Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

During Thatcher years, the word socialism was blackened by the press, and it became a dirty word in Britain, and in the US. That is how the propaganda machine works. Indeed the meaning of the word has evolved since its inception.

Socialism’s meaning can be said to go back to early religious sects of the ancient world and was taken up by religious dissidents in mediaeval times. Words attributed to John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 capture its meaning very well: “My friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.” (Socialist Party, Words)

Words are unhelpful if they are ambiguous. What is important is building a fairer society in which people  hold the power and make decisions, share in the wealth derived from their labour and not governments who represent ruling classes. The confusion and  misinformation and miscommunication which is caused by focusing on an ambiguous word to describe our philosophy and our aims, holds back progress as emphasised in Words, from “Socialism or your money back“. While it  inspires unity and solidarity for some of us, others are turned away. So,  ironically, the words socialism and solidarity are dividing us, yet our philosophies are much the same.

In winning the argument – leading to the defeat of  capitalism, and building a better society, clear unambiguous terms, and a shared vocabulary are necessary, as Julijuxtaposed points out in the article, Take Socialism., full article here. Juli emphasises the priority is to transform society, and is appalled that differing vocabularies prevent this.

“.. Few have ever moved away from the emotional knee-jerkery of old, pre-conceived, received and doggedly fixed propaganda. It’s of no more practical help than it ever was, unless you like popping human nature into simple boxes.

Take Socialism. This is described as Anarchism, Communism, Libertarian, Democratic, Marxist, Religious, etc, etc. (Not forgetting, of course, that Anarchy, Libertarianism and Religion function equally well under fascistic systems.) Socialism is touted as a 19th Century concept – by virtue of a bloke adding ism to a previously perfectly understood word. Social: from Middle English which is from Old French, which is from the Latin:socialis, meaning ‘allied’ and socius, meaning ‘friend’. We all know what it means to be ‘social’ – to engage, participate, accommodate, include, share… It is a concept which is at once, both commonly understood and subjectively experienced.”

Opponents to socialism are rabidly irrational in their disdain: to even the most benign and rational form, they having nothing but sneers and smears. They have strongly seeded notions of a totalitarian community in which every one stays at the same level of banality and that the price for this is the sacrifice of a person’s individuality. This is amusing when you think of how the last few decades have shown that socialism is not the culprit in this – unless, of course you count the welfare of self-preservation in the upper tiers but that is a satirical distraction from the world of the masses in spite of its ironic reality. Rabid advocates of markets (free or manipulated) and private money as the answer to all our ills hold the idea of ‘big’ government in contempt and yet, has any government ever been so nannying, moralising and prescriptive as this one? This is something they conveniently overlook as they insult our intelligence.”

The State is us – why the bloody hell should shrinking it be part of the equation? Necessity, efficiency and competency are the instruments by which it should be measured.

When I think of socialism, I don’t assume authoritarianism, race to the bottom, death of innovation. Hell, I don’t even think death to the markets. What I envisage is a place where the State is the People; where the people are beneficiaries in common; where the land that should be, infrastructure, public services and resources are of the people, by the people and for the people as much as is practically possible. That’s it. It doesn’t have to negate a free market, private wealth, personal assets, creativity, entrepreneurialism, innovation, culture, progress or individuality. And it certainly doesn’t destroy liberty. On the contrary: it frees us. I can be both an individual and a citizen participant in a socially conscious country and world just as easily as I can be English, British and European. Personally, though I have a big problem with profiteering, I’ve no issue with the profit-seeking private sector, so long as it is incapable of undermining the collectively common and basic good. Both private and public serve a social purpose and so both have their economic places. What we have now, however, is a form of anarchy; economic and social nihilism, even. The consensus is growing that we should collectively own, control and maintain the essentials upon which we all depend, as a matter of economic and social common sense. Let the rest (the capitalist/private sphere) purchase its place in the gaps if it is sufficiently viable to do so. And it will. For that, we need a State which serves our best and vested interests not vested interests which serve themselves best and leave us in a state. Whether this view has a label or even ten labels; whether it is called Socialism or something else, I really do not care.

Yet for some, it remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of co-operation and mutuality, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society. Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, broken out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as “queer” have been wrested from negative senses to have positive meanings, thus can socialism , with all its history and associations be wrested back as well. (Words) .

