Socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, May 2023

I traveled to see friends in Bristol, England, in 1974. Harold Wilson’s Labor Party had been elected as a minority government for a second round of Keynesian social democracy intended to put the finishing touches on the British welfare state built from 1945 to 1951. Swaths of industry remained under state regulation and ownership. Social insurance, public housing, education, and unemployment relief had been established and expanded. An Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. And Wilson’s government abolished the death penalty, decriminalized homosexuality, and outlawed racial discrimination. But it was no longer the “swinging sixties.” The Beatles had disbanded and the countercultural tribes were getting a dose of hard reality. The Angry Brigade’s bombing campaign in 1970-71 brought a crackdown on youth, which proved nothing compared to the society-wide clampdown instigated by the spillover of The Troubles from Northern Island to England with the IRA’s London bombing campaign. Even my liberal Bristol friends were anti-Irish. I stepped a couple of feet away from my backpack in the London Underground to examine the subway wall map, only to have my hippie ass immediately surrounded by suspicious Bobbies and plain-clothed officers.

I visited my relatives the same year in Poland deep in the Soviet Bloc; my grandmother in Gdynia with its massive Paris Commune Shipyards and my cousins in Warsaw with its famous Zeran car factory and working-class suburb Ursus. These locations were recurring flash-points in the off-again-on-again Polish rebellion against Soviet occupation.[1] The economy was state-owned and run, the society dreary. Polish Peoples’ Army and Soviet Red Army soldiers were everywhere, along with the police. In Warsaw, an additional reminder of the Soviet presence was the massive Palace of Culture and Science done up in Stalinist wedding cake style. Gomulka’s gray years as First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party had given way to a more optimistic time under Edward Gierek who tried to boost economic development and average income through foreign loans, which meant that instead of bread lines people queued up for a few basic consumer goods. All my relatives told Russian jokes. On Sundays they took me to church where, beneath cover of the Catholic mass, an overflowing crowd whispered, argued and organized against the Soviets.

I also hitchhiked through Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia and enjoyed the novelty of staying at hotels, going to restaurants and buying supplies from enterprises that were worker-owned councils operating in a market economy. The newsstands carried uncensored every Western newspaper and magazine and the country was prospering. But there was little doubt that I was in a one-party Marxist-Leninist country. When I failed to convince several Yugoslav Peoples’ Army soldiers to give me the striking red star pins on their hats I tried to take their picture. They warned me off with threatening gestures.

My most inspiring and troubling experience of socialism was Israel when I lived on a kibbutz for six months in 1974. A kibbutz is a rural commune with a mixed agricultural/industrial economy where people own all private property in common, raise their children socially and work cooperatively “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Kibbutzim were but one of many forms of cooperative agriculture within the Histadrut, a centralized syndicalist trade union which was at the same time the owner of numerous businesses and factories. The Histadrut ran about 65% of the Jewish economy and 75% of the Jewish workforce in Palestine by 1948. Its state-building function, alongside the Hagana, spearheaded the Labor Zionist national liberation struggle that declared independence for the State of Israel in 1948. The parliamentary, multi-party Jewish state nationalized half of the Histadrut’s economy almost immediately. Israel’s Jewish socialism was one of the more self-organized, communitarian, liberatory forms of socialism I’ve known. But it was Jewish socialism nonetheless, an exclusionary “socialism for one people” that placed ethnic identity over class identity, resulting in Israel devolving into a settler-colonial apartheid state.

Now it’s a bad time for socialism.

During the 1980s, socialism advanced by one-party Marxist-Leninist regimes was based on centrally planned command economies, collectivized agriculture and industry, and nationalized property. “Real existing socialism” encompassed one-third of the world’s population (over a billion people) and close to a fourth of world’s land surface. After the collapse of the Communist bloc (1989-1991)—instigated by Reagan and the US striving to bankrupt the Soviet Union and its allied nations—there are now only five explicitly Marxist-Leninist countries remaining in the world—China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea. North Korea further refined its state ideology into Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism which is also defined as the Juche Principle. This supposedly is a revolutionary socialism of material necessity grounded in concrete, immutable realities where “the people” have all the basic means of life. Yet in reality it is a socialism of chronic scarcity where people often don’t have even the basics to survive, where workers’ power is substituted for the power of the vanguard party and frequently the power of a dictatorial cult leader.

From 1945 until 2015, social democracy was seen as a viable socialist alternative in Western Europe and other parts of the Western world. Epitomized by the Nordic Model—Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland—it involved market-based mixed economies, private property, a strong labor movement, multi-level collective bargaining and a comprehensive welfare state administered by multi-party parliamentary democracies that mediate between capital and labor. Norway extended this with extensive state-owned enterprises and natural resources as well as state share ownership in publicly listed enterprises. This democratic socialism sometimes considers itself a moral crusade against capitalism and the profit motive and for workers’ rights and freedoms. Democracy, egalitarianism and social justice are emphasized over a specific form of socialist economy. Social democratic parties have peacefully traded governance with more conservative political parties even in the Nordic countries. Issues of national sovereignty and immigration after 2015 have caused a marked decline in their popularity.

