Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 23, 2006

Does socialism have a future?

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

When Fidel Castro was stricken with what appears to be a terminal illness, it prompted many commentators to muse about the imminent collapse of Cuban socialism. This is a theme that finds new ways of expression based on periodic upheavals both within and outside Cuba. After the Soviet Union evaporated in the early 1990s, pundits wrote countless words about how Cuba would be next. But socialism finds ways to keep rolling along on the island, just like the American jalopies that the inventive Cubans find ways to keep on the road with chewing gum and baling wire. In every respect, socialism has the appearance of being out of sync with a world that is either openly capitalist or that like China wraps private property relations in a thin tissue of socialist rhetoric.

With its frenzied obsession with technical innovation, joined at the hip to planned obsolescence, the capitalist system puts novelty on a throne. Spalding Gray, the brilliant performance artist and writer who threw himself off the Staten Island ferry after battling bad health and depression for a number of years, had a wonderful story about visiting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He said that despite being the butt of jokes about its backwardness, he found something alluring about the country. He noted that on Soviet warships captains still communicated acoustically with the men in the engine room through a pipe that ran through the ship’s innards. He found something more human about that process.

Are socialists condemned to be followers of kitschy symbols of the past? Are those of us in the West who became socialists in the 1960s and still retain such beliefs the equivalent of the aging East Europeans who traffic in Ostalgie, a term coined for those foolish souls who think that something was lost when East Germany was swallowed up by its more aggressive and wealthy cousin to the West?

The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than World War Two and is rapidly approaching the Vietnam War in longevity, a conflict that radicalized tens of thousands of youths, including me. Since the U.S. was waging a war against “Communism,” it was inevitable that those of us who were called upon to kill or be killed would begin to ask what that system was all about. If nothing else, the heroism of the Vietnamese people led us to investigate the ideas that they supposedly held dear. For a small minority, the ideas actually made sense. In the West, especially during the “cool” and disaffected 1950s, no idea seemed worth dying for.

There is no such phenomenon at work in the war in Iraq, despite the obvious dedication of the Sunni fighters and Sadr’s militias at times to rid their country of occupiers. Although it is very difficult to get word about the beliefs that motivated fighters in a place like Fallujah, we can assume that socialism was not part of the mix. The fighting spirit of the Iraqi resistance, the elan of the Hezbollah, and the irrepressible militancy of the Iranian government has engendered a certain sense of camaraderie on the Marxist Left in the West. If socialism has few adherents in the Middle East, should we throw in our lot with those who have the muscle to stop the imperialists in their tracks?

Furthermore, to make ourselves attractive to them, perhaps it might make sense to downplay our stubborn emphasis on class, especially since Islam purports to unite owner and employer on the basis of faith. It was probably symptomatic of such barely concealed desires that Counterpunch ran an interview with Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah in which he says, “You will witness how our people have embraced Chávez and Ernesto Che Guevara. Nearly in every house, you will come across posters of Che or Chávez.” A red-faced Counterpunch had to admit some days later that the interview was a fraud.

In Latin America, there have been expressions of sympathy for Che Guevara that are genuine and which would seem to indicate a revival of interest in the socialist project. Evo Morales, the newly elected President of Bolivia, told interviewers that “I’m not only a follower of Chávez, but a follower of Castro and a follower of Che.” However, in the next breath he added, “This does not mean I am going to implement their programmes here because Bolivia is not Cuba.” This would seem to mean that Cuba serves more as an inspiration than an actual model to be followed for the new Latin American left.

In Venezuela itself, socialism is openly defended as a kind of official ideology but it is a ‘sui generis’ twenty-first century socialism that is open to varying interpretations, it would seem. For the ultra-orthodox Trotskyists of the In Defense of Marxism Web site, Hugo Chávez is a standard-bearer of their own particular ideas about socialist revolution, even if he is not aware of that himself. By the same token, Chávez is claimed by Joseph Stiglitz as a practitioner of his own version of New Deal economics. Oddly enough, in a world that puts dog-eat-dog competition on a pedestal, it is both socialism and the New Deal that seem like relics from a bygone era.

Tariq Ali, the well-known British Marxist, goes one step further and synthesizes socialism and the New Deal. In an interview with Doug Henwood on the New York Pacifica station, here’s how it plays out:

Tariq Ali: So the reforms which he has pushed through of using the oil money to create… You know people in the states sometimes get shocked when I say this but look he is very radical in attacking imperialism and all that but the internal reforms which are taking place in Venezuela today are a combination of Roosevelt’s New Deal and social democratic reforms which were pushed through in every European country after the Second World War. [Presumably, Ali is referring to Western Europe.]

Doug Henwood: So this is what he means by 21st century socialism?

Tariq Ali: Yeah, that’s what he means. It is left social democratic reforms. And he has said that to me a number of times that we are not living in an epoch of proletarian revolution. It is just crazy to think you can just jump over everything and do that.

