Marxism, the 21st Century and Social Transformation

This article was originally published on the website: Philosophers for Change,


A discussion of the future of socialism and social transformation must be grounded in two realities.  The first reality is the broader economic, environmental and state-legitimacy crises in which humanity finds itself.  In other words, the convergence of these three crises means that the necessity for a genuine Left capable of leading masses of people is more pressing than ever.  It means that while one cannot sit back and wait for the supposed “final” crisis of capitalism to open up doors to freedom — since capitalism is largely defined by its continual crises — it is the case that the convergence of these three crises brings with it a level of urgency unlike any that most of us have experienced.  Not only is there a need for a progressive, if not radical set of answers to these crises at the level of immediate reforms, but the deeper reality is that capitalism — as a system — is incapable of providing legitimate, sustainable answers to these crises, whether individually or collectively.

The second reality, and the central focus of this essay, is that any discussion of a progressive post-capitalist future must come to grips with the realization of the crisis of socialism in which every trend in the global Left has been encased.   This has been a crisis at the levels of vision, strategy, state power and organization.  It is a crisis that cannot be avoided by either a retreat to pre-Bolshevik Marxism or slipping into the abyss of post-modernism.  The reality of the crisis of socialism can only be avoided at our own peril.

The crisis of socialism can be said to have emerged in the context of the Stalinist hegemony over the international communist movement, creating challenges for the global Left (and not just the orthodox communist movement) at multiple levels.  One level has been that of the question of the post-capitalist socialist state.  The revelations regarding the authoritarian rule of the Stalinist Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) shattered the sense of a genuine socialist democracy, even if one applauded the social accomplishments of the Soviet Revolution and its courageous sacrifices in the struggle against fascism.

In addition to the question of the socialist state, there emerged also the question of socialist strategy.   There was the matter of strategy in what has come to be known as the “global South” and the “global North.”  In the global South, the Left-led national democratic revolutions, based on the alliance of workers and peasants, represented a major breakthrough in what had been a very Eurocentric Marxism.  The impact of the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban Revolutions, to name only three, not only reshaped Marxism, but also had an impact on other Left as well as progressive nationalist political tendencies.  Yet by the 8th decade of the 20th century, these revolutionary currents seemed to have stalled.  The Chinese Revolution, with the death of Mao, altered course and ultimately embraced what can only be described, non-rhetorically, as a capitalist road.  Movements and state systems that Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin has described as “national populist projects,” i.e., anti-imperialist projects led by elements of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie (and in some cases the national bourgeoisie) that never fully broke with capitalism, found themselves drifting either back toward the global North or following a cynical embrace of the Soviet bloc.

Strategy plagued Marxist-led movements in the global North.  Parties and movements that embraced social democracy all but abandoned anything other than the rhetoric of socialism and quite comfortably assumed the role of guardians of the welfare state under democratic capitalism.  In many cases such parties, e.g., the British Labour Party; the French Socialist Party, while championing progressive social legislation and popular rights in their respective nation-states, also advanced a rabid defense of ‘enlightened’ colonialism and imperial privilege for countries they came to govern.

Communist parties in the global North followed a different trajectory, but in general came to develop a strategy for achieving power based largely on a non-revolutionary interpretation of the theoretical approach of Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci.  This interpretation, what the Maoists considered “revisionism” and what many other revolutionary Leftists saw as simply patently reformist, involved a protracted and largely electoral route to power.  But this route, even when it involved the creation of alternative institutions, e.g., worker cooperatives, was very gradualist and rarely able to accommodate itself to sudden shifts in the mass movements.  In fact, this approach placed a premium on the control of mass movements, and in many cases, the pacification of such movements, e.g., the French Communist Party in 1968.  These parties, not always unlike those out of social democracy, while rhetorically anti-imperialist, were inconsistent in practicing anti-imperialism against their own state/empire.

Yet the radical challenges to reformist approaches to the struggle for power had their own sets of flaws.  For much of what came to be known as the radical or revolutionary Left, there was a failure to distinguish the political vs. the ideological struggle.  As a result, there was — and in many cases continues to be — a premium placed on purity.  The anti-capitalist struggle is all too often seen as the articulation of the “correct” direction and the denunciation of anything that is perceived as inconsistently revolutionary (that is, articulation by one or another super-revolutionary group-let or self-important individual).  Such an approach, even where it has gained appeal, has been temporary, grounded in subjectivism, and inevitably led to sectarianism, and ultimately marginalization.

The crisis of socialism has also played itself out at the level of Left organization.  In the social democratic tradition the tendency became clear even before World War I with the creation of mass parties that were almost alternative universes but where there was little internal democracy.  These parties were very self-contained but were not structured to even consider the possibility of a non-electoral struggle for socialism.

