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I've been chewing recently about one of the central claims of Slavoj Žižek - that one of the typical failures in socialist revolutions is a failure to sufficiently reform property relations - that the revolutions typically stop partway between the de jure and de facto levels - governments officially topple and are re-branded, but the efforts to actually make the changes desired are done halfheartedly, leaving many of the old powerholders able to carve a new niche for themselves not far from where they were before, sometimes strengthened in their ability to serve their self-interests because all the compromises-towards-the-workers are gone (being theoretically unnecessary in a workers' state) and in a society-in-chaos. He names the Soviet and French revolutions and interprets many of their specifics in this light. Is this fair?

Even if his historical analysis is correct, the thing I worry about with his advice to revolutionaries is that not all forms of societal/property relations are equally or actually stable.

In almost all societal systems, we have strange mixes of central control and collective movement. Neither the masses nor the leaders necessarily know what they're doing (I suspect whether they believe in their own wisdom or not is orthogonal to whether they have any), they don't all want the same things or use the same metrics for success, and both struggle between tradition and innovation knowing that internal or external threats and/or the passage of time may deal to them the fate dealt to the Roman, Persian, or Ottoman empires. Zeal for change is scary to anyone who thinks strategically. Change, even foundational change, may be necessary because our commitments to justice, to better ourselves, or to stay afloat, but when we embrace it as a creed (this may be what scares American conservatives about American liberals, fairly or not) we risk undoing centuries of civilisation and self-improvement. For those of us who would embark on revolution given the right opportunity, how are we to take Žのadvice? Is it an out that we would like to have as coherent an idea as possible of what postrevolutionary existence would be like so we can slam that order into place once we can sweep capitalism out? Or would that be to give up on an organicism that too many of our movement commit to?

For one thing, I believe it's important to convince or expel those members of socialist movements that have unrealistic notions of human nature - we may accept solidarity with them when necessary (consider Anarchosocialists), but utopians who believe that all that is needed for justice is an end to capitalism (who think most societal ills stem from the state rather than the difficulties inherent in the human condition and society) pose a risk to moving beyond de jure socialism into de facto socialism.

Second, I believe that organic replacements, when possible, must come after sufficient numbers of people buy in to the new system and once it has enough stability to permit such experimentation. Until then, even with de jure control of a nation we'd want to largely continue with tested economic/social structures established by broad liberal movements (modified as needed/possible). When ready, we would replace them at a careful place.

The development of adequate theory is a difficult question for a movement that strives to be organic - do we wish to:

  • Speak for the people's interests without their consent?
  • Speak for the people's interests pending acquiring their consent?
  • Convince the people of how our theory serves their interests before doing anything?
  • Act only under the scope and implied permitted actions corrisponding to buying-in to western liberal conceptions of democracy? (Meaning: we do nothing which violates democratic norms, and are willing to give up on acting on our theory when we cannot do so under whatever existing systems we wish to replace permit?)
I believe we cannot commit to the "wisdom of the masses", as flattering as that might be to those who consider themselves among the masses.


As to the four options you present at the end of your post: the more I think about it, the more the idea of top-down socialism seems nonsensical to me. (This will of course be an unnecessarily weak statement to many people I know to whom the idea of socialism is nonsensical. ;-) I am not exactly a scholar of such things, but it does not seem like socialism can survive without community norms about the value of work and one's duty to society, to offset the removal of direct external [market] incentives to work. One nice thing about capitalism -- well, depending on your definition of nice -- is that it largely functions the same whether or not the community cares for it. It doesn't even really require a community per se at all. I don't think you can say the same about socialism.

Mind you that what I know or believe about socialism is probably very distorted compared with how you see it, but I hope my comment makes enough sense for you to respond, because I'm curious as to your response.
I think concent is relative, but some amount of buy-in is necessary for any society. Without that buy-in, the system either takes some for contrary to the state or it devolves into chaos - I think this is the same under capitalism, socialism, and the various other systems that do/have existed.

I don't think we have quite the same idea of what socialism is though - I see socialism, like capitalism, as a spectrum of possible systems, and I don't think varying levels of compensation are necessarily alien to a socialist economy. Placing certain things off the table in terms for what money (is required to/can) buy *is* a commitment liberal socialists might make, but there are also utopian (or at least far-future) flavours that have no currency whatsoever or conservative flavours that would take very few things off that way. Broadly, I think socialism is a commitment to having society at large own the means of production rather than capitalists (whether that be organized primarily through broad democracy, consensus among workers in that industry or particular company/collective, or something between is up for grabs). We may have further commitments or inclinations as certain kinds of socialists, but there are a lot of possibilities left open under that broad commitment.

I wouldn't say your ideas are distorted - all of these things come down to definitions, and in political philosophy, terms are usually up for grabs.

For what it's worth, of the four options I've laid out above, I've largely ruled out the fourth as appropriate for movements, and I'm skeptical of the third (although I believe that it cannot hurt and would benefit either a revolution or a peaceful transition to convince as many people as possible). I am not opposed to the first although I'd aim for the second. There's a definitional question between the first and the second - a lot of people probably just don't care what system they're in provided it's meeting their daily needs - I suspect a fair subset of humanity would be pretty happy in historical or current regimes we consider repressive, from Singapore or China to North Korea. I'd still eventually like to have almost everyone involved on some level, and I hope that having democracy/collectives running every workplace would restore a sense of civics and engagement. Still, hard to say.