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Socialism as an alternative: Reflections on ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’ international conference
By Radhika Menon
June 13, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Liberation -- Several governments across the world have launched neo-liberal policies with the claim that they are helpless and that “There is No Alternative”. What remains unsaid in this argument, is that neither have alternatives been searched nor adequately developed because pro-corporate capitalist governments do not want to see the alternative posed by socialism.
However, developments across the world show that there is growing resentment against capitalism’s new guise of neoliberalism. Huge movements have challenged the neoliberal policies of privatization, theft of public resources in the name of disinvestment, increasing work hours and the exploitation of the waged and salaried. Students have been rising up in protests, workers have fought the snatching away of hard earned labour rights, while land grabs and resource grabs of marginalized communities have not gone unchallenged. Governments have fallen and have had to mimic Left slogans to retain power, and respond with concessions while withdrawing the state’s responsibility towards citizen’s health, education and other entitlements necessary for ensuring life.
The onward march of capitalism with mantras of neo-liberalism has however also assumed greater severity: big capital has egged on governments towards austerity towards people and generosity towards the rich. Politically, the worst trick in the book, including inducing war, plunder, racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious and ethnic hatred have been unleashed by Right wing conservative governments and parties across the world, to egg people on towards greater self-exploitation, asking people to tighten their belt, while the world’s one per cent grabs more and more with the slogan “There is No Alternative”.
Poll surveys in the United States, much to the sorrow of its capitalist class, have indicated that “Millennials”, i.e. those between 18-29 years of age, are increasingly looking towards socialism as a ray of hope. They view it as a means towards greater human solidarities and togetherness, which has suffered in the brutal march of neo-liberal capitalism. As people search for alternatives, public deliberations on socialism and the nature of contemporary movements have become even more important, as struggles grow and alternatives are being sought.
In continuation of the tradition of bringing together international experiences of Marxist theory and practice, a three day conference was organized in mid-May 2016, by Green Left Weekly, Socialist Alliance and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, in Australia, on moving beyond capitalism and learning from global struggles. Featuring workshops and talks on a range of topics there were discussions on the rise in popularity of anti-austerity parties, responses to the global climate crisis and challenges in building alternatives to neoliberal capitalism.
According to Michael A. Lebowitz, a leading contemporary Marxist thinker who has extensively researched and worked on the socialist experiments in Latin America, Cuba and Yugoslavia, and who addressed a few of the feature sessions at the conference, all worker’s struggles and transformative practice have to embody the vision of an alternative socialist model in order to put an end to capitalism. Sessions reflected the range of challenges faced by people under the tyranny of capital and the responses called from socialism. Religious fundamentalist forces unleashing a brutal war in the Middle East, the occupation of Palestinian and Kurdish people’s land, and anti-communist violence that killed half a million leftists under the rule of Indonesian President Suharto (1966-1998) pose questions of justice. There are a number of incomplete revolutions, as felt in Philippines.
A long history of cultural injustice caused by capitalism also has to be addressed. For instance, in Australia its government and society has to confront the trauma of the “Stolen Generations”, a term for generations of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families to destroy Aboriginal people’s circle of life, language, tradition, knowledge and culture. The renewed neoliberal moves have increased disadvantages for Aboriginal communities. Unemployment, low wages and poverty along with racism has torn open the wounds of these Aboriginal communities, whose children once again stand at risk of being taken away for neglect. The struggle against racism has to be renewed once again as governments under neo-liberal directions have witnessed racist intensification. Aboriginal leader and Socialist Alliance Senate candidate Ken Canning affirmed the intensification of anti-racist political measures as part of socialist priorities. The gravity of the racist onslaught and the urgency has made it essential for academics like Victoria Grieves, a historian of the Warraimay Aboriginal people, to pledge greater activist roles.
A recurrent call from the conference was the need for self-education of activists and people on the functioning of capitalism and taking action to challenge it. Chilean thinker Marta Harnecker, who has worked in Cuba, Latin America and particularly the Venezuelan experience, said that an absence of an organization that could become a political instrument led to the Occupy movement becoming diffused rather than becoming a revolution. She argued for socialist models to recognize the slow but critical work that goes into developing worker’s capacities. Venezuela’s current troubles were also seen in the lack of adequate people and worker preparation. Optimistic about the possibility for social transformation, she argued for the need for political instruments in order to turn protests, resistance and struggles into revolutions. She observed that, “The political instrument would overcome the fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed, by creating spaces to come together in spite of differences, against a common enemy.”
