I’ve submitted a paper for a conference which will be held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico next year called “Moving Beyond Capitalism”, from July 29 – August 5, 2014. It’s sponsored by the Center for Global Justice. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to attend, but this is my paper. If I have time, I’ll try to do it as a computer presentation:
Socialism by example
Before there was Leninism, before there was even Marxism, there was “utopian socialism”. This was the idea that people of all social classes could work together in a cooperative community to provide for everyone’s needs. Famous pre-Marxist socialists include Thomas More, Comte Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, William Morris, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells, Robert Owen, and Etienne Cabet.
Some of their proposals were a bit strange however, such as those of Charles Fourier, who believed that human beings were motivated primarily by a kind of holy hedonism: “Voluptuousness is the sole arm which God can employ to master us and lead us to carry out his designs; he rules the universe by Attraction and not by Force; therefore the enjoyments of his creatures are the most important object of the calculations of God.” Fourier’s utopia was complex and it was not egalitarian – the wealthier members were to live on the upper floors of huge, hotel-like housing complexes, while the middle and lower classes lived below. Not only would the different social classes eat different foods, but men, women and children would also eat different kinds of foods, and would usually dine separately. Members would belong to numerous occupational groups and clubs, and “rivalries,” “intrigues,” and “cabalistic alliances” would spur everyone to be productive. However the community had to be quarantined from its “perfidious neighbors” in the outside world, who, it was feared, would corrupt its purity.
Other visions of cooperative communities were less complex and more practical in nature. But although there were many attempts to form communities based on these ideas, they tended to be short-lived. Sometimes it was because the participants were unable to agree on how to proceed (these projects tended to attract creative, independently-minded individuals, and there were infinite possibilities), or because some of the members liked to talk, but were, shall we say, not productively inclined. Most of these “colonies” were under-capitalized, went more deeply into debt and finally went bankrupt. Others fell due to disease and other misfortunes. The socialist community of Nevada City, Nevada, for example, fell apart after coming into conflict with the authorities during World War I, when the government attempted to draft one of its members into the army. This resulted in the death of the sheriff, and then, a few days later, of the draft evader at the hands of an angry mob. The Kaweah Colony in California, which existed from 1886 to 1892, was quite successful, but its success may have been perceived as a threat by “the establishment” – its land was designated as a national park (California’s first and the country’s second), putting its logging operation out of business, without any reimbursement by the government.
But some cooperative communities were successful, and are still in existence:
Hutterite communities – these are Christian socialist communities which follow a very traditional, religious lifestyle while allowing the use of most modern technology, especially for farming and production. They’ve been living cooperatively since the 16th century, but have suffered from persecution due to their “heretical” beliefs, their cooperative way of living, and their pacifism. They take Acts 2, verses 44 and 45 and similar Bible verses literally: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” After fleeing persecution in Europe and Ukraine, they now live in the northern plains of the U.S. and in the prairie provinces of Canada.
Zionist kibbutzim (collectives) – Many of these socialist collectives were able to successfully achieve a middle-class standard of living for their members. Ironically, the socialist kibbutz movement is now somewhat in decline in Israel due to a trend towards privatization (possibly because they attracted non-socialists who were more interested a higher standard of living than in socialism). Some of the socialist communities still exist however, such as Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, where assets are jointly owned, including cars, homes and businesses. All members get the same annual stipend, and those who work outside the kibbutz give their entire salaries to the village.
Mondragon – This is not a residential community, but a federation of worker-owned cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, it has been in existence since 1956, and currently employs more than 80,000 people.
Marinaleda – A town organized according to the ideas of its charismatic, Marxist mayor, it is located in the Andalusia region of Spain. The town experienced 60% unemployment and widespread poverty in the 1970’s. With unemployment in Andalusia now around 36%, and 55% for those aged 16 to 24, the town now enjoys full employment, and the cooperative’s workers, mostly engaged in agriculture, earn twice the Spanish minimum wage.
Twin Oaks – Located in Louisa county, Virginia, this intentional community was founded in 1967. Initially inspired by B.F. Skinner’s book “Walden Two”, it has evolved into a more diverse community with about 100 residents. Basic necessities—housing, clothing, food, health care—are provided to members in return for 42 hours of work per week, which includes domestic duties like cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry.
East Wind – An offshoot of Twin Oaks, it was founded in 1974. Its primary source of income is a nut butter business, which generates $500,000 annually. Each of its 60 members is provided with food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, and a monthly stipend. It’s located in southern Missouri, near the town of Tecumseh.
