The democratic socialist project



In a lesson in historical materialism, Paul Singer seeks socialism not in the “utopian imagination”, but in real experience, giving concreteness to his elaboration

The following text began to be written on the occasion of the “Eleventh Conference on Socialism in the 21st Century”, promoted by the Perseu Abramo Foundation (FPA) and the Workers’ Party (PT), on August 28, 2021, whose invitation I thank. The theme that fell to me was “PT Socialism”. To participate, I decided to review the party's resolutions on the subject and reread three books by Paul Singer on socialism, considering that these had, in some way, influenced the first ones. Later, I developed the notes in a way that they served as a Presentation to A Militant Utopia and Other Writings on Socialism, that the publisher Unesp, in partnership with the Perseu Abramo Foundation, will publish in the first half of 2022, opening the Paul Singer Collection.


Paul Singer and Socialism

Paul Singer started to attend the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), in Praça da Sé, ground zero of São Paulo, somewhat by chance. As a teenager, he worked as an office assistant downtown. At the end of the day, before returning to his mother's house, with whom he had fled Vienna in 1940, he would spend time at the party headquarters, where he would read the available material.

We are probably talking about 1948, when the author in question was a teenager. The PSB had obtained recognition from the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) in August of the previous year and would end up dissolved by Institutional Act n.o. 2, of the military dictatorship, in 1965. Then, Singer, 33, having already been leader of the association in the São Paulo capital, was without a party for some time. The PSB would resurface in 1985, but then Singer belonged to the ranks of the Workers' Party (PT), which he had helped to found in 1980, and in which he remained until the end of his life, in 2018. A professional type, he was part of his daily life, therefore, from an early age, endowing him with an egalitarian spirit that was expressed even in the delicacy of small gestures.

The old PSB defended Karl Kautsky's thesis, according to which there could be no socialism without democracy1. The program stated that “the Party considers the liberal-democratic conquests as an inalienable heritage of humanity, but considers them insufficient, as a political form, to achieve the elimination of an economic regime of exploitation of man by man”. As for property, the sixteen-page programmatic notebook that, yellowed, was among the belongings left by Singer, read: “socialization will take place gradually, until the transfer, to the social domain, of all goods capable of creating wealth , maintaining private property within the limits of the possibility of its personal use without prejudice to the collective interest”.2

Literary critic Antonio Candido belonged to the radical wing of the PSB, which Singer approached, becoming friends with that giant of letters despite the age difference (Candido was from 1918; Singer, from 1932). Candido wrote that “the critical rejection of Stalinism and the effort to use Marxism, not as a primer, but as a flexible instrument” were two of the most vivid characteristics of the legend.3

The influence on the avid reader would soon show. At 19, Singer wrote for the magazine Dror, by Jewish youth, an article entitled “Socialism and democracy”.4 In it, he performs an early analysis of the modern situation. It is worth remembering that he would only enter the University of São Paulo (USP) to study Economics in 1956, after taking a job in a factory and working in the Metallurgists Union. When he reached higher education he was an intellectual formed in militancy. Self-taught, the relationship between socialism and democracy, on which he would offer his own reflections, remained a priority item.

In the text of Dror, the diagnosis was that “the tragic experience” of fascist Europe had shown that “when capitalism goes into decay” bourgeois democracy ends up “overthrown by the dynamics of the class struggle”. The European labor movement would have failed to realize that, in situations like this, it was necessary to use democracy to destroy capitalism, transforming bourgeois democracy into a socialist democracy, but without forgetting freedom of expression and “equal opportunities to express oneself”. He was betting on something that we could call “revolutionary democratic socialism”, a rare option, perhaps considered, in fact, only in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and in Chile under Allende (1971-73).

