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II. Twenty-First Century Socialism

We have said that, in order to judge a government, it is not so important to consider the pace at which it advances as the direction it is taking. This goal, this direction, has been defined by several of our governments as “twenty-first century socialism.”

“Why talk of socialism?” we may ask. After all, “socialism” has had such negative connotations since its collapse in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. For many years after Soviet socialism disappeared, intellectuals and progressive forces talked more of what socialism must not be than of the model that we actually wanted to build. Some of the facets of Soviet socialism that were rejected—and rightly so—were: statism, state capitalism, totalitarianism, bureaucratic central planning, the kind of collectivism that seeks to homogenize without respecting differences, productivism (which stresses the growth of productive forces without being concerned about the need to protect nature), dogmatism, atheism, and the need for a single party to lead the transition process.

Again, “Why speak of socialism?” There is a very powerful reason to do so. Here, I quote the Bolivian Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, who, using very simple words, told his people why on February 8, 2010, a year after the new Bolivian Constitution was promulgated. Referring to what he called “community socialism,” he said:

[W]e are speaking about this subject for one reason only, and that is because the society that exists in the world today, the society that today we have all over the world, is a society with too many injustices, a society with too many inequalities….Today, in this capitalist world in which we live…eleven million children die every year from malnutrition, from poor medical care, because there is no support to cure curable diseases….It is as if the whole population of Bolivia was to die every year, and every year again.

This capitalist society, which dominates the world, which gives us flights into space, which gives us the internet, allows 800 million human beings to go to bed hungry every night….There are about two billion people in the world who don’t have basic services. We have cars, we have planes, now we are thinking about going to Mars, wonderful! But down here on earth there are people who have no basic services, there are people who have no education, and if that wasn’t enough, this is a society which permanently and repeatedly generates crises, and crises cause unemployment, force companies to close. There is so much wealth, but it is concentrated in few hands. And there are many people who have no wealth and cannot enjoy what there is. Today there are 200 million unemployed people in the world.

[T]hat is the problem, this is a society which generates too many contradictions, which pours forth knowledge, science, and wealth, but which simultaneously generates too much poverty, too much neglect and, to top it off, is not content with destroying human beings but also destroys nature. Thousands of animal and plant species have been destroyed in the last 400-500 years since capitalism began. The forests are getting smaller and smaller, the ozone layer is being debilitated, we have climate change, our eternally snow-capped mountains are disappearing.

When one talks of socialism, one is talking of something quite different from what we are experiencing. We could give it a different name. If someone doesn’t like the word socialism, they can call it communitarianism, if they don’t like communitarianism, they can give it the name “living well,” that’s no problem, we won’t fight over names.56

As is well known, Chávez at first thought that he could move ahead with social transformations, leaving capitalism untouched, “the third way.”57 However, he soon realized that this wasn’t possible. The Venezuelan oligarchy was unwilling to give ground on anything. It only had to see that the enabling laws decreed at the end of 2001 might affect its interests a little, to decide to organize a coup d’état. Once this plan failed, it tried to paralyze the country by sabotaging, first and foremost, the oil industry. This experience and two other things convinced the President that he had to find another way, had to move toward a different kind of society, toward what he calls “twenty-first century socialism.”58 These two factors were the realization that the heartrending problems of the Venezuelan people could not be solved quickly enough using the bourgeois state apparatus bequeathed to him, and that, in “the framework of the capitalist model, it is impossible to solve the drama of poverty, of inequality.”

Chávez Consolidates the Term “Twenty-First Century Socialism”

On December 5, 2004, at the closing ceremony of the World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity, held in Caracas, Chávez surprised the audience by declaring, for the first time, that “it is necessary to review the history of socialism and rescue the concept of socialism.”59 A few weeks later, when he spoke at the World Social Forum on January 30, 2005, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Chávez reiterated the need to overcome capitalism and build socialism, but he also warned: “We have to reinvent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism we saw in the Soviet Union.”60 Moreover, it’s not a matter of “resorting to state capitalism.” If we do that, we will fall “into the same distortion as the Soviet Union did.”

Then, at the fourth Social Debt Summit on February 25, 2005, he said there was no alternative to capitalism other than socialism. But, he warned, it had to be different than the socialisms we have known; we would have to “invent twenty-first century socialism.”61 This was the first time the term twenty-first century socialism was used in public.

