Re-Imagining and Recovering Revolutionary Socialism

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]


Why re-imagine socialism? I can think of five reasons.


"Socialism or Barbarism If We’re Lucky"


First, because Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Rosa Luxembourg were right: humanity either transcends capitalist class rule by constructing a new genuinely social order based on democratic principles or it falls into permanent disaster, tyranny and decline.  Failure to develop and implement a radical alternative to the profits system and its fake, corporate-managed "democracy" will bring us (in no short order) to what Arundhati Roy calls "the endgame of humanity."[1] The technical, organizational, and cultural forces of production, distribution, pollution  destruction, and social/thought/ population- control that have emerged under the direction and command of capital and the capitalist state have turned that command into an ever-more imminent existential threat not just to meaningful democracy and (intimately related) to the very survival of the species. [2] The Hungarian Marxist Ivan Meszaros was right to update Luxembourg for an age of incipient ecological catastrophe:  its "socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky."  Of course, the barbarism is well underway and has been for some time. As Meszaros put things in 2001:


"Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – required concerted action in the very near future…We are running out of time…"


"Those who talk about the ‘third way’ [between capitalism and socialism and under corporate-neoliberal state-capitalist  management, P.S.] as the solution to our dilemma, asserting that there can be no room for the revival of a radical mass movement, either want to deceive us cynically by calling their slavish acceptance of the ruling order ‘the third way,’ or fail to realize the gravity of the situation, putting their faith in a wishfully non-conflictual positive outcome that has been promised for nearly a century but never approximated by even one inch.  The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself." [3]


Midwife of Socialism or Undertaker of Humanity?


Second, because Marx and Engels were wrong: there are no fixed teleological laws of historical development determining the dialectical emergence of a revolutionary proletariat that – with proper guidance and assistance from a heroic, clear-eyed, and iron-willed revolutionary "vanguard" – will sweep the masters of capital into the dustbin of history.  A "fully developed" capitalism is by no means the inherent progenitor of its own radical working class grave-diggers.  It is by no historical law the "midwife of socialism."  Possessed with means of destruction and hegemony that the historical Left’s leading 19th century thinkers could hardly imagine, the "late capitalism" of the long multinational-corporate era seems more properly understood as the potential undertaker of humanity – as a plague or cancer threatening the continued viability of the human experiment (not to mention the lives of numerous other species).  It is hardly a "utopian" flight of elite intellectual fancy for people from any and all classes to work to rigorously conceptualize and advance alternative democratic models of political and economic and development beyond the parasitic death-grip imposed by the business class and its many captive and indoctrinated servants. It is, rather, one’s duty to humanity to undertake such intellectual and activist work.


"No Chance of Success" Without Vision


Third, because transcending fatal (state-) capitalist domination to build a new livable and lovable eco-institutional habitat for humanity requires a powerful new revolutionary movement and no such movement has any "chance of success, and deserves none," as the libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky noted in the August of 1969, "unless it can develop an understanding of contemporary society and a vision of a future social order that is persuasive to a large majority of the population." [4]


"In an advanced industrial society," Chomsky elaborated, "it is, obviously, far from true that the mass of the population have nothing to lose but their chains, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.  On the contrary, they have considerable stake in preserving the existing social order." Further: "any serious radical movement…will not be able to satisfy itself with a litany of forms of oppression and injustice.  It will have to provide compelling answers to the question of how these evils can be overcome by revolution or large-scale reform…The threat of tyranny and disaster, or even their early manifestation, does not itself provide a sufficient basis for the creation of a significant radical mass movement. In fact, this threat may induce a conservative defensive reaction.  For a person to commit himself to a movement for radical social change with all of the uncertainty and hazard that this entails, he must have a strong reason to believe that there is some likelihood of success in bringing about a new social order." [5] Vision matters.


