Socialism: yes, it is possible

“Socialism sounds like a great idea, but it’s not really feasible. At least in the developed countries, workers are too brainwashed by the system, and the ruling class is just too powerful to be overthrown.” That is not a precise quotation from any specific person, but socialists frequently encounter arguments to this effect. It is a widespread view in developed capitalist countries like Australia. How accurate is it?

It is certainly true that no developed capitalist country today is anywhere near a socialist revolution in the short term. Nevertheless, there are sound reasons to be confident that capitalism can and will be overthrown, in both the underdeveloped and developed countries.

Experience shapes ideas

Working people in the Third World and the imperialist countries are not different species. They are born with the same needs, abilities and aspirations. If workers in Latin America today behave more militantly than workers in Germany or Australia, it is because of the differing experiences that have shaped their consciousness. For most workers in the West, most of the time, capitalism delivers a tolerable standard of living. The capitalists tell us, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy” — in the immortal words of Malcolm Fraser — and it isn’t easy, but for most people here, it isn’t unbearable. For working people in the underdeveloped capitalist countries, life is a lot less easy, and that creates a much greater willingness to think about changing things radically and to take a chance on doing it.

However, it is also the case that things are not getting easier for the working majority in most developed countries. This is not just a temporary result of the international economic crisis; it’s a long-term trend. For example, if you allow for inflation, wages in the United States are no better today than they were 20 years ago. Expressed in 2008 dollars, US average wages in that year were $18.52 an hour, compared to $18.76 in 1979, and well below the 1972 figure of $20.06. In Australia 30 years ago, tertiary education was free, meaning that many children from working-class families could go to university. Now they can do so only by taking on a huge debt. Our living conditions are being altered for the worse at a growing rate: war and the threat of war; lengthening hospital waiting lists; congested roads and worsening public transport; food contaminated or genetically modified with results that won’t be known for years; the growing reality of climate change. Even if real wages were going up — and for most people they’re not — that wouldn’t compensate.

Capitalism can’t provide a decent living for more than a tiny minority. No matter how much they already possess, the logic of capitalism requires capitalists to take more and more away from the rest of us. That reality is sinking in at different rates in different places, but it is sinking in, and as it does so, it will lead to a radicalisation in the outlook of working people — a recognition that the way society is organised needs to be radically changed.

Power of example

Capitalism’s failures need not be the most powerful impetus for socialism. In the 1960s, when living standards were still rising in most imperialist countries, the Vietnamese people’s determined struggle for national liberation and socialism inspired millions around the world with the proof that it is possible to oppose imperialism and win. Today, the equally inspiring example of the Cuban Revolution is being multiplied by the Bolivarian socialist revolution in Venezuela. Together, these revolutions will provide evidence for those feeling capitalism’s oppression and exploitation that there is a practical and realistic alternative.

Marx and Engels pointed out that capitalism constantly creates its own “gravediggers”, the working class. While capitalism seeks to keep the working class mystified and divided, workers are united objectively by their experience of exploitation and their common interest in ending it. Conversely, while capitalists are united ideologically in defence of their system, they are objectively divided by their competing economic interests, which continually disrupt efforts to “manage” their economy for the common capitalist good; what is good for each individual capitalist is bad for their system as a whole. These considerations are the basis of what is known as “revolutionary optimism”: the understanding that capitalism will continue to engender revolts against itself until those revolts overthrow it.