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Insights for the new socialism
As Hugo Chavez told delegates at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in
Soviet Unionfell, contributing to a greater world destabilization. The , its allies and world capitalism then rose up to sing of victory and tried to claim the ‘victory.’ US
“This is when they unleashed, against the people not only of Latin America, but also of Africa, Asia and
Oceania, the neo-liberal proposal. The so-called Washington Consensus, structural adjustment packages, privatization, the reduction of State, the elimination of planning…
“Illusions, like the siren song of capitalism. It has passed; the illusion of the end of history has disappeared. Now we have awoken once again to harsh reality. And as President Raúl Castro said this morning, poverty, hunger, the destruction of the peoples of the land and the destruction of the environment have increased in the world.”
And, as the experiences of
Important factors in the resurgence of the socialist movement include the USA’s adoption of ‘democracy promotion’ to further its strategic ambitions in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia; thus making the use, or threat of use, of coups and right-wing juntas (previously a crucial method of the USA against the left in Latin America) a more problematic tactic in recent years. Another process of major significance is the rise of
Like leaders, political movements and swallows, books tend to appear at appropriate moments. A new book, Democracy and Revolution by Dr DL Raby , subtitled Latin America and Socialism Today (in the US edition Cuba, Venezuela and Socialism Today), will (were I not an atheist I would add here, God willing) very likely be followed by more literature of its kind: examinations not just of the failures but of the successes of popular movements in attaining state power and moving towards a socialist society.
Democracy and Revolution contains some very useful insights. Dr Raby makes a good case against the claim of Western ‘liberal democracy’ that it is the only acceptable form of government:
“The universal assumption that democracy is the only valid regime – accepted even by most ex-Communist parties – obscures the question of what democracy really means, of whether Western liberalism is the only valid form of democracy, and of whether revolutionary change is possible by democratic means.”
Following liberation theologist Franz Hinkelammert, Dr Raby remarks:
“…late capitalism has produced a theory of democracy corresponding to its economic model, based on treating voters as consumers whose political choices amount to superficial whims in response to marketing techniques.”
She contrasts this consumerist ‘formal democracy’ with the spirit of collective struggles in
“…is intimately linked to the concept of popular sovereignty, that sovereignty really does reside in the people as a whole and not in the propertied classes or in any hereditary group or privileged institution. The people, moreover, constitute themselves as political actors by collective mobilisation, not merely by passive reception of media messages or individualised voting.”
Discussing the system of popular power in
Dr Raby takes issue with two negative ‘left-wing’ currents of thought; one is the thesis propounded by John Holloway in Change the World Without Taking Power which she convincingly demolishes. Raby remarks:
“Now it is one thing to recognise that revolutionary state power has all too often lost its popular democratic foundations, and quite another to deny the importance of state power as such and the possibility of constructing a non-capitalist power structure based on social justice. To ignore state power altogether and, in the name of popular autonomy, to rely exclusively on grass-roots organisation and resistance, is to leave the essence of capitalism untouched and to condemn the people to an endless cycle of circumscribed struggles, frustration and disillusionment.”
With regard to an opposite ‘left-wing’ critique, made by those who claim that the process taking place in
“…the strategy of ‘endogenous development’ implies a different and more subtle anti-capitalist strategy.”
And she describes some very positive developments; alongside the co-operative initiatives and micro-credit schemes, the Venezuelan state is strengthening its economic role through big investments in power generation, railway construction and modernisation of the ports under public ownership.
Nevertheless there have not been major nationalisations. Eight years after Hugo Chavez was first elected president, although inequality is falling (the Gini index reduced significantly, from 0.618 to 0.514, between 2003 and 2005) extremes of wealth and poverty are still startling and unemployment and underemployment are very high (the informal sector employs 48% of the workforce.)
Dr Raby gets close to an explanation in the following passage, which despite its weaknesses is one of her most insightful statements:
"…a revolutionary state of popular power… may be what socialism as a transitional stage really amounts to: it cannot operate as a self-sustained and distinct mode of production, which was the Stalinist illusion, but through its popular-democratic and military strength it can function with a non-capitalist or anti-capitalist logic … As a revolutionary state it can negotiate with transnational capital from a position of relative strength, it can create and protect a society based on a large measure of social justice, participatory democracy and economic sovereignty, but it cannot break completely with the global capitalist system until such time (still remote) as revolution and popular power/Socialism spreads through most of the world."
An impressive and very useful formulation – but one which, however, reveals some deficiencies in Dr Raby’s historical knowledge and philosophical understanding. It is necessary to caution the reader that this interesting and occasionally brilliant work suffers from some weaknesses. At the root of these lies the author’s underestimation of the importance of economic factors in political change; and, closely connected with this, her insufficient treatment of the active role of US imperialism.
