The 1990s: A Socialist Agenda

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

The Editors

WITH THE COMING of the new decade, many U.S. socialist newspapers and journals have engaged in discussions concerning “The Crisis of the Left.” For the most part, there seems to be agreement on the “objective conditions” producing this significant political rethinking as well as the “crisis” of some previous left perspectives. The familiar features of our political landscape are now joined by some extraordinary new ones.

*In the United States, we continue to live with an unstable economy that every day brings relentless attacks from government and business on the rights of the population: brutal racist assaults, efforts to limit women’s reproductive rights, attempts at union-busting in the mines and the airlines, unprecedented social service cutbacks at a time of great hopelessness, a repressive and futile “war on drugs” that does nothing to address the consumption of drugs as an escape from despair, the treatment of AIDS patients as pariahs, the continued massive degradation of the environment.

* The struggle in the Third World for national liberation remains as acute as ever, but some of the conflict’s forms have changed. In Latin America, the U.S. effort to destroy “the threat of the good example” of the Nicaraguan revolution shifted—with notable success, as we now know—from a mainly military effort to a targeted destruction of the economy and intervention in the electoral process. (Some of the dynamics and implications of the election outcome in Nicaragua are explored from several points of view in this issue.)

Even if the “international communist conspiracy” is no longer a viable excuse for gunboat diplomacy, the invasion of Panama and the proposals to intervene against drug lords in Colombia and Peru prove that Washington will always find reasons to maintain control in its “backyard.”

The twenty-nine-month, and continuing, Intifada in the occupied territories of Palestine has made U.S. bankrolling of Israeli-style apartheid an increasing embarrassment. The moral and material gains of the liberation struggle in South Africa have propelled sections of the white ruling class into a desperate search for modes of co-optation. And all these developments take place in the context of the Third World’s worst economic crisis—fueled by monstrous external debts and the effect of collapsing commodity prices on their deformed export-oriented economies—in the twentieth century.

In the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, the most extraordinary changes since (at least) Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the Sino-Soviet split of 1%1 are not only continuing but accelerating. Popular discontent has produced remarkable and meaningful, if inadequate, reforms from above in the USSR; a genuine but politically unclear mass insurgent movement in the former satellite states of Eastern Europe; and in China, brutal reactionary repression of the democracy movement.

These developments and others too numerous to mention have forced all of us to rethink the way in which we pose the central problems and solutions for the socialist movement today. Several aspects of the process of reevaluation are worth noting.

Some old questions are arising in new forms. While no one already on the left in the United States is now arguing that the U.S. version of capitalism suddenly works, there are signs of the growing attraction of social-democratic perspectives—sometimes put forward by currents formerly sympathetic to the bureaucratized non-capitalist societies now in rapid transition toward “the market.” Unfortunately, in the re-discovery of social democracy, its proponents (old and new) fail to confront the still-relevant revolutionary critique of social democracy: that it advocates reform within the system in a way that reinforces the social order, instead of working for reform against the system in order to progressively weaken it and empower the mass movements.

Those independent radicals, whether on campus or in the labor movement or in the communities of people of color, who are evolving beyond single-issue politics are confronted with an old choice—between primarily revolutionary and reformist strategies—but under new conditions. The revolutionary far left has an important stake in developing analyses, proposals and an orientation that offer a convincing alternative to the rightward trend. In any viable attempt to recompose an organized and effective left-wing movement in the United States, several issues now seem paramount.

One is to put the “S word, socialism, up front The public is being bombarded with propaganda that the Communist-Socialist-Marxist dream of a collectivized economy under the control of the producers is crumbling; yet for many of us, the appearance of independent mass movements in Eastern Europe dramatizes the way in which qualitative change may come about in the United States. The authentic socialist vision is crucial to explaining our view; furthermore, only in the context of this vision do important concepts of democracy, freedom and human rights become concrete and programmatic. We fight not only against oppression, though that in itself is important, but for a positive alternative.

