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Renewing Socialism

Leo Panitch
In Memory of Leo Panitch (1945–2020), Mentor, Colleague, Friend, from his comrades at Monthly Review.
Leo Panitch taught political science at York University in Toronto, Canada. He was coeditor, with Colin Leys, of the Socialist Register, published by Merlin Press and distributed, in the United States, by Monthly Review Press.
This essay is a slightly shortened version of the Introduction to Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy, and Imagination by Leo Panitch (Westview Press, 2001). It is reprinted here by permission.

Ring the bells that still ran ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

—Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

—Bertolt Brecht, “Everything Changes”

To make the thief disgorge his booty,
To free the spirit from its cell.
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide and do it well.

—Eugene Pottier, “The Internationale”

Does it make any sense to speak in terms of socialist renewal at the beginning of the twenty-first century? The massive anti-capitalist protests from Seattle to Prague to Quebec that captured the world’s attention at the beginning of the new millennium attest to the fact that the spirit of revolution, one of the central facets of political life over the previous centuries, is hardly a thing of the past. If “the revolutionary spirit of the last centuries, that is, the eagerness to liberate and to build a new house where freedom can dwell, [which] is unprecedented and unequaled in all prior history”1 properly begins with the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth century, few would dispute that this eagerness for fundamental social transformation was in very large part carried into the world of the twentieth century by socialism’s revolutionary aspirations to transcend the capitalist order itself. It was socialism that expressed the past century’s struggle for liberation from the paradoxical freedom of the bourgeois revolution, that is, from the competition and exploitation upon which capitalist social relations are founded; and it was socialism that embodied the aspiration to build a fully democratic, cooperative, and classless society where freedom and equality might realize rather than negate the sociability of humankind.

Yet, by the end of the last century, what could be said to remain of the socialist project? The answer appeared self-evident to many people in the 1990s in the face of the ignominious collapse of Communist regimes in the East and the utter loss of radical purpose on the part of Social Democratic parties in the West. The question of what the very concept of socialist change might any longer mean in terms of objectives, social forces, or agencies, let alone in terms of methods or immediate or long­ term possibilities, elicited, if not sheer disdain, then at least uncertainty and confusion, hesitation, and pessimism. That there should no longer be significant political organizations oriented to fundamental social change in the context of the inequalities and irrationalities of global capitalism defined the tragedy of the modern left by the end of the twentieth century.

Yet, at the same time, it has in recent years been impossible to miss a growing frustration at the lack of political alternatives to parties and governments dedicated to the capitalist order, and a sense that something must be done about this. “There is no alternative” began as a campaign slogan of the New Right. Today, in the wake of the depredations and irrationalities of neoliberalism, it is heard as a constant lament on the left. In this context, it is increasingly dear that there is some point, after all, to continuing reflection on the contemporary prospects of socialism.

To be sure, such reflection must be sober and careful. It must be mindful of past failures and disappointments, but it must above all look to the future even as it reexamines the past. For the main point of the exercise, as Marx once put it, is that of “finding once more the spirit of revolution, not of making its ghost walk about again.”2 Indeed, in so far as people looking for how to build new political institutions oriented to achieving socialist ideals are made despondent by the failure of the Communist and Social Democratic parties in the twentieth century, or are paralyzed by the fear that they will be replicated all over again, it may help to overcome these debilitating sentiments if we recall to what extent the old party institutions and their practices were a product of their time and place. We may think of socialism in terms of ideals and principles, theories and goals; but in so far as we think of socialism as politics, we need think of it historically, as political projects embodied in and articulated through particular institutions at specific points in time. Conceived this way, the question of the future of socialism may also come into clear focus.

