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What is the Soul of Socialism?

Andrew Blackman worked for several years in investment banking in the City of London and then Wall Street and is currently working as a financial journalist in New York City.

At midnight on January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. Years in the making, the treaty was designed to solidify the rule of capital over the lives of millions of people from Calgary to Guadalajara. It would smooth the way for capital investment across borders, while blunting labor and environmental laws and reducing the governments’ ability to tax and regulate businesses.

At precisely the same moment, groups of men and women in ski masks were busy setting up roadblocks around the picturesque tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas in the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico. As the people of the town and its soldiers slept off their holiday celebrations, the clandestine troops secured the police station and the municipal palace. When the good people of San Cristobal awoke on New Year’s morning, they found their town in the hands of the Zapatistas. Later that morning the group’s spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, addressed the assembled crowd of citizens and reporters in the plaza. “The whole neoliberal project that [Mexican President] Carlos Salinas represents is put in jeopardy by our challenge,” he said. As the reporters questioned him about the link between the Zapatistas’ actions and the start of NAFTA, known in Mexico as the TLC, Marcos replied, “Of course what we are doing here has to do with the TLC.” He went on to explain how NAFTA would threaten Mayan agriculture by allowing a flood of U.S. grain imports, concluding: “To us, the free trade treaty is the death certificate for the ethnic peoples of Mexico.”1

That nocturnal strike against capitalism is emblematic of the soul of socialism. Socialism lives not just in the Zapatistas’ fight for indigenous people’s rights but also in the people of Bolivia’s resistance to the privatization of their water and other basic utilities. It thrives in the people of the Narmada Valley in India fighting for their land and resisting the construction of thousands of dams along the river. It inspires the people of Brazil, Venezuela, and India who are voting for new leaders and rejecting the neoliberal policies that have destroyed their local industries for the sake of adding a couple of percentage points to the market share of Bechtel and Chiquita. It breathes in Cuba’s stubborn half-century struggle for survival despite the persistent attempts of the world’s superpower to destroy its leadership and open its market to capitalism. It resides in the repeated attempts by other tiny Caribbean islands to elect socialist leaders despite massive pressure from the bully in their backyard. It nourishes the people of the Niger Delta as they struggle against the plunder of their land by multinational oil companies. This is the soul of socialism.

New forms of socialism emerging in the global South may draw more inspiration from local thinkers and heroes than from European icons like Marx and Engels. They vary widely in scope, aims, and organization. They may not even identify themselves by the word “socialism.” But in their basic struggle for a fairer distribution of the available resources, they embody what George Orwell called “the underlying ideal of Socialism; justice and liberty.”2 Very few of the Mexican peasants who joined the Zapatistas had read Marx or Engels, let alone Lukacs and Gramsci. They were fighting not for the logical fulfillment of dialectical materialism but for the right to farm their own land. The Zapatistas’ original eleven-point demand was work, land, shelter, bread, health, education, democracy, liberty, peace, independence, and justice. This sounded so much like a socialist manifesto that American journalist Bill Weinberg was motivated to ask the Zapatistas whether they were “fighting for socialism, like in Cuba.” To this the Zapatistas’ leader Marcos replied:

The directorate of our army has never spoken about Cuban or Soviet socialism. We have always spoken about the basic rights of the human. Education, housing, health, food, land, good pay for our work, democracy, liberty. Some people may call this socialism. But it doesn’t matter what name you give these demands.

Weinberg reports that on his way to interview Marcos in the early days of 1994, the Zapatistas who were transporting him said that their preparation involved both military training and political education. Weinberg asked whether they had been schooled in the Russian or Chinese revolutions. “They said no,” he says. “Solo Zapatismo.”3 The inspiration for the movement was Emilio Zapata, a Nahua Indian who fought for land reform in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 but was betrayed and murdered by an army general in 1919. Despite his murder and the subsequent betrayal of many of the ideals of the revolution, he and other revolutionaries left a legacy of land reform. Article Twenty-Seven of the 1917 constitution established that the Mexican people owned the land and that communal properties known as ejidos were “inalienable and imprescriptable.” In spite of this the indigenous people still suffered as the large landowners found ways around these rules. By the 1930s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had established an iron grip on power and would not lose an election for the rest of the twentieth century. Apart from short periods of populism, the decades of PRI rule generally allowed well-connected landowners and businessmen to maintain and increase their power, while the interests of indigenous farmers were frequently and casually sacrificed.

