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Marxism, The 21st Century and Social Transformation (Part 3) | Bill

GramsciSquareThis is the third section of  a three-part series by Bill Fletcher, Jr, reposted from Philosophers for Change. The first post, available here, addressed the current political context and efforts at socialist renewal.  The second post, available here, addresses: “The Arab democratic uprising and the rise of mass Left radicalism” and “The question of who makes history.”  This final section explores the ways in which the left must advance long-standing socialist concepts to be relevant and effective for the 21st century. 

Refounding the Left

In the aftermath of the defeat of the Paris Commune Marx and Engels had to reflect on that experience and question some of their own propositions. This level of both self-analysis and self-criticism has been repeated occasionally in Left circles, but more frequently the radical Left holds onto certain ideological assertions as basic canon rather than making a concrete and exhaustive analysis.

Addressing the crisis of socialism is our 'post-Paris Commune' moment, that is, we on the Left are called upon to assess the socialist experience in the 20th century rather than assessing one specific instance of the class struggle (as important as was that examination in the case of the Paris Commune or today in assessing the Arab democratic revolutions, the anti-austerity movements and Occupy). Several important theorists have begun doing this work, such as Samir Amin, Marta Harnecker and Michael Lebowitz, not to mention leaders in some of the parties and organizations noted earlier in this essay. For the remainder of this essay we will suggest a few propositions for further exploration as part of a process of Left renewal or refoundation.

The theory and practice of socialism: How should we understand socialism? We need to answer this in two ways with the first being at the level of theory and practice; the second, at the level of society. At the level of theory and practice, socialism must be a phenomenon which is revolutionary, Marxist and democratic. This distinguishes or should distinguish 21st century socialism[vi], at both the levels of theory and practice, from much of what went by the name of socialism in the 20th century.

Revolutionary: In the 1960s and 1970s much of the Left defined "revolutionary" in terms of either armed struggle; the rejection of the reform struggle (and those who engaged in it); and the nature of demands. In the 21st century we must break with one-dimensional thinking. The "revolutionary" in socialism must involve the extent to which it is prepared to introduce new theory and penetrating critiques. Revolutionary must exist at the level of experimenting with new forms of organization and engagement. Revolutionary must also exist at the level of being focused on social transformation rather than being limited to social reform, and as such the need for a prioritization of the organization of the masses to emancipate themselves from all forms of oppression.

Marxist: Marxism offers a frame of analysis which is, simply put, unparalleled in revolutionary theory. The dialectical analysis and the materialist conception of history exist as frameworks without which a true revolutionary movement will be stymied. But to say that the socialism of the 21st century must be Marxist does not mean holding on, uncritically, to various propositions from the 19th and 20th centuries. A case in point would be how one views imperialism. The nature of global capitalism has changed significantly since the publication of Lenin's Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, yet too many people on the Left insist that the current realities must be fit into Lenin's framework rather than studying the current reality and trends of global capitalism in order to come to appropriate conclusions. Samir Amin and, in a separate way, William Robinson, though coming to somewhat different conclusions, have worked to understand the nature of actually existing global capitalism rather than using Lenin's conclusions as the starting point. It is the framework that matters.

Democratic: The "d" word has been used and abused. The states that were formed in the aftermath of World War II in Eastern Europe were self-defined "people's democracies" yet, particularly from 1948 onward, they were anything but that, despite often remarkable social service programs and educational institutions. This use of the world "democracy" did great damage to the work of the Left. Separately, and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the "d" word has been used increasingly in the mainstream, capitalist media. In bourgeois discourse the term really means multi-party elections in an environment that favors a capitalist economy. From the standpoint of genuine socialism, "democratic" should have a different meaning. Learning the painful lessons from the experience of Stalin's Soviet Union or the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia/Kampuchea, we must appreciate that "democratic" is not a rhetorical term nor should it be simply a vague objective. "Democratic" should reference both a practice and an objective. That is, socialists must be the strongest advocates for what Lenin called "consistent democracy", including at the economic and political levels, but also democratic at the level of the operations of socialist organizations and mass organizations. The recognition of the need for independent organizations out of progressive social movements has been a major advance in socialist theory and practice, but it must be understood that such recognition is not only for the period of struggle under capitalism but also for socialism. And the negative experiences that have emerged under so-called actually existing socialism should teach us that democracy means real popular control.

