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The End of 20th Century Socialism?

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By Alan Sears

It is possible to argue that the project of 20th century socialism in the Canadian state has basically come to an end.

Socialism is currently so marginal within political and social life that we are, in practical terms, starting over. Through much of the 20th century, socialism had a genuine presence in political discussion and debate, in activist mobilizations, in cultural life, in the labour movement, in certain working-class neighbourhoods, in the media and through publications. Socialism was a real reference point, even for those who fought against it.

Now, socialist ideas have little currency and socialists have very limited influence on the direction of struggles. The presence of socialism has shrunk so much that there can be only the most limited continuity between the next Left and the last one. This situation poses two major challenges for those of us interested in revitalizing socialism. First, it is important to ask how we got to this point, and whatever happened to 20th century socialism. Second, we need to discuss and debate the extent to which the next socialism should be built on the model of the last one.

The focus here is on Canada outside Quebec as the integrated struggles for national liberation and socialism have had quite a different rhythm within Quebec. Certainly the emergence of the left party Quebec Solidaire indicates a somewhat different situation for socialist organizing in Quebec at the present time.

20th Century Socialism

The form of 20th century socialism gelled largely in the aftermath of the revolutionary wave of 1917-26 that ended World War I. This wave included the first successful workers’ revolution in history (Russia 1917), as well as uprisings and insurgencies that spanned the globe, from Shanghai to Winnipeg, from Berlin to Seattle. At this high point of struggle, the key lines of demarcation between various forms of socialism were clarified.

It is impossible to do justice here to the complex development of 20th century socialism, so I will attempt only a very brief sketch. This period saw the socialist movement divided between reformists, who sought change through the existing structures of the capitalist state, and revolutionaries, who sought to overthrow that state and replace it with new forms of working class self-rule. The revolutionaries divided out between Stalinists who defended the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union, anti-Stalinists who argued that a counter-revolution had removed the working class from power there, and anarchists or left communists who argued that the Russian working class had never properly taken power as the Bolshevik project was simply creating new forms of domination.

The organizational and political forms established in the wake of this revolutionary wave remained key reference points for socialists throughout the 20th century. There were two more massive waves of struggle that swept across much of the globe in the 20th century, one in the 1930s-1940s and a second in the 1960s-1970s. While there were some important changes over time, such as an emphasis on rural insurgency that emerged in the Chinese Revolution and elsewhere in the Global South, many of the key navigational tools used by socialists to make sense of the changing terrain of struggle in capitalist society through the 20th century developed out of the revolutionary wave that began in 1917.

Now the 20th century socialism that emerged out of those historical experiences is close to disappearing as a political force in the Canadian state outside Quebec. While it is impossible to examine the state of global socialism more broadly in the context of this article, I would further argue that this marginalization of 20th century socialism is not limited to the Canadian state, even if there is great unevenness in the bigger picture.

Socialism and the Infrastructure of Dissent

One of the key accomplishments of 20th century socialism, in the Canadian state and elsewhere, was to play a role in the development of an infrastructure of dissent through which oppressed and exploited groups developed their capacities to act on the world. The ability to dissent is built as the working class and oppressed groups establish new repertories of thought and action, both individually and collectively. As mobilization happens, activists seek greater understanding of the way the world works to guide their actions and establish new ways of organizing themselves to increase the effectiveness of their struggles.

A great deal of this dissent capacity builds up through the rhythm of struggle, as militancy itself probes the fundamental power relations in society. One learns a great deal about the role of the state when the police attack your protest or picket line. However, there is a lot to learn as the working class moves from outrage to challenging for power, whether at the scale of a single workplace or a whole state. Activists become hungry for deeper analysis of the way the world works and how change might happen.

The infrastructure of dissent provides a means to develop collective capacities for memory (reflection on past struggles), analysis (theoretical discussion and debate), communication (outside of official or commercial media channels) and taking action. This does not replace the learning that occurs directly through personal experience of struggle, but complements it by adding a breadth and depth that take us beyond our own horizons. In short, it means we do not need to relearn from scratch in every struggle the way the system works or how to fight it.

Through the 20th century in the Canadian state, the infrastructure of dissent has included everything from informal networks in neighbourhoods and workplaces through to formal social and political organizations. Key components of this infrastructure have included informal community in certain working-class neighbourhoods and in workplaces, radical oppositions within trade unions, various cultural activities, political organizations grounded in ethnic affinities, radical gathering places ranging from bookstores to bars to labour temples, left-wing books, bookstores and publications, women’s, queer, aboriginal and anti-racist groups, groups organized around national liberation and various kinds of socialist organizations.

