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Marxism, the 21st century and social transformation

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A discussion of the future of socialism and social transformation must be grounded in two realities.  The first reality is the broader economic, environmental and state-legitimacy crises in which humanity finds itself.  In other words, the convergence of these three crises means that the necessity for a genuine Left capable of leading masses of people is more pressing than ever.  It means that while one cannot sit back and wait for the supposed “final” crisis of capitalism to open up doors to freedom — since capitalism is largely defined by its continual crises — it is the case that the convergence of these three crises brings with it a level of urgency unlike any that most of us have experienced.  Not only is there a need for a progressive, if not radical set of answers to these crises at the level of immediate reforms, but the deeper reality is that capitalism — as a system — is incapable of providing legitimate, sustainable answers to these crises, whether individually or collectively.

The second reality, and the central focus of this essay, is that any discussion of a progressive post-capitalist future must come to grips with the realization of the crisis of socialism in which every trend in the global Left has been encased.   This has been a crisis at the levels of vision, strategy, state power and organization.  It is a crisis that cannot be avoided by either a retreat to pre-Bolshevik Marxism or slipping into the abyss of post-modernism.  The reality of the crisis of socialism can only be avoided at our own peril.

The crisis of socialism can be said to have emerged in the context of the Stalinist hegemony over the international communist movement, creating challenges for the global Left (and not just the orthodox communist movement) at multiple levels.  One level has been that of the question of the post-capitalist socialist state.  The revelations regarding the authoritarian rule of the Stalinist Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) shattered the sense of a genuine socialist democracy, even if one applauded the social accomplishments of the Soviet Revolution and its courageous sacrifices in the struggle against fascism.

In addition to the question of the socialist state, there emerged also the question of socialist strategy.   There was the matter of strategy in what has come to be known as the “global South” and the “global North.”  In the global South, the Left-led national democratic revolutions, based on the alliance of workers and peasants, represented a major breakthrough in what had been a very Eurocentric Marxism.  The impact of the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban Revolutions, to name only three, not only reshaped Marxism, but also had an impact on other Left as well as progressive nationalist political tendencies.  Yet by the 8th decade of the 20th century, these revolutionary currents seemed to have stalled.  The Chinese Revolution, with the death of Mao, altered course and ultimately embraced what can only be described, non-rhetorically, as a capitalist road.  Movements and state systems that Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin has described as “national populist projects,” i.e., anti-imperialist projects led by elements of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie (and in some cases the national bourgeoisie) that never fully broke with capitalism, found themselves drifting either back toward the global North or following a cynical embrace of the Soviet bloc.
Strategy plagued Marxist-led movements in the global North.  Parties and movements that embraced social democracy all but abandoned anything other than the rhetoric of socialism and quite comfortably assumed the role of guardians of the welfare state under democratic capitalism.  In many cases such parties, e.g., the British Labour Party; the French Socialist Party, while championing progressive social legislation and popular rights in their respective nation-states, also advanced a rabid defense of ‘enlightened’ colonialism and imperial privilege for countries they came to govern.

Communist parties in the global North followed a different trajectory, but in general came to develop a strategy for achieving power based largely on a non-revolutionary interpretation of the theoretical approach of Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci.  This interpretation, what the Maoists considered “revisionism” and what many other revolutionary Leftists saw as simply patently reformist, involved a protracted and largely electoral route to power.  But this route, even when it involved the creation of alternative institutions, e.g., worker cooperatives, was very gradualist and rarely able to accommodate itself to sudden shifts in the mass movements.  In fact, this approach placed a premium on the control of mass movements, and in many cases, the pacification of such movements, e.g., the French Communist Party in 1968.  These parties, not always unlike those out of social democracy, while rhetorically anti-imperialist, were inconsistent in practicing anti-imperialism against their own state/empire.
Yet the radical challenges to reformist approaches to the struggle for power had their own sets of flaws.  For much of what came to be known as the radical or revolutionary Left, there was a failure to distinguish the political vs. the ideological struggle.  As a result, there was — and in many cases continues to be — a premium placed on purity.  The anti-capitalist struggle is all too often seen as the articulation of the “correct” direction and the denunciation of anything that is perceived as inconsistently revolutionary (that is, articulation by one or another super-revolutionary group-let or self-important individual).  Such an approach, even where it has gained appeal, has been temporary, grounded in subjectivism, and inevitably led to sectarianism, and ultimately marginalization.

