What Remains of Socialism?
The shipwreck of European socialism has left five valuable legcies: a science, an experience, a warning, a search and a pending task. Since the majority of humanity lives in poverty and history goes on, it is urgent to reflect on these legacies.
Social philosophy would have a hard time avoiding one of the crucial issues of our time: the foundering of the socialist projects of social transformation. In addition, the deplorable state of poverty in which a good part of humanity finds itself continues to fire a constant accusation at the capitalist economic system's claims of universal success.
The fall of the Soviet bloc has unquestionably tempted many to throw themselves into the arms of a superficial liberalism with the same ingenuousness with which they accepted the Marxist-Leninist dogmas in other times. Quotations from the "sacred scriptures" of Karl Marx are replaced with no less beatific quotations from Karl Popper or other sanctimonious intellectuals of lesser stature.
But following intellectual fads, however useful it may be for giving the sophists of the moment an up-to-date veneer, has never been the best way to resolve the factitious problems we inexorably find ourselves facing. Are poverty, inequality and the accelerated destruction of the environment things that we should accept passively, trusting that the blind forces of the market alone will provide us the best of all possible worlds? If these problems really matter to us, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of taking refuge in fads. On the contrary, we must turn to the facts themselves, shaking off all dogmatic assumptions.
A useful way of doing this, since it questions old dogmas without presupposing new ones, consists of posing the following question: does anything of theoretical and practical validity remain in the classic affirmations of socialist authors?
This question forces us constantly to look at the facts because they, including the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, are what will permit us to decide whether or not the central assumptions of socialism have been refuted. What, then, remains of socialism? To my way of thinking, the heritage of socialism is made up of five fundamental elements.
I. A SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF CAPITALISM'S INTERNAL LOGIC
Karl Marx insistently referred to his studies on the capitalist mode of production as scientific, contrasting his own research with the "utopian" character of the socialists who proceeded him. The studies in Capital were aimed at scientifically critiquing the classic economists and providing a more radical explanation of the capitalist system's internal logic.
Naturally we don't just find writings with a scientific aim in Marx's works. His political or philosophical texts could hardly be considered "scientific," at least by any current philosophy of science. A controversy with a political adversary about a tactical decision or a philosophical statement about the eternal laws of dialectics are not scientific propositions, however much they may appeal to others that are.
Theoretical Propositions v. Unrefutable DogmaTo be scientific, a proposition must fulfill a fundamental requisite: that it be susceptible to refutation by facts. Scientific propositions, rather than being dogmatically protected against all negation, expose themselves to being refuted by facts. Precisely for that reason, the sciences advance constantly and no truly scientific discipline is still in the same place it was a century ago. Only propositions that cannot be refuted remain eternal.
Of course, refutations do not happen mechanically in the history of science. The appeal to facts is always problematic, since the facts with which science deals are never "raw facts" but are always perceived according to the conceptual system that a given scientific discipline uses. Furthermore, many scientific theories are mutually supporting, such that a refutation is only effective if it is based on a more comprehensive theory that can replace all the theories not challenged by the facts.
But even with that, the philosophy of science is legitimized by creating a demarcation between those propositions that are in some way exposed to a comparison with the facts and those others that are "immunized" against any such comparison by consisting of statements that are too general for any concrete fact to be able to refute. From this point of view, it must be noted that Marx's pretention of "scientificity" is not applicable to all of his written works, but only to those theories about the internal logic of the capitalist system which can be held up against facts.
The Nucleus of Marx's Theory of Capital Is Still ValidWhen comparing a given theory with the facts, one must deal with the empirical consequences derived from its nucleus. Certain authors make empirical predictions that are logically independent of their theory, so refuting them does not refute the theory as a whole. In the case of Marx, the theoretical nucleus from which he derived his empirical predictions about the way capitalism will unfold is simply his theory of surplus value.
From that theory Marx coherently derived predictions that the capitalist system is constituently subjected to pressures toward accelerated technological progress, a constant increase in the productivity and intensity of labor, a growing concentration and centralization of capital, a transformation of the majority of the economically active population into wage laborers and recurrent periods of recession. Any look at the current situation of humanity, including that of workers in the industrialized countries, allows us to consider that Marx's empirical predictions have not been refuted and that the nucleus of his theory thus retains its validity.
There are, of course, other statements in Marx's works that are independent of the nucleus of his theory which have not withstood the test of time. For example, a prediction attributed to Marx which was widely disseminated by Stalinism states that workers will necessarily undergo a process of absolute pauperization under capitalism. If one looks only at the situation of salaried workers, that prediction could be considered at least partially refuted.