The long journey modified certain youthful convictions, without altering the essence that constituted them: the need to overcome the exploitation of man by man. As recorded by the economist João Machado in the late 1990s, Singer, “within the PT”, was the most committed to “keeping the issue of socialism always current”.5

But the means have changed. In the last book he published, in 2018, Singer states that the Chilean allendista, whose experience “was a kind of re-edition of the Spanish Civil War” in Latin America, left a valuable lesson, but for not be repeated. The Popular Unit had expropriated large companies, but instead of making them self-managed, it had nationalized them.6, and the nationalization not it would lead to socialism, he had concluded after carefully examining the experience of the Soviet bloc.

Singer's reflection on socialism is mainly contained in three books. What Is Socialism Today small work written in one sitting, in New Dehli, India, at the end of 1978, during a curious forced sanitary retreat. Written before the neoliberal avalanche completely changed the perspectives of the left, it appeared when the party reorganization promoted by the military regime gave rise to the PT. The principles of democratic socialism migrated from the old PSB to the new acronym, in which they had, in the best judgment, a reasonable influence. A militant utopia: rethinking socialism, Published in 1998, when the then full professor at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at USP was approaching university retirement, it explains the option for solidarity economy, for which he still worked for two decades. then come socialist economy, conference given in a coordinated PT cycle, at Lula's request, by his co-religionist Antonio Candido, Francisco de Oliveira, a friend and former colleague of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), and Singer, himself. Read at the symposium's April 24, 2000 session, the text brings, among other contributions, a brilliant analysis of centralized planning problems.

Afterwards, Singer continued acting, thinking and writing about socialism, but, in general, he produced short texts on the subject, part of which can be found in Solidarity Economy Tests, edited in Portugal shortly before he died.7 Some of Essay will be republished in the second volume of the Paul Singer Collection, still in 2022, which will deal precisely with the solidary economy.


A policy towards democratic socialism

As it would not be within the limits of these lines to make a complete balance, I will limit myself to highlighting a theme that perhaps deserves the attention of readers. Like the sociologist TH Marshall (1893-1981), in the 1949 lectures intended to dialogue with the legacy of the economist Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), I fulfill the task from the angle I know, that is, that of Political Science. It will be up to colleagues from the economic group to assess disciplinary issues that escape laypeople like me.

No communist manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels present the socialist struggle as the search for power by the proletariat in order to overcome capitalism. According to the legendary editorial of 1848, “the first phase of the workers' revolution” would be “the elevation of the proletariat to the ruling class”. Then, it would be up to “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State”. Later, when “in the course of development, class antagonisms disappear and all production is concentrated in the hands of associated individuals”, public power would lose “its political character”.8

At another time, in Gotha program critique (1875), Marx makes the controversial statement that between the different stages – centralization and state disappearance –, the State would have to function as a “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.9 Singer, who liked to quote the boutade that Marx did not consider himself a Marxist10, disputed the entire sequence. For him, the conquest of political power should not be the main objective of the socialists, the nationalization of the means of production, an error, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, a fatal deviation.

On the last point, whose conception was perhaps not clear even to Marx, since Lenin was the true formulator of the dictatorial resource, Singer never had any doubts. In the 1980 text, he states that after reaching power, a transition state should be built, but one that would preserve free debate, the confrontation of opposing points of view and free electoral consultations, that is, modern representative democracy. It would be the only means of “preventing the ruling layer from uniting and closing itself in a set of inaccessible instances, which Orwell called the 'Inner Party' (1984)”.11 If democracy were suppressed, there would tend to be “a dictatorship about the working class” and not da working class.12

But Singer, I believe, remained within the framework of “revolutionary democratic socialism”, returning to Kaustsky and Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism, among others, of the Bolsheviks when they decided to suppress the Russian Constituent Assembly in January 1918.13 Over time, however, Singer ended up questioning not only the dictatorship, but nationalization. He concluded that the “attempt to achieve – or 'build' a new society through nationalization and central planning” had resulted in a “failure”.14 “The historical experience of the Soviet Union has demonstrated that capitalism cannot be destroyed by political action alone,” he wrote.15

As a result, coming to power, even a democratic one, ceased to have the centrality it usually acquires whenever the flag of socialism is held by parties, whose function, after all, is to dispute governments and mandates. But without power, how to achieve socialism? The answer requires a redefinition of what socialism is, about which the classics (Marx and Engels), by the way, would have a “scientific vision” that “leaves much to be desired”.16 Here begins, as far as I can reach, a reflection whose consequences await careful consideration.