The mass Socialist parties that in so many countries had stepped onto the political stage by the early twentieth century were something entirely new: never before had subordinate classes been able to fashion for themselves relatively enduring mass political organizations. Of course, the changes wrought by capitalism itself—not only the invention of new forms of exploitation and inequality, but also the dissolution of old social bonds and local parochialisms; the creation of new conditions of life through industrialization and urbanization; the development of new forms of associational autonomy from the state—provided the conditions for this remarkable political development. These working-class parties came to represent, practically speaking, the socialist project, but they could not but reflect, to a substantial degree, in their organization and ideology the conditions specific to capitalism in their time. The Second International at first provided a common umbrella internationally, but in the aftermath of the split that occurred with World War I (presaged earlier in great debates over strategy and organizational form) there emerged the two institutional wings which dominated socialist politics in the twentieth century: Communism and Social Democracy, each of which came to rely heavily, in their very different ways, on the power of the state. The predominance of these two formations in the politics of the left for most of the remainder of the century was part of a more general “freezing of party alternatives” often commented upon in the comparative study of political parties.

It was abundantly clear long before the 1990s that the institutions that emerged as the particular embodiments of the socialist project at the beginning of the twentieth century had nm their historical course. From a historical materialist perspective, taking into account the tremendous changes that occurred over the course of the century in social, economic, political, and cultural conditions, could it really be expected that the party-political instruments founded at the beginning of the century would continue to be viable expressions of the politics of socialism at the end of the century? Their claims to be the universal and eternal institutional representations of socialist principles should never have been taken too seriously: these claims in good part reflected inflated ideological attempts at reinforcing support for their immediate tactics and particular strategies. Although they presented themselves as the unique embodiments of socialism, they were historically conditional expressions thereof, by no means fixed forever in time’s eye.

Already in the 1960s, there had been a very strong sense on the “New Left” that both Communism and Social Democracy had become embedded in sclerotic institutions that in their different ways stifled political and intellectual creativity. As a member of that 1960s generation, I think it is fair to say that very few people I knew who embraced socialist values and ideas did so because they were inspired by the Soviet example. On the contrary, we became socialists despite that example, indeed, explicitly rejecting it as a model. That example was constantly thrown up in our faces by those who objected to our socialism, and we responded not by defending authoritarian Communism, but by expressing a conviction that a democratic socialism was still possible to conceive and worth committing ourselves to struggle to achieve. Although we were inspired by courageous and tenacious anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles sometimes led by third world Communist leaders and movements, such links as any of this had to Soviet Communism were rarely the object of our admiration.

The Marxism we turned to as a mode of analysis in this context was most emphatically not Soviet Marxism. It was a renewed Marxism fashioned by those who had pointed ways out of and beyond, and usually explicitly broken with, that suffocating orthodoxy. Claims that the particular kind of authoritarian Communist system built in Russia was the only possible outcome of Marx’s ideas were not taken too seriously; indeed, such arguments could be seen as a mirror image of the claims that Soviet party leaders themselves made. Joseph Schumpeter, himself no Marxist, once put this in proper perspective: “There is, between the true meaning of Marx’s message and bolshevist practice and ideology, at least as great a gulf as there was between the religion of the humble Galileans and the practice and ideology of the princes of the church or the warlords of the middle ages.”3 The point retained its validity, whether put to a Stalinist apologist in earlier decades, or a postmodernist critic in recent ones.

Some among that 1960s generation who became socialists went off in search of a purer Marxism-Leninism. They gathered together under the rubric of relatively tiny revolutionary parties of Trotskyist or Maoist persuasions and affiliations of various sorts. But certainly most of the socialists I knew sensed that the problem with the Communist parties went deeper than a Stalinist or post-Stalinist deviation, that elements in the thought and practice of Leninism, Trotskyism, and Maoism were themselves highly problematic; and that the very discourse of Marxism-Leninism was debilitating, intellectually narrowing, and politically marginalizing. Indeed, while we embraced Marxism for its potential to help us understand the capitalist societies we lived in, we also recognized at least implicitly, and often explicitly, that Marxism offered relatively few conceptual handles with which to understand the nature of authoritarian Communist societies themselves.

