The Future of Socialism

Daniel Singer

Posted March 15, 2016

THE TIMES ARE a-changing. Do you remember all the fuss about Francis Fukuyama and the end of history? History, as if offended by such silly pseudo-Hegelian nonsense, quickened pace. And we have had difficulty keeping up with it ever since.

Today nobody will seriously suggest that everything is for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds. But “the end of history” was only part of a bigger propaganda package. Helped by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the message of our establishment proclaimed that socialism was dead and buried. Therefore there was no way out.

A few years earlier our pundits used to preach—remember Jeane Kirkpatrick?—that the Soviet Union,(1) the empire of evil, was a hell from which there was no exit. Now they have cleverly changed their tune. It is from capitalism—hell, paradise or purgatory—that there is no exit. There is no alternative and there can be no alternative. This is the refrain that you can see on your telly, the chorus you hear on your radio, the text you read in your newspapers. It is this pernicious, all-pervading message—still a successful message unfortunately—that we have to combat and counter.

In the available time I will deal with two alleged reasons for the funeral of socialism: the collapse of the neo-Stalinist empire in the East and the crisis of the social democracy in the West of Europe. Quite a lot has happened since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The people of Eastern Europe, who had rejected not just really existing socialism, but alas the very idea of asocialist society, have since discovered really existing capitalism.

With its huge differentials, its social injustice, its mass unemployment, capitalism does not look as glittering as it did on TV in the old American soap operas like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” The recent electoral results—in Poland last September and Russia last December—with the striking defeats of the advocates of shock therapy and the cures prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, reflect both that discovery and the resulting disappointment.

In Western Europe, at the same time, the lengthening lines of the jobless confirm that mass unemployment is not just a phase of the trade cycle but a permanent feature of the new era. They also show, symbolically, that capitalism, for all its technological inventiveness, cannot cope with the fundamental issues of our time.

Does that mean that socialism is now on the agenda? In historical terms, yes. In terms of immediate, practical politics, it obviously is not My purpose today is not to talk to you about the inevitability of socialism—-I’m no religious preacher—but to talk about its necessity and about the dangers of a barbarian future contained in the survival of our system.

Nature abhors the void and if we don’t provide rational, progressive solutions, reactionary, irrational ones will win the day. They already do: From Bosnia and Algeria through Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to Tajikistan the gruesome warning is being written in letters of blood. As Goya, the Spanish painter, put it on one of his drawings, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”

Let me start with the easiest issue: the clever identification of socialism with the Stalinist model and its subsequent more diluted versions. It is perfectly simple to say that socialism did not die in Eastern Europe because you can only die if you have lived. And these countries could be defined as countries of really in existing socialism. We may argue now historically about the true nature of these social formations, but nobody except a propagandist can seriously suggest that these regimes, where all power was flowing from above, corresponded to Marx’s vision of the “associated producers” collectively gaining mastery over their work and over their fate.

In fact there were no illusions about it any longer. True, in 1917 the revolution did capture the imagination of people throughout the world and did inspire millions of downtrodden to action. For quite a time after that as well people believed a socialist future was being forged in the Soviet Union. Those hopes had vanished long ago. Some will say they disappeared in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s not so secret indictment of Stalin and, at the same time, the year of the invasion of Hungary.

Others will maintain that illusions persisted until the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague [1968]. But more than twenty years later even the party hardliners and the most faithful Communist parties in the world no longer really pretended that Russia was socialist.

Naturally we must learn all the bitter lessons of [the Soviet] experience, and notably about what happens when people are deprived of democracy—apparently “just for a time” and apparently “just for valid reasons.”1 But to draw the conclusion from the collapse of that system not only that socialism is dead but that it cannot be resurrected anywhere is pure propaganda when proclaimed by the other side. And it’s a strange case of masochistic perversion when argued by people who claim to be on our side.

The other reason why socialism is apparently doomed is the example from Western Europe: the failure of social democracy in Sweden or of Francois Mitterand’s experiment in France. But here, if we think about it, the lessons point in quite the opposite direction. What these examples show is not that the socialist transformation is impossible. Rather, that the reformist management of the capitalist system, which is the current definition of social democracy, after a period of glory, is now in deep crisis.

