Thursday, August 11, 2011

The false accusation of 'collectivism' that is used against socialism

'Collectivism' is a dirty word on the Right. It has a meaning and significance that goes well beyond that of simply being a designation for socialism. Unfortunately, despite the similarity of the words of 'Collective' and 'Social', the comparison doesn't hold true. So what do parts of the Right mean by Collectivism? Collectivism can be seen as a process where atomized individuals are pushed down into a uniform, pliable, conforming, mass. The more Libertarian Right sees atomistic individualism as a good thing, the more conservative right, in the guise of attacking liberalism, doesn't. Standardization, loss of individual identity, and loss of individual initiative are thought to follow, with citizens becoming robots to the cause and following orders instead of having their own wills. Socialism becomes a happy land where obedient workers without personality sing and work for the whole, and where Ayn Rand like individuals who don't submit are singled out and shamed, or worse.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of socialism and Anarchism, including most straight out Communism that's not extreme Maoism or North Korea like Stalinism, variants, promotes the creative organizing of society, positive construction, and positive action. Socialism in my opinion was born due to the failings of classical liberal politics to address the problems of society that went beyond the notion of purely preserving individual rights and doing nothing else. It was also animated in the beginning by people like Fourier, who believed that all individuals had a social feeling that lead to creative associations that would then organize themselves for common goals and purposes, in work and otherwise, if given a chance to play themselves out. I would argue that much of socialism combines the two thoughts, the need for a social policy beyond the individual and the natural tendency of people to form groups, in the quest to overcoming both the atomization caused by capitalist society and the economic stratification going beyond individual talent that has come with it.
Workers in the 19th century were increasingly being forced to be like a mass, but it was industrial capitalism itself that was the motor. The Unions and the socialist movements were the forces opposing this attempt at standardization and massification. Organizing meetings, community self-help organizations, strikes, educational sessions, and sometimes newspapers, socialists and unionists tried to create an alternative to the attempt to take from them their individuality and self respect, in a way supported both domestic prosperity and freedom. It was freedom at the workplace in the form of rights and protections, for your work not to dictate anything it wanted without a means to oppose it. It was freedom to create or recreate neighborhoods based on dignity instead of on neglect. It was protection from government abuse as well, on top of abuse from folks on the side of business. It was not massification, but anti-massifcation.

Socialism has been reproached for working through the idea of classes, saying that by making people think of themselves in terms of class they make them sacrifice their basic individual identity, leasing to them being standardized into an unthinking mass. But Marx said it best when he wrote that the first act of the proletariat, a strange word, would be to abolish itself. While there surely have been many motivations, class in general, in my opinion, has been emphasized because the economic reality of alienated industrial capitalism imposes itself on people. Capitalism chose and created class, the class without power did not create capitalism. Surely, there are other social groupings and characteristics that effect life, such as race, religion and sex, and socialism has tried to meet them half way, but socialism in the form of a practical politics as opposed to pure economic materialism sees the economic structure of society as permeating all other social relationships. The present economy did not create oppression against women, but oppression against women functions in an economic context. The economic structure of society is seen as a constant that provides another level of meaning to these issues, but that does not negate them totally.

It is true that the socialist societies that have come into existence, like Soviet Russia, have kept class consciousness going, but at least in the Russian example, at first some of it had a positive role to play. One of the purposes of it was to create a new society based on the ideas of folks who had been shut out from official culture and not allowed to have their say. Some folks were indeed uneducated, but the flip side was that the education that the upper classes and folks in the management classes received was not such that it really reflected reality. The limitations of people before the Russian Revolution could have been turned, and to some extent were turned, into fuel for a new educational construction that would make use of the full possibilities available for thought, a more complete and deep culture than existed previously. This does not mean that the education of the educated classes did not have any value, just that it needed to be retooled. Later, working class consciousness was turned into a propagandastic device, and of course, during the Revolution itself and after, class and accusations of class treason were used by some people as an excuse to settle scores to get things that others had that they wanted. However, although the unjust use of class to do those things is regrettable, getting back to the subject at hand it isn't really an example of a uniform, massified, consciousness. The people involved retained their individual wills, they just chose to conduct themselves in a way that was improper.

Perhaps the idea of a collective egotism is at work here, of transferring personal egotism to class egotism and acting on it, of giving excuses for ones actions based on what public policy is officially approved, but such collective behavior has been present from the start in many different kinds of groups. Egotism transferred to race, egotism transferred to sex, national origin, religion, have existed and still exist. That such a tendency would also exist within socialism does not negate it, but is proof that it partakes of human nature as well.

1 comment:

Roderick T. Long said...

The word "collectivism" wasn't invented as a smear word; it's a word that socialists of both statist and anarchist varieties (e.g. Bakunin) have frequently used to describe their own position. Of course they don't necessarily mean by it what right-wingers mean by it; but it's not as if the idea of socialists being collectivists is some sort of whole-cloth right-wing invention.

Also, as a side point: libertarians don't favour atomistic individualism; in fact atomistic individualism is pretty clearly incompatible with libertarianism.