The Criteria Assessing the Progress of Building Socialism. An Interview with Mrs. Maria McGavigan.

Interviewers: Maria McGavigan (M)1 ,Yi Zhu (Z)2 ,Yifan Ruan3

Time: August, 24th, 2016

1. Personal Biography and Experience in China

Z: So first we would like to know something about when and how you became a Marxist?

M: Well, I think I was always in the Left-wing because I could see social injustice all around me. For instance, when I was a child, my mother employed a woman to clean for us and I always wondered why this woman had to leave her children at home and go out to work even although she also had a large family. Nearly all the children at the school I attended came from working-class families and lived in very poor and cramped conditions. Later on, I became involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. A friend gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto, which I read. However, it seemed outdated and irrelevant to the time we were living in – I guess I wasn’t ready to question capitalism itself. And of course, I had no one to guide me, no organization. Spontaneously, I was not attracted to marginal groups and the CP was too connected with Stalin, the gulag and a lack of democracy in general, all of which were decried in the late fifties, not only by the right but also by the left.

Strangely enough, my university years were not particularly associated with politics. That would change with the movement against the Vietnam War and to some extent with the Cultural Revolution, which was very romanticized by Western youth of the left and seemed thus to offer a valid alternative to the Soviet model.

I began to take part in demonstrations, but was still not very active.

After a couple of years in the US, I lived in Mexico for two years, where I could see imperialism at close hand. When I came back to Belgium, I got involved in a feminist and socialist movement, which fairly soon collapsed. That was in 1972, a few years after 1968 when there were big students’ revolts and movements. Some groups then became close to Maoist organizations. There were several Maoist organizations in Belgium, which were in opposition to the traditional communist party which, in our opinion had got stuck in its ways and no longer had a strong fighting spirit. In addition, there was also the question of the Sino-Soviet split. Anyway, I joined one of those Maoist organizations and out of it was born the PTB. It was also around this time that I gave up my teaching job and went to work in a factory. I felt that if I really believed the working class was the determining factor in the destruction of capitalism I had to be involved in the everyday life and struggles of ordinary working people..

Z: Does such action also have something to do with your experience when you were child or educational background?

M: I was born in Glasgow in Britain and came from a bourgeois family, but I went to a school where all the other children were from working class family backgrounds. So, as I said before, I could see the differences between my family and theirs. Such a situation made me think. I believe this is the most important thing.

Z: At the Second International Symposium on Marxism and Socialism in the 21st century, 2015 in Wuhan University, your colleague, Mr. Jo Cottenier said in a lecture that the PTB was officially founded in 1979. At that time your party paid a visit to China and was ‘inspired by the Chinese example’. Could you talk about your experience then in China?

M: I was not on that trip, but I went to China a few years later in 1983. We stayed in China for about a month. That time was just the beginning of what they called ‘the responsibility system in the countryside’. Our visit put emphasis on agriculture and how things were being improved in poor areas, so we chose specifically to visit Guizhou Province. We could see the place was mountainous and not very adapted to large scale rice growing and the use of farming machines. I think the problem at that time was that transportation was less developed in China, so every area had to be self-sufficient to grow more rice. I could see it was a very complicated problem. We visited a brick factory, too. The workers there explained to us that the bricks they made were actually more expensive than if they imported them from another area. But they did that to give work to children from peasant families, for there were too many people in the countryside. So we could see that, although at that time China was very poor, the children we saw were never undernourished or ill. This situation was not like India. Of course, we didn’t see very much and there was a big difficulty in increasing productivity, but it seemed that progress had been made.

2. The Vision of ‘Socialism 2.0’ of PTB

Z: In the same lecture, Mr. Jo Cottenier also talked about developing a vision of ‘socialism 2.0’ of your party, which means building socialism ‘on the achievements of the first socialist countries, simultaneously using the most evolved productive forces, the latest technologies, and the most advanced democratic methods’. Could you talk about the idea of ‘Socialism 2.0’ of your party?

