Socialism in the 21st Century: A Model with Changeable Pieces
What does 21st-century socialism consist of?
Is it only a slogan or a dream that can be turned into a reality?
Last century’s socialism has bequeathed this new one a logbook,
with certain qualities that 21st-century socialism must acknowledge,
embracing some, correcting others, and avoiding still others completely.
The fast-changing times we live in today will necessarily make this model
a puzzle we can put together and take apart.
Juan Carlos Monedero
According to the logbook bequeathed to 21st-century socialism, last century’s predecessor had four main qualities: efficiency, heroism, barbarity and ingenuousness. The efficiency had to do with its capacity to bring a considerable amount of humanity—feudal Russia, imperial China and the depressed areas of Central Europe, Africa and Asia—into the modern era. The barbarity is what makes up the black book of the often unfairly called “real socialism,” and had to do with the Gulags, Walls, purges, political prisoners, lack of representative democracy, creation of enemies of the people, elimination of dissidence and the like.
Twentieth-century socialism also demands that we remember its heroism—often purposefully silenced—in stopping the spread of Nazism during the Second World War (of the 50 million dead, 20 million were Soviet citizens) and those who died or were imprisoned and tortured in the struggles against dictatorships and for democracy. Less talked about was socialism’s ingenuousness in the past century, by which we mean simple, even simplified, albeit well meaning, solutions to complex problems that aren’t resolved by changing the analysis of human nature.
Five main reasons 20th-century First, it was naïve for believing that assaulting the state apparatus was enough to change the social system. This naiveté is found in Marx himself, a man so convinced that a harmonious reign would follow the fall of capitalism that he didn’t stop to develop a theory of transition, justice or the State to match the challenges that were to come. Once power was won all else was improvisation. That was why Lenin decided to interpret each moment in the unfolding process, even as other Marxists reproached him for his rush and his unwillingness to adjust to the pace laid out by Marx, by then considered an oracle.
socialism was ingenuous
Two, it was naïve for believing that creating a single party ruled by democratic centralism (i.e. information flowing from bottom to top and orders from top to bottom) was enough to regulate society, respond to evolutionary changes and join together different volitions. Only if one believes that there’s such a thing as a single truth can one propose the creation of a single party.
Three, it was naïve for believing that nationalizing the means of production and controlling them through the State would satisfy social needs more effectively and abundantly than capitalism. Nationalizing the means of production does not mean socializing them.
Four, it was naïve for believing that what worked well in Russia would work equally well in other countries with different experiences, histories and worldviews. This was behind the bitterness of Peru’s Mariátegui, who warned orthodox Marxists that Latin America needed a Marxism that was “neither an imitation nor a copy” of the Soviet model.
And five, it was naïve for believing that uninterrupted growth would bring a reign of abundance that would end all human and social problems, ignoring humans’ need for deeper meaning, the depletion of the planet’s resources and the problems of modern productivity. Likewise for incorporating the idea of “the end of history” without understanding that socialism itself is a part of history and therefore must change with the societies and remain open to incorporating new needs, such as ecological sensitivity.
Twenty-first century socialism must rectify these errors and do a more complex analysis than the simple one that led to political actions in the past century now considered contrary to commonly accepted emancipating practices. Twenty-first century socialism will keep its substance. It is socialist because it clearly and definitively situates itself in opposition to capitalism and the exploitation capitalism entails. In addition to class domination, socialism now must incorporate any other type of domination—gender, racial, environmental, sexual and generational—into its social transformation. In this sense, socialism maintains its role as party pooper to capitalism’s promised orgy.
How can we envision socialism in the 21st century? I imagine it with these characteristics.
Twenty-first century socialism must This definition must not be based on false assumptions about good and evil. We are neither angels nor devils. Both selfishness and altruism are part of our biological makeup. Which one is emphasized depends upon the social structure. Socialism committed the error, a legacy of the Enlightenment, of thinking that human beings were not only “good” but “perfectible.” On the other hand, Hobbes’ statement that man is “the wolf among men” is also incorrect. Humans have a strong survival instinct that leads them to both individualistic and group behaviors.
rethink the definition of human nature
We now know that the new circumstances do more for any transformation than the supposedly “new man” who constantly reverted to old vices during the 20th century. Social conditions can even lead to genetic modifications. People who live from planting rice in wetlands have developed alleles that make them immune to malaria. All this explains the social nature of human beings.
By giving up the controversy around good and evil we can focus more on building social linkages that understand that when we humans separate ourselves from social responsibility we fall closer to the 4,000,000 years of our pre-sapiens condition than to the 400,000 years in which our evolution as a species has been culminating. Because we’re not yet fully “human,” let’s strengthen the social mechanisms—values, above all—so we can walk on the evolutionary path that will let us reach that higher stage that is socialism.