These communities function quite different from the communism practiced in Marxist-Leninist countries: they are generally voluntary and democratic, open to members of all social classes, and have no formal legal authority over their members. They are not the result of violent revolutions, but instead coexist within market-based societies.
Marxists have argued that these communities are “petite-bourgeois” in their outlook and practice (which is another way of saying “middle class” or “self-oriented”). The term “utopian socialism” was coined by Marxists as a term of derision, with the implication that these communities are idealistic flights of fancy, artificially detached from the economic and political processes of the “real” world – the world of materialism and class struggle. There was a time in history when this was a persuasive argument, but as the world has seen, the “scientific socialism” of Marxism-Leninism has not delivered freedom and prosperity to the working class, but instead has produced fearsome police states, forced labor and death camps, oligarchies, undemocratic regimes with capitalist economies and huge class differences, mass slaughter of “class enemies”, and even hereditary dynasties (as in North Korea). Instead of making socialism more appealing to the public, Marxist-Leninist states have ironically become the socialist movement’s worst liabilities. At what terrifying costs was this “scientific socialism” established:
Revolution (Dates) Death toll (rough estimates)
Russian civil war (1917-1922) 9,000,000
Stalinist collectivization (1924-53) 20,000,000
Chinese civil war (1928-37) 5,000,000
Chinese revolution (1945-49) 2,500,000
Korean war (1948-present) 3,000,000
Maoist collectivization (1949-75) 40,000,000
Indochina war* (1960-75) 4,200,000
Cambodian revolution (1975-78) 1,650,000
* Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia
Another method for achieving socialism has been through political parties, and in fact many countries have been ruled by democratic “socialist” governments, particularly by parties affiliated with the Socialist International. These include Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Australia, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Israel. Although these governments have improved working conditions and raised the working class out of poverty (aided by strong labor unions), none of them has ever established socialism, and some, such as Britain’s Labour Party and Germany’s Social Democratic Party, have even renounced socialism as an objective.
Labor activists have proposed organizing enough workers that a revolutionary General Strike could be called, which would bring society to a halt until it is reorganized cooperatively. Although general strikes have achieved limited demands, so far none have resulted in the reorganization of society.
Advantages of cooperative communities
“Utopian” socialism does not depend on revolutions, on mass popular support, or on successful labor organizing – socialist communities can be set up even by small numbers of people. Because they don’t attempt to change the entire society, they are not dependent on victory in the political process. And because they are voluntary (and, ideally, democratic), there is no need for a proletarian dictatorship or police state to enforce anything. The hope of communitarian socialists is that if they are successful, others will find cooperation attractive, and either join or start their own communities. And if most people don’t find them attractive, that’s ok, too, because communitarian socialism can co-exist within market societies. This coexistence actually provides some benefits, because communities can easily buy things they need but can’t produce, can work outside the community for wages if necessary, can sell what they produce outside the community, and can provide a sharp contrast to the capitalism of mainstream society.
Unlike market economies, there is never unemployment in a socialist community, because there are always things that need to be done and it is in the members’ direct personal interest to do them. Instead of having people sit around idle, living in a state of poverty because they can’t find a job, people can be put to work directly producing the things they need. Or they can produce things or provide services that are needed by others, for the good of the community. Think of monasteries and convents, where in addition to feeding, housing and clothing themselves, people copied libraries of books by hand, built amazing structures, and produced beautiful religious art.
And because they aren’t taking responsibility for the entire society in the way socialist governments do, cooperative communities don’t have to feed, clothe, house and police the general public, nor do they have to try to motivate people to work who don’t share their idealism and enthusiasm. Once a community is functioning smoothly, it could begin to accept members who are not already socialists, but who are just curious, or who are “economic refugees” from society. If a community is well-managed and has sufficient capital, it should be able to put anyone to work productively and provide for their basic needs. In a cooperative community, productive people are assets which can be employed without any limit, not something there can be a disposable excess of. Members can “vote with their feet” as to whether or not they like living there. To give people this kind of freedom, and to reduce the risk involved when joining, I suggest that money that people invest in a community be refunded if they decide to leave.
Understanding the cost and difficulty of converting an entire society to socialism, why don’t more people join these kinds of communities? Some people feel this is selfish – they see themselves as a Prometheus or Christ who wants to dramatically save humanity instead of working on their own behalf. Others don’t like to take risks. Many think it’s a good idea, but just don’t feel strongly enough about it to take any concrete action. They may lack resources, or aren’t able to link up with others who share their beliefs. Maybe they don’t enjoy long meetings and making lots of decisions in committees, or they don’t like to compromise over the details of their personal lives.
