Quick Replies to My 20th-Century Socialism Post

In a post to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk listserv, a list member responded to my post on 20th-century socialism.  I’m including here some of his remarks and my reply to them, slightly edited.

So this is cool, yes let’s imagine socialism. There are several concepts that are related to each other, which I remember were much discussed during the very early years of the Cuban revolution. (My first revolution of memory.) Remember back then the nearest example of a successful revolution was China, which was still a military dictatorship. The question in the air at the time was how do you get a socialist revolution without a military force?

First off, all these remarks are very thoughtful. A couple of notes on how I approach some of the issues you raise.

I distinguish between a social revolution (a radical change in the social relations of production, the construction of new social, economic structures) and a political revolution (the conquest of political power by a new class or class coalition). A political revolution is only the possibility of seriously undertaking a social revolution. Seriously, because you now have the legitimate power of the state to marshal. Further, the ushering of new legislation (e.g. in Cuba, April 1961, the declaration of the “socialist” character of the revolution in a mass meeting, followed by a flurry of new laws, nationalizations, etc.) is only setting up the legal or formal framework for the social revolution. Whether this legal work sets things up the right way or not, and how much further trial-and-error may be required to align it properly, are other matters. In any case, the social revolution is a much, but much more complicated matter.

Second point: How to conquer (and retain) political power is not determined alone by the class trying to take power. As Sancho Panza (whom you mention) would say, “Why force a door open, when you can just twist a knob?” The method of the struggle is determined by the concrete dynamics of the class struggle. Or, maybe more clearly said, it depends on how far the existing ruling class is willing to go to defend the status quo, how nasty it wants to be, what methods is willing to use, etc. I think that we can safely view the viciousness of a class struggle as an index of how radical the rulers expect the changes to be. I think that the viciousness of U.S. anti-communism is directly proportional to the fear that working people organized and united instills in them.

If history is any guide, in this country, when working people rebel, things are going to get really nasty really quickly. But that will be up to them. I wish we could just buy them out. Give them a chance to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth in some gated community, whatever, bribe them somehow to prevent a nuclear or some other catastrophic immolation.

The difficulty of organization and leadership, and the power structure of hierarchy and authoritarian rule are inter-related. My theory on why these problems arise is the brutal hostility of the opposition, capitalism, which forces the early attempts at socialism to become authoritarian for survival. The system of oppression and repression that socialist oppossion meets—almost by natural force—creates the need for tighter hierarchical internal order under a strong leadership. In other words, the more brutal the repression, the more military like the socialist forces become.

I agree. With the conditions that you inherit (nothing in those conditions is immediately ready to build socialism, everything has to be refurbished), things further messed up by the political turmoil of the revolution, under hostile fire, socialist construction is a very unstable, fragile process. It moves along something like a knife’s edge. There is a strong temptation to mechanically suppress the enemies of the revolution, sometimes coming from the (understandable) vengeful urges of the populace. Except that the real enemy is the social conditions that breed and feed the enemy, replenish its ranks, etc. — and that takes a long time to dismantle. But if you don’t retain power, you won’t have a chance to dismantle those conditions in the long run. Now, dismantling them requires that you move in the direction exactly opposite to authoritarianism and the mechanical suppression of those you believe are threatening the process, fostering sustained initiative from below, democracy, which requires that each individual think independently and critically, all that. When you suppress your enemies mechanically, you become a bit or a lot like them. But you cannot push back on an object unless the object is in the same space as you are. And vice versa, the object won’t be in your way if it’s not claiming the same space as you. There is no way around this contradiction but moving along with it.

There are examples where the above was not the case. I am thinking of Allende’s plan to legally reform toward socialism. Failed or not, it seemed to me, brillant because it answered the problem sketched above. Of course I wish I knew more off the top of my head, but I don’t. I suspect it was Allende’s general ideal that moves most of the socialist’s projects in Latin America.

A week ago, at a brunch, a friend was telling me about an anecdote circulating that Fidel advised Chávez not to abandon the formal democratic framework in spite of provocation by the contras. Fidel, apparently, views the Cuban experience on this regard as a “mistake” (forced by circumstances, their own inexperience and naivete as leaders, etc.). If true, this means that Fidel was advising Chávez to stay on the knife’s edge rather than thinking that falling off on the side of repressing your enemies you’re really getting closer to your goal. Because you are not. I think some influential people in Venezuela (e.g. José Vicente Rangel and Chávez himself) have a good sense of this, but every now and then (very understandably) you just feel like going heavy handed with the contras, instead of always playing defense and letting them take the initiative (in this aspect of politics). In a sense, Chávez may be pulling off (so far) a sort of a synthesis of the experiences of the Cuban revolution (its failures explicitly or implicitly admitted by its leaders) and Allende’s own aborted experience. Many leftist critics of the Allende experience don’t get this at all. They see the downside but not the upside of the Allende approach.