M: Our vision of ‘Socialism 2.0’ is about socialism in the 21st century. We would like to emphasize that we no longer take any foreign or historical experiences of socialism as models. The general principles should never be belittled, still less denied, particular conditions of time and space must never be used to neglect or negate the general laws and universal features of socialist construction, as the opposite of capitalism and the early stage of communism. We still agree to that, however, we refuse to take a model from another country or age for our vision of socialism. But of course, we don’t deny we were influenced by the Chinese example and in the 1990s we began to be more interested in Soviet history and the achievement of socialist construction in Soviet Union, even if the Soviet party made serious mistakes.

Z: I can see your party’s idea of ‘Socialism 2.0’ is still a preliminary and general vision, and has still to be developed as a concrete policy.

M: Yes. It is really after 2000 that we began to develop this idea of breaking away from all existing models. In particular, it is because people often reproach our party with being ‘Stalinist’ or with following the policy of North Korea. We want to say we have nothing at all to do with that. That is not our idea. There are positive and negative things in the history of socialist construction and none of these models can be used for us.

Z: So I could see that the vision of ‘Socialism 2.0’ of your party is on the basis of Marxist general principles, and has its own characteristics that could be adapted to the concrete current situation of Belgium. Another question is how do you tell the difference between ‘real Marxism’ and some revised versions, for example, democratic socialism or social democracy?

M: Well, I think that is quite easy. Socialism means, first and foremost, a clear and clean break with the preceding system, with capitalism. However, social democrats do not want to break with capitalism. They want to keep it and only make a few adjustments and improvements, to make it more human or so on. They don’t realize something basic in Marxism: that the forces driving capitalism are pursuing maximum profits and accumulation. That is the main thing that social democrats are after and they sometimes give concession to workers if the associations and forces of workers are strong enough. For instance, in the period after the Second World War in Europe, the working class and communist parties were quite strong while the bourgeois class was weaker than before. Working class people were in a better position at that time to demand concessions from the bourgeoisie, and they won a lot of concessions, social security and things like that. So such things can happen under the condition of capitalism. Workers can win advantages; however, they can never change the system completely and permanently under capitalism. There must be a complete break. There must be a situation where the working class people are in power and there is no longer a capitalist class.

3. The Criteria of the Progress in the Construction of a Socialist Economy: the Productive Forces and the Relations of Production

Z: Now let’s move on to our main topic. Is it true that the first and foremost criterion of progress in socialism is about economy, about the improvement of social productive forces that can satisfy people’s needs along with the updates of relations of production? It means that the anarchy of the market economy gives way to the rationality of a planned economy. And production for maximal private profits is replaced by production for maximal social benefit. I would like to hear your comments about this criterion.

M: The development of the productive forces always comes first in socialist construction; however, it is always closely related to the establishment and development of a more rational system of productive relations. Today we have an economy that is totally irrational, for instance, you have fifty different kinds of mobile phones and on the other hand people are not able to buy them. Obviously, it is totally irrational that things are made for capitalist profits, not for the people’s needs. Advertising and market strategies are widely used to convince people to believe that they need the latest model of car or portable telephone, while in the meantime others go without essentials..

Z: Marxist core criticism of capitalism is that, as far as I know, social production is not organized in accordance with the actual needs of members of society. This indeed is the problem if the economy is totally market-oriented. But my concern is, could we find a more rational approach or a more practical system to balance the total social supply and demand, if we totally abandon prices and the market? To be exact, how could ‘the people’s needs’ be measured reasonably?

M: I do not think it is possible to abandon totally the market from one day to the next. You can see that we demand that certain core sectors be nationalized, but not the small industries. As for the question how people’s needs can be measured, we think that today with the development of internet, social media or things like that, we have so many means to find out what people need and want. It is quite obvious to me because I use social media like Facebook a lot. I could give you a small example. I am very interested in the question how handicapped persons can be looked after in our society. I have a grandson who is autistic and always needs to be taken care of, so I belong to a group on Facebook, whose members are mostly mothers of autistic children. They help each other by sharing their information about their problems as well as tips and approaches they find to deal with all the problems. They also explain their difficult situations through the network and people reply. These mothers used to be very isolated because of their handicapped children; however, Facebook has brought them together. And this is all happening in a capitalist society and it indicates that the development of social media and high technology existing nowadays has provided a greater possibility than ever before to find out what people need. I think in a socialist society that kind of thing can be used much more and much better.

