This article is a revised and extended version of a talk presented on July 12, 2020, to the concluding session (of the Main Forum) of the Seventh South-South Forum on Sustainability: Climate Change, Global Crises, and Community Regeneration. The Conference/Webinar was organized by Lau Kin Chi and Sit Tsui through Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Reproduced from the Monthly Review September issue, 2020 as a study material –Editorial Board
Any Serious Treatment of the renewal of socialism today must begin with capitalism’s creative destruction of the bases of all social existence. Since the late 1980s, the world has been engulfed in an epoch of catastrophe capitalism, defined as the accumulation of imminent catastrophe on every side due to the unintended consequences of “the juggernaut of capital.” Catastrophe capitalism in this sense is manifested today in the convergence of (1) the planetary ecological crisis, (2) the global epidemiological crisis, and (3) the unending world economic crisis. Added to this are the main features of today’s “empire of chaos,” including the extreme system of imperialist exploitation unleashed by global commodity chains; the demise of the relatively stable liberal-democratic state with the rise of neo-liberalism and neo-fascism; and the emergence of a new age of global hegemonic instability accompanied by increased dangers of unlimited war.
The climate crisis represents what the world scientific consensus refers to as a “no analogue” situation, such that if net carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion do not reach zero in the next few decades, it will threaten the very existence of industrial civilization and ultimately human survival. Nevertheless, the existential crisis is not limited to climate change, but extends to the crossing of other planetary boundaries that together define the global ecological rift in the Earth System as a safe place for humanity. These include: (1) ocean acidification; (2) species extinction (and loss of genetic diversity); (3) destruction of forest ecosystems; (4) loss of fresh water; (5) disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; (6) the rapid spread of toxic agents (including radio-nuclides); and (7) the uncontrolled proliferation of genetically modified organisms.
This rupturing of planetary boundaries is intrinsic to the system of capital accumulation that recognizes no insurmountable barriers to its unlimited, exponential quantitative advance. Hence, there is no exit from the current capitalist destruction of the overall social and natural conditions of existence that does not require exiting capitalism itself. What is essential is the creation of what István Mészáros in Beyond Capital called a new system of “social metabolic reproduction.” This points to socialism as the heir apparent to capitalism in the twenty-first century, but conceived in ways that critically challenge the theory and practice of socialism as it existed in the twentieth century.
The Polarization of the Class System
In the United States, key sectors of monopoly-finance capital have now succeeded in mobilizing elements of the primarily white lower-middle class in the form of a nationalist, racist, misogynist ideology. The result is a nascent neo-fascist political-class formation, capitalizing on the long history of structural racism arising out of the legacies of slavery, settler colonialism, and global militarism/imperialism. This burgeoning neo-fascism’s relation to the already existing neoliberal political formation is that of “enemy brothers” characterized by a fierce jockeying for power coupled with a common repression of the working class. It is these conditions that have formed the basis of the rise of the New York real-estate mogul and billionaire Donald Trump as the leader of the so-called radical right, leading to the imposition of right-wing policies and a new authoritarian capitalist regime. Even if the neoliberal faction of the ruling class wins out in the coming presidential election, ousting Trump and replacing him with Joe Biden, a neoliberal-neofascist alliance, reflecting the internal necessity of the capitalist class, will likely continue to form the basis of state power under monopoly-finance capital.
Appearing simultaneously with this new reactionary political formation in the United States is a resurgent movement for socialism, based in the working-class majority and dissident intellectuals. The demise of U.S. hegemony within the world economy, accelerated by the globalization of production, has undermined the former, imperial-based labour aristocracy among certain privileged sections of the working class, leading to a resurgence of socialism. Confronted with what Michael D. Yates has called “the Great Inequality,” the mass of the population in the United States, particularly youth, are faced with rapidly diminishing prospects, finding themselves in a state of uncertainty and often despair, marked by a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair.” They are increasingly alienated from a capitalist system that offers them no hope and are attracted to socialism as the only genuine alternative. Although the U.S. situation is unique, similar objective forces propelling a resurgence of socialist movements are occurring elsewhere in the system, primarily in the Global South, in an era of continuing economic stagnation, financialization, and universal ecological decline.