The crisis of socialism has also played itself out at the level of Left organization.  In the social democratic tradition the tendency became clear even before World War I with the creation of mass parties that were almost alternative universes but where there was little internal democracy.  These parties were very self-contained but were not structured to even consider the possibility of a non-electoral struggle for socialism.          

The communist tradition, on the other hand, largely based itself on the mythology of the Bolshevik Party, as advanced by the Stalinist bloc within the CPSU.  Admittedly this conception of the party was applied differently in different settings, but these parties tended to be highly centralized and frequently resistant to organized, principled internal struggle.[i]  That said, in many countries communist parties became truly mass parties with varying levels of internal participation and membership activities.  In the global North they moved away from a self-conception of being insurrectionist parties. In many countries these communist parties, particularly those influenced by Soviet Marxism, paid less and less attention to the lower strata of the working class and agricultural populations. The radical Left, in response, sought a pure form of revolutionary organization to stand in contrast to the so-called revisionist or reformist formations that they perceived were misleading the masses.  Such pure organizations were ideally suited for individuals in their teen years or twenties but not for those who had a more protracted view of struggle.  They were also not conceptualized in such a way that they could build the sorts of strategic alliances necessary in order to conduct a serious struggle for power.

Efforts at renewal

The crisis of socialism has met with various efforts at renewal since the 1950s.  Maoism, for instance, represented an effort, from the Left, to address the stagnation of Soviet-based Marxism and the bureaucratization of the Soviet state and party (and the resulting creation of a new, dominating class).[ii]  And while Maoism pushed the limits on Marxist-Leninist theory, it retreated at key moments, such as on the nature of the role of the masses in a revolutionary state, and the legitimacy (or otherwise) of a multi-party socialism.  Neo-Trotskyism saw itself also as a force for renewal.  Other Left tendencies that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Autonomists (in Italy and elsewhere), additionally positioned themselves as forces for socialist and/or Left renewal.          

Despite the strengths of many of these tendencies, in the global South and global North, the fact remained that the radical Left failed to find a ‘remedy’ to the crisis of socialism, at least in its entirety.  Instead these political tendencies declined by the 1980s and while the case can certainly be made that there are countries where the Left movements of the 1960s have continued (and in some cases grown), as a global phenomenon there has been decline on the part of the radical Left that arose out of the 1960s/1970s, sometimes with the result that other non-left-wing, though seemingly radical currents have emerged to fill the void.

Yet a new set of Left renewal efforts began to surface beginning in the 1980s, sometimes introducing innovative theories and strategies while other times stalling (if not collapsing).  There is no consistency to such renewal efforts and they must all be understood in their particular circumstances.  That said, such efforts can be said to include but not be limited to:  the rectification efforts that took place in the Communist Party of the Philippines (beginning in the early 1990s); the collapse of the Italian Communist Party followed by the emergence of the Rifondazione Communista (Communist Refoundation) tendency;  the formation of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT); the rise of the Nepalese Maoists; the reformation within the South African Communist Party; liberation theology as it rose in both Latin America and, in a different variant, within the Black Freedom Movement in the USA; the emergence of Germany’s Die Linke (party of the Left); and more recently, pro-socialist movements in Latin America (advocating what they describe as being “21st Century Socialism”) as well as the construction of the Front de Gauche in France.
Regardless of the answers that they offered, what these and other efforts have shared in common has been a willingness to confront some of the major challenges in the crisis of socialism and move to articulate answers, and in some cases, new paths for exploration. This does not suggest that any of them have come up with ‘The Answer’ or that they have necessarily been correct in their analyses.  What is admirable is the courage at the level of theory to face what, to many, has been the Gorgon.  Several of these formations have been reexamining the role of electoral politics in the struggle for socialism, and more generally examining the alliances necessary in order to defeat capitalism and win a popular-democratic victory.  Some of the formations have been exploring the limits of armed struggle in the current age, particularly when contrasted with other forms of more non-violent though highly militant struggle.  And in almost every case, the limitations of the notion of a single, revolutionary party to both conduct the popular struggle but to also lead in a post-capitalist situation have been recognized, though what is left unanswered is the question of what are the real parameters that must exist for democratic, political discourse and action in a progressive, post-capitalist social formation.

