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Socialism: A Time to Retreat?

Some wags claim that it is the conservatives who fear socialism, while the radicals believe that capitalism will last forever. Conservatives, they say, fear widespread popular discontent, while radicals abandon hope of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. An exaggeration? Of course. Even so, this witticism is not inappropriate. Many on the left have indeed retreated from class and a vision of a democratic, egalitarian socialism. The important social issues of our day—race, gender, and the environment—more often than not are divorced from the role of class structure. The rule of the capitalist class and the class struggle are shoved to the back burner. Whether consciously or not, the implicit assumption underlying the retreat from class is that capitalism will somehow or other go on and on as it creates miraculous new technology. Best then to stick to making those adjustments in social conditions that the system will presumably allow.

This retreat from class is often reinforced by the categorical dismissal of the possibility of socialism. The evidence for this comes from a superficial and ahistorical examination of the kind of socialism that emerged in the Soviet bloc. Thus, the contradictions of “socialism from above” and the emergence of privileged sectors of society disappear from view. Ignored are the wide differences among the people, between elite and masses, between town and country, and between less developed and advantaged regions. Also not taken into account is the interest of the ruling elite in new property relations as a way of ensuring their and their children’s privileged positions. Instead of observing the tensions arising from conflicting interests, a leading tendency among radicals is to zero in on the presumably inevitable failure of central planning as the essential cause of the collapse.

There is, of course, no uniformity in this widespread retreat from a focus on class struggle.1 We do not wish to tar all of those who are a part of this retreat with the same brush. In fact, it is not our intention to tar any leftwingers at all. Furthermore, we reject the practice of questioning the motives of those we may disagree with. Nevertheless, the widening gap on the left needs to be confronted. On that score, two recent publications offer useful insight into the disparity between those who blow the trumpet of retreat and those who dig in their heels and call for unending struggle to overcome the misery and insecurity of billions of people on this planet. On one hand is the editorial by Perry Anderson in the January-February 2000 issue of New Left Review, which announces a new stance for the journal. On the other hand, a totally contrary analysis and message permeates Daniel Singer’s latest book, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).

Perry Anderson’s editorial in the first issue of New Left Review for the new century, entitled “Renewals,” announces that it is time for an overhaul. “With this issue,” he declares, “we start a new series of the journal marked by a break of numerals, in keeping with radical tradition, and a redesign of its appearance, in token of changes to come.” What then is new beyond renumbering and design? The answer is largely contained in the following extract:

The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule….For the Left, the lesson of the past century is one taught by Marx. Its first task is to attend to the actual development of capitalism as a complex machinery of production and profit, in constant motion….No collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive.

But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism of capitalism itself. We cannot turn away from it. Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one (16-17).

Does Marx teach that the first task for the left “is to attend to the actual development of capitalism?” The Marx we know was first and foremost a social revolutionary. He remained one throughout the vicissitudes of social change, during the advance and retreat of social struggles. Neither the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, the end of the Communist League, nor the destruction of the Paris Commune were occasions for him to forsake revolutionary struggle. Marx and Engels were not summer soldiers. Theirs was the long view. Defeats had to be studied and analyzed to prepare a path for renewed struggle. Moreover, Marx’s intensive study of the “actual development of capitalism” was not a departure from struggle, but viewed as a contribution to the working-class struggle for power to transform society. The first volume of Capital was often referred to in the nineteenth century as the workers’ bible.

As a justification for downplaying class relations, Anderson claims that scientific progress is the only revolutionary force at present (and presumably in the future as well) capable of disturbing the equilibrium of capitalism. Scientific progress is viewed as neutral, not as a force directed in large measure by the profit motive as well as a byproduct of the military’s search for more effective military operations.

The old-fashioned Marxists were supposedly wrong in being convinced—“when a socialist movement was still alive”—of the “primacy of social relations.” Now that the movement is no longer alive, we are led to believe, there is no longer any reason to disguise the fact that productive forces are what really count. But does this mean that Marxists should ignore or give up harping on production relations until (or if and when) a vigorous socialist movement arises as a result of new technological developments? How, then, will a revived socialist movement emerge if the left sits on its behind waiting for it to develop at some future date?

One would never know from this reassessment that there are vital labor movements in a number of countries as well as other new developments that show promise. Note, for example, the following account by Leo Panitch in an essay he prepared for the Socialist Register 2001, entitled Working Classes, Global Realities (Merlin Press and Monthly Review Press, November 2000):

That this may be an opportune moment to address new strategies for labour is suggested not only by the strikes in so many countries in recent years (as this volume was finalized, in May/June 2000, there were general strikes in Argentina, India, Korea, Nigeria and South Africa); or by recent surveys that show rising class awareness even in the USA where working class self identification has historically been very low.2 What is much more important than these instances of conflict and consciousness is the fact that labour is changing in ways that make it a more inclusive social agent. The main developments here have been women’s massive (re)entry into the labour force and changing patterns of migration, both of which have recomposed the working classes of many countries and made them into very different classes in both objective and subjective terms than they were even a quarter century or so ago. Working classes have, of course, always been made up of many diverse elements: what is significant is the way the old labour movements are being changed by the recomposition of the working classes in our time.

