March 3, 2002

The struggle for Socialism today

James Petras


A discussion of the struggle for socialism today should begin what is and is not socialism. It is important to have political clarity about false alternatives as well as the basic components of a socialist society. This essay will proceed by critically analyzing three of the most influential anti-socialist ideologies which claim to speak to a renovated left and propose an alternative socialist approach. This will be followed by a discussion of the militant road to socialism and a critique of the illusions surrounding electoral politics. The final section will focus on a discussion of the current world-historic context and the challenges and opportunities that confront the Left, in the face of Washington's world wide imperial offensive.

What is Not Socialism

The Left confronts essentially three bogus alternatives to socialism: (1) "The Third Way" promoted by Tony Blair, (2) European and Third World Social Democracy and (3) Chinese style "market socialism.

The "Third Way" proposed by the British Labor party leader Tony Blair, claims to define a "third way" between public ownership of the means of production and social services and the unregulated liberal market. In fact it combines the worst of both worlds, a large and expensive state bureaucracy at the service of powerful financial institutions and bank and authoritarian legislation violating individual freedoms. In practice Blair's "Third Way" is a one-way to war, crises and the deepening of privatization at the expense of consumers, the environment and workers. Blair's regime has been an active junior collaborator to Washington's savage bombing of civilians in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and conquest and occupation of Afghanistan, Kosova and Macedonia. The Third Way promoted the de-industrialization of England, the speculative telecommunications bubble and its collapse, precipitating the ongoing recession. Blair's privatization program has undermined the national health program, perpetuated the worst transport and infrastructure system in Western Europe, and put English workers in last place in Europe with regard to social rights. Clearly the "Third Way" is simply a euphemism for authoritarian neo-liberalism and militarism.

The second bogus version of socialism is Social Democracy. Over the past 20 years European and Latin American Social Democratic and populist parties have abandoned their reformist, social welfare programs, in favor of neo-liberal policies, subordination to U.S. imperial hegemony and in Latin America the adoption of IMF structural adjustment programs. In brief the Social Democrats and populists have converted to neo-liberalism, redistributing income to the upper classes and foreign capital. They are no longer reformist working class parties, they are reactionary pro-imperialist neo-liberal parties. The best examples of this conversion are Cardoso's PSDB in Brazil, and the Peronist party in Argentina.

The third example of bogus socialism is the so-called "market socialism" practiced in China. The political reality in China is the subordination of social property to the capitalist market. There is absolutely nothing left to Chinese socialism: the workers have the longest hours, worst pay and least social rights of any workers in Asia. Chinese capitalists and their overseas partners extract the highest profits and illegally send overseas between $30 to $40 billion a year - creating the greatest inequalities in Asia. The state socializes the debts of private firms and corrupt state elites rob billions from the public treasury to finance their investments, their overseas accounts and their obscenely luxurious life style. "Market socialism" is an ideology to justify the transition from collective ownership to savage capitalism.

What is Socialism Today

Against these examples of "bogus socialism", real socialism today first and foremost involves the socialization of the means of production, the transformation of ownership and control of banks, factories, land, social services, foreign trade and the transfer of power from the capitalists to the direct producers, consumers and environmentalists. Socialism means opposition to all imperialist wars, military interventions and support for the self-determination of nations and national liberation movements. Under a socialist regime representation and elections would take place in the workplace, the barrios and the cooperatives, leading to a national assembly directly responsible to the worker, peasant and consumer organizations. Socialism will promote comprehensive reforms in family, workplace and social services to facilitate gender equality. Public spending will shift from subsidizing capitalists, and paying the foreign debt to providing free, comprehensive, quality healthcare, education and recreational facilities on a mass scale.

The differences between bogus socialism and true socialism are fundamental and unbridgeable. There is no basis for alliances or "co-habitation". The social antagonisms between classes is expressed in the conflict between bogus and true socialism. The distinctions are not only intellectual; they are practical.

