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In our series responding to viewer mail, Paul Jay joins Taya Graham to give his views on questions raised by viewers

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TAYA GRAHAM: Hello. My name is Taya Graham. And welcome to The Real News Network.

We are continuing our conversation with Paul Jay about socialism with comments from our viewers. So I’m going to share some viewer thoughts on socialism and your dissection of it with your previous guest.

Now, we are going back to a viewer comment that addresses “does socialism make people lazy.” Now, Patrick R. says, “Socialism is disgusting, leads to laziness in business and the workforce, and has literally never worked anywhere. Are you people daft?”

So Paul, how do you address this? I feel like he’s using the laziness trope as a way to kind of discredit socialism overall. What’s your response?

PAUL JAY: Well, first, I may be daft, that’s a separate debate.

TAYA GRAHAM: A separate debate.

PAUL JAY: But I don’t think I’m the one that can argue that. There’s some truth to what he says. In the experience in the Soviet Union and Cuba and Eastern Europe, there was a point in the development of socialism where workers were less motivated than certainly everyone that imagined what socialism would be thought would happen.

Now, before getting into that, let’s look at, first of all, the increase in productivity and the growth of the economy, industrialization in the Soviet Union during the 1920s on was astounding. The fact that this semi-feudal country industrialized so quickly that it actually could fend off this highly developed industrial power of Nazi Germany, and eventually win that war, the extent to how hard people worked and how much they sacrificed to be into that position, you can’t call that laziness. Let’s not forget the Soviet Union got to space before the United States. In a very short amount of time after World War II, the Soviet Union builds a nuclear weapon to counteract the nuclear threat of the United States, and the extent to which it was an offensive threat to the United States and that the Soviet Union was in a defensive position. Watch all the interviews I did with Daniel Ellsberg, who was in on planning the American nuclear war strategy.

TAYA GRAHAM: Incredible.

PAUL JAY: But one cannot deny that as we head into the 70s and the 80s–

TAYA GRAHAM: But didn’t the Soviet Union actually collapse because of its economic–I mean, the way it was strategizing? I mean, isn’t that the reason?

PAUL JAY: Well, yeah. I would say the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union are primarily what happened to the bureaucratization of socialism in the Soviet Union. It’s connected to the question of “did people get lazy,” but it’s not quite the same question.

I want to just drill in on this question, because here’s the underlying argument that people give this. When people have a guaranteed job and you can never get fired, when people have a guaranteed standard of living, they have healthcare, they have schooling, there’s no fear of poverty, which is more or less what there was in the Soviet Union, people get lazy. And if there’s no competition, like if everyone gets paid the same no matter how hard you work, then why work hard?

TAYA GRAHAM: Then why innovate and why work hard? OK.

PAUL JAY: Well, there’s two parts. I’m glad you said innovate, because the Soviet Union was incredibly innovative. Some of the most amazing inventions came out of the Soviet Union, including, if you go back to the beginning, the Soviet Union gives birth to modern filmmaking and so on, and all kinds of developments in the sciences.

TAYA GRAHAM: But what you said was that people did become a little lazier, people didn’t feel that they had to strive as much. So isn’t that exactly what mainstream capitalists are saying? They’re saying, “Look, see what socialism does. It does make people lazy and not productive.

PAUL JAY: Yeah. So if you look at the stages of the Soviet Union, for a long time, it was very productive, as you see, what I said about taking on Germany and getting to space and so on. And then also, in certain sectors of the economy, it remained very productive, especially the sciences. In the interview with Buzgalin, he talked about that the Soviet Union was able to compete with the United States in the development of technology, but then, he added, but couldn’t produce enough blue jeans.

But on this one specific thing–and it’s a complicated subject, we can’t get into it all now–but there was something that developed in the Soviet Union, and it happened in Cuba, and to some extent in Eastern Europe, and I did a film on Albania, I saw it there, that when you got to the level of the factory floor and much of the working class, kind of everyone got paid the same. And it kind of didn’t matter if you worked hard or didn’t work hard, and there was a lot of resentment. Workers that did work hard, were motivated, were definitely pissed that this person over there was having a cigarette half the day and nothing happens. And then it was difficult to fire somebody and even discipline them, because ideologically, this was supposed to be a worker’s state and all the rest.

And one of the reasons that was is because the bureaucrats, especially, to maintain their own positions of power, didn’t want to piss off sections of the working class. And a lot of them believed in this theory too, that you pay everyone the same because that’s the socialist ideal. Except it’s not. There’s absolutely no reason under socialism why everyone should get paid the same. And in fact, they didn’t. In the Soviet Union, the artists got paid more, filmmakers got paid more, the party leaderships got paid more. It’s not like everyone got paid the same, it was mostly in the working class you didn’t have hardly any variance. But there’s no reason why that needs to be.

