It could be expected that the global capitalist crisis would put socialist politics in the forefront once again. But instead all we are seeing is the deepening of the ideological hegemony of capitalism. Despite all evidence to the contrary, what we are seeing is both an ever more cynical imperative to further deteriorate the conditions of the working class and an a-political, at times anti-political, desperate disillusionment.
David McNally’s “Socialism from Below” was written in a much different time, a time when global capitalism was booming, when capitalist hegemony did not necessarily need to by cynical to dominate:
Socialism today confronts a crisis. We are told on a daily basis that socialism is dead; that there is no alternative to capitalism. As a result of decades in which police-state dictatorships called themselves “socialist,” huge numbers of people now equate socialism with grey-faced bureaucrats who watch over parades of tanks and missiles and who jail those who think freely, organize independent unions, fight for their rights, read banned literature, or listen to “subversive” music. Rather than freedom, the word socialism often triggers images of repression. As if this were not bad enough, the collapse of many of these bureaucratic regimes during the 1980s gave credence to the idea that socialism is unworkable, that it inevitably produces an inefficient economic system. In this context, pundits have declared “the end of history;” they insist that capitalism has defeated all comers, that it no longer has any serious rivals.
To complicate matters further, people calling themselves “socialists” and “communists” often appear today as born-again converts to the ideals of capitalism. In Italy, the Democratic Party of the Left has declared that “there are no alternatives to the market economy.” In a similar vein, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that “Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on enterprise was right.” And in Canada, the New Democratic Party, the parliamentary part of the left, has governed just like any other mainstream party of capitalism. In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, an NDP government grotesquely violated union rights and undertook major cuts to social programs. Indeed, then NDP Premier Bob Rae claimed that “the choice isn’t between capitalism and socialism. The question is what kind of capitalism do we want to have.”
Actions and statements like this lend enormous weight to the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. And there is nothing unique to Canada or Europe about all of this. As a Globe and Mail correspondent wrote in July 1996, “In countries such as Poland, China and Vietnam, parties or governments that still use the label Communist are actually implementing the policies of capitalism.”
However, even in the absence of these illusions, socialist politics is still pronounced irrelevant. And that is exactly why I think “Socialism from Below” is even more pertinent today. Precisely because the following paragraph was written in the absence of a global crisis:
Yet, paradoxically, the socialist critique of capitalism has rarely seemed more relevant than it does at the moment. In a world where 447 billionaires own property equal to the annual income of fully half of humankind; in which one billion people live in what the World Bank terms “absolute poverty”; where more than 100 million children labour in sweatshops; where environmental devastation escalates at an alarming rate; and where the oppression of women, people of colour, lesbians and gay men, aboriginals, and people living with AIDS shows no sign of lightening; in such a world the socialist critique of exploitation, inequality and oppression takes on particular urgency.