At least in the European context, a text with this title has to start with a caveat: when I speak of socialism I am not referring to socialist parties because they have long since abandoned socialism, and I could say the same about communist parties in relation to communism. Outside the European context, I have to make another caveat: I am not referring only to the versions of socialism that were discussed and practiced in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and that continued in practice almost until the end of that century in the countries of the then Soviet bloc and in Yugoslavia. Not even to the socialism that actually exists today in China, Cuba, Vietnam or North Korea, just because I do not know whether they are forms of socialism or forms of heroic and sustained resistance to the savage capitalism that dominates today in the global North, which, moreover, has tried by all means to eliminate them.
My aim is to convoke a militant sociology of the history of ideas about socialism over the last two hundred years in Europe and the world. The writer is a socialist interested in comparing discussions about socialism from the first quarter of the 19th century to the present day. An important note is that, if they were particularly intense in Europe in the first decades, the discussions then spread throughout the world, and Asian, Latin American and African contributions were decisive in enriching socialist thought throughout the twentieth century. Given the limits of space I will compare only two moments: the end of the 19th century and the present moment.
What is most striking about the literature on the subject at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century is, first of all, the wealth and diversity of publications and organizations. It was an ascending time that saw socialism coming. A very rich world, now totally forgotten, but which at the time occupied the conversations and workers’ organizations and was a strong presence in popular libraries. Curiously, Karl Marx’s positions were not the most discussed, and in many debates no reference was made to them, even though the influence of his work was obvious. The antecedents of socialism were discussed, going back as far as Plato and the early church fathers, such as St. Clement and St. John Chrysostom, for example. The central themes were individual property and social inequality. There was intense discussion on the differences between socialism, communism, collectivism, and anarchism. The differences lay in the extent of the socialization of property and its political form. Did the socialization of property cover only the means of production (“land, water, streams, woods, and industrial machinery”) or also the means of consumption? Was the distribution of goods to each person according to their work or according to their needs? The political form oscillated between libertarian and authoritarian, between the free association of producers and consumers and total state control.
Textbooks that are now forgotten were popular. For example, the books of Augustin Hamon, founder of the magazine “L’Humanité nouvelle” (1897-1903), an anarchist, considered one of the forerunners of social psychology. His book Socialism and Anarchism was widely distributed. The general idea of the discussions at the end of the century (already present in Marx) was that socialism would arrive as an inevitable result of the evolution of capitalist societies. I quote Hamon: “The present capitalist society is in the midst of the gestation of a new society, a society that will be socialist. All the facts prove it. Those who do not see it are blind. Socialists did not create or cause this state of affairs. It is an inevitable consequence of economic conditions, of world development, of life in general. The socialists have done and are doing nothing more than giving it greater activity. By their verbal propaganda, their newspapers, their books, their pamphlets and magazines, they have done nothing but harmonize and regularize the tumultuous and disorderly movement of the proletarian masses in search of a better state of affairs, in their struggle against the class of their exploiters. Some opponents of the socialists accuse them of being the authors of this class struggle, this assault of the proletarian class against the capitalist class. This is a very erroneous opinion. The socialists are not the creators of this movement, whose origin lies in the very nature of things, in the social events themselves”. (s/d: 63).
The general tone was optimistic. As in the Marx-Engels of the Manifesto (1848), bourgeois society was carrying in itself socialist society. Embryos of socialism were seen in the growth of trade unions and cooperatives. They went into the details of the organization of the future society, from property to work, from the state and government to the judicial system and the army, from the family to religion and education.
A century has passed, seventy years of the Soviet Union, more than one and a half billion people live in regimes that call themselves socialist or communist, some of which (China and Vietnam) have until today been allies of the most savage hyper-capitalism. Throughout the 20th century, socialism left the geographical and theoretical limits of Europe and was a political option very present in the movements for liberation from European colonialism, with notable innovations led by the Non-Aligned Movement, the practice and reflection of José Carlos Mariátegui, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Modibo Keïta, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ahmed Ben Bella, Walter Rodney, Amílcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, among many others, and by the inaugural experiences in Cuba (1959-) and Chile during the short period of Salvador Allende (1970-1973). What remains of all this extra-European experience are largely ruins and above all bitter memories of the violence with which imperialist capitalism (both North American and European) put an end to these experiments.
