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The choice becomes clearer every day: socialism or barbarism?

Posted on November 21, 2019

Rosa_LuxemburgRosa Luxemburg. Polish revolutionary. 1871-1919

A pre-booked holiday is no respecter of a hastily called election, so while the nation eagerly embraced the prospect of vigorous political debate conducted with passion yet integrity, off I went to distant lands.

There are many delights to be enjoyed in hotel rooms and for irredeemable, sad-case addicts, TV news from unfamiliar stations is one of them. These bulletins don’t paint a pretty picture of the globe. Just in case we haven’t been paying attention, the world is being scorched to a frazzle in Australia, protestors are being gunned down by the score in Iran, yet another monster has assumed high office in Sri Lanka and a naked coup in Bolivia has gone a long way to ensuring that profits from its precious reserves of lithium aren’t used to do anything as ridiculous as build houses and schools for that country’s poorest residents. That’s just a whistle-stop taster.

Occasionally, these internationally focussed news channels will skim through some other stories of peripheral interest. Sometimes, one of these is from funny old Britain, looking grimy and grey in the brief footage of a stooped, rushing politician avoiding the thrust of unwanted microphones on a London street. The tone of the voice-over is one of baffled amusement. We’re used to these people behaving in a rather over-entitled way, it seems to imply, but what on earth are they playing at now?

There is nothing wrong with a country deliberating about its future and its values – and yes, I know, if only that really was what was happening. The relationship between the UK and the EU is complex and multi-faceted and there are valid and conflicting views about whether that relationship works best for most people. The trouble is, of course, that we’ve had pitifully few opportunities to hear and participate in such discussion. The braying and hee-hawing of too many of our politicians, egged on by the grub-snufflers of right-wing newspapers, ensures that the discourse around Brexit rarely hauls itself out of the gutter. Viewed from afar, it’s an unedifying spectacle and it’s not hard to understand the subdued contempt it inspires in detached onlookers.

For all that the UK’s travails look like little more than a silly side-show in a calamitous global situation, this election is the only political fight we’ve got, and it couldn’t be more important. What is on offer is a choice between competing visons of what society should look like and in whose interests big decisions should be made. In the heat of the first world war, Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg coined the phrase ‘socialism or barbarism’ to describe the choice faced by society. It’s worth exploring as a notion.

Over the years, as a committed and active socialist, I could not possibly count the number of times I have been challenged to name a country where socialism or communism has worked. ‘Go on,’ drones the triumphant distant cousin as the wedding party draws to its close. ‘One country. Go on. Ha!’ The situation doesn’t always allow for any kind of nuanced argument and I usually acknowledge that there has not been a shining, unimpeachable example. Yet.

Having made the concession, it’s then usually impossible to extend the argument by asking him (it’s usually a him) to name me one country where capitalism has worked. If this comment is even heard as he revels in his victory, it is met with hilarious incredulity. Of course it’s worked. I’m often then impugned on a personal level for having a house and a car and going on holiday and being a hypocrite and why don’t I give all my money to the poor and if I don’t like it here try living in Venezuela.

For most people, the notion of socialism is, at best a utopian daydream, at worst, a vison of totalitarian repression. What’s more, to counterpose it to barbarism seems ridiculous. Yet Luxemburg was right. The socialism which she advocated was quelled and quashed and a quarter of a century later the world witnessed – or, rather, stood back from – barbarism that was beyond imagination. All the same, a lesson was learnt and we’d never let it happen again. Would we?

A glance at the bigger TV news picture leaves us less confident. Mass, forced migration from war zones leaves families fractured and living in mediaeval conditions. Smugglers connive with warlords to put people onto death-trap rafts while governments fail to intervene. Villages are razed, children kidnapped, the desperate die in shipping containers and weaponry manufactured in developed economies is sold to villains who deploy it against the poor and the wretched. If that’s not barbarism, it’s difficult to know what is.

How is any of this mirrored in our current domestic tiff? It’s simple: it’s about need or greed. You either think that there is plenty to go around and that the best way to live is to encourage cooperation, or you live in constant, small-minded fear that what you have managed to acquire will be stolen from you at any minute by the jealous and the lazy. That’s the grand – and proper – argument that lies behind facile ‘debates’ that have been reduced to questions about ‘getting it done’ and not being such an indecisive ninny.

I limit my consumption of social media, but recently saw a contribution, the paraphrase of which follows. The poster briefly listed his successes in life, which were many. Businesses had been started and had thrived. Profits had been made and enterprises expanded. He was, he explained, a self-made man. So far, so dull. Until he went on to explain that he wasn’t self-made at all. He had been educated by the state and  cared for by the health service when sick. His family had been aided by other agencies and he was a willing contributor to local charities. He was part of, and a product of, a wider, caring community.

The idea that our individual determination and a desire to push on with ruthless selfishness are the criteria for creating a good society is preposterous. In case we’ve not been paying attention, we should be acutely aware that we have only one planet to live on and we need to save it by working cooperatively. Or we can just carry on consuming, needlessly competing and ignoring those who have failed to prosper or who are the victims of such careless selfishness of those in power.

Socialism or barbarism? It’s not even a proper question.

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