It was the hope, perhaps even the expectation, of most socialists of my generation that what would eventually come to replace this system of authoritarian Communism would be some version of democratic socialism. In this sense, Prague 1968 was almost as important in our political formation as Paris 1968. But our socialism was hardly conditional upon an expectation that a democratic socialist outcome was inevitable in the Soviet Bloc. What impelled us toward socialism, rather, was our experience with and observation of the inequalities, irrationalities, intolerances, and hierarchies of our own capitalist societies—in both their global and their domestic expressions. The frustrations with Social Democratic governments which were unable to—or worse, did not even try very hard to—effect substantial change were in this context our main concern. But this is not to say that romantic illusions of imminent revolutionary upheavals were nearly as common among the 1960s generation as sometimes now appears in retrospect. To the contrary, the readiness with which Gramsci’s distinction between East and West was taken up at that time reflected a widespread recognition that the conditions for insurrection were simply missing in more developed capitalist countries. What primarily came under challenge by the 1960s were the specific ideological and institutional forms of Social Democratic and Communist party politics, and the conventional parliamentarist and bureaucratic modes of representation and administration which they had come to represent.

In the West, Social Democracy’s lack of popular mobilizing capacity proved especially debilitating in the transition from the postwar welfare state era to a new era of neoliberal globalization marked by a successful series of right-wing assaults against reforms won in the earlier era. Yet it was during this very period of transition from one era of capitalism to another that so many activists of the 1960s generation, acutely aware of the limitations of Social Democracy as well as the old and new versions of Leninism, turned to building the “new social movements” which had such a strong social and political impact in the last few decades of the twentieth century. These movements, in part because they learned from the failures of the old politics, certainly proved that mobilization was still possible and that reforms were still winnable. But the failure to develop new party political alternatives on the left was nevertheless registered in every election; and it has been increasingly registered as well in the constantly fraught attempts at keeping movement coalitions going from issue to issue and event to event. Increasingly social movement activists have been faced with the question once again of what prospects there are for the emergence of new political institutions that will carry an anticapitalist political project into the twenty-first century.

There are still no easy answers to this. While conditions of acute exploitation, market irrationality, and intermittent crisis are everywhere manifest, albeit often in new forms, it is nevertheless also true that the cultural, economic, and social profiles of the working classes out of which the old institutional expressions of socialist politics developed initially are radically changed. The issue is not that working classes are less homogeneous than they used to be, and hence that the political expression of class is now impossible. The working classes were never homogeneous. The relevant question—and it is a very difficult one—is whether and how political solidarity may be reorganized and rejuvenated in light of the diversity of the working classes and the very significant changes they have undergone. There have always been tensions on the left between those who sought to reinforce solidarity by ignoring this diversity and by resisting change, and those who emphasized the need to transform the working classes in and through the recognition of diversity and the process of change. There can be no question that the experience gained from the new social movements will now have a major influence on any new attempts at socialist renewal, above all our understanding that the transformation of social relations should never have been conceived in undifferentiated class terms, but as encompassing multiple relations of domination as these are inscribed in systems of production, reproduction, administration, and communication.

There has, in fact, already been a marked shift in socialist thinking which lays greater stress than ever on the goal of changing social relations, as broadly outlined above, through economic and political democracy. This has reflected a rejection of the domination inscribed in technocracy and corporatism as embedded in Communism’s central planning agencies and also in the institutions that managed Keynesian-style capitalism. This is not to say that planning is no longer important for socialists. The possibility of strategically coordinating economic decision making will seem important indeed to those millions who are made to suffer anew amid the repeated crises of overaccumulation and financial speculation that today’s intensified capitalist competition brings about. And the virtues of such coordination, indeed the necessity of it, for preventing the destruction of nature, become more and more manifest each day. We know that command economic planning driven by an authoritarian statist industrialization strategy, and a type of Social Democratic indicative planning which was itself subject to the laws of private capital accumulation, both proved unable to plan in accordance with ecological sanity. Given the disappointing trajectory of the Green Party in Germany, moreover, there does indeed increasingly appear to be room for a new type of socialism that understands how successful struggles to limit the exploitation of nature, like successful struggles to limit the exploitation of labor, impose direct or indirect costs on capital which also induce economic crises under capitalism. Socialists can build upon this analysis to make a strong case for democratic economic coordination aimed at reconciling human needs for material goods and services with the reproduction of nature.