The communist tradition, on the other hand, largely based itself on the mythology of the Bolshevik Party, as advanced by the Stalinist bloc within the CPSU.  Admittedly this conception of the party was applied differently in different settings, but these parties tended to be highly centralized and frequently resistant to organized, principled internal struggle.[i]  That said, in many countries communist parties became truly mass parties with varying levels of internal participation and membership activities.  In the global North they moved away from a self-conception of being insurrectionist parties. In many countries these communist parties, particularly those influenced by Soviet Marxism, paid less and less attention to the lower strata of the working class and agricultural populations. The radical Left, in response, sought a pure form of revolutionary organization to stand in contrast to the so-called revisionist or reformist formations that they perceived were misleading the masses.  Such pure organizations were ideally suited for individuals in their teen years or twenties but not for those who had a more protracted view of struggle.  They were also not conceptualized in such a way that they could build the sorts of strategic alliances necessary in order to conduct a serious struggle for power.

Efforts at renewalThe crisis of socialism has met with various efforts at renewal since the 1950s.  Maoism, for instance, represented an effort, from the Left, to address the stagnation of Soviet-based Marxism and the bureaucratization of the Soviet state and party (and the resulting creation of a new, dominating class).[ii]  And while Maoism pushed the limits on Marxist-Leninist theory, it retreated at key moments, such as on the nature of the role of the masses in a revolutionary state, and the legitimacy (or otherwise) of a multi-party socialism.  Neo-Trotskyism saw itself also as a force for renewal.  Other Left tendencies that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Autonomists (in Italy and elsewhere), additionally positioned themselves as forces for socialist and/or Left renewal.

Despite the strengths of many of these tendencies, in the global South and global North, the fact remained that the radical Left failed to find a ‘remedy’ to the crisis of socialism, at least in its entirety.  Instead these political tendencies declined by the 1980s and while the case can certainly be made that there are countries where the Left movements of the 1960s have continued (and in some cases grown), as a global phenomenon there has been decline on the part of the radical Left that arose out of the 1960s/1970s, sometimes with the result that other non-left-wing, though seemingly radical currents have emerged to fill the void.

Yet a new set of Left renewal efforts began to surface beginning in the 1980s, sometimes introducing innovative theories and strategies while other times stalling (if not collapsing).  There is no consistency to such renewal efforts and they must all be understood in their particular circumstances.  That said, such efforts can be said to include but not be limited to:  the rectification efforts that took place in the Communist Party of the Philippines (beginning in the early 1990s); the collapse of the Italian Communist Party followed by the emergence of the Rifondazione Communista (Communist Refoundation) tendency;  the formation of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT); the rise of the Nepalese Maoists; the reformation within the South African Communist Party; liberation theology as it rose in both Latin America and, in a different variant, within the Black Freedom Movement in the USA; the emergence of Germany’s Die Linke (party of the Left); and more recently, pro-socialist movements in Latin America (advocating what they describe as being “21st Century Socialism”) as well as the construction of the Front de Gauche in France.

Regardless of the answers that they offered, what these and other efforts have shared in common has been a willingness to confront some of the major challenges in the crisis of socialism and move to articulate answers, and in some cases, new paths for exploration. This does not suggest that any of them have come up with ‘The Answer’ or that they have necessarily been correct in their analyses.  What is admirable is the courage at the level of theory to face what, to many, has been the Gorgon.  Several of these formations have been reexamining the role of electoral politics in the struggle for socialism, and more generally examining the alliances necessary in order to defeat capitalism and win a popular-democratic victory.  Some of the formations have been exploring the limits of armed struggle in the current age, particularly when contrasted with other forms of more non-violent though highly militant struggle.  And in almost every case, the limitations of the notion of a single, revolutionary party to both conduct the popular struggle but to also lead in a post-capitalist situation have been recognized, though what is left unanswered is the question of what are the real parameters that must exist for democratic, political discourse and action in a progressive, post-capitalist social formation.

These efforts at renewal have been largely within the context of the organized Left or what Chilean theoretician Marta Harnecker defines as the “party Left.”  Other efforts have emerged within progressive social movements, such as Brazil’s famous Landless Workers Movement (MST) or the poor people’s movements in South Africa.  What distinguishes these efforts is that they are largely initiated or led by a core of Leftists but not necessarily individuals affiliated with an existing national Left organization or party.  The leftists in these formations did not necessarily emerge themselves from these struggles but in either case have made these struggles and movements their base.  Their framework is also not necessarily one that involves an over-arching narrative or strategic orientation, though this does not mean that they are opposed to such frameworks/orientation.  Rather, their principal ‘universe’ is that specific social movement.  In these progressive social movements, however, they tend to push for what was once termed “non-reformist reforms” (Andre Gorz) that challenges the nature of the system.  Such reforms, it should be quickly noted, are not pie-in-the-sky or ideological platitudes.  Rather they exist as visionary but eminently practical mass actions for social transformation, albeit focused in one sector.