After the end of the Soviet bloc, socialism disappeared completely from the political horizon of the global North. The most effective way to make it disappear was to cunningly make its rival, capitalism, disappear. We stopped talking about capitalism and started talking about the market economy, the only natural form of economy, as if the entire market were capitalist and as if capitalism were not so much market as anti-market (monopoly). From 2000 onwards, talk of socialism has returned due to very different political experiences: the disenchantment of post-communism in Eastern European countries, the World Social Forum (2001-2016), Bernie Sanders’ program in the USA. More recently, Thomas Piketty has presented his proposals for participatory socialism (Time for Socialism, 2021).
Does this mean that we are once again in an inaugural time similar to the end of the 19th century? In fact, we are in its opposite. With the exception of Piketty, there is no optimism, let alone optimism based on the recent evolution of capitalism. Where are these embryos of socialism emerging everywhere from workers’ activism? Apparently, only Piketty sees them in evolving patterns of social inequality, the growth of the welfare state, and the experiment with co-management of big business in Northern Europe. In general, the new appeal of socialism comes from an opposite perception, from the strong pessimism about the future of humanity if capitalism continues the current trends of exclusion, ecological catastrophe, economy of death, elimination of dissent, plundering of natural resources by all means, even the most violent (sanctions, embargoes, war, murder), to get them. Piketty’s optimism about the universalization of socialism based on the European experience (even with the politically correct addendum of anti-colonialism and reparations) is ridiculous, when his country is currently fighting a war, always with the help of the US, against some West African countries (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) to secure access to precious uranium. A 2013 Oxfam report quotes a Nigerien activist as saying: “In France, one in three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium. In Niger, almost 90% of the population has no access to electricity. This situation cannot continue”. From here to socialism there is no path, there is a wall.
If it is true that the pessimistic version of how capitalism is leading humanity and nature into the abyss of destruction dominates, it is no less true that, also unlike the end of the 19th century, the alternatives and the agents who could fight for them are absent. Piketty claims that the participatory socialism he proposes “does not come from the top down”, as supposedly happened in the past with the elite proletarian vanguard (it is still strange to conceive of the workers, even the vanguard, as belonging to those above), but comes from the citizens, by reappropriating collective deliberation through gradual legal transformations. In other words, the dream of European social democracy that Europe has long since abandoned.
A Eurocentric world is now a doom deferred (however exciting it may seem through Piketty’s brilliant performance), but the understanding and transformation of the world is now much broader than can fit into the European imagination. The experience of “those from below”, of “la gente a pie”, is very rich, though little known in the global North. It is very diverse and does not fit into any single designation. It is a mosaic of ideas and practices that defy all the abstract universalisms that have been imposed on it by the Eurocentric world since the 15th century. As Edouard Glissant once said, colonized peoples, confronted with absolute power and knowledge, have long since become accustomed to living in the relative. Perhaps what unites them most are the multiple faces of domination and the diversity of struggles and repertoires for confronting them. They do not even feel obliged to the term socialism, even if it is written in the plural. In common, they have respect for the continuity of life of the human species and all other species.