It is worth stopping for a moment to examine this development. The thirty years after the last war in Western Europe will go down as the years of deep social transformation and unprecedented growth. These were the years of the vanishing peasant, of mass migration to town, of production rising in continental Europe by an average of about five percent a year. Some of the growing profits could be passed on to the worker. Those were therefore the years of rising living standards, of a changing pattern of consumption, of the developing welfare state, and, you may recall, the so-called end of ideology.

Naturally things were not as rosy as they were being painted. The rising of the students and young workers, particularly in France and Italy in 1968-69, revealed the depth of pent-up discontent below the glittering surface. Still it could be argued, at that time, why change the system when you can improve your life within that system? It not only could be argued—it was argued. By the mid-70s not just the Socialists, but the Communist parties as well, got converted to the idea that what was at stake from now onwards were changes within the capitalist society and not its abolition.

The irony is that by the time they had opted for what the Italians called “the historical compromise,” that compromise had ceased to correspond to the stage of history. The years of unprecedented expansion were over by then. True, we were told that our perestroika, our restructuring, was only temporary. It would only affect the traditional branches of coal, steel or shipbuilding. We were told that the surplus labor from industry would be absorbed by the service industries. And it did work that way for a time.

But then the same reasons—streamlining, computers, automation—produced the same results in banking, insurance. By now, according to official figures, unemployment accounts for twelve percent of the labor force in Western Europe. And just as here, the official figures don’t tell the full story.

If you include those who were just taken out of the labor force, the share would be much higher. And if you take into account trainees, short-timers and so on, those who do not have a normal, full-time job comprise one-third of the total labor force. And the proportion is rising all the time. It is no longer a cycle of boom and slump; the unemployment figure is higher at the end of each cycle. Nor does unemployment only affect the young, the women, the blue-collar workers. The so-called middle classes are now hit as well, and this may be why there is more debate at present in Western Europe.

It is no longer in Europe the age of great expectations. Something is clearly rotten within a society when one doesn’t know whether a rise in productivity is a blessing or a curse. There is something fundamentally wrong, and people feel it, when a system can be driven by arms spending but cannot prosper on the development of education, health, culture or the protection of our environment. If we take the advanced capitalist countries in isolation—something one should never do, but which I do here for the sake of the argument—we could reduce working hours dramatically. In technological terms, we are quite close to the times Marx described prophetically, notably in the Grundrisse:

“The theft of somebody else’s labor time, on which wealth now rests, does indeed appear as a miserable base, compared with the means at our disposal. To take working time as the standard of wealth is to base wealth on poverty. It means reducing time as a whole to working time and degrading the individual to the simple role of working man dominated by his labor whereas technically we could be approaching the moment when the surplus labor of the masses win no longer be the condition for the development of general wealth, as the leisure of the few will cease to be the condition for the full development of the human brain.”

So in purely material terms, in the advanced capitalist countries we could soon be tackling the frontier between labor and leisure. But, contrary to what is being said in certain quarters, the drastic reduction in working hours will not be obtained by some magic decree, leaving production in capitalist hands. The organization and the division of labor is connected with the organization of society at large. And the battle for a different organization of labor, imposed by growing mass unemployment, will have to be fought in the factory and in the office. It can only be part of the struggle for a different society.

Let us go back to what the French call the “respectful” left—”respectful,” that is, of the established order, which as we saw by the ’70s included the Communists as well as the Socialists. The economic crisis hit them hard. They had chosen historical compromise, we saw, when it ceased to be historically valid. They opted for class collaboration just as the other side, headed by Thatcher and Reagan, opted for open class war.

The Socialists, in particular when they were in office—as in France—in the 1980s, presided over a decade of deregulation within the European Community of frontiers opened for capital, of an extraordinary expansion of international finance, which drastically reduced the possibility for a national government to carry out even a Keynesian policy of expansion.

They have swallowed a lot, but that was not enough. What the “respectful” left is being asked now is to give up its very reason for existence: to lose its essence as a reformist manager of capitalism. Social democracy is not just a question of capitalist corruption and revolution betrayed. To flourish it requires a special climate. The thirty years after the last war were in Western Europe such a golden age. A compromise, a social contract, implies give and take. And the social-democratic leaders could tell their constituency that it was getting something in exchange. Now it is to be all give and no take.