Twenty-first century socialism is definedThe sum of the social movements’ emancipation demands—those that don’t include new privileges—make up the general fresco of the work ahead for socialism in the early 21st century. We’ve moved beyond the times when a vanguard appointed itself as such and dictated the shape of the future. Real genuine intelligence is collective and so is its language. It’s not constructed by forcing obligatory homogeneity but rather by the voluntary coming together of different liberation movements.
not by vanguards but by real, open dialogue
We need thinkers, teams of idea people, experts and technical people who are certain about the viability of proposals over time. Only the people themselves have the collective intelligence to know what they want and when and how they want it, but there’s no certainty that they will be correct in their diagnosis given that modern reasoning, the all-pervasive Western thinking, often obscures what’s really hiding behind power games. In this “deconstruction” work it’s important to have people who can help us out of these confusing labyrinths. Helping, however, means facilitating; not directing. One of the jobs of public administration is to coordinate. To do this we must encourage networks of citizens, universities, political groups, labor unions, professionals and social organizations to “map” this new socialism.
Twenty-first century socialism must be pieced together through a genuine open dialogue with society, social movements, political parties, public administrations and the powers-that-be that still govern each of the various societies. And because it is being pieced together, it is also constantly being taken apart.
This plurality means that each collective, people and nation has its own characteristics. The State isn’t the same in Europe as in Africa or Latin America. The churches in Spain or Rome don’t respond to the same concerns as in El Salvador or Colombia. The Church in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas is not the same one that represents the Venezuelan hierarchy. Political parties and election rules don’t operate the same in all countries. Each State has its own rules of behavior and specific situations that require different actions.
In conclusion, 21st-century socialism is dialectical, in a state of constant development, audited constantly by the people and examined by those with technical and political responsibility. In so doing they will realize that dream and reality aren’t the same and that to confuse the two clips utopia’s wings. This presumes the State’s obligation to constant public transparency.
Twenty-first century socialism has For five centuries capitalism has imposed its predatory logic throughout the planet, subjecting whole peoples, classes, women, indigenous peoples and nature to all types of misery and reducing human interchange to exchanges of merchandise.
learned not to swap justice for liberty
In the 20th century socialism was the most developed opposition to capitalism, but it committed errors that distanced it from the people. We know that capitalism will never be self-critical, but socialism, due to its own critical roots and commitment to “truth,” must be. Twentieth-century socialism helped many and continues to serve as a valid example, but the effort at emancipation would be wrongly assumed if, a huge effort were not made to unearth the shadowy side of its history in order to preserve the light.
Collective freedom must be based on individual freedom, which is the opposite of the totalitarian deviation socialism took in many countries that flew its banner. Today’s liberty cannot be abolished in the name of future liberty. The socialism of the 21st century buttresses individual development while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of peoples and collectives.
Twenty-first century socialism is incompatible with the disciplinary, repressive approaches taken by the Left in the 20th century, especially in the Soviet camp. Individual greed should not impede development nor should collectivism strangle individual freedom. For this we need very solid values that shape and inform us. People’s strongest identification must be with the projects behind the values. Values are the maps that orient society. If societies keep their values very alive, neither individualist greed nor the loss of individual freedom will take root in our societies.
A “politicized” society is one that defends in daily life the values that inform it. As this is everyone’s task, it makes the vanguard, the doctrine gendarmes and the priests of orthodoxy less important. Democracy for all is the best antidote against any type of dictatorship. Democracy implies an educated, conscious and responsible citizenry made up of aware but not inquisitorial members of society who daily demand our commitment as members of a collective whole.
Twenty-first century socialism has Participation takes more work. However, this should never be verbalized as forced work but rather as the task of free individuals who find life’s meaning with others but don’t lose themselves in them. The classic Greeks referred to those disinterested in the public sphere as idiotes, which is where our word “idiot “comes from. There’s nothing more idiotic than to think that we are Robinson Crusoes on an island surviving by our individual intelligence rather than because we have been socialized and can enjoy all that society has created for us even before we were born.
learned that unhappy socialism is irrelevant
Individualism is an ideology pushed by the capitalist system, which needs people individually willing to sell their labor in the market place. Capitalism thus imposed itself by breaking all social ties—community, mutuality and solidarity networks—so people could only survive by becoming wage earners. Capitalism only preserved the family network as a functional institution in order to reproduce the workforce, transforming it into a production-consumer unit lacking internal democracy for women and children.
We are passion and reason, individuals and social beings, longing for personal happiness and, if the context permits, biologically disposed to share our lives with the community. Twenty-first century socialism cannot repeatedly promise future wellbeing in exchange for sacrifices today. Whenever a child heals or learns, a person finds respectable work, an older person can live in freedom because his or her basic needs are covered, a woman regains control of her daily life and body, we’re building happiness and joy and thus giving life to 21st-century socialism.
