In this radical and controversial overview of the post-communist world, Boris Kagarlitsky argues that the very success of neo-liberal capitalism has made traditional socialism all the more necessary and feasible. Kagarlitsky argues that leftists exaggerate the importance of the ‘objective’ aspects of the ‘new reality’ — globalisation — and the weakening of the state, while underestimating the importance of the hegemony of neo-liberalism. As long as neo-liberalism retains its ideological hegemony, despite its economic failure, the consequence is a ‘new barbarism’ — already a reality in Eastern Europe, and now also emerging in the West.Kagarlitsky challenges the political neurosis of the left and prevailing assumptions of Marxism to argue that Marx’s theories are now more timely than they were in the mid-twentieth century. He analyses theories of the ‘end of the proletariat’ and the ‘end of work’, and assesses the potential of the new technologies – such as the Internet – which create fresh challenges for capitalism and new arenas for struggle.
About the Author
Boris Kagarlitsky is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Comparative Political Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was a political prisoner under Brezhnev and latterly has been an advisor to the Chair of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia. His most recent book is The Restoration in Russia. Renfrey Clarke is an Australian editor and journalist. He has translated numerous Russian works.
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The Left As it Is
The 1980s were bad years for the left. European socialist parties were already in crisis, but this crisis became incomparably more acute by the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the communist movement. The presidency of Mitterand in France began with fine hopes and ended in universal disappointment. The failure of the most serious reformist project in post-war Western history makes it imperative to rethink the question of the possibilities and prospects of reformism. No less striking was the collapse of Soviet perestroika, which can also be described as a sort of reformist project, and which had a very strong, although also short-lived influence on all of world left culture.
The French socialists not only lost their parliamentary majority, but had in practice rejected their own reformist project even before the right returned to power. They prepared the ground for the presidency of Jacques Chirac, who not only abolished most of the innovations of the first years of the socialist government, but also annulled many of the social gains of the previous decades. Perestroika in the Soviet Union culminated in the collapse of the Soviet state itself, and in the coming to power of the most decadent section of the old nomenklatura.
Electoral Successes, Political Failures
The political history of the left in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s might at first glance seem like an unbroken chain of defeats. The fall of the Berlin Wall was accompanied by the disappearance of the world communist movement. In Eastern Europe, the only more or less traditional Communist Party that survived was that of the Czech Republic; this country also has a Left Bloc founded by supporters of a more radical renewal of the party, as well as a revived social democracy. In every other case, the communist organizations underwent a swift transformation. In most cases the new parties declared themselves to be social democratic, while retaining their former leaders and traditions. At the same time, social democracy in the West was undergoing a profound crisis, and moving increasingly to the right.
On closer examination, however, the picture is somewhat more complex. Throughout this period there were also electoral successes and victorious strikes. Most parties of the left and trade unions experienced difficulties, but some of them nevertheless grew. Moreover, from the mid-1990s a contrary trend became evident. Despite all the avowals of crisis, the left during the 1990s generally did well electorally once the shocks of the first years of the decade were past. After losing power, the social democrats in the Scandinavian countries quickly regained it. The right-wing forces that had long held power in Denmark suffered a crushing defeat in 1993. In Eastern Europe the post-communist parties also recovered quickly after the shock dealt to them by the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the exception of the Czech Republic, they returned to power almost everywhere free elections were held. In Italy the old communist dream of victory over the Christian Democrats came to pass. The elections of 22 April 1996 brought a convincing victory to the left-centrist Olive Tree Alliance, which won a majority not only in the parliament but also in the senate; for the first time in the country's history, a left bloc came to power. In 1997 the British Labour Party returned to power after many years in opposition, and at the French parliamentary elections a few weeks later the socialists had their revenge for the defeat they had suffered in the poll for the presidency. A year later, German Social Democrats emulated the success of their British and French counterparts.
Despite the extremely moderate views of the 1997-model British labourites, their victory (perhaps against their wishes) had a radicalizing effect on millions of people in other European countries from France to Russia. After 18 years in power, the British conservatives had become a symbol of the impregnability of capitalism and of the invincibility of the neo-liberal project. As it turned out, the conservatives were not simply beaten but routed. The subsequent French elections were striking not only for the unexpected victory of the Socialists, but also for the strengthening of the position of the Communist Party and for the record number of votes gained by the far left (and, for that matter, by the extreme right-wing National Front).
The Brazilian Workers' Party did not come to power, but dramatically strengthened its positions in parliament and in local government. In Uruguay, Colombia and Chile leftists also improved their positions. In El Salvador in March 1997 the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front gained a decisive victory in municipal elections and sharply increased its representation in parliament. The Western news agencies reported with irritation that the leftists had 'won at the ballot box what they could not win in twelve years of civil war: control of the capital and dozens of seats in congress'.