Singer suggested, in What is socialism today, a dialectical reasoning according to which, as the socialist project corresponded to the aspiration for a society that surpassed capitalism, it needed to change as the order it wanted to transform advanced. In a militant utopia, takes a step forward, realizing that socialism was not just a project changeable, but a shifting production mode, which corresponds to the various reactions practices from the working class to capitalist advancement.

In a lesson in historical materialism, Singer seeks socialism not in "utopian imagination" but in actual experience,17 giving concreteness to the elaboration, otherwise excessively blown by the winds of pure will. He proposes that socialism actually began two centuries ago, living in the recesses of capitalism. In each formation, as Marx underlines in the Grundrissse, there is a “modal combination”18 that mixes different ways of producing, one of which is dominant.

Since the 1844th century, there have been two waves of socialist construction. One stems from the early industrial revolution. The emblem was the self-governing community established at Rochdale, near Manchester, England, in XNUMX, "the matrix of all modern co-operatives".19 Rochdale, where, among other rules, each partner had one vote, regardless of the capital invested, and the society remained open to anyone who could join the minimum share of one pound, was originally a consumer association. It began to produce successfully in 1850, with its mill still operating in 1906.

But the socialist character of the experience ended in 1862, when, in practice, production began to be managed by the shareholders, who were not the workers, transforming it into a kind of joint-stock company.20 Nevertheless, the cooperative movement spread across the planet, and in some cases in the self-managing mold originating in Rochdale, leading to socialism.

The second wave corresponded to the second industrial revolution (about 1850-1950) and was inspired by Marxism. Referencing in From utopian socialism to scientific socialism, written by Engels in 1875, Singer shows that there was no indication of what would be, in practice, the regime emanating from the state appropriation of the means of production. Engels says that by nationalizing the productive forces, classes would be “automatically” abolished, since the division between holders and non-holders of capital would disappear. Then, the State would begin to disappear, no longer having the function of exercising class dominance. It remained, however, to explain how the “collective property regime” and the “planning system” would work.

In reality, instead of causing the disappearance of the State, the seizure of power, in actual experience, caused its “monstrous growth”.21 In about twenty pages of socialist economy, Singer showed, through the crystalline language that earned him the reputation of a dedicated teacher, that in state-owned mechanics a “salesman economy” is established, that is, in which there is strong and permanent demand, combined with chronic shortage of supply. As a result, the bureaucrats who control production inputs gain strength and the worker, despite having a guaranteed job and income (which is positive), experiences the intense frustration of not gaining access to the abundant consumption held by peers in capitalist nations. In this configuration, even everyday goods such as cleaning material or razor blades became objects of desire.

Without meddling in the specialized debate, which involves the negotiation of goals between productive units and central bureaucracies, pressure for imports, lack of foreign exchange, the need to export, low technological innovation and a tendency towards inefficient investment, I will confine myself to emphasizing that, despite of unavoidable problems, Singer recognizes in planning the virtue of avoiding the destructive roller coaster of capitalist cycles. hence the formula political suggested by him: the constitution of a parliament economic22, where the plans of firms, families and governments could be confronted, negotiated and reconciled or decided by majority, replacing market chaos with democratic regulation.

If I am not mistaken, the idea that, in socialism, the economic aspirations of all instances should be brought to the forefront of democratic politics through a specific parliament was obscured by the environment that was completely contrary to progressive experimentation that was lived – and still prevails – at the end of the 1991th century. The proposal was vaguely reminiscent of the Brazilian experience of the automotive sector chamber, which operated from around 1994 to XNUMX, of which Singer and Oliveira had been enthusiastic.23 The experiment, abandoned by the PSDB government, sought to create a space for negotiation between different sectors of the chain, in order to democratically combat the hyperinflationary process of the time.

