Socialism or barbarism in the 21st century?

People’s World Series on Socialism

Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here

First Frederick Engels, then Rosa Luxemburg, and subsequently many others have expressed the choice before humanity as being “socialism or barbarism.” Luxemburg used this formulation at the beginning of the First World War (writing in 1915) when it was already clearly the most barbarous event that Europe, at least, had seen up to that time. She also forecast that if the socialist project of the world working class did not advance, a “second world war” (her term) would be the result, with even greater barbarism. This was prescient, but Luxemburg did not live to see it, as she was murdered by former German Imperial cavalry guard officers in January of 1919. 

We, 101 years later, had better understand that the same stark choice confronts the whole of humanity today. Our thinking about a socialist future, what it would be like and how to achieve it, acquires its urgency from this fact.

The worldwide crisis

Life for most of our planet’s 7.4 billion inhabitants is not getting better during the present “neoliberal” phase of capitalism. Three billion people live on under $2.50 per day. Inequality is increasing between wealthier and poorer capitalist nations, and within these nations as well. Capitalism is not “developing” the poorer nations. On the contrary, to borrow a term of the late Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney, in important ways capitalism is “underdeveloping” them, by imposing economic models that undermine their hard-won national sovereignty, trash their environments, and push their people further into poverty. As monopoly capital extracts more wealth from the poorer countries, longstanding problems of inequality, poverty, mortality and morbidity from preventable diseases, hunger, and malnutrition are in many cases exacerbated instead of ameliorated.

The ability of poorer countries to feed themselves is severely impacted, first of all by the rapacious behavior of transnational agribusiness and other monopolies. In their never-ending search for profits, they drive food producers off the land, turn the purpose of agriculture away from feeding the people and toward feeding their own profits, and transform countries that were once net exporters of food into net importers. Massive droughts that are, in all likelihood, caused or exacerbated by human-generated global warming complete this process. Right now, Central America is in the middle of such a drought which is impoverishing thousands of farmers and forcing many into the migrant stream. This phenomenon is also seen in Syria, the African Sahel, and other areas.

The economic and environmental crises contribute to instability and violent conflict. At present, such forces are driving a level of migration by economic and political refugees on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Millions of people are on the move within a large number of countries, and between the poorer more unstable countries and the wealthier countries of the West. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and various African countries are entering Europe, while refugees and desperate economic migrants from Central America and the Caribbean arrive in the United States. Authorities in the wealthier countries do not recognize the connection between their own pro-corporate foreign policies and the increase in the number of migrants and refugees, but rather see all these people as an immigration policing “problem.” And in each country, demagogic, nationalistic, and racist right-wing politicians whip up fear of newcomers as a means of advancing their own political careers, creating a new danger of fascism.

The capitalist mode of production in its 2016 version is breaking down from the point of view of the environment and of the sustainability of resources: food, fuel, and water all included. Production is carried out with the purpose of creating exchange values (commodities to be sold for profit), not use values (things that human beings really need to survive). The crisis in the food supply, the constant worry (and conflict) about fuel supplies and prices, and in many areas, the crisis even in the supply of water for drinking, bathing, and agriculture, are all related to the capitalist drive for profits which leads, often, to extremely destructive extractive processes.

The current neoliberal system of international monopoly capitalism is also unsustainable from the point of view of financial stability. In their drive for more and more profits, capitalists have created levels of sovereign, corporate, and private indebtedness that threatens the world with a crash that will make 2008 look like child’s play.

The capitalists are not going to resolve these situations, which arise from the very nature of capitalist development itself. It is going to be up to us, the world’s 99 percent, to act to stop the developing perfect storm of environmental, fiscal, and human disasters. 

This is what Michael Lebowitz means by the title of his book, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (2015, Monthly Review Press). It is exactly what Rosa Luxemburg meant by “socialism or barbarism.”

This is the urgent task before us.

Socialism is a process 

The nature of the socialism of the future cannot be separated from the process whereby it is brought into existence and kept going. To think that a pristine, Platonic ideal of socialism can be pre-conceptualized or “invented” and then “installed,” like a new computer app, is to engage in utopian fantasies. Socialism is a process which we are going to have to fight through. A process in which we will see, no doubt, many defeats, many reverses, and many mistakes as we go along.

But to have any chance of success in getting and maintaining socialism, there will be certain essential requirements.

First, the working class and its allies will have to reach an unprecedented level of unity in action, and thus in power. That means that central to the struggle for socialism will be a struggle against racism, national chauvinism, sexism, homophobia, and all other things that divide the working class and the masses. This struggle cannot “wait” until socialism is “achieved first;” that was a mistake made by some social democrats in this country and perhaps others at the beginning of the 20th Century. As the Communist Party at the time pointed out, the struggle against racism must be advanced or the working class will never be united and thus socialism never achieved. The same goes for racism in our time, and for all the other negative “isms.”  And these struggles have to continue even under socialism, if we are to keep it.

Secondly, the power of the largest monopolies will have to be overcome by struggle. This means, also, that their control over the state apparatus will have to be successfully challenged. As always, class struggle is the only road to socialism, and there are no short cuts.