"So, Goodbye to the Soul of Eugene Debts"


Fourth, because the historical models of really and recently existing "socialism" and in-power "Marxism [-Lennisim]" have not proved attractive or persuasive to most of the world’s citizen-workers. Those models sadly identified the word "socialism" with the dungeon and with stultifying state bureaucracy.  One can argue about the extent to which this unattractiveness and tragic misidentification is the result of (a) capitalist-imperialist power, propaganda, blockade, and intervention; (b) harsh historical circumstances (the legacy of feudalism and Tsarism/absolutism) and the related isolation of the Russian Revolution after 1919; and/or (c) inherent moral and ideological flaws within "socialist" movements and states since the mid-late 19th century. However one jumbles these and (perhaps) other factors, however, it is an uncontestable fact that the state policies and institutions that elites on both sides of the Cold War came (for their own different reasons) to identify as "socialism" had little to do with the liberating spirit of popular working class rebellion and popular revolution that the original socialist and left anarchist movements embodied. Coldly and quite immediately betraying Marx’s egalitarian and anti-authoritarian leanings – reflected in his brilliant denunciation of the capitalist division of labor [6] and his embrace of the short-lived radical-democratic Paris Commune [7] and in his reference to the desirable future as among other things the reign of the self-determining "associated producers"[8] – the Soviet experiment (lacking the oxygenating effect of the European revolution Trotsky knew it required) "moved quickly to dismantle the incipient socialist institutions that had grown up during the popular revolution – the factory councils, the Soviets, in fact any organ of popular control – and to convert the workforce into what they called a ‘labor army’ under the command of the leader"(Chomsky).


In the decades the ensued, the Soviet elite that arose upon this dismantling came to embody one half of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s hauntingly prophetic warning that the new intellectual middle class of the late nineteenth century would (by Chomsky’s translation) "follow one of two paths: either they would try to exploit poplar struggles to take state power themselves, becoming a brutal and oppressive Red bureaucracy; or they would become the managers and ideologists of the state capitalist societies, if popular revolution failed." [9]. The Soviet model may have transcended – maybe we should say delayed – private ownership of the means of production, but it sustained numerous other and interrelated hierarchies like the rule of men over women, the state over the citizenry, and the metropolis over the countryside.  It also preserved and indeed quite deliberately (and proudly) expanded the capitalist labor process’s de-humanizing division between de-skilled "manual" and clerical workers who executed largely rote tasks conceived and coordinated for them from the top town by those who – to quote the dissident Marxist East German intellectual Rudolf Bahro [10] – "perform predominantly intellectual, creative, planning, and managerial activity."


Under the Soviet model of "socialism," as Stephen Marglin noted in his classic late-1960s essay "What Do Bosses Do?," the state played essentially the same directive, accumulation-oriented, surplus-value-extracting role that the "private" capitalist and his supervisors played under the bourgeois regime.  It did so quite consciously and unapologetically, as Marglin observed: "The emphasis on accumulation accounts in large part for the failure of Soviet-style socialism to ‘overtake and surpass’ the capitalist world in developing egalitarian forms of work organization.  In according first priority to accumulation of capital, the Soviet Union repeated the history of capitalism, as least as regards the relationship of men and women to their work.  Theirs has not been the failure described by Santayana of those who, not knowing history, unwittingly repeat it.  The Soviets consciously and deliberately embraced the capitalist mode of production." [11]


Is it any wonder that private ownership and direction of the means of production and distribution and of top financial and investment functions was restored (perhaps we should say belatedly consolidated after accumulation-ist Lennist/Stalinist dispossessors and Taylorites assembled a Russian working class) with remarkably little opposition (on the whole) – from the old Soviet power elite after 1990? As the radical Dutch Marxist Anton Pannekoek (denounced as an "infantile leftist" by Soviet authorities) noted in 1947, "The goal of the working class is liberation from exploitation, and this goal is not reached, and cannot be reached, by a new directing and governing class, substituting itself for the bourgeoisie.  It is only realized by the workers themselves being the master over production." [12] Thirty years earlier, in the same year as the Bolshevik revolution, the leading British Communist Party founder William Paul observed (in a book titled The State: Its Origins and Functions) that "the revolutionary socialist denies that state ownership can ever end in anything other than a bureaucratic despotism…the state cannot democratically control industry.  Industry can only be democratically owned and controlled by the workers electing directly from their own ranks industrial administrative committees….The political state throughout history has meant the government of men ruling classes. The republic of socialism will be the government of industry administered on behalf of the whole community…"[13]


In his 1997 novel Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut reflected that "to children of the Great Depression…it still seems a mild shame to outlaw from polite thought, because of the crimes of [Soviet] tyrants, a word [communism] that in the beginning described for us nothing more than a possibly reasonable alternative to the Wall Street crapshoot."


