On "Twenty-first Century Socialism"

Recently, Marxism-Leninism Today posted an article from Dimitris Karagiannis (On the Opportunist Theory of '21st Century Socialism')[1] followed by a rejoinder from Stan Smith (Reply to Greek CP about the 'Opportunism' of 21st Century Socialism)[2]

To my mind, the popular theorists and theories of "twenty-first century socialism," influenced by anti-Communist dogma and idealist ideology, are recommending an approach that will only make the road to socialism more difficult. Their refusal to heed the lessons of twentieth-century revolutions creates an incomplete program for winning socialism.

At the same time, I recognize the right of our Venezuelan, Bolivian, and other Latin American comrades to find their own road to socialism. Undoubtedly their revolutions will exhibit unique features not shared with earlier revolutions. Different times, different social forces, and different circumstances dictate different paths.

There are even more important constants: the need to confront and defeat imperial aggression and "their own" bourgeoisie. This is precisely where the lessons from the past are crucial.

I also recognize that our comrades in Latin America may be pursuing other, more limited goals besides socialism. They may well seek a liberal state with constraints on capitalism, a generous social safety net, and freedom from foreign domination. This, too, is their right. But it is not socialism.

In any case, I join with Stan Smith in supporting the Venezuelan and Bolivian developments. Quoting Stan: "The Bolivarian process in Venezuela is an inspiration for millions..."

I find the Karagiannis contribution fully consistent with and attuned to this understanding. Karagiannis' quarrel and mine are with the theories and theorist of "twenty-first century socialism." Karagiannis' brief and pointed piece addresses the thinking that denies the lessons of earlier socialist revolutions and postures a "new thinking" based upon fanciful concepts of multi-class cooperation. I'm not sure that Stan fully grasps the distinction between respecting and supporting people in motion and sharply criticizing theories that may detour or derail a socialist project.

Karagiannis clearly distinguishes between the fight against imperialism and the struggle for socialism. At a time when advocacy of socialism has declined with the fall of the Soviet Union and other socialist and socialist-oriented states, the anti-imperialist struggle has taken center stage in many forms and in many arenas of struggle.

Unrestrained capitalist powers have sought to reshape the world into satrapies of transnational companies. Resistance has emerged from many unforeseen and often socially and politically tainted movements, including Islamic fundamentalism. While liberals may recoil in horror, these movements are objectively anti-imperialist and deserving of our support insofar as they combat the domination of imperialist powers and their agenda.

More heartening, movements in Latin America have developed - and in some cases secured a measure of political power - not only to confront imperialism, but also to achieve independence from its long-standing dominance of the region. They have defied imperialism, principally US imperialism, while also loosening or breaking the exploitative economic and social relations long retarding growth, development and social justice.

Accompanying this anti-imperialism and separating their struggle from that in many other parts of the world, these developments in the Southern Hemisphere project progressive programs engaging the masses, aiming towards greater economic and social equality, and encouraging political participation. In addition, they aspire to equitable and cooperative relations throughout the region. This progressive agenda quite naturally fosters a discussion of socialism.

Of course there are and always have been many visions of socialism since the time of Fourier and Robert Owen. Indeed, there were proto-socialist visions of a just society long before then. As I read Karagiannis, he advocates a particular vision – the one associated with the Marxist-Leninist tradition.

In his brief essay, he identifies the two key components of this vision, which I and others associate with scientific socialism, as opposed to speculative or utopian socialism. Those two components are:

•Achieving state power for the working class and its class allies.

•Public ownership and management of the economic engine and the ideological apparatus.

To advocate these two as necessary conditions for a viable socialism is not to preclude many distinctive and original paths to socialism as national features and circumstances dictate. I see no dogma in the Karagiannis position, only the accumulated experience of 150 years of the working class movement and the theoretical refinements accompanying this experience.

Certainly there is much more that could be said about the contours of a future socialist society, though it would largely be speculative. A democratic people's state and the challenges facing that state would determine these contours. Beyond lessons drawn from the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels were, I believe, wisely and deliberately silent on the details.

Additionally, Karagiannis advocates the necessity of a vanguard party as an essential instrument in achieving socialism. While it may well be wrong to foreclose other instruments under uncommon circumstances, it is a certainty that an organization bearing a clear understanding of and dedicated commitment to class struggle, an organization with an unswerving goal of socialism and workers' power generally must exist or emerge to steer a successful revolutionary course.

That organization functions as the vanguard, the "advanced guard" - not as a substitute for the masses or an aloof leader, but as the most principled, most decisively partisan element of the masses. Those who deny the role of a vanguard display a historically unfounded faith in spontaneity – the notion that a leaderless, ideological diverse mass will somehow stumble its way down the path to socialism.