Thirdly, the struggle is international. The power of the one percent is based on their controlling position over the economy of the entire planet, not just of the United States. This control gets more complete every year, with the weaving of a thick, tightly constricting spider web of treaties, rules, and agreements among the nations, all favoring monopoly capital. This of course makes it extremely hard, especially for poor countries, to break away from the neoliberal trap, as Jayati Ghosh points out. Therefore, the struggle for socialism must deal with the international dimension, i.e. imperialism. A struggle to get and keep socialism in the United States is by necessity an anti-imperialist struggle because corporate power is imperial.

Fourth, the working class is at the center of the socialist process but is not the whole of humanity; therefore, the politics of other classes and sectors have to be taken into account also. Tactical and strategic alliances with non-working class sectors will be essential not only in the lead up to socialism but afterward as well. Some would be interested in going all the way to socialism, others only part of the way, but flexibility and a non-sectarian approach are essential at every stage.

How to keep socialism going once we have it?

One dare not let the old ruling class reconstitute its economic and political power, which it will try to do on a worldwide scale. Power is money and money is power, and the monopoly of one will always lead to the monopoly of the other. The current ruling class of the world is the most powerful and wealthiest concentration the world has ever seen, and it won’t pass into history quietly.

Models of “socialism” which consist, basically, of the state providing the working class and poor (from tax revenues and the like) with higher pay and better services, will fail. Only with the greatest of qualifications can such models be considered socialist at all. This way of building socialism does not work because it does not deal with the issue of power not just in distribution, but in the production process itself; nor does it deal with the international dimensions of corporate ruling class power. And never forget that what the ruling class concedes under pressure, it can take back when the pressure lets up – which may happen when difficulties arise for the socialists. 

So socialism must entail the complete socialization of the major aspects of the productive economy, not just the redistribution of the product. And while it is utopian to think you could have socialism without a fairly strong socialist state, we must also learn from some of the negative experiences of Soviet and Eastern European socialism.

Workers have to have real, not just notional, control of the means of production, and understand that it is in their hands to make or break. The Soviet Union and the other European socialist states accomplished many positive things. But when the crisis came at the end of the 1980s, apparently many workers did not think that the socialist system was something that belonged to them and that they therefore must defend. There were even some workers who sided with the forces that were working to dismantle socialism. 

The socialist state must have delimited functions but must not be put in the position of Santa Claus, a benevolent mythical figure bringing gifts for all. In the economic and political fields, socialism must be socialized production, socialized distribution, and socialized control and management throughout, or it will fail. 

Socialism is not just an economic and political process, though. It must be seen as the transformation of the entire social formation – to use Marxist terms, both the base (means and relations of production) and the superstructure (social and political system, values etc.).

One problem that undermined Soviet and Eastern European socialism was that while the state controlled most of the economy, too many people in positions of power and influence retained bourgeois values of individualistic striving for material rewards. This is analyzed by Michael Lebowitz in another book of his, Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted (Monthly Review Press, 2012). In it, he points out how the incentive system used in Soviet enterprise management undermined even such a “rational, scientific” thing as economic planning.

This was possible because even in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to which most managers belonged, the level of revolutionary consciousness was, it seems, not enough to prevent key people from succumbing to careerist temptations. The system of incentives for managers played into this deficiency. According to Lebowitz, the result was stagnation and cynicism, and a discrediting of the socialist system and its leadership, including the Communist Party itself.

Socialism and the environment

The socialism of the future, wherever it is achieved next, will have to face the immediate urgency of the environmental crisis, with the related problem of sustainability of the resources needed for life. As I have noted, this will not be resolved within the context of capitalism, but we cannot assume, either, that socialism will automatically resolve it. Again, Soviet and Eastern European socialism accomplished many things, but also saw the Chernobyl disaster, the drying up of the Aral Sea, and other environmental disasters.

This will be a huge challenge to the socialism of the future, because you also cannot have socialism without a modern industrial productive system, and modern industrial productive systems run on huge amounts of energy and produce huge quantities of waste byproducts. For the billions who currently live on under $2.50 per day, failing to raise their material living standards is not an option.

For example, in the field of public health, not only do doctors and nurses have to be trained and deployed, but infrastructure in remote areas has to be built up and transportation systems improved, or we will see many repeats of the Ebola virus epidemic that hit West Africa in 2014.  In that situation, and no doubt others to come, many died unnecessarily and the disease was spread partly because the infrastructures of the nations involved were too poorly developed to get health care to remote communities and patients to hospitals.

Housing, schools, hospitals, clinics, irrigation systems, transportation systems, and more will have to be radically improved all over the world, and that requires many kinds of material resources. This cannot help but have a big environmental impact; the trick will be to minimize the harm.

The move from production for the creation of commodity values to production for the creation of use values will be central to the socialist effort to create greener ways of doing things, without consumerism but rather with the promise of a life of modest dignity for all. Socialism of the future will have to find ways, technological and other, to produce everything needed by the human race more sustainably, efficiently, and cleanly than under the present capitalist system. That means that scientific socialism will have to be really, really scientific in every sense.

Finally, we have to learn from the experiences of workers and their allies in other nations. This means jettisoning silly notions like “American exceptionalism.” While we build international working class and all-people’s solidarity for socialism, we must study what is happening in every other part of the world, and take lessons both from other people’s triumphs and their defeats. We are all in the same boat, and all need each other’s solidarity.

It is indeed a question of “socialism or barbarism.” Capitalism cannot continue on its present course, and if socialism is not achieved, worse forms of capitalism may replace the present one. That raises the possibility of a “second coming” of fascism. That would be barbarism indeed.

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. He was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966 and is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.