Today, September 1995 | Home
What future for Socialism?
LYNN WALSH, editor of Socialism
Today, British monthly magazine of the Socialist Party argues
that socialism, far from being 'finished', will once again
become the idea that guides workers and youth in the struggle
for a new society.
From Socialism Today, issue
one, September 1995
2006 Appendix: Fighting
WHAT, TODAY, ARE the prospects for
socialism? Many on the left, including figures previously
identified with revolutionary Marxism, are now utterly
In 1968, for instance, Tariq Ali
epitomised the mass student radicalisation in Britain. The other
day, however, Tariq commented that the restoration of capitalism
in Russia signified that "the game was up for another four
or five decades..." (Guardian, 22 July). Capitalism, in
other words, has been granted a new lease of life - revolution
is off history's agenda for half a century!
Today, Tariq Ali epitomises a
generation of one-time Marxist intellectuals who are now utterly
disillusioned with the prospect of a socialist transformation of
society within the foreseeable future. This change in outlook
undoubtedly has a social basis - the rebels of '68 are now
professors, film producers, business executives, etc.
More fundamentally this ideological
shift reflects the momentous events of the last few years -
above all, the collapse of the 'socialist' regimes of the Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe (in reality, bureaucratised Stalinist
states) and the international social and economic trends which
have crystallised since the fall of the Berlin Wall in October
The disillusionment of the Marxistic
left, moreover, parallels the abandonment of socialist
objectives and the open acceptance of the capitalist market by
all the main trends in the labour movement, from right-wing to
No one could deny that 1989 was a
climactic year. The rapid disintegration of the Stalinist states
- non-capitalist societies which acted as a check on world
capitalism - was a momentous event. While these totalitarian
regimes were a grotesque caricature of socialism, the
destruction of the centrally planned economies on which they
rested, despite the economic distortions imposed by bureaucracy,
was objectively a defeat for the working class internationally.
Moreover, the collapse of
Stalinism acted as a catalyst, turning the accumulating quantity
of pre-1989 trends into the quality of a new relationship of
political forces internationally.
Naturally, the capitalist leaders
seized the opportunity to launch a 'Kulturkampf, an ideological
campaign to prove that socialism is unworkable and that the
capitalist market is the only viable way of managing society.
The bourgeoisie experienced a resurgence of confidence as they
continued to claw back the post-war gains of the working class -
an onslaught which the traditional leaders of the labour
movement had no policy or political will to resist.
But do these changes mean that the
abolition of capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of
society are postponed for fifty years? What are the arguments
used to rationalise the mood of pessimism? The main components
seem to be as follows:
The collapse of the 'really
existing' model of 'socialism' in the Soviet Union, Eastern
Europe, and elsewhere (Angola, Ethiopia, etc) has destroyed
the claim that economic planning can replace the capitalist
market. (Ironically, this argument is widely accepted
despite the fact that the Trotskyist left and officially
even the reformist left never accepted the Stalinist states
as genuine models of socialism).
Capitalism, through developing new
technology and greatly extending globalisation, has
significantly strengthened its position internationally,
enhancing its ability to ride out crises and gaining more
room for manoeuvre against the working class.
The reformist leaders of the
traditional Social Democratic and Labour parties and of the
trade unions have abandoned any commitment to progressive
reforms in favour of the working class and now accept the
permanence of the capitalist market. The tendency towards
the mutation of traditional reformist organisations into
liberal-capitalist parties has dramatically undermined the
credibility of socialist ideas. (Again, it is ironic that
many former Marxists should be influenced by this shift,
when Marxism never accepted that step-by-step reform of
capitalism could provide a route to socialism).
As the combined result of these
trends, the working class has been to some extent weakened
economically, socially, and politically. Technological
changes, new management methods and globalisation have
undermined the strength of the unions, especially the 'heavy
battalions' in industries like coal mining, steel making,
At the same time, the openly
pro-capitalist orientation of the social democratic leaders
has politically disorientated large sections of the working
class, who have largely been left leaderless in opposing the
renewed capitalist offensive. On top of this, the collapse
of Stalinism, the only existing model of 'socialism', has
demoralised the politically active workers.
There is clearly more than a grain of
truth in this presentation of recent events, which reflects real
trends and processes.
But to conclude from them that
socialism has been deferred for fifty years is a one-sided and
completely false interpretation of these developments. The most
important task of Socialism Today will be to refute this
In our future issues we shall seek
through factual and theoretical analysis to substantiate the
case which we can only boldly outline in this, our inaugural
issue. We will affirm the need for an anti-capitalist programme
based on the ideas of Marxism and the perspective of a socialist
transformation of society.
1989 was an historic turning
point -not in our view, the beginning of a new era of
flourishing capitalist development, but the end of an
exceptional 'golden age' for the bourgeoisie in the advanced
capitalist countries and the beginning of protracted economic
depression, social polarisation and political upheaval in which
the working class will reassert its role as the decisive force
for social progress.
Far from being 'finished' (or even
marginalised) for fifty years, the working class will, in the
next period, engage in unprecedented struggles against
capitalist oppression -and the workers' aims will once again be
expressed in the language of socialism.
The collapse of Stalinism
THE COLLAPSE OF the Stalinist states
does not prove the superiority of capitalism, that economic
planning is unviable or that the market is the only effective
means of running economies.
Instead it bears out the warnings made
by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917: while the working class could
begin the task of the socialist revolution, a socialist society
could not be constructed within the frontiers of an economically
and culturally backward society.
Socialism had to achieve a higher level
of organisation than capitalism, which had already created a
world market. Successful economic planning and workers'
democracy, depended, therefore, on the spread of the revolution
to a series of economically advanced countries with strong
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes,
moreover, confirmed the critique of Stalinism put forward by
Trotsky in the 1930s. Trotsky argued that the development of a
privileged bureaucracy, which under Stalin's dictatorial rule
usurped the control of society by workers' representatives,
would severely limit and eventually undermine the gains of a
Trotsky warned that in the bureaucrats'
greed for privileges and personal power lay the seeds of a
future capitalist restoration. The way out lay through a
political revolution in which the workers would overthrow the
ruling elite, revive workers' democracy, and develop economic
planning - on the basis of internationalist links with the
workers of other countries.
Subsequently, although there were moves
towards political revolution, for instance in Hungary in 1956,
the bureaucracy managed to consolidate itself to a greater
extent than envisaged by Trotsky. This was largely due to the
weakness of the major capitalist states during the crisis period
of the 1930s and the intra-capitalist conflicts of World War
Two, when the western powers were obliged to lean on the Soviet
Union against their fascist rivals.
Given the new balance of forces
following the war, capitalism was forced to retreat, conceding
Eastern Europe (and later China) to a strengthened Stalinism.
Economic planning, despite the enormous
human cost under totalitarian control, proved some of its
potential. The Soviet Union was transformed into a mighty
industrial power, and later a nuclear superpower that rivalled
US imperialism for a period. While workers notoriously lacked
good quality consumer goods, in other respects living standards
were immeasurably raised, with full employment, cheap housing,
good education and health services, etc.
Nevertheless, as Trotsky predicted, the
progress that could be made under a bureaucracy was strictly
limited. The bureaucracy stifled every element of democracy, and
established a rigid command structure that reflected the
conditions under which it was formed: the political purges of
the 1930s and the technical-industrial structure of the basic
heavy industries, vintage 1940s.
While successive reformers, from
Khrushchev to Gorbachev, tinkered with the system and achieved
temporary improvements, the bureaucratic apparatus was
ultimately incapable of adapting to new technology and the
changed social conditions of a modern industrial society.
Without the initiative of the workers being involved, planning
began to be more and more undermined, with the market
reappearing by the back door - through unofficial bartering
between enterprises and a black market in food and consumer
goods to fill the enormous gaps in the plan.
The mass movement of Solidarity in
Poland in the early 1980s signalled that the 'game was up' for
Stalinism. Shaken, the 'liberal' wing of the bureaucracy under
Gorbachev desperately attempted to reform the system - only to
trigger the disintegration of central planning and the collapse
into market anarchy.
The collapse of economic planning arose
from the internal contradictions of Stalinism, not from the
superiority of the market. On the contrary, the return to the
market represents a counter-revolutionary regression to private
profit-seeking and anarchy, highlighted by the prominence of
mafia elements in the economy of the former Soviet Union. Far
from demonstrating its superiority, the advent of the market
brought the biggest slump in modern times.
Stalinism was not a healthy experiment
in socialist construction - it was an extremely contradictory
detour which led to a cul-de-sac. But we cannot allow this
historical experience to be buried by capitalist propaganda that
socialism is dead, only capitalism works. We have to explain the
concrete historical circumstances which determined the
degeneration of the first workers' state, separating what was
progressive from what was reactionary, and applying the lessons
to the formulation of a socialist programme for the future.