To be a card-carrying activist in an organization should not be imposed, heavy, tinged with pain and martyrdom. Working collectively is a sacrifice but it’s also the satisfaction of work well done. We can’t be forced to be interested in others, to feel compassion and love. We should do it because we know it makes us more human, in the same way that thinking only about ourselves dehumanizes us. Happiness comes not from accumulating goods—what do we need material riches for on an island?—but from accumulating respect, authority, friends and the satisfaction of doing good work. Capitalism accumulates material wealth and 21st-century socialism accumulates contented, happy people.
Utopia is concrete, is born daily and dreams with its feet on the ground. But it dreams. Thus, socialism incorporates the arts into its forms of protest. It knows that music, theater, literature, painting and grassroots expressions are forms of building an alternative. Laughter is revolutionary, just as tears will also be part of this struggle. Tears come without having to search for them but happiness and laughter are political objectives. The gray condition of capitalism, war, environmental destruction, hunger and the exploitation of human beings by human beings must be contrasted with the explosion of a better life promised by socialism.
There’s no sacrifice today for a supposed happiness tomorrow. But we mustn’t divorce this social contract of happiness from the necessary effort that any achievement demands. To see in the distance one must first make the effort of climbing the tree. We have to understand that every time socialism resorts to violence it’s because at that moment it must have failed to find its own methods: those of life and joy.
Twenty-first century socialism banksEducated people have a higher probability of being free people. Underdevelopment and ignorance go hand-in-hand. The education of children and the on-going education of adults are tools that should be looked after since they are the main sources of intelligence and freedom.
on education as an essential objective
The new socialism must continue the major task that 20th-century socialism tackled: literacy. If 20th-century literacy dealt with reading and writing, today it must also incorporate learning to read the mass media and understand the world of computers. Literacy is thus part of the essential work of creating a citizenry “armed” against “information terrorism.” The use of fire took 300,000 years to discover and bronze only about 20,000. Sharing advances in technology, medicine, science and knowledge is a sign of humanization. These new advances are social inventions. To restrict them only to those who can pay turns them into privileges for a few and isolates them from the society from which they arose. This useful technology, greatly needed in advanced socialism, ought to incorporate free software that makes advanced technology and culture accessible to all.
To become a more literate society we must build a culture far removed from the “spectacle” culture, whose only goal is selling things and weakening the values of solidarity. Leisure culture has become mere distraction. If distraction is part of the salt of life, turning everything into distraction is a trap to create distracted people. The media, put to the service of selling leisure and of the interests of the privileged, are “weapons of mass distraction” against 21st-century socialism.
Twenty-first century socialism so respects Capitalism separates scientists from nature. Even after the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, scientists were unaware that their responsibility for their inventions did not end when they left their laboratories.
nature that it becomes eco-socialism
Science, the heart of the Enlightenment since the 17th century, promised an emancipation that was later lost when it was dissociated from respect for nature. Capitalism turned science into a commodity to serve capital and destroyed nature. The environment wasn’t something to live with but rather something to dominate and subdue. Capitalism always takes advantage of the weakest link, always those least able to complain. Nature, children, women, the weak, immigrants and slaves have always guaranteed that the powerful live comfortably without effort.
But nature has begun to complain. The First World has exhausted its natural reserves and biodiversity, and now has its sights on Third World countries that still have them. We only have one planet, Earth, and all are responsible for helping it survive. We are obliged to practice caution: if we don’t know the effect of a new practice, using it only to increase wealth is morally reckless.
Genetically modified crops are true weapons of mass destruction. Multinationals like Monsanto have turned farmers into hostages of the seeds they are sold for every planting: they are good for one time only, pollute the natural seeds, require unnatural fertilizers and cost a great deal. Nature has begun to complain and we have to listen to its cry. Focusing only on production, as socialism in the 19th and 20th century did, is no longer valid.
Twenty-first century socialism seesVery closely related to caring for nature is agrarian reform, which rural people in Latin America have been demanding for decades. It was the basis of the enormous economic push that the “Asian Tigers” partially achieved. We need an agrarian reform that guarantees people access to food and reverses the mercantile transformation of people’s right to feed themselves. The large food companies overcrop the soil, use up water, create deserts, make peasants dependent then condemn them to hunger. It has never been as possible to feed the entire world as it is today, yet never before has this possibility been so tenaciously negated by the interests of the transnationals embedded in the political institutions of each nation.
agrarian reform as a priority demand
An agrarian reform that puts an end to multinational agribusiness is one of the main challenges of the new socialism. It would guarantee the survival of individuals and our species, jeopardized by the food industry, the use of transgenics and pesticides and the use of hunger as a weapon by rich countries or powerful groups.
Closely related to agrarian reform is the growing problem of water. In response to its attempted and often successful privatization, water must be declared a universal public resource, not one for wasteful and inefficient commercial use. Preventing the water shortage threatening us will be a challenge to the human intelligence of the coming socialism.