Left renewal efforts within this sector in part reflects disenchantment and skepticism concerning the capacity of the organized Left to address the questions that have emerged from within the crisis of socialism.  In Latin America, for instance, movements among the Indigenous and the African descendant populations have frequently concluded that Left party and party-type efforts have either ignored them outright or marginalized their issues in the name of class or national sovereignty.  In many cases, the Left’s leadership has lacked real representation and a base from within the Indigenous and African descendant populations, as well as from among women.

As a result the mass formations that have emerged in these progressive social movements are very different from parties. They seek autonomy from parties and are not particularly interested in being perceived as instruments of party formations.  Many of them will coalesce, certainly in defensive battles, but also for certain offensive struggles, but this is not necessarily the same thing as the building of a national Left front fighting for power.

Harnecker has correctly argued that the future for genuine renewal rests with the unity of the organized Left/party Left and the Left that exists within the social movements.  The ultimate nature of that unity remains a question, but this writer would suggest that it would necessarily be a party-like formation or front that exists at a higher level than a confederation.

We should add that another source of renewal that has existed in relationship to the Left of the social movements has been the global justice movement.  Weakened in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks (and the repression, both physical and ideological immediately following), the global justice movement launched a serious challenge to neo-liberal globalization.  The mass demonstrations, such as in Seattle (1999) and Quebec (2001), to name just two, opened up a public discourse on the manner in which wealth and power were reshaping the planet.

The 11th September attacks took the wind out of the sails of this movement, in part by making, at least in the USA, such mass expressions of outrage appear to be “unpatriotic.”  Additionally, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, increasingly repressive legislation was introduced throughout the capitalist world in order to weaken or suppress outright militant activism, all in the name of fighting alleged terrorism.  While the global justice movement was not crushed altogether, it had to shift gears.  Some elements of it made a successful transition into the global anti-war movements against US aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some have been mobilized around Palestine and the growing Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement.  But the thrust of the anti-neo-liberal globalization effort was blunted and no longer a focal point of discussion, at least until relatively recently.

The Arab democratic uprising and the rise of mass Left radicalismThe reshaping of the global Left, and quite possibly global politics, may have been found in the Arab democratic uprising (what some call the “Arab Spring” or Arab Democratic Revolution) that kicked off with the December 2010 rising in Tunisia. Though none of these uprisings can be described as “Left”, at least in traditional terms, and though in some places the Left played a role in the uprisings, e.g., Tunisia, the scale and scope of the uprisings has been so significant so as to send shockwaves around the planet that go beyond the Left.  In effect these uprisings were anti-neo-colonial and objectively anti-neo-liberal.  They were mass and were not religiously inspired (though drew upon various faiths for inspiration).[iii]  And, contrary to many prior risings in the Arab World, they were not coups but rather were mass interventions that in many cases brought normal life to a halt.

The Arab democratic uprisings altered discussions about politics and resistance, much as did the Paris Commune in 1871.  The Paris Commune took the world by surprise.  It was a mass intervention rather than a coup in the middle of a crisis.  It was popular and democratic, and a rising of the urban poor and disenfranchised.  Both became major sources of inspiration.  And both raised or have raised significant questions regarding the struggle for power.  In the case of the Arab risings, the despairing populations in Europe and later the USA found encouragement in the scale of opposition to tyranny.  While the Arab risings were primarily aimed against authoritarian puppet regimes, the risings that started to spread across Europe (and later the USA in the form of both the Madison, Wisconsin demonstrations of early 2011 and later the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together Movement) were against economic tyranny.

The risings in Europe and the USA, although inspired by the Arab democratic uprising, illustrated the emergence of another, albeit complicated source of Left renewal, something we could define as mass Left radicalism.  “Mass Left radicalism” in this case refers to a phenomenon of non-specific, multi-tendencied radicalism that has a real, though somewhat amorphous popular base.  It is not glued to one or another social movement but it is also not a coherent project.  It is an expression of a progressive undercurrent of opposition to neo-liberal capitalism but it has not translated, at least so far, into a specific political party or force.  It has found expression in massive demonstrations against austerity but also challenges to gentrification in many major cities around the globe.  It has become the voice of the alienated, or at least a portion of the alienated, but is different in its fundamentals from the right-wing populism that has also arisen in the context of the crises facing the capitalist world.

The manifestations of mass Left radicalism tend to be ambivalent with regard to the objective of state power. In part influenced by both modern anarchism and Zapatatismo, the popular expressions of much of this radicalism have taken the form of open resistance to neo-liberalism and austerity rather than a concerted fight for power.  In fact, there are elements of the Left that contend that fighting for power itself is problematic and that it should not be the objective of a Left project to do so.