These efforts at renewal have been largely within the context of the organized Left or what Chilean theoretician Marta Harnecker defines as the “party Left.”  Other efforts have emerged within progressive social movements, such as Brazil’s famous Landless Workers Movement (MST) or the poor people’s movements in South Africa.  What distinguishes these efforts is that they are largely initiated or led by a core of Leftists but not necessarily individuals affiliated with an existing national Left organization or party.  The leftists in these formations did not necessarily emerge themselves from these struggles but in either case have made these struggles and movements their base.  Their framework is also not necessarily one that involves an over-arching narrative or strategic orientation, though this does not mean that they are opposed to such frameworks/orientation.  Rather, their principal ‘universe’ is that specific social movement.  In these progressive social movements, however, they tend to push for what was once termed “non-reformist reforms” (Andre Gorz) that challenges the nature of the system.  Such reforms, it should be quickly noted, are not pie-in-the-sky or ideological platitudes.  Rather they exist as visionary but eminently practical mass actions for social transformation, albeit focused in one sector.          

Left renewal efforts within this sector in part reflects disenchantment and skepticism concerning the capacity of the organized Left to address the questions that have emerged from within the crisis of socialism.  In Latin America, for instance, movements among the Indigenous and the African descendant populations have frequently concluded that Left party and party-type efforts have either ignored them outright or marginalized their issues in the name of class or national sovereignty.  In many cases, the Left’s leadership has lacked real representation and a base from within the Indigenous and African descendant populations, as well as from among women.          

As a result the mass formations that have emerged in these progressive social movements are very different from parties. They seek autonomy from parties and are not particularly interested in being perceived as instruments of party formations.  Many of them will coalesce, certainly in defensive battles, but also for certain offensive struggles, but this is not necessarily the same thing as the building of a national Left front fighting for power.
Harnecker has correctly argued that the future for genuine renewal rests with the unity of the organized Left/party Left and the Left that exists within the social movements.  The ultimate nature of that unity remains a question, but this writer would suggest that it would necessarily be a party-like formation or front that exists at a higher level than a confederation.

We should add that another source of renewal that has existed in relationship to the Left of the social movements has been the global justice movement.  Weakened in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks (and the repression, both physical and ideological immediately following), the global justice movement launched a serious challenge to neo-liberal globalization.  The mass demonstrations, such as in Seattle (1999) and Quebec (2001), to name just two, opened up a public discourse on the manner in which wealth and power were reshaping the planet.
The 11th September attacks took the wind out of the sails of this movement, in part by making, at least in the USA, such mass expressions of outrage appear to be “unpatriotic.”  Additionally, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, increasingly repressive legislation was introduced throughout the capitalist world in order to weaken or suppress outright militant activism, all in the name of fighting alleged terrorism.  While the global justice movement was not crushed altogether, it had to shift gears.  Some elements of it made a successful transition into the global anti-war movements against US aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some have been mobilized around Palestine and the growing Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement.  But the thrust of the anti-neo-liberal globalization effort was blunted and no longer a focal point of discussion, at least until relatively recently.

TO BE CONTINUED with coming sections on “The Arab democratic uprising and the rise of mass Left radicalism” and “The question of who makes history”

Notes:

[i] There are important qualifications to make here.  Internal struggle is inevitable and took place within Stalinist-influenced parties.  How the struggle unfolded and was resolved, however, was the critical question.  The parameters for internal struggle were increasingly narrowed as Stalinist Marxism gained hegemony.  Within the Trotskyist tradition, there was the theoretical justification for internal factions but this did not necessarily mean that the internal life was any more democratic.

[ii] “Maoism” must be understood as a term referencing both (1) a theoretical and ideological orientation of the ruling Communist Party of China from the middle 1950s through 1978 regarding the construction of socialism, and, separately, (2) a movement, set of theories, inspirations, etc., that people elsewhere drew from the Chinese experience regarding the questions of the struggle for and construction of socialism.


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Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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About the Author

  • Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

    Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

    Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

    Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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