And in response to the neoliberal assumption that countries should specialize in exports, ecological prudence demands that we consume products grown near where we live. Productive socialism should make decisions based on endogenous need rather than what produces the most. It is absurd that in the name of respect for ecology Europeans consume supposedly ecological products shipped thousands of kilometers from where they are grown only to be eaten in other countries. Just as absurd is the abusive use of air conditioners in hot climates and heating in cold climates, which compete to destroy the environment.
Twenty-first century socialismMother Earth, who renews nature’s cycle and constantly brings forth life, has had in women its most beautiful metaphor and its most punished group. From the beginning of time women have seen their work denigrated, their biological task undervalued, their efforts rejected and their bodies violated. They often work a double shift—in and outside the home—bearing major responsibility for the family and continuing to suffer men’s brutality, physical abuse, sexual exploitation, lower salaries and lack of freedom to study, explore, grow and be in control of their own bodies.
is deeply feminist
They are “half the sky” and more than half of humanity but their contributions are wasted because they and men are raised in a self-centered patriarchal society that insists on maintaining male privilege. No free society can sustain itself on the disparaging of half its citizens, not does it have the luxury of underutilizing half its people, their intelligence and their drive. And since the previous centuries have been men’s, it is only fair compensation that the 21st century be women’s.
As long as men continue to have top priority in the social structures, quotas will continue to be a justice issue. Only when society incorporates feminist values such as cooperation, dialogue and care, respect and consideration for future generations will we be capable of advancing a socialism worthy of the name.
Twenty-first century socialism may not have a The main tenet of socialism is to create an integral society that allows its members to freely develop their highest human potential. From a historical perspective, socialism has always supported the emancipation of the weakest and most excluded. It has often had the support of people who aren’t part of this group but don’t want to be part of a society in which they are involuntary henchmen for those who make their money on the backs of those who must submit.
full alternative, but it knows what it doesn’t like
There are many benchmarks for this principle of resistance by the many to the domination of the few, among them Plato’s communitarianism in The Republic, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Spartacus’ slave revolt against the Romans, opposition to the Crusades, the 16th-century peasant movements, the indigenous resistance against the Spanish and Portuguese Conquest, the French Revolution, the US Revolution, the uprisings of the Blacks in Curaçao, the 1830 and 1848 revolutions in Europe, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the defeat of Nazism, the Cuban and Sandinista Revolutions, the Zapatista uprising, the “Another World Is Possible” global movement, the grassroots defense of the Fifth Venezuelan Republic, the indigenous rights and struggles over resources in Bolivia, Ecuador or Peru.
We don’t know yet what 21-century socialism will look like. It is being created through thinking and acting. What we do know is what we don’t want it to be. The socialist formulas haven’t always worked, although we also know that capitalism has never let them work. Any uprising against capitalism, any complaint or any alternative by slaves, Indians or Blacks, any of the thousands of little known grassroots uprisings, have all been put down and the people massacred. We must recover that history of resistance, for it’s a useful example for the present and future, which of course is why they’ve always tried to hide it. Twenty-first century socialism always has at hand these examples of resistance and protest in the previous centuries, for they are fresh in our minds.
Socialism in the new century must go way beyond capitalism, emphasize its contradictions, its dead ends and use its own resources to point out its inhumanity, inefficiency and predatory nature. However, we mustn’t confuse this process with the “the worse it gets, the better” approach initiated by certain elements of the Left in the last century. This isn’t about making poverty, misery, illness or illiteracy worse in hopes of getting to socialism sooner that way. It’s about accentuating capitalism’s limitations so people understand that this system is incapable of building a sensible world. We’ve already learned that when we use the enemies’ weapons we end up looking a lot like them. The new socialism’s avenues are grand and tree-lined.
Twenty-first century socialism In many countries it seems more effective to use the law and its loopholes to subvert the system than to resort to violence, which becomes mere terrorism incompatible with humanistic socialism when there is lack of social support and understanding.
must experiment, but carefully
There will be spaces where we can try alternatives radically different from capitalism—always assessing the results. But there will be many other spaces where the old thinking will have to live side-by-side with the new. In many countries, for example, it has been shown that in building new low-income housing, mixed coop-market-State formulas have worked better than strict State intervention formulas.
It is imperative to experiment with new formulas when one lacks an alternative model, but being very careful that the advances are not based just on “trial and error,” which always has its victims. Chinese authorities, backed by their political peculiarities, experiment on entire cities, reaping a rich experience but sacrificing many of the human guinea pigs in the process.