The State: The contemporary Latin American Left, along with the Nepalese Maoists, South African Communists and others, has raised some significant questions regarding the matter of the capitalist state. Marx and Engels, as one may remember, in reviewing the experience of the Paris Commune, suggested that one of the lessons of the Commune was the need for a worker's movement to smash the capitalist state. Lenin, in his famous treatise, State and Revolution, reiterated this point, emphasizing the need for the withering away of the state once the oppressed had gained power.

Antonio Gramsci, while not disagreeing with these conclusions, nevertheless focused his attention on the challenge of building up an historic bloc of popular-democratic forces in favor of socialism during non-revolutionary periods leading to the eventual seizure of power. One of Gramsci's great contributions was to frame much of his analysis in terms of the specificity of Italy and the challenge of the largely northern Italian working class allying with the southern Italian peasantry (in a situation where southern Italians and Sicilians were — and continue today — to be viewed by many northerners as a separate and despised nation). Yet the overarching challenge for Gramsci was the notion of hegemony and the work of the popular-democratic bloc in becoming a counter-hegemonic force in the struggle for socialism.

Gramsci was interpreted by some in the communist movement and other parts of the Left as suggesting a more reformist go-slow approach to change.[vii] This would be a misreading of Gramsci. Gramsci recognized that a Left strategy would collapse into reformism without a clear sense of conducting a total/all-round struggle against capitalist hegemony. Contrary to many of the European Communist Parties that claimed to adhere to Gramsci's framework, this struggle went beyond electoral politics but it placed a premium on the building of alliances and ultimately a bloc that would be capable of seizing power, representing the oppressed and dispossessed.

The actual practice of some of the newer Left forces in Latin America, by way of example, helps one understand the complexity of such a course of action. It begins with the recognition that the ideal opportunity for gaining power never arises. There are, however, moments when the Left is better positioned to gain power, either as part of a coalition or leading a coalition, but where the mandate of such a coalition may not be for the complete elimination of the democratic capitalist state, at least not all at once.

A contrasting example may help to make the point. In 1979 on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, an uprising brought to power a revolutionary force known as the New Jewel Movement. Led by Maurice Bishop, these were Left forces who took on a corrupt tyranny. The uprising had widespread popular support. Over the next four years the regime — referred to on the island as the "Revo" — encountered serious challenges. They organized themselves along traditional Marxist-Leninist lines, despite the fact that this was not a socialist revolution and the NJM was not a Marxist-Leninist party. But the NJM functioned more and more like one and created NJM-controlled mass organizations. By 1983 the "Revo" was in trouble and the leadership knew this. The coup against Bishop, which ultimately led to his murder, was carried out by pro-Soviet Marxists led by Bernard Coard.[viii] What Coard and his followers failed to acknowledge was the nature of the popular mandate that the NJM had won. They were supported as an anti-imperialist/anti-corruption/anti-tyranny effort, but they did not have popular support for a transition to socialism. Coard fell into a Stalinist framework and believed that a removal of the current leadership could force the Revo forward. He was tragically wrong on so many levels.

Any Left movement that has the possibility of gaining power, whether at a national level or sub-national level, must assess the nature of the popular mandate. In the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, in particular, despite contradictions and challenges within the governing coalitions, they seem to have focused on just that question. In other words, whether the Left is elected to office or gains office through an insurrection is not enough to ascertain the nature of the process that is to unfold. The question that must be addressed is how do the masses understand the nature of the process and what mandate have they offered such a project.

