How many times have bourgeois leaders ‘finally’ exorcised the spectre of Marxism?
In January, fifteen years after the ‘collapse of communism’ and the ‘triumph of capitalism’, the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution condemning “the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes”. (Guardian, 26 January)
This was proposed by the right-wing Swedish MEP, Gšran Lindblad, who called for an international conference on the issue, as well as the revision of school textbooks throughout Europe to portray communism as the totalitarian twin of fascism.
This ideological offensive was not a genuine attempt to clarify the character of the former Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is yet another attempt to use the record of Stalinism to discredit genuine communism and socialism.
Stalinism was a grotesque deformation of real communism. Under Stalin, a privileged bureaucracy usurped the power of the working class and ruled through grotesque totalitarian methods. This arose from the isolation of the Russian revolution in an economically backward country. Despite the bureaucracy, the planned economy rapidly transformed the USSR from a poor, under-developed country into a modern industrial state. Ultimately, however, the bureaucratic stranglehold – counterpart of a complete lack of workers’ democracy – led to economic collapse. Undoubtedly, this discredited the idea of economic planning in general, though in reality it demonstrated only the bankruptcy of Stalinism. At the same time, the history of purges, labour camps, the suppression of all dissent, and the perversion of genuine Marxist ideas, discredited the idea of communism.
There are still people on the left, of course, who continue to act as apologists for Stalinism. Commenting on the Lindblad resolution, for instance, Seamus Milne (Guardian, 16 February) rightly asks why the European Parliament is taking no steps to publicise and repudiate the bloody history of European colonialism and imperialism. While referring to the social gains achieved by workers in the former Soviet Union, however, Milne sidesteps the issue of totalitarian repression and the lack of workers’ democracy under Stalinism. “No major political traditions”, he says, “is without blood on its hands”. Readers might well get the impression that Milne regards the former Soviet Union as an authentic, if imperfect, model for socialism. Socialists have to clearly explain its contradictory nature, positive (planned economy) and negative (bureaucratic dictatorship). This is a vital part of our task of clearing the ground for a revival of genuine Marxism in the workers’ movement.
There is no doubt that capitalist leaders fear the strengthening of anti-capitalist and specifically socialist ideas, which reflects a growing radicalisation of the working class in response to the neo-liberal offensive. Lindblad himself revealed the real motive of his initiative. It is not just to remember the victims of communism, but to combat “communist nostalgia”, for public ownership and class struggle and “elements of communist ideology such as equality or social justice [which] still seduce many”. In the past, of course, even social democrats claimed they stood for equality and social justice. In January, however, Euro MPs voted 99 to 42 (with 12 abstentions) for a brutal class message: There is no alternative to capitalism and any attempt to change the system will lead to violence and totalitarianism.
Why, if they are so confident of the triumph of capitalism, are they so concerned about “communist nostalgia”? No doubt it is because of the rising tide of mass workers’ struggles, in Europe and around the world, against the effects of an unleashed, free-market capitalism. Moreover, there is a growing radicalisation of sections of the working class, with the most politically conscious looking to the ideas of socialism for an alternative. It is not ‘nostalgia’ but a search for a way forward.
The alternative to capitalism?
But what is the alternative to capitalism? The collapse of Stalinism – a caricature of socialism, but seen as the only actually existing form – undermined confidence in the idea of a socialist transformation of society, even amongst the most active, politically conscious workers. France, for instance, is experiencing a new version of the ‘May events’ of 1968. But there is not the same overwhelming ideological support for socialism as there was 36 years ago. Workers, young people, students, have no doubt what they are against. But there is no clarity on what they are for.
A big factor in this crisis of consciousness is the disorientation and demoralisation of most of the leaders of the left, including avowedly Marxist organisations. Whether they spell it out openly or not, many have in reality succumbed to the notion that there is no alternative to the capitalist market.
The mood of ideological pessimism was recently expressed by George Monbiot, a prominent figure in the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement. The European Social Forum (Paris, November 2003), commented Monbiot, represented a bottomless pit of discontent. (Rattling the bars, Guardian, 18 November 2003) “Whenever anyone announced that capitalism in all its forms should be overthrown, everyone cheered. But is this what we really want? And, if so, with what do we hope to replace it? And could that other system be established without violent repression?”
Is there life after capitalism? Monbiot’s ‘answer’ is another list of questions: is “totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if, as almost all of us profess to do, we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit”.
In other words: No. There is no alternative to capitalism!
Monbiot cannot see beyond the totalitarian model of Stalinism. He accepts the claim that socialist revolution inevitably leads to totalitarian dictatorship, that economic planning is unworkable. But Stalinism, ‘socialism in one country’, arose from the isolation of the revolution in an economically and culturally backward country, in which the working class (though politically decisive in 1917) was a minority of the population.
Scarcity of resources, continued shortages of essential goods (housing, food, clothing, etc) produced a new social differentiation, with the rise of a privileged bureaucratic caste that concentrated power into its own hands. The national confines of the planned economy and mismanagement by the bureaucracy limited – and ultimately strangled – the development of technology and production. However, the fact that planning failed under Stalinism, that is, under specific historical conditions, does not prove that economic planning is, by its very nature, impossible.
Worldwide symptoms of social crisis and the prospect of environmental catastrophe show that capitalism can no longer take society forward. Technology and production develop in a completely distorted way because of the domination of the profit motive and the anarchy of market competition. Nevertheless, the science and technology exist to develop the economy internationally to meet the real needs of the world’s population. But this will only be possible if it is utilised in a planned way, under the democratic control of the working class. On the basis of an international plan of production it would be possible to make rapid strides towards real social equality, to dramatically raise the living standards of the peoples of the under-developed countries, and ensure the protection of natural resources. Undoubtedly, there will be a baneful legacy of capitalist problems to be overcome.