Singer extended the spirit of the chamber to society as a whole, giving them the character of institutional invention. But the time was of conservative retreat and the proposal supposed to revolve both the conception of the socialist economy and the liberal way of looking at democracy. Socialists would assume that markets could not be abolished, although a coordinating mechanism was needed to avoid capitalist roulette. “We need markets because it's the form of interaction we know, which allows keeping the different bureaucracies separate, preventing total power from taking over the economy”, reflected Singer.24 From the democratic point of view, the proposal, without Singer knowing (as far as I followed it), was in line with what political scientists such as Dean Robert Dahl and the British Dean Paul Hirst were proposing in the northern hemisphere, before the neoliberal wave closed the spaces of progress.

Em readings pronounced at the University of Berkeley (1981), Dahl, perhaps the most important theorist of democracy in the USA, developed the argument that it was necessary to extend “the democratic process to economic units”, in order to equate the problem of inequality of resources in politics .25 Hirst, for his part, said that associative, cooperative and syndicalist socialism had become “more important than ever, because they raise questions connected with the democratic organization of society that are now vital”.26

Finally, there was thought of a convergence between socialism and democracy, driven by the welfare state, the demise of the iron curtain and the democratization of countries like Brazil, among others. In this still optimistic climate, the suggestion of an economic parliament opened a path that was buried by the neoliberal avalanche. The possible socialist expansion of democracy explains why neoliberalism was quick to shield economic decisions from popular scrutiny. Autonomy of the Central Bank, spending ceiling, free fluctuation of the exchange rate, etc. were implemented to prevent majorities from being able to govern the economy. By establishing such restrictions, democracy was being emptied, making socialist reflections that proposed, on the contrary, its densification.


The Politics of Solidarity Resistance

Indicating the theoretical aspect that I believe deserves research investment, by way of conclusion I risk a political reading of the subject that excited the professor in the conclusive phase of existence. Faced with the neoliberal crossroads, Singer, at the time Secretary of Planning for the city of São Paulo, in the PT administration of Luiza Erundina, had the intuition that it would mark the last stage of the praxis that had begun around Praça da Sé. The solidary economy, he thought, could “dribble” the capitalist advance, touching the socialist ball in the empty space left by the adversary. As the third (and perhaps, above all, the fourth) industrial revolution implies less and less absorption of human labor, which is replaced by automation, the self-managed cooperatives invented in the 19th century could reacquire the role of alternative, opening up to unemployed multitudes a socialist path.

Then, the historical materialist entered the field again: “capitalism took centuries to develop – if not as a conscious project, but as a semi-clandestine way of taking advantage of the productive potential of groups marginalized by the dominant mode of production".27 In the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, capitalist relations were prohibited in the big cities, where trade guilds were strong, just as today socialism does not penetrate the universe of globalized companies. It was through the unimportant cotton weaving, carried out on the basis of domestic orders to guarantors from the interior, that capitalist production grew, bordering the center. The definitive turning point came only in the XNUMXth century, with the steam engine.28

Why couldn't socialism do the same? “The workers' cooperative realizes to a high degree all the conditions for the de-alienation of labor and, therefore, for the realization of socialism in the production plan”, stated Singer.29 It consummates, here and now, the ultimate goal of The Manifest: see “production concentrated in the hands of associated individuals”.30 The potentiality of self-managed cooperativism as a transition to socialism is recognized by Marx, especially insofar as, together with the legal and juridical regulation of labor relations, security and the decommodification of areas such as health, education, housing, energy, communications , transport, leisure and so many others, points to a social revolution in which merchandise ceases to rule the cards.

