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Special on November Revolution Anniversary


Towards a Socialism for the 21st Century

Prakash Karat



November 7 this year marks the 94th anniversary of the socialist revolution in Russia. It is also 20 years since the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991 after being in existence for 74 years. The observance of the fall of the Soviet Union two decades, hence, has been different in tone and content from what we saw in the decade of the 1990s. At that time, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was hailed as the final triumph of capitalism. It was claimed that it marked the end of history and that the future of mankind was the permanent era of liberal capitalism.

This time, while observing the completion of the second decade of the end of the Soviet Union, the triumphalism has gone. Those who proclaimed the end of history have been silenced. The focus is now on the future of capitalism and the uncertain times faced by it. Even the bourgeois ideologues have begun referring to Karl Marx and what he wrote about capitalism.

This is happening in the background of the first prolonged capitalist recession of the 21st century. Finance capital-dominated capitalism has led to growing unemployment, homelessness and rising levels of poverty in the most powerful capitalist country - the United States of America. In the debt crisis, which has erupted in the Euro zone countries, the European Union is looking to China for help in bailing out the European countries by buying up some of the debt and the bonds floated by the Governments.

In the advanced capitalist countries, people are seeing how bankers and financial institutions have been bailed out by the Governments - to the tune of billions of dollars while the common people are facing austerity measures and asked to sacrifice.

It is in this background that significant developments are taking place in the sphere of socialism, which is the only alternative system to capitalism. In the years immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in Russia, the debate centered around what happened to the experiment of building socialism in the Soviet Union and what had gone wrong. These were the discussions and debates that dominated among Marxists and activists of the Communist and working class movements in the nineties. But by the turn of the century, attention turned towards what should be the shape and nature of socialism in the 21st century.

From a postmortem of what happened to the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union, the debate has now moved forward on what should be the nature of 21st century socialism. To come to this level, it was necessary to first to come to terms with the building of socialism in the Soviet Union and the type of socialist that existed in the 20th century thereafter. The Soviet model exercised a predominant influence in all the countries where the transition to socialism occurred. This was but natural. After the 1917 revolution, the Soviet Union blazed a new path. In the building of socialism, the Soviet Union made remarkable achievements - a rapid expansion of the productive forces, a universal education and health system and improvement in the material and cultural standards of the people. All these were accomplished facing ruthless efforts at counter-revolution and eventually the heroic fight to defeat fascism.

In trying to build socialism in isolation and capitalist encirclement, the Soviet Union had chosen a path where there was great reliance on the State sector, forced collectivization of agriculture, highly centralized planning with no market relations and the constant struggle against external and internal counter revolutionary attacks.

After the first phase of extensive development, this model began to falter. The Ideological Resolution adopted by the 14th Congress of the CPI(M) in 1992 pointed out some of the distortions and defects of the system in the Soviet Union that resulted in bureaucratic centralism, lack of democracy and the merger of the party and the State and so on. Unlike capitalism, the socialist model in the Soviet Union failed to harness the scientific and technological revolution to revolutionalise the productive forces and to create new avenues for social relations to develop.

The East European countries, which were liberated from fascism, followed the Soviet model and they suffered a greater degree of bureaucratism and alienation of people as a result. China, Vietnam, Korea followed suit. However, China was the first to break out of the Soviet model. By the mid-fifties, Mao Zedong had concluded that China cannot undergo the forced collectivization of agriculture as the Soviet Union had done. From then onwards, China tried to innovate its own path through various ups and downs.

It is by a critical examination of the experiences of socialism in the 20th century that we can arrive at a new and more meaningful concept of socialism at the 21st century. This requires carrying forward some of the original impulses of the October revolution and some of the valuable achievements. At the same time, we have to discard some of the negative aspects and distortions, which manifested in the existing socialism of the 20th century.

The debate on 21st century socialism is ongoing and has not reached finality. This was so, because the socialism in the 21st century will arise not just from theory but also from practice. But we have now some broad contours of what a renovated socialism of the 21st century will look like. Here we can only set out some of them in an outline form.

