October 19, 1999

The Future of Socialism

By Jeremy Cronin <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels realised one and a half centuries ago that
the future of socialism was intimately linked to the future of capitalism. 
Browse the Communist Manifesto (written in 1848) and you may be surprised
to find it is, in part, a eulogy to capitalism.  It praises capitalism's
spirit of innovation, its restless energy that spans the world and creates
the basis for global unity for the first time in human history. 

There is just one problem.  All of this impressive dynamism is driven, not
by global solidarity, but by private profit-taking.  The Marxist vision of
a communist future was, then, not about the abolition of all that
capitalism was building, but about socialising the possibilities manifest
in the first great wave of globalisation 150 years ago.  If socialism is
to have a future, then it has to re-connect with this original thought. 

A discussion of the future of socialism must also address itself candidly
to the immediate past of socialism.  In the 20th century there have been
two major socialist projects. The one, in key parts of the developed
North, was social democracy.  The other, largely in the East and South,
took inspiration from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.  These two currents
split, in the course of the First World War, what had been a common
international socialist movement. 

The differences between them have often been noted.  The one nurtured for
some 25 years after World War 2 welfare states that achieved admirable
levels of civilisation. The other, in the name of "communism", led vast
and often authoritarian Third World modernisation programmes in the
formerly feudal Eurasian expanses of a Russia and China. 

Less remarked upon are the similarities in both the social democratic and
communist projects of our century.  Both were focused, rather exclusively,
on state power as a commanding height to be captured, by election or
insurrection.  Both came to be associated with narrow party political
projects, straying into bureaucratisation and away from the pluralistic,
social movement base that had been a feature of 19th century socialism. 

Both have also foundered, to some extent, on the increasing globalisation
of production.  The cross-class social pacts that underpinned the welfare
state were, by the mid-1970s, increasingly dumped by Swedish or German
capitalists.  These national bourgeoisies, having retrieved
competitiveness, thanks to post-war, state-led, national reconstruction
programmes, now preferred to reap super-profits in the Third World, rather
than paying taxes for social infrastructure at home. 

On the other side, the attempt to build socialism in one country, and then
in one bloc, collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s.  The walls, built to
keep capitalism out, became prison walls for the communist project itself. 

If socialism is to have a future, it cannot be based on a mechanical
repetition of its own recent past. 

But what about capitalism?  It has proved to be remarkably resilient
through this century.  But I agree with a growing body of international
opinion - ranging from Fidel Castro to George Soros - that despite its
seeming vitality, contemporary capitalism is in a deep-seated systemic

In brief, this crisis, which dates back to 1973, is one of several long
cycle (as distinct from shorter business cycle) downturns in the world
capitalist economy.  As with similar periods of structural crisis -
1825-45, 1872-92, and 1929-48 - at heart, it is a crisis of
over-accumulation and declining profitability. 

Historically, capitalism has surpassed these crises through the mass
destruction of capital (in war), through externalising costs by depleting
the environment and plundering non-renewable resources, by frenetically
intensifying production, and by extending production to new areas of the
globe in which work forces are non-unionised and labour is cheap. 

In an era of nuclear weapons, of growing and irreparable environmental
degradation, and of new union movements from South Korea to Brazil, each
of these options is increasingly foreclosed. 

More than in previous systemic crises, we have also seen over the last 25
years the dramatic "financialisation" of the global economy - the real
economy of production is now dangerously dwarfed by a casino economy,
involving vast flows of speculative hot money.  These flows are both a
response to, and a frightening symptom of the present crisis. 

We cannot go on like this.  But that does not mean humanity will realise
in time, with sufficient coherence and purpose, that the private and
corporate profit-taking logic, that still drives our world, is also
driving us all over the edge. 

Capitalist crises give birth to a range of responses - many of them
entirely negative, like fascism and nazism in the 1930s, or xenophobic
religious fundamentalism in the present. 

The future of socialism lies in joining with a wide array of progressive
forces - with those concerned about the environment, or global inequality,
or preserving and deepening democratic institutions, or overcoming gender
oppression, or with those who, perhaps from religious conviction, are
alarmed at the commercialisation of social relations and the loss of human

While socialism requires, no doubt, dedicated political parties, it needs
also to broaden, pluralise and socialise itself in a shared project of
human civilisation.  That is its future. 

Jeremy Cronin
Deputy General Secretary,
South African Communist Party


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