Socialism or barbarism

More than a decade ago, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the strategists of Capital launched an unprecedented ideological offensive against socialism and Marxism. For them, capitalism had won. However, what had collapsed was not socialism, but a system of bureaucratic rule, i.e., Stalinism. Nevertheless, this ferocious offensive had the effect of starting an ideological stampede to the right within the working class movement internationally.

The left-reformists switched sides, like a man changing his shirt, to become rightwing attorneys for capitalism. In Russia and Eastern Europe former "Communists" transformed themselves into capitalists. Since that time, the political pendulum has swung far to the right, epitomised by the victory of Blairism in Britain and of neo-Conservatism in the United States.

While the forces of socialism were isolated in this period, the ground was being prepared for a titanic shift to the left. The domination of the American Empire and the vociferous greed of the monopolies in intensifying their exploitation of the planet were preparing a backlash. Given the harsh austerity of neo-liberal policies, Latin America was propelled to the forefront of this radicalisation. And within Latin America, Venezuela is in the vanguard of revolutionary developments.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Hugo Chavez has moved further and further to the left. Earlier this year, Chavez raised the need to study and re-examine socialism. "I am convinced," he said, "and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not capitalism, the path is socialism, that is the path: socialism, socialism". Over the last period he has consistently reiterated this point and has stimulated discussion about socialism not only in Venezuela, but everywhere. "We want socialism of the 21st century", he said, and stated the choice was between "Socialism or Barbarism". It is these ideas which now terrify the international bourgeoisie, starting with the Washington gang, so convinced that socialism was dead and buried long ago.

With millions of workers and youth across the world becoming increasingly radicalised, Chavez's clarion call for socialism has extreme importance. It has become a focal point. For those who, sickened by the miseries of capitalism and imperialism, have stated another world is possible, a clear alternative is vital. However, within this "anti-capitalist" movement there are a host of views, from liberalism to anarchism, offered up as a way forward. Marxists have a responsibility, as we have done with great effect in Venezuela, to engage in this debate and help clarify the socialist alternative.

Reform is not enough

There are those in the anti-capitalist movement who are content with simply calling for the reform of capitalism, as if you can transform a man-eating lion into a vegetarian. For them, all we need to do is simply lessen the burden on the down-trodden masses, instead of removing the burden altogether. The capitalist system must be more "humane", "fairer", "gentler", less capitalistic! They are like the liberal-reformists of the past who wanted to change the system bit by bit, then eventually in a hundred years time everything would be for the better. But as R.H. Tawney once put it, "you can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can't skin a live tiger claw by claw." It is not possible to change the nature of capitalism, which, as Karl Marx explained, is based upon the constant extraction of surplus value from the labour of the working class. It is a system of human exploitation with its own laws, and despite attempts to make this exploitation "softer", it inevitably breaks down as the system moves into crisis.

More than 150 years ago, before the advent of the modern working class, socialism existed in an immature "utopian" form. Great thinkers like Robert Owen, Saint Simon and Fourier outlined socialist alternatives to capitalism. They were bitter critics of the system, but their alternatives, enclaves within the sea of capitalism, could not work.

With the development of the working class, more advanced socialist thinking emerged. One of the leading theorists of the British Chartist movement, Bronterre O'Brien, wrote:

"The history of mankind shows that from the beginning of the world, the rich of all countries have been in a permanent state of conspiracy to keep down the poor of all countries, and for this plain reason - because the poverty of the poor man is essential to the riches of the rich man. No matter by what means they may disguise their operations, the rich are everlastingly plundering, debasing, and brutalising the poor. All the crimes and superstitions of human nature have their origin in this cannibal warfare of riches against poverty. The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another's labour is the original sin of the world. It is this which fills the world with faction and hypocrisy and has made all past history to be what Gibbon so justly described it - 'a record of the crimes, absurdities, and calamities of mankind.' It is the parent injustice from which all injustice springs."

This was written in 1835! How clear! How erudite compared with our present-day radicals! He went on to explain that the miseries of the working class were not due simply to the malice of the capitalist, but the automatic operation of the capitalist system itself. In other words, no amount of pleading with big business will help matters. It is not a question of "good" and "bad" capitalists. It is the economic laws of capitalism which dictate to big business (and governments), and not the other way round.