For these reasons the Left coming to power in a democratic capitalist state brings with it a whole series of challenges. To what extent is the radical Left (and we are making a distinction between a legitimate, radical Left and a reformist Left) placed in the position that is familiar to social democrats, i.e., of managing a democratic capitalist state? In the alternative, can the Left begin, even under the conditions of democratic capitalism, the process of a movement for social transformation?

A movement for social transformation cannot wait until the seizure of state power and the beginning of the construction of socialism. It becomes the task of the Left to advance a project for social transformation even under democratic capitalism. The framework for such an approach can be found in both Gramsci and, indeed, Lenin. Lenin's advocacy of the position of the Left as being the chief advocates for consistent democracy should mean that it is the radical Left that is advancing a program and practice for the democratization of society. This includes, but is not limited to significant structural reforms that improve the basic lives of the people but also involves opening up the means and opportunities for the oppressed to educate and free themselves. As has been seen in parts of Latin America, this necessitates a struggle over the very constitution of the state and a fight to democratize that constitution in such a way to begin to break the back of ruling elite. To borrow from Harnecker, the rules of the "game" must be changed in favor of democracy and in favor of the oppressed.

This struggle, however, also necessitates the sorts of alliances that Gramsci suggested and a distancing of the Left from organizational or class sectarianism and instead favoring an approach toward strategic alliances or strategic blocs whose aim it is to build a power sharing relationship among the oppressed.

Dictatorship of the proletariat: Marx and Engels barely defined the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," and as a result it was largely Lenin and later Stalin who placed an imprint on the concept. In looking at the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat there are really two questions that emerge. The first is whether the concept is basically correct. The second is whether, largely for historical reasons, the term is compromised.

The notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, when examined from the standpoint of Marx's all too brief writings on the subject, has nothing to do with a "dictatorship" in the manner in which the term is commonly used. The closest reference point would probably be "hegemony" as articulated by Gramsci. Even in Lenin's State and Revolution the dictatorship of the proletariat comes across as something other than a traditionally defined dictatorship. Instead it refers to the leadership of a class and suggests that at all points the state is used as an instrument of one class against another (or against several others). The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, is supposed to be a state of the working class, organized in such a way as to ensure the widest democracy and the suppression not only of the bourgeoisie but of the reactionary practices that had been inherited from earlier eras. It is also supposed to be a state during a period of transition, that is, a state structure for socialism which itself is a period of transition between capitalism and a classless society (and, as a result, the state will wither away).

While the theory is good, and was re-articulated in a very comprehensive manner in the 1970s by Etienne Balibar in his rigorous book, On the dictatorship of the proletariat, the term is associated with authoritarianism. While one can argue whether the Stalinist system was actually socialist vs. a perverse form of state capitalism, the fact remains that in the popular mind the dictatorship of the proletariat means one-party rule, secret police, Gulags, etc. It seems, to the average person, to fly in the face of the Left's historic practice of fighting in favor of democracy, civil liberties, equality and the rights of minorities. It is with this in mind that one can say that in much of the global North there is a popular hatred of capitalism but there is a fear of socialism.

As a result the crisis of socialism compels the Left to examine the question of the process of socialism, but the terminology as well. The Left cannot favor dictatorships. It must favor popular, revolutionary democracies that expand the rights and activities of the oppressed and narrow the field for the oppressors. It must be in favor of a system that takes on all forms of oppression but gives the means and opportunities for different views to contend without the fear that someone will end up dead or incarcerated for expressions of alleged heresy. And, the reality is that it must do all of this under conditions that are less than favorable, conditions that include external capitalist forces/powers seeking to undermine socialism and internal reactionary forces that wish to turn back the clock.

