essay on socialism

Image: El Lissitzky


Current and original social democracy in the socialist debate.


Back in 1989, in a debate promoted by the Perseu Abramo Foundation between figures of left-wing critical thinking,[1] I made some statements in dialogue with the great Carlos Nelson Coutinho, which I recall in this summary text: “One of the most important lines of reflection, in Brazil, on the relationship between democracy and socialism – inspired mainly by the PCI theses and the experience of Austro-Marxism – has been developed by Carlos Nelson Coutinho (…)”. In those “89 years”, the inclusion, in the world socialist debate, of ecology, sexuality, urban culture, criticism of irrationalism, collective solitude and political democracy was already being debated. Political freedoms, ideological pluralism, the guarantees of individual rights in the doctrinal remodeling of socialism accelerated (through a heterodox and revisionist debate), both on issues of social democracy and on real socialism.

The capitalist model of industrial development persisted, but alongside it (and “inside it”) another more dynamic model was expressed, through new forms of exploitation and new patterns of accumulation, which not only reduced direct work in industry, but they also developed alternative ways of general organization of work and more dynamic ways of controlling the production process.

The emergence of new working “classes” and new forms of acquisition by capital – of the workforce and new technologies – drove a trend opposite to that predicted by the Communist Manifesto. There was no longer an increasing simplification of the entities of class society and the proletariat was no longer concentrated in large factories, dispersing itself, both vertically and horizontally.

It was the historic moment when support for “not limiting the wealth of the rich”[2] it began to be accepted as a “sound” morality in the tragedy of real life: the immediate and the future, thus, merged in everyday life, in a much faster and less evanescent way. Bourgeois cynicism began a new stage of controlling enslaved minds, teaching that any “transition” to be experienced would be within the capital system, therefore, based on the dissemination of compensatory policies and the stimulus to individual entrepreneurship. The creation of new ways to produce, live in communion, fight against inequality and poverty, germinating the future in the cracks of the sociometabolic domination of capital, became more difficult.

Discussion on topics like these within the left has never been easy. Ernst Bloch already understood that the two great deviations from Marx's philosophy, after his death, were the “social democratic deviation” and the “Stalinist deviation”. Bloch defended that “Marxism ran less risks from its declared enemies than from the actions of its friends” (...), which – according to many of its disciples – was a lucid finding “confirmed by many events in the Soviet context after the end of the Second World War”.[3]

Capitalism has changed a lot, and for the worse, since the 1970s. Today we can say that the left-wing social-democratic dilution – which was at the center of the debate – facilitated “the final product of neoliberalism (which) is not the rebirth of the liberal economy, ( but) the increase of privatism without reducing oligopolism”.[4] The exit requested by the “Washington Consensus”, through rentism, could no longer rely on social subjects capable of negotiating an inclusion pact, on the same social democratic level inspired by Weimar.

To hide their authoritarian strategies, radical liberalism framed an ideology of the “one way”, within liberal democracy, although Hayek already said that he preferred dictatorship with economic liberalism, democracy was liberal economy. The neoliberal dissimulation in relation to democracy was supported by a “focus” strategy, in compensatory policies aimed at the disposables of the system. Its function would be to recover a part of common life in solidarity, which had been adjusted by agreement, in the market of historical “values” of bourgeois humanism.

The social movements for the defense of rights, however, came to be understood as a kind of “subversion” of commercial entrepreneurship, since, from their angle, the demands for rights would block the “evolution” of the new needs of the market. It is the context that later unfolds in the thesis of the infiltration of “cultural Marxism”, which would coordinate the political action of the most primitive right, to propagate that any attempt to reorganize a social democratic pact would be a new communist threat.

In order to understand what is happening today, I argue that we must go back to the roots of the social-democratic debate that preceded the Russian Revolution, revisiting the rupture that resulted in the two left-wing projects in the post-war world: social democracy, as a reform of the capitalist system (Bernstein, Kautsky) and the Soviet State (Lenin, Tróstky, Stalin) as an experience of a new State, sometimes as a pretense of proletarian direct democracy, sometimes as State Capitalism, under the alleged control of the “party of the proletariat”.