But if socialism is seemingly on the rise again in the context of the structural crisis of capital and increased class polarization, the question is: What kind of socialism? In what ways does socialism for the twenty-first century differ from socialism of the twentieth century? Much of what is being referred to as socialism in the United States and elsewhere is of the social-democratic variety, seeking an alliance with left-liberals and thus the existing order, in a vain attempt to make capitalism work better through the promotion of social regulation and social welfare in direct opposition to neo-liberalism, but at a time when neo-liberalism is itself giving way to neofascism. Such movements are bound to fail at the outset in the present historical context, inevitably betraying the hopes that they unleashed, since focused on mere electoral democracy. Fortunately, we are also seeing the growth today of a genuine socialism, evident in extra-electoral struggle, heightened mass action, and the call to go beyond the parameters of the present system so as to reconstitute society as whole.
The general unrest latent at the base of U.S. society was manifested in the uprisings in late May and June of this year, which took the form, practically unheard of in U.S. history since the U.S. Civil War, of massive solidarity protests with millions of people in the streets, and with the white working class, and white youth in particular, crossing the colour line en masse in response to the police lynching of George Floyd for no other crime than being a Black man. This event, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic depression, led to the June days of rage in the United States.
But while the movement toward socialism, now taking hold even in the United States at the “barbaric heart” of the system, is gaining ground as a result of objective forces, it lacks an adequate subjective basis. A major obstacle in formulating strategic goals of socialism in the world today has to do with twentieth-century socialism’s abandonment of its own ideals as originally articulated in Karl Marx’s vision of communism. To understand this problem, it is necessary to go beyond recent left attempts to address the meaning of communism on a philosophical basis, a question that has led in the last decade to abstract treatments of The Communist Idea, The Communist Hypothesis, and The Communist Horizon by Alain Badiou and others. Rather, a more concrete historically based starting point is necessary, focusing directly on the two-phase theory of socialist/communist development that emerged out of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and V.I. Lenin’s The State and Revolution. Paul M. Sweezy’s article “Communism as an Ideal,” published more than half a century ago in Monthly Review in October 1963, is now a classic text in this regard.
Marx’s Communism as the Socialist Ideal
In The Critique of the Gotha Programme—written in opposition to the economistic and labourist notions of the branch of German Social Democracy influenced by Ferdinand Lassalle—Marx designated two historical “phases” in the struggle to create a society of associated producers. The first phase was initiated by the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat,” reflecting the class-war experience of the Paris Commune and representing a period of workers’ democracy, but one that still carried the “defects” of capitalist class society. In this initial phase, not only would a break with capitalist private property take place, but also a break with the capitalist state as the political command structure of capitalism. As a measure of the limited nature of socialist transition in this stage, production and distribution would inevitably take the form of to each according to one’s labour, perpetuating conditions of inequality even while creating the conditions for their transcendence. In contrast, in the later phase, the principle governing society would shift to from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need and the elimination of the wage system. Likewise, while the initial phase of socialism/communism would require the formation of a new political command structure in the revolutionary period, the goal in the higher phase was the withering away of the state as a separate apparatus standing above and in antagonistic relation to society, to be replaced with a form of political organization that Frederick Engels referred to as “community,” associated with a communally based form of production.
In the later, higher phase of the transition of socialism/communism, not only would property be collectively owned and controlled, but the constitutive cells of society would be reconstituted on a communal basis and production would be in the hands of the associated producers. In these conditions, Marx stated, “labour” will have become not a mere “means of life” but “itself…the prime necessity of life.” Production would be directed at use values rather than exchange values, in line with a society in which “the free development of each” would be “the condition for the free development of all.” The abolition of capitalist class society and the creation of a society of associated producers would lead to the end of class exploitation, along with the elimination of the divisions between mental and manual labour and between town and country. The monogamous, patriarchal family based on the domestic enslavement of women would also be surmounted. Fundamental to Marx’s picture of the higher phase of the society of associated producers was a new social metabolism of humanity and the earth. In his most general statement on the material conditions governing the new society, he wrote: “Freedom, in this sphere [the realm of natural necessity], can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism of nature in a rational way… accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy” in the process of promoting conditions of sustainable human development.