Nonetheless, that prediction is not found in Marx's mature works, but only in some relatively early texts such as the well-known "Communist Manifesto." In Capital, Marx forecast a relative pauperization with respect to the growing concentration and centralization of capital, and absolute pauperization only in the case of unemployment. And this appears to be all that the theory of surplus value requires. We can thus say that Marx's central discovery has a scientific character and permits a satisfactory explanation of the general tendencies to which the capitalist mode of production is subjected. Even economists who are strongly opposed to socialism also recognize this. Menéndez Ureña, for example, believes that "the economic works of Marx enjoy total internal coherence. This coherence is inferred from a few ideas, which could have been ordered in a much simpler and more intelligible fashion."
A Fundamental Prediction: Capitalist ExpansionIn this context, it is appropriate not to lose sight of one of Marx's fundamental predictions, referring to the constituently expansive character of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist competition favors those companies that introduce technological innovations. This tends to raise the organic composition of capital, in other words the relationship between the part invested in constant or fixed capital and the part spent on variable capital, or wages. Naturally, many other factors can act against this, such as the destruction of constant capital in the accelerated development of the communications media.
The process itself leads to a tendency for the general rate of profit to fall in economically more advanced regions, but other alternatives can avoid this. These consist precisely of transferring capital to geographic zones where the rate of exploitation-the relationship between surplus value and variable capital-is higher or the organic composition of capital is lower.
An inevitable result of this expansion of capital toward the less "developed" zones consists, according to Marx himself, in "the centralization of capital. Each capitalist mortally wounds many others. Hand in hand with this centralization or expropriation of many capitalists by a few is developed the interaction of the labor process on an ever greater scale, the conscious application of science, the planned looting of the planet, the transformation of the means of labor into means only utilizable collectively, the economization of the means of production through their use as means of socialized production of labor, the absorption of all peoples into the network of the world market, and with that, the international character of the capitalist system."
What has today been called "globalization" is, without doubt, a complex social process involving not only economic dimensions but also political, cultural and ideological ones. Nonetheless, from the economic point of view, it is perfectly comprehensible to start from the constituently expansive logic of the capitalist system.
In a single day, a Salvadoran newspaper reported that Greenstone Resources, a Canadian mining company, bought 80% of Hemco-Nicaragua; British Petroleum invested $200 million in the exploitation of Venezuelan crude; the Italian telephone company will now own 19% of Chile's telephone operations; the Spanish petroleum company Repsol bought 37.5% of Astra, the Argentine petroleum company; Panama will adjudicate concessions for the administration of one of its ports, in which various international companies are interested; and the government of Peru sold between $140 million and $160 million in shares of its national telephone company.
Socialism in One Country?Regrettably, many dogmatic Marxists formed in the Stalinist strategy of "socialism in a single country" have become so confident that the national state can build socialism that, faced with the globalization of the capitalist system, they prefer to defend the remains of the "bourgeois" state in a purely "social democratic" fashion rather than design strategies of struggle in tune with the times. If Marx was right, the alternatives to capitalism as a world system will have to be worldwide alternatives.
In any minimally serious strategy for transforming the world capitalist system, national states can be considered one ingredient of the solution but certainly not the key to it. The fact that those formed by Stalinism-or one of its "blander" versions-appear today as "Social Democrats" is comprehensible in an epoch in crisis in which the effort is only to save what remains of the shipwreck without asking what it was exactly that went aground.
This very question, however, is inexorable because it could be that what has failed wasn't "socialism" in general, but precisely the attempt to construct socialism starting with the national state. Something that obviously remains to us of socialism is the accumulated historical experience of over 100 years of social and political struggles. Although this experience includes episodes that are troublesome to a number of people, such as the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, it is worth pulling all the lessons from it that are possible. A little historical memory is not a bad thing.
II. THE EXPERIENCE OF A HUGE HISTORIC FAILURE
When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, dissolving the Constituent Assembly, they interpreted their victory as nothing more than a preview, in an economically backward country, of something that was on the point of reproducing itself in the more industrialized countries of Europe: the definitive victory of the proletariat and consequent swan song of the capitalist mode of production. The rupture of the "weakest link of the chain" (Lenin) would soon be followed by the crumbling of all the capitalist chains in the imminent world revolution.
Russia would not have to build socialism all by itself; it would have the help of the victorious proletariat of the industrialized countries. Thus, following the initial chaos of "war communism," the New Economic Policy (NEP) pragmatically combined the market with planning in the expectation that events in Europe would permit the move to socialism. But, after Lenin's death, against the backdrop of the normal internal struggles for succession in an authoritarian regime, it became obvious that the awaited world revolution was not just around the corner. What then should be done?
While Trotsky appealed from the opposition for a vaporous "permanent revolution," the newly triumphant Soviet leadership, lacking many other alternatives, decided to throw itself into the construction of "socialism in one country." This idea was a remarkable turnaround in the context of socialism's markedly internationalist orientation up to that point. But Stalin had powerful arguments: the USSR had to industrialize rapidly and do away with all the enemies of the proletariat if it was to resist the future attack from the capitalist countries. Whoever appeals to the world revolution, said Stalin, doesn't have enough confidence in the Soviet proletariat and peasantry.