In 14 national elections in Latin America between 1993 and 1995 the left won an average of 25 per cent of the vote, an unquestioned historical record for the continent. It is significant that gains were made not only by radical but also by moderate parties. At a meeting of left organizations that attended the Sao Paolo Forum in 1995 it was announced that member parties had won more than 300 deputies' seats, 60 senate positions and several provincial governorships, not to speak of hundreds of mayoralties and thousands of seats on municipal councils. As noted by Marco Aurelio García, one of the leaders of the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT), for the first time in Latin America 'in almost all cases, the left and centre-left forces fought the elections with a real chance of winning'. Particularly significant was the success of the Urugayan Frente Amplio, which won control of the municipality in Montevideo, the national capital, which is home to half the country's population. In Venezuela the radical party Causa R succeeded in breaking the political tradition of two-party oligarchic rule and in transforming itself into a national political force.
In South Africa the African National Congress came to power in a bloc with the Communist Party. Communists were victorious in elections in Nepal, and even received an offer to form the government in India. True to the principles of Maoism, the 'Marxist' Communist Party refused to head a bourgeois government. At the same time as testifying to dogmatism and fear of accepting responsibility, this decision was also proof of an intellectual honesty that was lacking in the case of the European post-communists, who never turned down a chance to take power. The left in India was punished, becoming the main loser in the twelfth general election to the Indian parliament in 1998. The United Front, a conglomeration of 13 national and regional parties including four mainstream left parties (the Left Front) received a massive drubbing. The election marked a gradual shrinkage in the electoral base for both communist parties, especially in the states where the left traditionally commanded considerable strength. However, in several Indian states, leftists remain the decisive force in local politics. For example, the Communist Party (Marxist) has held power in West Bengal since 1977 as the leading force in the Left Front. And while the mainstream left gets weaker the radical 'Marxist-Leninist' Communist Party (Liberation) is growing.
Electoral successes, however, do not signify in any way that the crisis of the socialist movement has been overcome. The fact is simply that the crisis has nothing to do with the supposed electoral weakness, 'narrowness' or 'disappearance' of the left's social base. On the contrary, it stems from the political impotence of leftists who, for lack of a clear strategy, contrive to turn even victory into defeat.
Donald Sassoon, in his history of socialism, notes that leftists historically have embraced two central ideas: regulation and resistance to capitalism. In the late 1980s the will to practise regulation was transformed into mere vague desires, since socialists feel a sort of superstitious dread before the might of transnational corporations. They perceive globalization not as a socio-economic process with a complex dynamic, with structural contradictions and particular strong and weak points, but as an irreversible turning-point, an evil visitation, an invasion by an incomprehensible and insuperable force. This has also paralysed their will to resist. Nevertheless, resistance to capitalism continues. From being organized, however, it has become spontaneous, and from being political it has become social. The masses are more radical than the ideologues, who, out of inertia, refer to the 'conservatism' of the masses.
However improbable it might seem, the behaviour of left politicians and activists compels the suspicion that we are dealing with a collective neurosis. Right-wing social democrats feel totally impotent. Meanwhile, left socialists and communists dream of becoming right-wing social democrats. They are prevented from doing so only by their own past, which has to be overcome at any cost. Wherever left socialists, through the use of radical slogans, abruptly increase the number of their supporters, they renounce their own ideas, hoping to acquire 'respectability' and to prove their inoffensiveness to the ruling elites. The net result, however, is that they lose their supporters, after which the ruling elites also lose all interest in them. This is what happened with the left socialist parties in Scandinavia in the early 1990s. A dramatic rise in the influence of radical parties was followed by a no less dramatic slump, resulting from efforts by these parties to bring about a change of image and to demonstrate their 'responsibility'. In Denmark in the late 1980s the Socialist People's Party gained 12 per cent of the votes in parliamentary elections, but by 1994 its support had fallen to 7.3 per cent. Seeking to prove its respectability, the party renounced its fundamental opposition to European integration for the sake of participating in a national compromise. The result for the party was catastrophic. As the Danish sociologist Niels Finn Christiansen notes, the party 'disarmed itself politically. Repudiated by its voters, it has lost few members, but is no longer the independent force it was in the past.' The party's continuing existence alongside the traditional social democracy 'is now more an effect of the electoral system, and a question of style and history, than of essential political difference'.
Much the same thing happened in Norway, where the Socialist Left Party in the early 1990s had the support of 12 to 15 per cent of the population. Scenting power, the socialists turned abruptly to the right, softened their opposition to NATO and the European Union, and supported Western military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. As Finn Gustavsen, one of the party's founders, admitted, the party is moving 'toward left social democratic positions', a shift which could lead to 'a total rejection of Marxist culture'. The result: the party's support among voters has slipped to 7.9 per cent.
