By Greg Godels
December 12, 2022
As the holidays approach, children traditionally anticipate Christmas by submitting their gift wish lists to Santa Claus.
While (most) adults have long abandoned any belief in the Santa Claus myth, the idea of a wish list or a set of resolutions for the new year still resonates.
My wish list follows.
First, I wish that the idea of socialism would again become popular, but I would rejoice if it would at least be discussed seriously in the US. Now I don’t mean the weak-tea version of socialism associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or with Senator Bernie Sanders. That kind of socialism is really a Cold War relic– a brew of schoolhouse participatory democracy and a minimalist welfare state stirred into a consenting capitalism. But capitalism doesn’t mix well with social democracy, except when capitalism anticipates an existential threat from real socialism, like the popularity of Communism. The political marginalization of European social democracy after a diminished Communist specter following the Soviet collapse of 1991 proves that point.
Real socialism– to be crystal clear– cannot amicably coexist with capitalism. There can be no lasting peace treaty between capitalism and socialism, despite the best efforts of many socialists and Communists (there have been few if any of the rich and powerful who sincerely advocated coexistence with socialism in the centuries since socialism was first envisioned).
For real socialism to take root, the power of the state must be wrested from the capitalists. History shows no sustainable road to socialism through power-sharing with the capitalist class.
That is not to say that there cannot be a transitional period in which capitalists and socialists struggle for dominance over the state, but that period will not be stable. That is not to discount the importance of parliamentary struggle in fighting to establish a socialist-oriented state. That is not to preclude a socialist program that engages with national specifics, class alliances, and shifting tactics. But socialism must be the professed and uncompromising goal of those who claim to be socialists and winning state power must be accepted as a necessary step to achieving any real socialism, where socialism is both the absence of labor exploitation and the ending of the dominance of the capitalist class. Any “socialism” that doesn’t respect these truths is engaged in self-deception.
But what, you may ask, is People’s China? Clearly there is labor exploitation in the People’s Republic of China, where powerful private capitalist companies exist alongside state enterprises. And it is just as clear that the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on state power. For over forty years, the balance of forces between these two realities has shifted frequently, with the CCP leadership, nonetheless, claiming firm control and a commitment to socialism.
Whether genuine Marxists in the CCP can ride this tiger is yet to be decided. Partisans of socialism must follow this development with a critical eye, but an open mind.
Advocates for socialism– real socialism– are not so naive as to believe that socialism is around the corner or that socialism is likely to solve the immediate problems of the working class. It is useful, however, to be reminded that when Lenin left Zurich to return to Russia just months before the 1917 revolution, he spoke to young revolutionaries, explaining that he likely would not see socialism, but they surely would. He was spectacularly wrong.
But even a heavy dose of pessimistic realism does not explain the absence of the word “socialism” in the political narratives of progressives, the self-styled left, and even self-proclaimed Marxists living in the US and Europe. Moreover, in conversation, eyes roll or go glassy when the idea surfaces. Everyone is an anti-capitalist; everyone is against some form of hyphenated capitalism– disaster-capitalism, neoliberal-capitalism, financial-capitalism, etc. etc. But no one is for socialism!
You can see this dismissal in the current debates over inflation raging through the left. All disputants recount the effects of inflation on poor and working people. All recognize the negative consequences of official policy– raising interest rates– on all. All fumble for alternative solutions, most of which have a past history of failure. None will pronounce this as a contradiction– an intrinsic failure– of the capitalist system. All are too busy trying to repair capitalism to even hint that there might be a better alternative. Will there ever be a better time than today to inject socialism into the conversation?
We suffer from the leftover fears of Communism and socialism in the wake of the Cold War. We are suffocated by the limited options allowed by our corrupted two-party system. And we are overwhelmed with cynicism and a poverty of vision.
Surely a frank, honest discussion of socialism is in order.