Battling the constant interference of US imperialism continues to pose a challenge for Latin American experiments in socialism, but for Rojava (Kurdish majority areas), the making of socialist alternatives has had to occur in a high-conflict zone. John Tully, a construction worker turned professor and Socialist Alliance activist, talked about the large number of women fighters involved in liberating the Kurdish-majority zone in northern Syria and launching offensives against ISIS, which had unleashed massacres, devastation and rapes in the area leading to a massive exodus from the region. Hawzhin Azeez, who is involved in the reconstruction of Kobane, based in Ayn Al Arab in Syria, narrated the unique experiment of creating an anti-colonial model of socialism that includes various ethnic groups in the midst of a brutal ISIS, hostile Turkey, US imperialism and dynastic dictatorship. The reconstruction of the destroyed city is part of what is being termed as the Rojava revolution, through a grassroots, participatory democracy. The reconstruction has encouraged 250,000 refugees to return home to the area. Building socialism here has meant creating new architecture, getting water pumps installed and getting bread to people in the devastated, war-ravaged city.
The socialist efforts here have emphasized social and economic equality, ecology, religious tolerance, ethnic inclusion, collectivity combined with individual freedom and, most significantly, feminism. Women have stepped forward in developing working models of socialism in Rojava after having fought brutalization at the hands of a vicious enemy, and widespread covert and overt misogyny and sexism that continues in the daily life of most societies. If the family and its reactionary relationship to the state, law and compromised rights through “honour” killings continues to haunt Pakistan, advanced capitalist countries also have been targeting women in public spheres who are speaking up against misogyny. This once again emphasizes the central place of feminist struggles in socialist movements. Challenging the culprits, calling out political hatred in sexism has become integral to feminist struggles. Sharing experiences of taking on public leaders, like the Australian immigration minister who demonstrated his rapist mindset against refugees through text messages, socialist activist Kamala Emanuel spoke about various cultural tools deployed for this purpose. This included wearing the given abuse as a label through songs and flash mobs. Socialist activists also actively engaged in the queer movement and organizing themselves for safe schools and in solidarity with other movements.
Rural communities have been facing threats of displacement and loss of livelihood across the world as a result of neo-liberal policies. In countries like Malaysia, according to Suresh Kumar from Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), preserving the culture of indigenous communities is integrated with the economic struggles and against the mal-development moves of capitalism. If in India, rural distress has seen agricultural policies that have led to migration, impoverishment, genocidal levels of farmer suicides, the farming communities of capitalist countries are increasingly facing isolation and victimization by multinational corporations, aided by their governments. In Australia, there have been a large number of farmer suicides, indebtedness and rural financial distress. The rise of corporate-led factory farming and large-scale land grabs launched in the name of mining has multiplied the crisis, as well as causing severe environmental degradation. Climate change and environment catastrophes have also become significant rallying point for socialists.
Electoral struggles and the huge popularity and support received by long committed Left leaders of mainstream ruling parties, be it Jeremy Corbyn in Britain or Bernie Sanders in US, has re-popularised socialism within capitalist social structures. It has reinserted socialist vocabulary of revolution in the discourse. However, the reversals in Arab Spring and challenges faced by Venezuela, as well as challenges posed to European and US leftists, calls for a socialist society that is built on lessons from the world. In another session, Lebowitz invoked Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, to build upon the transformative practice and for activists to engage with theory and practice in a constant process of self-education. To counter capitalism, Lebowitz emphasized envisioning an “organic system of social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs”, as Chavez did in 2007, as a step towards conceiving a socialist system.
The highlight of the conference was extending strong solidarities between various groups and international comradeship in response to capitalist globalization. The student movement in India and the struggles of rural India, and campaigns and struggles for the annihilation of caste were acknowledged as significant aspects of international socialist movements and generated considerable interest. The conference also passed a resolution for a Rohith Act to ensure no discrimination of students from Dalit background in Indian universities. A resolution in support of PRICOL workers and against attack on labour rights was also passed.
Radhika Menon attended the conference on Socialism for the 21st Century held in Sydney as a representative of the CPI(ML).