Perhaps the problem is that our vision of community and of socialism needs to be modified a bit. There is a type of community in Israel called a moshav shitufi, which falls between a kibbutz (collective), where all decisions are made as a group, and a consumer cooperative, where only purchasing is done collectively but otherwise people are on their own. In a moshav shitufi, production, bulk purchasing and services are handled collectively, while consumption decisions remain the responsibility of individuals or households. Some members are engaged in collective agriculture and industry, or work in various professions outside the community, and contribute all or part of their salary to the collective. But they are free to run their own household as they like, using their share of the profits earned by the cooperative, allowing both cooperation and personal freedom. At the end of 2006 there were 40 such cooperative villages in Israel, compared with 400 moshavim (coops) and 300 kibbutzim.
In conclusion, cooperative communities are one way we can move beyond capitalism. If our goal is not to eradicate capitalism, but to provide people with viable alternatives, we can peacefully and gradually transform society while demonstrating the benefits of socialism in a concrete manner that cannot be dismissed as wishful thinking. Patiently building socialism will be difficult enough, without being engaged in armed conflict or bearing responsibility for society as a whole while the economy is undergoing radical transformation. And forming these communities is completely compatible with active participation in the political process. In fact, living examples of democratic, voluntary socialism would be strong arguments which could be used by progressive politicians seeking social change.
— On Sun, 2014/2/23, Cliff DuRand wrote:
We apologize for being so slow responding to your proposed presentation at the Moving Beyond Capitalism conference. Unfortunately the Program Committee did not find your proposal acceptable in its present form. The topic is very relevant to the theme of this conference, but your paper needs a lot of work. It needs a clear focus. Here is the evaluation of the committee.
“this is on theme but an extremely mediocre (or poor) paper – some good points scattered around, but it is not even clear what the author really wants to say, what the message of the paper is. The title is Socialism by Example, and he starts listing utopian experiments, some of which he calls successful, some not (there is also the problem that his facts are often wrong – three of his 8 pre-Marxists lived after Marx, Stalinist collectivization did not begin in 1924 (Stalin was far from controlling the Soviet Union then, and that was much more still the period of NEP, the opposite of the collectivization), and it’s annoying (to say the least) to see the deaths in the Vietnam War blamed on Marxism-Leninism as opposed to first French then US imperialism). So is he saying the successful ones are models we should use to move beyond capitalism? He just sort of drops it, and then goes all over the place with lots of other things. Near the end he seems like he will say the way forward is to not try to take the full society beyond capitalism but just make isolated experiments, but then he seems to draw back from that. Then in the very last paragraph he introduces a fully new idea, that we need change our very concept of socialism – so a huge idea on how to go forward, and all he has is a couple of sentences on an example of something that is halfway between a traditional utopian experiment (the kibbutzim) and consumer coops. OK, so if that is his message on how to go beyond capitalism, then the whole paper needs be re-written to build to that and bring it out.And if it is not, if it is just one more example in a paper that seems to bounce from one point to the next like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh (just thought I would throw in a little high-brow literature to liven up this point), then the paper needs a focus, it needs make some point.”
We hope these suggestions will help you develop a better paper. It is certainly a topic at the center of our concerns. If you choose to rewrite, the full paper is due April 30.
Research Associate, Center for Global Justice
Well, the point of the paper is that Marxism-Leninism has failed to achieve a democratic form of socialism that respects the human rights of its supposed beneficiaries, and that perhaps the utopian socialists were actually on the right track by believing that you need to win people over to the idea of socialism by showing them it actually works, instead of seizing power and trying to force socialism on people who may not be ready for it.
Likewise, the democratic socialist parties, while they have succeeded in taking the edge off “law of the jungle” capitalism, have failed to establish any kind of meaningfully socialist economic system.
The method of achieving change using the utopian socialist approach is that, if successful socialist communities can be established, people can “vote with their feet” and join these communities or start new ones.
Sorry if this is so unclear. Maybe someone else is better equipped to explain this.
P.S. The point about the Indochina War not being strictly about socialism is well taken. At first, it was a struggle for independence against the re-establishment of French colonialism after WWII, and Ho Chi Minh even appealed to the U.S. to help him. If the U.S. had supported him (as he was justified in expecting, since we had rebelled against British imperialism with our own revolution) the outcome may have been very different. But the end result was an authoritarian Marxist-Leninist regime, which was not supported by the entire Vietnamese people. Achieving this required more bloodshed than the anti-colonialist independence struggle alone would have. Exactly how much is hard to say.