That said, contemporary socialists cannot claim to have a foolproof blueprint for a new type of political and economic democracy. It often occasions impatience that this is so. In fact, there has been no shortage of more or less attractive models advanced over the past few decades, but such models cannot be persuasive unless they are connected to the establishment of the political means of realizing them, i.e., the creation of new political institutions which would mobilize and educate not only for economic democracy but also for a transformation of conventional modes of representation and administration within the state. Especially relevant here as well are the participatory themes sounded by the New Left of the 1960s. The disdainful dismissal of this theme by Social Democratic and Communist parties, indeed their resistance to attempts at greater internal political democratization, meant that popular alienation from bureaucratic administration and ersatz representation was left to fester, and this helped pave the way for market populism both East and West. Yet, as the evidence accumulates that markets are themselves full of discrimination and power, the limitations of market populism present new opportunities for rebuilding socialist politics.

In looking to such opportunities it will be important not to revive new versions of the old breakdown thesis, whereby expectations of severe capitalist crises are made to do the hard work of socialist strategy and struggle. Of course, such economic crises of greater or lesser severity as are on the horizon will provide opportunities for the left to develop new forms and strategies that qualitatively enhance its capacities. Out of the long crisis of 1873 to 1896 emerged the European mass working-class parties and trade unions; during the course of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the models of industrial unionism in North America and of Social Democratic governance in Scandinavia were cast; and it was amidst the renewed economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s that the new social movements developed. But we must also bear in mind that it is through crises that capitalism historically has tended to recover its dynamism; where and when it is unable to do so, and where no viable socialist alternative or at least few means of democratic defense exist, the consequences are always appalling.

This discussion of all these themes is partial insofar as it is mainly undertaken from the perspective of the particular situation of the left in the advanced capitalist countries. And it needs to be said immediately that it is precisely the limitations of this experience, as much as anything else, which reinforces the need for a renewed internationalism. The importance of this must be stressed, not least in relation to establishing strategic cohesion for resisting the neoliberal agenda and developing international means for controlling capital. It needs to be noted, however, that the left’s internationalist focus today is sometimes unfortunately advanced at the expense of deriding or at least giving up on the struggles that remain so necessary at the level of the nation-state, and indeed at subnational levels. This is a false polarization of strategies, not least because even a capitalism that is fully extended in its global reach still relies on nation-states more than on any other structures for its preservation and reproduction. Progressive policy interventions in relation to international institutions and issues, moreover, must still be made, and will continue to be made for the foreseeable future, primarily via the representatives of nation-states. To put aside thinking about how to renew the struggle for socialism at the national level, in the name of a global socialism to match a global capitalism, is mere romanticism.

What is especially required of a new internationalism is the sharing of experiences regarding the difficulty of transforming the local and national state even when radical governments come into office. This is sorely needed if new socialist movements, in the South as well as the North, are to emerge which finally are capable of changing the administrative apparatuses so that they become representative and accountable and oriented to providing the means and resources for as much decentralized and popular decision making and resource allocation as is compatible with democratic planning for common societal problems. The renewed socialist project must not be about more state versus less state, but about a different kind of state. The two main institutional expressions of the socialist project in the twentieth century came to rely on the bureaucratic state as an instrument of allocation, regulation, and coercion to such a degree that the main purpose of socialism, the development of a popular capacity for collective self-determination, was undermined rather than enhanced. But it is important to recognize that the problem is not easily solved by techniques of direct democracy such as referenda (much less will it be solved by proportional representation alone, as many on the left sometimes imply today). A left populism which engages in the pretense that the people inherently know what to do ignores the passivity and deference which lifetimes of exclusion and atomization breed. Rather than assume that communities of active, informed citizens are waiting to be called from the deep, the first task of a democratic socialism, in remaking the state, no less than movement building, is to actively facilitate the creation of democratic capacities. This must start with promoting the capacity of isolated individuals to discover common needs and interests with others in various diverse aspects of their lives, and then encouraging the formation of collective identities and associations and the development of the institutional means and resources to determine collectively how their needs and interests might be fulfilled. Socialism’s promise is precisely that of unleashing creative human capacities through a “developmental democracy,” to use C. B. Macpherson’s apt term, which capitalism and the state stifle. What is needed now is the emergence of institutional expressions of socialist politics which put front and center the immense task of discovering forms of public representation and administration which are developmental in this sense.

