The Case For Revolutionary Socialism

It’s a media cliché that the anti-globalization movement is purely anti – that it knows what it is against, not what it is for. In fact, to be against neo-liberalism, corporate globalization, and imperial war is already to stand for quite a lot. This is reflected in the slogan of the World Social Forum –  ‘Another World is Possible’: in other words, we can live in a world that isn’t ruled by the market. In France the movement is now known as the altermondialistes – the people who want another world. But what is the nature of this other world and how do we get to it? Here indeed there is no equivocal answer, partly because people have different visions of the alternative to neo-liberalism, but also because many just aren’t sure or because they think it would be divisive to be too explicit.

This uncertainty and disparity are unavoidable in a movement as diverse as ours, and in lots of ways it isn’t a problem. It would be foolish and undesirable to strive for a uniformity of view that could only be achieved by draining the life out of the movement or splitting it. But that doesn’t mean that discussion that seeks to achieve greater clarity about alternatives and strategies isn’t both necessary and productive.


What do we want?
One way of getting a handle on such debate is to ask what our values are. Even if we disagree or are unsure about what we want to achieve, what we say and do may still reveal what we hold to be of value. These values in turn set the standard by which alternatives to neo-liberalism can then be appraised.

In my view, the movement for another world is committed to four main values – justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability. Before discussing them in any detail, let me emphasize that in picking out these values I am making a judgement that other people may want to contest (Michael Albert, for example, has a different list of values governing the kind of self-managing society he advocates). I am drawing inferences from what activists and intellectuals involved in the movement say and do, but I think my interpretation is a reasonable one.

1.      Justice: One of the movement’s names is the global justice movement. We constantly – and rightly – denounce the injustice of the present world, with the vast inequalities that it involves. But what is justice? This is a vast subject in its own right, but it seems to me that the movement is committed to an egalitarian conception of justice. This might mean, for example, that everyone is entitled to equal access to the resources that they need to live the life they have reason to value.

2.      Efficiency: This may seem surprisingly technocratic a value, but consider the criticism that we make of neo-liberal capitalism for its wastefulness – the resources squandered on packaging, advertising, etc., the failure of market prices to register the real costs (for example, to the environment) of economic processes, and so on. The implication is that any alternative society should seek to make the best use of the resources available, where ‘best’ doesn’t mean (as at present) ‘most profitable’ but rather reflects both all our values and the constraints imposed on us both by nature and by the need to live together cooperatively.

3.      Democracy: We criticize contemporary capitalism for its lack of democracy, for the way in which the financial markets and the multinational corporations tyrannically rule the lives of most people on the planet. Moreover, the ways in which we organize seek to reflect the democracy for which we are striving. There is much debate over what democracy involves – representative vs. direct democracy, consensus vs. the majority principle, and so on. But we are agreed on the need for a radical extension of the scope and content of democracy.

4.      Sustainability: One of the main motivations informing the movement is horror at the environmental catastrophes that the present economic system is not merely driving towards but is already producing. Experts on climate change are beginning to suggest that – to judge by, for example, last summer’s heat wave in the Northern hemisphere – the temperature rises caused by greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be at the higher end of their projections, with potentially appalling consequences with which the planet will have to live for decades even if radical changes were to take place now. We need a drastic reorientation in patterns of production and consumption, settlement and transportation to achieve sustainable forms of development.


Beyond capitalism
Realizing these values necessitates a challenge not just to neo-liberalism, but to the capitalist system itself. I follow Marx in maintaining that capitalism has two fundamental features:
1.    It is based on the exploitation of wage labour – that is, on depriving people of the resources they need to live independently and thereby giving them no acceptable alternative to working for a capitalist on terms that lead to their exploitation;
2.    It is driven by a blind process of competitive accumulation: the rival firms that jointly control most productive resources invest in the hope of winning greater market share and increased profits.
These features are more deeply entrenched than some of the things that have been at the focus of anti-globalization critiques – e.g. financial market speculation. The achievement of neo-liberalism has been to remove many of the restraints imposed by efforts to regulate capitalism in the mid-20th century. We now live under a relatively ‘pure’ version of capitalism.
Given the nature of capitalism, it’s hard to see how any version is compatible with the values set out above. Not merely is capitalist exploitation unjust, but the present system involves a kind of lottery under which individuals’ life chances can be changed radically for the better or the worse as a result of market fluctuations entirely beyond their control. Capitalism is a wasteful system: as I pointed out above, the price system doesn’t reflect real costs; economic crises involve human and material resources going unused on a huge scale; at the global level, billions of people are surplus to the system’s requirements, and therefore are left to rot in the most abject poverty.

Capitalism is necessarily undemocratic since economic decisions are vested in the hands of small groups of corporate executives who are not accountable either to their employees or to the wider public. Finally, the very logic of competitive accumulation is inconsistent with sustainable development since the system is driven forward by a blind process in which firms and markets allocate resources on the basis of bets on what will prove to be profitable with no account taken of the environmental impact of these choices.