I think that the renewing debate on the left and the resumption of the socialist idea will be possible if we conceive the passage of historical time in different conditions, opposed to those times of sudden ruptures, making them unrepeatable. The dissemination of alternatives today takes place outside a time of ascending changes, which were driven by the successive crises of capital. These crises, today, are more overcome by the revolutionary evolution in productive techniques, which give rise to new forms of ideological control that block substantial reforms. Before, time allowed confronting, in the movement itself and in political action, the “social-democratic” camp and the “Bolshevik” camp, as two distinct possibilities: today, both reform and revolution can be driven by the same type of impasses radicals in the structure of the order: no serious social reform, which opens trends towards more social equality, will be achieved with kid gloves inside the order.

I understand that the reformist or revolutionary, socialist and social-democratic ideas that occurred in the last century, therefore, can no longer be evaluated from the material and social bases that gave them relevance: at the present time, the alternatives coexist in parallel (more convergent than that diverge) and concentrate (in the same movement) the alternatives of revolution and reform, unlike what happened in the last century.

The current development of the productive forces unifies revolution and reform, in each concrete confrontation and in each political alternative to the political systems of capital. The expropriation tax on the surplus on large fortunes, for example, closes the possibilities of both a strong reformism and a radical social transformation. It is within this time – therefore – that debates and emancipatory struggles can move forward, for a new socialist idea, from whose idea it is possible to differentiate, both fair and unfair criticisms of the concrete, current social-democratic alternative, as a form of capitalist opposed to the real State that resulted from the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It is in the context of large urban centers that the most typical elements of the new financial power (monopolist-media) are placed, whose effects explode in a more universal way. This is where the crisis becomes more threatening and, at the same time, more stimulating, from a strategic point of view, so that one can think about and already begin to carry out – in a cellular way – the new emancipatory project. Accepting this debate hypothesis implies reassessing some classic concepts of “democracy”, “social democracy” and “socialism”, retained in the historical discussion of the left, in order to better characterize them in the time of global money movements.

It is in the cities, together with the traditional working class, that the new “working classes” were formed, composed of dispersed groups, articulated in service networks, working alone or in small groups. Millions of workers appear there, intermittent, precarious or self-employed “part-time workers”, depending on the very nature of the demand. They originate from the new production processes and instruments that still generate the mass of “autonomous” providers of the “digital-informatics society”, without authentic perspectives of life and mobilized for intermittent services.

Autonomous providers of leisure and culture production, service providers for the elderly, children and the disabled; salaried and self-employed IT workers, cooperative workers, delivery men, employees in outsourced services; workers in NGOs, in research and advertising, as well as a new “reserve army” of thousands of young people (carriers of a new culture of work or activity) – all of these – are at the center of a new way of life: with new languages, new aesthetics, another ethics, other than the one created in the industrial civilization that generated the “social democratic tree”, founded on new ways of living and understanding the “polis”.

Life based on more wages and more security can no longer become a broad guarantee in current capitalism, as well as the very existence of employment, in the classic legal form, will no longer be a guarantee for common survival. This dissolution of the traditional modes of industrial life and its political forms impedes the collective solutions that would be reasonable within traditional capitalism, such as those that industrial workers experienced – until yesterday – in the traditional social democratic contract.

The “book-office” workers of the classic world of work became bearers of a collective subjectivity in crisis and the crisis of impotence of their unionism opens, then, an enormous void of strategies and political formulation. Their everyday experience is no longer able to encompass the multiple diversity of the new world of work, which, at the same time that it suppresses, invades and divides the form and content of the “old” modern factory. The very aesthetics of proletarian politics is on its way out.