One cannot predict the evolution of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the party formed at Hugo Chavez's instigation from the diverse parties supporting his election. But surely it has far to go to forge the unity around the cause of socialism that it has shown in its support for Chavez. As Karagiannis has suggested, its multi-class, multi-tendency make-up is a serious challenge. In my view, these uncertainties explain why the Venezuelan Communist Party has remained outside of the new party while supportive of the Chavez presidency and the Bolivarian process.

I am less circumspect about Chavez's call for a Fifth International organized around "twenty-first century socialism." At best this call for unity is wildly premature, at worst, divisive and confusing. It is no wonder that it has been met with icy silence outside of a few Western intellectual circles.

The Lessons of the Cuban Revolution

It should be of some interest that the only successful socialist revolution in our hemisphere – the Cuban revolution – offers many lessons that are often overlooked in the current debate over "twenty-first century socialism." Perhaps those caught up in the moment cannot see beyond the artificial millennial barrier.

More likely, the new thinking on socialism refuses to reflect upon an experience that is at odds with its own theoretical disposition. In a recent issue of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster wrote of a leading proponent of "twenty-first century socialism," Marta Harnecker:

Harnecker argues strenuously against a narrow "workerist" view of revolution, and against all kinds of revolutionary isms: "vanguardism, verticalism, authoritarianism," excessive centralism etc. Socialism for the twenty-first century, in her vision, is a revolution defined by its commitment to protagonist democracy... She tells us: "Chavez – influenced by Jose Carlos Mariategui – thinks that twenty-first century socialism cannot be a carbon copy of anything but has to be a 'heroic creation'". That is why he talks of a Bolivarian, Christian, Robinsonian [referring to Simon Rodriguez], Indoamerican socialism...

At the same time, Bellamy attributes to Harnecker the view that the Venezuelan process "...is putting forth new principles and modalities of revolutionary change that may aid in the formation of similar struggles worldwide."

Indeed, in one sense, this is a "new" approach to socialism – one that departs consciously from the Marxist vision of socialist revolution – but also one that departs vastly from the Cuban experience. Socialism did not come to Cuba with the overthrow of Batista. That signal event only marked the beginning of an intense, protracted class struggle against US intervention on behalf of US other transnational companies and, importantly, the Cuban bourgeoisie. The Bacardi Company was a huge multi-national before and after Batista. The Cuban tobacco industry was also the material basis for a national bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie.

The detritus of this class struggle was the mass of counterrevolutionary, anti-socialist, anti-Communists who fled to the Miami area. They were the losers in the class struggle for socialism. The Cuban workers and peasants were the winners. Importantly, this internal class struggle was carried out with the mobilization of the masses: workers and peasants. In the process of this struggle, the state was necessarily transformed from an organ of imperialist and bourgeois rule into one of people's power. The exigencies of struggle determined this course even more than theory.

This is a factual point worth pondering. Whatever the rebel army saw as their vision of a free Cuba, the realities of Cuban social life, with its class divisions and class relations with external forces determined the course of consolidating and advancing the revolution.

Put simply, class struggle saved the revolution from dissolving into one more bourgeois coup and put it firmly on the road to socialism. And this has been the course of all twentieth-century socialist revolutions. Contrary to the "new" approach touted by Harnecker, Hans Dietrich Steffan and others, the actual history of all successful socialist revolutions shows the centrality of class and class struggle in fighting for socialism – the empirical confirmation of the Marxist theory of socialist revolution. The insights drawn by Marx after the Paris Commune remain affirmed by experience.

Transforming state power into a force capable of defending the people's interest and winning socialism is necessarily a process of centralization and establishing a new authority. And so it was in Cuba. Bourgeois democratic forms, adopted in the first year of the revolution, were at best a brake on the revolutionary process, at worse an enemy. They were shed as they became more and more contradictory to the further defense of the revolution's gains and the advance to socialism. Again, necessity bred policy. How a vague, utopian notion of "protagonist democracy" would answer this necessity is beyond my imagination.

As the years have passed, Cuban socialism has created a people's democracy that sharply contrasts with the corruption, deceit, elitism, and capitalist class domination of the Western bourgeois democratic form.

The defense of revolutionary gains and the advancement towards socialism similarly necessitated the consolidation of a vanguard organization. From the 26th of July Movement and diverse other social forces at the time of the overthrow of Batista, the leading revolutionary elements evolved into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations in 1961, the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution in 1963, and the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of the time will note the correlation of this process of forming a strong vanguard organization with the escalating intensity of imperialist intervention: the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), CIA covert actions, the missile crisis (October 1962) and CIA-instigated internal resistance and the rise of the Miami Cuban counterrevolutionary right. The creation and consolidation of a leading force in Cuban society was an essential element in confronting and defeating these formidable enemies. Would we have Cuban socialism if the people had rejected "vanguardism"? This is a question evaded by the new theorists of socialism.