There are also I think, social inclusive and structural ways around this authoritarian business. These ways amount to inclusion of women and youth, both of whom tend to take a dim view of male hierarchical systems. I saw this social phenomenon in the Art Dept at UCB because almost half of the grad students were young women. I saw it again in the early phase of the disability rights movement. I saw it again much later upon reading some of the early history of the black civil rights struggles.

The more the bone marrow of a society is imbued with democratic “values” and such, the better the chances of pulling this off. And, of course, having this kind of involvement makes things so much easier latter. This is why it’s so important for the left to foster the best democratic practices from the get-go. The problem, of course, is that we, as we are now, are not really capable of juggling ideal democratic — let alone communistic — ways and being serious about our goals. There’s a tradeoff.  We are not ready technically, the conditions in which we live and work are not conducive, and our mindsets are not the right ones. We either over-do it or under-do it. I only have trivial things to say about this at this point. Like this platitude: “It’s a process.” Not a process that unfolds under ideal conditions. But we have to keep trying. The only thing we need to rule out completely is the notion of accepting the status quo. I remember a piece written by Lenin, ca. 1921 or 1922, where he says something like this (about how to organize the economy during the transition): “There’s a lot of talking about principles. To hell with that! We need more practical experience. We need that first. Let people try things in different ways. Experiment with a bunch of approaches. Resist the urgency to legislate and impose ‘principles’ that may curtail some of these approaches. Let people do. Then compile, share, examine, and compare the experiences. Let the bottom tell the top what things work and what things don’t. From all that our new laws can emerge. Not from ‘principles.'”

There’s a tradition in the left for people to speak so categorically as if they have already solved all these conundrums. They haven’t. They are just making it much harder to solve them in practice. It’s like those students who laugh when other students ask so-called “stupid” questions. You tell the people who laugh, okay, go ahead and answer the question yourself, and they show they really don’t have any idea of the thing. My favorite example for the U.S. case is, of course, the approach towards the Democratic Party. Some leftists are so convinced that there’s nothing to gain in engaging the DP that ruling it out is their cast-in-stone premise. I say, to hell with that. If they had success to show in the alternative approaches, evidence of it that we can compare with the engage-the-DP approach, then let’s examine that evidence. But no. They just feel that they know. I say, let people experiment with whatever political vehicles come in handy and may be of use to change things, locally and nationally. Then, when you really have results to examine, examine them and derive principles from them. When we are stuck at the bottom, we need action before we try to codify our experience.

I know that this appears to contradict what I’m saying on my blog post, about thinking or designing before doing. There’s no logical contradiction. There, I’m saying, socialism in the 20th century has already some practical results that need to be examined fairly and squarely. Here I’m saying, the U.S. left has very little results to show. So let’s try different approaches and, when we have some experience accumulated, then let’s process it critically to avoid repeating costly mistakes.

And, just noticing the photo of the sculpture icon on the blog. But this integration business has to be more than symbolism—which also goes to the French Revolution, symbolized by Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, that includes a boy with guns, and a woman with the tricolor—although most men see the tits first. These were discoveries, once learned in the long past and almost aways forgotten, laying there to be re-discovered… in many peoples’ pasts.

In response to this, consider an exchange with a friend on Facebook:

Him: “With a sickle chopping the hammer off? If we want to start with progressive thought in the 21st century, we had better start with ditching old symbols and metaphors which are no longer understood in the same way, other than by leftist academics dreaming of a return to the past.”

Me: “I don’t mind ditching old symbols and metaphors when they prove useless. The point of my post, trivial perhaps, is precisely that we need to think and re-think our aims before proceeding (and as we proceed), and that means looking forward …rather than being trapped by the past. But we cannot bury our past unless we learn from it. We cannot disown our past unless we’re moving on, but really moving on requires that we own what we (as a movement) did in the past, understand why and how we did it, and are capable of adjusting our behavior. Because, and that’s the other side of it, there are aspects of the existing world (which is the outcome of what was done in the past) that we must preserve and build on. Otherwise we will have to re-invent the wheel.”

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