Twenty-first century socialismAs we are visualizing new paths, our new socialism needs to ensure minimum elements to keep the present generation from seeing their possibility of a decent life sacrificed. Government should make efforts to guarantee decent work or a minimum income for all citizens, including women who shoulder that huge burden of unpaid household work. Unemployment is contrary to the idea of socialism or even humanity.
begins by thinking about the basics
Twenty-first century socialism begins by thinking about the basics, the ground upon which the new system can be envisioned. Unless the basics of education, health, housing, clothing, potable water, electricity and culture are covered, one can’t call a society socialist. Satisfaction of these basics, which will be considered public goods and services, is part of the commitment of the new socialism to which the entire community must respond.
There are many ways to achieve this, remembering that before we reach socialism we must build the foundation for transitioning to it. An essential part of this transition is a good tax base that allows for the redistribution of resources. In addition, it is imperative that the State control the main energy resources and guarantee the supply of goods and services through publicly or socially owned means of production by stimulating the local economy and building complementary international networks like ALBA.
Twenty-first century socialism Socialism is peaceful because violence goes against the meaning of life. Violence in opposition to structural State violence, as conceived and traditionally used by the Left, must be redefined for both ethical reasons and its historical usefulness (or not). It’s more appropriate to win by convincing, building consensus (Gramsci) and using humane methods that overwhelm the violence of the powerful (Gandhi). Civil disobedience is more appropriate to 21st-century socialism than armed struggle.
is violently peaceful
A rigorous analysis of violent conflicts during the last two centuries shows that, except for situations in which the resistance was legitimized by popular support, the resort to arms only generates a negative spiral of hatred and more violence. Twentieth-century experience shows that capitalism resorts to force of arms in crisis. Twenty-first century socialism supports peace and hands over responsibility for solving conflicts to the agencies of a restructured United Nations.
Violence is a last resort but in some situations also a recourse. “I prefer violence to indifference,” said Gandhi. We abhor the use of violence but abhor even more a minority with access to violence that robs everyone else of happiness. Democracy must defend itself and as a preventive formula must make clear that it has the capacity to do so. For this reason it is violently peaceful.
No one must be allowed to abuse peoples committed to pacifism. That’s why even democracies arm themselves. Nonetheless, any conflict, aggressive action or war, whether offensive or defensive, is a failure of 21st-century socialism. Just as good medicine should be preventive, the best violence is the one never used. All efforts to prevent conflict are thus important, such as restructuring the UN into an organization capable of fighting and using violence in the name of peace and democracy. That requires comprehensively reforming the UN and reconsidering the path of rearmament responsible for a surge in the number of wars, the war business and the turning of countries into world police who act like pyromaniac fire fighters.
The influence of military officers should, by definition, remain within the barracks. Military logic is different from civilian logic and, from a democratic perspective, it’s always better to civilize the army than to militarize society. As a generally applicable rule, the best weapon is the one never used and the best ones used are those that most effectively limit the damage and are employed only in legitimate situations, i.e. defense against those who want to impose their will on the rest of society.
Twenty-first century socialism Neoliberal globalization is capitalism’s utopia; a world without borders, a jungle without rules that benefits the strongest. Capitalism’s great lie is to say that everything can be expressed in merchandise and that the market, through self-regulation, is capable of organizing a worldwide society. Neoliberal capitalism, like any other capitalist variant, needs to abolish borders, labor laws, communal property and anything else that gets in the way of its desire to individualize the world and turn it and everything in it into goods that can be bought and sold. However, the inefficiency and inequality of self-regulating markets are legendary. It is here that alliances across national boundaries, based on complementary needs and solidarity, are so essential.
must propose a new international order
As Rousseau said, there’s no democracy when some human beings are so poor that they must sell themselves or so rich that they can buy another human being. Capitalism without borders is the ideal territory for robbers of highways, banks, people and nature: they steal here and flee there without moving from their armchairs.
National borders have been overtaken by technological development, society’s complexity and globalization. In many respects the national State has been surpassed from above and below. We should keep certain aspects of it, reject others and take others further. Capitalism’s new lie is to proclaim the end of the national State whenever a democratic rule of law presumes to stop the expansion of capital and its profits.
The State has been surpassed from below because the local spheres are closer to the people and thus can do certain tasks better. In a globalized world, with decision-making moving away from the citizenry, one must diligently return to the principle (called the principle of subsidiarity) that what can be done at the local level should not be done from above, but guaranteeing that if the local level can’t do it, higher ones will be attentive and cover the need. The Left has often abandoned the idea that in issues of great importance—i.e., the fight against drug trafficking or corruption—the local level is essential. But in fact the local level is more efficient and has more information not only in the fight against institutional corruption by civil servants, police and politicians, but also in planning education, health and even employment.
