Januari 4, 2002

Socialist Values and Culture

James Petras

A discussion of socialist values and socialist culture begins with a discussion of the values and interests of the socialist intellectuals. "Values" can be understood in two ways: as verbal or written expression of ideals and as the practices in everyday life and in political activity. This distinction is essential for several reasons. For example, in the current world the U.S. and E.U. justify their military activity by referring to their defense of "democratic values." The "values" serve as ideology to mask conquest and exploitation. The best indicator of values is practice. Values can only be understood by examining the real behavior of nation-states, classes and individuals.

History teaches us that the values of many left intellectuals are contradictory, and change with their political and social situation. In opposition and exclusion, intellectuals embrace egalitarian and democratic values in theory and sometimes in practice. However, once integrated into the power structure their expressed socialist values are contradicted by their embrace of material rewards, social status and positions of power.

The distinction between mental and manual labor is an important source of class distinctions which can be reproduced in a socialist society.

In political and social movements, intellectuals "monopolize" knowledge, by only inter- acting among themselves, thus creating a hierarchy of decision making based on the "informed" elites and the "uneducated" mass base.

The style of pedagogy of left intellectuals is an important determinant of whether a socialist culture or a new class society will emerge in the post revolutionary period. A basic distinction is between intellectuals of the desk or intellectuals of the field. Intellectuals in the field educate in the working and living context of the workers and peasants ,intellectuals of the desk educate in the University or in the bourgeois urban centers.

What does it mean to be a intellectual of the field? To muddy your boots, to swat mosquitoes, to eat out of the common pot, to listen to questions, to accept criticism. To adjust theories to workers experience. To adapt to changes as well as to defend principles.

In a socialist society values have a dialectical relationship to socio-economic interests. Housing ,recreational facilities, health, education, sport, cultural activities, and livable income are available to all and are equally distributed: equality of material conditions and opportunities are basic values of a socialist society.

Socialist values include cooperation, generosity, individual and collective creativity, personal dignity, solidarity in family, neighborhood, class and nation. Responsibility in the performance of work and community duties, and active participation in workplace and community assemblies guide the pursuit of socio-economic interests. Thus class interests define the immediate content of a socialist society, while values direct the method, direction and spirit in the pursuit of those interests.

A revolutionary in a socialist society is defined by their practice in everyday life- in work, community, family and nation and the spirit with which these practices are realized.

Practice in everyday life means to be consequential fulfilling tasks agreed to by the collective - in both quality and quantity. Practice means to equitably share with workers, neighbors and family members the everyday chores. Practice means kindness and care for the incapacitated, and firm discipline toward anti-social transgressors (thieves, swindlers, etc.) and exemplary punishment to violent criminals.

Affection and love toward those with whom one shares an intimate relation. Hatred and hostility toward those imperial powers who would invade, conquer and destroy a socialist society.

A revolutionary is one who "revolutionizes" socialist society, renews ideas and practices in the evolving context. Socialist society is dynamic, it evolves not only out of capitalist society but from its earliest "heroic" stages to its "institutional" phase, and beyond. New cultural, family and individual norms, interests and values emerge and may conflict with early institutional practices. The tensions and conflicts should not be repressed, nor should new norms be uncritically accepted. A revolutionary should in open, free assemblies, debate and discuss new family, gender, age codes, while conserving the essential core values of equality, assembly democracy and collective ownership of the means of production.

The construction of a revolutionary militant based on humanitarian values is realized through example not preaching. When leaders teach solidarity but secure privileges, they produce cynicism among the bases. The ideological and practical coherence of leaders is a key element. The second is the extension of revolutionary practices from public spaces to private household. As one Brazilian militant complained, "our husbands are Che Guervaras in public and Pinochets in the house." Humanitarian values are learned not only from practice, but from open debates, the study of past experiences and reading and discussion of texts. The practice of humanitarian values is defined by the parameters of class relations and class struggle. The first priority is to act humanely among the comrades, family and friends and to resist the inhumanity of oppressors and exploiters. Misplaced humanitarianism can encourage aggression and destroy the fabric of social relations. Humanitarianism must be tempered by issues of protection of the socialist regime, the lives and livelihood of this and future generations. Universal, classless humanitarianism presumes the absence of violent antagonism to the new socialist society.

Within the boundaries of socialist society, humanitarian values are taught in schools, families and in the media; it is taught in children's stories, television cartoons and sports. Most of all it is expressed in state budgets by allocating funds for the disabled, children, elderly, etc. Incentives and symbolic rewards at the neighborhood, workplace, regional and national level for exemplary behavior reinforce collective humanitarian behavior.

While individual humanitarian acts in dramatic circumstances should be recognized, more important is the everyday occurrences which create the humanitarian culture. While humanitarian behavior is central to a socialist society, so is individual creativity, competitiveness, excellence in performance, and the right for time and place for self-indulgence. Socialist persons are not saints devoted always and everywhere to humanitarianism. Writers compete with themselves to improve their writing; boxers and runners compete to win their matches; workers take time to go fishing and not to attend all workplace, neighborhood, solidarity, etc. meetings. There is a tension between "sainthood" and "selfishness" which needs to be addressed by each individual recognizing the needs of the human being to be humane through solidarity with others and fulfilling their personal desires. Humanitarianism cannot be forced; anti-humane actions should be dissuaded. Civility and solidarity are learned, internalized and practiced best in a socialist society where people are not alienated from each other in their social relations. Under capitalism, many work and few benefit; where elites talk and masses listen; slogans substitute for analysis and debates. Under capitalism humane values are compartmentalized in certain spaces and time while inhumane values are practiced everywhere.

There are powerful reasons for believing in the possibility of living in a socialist society. First of all because even in the present society, we see and experience examples of socialist practices and values in a variety of political contexts. In everyday life, there are numerous examples of working class and peasant solidarity, sharing of resources and cooperative action.

There are numerous large scale social political movements today which are advancing collectivist values, practicing participatory democracy and the egalitarian distribution of goods and services. The "seeds" of a socialist society are found in the self-convoked popular uprisings of the unemployed and middle class in Argentina; in the mass popular peasant and landless workers movements in Brazil, the workers and peasant movements in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Zapatista Indian movement on Mexico. The growing anti-capitalist (anti- globalization) movements in Europe and to a lesser extent in North America embody socialist values. The "consciousness movements" reject competitive, consumerist practices and ideologies as well as the prolonged, authoritarian workday, adulterated food and the mainstream electoral political parties.

The micro-centers of socialist communities found within the MST cooperatives in Brazil, the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, in the demilitarized zones of Colombia provide important points of references for an eventual socialist society.

What is clear however is that socialist values can and must begin in the practice and teaching before a socialist society comes into existence.

Socialism is a process not an event: the values and culture involve a continuous inter- action between individual and collective in a multiplicity of spheres of life over time. We all come out of capitalist society, we are all affected to a greater or lesser degree by capitalist culture and values. Struggles and movements are spaces within which to teach and learn socialist values, they are not an automatic result. The transformation of property forms, provides a context for the transformation of social relations - it does not automatically produce it. The question of the administration, goals, structure and priorities of collective property can only lead to a socialist society if the collectivities which decide are infused with socialist values.

The transformation of social relations of production is an important step toward the creation of self-managed socialism. However, relations of productive are only one aspect of social relations. Transformations in the spheres of family, race, gender, ethnic and personal relations are necessary in themselves and also to ensure that every social strata participates in the self-management of production.

Today these social transformations and struggles take place in the society at large and within the spaces of social-political movements and collectivist communities. The process of creating a socialist society is long and challenging. But the examples of collective action, solidarity, workplace assemblies, gender equality in the living experiences today, with all their contradictory features, is reason for hope. We do not strive for a socialist utopia of individual thinkers, but for a socialist society derived from the collective practices and egalitarian values we experiences in our struggles today.