To use a historical reference point, the Paris Commune was an uprising of the Paris working class but it was not an uprising of the French working class.  In other words, the Communards succeeded in gaining control of Paris but they did not launch or catalyze a national revolution (national in the sense of national in scale) though they hoped that others would join their movement. But they did not see themselves as limiting their struggle to Paris alone.

Both the Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico, but also the Occupy movement — at least in the USA — did not or have not set as objectives the winning of state power.  While one can argue that the Communards in 1871 would have eventually gone for national state power in France, in the case of the Zapatistas and much of Occupy, a conscious decision seems to have been made against such an objective.[iv]  While these movements are all quite different in scale, strategy, etc., they, at least at the time of the writing of this essay, share a sense of resistance framed more in terms of building an alternative to which they wish people to rally rather than articulating an alternative vision in the context of the fight for power.  The Paris Commune, probably due to circumstances, began the creation of a new society while Paris was under siege by the Germans and later by the collaborationist forces of the newly formed Third Republic.  In Chiapas the Zapatistas made the strategic decision to not make a move toward national state power, though they exist in a dual power situation in that state.  The Occupy Movement represented a statement against the toxicity of neo-liberalism.  Its leaders chose to stay away from proclamations and program.

The difficulty with all efforts that shy away from platforms and the fight for state power is that they actually misdiagnose the nature and objectives of the capitalist ruling bloc and, in so doing, create problems for any Left renewal effort.  The capitalist ruling bloc has no interest in a dual power situation or a situation of gross instability.  If a progressive social movement is not advancing, it will find itself retreating, at least eventually.  So, occupying space, no pun intended, brings with it the inevitable challenge of being encircled by the enemy and the exhaustion of the mass movement.  The Paris Commune could only have succeeded to the extent to which the insurrection spread to other parts of France and, thereby, undermined both the Third Republic and the Germans.  This takes nothing away from the Commune, nor anything away from the Zapatista uprising or the Occupy Movement.  It speaks more to limitations that need to be considered from the standpoint of movement objectives and strategy.

Mass Left radicalism can become a current within which a more coherent Left can emerge.  By “coherent” we mean both organizationally cohesive but also a movement with more clearly defined objectives that focus on power.  That result, however, is not inevitable given the existence of an ideological approach that, as mentioned previously, discounts the notion of the fight for state power.

The question of who makes historyThe emergence of the Occupy movement, and similar such phenomena in other parts of the world, is both symptomatic of the crisis of socialism and an attempt at Left renewal.  It is symptomatic in the sense that it speaks to the skepticism regarding political parties and state structures.  The thesis of the Occupy movement, to the extent to which there is a consensual thesis, is that the system is so rotten that progressive and Left forces must reject it and build an alternative.  While the assertion of the rottenness of the capitalist system is certainly correct, the approach that has been advanced by many forces associated with the Occupy movement represents a problematic strategy.

From the standpoint of the radical Left (including, but not limited to anarchists, communists, revolutionary socialists, revolutionary anti-imperialists), the capitalist system is rotten and cannot be fundamentally repaired.  That is a basic truism.  Yet there is a long distance between that assertion or conclusion and the realization of a progressive/revolutionary alternative society.  That distance can only be traversed through the construction of a strategy, program and organization(s) in order to make it happen.

It is here that a distinction develops, both in theory and practice, between anarchism and revolutionary socialism.  Contained within anarchism is the notion of exemplary action as the cornerstone of all work and the worshipping of the spontaneous movement.  The true revolutionaries, from the standpoint of anarchism, must — through their own behavior and actions — demonstrate the alternative course to which the masses must gravitate.  For revolutionary socialism, while the actions of the organized forces are critical, they are so only and insofar as they unite with the actual experiences, concerns and hopes of masses of the oppressed and dispossessed.  In other words, it is the masses that make history rather than a committed few.  This is where revolutionary socialism and anarchism diverge.  Ideological anarchists[v] tend to privilege the activities of the committed few who, through exemplary action, will inspire the masses forward, as if no preparatory work (including political education) is necessary.

It is true that throughout the 20th century there were those who embraced Marxism though followed paths that were not altogether different from anarchists.  Regardless of their courage and commitment — or the courage or commitment of anarchists — the approach represented by ideological anarchism misses the point regarding change and social transformation.  Change and social transformation must be brought about through mass action and mass intervention.  This means that a critical proportion of the oppressed and dispossessed must not only be inspired by the conscious radical forces but must themselves understand and embrace the change process that they wish to see play out.

The Stalinist approach to change was to introduce change from above.  It assumed that the revolutionary party was the equivalent of a purist religious sect that held a monopoly on the truth.  The concerns of the masses were always to be interpreted through the Party, thus there was no need for any forms of real mass representation, and certainly no need for alternative political structures that might contest with the Party.

Anarchists, of course, rejected Stalinist theory and practice, but at the same time fell prey to two problems.  One error was that of spontaneism.  The second was that of exemplary behavior, as mentioned earlier.  The spontaneism of anarchism is a formulation that believes that the masses will come to revolutionary conclusions on their own.  Within this framework organizing and activity is important at the level of campaigns and struggle, but political education and organization, not to mention conscious strategy is ignored if not perceived as a problem.  Spontaneism dovetails with ‘exemplary action’ in that those who hold to the latter believe that through their own actions the masses will rally to the ‘correct’ course.  In neither case do the masses end up making history, however.  In the case of spontaneism, the impact of reactionary culture (depending on the society it could be bourgeois, feudal or pre-feudal) is ignored with respect to its bearing on the consciousness of the oppressed.  Action is given a premium at the expense of theory and consciousness.

As positive as have been the eruptions in Europe and North America in opposition to the worst features of neo-liberal globalization, they potentially run aground to the extent to which they are influenced by anarchist frameworks.  The massive actions against austerity, for instance, in the absence of a program and strategy for power means that those in action are presumed to have an understanding of what happens if mass demonstrations fail to halt the course of neo-liberalism.  There is no reason that one should believe this to be the case.  Masses of the dispossessed, after demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands and yet seeing the ruling elites pursue reactionary courses, can come to any number of conclusions, not the least being the erroneous conclusion that mass action does not work.  For this reason mass action, theory and strategy must be seen as integral components for a movement for social transformation.  No one component can stand alone.

To be clear, none of this is aimed at trivializing (or “trashing”) either the Occupy movement or the movements in Europe (and elsewhere) against austerity.  They have been visionary, courageous and audacious!  The challenge, as it was for Marx and Engels in examining the experience of the Paris Commune, is to establish the lessons to be learned, not only in this case from the Occupy and anti-austerity movements, but from responses to the crisis of socialism, and from there to then suggest a path forward.

Refounding the Left In the aftermath of the defeat of the Paris Commune Marx and Engels had to reflect on that experience and question some of their own propositions.  This level of both self-analysis and self-criticism has been repeated occasionally in Left circles, but more frequently the radical Left holds onto certain ideological assertions as basic canon rather than making a concrete and exhaustive analysis.

Addressing the crisis of socialism is our ‘post-Paris Commune’ moment, that is, we on the Left are called upon to assess the socialist experience in the 20th century rather than assessing one specific instance of the class struggle (as important as was that examination in the case of the Paris Commune or today in assessing the Arab democratic revolutions, the anti-austerity movements and Occupy).  Several important theorists have begun doing this work, such as Samir Amin, Marta Harnecker and Michael Lebowitz, not to mention leaders in some of the parties and organizations noted earlier in this essay.  For the remainder of this essay we will suggest a few propositions for further exploration as part of a process of Left renewal or refoundation.

The theory and practice of socialism: How should we understand socialism?  We need to answer this in two ways with the first being at the level of theory and practice; the second, at the level of society.  At the level of theory and practice, socialism must be a phenomenon which is revolutionary, Marxist and democratic.  This distinguishes or should distinguish 21st century socialism[vi], at both the levels of theory and practice, from much of what went by the name of socialism in the 20th century.

Revolutionary:  In the 1960s and 1970s much of the Left defined “revolutionary” in terms of either armed struggle; the rejection of the reform struggle (and those who engaged in it); and the nature of demands.  In the 21st century we must break with one-dimensional thinking.  The “revolutionary” in socialism must involve the extent to which it is prepared to introduce new theory and penetrating critiques.  Revolutionary must exist at the level of experimenting with new forms of organization and engagement. Revolutionary must also exist at the level of being focused on social transformation rather than being limited to social reform, and as such the need for a prioritization of the organization of the masses to emancipate themselves from all forms of oppression.

Marxist:  Marxism offers a frame of analysis which is, simply put, unparalleled in revolutionary theory.  The dialectical analysis and the materialist conception of history exist as frameworks without which a true revolutionary movement will be stymied. But to say that the socialism of the 21st century must be Marxist does not mean holding on, uncritically, to various propositions from the 19th and 20th centuries.  A case in point would be how one views imperialism.  The nature of global capitalism has changed significantly since the publication of Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, yet too many people on the Left insist that the current realities must be fit into Lenin’s framework rather than studying the current reality and trends of global capitalism in order to come to appropriate conclusions.  Samir Amin and, in a separate way, William Robinson, though coming to somewhat different conclusions, have worked to understand the nature of actually existing global capitalism rather than using Lenin’s conclusions as the starting point.  It is the framework that matters.