I refer to what was formulated as memory and theory by Boaventura de Souza Santos: “Social democracy and economic and social rights meant moments of truce in the most acute conflicts between the two principles (of the State and the Market). These conflicts were not the result of mere theoretical oppositions, but resulted from the social struggles of the working classes, who sought refuge in the State against the inequalities and despotisms generated by the market principle”.[5]

The traditional working class, the core of the old struggles, then lives before an even more uncertain future in a present of invisible “masters”, with its new forms of domination and control of opinion, “(in) a world whose profound and accelerated transformations began leaving behind the old class structure, without (….) knowing very well (…) who are the new rulers and who are the new ruled”.[6]

Orthodox Marxism – as opposed to Marxism itself – remained fixed on the messianic-proletarian vision, in which the category “proletariat” (or working class, or “workers”, treated abstractly) became – itself – a concept: the concept of revolution[7]The most enlightened vanguards of the labor movement know that they continue to be subordinated to the masters of their destiny (who continue to be the industrial capitalists), although on the political level of representation, in electoral processes, the political confrontation that forms new identities is still far from their understanding .

The structural changes that replaced that time in the past require another level of politicization to insert new segments of workers into the political process, in a new way of doing politics that goes beyond the limits of the factory.[8] In this way, the “traditional working classes” – manual and technical – that had their traditional identity diluted by the emergence of new technologies, can form their new identities.

The set of workers of the “new capitalism” and of the “old capitalism”, thus – in the future of the transition – will probably articulate the democratic question differently. It is not impossible, for the new world of work (forged in the autonomy of outsourcing and precariousness), that the idea of ​​a future society leans more toward the utopia of “a community of free individuals”; and that, for the workers still grouped together in the old modern factory in decline, this society of the future presents itself as the desire for a “free community of associated individuals”[9], organized in production and politically differently. It is possible that this duality can be one of the sources of conciliation of the “principle of the State or the principle of the market”, in order to stabilize a new real post-socialdemocratic and post-socialist order, opening up to a time of overcoming the order of capital .

The former identity of workers in industrial modernity and their immediate class interests are diluted with the fragmentation of the traditional class structure. In order to build, before the very project of new socialism, a new organic public life is necessary so that the majority of workers begin to share new identities in a new way of life, outside the logic of the capitalist market. And this sharing is necessarily “transterritorial”, “gendered”, “cultural”, “national” and “multilingual”.[10]

These positive impulses originate from the negativities experienced in everyday life that, at the same time that they tend to dissolve freedom in a life without democratic meaning (with the alienated commodification of life) open perspectives for new utopias. This is the innovative-conservative impulse of the neoliberal ideology that reinforces the fetish of the “rebirth” of the liberal economy (which stops the imagination when it rebels for better living conditions), but also opens up a radical critique of programmed obsolescence, of irrational consumerism programmed with the volatility of market values.

This new common public life can be sought in its concrete exercises, such as information, leisure, production, rational consumption and public life, which control the new cultural subjectivities: “To articulate this general social production, capital tends to invest more and more in the information industry. As 'production is immediately consumption and consumption is immediately production' (Marx, 1974: 115), it is a question of organizing society, both to produce and to consume material goods that are increasingly distant from basic human needs (eating, sleeping , dress up). (…) The production process is no longer just what is done inside the factories. (...) It takes place (...) in every place where the social individual is trained to incorporate himself into any productive routine and, at the same time, dialectically, he is 'constructed' to want to use the product that, socially, helped to manufacture. This construction is, in a word, cultural. Which is why, in these contemporary times, culture is economics”.[11]

The creation of a political movement that contains the germs of a new way of life for a “new moral life” (Gramsci) seeking new forms of productive articulation, can be both Government and Left Opposition policies, based on a democratic and social “minimum program”. In this program, productive activities – social and cultural – must contribute to a political morality in common life and to new ways of producing both healthy food and the basic industrial goods necessary for a dignified life.

The basic conditions for a contemporary leftist offensive are already being developed in the resistance of the various dispersed social groups, in the new processes of labor exploitation, which is verifiable with: (a) growing legitimacy of agro-environmental concerns;[12] (b) growing legitimacy of poor communities' participation in public affairs; (c) growing political legitimization of gender and cultural characteristics; (d) growing (re)legitimation of the State in the face of the crisis of social cohesion promoted by neoliberalism; (e) growing legitimization of the struggle for the socialization of work (or “activity”) in order to provide for a dignified survival; (f) growing overcoming and conformation of a critical intellectuality on a world scale.