With that, the systematic elimination of all political adversaries joined hands starting in 1929 with the liquidation of the "new economic policy," the extermination of rich peasants and the beginning, with the first five-year plan, of a centralized economic planning system. Stalin achieved his initial goals: to convert the USSR into a great power and to resist the brutal offensive of fascism. Nonetheless, the Stalinist aim of building socialism through a centralized state planning system ended in failure many years later.
They Weren't Human Errors, But System FailuresIt is very important to underscore that the "failure of socialism" is the failure of a very concrete project delineated in the Stalinist era, in which the state plays an essential role in two senses. First it puts off the perspective of the global transformation of the system as a whole, and second it takes the reins of economic activity.
It is also important to underscore that the grave defects of "real" socialism, which ended up sinking it, were not mere accidents extrinsically superimposed on this project. Rather they were elements that were inherent to its very nature.
"Bureaucratization" is not a result of human "errors" that can be corrected with a bit of consciousness raising and good will. If the market is eliminated and economic activity becomes governed by a central planning body, it is obvious that the body responsible for drafting and implementing the plans acquires almost boundless power, which is inexorably manifested in all political and cultural dimensions of society. If all economic activity is centrally managed, it is difficult, for example, to imagine the mere survival of a free press, much less one without censorship or repressive measures beyond those of a purely economic nature.
Likewise, it is inevitable that the directors of the state companies, responsible for the fulfillment of the plan, would seek the most comfortable way to get it done, which does not exactly include increasing technological innovation and productivity. It is more likely to take the path of requesting an excessive amount of raw materials, using heavier materials, hiding the company's productive capacities from the planning authorities, accumulating stocks, etc.
Furthermore, insofar as the economic structures become more complex, many concrete decisions are left to the company directors, who thus find themselves obliged to make doubly irrational decisions so they won't be subjected to either the ex post "rationality" of the capitalist market or the ex ante "rationality" of general economic planning.
Obviously, since scarcity doesn't disappear no matter how advanced planning becomes, the logic of the market tends to reappear, but beyond the law, with the subsequent formation of mafias willing to grab power for themselves the moment the system founders. Neither bureaucracy nor inefficiency are simple "human" errors, but rather constituent elements of the Soviet system, and none of the countries organized along the same model have demonstrated an exception to this.
The Key to the Issue: Capitalist LogicIt could reasonably be argued that Soviet-style socialism was viable for over seventy years, and that its fall was due not so much to internal reasons as to the economic, political and military superiority of the "capitalist camp."
But that is precisely the key to the issue. Capitalism's internal logic, brilliantly revealed by Marx, leads to incessant technological innovations and to a global expansion of the system. The internal logic of centrally planned socialism, on the other hand, does not essentially favor technological innovation, and its expansive tendencies-more ideological and political than strictly economic-were not comparable to the globalizing dynamic that characterizes capitalism. It is thus perfectly comprehensible that capitalism would end up absorbing the Soviet-inspired socialist countries into its own orbit.
The still surviving "socialist" countries are able to offer world capitalism extremely high rates of exploitation, favored by the absence of free trade unions, together with a lower organic composition of capital than in the industrialized countries. Hence the large profit rates that some capitalists obtain in these regions and hence, too, the interest many of them have in maintaining political systems of this stripe.
The National State Isn't the SolutionThe failure of Soviet-originated socialism to guarantee an authentic human liberation is in some way parallel to the failure of the social democratic strategies. Although both emerged from the same Marxist matrix, they found their specificity in the hardly Marxist statement that the national state would be capable of carrying out an authentic emancipation of the proletariat.
While social democracy entrusted this task to the bourgeois state, Soviet-style socialism insisted on the need to create a new state governed by the proletariat, or rather, by its "vanguard." In both cases the national state was the key to human liberation.
Now, when the capitalist system is imposed globally, pulling down all the barriers that are opposed to its intrinsic expansive dynamics, any transformation in the national state, however necessary, is insufficient. The social democratic strategies implemented in the poor countries have frequently been ruinous, because they have attempted to reform a link in the chain without dealing with the system as a whole. Even if local capitalists subjected to greater tax and administrative burdens than in neighboring countries do not opt for capital flight, they become less competitive, and despite the protective tariffs erected in their favor, the country's general economic activity tends to fall. In some cases (Venezuela, Spain), the Social Democrats have simply been the executors of the dirty work that the Conservative parties would be incapable of carrying out on their own.
It is thus both tragic and comical to see the old Soviet-inspired socialists turn into Social Democrats. In lieu of seeking real solutions to the current problems, they turn to contentless formulas, without stopping to study for even a moment the real dimensions of the monster that has broken through all borders and annihilated all idols, claiming a new cult for itself: the world capitalist system.
It is more necessary now than ever before to dare to look directly at the facts, shedding all dogmas, to design a new project of socialism that assimilates the lessons of the past. It is necessary because socialism has willed us not only the important experience of a historic failure, but also a serious warning about the internal limits of capitalism.
III. A WARNING ABOUT THE LIMITS OF CAPITALISM
The classic reflections by the main theoreticians of socialism often go hand in hand with the warning that capitalism, by virtue of its own internal dynamics, is slated not only to suffer recurrent crises but also to come up against a final crisis. For them, this crisis would mark the end of capitalism and the emergence of a superior form of social organization.
Such warnings obviously presuppose that capitalism, to give way to a new form of society, would first have to have exhausted all its internal possibilities, overcome scarcity and constituted a world market.
Does History Necessarily Have a Happy Ending?Marx himself never systematically studied capitalism's cycles and crises. For Schumpeter, Marx's theory of the cycles is "a chapter yet to be written." There is no dearth of important studies of capitalism's cycles and crises among Marxists, but the best wishes of revolutionaries seem to have a stronger role in many predictions of the imminent crumbling of capitalism than do strict scientific demonstrations. In addition, the idea of the necessary step to a higher form of human organization is burdened with many philosophical suppositions that are not sufficiently justified.
In the philosophies of the Enlightenment it was usually thought that social processes are directed by certain internal dynamics that assure that history will necessarily have a happy ending. Marx and the Marxists shared many of these assumptions. If capitalism is an imperfect form of human organization, the obvious thing for the enlightened to think was that the dynamics governing history will bring a superior model of society in the future, in which all evils will be surmounted and the most profound desires of humanity will find their definitive fulfillment.
Based on Marx's economic theory, it is not so easy to demonstrate that capitalism is necessarily heading for a final crisis. Even the tendency of the rate of profit to fall can find mechanisms that act in the opposite direction for indefinite periods, even if the possibilities for exporting capital to less industrialized zones are exhausted.
The majority of theories about the end of capitalism end up mixing purely economic considerations with others of a social and political nature. In 1980 Ernest Mandel thought it would be very difficult for capitalism to climb out of the crisis of the early 1970s, since doing so would require a vigorous expansion of the market for merchandise produced by the capitalist countries, which in turn would require a qualitative leap in the well-being of some countries and semi-colonial areas of the world and a qualitative increase in the level of integration of the USSR and China into the world capitalist market. Well, that's just what has happened.
Precisely because of this mix, one suspects that the thesis about the final crumbling of capitalism is independent of the nucleus of the theory, such that its practical refutation-capitalism has not in fact crumbled in any of the predicted time periods-is not equivalent to a refutation of the theory of surplus value.
In any case, the world capitalist system seems to be recovering from the depression period initiated at the start of the 1970s, which many optimists thought was the beginning of the end. Furthermore, it is important to stress that a hypothetical collapse of the capitalist system does not necessarily make way for a higher system. It could just as easily give way to barbarism. This is more obvious when the historic experience has left "real" socialism so discredited that very few would be inclined to think that it really represents a higher form of human organization.
Capitalism Has Clashed with The Planet's Ecological LimitsIt is important to distinguish the thesis that some intrinsic limits to capitalism exist from the idea about its necessary apocalyptic collapse for purely economic reasons. Capitalism promises to satisfy the needs of the majority of humanity, and thus requires that the rules of the market be respected and that it be conceded a reasonable waiting period, in which there will necessarily be inequality. This will be sufficient, augur the new Liberals, to promote the growth that is needed for the wealth of a few to spread to all human beings.
But these promises are unrealizable. The capitalist system has already clashed with its own limits before issuing forth its promised abundance. These limits are none other than the planet's ecological limits. World growth under pure market conditions endangers the survival of the human species. The costs of growth under market conditions are beginning to be higher than their possible benefits.
The leaders of the industrialized countries themselves have already discovered this, which is precisely why they must impose limits both on the demographic expansion of the poorest countries and on the environmental destruction wrought by growth under purely capitalist conditions.
Capitalism is a system constituently dedicated to growth and expansion. The system's intrinsic pressure toward technological innovation and development of the productive forces are the keys to its success. This constituently expansive character, however, ends up clashing with the planet's ecological frontiers, even if no purely economic final crisis is produced by this clash.
Only Worldwide Control Of Capitalism Will WorkFrom the general perspective of all interested parties, these limits cannot just affect the growth of the poorest, but must be distributed democratically and equitably. In any case, it is obvious that these necessary limits cannot be set by each individual capitalist, since they are all being pressured by the market to introduce "progress" that will assure their profits. Nor can the national states independently do it, since each of them has to assure the survival of "its" own capitalists. Only a global control of the capitalist system can halt its destructive logic.
It is important to note that this encounter between the capitalist system and the planet's environmental limits contradicts the optimism not only of the free market apostles but also of classic socialism. Marx thought that capitalism was destined to promote a development of the productive forces which would definitively put an end to scarcity. In this way, capitalism would make possible the move to a higher form of social organization. Once abundance was obtained, competition and the market would lose all sense: there would be no opportunity costs.
Nonetheless, the planet's environmental frontiers not only show the limits of capitalism as a world system, but also the impossibility of expecting so much development from the productive forces that it makes scarcity disappear forever. Capitalism will not leave as a legacy such a great abundance of all goods that the market will be rendered unnecessary. Therefore, any new socialist project must not only include the ecological problems on its agenda, but must also necessarily contend with scarcity and hence with some form of market. And this is just what we must set out to find. The internal limits of capitalism require the search for a higher form of human organization.
IV. THE SEARCH FOR A HIGHER FORM OF HUMAN ORGANIZATION
The satisfaction of humanity's fundamental needs is impossible for an economic system that has already bumped up against the ecological limits of the planet without even being able to pull millions of people out of extreme poverty. The capitalist system requires a transformation to another form of social organization. This can be understood in two fundamental senses: either as a control on the irrationalities of capitalism through some sort of political body endowed with the authority to reform the system, or as a replacement of the capitalist system with a radically distinct social and economic system.
Either of these two strategies necessarily embodies a world perspective. Alternatives to the system cannot lose sight of that system's global character. This does not exclude the need to develop strategies of struggle at the local or national level, but these strategies alone are insufficient. It must be seriously asked of any new social system that limits growth or introduces redistribution whether it can survive within a world capitalist system, and, if so, at what costs.
There could be alternatives, however, that while not very feasible as exclusively national projects may have possibilities at a global level. Let's think only of Soviet socialism with centralized planning or of social democracy. In the sphere of a single country they may be incapable of competing with the effectively innovating and expansive tendencies of capitalism. But as global alternatives they wouldn't have to survive in a capitalist mileu, so they would not only be free from unequal competition for growth, but would also be perfectly appropriate for a moment in which it is necessary to put a worldwide priority on distribution and respect for the environment over the expansive development of the productive forces.
It could be that this isn't enough to automatically convert Soviet-style socialism or social democracy into truly desirable alternatives on a worldwide plane. Let's look at this a little more slowly.
Economic Planning On a World Scale?To begin with, let's consider the worldwide imposition of a centralized planning system. It would necessarily involve planning on a global scale since, even with a plurality of socialist states of a Soviet stripe, the fraternal economic relations among them would have to be subject to some regulation by a central authority. If not, a world market among distinct planned economies would end up prevailing, in such a way that the system as a whole would seem more like a capitalism in which the companies have been replaced with "socialist" national states.
A Soviet-style socialism on the world plane requires a central planning authority. The problem that this suggests is obvious: if Soviet planners found it difficult to rationally program all the details of a complex national economy, the complexity of a world economy would now be far greater.
Insofar as not everything can be subjected to planning, the submerged or informal economy would appear on a large scale. The immense power concentrated in the planning authorities would not only impede true democratic control over the economy and over the environment, but would also be incompatible with the desires for autonomy of different peoples.
Social Democracy at a World Level?It could be thought that a species of "worldwide social democracy" would represent a more appropriate solution to our problems. The market would continue functioning and the distinct national authorities, ultimately coordinated by a world economic authority, would democratically introduce corrections aimed at ameliorating the most damaging consequences of the system, in terms of both poverty and environmental destruction. Free of deregulated capitalist competition, social democracy would be prepared to give its best results.
Nonetheless, this alternative also presents some important social difficulties. In fact, the Social Democratic governments that harvested important social successes in Europe tended to apply policies inspired by Keynes, which did not so much aim to control the market as to guarantee its "neoclassical" functioning by stimulating demand. Furthermore, these European countries were enmeshed in international capitalist relations that did not exactly obey "social democratic" criteria. In addition, many interventions by the social democratic states have had no other goal than to sustain "unprofitable" basic sectors to thus keep the profit rate of the private capitalists high.
For all these reasons it must be asked if the "social democratic" strategies are really an adequate way to impose sufficient controls on a system such as the capitalist one, which has reached the planet's ecological frontiers without resolving the fundamental necessities of the majority of the population.
In Search of a Different Socialist StrategyThe insufficiency of "Soviet" socialism and possibly also of social democracy as real solutions to the global problems of humanity obliges us to seek another kind of socialist strategy. Its socialist character would not come mainly from the essential role in the economy attributed to the national state, which was never the sense of socialism for the classic theorists, including Marx. It would rather come from its pursuit of being an alternative to the capitalist system, eliminating poverty and halting the ecological destruction of the planet.
We obviously cannot enter into a debate here about the distinct proposals of "efficacious socialism," "market socialism," or "feasible socialism" that have been presented in recent years. It suffices to point out that these projects are essentially differentiated from the socialism of centralized planning and at least some of them are from social democracy as well.
All of them are trying to respond not only to the defects of capitalism but also to the defects of real socialism. To that end they propose economic models that would be theoretically more compatible than either capitalism or real socialism with an authentically democratic political life, greater efficiency in the use of resources, and greater respect for the environment.
The Cooperative ModelIn David Schweickart's model, a number of cooperatives compete in a free market. The idea is based on the experience that they achieve higher levels of effectiveness than capitalist companies because the workers are interested in the well-being of the cooperative business-which, however, doesn't usually happen in cooperatives initiated with paternalistic assistance. Unlike systems such as the Yugoslavian one, the cooperatives of Schweickart's model must pay a tax on their capital, which is earmarked for the creation of a social investment fund.
This tax on capital fosters a pressure on the efficient use of each cooperative's resources, avoiding the waste inherent in centralized planning. This social investment fund could be administered various ways, such as the Japanese-style indicative but influential governmental planning, a system of banks that are interconnected with the cooperative, or more "liberal" systems in which the banks accept the social investment fund with an interest rate set by the parliament, and afterward can provide their loans to the cooperatives with a slightly higher interest rate. In any case, this model not only seems capable of functioning equally or more effectively than capitalism, but also of consciously limiting growth and allowing a significant level of political democracy.
It could be that models such as these still need greater theoretical rooting. But some of them contain an aspect that is of enormous practical interest, which is their pursuit of efficiency greater than the capitalist system on the whole. The importance of this factor is that, whereas Soviet-style socialism and social democracy have found it hard to survive within a world capitalist system, the new models of socialism, by being genuinely more efficient than capitalism, would be much more able to deal with the unequal competition of the world market.
In the degree to which this efficiency rests mainly on the rational use of resources within each enterprise, the new models can claim ecological superiority over the capitalist enterprises. They are thus models that could be applied in the national sphere prior to a change of the system in its entirety. In this sense they could fulfill a role similar to what the NEP would originally have undertaken. They are not, however, a first step to centralized planning.
"Two-speed" Socialism (But Not Transitory)The new models of socialism are not understood as transitory, but as definitive, in both the national and world spheres. Put another way, they can be "two-speed" socialisms, able to survive in capitalist surroundings and capable of being an alternative to capitalism as a whole.
In any case, the presumed national viability of these models should not make us lose sight of the world perspective. If the capitalist system is global and creates global problems, any national alternative, however viable, is insufficient. If something remains to us of socialism it is now more than ever, the need to appeal, to the unity across national borders of all those interested in a transformation of the system.
Nonetheless, this appeal cannot be made in the name of old dogmas, but only in the name of facts and genuine alternatives to them. Hence the importance of an authentic liberation from all the prejudices that could impede a study without blinders of humanity's current situation. And to do that, it is necessary to renew the socialist set of philosophical instruments.
V. A PENDING TASK IN PHILOSOPHY
With the Stalinist systematization of Marxism into "dialectic materialism" and "historic materialism," official socialist philosophy was converted into a closed body of doctrine, with no place for criticism, experience or dissent. The whole of reality, from its most remote cosmic origins to its future reconciliation into the communist society, was exhaustively explained by a system of concepts that attempted to adjust itself totally to its object. The result of these total explanations of the totality is inexorably a totalitarian thinking that leaves nothing out and that cannot be contradicted by any possible experience or opinion.
Even contradiction is foreseen in this body of thought, such that divergent opinions would never be anything other than reactionary opinions, fruit of the bourgeoisie's own class interests. The field of thought is thus divided into a Manichean struggle between those who accept the eternal truths contained in an unquestionable canonical system and all those who dare challenge or contradict it. The quest for truth never needs to be rethought because the eternal truths have already been discovered once and for all. The only thing left to do is present them, comment on them or apply them to new situations, and, of course, defend them tooth and nail against their critics.
There is no doubt that dogmatic systematizations have the capacity to provide security to people, endowing their lives with a firm and unbreakable direction. When we hear today about the appearance of "fundamentalist" religious and cultural movements, it is worth asking if this fundamentalism is a genuinely new movement or is nothing more than the covering of sociological and ideological spaces that the "securities" of Marxism once covered.
In any event, dogmatic thinking is unquestionably extremely useful from the political point of view: no one is capable of dedicating one's life to something that is subject to doubts and revisions. As Gramsci pointed out, the determinism of official Marxism is capable of mobilizing the masses because it gives them the certainty of final victory. This, which can be "useful" from the perspective of immediate politics, is not the slightest bit liberating over the long haul. Many people have believed in giving their lives "for the proletariat" and "for the revolution," when in reality they were only serving the interests of leaders pledged to obtaining certain quotas of power.
