XXI Century Socialism, or There is nothing new under the sun

At a time when the Cuban Revolution is facing great dangers, a serious debate is opening up in the ranks of the Cuban Communists. Last week’s Marxist conference organised by the study group "Cuba: Theory and Society" under the auspices of the Instituto de Filosofia de La Habana in November 2010 to discuss Socialism in the XXI Century in the run-up to the forthcoming Party Congress therefore assumes a particular importance. Among the few foreign guests invited to address this event was the editor of Marxist.com, Alan Woods, whose latest book Reformism or Revolution, has attracted a lot of interest in Cuba. We are publishing today the text submitted by comrade Woods to the conference.

The times we live in

In the first decade of the century, humanity stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, the advances in science, technology and industry open the way to a dazzling future of prosperity, social welfare and cultural advancement without limits. On the other hand, the very existence of the human race is threatened by the devastation of the planet in the name of profit. Millions live in poverty, hanging on the brink of starvation. In country after country there are elements of barbarism. The future of the planet is threatened by global environmental degradation.

The fall of the Soviet Union gave the green light to an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism. The collapse of planned economies under bureaucratic control of the East was presented as the ultimate proof of the failure of "communism" and, of course, of the ideas of Marx. The defenders of capitalism saw the fall of the Soviet Union as the final proof that their system was the only one possible.

Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ruling class was ecstatic. They dreamed of a New World Order based on peace and prosperity. They figured that the current temporary economic boom meant not only a return to the days of their youth but also the abolition of all crises in general. At that time they promised a world of peace and prosperity, a new economic paradigm of uninterrupted growth.

These illusions were quickly shattered. Today not one stone upon another is left of the dreams of the bourgeoisie. All those promises have proven to be false. The current crisis of capitalism is probably the most serious in its history. The huge debts of banks have turned into huge government debts. The dead weight of debt weighs heavily on the global economy, preventing a recovery.

New ideas?

In the ideological battle in defence of Marxism, we must face all kinds of attacks. There are frontal attacks that come directly from the bourgeoisie and its ideologues. This kind of criticism is the easiest to detect and respond to. But there is another type of attack that is a bit more difficult to address because it appears disguised as a friendly criticism, intended not to abolish Marxism but only introduce a few changes to "get it up to date".

Unfortunately, this campaign of the bourgeoisie has found an echo in the ranks of the communist movement. The collapse of the USSR has led to a period of tremendous confusion and disorientation in the world communist movement. The fall of the USSR has had dire consequences. Many former Communists abandoned Marxism. For two decades, there has been a persistent insistence on the need to get beyond Marxism and "adapt" to "the new circumstances" of the current historical moment.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a ferment of discussion within the Left worldwide. The ignominious failure of Stalinism and the unprecedented ideological counteroffensive of the bourgeoisie against socialism has led some to conclude that the "old ideas” of Marxism (scientific socialism) are no longer valid, and that there is a need to invent something new and original in its place.

In Venezuela, the debate on socialism is taking place, not in narrow intellectual circles, but at every bus stop, in every factory and market place. But as soon as Hugo Chavez raised the question of socialism, all sorts of pseudo-intellectual reformists and academics were quick to rush in and try to confuse the issue. These elements fell over themselves in their haste to explain that the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin were outdated, outmoded and there was a burning need to develop "new ideas".

Heinz Dietrich, the most prominent representative of this trend, has promised us a brand new version of socialism, called "XXI century socialism." This idea has a great advantage over other ideas, in that no one has the slightest idea of what it means. It is an empty bottle that can be filled with any content.

Incredibly, the ideas advanced by Dietrich   the need to form a new Latin American regional bloc to compete with the US, the theoretical formulation of "XXI Century Socialism", the abandonment of the nationalisation of the means of production, workers' control and workers' democracy   have found some echo in the Left in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. This fact in itself shows how far the deterioration of the Left has gone and the poverty of its theoretical level.

What we are confronted with is a modernised version of the old ideas of reformism. In my book Reformism or Revolution, I have shown that there is nothing new in this so-called XXI century socialism. We do not find here a single new idea, but only a rather poor repetition of the old unscientific ideas of the utopian socialists such as Proudhon and Robert Owen that were answered by Marx and Engels long ago.

The writings of Dietrich simply repeat the old pre-Marxist ideas of the utopian socialists and present them as something new, a form of "socialism” without class struggle with no need to expropriate capitalism. The ideas of the utopian socialists were really ahead of their time and deserve all our respect. Their limitations were in not being able to understand the role of class struggle, but it must be kept in mind that mainly at that time the working class had scarcely developed. There is no excuse for people like Heinz Dietrich to repeat these ideas today, after over 200 years of development of the working class movement.

