Capitalism and socialism in the twenty-first century
By Tariq Ali Part-II
Marx once wrote that “history weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” and even twenty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse activists are still confronted by the legacy of Stalinism. At the same time, capitalism has failed millions of working and poor people around the world. The following is a speech given by Tariq Ali at the New York City launch of his book, The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth Century World Politics.
This wretched institutional structure created by Stalinism then becomes the norm and the model for many liberation movements that were fighting against imperialism, because imperialism is the enemy. They link any form of democracy with imperialism, saying, “We were screwed up by democracies—Britain, France, the Germans, the Dutch—who created these huge empires that are democracies. Why should we mimic that?” They completely equate democracy and imperialism, and therefore they go for the Stalinist structure, which also helps the local bourgeois elites fighting for independence, but very much within a bourgeois nationalistic framework. Throughout Africa, this meant one party, one state, and one leader.
The Cubans accepted that model—admittedly under pressure, because they have no options left once there were no revolutionary developments in the rest of South American; but still a huge mistake in my opinion. And with that went a monopoly of politics and a monopoly of information. And while that monopoly of politics and information is wrong, it is not for moral reasons, but for very practical reasons. If you completely close down all debate and discussion in the country, then who the hell is going to tell you that you’re wrong? Neither in Russia nor in Mao’s China were they prepared to listen to people who said, “You are going wrong,” because there was no institutional structure in which workers or peasants or intellectuals could express it.
I’m not even now talking about alternative parties, though I’m in favor of them; I’m saying soviet-style structures—workers councils, peasants councils—in which you have regular meetings attended by representatives from workers and peasants who say, “Hey guys, this idea of transforming everything into peoples’ communes isn’t working. We can’t build a furnace in every backyard.” Saying to Stalin, “The industrialization process and the way you’ve pushed it through is not working. The result is mass famines and millions are dying and if the revolution is going to produce cannibalism in the Ukraine, we’re not going along with it.” I mean no structures existed for arguing that. And then the term enemies of the people was invented. But these are the people who are effectively wanting these changes.
For a variety of reasons, subjective and objective, that is what we were landed with, and as long as you had a strong workers movement in Western Europe, these things could be argued still. But with the weaknesses of the workers movement, you got total bourgeois domination. I’m not exaggerating; living in Britain today is really depressing. I know it’s not great here in the US, either, but in Britain it’s a tiny country now, effectively a vassal state of the United States—its culture wrecked, its political parties in general agreement with each other. The hegemony of the United States globally—economically the States is suffering and it’s weakened by rivalries—but politically and militarily it remains very strong. So you have a Europe, which is effectively being Americanized, not to put too fine a point on it. Labour and conservatives are very similar to the Republican and Democratic parties. One has a layer of people who are people we could run into and have a drink with—not go beyond that, but certainly we could do that. Germany is virtually the same.
Look at Italy today. It’s a complete mess. This is a country that produced the finest Marxist intellectuals in Western Europe—gone, dead. The Communist Party self-destructed. They had no option. It moved to the right. The trade unions, weak, politically and organizationally; and the basis on which this happened is neoliberalism, which is de-industrialization, which means—we don’t want a strong working class.
The destruction of the mining communities in Britain was not because [Thatcher] was convinced that this was a demand, and we were going to have nuclear power or gas—it was not; it was to destroy the absolute foundations of the English labor movement, and [Conservatives] are very open about it. Seumas Milne has written a very good book, The Enemy Within, which maps out how Thatcher destroyed the miners’ community, which is why many miners were celebrating when she died. The only victory they had was her death.
The debates in the The Stalinist Legacy are all about what I’ve been talking about—debates which erupted after the Stalinization of the Soviet Union in one form or another. Not popular debates, but debates between people trying to analyze what had happened, people who refused to go to the right. One thing that unifies all the contributors to this collection is that none of them moved towards the right. They said, “Okay. It’s a screw-up, but there’s a lot to fight for.” I think that is still the case. However bad times are, one doesn’t give up because what do you give up for? For a better world? No. And this also I think explains the hatred with which the media still treats anything mildly radical. It’s much worse now. The time when the Western media was more diverse and allowed more space to dissenting voices and why books like this were published by mainstream houses, one reason for it was that they wanted to show the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europeans, “Look, this is what democracy means.” Now they don’t need to show anyone. Why should they bother allowing divergent dissenting voices?
The Economist of course symbolizes this, and you have these two issues of the Economist, one cover in praise of Margaret Thatcher and one cover with Hugo Chávez’s picture saying “Chávez’s rotten legacy.” And the rotten legacy is what? That he was using state money to push through a radical social democratic program. Even thatis now unacceptable, and that is what the culture tells us day in and day out—an alternative is not possible, and you see the effect of this in what is going on in the mainstream capitalist world. You have the Wall Street crash in 2008, bankruptcy, financialization, neoliberal ideas, neoliberal politics.
People blame the banks, concentrating their fire on the banks—which is of course totally correct—but miss out the fact that the people who gave the bankers these powers were the politicians. That it was a combined ruling class. It wasn’t just a few bankers going crazy and saying “Hey, should we do this as well? Should we do futures or just do retail banking?” It wasn’t that. It was: this is the way that capitalism is going to go. And they decided effectively to destroy the workers movement—not openly, not through brutality, but defeating strikes and moving production overseas.
Someone once asked me, “What do you think about the American working class now?” And I said the bulk of it is working in China. That is what is happening. It wasn’t at all necessary, but it happened to maintain and preserve capitalist profits in the countries, a combination of financialization and using reserve armies of labor in huge third world countries.
This process has not played out as yet, neither in China nor India. There the game is not over. It has barely started, because you now have the largest proletariat in the world in China. You have large numbers of Western countries, if not the bulk of the continents, dependent on cheap commodities from China, and if that blows, which it could well do in the next ten years in some shape or form—or to be more pessimistic, twenty years—the effect of that is going to be global. Have no doubt about it.
Likewise in India, it’s not a settled, stable state, and what you are not having in China and India are what they all said was going to happen, that of course we will have European development replicated in China and India, peasants coming into the town, the creation of a new, wonderful urban civilization based on democracy, this that and the other—like hell it is. In fact the Chinese demonstrated very concretely that there is no link between democracy and capitalism, that you can run an extremely dynamic capitalist state without giving an inch to democracy or democratic rights to anyone.
So this one central theme of bourgeois theology throughout the twentieth century, that democracy and capitalism go together, that dictatorship and communism or socialism go together—it’s absolute rubbish, but it’s rubbish based on historical facts of course for which we are still paying the price. The way they won these countries back to capital and Western investments was essentially through maneuvers and negotiations. The Chinese did their own version by saying, “We are going to introduce capitalism under our own control.” Whether you like them or not that is what they are doing and it’s true, the state has much more control over what is happening in China.
In Russia the party and bureaucracy, totally bankrupted, had no way of looking forward to the future. They just caved in. They didn’t even ask anything in return, not even the disbandment of NATO, which they could have demanded, saying we’re going to disband the Warsaw Pact, let’s do this for starters to show our goodwill. We’re going to disband the Warsaw Pact, you disband NATO, then we will talk about what will happen in East Germany. No, no, no, no—it was not there. It was on their knees before the West saying, “We love you, we really want to be like you. Help us.” And this happened virtually all over Eastern Europe.
There’s a very interesting passage in Trotsky’s book—which was published here as The Revolution Betrayed,but is actually titled Where Is Russia Going?—in which he said that there are two choices facing Russia in the foreseeable future: either it moves towards socialism and democracy—socialist democracy—or sections of the bureaucracy will basically sell out and become capitalists, private capitalists as we know them. This was written in the early 1930s. It was pretty much vindicated, because a lot of these joker mafia-millionaires you see creating mayhem on the streets of New York and London, or their agents, most of them were members—or in the case of the Russian billionaires in London who own football clubs and newspapers and stuff—quite a lot of them were activists in the Young Communist League in Russia, that’s their background. And they talk about it. They say, “Yeah, but we did learn how to run organizations.”
Despite the 2008 crisis, nowhere in Europe or North America has there been any attempt by any mainstream party, center left or center Right, to say enough is enough. This can’t go on because our people are suffering and we are not—just a simple thing—we are not going to allow the rich to benefit permanently—not to pay taxes, not to have their special bank accounts in safe …..
To be continued