Z: My other concern regarding this point is, if for Marxist historical materialism moral and ethical consciousness is regarded as second-order to the material aspect, as you have always reminded me, it is very likely that people’s desires or needs can never be satisfied, or even become immoral or absurd. What are your ideas about this kind of issue?

M: We don’t think people can change overnight. Of course there are lots of people who are selfish or self oriented. Capitalism breeds this kind of mentality. ‘Everyone for himself’ is the very ideology of capitalist society. I think people can only change gradually, but such things can only happen and go well on condition that the material situation has been changed. That is the first point. I mean if people are getting used to collective solutions to their problems, people themselves could become more moral.

Z: Now let’s move on to the criterion on the progress in the relations of production. Should it be moving away from the private ownership of the means of production to cooperative, collective and finally state ownership? But in the Chinese experience, especially that before 1978, state ownership and production dominated by the administrative order could not create the effective productive forces to satisfy the people’s needs. How would you respond to these problems? Do you think state ownership within the relations of production is really better and just?

M: I think it is just, but it may not work very well. I can understand it may not work very well if people are not educated and if there is no ideological education at the same time. I think there is always a danger of bureaucracy. However, such danger exists in private enterprises as well, not just in state enterprises. In Belgium and Europe there were also state-owned industries for a long time, such as the railways, telecommunications, water, gas and electricity. But now some areas of the economy have been privatized; however, the owners in private enterprises have no interest in production as such, but only in making money, in making profits. I am sure that there exists a certain culture of serving the public, even though it is not respected by everyone, and I think it is true as you said that overproduction and low efficiency exist in state-owned enterprises. But you should know these problems don’t only come from the fact that the enterprises are owned by the state, but also the fact that they are badly run or there is not enough enthusiasm for encouraging new ideas. I don’t think such problems are determined by the nature of ownership, after all, if private industry can make people enthusiastic, why not in the case of public industry when you know you are going to do something that will serve the population rather than only working to make more profits for your boss or the shareholders?

Z: One can also reproach state ownership with as political coercion, which means the state as a body politic threatens to deprive the workers of their productive means and outcomes by force. People are required by the state to make sacrifices, only to make their activity and creativity largely discouraged. Not only China, the former Soviet Union and East European countries also had such problems. I would like to hear your comments about such political coercion on the people in some socialist countries.

M: But actually coercion is much more typical of private industry, of capitalism, where workers have no rights and can be fired at a moment’s notice! They have nothing to say either on how their factory is run. I think people are different everywhere and at any time. Even in capitalist society, you can see some people are motivated to do something for justice, not just to earn more money for themselves. Such differences among people could be the same under socialist conditions. The people who are motivated by the common good draw the others with them, and that can only happen on the condition of participatory democracy, for instance in a factory where there is a real discussion and people can feel free to express themselves. There must be a stage where people will be a bit ashamed to say that they are only interested in their own good. A case in Cuba is that Cuban doctors were sent to work in countries where there had been disasters. These doctors were highly trained and worked in tough situations with little payment. They were both morally and politically motivated because they knew that the Cuban state and people had paid for their education so they owed something to them. There were a many among these doctors who were volunteers to sacrifice themselves to help others. So you see people can be morally and politically encouraged, but that will take time of course, and in socialist society every advantage should be given to those who are willing and ready to help others. As for the argument you made about socialist states forcing people to make their private productive means public as to establish a collective ownership, I believe it depends on concrete situations to judge whether it is just or progressive or not. In the case of China, I suspect, for I don’t know the situation very well, that in the early age of the republic, collective systems of agricultural production were introduced too quickly. At that time, the peasants, especially the poor peasants, wanted absolute equality and they didn’t understand the first thing was to increase productivity, which implied cooperating and sharing the very limited amount of productive means available.

Z: The other way to create social justice within the economic field is put forward by political theorists such as John Rawls, which could be titled as ‘distributive justice’ via high progressive taxation and other measures like that. How would you comment about such kind of proposal?

M: I have not studied John Rawls. I should say in our capitalist society, one of our demands is for more progressive taxation so that the rich should pay more because in Belgium, for instance, ordinary working people are very heavily taxed, while the rich by all kinds of means avoid taxation. This is very unjust. So we have a lot of support for the idea that millionaires should pay a tax on their wealth, not just on their income. But this is a different question from socialism because it depends on how society is organized. We see that in capitalist society the very rich become rich because of exploitation, because they have been able to draw surplus value from some kind of production, even indirectly, but the only way to produce wealth is production. And what is produced, and how, is decided by those who own the means of production. So, it is not a question of redistribution of wealth, but of ownership.