Why a "New" Theory of Socialist Revolution?

I draw attention to the Cuban revolution, not because it offers a template for Latin American socialism, but because the experience is totally disregarded by many of the theorists of "twenty-first century socialism." The theories of Harnecker, Dietrich Steffan and other academic "consultants" and advocates for the "new" socialism ignore the lessons of the only successful socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere.

The Cuban road has been bumpy and not without error – as the most venerated figure of the revolution, Fidel Castro, is wont to point out. But it is astounding that the policies, institutions, and ideological stances adopted by Cuban revolutionaries in the heat of battle are spurned for prescriptions spun from the heads of thinkers detached from the trenches of struggle. Paradoxically, they argue for worker self-management and autonomy while dictating the "new" road of struggle from their studies. While not from or among the liberating masses, they rail against "imported" theories. Instead, they claim revolution as their laboratory for their own pet theories.

Of course this is not new. As the Cuban revolutionary process developed in response to the moves of its enemies, there was no lack of US, European, and Latin American observers freely giving "advice" to the Cubans. Like our twenty-first century proponents, they were anxious to warn revolutionaries of the errors of earlier revolutionary movements. They readily expressed their concerns that the revolution would produce violence or repression or deviate from norms of middle-class tolerance.

With the advancement of the revolutionary process, they melted away, claiming betrayal of sacred principles. With the romance of the guerilla replaced by the even more challenging task of building socialism – a task requiring resolve, realism, and tactical and strategic finesse – the Western academic "friends" of the revolution lost their fervor. Many became critics, even enemies, of the revolutionary process.

Today's new theorists of socialist revolution show many of the same traits. They share the same absolutist and universalist values that were both a mainstay and product of Cold War academia. From hysterical anti-Communist Sidney Hook's infamous CIA-promoted notion of the absolute and supreme value of petit bourgeois "freedom" to contemporary dogmas of universal individual rights, intellectuals attempt to establish the bounds of revolutionary action.

Embedded in their theories are idealist principles distant, if not incompatible with, the achievement and defense of socialism. Such high-minded notions as "participatory democracy" or "protagonist democracy," "worker-organized production," "satisfaction of communal needs," or "decentralization" are formalistic abstractions untested in the crucible of class struggle and far too rigid to fit the uncertainties of any revolutionary moment. Indeed, when imposed from the lofty perch of friendly "consultants," they are inherently undemocratic.

But it is not merely intellectual arrogance that leads some intellectuals to offer a road map to socialist revolution. The "isms" that they so intensely oppose – "vanguardism," "workerism," etc – are calculated code-words for the theoretical stance developed in the workers' movement since the Paris Commune and elaborated on by revolutionaries from Lenin to Fidel. These words are lightening rods that conveniently conjure up the specter of Communism.

Yes, the twentieth century was the era of Communist revolution. And yes, Communists played a leading theoretical and activist role in these revolutions. But the new theorists want no part of this tradition, a tradition demonized by the capitalist media, Cold Warriors, and an assortment of capitalist lap dogs and, in their mind, tainted with evil. It is this tradition that they identify with twentieth-century socialism and it is this tradition that prompts the spinning of new, speculative theories bearing the tag "twenty-first century socialism." At its root, much of "twenty-first century socialism" is anti-Communist socialism.

I thank Dimitris Karagiannis for bringing these issues into the open air of comradely debate. I welcome Stan Smith's stimulating, impassioned response that will only serve to further discussion and generate greater clarity.

However, I must take issue with Stan Smith's off-hand dismissal of the Soviet experience. He wrote: "Obviously, the people in the Soviet bloc did not think their 20th century socialism belonged to them or that they needed to defend it..." Not only is it not obviously true, it is not true at all.

There is much more to learn from that experience. Debating the role of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist states would take us far from this topic, but surely Stan Smith should reflect on the fact that opinion polls taken today in Eastern Europe and the former USSR continue to shock Western conservative commentators. In those lands, there is a stubborn popular conviction, a growing conviction, that a better life was lost with the events of two decades ago.


[1] http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/marxist-theory/on-the-opportunist-theory-of-21st-century-socialism-918-2.html

[2] http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/marxist-theory/reply-to-greek-cp-about-the-opportunism-of-21st-century-socialism-theory-934-2.html

September 18, 2010

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