Why should the elimination of capitalism take a totalitarian form, as Monbiot believes? In fact, a genuine socialist transformation can only be carried through with the overwhelming support of the population. The heavy battalions of the working class internationally, concentrated in the advanced and some semi-developed countries, are today on a much higher economic and cultural level than the Russian working class of 1917. They have a preponderant social weight, and have experienced political democracy and mass trade union organisation. In other words, they have the capacity to ensure the democratic transformation of society and democratic running of socialist states.
But, argues Monbiot, “as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism”. This is a variant of the ‘human nature’ objection to socialism: ‘people are selfish and greedy’. As if the egotistical pursuit of self-interest has not been generated by capitalism over many generations, based as it is on the exploitation of workers’ labour power and the accumulation of wealth by a minority, in other words a system based on greed for profit. Monbiot, it seems, cannot conceive of a social system operating on a higher level than capitalism, steadily eliminating scarcity (wiping out poverty and overcoming inequality). A socialist planned economy, run under workers’ democracy, would provide the basis for social cooperation and human solidarity on an international level.
What is Monbiot’s answer to capitalism? Again, he offers only a series of questions. “How do we threaten power? How do we capture the political processes which have excluded us? We don’t yet have all the answers…” Yet Monbiot himself points out that, “Democracy everywhere looks as if it has been hit by a neutron bomb. Its structures – the parliaments and their committees, the elections and referendums – remain intact, but the life within them has died”. Governing parties and their opposition rivals offer no real choice, there is no discussion on “the kind of economy we want” or state responsibility for social provision. His explanation is that the ‘real decisions’ are made at the continental level, in Brussels, the White House, and corporate boardrooms, and “handed down to national governments for implementation”.
This is true, of course, as far as it goes. But Monbiot shrinks from a clear class analysis. The real decisions are taken, as they always have been, by the capitalist class at a national and international level (with the major imperialist powers dominating policy). The difference today, under the regime of globalisation (in contrast to the period of the economic upswing period of 1950-73), is that the capitalist class has launched an offensive to intensify the worldwide exploitation of the working class. Compliance with this policy is forced on national governments through the imposition of neo-liberal policies. It is the dictatorship of the so-called ‘free market’ dominated by giant banks and transnational corporations. This is why parliamentary democracy has become a hollow shell, corrupted by big capitalist money and ruthlessly manipulated by the big-business mass media.
Rattling the bars?
What is Monbiot’s answer? “We must ask ourselves”, he says, “what we can do to recolonise and revitalise parliamentary politics”. “Our task is to find the means of rattling the bars of our enclosed and corrupted parliaments without succumbing to their enclosure and corruption”.
We are not against rattling the bars if it means fighting for the independent political representation of the working class through building new mass workers’ parties. But our aim must be to fight for the interests of the working class, to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary mass campaigning to fight to defend workers’ conditions and democratic rights. This will involve using parliament and parliamentary elections as a platform for anti-capitalist and socialist policies, while exposing the hollowness and corruption of the institutions.
Defence of past gains and battles for new reforms have to be linked by socialists to the need to abolish capitalism and carry through the socialist transformation of society. This would certainly ‘rattle the bars’ of bourgeois institutions. But it has nothing in common with a futile quest for a mythical unicorn – the fantasy of revitalising parliamentary democracy on the basis of capitalism.
Monbiot’s strategy, though he does not clearly spell it out, is one of taming capitalism through a revival of bourgeois democracy. This idea of a new ‘democratic revolution’ is the position of many on the left who formerly advocated some kind of socialist programme but who have retreated and abandoned socialism since the fall of the Berlin wall.
In reality, democracy can only be ‘revived’ through working-class struggle against capitalism to defend political, trade union and civil rights. These are being seriously eroded within the framework of capitalist parliamentary democracy, especially since the attacks of 11 September 2001 which have provided the ruling class with a political pretext for enormously strengthening arbitrary state powers.
At one point Monbiot refers to parliamentary politics as “the system for which our ancestors lost so much blood”. But historically it has always been the working class that overwhelmingly provided the forces which forced the bourgeoisie to concede democratic rights, and workers who made the most sacrifices in the struggle.
It is the working class that guarantees the preservation of democratic rights. Ultimately, the deepening of democracy to embrace control of society from below and economic rights (to employment, a living wage, decent housing, education, health-care, and social protection) depends on the creation of a new social order, a socialist society run on the basis of workers’ democracy. It is a crisis-ridden, increasingly militarised capitalist system that poses the threat of authoritarian state repression, not socialism, as Monbiot believes.
His approach (the democratic taming of capitalism) completely lacks any class dimension. The anti-capitalist movement which started in the 1990s expressed the growing radicalisation of students, young people and sections of workers. The last few years, however, have seen waves of mass workers’ struggles on every continent against the big-business, neo-liberal offensive. These struggles reflect an irreconcilable conflict between the working class and the ruling capitalist class.
The key question for the next period is what ideas, what programme, will guide these struggles? In our view, it is only the programme of socialism and the ideas of Marxism that can offer a reliable guide to struggle and a viable alternative to capitalism. Monbiot, though no doubt passionately believing in ‘a better world’, offers no map to guide us there.
Setting out the ideological underpinnings of the struggle to change society remains the paramount task for Socialism Today.
Lynn Walsh, Socialism Today #100, April-May 2006