Migrations, in parallel with the superconcentration of income and the reduction of legal and bureaucratic borders between countries – in the face of the worsening of economic internationalization – are also aspects of a new world reality of the new historical cycle of reorganization, both of the capital system and of the work relationships and social coexistence.

In the current historical period, given the massive implementation of new technologies - information technology, robotics, telematics, new management methods and the reduction of value added by live work (in view of the horizontality of the production process through outsourcing, with the new forms of cooperation between companies) – in this period – the sources of conflict are reorganized and the division between formal and informal society increases.

The need for a new radical policy, then, emerges as a reformulation of the utopia of a world based on equality, according to the perspective of a utopian realism, based on certain assumptions: fighting poverty, absolute or relative; restore the degradation of the environment; challenge arbitrary power; reduce the role of force and violence in social life and the democratization of the circulation of opinion, as a vital support of political democracy.

Then there is the need to recreate the “theory of the company”, to allow new entrepreneurial experiences and to compose – alongside traditional companies – new productive relationships in the “polis"real" post-socialist and post-social-democratic, within a new social-democratic constitutional order. In this new order, the new tax and fiscal benefits must be aimed at welcoming enterprises of a “new type”, consistent with a consciously oriented life. Let's look at some ideas:

– Creation of legal Statutes for the formation of cooperatives with public subsidies, which aim to provide services in areas of relevant public interest, such as public transport and recovery of degraded areas; care for the elderly, children and young people with disabilities; support for social assistance initiatives, with groups in extreme poverty; promotion of schools for the qualification of labor and technical preparation for the sharing and diffusion of new technologies;

– Creation of legal Statutes for the formation of companies of public relevance, for consultancy and production of services in the area of ​​environmental protection and recovery, training of labor and technical qualification of staff, for environmental cleaning services and maintenance of State assets;

– State impulse for financing and providing “expertise” to “non-state” public companies, under the control of the communities that consume their services, with supervision coordinated by the State; special tax regime and evaluation of the quality of its services by the recipients, such as, for example, in the construction companies of sewage collection networks, construction of basic sanitation stations and road conservation-tolls;

– Boost to application management companies, of a cooperative nature, for projects and production of applications intended to promote and finance small businesses of individual entrepreneurs or cooperatives, to promote transport and delivery of goods.


The idea contained in Soviet socialism, driven by a professional party of cadres aimed at organizing the proletariat as the ruling class of the revolution, is no longer able to sustain itself in the society that follows the second Industrial Revolution. The new production processes and the complete reorganization of labor relations point, today, to a new organizational direction for socialist parties and their forms of organization.

The parties of contemporary democratic socialism will not be parties whose backbone rests predominantly in the factories, but which will be structured in that world of work located in the working classes – new and old – dispersed or grouped, which are the vanguard of a new productive life, shared in solidarity and cooperation.

The first big step is to wage the struggle for hegemony, aiming at the constitution of a political culture that, as it is no longer centered on the strategic exclusivity of traditional workers, can be more comprehensive and “open”, to incorporate in the emancipatory movement the constellation of new social subjects, with their new collective and group demands.

I think that the processes for the formation of this party (either reinventing the existing ones or creating other alternatives) must be accompanied by immediate experiences of democratization and social control of the State, with the construction of non-state public institutions of direct participation in the management of the State . This may occur from the already existing organic forms, which stimulate the emergence of new social subjects in cities and also add to the current forms, new forms of production of goods and service offers, new cultural expressions, direct virtual and face-to-face forms participation in the political system and public policy decisions. The MST, Via Campesina, the organic solidarity movements in the fight against the pandemic, the new environmentalist movements in defense of the Amazon and in defense of the original communities, already show that this is possible.

