The prospects for socialism (or barbarism)

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Not long before the European elections, in which the social democratic vote collapsed, two of the most authoritative social democratic leaders, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, published a letter in which they formulated the principles of the so-called "new centre" (neue Mitte). These principles could be summed up as arguing that the traditional ideas of social democracy (redistribution, a mixed economy and state regulation in the spirit of Keynes) needed to be replaced by new approaches in the spirit of neo-liberalism.

True, the authors of the letter took their distance from neo-liberalism itself, stating that they did not share its illusions that all problems could be solved through market methods. At the same time, they proposed to solve the problems of world trade by liberalising it further. Instead of solidarity, they called for increased competition, and instead of job creation, for preparing young people better for life under the conditions of a constantly changing market conjuncture.

In reply to Blair and Schröder, Gregor Gysi, founder of the German Party of Democratic Socialism and leader of its Bundestag fraction, published his own document. This was entitled "Twelve Theses for a Modern Socialist Politics" (Zwölf Thesen fur eine Politik des modernen Sozialismus). These theses purported to represent a consistent defence of the principles of social solidarity, regulation and redistribution.

Nevertheless, there was practically nothing socialist about Gysi's theses. The text did not even mention the labour movement; all the reforms the document defended were seen not as the consequences of mass struggles by workers acting from below, but rather, as the results of initiatives by the state, acting from above. In essence, Gysi was defending a complex of measures that are thoroughly progressive within the framework of capitalism, but which do not in any way extend outside this framework, and do not even break with the system's logic. In the 1970s such a text would have been interpreted as a right-wing social democratic document. At the end of the 1990s, it is an example of a critique of social democracy from the left.

I am not setting out here to criticise my friend Gregor Gysi. Like a pianist in a US bar, he "plays as well as he can", or more precisely, as well as circumstances allow. As a real politician, Gysi understands that his theses must not fall outside the general context of the debate; otherwise, he will seem an "abstract ideologue", a "utopian" and so on, and will not be able to convince anyone. Within this context, Gysi's position is the most left wing. But this in itself already bears witness to the historically unprecedented decline of the socialist movement.

This decline is occurring against the background of a crisis of the trade unions and other forms of workers' self-organisation. From time to time the working class makes its presence felt through strikes, but on the whole it has once again been transformed from a "class for itself" into a "class in itself". The more fortunate groups of workers, those who are involved with the most modern technologies, are not showing particular solidarity with those who perform traditional physical and mechanical labour.

Meanwhile, it appears that capitalism has not grown appreciably stronger as a result of the decline of the socialist forces. The crisis of the system is subject to its own logic, which made its effects felt unmistakably during the Asian and Russian financial cataclysms of 1997 and 1998. Those whom the financial crisis struck first, it appears, are now recovering, but Latin America and western Europe promise to make up for them. The series of financial calamities is only one manifestation of a general process. In the period from 1989 to 1991 the capitalist world system reached the limits of its expansion, becoming truly global. Its further development inevitably involves a sharpening of contradictions.

Rosa Luxemburg spoke of the alternatives "socialism or barbarism". She proved correct; socialism has suffered a defeat, and barbarism is triumphing. This barbarism is appearing now on the fringes of the system, in Russia and Africa, in the former Yugoslavia and in Colombia. What appears first is simply hotbeds of chaos. The world of universal competition becomes a world of ungoverned violence, corresponding precisely to Hobbes's notion of "the war of each against all". Laws are all conditional. The desire for victory (or for revenge on anyone who has bested you) is absolute. It is dictated by the very logic of the system, just as elemental aggression is its inevitable outcome on the psychological level. The conclusions of psychoanalysis, already formulated in the 1920s (on the threshold of fascism), are confirmed by the experience of recent years.

Senseless regional and ethnic conflicts, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, growing corruption, mafias, narcobusiness all these are rampant in the periphery. The explosion of nationalism is the predictable result of capitalist globalisation. The scale of the slaughter in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Congo is already fully comparable with the destruction of human life in the gulag or during the second world war, with the sole difference that at that time, the killing took place against a backdrop of great historical collisions, while now it is simply casual and commonplace. Kurdistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslavia, Colombia the geography of violence is constantly expanding. This outburst of violence is the natural reaction of peripheral society, denied the prospect of sharing in market prosperity and without clear perspectives for transforming itself on any other basis.