In Chiapas, the discontent had been brewing for many years, as the largely Mayan population there saw the Mexican government becoming more and more solicitous of foreign investors and neglecting the needs of its people. But what Marcos called the “detonating” factor was the rewriting of Article Twenty-Seven in 1992. While much of the “land reform” had been elusive or illusory over the past seventy-five years, this move signaled that the government no longer even thought it important to maintain the pretense any more. The Mayan farmers were already being pushed higher and higher into the mountains and deeper into the jungles as the big ranchers moved into the more fertile plains, and they knew that with the removal of any last legal protections, as well as the flood of cheap agricultural imports that would result from NAFTA, their way of life was under serious threat. So at the very moment when socialism across the world was supposedly dying with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was flourishing in tiny villages across southern Mexico. Marcos admitted that he was surprised by the appeal of the Zapatistas at such an apparently bleak moment for socialist movements:

When the whole world was saying no to armed struggle because communism had disappeared, we thought the people here were going to say no to the Change, much less the armed struggle. This was logical—the ideological bombardment was strong. But in the communities, the reverse happened. This was the time when more people came over to incorporate themselves in the militias of the Zapatista Army. Things had gotten so bad that the towns declared they were left with no other road to take.

The people with no other road to take have always been at the heart of any substantial socialist movement. The people with access to other roads—wealth accumulation, academic careers, political power—are frequently unable to resist their lure for very long. Once they are on the more comfortable road, their privilege enables them to deny or ignore the detrimental effects of capitalism. But the people who are stuck at the bottom, working hard all their lives and receiving little benefit for all their efforts but seeing all the profit from their labor go to the owners, have an intimate knowledge of the downside of capitalism. They know that meritocracy is a myth, because they have seen their own efforts fail for want of a small loan or capital investment, while others have succeeded with fewer talents but better connections. They’ve seen executives ruin companies and receive multi-million-dollar payoffs, while the workers pay for those bad decisions by getting laid-off. They’ve seen politicians attack them for receiving government welfare, even as those same politicians hand out billions of dollars in tax breaks to their corporate contributors and spend billions more to bail out failing banks and airlines. For people who have seen the hypocrisy of capitalism firsthand and have suffered its vicious effects, there is a point at which participating in a game that’s rigged against them is no longer a serious option. Malcolm X, for example, didn’t buckle when white politicians and journalists denounced him and the threat of assassination was upon him. He believed that “you only get action as a black man if you are regarded by the white man as ‘irresponsible.’ In fact, this much I had learned as a little boy. And since I have been some kind of a ‘leader’ of black people here in the racist society of America, I have been more reassured each time the white man resisted me, or attacked me harder—because each time made me more certain that I was on the right track in the American black man’s best interests.”4 He resisted and paid for it with his life, because he simply could not participate in a system that had forever excluded and exploited people like him. Others not traditionally seen as socialists, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, have done more to advance the cause of justice and equality than many highly regarded, and securely tenured, socialist thinkers. Increasingly, large populations in the South are finding themselves with no other road to take, squeezed as they are by the ever greater demands of profit-seeking corporations on the one hand and the blithe equivocation of co-opted national governments on the other. Direct action is becoming the only way to escape from the cycle of impoverishment.

In taking this direct action, they are using a diverse set of tactics. Whereas many socialist movements of the twentieth century used Marx or Lenin as a foundation, the new movements are drawing more on local traditions and developing tactics that are suited purely to that local environment. Resistance to India’s huge dam projects has been influenced by Gandhian principles such as Satyagraha, nonviolent resistance. Villagers have conducted sit-ins and hunger strikes. In some cases they have refused to move from their homes even as the waters came up to their necks. The Ogoni people of the Niger Delta pursued various nonviolent tactics against Shell after decades in which the company extracted massive amounts of oil and profits and the local people received no benefit. Three hundred thousand Ogoni held a peaceful protest on January 4, 1993, to demand an environmental cleanup and payment for the loss of their resources. Organizations such as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were formed and continued to operate even after leaders like Ken Saro-Wiwa were executed. The protests continue to this day, including an occupation of a ChevronTexaco oil terminal by a group of Ogoni women in 2002, where they secured their demands of jobs, schools, and water systems in part by threatening to strip naked. As for the Zapatistas in Mexico, they are a curious amalgam of military hierarchy and participatory democracy. While they are heavily armed and don’t hesitate to use military tactics, they were very quick to accept a ceasefire in the early days of their 1994 uprising and to engage in talks with the Mexican government. These talks dragged on for many years, partly because of the Zapatistas’ loose, egalitarian organizational structure, which required its leaders to return to their jungle base after every set of talks to see if the new developments had the support of each of the communities they represented. Even senior members of the hierarchy are careful to point out in their public comments that they do not speak for the whole Zapatista movement.

Even though the new socialism is local in its methods, these methods are usually in response to conditions resulting from globalization. In the case of Chiapas, NAFTA was a key factor. In the case of Bolivia, it was multinational corporations seeking to establish even greater control over basic natural resources like water and gas. In dozens of countries around the world, it is the stringent demands of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Globalization, of course, is nothing new. Nineteenth-century imperialism was an earlier, cruder form. The economies of countries like Britain went in a relatively short space of time from being dependent on local agricultural markets and small-scale artisans to being the hub of a massive global system for expropriating resources from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, sending them to the factories of Manchester and shipping the resulting goods out to foreign markets. Tens of millions of Africans were taken from their homelands and transported to distant slave plantations to support this massive accumulation of capital. Wars were fought and missionaries were dispatched to all points of the globe, in order to secure the fragile shipping routes that made this enormous heist possible. As the Mayans in Chiapas can attest, and as hundreds of lost civilizations now can’t, globalization has wreaked havoc on the world for centuries. Its recent manifestation, therefore, is not a radical departure from the past. Consuls and armies have simply been replaced by trade subsidies and structural adjustment programs. The language of economic imperialism is much more cryptic than that of the old military variety, masking the underlying exploitation with harmless-sounding talk of promoting free trade and removing artificial barriers. But to Africans, Asians, West Indians, and South Americans it is all too familiar. The cry of resistance that resonates from the South illustrates this. It is not a cry of outrage at some new phenomenon, but it is the cry of resistance to one more depredation after centuries of depredations.

What is new this time is that, thanks in part to technological developments like television and the Internet, information is also being globalized along with capital. In the past, the European bankers and bureaucrats could remain invisible, letting local politicians take the flak for the problems they had created. Now, the formerly invisible architects of globalization find themselves squarely in the firing line. In Argentina, thousands marched through the streets in 2001 with banners denouncing the government’s “submission” to the IMF and the United States. In Ecuador in the same year, protesters occupied IMF offices in Quito. The London-based World Development Movement documented 111 protests against the IMF or World Bank in twenty-five developing countries during 2002, up from seventy-seven in 2001.

The privileged are also finding it harder to ignore the uncomfortable reality of where their privilege comes from. Whereas previous generations basked in the glory of empire and celebrated what they saw as the civilizing influence that their enterprises were having on backward natives around the globe, the current generation cannot enjoy their designer clothing without seeing images of Guatemalan women and children working all day in sweatshops for poverty wages and being killed or sexually abused if they try to demand any improvement. They can’t drive an SUV without seeing images of children dying in Iraq. Many people, of course, still live in denial of the connection between the luxuries they enjoy and the plight of people in the “third world.” But it’s becoming increasingly hard to do so. Globalization has a name, and finally it is a bad one.