It is not the first time we have seen such things. The XXI century revisionists merely repeat the same arguments championed by Bernstein and Kautsky long ago, except that they did so in a much more interesting and intelligent way.

Under a false flag

All this chatter about "entirely new and original ideas" is superficially attractive. After all, who would not prefer a nice new car or latest model of a computer instead of last year's model? But in reality, the analogy is false and contradicts our experience. What is new is not necessarily better in all cases, nor is something necessarily bad for being old. A car or a new computer that does not work is worse than some old one that does.

The wheel is a pretty old invention, but after thousands of years still works fairly well. What should we think of someone who asks us to abandon the wheel because it is old and look for a wheel of the XXI century? What type of wheel would this be? Triangular perhaps, or square? Whatever form it took, we are convinced that it would not take us one step further.

The distortions and manipulations of socialist thought are carried out from different fronts. Incredibly, there are communists who insist that Communism can be maintained while in practice what is being defended is capitalism. To hide the purely reactionary character of these theories, they try to disguise them with academic verbiage and an obscurantist language as impenetrable as a tropical rainforest.

The writings of Marx and Engels are so clear because they have a clear socialist message. Marx and Engels wrote in a wonderfully simple language because they were writing for the workers and any worker of average intelligence can understand their writings. This is not a coincidence. A good writer is one who knows how to turn complex ideas into simple ones, while a bad writer only knows how to make simple ideas complicated.

The reason these books are so difficult to read is not because they have a profound content, but precisely the opposite. Here the absolute lack of content is generously compensated for by a wealth of complicated language, obscure vocabulary and a maze of tangled syntax. Of this kind of thing the old Hegel once said: "Just as there is a breadth that is empty, there is a depth that is empty also." These words express all that is necessary to say on the subject.

Venezuela and Cuba

One of the arguments of Dietrich is the so-called "low consciousness of the working class." It is impossible to listen to these arguments without a sense of deep outrage. In Venezuela during the last decade the masses have proven time and again their high level of consciousness. It was they who saved the revolution on 13 April 2002, when the masses came out, without direction or party, to defeat the reactionary coup organised by the owners of the banks, industry and land, along with the reactionary generals, the Church and imperialism. The same was the case in the oil lockout and the recall referendum.

On April 13, 2002, the reactionary oligarchy fled like rats and there was no force in Venezuela prepared to defend the old order. One word of Chavez and the expropriation of the ruling class could have been carried out in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, this word never came. But this is not a problem of lack of awareness of the people but the lack of a revolutionary party with a revolutionary leadership.

One of the principal dangers currently facing the Venezuelan revolution is that it has not yet taken the decisive steps to carry out the revolutionary process to the end, expropriating the oligarchy and imperialism, in order to build a planned economy under workers' control. It is not possible to speak of socialism in Venezuela unless it puts an end the economic power of the oligarchy once and for all.

The reformists believe it is possible to reach socialism without nationalisation, without revolution, without class struggle. This is a very dangerous idea. The reformists say that the revolution must not overstep the limits of private ownership of the big bourgeoisie. Instead of the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy it should encourage small cooperatives, and instead of the planned economy the Keynesian model must be implemented. In other words, the revolution must stop halfway. But all history proves that it is not possible to carry out half a revolution.

The most important lesson of the Cuban Revolution is that the bourgeoisie and imperialism could only be defeated on the basis of the expropriation of the productive forces. Without a nationalised planned economy the Cuban Revolution could never have achieved what it did. The so-called national bourgeoisie in Cuba was incapable of playing a progressive role. And the same is true of the bourgeoisie of Venezuela, Bolivia and the entire continent of Latin America.

The bourgeoisie of Latin America has had two centuries to show what it can do, and all that it has achieved is to waste the colossal productive potential of the continent. Che Guevara pointed this out long ago, when he wrote: "The indigenous bourgeoisie has lost its ability to oppose imperialism, if it ever had it, and now just constitutes its tail. There is no more change to be made: either socialist revolution or a caricature of revolution”. (Ernesto" Che "Guevara, Message to the peoples of the world through the Tricontinental)

To refuse to carry out the socialist revolution in Venezuela, to refuse to expropriate the oligarchy would be precisely a caricature of a revolution. It would be doomed to failure. In the final analysis, the alternative is either the victory of the revolution or the victory of the counterrevolution. The defeat of the Venezuelan revolution would have serious consequences for Latin America and to Cuba above all. Ultimately, the only way to preserve the Cuban Revolution is by breaking the isolation of the revolution by extending the socialist revolution throughout Latin America, an idea for which Che Guevara fought and died.