At the present time, this infrastructure of dissent is very weak. The movement for global justice in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s began to rebuild this infrastructure, but was cut short by the political shifts since September 11, 2001. The projects of rebuilding the infrastructure of dissent and revitalizing socialism are integrally connected.

The Politics of Full Citizenship

Socialism thrived through much of the 20th century as part of the infrastructure of dissent thrown up by a series of interconnected struggles through which working-class people and members of other excluded groups sought to obtain basic social and political rights. These rights could be summarized as “full citizenship”, meaning not only formal enfranchisement (winning the right to vote), but also a wide range of legal, workplace and social rights including national liberation from colonialism, social services, legal collective bargaining and human rights protection.

As the system of capitalist states emerged globally, most of the population was excluded from any meaningful form of citizenship, including the right to vote and a variety of workplace and social rights. Most of the population was excluded through the absence of democratic institutions, limitations on the right to vote, the absence of worker rights in the workplace, the lack of any forms of social policy to connect citizens to the state and the brutal regimes of colonialism that oppressed and excluded virtually the entire population of the Global South.

It required tremendous mobilization for colonized peoples, workers, women, people of colour, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, and others to win basic rights. As these previously excluded groups fought their way in, they demanded a broader conception of citizenship that included certain human, social and workplace rights, ranging from human rights protection to collective bargaining rights, from access to education to social programs in such areas as health, housing and welfare. Struggles in the workplace for basic organizing rights, better conditions and a shorter working week were connected to struggles for the franchise, access to education and improved social services and benefits.

The horizons of these great struggles were not limited by the confines of fuller citizenship. Radicals often linked the battle for fuller rights within capitalism to the struggle for a socialist society. Reformists often saw the right to vote as a fundamental precondition for a democratic transformation from a capitalist dictatorship over the economy to a more just socialist society. Revolutionaries saw the potential in every mobilization for new forms of struggle and a much more wide-ranging transformation.

The standard story we tend to hear in school and through the media is that citizenship and social rights were granted from above by enlightened policy-makers, such as Prime Minister Mackenzie King in Canada and President Franklin Roosevelt in the US. In fact, neither citizenship nor workplace rights nor national liberation were granted without hard struggles that mobilized millions on a range of fronts, whether that meant work stoppages, protests or armed struggles.

The Post-War Settlement

In Canada, the 1930s-1940s were a crucial period in the struggle for fuller citizenship. Basic collective bargaining rights were recognized as industrial unions were organized in many key sectors (such as auto and steel). The foundations of many social welfare programs were established, access to education was increased and rudimentary elements of human rights protection were introduced. The consolidation of these rights was partly made possible by the long boom, which created general conditions favouring capitalist profitability from the 1940s through to the early 1970s. These conditions of sustained profitability put employers in a position to grant workers concessions that are much more difficult to make in situations of economic crisis.

The victories of the 1940s were won through tremendous mobilization, over a long period, from the 1930s anti-poverty movements through to the militant struggle to win union rights in the face of intransigent employer opposition. The peak of militancy in this period included strikes in Windsor (1945) and Hamilton (1946) that inspired widespread mobilization and incredible solidarity in those communities.

In the wake of those victories came a rapid depoliticization of society. Some of the most powerful forces in the working class won key demands that in effect made them full citizens, through legalized collective bargaining, new social programmes and new access to the market as consumers due to wage increases and job security.

These gains were real, but they were distorted by the unequal character of capitalist society. The genuine gain of union recognition went along with a framework of legalized collective bargaining that enhanced the bureaucratic nature of trade unions. New labour laws put union leaderships in the position of policing their own members. The automatic dues check-off (Rand formula) that went along with these settlements helped weaken the shop steward structure (stewards are workplace union representatives) that had been crucial to active mobilization in the workplace, as previously shop stewards had been responsible for collecting dues from members.

The steward structure was also weakened by changes in the workplace in such industries as auto. Management used technological change and other forms of restructuring to create work processes that were less susceptible to direct action by workers on the shop floor. The 1940s shop steward often acted as an organizer of direct action at the shop floor level, using slow downs or work stoppages to ensure problems were addressed. Over time, changes in production methods, the legal framework and union practices shifted the focus away from direct shop floor action toward grievance procedures and collective bargaining. This happened at different paces in different industries.

There were also important changes in working-class life, brought about in part by the improvements in standard of living associated with the union victories of the 1940s. Key sections of the working class gained access to automobiles, suburban home ownership and new forms of leisure such as television sets. Workers could move farther away from their workplace, and so the old neighbourhoods and the (generally masculine) forms of leisure such as taverns often associated with those communities began to fade.

