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Socialist Practice and Transition

The Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, participated in the commemoration of the death of Commander Hugo Chávez Frías

Caracas (Venezuela), March 5, 2014. The Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, participated in the commemoration of the death of Commander Hugo Chávez Frías. Photo: Xavier Granja Cedeño / Ecuador Foreign Ministry. By Ricardo Patiño -, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link.

Steve Ellner is a retired professor of the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela and currently an associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives. He is the editor of Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings (2020) and Latin American Extractivism: Dependency, Resource Nationalism and Resistance in Broad Perspective (2021). He is a regular contributor to NACLA: Report on the Americas.
Victor Wallis, Socialist Practice: Histories and Theories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 252 pages, $59.99, paperback.

The left has long debated whether socialism will be achieved in advanced capitalist nations on “one big day,” à la storming of the Winter Palace, or through a series of advances and small revolutionary breaks over time leading at some point to systemic change. Leftists differ along similar lines in their view of how socialism will come about at the global level. After the triumph of the Russian Revolution and in the wake of the disaster of the First World War, V. I. Lenin and the other Bolsheviks assumed that revolution would instantly spread throughout Europe, the result being world revolution. This fast-moving chain of events contrasted with Europe’s transformation from feudalism to capitalism over a period of centuries during which time the antifeudal cause faced numerous reverses and setbacks.

Similarly, in Socialist Practice, a collection of essays on leftist theory and experiences, Victor Wallis adheres to the view that the achievement of socialism is a drawn out, nonlinear process consisting of episodes that in many cases have a mixed impact on the revolutionary cause. Wallis analyzes several, ranging from the seven decades of Soviet rule to the New Left of the 1960s. His main thesis is that over the last century pure socialism has never existed and that on all fronts socialist movements and governments have contained elements of the old—namely, capitalism. He notes that up until 1917, Karl Marx and his followers never contemplated this “coexistence and interpenetration of capitalism and socialism on a world scale.” The coexistence, according to Wallis, not only persists between nations but also within nations, consisting of different modes of thinking and variations in the relations of production. Given the complexity and “extraordinary difficulty of any genuinely revolutionary transformation,” one may assume that the achievement of socialism will resemble the protracted transition from feudalism to capitalism more than a war of maneuver—Antonio Gramsci’s term to describe the Soviet revolution of 1917.1

The centerpiece of Wallis’s analysis of the transition from capitalism to socialism is the theory of dialectics according to Marx and Frederick Engels. Indeed, Marxist dialectics lends itself to a recognition of “the richness and variety of human experience” and contains elements that run counter to the linear view of history devoid of ambiguities and complexities.2 In the first place, in Marx’s words, the new society “will be stamped with the birth-marks of the old” since the antithesis does not fall from the sky but rather emerges from the thesis. Referring to dialectics, Wallis writes: “Individuals who comprise the new leadership [of the revolutionary movement] will inescapably embody, to varying degrees, perceived aspirations as well as ways of dealing with people…that reflect pre-revolutionary habit.” Elsewhere, he states that “material ambitions” derived from the culture of capitalism pervades the entire society under socialism and not just the leadership. In the second place, the antithesis itself is subject to internal contradictions and is eventually transformed (the “negation of the negation”).3

In Wallis’s critique of market socialism, he points to the need to recognize that the socialist road is bumpy and that many of its features resemble the old system, which socialists are supposedly attempting to liquidate. Wallis agrees with Bertell Ollman in opposing market socialism while acknowledging that “post-revolutionary society will contain de facto market elements.” This view fits in with Wallis’s overall vision of the transition to socialism impregnated with contradictions and tensions. Wallis concludes that among Marxists who write on market socialism “the real debate is over different ways of approaching and navigating a universally recognized conflict” as opposed to what he considers to be the erroneous contention (the promarket socialism view) that the “principles of ‘market’ and ‘socialism’ do not clash.”4