Socialism after Babel
Socialism after Babel is made up of a multiplicity of ideas and languages that synthesize ways of living the world in an ecologically shared way. Ecologies of knowledge, of living, of cultures, of productivities, and of temporalities. Some ideas and languages are Eurocentric and others are not. Many are the result of unfathomable mixtures between different cultural universes that today constitute a pluriverse, for some, a Tower of Babel of many names, breaking once and for all with the biblical order of a single idea and a single language (the God of the religions of the Book). Here are some of the names (in alphabetical order): agrarian reform, agroecology, alternatives to development, anarchism, anticolonialism, antiracism (Black Lives Matter), artivism, buen vivir, care economy, cooperativism, common goods, communism, constituent power, counter-hegemonic human rights, degrowth, demarcation of ancestral territories (of indigenous peoples, and of descendants of enslaved peoples), eco-socialism, feminisms, food sovereignty, global justice movements, health as a public good, liberated zones, nationalization of strategic sectors, Naxalite movement, New Non-Aligned Movement, neozapatismo (EZLN), Ni Una Más!, non-capitalist economies (popular, peasant, riverine, indigenous, feminist, cooperative, community), pachamama, pan-Africanism, pan-Arabism, political ecology, popular education, rights of nature, self-determination, socialisms (African, Asian, etc.), secularisms, sumak kawsay/suma qamaña, swadeshi, swaraj, ubuntu, ujamaa, transformative constitutionalism, universal basic income, water as a public good.
Four key ideas emerge from this immense diversity:
- There are no historical subjects. All people who struggle against the three main dominations of Eurocentric modernity – capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy – make history. The struggle must be a joint one. The tragedy of our time is that, while the three dominations act in concert, resistance against them is fragmented: anti-capitalist movements that are racist and sexist; anti-racist movements that are procapitalist and sexist; feminist movements that are procapitalist and racist. Any of these struggles, when isolated, is easily hijacked by the political forces that sustain domination, which in the Eurocentric world are called right-wing political forces. The new identitarianism of the right feeds on ideas of identity belonging (racial, gender, religious) devoid of the desire to change the capitalist world.
- Nature does not belong to us; we belong to nature. At the dawn of capitalism, the dichotomy between humanity and nature legitimized the individual appropriation of nature and its total subjection to uses and abuses determined by “the interests of development”. The exploitation of natural resources without respect for natural cycles and times of replenishment has created what Karl Marx called a metabolic rift, the degradation of rebalancing metabolisms which, in our time, is reaching extreme proportions: for the first time, the survival of the human species is at risk. In all the cultures with which Europeans have come into contact since modern colonial expansion, humans belonged to nature, which they respected and feared. In these conceptions lies the key to our survival as a species. Given that non-capitalist forms of property are potentially the most respectful of nature, capitalist property should not be more protected by the state than all other forms of property (peasant, family, indigenous, cooperative, communal, associative). Ecocide is the new crime against humanity.
- We must recover temporal sovereignty and the autonomous use of time. The experiences of time, rhythm and duration in the different cultures of the world are very diverse. In the last two hundred years, capitalist societies have focused on technologies that save time and speed up processes. Paradoxically, such saving has not resulted in more time that can be freely disposed of, just as such acceleration has only resulted in more lack of time. Chronological time is to lived time as the Gross Domestic Product is to the wealth of nations. The most important things are not counted. The acceleration of time has become, through repetition, a form of stagnation. Peoples who have escaped and still escape the capitalist hijacking of time are stigmatized as underdeveloped, and are thus exposed to all kinds of capitalist interventionism (from development aid, to resource plunder, regime change and war, to sanctions and embargoes). Reclaiming temporal sovereignty means fighting against false autonomy (such as uber-autonomy), autonomy without the conditions to be autonomous. Capitalist time is monochronic, socialist time will be polychronic, because it is self-defined.
- While it is true that we cannot live without biodiversity, it is no less true that we cannot live without demodiversity. I have long defined socialism as democracy without end. And I have identified the main time-spaces in which democratization should take place: the time-space of the family, the community, production, citizenship, international relations. To each space-time corresponds a specific type of democracy. To argue that liberal representative democracy is the only possible form of democracy is to accept as a fatality that democracy in the space-time of citizenship is a democratic island in an archipelago of despotisms. Without other democratic islands to support it, the island of liberal democracy will be an increasingly desert island populated only by autocratic traps.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate