Civil Society-Centered Socialism

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Steve D'Arcy:

"In 1817, Robert Owen (already well known as a philanthropic manufacturer and educational reformer) came out in favor of a recognizably socialist vision of a post-capitalist, collectivist and egalitarian form of economic democracy. (Prior to that year, Owen was known to favor a kind of paternalistic capitalism, in which benevolent industrialists would endeavor to "uplift" the "demoralized" workers by means of improved working conditions and vigorous attempts at educational reform.) In Owen's conception of socialism, the state did not figure at all, at least not once the self-sustaining and self-managed co-operative villages he proposed were up and running. In the mid-19th century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proposed his doctrine of "mutualism," which was basically something like what Wright calls a "cooperative market economy" (with elements of what John Rawls would call a "property-owning democracy"), which again painted a picture of socialism that assigned very little role - or rather, no role whatsoever - to the state. Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, moreover, also thought of socialism as a mode of "associated production," in which co-operating "direct producers" would "rationally regulate" production "in accordance with a common plan" (to use Marx's language). Of these three, Bakunin and Kropotkin interpreted this to mean that there would not even be a state. Marx thought that there would be a transitional period in which a state would exist to coordinate the expropriation of capital. But note that by "state" Marx meant something like the Paris Commune, not something like the more familiar capitalist state, which he argued could not be taken over and used by the workers' movement at all, but instead had to be "smashed." The Paris Commune, as described by Marx, was - precisely - a form of associative democracy, that is to say, a deliberative and administrative assembly of civil society. (Here Wright does draw the connection between "social empowerment" and the classical socialist tradition, when he writes: "communism, as classically understood in Marxism, is a form of society in which the state has withered away and the economy is absorbed into civil society as the free, cooperative activity of associated individuals"). Early in the 20th century, this apparent consensus that socialism meant "social empowerment" (the egalitarian and democratic governance of the polity and economy by a self-organized civil society) continued with the rise of syndicalism in France and Guild Socialism in the UK. In Russia, the 1905 revolt and 1917 revolution produced "workers' councils" ("soviets" in Russian), which again were forms of governance rooted in civil society, not the representative, administrative or coercive apparatuses of the capitalist state (unlike the later meaning of so-called "soviet power" after the defeat of civil society and the ascendancy of statist rule that came to a head in the Stalin era)." (