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What future for Socialism?

LYNN WALSH, editor of Socialism Today, argues that socialism, far from being 'finished', will once again become the idea that guides workers and youth in the struggle for a new society.

From Socialism Today, issue one,  September 1995

WHAT, TODAY, ARE the prospects for socialism? Many on the left, including figures previously identified with revolutionary Marxism, are now utterly pessimistic.

In 1968, for instance, Tariq Ali epitomised the mass student radicalisation in Britain. The other day, however, Tariq commented that the restoration of capitalism in Russia signified that "the game was up for another four or five decades..." (Guardian, 22 July). Capitalism, in other words, has been granted a new lease of life - revolution is off history's agenda for half a century!

Today, Tariq Ali epitomises a generation of one-time Marxist intellectuals who are now utterly disillusioned with the prospect of a socialist transformation of society within the foreseeable future. This change in outlook undoubtedly has a social basis - the rebels of '68 are now professors, film producers, business executives, etc. 

More fundamentally this ideological shift reflects the momentous events of the last few years - above all, the collapse of the 'socialist' regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (in reality, bureaucratised Stalinist states) and the international social and economic trends which have crystallised since the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989. The disillusionment of the Marxistic left, moreover, parallels the abandonment of socialist objectives and the open acceptance of the capitalist market by all the main trends in the labour movement, from right-wing to ex-Stalinist reformists.

No one could deny that 1989 was a climactic year. The rapid disintegration of the Stalinist states - non-capitalist societies which acted as a check on world capitalism - was a momentous event. While these totalitarian regimes were a grotesque caricature of socialism, the destruction of the centrally planned economies on which they rested, despite the economic distortions imposed by bureaucracy, was objectively a defeat for the working class internationally. Moreover, the collapse of Stalinism acted as a catalyst, turning the accumulating quantity of pre-1989 trends into the quality of a new relationship of political forces internationally.

Naturally, the capitalist leaders seized the opportunity to launch a 'Kulturkampf, an ideological campaign to prove that socialism is unworkable and that the capitalist market is the only viable way of managing society. The bourgeoisie experienced a resurgence of confidence as they continued to claw back the post-war gains of the working class - an onslaught which the traditional leaders of the labour movement had no policy or political will to resist.

But do these changes mean that the abolition of capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of society are postponed for fifty years? What are the arguments used to rationalise the mood of pessimism? The main components seem to be as follows:

* The collapse of the 'really existing' model of 'socialism' in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere (Angola, Ethiopia, etc) has destroyed the claim that economic planning can replace the capitalist market. (Ironically, this argument is widely accepted despite the fact that the Trotskyist left and officially even the reformist left never accepted the Stalinist states as genuine models of socialism).

* Capitalism, through developing new technology and greatly extending globalisation, has significantly strengthened its position internationally, enhancing its ability to ride out crises and gaining more room for manoeuvre against the working class.

* The reformist leaders of the traditional Social Democratic and Labour parties and of the trade unions have abandoned any commitment to progressive reforms in favour of the working class and now accept the permanence of the capitalist market. The tendency towards the mutation of traditional reformist organisations into liberal-capitalist parties has dramatically undermined the credibility of socialist ideas. (Again, it is ironic that many former Marxists should be influenced by this shift, when Marxism never accepted that step-by-step reform of capitalism could provide a route to socialism).

* As the combined result of these trends, the working class has been to some extent weakened economically, socially, and politically. Technological changes, new management methods and globalisation have undermined the strength of the unions, especially the 'heavy battalions' in industries like coal mining, steel making, engineering, etc.

* At the same time, the openly pro-capitalist orientation of the social democratic leaders has politically disorientated large sections of the working class, who have largely been left leaderless in opposing the renewed capitalist offensive. On top of this, the collapse of Stalinism, the only existing model of 'socialism', has demoralised the politically active workers.

There is clearly more than a grain of truth in this presentation of recent events, which reflects real trends and processes. But to conclude from them that socialism has been deferred for fifty years is a one-sided and completely false interpretation of these developments. The most important task of Socialism Today will be to refute this argument. In our future issues we shall seek through factual and theoretical analysis to substantiate the case which we can only boldly outline in this, our inaugural issue. We will affirm the need for an anti-capitalist programme based on the ideas of Marxism and the perspective of a socialist transformation of society.