The task then is to be much more aggressive and creative about the possibility of socialism as the rational choice: not old formulas or the incantation of socialism as the simple remedy to all problems, but exploration of many socialist theories and traditions for elements that address in a practical way the current crises of the world and of our society. Lacking a coherent vision of another way of life that seems workable as well as more humane and liberating, we can’t effectively build a movement to fight back against the structures and ideologies of oppression that we face.

A Valuable Legacy

Another concern is to defend what remains valuable in the revolutionary tradition, regardless of how unfashionable such talk may have become in ex-radical ch1es With no intention of living in the shadow of history, especially events of seventy years ago, we cannot ignore the fact that the mass media, aided by right-wing or misinformed elements in the oppositional movements of the East, have been bombarding the U.S. population with the simple identity of “Leninism’—meaning the political strategy of the party that led the 1917 Russian Revolution—with Stalinism.

In our view, the distinction of Leninism from Stalinism is fundamental—neither an arcane semantic quibble nor a debate superseded by recent events. Lenin, first, was a formidable Marxist theoretician and a political organizer who did lead a major revolution in our century. There is much to be learned from his writings, even if critically: inspiring ideas about class consciousness, the state, ideology, the implementation of workers’ democracy, the theory of nations and nationality. In the radically democratic vision of State and Revolution, in the works on the right of nations to self-determination and on the need to break from social-democratic politics of reform within the system, the legacy of Lenin’s writings is unequalled in the socialist tradition.

Undoubtedly, Lenin’s Bolsheviks in power did in fact carry out steps that facilitated the rise of Stalin’s terror. For revolutionaries today to overlook these grave errors would be unpardonable, inasmuch as the horrific experiences of Stalinism fully demonstrate how much is at stake. It is equally unacceptable, however, to distort history by imputing to Lenin’s party a conscious intent to dig-empower the working class.

Rather, if we are to learn the lessons of the victory of the Russian Revolution and its destruction, so as to improve the prospects for revolutionary victory and survival in future upheavals, it is necessary to carefully study those conceptual weaknesses of the Bolshevik party in power, from 1917-18 until Stalin’s ascendancy in the mid-1920s. A crucial source of degeneration was the Bolsheviks’ growing tendency to identify the interests of the party with those of the class, an error which, in combination with the crisis of civil war, proved fatal to institutions of working class democracy.

Such an analysis, which is a vital component of a viable reconstruction of revolutionary Marxist theory, has of course been a matter of ongoing concern for decades We believe that new exciting progress can and must be made today, at a time when the critical reassessment of the experience of the twentieth century can be made not only by theorists in the West but by the new democratic and revolutionary currents within the USSR itself and in the other countries of the East.

Furthermore, cutting ourselves off from the Leninist tradition would divorce the U.S. left from much that is best in the traditions of class struggle, anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements, and cultural struggles waged by men and women motivated by and organized around Leninist parties of various types, not only in the U.S. but in every country in the world. We would be separated not just from those in Marxist-Leninist parties but from revolutionaries in a whole range of political currents, including among other examples the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran FMLN, whose struggles have greatly enriched all revolutionaries.

A Positive View

Our job at this point is not to purify ourselves by denunciations of those who were wrong in the past The ideas of one-party states, vanguard substitutionism and adulation of revolutionary leaderships in other countries are significantly discredited—to the extent where the main present danger for the left is not the ascendancy of those kind of politics, but rather loss of confidence and organizational dissolution. The approach for the 1990s should be to develop and present a positive view of socialism, and of a socialist culture waiting to be born, that brings together all those activists prepared to fight for a better world.

In this regard, we feel that no other struggle is more ripe for unified action than that of building a massive, militant, democratic, working class, feminist and multi-national movement against the horrors of racism—material, cultural and ideological—in our society. We hope that the material presented in this and future issues on politics and race will contribute to this process.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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