The “hard” socialism of Marxist-Leninists regimes is attributed to their Third World context, to the oppressed and exploited peoples of color and proletarian-peasant nations of the Global South. The “soft” socialism of social democracies is not really considered socialist by “hard” socialists, but rather is of a piece of the Global North, of the First World whose nations are capitalist, imperialist and mostly white. I don’t regard either Marxist-Leninist regimes or social democracies as truly socialist, even though I’d much rather live in the latter than in the former.

I reserve the term socialism for a handful or two of historical periods and relatively short social experiments that broadly fall under the general category of “libertarian socialism.” Among them are examples that readily cross over the First/Third World-Global North/South and the “hard”/“soft” socialist categories. First is the Soviet-led government from the Russian 1917 Revolution until 1922 when opposition parties were outlawed, factions within the Bolshevik party were banned and Stalin started his rise to power. Second is the self-managed anarchist/socialist territories of the Spanish Republic during the 1936-39 civil war before Franco liquidated them. Third is the ongoing policies of indigenismo promoted by the EZLN in Chiapas, Mexico. And fourth is the ongoing system of democratic confederalism under the PYD/YPG in Rojava, Northern Syria.

Each of these examples of libertarian socialist economics—decentralized, socialized economies of collectives, cooperatives, communes, committees and councils—are coupled with democratic multi-party political systems based on parliaments, soviets or assemblies. Libertarian socialist economies have occasionally been combined with one-party vanguardist regimes—the first ten years of villagist ujamaa in Tanzania under the rule of Julius Nyerere’s TANU party, Tito’s Yugoslavia of workers’ councils—but they are no longer libertarian socialism proper.

To be clear, nations that call themselves socialist are a dime-a-dozen.[2] Some have references to socialism in their constitutions, most others are ruled by nationalist political parties that claim to operate on socialist or communist principles, but virtually none are Marxist. A fair number are one-party regimes, military juntas or personal dictatorships. And almost all have capitalist, oligarchic or corporatist economies.

There is also an implied socialism that is winning big by default.

In a world supposedly divided irreconcilably between imperialist nations and anti-imperialist nations, it is common to assume that those countries in the imperialist “camp” are reactionary whereas those countries in the anti-imperialist “camp” are progressive. This basic campism insists that the US is the center of global imperialism and therefore the primary enemy. The anti-imperialist forces arrayed against the US are on the right side of history and are, if not socialist, at least leaning Left. So campism implies that those who oppose imperialism are socialistic.

Lenin formulated the theory of imperialism, but there are no pure Leninist movements, parties or regimes any longer. All are some form of Leninist hybrid—Stalinist, Trotskyist, Maoist, Hoxhaist, Marcyist, ad nauseam. Additionally, the concept of anti-imperialism has spread far beyond its Marxist-Leninist origins. Maoist-inspired movements and parties multiplied under the rubric of anti-revisionism. With the rise of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles the Third World came into its own. But it also became the ideology of Third Worldism. And anti-imperialism has infected anarchism (Love and Rage), autonomism (German Wildcat), even democratic socialism (Democratic Socialists of America). In turn, tankies are Stalinists or campist apologists who defend the use of tanks in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Warsaw Pact’s suppression of Czechoslovakia in 1968, China’s massacre of the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989, and the like.

So ideologies that embrace anti-imperialist campism often uphold an ersatz socialistic prognosis. They often claim that since the US is the only imperialist power in the world no other nation can be imperialist. And they often defend not just authoritarian Marxist-Leninist regimes past and present but authoritarian states in general.

Campism is truly the anti-imperialism of fools.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] 1944-47, 1956, 1968, 1970-71, 1976, 1980-81, 1982, 1988

[2] Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bolivia, Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tanzania, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

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Campism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, November 2022

“This is utter nonsense.”

The gray-haired bespectacled man gestured angrily. It was July 21, 1989 and I was standing behind the Neither East Nor West literature table at the “Without Borders” anarchist conference/festival in San Francisco’s Mission High School. I was hanging out with the THRUSH girls and Bob McGlynn as the pissed-off individual continued to point at our table’s banner.

“Neither East Nor West, huh? That sounds an awful lot like the slogan of the Italian Fascist MSI. Neither Left nor Right.”

“We’re anarchists, not fascists,” Bob said.

“Anarchists, fascists, it’s all the same.” The man delivered his verbal coup. “If you’re not for the international socialist revolution you’re for reactionary capitalist imperialism.”

I’ve recently written a couple of columns exposing the idiocy that is Fascist Third Positionism.[1] Let’s now talk about campism and legitimate efforts to transcend it. In order to discuss international politics, let’s start with an analogy.

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