Socialism Is Not Stalinism

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Suzi Weissman interviews Mansoor Hekmat

Suzi Weissman: What does the end of the Cold War mean in the struggle for social justice in the other parts of the world?

Mansoor Hekmat: In the short term it has a basically negative impact on the socialist movement. I am among those socialists and communists who never believed that the Soviet bloc represented communism or developed a socialist economy and society. Nevertheless, the present offensive of the West turns primarily against every ideology that advocates social justice and human equality.

The socialism of the future will have the advantage of not being identifiable with the Soviet bloc. It is actually going to emerge in the shape of working-class movements in the same countries that are now victorious against the “socialism” of the Eastern bloc. It will have the advantage of emerging inside the structure of these societies. Therefore it cannot be easily distorted as some “evil empire,” as socialism was portrayed in the past.

I think, therefore, that in the long term the situation allows working-class socialism, egalitarian socialism, a socialism that is against wage labor and calls for the reorganization of the economic structure in favor of abolishing classes and profit, to play a more explicit role than it did during the Cold War.

S.W: Given that the collapse of the so-called communist states is associated with the collapse of the communist idea, the very language of liberation is discredited. In this light, how do you see the next period?

M.H: If any social theory and ideology is to find a central role in the egalitarian struggles of tomorrow, it has to be rooted in the history of human thinking. Such a theory already exists; I do not think that the discrediting of the Soviet brand of socialism can in any way overshadow the fact that there is a trend of thought in existing human society, identified with ideas expressed and put forward by Marx. This so-called discrediting is more observable in the official media and intellectual circles. I don’t get the impression that within the working-class movement socialism is discredited as an idea.

S.W: What is the effect of the collapse of communism on the social democratic idea? Both arose during the same time and one was the opponent of the other. Do you think social democracy will suffer because communism has been discredited?

M.H: It will suffer because it is clinging to the same basic tenets that communism expressed in a more consistent way. If you are somebody who believes that society is responsible towards the individual, that human beings are equal, that poverty is bad, or that human initiative cannot be a justification for class differences, then you suffer because the offensive coming from the right is not against communism as a particular ideology, but against egalitarianism in human society.

Social democrats ascribe to these views to some extent, even if in a very faded way. The problem with social democracy in Europe, as far as I can see, is that it is moving away from its traditional social base without being able to substitute any other. Although there are differences between the Swedish model and the French or the British one, the social-democratic model depended on the role of the state in the economy. The discrediting of this role of the state has been part of the offensive against the USSR.

At the moment it appears that, perhaps on the basis of a popular reaction to the extreme aspects of the right-wing offensive, there may be a case for left-of-the-center parties to defend the levels of social welfare that exist now. But that cannot be effectively done unless they provide a model for their own government. I do not see much role for them unless some school of social-democratic thought overcomes these voids in their theory.

S.W: In the Soviet Union even the left talks about destatizing the economy, in other words turning the principal means of production over to labor collectives or to the smaller decentralized groups. Do you think that Marxists have to rethink this idea of the role of the state and state-owned property, and maybe think of things in more decentralized terms?

M.H.: I have been a Marxist for ages now and at no point have I regarded myself as being someone who believed in the role of the state in managing the economy. Classical Marxist teaching is about collective property and collective involvement of the producing class, or citizens as a whole, in the process of production and political decision-making. The reduction of this notion to statism was one of the aspects that separated the Soviet experience from the Marxist tradition, from what I call worker-socialist tradition. Therefore that does not create any confusion for Marxists of my type. We had, even before, the task of an economic system based on collective property and not on state property.

But I understand that the bulk of the communist movement had this role of the state at the center of their economic theory. Here there is a great deal of confusion.

The idea of decentralized control of property runs to a large extent against technological development. You can decentralize things only to the extent that you can somehow reconnect them into a social whole, otherwise meeting diverse demands of the population would not be easy. Today we cannot go back to small-scale decision-making and employ the high level of technology that is available and necessary if people are to live in comfort.

