Some thoughts on the debate over the transition to Socialism
On the topic Scientific Socialism: experiences and contributions for its construction in the Twenty-first Century
Submitted by Miguel Figueroa, Leader, Communist Party of Canada to the International Ideological Seminar hosted by the Communist Party of Venezuela, Caracas, July 2006
Let me begin by expressing our Party’s appreciation to our host, the Communist Party of Venezuela for convening this Seminar. We sincerely believe that the results of this forum, and of the Twelfth Congress itself will make a meaningful contribution to the work of all Communist and revolutionary parties and movements around the world. The theme “Socialism in the Twenty-first Century” is especially appropriate given that it is precisely here in Venezuela where the working class and popular forces are setting out to build a new socialist society, the first such socialist project of the new century. I’m sure that I speak for all the fraternal delegates and parties in saying that ‘we are with you 100%, and confident that the Bolivarian Revolution and socialism will triumph!’
But we also know that in some quarters, the expression ‘new socialism’ is advanced to differentiate it in an opportunist way from the ‘old socialism’, to negate not just the errors and failings, but indeed to negate all that was attempted and achieved in the past, and to present in its place a denuded, vulgarized and impoverished conception of socialism, stripped of much of its essential content. We must categorically reject such an approach.
Like many other Communist Parties, our Party went through a protracted period of reflection following the catastrophic overturning of socialism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, culminating in the adoption of our new party program in 2001. On the basis of that analysis and discussion, we placed special emphasis on our evolving conception of socialism, particularly with respect to the democratic content of socialist construction and development. But we also reaffirmed what we believe to be the essential aspects or features of the socialist alternative, namely:
(1) that although socialism can and must involve all social forces that can be united in its construction, the process must be led by the working class and its political representatives;
(2) that the socialist alternative must be deeply imbued with the principles of equality, social justice and internationalism;
(3) that the working class and its allies have the democratic right and also the responsibility to defend socialism in the face of resistance from its class enemies – domestic and external; and
(4) that the economic foundation of socialism must be based on the systematic transformation by degrees of ownership relations from private to social.
It is on this final point – ownership relations – that I would like to focus the balance of my remarks. It is universally understood that the transformation of the economic base of society from predominantly private monopoly control over the means of production to social forms of ownership – including state, municipal, cooperative and other forms – cannot be accomplished overnight. In fact, the term “by degrees” comes directly from the Communist Manifesto itself. But by how many degrees, and of what duration between each step or phase of transformation? Many left social democrats also claim to support social ownership but insist that changes in ownership relations must be extremely gradual and incremental in character.
Certainly every revolutionary process is distinct, and the line of advance cannot be charted without a sober assessment of its unique features and unpredictable circumstances. That said, a muddled or vacillating understanding of the transition process can quickly blur the line of demarcation between a revolutionary and a reformist approach.
One of the favoured topics of the advocates of “new thinking” in the (former) Communist Party of the Soviet Union dealt with the problems associated with socialist construction in today’s worlds. It was argued that changes in the modern global economy, combined with empirical evidence pointing to the “failure” of state planning in the USSR and other socialist countries, suggested that the capacity of working-class-led revolutionary and “socialist-oriented” governments to actually transform socio-economic relations along socialist lines has become more complicated and that henceforth, the “transition phase” to socialism would be much more protracted and gradual in character. Although such views were often presented in a qualified way, they invariably cast doubt on the very possibility of building the economic base of socialism – at least in the short and medium term.
The essentially reformist, counter-revolutionary ideas of the proponents of “new thinking” created a great deal of uncertainty and ideological confusion within the international communist movement at the time; not because such ideas were particularly new – they had surfaced in various forms many times over the past century or more – but because they emanated from theoreticians who ostensibly arrived at their conclusions using the tools of Marxist-Leninist analysis.
The crisis and subsequent overturning of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the accelerated drive by finance capital and the imperialist countries to impose a new “economic architecture” regionally and globally have sharpened the ideological debate over transition and even the possibility of socialist transformation under the new prevailing conditions.
In recent years, a loosely-defined “school” of left social-democrats, post-modernists, development theorists and disheartened “post-communists” – some of whom still claim to operate from a Marxist perspective – have picked up and advanced the thesis that the construction of socialism, although the preferred alternative to rampant capitalism, is simply not an attainable goal today and for the foreseeable future. The corollary thesis (not always openly stated) is that therefore the working class and the progressive forces must “focus” their efforts on winning limited social and economic reforms in order to mitigate the worst effects of the dominant neoliberal agenda of capitalist “globalization”.
In order to shore up their pessimistic and cynical conclusions, this reformist “school” point to the following phenomena:
the largest transnational corporations and financial institutions have substantially increased in both the size and the reach of their activity around the world, greatly increasing their economic power and hence their political influence within individual states, and in the relations between states;
the growing penetration of international finance capital into domestic markets has led to the emergence of a new international division of labour which has increased the relative importance of external trade in relation to domestic production and consumption;
the increased mobility of capital – both domestically-based and foreign-controlled – and the impact of financial and currency speculation have rendered national economies and governments much more vulnerable to external economic, technological and political intimidation and blackmail; and
the absence of a large bloc of socialist countries (such as the COMECON) has removed any viable economic alternative for fledgling progressive and revolutionary states to rely upon (or a global force to help protect such states militarily from imperialist aggression).
These points are usually combined with a ruthless critique of the known economic and structural problems associated with the construction of socialism in the USSR and the other countries of “real, existing socialism”: rigidities and breakdowns in the system of central planning; wage-levelling and other distortions in the determination of value under socialism; serious lags in technological innovation (despite remarkable scientific breakthroughs); imbalances in the development of various economic sectors (particularly in the production of consumer goods and the provision of services); and so on.
The inevitable conclusion reached by this reformist analysis: the ability of the working class and its revolutionary vanguard to undertake fundamental transformative measures of a socialist character will be severely limited, given the prevailing economic and political “realities”. A gloomy picture indeed!
Clearly, many of the above observations and critiques cannot be easily dismissed. Lenin counselled that we must always look reality squarely in the eye, and never replace objective truth with our subjective wishes. As Communists, we must carefully evaluate the new features of the current “phase” of the development of imperialism in charting the advance toward, and the building of socialism. This implies, among other things, the need to take stock of the changed international economic, political and military environment in which revolutionary change proceeds in any given country, even after state power is secured.
However it would be a fatal error for the Communists to concede any ideological ground to the pessimistic arguments and defeatist conclusions of this reformist “school” of analysis – arguments and conclusions rooted in an exaggerated assessment of the power of finance capital, and a gross underestimation of, and disdain for the capacity of the working class and revolutionary forces to advance, even in the face of an admittedly hostile and complicated international environment.
It is of course one thing to reject out of hand this “analysis” which reflects both the timidity and fear of a coward, and the hopelessness and despair of a petit-bourgeois; it is quite another thing to substantiate that rejection on the basis of rigorous scientific facts and analysis. This is an essential front in the “battle of ideas” today, because such pessimistic reformist views have a certain resonance with sections of the working class and oppressed masses of the people, who after all are bombarded daily with bourgeois propaganda – an ideological “shock and awe” barrage designed to convince the people of the omnipotence of capital, to which there is no alternative. And this ideological offensive is reinforced constantly in the minds of workers when they see their factories closed and their livelihoods “outsourced” to distant lands; when peasants and agrarian workers see the prices of their commodities cut, and the costs of their production soar, due to the vagaries of “global market forces”, etc.
It is precisely because of the need to counter this demobilizing effect of bourgeois and reformist ideology about the pre-eminence of finance capital and of the powerlessness of the masses to defeat that power and forge a fundamentally different, socialist society, that it is vital for our movement to undertake more extensive research and analysis on this set of questions. As a point of departure, we might consider the following points for further research:
On the mobility of Capital – there is no question that capital is more mobile today than previously; however the true extent of that mobility is greatly exaggerated. There is an increasing wealth of experience of governments and people successfully restricting that mobility, and of taking practical steps (such as the ALBA) to limit the vulnerability of states to economic blackmail by transnational monopoly capital. And there are certain sectors of the domestic economy which, by their very nature, are less susceptible to “capital strikes”, such as the resource sector and much of the service sector.
On the issue of Plannification – the claim that collective forms of economic planning – central, regional and local – are inherently inferior and doomed to failure as compared to the capacity of the “free market” to allocate resources and determine “value” is a cornerstone of the continuing ideological offensive against socialism. And yet even the most centralized forms of state planning in the former Soviet Union achieved many great successes, as well as failures and disproportions. The historical record of the experiences of the USSR and other socialist countries – both past and present – needs to be set straight on the basis of sound, objective research. What’s more, the technological basis of previous planning efforts needs to be placed in its proper context. Today, the large monopolies effectively use “just in time” production technologies and techniques to instantaneously adjust production targets and product lines in keeping with consumer preferences. Naturally, these methods are used to maximize profit, and take place within the context of the overall anarchy of production under capitalism, but how could such techniques be implemented today and in the future to strengthen the efficiency of socialist forms of planning?
On the growth of the Working Class : Socialism in the twenty-first century will be built by a working class which is larger, stronger, and more experienced than ever before. It is true that there are ongoing changes – sometimes quite dramatic – in the composition of the working class from country to country, but overall the working class is growing in both size and maturity in every country in the world. It is more educated, and more politically and socially aware. Of course, there are subjective factors relating to the level of class consciousness which continue to hold back its advance in many countries, but when aroused and mobilized to the point of capturing state power, that working class will invariably be a much stronger material force in undertaking and leading the fundamental transformation to socialism.
On the military aggressiveness of Imperialism: Every revolutionary process today, and in the foreseeable future, will have to contend with the threat of aggression form the imperialist powers, especially U.S. imperialism, no longer inhibited by the counter-weight of the USSR and the socialist community of states. And yet despite this circumstance, the power of imperialism to militarily impose its dictat is not limitless; indeed, its vulnerabilities are becoming more and more apparent. Here too, greater analysis of the role of the world peace and anti-imperialist movement, together with practical efforts to strengthen these forces, is vital to help make these movements more of a material force in curbing and preventing imperialist aggression.
Finally, of course, is the power of real-life examples to prove that fundamental transformation along socialist lines is possible even under the current adverse international conditions: the continuing success of Socialist Cuba to defend and advance its Revolution in the face of immense and unrelenting imperialist efforts to destroy it; the heroic success of the Bolivarian Revolution to thwart continuing counter-revolutionary intrigues and bring about meaningful transformative changes in the interests of the working class and the people, on the road to socialism; and the exciting changes underway today in Bolivia to curb the power of foreign capital, to strengthen national sovereignty, and introduce fundamental reforms that serve the masses of the people.
A combination of theoretical work and practical deeds can show and are showing that in today’s world, not only is socialism possible, but also that socialism will triumph!