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A Guide To The Left

Political Theory

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SOCIALISM | Who's who

A guide to the Left
There are many strands of socialist analysis. And sometimes the differences between
them can seem as great as the gap between Left and Right. The New Internationalist
separates out some of the main lines of thought and looks at where they are leading.
Illustrations: Alan Hughes

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Karl Marx 1818 - 1883

What it is For Karl Marx, communism would mean the final achievement of a classless society where the state had withered away. But communism today is taken to mean something very different: a system of centralized planning from the top down where political life is under the absolute control of a single ruling party.

Communist governments have had some positive achievements - industrial growth, full employment and free health services. But the lack of freedom and the inability to meet consumer needs have severely tarnished communism’s reputation. Several Communist Parties (the ‘Eurocommunists’) have tried to combine the positive features of communism with a shift to a more democratic approach.

Strengths Orthodox communists draw strength from the fact that nearly half the worlds people live under a communist system; they believe they are pan of the forward march of history. The achievements of communism appear particularly attractive in the Third World where underdevelopment is closely identified with the capitalist system. If you live in countries like Chile or South Africa the warning that a communist regime would involve restriction of freedom is not that much of a threat,

Weaknesses The gap between Marx’s vision of a classless society, where everyone would be free of exploitation, and what the critics call ‘actually existing socialism’ is very wide. A small minority arbitrarily decides matters (and do all right for themselves in the process). There is little chance for flesh-and-blood workers to express their preferences on how ‘their’ system should be run, When workers do get a chance to express their case - in Poland’s Solidarity movement for example - their views turn out to be at odds with the official communist view of what is in the workers’ interests.

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Vladimir Lenin 1870 - 1924

What it is This was Lenin’s way of putting Marxism into practice - in his case to cope with the conditions of Czarist Russia at the turn of the century, Lenin’s view was that the masses were not politically mature enough to achieve socialism on their own. They needed the guiding hand of a disciplined group of professional revolutionaries who would run things along the lines of what he called ‘democratic centralism’. In the case of Russia this involved the creation of a hierarchical and disciplined party (the Bolsheviks) that would be in the ‘vanguard’ of the struggle for socialism. This was supposed to combine input from below with co-ordination from above, The Leninist party has in one form or another been adapted as the main organizing tool by communists ever since,

Strengths The democratic centralist approach involves something remarkably similar to military organization. As such it has been useful in running guerrilla wars in the Third World. Since Leninism involves the creation of a kind of ‘state-out-of-power’ it enables the revolutionaries to start building the kinds of military structures that allow them to defend themselves once they do get into power.

Weaknesses As with most paternalistic elites who are supposed to be acting in the interests of others the Leninists have been quick to confuse their own will and power with the interests of the workers. The democratic element in democratic centralism gets short shrift. Marxism-Leninism can quickly become yet another excuse for a ‘correct’ minority to order the majority around ‘for their own good’.

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Leon Trotsky 1879 - 1940

What it is Trotskyism is a form of Marxism-Leninism that follows Leon Trotsky’s belief that the Russian revolution which he and Lenin helped to lead was betrayed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, The Trotskyists hold that most existing kinds of socialism are deformed although they still give them ‘critical’ support. They would do better, they say, because their democratic-centralist parties are more democratic and that they genuinely do have the interests of the workers at heart.

Trotsky developed the ‘theory of permanent revolution’ - the idea that revolutionary struggle is never-ending and that eternal vigilance is necessary to make sure the revolution is not hijacked by a bureaucratic clique. Trotskyists pride themselves on their militancy and believe most other socialists are reformists not really committed to the revolution,

Strengths Trotskyism and trotskyist parties have recognized that there is a crisis in ‘actually existing socialism’ and shown that it has simply not delivered the goods in anything like the way Marx and the other pioneers of socialist thought envisioned.

Weaknesses Trotskyism is plagued by a concern with orthodoxy. Trotskyists are the ‘theologians’ of the Left splitting into innumerable small sects disputing the finer points of Marxist doctrine. They also tend to be preoccupied with the images of the Russian revolution in 1917 - resistant to new ways of thinking about socialism and not that eager to listen to what workers themselves have to say about what is important to them.