S.W.: When you say collectivized property I assume that you are talking about what Marx called the socialized means of production. How does it work out, though, in terms of state versus collective, versus democracy and so on?

M.H.: Only to the extent that you abolish the system of wage-employment–the system in which the individual is offering his/her labor power to a body outside itself to be made use of–can you talk of collective control and collective ownership and collective decision-making. I can’t see a form in which you keep wages as a basic category in the economy and at the same time not pass decision-making to those who pay wages.

I think a socialist economy must be an economy without wages, in which needs are registered and conscious working units decide on meeting them. I am very optimistic that with the great advance in computer systems and communications technology it will not be very difficult for society to know in advance what it needs for a period of, say, one year and to whom the task of producing it would fall. These are possible. But to do that we have to create a political situation in which this wage-labor relationship can be abolished.

S.W.: Do you think distribution will be a problem in a society that is based on more democratic, smaller collectives in which wage labor has been abolished? How are the various consuming needs of the population taken into account?

M.H.: Distribution has a number of aspects. On the technical side of getting the things that are produced to the ones who are supposed to consume them, I don’t think there will be a difficulty. No society actually collapsed because it couldn’t do that.

Another aspect is deciding what needs in society are legitimate. This is not difficult to organize, given that social needs can be consciously registered by individuals, by collectives and by consuming units.

The question is not so much the distribution of goods and services among people–every society will find a way to do that. Rather, the question is: In what proportions and percentages should this wealth be distributed? The market does it in a blind way so nobody is responsible for the fact that a large percentage of even U.S. citizens  live below the poverty line.

Because an entity called the market distributes, some are deprived and others are privileged. To get rid of this situation, to have a distribution according to need, we have to challenge the different positions of human beings in relation to production (wage-earners, interest-takers, or profitmakers). You have to get rid of these differences and put people on an equal footing with regard to production. This is what socialism is all about.

Overthrowing the rule of capital as an economic entity that assigns people to different economic roles and deprives some from independent use of the means of production because they are under the control and property rights of somebody else. Everything comes back to the overthrow of capital as an economic and political entity. If it is not done, reforms in the economic structure get us nowhere. We have to abolish the worker-capitalist relationship.

S.W.: Is there a division between the worker as a producer and as a consumer?

M.H.: I think the answer is clear even from the standpoint of classical Marxist theory. In a socialist society you are not assigned with the role “worker” forever or at all times. You are a worker when you appear as a producer in society and you become a citizen when you are consuming. Even when you are a worker, everybody is worker just like you and is doing something to help society produce what it needs.

I think there must be no economic connection whatsoever between the amount or intensity of work one contributes to production and the mode consumed. I think the right to consume the wealth created by society is a right given to citizens at birth. What is required is that each contribute to society as best as one can.

In the capitalist system there is an absolute economic relation. If you are put in a certain position in terms of production, your lifestyle and your consumption is already decided. No matter what you do, if you appear in production as a worker, as an unskilled worker, then it is already decided that your children will not have proper education, that you might die of diseases that don’t kill other people. That is decided by the way they have made you contribute to social production. If you become unemployed it is even worse.

Your place in production decides your place in consumption. In socialism that is not the case. When you are born you have a right to live like everybody else. Socialism assumes that you have the common sense to contribute something to society according to your creative ability. I think there must not be any economic or political connection between people’s contributions to production and their enjoyments of its fruits.

S.W.: Describe what you think the world is going to look like now following the collapse of the Cold War, specifically in the Middle East, a place considered so volatile and unstable.

M.H.: I think we are entering a decade of confusion, contradiction and social confrontation. Contrary to what many thought, that the collapse of the East and the victory of the market is going to usher in a decade of peace and harmony, I think it is going to be the opposite.

The focus of this instability, in my view, is going to be not the Middle East but the developed capitalist world itself. It rested on a polarity of East and West and that polarity is falling down so many things in the advanced capitalist world itself have to be redefined.

As for the Middle East, so long as the West is tied to Israel there are going to be a great many problems. At some point perhaps the Arab-Israeli divide corresponded to the East-West divide. But this is no longer the case. And so there has to be a trend toward normalization. It seems this would be an integration of the Arab bourgeoisie into the main body of the capitalist world.

