By Roger Annis, published in A Socialist In Canada, August 27, 2018 (ending paragraphs revised on Dec 17, 2018)
A recent essay by U.S. Marxist scholar Doug Greene has proved popular. In his More Than Universal Healthcare: The Meaning of Socialism, Greene provides three succinct summations of what for him constitute the philosophy and political strategy of socialism.
The essay appeared in July 2018 in Left Voice, a Trotskyist publication out of Argentina. It has been reproduced by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (Australia) and MR Online. The essay is worth examining because for all of its merits, it reflects the flaws in socialist strategizing that have dogged the Western left, including its Marxist component, for many decades. The following essay examines Greene’s essay and then looks at some broader observations about the evolution of the Western left in a time of rising militarism, global warming and social inequities.
Socialism as an alliance of classes
Greene provides three succinct guidelines that for him define ‘socialism:
- “Socialism is a goal by and for the proletariat.”
- “Under socialism, the means of production will pass out of the hands of the capitalists and into the hands of the workers. This transfer of ownership is the first step toward ending the dominance of the rule of profit.”
- “Socialism is a protracted process of transformation with the aim of eliminating classes and inequality throughout the world in order to realize communism. This cannot happen at once,
Greene’s first definition of socialism makes a very restricted list of the social classes which are vital to socialism. He mentions only the “proletariat”, that is, wage earners laboring in factories, offices, services and natural resource plunder. Noteworthy by their absence from Greene’s socialist tent are farmers and peasants. Other social strata also vital to social change include middle class ‘petit-bourgeois’–such as health professionals, teachers and small business people–and Indigenous peoples and other oppressed nationalities whose economies do not fit a textbook capitalist descriptor.
The term ‘working classes’ is a useful one that should be given a higher standing in the lexicon of socialists and Marxists in the 21st century. It encompasses all those who sell their labour power to the owners of capital or who are otherwise captive to labouring for the profit of the capitalist class (peasants and farmers who do not employ large numbers of rural proletarians, for example). I don’t believe Doug Greene has this broad view in mind when he defines socialism as a cause of the “proletariat”. His choice of term highlights the drift of so many contemporary Marxists who forget that the two great revolutions of the 20th century—Russia and China—were revolutions of proletarians allied with much more numerous and weighty classes of peasants (farmers). The peasant classes spanned owner/operators of small family plots to those living more comfortably by hiring and exploiting wage labourers.
The worker-peasant alliance that made the Russian Revolution of 1917 possible was carried forward during the 1920s under the banner of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the ‘mixed economy’ policy that guided the revolution from 1921 until NEP’s forced ending in 1928. Western Marxists have long relegated NEP to a museum piece in their writings and analysis, but they have done so at the cost of their Marxist grounding. The historic amnesia over NEP is longstanding and is perhaps the single biggest reason (though not the only one) why Western Marxism in the 20th century became deeply distorted by ultraleftism and utopianism.
Socialism as a lengthy transition process
In his second guideline for understanding socialism, Greene argues that the “transfer of ownership” of the means of production under capitalism from private to public hands is “the first step toward ending the dominance of the rule of profit”. But history does not bear this out. The first step towards socialism is the winning of political power by the working class and allied social classes. The pace and scope of economic transition following the winning of political power is unique to each country and depends on a host of factors, principally the global relationship of forces between the working classes and the owners of capital (the ‘one per cent’ in today’s parlance).
The goal of winning political power is an ABC of Marxism. It is spelled out so very clearly in the 1848 Communist Manifesto but is overlooked by most contemporary Marxists. In chapter two of the Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” Further in the same chapter, the authors spell out ‘first steps’ in an economic transition process from capitalism to socialism once political power is won. These include the creation of a state bank exercising an exclusive monopoly over finance, placing of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state, and extension of state (public) ownership of “factories and instruments of production”.
Frederick Engels wrote similarly in his 1880 booklet Socialism Utopian and Scientific (a few years before the death of his colleague Karl Marx in 1883): “The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.”
