Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Renewing of Socialism by John Bellamy Foster

Articles in Monthly Review often end by invoking the socialist
alternative to capitalism. Readers in recent years have frequently
asked us what this means. Didn't socialism die in the twentieth
century? Wasn't it defeated by capitalism? More practically: if
socialism is still being advocated what kind of socialism is it? Are
we being utopian in the sense of advancing a pleasant but impossible

Such questions deserve answers, however tentative. That we have
largely neglected to provide them up until now has been due more to
our sense of history than anything else. After the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later it
was difficult to address the question of socialism for at least two
reasons: (1) its almost complete identification in the popular mind
with the fallen Soviet system; and (2) the triumphalist vision of
capitalism that was paraded at the time. Since these beliefs were
more a product of prevailing ideology than reality, we concluded that
history would soon begin to dissolve them and the question of
socialism would again come to the fore. A wide and open dialogue on
the future of socialism could then begin anew. That time we are
convinced is now upon us. Moreover, the danger to the world of not
countering the mantra that "there is no alternative" to capitalism is
now too great, given persistent problems of economic stagnation, the
growth of empire and war, and the threat of ecological collapse.

"The legacy of socialism," Paul Sweezy wrote in Monthly Review in
January 1993, "consists in its being the real-life alternative to
capitalism. On the world-historical stage it plays the role of the
significant other. This is not to deny that the leading ideas of
socialism—equality and cooperation as against hierarchy and
competition—are part of socialism's legacy. But they are not unique
to socialism, and historically, they long antedate socialism. In one
way or another, they figure in all of humanity's great religious

Socialism as a socio-political movement grew out of the attempt to
overcome capitalism that has been part of world history ever since
capitalism's emergence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It
was prefigured by the Peasants' War of the Anabaptists and Thomas
Münzer during the German Reformation of the sixteenth century. It
appeared again in the movement of Winstanley and the Diggers in the
English Revolution of the seventeenth century. It raised its head
once more with Gracchus Babeuf and the Equals in the French
Revolution of the eighteenth century. It was Babeuf and his Equals
who argued in 1795–96 that "equality must be measured by the capacity
of the worker and the need of the consumer, not by the intensity of
the labor and the quantity of things consumed."1 Karl Marx was later
to say this even more succinctly in his famous slogan in the Critique
of the Gotha Programme—"from each according to his abilities, to each
according to his needs!"—offered as the ultimate criterion of
socialist or communist society. What all of these early movements of
revolt called for was substantive equality, abolishing class and
other social distinctions, and going beyond the mere formal political
equality offered by bourgeois society. In opposition to the growth of
private property they advocated common ownership of the means of

The term "socialism" first made its appearance in France following
the French Revolution in relation to the ideas of the great utopian
socialists, Charles Fourier and Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, and was
soon embraced by the Owenite movement in Britain led by industrialist
Robert Owen. The utopian socialists saw capitalism as historically
transitory, destined to perish just as feudalism had before it, and
believed that it would be replaced by a society of true equality and
the full flowering of human reason. Writing at the moment that
industrial capitalism and an industrial working class were emerging
in Britain (where a full-scale industrial revolution was underway)
and in France, the criticisms of capitalism's evils by the utopian
socialists were often trenchant. Fourier wrote that "under
civilization [i.e., capitalism] poverty is borne of super-abundance
itself." In industrial capitalism's place they advocated far-reaching
reform in factory conditions, education, the situation of women, the
relation between town and country, etc.

