criminal practices. Non-violent conflict resolution and community-based rehabilitation will be encouraged, but the need for some coercive means will remain for some time.

[Carl Davidson is webmaster for, a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and a coordinating committee member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. Together with Jerry Harris, he is author of 'Cyber-Radicalism: A New Left for a Global Age, available at If you like this article, go to 'Keep On Keepin' On at and make use of the PayPal button. Email him at ]


Anonymous said...

I understand your lifelong comitment to socialism.
I am not as enthralled with the prospect of "worker control". In my experience a "worker" is not genetically different than any other class of humans. Therefore "worker control" is just that, control.
In my working life experience 30+ years, I have not been convinced of the special status that socialists ascribe to workers. They are humans, thats all. The socialists ALWAYS come from educated backgrounds. Workers are merely used to get entrance into seats of power.
The "worker states" past and present are virtual prisons of total control. What are Cuban workers up to? Is everything always peachy keen, all the time ?
No problems? How about China! Mao, man, the little red book! Yo man, the creme of socialist revolution!
Forget about the Juche dude state,N.Korea, no capitalist could live there!
What about the endless groups that split and bicker and fight here in the US? They all believe they have the "mass line".
Carl, I can't see a way out, Humans have riuned the planet. Humans have lost their connection to nature. We are "intelligent", but our industrial world that has brought "workers" into being, is a false way.
If we can't embrace an almost sacred sense of the natural world and reign in population and "development", we ain't gonna make to the next level. How are you going to stop other nations from going on the march? They will develop weapons using all the technology today. The tech genie is out of the bottle.
I am still willing to try, but the the world envisioned by Marx, is a fantasy. He didn't spend a lifetime working. Sorry, he was huddled up in some attic. He was not a worker, case closed. I don't need a college student determining what my "worker culture" should be. Been there.
We do need to end the consumption of the world by the greedy and corrupt and return to a Natural way.
Or we can perish even while turning "green". More people still need more from the planet. Green or not.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of constructive criticism, let me add to my previous comment.
Began gravitating towards the "new left" since the early '70's.
After the Vietnam war, some of us went on to a marxist-leninist, anti-revisionist affiliation. You know the deal.
Having seen the "leaders" and the followers of this "trend", I would rather not see the "dictatorship of the proletariot".
Please remember the words of Lenin in "State and Rev". My opinion is that such a totalitarian state or party will never work for long, no matter what banner they wave or class they claim to be the "vanguard" of. I for one do not want the "state" investigating everything I do, to make sure I don't somehow harm "the People".
I am sure(my opinion), when the underbelly of the marxist-leninist style of socialism is presented to the American citizens they would recoil, regardless of social class. So what kind of "socialism" are we talking about?
The word has been sullied in history. Worker control? Labor Party?
Your decsriptions of what you believe are necessary to bring socialism into being sound great.
What about the political systems?
Democracy at the workplace? Voting for what? What to produce? How much? How many break times? Lunch period? Get rid of lazy co-worker?
Who gets vacation?
Call me stupid but I never got that. Humans are social beings but we like our individual liberty/freedom.
Having said this, I know we cannot continue with the destructive lifestyle of "production", consumption,development,with more of the same.
Controls on capitalist exploitation of resources(nature)and Humans have to be brought about(then population permiting,stop exploitation). We already have in our nation many of the laws that provide one of the most free populations in the world. Lets try to find a way to expand our hearts
and minds.
Modern Humans have lived "sustainably" in relatively egalitarian societies for most of our time on this earth. You call them "primitive". Only since agricultural societies and now industrial societies, have we been obsessed with property and government to control.
We are still(genetically)the early human. I think we still revere freedom and commitment to the group.
This civilization we have now is basicaly a carcinigen to us, sorry.
My self , I prefer our former state with the Natural Spirituality that our ancestors had. It will not be.
Carl, where are you spiritual thoughts?

Carl Davidson said...

Before I'd recommend the neolithic or earlier, I'd suggest reading Barbara Ehrenreich's 'Blood Rites.'

It posits the notion that our first battle was not to live in harmony with nature, so much as to avoid being eaten, being lunch or dinner for other carnivores, who were quite powerful and numerous.

In doing so, we often sacrificed one of ourselves to protect the group, which, to make a long story short is the origin of both language and religion.

Humans have always 'terra-formed.' The Sahara was once savannah and forest, until depleted of wood as the energy source of our earlier forebears.

Nature doesn't really care about us; it will endure even after we, as a species, are gone, earlier or later, should we succumb to our nuclear war demons, or even those lesser poisons less dramatic.

But civilization has its upside, which I'd want to affirm. Read Bucky Fuller for some positive ideas on moving forward, 'breaking on through to the other side', so to speak.

My spiritual views? Start with the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. Love wisdom, practice compassion, and if you want to be happy, help other people. It's simple, and it works--but sometimes not so easy!