"Yes," Vonnegut added, "and the word Socialist was the second S in USSR, so good-bye, Socialism along with Communism, good-bye to the soul of Eugene Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana, where the moonlight’s shining bright along the Wabash." [14]



Socialist Comeback in the Americas?


Fifth, because the moment is curiously ripe like no time in recent memory in the world’s most powerful capitalist state. We know, of course, that a remarkable new wave of in-power socialist sentiment has spread across post-neoliberal Latin America, claiming the elected leaderships of, for example, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and, to a lesser degree, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. With the onset of the current Great Recession, which has quite quickly generated an honestly calculated U.S. unemployment rate well into the teens (even the milquetoast official rate is pushing 10 percent), "socialism" might not be so banished from popular discussion after all in the U.S. itself. An issue of the leading corporate weekly U.S. public affairs magazine Newsweek last February y bore a provocative cover proclaiming that "We Are All Socialists Now." [15] U.S. voters elected as president a man widely accused (quite absurdly) of being "a socialist." And while Newsweek’s overblown headline strained credulity, a recent poll by the reputable polling firm Rasmussen Reports found that 20 percent of Americans now "prefer socialism to capitalism." Just more than half (53 percent) of American adults now "believe capitalism is better than socialism. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better." Most hopeful of all, "adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided" on capitalism v. socialism, Rasmussen Reports learned: "37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided."[16]


To be sure, the "business liberal" Obama is a heavily Wall Street-affiliated top-down state capitalist, NOT anything like a "socialist." The Rasmussen Reports pollsters did not define either capitalism or socialism in their survey, leaving respondents free to absurdly follow Newsweek’s moronic editors in defining the term to mean pretty much any sort of significant government involvement in the economy. As the Marxist commentator Eric Ruder noted last June in the International Socialist Review, "the distinctive feature of much of this public discussion of socialism – with some exceptions – is that most admirers and detractors generally share a common (and hollowed out) idea of what socialism is: namely state intervention in the economy." Under the terms of the dominant discussion, a nation is "socialist" simply to the degree that its government intervenes in its economic system.  As Ruder rightly observed, "this criterion…leaves out a critical question: In whose interests is state intervention carried out?" It deletes the critical dimensions of workers’ control and egalitarian planning of economic and social life for the common good. [17]        


Still, there is today a new opening for saying hello again to "the soul of Eugene Debs" and, I would add (being a socialist in the left libertarian tradition), to the souls of Anton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxembourg. Mikhail Bakunin, Gerrard Winstanley [18], the real and radical Marx, Rudolph Rocker [19], Joe Hill, the Chicago Haymarket Martyrs (who were what historian James Green calls "socialists of the anarchists sort") and the broader fluid and eclectic, radical social-revolutionary movement and milieu – at once Marxist and anarchist – that August Spies, Albert Parsons, and Adolf Fischer (who said that "every anarchist is a socialist, but not every socialist is necessarily an anarchist") epitomized [20].