V.I. Lenin explained the goals of the 1917 revolution in Russia in his April Theses, written six months prior to the accession to governmental power of the Russian workers and peasants: “It is not our immediate task to “introduce” socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.” And in his 1918 Letters on Tactics, he wrote, “The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term.”
In their 1938 Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky and his colleagues in the Trotskyist Fourth International put the matter thusly: “We link up the question of expropriation [of the means of production owned by the large capitalists] with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers.”
Due to the existence of trade and solidarity relations with the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China and then revolutionary Cuba were able to survive the military attacks and economic embargos waged against them by imperialism. A rapid transition to ‘socialized production’ was made possible by economic assistance from the Soviet Union and made necessary by the unrelenting attacks by imperialism.
The earlier Russian Revolution faced a much harsher world and was terribly isolated by an embargo which blocked foreign trade and investment. The young Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics–USSR) turned to a mixed economy (the new Economic Policy) in order to preserve the all-important worker-peasant alliance amidst the new country’s first steps to a planned, socialist economy.
NEP was ended violently and before its time. Judging by their writings, today’s Marxists do not give the NEP experience a single thought. Earlier Marxists, such as the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel, explicitly rejected NEP’s validity. Writing in 1984, for example, Mandel wrote, “Any institutionalization of a ‘mixed economy’ in a semi-industrialized dependent country, indeed in an imperialist country, is a dangerous, even blatantly reactionary, utopia.”
In failing to account for NEP and for similar experiences in later decades, today’s Marxists leave themselves vulnerable to confusion and disarray in a contemporary world where rapid transitions to socialism are not on the agenda. The lengthy transitions to socialism taking place in Venezuela and Bolivia are increasingly viewed by an impatient Western left as aberrations that have ‘failed’ to directly confront imperialism in a winner-take-all battle by nationalizing all major industry and finance. Cuba is coming under similar condemnation as it cedes small-scale services to small entrepreneurs and continues to welcome foreign investment in certain industries.
The need for multi-class alliances
Socialism is a transitional process, Greene argues in his third guideline to socialism. But he gives not a hint of what this transition consists. What sort of class alliances are required, and for what duration? What about the compelling messages of NEP and contemporary experiences in Latin America of the need for mixed economy in the transition process? Even revolutionary Cuba whose socialist transition will soon turn 60 years old finds itself opening small-scale sectors of its economy to private enterprise and encouraging foreign imperialist investment in selected industries–in tourism and mining, for example.
Meanwhile, what new challenges and demands arise out of the global warming emergency? There is a growing awareness throughout the world of imminent danger from the global warming emergency. Parallel to this is a growing awareness that the rampant expansionism and productivism of the capitalist system are the source of the emergency. Will this awareness allow for broader political alliances in a fight for a planned, social economy that closes the rift between human endeavour and the limits of the natural order? That seems evident. But Greene’s essay is a yawning void on the entire topic. Apparently, the ‘meaning of socialism’ does not have an ecological dimension.
What about the evident rise in imperialist militarism and war in today’s world, including the danger of nuclear war? The war danger arises from the drive for dominance by the capitalist classes in the imperialist countries as rates of profit decline for them globally. This constitutes yet more compelling evidence with which to convince doubting and wavering working class people and their potential allies in other classes that creating a planned, social economy (socialism) is the best and only way for humanity to mitigate the worst of what capitalism’s global warming emergency and militarism drive has in store for the planet.
Filling in the gaps
The New Economic Policy in the early Soviet Union was a grand historical experience whose lessons should be studied and learned anew today. NEP ended prematurely (and violently) at the hands of the rising Stalin-led regime. The regime went on to lead a great industrialization and to eventually eliminate the scourge of famine that had stalked Czarist Russia for centuries and haunted the early Russian Revolution. But this was policy for survival in an unbelievably hostile world. That survival cost a great deal in human development and loss of socialist democracy.