We can say without a doubt that Chávez was the one who brought popular attention to the term “twenty-first century socialism,” and that, in doing so, he sought to differentiate the new socialism from the errors and deviations of the socialist model implemented in the twentieth century in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. However, this term had already been used in 2000 by Chilean sociologist Tomás Moulian in his book Twenty-First Century Socialism: The Fifth Way.62

We must keep in mind that the world’s first peaceful transition to socialism began in the early 1970s in Chile, with the triumph of President Salvador Allende, supported by the leftist Popular Unity coalition. It was defeated by a military coup three years later. If our generation learned anything from this defeat, it was that if you want to travel peacefully toward that goal, you have to rethink the socialist project as it had been applied in the world up until then, and that, therefore, it was necessary to develop another project better adapted to Chilean reality and to find a peaceful way to build it. That was what Allende seemed to sense when he coined the expression, “socialism with red wine and empanadas,” which alluded to the idea of building a democratic socialist society rooted in popular national traditions.63

However, it’s not a matter of copying foreign models or of exporting ours; it’s about building a model of socialism tailored for each country. Naturally, all models will share some features.

These features include three basic components that Chávez has pointed to: economic transformation; participative and protagonistic democracy in the political sphere; and socialist ethics “based on love, solidarity, and equality between women and men, everybody.”64 These socialist ideas and values are very old. They can be found, according to Chávez, in biblical texts, in the Gospel, and in the practices of our indigenous peoples.65

Chávez—as did José Carlos Mariátegui—thinks that twenty-first century socialism cannot be a carbon copy of anything but has to be a “heroic creation.” That is why he talks of a Bolivarian, Christian, Robinsonian, Indoamerican socialism, a new collective existence, equality, liberty, and real, complete democracy.66 He agrees with Mariátegui that one of the primary roots of our socialist project can be found in the socialism of our indigenous peoples, and he therefore suggests that those indigenous practices, imbued with a socialist spirit, must be rescued and empowered.67

Moreover, when people in Bolivia speak of “communitarian socialism” they are proposing that we rescue what the Vice President of that country has called “communal civilization, with its technological procedures based on the power of the masses, on managing family and communal land, and on the way economic and political activity meld, a civilization which has its own authorities and political institutions which give more importance to normative action than to electing, and in which individuality is a product of the collectivity and its past history.”68

According to García Linera, most of the Bolivian population “is submerged in economic, cognitive, and cultural structures that are non-industrial and, in addition, are carriers of other cultural and linguistic identities and other political habits and techniques that stem from their own technical and material life: placing collective identity above individuality, deliberative practice above elections, normative coercion as a form of behavior that is rewarded above free acceptance and compliance, the depersonalization of power, its consensual revocability, rotation of positions, etc., are forms of behavior which speak of political cultures different from liberal and party representative political cultures.”69

Being certain of these realities should lead us to renounce Western paternalist culture, which believes that we should go off and help indigenous communities. Chávez maintains that we should, rather, “ask them for help…so that they cooperate with us in building the socialist project of the twenty first century.”70

A Socialist Society, Fundamentally Democratic

Chávez has stressed the fundamentally democratic nature of twenty-first century socialism. He warns that “we must not slip into the errors of the past,” into the “Stalinist deviation,” which bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating people’s protagonism.71

The practical and negative experience of real socialism in the political sphere cannot make us forget that, according to classic Marxist tenets, post-capitalist society always has been associated with full democracy. Marx and some of his followers called it communism, others have called it socialism, and I agree with García Linera that it doesn’t really matter what term we use. What does matter is the content.

