Utopia, history and the challenge of governing



Reflections on the challenges of Latin American leftist parties and governments that are being called upon to govern

“Although anything can happen within the train, much of it unpredictable, there is one thing the historian must not forget: trains can go faster or slower, they can come to a stop, they can explode, but they are constrained by the tracks. History is about what people do within the limits of their landscape, their needs and their past” (Donald Sassoon. One Hundred Years of Socialism, P. 755).

All the socialist parties that democratically governed the European states of the first half of the XNUMXth century had to face the same challenge or “double paradox” of managing the daily life of a capitalist economy, while proposing to reform or transform it. in a socialist economy, through public policies that need capitalist success in order to be able to finance itself and survive.

The same challenge that will face in this third decade of the XNUMXst century, the parties and governments of the Latin American left that are being called upon to govern and manage a capitalist economy that is in shambles after the coronavirus pandemic, and the general failure of ultraliberal governments from the mainland. These governments will have to face some problems that are new and that were not posed in the same way in the case of European socialist governments, but the fundamental contradiction remains the same: depending on capitalist success to achieve “socializing objectives”. By the way, the origin of this paradox is very old, long before the emergence of socialism and the emergence of industrial capitalism itself.

Unless I'm mistaken, it goes back to the first hour of European modernity, when Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), a soldier in Oliver Cromwell's army (1599-1688) who defeated the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I (1600-1649), he became a revolutionary leader at the time when these same Cromwellian troops began to discuss the future of England after the installation of the English republic in 1649. By proposing his revolutionary project to the troops, Winstanley formulated for the first time – in a modern key – what would become the ultimate foundation of the socialist utopia, in all times and places: the idea that men could only become free and equal when everyone collectively appropriated ownership of the land and its fruits.

Hence, concluded Winstanley, through a rigorous economicist deduction, any political reform of a liberal or democratic nature would only have meaning and effectiveness after the disappearance of private property and economic inequalities among human beings. In other words, in short: for men to be free, land ownership would have to be expropriated and collectivized.

In the following century, several French thinkers, among them Marechal (1750-1803) and Babeuf (1760-1797), defended the same central thesis of Winstanley, but it was up to Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) to open a new path towards the collectivism and democracy, by proposing that the State should ultimately assume collective ownership of land. An idea that was taken up by Karl Marx (1818-1883) in the minimum government program that appears at the end of the Communist Manifesto written with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), at the request of the Communist League, of German origin but which had gathered in the City of London in 1847.

In this program, the progressive nationalization of private property replaces the original idea of ​​Winstanley's utopian community and improves Rousseau's state proposal. Nationalization became the way or strategy of government, but the final objective of the communist program continued to be the “end of property”, and later on, the end of the State itself, which should be dismissed from its function of administering people. .

It would be installed there, at that moment and in a definitive way, the paradox of the socialist proposal of administration and simultaneous reform of the capitalist mode of production. A problem that did not arise for the “utopian socialists” or for the “anarchists” who did not intend to take over the government of the capitalist States; on the contrary, what they proposed was to build, starting from society itself, communitarian, cooperative or solidary economic experiences, through the practice of local policies and the exercise of direct democracy. The same can be said, in an opposite direction, of the communist revolutions that took over the State and collectivized private property, dismantling the capitalist system and proposing to immediately build the foundations of a new “mode of production”.

Even without wanting to exhaust a subject of such complexity, it is possible to tell the history of the governmental experience of the left and its socialist or social-democratic parties in the XNUMXth century, as a permanent debate or tension between its proposal to eliminate private property and its obligation to run an economic system and society based on private property; and between its ultimate goal of eliminating the state and its intention to use the state strategically as its main instrument for modifying or revolutionizing capitalist development. This permanent tension runs through the history of socialist debates in the last century, as the central focus of the successive tactical “revisions” to which the original utopia was submitted over time.

The most famous of these “revisions” was proposed by the German social-democrat Eduard Bernstein, in 1894. According to Bernstein, technical progress and the internationalization of capital had changed the nature of the working class and the capitalist system, and therefore he proposed that the socialism was no longer considered the ultimate goal of the movement, and that this movement of transformation and transition was assumed as an “endless process”. A thesis that was gaining more and more supporters within the European social democracy of the first half of the XNUMXth century, a period in which socialists participated in various government coalitions with lesser or greater success – in this case, with emphasis on the Swedish case .