Failure of bourgeois ideology

All the theories of bourgeois political economy have been shattered following the 2007-08 crisis   a crisis that, according to these theories, should never have happened. To indicate the total confusion of the bourgeois economists, it is sufficient to note the despairing comments of the bourgeois economists in recent months. The same people who imagined that their elaborate models could predict with mathematical accuracy the behaviour of the global capitalist economy, and predicted with absolute confidence the impossibility of a slump, are now beating their breasts in public.

The total incapacity of the bourgeois economists to explain anything is clear. They say it themselves. Barry Eichengreen, an economic historian and prominent US economist at the University of California, Berkeley, writes: “The crisis has cast into doubt much of what we thought about economics." (See The National Interest, October 27, 2010)

Paul Krugman, who received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008, in a speech at the London School of Economics in June, 2010, said: "Over the last thirty years, macroeconomic theory has been spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst. "(Quoted in The Economist)

The bourgeoisie does not understand what is happening and is in a state of panic. That is why they are taking steps that are totally irresponsible from the standpoint of orthodox economics. This is a sign of desperation. Some say, "We must reduce the deficits, or there is no solution to the crisis." Others say, "If we cut public spending, we will create a new slump." And both are right.

Interestingly, the immediate cause of both the English Revolution in the seventeenth century and the French Revolution in the eighteenth century was the huge deficits of public spending. In both cases the bottom line was the same: who will pay? Everywhere the ruling class wants to put the full weight of its bankruptcy on the backs of the working class, middle class and the poor and vulnerable sectors of society: the unemployed, the sick, the old and the disabled. The smiling mask of "capitalism with a human face" has slipped, to reveal the real face of the bourgeoisie. The ignominious failure of Obama in the US is an expression of this fact.

The error of the reformists is that they believe it is possible to go back to a period when the economic boom that followed World War II allowed the bourgeoisie in Europe and the US to make big concessions to the working class to take the steam out of the class struggle. But this is now impossible. From a capitalist standpoint, not only is it impossible to carry out further reforms; it is impossible to tolerate the continuation of the reforms that were conquered by the workers during the past fifty years.

We can express the dilemma of capitalism as follows: a) the bourgeoisie cannot accept the existence of reforms; b) the workers cannot accept further cuts in their standard of living. This is a finished recipe for the intensification of class struggle everywhere. In other words, any attempt by the bourgeoisie to restore economic equilibrium would destroy the political and social equilibrium. The present events in France are an eloquent proof of this assertion.

Everywhere we see the awakening of the masses who are seeking a way out. It is the beginning of a new period of class struggle. In Latin America the revolutionary trend has gone further than elsewhere. But we also see a revival of the labour movement in France, Greece, Spain and other European countries. Everywhere there is a growing questioning of capitalism and a growing interest in the ideas of socialism and Marxism.

The relevance of Marxism today

The critics of Marxism call into question the relevance of Marxism in all fields: philosophy and science, historical materialism, economics, the theory of the state. And it must be so, because Marxism is a set of ideas that cannot be regarded separately. Engels already answered these critics in one of the finest works of Marxism: Anti-During. For my part, I consider the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to be as valid and relevant as they ever were. In fact they are more necessary and relevant now than at any other time.

Naturally, if someone can convince me that he possesses a body of ideas that is superior to Marxism and renders it obsolete, I am willing to change my mind. But until today I have never encountered such an option. For over half a century I not only have carefully studied all the works of the great Marxist writers, but also a good number of their critics. Having heard many arguments from people who claimed to offer an alternative, I have not heard anything that is even remotely comparable with the depth and richness of Marxism. I have yet to see a body of ideas that comes anywhere near the heights of Marxism and that can replace it as a scientific tool for understanding the world in which we live.

After carefully reading the writings of Dietrich and other revisionists I have not found any reason to change my ideas. Quite the contrary, I am even firmer in my beliefs and convictions. Today more than ever, it seems to me that scientific socialism is an essential tool to carry out the struggle of the working class towards their emancipation, to achieve the triumph of a conscious and free humanity.

My friend and comrade Fernando Buen Abad says that reformism is chameleon-like and slippery. Reformist demagoguery can be disguised in many ways, but its mission remains the same. Reformists and social democrats are committed to slow up, confuse and defeat the socialist revolution and undermine the ideas of Karl Marx. We must demolish the fallacies of reformism. This is a scientific struggle without quarter.