It would be unfair to claim that Anderson is not concerned with the conditions and activity of the working class. Nor is there reason to think that he has given up on a socialist ideal in the abstract. But according to his lights, since there is no socialist movement presently active, all we can and should do is wait and hope for capitalism to create the conditions for change: “if the human energies are ever released again, it will be from the metabolism of capitalism itself.” It is the changes in capitalism and its scientific wonders that will produce the potential forces for social transformation. But what of the continuously growing inequality between the industrialized and former colonial world, and indeed the widening of the income gaps within the leading capitalist countries? Do the billions of people on this planet who live in misery, hunger, untreated diseases, and unnecessary early deaths have to wait for the metabolism of capitalism itself? Passing from one technological revolution to another, capitalism has in the past metabolized many times. But while these revolutions have added to well-being and a pleasanter life for at most 25 or 30 percent of the world’s population, there has been no let-up in the ever-growing polarization between the many and the few. Is there a sound reason, other than idle speculation, to anticipate that today’s electronic miracles will transform the basic laws of motion of capitalism?

A Wholly Different View

The very title of Daniel Singer’s latest book telegraphs a contrary analysis and outlook. Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? is infused with a refutation of the assumption, in fact outright conviction, by some sectors of the left and the pretend-left that there is no alternative (TINA) to capitalism. Singer’s outlook is imbued with the view that capitalism is not destined to live forever. Nor is the answer to the end of capitalism and the nature of the aftermath to be found on the sidelines while waiting for capitalism to metabolize. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves….”

It is not our intention to weigh the two examples against each other in all their aspects. One is an editorial that describes the new perspective for its journal on an array of subjects in addition to the paragraph discussed above. Singer’s book, on the other hand, is a full-dress review of the current state of the world economy, the fallout from the Russian Revolution, the failure of social democracy, and other major events. We turn to it on this occasion because of the contrast with Anderson in the attention it pays to the enormous contingency of history and the possibility, even necessity, of developing an alternative course. As Singer states in his introduction:

Above all, this is not an essay announcing the impending collapse of capitalism and the advent of a socialist millennium. Too many great expectations have been shattered to revive such exercises. But the certainty of victory is not indispensable for action. Its possibility is a sufficient spur. Whose Millennium? is fundamentally a gesture of revolt against TINA, a refusal of the prevailing religion of resignation and of its natural ally, irresponsibility. We are not tied to the system, and nothing can prevent us from looking beyond the capitalist horizon. We cannot just wash our hands and pretend. We are not doomed to impotence and inaction by fate (8).

Singer’s call for unending struggle is not based on the illusion that it will be other than a long and difficult one, full of twists and turns. To be effective, we need to learn what went wrong in the past and to maintain a vision of the future that is both realistic and utopian. He does not promise or foretell a bright future, but proposes an outlook that should guide a revitalized and militant socialist movement. But if we are not going to be tied to the system, what alternatives should we work for? On that score, Singer puts forward a long-neglected and downplayed left theme in his chapter, “A Society of Equals.” His handling of this issue goes far beyond the usual views such as equality of opportunity or even equality of income. “Our aim,” he writes “is to create the material and social conditions that not only give meaning to people’s work, but which enable them, by the same token, to seek the fulfillment of their desires and their dreams. There is only one thing that we want to eliminate: social injustice, the possibility of oppression or domination based on class, race, or gender. This we want to do thoroughly: not to diminish, reduce or alleviate oppression, but to uproot it in the literal sense of the term.” (222-223)

There is much more to Singer’s search for an alternative. This is not the place to delve into every component of his outlook. We do, however, need to lay further stress on the fact that Singer does not dwell in fantasy. His idealism is intertwined with a realistic sense of the enormity of the goals, the pitfalls, the length of the historical period required to achieve socialist transformation, even after an overturn of capitalism. What happens in the long, postrevolutionary transition, he emphasizes, will greatly affect how the ultimate goals turn out. There is no simplistic faith here in the inevitability of socialism:

If we want to recover the dialectical link between the movement and its objective, we must draw clear distinctions between actuality, necessity, and inevitability. Socialism may be a historical possibility, or even necessary to eliminate the evils of capitalism, but this does not mean that it will inevitably take its place. This departure from the fatalistic conception is, in a sense, a return to the more distant past, when socialism was not considered as bound to happen, since there was always the possibility, to quote the terms of Rosa Luxemburg, that barbarism would win out. Above all, uncertainty as to the ultimate result should not imply passivity, obedience, or resignation. On the contrary, it dictates greater participation, more activity, and more militancy since, within limits of objective conditions, the future will be what we shall make it. And this renewed conviction and activism would be particularly welcome today, because the power of the ruling class and the arrogance of its ideologues is largely due to our weakness, to our surrender, to our acceptance of the established rules of the game (272-273).

It should go without saying where we stand. MR was founded to spread the word on socialism and the struggle to attain it. We find it hard to understand how people who hate social injustice in this country and elsewhere on the planet can be uninvolved in one way or another with the pursuit of socialism. That is not to deny that we have learned a great deal along the way. These lessons, however, have not altered the basic thrust of MR. Despite mistakes, setbacks, and recognition that the road is long and arduous, we must not waver as we continue to study, educate, and be missionaries for the transcendence of the social system of capitalism and the development eventually in its place of a society of equals.


  1. For a discussion of the many forms that this issue has taken, we heartily recommend Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat from Class (Verso, 1986), winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize.
  2. A New York Times poll in 1996 found that 55% of Americans defined themselves as working class while only 36% defined themselves as middle class; while Gallup found that the number of people who thought “there is class struggle” in Britain rose from around 60% in the early 1960s to 81% in the mid-1990s. See discussion of indications of growing class awareness in essay by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, “The Legacy of the Manifesto,” Socialist Register 1998.
2000, Volume 52, Issue 04 (September)
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