Struggles for fuller citizenship within an unjust and inequitable capitalist system often produced new divisions. Certain sections of the working class gained a great deal from these victories, while others benefited little. Women, for example, gained much less than men from new welfare state programs that were based around assumption of a household based around a male breadwinner and a wife who did unpaid work in the home. Some workers won important gains in wages, job protection, vacation time and benefits, while others gained very little.

At its core, citizenship itself is based on the exclusion of non-citizens and those with limited rights. The rights of some must always be measured against the exclusion of others – indigenous peoples, migrants, and others without full rights in society. Citizenship rights are therefore inherently divisive, even if they are won through mobilization and solidarity. They can reinforce lines of privilege and inequality within the working-class movement.

The ruling class mounted a counter-offensive against this wave of radicalization, both contributing to and building on the depoliticization of the working class and other movements in the aftermath of key victories. The Cold War anti-Communist witch-hunts were a key part of a counter-offensive aimed at rolling back the radicalism of the working-class movement. In the name of “national security,” civil servants were fired for political activism, people perceived as lesbian or gay were hounded out of their jobs, and radicals were blacklisted out of any presence in popular culture. Within the unions, there was a parallel move to drive out the Left and to strip dissidents of their rights. This weakened socialist organizations and other elements of the infrastructure of dissent.

The 1960s and 1970s

The impetus for the next great wave of mobilization, in the 1960s and 1970s, came largely from those who were still excluded from full citizenship: the Québécois, indigenous peoples, women, lesbians and gays, young people and people of colour. It was crucially inspired by anti-imperialist solidarity with the people of Vietnam.

This mobilization also ignited a new labour militancy, to a large extent radiating out of Quebec, where workplace activism and the struggle for national liberation tended to come together. The militancy of postal workers in Quebec in 1965 played a crucial role in igniting the activism that would lead to widespread unionization in the public sector and new dimensions of worker activism.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence of socialist organizing that launched a new Left and revived elements of the old. The “New Left” was often highly critical of existing so-called “socialist” societies, and brought with it a new emphasis on democracy, participation and the liberation of previously excluded groups including women, Québécois, people of colour, students and young people, indigenous peoples, lesbians and gays. The “Old Left” that revived in this period included the pro-USSR Communist Party, the social democratic left, Maoist and Trotskyist formations.

The old and new Lefts were not mutually exclusive. The New Left was often influenced by long-standing socialists or by the offspring of socialists who were referred to as “red diaper babies.” Some of the older Left, for example certain Trotskyist groups, were highly influenced by the politics of the New Left.

The militancy of the 1960s and 1970s repoliticized society. In workplaces, on campuses, in newly established queer and women’s spaces, in militant anti-racist organizations, in music and in popular culture, radical ideas were highly visible and many began to understand their position in society in political terms. The parameters of the political were expanded in this period, with such slogans as “the personal is political” which in its first incarnation meant that we could not overcome our everyday problems without combating the unequal power structures of the greater society.

As after World War 2, employers and the state met the mobilizations of the 1960s and 1970s with a combination of concessions and counter-offensive. This wave of mobilization saw many real gains, some of which were won as the ruling class counter-offensive was underway in the late 1970s or early 1980s. These included pay equity, broader human rights protection, paid maternity leave and the right to refuse unsafe work along with a substantial expansion of social programs, health care and increased access to education


The end of the long boom in the early 1970s contributed to spurring the ruling class into a counter-offensive. Employers and the state went on the offensive to drive up profitability by clawing back worker rights and restructuring production. The introduction of wage and price controls in 1975 was one of the key markers of the new ruling-class offensive in the Canadian state. Despite impressive resistance, including a massive one-day protest strike on October 14, 1976, the offensive began to have bite. It took many attempts and a variety of strategies, worked out in Canada and globally, to wear down the opposition and begin to remake the workplace and society. Ultimately, these strategies tended to converge on ideas of neo-liberalism and lean production.

Lean production describes a process of reorganizing workplaces around a less secure, more polarized and increasingly self-disciplined workforce. Many of the key elements of lean production were developed in the Japanese automobile industry and generalized from there through the auto sector. Now, these management strategies have spread much further than manufacturing, influencing the organization of retail, office, health, social service and education workplaces.

The spread of lean production has included many features designed to weaken union activism and shop floor power. Team concept work organization and strategies of continuous improvement are designed specifically to implicate workers in management, downloading certain responsibilities to enforce new kinds of self-discipline. Many of the temporary and part-time workers in the increasingly polarized workforce are not organized, leaving unions representing a shrinking number of ever less-secure full-time workers.