People are looking again, like no time in many decades, for "reasonable alternative[s] to the Wall Street crapshoot." As giant financial bailouts combine with growing economic destitution to graphically expose the chasm between the investor and political classes on one hand and the working-class citizenry on the other, "people everywhere [have] learned" what William Greider calls "a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.  ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide.  Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid." [21]


Since the financial sector’s meltdown and the first giant bankers’ bailouts under George W. Bush last summer and fall, it has been commonplace for the "mainstream" (corporate) media to note that "free market" principles and "laissez faire" ideology have been pushed to the side in favor of new government intervention and regulation required to rescue and stabilize capitalism. The dominant media narrative fails to note that capitalism and its wealthy masters have always expected and received government protection and that the new interventions are harshly tilted toward the rich and powerful Few at the expense of the working class Many. Still, the significant new de-legitimization of "free market" doctrine creates potentially favorable new space for progressives to advocate government intervention and bottom up popular intervention of a different sort. If the U.S. is going to practice "government socialism for the rich," it might as well introduce if for the non-wealthy majority.  The economic elite and their defenders can expect to have a much harder time smearing government policy for ordinary people as nefarious statism when they have now so transparently abandoned their supposed beloved "free market" principles in the case of the bankers’ bailouts. It has become more clearly apparent than any time in recent memory that the real problem is not whether or not government should be centrally involved in U.S. economic life but rather whose interests already an in-fact already heavily involved government is going to serve: those of the people or those of the opulent masters? That creates new space for the actual Left to define, defend, and hopefully disseminate its position on behalf of the defense and expansion of the left hand of the state.


At the same time, the masters of capital can no longer as credibly hold up the Soviet bogeyman to discredit the historical Left struggle against capitalism in the ways that Vonnegut wryly bemoaned.  The Soviet model collapsed when a first time 21-year old Obama-for-president was getting ready for nursery school when the Stalinist model collapsed.  Neo-Hooversit/-McCarthyite Red Scare rhetoric doesn’t appear to be working very well with much of the U.S. citizenry more than a decade and a half into the post-Cold War era.


We have, I would argue (I suppose this is at least implicit by now) an opportunity not only to re-imagine revolutionary socialism anew but also to re-connect with the real radical-democratic Left anti-capitalist tradition that was submerged during the Cold War period, when elites on both sides of the U.S.-Soviet divide had compelling interests to embrace a fake definition of "socialism."


I leave to others the precise pre-blue-printing and strategic planning of the recovered and re-imagined socialist society. While I do not share the judgment that it is inherently authoritarian to draft such "futurist" documents, I do not feel particularly qualified to be in the drafting room.  At the same time, I agree with something else that Chomsky said in the summer of 1969: the "goals and organizational forms" of any serious revolutionary left political project "must take shape through active participation in popular struggle and social reconstruction. A genuine radical culture can be created only through the spiritual transformation of great masses of people, the essential feature of any social revolution that is to extend the possibilities of human creativity and freedom."[22] The main thing for me at least right now is helping to re-imagine and rebuild the left so as to encourage the sort of rank-and-file social motion and "spiritual transformation" that "re-imagined socialism" requires to be effective. I do not want to exaggerate the dichotomy between movement-building and vision. The two are dialectically inseparable and mutually reinforcing (if I might resort to some old-fashioned sounding terminology). Still, we have not transcended divisions of labor on the Left and I think I know where I stand in the subdivision of tasks


Paul Street is the author of many reviews, speeches, chapters, e-mails, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street can be reached at [email protected]





1. Arundhati Roy, "Democracy’s Fading Light," Truthout (July 13, 2009), read at http://www.truthout.org/070709O?n


2. At the beginning of their classic 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote the following: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."  The phrase "common ruin" takes on new meaning in an age of deepening ecological crisis and nuclear weapons and continuing hyper-militarization. For Luxembourg at the turn of the last century, humanity was faced with a fateful choice between "socialism or barbarism."


3. Ivan Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism: From The "American Century" to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review, 2001), p.80. On incipient ecological crisis, see  (among many possible sources) Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green. 2007). 


4. Noam Chomsky, "Some Tasks for Responsible People" (August 1969), pp. 150-162 in Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, ed. C.P. Otero (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003). Quoted remarks on p. 152. 