The visions offered by the utopian socialists, however, lacked a
systematic conception of the causes of the material conditions that
they described or the real class obstacles to social change. Although
sympathizing with the working class, they did not yet see the workers
as the main agents of socialist transformation. Owen ended his Book
of the New Moral World with an appeal to King William IV of Britain
in which he said: "under your reign, Sire, the change from this
system, with all its evil consequences, to another founded on self-
evident truths, ensuring happiness to all, will, in all probability,
be achieved." Fourier announced that he would be home at noon every
day to await a wealthy benefactor who would provide the money for a
colony that would implement the principles of his new society. He
waited twelve years in vain. Followers of Saint-Simon declared in
their organ, The Globe, on November 28, 1831: "The working classes
cannot rise unless the upper classes reach out their hand. It is from
these latter that the initiative must come."2

While the utopian socialists ultimately reached out to the ruling
classes to support their ideas, more revolutionary movements arose
from the practical struggles of industrial workers themselves, who
not infrequently saw their own class action as the means of
overturning the new system of exploitation. It fell to Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels, born in the relatively developed Rhineland in 1818
and 1820, respectively, and equipped with the dialectical tools of
analysis offered by Hegelian philosophy, to provide this burgeoning
working-class movement with a systematic critique of capitalism,
identifying its driving force in capital accumulation as well as the
obstacles that faced any attempt to move beyond it. So superior was
their analysis to that of the utopian visions that had preceded it
that it quickly became the leading theoretical basis for socialism.
With this as its intellectual basis socialism took on the character
of a historically-based movement for revolutionary change and a real
threat to the existing capitalist order.

The socialist movement spread throughout the nineteenth century,
following in capitalism's footsteps across the globe. Workers'
revolts occurred on occasion, most notably in the Paris Commune of
1870–71, while huge socialist parties developed—officially dedicated
to overturning capitalism—with the Social Democratic Party in Germany
the most prominent. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was
already clear, to quote from the same article by Sweezy, that "the
future of humanity would be shaped by the outcome of a bitter and
most likely protracted struggle between capitalism and its internally
generated opposition."

This conflict between capitalism and its internally-generated
antagonist was, however, enormously complicated by imperialism. From
the beginning capitalism was a global system, expanding into the
Americas, Asia, and Africa through a relentless process of
colonization that also involved slavery and genocide. Capitalism had
arisen in a small corner of the globe in Europe and immediately took
the form of a hierarchy of states, in which there was a definite
center and periphery with intermediate states in between. At its
center the system was structured according to its own internal
requirements of production and consumption. In the colonized areas of
the periphery economies were geared almost exclusively to the needs
of the "mother country." This structural relationship was accompanied
by conditions of outright pillage—with the whole system maintained
ultimately by the superior force that the imperialist countries were
able to bring to bear to protect their interests. The natural
resources of the periphery were plundered and the economic surplus
that these nations produced was frequently siphoned away. Colonial or
neocolonial satellites were placed in conditions of debt peonage with
the capitalist metropoles acting as creditors. In this way the
countries that first industrialized retained an advantageous position
at the center of the world economy, while the barriers facing other
nations seeking to develop and to escape a peripheral position within
the world-economic system were enormous and for most countries grew
worse over time. Indeed for almost all of these nations the barriers
separating center from periphery have proven insurmountable over the
centuries of capitalist development.

As a result of the growth of capitalist empire and the resulting flow
of tribute from periphery to center, the internationalism so
important to socialist struggles frequently broke down. Considerable
segments of the working classes of Britain, France, the United
States, Germany, Italy, etc. supported the expansion of their
respective empires under the belief that it improved the positions of
their nations and themselves. Eventually, as imperialist wars for
control of world territory led to the First World War, the working
classes of the advanced capitalist countries subordinated themselves
en masse to the imperial goals of their states and corporations. The
leading socialist parties, such as the German Social Democratic
Party, capitulated overnight to nationalistic war fever, thereby
abandoning socialist internationalism and giving way to what was to
be a major fratricidal conflict.

This capitulation to nationalism by the major social democratic
parties, driven in part by the self-interest of their leaders,
created a deep and unbridgeable split within the socialist movement.
Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, standing for the most radical and defiant
sections of German Social Democracy and Russian Social Democracy,
respectively, opposed the First World War, arguing instead for
socialist internationalism. The Russian Revolution of 1917, erupting
in the midst of the First World War, was spurred forward by the
socialist leadership of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The rise of
the Soviet Union constituted a turning point in world history: the
first attempt on the part of a major state to overthrow capitalism
and create a socialist society.

No comments: