(Paper presented by Prakash Karat, Member of the Polit Bureau, CPI(M) At the International Workshop On the Future of Socialism in the 21st Century,Havana, 21 to 23 October, 1997
The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the product of the world's first socialist revolution, gave rise to a renewed and sustained bout of "Marxism is dead" propaganda. A corollary to such an offensive is the reaction that Marxism has to be revised in such a manner that it ceases to be Marxist. Both these trends are neither new nor original. In different periods of history, in the course of the ebb and tide of the class struggle, such ideas have arisen with varying degrees of effect and durability.
But the speculation about the future of Marxism in the current period, in the last decade of the twentieth century, is the most serious which the working class movement has faced so far. The reasons are obvious enough. Seventy four years after the October revolution, the State that Lenin and the Bolsheviks founded was dismantled. Alongwith the collapse of existing socialism in Eastern Europe, it changed the world balance of forces for the present, in favour of imperialism and world capitalism.
From such a dramatic event, stems the confidence of the bourgeois ideologues that Marxism as a viable worldview and scientific theory stands discredited and rendered obsolete. Marxism as the exposition of scientific socialism predates the October revolution; and it will continue to be a revolutionary theory and guide to action after the demise of the Soviet Union. The existence or disappearance of the Soviet Union does not invalidate Marxism. The struggle for scientific socialism, which is the basic tenet of Marxism, remains the only alternative to capitalism in the twentyfirst century. Class struggle as the motive force for history retains it universal relevance. Capitalism today and in future too can be understood only by the analysis based on Marxism, Scientific socialism based on historical materialism provides the revolutionary framework for supplanting capitalism with a superior and exploitation free society.
Contemporary capitalism is still imperialism. Notwithstanding the sustained ideological efforts to discard imperialism as a category and as a definition of world capitalism, imperialism is the adversary in the worldwide class struggle. The setbacks to the socialist system have altered the balance of forces in favour of imperialism but this does not negate the existence of the class struggle.
The scientific and technological revolution has enabled the advanced capitalist countries to revolutionise the means of production resulting in the sharply increased exploitation of the workers and greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the upper strata. This coupled with the rapacious exploitation of the lesser developed capitalist countries constitute the vital economic sinews of imperialism.
At the ideological and cultural level, the hegemony of the bourgeois classes remains intact with the harnessing of the powerful mass media created by the technological revolution to globally purvey its ideas. It is this dominance of the economic, technological and cultural spheres by capitalism which provides it with the aura of invincibility.
Marxism is the only scientific method to cut through to the kernel of the predatory and exploitative nature of world capitalism and to have a methodology which updates the comprehension of the transformations wrought in the world capitalist system in the last two quarters of the twentieth century.
Imperialism is not about to disappear in the 21st century. The theoretical advance made by Marxist-Leninist analysis of the growth of monopoly capitalism resulting in the rise of modern imperialism has to be carried forward to take stock of the new developments in the last two decades of the 20th century. An important phenomenon is the highly mobile international finance capital which shifts from one part of the world to the other in search of quick profits. This international flow of capital is a major factor for the intensified exploitation of the third world and also the high rates of unemployment prevailing in the advanced capitalist countries. The harmful consequences of speculative financial flows are being witnessed currently in the currency crisis which has gripped the South-East countries which are held up as a "model" for the third world to follow.
In the absence of a countervailing socialist bloc, imperialism is on the offensive to "roll back" the limited economic sovereignty of the third world. The IMF, World Bank and WTO being the trinity which holds the lesser developed countries to ransom to impose the policies of neo-liberalisation.
A hallmark of capitalism in the late 20th century is that it has gone back on the welfare capitalism which it touted as a humane system which led to the theories of convergence between capitalism and socialism. Neither is the capitalism of the contemporary era able to eliminate high unemployment rates leave alone provide full employment.
It is this twin attack of dismantling the welfare system and inflicting high unemployment which is meeting with resistance and the intensification of the class struggle.
One of the main factors discrediting Marxism-Leninism is supposed to be the irrelevance of class struggle and the central role of the working class. The argument is that under the rubric of globalisation, the internationalisation of capital and the growing might of the TNCs, the structural changes under capitalism have marginalised the working class and made class struggles ineffective within a nation-state. This myth found increasing adherence after the setbacks to socialism.
The recent period has provided enough evidence to challenge these false premises fostered in the name of globalisation. The strike struggles of the French workers in the winter of 1995 and the 1996 general strike of the South Korean workers have graphically illustrated the existence and vitality of class struggle and punctured the myths built up about the nature of late 20th century capitalism.