Neo-liberalism is the political twin of lean production, using social policy to create the population required for conditions of lean production, oriented evermore towards the market to meet needs and fulfill desires. The only way to stay alive in a neo-liberal society is to sell your capacity to work in exchange for wages that can be used to purchase goods. Deep cuts to health, education and social programs have reduced or eliminated supplements and alternatives to the wage. Neo-liberalism has pushed commodification, the transformation of things, services and capacities into market goods for purchase, ever deeper into our daily lives.

Neo-liberalism and lean production have rolled back many of the social rights associated with winning fuller citizenship. However, we have not yet seen a repoliticization of society. Indeed, it is a central goal of neo-liberalism to depoliticize society, making it seem that the market determines everything and that politics is irrelevant. Of course, underlying this apparent market domination is a brutal use of state power in immigration controls, policing and imprisonment to eliminate alternatives to wage labour (such as squeegeeing car windshields), stifle dissent and reinforce the vulnerabilities of the disadvantaged.

At the present time, there is a remarkable political consensus about the inevitability of neo-liberalism and lean production that ranges from the Tories to the NDP. Globally, New Labour in Britain has been a pioneer in the re-engineering of social democracy to fit with neo-liberalism, though apparently more radical formations like the ANC in South Africa and the PT in Brazil also fell in line.

This depoliticization of society and weakening of the infrastructure of dissent produces a dumbing down of political discussion and debate. With few issues of substance in play, the media tend to reduce politics to silly coverage of personalities and empty sound-bytes. This does not begin with the media, but with the shrinking of the sphere of politics and the weakening of collective means of communication, analysis and mobilization.

Neo-liberalism and lean production have contributed to further changes in working-class life. The intensified commodification associated with neo-liberalism has, for example, replaced more community-oriented forms of leisure (concerts, bars, parks) with more privatized forms (each household member having their own television, mp3 player, and computer). Public space is being squeezed out of existence by privatization, for example as shopping streets are replaced by private malls. An infrastructure of dissent historically founded in part on informal networks and public space has less soil in which to thrive.

At the same time, overwork in paid and domestic labour reduces the opportunity to participate in political life. Many people are working longer hours in paid work while the reduction of state services is downloading a great deal of care-giving responsibility into the household. Hospital cutbacks, for example, dump people who are ill or recovering into households where they need a great deal of care. This increasing work time makes it harder for everyone, and particularly for women, to make time for activism.

Finally, it is crucial to understand the ways that these processes of restructuring are made to appear normal by divisions within the working class that means that the marginalization of some actually seems natural. People living in poverty, and particular those who need social assistance, have been stigmatized and brutalized by neo-liberal social policy. This poor-bashing only works because solidarity has declined to the extent that many employed working-class people see their own needs and those of people living in poverty as counter-posed.

The increasing polarization of the workforce has also been naturalized through racism and sexism. The most vulnerable sections of the workforce are disproportionately made up of women and people of colour, and often specifically women of colour. The lack of outrage about increasing social polarization, increasing poverty, downloading of responsibility onto the household and the proliferation of insecure, low-wage jobs is partly because the substandard condition of women and people of colour is still widely accepted as inevitable.

The Beginning of a New Socialism?

The end of 20th century socialism is not just an organizational low point resulting from a lull in struggles. It represents, at least in the Canadian state outside Quebec, the exhaustion of a particular historical phase of socialist organizing oriented around a specific set of political coordinates (the Russian Revolution), emancipatory projects (full citizenship), regimes of work organization and ways of life for working-class communities.

The future of socialism is a genuinely open question, as it is now in such a marginal state that sustainability is not a sure thing. It is a crucial time to investigate the extent to which the model of 20th century socialism fits the current ways of life, regimes of work, emancipatory projects and political coordinates of the working class and oppressed groups.

The movement for global justice that was cut short in the wake of September 11, 2001 showed that radical renewal could lead to the development of new forms of infrastructure of dissent and raise new challenges for socialist organizing. Coming out of this experience, there is every reason to believe that building genuine and effective solidarity between the included and excluded segments of the working class will be a huge issue in rebuilding radicalism, demanding a serious integration of anti-racist, feminist and queer liberationist perspectives into the project of revitalizing socialism.

Marxism provides crucial tools for making sense of the changes that shape the terrain of socialist organizing, helping to clarify the continuities and discontinuities brought about by processes of capitalist restructuring. These tools need to be used in a way that is open to the future, not assuming that the key questions have already been answered, open to the past, not closing the door on the immense historical experience of struggle of the past century.

[Alan Sears is the author of Retooling the Mind Factory and a frequent contributor to New Socialist.]

Source: New Socialist

Written by revolutionarystrategy

21 June 2009 at 10:21 am

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