1989 was an historic turning point -not in our view, the beginning of a new era of flourishing capitalist development, but the end of an exceptional 'golden age' for the bourgeoisie in the advanced capitalist countries and the beginning of protracted economic depression, social polarisation and political upheaval in which the working class will reassert its role as the decisive force for social progress. Far from being 'finished' (or even marginalised) for fifty years, the working class will, in the next period, engage in unprecedented struggles against capitalist oppression -and the workers' aims will once again be expressed in the language of socialism.

The collapse of Stalinism

THE COLLAPSE OF the Stalinist states does not prove the superiority of capitalism, that economic planning is unviable or that the market is the only effective means of running economies. Instead it bears out the warnings made by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917: while the working class could begin the task of the socialist revolution, a socialist society could not be constructed within the frontiers of an economically and culturally backward society. Socialism had to achieve a higher level of organisation than capitalism, which had already created a world market. Successful economic planning and workers' democracy, depended, therefore, on the spread of the revolution to a series of economically advanced countries with strong proletariats.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes, moreover, confirmed the critique of Stalinism put forward by Trotsky in the 1930s. Trotsky argued that the development of a privileged bureaucracy, which under Stalin's dictatorial rule usurped the control of society by workers' representatives, would severely limit and eventually undermine the gains of a planned economy. Trotsky warned that in the bureaucrats' greed for privileges and personal power lay the seeds of a future capitalist restoration. The way out lay through a political revolution in which the workers would overthrow the ruling elite, revive workers' democracy, and develop economic planning - on the basis of internationalist links with the workers of other countries.

Subsequently, although there were moves towards political revolution, for instance in Hungary in 1956, the bureaucracy managed to consolidate itself to a greater extent than envisaged by Trotsky. This was largely due to the weakness of the major capitalist states during the crisis period of the 1930s and the intra-capitalist conflicts of World War Two, when the western powers were obliged to lean on the Soviet Union against their fascist rivals. Given the new balance of forces following the war, capitalism was forced to retreat, conceding Eastern Europe (and later China) to a strengthened Stalinism.

Economic planning, despite the enormous human cost under totalitarian control, proved some of its potential. The Soviet Union was transformed into a mighty industrial power, and later a nuclear superpower that rivalled US imperialism for a period. While workers notoriously lacked good quality consumer goods, in other respects living standards were immeasurably raised, with full employment, cheap housing, good education and health services, etc.

Nevertheless, as Trotsky predicted, the progress that could be made under a bureaucracy was strictly limited. The bureaucracy stifled every element of democracy, and established a rigid command structure that reflected the conditions under which it was formed: the political purges of the 1930s and the technical-industrial structure of the basic heavy industries, vintage 1940s.

While successive reformers, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, tinkered with the system and achieved temporary improvements, the bureaucratic apparatus was ultimately incapable of adapting to new technology and the changed social conditions of a modern industrial society. Without the initiative of the workers being involved, planning began to be more and more undermined, with the market reappearing by the back door - through unofficial bartering between enterprises and a black market in food and consumer goods to fill the enormous gaps in the plan.

The mass movement of Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s signalled that the 'game was up' for Stalinism. Shaken, the 'liberal' wing of the bureaucracy under Gorbachev desperately attempted to reform the system - only to trigger the disintegration of central planning and the collapse into market anarchy.

The collapse of economic planning arose from the internal contradictions of Stalinism, not from the superiority of the market. On the contrary, the return to the market represents a counter-revolutionary regression to private profit-seeking and anarchy, highlighted by the prominence of mafia elements in the economy of the former Soviet Union. Far from demonstrating its superiority, the advent of the market brought the biggest slump in modern times.

Stalinism was not a healthy experiment in socialist construction - it was an extremely contradictory detour which led to a cul-de-sac. But we cannot allow this historical experience to be buried by capitalist propaganda that socialism is dead, only capitalism works. We have to explain the concrete historical circumstances which determined the degeneration of the first workers' state, separating what was progressive from what was reactionary, and applying the lessons to the formulation of a socialist programme for the future.