Socialists today can have no illusions about the speed with which they may be able to achieve a really significant advance in the fulfillment of their aims. Patterns of advance will vary greatly from one country to another; and there will be setbacks as well as victories. But the gloom in which so much of the left has been plunged in recent years is very shortsighted. For wherever one looks, there is ferment, with grievances expressed, demands made, rights affirmed. Some of it assumes profoundly unhealthy forms; but a good deal of it is progressive and increasingly speaks an anticapitalist language which is well in tune with socialist aspirations. To be sure, the difficulties involved in developing new socialist institutions and practices must not be underestimated. The new generation of socialists that came to maturity in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1960s and early 1970s were in the following quarter-century unable to forge new political instruments of any comparable range and salience to the old sclerotic ones whose mistakes they often pinpointed so acutely and criticized so mercilessly. But a quarter-century is, historically speaking, a short period of time; compare it to the half-century that separated the defeat of Chartism and the revolutions of 1848 from the rise of the new mass unionism and Socialist parties toward the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the instability, let alone the social costs, of capital’s current global romp will make the vesting of such massive power in an inherently undemocratic private domain, rather than in a potentially democratic public domain, ever more salient as a political issue. Democratic socialism was never inevitable, but it certainly remains historically relevant.

In any case, we should at least try not to mix up our mortality with the issue of the realization of socialism. Marx’s underestimation of the longevity of capitalism is but the first of many mistakes that rest on this understandable but unfortunate error. Many of the people on the left who feel despondent today, and take seriously the talk about the death of socialism, are only acknowledging that their death is likely to come before socialism does. But socialism need not come in our lifetimes for us to be politically relevant as socialists. The point of socialist politics is about ordinary people developing themselves through the process of engaging in political life. The first question a socialist should ask is whether existing political institutions serve a framework for doing so rather than repressing it. As long as we can muster the strategic creativity and imagination to develop alternative political institutions that will in fact be developmental, we are contributing to making socialism possible. That other socialist intellectuals were coming to this conclusion by the end of the twentieth century is one small, if encouraging, sign that an era of socialist renewal may be on the horizon.4

It is the task of getting people to think ambitiously once again that is the immediate challenge before the left today. To transcend a debilitating political pessimism to make “the defeated man try the world again,” as Ernst Bloch put it in the darkest days of fascism’s advance—it will be necessary to rekindle socialist imagination through a revival of utopian thought. This means not abandoning Marxism, but rather reviving what Bloch called its visionary “warm stream” alongside the “cold stream” of political economy;5 and perhaps even adding a new layer to Marxist theory to help socialists appreciate that in addition to analyzing the accumulation of capital we need to figure out how to foster the accumulation of capacities.

We can see through the cracks in the edifice earlier generations of socialists tried to build—“that’s how the light gets in.” We can make “a fresh start” with every new breath. Through socialist renewal it will be possible for “the spirit of revolution” to flourish anew. What will remain to be seen, of course, is whether we finally can “do it well.”


  1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1965), 28.
  2. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers. 1963), 17.
  3. Joseph A. Schumpeter. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 5th ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976), 3. Originally published in 1943.
  4. In contrast with the intellectually lazy and uninspired “renewal of Social Democracy” envisaged by Anthony Giddens in The Third Way(Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1998) or the three disappointing “real utopias” discussed at length in the concluding chapter of this book, I am thinking in particular of Return of Radicalism: Reshaping the Left Institutions (London: Pluto, 2000) by Boris Kagarlitsky;  Spaces of Hope (Berkeley:  Universitv of ( :alifomia Press, 2000) by David Harvey; and Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999) by the late Daniel Singer, who did so much to try to keep the spirit of revolution alive through the dark decade for the left that closed the twentieth century.
  5. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, translated by N. Plaice, S. Plaice, and P. Knight (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), 148.
2002, Volume 53, Issue 09 (February)
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