"We do not," he wrote, "accuse the moneyed capitalists of intentional robbery. To do this would be as unjust as it would be malignant… These spoliations they commit, not from sinister design, but from [their] accidental position in society; or, rather, the spoliations are committed for them by the silent operation of causes over which they have no control under the existing arrangements of society. Those of the middle class are, like all other men, the creatures of circumstances. Their characters are formed by institutions and their relative positions in society to other classes."

However, it was Marx and Engels who went on to develop these ideas and place socialism on a scientific basis. They were able, basing themselves on the most advanced ideas of the time, to work out a new world outlook. The publication of the "Communist Manifesto" in 1848 constituted a milestone in socialist theory. It was the most far-sighted work of its kind, then and possibly today. Marx and Engels, more than any of their contemporaries, were able to see far into the future. Today's buzzword of "globalisation" was analysed by them more than 150 years ago.

They were able to achieve this by applying the method of dialectical materialism in their analysis of all things. This philosophical outlook was based on materialism, the belief in one material world, where ideas are a product of the material brain, and reflect the world around us. It is also dialectical in the sense that it sees everything in a process of continual change, an endless maze of relations and interactions. Dialectics is the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought.

These laws exert themselves unconsciously in the form of external necessity in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. This is also the case for the most part in human history. Marx and Engels explained that while men and women make history, they do so in circumstances not of their own choosing. While the economic circumstances are decisive, they are not the only determining factors in history. There is a complex reciprocating interactions between economic, social and political events. Marxism attempts to understand the "driving forces of the driving forces" behind the actions of men and women.

For Marx and Engels, the motive force of history was the class struggle. Each society (slave, feudal, capitalist) throws up is own unique economic relations and its class structure. All societies serve to develop the productive forces, but there comes a time when these forces rebel against the constraints imposed upon them by the out-dated superstructure of society. A new class emerges from the womb of the old society, whose task it is to overthrow the old order and lay the basis for a new reorganisation of society. Under capitalism, which has created the world market and laid the material basis for socialism, the working class is born, not only as a source of exploitation, but as a revolutionary class. Experience through mighty battles teaches it to become conscious of its role, firstly developing a class consciousness and then a socialist consciousness. In other words, it is the task of the working class to overthrow capitalism and bring about socialism. "The emancipation of the working class, is the task of the working class itself", wrote Marx.

A new vista for humankind

The historic mission of capitalism was to lay the foundations of a new world order, on the basis of the world market and the world division of labour. It has now become a fetter on the further development of society, and is rotten-ripe for overthrow. Over the last 100 years, the working class has tried again and again to eliminate capitalism, but has been frustrated by its leadership. Only in Russia in 1917 did it succeed. Under Lenin and Trotsky, the task of the young soviet republic was to spread the revolution worldwide. Unfortunately, the betrayal of the revolutions in the west by the social democratic leaders resulted in the isolation of the Russian Revolution in a backward country. It was this that led to its degeneration and the emergence of Stalinism. A river of blood separated the workers' democracy of Lenin and Trotsky from the totalitarian regime of Stalin.

As Hugo Chavez said recently, in the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, Trotsky was right - it is not possible to build socialism in one country. Only with an internationalist perspective, based upon the ideas of the Permanent Revolution, can the socialist revolution succeed. There can be no solution by tinkering with capitalism. It has thoroughly exhausted its historic role. In 1820, the gap between the richest and the poorest countries was three to one. By 1950 it had risen to 35 to one. Today it is 74 to one. Within nations, the class divide between rich and poor has never been greater. In the United States, the citadel of world capitalism, since 1979, the median family income have risen by 18% but the income of the top 1% has gone up by 200%. Tensions are building up everywhere, as the working class is remorselessly squeezed. Despite all the acclamations of the soothsayers of capitalism, this is a recipe for all-out class war. The basis for world revolution has been prepared by the actions of the imperialists and the contradictions of capitalism. One successful revolution would transform the world and open up a new vista for humankind. That is the perspective that lies before us.