It suits the ruling classes that the people remain divided, whether it is by words, by fear, or suspicion of one another. Consider the term “working class”. Many are proud of a working class heritage, while others need to separate from the memories and association. In the 1990s many accepted  idea of New Labour, as they were weary from successive Tory governments, and failure General Elections. The Tory press had won the day, and Margaret Thatcher claimed it as her great success. Ironically,  was nothing “new” or “Labour”  about New Labour, and now stands as an example of how the misuse of words leads to confusion. In the aftermath of New Labour, many “socialists” left the party, to look for alternatives. Some looked to the LibeDems, only to find them support a Tory Coalition. Others looked to the Green Party. Undoubtedly, environmental issues are a global priority – or should be – yet the Greens are being torn apart by political polarisation within their ranks.

For the future, we must put aside terms which divide us. We  must not be afraid of change. Where coal was our heritage, green is our future. Coal miners  may have helped  built the Labour movement, but a return to coal mining is not going to save the planet. And we must progress together, as we are ineffectual divided by party titles, and misunderstood words.

Tony Benn describes himself as a socialist, and remained within the Labour Party while many did not. 

In Labour Governments we did our best to make capitalism work in a civilised way. And we failed. It never can work. It will always exploit and oppress the people.’ ‘Whether you win or lose in a campaign is not the point. Were you there? Did you join the fight for justice? Those are the questions to ask.’ ‘Looking to the future, we have to choose between socialism and barbarism. I’ve made my choice.’ ‘My job is to give people hope. Without hope they’ll give up.”

More than once he said, ‘When Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was she answered “New Labour.” Nevertheless, “we should stick with the Labour Party: it’s the only instrument we have for making the world a better place.” No – we should not be disillusioned about parliament: “if we convince the people, the MPs will have to listen.”   

Benn says the  most revolutionary idea is democracy. If you have power, you use it to meet the needs of your community. As Tony Benn explains here  ”People who are poor, demoralised and frightened are easy to control.” This is how the very rich exert control – ensuring people are so downtrodden, so much ridden by debt, misery and pessimism, they have no desire to vote. “If the poor were to turn out and vote for people who represented their interests, that would be a real, democratic revolution.

Revolution is the word of the day,  but  not a violent, bloody destructive change, but organisation of the opponents to neo-liberalist system. Capitalism is clearly flawed, and accepted as such. An organised opposition, non violent civil disobedience and protests, a united Labour Party – it’s time to take  parliament back to the people. This is about a real democracy, about  people governing themselves, leading to a real social democracy, where the land and resources are owned by us, the people and where wealth, opportunities and participation are shared – that is what socialism is to me. 

6 thoughts on “Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

  1. Great post, Pam. 🙂

    Just to be clear for those unfamiliar with my writings: It is not that I don’t think words are worth fighting for. They surely are and, despite the fact that our language is wonderfully the richer for its dynamic nature, I care deeply about the correct use of it in any context which carries authority over public spheres. I hope my post, on the whole, conveys this, as it shows the root of why they are worth fighting for in the face of so much poetic and expediently spun interpretation. (We have similar issues with the visual, such as flags and religious symbols) However, I think time is short and that achieving the good that Socialism has the potential to deliver is better conveyed in simple, unambiguous language, eg: the concept that ‘the People are the State’. Look how quickly, for example, without using the word that so threatens, the majority have come to a common realisation and desire to nationalise our energy and yet how bitterly and easily the label of ‘socialism’ polarises. And, though many of us recognise it for what it is and embrace its general principles… and will continue to use it – I’m sure I will – I worry that if we keep focussing too much on the philosophical/political/social interpretations of the ‘ism’, it could take way, way too long and we may still lose. It may need or deserve reclaiming and it could do with clarifying but it mustn’t hinder us. The People, in critical mass, first need to want what it means. Then they need to ask for it. Then we can get on with the how. Let ’em ‘discover’ the label for themselves and we can smile and quip “yes, funny you should say that…”
    🙂

    • Absolutely, Juli.. Socialism has always been such a positive word to me, but the press has sullied the term. There is no point clinging on to it for its own sake. What is important is awareness that most of us want the same outcome. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But Labour’s rose became sullied too, because the press ridiculed Foot and Kinnock. It’s the media and its influence we need to overcome.

  2. I’d also just like to say that was an element in those days that made it easy for the Right to attack.- The rhetoric and arrogance of people like Hatton and Scargill. That’s why McCluskey worries me. He’s an easy target that will be grist to their mill and will stop us reclaiming the lost ground.

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