Writing in The State and Revolution and elsewhere, Lenin deftly captured Marx’s arguments on the lower and higher phases, depicting these as the first and second phases of communism. Lenin went on to emphasize what he called “the scientific distinction between socialism and communism,” whereby “what is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the ‘first,’ or lower phase of communist society,” whereas the term communism, meaning “complete communism,” was most appropriately used for the higher phase.23 Although Lenin closely aligned this distinction with Marx’s analysis, in later official Marxism this came to be rigidified in terms of two entirely separate stages, with the so-called communist stage so removed from the stage of socialism that it became utopianized, no longer seen as part of a continuous or ongoing struggle. Based on a wooden conception of the socialist stage and the intermediary principle of distribution to each according to one’s labour, Joseph Stalin carried out an ideological war against the ideal of real equality, which he characterized as a “reactionary, petty-bourgeois absurdity worthy of a primitive sect of ascetics but not of a socialist society organized on Marxist lines.” This same stance was to persist in the Soviet Union in one way or another all the way to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Hence, as explained by Michael Lebowitz in The Socialist Imperative, “rather than a continuous struggle to go beyond what Marx called the ‘defects’ inherited from capitalist society, the standard interpretation” of Marxism in the half-century from the late 1930s to the late ’80s “introduced a division of post-capitalist society into two distinct ‘stages,’” determined economistically by the level of development of the productive forces. Fundamental changes in social relations emphasized by Marx as the very essence of the socialist path were abandoned in the process of living with and adapting to the defects carried over from capitalist society. Instead, Marx had insisted on a project aimed at building the community of associated producers “from the outset” as part of an ongoing, if necessarily uneven, process of socialist construction.
This abandonment of the socialist ideal associated with Marx’s higher phase of communism was wrapped up in a complex way with changing material (and class) conditions and eventually the demise of Soviet-type societies, which tended to stagnate once they ceased to be revolutionary and even resurrected class forms, heralding their eventual collapse as the new class or nomenklatura abandoned the system. As Sweezy argued in 1971, “state ownership and planning are not enough to define a viable socialism, one immune to the threat of retrogression and capable of moving forward on the second leg of the movement to communism.” Something more was needed: the continuous struggle to create a society of equals.
For Marx, the movement toward a society of associated producers was the very essence of the socialist path embedded in “communist consciousness.” Yet, once socialism came to be defined in more restrictive, economistic terms, particularly in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s onward, in which substantial inequality was defended, post-revolutionary society lost the vital connection to the dual struggle for freedom and necessity, and hence became disconnected from the long-term goals of socialism from which it had formerly derived its meaning and coherence.
Based on this experience, it is evident that the only way to build socialism in the twenty-first century is to embrace precisely those aspects of the socialist/ communist ideal that allow a theory and practice radical enough to address the urgent needs of the present, while also not losing sight of the needs of the future. If the planetary ecological crisis has taught us anything, it is that what is required is a new social metabolism with the earth, a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. This can be seen in the extraordinary achievements of Cuban ecology, as recently shown by Mauricio Betancourt in “The Effect of Cuban Agro-ecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift” in Global Environmental Change. This conforms to what Georg Lukács called the necessary “double transformation” of human social relations and the human relations to nature. Such an emancipatory project must necessarily pass through various revolutionary phases, which cannot be predicted in advance. Yet, to be successful, a revolution must seek to make itself irreversible through the promotion of an organic system directed at genuine human needs, rooted in substantive equality and the rational regulation of the human social metabolism with nature.
Freedom as Necessity
Building on G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy, Engels famously argued in Anti-Dühring that real freedom was grounded in the recognition of necessity. Revolutionary change was the point at which freedom and necessity met in concrete praxis. Although there was such a thing as blind necessity beyond human knowledge, once objective forces were grasped, necessity was no longer blind, but rather offered new paths for human action and freedom. Necessity and freedom fed on each other, requiring new periods of social change and historical transcendence. In illustrating this materialist dialectical principle, Lenin acutely observed, “we do not know the necessity of nature in the phenomena of the weather. But while we do not know this necessity, we do know that it exists.” We know the human relation to the weather and nature in general inevitably varies with the changing productive relations governing our actions.
Today, the knowledge of anthropogenic climate crisis and of extreme weather events is removing human beings from the realm of blind necessity and demanding that the world’s population engage in the ultimate struggle for freedom and survival against catastrophe capitalism. As Marx stated in the context of the severe metabolic rift imposed on Ireland as a result of British colonialism in the nineteenth century, the ecological crisis presents itself as a case of “ruin or revolution.” In the Anthropocene, the ecological rift resulting from the expansion of the capitalist economy now exists on a scale rivalling the biogeochemical cycles of the planet. However, knowledge of these objective developments also allows us to conceive the necessary revolution in the social metabolic reproduction of humanity and the earth. Viewed in this context, Marx’s crucial conception of a “community of associated producers” is not to be viewed as simply a far-off utopian conception or abstract ideal but as the very essence of the necessary human defense in the present and future, representing the insistent demand for a sustainable relation to the earth.