Indeed the working people of Europe are being asked to give up their postwar conquests. To fight foreign competition, to avoid the flight of capital in search of cheaper labor, they are asked to give up the minimum wage, the sliding scales insuring the purchasing power of their pay packet, all the guarantees limiting the powers of the bosses to hire and fire. They talk about reducing the working day or week—it’s just talk.

What capital is proclaiming in earnest is that Europe can no longer afford the existing system of national insurance, a state-subsidized health service for all, the so-called welfare state that the social democrats used to praise as their great achievement. Now, when the leaders of the “respectful” left are called to office, it is no longer to act as the reforming managers of the system but, if I may say so, as the transmission belts of capital. No wonder that within the Labor Party in Britain, the Socialist Party in France, the PDS (the ex-Communist Party) in Italy, some people have suggested Clinton’s Democratic Party as a model.

The left and the labor movement in Western Europe are thus now at a crossroads. They can reawake, tackle the questions that were raised, though not answered, by the students and workers in 1968: Growth for what purpose? For whose profit? For what kind of society? Inserted within what environment? They can remember the classical dilemma of all socialist movements, which must fight within the framework of existing society but provide solutions that ultimately take us beyond that society. Or they can take the American road and cease to perform the function that was traditionally connected to the left within the European context.

Now let us go back to Eastern Europe. The West discovered with great surprise that the people of Eastern Europe were not in love with the shock therapy they were being offered. This surprise was only hail surprising, since Jeffrey Sachs and company, the International Monetary Fund and all the pundits, were telling us how happy the people of Eastern Europe were with the blessings of private enterprise. They would have had to be strangely masochistic with their life savings wiped out, their not very high living standards drastically reduced, if with their belts tightened they had voted for the arrogant power of money. But they didn’t.

Having discovered they were not being offered a choice between social-democratic Sweden and Thacherite Britain but a choice, at best, between Bolivia and Mexico, they voted against it-—in Poland and Russia, and probably tomorrow, in Hungary. The parties connected, in any way, with shock therapy got between twenty or twenty-five percent of the vote. The bulk of the nation, understandably, voted the shock therapists out.

In Poland the ex-communists came in first, with over twenty percent of the vote. In Russia it was the jingoist party of Viadamir Zhirinovsky; but if you add to the Communist vote those of the agrarian party, which can be treated as an ally, they are not very far behind. This does not mean that the people of Eastern Europe are hankering after the gulag or the long lines. If there is any nostalgia, it is for the security of employment, for the welfare state, however elementary it may have been. The people of Eastern Europe are not voting for really existing socialism. Nor, alas, for genuine socialism either Things are much more complicated than that. They are voting against.

To understand what it is all about, it is necessary to restate some generalities. What we are witnessing now in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Russia, is something quite unprecedented. It is an attempt to create a class of property owners—and I don’t just mean shopkeepers—not within decades and centuries as Western Europe did, but within months and years. It’s an attempt to impose capitalism from above by hook and by crook Rules are dictated by international capital but the drive is domestic. It is an attempt by the nomenklatura at the end of its tether to perpetuate its power and privileges by acquiring property. It is a complicated transition, with class interests not really crystallized and still seeking their expression.(2)

Most political parties, except possibly for the peasant parties, are still rather artificial creations. As a prominent practitioner, JacekKuron, told me in Poland, these parties are being formed in a drawing room on a settee by members of the intelligentsia, who then start looking for an electorate.

This struggle so far in Russia has not been between the advocates of capitalism and the advocates of socialism. It has been the inner struggle between two sections of the establishment over the pace at which Russia is moving toward capitalism. It is a bitter struggle because the position of power determines the distribution of property and the ownership of that property will then determine the position of power.

Very crudely we can distinguish the advocates of shock therapy in the darlings of the IMF on one side—like Yegor Gaidar, once acting Prime Minister, or Boris Fyodorov, the orthodox Minister of Finance. They and their allies could only win if the existing economic system collapsed completely and they could build on the ruins or buy the remnants at bargain-basement prices with the help of foreign capital or domestic speculators.