At the political level, demands will also emerge from the new technical layers that operate the new high-tech production processes, posed by ecological organizations, those that defend intangible heritage, anti-racists, community social and gender organizations, which should compose a platform that bets on a consciously oriented way of life and in new forms of organization of social production. It is about immediately interfering in the sociometabolism of the mercantile production system of capitalism, as proposed by István Butcher em Beyond Capital (Boitempo).[13]

Here emerges the important role of healthy food producers in the countryside and on the outskirts of large cities, since without food sustainability that deviates from the distribution structured by circulation oligopolies, no policy of democratic socialism will resist. Without a strong political relationship between the new and the old world of work, directly with the families that produce these foods, via a self-determined mercantile circulation, continued demand will not be generated, allowing producers to free themselves from oligopolistic distribution.

The crisis of the social-democratic State constituted after Weimar, after the “glorious years” of European social-democracy, stimulated the emergence of new forms of public organization, through which demands not accepted (or not answered by governments) were structured in a circuit broader social and political representation. This (“direct” or “indirect”) representation transcends democratic and leftist parties, given the emergence of new autonomous forms of power and new technological tools.

The new non-state public sphere that focuses on the state – with or without the support of traditional political representation – already exists. It is made up of thousands of local, regional, national and international organizations, which promote their self-organization for particular interests, from attention to certain diseases, struggles for housing and land, to entities with typically community demands and the promotion of critical actions, in eco-environmental, gender terms, in support of famine escapees and indigenous peoples. This sphere is placed as a mediation space for the direct political action of citizens for their interests, without being limited to what is given to them by state law and regulated by traditional political representation.

The new forms of domination and exclusion, now emerging, therefore, produced new forms of autonomy and “alternative inclusion” within, alongside, or against the State. It is the formation of that new non-state-dependent public space: a non-state, self-organizing public sphere.

In regional and local governments, in conurbated urban environments or in large cities, experimentations of sociometabolic rupture of universal capitalist domination can be forged, instituting combined processes of representative democracy with direct democratic participatory forms, of a voluntary nature.

The treatment of the democratic socialist question becomes, in this context, the center of a transforming strategy, whose juridical-political basis is the effectiveness of fundamental rights. These will only be effective with the progressive recreation of the Social State of Law in new molds, in what it was unable to mediate and that refers, especially, to the demands of the new world of work, basically blocked and submitted to the logic of the real or artificial needs of the Marketplace.

It is necessary to pay attention to the deregulation movements in society, supported by market relations, which reach the various branches of law and have a special predilection for deregulatory reforms, within the scope of Labor Law. Such a movement is not an “invention” of neoliberal theory or of reactionary politicians, but it is the perverse response to the demands of the ongoing scientific-technological revolutions. For the new world of work of contractual workers, it is necessary to reinvent legal protections for the provision of services, which come from both new and traditional ways of producing, based on new technologies

These experiences can be used to disseminate a new conception of democratic reform of the State, based on a new State-society relationship, which opens the State to grassroots voluntary organizations (and to the participation of isolated citizens, given new technologies and communications networks) particularly those that are self-organized by citizens without a voice in the State. The new party of socialism, with a visible political center, with a stable “leading group”, will have to operate its policy directly in these horizontal relations, sometimes virtual, sometimes real, of the current class society.

This process tends to break down bureaucratic boundaries, at the local and regional levels, which separate the State from the common citizen, producing concrete results in the quality of life of the “voiceless”. The part of the popular representation, which integrates the traditional political representation of the left, should exert influence in the process of building consensus, guided from “bottom up”, recreating – including in the exercise of liberal representative politics – actions contesting the liberal-representative manipulation.

These movements, consciously guided by political decisions, thus indicate a public co-management – ​​state and non-state – through which the legitimacy of traditional representation is permanently regenerated by the direct democratization of decisions. These decisions are “returned” to the community, in the form of government policies and actions, which entrust identity to the participants in the process and expand in society, changing the daily life of “polis” and interfering with the political understanding of the masses.