The shocks on the periphery are increasingly making their effects felt in the centre as well. The wealthy countries are being battered by waves of refugees and migrants; this in turn is stimulating the growth of racism, violence and police control. The decline of education is becoming a general phenomenon in the centre as well as the periphery. This is becoming even more noticeable in the developed countries, which are increasingly dependent on imported brain power. This resource, however, will soon be exhausted. The economic crisis could turn into an intellectual one.

The chaos is spreading, overwhelming more and more new territories and spheres of life. Fukuyama's "end of history" could become Spengler's "decline of the West". And not only of the West. Paraphrasing the well-known thesis from the program of the Soviet Communist Party, it might be said that the present generation could witness the total collapse of modern civilisation.

This scenario will not be spelled out in detail, even though the signs are increasing that it will come to pass. All that can be said to reassure the reader is that even the collapse of civilisation does not mean the extinction of humanity. The latter survived the downfall of ancient society, and will survive the fall of global capitalism. But as to what will grow up on the ruins of capitalism, we are no more able to judge than the last of the Romans were able to speculate on the prospects of the Renaissance.

Nevertheless, there is another possibility. If not barbarism, then socialism. Socialism, that is, understood as a radical systemic alternative not as a means of improving and "touching up" capitalism, but as a new society that will succeed capitalism. In my view, the "return" of socialist ideology and of the corresponding mass movements is the only alternative to general barbarisation.

What might this "return" be like, if it occurs in the first decades of the twenty-first century? It is impossible to make detailed prophesies, but a few predictions are in order.

First of all, the labour movement will gradually overcome its crisis. The forms of organisation of the trade unions will change. The unions will become less centralised and bureaucratised, and their ideology will become more radical and internationalist. Instead of defensive struggles, we will start to see unions going on the attack. Gradually feeling out the weak points of the transnational corporations, and coordinating their actions on an international level, the trade unions will again alter the relationship of forces between labour and capital.

Reorganising the trade unions will be possible only as part of a more general process in which the class of hired workers will be transformed. The traditional notion that hired labour equals physical work is vanishing into the past. Science and education have been thoroughly proletarianised. In the course of the technological revolution, a new social layer, a sort of "technological elite", has been formed. This technological elite has been content to reap the fruits of its privileged position in the world of labour, in practice supporting the neo-liberal model of capitalism.

This, however, has been possible only during the rise of the technological revolution. No revolution, even a technological one, can continue endlessly and without let-up. Revolutionary phases of the development of technology are being replaced by evolutionary ones, and the position of the technological elite is changing. To a significantly greater degree, this elite will come to feel its dependency on the real elites of bourgeois society the financial oligarchs and the transnational bureaucracy of the private sector.

The more the technological elite discovers contradictions between its interests and those of the bourgeoisie, the more it feels itself part of the world of labour (along with scientists, teachers and medical personnel). The change of psychology is occurring slowly; a generational shift is needed. Nevertheless, this is a necessary and legitimate process. Some sociologists (for example, Alexander Tarasov) consider that it will be this technological elite that acts as the gravedigger of capitalism. It will play the same role in relation to bourgeois society as the bourgeoisie played in relation to feudalism. It is worth noting that it was absolutism that established the bourgeoisie and sustained it in its early period.

In any case, the new technological elite will be forced to recognise itself as part of the world of labour, just as the bourgeoisie once recognised itself as part of the third estate, placing its common class interests above corporate divisions. Overcoming this corporatist atomisation of the workers has been the main task of the traditional labour movement. The question now is how to find a new "identity". This will not be easy, but it is indispensable.