But where is the agent of revolutionary change? The answer is that we are seeing the emergence of the material preconditions of what can be called a global environmental proletariat. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, was a description and analysis of working-class conditions in Manchester, shortly after the so-called Plug Plot Riots and at the height of radical Chartism. Engels depicted the working-class environment not simply in terms of factory conditions, but much more in terms of urban developments, housing, water supply, sanitation, food and nutrition, and child development. The focus was on the general epidemiological environment enforced by capitalism (what Engels called “social murder” and what Norman Bethune later called “the second sickness”) associated with widespread morbidity and mortality, particularly due to contagious disease. Marx, under the direct influence of Engels and as a result of his own social epidemiological studies twenty years later while writing Capital, was to see the metabolic rift as arising not only in relation to the degradation of the soil, but equally, as he put it, in terms of “periodical epidemics” induced by society itself.
What this tells us—and we could find many other illustrations, from the Russian and Chinese Revolutions to struggles in the Global South today—is that class struggle and revolutionary moments are the product of a coalescence of objective necessity and a demand for freedom emanating from material conditions that are not simply economic but also environmental in the broadest sense. Revolutionary situations are thus most likely to come about when a combination of economic and ecological conditions make social transformations necessary, and where social forces and relations are developed enough to make such changes possible. In this respect, looked at from a global standpoint today, the issue of the environmental proletariat overlaps with and is indistinguishable from the question of the ecological peasantry and the struggles of the Indigenous. Likewise, the struggle for environmental justice that now animates the environmental movement globally is in essence a working-class and peoples’ struggle.
The environmental proletariat in this sense can be seen as emerging as a force all over the world, as evident in the present period of ecological-epidemiological struggle in relation to COVID-19. Yet, the main locus of revolutionary ecological action in the immediate future remains the Global South, faced with the harsh reality of “imperialism in the Anthropocene.” As Samir Amin observed in Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capital, and Marx’s Law of Value, the triad of the United States, Europe, and Japan is already using the planet’s bio-capacity at four times the world average, pointing toward ecological oblivion. This unsustainable level of consumption of resources in the Global North is only possible because a good proportion of the bio-capacity of society in the South is taken up by and to the advantage of these centres [in the triad]. In other words, the current expansion of capitalism is destroying the planet and humanity. The expansion’s logical conclusion is either the actual genocide of the peoples of the South—as “overpopulation”—or, at the least, their confinement to ever-increasing poverty. An eco-fascist strand of thought is being developed which gives legitimacy to this kind of “final solution” to the problem.
New System of Social Metabolic Reproduction
A Revolutionary process of socialist construction aimed at building a new system of social reproduction in conformity with the demands of necessity and freedom cannot occur without an overall “orienting principle” and “measure of achievement” as part of a long-term strategy. It is here, following Mészáros, that the notion of substantive equality or a society of equals, also entailing substantive democracy, comes into play in today’s struggles. Such an approach not only stands opposed to capital at its barbaric heart but also opposes any ultimately futile endeavour to stop halfway in the transition to socialism. Immanuel Kant spelled out the dominant liberal view shortly after the French Revolution when he stated that “the general equality of men as subjects in a state coexists quite readily with the greatest inequality in degrees of the possessions men have.… Hence, the general equality of men coexists with great inequality of specific rights of which there may be many.” In this way, equality came to be merely formal, existing merely “on paper” as Engels pointed out, not only with respect to the labour contract between capitalist and worker but also in relation to the marriage contract between men and women. Such a society establishes, as Marx demonstrated, a “right of inequality, in its content, like every right.” The idea of substantive equality, consistent with Marx’s notion of communism, challenges all of this. It demands a change in the constitutive cells of society, which can no longer consist of possessive individualists, or individual capitals, reinforced by a hierarchical state, but must be based on the associated producers and a communal state. Genuine planning and genuine democracy can only start through the constitution of power from the bottom of society. It is only in this way that revolutions become irreversible.
It was the explicit recognition of the challenge and burden of twenty-first-century socialism in these terms that represented the extraordinary threat to the prevailing order constituted by the Venezuelan Revolution led by Hugo Chávez. The Bolivarian Republic challenged capitalism from within through the creation of communal power and popular protagonism, generating a notion of revolution as the creation of an organic society, or a new social metabolic order. Chávez, building on the analyses of Marx and Mészáros, mediated by Lebowitz, introduced the notion of “the elementary triangle of socialism,” or (1) social ownership, (2) social production organized by workers, and (3) satisfaction of communal needs. Underlying this was a struggle for substantive equality, abolishing the inequalities of the colour line and the gender line, the imperial line, and other lines of oppression, as the essential basis for eliminating the society of unequals.