Wallis’s interpretation of Marxist dialectics guides his analysis of Soviet rule. His objective is to demonstrate “those ways in which the new society is both generated and conditioned by the old.” Wallis points out that from the very outset, remnants of the old system were ever present, tolerated, and even promoted not only in the form of the New Economic Policy but also industry managers who Lenin insisted be allowed to run enterprises. As a result, “draconian capitalist methods” as well as aspects of Taylorism prevailed at the workplace. In the process, workers’ self-management – a topic to which Wallis devotes a chapter in order to demonstrate the system’s feasibility and viability throughout the twentieth century – was sacrificed and even considered by Lenin as “premature and counterproductive.” In addition, technology “in its capitalist guise” created material expectations that induced Soviet leaders and those of other socialist countries to “modify their priorities” and increased “their willingness to give private foreign capital a major role in their economies.” As eco-Marxists would be the first to point out, the need to transcend the logic of “infinite growth” inherent in capitalism has been made urgent as a result of environmental imperatives. In the case of the USSR, according to Wallis, the contradictions continued until the last years of Soviet rule with the liberalization strategy referred to as glasnost.5

Wallis presents a “mixed” assessment of the Soviet experience. He rejects the notion that “socialism would be better off now” had 1917 never occurred. Wallis maintains that the USSR as a “counterweight created the space necessary for healthier revolutionary processes in other parts of the world.” Most important, he argues that the downsides of Soviet rule, including the atrocities committed during the Joseph Stalin period and the widespread institutionalized corruption after his death in 1953, were not defects of socialism but rather were attributable to capitalist beachheads and influences within the Soviet economy and society. This thesis is a far cry from that of some Maoist and Trotskyist parties, among others, that posit that the USSR at some point ceased to be socialist. Wallis concludes that the “willingness to look at the negative aspects of the Soviet regime” in the context of “the larger process of transition” at the world level and to attribute those defects to capitalism, not socialism, helps avoid the type of disillusionment brought on by the collapse of the USSR.6

Wallis applies his broad focus influenced by dialectics, with its emphasis on directionality and long-term impacts, to his chapter “The US Left of the 1960s and its Legacy.” In doing so, he sets out to refute the thesis that the “radicalism of the 1960s had an impact which on balance constituted a setback for the Left” and that it was a “movement of the privileged.” Wallis notes that the political environment of the previous decade marked by McCarthyism “set the parameters for subsequent Left activity.” In countering those who belittle the New Left’s accomplishments, Wallis argues that as a result of the “chilling setting within which to contemplate any form of progressive activity,” members of the new generation of activists were “starting largely from scratch.” Indeed, the Students for a Democratic Society must be given credit for breaking with the anticommunist fervor of the previous decade by flatly rejecting the insistence of its parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy, to explicitly disassociate itself from the Communist Party.7

A look at the facts substantiates Wallis’s statement that although the New Left originated in elite universities, it “grew far broader over time.” In the first place, in the latter part of the decade, Students for a Democratic Society expanded to a large number of working-class colleges. Second, the debate within the antiwar movement pitted the old left, and specifically the Socialist Workers Party, which played a major role in organizing protests and which favored a “single-issue approach,” against the New Left, which generally defended a multi-issue approach including issues of gender and race. Finally, Wallis points to the impact of the New Left on social movements, such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which he calls “an authentic outgrowth of the 1960s Left.” Similarly, the New Left and the civil rights movement were intricately connected: “It was precisely the experience of working closely with black civil rights activists that energized and inspired some of the most creative leaders of…[the] white-led Left and antiwar movements.”8

Wallis broaches, but fails to fully explore, the issue of agency with regard to people’s power and the achievement of authentic change. In arguing for the more radical, bottom-up policies that the left in power should have pursued in the Soviet Union of Lenin and Salvador Allende’s Chile, Wallis acknowledges that it is unclear whether such a strategy was even feasible. Thus, in his discussion of Lenin’s capitulations to the logic of capitalism and other concessions (such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), Wallis recognizes the Soviet leader’s success in meeting the number one priority of defeating the counterrevolution, but adds that “whether his approach was the only one possible is something that we may never know.” He reaches a similar conclusion regarding the uncertainty of agency in his discussion of Allende’s presidency. Wallis expresses sympathy for the workplace occupations and rank-and-file politicization within the Armed Forces promoted by the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and the left-wing of the Socialist Party, but adds that “the available alternatives” to the Allende government’s more cautious approach “will never be fully known.” Elsewhere, Wallis states that not so much theory but practice will show revolutionary governments the way for developing a “synthesis” between plant takeovers based on rank-and-file resistance to the bourgeoisie and a political strategy exercised from above.9

