Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

The following quotes are from “How We Live and How We Might Live” by William Morris (1884), and “America Under the Workers’ Rule” and “What Socialist America Will Look Like” by James P. Cannon (1953). Together they narrate a case for socialism as both a good idea and a feasible future reality, and cleanse and release socialism of distortion, pollution, and Stalinist, anti-democratic hijacking.

On competition:

“How do we live, then, under our present system? Let us look at it a little. And first, please to understand that our present system of Society is based on a state of perpetual war. Do any of you think that this is as it should be? I know that you have often been told that the competition, which is at present the rule of all production, is a good thing, and stimulates the progress of the race; but the people who tell you this should call competition by its shorter name of war if they wish to be honest, and you would then be free to consider whether or not war stimulates progress, otherwise than as a mad bull chasing you over your own garden may do. War, or competition, whichever you please to call it, means at the best pursuing your own advantage at the cost of someone else’s loss, and in the process of it you must not be sparing of destruction even of your own possessions, or you will certainly come by the worse in the struggle.” (Morris)

On advertising and other ‘wastes’:

“And then, there’s another waste connected with advertising, as with so many other non-productive occupations – the waste of human material, which really shouldn’t be squandered. Just think of all the people prostituting their personalities in the advertising racket. Writers concoct slick copy, artists draw false illustrations, and radio announcers wheedle, deceive, and lie to promote crooked advertising campaigns. That is a waste of human personality, causing neuroses based upon the justified conviction of the individual that he [sic] is an absolutely useless person. There are millions of such people, engaged in all kinds of useless, non-productive occupations in this present society. Advertising is only one of them. Look at all the lawyers in this country. What are they good for? Look at all the landlords, lobbyists, salesmen, promoters, ward-heelers, thieves, and swindlers – the million-headed horde of non-productive people in all kinds of rackets, legitimate and illegitimate. What are they good for? What do they produce? All that is economic waste, inseparable from the present system.” (Cannon)

On socialism and anti-capitalism:

“You see, we’re not anti-capitalist 100%; we’re procapitalist as against feudalism, and chattel slavery, and industrial backwardness in general. We are procapitalist in recognising the progressive historic role capitalism played in developing the forces of production, as illustrated to the highest degree in this country.” (Cannon)

On revolution:

“The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.” (Morris)

On the state and violence:

“any kind of regimentation such as that imposed by the present social order will be utterly repugnant to the free and independent citizens of the socialist future.” (Cannon)

“In the classless society of the future there will be no state. The Marxist formula that the state will wither away and die out has a profound ultimate meaning, for the state is the most concentrated expression of violence. Where there is violence, there is no freedom. The society of the free and equal will have no need and no room for violence and will not tolerate it in any form. This was the profound conception of the great Marxists. […] Trotsky, in his last testament, written in anticipation of death, said: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.” Just ponder those words – Trotsky was a writer who weighed every word. His last injunction to the people who would follow him was: “Cleanse life of all violence.” In a talk with Gorky, Lenin said the same thing in almost the same words: “Our ideal is not to use force against anyone.”” (Cannon)

On democracy:

“An educated and conscious working class will insist on democracy. And not the narrowly limited and largely fictitious democracy of voting every four years for some big-mouthed political faker picked for you by a political machine, but democracy in your work. That’s where it really counts. Every day you will have something to say about the work you’re doing, how it should be done and who should be in charge of it, and whether [one’s] directing it properly or not. Democracy in all cultural activities. Democracy in all spheres of communal life from A to Z.” (Cannon)

On the transformation of labour, and the vanishment of money and greed:

“There will be no money, and there will not even be any bookkeeping transactions or coupons to regulate how much one works and how much [one] gets. When labour has ceased to be a mere means of life and becomes life’s prime necessity, people will work without any compulsion and take what they need. So said Marx. Does that sound ‘visionary’? Here again, one must make an effort to lift [oneself] out of the framework of the present society, and not consider this conception absurd or ‘impractical’. The contrary would be absurd. For in the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one’s share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don’t keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden.” (Cannon)

On the city:

“A new science and new art will flower – the science and art of city planning. There is such a profession today, but the private ownership of industry and real estate deprives it of any real scope. Under socialism some of the best and most eager students in the universities will take up the study of city planning, not for the profitable juxtaposition of slums and factory smokestacks, but for the construction of cities fit to live in. Art in the new society will undoubtedly be more cooperative, more social. The city planners will organise landscapers, architects, sculptors, and mural painters to work as a team in the construction of new cities which will be a delight to live in and a joy to behold. Communal centres of all kinds will arise to serve the people’s interests and needs. Centres of art and centres of science. Jack London in the Iron Heel, speaking in the name of an inhabitant of the future socialist society, referred as a matter of course to the numerous ‘Wonder Cities’ which had been given poetic names – ‘Ardis’, ‘Asgard’ and so on; wonder cities designed for beauty, for ease of living, for attractiveness to the eye and to the whole being.” (Cannon)

On the home and friendship, and creativity and gift-giving:

“Under socialism people will not fear to love their neighbour lest they be taken advantage of, nor be ashamed of disinterested friendship, free from all self-interest and calculation. There will be powerful impulses to give things to each other, and the only possible way of giving will be by doing, by making. There will be no chance to ‘buy’ a present for anybody – because nothing will be for sale; and besides, everybody will be free to take anything [one] needs from the superabundant general store of material things rolling from the assembly lines. Presents, to mean anything, will have to be made, outside the general process. I think they will be, and such gifts will be really treasured and displayed on special occasions. […] Your house […] will have as the things it is proudest of, certain things specially made for you by people who like you. This easy chair made to your own measure by your friend so-and-so. This hand-mortised hardwood bookcase made for you by a cabinetmaker, as a gift. And those pictures and decorations on the walls – they were not machine stamped at the factory, but hand painted especially for you by an artist friend. […] I think it will be a great joy and satisfaction to be an expert craftsman in the coming time.” (Cannon)

(Image from Wikimedia Commons: Madrid May Day)

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