Democratic:  The “d” word has been used and abused.  The states that were formed in the aftermath of World War II in Eastern Europe were self-defined “people’s democracies” yet, particularly from 1948 onward, they were anything but that, despite often remarkable social service programs and educational institutions.  This use of the world “democracy” did great damage to the work of the Left.  Separately, and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the “d” word has been used increasingly in the mainstream, capitalist media.  In bourgeois discourse the term really means multi-party elections in an environment that favors a capitalist economy.  From the standpoint of genuine socialism, “democratic” should have a different meaning.  Learning the painful lessons from the experience of Stalin’s Soviet Union or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia/Kampuchea, we must appreciate that “democratic” is not a rhetorical term nor should it be simply a vague objective.  “Democratic” should reference both a practice and an objective.  That is, socialists must be the strongest advocates for what Lenin called “consistent democracy”, including at the economic and political levels, but also democratic at the level of the operations of socialist organizations and mass organizations.  The recognition of the need for independent organizations out of progressive social movements has been a major advance in socialist theory and practice, but it must be understood that such recognition is not only for the period of struggle under capitalism but also for socialism.  And the negative experiences that have emerged under so-called actually existing socialism should teach us that democracy means real popular control.

The State:  The contemporary Latin American Left, along with the Nepalese Maoists, South African Communists and others, has raised some significant questions regarding the matter of the capitalist state.  Marx and Engels, as one may remember, in reviewing the experience of the Paris Commune, suggested that one of the lessons of the Commune was the need for a worker’s movement to smash the capitalist state.  Lenin, in his famous treatise, State and Revolution, reiterated this point, emphasizing the need for the withering away of the state once the oppressed had gained power.

Antonio Gramsci, while not disagreeing with these conclusions, nevertheless focused his attention on the challenge of building up an historic bloc of popular-democratic forces in favor of socialism during non-revolutionary periods leading to the eventual seizure of power.  One of Gramsci’s great contributions was to frame much of his analysis in terms of the specificity of Italy and the challenge of the largely northern Italian working class allying with the southern Italian peasantry (in a situation where southern Italians and Sicilians were — and continue today —  to be viewed by many northerners as a separate and despised nation).  Yet the overarching challenge for Gramsci was the notion of hegemony and the work of the popular-democratic bloc in becoming a counter-hegemonic force in the struggle for socialism.

Gramsci was interpreted by some in the communist movement and other parts of the Left as suggesting a more reformist go-slow approach to change.[vii]  This would be a misreading of Gramsci.  Gramsci recognized that a Left strategy would collapse into reformism without a clear sense of conducting a total/all-round struggle against capitalist hegemony.  Contrary to many of the European Communist Parties that claimed to adhere to Gramsci’s framework, this struggle went beyond electoral politics but it placed a premium on the building of alliances and ultimately a bloc that would be capable of seizing power, representing the oppressed and dispossessed.

The actual practice of some of the newer Left forces in Latin America, by way of example, help one understand the complexity of such a course of action.  It begins with the recognition that the ideal opportunity for gaining power never arises.  There are, however, moments when the Left is better positioned to gain power, either as part of a coalition or leading a coalition, but where the mandate of such a coalition may not be for the complete elimination of the democratic capitalist state, at least not all at once.

A contrasting example may help to make the point.  In 1979 on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, an uprising brought to power a revolutionary force known as the New Jewel Movement.  Led by Maurice Bishop, these were Left forces who took on a corrupt tyranny.  The uprising had widespread popular support.  Over the next four years the regime — referred to on the island as the “Revo” — encountered serious challenges.  They organized themselves along traditional Marxist-Leninist lines, despite the fact that this was not a socialist revolution and the NJM was not a Marxist-Leninist party.  But the NJM functioned more and more like one and created NJM-controlled mass organizations.  By 1983 the “Revo” was in trouble and the leadership knew this.  The coup against Bishop, which ultimately led to his murder, was carried out by pro-Soviet Marxists led by Bernard Coard.[viii] What Coard and his followers failed to acknowledge was the nature of the popular mandate that the NJM had won.  They were supported as an anti-imperialist/anti-corruption/anti-tyranny effort, but they did not have popular support for a transition to socialism.  Coard fell into a Stalinist framework and believed that a removal of the current leadership could force the Revo forward.  He was tragically wrong on so many levels.

Any Left movement that has the possibility of gaining power, whether at a national level or sub-national level, must assess the nature of the popular mandate.  In the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, in particular, despite contradictions and challenges within the governing coalitions, they seem to have focused on just that question.  In other words, whether the Left is elected to office or gains office through an insurrection is not enough to ascertain the nature of the process that is to unfold.  The question that must be addressed is how do the masses understand the nature of the process and what mandate have they offered such a project.

For these reasons the Left coming to power in a democratic capitalist state brings with it a whole series of challenges.  To what extent is the radical Left (and we are making a distinction between a legitimate, radical Left and a reformist Left) placed in the position that is familiar to social democrats, i.e., of managing a democratic capitalist state?  In the alternative, can the Left begin, even under the conditions of democratic capitalism, the process of a movement for social transformation?