In “Communism as an Ideal,” Sweezy emphasized the new forms of labour that would necessarily come into being in a society that used abundant human productivity more rationally. Many categories of work, he indicated, would “be eliminated altogether (e.g. coalmining and domestic service), and insofar as possible all jobs must become interesting and creative as only a few are today.” The reduction of the enormous waste and destruction inherent in capitalist production and consumption would open up space for the employment of disposable time in more creative ways.
In a society of equals—one in which everyone stands in the same relation to the means of production and has the same obligation to work and serve the common welfare—all “needs” that emphasize the superiority of the few and involve the subservience of the many will simply disappear and will be replaced by the needs of liberated human beings living together in mutual respect and cooperation.… Society and the human beings who compose it constitute a dialectical whole: neither can change without changing the other. And communism as an ideal comprises a new society and a new human being.
More than simply an ideal, such an organizing principle in which substantive equality and substantive democracy are foremost in the conception of socialism/communism is essential not only to create a socialist path to a better future but as a necessary defense of the global population confronted with the question of survival. Dystopian books and novels notwithstanding, it is impossible to imagine the level of environmental catastrophe that will face the world’s peoples, especially those at the bottom of the imperialist hierarchy, if capitalism’s creative destruction of the metabolism of humanity and the earth is not stopped mid–century.
According to a 2020 article on “The Future of the Human Climate Niche” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based on existing trends, 3.5 billion people are projected to be living in unliveable heat outside the human climate niche by 2070, under conditions comparable to those of the Sahara desert. Even such projections fail to capture the enormous level of destruction that will fall on the majority of humanity under capitalist business as usual. The only answer is to leave the burning house and to build another now.
The International of Workers and Peoples
Although untold numbers of people are engaged in innumerable struggles against the capitalist juggernaut in their specific localities all around the world, struggles for substantive equality, including battles over race, gender, and class, depend on the fight against imperialism at the global level. Hence, there is a need for a new global organization of workers based on the model of Marx’s First International. Such an International for the twenty-first century cannot simply consist of a group of elite intellectuals from the North engaged in World Social Forum-like discussion activities or in the promotion of social-democratic regulatory reforms as in the so-called Socialist and Progressive Internationals. Rather, it needs to be constituted as a workers-based and peoples-based organization, rooted from the beginning in a strong South-South alliance so as to place the struggle against imperialism at the centre of the socialist revolt against capitalism, as contemplated by figures such as Chávez and Amin.
In 2011, just prior to his final illness, Chávez was preparing, following his next election, to launch what was to be called the New International (pointedly not a Fifth International) focusing on a South-South alliance and giving a global significance to socialism in the twenty-first century. This would have extended the Bolivarian Alliance for Peoples of Our America to a global level. This, however, never saw the light of day due to Chávez’s rapid decline and untimely death.
Meanwhile, a separate conception grew out of the efforts of Amin, working with the World Forum for Alternatives. Amin had long contemplated a Fifth International, an idea he was still presenting as late as May 2018. But in July 2018, only a month before his death, this had been transformed into what he called an Internationale of Workers and Peoples, explicitly recognizing that a pure worker-based International that did not take into account the situation of peoples was inadequate in confronting imperialism. This, he stated, would be an organization, not just a movement. It would be aimed at the alliance of all working peoples of the world and not only those qualified as representatives of the proletariat…including all wage earners of the services, peasants, farmers, and the peoples oppressed by modern capitalism. The construction must also be based on the recognition and respect of diversity, whether of parties, trade unions, or other popular organizations of struggle, guaranteeing their real independence.… In the absence of [such revolutionary] progress the world would continue to be ruled by chaos, barbarian practices, and the destruction of the earth
The creation of a New International cannot of course occur in a vacuum but needs to be articulated within and as a product of the building of unified mass organizations expanding at the grassroots level in conjunction with revolutionary movements and de-linkings from the capitalist system all over the world. It could not occur, in Amin’s view, without new initiatives from the Global South to create broad alliances, as in the initial organized struggles associated with the Third World movement launched at the Bandung Conference in 1955, and the struggle for a New International Economic Order.52 These three elements—grassroots movements, delinking, and cross-country/cross-continent alliances—are all crucial in his conception of the anti-imperialist struggle. Today this needs to be united with the global ecological movement.
Such a universal struggle against capitalism and imperialism, Amin insisted, must be characterized by audacity and more audacity, breaking with the coordinates of the system at every point, and finding its ideal path in the principle of from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need, as the very definition of human community. Today we live in a time of the perfect coincidence of the struggles for freedom and necessity, leading to a renewed struggle for freedom as necessity. The choice before us is unavoidable: ruin or revolution.