A capitalist renaissance?

THE 'DEATH OF communism' after 1989 inspired an orgy of capitalist triumphalism. Undoubtedly, after four decades of 'cold war' rivalry between US imperialism and the Soviet superpower, the implosion of Stalinism appeared as a victory for 'the West'. The US-led intervention against Iraq in the Gulf War, which took place under exceptionally favourable conditions for imperialism, reinforced the impression that the West was strengthened.

In the economic sphere, the fall of the Berlin Wall came when the capitalists internationally were buoyed up with confidence as a result of the super-profits (and reduced taxation) derived from the speculative boom of the late 1980s. This profits-ecstasy trip carried over to 1990-91, even though the world economy relapsed into a period of prolonged stagnation. The capitalists consoled themselves with the remarkable growth spurt that was taking place in China, some areas of Asia, and some Latin American countries, where the imposing of 'structural reform programmes' following the 1980s debt crisis opened up highly profitable fields of speculative investment.

But had the conditions been established for a global capitalist renaissance? The answer, on any sober analysis, must clearly be no. The profits of big business and especially the big capitalist speculators have been restored to the high levels of the post-war upswing period (1950-73). This has been achieved, however, mainly through intensified exploitation of the working class - lower pay levels, lower welfare spending, and harsher management regimes in the workplace. Outside the advanced, high-tech sectors of the economy (micro-electronics, communications technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc) the growth of production and productivity has been lower than during the upswing period. In the major industrial economies, notably the US and Japan, there has been a 'hollowing out' of industry, with the accelerated displacement of manufacturing industry by the service sector.

Far from a period of renaissance, capitalism has entered a period of chronic depression. The cycle of booms and slumps will continue (as we have already seen since 1990), but successive recovery periods will not eradicate the underlying causes of long-term decline -on the contrary, they will be accentuated all the more. The boom of the 1980s in the advanced capitalist countries, the wave of speculative investment in certain Third World countries, and the rather weak recovery of the major economies in the last two or three years, have not in any way halted the erosion of the conditions of long-term growth which were established in the post-war period.

Within the advanced capitalist countries the capitalists have restored profitability by clawing back the concessions which they were obliged to make to the working class during the post-war upswing: full employment, relatively high wage levels, the welfare state etc. Faced with a decline in profitability after the late 1960s, the capitalist class began to draw the conclusion that it could no longer afford the overheads of the 'welfare state'. In the 1980s Thatcherism or Reaganomics became the order of the day, with the privatisation of state industries, cutbacks in state welfare spending, and an assault on established trade union strength. The result, however, has been a drastic undermining of the market, which had underpinned the high investment and sustained profitability of the upswing period. The capitalists are caught in a contradiction.

Internationally, the end of the upswing at the time of the oil price crisis in 1973-74, led to a breakdown of the relatively stable framework of the capitalist world economy established in the immediate post-war period. There has, it is true, been an acceleration of the growth of world trade during the 1980s and early 1990s, but this has brought increased tensions between the major exporters. This is reflected in the formation of major trading blocs, the European Union and NAFTA, with a looser Asian bloc around Japan.

Above all, however, the breakdown of world economic relations is reflected in the collapse of the relatively stable Bretton Woods money system after 1973, and the introduction of floating rates. Together with the deregulation of financial markets and the upsurge in global speculative investment (itself a signal of the capitalists turn away from development of the productive forces) this has introduced a major element of instability into the world economy.

'Globalisation' means, in reality, a return to the pro-1913 position, when there was previously the unfettered movement of capital on the world market. However, the position for capitalism is less favourable now. Then, the gold standard prevailed, which largely ruled out speculative flows based purely on changes in exchange rates and interest rates. Moreover, there was greater freedom of movement for labour, which meant that workers were able to migrate from areas of mass unemployment (like the poorer countries of southern and eastern Europe) to expanding economies (such as the US, Latin America, Australasia, etc). Also government debts were much lower then than today's historically unprecedented levels.