But in the context after 1980, it was neoliberalism as a “global reason” that spread across the planet, encouraging generalized competition, deregulating, privatizing and commodifying every available area. From football to faith, passing through politics, education, health, leisure, housing, food, the environment and even art, the last consolation, submission to money has increased. As Dardot and Laval observed, there was an “individualization of social relations to the detriment of collective solidarities”.31

O crash 2008, contrary to expectations, intensified the process. In an intervention carried out in 2013, Singer would reveal, with the usual frankness: “I was completely wrong, I am not ashamed to say that. Banks force countries to carry out the damn austerity, which is the opposite of Keynesian policy”.32 To complete the gloomy picture, in 2016 Trump's victory brought to light a new planetary extreme right, with fascist traits, threatening democratic institutions.

At a time like this, the solidarity economy also works, I think, as an option for resistance. It is up to the socialist parties to transform resistant solidarity into a State program, in the hope that better times will open the temporarily blocked paths. Even discarding the nationalization of the means of production, it is unlikely that politics will cease to be the place where the future will be decided. Singer himself reports that only “thanks to the effects of the English Revolution, which culminated in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, England, in the middle of the 18th century” became the most capitalist nation in Europe.33

In practice, which is always the criterion of truth, perhaps Singer would agree. On the last page of the militant utopia he wrote that “(…) cooperatives lack capital. It's your Achilles heel. If the labor movement, which shares state power with capital, wants to leverage public funding for the solidarity economy, the face of training will change”. In response, the Lula government created the National Secretariat for the Solidarity Economy (Senaes) in 2003, with Singer taking over the leadership and remaining in it until the interruption of Dilma Rousseff's mandate, on May 11, 2016.

In the Senaes survey between 2003 and 2007, around 22 solidarity enterprises were accounted for, involving close to 1,7 million workers. In the second census, between 2009 and 2013, around 20 enterprises were registered, with 1,4 million workers (IPEA notes that the drop was small, considering the sharp decrease in unemployment between 2003 and 2013). On average, each enterprise had 73 associates and the average monthly revenue was R$ 28, with 60% not reaching R$ 5.34 It could be said that the socialist sector of the economy involved about 2% of the total labor force, targeting the poor. It was far from being the center of national production, but it showed vitality in such unfavorable world circumstances.

Danish Red Party MP Pelle Dragsted, author of Nordic Socialism (2021), recently defended the relevance of considering the public sector and the cooperative, which includes the second largest supermarket chain in Denmark, as socialist implants, leaving the left parties to value and expand them.35 As can be seen, Singer's thought is in line with a certain international debate, as indeed attested by the inclusion, post-mortem, from his article in the collection Reflections on Socialism in the Twenty-First Century, organized by the Swede Claes Brundenius.36 In the center and on the periphery of capitalism, efforts are being made to keep the democratic socialist flame burning in the midst of the gathering fog.

While the global commodity-producing system, driven by the gear matrix of corporations (to use Adam Tooze's expression) seems to be taking humanity, from crisis to crisis (the coronavirus pandemic being the most recent), to the void of sociability, solidary implants resist in the name of a civilized future. Socialism in practice becomes, this time, useful and urgent.

* André Singer is a professor of political science at USP. Author, among other books, of The senses of lulism (Literature Company)

Originally published in the magazine Theory and debate.



1. See Karl Kautsky. The dictatorship of the proletariat (1918). Em: cria%C3%A7%C3%A3o-da-Sociedade-das-Na%C3%A7%C3%B5es-at%C3%A9-1919/karl- kautsky-a-ditadura-do-proletariado-1918.html.

2. São Paulo State Committee of the PSB. Brazilian Socialist Party Program. São Paulo, 1948, pp. 4 and 6.

3. Antonio Candido de Mello e Souza. "Preface". In Miracy Barbosa de Sousa Gustin and Margarida Luiza de Matos Vieira. Sowing Democracy: the trajectory of democratic socialism in Brazil. Contagem (MG), Palesa, 1995, p. 10.

4. Dror (organ of Jewish youth), 6, February 1951.

5. Paul Singer and Joao Machado. Socialist Economy. São Paulo, Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2000, p. 51.

6. Paul Singer. Solidarity Economy Tests. Coimbra, Almedina, 2018, pp. 75-6.

7. Paul Singer. Essays on Solidarity Economy, op. cit.

8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communist Manifesto. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2010, pp. 58-9.

9. Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha program. In: K. Marx. Selected Works vol.2. London, Lawrence and Wishhart, 1942, p. 577. Free translation AS.

10. Marx's supposed phrase appears in a letter from Engels to Eduard Bernstein on 2-3/11/1882, quoted in Leslie Derfler. “Paul Lafargue and the Beginnings of Marxism in France". Biography, 14 (1), Winter 1991. Despite the iconoclastic banter, Singer's bond with the work of Marx and Engels was intense. It should be remembered, among many other facts, that he took part in the seminar on Capital, led by professors from the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters at USP, between more or less 1958 and 1964, having later coordinated the translation of the book for Editora Abril (1983).

11. Paul Singer. What Is Socialism Today, Petrópolis (RJ), Voices, 1980, pp. 56-7. The reference in parentheses is to the novel 1984, by George Orwell.

12. Same, p. 38.

13. See Karl Kautsky (1918), op. cit. and Rosa Luxemburg. the russian revolution (1918) In: Isabel Loureiro (org.). Rosa Luxemburgo Selected Texts. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2009, pp. 101-18.

14. Paul Singer. A Militant Utopia. Petrópolis, Voices, 1998, p. 9.

15. Paul Singer. Solidarity Economy Tests. Op.cit., p. 219.

16. Paul Singer and Joao Machado. Socialist Economy. São Paulo, Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2000, p. 11.

17. Paul Singer, A Militant Utopia. Op. Cit., p. 110.

18. The expression “modal combination” is from Tony Burns. “The concept of a social formation in the writings of EP Thompson and Ellen Meiksins Wood". Capital & Class (27/072021/10.1177) At:

19. Paul Singer. A Militant Utopia. Op.cit., p. 99.

20. Idem, pp. 104-5.

21. Idem, pp. 11-7.

22. Socialist Economy. Op. quote, p. 38.

23. See, on this experience, Scott Martin. “Sector chambers and meso-corporatism”. New Moon, 37, 1996. In:

24. Socialist Economy. São Paulo. Op.cit., p. 38.

25. Robert Dahl. A Preface to Economic Democracy. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1990, p. 55.

26. Paul Hirst. Representative Democracy and Its Limits. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1992, p. 82.

27. A Militant Utopia. Op.cit., p. 132.

28. Idem, pp. 37-9.

29. Same, p. 128.

30. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communist Manifesto. Op.cit., p. 59.

31. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. La Nouvelle Raison du Monde. Essai sur la société neoliberale. Paris, La Découverte, 2009, p. 5.

32. Paul Singer. “Crisis induced by neoliberalism versus democratic inventions” In A. Rocha, D. Calderoni and M. Justo (eds.). Constructions of Happiness. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2015, p. 16.

33. A Militant Utopia. Op.cit., p. 33.

34. Sandro Pereira Silva and Leandro Marcondes Pereira. The New Solidarity Economy Mapping Data in Brazil: methodological note and structural analysis of enterprises. Brasília, IPEA, 2016. Em: amento%20de%20economia%20solid%C3%A1ria%20no%20Brasil_2016.pdf.

35. Rune Moller Stahl and Andreas Moller Mulvad. “Socialism isn't just about State ownership – it's about redistribution of power”, Jacobin (13/10/2021) At: Accessed: 30/10/2021.

36. Paul Singer. “Reflections on socialism”. In C. Brundenius (ed.). Reflections on Socialism in The Twenty First-century, Cham (Switzerland), Springer, 2020.


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