On the other side there is the managerial lobby, headed by people like the present Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, or the chair of the industrialists union, Arkady Volsky. I would not describe them as the defenders of state property, rather as its caretakers, since they want to run one day as capitalists the economy they did run as representatives of the party. But for this very reason they don’t want the property ruined, or turned over to foreigners.

As to Yeltsin, who sided first with the shock therapists, he is mainly interested in his own survival at the top. If I say essentially this was a struggle within the establishment, I don’t mean that it does not affect society or that others did not take part in the struggle. It is simply that others, and in particular the workers, have not so far been the main actors in their own drama. They flex their muscles, they occasionally strike in defense of their immediate interests, but they do not present their own interests as the superior interests of society as a whole.

In the language of young Marx, they are a “class in itself, not a class for itself.” They are too confused, too bewildered for the time being. This confusion is one of the heavy prices we are still paying for Stalinism and the identification of socialism with it.

With this sketchy background, we can now recall the dramatic events of last year. To begin, there was the behavior of our own leaders, in which not just Clinton but all the Western chancelleries gave their blessing to Yeltsin for the shelling and storming of parliament The way in which they turned a blind eye when Yelstin grabbed full control of television; the Orwellian manner in which they called dictatorship “democracy;” all this made it plain that in Eastern Europe the interest of our rulers, for all their great proclamation of principles, had more to do with potential profits than with devotion to democracy.

The fact that we [the Western socialist left] condemned Yelstin and his stooges, asserting that the Western backers also had blood on their hands, does not mean that we identify with the defenders of Russia’s White House [parliament building]. Some of the jingoists among them were people I would not touch with a barge pole. If we took sides in the conflict it is partly because, unlike our preachers, we don’t think this storming of parliament does not matter. But it is also because Russia needs time. An explosion now would end in bloodshed, and a dictatorship would slow down or prevent the development of political forces.

If we are in favor of the managers in Russia, or the ex-communists and peasants in Poland rather than the shock therapists, it is also because these countries need time for the class conflicts to clarify, for the workers to recover their autonomy and forge an alliance with the technicians and the uncorrupted sections of the intelligentsia so that together they can find a third way between the old Stalinist road and the new capitalist one. Yet this will not happen overnight.

Thus for all the differences there is a certain similarity in the problems we have to face between the two halves of Europe. In both cases we need a respite, time for social movements to grow. Time also with the Stalinist model shattered and the social democratic one bankrupt, to evolve a new radical alternative.

This brings me to my last point, namely the intimate connection between the social movements and the existence of a project, the vision of a radical alternative. It is possible to imagine the left winning elections all over Western Europe. It’s true it hasn’t won in Italy, but it may in Germany, and one day in Britain. Yet what would it do with its victory?

If the “respectful” left follows in the footsteps of the “respectable” right, if it fails once again and the crisis deepens, then the extreme right will get its chance. Ghosts from the past will re-enter the stage in a new disguise. In fact, they are already there. It started with Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front in France, now in Italy there is separatist Lombard League and Citizen Kane Silvio l3erlusconi and the neo-fascists. In Germany there is the revival of the neo-nazis.

Their progress depends on the gravity of the crisis. For this reason people are even more likely to run amok in Eastern Europe, where society is falling apart In Poland the rejection of shock therapy was fortunately coupled with the defeat of the Catholic Church and the far right, but if the so-called left now in office, which does not dare to defy the International Monetary Fund, fails to keep its promise of a new deal, the results could be quite different And in Russia Zhirinovsky is already waiting in the wings.

So it’s not just the problem of gaining time. In a deepening crisis the consensus collapses, the right, sensing it, has long ago moved on the offensive. The left, clinging to the middle of the road, is doomed. It can only recover by offering a radical alternative.

Gone forever, one hopes, are the days of socialist troops marching to orders from headquarters, the days of blueprints handed down from above. We must relearn that socialism, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, cannot be a Christmas gift to passive members who voted well. By definition, it can only be the result of a movement from below, of a growing political consciousness of the people who change themselves as they change society.

I’m not saying that we don’t need a project. Quite the contrary. If the classical Marxist writers did not indulge in speculation about the future, we can’t afford the same luxury. After all the dreams that have been shattered and all the promises broken, people may rebel spontaneously but they will not join a movement for coherent, long-term action (what we used to call hegemonk action), the only one that can lead to a radical transformation of society, unless they know where we are heading and how we intend to get there. And so the problem is not the project but its shape and the manner in which it is elaborated.

