Socialism or Barbarism?

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

100 years ago, on July 28, 1914, World War I began. By 1918, this infamous inter-imperialist conflict left behind a trail of blood: millions dead, wounded, and displaced. In 1915, the great European revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg identified two potential paths for humanity at the crossroads: socialism or barbarism. While the particularities of our historical situation differ dramatically (as the world has changed dramatically in the course of a century), humanity and our planet face a similar crossroads: endless cycles of imperialist and inter-imperialist wars, deepening economic crisis, and impending ecological collapse – nothing short of a new Dark Age – or, in the words of Luxemburg, “regeneration through the social revolution.” We are long overdue for a change of course: let’s recommence the global revolution.

If we are to pursue the inevitably difficult and dangerous path of revolution, we must articulate what we mean by “socialism.” The social revolutions of the 20th century had several critical limitations that must be identified before a new orientation is constructed:

Internal Counter-Revolution: Initial gains were subverted, and a new ruling social group circumvented the rule of the oppressed and subsequently reinstated a regime of oppression and exploitation. This was often characterized by suppression of various forms of popular power (i.e. participatory councils – the deliberative assemblies through which the people engaged in self-managed decision-making).

Inadequate Vision: An emancipatory society was not established because the envisioned social institutions to be constructed were inadequate to overcome the deeply rooted forms of social stratification and subsequently failed to empower the oppressed social groups, or the measures taken to construct new institutions were of a limited character and subsequently reversed.

Reductionism: The goals of the revolutionary project were limited to the problems originating from a particular sphere of social life (i.e. economy), and therefore the struggles and potential revolutionary agency of other social groups were overlooked.


While aspects of the great revolutions of the 20th century (in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, etc.) are absolutely deserving of our critical admiration and attention (as revolutionaries can learn many lessons about overthrowing and abolishing oppressive modes of social reproduction, as well as attempts to construct a new social formation), their particular experiences are not synonomous with, nor adequate for, a 21st century vision of socialism. Therefore, our first task is to redefine socialism – or, to avoid confusion, participatory socialism.  I define participatory socialist revolution as a historical process ofself-emancipation, in which the multitude of oppressed social groups (the working class, people of color, neocolonial nations, women, LGBTQ people, people living with disabilities, and youth) develop consciousness of their collective social power and, through popular self-organization and self-activity, overthrow and abolish oppressive social institutions (capitalist economy, heteropatriarchal kinship, neocolonial community, and oligarchic polity, which find a global expression in the form of imperialism, the primary cause of our ecological imbalance) and construct new emancipatory institutions built upon a foundation of solidarity, justice, diversity, equity, self-management, and ecological balance.

Through the construction of participatory socialism, the people become conscious participants in the making of their own history by determining the character and direction of social institutions. With this concept of self-emancipation in mind, our vision of participatory socialism can be constructed on the basis of a critical historical assessment of the successes and failures of previous revolutionary struggles. Far from being “utopian” or “idealistic,” our methods, analyses, visions, strategies, and programs must be derived from the concrete possibilities of our epoch, and remain subject to transformation as new lessons are extracted from the critique of previous and contemporary experiences.

With this general conception in mind, what particular qualities could a 21st century participatory socialism have?

Economy: We should struggle for the creation of a classless society, basing itself upon an economy in which the means of production are socialized, jobs balanced for a relative level of empowerment among all members of society, labor is remunerated according to effort and sacrifice, and allocation is organized through a social, iterative planning process in which workers and consumers, organized into participatory councils, cooperatively negotiate economic outcomes through a process of developing, proposing, revising, and implementing a coherent economic plan.

Polity:  We should struggle for the creation of a democratic people’s government, in which social legislation, implementation, and adjudication is realized through a system of federated participatory councils. Within the context of adequate time, resources, and education provided for individual participation in the political process, as well as a democratic media offering a diverse range of analyses, programs, and opinions (including the views of competing groups), a participatory socialist democracy will enable the rule of the people (self-government) through deliberative assemblies and efficient decision-making on a society-wide scale. In such a context, the security and defense forces of society will be directly subordinate to this system of popular power.

Kinship: We should struggle for a society that guarantees full reproductive freedom, egalitarian forms of family planning and socialization, and the development of a sexual education and healthcare system that provides people with the information and resources necessary for a healthy and fulfilling life. The creation of new methods of socialization and living that are respectful of an individual’s inclinations, nature, and choices will greatly change our society’s sexual and interpersonal practices, and experimental forms of parenting, childrearing, and home life (such as collective living units) will be encouraged and begin the process of dismantling oppressive gender roles and sexual norms. The maturation of the next generation, including education and work, will be developed in ways that prioritize the freedom of young people to explore, experiment, and discover.

Community: We should struggle to cultivate a new historical legacy and set of behavioral expectations between national, ethnic, tribal, and religious communities and provide the means for the preservation and continual development of cultural traditions. Participatory socialist intercommunalism, will enable people to choose the communities they prefer, and the means for mutual understanding and solidarity between diverse communities will be promoted, creating the material conditions for new forms of celebration, art, and spirituality to flourish.

Ecology: We should struggle for ecological balance through the construction of economic and governmental systems that promote environmental sustainability by accomplishing socially necessary tasks without wasting natural resources or causing unnecessary destruction to the natural environment. Social ownership of the means of production, participatory council democracy, and decentralized economic planning will result in a rational use of our planet’s resources and prioritize finding solutions to the ecological crisis.

While far from comprehensive, this overview of participatory socialist vision differs dramatically with much of what was built in the name of “socialism” in the 20th century.

Putting global revolution back on the historical agenda is a tall order, and will require arduous labor on the part of a revolutionary people engaged in a protracted process of radical social transformation. The global imperialist system will need to be uprooted by popular power, which will require the proliferation of grassroots social movements, revolutionary organization, and the amalgamation of the oppressed social groups into a united front. While the path to revolution will vary from country-to-country in accordance with the particular balance of forces, a revolutionary movement for participatory socialism will need to base itself upon a solid foundation of strategic principles, if it is to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of 20th century socialism:

  • A Movement of the Oppressed: A revolutionary movement must base itself upon the transformative power of the multitude of oppressed social groups, as they are the ones who really make history.
  • A Movement That Listens and Learns: A revolutionary movement that seeks to overcome the fragmentation of the oppressed must listen to and learn from their everyday experiences and aspirations, systematically integrating these ideas into the revolution’s program. Only with the adoption of such practices can revolutionaries successfully fuse with the multitude of oppressed people.
  • A Movement That Serves The People: A revolutionary movement must defend and advance the interests of the oppressed, working to retain gains from past waves of struggle, fighting for improvements in daily living conditions, and ultimately inspiring the people to fight forward for still greater changes, until a new society is finally established and stabilized.
  • A Movement That’s In For The Long Haul: A revolutionary movement cannot expect instant success, as there will be many twists and turns, advances and retreats, on the path to a new world.
  • A Movement That Respects Autonomy and Promotes Solidarity: A revolutionary movement must promote and work towards the unity of the oppressed social groups, while respecting their diversity and autonomy.

The people of the world are quite a long distance away from actualizing the aspirations of a global participatory socialist revolution. We must “agitate, educate, and organize” in our respective countries and communities if we are to gather the forces necessary to forge a revolutionary people, who are the only force capable of leading society off its present course of self-destruction and redirecting it towards liberation. As we confront the realities of our present conjuncture, Luxemburg’s question poses itself ever more sharply: Socialism or Barbarism?!


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