From this standpoint, the Stalin regime’s forced industrialization and collectivization of agriculture was a disaster for socialism and hardly a model to be emulated. Yet the language of 20th century Western Marxism—filled with talk of ‘forced marches’ to socialism and the primacy of immediate expropriations of the bourgeoisie–has paradoxically pointed in a direction of repeating this experience. That would be another disaster for socialism.
The global warming emergency obliges human society to undertake a rapid retrenchment (degrowth) from capitalist expansionism and excess. A key element of this retrenchment and transition is to restrain law of value, which under capitalism determines the shape and pace of investment and production of commodities.
Most Marxists and ecosocialists either do not believe in the imperative of degrowth or they choose not to advocate it. It seems too stark and too difficult to sell to progressive society. Many do not believe that the working classes and their potential allies in more well-off classes are capable of breaking from their illusory existences filled with of consumerist impulses and the fetishization of commodities. It all amounts to underestimating the threat of global warming.
Several recent essays by ecosocialists illustrate the challenge in creating a rounded political strategy for change.
An August 24 interview with Marxist scholar and ecologist John Bellamy Foster in the Irish socialist web publication Rebel discusses the global warming emergency. Foster argues for “an independent, revolutionary groundswell aimed at the reconstitution of production and consumption in society”. He blames capitalism and its expansion imperative for the emergency, but nowhere in the interview do we learn if and how all the material waste and excess characteristic of capitalism can be ended. But what would a reconstitution resemble? What forms of government and what class alliances will be needed? We are left in the dark.
We read further, “The only thing that could alter this dire situation [global warming emergency], all over the world, is the rise of another power in society. We need not millions but hundreds of millions of people, necessarily predominantly working class, in the street day in and day out.” But permanent protest alone will not transform the structures of political and economic power. Foster’s projection is a libertarian, not Marxist, outlook.
Similarly, in an essay titled ‘Five Principles of a Socialist Climate Politics‘, U.S. scholar Matthew Huber provides important guidelines but no roadmap of how socialism and responsible ecological policies may come to prevail over the destructive course of world capitalism. He writes, “Socialism would gear the entire economy toward ‘care’, and the needs of the many against the profits of a few. The struggle for decarbonization cannot be cast as purely technical or economistic “energy transition”; it must be about exerting popular control over life itself to veer us away from irreversible disaster. ‘Popular control’, yes, but how?
Is socialism possible?
Retrenchment (degrowth) must shape a transition to socialism. The transition must be guided by organs of popular democracy. The goal of this socialism must be a vastly improved human development. Monthly Review Press author Mike Lebowitz, a Canadian, has made vital contributions in his books in explaining that ‘human development’ is the goal of socialism, not a mere expansion of the production of material wealth. Included in this human development is recognition of the imperative for humans to strive for ecological harmony and enhancement.
To be sure, many liberal environmentalists such as Naomi Klein are visionary in locating elements of the ecological crisis. But they recoil from the scope of the changes that is required and from the societal/class struggles that are required to achieve lasting change. A revived and renewed socialism and Marxism offers a solid foundation on which to advocate a path to lasting change.
I believe we have a good shot at convincing a large part of contemporary society that it can let go of its fixations on acquiring material goods and instead fight for socialism, for a society focused on human development. But that requires leading activists and scholars along with their political organizations voicing the seemingly difficult news and organizing to achieve it. Without such political engagement in the class/ecological struggles, prospects for human society are dim.
Retrenchment can come in two forms: chaos and collapse if capitalism is not vanquished, or an organized effort to radically reduce all the waste and excess while simultaneously valorizing all this is necessary to human development. The latter includes producing healthy food; expanding culture, science, health care and education; and closing the gap between rich and poor social classes and rich and poor countries.
Right now, the world is on the path to chaos and collapse. The large capitalist governments are doing nothing to restrain the socially and ecologically destructive practices of the uber-wealthy for whom they govern. They are wielding the weapons of war to preserve their global dominance.