Few people are familiar with a brief text about the state by Lenin, which is contained in a notebook and predates his book The State and Revolution. In it, he says that socialism must be conceived of as the most democratic society, in contrast to bourgeois society, where there is democracy for a minority only. Comparing socialism to capitalism, Lenin observes that, in the latter, there is democracy for the rich only and for a small layer of the proletariat, whereas in the transition to socialism, there is almost full democracy. Democracy, at this stage, is not yet complete because of the unignorable will of the majority, which must be imposed on those who do not wish to submit to the majority will. However, once communist society is reached, democracy will be finally complete.72

This view was inspired by the writings of Marx and Engels, who said that the society of the future would make possible the full development of all human potential. Fully developed human beings would replace the fragmented human beings produced by capitalism. As Friedrich Engels writes, in his first draft of The Communist Manifesto, we must “organize society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.” “In Marx’s final version of the Manifesto,” this new society appears as an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”73

But how long will it take us to reach this goal? History has shown that “heaven” cannot be taken by storm, that a long historical period is needed to make the transition from capitalism to a socialist society. Some talk in terms of decades, others in terms of hundreds of years, still others think that socialism is the goal we must pursue but that perhaps we may never completely reach.

We call this historical period “the transition to socialism.”


  1. Álvaro García Linera, speaking on the program “El pueblo es noticia” on Channel 7 and Radio Patria Nueva, February 8, 2010.
  2. “[S]ome have spoken and written a lot about the Third Way, capitalism with a human face, Rhenish capitalism, Martian capitalism, and I don’t know how many other kinds, trying to disguise the monster, but whatever mask one puts on the monster is a masks that falls to the ground destroyed by the facts. I myself must confess, there is no need to confess really, everyone knows, especially Venezuelans, I was going through a phase and talking about the third way.” (Hugo Chávez, Speech at the Fourth Social Debt Summit, February 25, 2005).
  3. Ibid. Some authors, including Michael Lebowitz, prefer to call it “socialism for the twenty-first century.”
  4. Diana Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (London: Pluto Press, 2006).
  5. Although in his speech in Caracas’ Teresa Carreño Theatre, during the Meeting for Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity, November-December 2004, he had already mentioned the subject.
  6. Hugo Chávez, “Opening remarks to the 4th Social Debt Summit,” Caracas, February 24, 2005.
  7. Tomás Moulian, Twenty-First Century Socialism: The Fifth Way (Santiago: Lom Ediciones, 2000).
  8. Empanadas are a typical Chilean food. See Tomás Moulian “La Unidad Popular y el futuro” (“Popular Unity and the Future”), Encuentro XXI 1, no. 3; Marta Harnecker, “Reflexiones sobre el gobierno de Allende, Estudiar el pasado para construir el futuro” (“Reflections on Allende’s Government, Study the Past to Build the Future”), Utopía, revista teórica del Partido Comunista de España, June 5, 2009, 219.
  9. Hugo Chávez, “Speech on Unity,” Caracas, December 15, 2006, Ediciones Socialismo del Siglo XXI, no. 1, Caracas, January 2007, 41.
  10. The prophet Isaiah and many other prophets preached a message of equality that had a clearly socialist spirit. See Chávez’s “Speech on Unity”; Chávez quotes from the version of the Sermon on the Mount that appears in Saint Luke’s Gospel, ibid., 42-43
  11. Simón Rodriguez was Simón Bolivar’s teacher and friend. The latter referred to the former as Robinson, hence the term Robinsonian; Ibid., 51.
  12. Ibid., 46.
  13. Álvaro García Linera, Luis Tapia Mealla, and Raúl Prada Alcoresa, Muela del diablo (Bolivia: Publishers Comuna), 46. García Linera identifies four civilizing regimes in Bolivia. The first is the modern, mercantile, industrial regime. The second involves economy and culture organized around simple domestic-type mercantile activity, either craft or peasant (these activities account for 68 percent of urban employment). The third is communal civilization, and the fourth is Amazonian civilization, which is identified by the itinerant character of its productive activity, technology based on individual knowledge and industriousness, and the absence of a state. Altogether, two-thirds of the countries’ inhabitants are in the last three “civilizing or societal bands,” 46-47.
  14. Ibid., 48.
  15. Chávez, “Speech on Unity,” 48.
  16. “[T]hat party betrayed its nature and ended up being an antidemocratic party. And that the wonderful slogan, ‘All power to the Soviets!’ in the end became, in fact, a completely different slogan: ’All power to the party! That regime turned into an elite regime which could not build socialism. That explains why, when socialism fell, the workers did not go out to defend it,” Chávez, “Speech on Unity.”
  17. V.I. Lenin, “Marxism on the State,”
  18. Michael Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 13.