It’s also hard to see how any attempt to return to a more regulated version of capitalism can remedy these faults. Many activists and intellectuals hope at best to humanize capitalism. This is, for example, a powerful motivation behind the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions. Its originator, James Tobin, believed that such a tax would slow down financial speculation, thereby restoring economic power to the nation-state and allowing a return to the Keynesian era after the Second World War. Such reasoning dovetails with a feature of the anti-globalization movement in its early phases, when it was common to accept the idea central to mainstream discourse in the 1990s that globalization was weakening the power of the state. But whereas neo-liberal boosters welcomed this development, activists and intellectuals argued that it was necessary to rebuild the power of the nation-state. This was one reason why the movement was baptized the anti-globalization movement.

It is much more difficult now, after 9/11, to see the state as part of the solution and not part of the problem. The ‘war on terrorism’ has reminded us that capitalism is also imperialism, that it involves geopolitics as well as economics, competition among states as well as competition among firms. Some leading figures in the movement (for example, Bernard Cassen and George Monbiot) have reacted to the conflict over Iraq by supporting the idea that the European Union should be strengthened to become a counterweight to the American ‘hyperpower’. But the emergence of a rival superpower to the US could unleash a new arms race, with all the waste of resources and threat to human survival that the old Cold War represented.

Refusing to see a more regulated capitalism as the solution doesn’t mean that we should never make demands on states, whether our ‘own’ one or groups such as the EU. When public services are attacked, we should defend them; moreover, we should put pressure on the state to extend and improve the services that it currently supplies and to finance them through a system of progressive taxation that redistributes wealth and income from the rich to the poor. But, while it is right to strive for reforms of the present system, the values set out above – and indeed humankind and the planet itself – cannot safely coexist with capitalism. The logic of competitive accumulation means that the restraints imposed on capitalism by reform movements are always liable to be thrown off with they conflict with the requirements of profitability: such is the lesson of the progressive dismantlement of the Keynesian welfare state over the past quarter century.

The implication of all this is that we need to develop an alternative social logic, a non-market alternative to capitalism. When I say ‘non-market’ I’m not advocating banning all economic exchanges among individuals. What I’m rejecting is a market economy as it is understood by two great Karls, Marx and Polanyi – that is an economy where resources are allocated as a result of the competitive struggle between rival capitals that jointly control these resources. Such a system, as Polanyi shows in The Great Transformation, seeks to commodify everything: we can see this today with neo-liberalism. This system also rules out in principle any democratic process to decide what overall outcomes production should aim to achieve and the appropriate means for achieving these outcomes. In other words, it rules out planning. But this is crazy: how can we address problems like global poverty and climate change without some sort of democratic political process to determine, among other things, how resources should be allocated in order to solve them?

We need planning. But it has a terrible name these days, as a result of the experience of Stalinism. Several reviews of my Anti-Capitalist Manifesto dismissed it out of hand on the grounds that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the theoretical critiques of Friedrich von Hayek proved that planning is impossible. But, when you think about it, this is a somewhat bizarre way of reasoning. Because one kind of planning – in fact a bureaucratically centralized command economy than many experts argue didn’t merit the label ‘planned’ – failed, for reasons that are a matter of enormous historical debate, does it follow that any form of planning must fail? Surely not – unless we really think that history ended when the Berlin Wall came down and humankind’s future will unfold within the horizons of market capitalism (in which case history probably would come to an end pretty soon thanks to war and environmental degradation).

There are various models of a democratically planned economy. Here resources are allocated on the basis of a democratic process that involves horizontal relations among networks of producers and consumers – a radically different form of economic coordination from either capitalism (where allocation is the outcome of competition) or a Stalinist command economy (where resources are allocated dictatorially). One of these models is Parecon, developed by Michael Albert. Another, somewhat more centralized model is Pat Devine’s ‘negotiated coordination’, first outlined in his book Democracy and Economic Planning (1988). The relative merits of these and other models are a matter for discussion. Nevertheless, their existence indicates that serious and concrete thinking is going on about what a systemic alternative to capitalism would look like. A democratically planned economy conceived along these lines represents, in my view, the best way of realizing the values to which the movement is committed.

I think this alternative is best called ‘socialism’. It is true that this word has been devalued by the Stalinist disaster, but the Bush administration daily debauches words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ that it would be mad for us to surrender. There are two positive reasons for sticking by the term socialism. First, I think that the models referred to above embody what the best in the socialist tradition has aspired to – for example, the tradition to which I belong, what Hal Draper called ‘socialism from below’, the red thread of revolutionary Marxism that runs from Marx and Engels, through Lenin and Luxemburg, to Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

Secondly, one important component of the idea of socialism is the proposition that material productive resources should generally be socially owned. Currently, the movement is involved in countless struggles against privatization, but these are usually couched defensively. The other side – the big corporations and their lobbyists – have a much clearer grasp of the importance of economic ownership: look at how aggressively they fight for intellectual property rights, for example. We shouldn’t be afraid of saying that in the kind of economic system that would realize our values the main productive resources would be socially owned, on a democratic and decentralized basis.


