Exchange on “Socialist Democracy and Solidarity”

Richard Schmitt replies to his critics:

George Snedeker (GS) reads my article [in S&D, March 2015] as a plea for ‘being good,’ as a “voluntaristic… psychological theory of democracy.” He misses a discussion of “class relations and class power.” He thinks that, the paper’s title notwithstanding, I am not serious about socialism.

Gerald Meyer (GM) thinks that my article asserts that “nationalization of the economy is insufficient for socialist democracy, which requires a more thorough-going democratic decision-making practice for its realization.” But he also believes that solidarity is not created by people talking to each other as I claim.

Victor Wallis (VW) insists on the difference between “personal conviction” and the “level of policy.” This is a distinction between “the immediate attitudes of individuals” and “the political forces” involved in the socio-economic system. These political forces “propagate reactionary social views” especially among low income people who support Republicans. The failure of solidarity in capitalist societies is to be ascribed to the failure of the poor, the exploited, the oppressed to see what is in their best interest. For socialism to become a reality, everyone must see that socialism is in their interest. Fostering solidarity seems to me to be one method for encouraging that understanding.

These three critiques coincide in so far as each critic draws a distinction between psychological and/or moral considerations of solidarity versus putting primary emphasis on institutions, specifically on socioeconomic institutions such as classes and class conflict in a capitalist society. My critics ascribe to me the view that establishing a socialist democracy requires merely psychological and moral changes as we establish working-class solidarity. As GS and VW read my paper it asserts that, as VW puts it, the “solidarity of the great majority is… a function of purely ethical considerations, such as universal respect.” In my view, the critics think, abolishing capitalism is not important.

But that is a misreading. I believe no such thing. On the contrary, I agree, with the critics that institutional change, the abolition of capitalism, the institution of socialism are essential. As far as I can see, the disagreement comes in when I assert that the transition to socialism will, among other things, require the creation of far-reaching solidarity. My paper contains some very partial suggestions of what creating solidarity involves.

This misreading may come about in the following way. There are many people in capitalist countries who believe that the glaring evils of capitalism as it functions today – the oppression, exploitation, consumerism, unthinking hedonism – can be remedied by improving slowly on the behavior of capitalists and workers alike. Giving workshops to Human Resource employees about racial prejudice will sooner or later put an end to racism. Persuading corporations that burning less oil is in their economic interest will sooner or later remove the ecological threats to our survival. Example: David Korten’s Yes! Magazine.

Leftists do not believe that. This leads to a picture where there are two different kinds of recommendations for changing the world. There are ways of changing human relations, and ways of improving morality that will remove some problems from the existing system. But they will obviously not make capitalism go away. For that we need a whole other undertaking, building a revolutionary movement that abolishes capitalism. One corollary of this “two paths of social change” picture is that reflections about human relations and morality – the pursuit of solidarity – are distinct from the effort to replace capitalism. They are also mutually exclusive. Anyone who only talks about solidarity (without also mentioning, class and class struggle) therefore falls under the suspicion of thinking that changing human relations and ethics will produce systemic change and remove capitalism. But that suspicion is not justified.

(This is clearly a replay of the “Reform/Revolution” debates of the early 1900s)

But discussions of psychological and moral aspects of social change are of different sorts. The liberal optimist believes that any alteration in human relations, any reconsideration of moral issues cannot help but be for the best and will, eventually, create a just world. But that is, of course, an error. But it is equally an error to conclude from that that psychological and/or moral change can never contribute to the abolition of capitalism. On the contrary, pretending that one’s efforts to abolish capitalism do not involve considerations of human relations and morality is a damaging misunderstanding. GM believes that working-class solidarity is “spontaneous.” Apparently that also means that working-class solidarity is inarticulate; it requires leftist intellectuals to interpret it. In comparable ways, VW believes that left intellectuals are necessary to prevent proletarians from being deceived by capitalist propaganda.

Surely these are bits and pieces of psychological theories. As long as leftists deny that they base their views also on psychological theories, those theories cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny. But that is what the psychologies of GM and VW urgently need.

This leaves me with three questions:

  1. According to GS, I “operate with a psychological theory of democracy.” I would like to get some sense of what a theory of democracy looks like that is not in any way psychological.
  2. GM claims that working-class solidarity is spontaneous. That is a psychological theory that needs defense in the face of working-class racism and sexism. I think GM’s claim oversimplifies a very complex phenomenon.
  3. VW insists that solidarity must be based on class interest. We agree on that, of course. But we need to ask whether solidarity rests on perceived class interest or on “objective” class interest, whether perceived or not. If we say solidarity must rest on perceived class interest, we face the difficult question of how the perception of class interest may be promoted. As GM notes, socializing the means of production by itself does not suffice to make it plain to everyone where their class interest lies. What else does VW believe we must do to make sure that the working class understands that what it needs is socialism?

I look forward to a fruitful dialogue.

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