The impact on economic life in urban territorial spaces, the production of education, security and social assistance policies, as well as the carrying out of priority works of obvious popular interest, are achievable ends to be managed by this new way of deciding. It is these ends that, in addition to becoming more directly involved in the dispute for the interests of the classes in the “polis”, allow for a more creative and direct relationship with “big politics”, to promote regional and national management experiences of a radical democratic nature.

The transit of the particular-concrete experience of local governments to the upper levels of State management, however, can only occur successfully if the left is able – in addition to winning the trust of the majority through capable and successful governments – to be the bearer of a new moral life, of a new ethical-political dimension in the context of a new social-democratic “praxis” to recover the liberating meaning of socialism. And it is precisely from this point that the importance of the new parties of socialism emerges, in an era that is not yet post-industrial, but is already in transition towards a future that can be determined by the combination of direct citizen participation with representational democracy.

The political strength of the collectives of the new social movements and workers' organizations, partisan or non-partisan - whose members put their lives at the service of emancipation and freedom - is what can open a path of plural left, in the "long march of struggles from possible socialism to the reign of freedom.

*Tarsus in law he was Governor of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, Mayor of Porto Alegre, Minister of Justice, Minister of Education and Minister of Institutional Relations in Brazil. Author, among other books, of left in process (Voices).

The present text is a renewed, corrected and updated fusion, based on many of the author's texts, present mainly in “Vanguarda de uma Nova Cidadania” and “21 Theses for the Creation of a Democratic and Socialist Policy”. (Although there is no formal mention, this text is influenced by the elaborations of Juarez Guimarães and Ladislau Dowbor, on the republican question and the economy, respectively).



[1] Apolônio de Carvalho, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Fábio Konder Comparato, Flávio Koutzii, Francisco Correia Weffort, Geraldo Cavagnari Filho, Jacob Gorender, José Arthur Gianotti, José Dirceu, José Genoino, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Márcio Thomaz Bastos, René Dreifuss, Tarso Son-in-law, Wanderlei Guilherme dos Santos and Wladimir Pomar.

[2] Dahrendorf, Ralph. Modern Social Conflict – An Essay on the Politics of Liberty, Jorge Zahar Editor, Edusp, SP, 1992, p. 30;

[3] Bloch, Ernst, “Marx, Aufrechter Gang, Konkrete Utopie”, in: Über Karl Marx, Frankfurt, 1968, p.165-166, “in” Munster, Arno, Ernst Bloch: Philosophy of Praxis and Concrete Utopia, Ed. unesp,

[4] Lago, Benjamin Marcos. Social Dynamics – How Societies Change, Ed. Voices, Petrópolis, 1995, p. 235.

[5] Santos, Boaventura de Souza Santos, “Lefties of the world, unite!”, Boitempo, São Paulo, 2018, p. 27.

[6] Morales, Angel Garrorena. Political Representation and Democratic Constitution, Editorial Civitas, Madrid, 1991, p.108.

[7] Santos, Milton. Technique, Space, Time – Globalization and Informational Technical-Scientific Environment, Ed. Hucitec, 2nd ed., SP, 1966, p. 172.

[8] The studies in the book The World After the Fall, organized by Emir Sader (Ed. Paz e Terra) are indispensable for the critique of real socialism and for thinking about a new socialist project.

[9] Bobbio, Norberto. Equality and Freedom, Ediouro, RJ, 1996, p. 72.

[10] Canclini, Nestor Garcia. Consumers and Citizens – Multicultural Conflicts of Globalization, Ed. from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 1996, p. 35.

[11] Dantas, Marcos. The Logic of Information Capital, Ed. Counterpoint, RJ, 1996, p. 31.

[12] Veiga, Jose Elida. “The Agro-Environmental Transition in the United States”, in Rebuilding Agriculture, Jaicione Almeida and Zander Navarro (eds.), Ed. from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, 1997, p. 129.

[13] Butcher, István. Beyond Capital Towards a Theory of Transition, Translator: Castanheira, Paulo Cezar/ Lessa, Carlos, Ed. Boitempo, São Paulo, 2002, p. 17.

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