Thus throughout the book she attributes the failures of popular and revolutionary movements to attain and hold onto power to internal factors: their leading figures (not charismatic enough), the left parties (bureaucratic, and either dogmatic or too willing to compromise) and their ideologies (Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, etc).
Even while discussing the successes of
“The Cuban Communist Party has become more open in recent years; this can be seen in its practice of recruiting the best workers as recommended by their colleagues, and by the decision to accept religious believers as members. But is still the case that members are then indoctrinated with Marxism-Leninism, by all accounts on the basis of very traditional, even dogmatic manuals; and this cannot be the basis for a free and open Socialist democracy.”
Dr Raby must be unaware that the practice of recruiting the ‘best’ workers on the recommendation of their colleagues is a traditional recruitment method of communist parties in power, used also for example in the
Much of what Dr Raby says is important and relevant also. She writes with detail and enthusiasm on the subject of populism and charisma in Latin American politics; the book is a welcome antidote to those who regard dynamic leadership as anti-democratic. On Hugo Chavez, for example:
“…that much-abused term ‘dialectical’ applies perfectly to the relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan people, a mutually reinforcing partnership which both sides of the equation are indispensable. The Venezuelan people acquired a collective identity and were constituted as a political subject through the actions of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian movement; to speak of one without the other is, in the present historical phase, meaningless.”
The history of socialism
But while noting Hugo Chavez’s important statement to the 2005 World Social Forum that “it is necessary to re-examine the history of socialism and to reclaim the concept of socialism”, DL Raby is overly negative in her evaluations of the history of socialism. One feels inclined to remind her at times that there are babies in that bathwater.
For example, she asserts:
“As we have seen, parties organised along standard Marxist-Leninist lines – Communist Parties, but also most of their Maoist or Trotskyist variants – have not succeeded in leading successful popular revolutionary processes except in conditions of virtual state collapse through defeat in war (as in Russia in 1917) or in national liberation movements against foreign occupiers (China, Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Albania). In other cases (as in the rest of
Eastern Europe) they came to power with the assistance of the Soviet Red Army through processes which were neither truly revolutionary nor entirely popular.”
The identical facts could equally be summarised as follows: almost without exception, the only forces which succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and embarking on the building of socialist societies in various countries during the 20th Century were communist parties; they achieved power in conditions of war and national liberation struggles, some of them also with the assistance of the Red Army. Given that our new millennium is unfortunately providing no shortage of war and national oppression, one might come to the view that 21st Century revolutionaries could have much to learn by studying the positive – as well as the negative – experiences of those parties.
Dr Raby also makes ‘throwaway’ remarks about both the social democratic welfare state in Britain (“undemocratic and bureaucratic decision making, inefficiency, uniformity and conformism”) and the practice of socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR (“the failure of their centralised planning system”, “centralised and bureaucratically controlled economies”).
As the grip of both neo-liberalism and US domination begin to weaken, allowing a renewed search for ways forward, it is necessary to engage with such negative accounts rather than blandly accepting them. Hopefully this website (21st Century Socialism) and other sources will play a part in analysing and explaining the successes as well as the problems of the social democracies and the socialisms of the last century.
For now, it should be noted that post-war ‘mixed economy’ social democratic capitalism, with its nationalisations, elements of state economic planning, high levels of progressive taxation and universal public services, produced dramatic improvements in material prosperity and quality of life for working class people. Many of its institutions (for example, Britain’s centralised pre-‘reform’ National Health Service and the centralised pre-privatisation British Railways) were highly efficient, providing comparatively good services for very little public outlay, as is evident by comparisons with what came before and what has followed.
In respect of the 20th Century socialist countries, it is not entirely accurate to describe as a “Stalinist illusion” the idea that they could “operate as a self-sustained and distinct mode of production”. Soviet leaders were acutely aware that the territory of the communist regimes was economically undeveloped in comparison with the West, and that the technological advances necessary to address this problem could not be generated purely or even mainly indigenously; the most advanced production machinery and the greatest expertise in using it were (and still are) situated in the West, particularly the USA, controlled by anti-socialist governments and, especially, the big capitalist corporations. This is one of the key issues facing any country which wishes to develop on a non-capitalist path, or even merely declines to accept the
The USSR under Stalin was in fact highly successful in addressing this issue, using technology acquired on advantageous terms from the USA, Germany and elsewhere to provide the ‘cutting edge’ for the spectacular industrial modernisations of the 1930s and the 1950s. However, as the
The rest is recent history. But in their greed and arrogance, the forces of capitalism have torn the illusions with which they clothed their victory.
As we begin once more to accumulate successful experiences in the struggle for a better world, writers who take the side of the mass of humanity will move from the documentation and analysis of misery, sometimes accompanied by utopian formulas, to realistic and informed considerations of struggles for socialism.
Democracy and Revolution is an important and useful step in this direction.