The State has been surpassed from above because some issues can no longer be settled at the level of one State. Here’s where political development and the desires of international capital coincide. The neoclassic theory of comparative advantages left out many things… mainly people’s domestic needs. To produce only exports doesn’t necessarily lead to a better national standard of living. It creates exporting elites who condemn the majority of people to hunger and backwardness. Thus we must rebuild the borders in the 21st century, which by necessity will be regional, replacing the traditional national ones. Europe was helped along in this through a terrible war that devastated the continent. In Latin America we need a lesson in humility to understand the need to reduce nationalism at the same time that we praise and respect the national State. Those who are part of progressive movements outside their own countries understand this better than the nationalists fighting against it. Thus we need connections and shared leadership that cross national boundaries. Democracy in one nation is not feasible. Latin American countries will only be democratic insofar as they become a pole of power based on their alliances.
We must build new identities that incorporate and bring together more from here and there than the various national States now do. The building of States homogenized and subjected peoples, races and languages, obliging them to form a single identity, then the national States survived by feeding the differences between them and the nearest other States (and sometimes even ones very far away). Twenty-first century socialism must move beyond these differences based on individual interests, finding the common elements in each geographic area. It must pay particular attention to what can happen both when coming together frees people and when equalizing people takes away part of their identity.
Twenty-first century socialism will build newBuilding new identities must be done in a participatory manner, which makes the possibility of building a “regional public opinion” extremely relevant. To move in this direction, which is easier when there’s a common language, one must think about creating regional networks that share objectives. Latin America should be building meeting spaces among parties that can represent this new regional public opinion; political parties that follow the same ideological lines but operate in different countries. The possibility of creating a regional public opinion involves creating regional media.
regional identities in a participatory manner
The new borders must protect the inhabitants from those who, in the name of free trade, threaten national industry, farming and services. This has nothing to do with building an autarchy but rather with understanding that internal protections guarantee wellbeing in opposition to the great lie of opening borders, which the rich countries themselves have never done.
While rebuilding political borders, local democracy must also invent a new alliance between forms of representative and participatory democracy. Participatory budgets are a major move in this direction. In complex societies (ones in which each person is a world that must be recognized in its own right), government responses cannot be simplistic.
Twenty-first century socialism provides complex answers to complex problems. In this situation, simplifying ignores the fact that each person has his or her own particular characteristics. By making it more complex—which also complicates political work and makes it harder—one understands that not everyone can be made to fit the same mold even though this would make politicians’ job easier.
We absolutely must put an end to those places “without borders” that condemn so many countries to poverty: tax havens and transnational corporations. While neoliberalism is touting a world without borders, protected fiefdoms are being created with new castles and enormous moats: legal-financial structures that forbid entrance to the average person. Just as human rights stopped being considered the private business of the State, financial matters that condemn whole continents to poverty must stop being private matters in which business, international agencies or the State demand to maintain their privileges.
Twenty-first century socialism must The current international order condemns three-quarters of the planet to severe poverty. In the same way that the Russell Tribunal investigated the Vietnam War crimes, we need international courts that can explain how the existence of poor countries is intimately related to the existence of exploitative countries. These tribunals, with the participation of all parties, must assess the costly ramifications of colonialism, invasions, the theft of natural resources, slavery, unequal trade, the export of toxic waste and the fostering of wars and dictators.
rethink the concepts of wealth and poverty
We must urgently confront the foreign and ecological debts. Without rethinking this historical inequality, which continues to weigh heavily on poor countries in the form of foreign debt and prevents their possible progress, it’s impossible to imagine any type of socialism for the 21st-century. Foreign debt continues to create poverty and misery and makes people prisoners of the continued crime of genocide. Continued payments on the immoral and odious foreign debt, already paid several times over, prevents countries from building a minimum standard of living from which the new socialism can get underway.
Twenty-first century socialism must build the idea of human rights based on respect for all culturesThe West has always been a colonial force incapable of humbly understanding that Western thought is only one expression of human truth. Since the 18th century, Western thought—modernity—has directly or indirectly imposed its own values, including those contaminated by voracious capitalism and a one-size-fits-all approach to the State, even when proposing universal values.
Human rights are not liberalism’s individual rights, which in the name of a good cause end up being another oppressive instrument of some countries over others and some ideologies over others. Human rights must be built on dialogue between different peoples and countries, different political options and religions.
In response to proposed clashes of civilizations based on the assumed incompatibility of human values and rights, 21st-century socialism must make an effort to foster dialogue among civilizations. This should recognize intercultural concepts and the most effective means of emancipation that, despite their varying assumptions, share a commitment to an alternative globalization. Notwithstanding the commercializing of every aspect of life undertaken by neoliberal globalization, a rich variety of ideas is still coming from native cultures, other religions and different sexual sensibilities that must join together so we can recover that breadth of human experience stolen by neoliberal commercialism.