In practice, the working class is being formed anew, just as happened in the mid-nineteenth century, when industrial labour took over from artisan manufacturing. On the basis of a new class consciousness, a new socialist project is possible. Despite the fashionable debates about the search for new principles, the key ideas of socialism must remain unchanged otherwise, it will no longer be socialism. From private property, to social property. From an economy subordinate to the profit needs of the private sector, to an economy where the social sector holds sway, serving social needs.

The new economic relations can really come into existence only in the form of a "mixed" or "transitional" economy, of "market socialism". But it does not by any means follow from this that the combination of market and socialism is stripped of contradictions. Socialism does not necessarily exclude the market, but it is not in any sense the outcome of market logic. It is precisely the limited nature of the possibilities of the market as an organising basis for the economy that makes socialism historically inevitable. The forcing out of market relations by new relations based on cooperation and solidarity cannot be mechanical; where market relations are natural and necessary, the market will survive. But as is shown by the experience of the internet and of fundamental science, the logic that operates in the technologically advanced areas of the economy is different. The greater the spread of post-industrial technologies, the greater will be society's need for non-market organisation.

A social sector is impossible without state ownership. This is not because state ownership is good in itself (it is often bad), but for the reason that without nationalisation, socialisation is impossible. Near the end of his life, Leon Trotsky stated that socialisation emerges from nationalisation in the way a butterfly arises from a pupa. Millions of pupae perish without ever becoming butterflies. So it was with the Soviet economy. The Soviet economy never became authentically socialist; the bureaucratic carcass of the centralised state put a brake on all qualitative growth. Instead of development and transformation, what began was degeneration.

Paraphrasing Trotsky, one could say that at a certain stage property has to "pupate", taking on a state form. But in order for subsequent development in the direction of socialism to be possible, the state itself has to undergo radical changes.

The call for the democratic renewal of the state is not only a socialist demand. It is society's natural, positive answer to the challenge of globalisation. The transnational business elites and the financial oligarchs are highly integrated with one another, and at the same time marginal in relation to society to any society, not only in the countries of the "periphery", but also in those of the "centre".

A society cannot be global. Nor can a labour market. Consequently, when responding to policies of globalisation, the left defends the interests of society against the transnational elites. This obliges leftists to become "patriots", and here we come up against a very sharp cultural and ideological problem. In France and Mexico, for example, there are traditions of democratic and revolutionary patriotism, closely linked with concepts of human and civil rights, and with the values of enlightenment and freedom. In Russia and Turkey, by contrast, the democratic and left traditions developed in confrontation with nationalist ideology. As a result, leftists are beginning to draw their inspiration from all sorts of reactionary ideas about "native soil". Where this leads we know from the example of Zyuganov's Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

In principle, the reply to the question of "left-wing patriotism" has to be a consistent democratism. Since the advent of globalisation, it has become obvious that international forms of democracy and representation are absolutely essential; without them, democracy on the level of the state is defective and incomplete. Without a national state, however, democracy cannot exist at all. Society can express its interests and defend them only within the framework of a national state. International structures can be representative and democratic only if they rest on democracy in every individual state, just as this democracy can be fully realised only if it rests on local self-management.

At a time when transnational capital and international financial organisations are becoming more and more irresponsible, escaping all control (in essence, they themselves seek to control legally elected governments), the defence of national sovereignty is becoming tantamount to a struggle for the elementary civil rights of the population. We have the right to participate in making decisions on which our lives depend.

When understood in this way, the idea of sovereignty has nothing in common either with the ideology of "ethnic" association, or with the "derzhavnost'" (a derivative of tsarist-era authoritarian chauvinism) preached by Russian nationalists. The struggle for economic sovereignty has meaning only when it takes the form of actions in solidarity by the peoples of different countries. It needs to rest not on the idea of nationalism (in essence, bourgeois-bureaucratic nationalism), but on the traditions of internationalism and anti-imperialism. In short, leftists in order to be "modern" and "up-to-date" in this case need first of all to remain true to themselves and to their own age-old principles.