La Via militante al socialismo

The road to socialism involves a set of practical activities which put socialist militants against the elite practices of the political bosses of bogus socialism. In the struggle for socialism militants engage in several levels of action:(1) direct involvement in everyday struggles in the neighborhood, workplace and marketplace; (2) they organize mass movements, not political sects, to carry out an integral agrarian reform, the socialization of factories, public ownership of banks and state control over foreign trade; (3) militants organize for political power - they do not spend all their time in international forums, meeting other left-wing tourists who have no social base in their own countries; (4) militants meet to resolve questions of the day, to resolve the problems of the masses and to study the political processes, structures of power and the creation of revolutionary alternatives; (5) they combine mass struggle with creating socialist forms of organization and assembly style of participation; (6) militants reject leaders who cultivate a "cult of the personality" and who subordinate struggles and popular organizations to their personal power; (7) militants and movements invest time and resources educating leaders and organizers capable of making hard decisions, discussing strategies and tactics in assemblies; (8) leaders always share the same risks as the people they lead - in the front lines of the struggle, not designing strategies from "under the bed". To inspire resolute action in the mass struggle it is important to "show face".

History and experience teaches us that direct popular mass action is the only road to a fundamental changes in power, property and self-respect. Elections to impotent parliaments have not led to any significant reforms in the last quarter of a century. Popular leaders who start on the left, and are elected to parliament are assimilated into the system and end up talking to the people and working for capital. The case of Lula's trajectory confirms this analysis. He started leading popular struggles and ended up embracing the neoliberal right in an electoral coalition.

Combating Illusions: Elections, The Parliamentary Road and Reforms

The open embrace of the neoliberal agenda by the Brazilian Workers Party and presidential candidate Lula's selection of a right-wing big businessman (Alencar) as his vice-presidential partner illustrates the decay of the parliamentary left and its evolution toward the right. Over the last 25 years of parliamentary elections, where the mass media uniformly serve capitalist politicians and big business finances all the electoral campaigns, the great majority of the working class, peasantry, and unemployed have suffered a severe regression in living standards.

Bourgeois electoral campaigns have served as a facade to legitimate the power and decisions of non-elected elites from the IMF, the World Bank and the local functionaries serving the local capitalist and financial ruling class. As a result the elected political leaders pursue regressive politics: concentrating land at the expense of the landless workers and small producers; eroding the democratic rights of the people by ruling by decree and supporting anti-labor legislation, and imposing macro-economic policy ("neoliberalism") that destroys the domestic market, undermines national public control and ownership of strategic productive, raw material and financial sectors. In contrast to the failures of electoral politics, the politics of direct action embraced by the socio-political movements in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere have been successful in realizing significant social and political changes. The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil via its land occupation policy has settled over 250,000 families.

The CONAIE in Ecuador have toppled two presidents. In Argentina the combined forces of the unemployed workers' movements, (Piqueteros), the neighborhood organizations (Cacerolas), and young activists have forced the non-payment of the foreign debt, the toppled 5 presidents and created a national mass popular movement against the whole established bourgeois political class.

The contrast between the practical accomplishments of socio-political movements engaged in mass direct action and the impotence, corruption and co-optation of the electoral left is striking.

The electoral process has no impact on the policies of the elected officials. Repeatedly during electoral campaigns the bourgeois and left candidates promise to create jobs, to attack "neoliberalism" and to create a more equitable economic system. However, when the politicians take office they deepen and extend privatization, impose new structural adjustment policies and heighten repression against popular movements. The candidates elected by the left parties sit in impotent opposition or, worse, evolve toward alliances and collaboration with the right, receive big salaries and increasingly divorce themselves from the mass struggles, prioritizing activity in the institutions. In many cases, the left politicians turn the activists who help elect them into low level functionaries and convert the movements into electoral machines.

The conversion of social democratic and populist parties and leaders into neo-liberals, means that the principal organizations fighting for reforms (agrarian reform, cancellation of the foreign debt, national health system, etc.) are the direct action social movements. The old social democratic and populist parties are no longer reformists. They are liberals working with local transnational and imperial capital.

The decline of social democratic reformism is based on the fact that the dominant bourgeois class is no longer "national" - they produce for foreign markets, they deposit profits overseas, they depend on foreign financing and foreign technology. They are integrated in the imperialist circuits of capital. The Social Democrats cannot implement social reforms and depend on transnational capital, without suffering capital flight, financial pressures, etc. Faced with a choice of abandoning the policies of class collaboration and building a powerful mass class movement to realize "reforms," the Social Democrats have rejected reforms and accommodated the interests of their transnational capitalist partners. The Social Democratics' abandonment of their reformist "welfare programs" illustrates their subordination to and dependence on the capitalist class's orientation to imperial networks, markets and financing.