Until the moment when the majority of European social democrats had already abandoned the idea/project of the end of private property and the State itself, around the 1950s/60s, when the socialist, social democratic and communist parties in Europe formulated – already after World War II (1938-1945) – his two great projects or programs of reform and “egalitarian management of capitalism” that dominated European socialist thought until the capitalist economic crisis of the 70s and the great conservative turn of Western economic thought .

The first was the “Welfare State” project adopted by most European social-democratic or labor governments between 1946 and 1980. Its fundamental objective was economic growth, full employment and the construction of universal public education networks. , health and social protection. The second, and less experienced, was the project of “organized capitalism”, which proposed to build a fairer and more egalitarian capitalism, regulated and planned by the State, associated with a “strategic economic core” composed of large state and private companies. This project was present in the design of Salvador Allende's government program, in the early 1970s, and also in the first phase of François Mitterand's government, in the early 1980s.

These two projects or strategies had in common a new version of the original proposal of the English soldier Gerard Winstanley and of the socialists of the 1950th century. In both cases, the socialist equation was the same: “freedom = economic equality = the end of private property”. From the XNUMXs, however, this socialist equation adopted a new formula: “freedom = social equality = accelerated economic growth”.

From then on, socialists and social democrats stopped waiting for the “final crisis” of capitalism and began to bet on the greatest possible success of capitalism itself, as a way of creating jobs and a strategy to finance their increasingly social and distributive policies. more and more universal. The new project exerted great influence throughout the European periphery, and in all Latin American left parties that adopted the flag of “developmentalism”, defending economic policies favorable to the growth of capital and full employment. And it was then that the convergence of socialists and social democrats with Keynesian ideas, theses and policies was born.

This alliance or convergence, however, became complicated after the capitalist and western economic crisis of the 1970s, when it became clear that the new political-economic heterodoxy” had only worked simultaneously in favor of capital and labor during the limited and exceptional period of reconstruction and expansion. “regulated” of capitalism after World War II, between 1945 and 1975, approximately. It was after this period of bonanza, and in particular after the end of the “communist world”, that the socialists promoted their third “great revision”, in the 1980s and 1990s, led by British Labor and German Social Democrats.

But in this case, the new program of the so-called “third way” gave up a good part of what had been built by labor and social democrats under the banner of the “social welfare state”, since the “promotion of capital ” by the new neoliberal economic policies involved the loss of many of the rights won by the working class. Even so, this third great “socialist revision” exerted great influence on many groups of the North American left, and on broad sectors of the Latin American left, after the end of the continent's military dictatorships, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.

Along these lines, what was initially seen as a succession of successful “strategic adjustments”, in due time ended up leading the European socialists to a kind of dead end. From “revision to revision”, they first gave up their socialist end goal, and then their strategy of nationalizing private property, to finally question the very economic and social policies that had become their hallmark in the XNUMXth century. : favorable to continuous growth, full employment and the construction and progressive improvement of the “Welfare State”.

It was not without reason, therefore, that the socialist, social-democratic and labor parties were abandoned by their electorate and almost wiped from the European political map in the first two decades of the XNUMXst century. Even so, weakened and without a clear identity, they managed to return to the government of some important EU countries in these last two years, and today they are in the front line of the fight against Russia in Ukraine, supporting the rearmament and militarization of Europe, and should pay the bill for the economic and social crisis induced or worsened by the “economic sanctions” they imposed on Russia.

The new left-wing governments in Latin America will have to face problems that did not arise for the socialists of the last century, such as “sustainability”, “identities”, and “democratic reinvention”, and will have to face the new reality capitalist imposed by the power of internationalized financial capital, and by the constraints of “productive globalization” that is in full reversal at this moment, as an effect of the pandemic and the War in Ukraine.

But at the same time, the Latin American continent still has to solve problems of the “European last century”, such as economic development itself and better income distribution, but also education, health and universal social protection of its populations. For this reason, whatever the future of European social democracy after the war, its past history continues to be an important guide for the discussion of the strategies and policies that should be adopted in Latin America to rebuild a continent devastated in recent years by the pandemic, and by the ideological and economic fanaticism of the ultra-liberal extreme right.

* Jose Luis Fiori Professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo).


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