What clearly needs to undergo the most serious changes is not the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism, but the concept of the left party. The point is not simply that Lenin's understanding of democratic centralism was pregnant from the very beginning with authoritarian degeneration. This form of political organisation arose out of the specific conditions of Russia in the early years of the century, and whatever we might say about it today, was suited to these conditions. Today's task is not to formulate an abstract ideological critique of Leninist centralism, but to search for organisational forms that are appropriate to today's social structure and to the present collective experience.

Before us stands the task, which history has shown to be very difficult, of creating a consistently democratic party. So far, neither communists, nor social democrats, nor Trotskyists, nor the national liberation movements of the countries of the periphery have been able to meet this challenge. But the very fact that this task has not been carried out (it is, perhaps, theoretically insoluble) is an important matter of principle.

An ideal model for a party, a model that can be reproduced anywhere, is impossible. The question of the political organisation of the modern-day left is not at all theoretical, but acutely practical. Without a practical movement, all party statutes and programs are useless. Where this movement exists, we do not find an ideal model, but practical experience with a multitude of problems and contradictions. For all its difficulties, however, the movement carries us forward. Examples here are provided by the Party of Workers in Brazil, the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany and Rifondazione in Italy. The experience of these formations can be criticised from the point of view of some ideal conception of what leftists should now be like. This theorising, however, is worth nothing unless there is also critical analysis of the relevant experience, unless there is participation in the practical movement (on this level many of the positions Gysi has taken, though I do not agree with them completely, strike me as having far more weight than the speeches of his critics, even though these discourses might in theoretical terms be more correct).

In the new epoch, the division between reformists and revolutionaries, though one of basic principle, is becoming much less significant than the conflict between leftists on the one hand, and ex-leftists or pseudo-leftists on the other. The problem faced by social democracy today is not related to its moderation or reformism, but on the contrary, to its consistent, fundamental rejection of reformism and of any form of socialism, even the most moderate. Social democratic positions can now be found only among dissidents within social democratic organisations, or among members of parties to the left of "social democracy" (the German PDS, the Swedish Left Party and so forth).

The crisis of social democracy means that the tasks of reformism need to be formulated afresh, while taking into account reformism's inherently limited nature. The weakness of the left movement, meanwhile, signifies that radicalism is indispensable. Reformism was possible when the relationship of forces favoured the labour movement. This relationship of forces represented a conquest of revolutionary struggle. It is impossible to win minor and partial reforms from today's elites, since there is nothing that compels them to make these concessions. The left movement has to become really dangerous to the establishment, arousing in it, not sympathy, but horror. Only then will the left command respect. Policies aimed at convincing the elite of the "seriousness" and "responsibility" of the left will ultimately bring about the movement's self-destruction. The movement needs to prove its seriousness to the workers. To achieve this, it has to express the moods of workers, and to bring about real gains in the interests of its social base. Often, this occurs as the result of quite "irresponsible" actions, as in Paris in December 1995, when the trade unions brought the country to a halt while defending the "privileges" of civil servants. Although the degree of political radicalism in the countries of the "centre" and "periphery" will inevitably differ, the general principle is the same everywhere: today, every honest reformist has to become a revolutionary.

A final point. Socialism has another name: culture. The principle of culture, like the principle of socialism, is located outside the market and to a certain degree is opposed to it. Beauty cannot be measured in currency units, human merit is not always profitable, and knowledge must not be an object of sale and purchase. Knowledge belongs to everyone.

The interest in socialism felt by the intelligentsia early in the century was aroused not only by the fashion for new ideas and by the momentum of revolutionary expectations. It was profoundly professional or, if you like, even corporative. Culture is fundamentally anti-bourgeois; the laws by which it operates are different from those of business. If we are now seeing a massive shift of the intelligentsia to liberal positions, this testifies not so much to the crisis of socialism as to the profound crisis of the intelligentsia, which has lost its place in society. Art is being replaced by show business, and science by "research projects" that are of interest solely to the person who commissions them.

No society can exist without culture and science. In place of the old, rotten, discredited intelligentsia, a new one will therefore come into being. Together with it, we will see a new generation of socialist activists.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a contributing editor of Links. His books include Square Wheels: How Russian Democracy Got Derailed and The Mirage of Modernisation.