Socialist organization: There have been a variety of organizational experiences within socialist movements. One cannot come to sweeping conclusions about each and every form. That said, one conclusion that can be arrived at is that structure follows function. To put it another way, the actual form of an organization should flow from its purpose and from the actual conditions under which it is operating. In that sense, the efforts carried out by the Communist (Third) International at what was called "Bolshevization" (an effort to transform all communist parties into a form dictated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) were problematic in that they assumed that there was only one form of revolutionary organization. It was additionally problematic in that this process was based on a mythical notion of what the Bolsheviks had looked like in their pre-revolutionary days.

The form of organization must begin by an understanding of the state structure in the territory in which an organization or party is operating. In that sense it is quite interesting that Marx and Engels did not focus their attention on one and only one form of organization, seemingly recognizing that organizations could exist in multiple forms. Specifically, the form does not make an organization radical, revolutionary, or for that matter reformist. The content of its theory and practice, however, do.

In a situation of high levels of state repression, Left forces cannot operate as openly as they would within less authoritarian variants of capitalism. But even in situations of alleged democratic capitalism, such as the United States, the history of the repression of the Left and the repression of freedom movements of oppressed nationalities (e.g., African Americans, Chicanos/Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asian Americans), has meant that not all Left formations can operate openly.

Relationship to anarchists: Anarchists have reemerged as a potent force on the Left particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Their critique of actually existing socialism (what many of us would define as either a contradictory socialism or in some cases state capitalism) is frequently persuasive, viscerally if not analytically. And they have become very active forces in the global justice movement, environmental movements, and certainly in the Occupy movement.

It would be a mistake to dismiss anarchists (ideological or non-ideological anarchists) and/or to make reference to 19th century polemics between Marx and Bakunin. The non-anarchist revolutionary Left must see in modern anarchism the results of our failures. Modern anarchism is a product of the crisis of socialism.

The non-anarchist revolutionary Left needs to embrace anarchists as distant cousins rather than enemies. This does not mean that we embrace anarchism. We can and should continue to hold to a strong analysis of the problems with anarchism but we should look at most anarchists as comrades in a common struggle against capitalism. To some extent they are our conscience in the struggle against bureaucracy and any and all forms of restoration of oppressive regimes.

None of this should suggest that the relationship is or will be easy. There are significant strategic and tactical differences with anarchists, as there frequently are with other Left trends. But to treat them as enemies runs many risks, not the least of which is sectarianism. To the extent to which anarchists appeal to younger radicals, the non-anarchist revolutionary Left runs the risk of being perceived as oblivious to the criticisms of actually existing socialism shared by many younger activists. It is our job to listen and respond to such concerns and criticisms. Frequently there is a firm basis upon which to unite, while at the same time the non-anarchist revolutionary Left is compelled to struggle with the philosophical idealism inherent in anarchism, particularly its failure to recognize what is involved in the course of making a transition away from capitalism.

There are a host of other areas for deeper exploration, self-criticism and new theory, including but not limited to gender, race/nationality and the environment. Time and space do not permit such an examination here. Suffice it to say that a renewal of the radical Left must necessitate not a regurgitation of 19th and 20th century platitudes on these areas, as if that will reinforce our ideological lineage, but rather an examination of the structures and movements in these areas. A renewed Left must establish that it can and will learn from the forces on the ground involved in such movements while at the same time utilizing the Marxist method in order to link these struggles and movements into an overall narrative that favors the oppressed. Carrying out such work involves more than the circulation of ideas and even rigorous analyses; it necessitates well-grounded and clearheaded Left organization that can link the practioners and the theorists, making each both.



[vi] We are using the term generically. The specific term "21st century socialism" became popularized in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez. For some it has come to mean a specific road as followed in Latin America by movements such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. We are using the term far more generically as referencing a socialism for this century, including but not limited to the experiments underway in Latin America.

[vii] Beginning with the post-World War II Italian Communist Party led by Palmiro Togliatti.

[viii] "Pro-Soviet" in their ideological orientation. This is not to suggest that they were operating under orders from the USSR.

Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for 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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