Marxism has been corroborated by advances in science, which has furnished us with examples of the correctness of the dialectic that are far more striking than those used by Engels in The Dialectics of Nature. I have given a list of these examples in my book Reason in Revolt (published in Cuba by the Social Sciences Publishing House). For the present, suffice it to mention chaos theory and its variants (complexity and ubiquity theory), which represent a purely dialectical method; the writings of Stephen Jay Gould on the evolution of species, in which he pays tribute to the role of Engels; the discoveries of the human genome, and so on. All this shows that "ultimately nature works in a dialectic" in the words of Engels. In the field of political economy, as we have seen, things are clearer still.

The vast superiority of the Marxist method can be seen in the founding document of scientific socialism. It would be impossible to find any bourgeois book on political economy, history or sociology written in 1848 that has more than a mere historical interest. Instead, we can say without fear of contradiction, that the most modern book you can read is The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Here's a book written over 150 years, which explains what is happening in the world now, including phenomena such as globalisation and concentration of capital in few hands.

In the same way that we need not reinvent the wheel, we need not reinvent the ideas of scientific socialism, which retain their full validity and relevance. Of course, we will have to make this or that change, but what is surprising is how little needs to be altered. Certainly, the basic ideas remain as valid as when they were written, and in many cases are more relevant today than in the times of Marx and Engels.

Of course, it is good to discuss the ideas of socialism, and we participate in this debate with the greatest of enthusiasm. What is not so good is that some people should try to monopolise the interpretation of socialism of the XXI century, introducing confusion of all kinds. Even worse is the attempt to present a kind of "socialism" that turns out to be exactly the same as capitalism.

Some people are talking about a “Chinese way” or a “Vietnamese model” for Cuba. The change of terminology is irrelevant. Regardless of how they want to describe their model, the proposals are clear. “The state should no longer plan the economy but regulate it”, “manufacturing and agriculture should be opened to foreign investment”, etc. No doubt the intentions of those proposing these measures are of the best. But the way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the restoration of capitalism would be Hell for the people of Cuba, even if some do not yet recognise the fact.

Long ago, Fidel Castro rejected the “Chinese model” because it was just another name for the restoration of capitalism. But even if we were to consider this option, it would immediately become clear that it cannot apply to Cuba. The concrete conditions are completely different. Cuba is a small island with a small population and few resources. China is a vast territory with over a billion inhabitants, many resources and a powerful industrial base. The huge Chinese peasantry has provided China’s capitalist enterprises with a vast reserve of cheap labour, which has constantly supplied the factories of Guangdong with workers who work under virtual slave conditions for very low wages. The only thing that a Cuban variant would share is the last: low wages.

A capitalist Cuba would resemble neither China nor Vietnam, but rather El Salvador or Nicaragua after the victory of the counter-revolution. It would soon revert to a similar situation that existed before 1959 – one of misery, degradation and semi-colonial dependence. And irrespective of the intentions of those responsible, the danger is that market reforms can unleash powerful tendencies towards the restoration of capitalism, which would eventually destroy all the conquests of the revolution. It is the entry to a very slippery slope, and once it starts it will be difficult to stop. The capitalist road (even if it masquerades as the "Chinese road" or the "Vietnamese road") cannot provide any solution to the problems of the people of Cuba.

The restoration of capitalism in Russia has had disastrous consequences, not just for the peoples of the former Soviet Union but for Cuba also. The restoration of capitalism in Cuba would be an even greater disaster. It is ironic that precisely at this moment, the revisionists want to abandon socialism and embrace the market economy, just when it is in a mess everywhere. The crisis of the global capitalist system shows that it is unable to offer any prospect for most of the world's population, condemning millions of human beings to poverty and hunger.

The fact is that the so-called free market economy has failed on a global scale. What is necessary is a rationally planned economy where economic decisions are taken to satisfy the needs of the many, not the profits of the few. Of course, we must learn from the failure of the Soviet Union. But it is important to note that what failed in the USSR was not the nationalised planned economy, which gave astonishing results and transformed backward tsarist Russia into a powerful industrialised nation.

What failed in Russia was not socialism in the sense understood by Marx or Lenin, but a bureaucratic caricature of socialism that stifled all initiative and creative thought and led to corruption and inefficiency on a vast scale. These things are not something inherent in a socialist planned economy but the product of the isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of frightful backwardness. What was necessary was to combine the nationalised planned economy with the democratic control and administration of the workers, as Lenin explained many times.

Marxism is perfectly suited to develop an alternative to the tactical and strategic problems of Cuba and the world revolution. What is needed is a fraternal debate between the various trends in the communist movement. This debate has been initiated and is leading to the revival of communism worldwide. Debate in the hands of revolutionaries should serve, among other things, to clarify ideas and mobilise our forces for concrete actions that are aimed at the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a qualitatively superior system: socialism. Nothing and nobody must deviate from this goal.

London, October 29, 2010