More real conversation, less rhetoric

2015-02-04 15:00

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The Koran and the Prophet Muhammad cannot be held responsible for the jihadist atrocities of Boko Haram or the Islamic State groups, any more than the Christian gospels and Jesus can be held responsible for apartheid or the Ku Klux Klan.

To claim otherwise is simply illogical.

Yet the murderous behaviour of Joseph Stalin of the former Soviet Union, of Cambodia’s Pol Pot and the bureaucratic barbarism in North Korea continues to be blamed by many on the writings of Karl Marx.

At the same time, much of the labour movement and most of the fragmented groups on the left regard such states as socialist, while much of the business community sees them as communist.

The issue of what is meant by these terms is even more pertinent in South Africa now that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA proposes acting as a catalyst for the formation of some sort of socialist movement.

Trade unionists, human rights campaigners and various other groups that see themselves on the political left plan to come together in April to establish a “socialist alternative”.

It proposes to be an alternative to anything politically, socially and economically currently on offer.

This issue of whether an alternative exists also emerged at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week as the wealthiest bosses in the world gathered to ensure the best ways of propping up a clearly collapsing system.

Significantly, there was no condemnatory mention of state intervention, of socialism or communism. In fact, since at least 2012, the economic oligarchy at Davos has been accepting of state intervention and degrees of control.

Without hugely expensive bailouts, the entire capitalist system might have been dangerously compromised. So when one of the elite participants referred to countries such as China as “state-directed capitalism”, there was nary an eyebrow raised.

Yet this was a statement of which Marx might have approved. His collaborator, Friedrich Engels, most certainly would have.

It was Engels who, in 1878, wrote that nationalisation – state control – did not equal socialism; that it was not the ownership and control of an enterprise that defined it but the underlying dynamic by which it operated.

Any enterprise based on competition and the need to accumulate profits to better compete was capitalist, whether it was owned by an individual, a company or the state.

For example, more of apartheid South Africa’s industrial infrastructure was nationalised than can be said of socialist Czechoslovakia’s.

So if a degree of state ownership made Czechoslovakia socialist, then, it has been argued, a higher degree of such control in South Africa presumably made apartheid socialist.

But various groups, mainly associated with the labour movement, continue to argue that state ownership equals socialism.

However, state ownership in a parliamentary democracy can provide voters with leverage on the government, but nothing more.

By contrast, what Marx and Engels argued for was extreme democracy. This would mean worker control of every facet of society, since workers are the majority in the global population. According to them, workers, collectively, should decide how resources are used and shared and anyone elected to a leading position would be answerable to – and recallable by – the electors.

Is such a world desirable? Is it possible? If so, how can it be achieved? These are the questions that need to be debated rather than us continuing to bandy about what looks like emotional rhetoric and empty slogans.

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