It must spring from below and be discussed publicly in an open debate. There won’t be a serious project without a genuine movement. But there will be no coherent movement without a vision. The intellectuals, therefore, have their part to play in this debate as keepers of the collective memory, advisers on the international comparisons as providers of some elements of theory. But they can do so only and exclusively as part of the movement, not as outsiders bringing theory or the truth to the working class.

There can be no question of a fixed blueprint, only of a vision, of a project, bound to be reshaped as the movement advances. Though we do not deny our heritage, we must adapt it to a fast-changing world. The West European working class, for instances has been transformed by the inflow of immigrants and women as well as by the replacement of blue- by white-collar workers. Is it still capable, as I believe, of performing its role as the agency of history?

Capital has spread spectacularly across national frontiers. To give just one figure, foreign transactions now carried in one day are estimated at $1,000 billion—as much as all the gold and dollar reserves of all the members of the International Monetary Fund. Even allowing for double accounting, this gives us an idea of the reduced powers of national governments. Can the nation state still provide, as I think it can, the first platform for the radical transformation of society?

Though the Soviet Union should never have been a model, its terrible experience does force us to tackle some questions. What would motivate people to work, without replacing the gulag by our forms of coercion, the fear of unemployment and the dazzling tyranny of the market? What forms of democracy must we invent, at all levels from the shop floor to the very top and back, if we want to turn planning from a system of command from above into self-government, a system of the self-organization of society?

So we have plenty of work on our agenda. There is a task that is preliminary, but categorically imperative. If we want people to build a new vision, we must first convince them, despite the chorus of official propaganda, that there is space and scope beyond the capitalist horizon. Faced with the paid and unpaid propagandists of the establishment, with the turncoats and the fainthearted, the temptation is great to throw at them the moving words of Rosa Luxemburg, written on the eve of her murder, “Order reigns in Berlin. You stupid lackeys, your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will raise its head again and proclaim to your sorrow amid a brass of trumpets, ‘I was, I am, I shall always be.”

But shall we be? Can we assert it now, with such certitude? Looking at the contradictions of present-day capitalist society, the explosions are inevitable. But shall we be able to guide them to their logical conclusion? Marx wrote to Kugelmann, “World struggle would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of invariably favorable chances.” Or in more personal terms, you can’t climb even metaphorical barricades with an insurance policy in your pocket.

Yet why should we not just cultivate our own garden? Why should we embark on such a long, dangerous and uncertain journey? Because we want to be actors in our own drama rather than playthings of history: Because we are part of humankind’s unfinished struggle for mastery over its own fate. And because to contract out now would just be suicidal.

Look at Sarajevo, the symbol of our powerlessness; at the former Soviet Union where atavistic forces may be unleashed at any moment by the explosive mixture of ideological void and economic collapse. Look at the fires in racist Los Angeles and at the xenophobia in East German riots. It is true that if we don’t provide rational, progressive solutions, reactionary, irrational ones will triumph. The future will be what we shall make it, what you of the younger generation will make it.

And I will end, therefore, echoing the slogan which a quarter century ago, in the streets of Paris, revived hope for a while: Be realistic, ask for the impossible; ask for what our system, its high priests and pundits, its propaganda machine and its media have as a task to describe as impossible, namely the construction of a radically different society in which the associated producers will collectively change their life and forge the future.


  1. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of what I call a Marxist tragedy, which began in 1917 when the revolution broke out not in the advanced capitalist world for which it was designed, but in the backward Mother Russia. And when that revolution failed to spread, the Bolsheviks were then faced with an entirely unexpected task of carrying out their country’s industrial revolution. Whether this primitive socialist accumulation—a contradiction in terms, since primitive accumulation spelled oppression and exploitation while socialism meant liberation—whether this contradiction was bound to produce a system of bloody repression and byzantine cult, known to us as Stalinism, is a question that for the time being we can leave to historians.
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  2. Editor’s note: The theme of nonwnkiatura [bureaucratic] self-preservation is explored in more depth in Kit Wainer’s essay, “The Bureaucracy That Can’t Die,” Against the Current 47, November-December 1993.
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July-August 1994, ATC 51