For the socio-political movements, trade unions and Marxists to continue to "critically" support the ex-social democratic parties is to become the captive of the neo-liberal bourgeoisie and to betray their promise of a social transformation.

With the collapse of the neoliberal project - illustrated by the complete bankruptcy of Argentina and the worldwide economic recession the possibilities of social reform, and a recovery of a capitalist welfare state are remote. Welfare state reforms occurred during a period of capitalist expansion in Europe and the U.S. during the period between 1950-1972, and in Latin America between 1940s and the early 1970s. Today the capitalist class sees workers and peasants as a cost in production for overseas markets not as a consumer in the domestic market.

The worldwide polarization provoked by Washington's current military offensive undercuts any effort by reformist forces to organize progressive coalitions. Social Democratic support for Washington's counter-revolutionary crusade strengthens the repressive forces in the state and repressive legislation directed against the reforms proposed by the socio-political movements. The Social Democrats caught in the deepening polarization between imperialism and the socio-political movements, are increasingly abandoning their opposition to militarism, ALCA and the foreign debt. The recession and the decline in budgetary revenues makes it impossible for the Social Democrats to subsidize exports and bankrupt enterprises bail out the banks, pay the foreign debt and finance social reforms for the popular classes.

The decline of export markets, the shrinking of foreign investment and cutbacks in local production means that the reformist project, of supporting neoliberalism and increasing and increasing poverty spending is not viable. The Social Democratic commitment to work with a neoliberal model at a time when the imperial states are increasingly protectionist and expanding their agricultural subsidies means that the social and economic crises in Latin America will deepen and that their political regime will be in perpetual crises. The possibility of combining social reforms with the neoliberal regimes is virtually null.

Only the revolutionary or radical socio-political movements can realize reforms, in the course of mass direct action which builds new popular forms of representation. Durable reforms are only possible under a new revolutionary worker and peasant state.

The Current Conjuncture: Obstacles and Opportunities

The struggle for socialism in this conjuncture requires that we avoid two mistaken assumptions. The first is to assume that U.S. imperialism is omnipotent and omnipresent - that what Washington says and does will automatically be successful. The second error is to assume that the current upsurge in popular struggles in Latin America, particularly in Argentina, means that we are entering a revolutionary period - a struggle for state power.

The U.S. worldwide military offensive (its unilateral rejection of international treaties Kyoto, missiles, biological weaponry, etc.), its marginalization of Europe/NATO from the Afghan massacre, its unconditional support for the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians, its proposed new wars against Iraq, Iran and North Korea, its large scale military intervention in Colombia and de-stabilization campaign in Venezuela against Chavez and its huge increase in military budgets) is directed toward reversing its declining power and influence in the world. Prior to September 11, Iran undermined the U.S. boycott by developing investment and trade links with Europe and Asia: Iraq became an active member of OPEC and the international organization of Islamic countries. The Palestinian Intifada and the Hezbollah in Lebanon challenged Israeli power. In Latin America, Chavez rejected U.S. imperial policies - its bombing of Afghanistan, Plan Colombia, U.S. overflights over Venezuelan airspace and the U.S. timetable for ALCA. The FARC's military and political advances and the decay of the client Pastrana regime, threatened U.S. domination and control of Colombia.

The collapse of the U.S. client regime in Argentina in December and the popular uprising threatened U.S. domination in a key country in Latin America. In Brazil the radicalization of the electorate, the growing anti-ALCA protest, the growth of the socio-political movements like the MST and the decay of the Cardoso regime reflected the decline of U.S. influence in the biggest and most important country in Latin America.

The consolidation of the European Union and the euro threatened dollar supremacy and the advantages of the U.S. as the safe haven for capital flight. The trade conflicts with Europe resulting from U.S. subsidies and protectionism challenged Washington's free market rhetoric.

The militarization of U.S. policy and its unilateralism reflect a turn to neo-mercantilist imperialism. In response to these challenges Washington embraced a new imperial strategy: neo-mercantilism. ALCA is based on the idea of a trading bloc designed to displace European competition and to privilege U.S. investors and exporters. The defense of U.S. monopoly economic positions depend on increased militarization and U.S. state intervention, to protect and subsidize non-competitive sectors of the U.S. economy. Neo-mercantilism, and military intervention are serious threats to the popular socio-political movements. But the foundations of U.S. imperial power are vulnerable and the contradictions and crises of the U.S. empire are profound and chronic, creating political opportunities for the advancement of the struggle for socialism.

