Features Australia

Whatever happened to socialism?

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

There has been some alarm expressed in Britain by worried editorial writers in journals like the Economist that Jeremy Corbyn could soon be Prime Minister and introduce a socialist regime for the country. Corbyn himself has fuelled these concerns by his references to plans for a ‘modern socialism’. And there are some commentators in Australia who see echoes of Corbyn in Labor and the Greens.

There would be many problems about a Corbyn government but the prospect of ‘socialism’ is not one of them. It seems doubtful that this term has ever had a satisfactory definition. Nevertheless, between the wars there were many members of the British Labour party and the Australian Labor party who described themselves as socialists. They looked forward to a time of almost full employment, adequate wages and a welfare system that provided support for those unable to work through age or infirmity. Many of them saw public ownership – meaning nationalisation in some cases – of bodies providing essential services, including transport and power, as an important objective on the basis that such services would not be universally provided by corporations whose sole motive was to make a profit for their shareholders. These now seem relatively modest goals but it must be remembered that in the 1920s and 1930s there was mass unemployment at various times in Western countries and very little in the way of a safety net for those who could not earn a living wage.

It will be obvious that the modern welfare state in Western countries like Britain and Australia has essentially filled these gaps and largely provided general economic security, although there are naturally considerable discrepancies in levels of financial resources. In relation to public ownership of essential services, it is true that some of these are provided in most Western countries by private sector entities but these are so closely regulated by government that there is little difference in practice from the operations of public sector bodies. As the gas suppliers in Australia learnt recently, if the federal government wants a change to their policies, there is little point in protesting that they are private organisations subject only to their shareholders.


If socialism has essentially lost any meaning it originally had, its counterpoint – capitalism – still appears to be alive and well. But, as already noted, businesses are now so closely controlled by the governments within whose borders they operate that it is a far cry from the times when they could treat workers and consumers with contempt. One partial exception to this development may be banks and financial institutions who argued successfully during the so-called global financial crisis that they could not be allowed to fail. The result was that in the United States and in a number of European countries, although not in Australia, taxpayers had to fund the bad loans that had been made by these institutions.

The kind of identity politics being pursued by Corbyn and some of his Australian counterparts would have been rejected out of hand by, for example, Clement Atlee in Britain and John Curtin in Australia who both called themselves socialists in the 1930s and 1940s. Atlee and Curtin had seen at first hand in their working environment the brutal effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s on huge numbers of ordinary working people. They were interested in improving the well-being of the general community, not in creating separate classes of victims who demand special consideration.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s was not a defeat for socialism, or even for communism, but simply the final breakdown of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe that commenced in 1945. The terms socialism and communism had little meaning in those Soviet satellites where the real point was state control of almost all economic and social activities. These regimes were the last legacy of the Bolsheviks’ assumption of power in Russia in 1917 which was followed by the suppression of all political and community groups that might pose any challenge to their absolute rule. Much the same comment could be made about the term ‘fascism’ which is often applied to the Hitler period in Germany and the Mussolini period in Italy. Again, the key feature of these regimes was extensive state control and any notion of ideology had little relevance.

One key feature, however, of the Corbyn approach is a commitment to substantially increased government expenditure with vague suggestions that this would be supported by taxation of the rich and multinational corporations. This would have been viewed with some scepticism by the electorate in earlier times but the notion of a balanced budget now has little appeal in Britain or Australia. In addition, special interest groups relentlessly – and usually successfully – harass governments to increase expenditure in their own sectors without any concern for its effect on the economy overall.

Another important aspect of Corbyn’s leadership is his long-standing sympathy for groups, like the IRA and Hamas, that were and are essentially terrorist organisations. This sympathy is particularly striking in the case of the IRA which, in addition to its hundreds of other murders and bombings, came within an ace of killing a prime minister in the case of Margaret Thatcher and succeeded in assassinating one of her cabinet colleagues. All this reflects some kind of puzzling but deep-seated hostility to the political values of the West by Corbyn and some of his counterparts in other countries, despite their all being affluent and comfortable products of those societies.

What all of this suggests is that the Corbyn model certainly poses a threat to good government but its threat is not one of ‘socialism’. Whatever that term once meant, it has been consigned to history. It often had a bad press but it never embodied the financial irresponsibility and anti-Western views of Corbyn and some of his counterparts in Europe and Australia.

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