Like if you go back to what Marx said, socialism is not the same–and there’s so much misconception of what communism is because of the Cold War and all the rest. But if you take what Marx and Engels thought communism was, communism is when the state withers away and isn’t there anymore because there’s no classes anymore, because the whole point of the state is to be coercive. And if you don’t have distinctions in classes, you don’t need cops, you don’t need armies. So communism is this ideal kind of utopia. Who knows if human society ever gets there, but that’s the theory. It got all demonized because they called the Soviet Union communism because the Soviet Union sometimes called themselves that, but it wasn’t.

So under communism, the tagline is, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Because this ideal state, where there’s no classes, everyone is highly motivated, but not everyone is equal in ability. Some people run fast, some people run slow, some people are smarter, some people can do this and that. So everyone gives what they have to give, but everyone gets what they need. That’s this utopian state of communism, and that was the ideal. But socialism, the slogan was, the tagline from Marx was, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their work.” You don’t work, you don’t get. So that was not what was followed. This idea of having the same wage did demotivate people.

Like I was in Cuba, and I would meet with people higher up in the party and the government. And I would say to them, “I understand the sanctions and the embargo have hurt you, but why can’t you raise your own chickens? Why do you have to import chickens? You’ve got a nice climate here, why do you have to import vegetables?”

TAYA GRAHAM: And what did they say?

PAUL JAY: They’d go back to blaming the sanctions and the embargo, because–and I don’t want to diminish, underestimate the sanctions, and the attacks on Cuba were a big issue. This kind of, to some extent, brings us to an earlier segment about how much the sanctions hurt Venezuela as opposed to domestic policy. But that being said, they had a problem in Cuba. It’s kind of funny. People became so educated, they didn’t want to do agricultural work. They didn’t want to go work in the fields, they didn’t want to raise chickens, because people were learning sciences and medicine. And in those areas, Cuba excelled. They have a pharmaceutical industry in Cuba that competes at a world level. Though when it came to when you have such an educated population, a lot of people didn’t want to do that kind of work.

But it also was the same thing, with everyone kind of getting paid the same, and they were resentful about that. People said, “Well, why should I work hard when they don’t?” But there’s no reason for that. This isn’t something inherent in socialism. You can have competition between workers, you can pay people more for more productivity. This is not a state where you get what you need, it’s an economy where you get how you work. So it’s a complicated, long story, but the short of it is we don’t know yet what socialism that fully works is.

TAYA GRAHAM: It sounds like you’re describing a kind of hybrid between capitalism and socialism.

PAUL JAY: That’s a very good point you make, because there’s no such thing that one day you have capitalism, and then you elect somebody, and the next day we have socialism. There is a long period of transition. Engels actually wrote about this. For quite a while, publicly owned companies compete with privately owned companies. And they have to prove to the population that the publicly owned companies are more effective, deliver better services, pay people better, that you do have efficiencies in terms of how people work. And we actually have some examples of it already. I may have mentioned it earlier, but in the studies they’ve done comparing the publicly owned auto insurance in British Columbia to the privately owned auto insurance in Ontario, the publicly owned auto insurance in British Columbia did better; lower premiums, faster payouts, less cost in administration.

Then there’s a little flip. Ontario, Canada has publicly owned liquor stores. All the booze in Ontario is publicly owned, beer and wine and spirits. So they’ve done studies comparing the publicly owned and unionized liquor stores in Ontario to private in Alberta, privately owned. The public blows Alberta away. More choice. As a matter of policy, even though it’s not the most profitable thing to do, they have more choice of wine to give better services. Because in Alberta, what happened is they only carried the top-selling brands because it wasn’t worth giving shelf space to stuff that people didn’t already know and didn’t have a lot of marketing behind it. It’s unionized, so instead of going in a liquor store and somebody working there for minimum wage who can’t even afford to buy the booze, you have people that are very skilled, and they can actually make recommendations and they’ve been trained.

So there’s definite examples that public ownership can be more effective and people can be highly motivated, the productivity can be better than in private. But as I say, there has been experience where it’s not the case. But not the case doesn’t prove the thesis, it just says that in those models, that didn’t work, and we should learn from them as we explore what is it going to mean to have socialism in a modern, industrialized country.

TAYA GRAHAM: Well, Paul, we’re going to have to leave it here, but we will pick it up in the next segment. I want to thank all of you for joining me at The Real News Network. If you haven’t already hit the subscribe, button please do so. And if you haven’t subscribed to our e-mail list, please do, because you will get The Real News delivered directly to your inbox.

I want to thank you for joining me. My name is Taya Graham.

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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.