I. Socialisation of the means of production is a cardinal principle of socialism. This requires that the capitalist forms of ownership of the means of production be replaced by social ownership. In the socialism of the 20th century, basing on the Soviet model, public ownership of the means of production was, by and large, equated with State ownership. State owned and a run enterprise was the main form. This led to the heavy hand of the bureaucracy controlling and running the economy. The workers had no say in the running of the enterprises. The growth of bureaucracy and bureaucratic centralism can be attributed to this. We have now been able to understand this. The experience of the other socialist countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba show that what is required is 'public' ownership and not just State ownership. Public ownership can be of diverse forms and State ownership is just one of those forms. There can be State owned enterprises or a public sector where there is wider shareholding, or collective enterprises which are owned by the workers and employees, or cooperatives. Unlike the highly centralized system, which existed in the Soviet Union, there can be different forms of public ownership and competition amongst them.

II. The existence of commodity production and the market is not the negation of socialism. Unlike in the Soviet Union where small commodity production and retail trade were nationalized, in the period of socialism, commodity exchange and markets should play a role. They should be regulated by the State.

III. Planning: A planned economy is another basic principle of socialism but the nature of planning should not be such as to centralize all economic decision-making and eliminate the market. Further, in order to ensure popular participation in economic decision-making and the running of economic enterprises, planning has to be decentralized.

IV. Socialism and Democracy are not antithetical. On the contrary, democracy is the life blood of socialism. In the capitalist system, democracy becomes 'formal' as the control of the bourgeoisie over the means of production and the institutions of the State leads to restricting democracy and the democratic rights of citizens. In the case of socialism, it cannot develop without the active and popular participation of the people at all levels. Because of the historical circumstances in the Soviet Union, the development of democracy under socialism was curbed. It is necessary to have a political system under socialism, which ensures popular participation. This requires the creation of popular assemblies at different levels, which have powers not only with regard to the administrative sphere but also the economic. A multi-party system under socialism will ensure that there is no scope for a permanent one party rule with all its attendant distortions.

V. The demarcation between the State and the ruling party has to be institutionalized. The socialist State represents the entire people and the party can never be a substitute as it represents only a fraction of the working class and the working people.

Some of the reforms adopted in the socialist countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba have brought about changes in the economic structure and policies which are in line with the renovated concept of socialism. There may be some wrong steps taken in the course of these reforms, but there is no doubt that the changes are essential.

Another area where new thinking and practice with regard to socialism is taking place in Latin America. Since the late 1990s, the Left forces have registered significant advances in Latin America. Today, there are Left-led Governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay. In Brazil and Argentina, there are Centre-Left Governments. Peru has elected President with a progressive agenda. It is in Venezuela and Bolivia that major steps have been taken to move away from the neo-liberal framework and put in place alternative policies. Policies, which strengthen national sovereignty, promote public ownership in the key sectors of the economy and initiate changes for ensuring popular participation and widening of the democratic process.

In Venezuela, which is rich in oil, the State has taken control of key oilfields and reduced the share of the foreign multinationals; the biggest telecom company and the biggest electricity company have been taken over by the State. In the banking sector too, the public sector has been expanded and the control of foreign banks reduced. Venezuela has set-up community councils, which participate in budget making and local planning. They have been given powers to decide on their local administrative and economic matters. Workers' participation in the State enterprises have been ensured. Bolivia has undertaken a major land reform by which twelve million acres of land have been distributed to the landless indigenous people. Bolivia has also taken steps to nationalise its natural resources like natural gas and oil.

In both countries, there are powerful political mobilizations and mass movements to counter the forces, which represent the bourgeois and foreign capital interests. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia and the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela are examples.

The movements for socialism in Latin America have debated and put forth their concept of what socialism should be in the 21st century. This is rooted in the history and society of Latin America and has rejected any model to be imported particularly that of the Soviet Union. If they have drawn any experience of building socialism, it is from the Cuban experience.

The contours of the 21st century socialism are just in the process of emerging. The struggles in Latin America show: that it is possible to challenge the globalization-neo-liberal paradigm and work for alternatives; that it is possible to defend national sovereignty and the exercise of democratic power by the people. The success of these efforts will go a long way in projecting socialism as a viable concept - as an alternative to the present crisis-ridden financial capitalism, which is destroying the lives of millions of people around the globe.


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