The 'Green Lefts' (Groenlinks) in Holland achieved a sensational success in 1989 when they won 7 per cent of the votes. In the parliamentary elections in 1994 their vote dropped by half. More right-wing Greens, running separately, could gather only 0.16 per cent.
These defeats cannot be put down to 'the effect of 1989', since during the years from 1989 to 1992 the position of the left socialists remained solid. The decline began later, and stemmed from the policies that were put forward. Nor can the turn to the right by the Danish Socialist People's Party be explained as the result of pressure from the party's social base. After the socialists began demonstrating their moderation, disillusioned voters turned to more radical groups. The result was that for the first time in many years communists appeared in the parliament, in a bloc with Trotskyists and former Maoists. In elections on 21 September 1994 the social democrats and socialists lost votes, while the 'united list' of left radicals scored important successes, winning six seats. In Holland, against the background of the defeat of the Green Lefts, the tiny ex-Maoist Socialist Party doubled its support, receiving 1.35 per cent of the votes. Another organization that strengthened its position was the left-centrist group Democracy 66, which, unlike the social democrats of the Labour Party, did not take part in the governing coalitions.
A radical bloc also won parliamentary representation in Norway. But the Party of the Centre (the former agrarians), which came out strongly against the European Union and the Maastricht Treaty, received 17 per cent of the votes in 1993 and, as acknowledged by journalists, became 'the real winners in the elections'. It is not hard to work out that the votes received by the Party of the Centre were lost by the Socialists and Social Democrats.
The Swedish Left Party underwent a severe crisis in the early 1990s and almost lost all its seats in parliament, but by the middle of the decade had unexpectedly doubled its number of supporters. When Sweden for the first time elected deputies to the European parliament, the Left Party received 12.92 per cent of the votes. The fact that the Greens won a further 17.22 per cent shows how dissatisfied voters were with the 'realistic' policies of the social democrats who had regained power. The combined increase in the vote for the Greens and the Left Party amounted to 18.7 per cent, while the social democrats lost 17.2 per cent. Meanwhile the right-wing parties, which in the past had usually gained from a weakening of the social democrats, this time lost votes as well. In the 1998 parliamentary election, while Social Democrats lost votes, the Left Party repeated its success and got more than 12 per cent. Social Democrats could no longer stay in power without a formal agreement with the forces to the left of them. The surge in influence of the Left Party, however, owed nothing to active struggle. Quite the contrary; the dominant mood inside the party was of confusion and uncertainty.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua remained the country's largest party after losing power in 1990. The policies of the right-wing government of Violeta Chamorro brought a rapid fall in living standards for the majority of working people. Spending on health care declined from US$35 per head of population in 1990 to US$14 in 1996, while infant mortality rose from 58 to 72 per thousand. Just as they had everywhere else in the world, the neo-liberal economists promised a quick cure for the economy during the first hundred days after state regulation gave way to 'the invisible hand of the market'. A hundred days after the beginning of the reform the country was on the brink of total chaos. The government was forced to hit the brakes and even to go into reverse. In October 1990 it signed an accord with the Sandinistas and the trade unions that went under the name of 'concentration'.
The growth of discontent created real prospects for the return of the Sandinistas to power. However, the Sandinista leadership was itself drawn into privatization, while in the parliament the Sandinista deputies, proclaiming their 'responsibility', supported the government of Chamorro's prime minister Antonio Lacayo. The policy of concentration, implemented with the agreement and participation of the Sandinistas, perhaps made it possible to avoid the absolute extremes of the 'savage market', but on the whole it was permeated by the spirit of neo-liberalism. 'The neoliberal economic model Lacayo espouses, while making some accommodation to Sandinista demands, has whittled away at the transformations of the 1980s - in health, agriculture, education, industry - and challenged the FSLN conception of government's relationship to the market', notes an American observer.
Many government services have simply been withdrawn from rural areas. Other government services are becoming fee-based. Schools have been allowed to run down physically, and parents are now being asked to pay fees or volunteer to make repairs. School teachers have been laid off, and those who work do so for less than bare minimum salaries.
Within the FSLN bitter disputes erupted between the leadership and its critics. In 1994 Ernesto Cardenal, Sergio Ramirez and a number of other historical Sandinista leaders were forced to quit the organization. Accusing FSLN leader Daniel Ortega of 'Stalinist methods', Ramirez founded the small Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS). The Sandinistas conducted their 1996 election campaign under the slogan 'Consensus in the name of production', stressing that only nuances separated them from the candidate of the right, Arnoldo Alemán. The result was a thoroughly deserved defeat for the Sandinistas and the coming to power of a new president much more reactionary than Chamorro.
Excerpted from "New Realism, New Barbarism"
Copyright © 1999 Boris Kagarlitsky.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Left As it Is
2. De-Revising Marx
3. The Return of the Proletariat
4. New Technologies and New Struggles