Z: I see that Rawls’ proposal to achieve social justice is almost in the distributive field of social wealth, but from socialist or Marxist theory, the basic and key proposal lies in productive relations. Meanwhile I would like to hear your comments about the so-called ‘social market economy’ in Germany and some other European countries, which seems to be a way to regulate the social production and distribution via workers’ collectively negotiating with their bosses.

M: I quite agree with your point that socialists put the productive relations first to achieve social justice. As for the mode of social market economy, it was introduced after the Second World War, which resulted in more power for the trade unions. The concern about the victory of Soviet Union was one of the important reasons for its establishment as well. I can take Belgium as an example. Even today in Belgium there are regular negotiations between bosses and trade unions in certain sectors, and the agreements reached in these sectors will be obligatory for all workers and bosses. The advantage of collective negotiations is that the strongest trade unions can impose concessions which are also valid for smaller factories. However, today in 2016 the bosses in big industry want to get rid of that. They know they still have to negotiate, but they want to do this in each individual work-place. Anyway, this is a system of concession that capitalists made to workers in a situation where capitalists were weaker and workers stronger after the Second World War. So this system can be in difficulty when workers are in an increasing state of weakness in comparison to their bosses in Europe.

4. The Criteria of the Progress in Construction of Socialist Politics: Active Democracy and Active Citizenship

Z: OK. Now let’s talk about the criterion of socialist construction of democratic politics. You told me that the vision of ‘Socialism 2.0’ of your party is an ‘active democracy’, or ‘active citizenship’, which means people’s democratic participation in all spheres and levels of public life and in the whole process of politics, decision making, responsible control, periodic assessment and so on. Could you please give us some illustration of such ideas as ‘active democracy’ and ‘active citizenship’?

M: We see ‘active democracy’ as people’s universal participation in public life at different levels, in nations, localities, workplaces and so on, not limited to certain areas by a small group. In Belgium and in other European countries, we have basic political rights such as freedom of the press. But what does that really mean? For instance, our party could in theory set up a television station; however, this could be achieved only on condition that our party members had become millionaires. As for election rights, first of all, most parties that take part in elections are in favor of capitalism and these parties are supported by the media so that they get more coverage in newspapers, on radio or on TV. Moreover, such thing can happen because people vote periodically and then for four years they have nothing or no means to express their opinion. Another case of democracy is at the local level. Ordinary people are not used to being implicated in decision-making, for instance, in workplaces of big companies or factories, it is the shareholders, especially the most important ones, who really decide. The leaders decide to hire or fire, and there are only a few restrictions imposed by law. This is totally incompatible with socialism. I am quite clear that it is likely that people’s participation in discussion could turn into a perpetual debate or quarrel, so there must be some mechanism to direct the discussion so as to come to a decision and implement it. However, people can always have good suggestions when they participate.

Z: So what do you think about the idea of ‘active citizenship’?

M: It means ordinary people’s active participation in discussion on local or general public issues, reaching agreements and periodical assessments. It includes the factors of direct control of their public life by the common people, but it does not deny the good function of representative democracy. Suppose in every area of a city there is a local council. People are motivated to get access and attend an assembly because they know this has an influence. So they come, give their opinions and elect representatives. People must be represented by those they know and respect and these delegates come together at a higher level and so on. It is also very important that they should not be careerists, that they should not regard being representatives of the people as a way to a well-paid job while losing touch with the life of ordinary citizens. So the representatives of the people should not have such advantages to gain privileges for themselves. On the one hand, people should be able to dismiss their representatives if they don’t fulfill the demands of their constituencies. On the other, the people’s government should consult the population when a decision of a policy is made. The Cuban government made a large scale inquiry among the Cuban people in the very difficult situation that prevailed after the Soviets had withdrawn from Cuba,. With the very limited resources available, choices had to be made and the government wanted to find out what the people thought the most important achievement of the Cuban revolution was, so important that they could not do without it. The result was a clear preference for the health and education systems, even though at that time the conditions of food supply and transportation were also very bad. The point is that the members of the government went down to the local groups and consulted the people for a policy decision.