These new human rights must have as a shared guidepost the recovery of something left by the wayside in the Western liberal conception of human rights: the right to proper food. The right to life is infringed upon in an aberrant manner when three-quarters of humanity cannot feed itself. Formal recognition of liberty serves little purpose when this right cannot be exercised due to lack of food and of the education required to build a decent life. In addition, free access to required medicines must be part of a concept of human rights defended by the United Nations.
Twenty-first century socialism needs During the last third of the 20th century, the alternatives were mainly indifference or militant opposition. The defeat of virtually every attempt to radically transform capitalism and representative democracy has polarized societies into a large conformist mass and a small nucleus of aware people who bear the total burden of transformative praxis and discourse. These small minorities carrying the whole weight of progressive ideas often end up with little backing and burn out, joining the ranks of the discouraged or building small getaways where they can escape the neoliberal hegemony. If emancipation is not backed by ample sectors of the population, it becomes a “cyclopean” task only for heroic giants who could end up losing their human condition.
its own media, guided by its values
To avoid this happening, we must mainstream the socialist proposals, for which the mass media’s role is fundamental. Since the 1930s the mass media, initially radio, became an essential element for both reactionary ideas (the Nazis were experts in its use) and progressive ones (the weekly fireside chats of President Roosevelt about the New Deal). In the sixties and seventies the media were generally put at the service of capitalist society with its constant need to increase demand, leading to today’s consumer society.
Like all other audiovisual productions, advertising, an artifice of consumer society, has greatly helped build an individualistic, conformist, consumerist world focused on distraction and intellectually unprepared to face the hard work of transformation. Media silence about the ravages caused by capitalism and its blackouts of any protests against it weaken the beginnings of other resistance movements.
The new values can only be reflected with new socialist mirrors. The whole of society and not just a small conscious minority must support these values, although in the meantime this minority must work to spread them. Only with media that are not part of the great financial/business/political structures can the new socialism be explained, make proposals and defend itself. Only with media that share the new values can a citizenry be educated in the collective defense of the new socialism. Information can’t consist just of the passive consumption of messages and images from a single provider. It must be a give and take of ideas in which the number of people transmitting the messages increases alongside those receiving them.
Alternative, local, decentralized free access media are requisites to prevent the new socialism from falling back into elite doctrine. Only a dialectical relationship between the local, national and global can create a citizenry that is not fragmented and avoid the common error of homogenizing everyone and negating the importance of identity. Only with media that are separated from particular interests can we build regional public opinions—Latin American, African, European, Mediterranean—capable of building an alternative globalization that sparks a transformation.
It is in the cultural arena that human beings display their greatest humanity. Here is where we need to break with the cushioning of society’s pain through spectacle. If transformation is to take place, one must pass through the equation ‘feel pain-know-want-be able-do.’” Without pain in response to the social reality, why would anyone have a reason to change? When pain is conceptualized it becomes knowledge and is no longer considered natural and necessary. Once it becomes knowledge and understanding, it is seen as the enemy of a decent life, and with that the will and the desire to end the pain at its source is born. But desire is not enough. That’s when the political moment emerges: that of being able to and doing it. Changing the logic of the repetitive pain rooted in the social institutions requires “being able” to change those institutions. Once that power, that sense of enablement comes, transformation follows.
Twenty-first century socialism knows that more Representative democracy has built walls against the citizenry. The absence of forms of direct democracy has converted the practice of democracy into a process that ends up ignoring the ideal of “by the people and for the people.”
grassroots participation means less private power
At a practical level, reinforcing local democracy strengthens the political process stolen by the central government and revamped and abused by the international financial institutions. The more decision-making is removed from the local level, the weaker the democracy. Most concrete information comes from below. The central government’s coordination work is necessary, but the principle of subsidiarity must be employed in which the central government serves as a guarantor and has resources to cover what can’t be fully covered locally.
The main mistake of 20th-century socialism was the lack of confidence in grassroots participation, leading the State to assume all responsibility. The State believed in its legitimacy to the point of declaring enemies of the people all those who were enemies of the State. In this way it copied many errors of the bourgeois government that preceded it. The surest way to avoid the mistakes of the struggle for emancipation in the past is to make up for that lack of participation. If the Right oriented its policies toward ending what it called “excessive participation,” then the Left must draw up its proposals guided by the goal of overcoming the lack of participation in parliaments, businesses, hospitals, administrations, schools, universities, financial institutions, the media and anywhere else where law, knowledge, force or tradition create situations of power and domination.
Twenty-first century socialism needs to know Neoliberal capitalism’s old paradigm is in crisis but socialism’s new paradigm hasn’t yet arrived. There will be areas when we can strongly push the logic of the new paradigm, but there will also be situations where we take a transitional position.
how to combine reform, revolution and rebellion
Faced with the great differences among leftist groups, which pay more attention to what separates them and therefore are constantly weak compared with the privileged sectors, 21st-century socialism must redouble its efforts to find what unifies those struggling for freedom. Each group needs to concretely translate for the others what its struggle is about, and explain why its strategy will help improve the world. Instead of criticism and confrontation among supposedly doctrinaire interpretations of truth, we need people willing to humbly find ways to cooperate rather than feel their own strength in their differences with others. Great leaps are possible in which groups making this effort to translate for each other can construct syntheses that overcome both the problem and their differences. Unlike the proliferation of Socialist Internationals with their different credos and identities, the World Social Forum is an example of rebuilding socialism for the 21st century.