A capitalist renaissance?
THE 'DEATH OF communism' after 1989
inspired an orgy of capitalist triumphalism.
Undoubtedly, after four decades of
'cold war' rivalry between US imperialism and the Soviet
superpower, the implosion of Stalinism appeared as a victory for
'the West'. The US-led intervention against Iraq in the Gulf
War, which took place under exceptionally favourable conditions
for imperialism, reinforced the impression that the West was
In the economic sphere, the fall of the
Berlin Wall came when the capitalists internationally were
buoyed up with confidence as a result of the super-profits (and
reduced taxation) derived from the speculative boom of the late
1980s. This profits-ecstasy trip carried over to 1990-91, even
though the world economy relapsed into a period of prolonged
The capitalists consoled themselves
with the remarkable growth spurt that was taking place in China,
some areas of Asia, and some Latin American countries, where the
imposing of 'structural reform programmes' following the 1980s
debt crisis opened up highly profitable fields of speculative
But had the conditions been established
for a global capitalist renaissance? The answer, on any sober
analysis, must clearly be no. The profits of big business and
especially the big capitalist speculators have been restored to
the high levels of the post-war upswing period (1950-73).
This has been achieved, however, mainly
through intensified exploitation of the working class - lower
pay levels, lower welfare spending, and harsher management
regimes in the workplace.
Outside the advanced, high-tech
sectors of the economy (micro-electronics, communications
technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc) the growth of
production and productivity has been lower than during the
upswing period. In the major industrial economies, notably the
US and Japan, there has been a 'hollowing out' of industry, with
the accelerated displacement of manufacturing industry by the
Far from a period of renaissance,
capitalism has entered a period of chronic depression. The cycle
of booms and slumps will continue (as we have already seen since
1990), but successive recovery periods will not eradicate the
underlying causes of long-term decline -on the contrary, they
will be accentuated all the more.
The boom of the 1980s in the advanced
capitalist countries, the wave of speculative investment in
certain Third World countries, and the rather weak recovery of
the major economies in the last two or three years, have not in
any way halted the erosion of the conditions of long-term growth
which were established in the post-war period.
Within the advanced capitalist
countries the capitalists have restored profitability by clawing
back the concessions which they were obliged to make to the
working class during the post-war upswing: full employment,
relatively high wage levels, the welfare state etc.
Faced with a decline in profitability
after the late 1960s, the capitalist class began to draw the
conclusion that it could no longer afford the overheads of the
'welfare state'. In the 1980s Thatcherism or Reaganomics became
the order of the day, with the privatisation of state
industries, cutbacks in state welfare spending, and an assault
on established trade union strength.
The result, however, has been a drastic
undermining of the market, which had underpinned the high
investment and sustained profitability of the upswing period.
The capitalists are caught in a contradiction.
Internationally, the end of the upswing
at the time of the oil price crisis in 1973-74, led to a
breakdown of the relatively stable framework of the capitalist
world economy established in the immediate post-war period.
There has, it is true, been an acceleration of the growth of
world trade during the 1980s and early 1990s, but this has
brought increased tensions between the major exporters. This is
reflected in the formation of major trading blocs, the European
Union and NAFTA, with a looser Asian bloc around Japan.
Above all, however, the breakdown of
world economic relations is reflected in the collapse of the
relatively stable Bretton Woods money system after 1973, and the
introduction of floating rates. Together with the deregulation
of financial markets and the upsurge in global speculative
investment (itself a signal of the capitalists turn away from
development of the productive forces) this has introduced a
major element of instability into the world economy.
'Globalisation' means, in reality, a
return to the pro-1913 position, when there was previously the
unfettered movement of capital on the world market. However, the
position for capitalism is less favourable now. Then, the gold
standard prevailed, which largely ruled out speculative flows
based purely on changes in exchange rates and interest
Moreover, there was greater freedom of
movement for labour, which meant that workers were able to
migrate from areas of mass unemployment (like the poorer
countries of southern and eastern Europe) to expanding economies
(such as the US, Latin America, Australasia, etc). Also
government debts were much lower then than today's historically
It is the conditions of deep crisis,
not sustained upswing, which are now being assembled in the
world economy. While there is no mechanical, linear link between
economic crisis and political struggle, the economic crisis
which will unfold in the coming years will inevitably provoke
mass struggles both in the advanced capitalist countries and in
the semi- and under-developed countries.