Kenny said...

One question: how will this society create growth after capital markets are abolished "in due time" and hence, the entrepreneur capitalist class ceases to exist?

Carl Davidson said...

It's not too hard to figure out.

The truly entrepreneurial capitalist takes his or her business plan to a local public bank or credit union, and asks for a grant and/or loan on the basis of it.

The local public lender, in turn, has gotten its funds from the lease payments from worker-owned coops or from taxes paid by private capitalists, allocated downward from the federal level on a per capita basis.

The community has to decide if what the entrepreneur want to do is in the public interest to some degree, since that is their mandate, and, if it's a loan rather than a grant, whether they're likely to be repaid.

It's not the 'wild west' of venture and speculative capital, but it avoids the dark side of these, while still allowing and individual with a good idea to get rich.

Apart from a loan, the individual can also simply urge his or her friends to buy into the project as shareholders. But under this setup, the entrepreneurial capitalist is actually engaged in the productive process, not an idle gambler.

In that sense, a capital market still exists, but is severely curtailed compared to the current order. There is putting your money at risk in new productive startups, but no market for gambling, for example, on whether the yen goes up or down in the next 24 hours.

In brief, productive entrepreneurship and innovation is rewarded, but idle gambling, especially with other people's money, is not.

What we really want to encourage is socialist entrepreneurship, where a group of workers with a good idea form a new cooperative firm to implement it. These exist now, and can easily exist in a successor system.

Entrepreneurs are encouraged too do well, and make money. But they can also expect to be progressively taxed, with the revenue going to the public assets fund for other social investment.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the reading recomendations.

I'm kinda burnout with the "left".
Will not march again, sorry . Been betrayed and misled,whether intent or not. Could have been life threatening. No Mas for me.

I knew you years ago. Find you to be one of the very few folks I would ever listen to.

I understand we cannot ever go back to our hunter gatherer lifestyle. That era and lifestle seems to get a bad rap, though ,with out any evidence submitted. Its as though they get blamed for extinctions, deforestation, and human rights violations. But if they hadn't endured we wouldn't be tapping on our comptuers today.

I am not a wannabe(it sure looks like it to some), but the wisdom ,and respect for nature evident in Native American cultures
cannot be overlooked.

Ancestral europeans no doubt lived as nature respecting people. The people that the europeans found in the western hemisphere had continued in the natural way. A way that europeans cannot even remember. They left us some clues on the walls of caves in France , Spain, etc. These were not knuckle draggers. And I do believe that Nature as a Creator "cared" about
us at least once. Whether we are just a quantum result of the odds, I leave to the dudes chasing the particles around in their colliders.

I don't need a book much anymore, the way is shown in Nature.Sometimes cruel, overwhelmingly giving. As you follow Zen back,you will no doubt find connections to Nature and the mystery. Political economy may be just anther way to hunt and gather.
Kinda like using a D9 to plant your garden. But hey it provides jobs!

Good luck Carl.

Kenny said...

Thanks for clearing things up.

Anonymous said...

A Call to action.

Read and sign these legislative petitions please and get hundreds of people to sign them and they will automatically go to Republican minority leaders Sen. McConnell and Rep. Boehner right away once you sign the petition.

Left-wing Wacko said...

Hi Carl,
Nice article/post on 21st Century socialism. You'er not so much the class traitor as Louis Proyect makes you out to be! ;)

Anyway, sometimes I get tired with having to deal with screeds like the one Anonymous has left here. But sometimes I also feel compelled to respond to these questions. Especially since Anonymous here is at least critical of capitalism and our current status quo.

So one think I would say is, yes, lots of socialist movements and govs have majorily fucked-up!

We as socialists of the present and future need to explicitly attempt to steer clear of the early authoritarian socialist experiments of the past. But we can't let those negative historical experiences paralyze us into letting capitalism take us over the precipice into barbarism.

Also socialist-transitioning countries have never been left in peace to develop socialism in a manor more respectful of civil liberties.

I would also say that the comparisons are always unfair to the socialis transitioning countries. Take Cuba for example. Now there is much to criticize about Cuba's record on civil liberties and human rights, but that also holds true for every other Latin American country. No other country in Latin America under a pro-capitalist government has made the effort Cuba has to provide the basic needs of its population. The stats on infant mortality rates across LA countries demonstrate this. So why should Cuba, (or any other LA country when they have a leftist regime) be singled out for criticism, when on other measures they have more respect for human rights?

No, not everything is peachy all the time. Cuba has lots of problems, but at least make fair comparisons.

And Anonymous, socialists ascribe special status to workers solely because they are the primary producers in Capitalist society.

If we seek to create a non-exploitive society, then we must work to center political power on the primary producers. And that should mean literally, political power to the working class, not a party that allegedly leads the working class.

Anyway, enough for now. I just started a new blog, and I would love to have some visitors.

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