It is the conditions of deep crisis, not sustained upswing, which are now being assembled in the world economy. While there is no mechanical, linear link between economic crisis and political struggle, the economic crisis which will unfold in the coming years will inevitably provoke mass struggles both in the advanced capitalist countries and in the semi- and under-developed countries.

The collapse of reformist socialism

THE IDEA THAT socialism has been finally eclipsed has been reinforced by the dramatic swing to the right by the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour Parties, together with their allies in the trade unions. Since the early 1980s the leaders of reformist socialism have abandoned their previous formal commitment to an alternative socialist society and even ditched their political commitment to progressive reforms in favour of the working class.

Many examples could be given. Even before the slump of 1979-81, which marked the turn of major capitalist governments towards 'free market' policies, the British Labour government of 1974-79 adopted deflationary monetarist policies. This spelt the end of reformism based on Keynesianism in Britain, and opened the era of reformism-without-reforms.

During the 1980s this counter-reformist trend was followed by social democratic leaders in other European countries -Gonzalez in Spain, Papendreou in Greece and Mitterrand in France, who after the Socialist Party victory in 1981 initially embarked upon a reformist policy, only to abandon it within a year.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes enormously accelerated this development. Fundamentally, however, the process of political degeneration of the Labour leaders was rooted in the social trends of the preceding period.

The strength of the social democratic workers' organisations was based on the long post-war upswing. Given the balance of forces, with the strengthening of the working class during the period of full employment and the then economic needs of the capitalist class, it was in the interests of big business to concede higher wage levels, higher welfare spending, and to encourage full employment. The electoral success of the social democratic leaders (which was, in any case, extremely patchy) was based, not on the appeal of their ideas, but on these social conditions. When in power there was scope for reformist parties to carry out reforms, thus securing them a basis of working class support. As these social-economic conditions were eroded, so was the electoral basis of the reformist parties generally undermined.

After 1973 the capitalists were still obliged in many countries to make concessions to the workers, who at that stage still retained the trade union strength accumulated during the upswing. Reformist governments were still able, initially, to introduce some limited reforms - only for them to be rapidly wiped out by accelerating inflation and escalating unemployment, which helped discredit these parties electorally.

Paradoxically, many on the Marxist left internationally have been totally demoralised by the collapse of the reformist left. This is contradictory, because Marxism never accepted that step-by-step reforms within the framework of capitalism could produce a socialist society. What is true is that through their domination of the traditional mass workers' parties and the trade unions, the reformists have acted as an enormous political and organisational barrier to the defence of workers' interests against a capitalist assault.

There is not one of the traditional workers' organisations, however, which is not currently in a state of crisis. The reformist leaders no longer have a mass electoral base which they can take for granted. This is yet another aspect of the testing and erosion of the ideas and institutions which were strengthened during the post-war upswing. The weakening of the social democracy represents a weakening of one of the props on which capitalist stability rested during the upswing period. In the coming period of mass working class struggle what remains of these organisations will be put to the test. Sections of them will either be democratised and transformed into vehicles of struggle, or they will be swept aside to make way for new mass organisations and movements of the workers.

The role of the working class

BUT IS NOT the ideological swing to the right based on the defeat of the working class? Has not the balance of class forces within the advanced capitalist countries and internationally tipped decisively in favour of capitalism over the last 10 to 20 years?

After all, it may be argued, throughout the advanced capitalist countries mass unemployment has undermined the strength of organised workers. The state, especially in Britain but in other countries too, has been able to claw back trade union rights conceded in the past. The 'big battalions' of organised workers have been seriously undermined by de-industrialisation and relocation. An ever-increasing section of workers are now forced to accept temporary, part-time, casual employment of various kinds, with low pay and very few rights.

These trends (together with the undermining of working class loyalty to the traditional workers' parties) have to be recognised. There is no justification, however, for drawing the conclusion that the working class is therefore finished as a force capable of a historic struggle against the capitalist system and for a new socialist order of society. There has been no defeat in the last two decades on the scale of the fascist counter-revolution in the 1930s.