While the U.S. expands its military power across the world and threatens countries on four continents, the U.S. economy is in a precarious position.

The U.S. finances its huge external account deficit by printing dollars and not through greater exports. Some of its major corporate giants (Enron, Qwest, Crossways) have collapsed and investors have lost confidence in Wall Street investment advisers and accounting agencies. Profits have dropped and overseas markets have declined. The U.S. budget surplus has turned into a growing deficit. While military spending has increased, there are less resources to subsidize and/or bail out bankrupt multi-nationals. More important U.S. banks and credit agencies are threatened by Argentine type financial crashes and debt repudiations which could undermine the Wall Street financial empire.

The two driving forces of the U.S. empire are moving in opposite directions: the economy is declining, while the military is expanding - making for an unsustainable scissors effect. Moreover the costs of military conquests do not result in any profitable returns in the near and medium run. The costs of endless wars on a world scale will only aggravate the widening scissors effect between unproductive investments in military expansion and declining economic performance.

The second contradiction centers on the U.S. transition to a neo-mercantilist empire. In the current version of empire the imperial state plays a central role in establishing the economic primacy of the U.S. multi-national corporations and banks. The imperial state increases agricultural subsidies to conquer overseas markets, maintains or introduces new tariff barriers, secures construction contracts for U.S. MNCs after imperial wars in the new client states. The imperial state provides subsidies for its exporters and establishes tariff barriers and quotas to protect its increasingly uncompetitive industries (steel, automobiles, etc.). U.S. promotion of the Latin American Agreement on Free Trade is a state promoted trade treaty designed to privilege U.S. investors and traders at the expense of their European and Japanese competitors.

The best explanation for the unilateralist and militarist posture of Washington is found in the turn to neo-mercantilism: the attempt to secure market advantages - not through market competition but via unilateral state fiats and military intervention which intimidates competitors and undermines or disrupts their economies.

However neo-mercantilism heightens conflict and provokes greater inter-imperialist rivalries. Europe has denounced U.S. military threats against the oil producing Gulf states of Iraq and Iran, with whom they have increased petroleum trade and investments. Asian countries, like China and South Korea have rejected U.S. military threats against North Korea - as undermining greater inter-Asian trade and investment. U.S. military alliance with client Arab states, is countered by EU efforts to forge closer relations with the Association of Islamic states. In Latin America, the EU is proposing an integration and free trade agreement with MERCOSUR - the regional trade organization including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. While the gap in military power between the U.S. and the EU widens, the integrated market of the European Union and its overseas linkages provide a formidable challenge to neo-mercantile empire building.

As the tensions increase and the conflicts deepen, the rivalries could have an impact in eroding the economic basis of the U.S. military empire and efforts by the U.S. to undermine European society. For example, in Afghanistan after the U.S. military conquests, the U.S. is refusing to cooperate with Europe in the eradication of the opium crop which has the potential to produce 4,500 tons of opium and 450 tons of heroin - of which 150 tons will flood Europe and threaten its social fabric (FT Feb. 18, 2002, p. 3).

Secondly, the U.S. military invasion and bombing victories do not produce profitable investment areas - they destroy potential areas of profit and create corrupt, tribal and gangster controlled economies as in Kosova, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Afghanistan rival tribal warlords are engaged in savage warfare throughout the country including Kabal. Washington's client regimes end up as failed lawless states incapable of establishing the minimum conditions of security, let alone an investment climate. While Rumsfeld can favorably compare the high tech U.S. military conquest of Afghanistan to the Nazi blitzkrieg across Europe (FT Feb. 18, 2002, p. 4), the innovative use of laser guided weapons, has no impact in pulling the U.S. out of a 2 year industrial recession.

Washington's empire, precisely because it has linked its overseas client states to the U.S. market, has transmitted its crises throughout the world.

All the so-called neoliberal clients have seen their export markets shrink, their commodity prices fall and many of their assembly plants go bankrupt. The bankruptcy of the so-called "export-led" growth strategy means that the client states have severe revenue and income shortfalls, that prevent the import of essential foodstuffs, finished and semi-finished products, thus provoking negative growth rates, declining living standards and an increasing demand for the re-nationalization of strategic industries and banks and the shift to production for the domestic market.