Of course, the availability of realistic options for radicalization depends on circumstances. Elsewhere, I have pointed to missed opportunities in situations in which the left in power has had the upper hand (to deepen the process of change, promote bottom-up input in decision-making, wage an all-out war on corruption, deliver blows to an opposition engaged in illegal activity, and implement unpopular but necessary economic measures). Conversely, in moments when the left in power is on the defensive – due, in the case of Venezuela, to U.S.-imposed sanctions and military threats – options are limited.10 While it may be easy to determine those situations in which the left is “on the defensive,” identifying propitious situations conducive to a leftist offensive is more problematic. There is a second issue regarding how leftist governments act on the basis of their reading of favorable and unfavorable factors. At what point have contextual factors (such as military threats or economic warfare), which Wallis correctly places at the center of his analysis, served as justifications for excesses by leftists in power, errors they committed, or antidemocratic behavior?

Wallis is correct in pointing out that no scientific method can determine with precision when the moment is right to act decisively. In my opinion, Wallis is on the right track in pointing to factors that favor a bolder approach at the same time that he eschews sectarianism, not to say arrogance, by acknowledging that there are no definitive blueprints nor guarantees for success (some Bolshevik leaders in 1917 thought that Lenin’s plan to seize power was premature and irresponsible). The left needs to guard against utopianism in the form of a wish list of changes that the revolution will allegedly bring. Some suggest that dialectics in its idealistic form encourages this tendency when the focus is on extrapolating into the future rather than analyzing the present.11 Wallis avoids such wishful thinking in this fascinating study of leftist theory and practice from Marx to the present.

Notes

  1. Victor Wallis, Socialist Practice: Histories and Theories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 40–41.
  2. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 41, 56; Bertell Ollman, “The Eight Steps in Marx’s Dialectical Method,” in The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx, ed. Matt Vidal, Tony Smith, Tomás Rotta, and Paul Prew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 98–99.
  3. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 17, 40, 87; Andrew Cole, “The Nature of Dialectical Materialism in Hegel and Marx,” in Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism, ed. Russell Sbriglia and Slavoj Žižek (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2020), 86–88, 95.
  4. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 87–88.
  5. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 14, 43–44, 104.
  6. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 18, 47–48.
  7. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 140, 142–43, 145; Daniel Geary, “The New Left and Liberalism Reconsidered: The Committee of Correspondence and the Port Huron Statement,” in The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto, ed. Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 83.
  8. One study reported that Students for a Democratic Society grew to between 350 to 400 chapters “as the organization continued to expand from its initial base at large state universities and Ivy League campuses to regional state colleges, junior colleges, community colleges, and high schools.” Bruce Dancis, Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 197. Indeed, many works on the New Left that focus on the Students for a Democratic Society’s fatal national convention of the summer of 1969 and two factions that played a key role at the event—those of the Progressive Labor Party and the to-be Weather Underground—unwittingly present a distorted view of the period. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 141–48; Wallis, Socialist Practice, 144, 146, 165.
  9. Wallis, Socialist Practice, 105, 115, 117.
  10. Steve Ellner, “Latin America’s Pink Tide Governments: Challenges, Breakthroughs, and Setbacks,” in Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings, ed. Ellner (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 12–14. One example of a missed opportunity under the government of Nicolás Maduro was in mid–2014 after the governing United Socialist Party won municipal elections by a wide margin and then defeated the four months of street protests known as the guarimba, designed to achieve regime change.
  11. Louis Althusser, for example, argued that the essence of Marxism could not be found in the writings of the early Marx, which were heavily influenced by the idealism and dialectics of G. W. F. Hegel, as opposed to the scientific method that guided Marx’s subsequent works. Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 2005). Marxist philosopher Robert Ware argues that Marx never viewed dialectics as a tool to predict the future but rather as “ways of thinking for approaching phenomena rather than laws or rules that determine phenomena.” Robert Ware, Marx on Emancipation & Socialist Goals: Retrieving Marx for the Future (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 55.
2021, Commentary, Volume 72, Issue 11 (April 2021)
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