My second wish would be for left clarity and unity on the war in Ukraine. To a great extent, the left’s poor understanding of the relationship between capitalism, imperialism, and war has spawned wide divisions in an already fractious left. On one hand, liberals and social democrats discount the history of conflict in Ukraine and mechanically apply a simplistic concept of national self-determination to what is, in fact, a civil war. They see Russian intervention as simply a violation of Ukraine’s right to decide its own future. Using their logic, it is as if the US Civil War was construed as a war over the South’s right to self-determination and not a war over slavery. Or in a twentieth-century instance, it would be as if the war in Vietnam were viewed as a fight for the rights of the people in an artificial South Vietnam to choose their own destiny.
Both the idea of the South’s right of secession (state’s rights) and the “freedom” of South Vietnam were abusive of any legitimate right to self-determination. Neither took the measure of the desire of the masses; both served the interests of privileged elites or foreign powers.
Leading historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings, reminds us that civil wars are complex conflicts with complex histories and little is gained by pondering who started the war in assigning blame. Obsession with determining the immediate “aggressor” in the Korean War clouds the understanding of the deeper causes, colliding interests, and political stakes at play to this day.
Without a historical context, without understanding the conflict and clash of vital interests within the borders of Ukraine, a defense of US meddling in Ukraine constructed on the facade of self-determination is wrongheaded and dangerous. There can be no self-determination when the US and its allies undermined an elected government in 2014. That intervention effectively put an end to any pretense of Ukrainian self-determination.
On the other hand, many self-styled anti-imperialists view the Russian invasion as a war of liberation, with Russia removing Kyiv’s oppressive government, thwarting US and NATO aggression, or defending the interests of the people of Eastern Ukraine. They both overestimate the selflessness of the motives of the now capitalist, former Soviet Russian republic and underestimate the dangers unleashed by an invasion that opens the door widely to a further reaching, more intense war.
They also fail to see that in its essence the conflict in Ukraine has been a civil conflict since the demise of the Soviet Union. Without the ideology of socialism, that conflict has been driven by a scramble for wealth and power with ensuing corruption, manipulation, and crude nationalism. Foreign powers– East and West– have manipulated this scramble, forcing it to a proxy showdown. Any escalation– whether it is a coup, an invasion, or the continuing arming of belligerents—would further risk pressing the war beyond the borders or at a greater tempo and should therefore be rejected.
Behind some defenders of the Russian invasion is the neo-Kautskyian theory of multipolarity. This view sees US imperialism, and not simply the system of imperialism, as the force disruptive of a peaceful, stable, and orderly world order. It is possible, even likely– according to the theory– for capitalist countries to conduct international affairs benignly if only a predatory US were tamed. They go beyond denouncing US imperialism as the main global enemy to imagining a viable, cooperative capitalist order without US dominance. Like Kautsky, multipolarity projects an era of “balance” between imperialist powers and the softening of rivalries.
Lenin rejected this view. Like Kautsky’s theory of super- or ultra-imperialism, multipolarity reflects an inadequate understanding of class dynamics– the unlimited drive for competitive advantage by the capitalist state– and a failure to recognize that socialism is the only answer to imperialism’s destructive anarchy.
The carnage of imperialism’s last hundred years since the Kautsky/Lenin debate surely underscores these truths.
Along with the revival of Kautskyism, neo-Malthusianism threatens to confound the thinking of the left in addressing the critical environmental crisis. No-growth as a facile answer to the abuse of our environment is as misguided today as it was in Marx’s time. The critical question is how the global economy grows and not how much it grows.
My wish is that the left does not ignore the class issues– nationally and internationally– in developing a program to address this vital matter. A no-growth solution that freezes in place the internal and global inequalities, or exacerbates them, cannot be accepted. A program that does not address the connection between imperialism, militarism, and war in despoiling the planet is inadequate.
As the lights go out on the nine-and-a-half-billion-dollar midterm electoral extravaganza, leaving a bad taste and a strong sense of emptiness and disappointment, we can only wish that the US left will take a critical look at the two-party system with the idea of uniting to create some independent presence in electoral politics.
May 2023 be a year of deeper discussion beyond chirping on the shallow platforms crafted for triviality and abasement by the ruling class.