21st or 19th Century Socialism?
By Stephen Gowans
“Che was one of the greatest Latin Americans in history but ours is 21st Century Socialism,” remarked Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador in early October.
“We don’t believe in class war or dialectical materialism. We believe it’s possible to bring about profound radical socialist change using current structures, democratic means.”
So too did many other people reject the orthodox Marxist emphasis on class war and believe it was possible to bring about profound radical socialist change using current structures, democratic means.
Bernstein, Bauer, Ebert, the British Labour Party when it professed to be a socialist party and proud of it. These people believed in 21st Century Socialism too. Only they believed in it in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Correa, Chavez and others talk about 21st Century Socialism as if it’s new, fresh and exciting, rather than a warmed-over version of something that has been showing up, and then fading away, regularly, like a full moon or a new season.
“Bernstein was the first to celebrate abstract democracy and freedom in contradistinction to the orthodox Marxist emphasis” on class war and dialectical materialism, wrote sociologist Albert Szymanski in the 1980s.*
“Indeed virtually all the basic arguments of (contemporary) reformists and progressives ….were more or less fully developed in 1899 (by Eduard Bernstein in his Evolutionary Socialism) and reasserted again in the late 1920s as well as in the 1950s and early 1960s” and later in the 1980s. And now in the 21st century as 21st Century Socialism.
“In some ways,” observed Szymanksi, “the same (ideas) are (discovered), confined to the mice, and eventually rediscovered again (and again.)”
Szymanski pointed out that while in certain periods reformist ideas traceable to Bernstein resonate and seem to make sense of people’s experiences and point the way to future change, at other times they appear to be superficial and naïve.
For example, “while such terms as ‘imperialism’, ‘capitalism’, revolutions’, and ‘working class’ were scoffed at in the early 1960s because of their dogmatic, sectarian and inappropriate air, after 1966 they very rapidly became central. But ‘by 1980 things had once again turned full circle from where they were a decade before. Bernstein’s ideas now resonate(d) (once again).”
Correa’s claims today, and Bernstein’s in 1899, would have been meet with sardonic laughter in Germany from 1933-1945, or throughout all of Europe in the late 1930s. They would also meet derisive dismissal in Chile after 1973, or today in Palestine where it is impossible to bring about profound change, much less socialist change, using current structures and parliamentary means. European parliamentary socialism, which aimed to bring about socialist change within current structures by democratic means, failed miserably, and nowadays is dead in all but name.
While 21st Century Socialism claims to be a fresh alternative to the orthodox Marxist revolutionary approach that led to the really-existing socialism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it’s just an old, not terribly roadworthy car, with fresh paint.
Really-existing socialism of the 20th century – the implicit foil to 21st Century Bernsteinism — had the advantage of accomplishing deep transformations that materially advanced the human condition, until counter-revolution, celebrating Bernstein’s concepts of freedom and democracy in the abstract, threw the whole machine into reverse gear. 21st Century Socialism, in its 19th and 20th century guises, can lay claim to no such transformations – only minor modifications around the edges, often instigated by the capitalist class and its representatives, but claimed by the reformers as fruits of their own efforts.
21st Century Socialism is a welcome advance over what came before, but it will not produce the profound radical socialist change Correa promises. Deep radical transformation within current structures is impossible – and an attempt at profound radical socialist transformation without an emphasis on the orthodox Marxists ideas Correa eschews, is, at best, naïve.
* Albert Szymanski, “Crisis and Vitalization: An Interpretive Essay on Marxist Theory,” in Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory, (Rhonda F. Levine and Jerry Lembcke, eds.), Praegar. 1987.
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