For those who doubt the capability of the working class and the relevance of class struggle against capitalism, the recent spate of working class struggles in Europe, Latin America and Asia should be an adequate warning. These struggles, though of a defensive nature are the centre-piece of the emerging worldwide resistance to the new offensive of capitalism. No other class or intermediate strata have shown even remotely the same capacity. The political impact of these struggles are already being felt in some of the countries of Europe and Latin America. In India, one of the biggest "emerging markets" targetted by the IMF and the World Bank, there were four one day general strikes by the Indian working class between 1991 and 1995 which drew in sections of the peasantry and other working people.
The first socialist revolution took place in an underdeveloped capitalist country where semi-feudal relations still prevailed. Lenin had viewed 1917 as a precursor to the German revolution and the world revolution. The German and Hungarian revolutions of the 1918-19 period and other revolutionary upheavals were crushed by the bourgeoisie. "Socialism in one country" was a necessity not the preferred choice. The travails of building socialism encircled by imperialism, the double burden of eliminating pre-capitalist backwardness and catching up with the productive levels of Western capitalism was a heroic endeavour. The socialist potential was vividly manifested in the all-round rapid development of the productive forces, the welfare benefits for all citizens unparalleled in history and the stupendous struggle to defeat fascism. The defects were the birthmarks and part of the heritage of the conditions in which the first socialist state was born.
Looking back we can see that the historic achievements of the Soviet Union in the early decades in the face of enormous difficulties had blurred the reality that the transition to socialism is a protracted and complex process.
Lenin had warned at the outset itself: "We have only just taken the first steps towards shaking off capitalism altogether and beginning the transition to socialism. We do not know and we cannot know how many stages of transition to socialism there will be". (Coll. Works, Vol 27 page 31)
Further Lenin had stated, "The more backward the country, which, owing to the zigzags of history has proved to be the one to start the socialist revolution, the more is it difficult for that country to pass from its old capitalist relations to socialist relations". (Vol 27 page 89)
It must be recognised that a weakness of Marxist theory has been the underdevelopment of the creative thought in study of existing socialism and the development of a new society as compared to its strong and comprehensive analysis of the capitalist system.
Without going into a detailed enquiry into the causes for the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the lessons from it have to be grasped so that a coherent Marxist Leninist understanding provides the groundwork for future progress.
To enrich Marxist-Leninist theory and practice some of the salient features which require critical study must be mentioned: (1) Socialist democracy: the institutionalisation of democratic forums and participation of people in the political process and economic management; (2) need for a correct relationship between the State and the Party in a socialist society; (3) flexibility in the management of the economy and multiplicity of the forms of ownership of property at different stages.
To build socialism in a world where capitalism retains dominant or substantial strength, requires a theoretical perspective which recognises the paramount lesson that the transition to socialism and the building of socialism, particularly in lesser developed capitalist countries is a more protracted and complex process than it was envisaged under the impact of the October Revolution. The substantial and historic achievements of socialism in the Soviet Union should be drawn upon to develop the theoretical basis for seeing the entire period of achieving socialist revolution and building socialism as a diverse process where there can be no one model.
Socialism will be built in a country in a context where capitalist relations and influences will continue to prevail for a long period of time both internationally and domestically. In such a situation the difficult task of building an alternative model of socialist development will require constant raising and rejuvenation of political consciousness by the active participation of the people at all stages of political and economic development. It is here that the vital importance of socialist democracy is located. The sobering and hard lesson for the future is that the absence of democracy in any socialist experiment, the failure to expand and develop the potential of democracy will deform and distort socialism.
The Leninist conception of a party which has been the instrument for revolutionary seizure of power and consolidation of the new State has to be developed in such a manner that the correct relationship between the State and the party is established in a socialist society. This requires ending the misuse of democratic centralism which is a party principle being extended to State functioning. It demands the institutionalisation of democratic forums in society which are not the sole preserve of the ruling party and the need for pluralism within the socialist framework.
Above all, the paramount lesson is that the transition to socialism and the building of socialism, particularly in lesser developed capitalist countries, is a more protracted and complex process than it was envisaged under the impact of the October revolution.
Understanding the prolonged nature of the transition to a new society, a fresh look at Marxist theoretical work on economic development. This requires giving up the entrenched notion of public ownership being equated with only State ownership. Different forms of public ownership, other than State ownership, are necessary to prevent bureaucraticism and stagnation. The co-existence of planned and commodity-market sectors will have to be constantly updated and innovated. Central Planning as a singular/centralised model must give way to plans at different levels and the vital element of popular participation.
The coexistence with capitalist forms necessitates the continuous ideological struggle against the bourgeois ideology it engenders and its corrupting influences. This is possible only if the revolutionary party does not confine its role to administering the State and managing the economy. The parties in the Soviet Union and East Europe played no role as independent agencies for waging ideological struggle and political work among the people. This in turn is related to the lack of institutionalising socialist democracy which is not possible by merging the ideology of the Party with the State.
