The comforts of a fantasy universe


A response to Reihana Mohideen by Irwin Silber

The narrow vision informing Reihana Mohideen's comment on my book, Socialism: What Went Wrong? (Green Left, April 12) came as something of a surprise to me. From various reports I had been led to believe that there was a new spirit of open-minded inquiry and a willingness to reconsider old doctrines in the Australian left similar to what is happening in the US, where one-time ideological antagonists are not only talking to each other but — amazingly — listening to each other as well.

But if I read her correctly, Mohideen remains locked into the tenets of Trotskyist orthodoxy. The belief that the capitalist world was in a permanent state of pre-revolution has been, of course, the main ideological staple by which Trotskyism has sustained itself for the greater part of the 20th century. For some of its adherents (and Mohideen would appear to be one), nothing — not the failure of the revolution to materialise, not atomic weapons, not even capitalism's totally unforeseen regenerative powers — has shaken this faith.

One reads Mohideen with the dismaying sense that, politically speaking, she resides in a fantasy universe filled with would-have-been (not even might-have-been) revolutionary victories constantly "derailed" by the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy. In this mind set, Lenin's 1916 assessment that capitalism had reached its "final stage" and become "moribund", and that "the socialist revolution is impending for the whole world" has become scripture. How else then could the failure of the world revolution to appear be explained except as the result of socialist perfidy?

There is no room in this ideological cul-de-sac to consider the possibility that Lenin could have been somewhat over-enthusiastic at the prospects of capitalism's pending demise. But, as Lenin once noted, facts are stubborn things. And the fact is that today capitalism is a more dominant and potent force than it ever has been — both on a world scale and in those countries Marxism has long considered the most ripe for socialism. It continues to revolutionise society's productive forces in ways that are, perhaps, even more transforming than the wonders of that earlier 19th century industrial revolution which first revealed the awesome power resident in the capitalist order.

Capitalism has engendered revolutions in energy (nuclear power), production (computerised automation), communications (television, satellite systems), information processing and retrieval (computers) and the physical sciences more broadly. It has brought into being whole new technologies, harnessing not only physics and chemistry but even biology to its economic development.

And because scientific discoveries and technological innovations of the last 50 years have obsolesced labour-intensive production as the chief engine of economic growth, the role of the industrial proletariat in the production process has been declining — a development which, at the very least, forces us to reconsider the role Marx forecast for that section of the working class in the revolutionary process.

Contemporary capitalism is also markedly different from what it was in the pre-World War II years in terms of its global sweep. A qualitatively new level of internationalisation has wrought major changes in all the relationships through which the world capitalist economy now functions.

Although the threat posed by what turned out to be the ill-fated socialist experiment was undoubtedly a factor in restraining the intense inter-imperialist rivalries which led to two world wars, equally important has been the growing role of giant transnational banks and corporations and new state-supported regulating institutions through which all aspects of world capitalism are now increasingly mediated. Nor should one overlook the fact that the existence of weapons of mass destruction seems to have placed limits on military confrontations.

In addition and likewise contrary to Marxist-Leninist predictions, the collapse of the colonial system did not significantly weaken or undermine the world capitalist economy. If anything, capitalist expansion in the Third World has accelerated over the past two decades. Assisted in no small measure by the scientific and technical revolution, international capital has begun to shift an increasingly significant part of its industrial capacity to this part of the world, a process which is undermining the vestiges of feudal and semi-feudal relations there and markedly altering the mode of production in the capitalist heartland.

In short, the premise that world capitalism has played itself out and the long-awaited "final conflict" for socialism is close at hand flies in the face of reality. The old estimate which Mohideen deems still valid has propelled us down the path of apocalyptic fantasies and pseudo-revolutionary posturing and has been a major factor in the left's political marginalisation.

But Mohideen simply dismisses all this evidence of capitalism's staying power by noting that Lenin had held out the possibility that capitalism might continue to grow in an era of decay. Thus does dogma neatly dispose of historical realities — with a quotation.

None of this is to suggest that capitalism is either just or crisis-free. Then again, it never has been. But if exploitation is the motor that makes capitalism run, crisis has been the engine for a process of adaptation and self-correction which has served the system as a whole remarkably well. Does all this mean that capitalism has "won", a view Mohideen wrongly attributes to me? Of course not. But it obliges us, it seems to me, to review all past assessments of its probable life span as well as all previous strategies for replacing it with socialism.

There is another side to the theoretical challenge facing those who remain committed to putting socialism back on the historical agenda. We need to sum up the Soviet experience and develop a new perspective on the nature of socialism itself.

In my book, I argue that we need to explore anew Marx's concept of socialism as a transitional society which would inevitably have characteristics of both its capitalist predecessor and its communist successor. (This is not to suggest that this transition will be a brief one. Far from it. It will undoubtedly constitute an entire historical epoch in its own right.) In the last year of his life Lenin also began to delve into this concept in a concrete fashion, ultimately acknowledging "a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism".

The essence of Marx's concept and Lenin's "radical modification" is the notion that socialist society will, for a considerable period of time, be based on a mix of economic relations. But to Mohideen, such ideas are a source of great anxiety since they are being raised not simply by Silber but "in the debates taking place over political strategy in El Salvador, Nicaragua and South Africa". (They are also being implemented, of course, in China, Vietnam and, to a certain extent, in Cuba.) And so far as she is concerned, these views "are the basis on which the revolutionary perspective is abandoned".

There is something pathetically sad in the grim conviction with which Mohideen has shut her mind to the processes of strategic exploration now going on in the world — not simply in theoretical debates but in the actual motion of politics. I suppose that's easier than reconsidering past certainties which haven't panned out. But even a little uncertainty would have been refreshing.