The World Social Forums held in Porto Alegre and Mumbai show the potential for a new kind of international movement to rekindle the fire of socialism. In just four years these forums have evolved from a small gathering of Brazilian politicians and activists to a massive coming-together of about a hundred thousand people from around the globe. They have also spawned regional and national social forums all over the world and, thanks to the Internet, coordinating local movements is easier than ever before. The global day of protest on February 15, 2003, against the war in Iraq was unprecedented in its size and global reach. Ten million people were simultaneously on the streets of capitals from Rome to Kuala Lumpur, cities from Sydney to Seville, and towns and villages from Elkins, West Virginia to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The potential power of this was not lost on the elites. The front page of the New York Times two days later bore the headline “A New Power in the Streets” and said, “There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” This is a profound achievement in an era when popular movements are supposedly dying and corporations are tightening their grip. It is true that these mass mobilizations do not often bear the name of socialism. It is true that for many people today, the word “socialism” is equated with a failed twentieth-century ideology that led to gulags, fences, purges, soup lines, and starvation. But if their goals are socialist goals, it hardly matters whether they call themselves socialists, Greens, anarchists, antiglobalization protesters, or anything else. Any globally coordinated effort at justice and equality is a victory for socialism, no matter what it is called.

But while coordination, cooperation, and mutual support are important, the signs are that the socialism of the twenty-first century will be more diverse and localized than the monolithic Soviet structure of the twentieth. The dreadful experiences of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as those of countries under U.S. domination, especially in Latin America, illustrate the dangers of imposing a rigid, alien system on another group of people. The dividing line between ideology and imperialism can too easily become blurred. And besides, it is the basic right of any group to decide how they wish to be governed. The Zapatistas in Chiapas drew on centuries of tradition and local experience to formulate a method that was designed to meet the needs of its own people. So did the struggles against water privatization in Bolivia and against dam projects in India. Each used its own methods and organization, appealing to the local people in terms they could identify with, with no reference to “scientific” socialism. At the World Social Forums, the only real agreement was on the point that “another world is possible.” Beyond that, groups from around the world had radically different views of what that world would look like. The challenge for socialism in the twenty-first century is to recognize that those differences are OK, that socialism will look different in different places, and to find a way to support each other in establishing different versions of socialism in different parts of the world.

In fact, the effect of all these new movements must be to subvert the Eurocentric nature of the socialist dialectic and to force people in the West to reassess many of their assumptions. Socialism has suffered from a Eurocentric bias from its very inception. When Marx and Engels wrote in 1848, “Working men of all countries, unite!” they certainly did not have Indian villagers or Mayan farmers in mind. Even thirty-four years later, when they wrote the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto in 1882, they recognized the limited scope of the earlier edition but said only that “Precisely Russia and the United States are missing here.” Such myopia is understandable in the context in which they were writing, but too much socialist writing has remained stuck in the limited framework of European industrial societies to this day. Yet in a way the globalizing of socialism is a natural result of Marxist theory. For as Marx wrote in the Manifesto, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”5 As capitalism forces more globalization, it is natural that labor follows. As it does, the equation of globalization may start to shift. Workers around the world communicating and cooperating with each other would be capitalism’s worst nightmare. It could seriously threaten capital’s ability to shift constantly to countries with the worst wages and the most brutal working conditions. It could mean an end to the constant supply of cheap labor from immigrants escaping those very conditions. True collective action across geographic boundaries could truly change the power dynamic, giving working people a chance to bargain for better conditions without the threat of someone else taking their jobs. Marx’s prophecy about the bourgeoisie producing its own gravediggers might still come true after all, if not quite in the way he imagined.

While relinquishing control over the fate of socialism may be a painful process for some in the West, it may ultimately help Western socialism to rediscover its soul and purpose. With rising quality of life in the capitalist nations and appalling living conditions in the former communist countries, the whole premise of socialism has been called into question. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that as capitalism developed, workers became “a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”6 He said that “the burden of toil increases” and that “as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.” This was certainly true in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when Marx was writing. But as capitalism developed further, wages actually improved and the burden of toil decreased. Whereas Marx predicted that the lower middle class would “sink gradually into the proletariat,” in many European societies the opposite seemed to be happening by the late twentieth century: thanks to union gains and progressive legislation, many workers were attaining middle-class lifestyles. Even in the United States, where there is a substantial underclass and a virulent backlash against many worker protections, it is certainly the case that working people enjoy much better living and working conditions at the beginning of the twenty-first century than at the start of the twentieth. Hence the frequent argument in favor of capitalism: because it’s a system that creates wealth, the poor will still be better off, even if the distribution is unequal. Getting a small piece of a lot of wealth is better than an equal share of nothing. Socialism in the West has not provided a convincing rebuttal to this argument and hence has lost much of its mass appeal.