5. Chomsky, "Some Tasks for Responsible People," pp.153-154.


6. See, for one among many examples, Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I (New York: International Publishers, 1967 [1867]), p. 356, where Marx noted the absurdity of an English bourgeoisie that "denounces with rigor every conscious attempt to socially control and regulate the process of production" as a dastardly scheme to "turn all society into one immense factory" even as the same bourgeoisie "praises division of labor in the workshop, lifelong annexation of the laborer to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as being an organization of labor that increased its productiveness…" On p. 488 of Volume I Marx denounced modern capitalism’s production of the "detail-worker," who was "crippled by the repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to a mere fragment of a man" – a sorry phenomenon he contrasts with "the full developed individual," given "free scope to his own natural and acquired powers" that will come into existence "when the working-class comes into power…"


7. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871); Karl Marx, "The Third Address [The Paris Commune] to the General Council of the First International (May 30, 1871), reproduced at Marxists Internet Archive [accessed July , 2009], read online at  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm


8. For examples of Marx’s use of the term "associated producers" and of his related libertarian concept of humanly self-determined life and labor beyond the capitalist production system and labor process, see Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole (New York: International Publishers, 1967[1894]), pp.83, 261, 437, 440, and 820.  On the last page cited here, Marx wrote the following: "The realm of freedom…can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind force of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature…Beyond it begins the development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can only blossom forth with this realm of necessity [production] as its basis.  The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite."


9. Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley CA, 1995), pp. 91-92. The Soviet "model" was hardly without real accomplishments.  It succeeded in significantly modernizing Russia (the nation that more than any other defeated Hitler’s fascist regime) outside the Western capitalist model. This was the main reason for U.S.-led Western hostility of the "Soviet specter," not (following the doctrinal U.S. Cold War line) Russia’s alleged commitment to global revolution, something it abandoned with the exile of Trotsky in the late 1920s.


10. Rudolf Bahro, The Alternative in Eastern Europe (London: Verso, 1978), p. 47.


11. Stephen Marglin, "What do Bosses Do?" pp 13-54 in Andre Gorz, ed., The Division of Labor: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism (Humanities Press, NJ, 1976), p.15.


12. Anton Pannekoek, "Theses on the Fight of the Working Class Against Capitalism," Southern Advocate for Workers Councils, Melbourne, no. 33, Mai 1947, reproduced online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1947/theses-fight.htm

and quoted in part in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: New Press, 2003 [1970]), p.379.


13. Quoted in Noam Chomsky "Two Conceptions of Social Organization" (February 16, 1970), pp. 126-149 in Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, ed., Otero. Quotation on p. 132.


14. Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake (New York: Berkley, 1997), p. 192


15. Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, "We Are All Socialists Now," Newsweek (February 16, 2009).


16. Rasmussen Reports, "Just 53 Percent Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism" (April 9, 2009). Read at http://www.rasmussenreports.com


17. Eric Ruder, "What is Socialism?" International Socialist Review, May-June 2009, p. 25. For Obama’s guiding philosophy as "business liberalism," see Kevin Baker, "Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again," Harper’s Magazine (July 2009).


18. The great 17th century English Digger pamphleteer and activist Gerrard Winstanley makes numerous appearances in British Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1975). For samples of Winstanley’s remarkable radical writings (formed in precociously developed opposition to capitalist social relations at the moment of the bourgeois system’s revolutionary political triumph in England), see Charles H. George, Revolution: European Radicals From Hus to Lenin (Glenview, IK: Scott, Foreseman, and Company, 1962), pp. 99-110.


19. See Rocker’s classic 1930s text Anarcho-Syndicalism (Pluto Press, 1998).


20. For important history and reflections on Chicago-style Haymarket era anarchism-Marxism-trade-unionism, see Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago’s Anarchists, 1870-1890 (on ideological fluidity see the chapter titled "Bakunin Never Slept Here"); Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History (PM Press, 2008), pp. 13-15, 98-99. Fischer is quoted in Chomsky, "Two Conceptions," p. 131. Lynd (Wobblies and Zapatistas, pp. 14-15) refers to James Green as "the Chicago militants’" "historian" – a title that more properly belongs to Nelson.


21. William Greider, "Obama told us to Speak, But is He Listening?" Washington Post, March 22, 2009, B1, read online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/19/AR2009031902511.html


22. Chomsky, "Some Tasks for Responsible People," p. 153.

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