They are sponsoring or turning a blind eye to the rise of extreme-right and fascist paramilitary forces serving as the shock troops of the capitalist order. The leading countries where the right-wing threat is the most serious include Ukraine, the Baltic Republics and Poland, Egypt and Turkey. Left-wing writers and environmentalists in the West have for varying reasons turned a blind eye to the rise of imperialist war and violence. They are succumbing to the new cold war propaganda directed against Russia, whereas any thoughtful socialist should vigorously oppose the threats, sanctions and embargos directed against Russia. As Margaret Kimberly wrote recently in her invaluable weekly column in Black Agenda Report, “The Russiagate investigation is proof that this country is run by liars, race baiters, warmongers, torturers and their enablers.” The masterminds of Russiagate should not be allowed to influence “those who purport to be on the left”, she concludes.
On the positive side, growing numbers of people, even among the privileged classes, recognize the dangers facing human society. If we are lucky, an organized effort of societal salvation in the form of mitigation of the worst consequences of global warming will arise in the coming few years. Socialists should be explicitly voicing the need for an emergency program of societal salvation. Indeed, the struggle for such a program is the very path to socialism.
If we’re unlucky, militarism and rising fascism will spell the end of days for humanity as we know it. Fortunately, there is much hope that we can get organized politically to avoid the worst of what capitalism will visit upon us. There is no room for despair. There is too much of existing human civilization that needs preservation and too many people whose lives will need comfort or saving.
Recommended related readings:
* The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1848
* Socialism Utopian and Scientific, by Frederick Engels, 1880 (36 pages)
* The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, by V.I. Lenin, 1913 (four pages)
* Reflections on the Russian Revolution of 1917, essay by Roger Annis, Sept 11, 2017
Postscript by Roger Annis:
Two recent articles providing interpretations of ‘socialism’ illustrate the weaknesses of present-day socialist theory, as examined in my essay above. Neither article takes account of the global warming emergency nor rising imperialist war and militarism. You can read them here: What is democratic socialism?, by Neal Meyer, in Jacobin, Aug 20, 2018; and What do socialists mean by socialism?, by Todd Chretien, Socialist Worker.org, Aug 28, 2018.
An article by UK ecology writer Simon Pirani on his Pluto Press blog appearing in Sept 2018 argues that “unsustainable fossil fuel use” by capitalist society is the fundamental ill facing contemporary society. The article concludes with this hefty abstraction: “Today, the consequences of unsustainable fossil fuel use – above all, its role in global warming – are known to us all. There are no simple formulae for the transition away from fossil fuel. Answers must be sought outside the discourse around the international climate negotiations. These answers must take account of the way that technological systems are embedded in social and economic systems, and point to ways to transform all of them.”
Pirani’s views in favour of switching from fossil fuels to ‘alternative energies’ as the means to salvage the planet from the global warming emergency are elaborated in his 2018 book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press). My argument against citing fossil fuel use as the principal evil of the global warming emergency caused by capitalist expansionism is contained in this May 15, 2018 essay: Andreas Malm’s ‘Fossil Capital’ unearths the origin of capitalism’s attachment to fossil fuels but finishes with the shallow outlook of ecosocialism.
Socialism is a path of societal transformation. It is shaped and propelled by the class and national struggles of the exploited classes striving for a world of social equality, abolition of war and militarism, and ecological harmony. The goal of socialism is a planned, social economy in which the cultural, spiritual and material wealth of society is shared in common with humans living within the planetary boundaries of Earth. To get there, the working classes and their potential allies among other social classes need to win political power (government) and then use that power to carry through sweeping economic and social change. ‘Degrowth’ must guide these changes, meaning a massive reduction of all the waste and excess produced in capitalist society while simultaneously expanding ‘social’ production–housing, health care, education, healthy food, and science and culture.
 Simon Pirani also writes extensively about contemporary Russia. He voices the anti-Russia prejudices that are common in the Western left, including sympathy for the right-wing coup in Ukraine in February 2014 and voicing the view that the March 16, 2014 referendum in Crimea to secede from the new, right-wing Ukraine was, on the contrary, a ‘Russian annexation’ (interview, March 2018).