A challenge to the left

December 1, 1999

New Realism, New Barbarism: Socialist Theory in the Era of Globalization
By Boris Kagarlitsky
Translated by Renfrey Clarke
Pluto Press, 1999
166 pp., $38.95

Review by Allen Myers

This is the first of an intended three volumes aiming "to provide a general overview of the perspectives of the left and the socialist project following the shocks of the period 1989-91".

Boris Kagarlitsky will be well known to Green Left Weekly readers for his clear and sharp analyses of events in Russia. His new book is a passionate but well-reasoned defence of the socialist project against its detractors of all varieties, but especially against the social democratic "realists", who are today probably best exemplified by Tony Blair.

It is also a direct challenge to modern reformism — which, Kagarlitsky argues and experience confirms, is increasingly unable to deliver even minor reforms.

The reason, he argues, is that reforms in the 20th century have been fundamentally a product of revolutions, especially the fear of the Russian Revolution: "... the success of the reformist efforts was in direct proportion to the seriousness of the 'revolutionary blackmail' embodied in the world communist movement and the 'Soviet menace'". With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe, there has vanished much of that pressure on ruling classes to grant concessions.

The collapse has also directly affected the left, both Marxists and reformists, Kagarlitsky points out. To a large extent, the reformists have become "new realists":

"A sharp critique of capitalism formed the starting point not only for revolutionary Marxism, but also for social democratic 'revisionism'. That is why social democrats succeeded in carrying out reforms in the 1940s and 1950s ... The 'new realism' in Europe, by contrast, proceeds from approval and acceptance of the present society. The question is not whether this society is good or bad in itself ... The problem is that no alternatives are being developed on this basis.

"Socialism has managed to play a major role in improving capitalism precisely because of its anti-capitalist essence."

After calling on the left to return to its revolutionary roots by "de-revising Marx" (the title of chapter two), Kagarlitsky goes on to analyse what has and hasn't changed within the proletariat of the developed capitalist countries, and the implications of this for socialist strategy.

He is sceptical about the frequent predictions of the decline of industry and of services becoming the motive force of capitalist economy, pointing out that the growth in the number of service employees was largely due to technological backwardness compared with industry. Now that information technology has begun to increase the productivity of services, "downsizing" has become the order of the day.

However, the socialist project is not conditional on some precise composition of the work force:

"The terms 'industrial worker' and 'proletarian' are no longer synonyms. This means that it is necessary to reject the primitive workerism that has characterized socialists since the early twentieth century, and to return to Marx's original concept, that linked the future of society not simply with industrial workers, but with the proletariat in the broad sense of the word."

A chapter devoted to "New Technologies, New Struggles" begins to analyse the class struggles developing around information technology and its control, while a final chapter on "The New Periphery" looks at the transition back to a deformed capitalism in Russia and eastern Europe.

The theme throughout is a challenge to the left to reclaim "the determination and moral strength needed for action".

The left today, Kagarlitsky writes, "can win elections but not struggles. Unless it dares to speak again about class solidarity, nationalization and redistribution, unless it challenges the system of global capital and its local political representatives, it has no chance to change anything."

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