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Richard D. Wolff, Democracy at Work, Published at Truthout

The following is an excerpt from economist Richard D. Wolff’s new book Understanding Socialism, which isavailable for purchase here.

"A growing number of socialists have come to focus on worker cooperatives as a means to achieve tangible economic democracy."

Socialism is a yearning for something better than capitalism. As capitalism has changed and as experiments with socialism have accumulated — both good and bad — socialist yearnings, too, have changed. However, a bizarre disconnect surfaces as capitalism’s gross dysfunction during and since its 2008 crash brings socialism again into public discussion. Large numbers of people debate the pros and cons of socialism as if what it is in the 21st century were identical to what it was in the 20th. Is it reasonable to presume that the last century’s two purges, the Cold War, the implosion of the USSR, and the explosive emergence of the People’s Republic of China inspired no critical reflections on socialism by socialists themselves? No. The remarkable lack of awareness of new and different definitions of socialism since 1945, their elaborations, and their implications reflects the fact that sustained engagement with socialism was taboo in the US for decades. That people are now mostly unaware of socialism’s evolution in theory, practice, and self-criticism over the last half century is therefore no surprise.

The taboo against socialism resulted in a mass retreat from engaging with developments in socialism and connecting these developments to the problems of modern capitalism. Socialism rather became one of two things in the minds of most.

On the one hand, many politicians, academics, and media pundits portrayed socialism as coinciding with Soviet efforts to subvert global capitalism. Socialism for such people meant moving from private to state-owned and -operated workplaces and from market to centrally planned distributions of resources and products. These same people equated opposing capitalism with opposing democracy and freedom. This equation was then repeated endlessly in an effort to make it “common sense.”

On the other hand, socialism was the name adopted by Western European — and especially Scandinavian — “welfare-state” governments, which aimed to regulate markets comprised still mostly of private capitalist firms. This led many people to associate socialism with robust public spending and government intervention in the marketplace.

Consequently, socialism was viewed as more or less extreme, depending on whether it involved state-owned and -operated firms with central planning at one end or merely welfare-state policies with market regulation on the other. The words “communist” and “socialist” sometimes designated the more and less extreme versions, respectively. 

As a result of these wooden definitions of socialism, its evolution and diversity were obscured. Socialists themselves were struggling with what they viewed as the mixed results of the first major, enduring experiments in constructing socialist societies (USSR, PRC, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.). To be sure, these socialist experiments achieved remarkable and admirable economic growth. Such growth enabled mutual assistance among socialist societies, which was crucial to their defense and survival. Socialism thereby established itself globally as capitalism’s chief rival and likely successor. In the Global South, socialism arose virtually everywhere as the alternative development model to a capitalism weighed down by its colonialist history and its contemporary problems of inequality, instability, and injustice.

Yet socialists also struggled with some negative aspects of these first experiments in socialism, particularly the emergence of strong central governments that often used their concentrated economic power to achieve political dominance in very undemocratic ways. Many socialists agreed with critical denunciations of political dictatorship, even though some of these criticisms ignored the parallel dictatorships within capitalist megacorporations. Struggles of workers in socialist societies against internal exploitation and oppression likewise affected socialists’ thinking. ...
Read full excerpt at Truthout