S.W.: Do you see the Gulf War as feeding into that or as some sort of a trashing about for a policy and getting rid of somebody who was potentially dangerous?

M.H.: No matter how the Gulf War came about, it has been an offensive against the more militant elements of Arab nationalism, which is no longer even a banner of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism but rather a banner of Arab states asking for a larger share in the world economy and in its political structures.

To the extent that the war forced the militant wing of Arab nationalism into isolation, it had the contrary effect of giving concessions to the moderate wing. That was probably an intended objective. I personally don’t appreciate nationalism in any form and have no positive view toward it at all. What I said is not to be taken as meaning that I am for or against this process.

Basically if there is to be some settlement and normality in the Middle East, the Arab world has to feel that it is not victimized for the special ties that exist between the West and Israel. If that assurance is made through the economic integration of the Arab world , then I think that area will become a less sensitive area. The Gulf War had the effect of opening ways for compromise between the West and the Arab world.

S.W.: Do you include Iran in this process?

M.H.: The impact of the recent developments on Iran has been the isolation of the pan-Islamic tendency inside the ruling forces. It has helped the national-Islamic tendencies to consolidate themselves and make Iran less of a nuisance internationally. I think Iran is heading towards becoming a more or less ordinary state, eager to have economic ties with the West and not so eager to make problems. But that belongs to the future. It is not so today. I don’t think Iran is going to be a major player in the Middle East in any sense.

S.W.: Nationalism seems to be the main question in eastern Europe, central Europe, the Soviet Union and the Arab Middle East as well. It seems to me that as competing ideologies collapse people focus all their attention on the question of nation and also religion. We have the question of the Kurds. You see in Yugoslavia it has even broken into open armed conflict.

M.H.: This new wave of nationalism in Eastern Europe appears to be more an alternative cooked up by the ruling circles in these societies to provide some ideological framework for the states that are being created. I don’t think that they in any sense represent an enduring form of nationalist movement. And once that independence is achieved, we will find that other social trends and tendencies, liberalism, fascism probably, social democracy, socialism and so on come to the fore and this pure nationalistic form of expression is pushed to the background.

My impression is that there will not be a massive blow up in Europe itself. First, because the whole of Western Europe is apparently ready to interfere if things get too much out of hand. Secondly, the newly emerging states need some kind of economic integration with the Western economies and that would definitely put some brakes on their movements and their extremism.

You mentioned the question of Kurds. That question has been there for a long time. In Kurdistan, in Iran and Iraq, the nationalist aspirations are now challenged by a growing working-class movement that is not so nationalistic. Especially in its more advanced sections, it has a very clear antinationalistic self-consciousness.

In Kurdistan it will definitely be the case that sooner or later class differences are going to overshadow the national struggle. In Eastern Europe I am not sure. That would depend on many factors.

S.W.: You are a founder of a movement that is called the Iranian Communist Party [not related to the old pro-Moscow Tudeh party–ed.]. In view of the collapse of the communist parties the world over, are you going to change your name?

M.H.: We have always been critics of what we call the Soviet state capitalism. We have never been pro-Chinese and we have never even appeared to be close to these blocs. The collapse of these blocs, we thought, vindicates us vis-a-vis the parties that were affiliated to them.

But we also understand that this collapse is going to put pressure on us because the world is not going to see it in this light. It is a collapse under the pressure of the right wing of Western society and it is going to create a great deal of pressure against socialism as a whole. In fact, what we made sure of was that during the last three years our party stood as a firm communist and Marxist force.

At the moment I am, along with a number of comrades, in the process of coming out of the Iranian Communist Party to build up an solid and principled communist organization based on discussions that we have had during the last four to five years about worker-socialism as opposed to the “socialism” of the propertied classes and other so-called socialist movements.

We will not be changing our name but will be adding the adjective worker to it. I prefer to use nowadays the term worker-communism to express my ideas and Marxism in general.

May-June 1992, ATC 38