A movement for social transformation cannot wait until the seizure of state power and the beginning of the construction of socialism.  It becomes the task of the Left to advance a project for social transformation even under democratic capitalism.  The framework for such an approach can be found in both Gramsci and, indeed, Lenin.  Lenin’s advocacy of the position of the Left as being the chief advocates for consistent democracy should mean that it is the radical Left that is advancing a program and practice for the democratization of society.  This includes, but is not limited to significant structural reforms that improve the basic lives of the people but also involves opening up the means and opportunities for the oppressed to educate and free themselves.  As has been seen in parts of Latin America, this necessitates a struggle over the very constitution of the state and a fight to democratize that constitution in such a way to begin to break the back of ruling elite.  To borrow from Harnecker, the rules of the “game” must be changed in favor of democracy and in favor of the oppressed.

This struggle, however, also necessitates the sorts of alliances that Gramsci suggested and a distancing of the Left from organizational or class sectarianism and instead favoring an approach toward strategic alliances or strategic blocs whose aim it is to build a power sharing relationship among the oppressed.

Dictatorship of the proletariat:  Marx and Engels barely defined the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and as a result it was largely Lenin and later Stalin who placed an imprint on the concept. In looking at the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat there are really two questions that emerge.  The first is whether the concept is basically correct.  The second is whether, largely for historical reasons, the term is compromised.The notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, when examined from the standpoint of Marx’s all too brief writings on the subject, has nothing to do with a “dictatorship” in the manner in which the term is commonly used.  The closest reference point would probably be “hegemony” as articulated by Gramsci. Even in Lenin’s State and Revolution the dictatorship of the proletariat comes across as something other than a traditionally defined dictatorship.  Instead it refers to the leadership of a class and suggests that at all points the state is used as an instrument of one class against another (or against several others).  The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, is supposed to be a state of the working class, organized in such a way as to ensure the widest democracy and the suppression not only of the bourgeoisie but of the reactionary practices that had been inherited from earlier eras.  It is also supposed to be a state during a period of transition, that is, a state structure for socialism which itself is a period of transition between capitalism and a classless society (and, as a result, the state will wither away).

While the theory is good, and was re-articulated in a very comprehensive manner in the 1970s by Etienne Balibar in his rigorous book On the dictatorship of the proletariat, the term is associated with authoritarianism.  While one can argue whether the Stalinist system was actually socialist vs. a perverse form of state capitalism, the fact remains that in the popular mind the dictatorship of the proletariat means one-party rule, secret police, Gulags, etc.  It seems, to the average person, to fly in the face of the Left’s historic practice of fighting in favor of democracy, civil liberties, equality and the rights of minorities.  It is with this in mind that one can say that in much of the global North there is a popular hatred of capitalism but there is a fear of socialism.

As a result the crisis of socialism compels the Left to examine the question of the process of socialism, but the terminology as well.  The Left cannot favor dictatorships.  It must favor popular, revolutionary democracies that expand the rights and activities of the oppressed and narrow the field for the oppressors.  It must be in favor of a system that takes on all forms of oppression but gives the means and opportunities for different views to contend without the fear that someone will end up dead or incarcerated for expressions of alleged heresy.  And, the reality is that it must do all of this under conditions that are less than favorable, conditions that include external capitalist forces/powers seeking to undermine socialism and internal reactionary forces that wish to turn back the clock.

Socialist organization: There have been a variety of organizational experiences within socialist movements.  One cannot come to sweeping conclusions about each and every form.  That said, one conclusion that can be arrived at is that structure follows function.  To put it another way, the actual form of an organization should flow from its purpose and from the actual conditions under which it is operating.  In that sense, the efforts carried out by the Communist (Third) International at what was called “Bolshevization” (an effort to transform all communist parties into a form dictated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) were problematic in that they assumed that there was only one form of revolutionary organization.  It was additionally problematic in that this process was based on a mythical notion of what the Bolsheviks had looked like in their pre-revolutionary days.The form of organization must begin by an understanding of the state structure in the territory in which an organization or party is operating.  In that sense it is quite interesting that Marx and Engels did not focus their attention on one and only one form of organization, seemingly recognizing that organizations could exist in multiple forms.  Specifically, the form does not make an organization radical, revolutionary, or for that matter reformist.  The content of its theory and practice, however, do.

In a situation of high levels of state repression, Left forces cannot operate as openly as they would within less authoritarian variants of capitalism.  But even in situations of alleged democratic capitalism, such as the United States, the history of the repression of the Left and the repression of freedom movements of oppressed nationalities (e.g., African Americans, Chicanos/Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asian Americans), has meant that not all Left formations can operate openly.