The collapse of reformist socialism
THE IDEA THAT socialism has been
finally eclipsed has been reinforced by the dramatic swing to
the right by the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour
Parties, together with their allies in the trade unions.
Since the early 1980s the leaders of
reformist socialism have abandoned their previous formal
commitment to an alternative socialist society and even ditched
their political commitment to progressive reforms in favour of
the working class.
Many examples could be given. Even
before the slump of 1979-81, which marked the turn of major
capitalist governments towards 'free market' policies, the
British Labour government of 1974-79 adopted deflationary
monetarist policies. This spelt the end of reformism based on
Keynesianism in Britain, and opened the era of
During the 1980s this counter-reformist
trend was followed by social democratic leaders in other
European countries -Gonzalez in Spain, Papendreou in Greece and
Mitterrand in France, who after the Socialist Party victory in
1981 initially embarked upon a reformist policy, only to abandon
it within a year.
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes
enormously accelerated this development. Fundamentally, however,
the process of political degeneration of the Labour leaders was
rooted in the social trends of the preceding period.
The strength of the social democratic
workers' organisations was based on the long post-war upswing.
Given the balance of forces, with the strengthening of the
working class during the period of full employment and the then
economic needs of the capitalist class, it was in the interests
of big business to concede higher wage levels, higher welfare
spending, and to encourage full employment.
The electoral success of the social
democratic leaders (which was, in any case, extremely patchy)
was based, not on the appeal of their ideas, but on these social
conditions. When in power there was scope for reformist parties
to carry out reforms, thus securing them a basis of working
class support. As these social-economic conditions were eroded,
so was the electoral basis of the reformist parties generally
After 1973 the capitalists were still
obliged in many countries to make concessions to the workers,
who at that stage still retained the trade union strength
accumulated during the upswing. Reformist governments were still
able, initially, to introduce some limited reforms - only for
them to be rapidly wiped out by accelerating inflation and
escalating unemployment, which helped discredit these parties
Paradoxically, many on the Marxist left
internationally have been totally demoralised by the collapse of
the reformist left. This is contradictory, because Marxism never
accepted that step-by-step reforms within the framework of
capitalism could produce a socialist society. What is true is
that through their domination of the traditional mass workers'
parties and the trade unions, the reformists have acted as an
enormous political and organisational barrier to the defence of
workers' interests against a capitalist assault.
There is not one of the traditional
workers' organisations, however, which is not currently in a
state of crisis. The reformist leaders no longer have a mass
electoral base which they can take for granted. This is yet
another aspect of the testing and erosion of the ideas and
institutions which were strengthened during the post-war
upswing. The weakening of the social democracy represents a
weakening of one of the props on which capitalist stability
rested during the upswing period. In the coming period of mass
working class struggle what remains of these organisations will
be put to the test. Sections of them will either be democratised
and transformed into vehicles of struggle, or they will be swept
aside to make way for new mass organisations and movements of
The role of the working class
BUT IS NOT the ideological swing to
the right based on the defeat of the working class? Has not the
balance of class forces within the advanced capitalist countries
and internationally tipped decisively in favour of capitalism
over the last 10 to 20 years?
After all, it may be argued, throughout
the advanced capitalist countries mass unemployment has
undermined the strength of organised workers. The state,
especially in Britain but in other countries too, has been able
to claw back trade union rights conceded in the past.
The 'big battalions' of organised
workers have been seriously undermined by de-industrialisation
and relocation. An ever-increasing section of workers are now
forced to accept temporary, part-time, casual employment of
various kinds, with low pay and very few rights.
These trends (together with the
undermining of working class loyalty to the traditional workers'
parties) have to be recognised. There is no justification,
however, for drawing the conclusion that the working class is
therefore finished as a force capable of a historic struggle
against the capitalist system and for a new socialist order of
society. There has been no defeat in the last two decades on the
scale of the fascist counter-revolution in the 1930s.
What we have seen in the last period is
not a smashing of the power of the organised labour movement,
but a clawing back of some (and in some countries a substantial
share) of the exceptional gains made by the working class during
the period of post-war upswing. After the slump of 1974-75 the
capitalists abandoned Keynesianism and turned to neo-liberalism
- and a long-term policy of undermining the power of the
organised working class.
There were massive struggles
internationally against this capitalist offensive, in many cases
limiting or delaying the retrenchment. However, the subjective
factor, the lack of leaders with the necessary strategy and
tactics, was decisive. The general capitalist offensive, based
on changes in production methods and the world division of
labour, could only be successfully resisted on the basis of a
bold anti-capitalist programme - linking day-today demands to
the perspective of socialist change. Yet the union leaders,
following the social democratic leaders, in most cases accepted
the logic of the market.
In the former Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe there has, it is clear, been a devastating defeat for the
working class. The legacy of totalitarian Stalinism, which
allowed no element of independent working class democracy, is
the atomisation of the working class.
The recovery of working class forces
will take some time, especially in the former Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, we can already see the signs of a renewal of the
working class in recent industrial struggles in Poland,
Czechoslovakia, and other East European countries.
In the advanced capitalist countries,
however, the recent period has seen an almost continuous wave of
struggle against the capitalist offensive on living standards
and democratic rights. In both Italy and France for instance
there is a glaring contradiction between the relationship of
political forces, where right-wing parties have triumphed
against the ideologically bankrupt parties of the left, and the
balance of social forces, where mass workers' struggles have
successfully resisted onslaughts by big business and the state.
In Mexico, the Zapatista uprising,
which reflects profound discontent amongst a majority of the
urban and rural proletariat, triggered a collapse of the Mexican
'economic miracle', which in turn sent shock waves around the
The working class remains the decisive
force for change. They will not passively allow a worsening of
conditions, of mass unemployment and impoverishment, which are
clearly on the capitalists' agenda in the next period.
Moreover, the workers cannot resist
these barbarous conditions without challenging the whole system.
Far from seeing the end of the working class as a progressive
force, we are experiencing the beginning of a new phase of
struggle. The crisis within the traditional workers' parties is
clearing the ground for a renewal of anti-capitalist, socialist
There will also be a process of
democratisation and renewal within the trade unions. Far from
being eclipsed by the 'new middle class', the working class will
increasingly draw behind it wide sections of the middle strata
of society, who are themselves being squeezed and in reality
proletarianised by the capitalist crisis.
The programme of socialism
THE ATTRACTIVE POWER of socialist
ideas, for reasons outlined, has undoubtedly been weakened in
recent years. But this will be the transitory effect of a
Consciousness, especially of the newer
generation of workers and youth, will be determined by current
conditions and the events which will unfold.
As struggles develop, the more active
workers and youth will be impelled to search for an
anti-capitalist programme -which can only be formulated in
Paradoxically, today there is a level
of social tension, political protest, and youth rebellion
unprecedented in the post-war period. The fragmented character
of the movements to which this gives rise is primarily due to
the political bankruptcy of the traditional mass organisations.
But the struggles of different layers
of workers, together with the phenomena of 'new social
movements', are a response to the various symptoms of capitalist
decline. It is impossible to defend living standards and
democratic rights, to halt the devastation of the environment,
let alone end the various bloody conflicts internationally,
without confronting the power of the capitalist class.
Those who accept the market as an
eternal form of social organisation are, in reality, condemning
the majority of society to a future of increased social
polarisation, mass impoverishment, and the reappearance of
barbarous conditions of oppression and conflict.
Acceptance of the 'market' means
acceptance of the domination of world production and trade by a
small handful of big capitalist monopolies, the determination of
social priorities by their drive for profits, and the 'organisation'
of economic life by the anarchic market of capitalism.
The only viable alternative to this
remains the socialist planned economy, not on the Stalinist
model, but on the basis of international planning and democratic
workers' management and control. On such a basis, science and
technology could be applied to production in a balanced way, to
meet human needs and for the harmonious development of society
in the interests of the majority.
Only on this basis will the fundamental
contradictions of capitalism - private ownership of the means of
production and the division of the world economy into ultimately
antagonistic national economies - be overcome, thus eliminating
the fundamental roots of oppression and conflict.
Our task, through intervention in
struggle and a dialogue with the workers and youth, is to
elaborate a socialist programme which will effectively provide a
guide to action and re-establish the authority of genuine
Marxism. Unless we are to capitulate to a barbarous capitalism
we must fight for a socialist future.
In 2006 Lynn reviewed the first 100
issues of Socialism Today:
WHEN WE launched Socialism Today in
1995, we outlined a number of key issues and ideas that we
believed should be the main themes to be developed in the
Today, September 1995 | Home