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to examine some of these questions in greater depth. Is socialism a worthwhile theory that can only lead to chaos and disaster if it is implemented anytime in the foreseeable future — a “crazy” ambition, in Tariq Ali’s words? Is the best thing we can hope for a realignment of world superpowers that would put China and Russia in a stronger position to resist US savagery? Is there some other economic system in between capitalism and socialism that can combine the dynamism of the former system and the egalitarianism of the latter? These are questions that should matter to every thinking person on the planet.


  1. Louis you could define what you mean by socialism: Stalinism, Castroism, Che’ism, Chavism, Ali’ism, or what? Marx recognised many varieties in the Communist Manifesto, do you?
    If we take the usual Marxist definition of: ‘from each according to his/her work, to each according to his/her need’ then the question becomes: ‘what future – socialism or barbarism’. If socialism does not have a future then nor do we.

    Comment by Dave — December 23, 2006 @ 11:56 pm

  2. Dave, I plan to get into this in much more depth later on. My next 3 posts deal with:

    1. Gabriel Kolko’s “After Socialism”
    2. Samir Amin’s “Beyond US Hegemony?: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World”
    3. Michael Lebowitz’s “Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century”

    In my 4th post, I will be more specific about what kind of socialism is needed.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 24, 2006 @ 12:10 am

  3. You wrote:
    Oddly enough, in a world that puts dog-eat-dog competition on a pedestal, it is both socialism and the New Deal that seem like relics from a bygone era.

    Comment by Charles Andrews — December 24, 2006 @ 10:26 pm

  4. You wrote:
    Oddly enough, in a world that puts dog-eat-dog competition on a pedestal, it is both socialism and the New Deal that seem like relics from a bygone era.

    True anecdote:

    I paid the clerk, a man in his 50s with a slightly hippy appearance. This was at an organic food store. Change due was ten cents.

    He handed me a dime and said, “Here’s an FDR dime.”

    “I don’t think those days are coming back.” He quickly agreed.

    With a smile, “I guess we’ll have to push all the way to socialism this time.”

    He was speechless.

    Comment by Charles Andrews — December 24, 2006 @ 10:31 pm

  5. Louis:

    Since you are at Columia U., another work you might discuss is Seymour Melman’s After Capitalism

    Comment by Paul Lyon — December 27, 2006 @ 11:07 am

  6. Louis:

    I have been reading your blog for a little over a year now and I like your clearcut analyses, unclutterred by academic straitjackets (a la Wallerstein) and your unrepentant marxism. But I’m afraid that the answer to your question is NO, Socialism has no future, it never did, and now that we enter the end era of energy depletion and chaotic climate change, no system no ‘ism has any future.

    One of the great failings of marxist theory has been an abscence of a petroleum theory of value. The other great failing has been the romanticization of the working class. Two examples I’d like to cite are Jameson and Althusser. Jameson in Postmoderism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism states:

    “The postmodern may well … be little more than a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the conomic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale … .That a new international proletariat (taking forms we cannot yet imagine) will reemerge from this compulsive upheaval it needs no prophet to predict: we ourselves are still in the trough, however, and no one can say how long we will still there.” (p. 417)

    Is this not a capitulation? is this not a counsel of despair. This were no better in the 1960s when Althusser declared, in Reading Capital:

    “Of course, we have all read, and all do read Capital. For almost a century, we have been able to read it every day, transparently, in the drama and dreams of history, in its disputes and conflicts, in the defeats and victories of the workers’ movements which is our only hope and destiny.”

    Well after another half century are we any closer to our workers’ destiny. Not likely.

    Bottom line: there are no workers, no working class, no proletariat, no revolutionaries thus no future for socialism.

    Comment by George Mori — December 28, 2006 @ 7:22 pm

  7. I think what Tariq Ali is saying in the quotes above is largely true: we’re in a state in the world in which even bog standard reformism, of the kind despised by all right thinking socialists forty years ago is now seen as beyond the pale, revolutionary, communist. The same we see in the Netherlands were the Socialist Party is seen as “unreasonable” for demands that were supported by all parties as recently as twentyfive years ago.

    That doesn’t mean socialism is dead, but it shows how much ground has been lost in the past decades and how much needs to be won back before new gains can be made.

    One more thing:

    With its frenzied obsession with technical innovation, joined at the hip to planned obsolescence, the capitalist system puts novelty on a throne

    There was a time when socialism was the one looking to a brighter future: what happened?

    Comment by Martin Wisse — December 29, 2006 @ 10:16 am

  8. Tariq is both right and wrong. I think we ARE living in an epoch in which we will see more an more [i]opportunities[/i] for proletarian revolution coming about as capitalisms contradictions deepen, more and more crises occur and the working-class is further immiserated by the attacks on wages and living standards carried out by the capitalists.

    He is right though when he says Chavez is not bringing about socialism, but social democratic reformism, and that Chabez himself is not capable of “jumping over everything” to bring about a revolution. Only the Venezuelan working-class can do that, and will hopefully soon, once they overcome their illusions in Chavez.

    And just one correction, the In Defence of Marxism lot are not ultra-orthodox Trots, rather they are Grantites, followers of Ted Grant who split from Militant Tendency in Britain in the early 90s.

    Comment by Mark Boothroyd — January 10, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

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