Relationship to anarchists:  Anarchists have reemerged as a potent force on the Left particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.  Their critique of actually existing socialism (what many of us would define as either a contradictory socialism or in some cases state capitalism) is frequently persuasive, viscerally if not analytically.   And they have become very active forces in the global justice movement, environmental movements, and certainly in the Occupy movement.It would be a mistake to dismiss anarchists (ideological or non-ideological anarchists) and/or to make reference to 19th century polemics between Marx and Bakunin.  The non-anarchist revolutionary Left must see in modern anarchism the results of our failures.  Modern anarchism is a product of the crisis of socialism.

The non-anarchist revolutionary Left needs to embrace anarchists as distant cousins rather than enemies.  This does not mean that we embrace anarchism.  We can and should continue to hold to a strong analysis of the problems with anarchism but we should look at most anarchists as comrades in a common struggle against capitalism.  To some extent they are our conscience in the struggle against bureaucracy and any and all forms of restoration of oppressive regimes.

None of this should suggest that the relationship is or will be easy.  There are significant strategic and tactical differences with anarchists, as there frequently are with other Left trends.  But to treat them as enemies runs many risks, not the least of which is sectarianism.  To the extent to which anarchists appeal to younger radicals, the non-anarchist revolutionary Left runs the risk of being perceived as oblivious to the criticisms of actually existing socialism shared by many younger activists.  It is our job to listen and respond to such concerns and criticisms.  Frequently there is a firm basis upon which to unite, while at the same time the non-anarchist revolutionary Left is compelled to struggle with the philosophical idealism inherent in anarchism, particularly its failure to recognize what is involved in the course of making a transition away from capitalism.

There are a host of other areas for deeper exploration, self-criticism and new theory, including but not limited to gender, race/nationality and the environment.  Time and space do not permit such an examination here.  Suffice it to say that a renewal of the radical Left must necessitate not a regurgitation of 19th and 20th century platitudes on these areas, as if that will reinforce our ideological lineage, but rather an examination of the structures and movements in these areas.  A renewed Left must establish that it can and will learn from the forces on the ground involved in such movements while at the same time utilizing the Marxist method in order to link these struggles and movements into an overall narrative that favors the oppressed.  Carrying out such work involves more than the circulation of ideas and even rigorous analyses; it necessitates well-grounded and clearheaded Left organization that can link the practioners and the theorists, making each both.


[i] There are important qualifications to make here.  Internal struggle is inevitable and took place within Stalinist-influenced parties.  How the struggle unfolded and was resolved, however, was the critical question.  The parameters for internal struggle were increasingly narrowed as Stalinist Marxism gained hegemony.  Within the Trotskyist tradition, there was the theoretical justification for internal factions but this did not necessarily mean that the internal life was any more democratic.

[ii] “Maoism” must be understood as a term referencing both (1) a theoretical and ideological orientation of the ruling Communist Party of China from the middle 1950s through 1978 regarding the construction of socialism, and, separately, (2) a movement, set of theories, inspirations, etc., that people elsewhere drew from the Chinese experience regarding the questions of the struggle for and construction of socialism.

[iii] It is important to not analyze backwards and look at the rise of Islamist formations in the aftermath of these Arab democratic uprisings as somehow meaning that the uprisings themselves were religious.  The Islamists, often due to on-again/off-again complicity with the tyrannical regimes and the USA, were among the best organized of the forces on the ground.  Thus, even though the uprisings drew upon various political, religious and ideological tendencies, many of these tendencies had been severely repressed over the years and did not have the organizational strength to win mass leadership.  It should also be added that there was an ideological tendency in some of these movements that downplayed the actual need for coherent organization and believed that the mass uprisings would lead themselves.

[iv] To be clear, we are not suggesting that Occupy is a revolutionary movement on the scale of the Paris Commune.  Among other things, it is a movement inspired by radicalism.  Additionally, we are suggesting that there is a certain approach to the entire “power” question contained within much of the Occupy movement that is not dissimilar from interpretations of Zapatismo in much of the global North.

[v] We use the term “ideological anarchists” and “ideological anarchism” to differentiate those whose worldview is or has been shaped by a conscious embrace of the theory and practice of anarchism vs. those who emerge in various mass movements utterly disenchanted with mainstream politics, government and political forces and may spontaneously react against the errors of 20th century socialism.  The former group would be those we would define as “ideological anarchists”.

[vi] We are using the term generically.  The specific term “21st century socialism” became popularized in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez.  For some it has come to mean a specific road as followed in Latin America by movements such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.  We are using the term far more generically as referencing a socialism for this century, including but not limited to the experiments underway in Latin America.

[vii] Beginning with the post-World War II Italian Communist Party led by Palmiro Togliatti.

[viii] “Pro-Soviet” in their ideological orientation.  This is not to suggest that they were operating under orders from the USSR.


The writer is a racial justice, labor and international activist. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, D.C.), serves on the editorial board of, is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and is the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided (a book which analyzes the crisis of the US trade union movement). He can be reached at

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