The opposition to U.S. and European domination has spread from the unemployed urban and rural poor, to the impoverished and downwardly mobile middle class. This is especially evident in Argentina where the client regime in collaboration with foreign banks confiscated the savings of the entire middle class. As a result the middle class has radicalized its demands to include a broad set of anti-imperialist demands for the first time in recent history.

Finally and most important of all, U.S. military intervention in defense of its clients and its almost exclusive dependence on war and military threats is creating a polarization, favorable to the Left increasing the opposition and isolating U.S. allies.

The 50,000 who marched against the Free Trade Agreement at the Social Forum at Porto Alegre on Feb. 4, 2002 is only the tip of the iceberg of growing popular opposition. The hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid directed to the Colombian military and paramilitary forces has not changed the balance of forces between the guerrillas and the military in that country. On the contrary, it has further distorted the country's economy and increased opposition from civic organizations.

In Bolivia, Paraguay, and Ecuador mass mobilization, general strikes and road blockages have been more widespread and effective in paralyzing the economy and discrediting the client regimes.

In Brazil, the active role of the socio-political movements and the Marxist parties in the mass struggles still wield a powerful influence among important sectors of the populace. Most important the mass continuing popular uprising in Argentina and the forced renunciation of five Presidents indicates the revolutionary potential in that key country.

Yet this popular counter-offense, which continues despite Washington global militarization policy, has limitations. Many of the mass movements are mostly tied to limited demands (food and jobs for the unemployed in Argentina); the movements are regional and sectoral and therefore have no national leadership capable of challenging for state power. Many of the militant leaders challenge the client regimes, and then negotiate short term agreements (most of which are never complied with by the state) - thus creating a cyclical process of mobilization - direct action - confrontation - negotiation - agreements - broken promises - mobilization, etc. However, there are important signs of a political breakthrough. Many of the activists and militants throughout Latin America are thoroughly disillusioned with the Leftist electoral leaders. Lula's pact with the Liberal Party and open embrace of pro-capitalist politics force most of the consequential left to shift to mass direct action and possibly to a new socialist formation. In Argentina the struggles in the barrios, in the impoverished working class suburbs among the unemployed, among the downwardly mobile middle class and among sectors of the public sector employees the significant date is not 9/11 as Bush would have it but 12/19 and 12/20, they day of the barricades and the ouster of the reigning neoliberal client regime.


We are living in a period of imperial wars, popular uprising, growing militarization and increasing political and social polarization. Washington's attempt to form a worldwide counter-revolutionary alliance is showing deepening fissures. The economic foundations of empire are deeply flawed. Popular resistence in the colonized states is spreading.

The reformist alternatives while still present are no longer viable. Electoral-parliamentary politicians are increasingly at the margins of the great historical confrontations. The big trade union apparatuses no longer control and contain the mass struggles. Within the mass struggles, socialism re-emerges from the ashes of a defeated ad discredited Stalinist experience and equally corrupt and servile Social Democracy immersed in the neoliberal quagmire.

The struggle for socialism emerges first as a series of structural changes: agrarian reform, re-nationalization of the banks, telecommunication systems and strategic resources. However the socialist advance does not develop in a linear fashion: there are defeats and retreats; historic leaders and parties of the working class, like Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil embrace reaction and disorient their working class supporters. One neoliberal regime is toppled (De la Rua) and is replaced by another Duhalde in Argentina. Massive roadblocks and strikes in Bolivia challenge the state and are abruptly ended without addressing fundamental issues. In Colombia the popular insurgency develops unevenly - powerful in the countryside, weak in the cities. Personal rivalries and divisions between "reformers" and revolutionaries continue.

International coordination between national movements and the organization of international demonstrations are integral parts of the political calendar. National struggles, local uprising lead to the formation of conscious revolutionary militants within the movements. The empire cannot be everywhere and at all times. As the struggle for socialism spreads from militants to masses the threats of bombs, and mass propaganda no longer intimidate the mass movements. The unemployed, the impoverished, the destitute, with hungry eyes and closed fists are moving forward: the question is who will organize the struggle for socialist state power?