It is only by broadening its view beyond the borders—or, increasingly, the fortress walls—of its own privileged nations that socialism in the West can hope to see the way out of the ideological cul-de-sac in which it finds itself. For it is there that we will immediately see the impoverishment that Marx wrote about. The statistics are so familiar as to be almost numbing: about half of the world’s population is living on less than two dollars a day, almost a billion people are chronically undernourished, and three billion have no access to sanitation. Yet these statistics are often seen as abstract facts, with little examination of how these conditions arose or who is responsible. The implicit, or sometimes explicit, blame falls on the victims themselves, as if the person in Bangkok stitching sweatshirts for a dollar a day were somehow just that much less creative and skilled than the office worker in New York making $50,000 a year. As if there really were a level playing field, as if all the talk of free trade and unfettered competition were actually true. Such collective societal blindness to the cause of the world’s inequality makes it possible for this horrendous inequality to persist and to become more entrenched by the year.

Western socialism can only rediscover its own soul when it opens its eyes to this suffering. While many progressives in the West do fight for fair trade and debt cancellation, it is often seen almost as a charitable gesture, separate from the socialist struggle that has traditionally been the preserve of people in industrial nations. Meanwhile, the labor movement is frequently so focused on protecting the jobs of its own members that it lobbies for trade policies that protect Western industries while decimating those of developing nations. When Western socialists come to embrace the cause of people in the South as inseparable from their own, they will see new possibilities that could breathe life into their dormant movement. When they acknowledge that whenever their own labor movements make a small gain, the corporations simply look for new workers in new countries to exploit instead, they will be forced to fight against the oppressors, not against those even worse off than themselves. When they start to connect with antiglobalization protesters and environmental activists from North America to South Korea, they will rediscover their relevance and be able to appeal to a new generation.

For now, however, the soul of socialism can be found in the struggles of people who often don’t call themselves socialists: grassroots movements in the global South and that small but rapidly growing minority who support them in the West. The people toiling in the sweatshops of Beijing and Calcutta, the banana plantations of Central America, the diamond mines of Africa—these are the people who are supporting the extravagant, comfortable lifestyles of people in the West. Their struggles often seem futile or incomprehensible because the system they are fighting against is so huge and all-encompassing. It carries the weight of five centuries of colonization and exploitation. Many news reports speak of “violence” and “unrest” in far-off countries without even giving the cause, perhaps because the aim—changing the world—is simply too large to be comprehended. Yet people in the South are forced to comprehend it every day. The need to overthrow capitalism has been drilled into them and their ancestors for centuries. Every time they were driven from their land, saw their gold and minerals loaded onto European ships, or were forced to work for the profits of rich white people, the imperative became clear to them: they have no choice but to change the world, or it will destroy them. The Zapatistas understood this so well that they were able to sum it up in just two words: “Ya Basta!” (“Enough!”). These movements are not always doctrinally orthodox. But in their basic struggle for justice they embody everything that socialism has meant to generations of activists. Too often, the soul of socialism is obscured and divided by religious, racial, and cultural boundaries, and distorted by establishment scaremongering. But it’s still lurking there behind the hatred and mistrust, waiting to be rediscovered. If we look long enough and hard enough we might just find it before it’s too late. And if people in the West are able to turn back after that to look in the mirror and examine the five centuries of exploitation that we have countenanced and silently benefited from, then there’s even a slim chance that some of us might be able to redeem our own souls too.


  1. John Ross, Rebellion from the Roots (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), 21.
  2. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 1958), 216.
  3. Bill Weinberg, Homage to Chiapas (New York: Verso, 2000), 123.
  4. Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books), 389.
  5. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 83.
  6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 87.