The Authentic Search for Truth And Critical VigilanceAs serious as this is, it is not the only problem presented by dogmatic fundamentalism. By canonizing the totalizing system of thinking, the left incapacitated its ability to learn from its own practice. The highly touted "verification in praxis" never served to challenge the fundamental theses of that system of thought.
The obvious consequence of all this is that only two alternatives remain for many at the moment that those certainties become riddled by genuine crisis: either intransigently defend the old dogmas, refusing to even hear of someone possibly questioning them, or abandon them altogether in favor of some "liberal" or "social democratic" opportunism so in vogue today.
Of course there are positions in between, such as those of people who hang on to the old truths on the theoretical plane while being able to accept new certainties on the practical plane, particularly when these arrive in a monetary form. When the question about truth is dispatched in favor of either security or profit, the obvious loser is the cause of authentic human emancipation, which is inseparable from an authentic search for truth.
In this aspect, philosophy has a crucial task to fulfill. A characteristic feature of all genuine philosophy has been the inflexible willingness to submit all insufficiently justified propositions to a critical review, thus giving itself over to a process of justifying the discourse itself, which though precarious does not stop being radical. With all the variants that one could wish, we find this attitude in such apparently disparate philosophical currents as phenomenology, analytic philosophy, or the ethic of discourse, to name only a few examples.
A philosophy that aims to theoretically buttress socialist thought cannot renounce the liberty and radicalness proper to philosophizing, since otherwise not only would we not be dealing with authentic philosophy, but it would also cease to fulfill one of its essential missions with respect to all social theory, which consists precisely in a critical vigilance of all insufficiently justified assertions.
The New Socialism Needs a Philosophy of PraxisThere is no question but that many affirmations of Stalinist "dialectical materialism" cannot stand up to even a minimal critical examination under the light of today's science and philosophy. We need only recall the difficulties that dialectic materialism had in accepting the theory of relativity.
That doesn't stand in the way of being able even today to sustain "materialist" philosophical positions in some of the many senses of that expression. Nonetheless, socialism is not primarily a general vision of the cosmos, but a movement that attempts to organize social praxis in a different way. For that reason, the philosophy that socialism mainly needs is not one about the totality of the material universe, but rather a philosophy of praxis, a "praxeology."
It can be demonstrated that a "philosophy of praxis" fulfills the requisites of radical justification more characteristic of a "primary philosophy." For that it is not enough to point out that Marx designed something like a philosophy of praxis in his youth. Nor is it sufficient to test out a Hegelian reading of the history of philosophy to show that this leads us inexorably toward the thesis that praxis represents the departure point of philosophy.
Philosophy requires that its point of departure be justified with the greatest possible independence from any argument of authority and any presumed historic necessity. If not, philosophy risks turning into mere cultural commentary, with no capacity to challenge what cultures claim.
Conventional economic theory has occasionally tried to develop a genuine "philosophy of action" that would serve as a foundation for its doctrine. A philosophy of praxis understood as primary philosophy could serve as a take-off point for the underpinnings of a new brand of socialism. This would require initiating a renewed reflection on the structure of the social link.
Urgently Needed: A Theory of World SocietyThe usual conceptions of social nexus in contemporary social philosophy are incapable of getting a grip on the globalization of these nexuses in the modern era. These social theories were hammered out to conceptualize the problem of "social integration," and not to reflect on the world extension of human linkages, over and above all traditional integration.
The social system is not, as functionalism thought, a system of norms, goals, values or other elements that give sense to action. Nor does it consist only of a system of linguistic communication, since dialogue is reserved to some spheres, privileged ones, of the social system. It is rather a system of behaviors, of actuations, such that it is possible for a philosophy of social praxis to overcome the duality between structure and action that is part of conventional sociology, laying the basis for a theory of world society.
The Economic Dimension Of All Human Action...Furthermore, a philosophical study of social praxis will have to determine which are the fundamental dimensions of a social system. Let's look at this in a bit more detail.
In the first place, the structure of human action includes a struggle for access to things. Thus any system of social actuations inexorably has an "economic" dimension, in the broadest sense of that expression. The social subsystems have to regulate the production and distribution of the things to which the different agents have access. Obviously, this economic dimension of all social systems should not be confused with the appearance in the modern era of specialized economic subsystems, such as banking, the tax system or the stock market.
Tribal societies also have an economic dimension, regulated by kinship structures. In this case, there is not exactly an economic subsystem but there is indeed a constituent economic dimension in any social system. The fundamental dimensions of all social systems (ideological, political and economic) should also not be confused with the appearance of specialized social subsystems, such as happens in more differentiated societies.
...The Political Dimension... In the second place, all human action, by its constituent opening, is susceptible to receiving the intervention of other social agents, who exercise power over the action itself. This power is "fixed" after receiving an "institutional" character in social actuations. Hence all social systems inexorably have a "political" dimension, also in the broadest sense of the word.