Z: Correspondingly, what are your opinions about ‘political coercion’ by the state under socialist conditions?

M: There will still be prisons and coercive institutions under socialist condition, for there are still people who commit crimes. They have to be punished for the bad things they have done. We published an article in our review on prisons in the German Democratic Republic, which explains what the philosophy behind the prison system in the GDR was and how prisons helped people get back to a normal life, to get a job for example. Sometimes people have to be forced but we should be devoted to creating a socialist society in which the number of people being forced is small, and more and more people are ready to do the right things. However, again, there needs to be a material basis for that. If people do not have enough to eat they will be dominated be that fact and not be thinking about other things.

5. The Criteria of the Progress in the Construction of Socialist Culture: Marxist Education and Popularization

Z: Obviously, socialist consciousness and moral virtues do not spring from nature, but should be cultivated among the people. So now we come to the last but not the least issue on Marxist education and popularization. We know that a Marxist University is organized by members of the Institute of Marxist Studies of Belgium in Waterloo every summer. Each session lasts a little over a week. Could you tell us something about the teaching and learning there?

M: Education is a very important thing for socialist construction. Under socialism, education is essential, among other things, for convincing people that they should work for the common good and that working only for individual interests will go nowhere. Belgium of course is not a socialist country and so Marxist education is not included in the official national curriculum. That is why our institute set up the Marxist University, which is open to all and independent of the national system of education in Belgium. The Marxist University provides courses on the basics of Marxist theory, but also on subjects of topical interest, like the environment, social security, nationalism, conspiracy theories or others. For example, this summer you can see we have courses about the economic crisis, terrorism, ecology, neo-liberalism and the paradox of Hayek, capital accumulation in the world, aging problems, TTIP, French revolution, the history of Jazz music, the history of Belgian colonialism, of Belgium in the Congo and its effects on the Belgian mentality. The courses are generally taught in French or in Dutch, but sometimes in English. The general atmosphere is of open and friendly discussion.

Z: So at the end of the courses, the teachers will try to guide the students to think in a Marxist way?

M: It depends. As some lecturers are party members, they are more inclined to do so. Others, who are university professors or non-party specialists with a Marxist or socially progressive bent, may not. But at least the courses should be on the basis of materialism. That means people should first and foremost make a judgment based on facts. For instance, the professor who taught the subject of oceanography is a real expert in this field. He doesn’t simply say that pollution is terrible; we should go on strike and things like that. On the contrary, he gave figures about what the actual situation is. So, the materialist approach comes first and after that we begin to talk about the how to deal with the problem.

Z: We know that you are also an expert in Marxist education and you have paid several visits to many Marxist colleges in China. So according to your experiences and observation, what are the problems when we as Chinese teach and learn Marxism? What suggestions could you give us?

M: I suspect there may be a problem with the relationship between theory and practice. Is Marxist education connected to people’s lives? For instance, we know that in China, many young people who follow courses in Marxism are going to have a career in government. One thing that could be discussed in such courses is how Marxism would influence their work in government. Does it mean you should serve the interests of ordinary people? When you participate in the policy-making of a local government, what is your preoccupation? What are the common good and the people’s needs? You know, Marxism is always a practical science about struggle against exploitation. Studying Marxism cannot be fruitful if it is divorced from reality and from struggle. On the other hand, people everywhere struggle to change society, but this struggle will be doomed if the people struggling don't understand how society works. Marx was a philosopher to begin with, but he realized he had to study economics to understand how capitalist society worked and what had to be done to create a different type of society, without exploitation. So you cannot ‘philosophize’ Marxism. Perhaps it would be useful if Schools of Marxism in China devoted more time to Marx's economics and less to philosophy.

1 Maria McGavigan. Former head of the Education department of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) and expert of Institute of Marxist Studies, Brussels.

2 Yi Zhu. PhD candidate at College of Marxism, Central China Normal University and visiting student of Faculty of Educational Science, Hamburg University.

3 Yifan Ruan. Assistant Professor at College of Marxism, China University of Geo-science and visiting scholar of Faculty of Educational Science, Hamburg University.