How to we get there?

 It’s simply a recognition of reality to say that achieving a democratically planned economy means a revolution. Indeed, in one sense this is just a tautology. Replacing capitalism with an economic system consonant with our values requires a radical social transformation – a revolution, in other words. But to say this is not to settle the means by which this revolution would come about. Central to the tradition of socialism from below is, as the name suggests, the idea that revolution cannot be imposed from above: only the vast majority who are exploited and oppressed by capitalism can liberate themselves. As Marx put it, socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class.

The common sense understanding of revolution equates it with violence. The conception of revolution that I have just set out is very different. It’s about people freeing themselves and creating a new form of society. This doesn’t mean that violence doesn’t figure in the equation at all. There is – to put it mildly – a very high probability that those who currently dominate the world would violently resist any serious attempt to remove their power and privileges. Look at the ferocity with which the Bush administration and allies like Tony Blair are waging the ‘war on terrorism’, not just invading Afghanistan and Iraq, but systematically trampling on civil liberties. And al-Qaeda is many ways a socially conservative movement, one with no beef against private property. What would the rich and powerful do if there were a really serious threat to their economic power? The ‘other 11 September’ – the US-backed military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973 – gives a hint of the answer.

What this means is that any revolutionary movement has to be prepared to overcome the violent resistance of the other side. This doesn’t mean engaging in military conspiracies or terrorism. The strength of any movement for radical social change depends on two factors: (1) the extent of its mass support; (2) how much that mass support is self-organized. The more that a movement consists of networks of workplace and community organizations that have the capacity both to resist repression and, if necessary, to take on the management of society in their own locality, the stronger it is. This means that there is an organic connection between the kind of society that we want to achieve, a self-managing society where people organize at work and in their communities to run their own lives on the basis on democratic cooperation, and the way we need to organize to achieve that society.

We’re still a very long way from being able to challenge for power. Bernard Cassen, founder of ATTAC, the initially French movement against financial speculation, recently posed what he calls ‘the 20 million person question’: the European Social Forums, along with the trade unions and the left parties don’t connect with ‘those 20 million people – unemployed, poor blue- and white-collar workers, small shopkeepers wiped out by the big chains, one-parent families, people in casual jobs, immigrants, etc. – who are “without” access to the effective exercise of citizenship’ in France. [1]

This is a good question, and not just in France, even if Cassen’s answer, which is to confine the Social Forums to education and propaganda, is manifestly the wrong one. The movement needs to sink itself much more deeply into the grain of working-class life than it does at present. This requires a lot of things. Let me mention just three. First, we need to learn how to link the ‘big picture’ – global resistance to neo-liberalism and war – to the everyday struggles against the effects of corporate globalization that are going on everywhere all the time. Secondly, we have to make the connections between the movement and the organized working class much more systematic than they are. In Europe there has been progress in this direction: with every successive European Social Forum the trade unions get more involved. People from both sides – anti-capitalist activists and trade unionists – have to learn to live with the differences in political cultures and organizational styles involved and to make the compromises required to achieve a stronger and more united movement.

Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially, we shouldn’t be afraid of engaging in electoral politics. The war in Iraq dramatized the broader crisis of political representation. In countries like Britain, Italy, and Spain an enormous gap opened up between the movement on the streets and the official political system, where governments supported Bush in defiance of public opinion. This is a symbol of the more fundamental gap between political elites who are unanimously neo-liberal and the very large numbers of people who, seeing their views and interests completely ignored by official politics, either withdraw from voting or support candidates of the far right who pretend to be against the system. In some European countries the radical left is beginning to mount electoral challenges that seek to give a voice to the excluded. I don’t know what the implications are for the US (though I’m sure it’s a mistake to vote Democrat, even against Bush).

 In everything that we do we should be trying to knit together a movement that has three characteristics; (1) it’s as broad and united as possible; (2) it has the social weight that can only come through the involvement of organized workers with the collective economic strength that they can deploy; and (3) it has a radical vision of profound social transformation. This may sound like a tall order, but think about the enormous distance that we have come, as a global movement, in the barely four years since Seattle. We’ve got a long way to go, but another world really is possible.


Much more supporting argument will be found in my two most recent books, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The New Mandarins of American Power, both published by Polity this year, and in The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, recently reissued by Bookmarks.

[1]  B. Cassen, Tout à commencé á Porto Alegre …(Paris, 2003), pp. 139-40.

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