This dimension can be made concrete in diverse subsystems. Nonetheless, a given society would inexorably have a political dimension even if it did not have autonomous political subsystems; thus, for example, law and political institutions could come to form autonomous subsystems. This political dimension of all social systems does not mean that the state is necessarily the comprehensive culmination of the social system. If a social system is a system of actuations, these could overflow the institutional limits of a particular state, constituting social systems that include a plurality of state subsystems.
...And the Cultural DimensionFinally, given that human actuations have a constituent moment of meaning, it is obvious that all social systems necessarily have a "cultural" or "ideological" dimension. By culture or ideology, we mean everything relative to the sense that social actors make of their actuations. This is a restrictive use of the term "culture," but a broader use of the term "ideology," similar to what appears in some sociological traditions.
This cultural or ideological dimension is not made concrete in a single cultural subsystem; rather, various subsystems of this kind, at times quite distinct ones, can coexist in the same social system. We need think only of what are called "multicultural societies."
Although it is true that a cultural subsystem offers particular integration to those who share it, the limits of a social system have no need to be the limits of what is socially integrated. The actuations themselves can form a subsystem with actuations oriented by cultural subsystems that are very different from it. The limits of what is social are not the limits of a culture, because the social system is a system of social actuations and not a system of symbols.
Today the Economic Dominates, And Has Clashed with EcologyThe economic subsystems acquire an unusual dominance in the modern era. This dominance does not consist of a mechanical causality of "the economy" over politics or ideology, but rather a systemic preponderance of economic systems in the determination of social actuations that, always and inexorably, have political and ideological dimensions as well as economic ones.
Relations of dominance rather than causal relations are what govern among the different elements of a system and among the different subsystems. Inevitably, however, any moment of a system contains all its dimensions. There are no purely economic, political or ideological moments in a social system. Any social situation is inexorably economic, political and ideological in system unity. Nonetheless, there are systemic situations in which the economic, the political or the ideological predominates.
In "historical materialism," it was common to speak of a "determination in the last analysis by the economy." This determination cannot be a "causation," however much some Marxists have understood it that way. When dealing with structures, determination is nothing other than a structural dominance of a subsystem; in this case, the economic subsystem in the capitalist era.
Nonetheless, the "determination in the last analysis" can allude to a more radical issue, as follows: if all human action is inexorably in contact with things, all systems of social actuations inevitably have their own medium. The interchange with that medium circumscribes the array of a social system's organizational possibilities. This also is not an issue of causality, but of a "circumscription" of the possibilities for structuring that a concrete society possesses. A fundamentally agricultural interchange with the medium, for example, does not make possible some bourgeois social structures.
But the interaction with the medium is not "the" economy nor is it a given economic subsystem; it designates a constituent moment of any social system, even cases where no explicitly economic subsystem has appeared. The interchange with the medium rather represents what Marx at one point called "the material conditions of existence." For that reason, the interaction of a social system with the natural medium does not exclusively concern the economic disciplines, but also other sciences such as ecology. All social systems have some organizational limits that are of an ecological nature. It is also the case, as we have seen, of the capitalist social system, in which the dominance of the economic subsystems has led to a clash with the planet's environmental limits.
Perhaps We Should Wait For a New GenerationWe have tried to demonstrate that the legacy of socialism still has important content in terms of both truth and liberating potential. We have done nothing but sketch out a few fundamental aspects of what could be a socialist body of thought that is up to the challenges of the coming century.
One decisive aspect for the practical viability of socialist proposals will undoubtedly have to be sought in the capacity to maintain the world perspective, originating from socialism, that goes beyond the Stalinist myopia of purely state projects. This should not stand in the way of drawing up local and national strategies, but any such strategies must avoid falling into the purely reformist and cosmetic measures of nationalists by necessarily keeping an eye on the horizon of a global change of the social system toward a higher form of human organization. There is also room for the possibility of outlining national socialist projects, as long as they can demonstrate their real capacity to survive in a capitalist world medium without converting their own population into fodder for exploitation.
All this requires a renewed dedication to theoretical research in the sphere of the social sciences and social philosophy. But it also requires a practical renovation of those for whom the realization of a socialist project of social change is important. Regrettably, we have witnessed in the recent years not only the disillusionment but also the rapid enrichment of those who were once willing to generously give their lives for a cause. For this reason, we will perhaps have to wait for a new generation of revolutionaries.
In the last analysis, the socialists of the future will certainly not have to root their commitment in a 19th-century metaphysics. It is no longer possible to say that the ethic for socialists simply consists of adjusting to the necessary meaning of history. History is not determined once and for all by a few mysterious dialectical laws, but is open to the human appropriation of possibilities.
It is necessary to discern what possibilities should be appropriated in each historic situation. And this requires not only a profound knowledge of each situation, but also an inexorable ethical reflection.