One can’t change or reinvent everything, nor is it necessary. Societies have been struggling for centuries, with greater or lesser success, and they always have aspects that are part of their victories. To renounce these victories is to give up on strengths that were never surrendered. Thus we need a dose of reformism, of ordinary administration of what has always been attained. Human beings can’t reinvent everything every day. Excessive improvisation leads to frustration. Some social changes will only be possible in two or three generations.
On the other hand, working only towards a kind of total equilibrium leads to crystallization. As the Second Law of Thermodynamics teaches, all living bodies constantly lose energy but gain information in exchange. A body that doesn’t receive information about cold, heat, hunger, thirst and danger ends up dying without the stimuli it needs to renew the energy it’s losing. The key for living organisms is never to “crystallize” but rather to remain in unstable equilibrium and in constant interaction with the environment. Social values should make sure that administration of the achievements isn’t reversed and that there are spaces that aren’t in constant struggle. These social achievements should be shared and preserved, since constantly attempting to change them is a great expenditure of energy.
By the same token, reformism without revolution is useless. A revolution is a program of maximum changes, a profound and urgent change from what is stopping the push towards freedom, a beacon at the center of our daily work, even though we know these changes aren’t going to happen immediately. Revolution is the maximum utopia but it must be anchored in reality so it can become concrete. Reform and revolution, kept separate during the 20th century, must come together now, taking advantage of what we’ve learned from the errors of their divorce in the just ended century.
Rebelliousness: The soul of the LeftHaving said all that, both reform and revolution must understand that there is a third soul of the Left that must be incorporated: rebelliousness. This libertarian soul always asks uncomfortable questions and balks at any type of conformity. Compared to reform and revolution, rebelliousness is anti-hierarchical, irreverent; it is the spontaneous impulse involved in movements that are born suddenly then disappear just as quickly once the task is accomplished.
Rebelliousness is Bakunin’s lost struggle with Marx, Rosa Luxemburg’s with Lenin, Trotsky’s or Gramsci’s with Stalin, Roque Dalton’s with the FMLN, poetry’s with catechism. It’s the Zapatistas’ contribution of the idea of “leading obeying”; the distrust of structures; the backing of assemblies, of everyone’s participation, of absolute grassroots power and of social control that halts corruption, one of the main curses of 21st-century democracy. Rebelliousness doesn’t remove one chair in order to seat another but rather puts more chairs around the table.
Rebelliousness, however, has things to learn from reform and revolution: about the need for structures, parties and unions; the need to administer complex societies; an international order that doesn’t fit anyone’s glass slipper; the difficulties of politicizing all the people all the time; the need for technical assistance; how to combine global interests; the importance of organizing the forest when someone is already caring for each tree; the obligation to use both representative democratic forms and elections; and saving those elements of liberal democracy that can’t be left as the patrimony of the powerful because they were also accomplishments of the people, i.e. civil, political and social rights; the separation of powers; individual freedoms and social justice.
Twenty-first century socialismUnlike vanguards and the doctrinaire, 21st-century socialism will have to defend reforms and at times slow the pace. And when circumstances call for it, it will have to turn to revolution and speed up the pace. It will have to understand rebelliousness when the old political language gets in the way of emancipation.
will be like a changing puzzle
This isn’t eclectic but dialectic. Isn’t reform the enemy of revolution? And isn’t revolution the enemy of libertarian rebelliousness? Twentieth-century socialism was full of labels that got in the way of discussion. No one has a monopoly on the definition of revolution, rebellion or reform. Therefore, 21st-century socialism will be assembled and dismantled constantly like a changing puzzle. Only in this way will it grow beyond the errors and failures of the 20th century. Only thus will we truly be able to make good on liberation, proposed so eloquently by enlightened thought but never fulfilled.
Juan Carlos Monedero is a political science professor at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense and an adviser to Venezuela’s Centro Internacional Miranda. This article, edited by envío, combines three of his contributions: “El socialismo del Siglo XXI: modelo para armar y desarmar” and “El gran debate de la Venezuela de hoy – utopías con los pies en el suelo,” which appeared in the Venezuelan magazine SIC in October, 2009; and “Hacia una filosofía política del socialismo del Siglo XXI – notas desde el caso venezolano,” a collection of reflections presented in August 2007 at an international seminar on 21st-century socialism in Quito, Ecuador.