In the "post-Soviet" and so-called "post-Marxist" era, there are various ideological trends and theories flourishing which deny even the possibility or the necessity to comprehend the world as a whole. Such contemporary currents as post-modernism have arisen in the period of late capitalism which has turned against the very project of enlightenment which marked the early phase of the rising bourgeoisie. Marxism has to refute many of these radical variants within the bourgeois thought.
Theories of class convergence, disappearance of class struggle and in practice class collaboration and co-option to the prevailing dominant bourgeois ideologies are a marked feature of the current period. The socialist alternative will have to be kept abreast and by using Marxist theory to refute the many radical variants of bourgeois thought.
The record of social democracy in the last decade of the twentieth century shows a total collapse of the radical vision. Identity politics based on gender, race and ethnicity cannot support a viable socialist project for the twentyfirst century. The challenge before Marxism-Leninism is to integrate within the socialist alternative, based on class politics, all the living issues such as gender, environment and racial-ethnic inequalities. Given the constraints of the scope of the paper and the length, we can only briefly deal with two of the issues.
In the conditions of contemporary bourgeois society, the question of gender oppression assumes vital importance. This makes it essential for Marxists to unravel the threads linking patriarchy and capitalism. Unlike the decades of the sixties and the seventies, when the feminist movement sought to address issues of gender oppression devoid of class, the present capitalist offensive with "flexible" employment and similar measures making women major victims has brought the class oppression of women into focus. While looking at working women as an integral part of the exploited classes the social aspects of gender oppression within the class is something Marxist theory must seriously address.
The world is faced with a serious threat to the ecology which threatens life and nature on the planet. The ecological problem and the environmental degradation is of global proportions and affects the future of humanity. To recognise this threat is one thing but to pose it as an issue which transcends class and argue for a theory of inter-dependence with imperialism as Gorbachev did is another thing altogether. It is true that Marxists, particularly in the third world, have not paid sufficient attention to developing a comprehensive analysis to deal with the question of ecology and environment. At the same time it is wrong to claim that Marxism precludes a proper understanding of the issue of environment given its "productionist bias". A careful reading of Marx and Engels shows that the whole basis of their philosophical understanding was that man is part of nature and his being and life is organically related to nature. As Marx wrote in 1844 "Man lives from nature i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's mental and physical life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature". Engels wrote about how the division between town and country affects nature. However in the 19th century Marx and Engels could not have envisaged the global threat to ecology which developed over a sustained period of capitalist development with its profit driven plundering of nature.
On the global scale today the threat to the environment is integrally connected to the mechanisms of worldwide capitalist exploitation. Fidel Castro's speech at the Rio Summit in 1992 is a brilliant Marxist exposition of the environmental issue wherein he said "In essence, the North's ecological deterioration has been "exported in large measure to the South as part of a long process of capitalist development". The advanced capitalist countries have to pay its "ecological debt" to the third world. "All too frequently in developed capitalist societies it is clear that ecological concerns are incompatible with the profit principle, the exaggerated desire to consume and the primary objective of individual well-being which are the essential driving forces of those societies".
The export of ecological pollution from the richer capitalist countries to the poor countries, the possession and control of genetic resources, the efforts to control and check development of the third world countries using the ecological factor to make up for the lavish consumption and affluent standards of the imperialist countries is to be seen as part of the international class struggle.
CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF MARXISM
As we approach the next century, the world experienced the enormous development of the productive forces, the successive waves of the scientific and technological revolution and for the first time an abundance of material goods which can end want and deprivation for the whole of humanity. In contrast to this possibility, the bulk of the world's population lives in hunger, poverty and disease. Capitalism is a system which has resulted in such a sharp divide. For the true emancipation of humanity, class exploitation and imperialism must end. The currents against such exploitation are reasserting themselves amongst different sections of the working people in various parts of the world. As long as this struggle for human emancipation remains, Marxism will provide the nourishing springs for analysis and for revolutionary movements to transform the world.
It is essential for the Marxists of the current generation to carry forward the task of developing Marxism further. Discarding what is not relevant and taking on board what is new is a constant process in the Marxist method. It will be well for us to remember what Lenin said, "We most certainly do not look upon the theory of Marx as something permanent and immutable; on the contrary we remain convinced that it has merely laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must advance in all directions if they want to keep abreast of life".
It is appropriate and befitting that the Communist Party of Cuba is sponsoring this International Workshop on the Future of Socialism in the 21st Century to mark the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Che Guevara's martyrdom. For if there is anything Che's revolutionary life and work symbolised, it is the striving for perfection in theory and practice inspired by an undying optimism that socialism is the future.