What we have seen in the last period is not a smashing of the power of the organised labour movement, but a clawing back of some (and in some countries a substantial share) of the exceptional gains made by the working class during the period of post-war upswing. After the slump of 1974-75 the capitalists abandoned Keynesianism and turned to neo-liberalism - and a long-term policy of undermining the power of the organised working class. There were massive struggles internationally against this capitalist offensive, in many cases limiting or delaying the retrenchment. However, the subjective factor, the lack of leaders with the necessary strategy and tactics, was decisive. The general capitalist offensive, based on changes in production methods and the world division of labour, could only be successfully resisted on the basis of a bold anti-capitalist programme - linking day-today demands to the perspective of socialist change. Yet the union leaders, following the social democratic leaders, in most cases accepted the logic of the market.

In the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe there has, it is clear, been a devastating defeat for the working class. The legacy of totalitarian Stalinism, which allowed no element of independent working class democracy, is the atomisation of the working class. The recovery of working class forces will take some time, especially in the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we can already see the signs of a renewal of the working class in recent industrial struggles in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other East European countries.

In the advanced capitalist countries, however, the recent period has seen an almost continuous wave of struggle against the capitalist offensive on living standards and democratic rights. In both Italy and France for instance there is a glaring contradiction between the relationship of political forces, where right-wing parties have triumphed against the ideologically bankrupt parties of the left, and the balance of social forces, where mass workers' struggles have successfully resisted onslaughts by big business and the state.

In Mexico, the Zapatista uprising, which reflects profound discontent amongst a majority of the urban and rural proletariat, triggered a collapse of the Mexican 'economic miracle', which in turn sent shock waves around the world economy.

The working class remains the decisive force for change. They will not passively allow a worsening of conditions, of mass unemployment and impoverishment, which are clearly on the capitalists' agenda in the next period. Moreover, the workers cannot resist these barbarous conditions without challenging the whole system. Far from seeing the end of the working class as a progressive force, we are experiencing the beginning of a new phase of struggle. The crisis within the traditional workers' parties is clearing the ground for a renewal of anti-capitalist, socialist struggle. There will also be a process of democratisation and renewal within the trade unions. Far from being eclipsed by the 'new middle class', the working class will increasingly draw behind it wide sections of the middle strata of society, who are themselves being squeezed and in reality proletarianised by the capitalist crisis.

The programme of socialism

THE ATTRACTIVE POWER of socialist ideas, for reasons outlined, has undoubtedly been weakened in recent years. But this will be the transitory effect of a passing conjuncture. Consciousness, especially of the newer generation of workers and youth, will be determined by current conditions and the events which will unfold.

As struggles develop, the more active workers and youth will be impelled to search for an anti-capitalist programme -which can only be formulated in socialist terms. Paradoxically, today there is a level of social tension, political protest, and youth rebellion unprecedented in the post-war period. The fragmented character of the movements to which this gives rise is primarily due to the political bankruptcy of the traditional mass organisations. But the struggles of different layers of workers, together with the phenomena of 'new social movements', are a response to the various symptoms of capitalist decline. It is impossible to defend living standards and democratic rights, to halt the devastation of the environment, let alone end the various bloody conflicts internationally, without confronting the power of the capitalist class.

Those who accept the market as an eternal form of social organisation are, in reality, condemning the majority of society to a future of increased social polarisation, mass impoverishment, and the reappearance of barbarous conditions of oppression and conflict.

Acceptance of the 'market' means acceptance of the domination of world production and trade by a small handful of big capitalist monopolies, the determination of social priorities by their drive for profits, and the 'organisation' of economic life by the anarchic market of capitalism. The only viable alternative to this remains the socialist planned economy, not on the Stalinist model, but on the basis of international planning and democratic workers' management and control. On such a basis, science and technology could be applied to production in a balanced way, to meet human needs and for the harmonious development of society in the interests of the majority.

Only on this basis will the fundamental contradictions of capitalism - private ownership of the means of production and the division of the world economy into ultimately antagonistic national economies - be overcome, thus eliminating the fundamental roots of oppression and conflict.

Our task, through intervention in struggle and a dialogue with the workers and youth, is to elaborate a socialist programme which will effectively provide a guide to action and re-establish the authority of genuine Marxism. Unless we are to capitulate to a barbarous capitalism we must fight for a socialist future.

Socialism Today , PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD, United Kingdom

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