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Mao Tse-Tung 1893 - 1976

What it is This refers to Mao’s application of Marxism-Leninism to the making of the Chinese revolution and the development of Chinese communism. Mao significantly rethought and adapted the Russian experience, He relied heavily on the peasants to make the revolution - instead of the workers who were isolated minority in pre-revolutionary China.

Once in power Mao was less concerned with industrial growth at any cost and paid more attention to rural development and the creation of a spirit of socialism among Chinese people. He launched several campaigns to prevent the development of an entrenched and privileged bureaucracy in the Chinese government. The most famous of these was the Great Cultural Revolution.

Strengths Many in the Third World have found Mao’s approach a fruitful one, given its attention to rural development and its emphasis on peasant villages doing things for themselves. Since it avoids the Soviet Union’s preoccupation with industrial growth Maoism provides for some socialists a more productive alternative. Mao did at least recognize that bureaucratic privilege was a serious problem for communism.

Weaknesses Although he challenged bureaucracy Mao did not break fundamentally with the idea of control from above. His campaigns against bureaucratic privilege were at least partially aimed at getting rid of his political opponents in the Chinese government. If he had been willing and able to decentralize power and genuinely put it in the hands of the Chinese people perhaps his views could not have been so quickly overturned when a new Chinese leadership got into power. While Maoism with its rural priorities has had some positive influence on efforts to build a self-reliant socialism in the Third World, attempts to adapt it by small political groups in the West have been largely unsuccessful and sometimes quite bizarre.

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Willi Brandt 1913 -

What it is This is the form of socialism we are most familiar with in the West. It is represented in Britain and Australia by the Labour Party and by the New Democratic Party in Canada. Social democratic parties have, at one time or another, formed the government in most Western countries. The idea is to win elections and then enact socialist measures using the parliamentary process.

Such parties are usually (but not always) open to people of diverse political points of view. Some of these socialists will be satisfied with minor tinkering with the system in order to help those who can’t help themselves. Others believe in a complete overhaul of society and in widespread public ownership. These two groups tend not to like one another very much.

Strengths Unlike Marxism-Leninism, social democracy is accepted by most people as a legitimate political option. It respects democracy and the right of people to decide things - at least at election time. While social democracy has not fulfilled the more radical promises of socialism, it has made life better for many. Social democrats have played a major role in creating the safety net of welfare policies that protects the poor from the ravages of recession, They have also helped ensure that workers can maintain their legal trade union rights and bargain with employers.

Weaknesses There is a conservative bias built into social democracy. Winning elections gives you the right but not necessarily the power to bring about socialist change, This was the deadly lesson learned by Salvador Allende in Chile when the military put an end to his duly-elected Popular Unity government. Social democratic governments are usually subjected to intense pressure from all sides. The business community and its allies are in a strong position to ensure that the more socialist policies are watered down. Politicians once elected also become very concerned with their own survival so social democratic governments often insist that their own party members not ‘tie their hands’ by insisting that the government implement ‘unrealistic’ parts of the party program. Socialism often gives way to realpolitik.

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Emma Goldman 1869 - 1940

What it is This is a loose tradition of socialist and anarchist thought that puts control from below at the top of the agenda. Worker’s self-management and decentralisation of communities are seen as vital parts of a socialist society. Libertarians are less concerned with taking over the state and more with turning the power of government into a power for self-government.

The idea is to diffuse this power through the neighbourhoods. workplaces, housing estates and regions that make up the nation. Libertarian socialism tends to draw inspiration from co-operatives, experiments in self-management in Yugoslavia and elsewhere and the tradition of local government in indigenous communities. Libertarian socialists are not for the most part ‘joiners’ and are usually found among the activists in the peace, environment, feminist and other social movements.

Strengths Unlike other socialist theories libertarian socialism allows for direct democratic control of people over their own affairs - and for a society that is more, rather than less. democratic than the existing system. If this argument for socialism were to gain wide currency it could certainly make socialism more popular. Libertarians are also firm believers in changing the quality of life and not just dressing up the ‘politics of growth’ in socialist clothes,

Weaknesses Libertarian socialism has never made as much headway as other types of socialism because it seems to be swimming against the stream. Hierarchy, centralized organizations and growth in the size of government are considered inevitable parts of modern life, Anything else seems naive and inefficient. A self-managed society would mean we would have to go to meetings all the time just to keep things going. Is it really possible to consider the democratic control of something as complex as an airline.

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