To renew the socialist project

Image: Silvia Faustino Saes


A revolution must seek to make itself irreversible by promoting an organic system geared towards true human needs.

A serious consideration of the renewal of socialism today must begin with confronting the creative destruction perpetrated by capitalism of the foundations of all social existence. Since the late 1980s, the world has been engulfed by catastrophe capitalism, defined as the accumulation of imminent catastrophes, on all sides, due to the unintended consequences of capital's death machine [orig: juggernaut of capital].1 Thus conceptualized, catastrophe capitalism manifests itself today in the convergence between (1) the planetary ecological crisis, (2) the global epidemiological crisis, and (3) the endless world economic crisis.2 Added to this are the main characteristics of the current “empire of chaos”, including: the extreme imperialist exploitation system unleashed by global commodity chains; the decline of the liberal-democratic state, relatively stable, with the rise of neoliberalism and neofascism; and the emergence of a new era of instability of global hegemony, accompanied by the growing dangers of unlimited war.3

The climate crisis represents what the world's scientific consensus calls a "no analogue" situation.a, in which, if the balance of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels does not reach zero in the coming decades, the very existence of industrial civilization and, ultimately, human survival will be threatened.4 This existential crisis is not limited to climate change, however; it encompasses the violation of other planetary boundaries that together delineate the global ecological fracture in the Earth system as a safe place for humanity. They include: (1) ocean acidification; (2) species extinction (and loss of genetic diversity); (3) the destruction of forest ecosystems; (4) the loss of fresh water; (5) disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; (6) the rapid spread of toxic substances (including radionuclides); and (7) the uncontrolled proliferation of genetically modified organisms.5

This disruption of planetary limits is intrinsic to the capital accumulation system, which does not know insurmountable barriers to its quantitative, exponential and unlimited advance. Therefore, there is no way out of the current capitalist destruction of the set of social and natural conditions of existence that is not a way out of capitalism itself. What is essential is the creation of what István Mészáros called, in In addition to the capital, of a new system of “social metabolic reproduction”.6 Socialism thus emerges as the apparent heir to XNUMXst century capitalism, but conceived in ways that critically challenge the theory and practice of socialism in the manner of the last century.

The polarization of the class system

In the United States, crucial sectors of monopoly-financial capitalism have now managed to mobilize elements of the lower middle class, mostly white, in the form of a nationalist, racist and misogynistic ideology. The result is the birth of a neo-fascist political class, which capitalizes on the long history of structural racism heir to slavery, occupation colonialism and global militarism/imperialism. The relationship of this rising neo-fascism with the existing neoliberal political conformation is that of “enemy brothers”, characterized by a fierce struggle for power associated with the repression, common to both, of the working class.7 These were the conditions that led to the rise of billionaire Donald Trump, a New York real estate magnate, as leader of the so-called radical right, which led to the imposition of right-wing policies and the establishment of a new capitalist authoritarian regime.8 Even if the neoliberal faction of the ruling class wins the next presidential election, ousting Trump and replacing him with Joe Biden, a neoliberal-neofascist alliance, reflecting the inner needs of the capitalist class, will likely continue to form the base of state power under capitalism. financial-monopoly.

Simultaneously with the configuration of this new reactionary policy, a movement in favor of socialism reappears in the United States, whose base is composed of the majority of the working class and dissident intellectuals. The end of US hegemony within the world economy, accelerated by the globalization of production, weakened the former labor aristocracy, with an imperialist base, in certain privileged sectors of the working class, which led to the resurgence of socialism.9 Confronted with what Michael D. Yates has called “the great inequality”, the bulk of the US population, especially the young, have less and less prospects, finding themselves in a state of uncertainty and often despair, marked by a dramatic increase in “deaths from despair”.10 They are increasingly alienated from a capitalist system that offers them no hope and are drawn to socialism as the only genuine alternative.11 While the US situation is unique, similar objective forces driving the resurgence of socialist movements are present in other parts of the system, most notably in southern countries, in an era of continuing economic stagnation, financialization, and universal ecological decline.

If, however, socialism seems to be on the rise again, in the context of the structural crisis of capitalism and the increasing polarization between classes, the question remains: what kind of socialism is this and in what ways does it differ from the socialism of the XNUMXth century? A good part of what is being called socialism in the United States and other parts of the globe leans towards social democracy, in search of an alliance with the left liberals and, therefore, with the existing order, in the vain attempt to make capitalism function best by promoting regulation and social welfare, in direct opposition to neoliberalism, but at a time when neoliberalism itself is giving way to neofascism.12 Movements like these are leaky boats in the current historical context, as it is inevitable that they betray the hopes raised, since they focus on mere electoral democracy. Fortunately, we are also seeing the growth of genuine socialism today, evident in the extra-electoral struggle, the intensification of mass action and the call to go beyond the parameters of the prevailing system in order to reconstitute society as a whole.

The latent general unrest at the base of US society came to the fore in the uprisings at the end of May and June of this year, which took the form, practically unheard of in the country's history since the Civil War, of huge manifestations of solidarity, with millions in the streets, and with the white working class, and white youth in particular, challenging racism in response to the lynching of George Floyd, killed by the police just for being black.13 This was the trigger, amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic depression, for the furious days of June in the USA.

However, although the movement towards socialism, now growing even in the United States, the "barbaric heart" of the system, advances as a result of objective forces, it lacks an adequate subjective basis.14 A major obstacle to formulating strategic socialist goals in the world today has to do with twentieth-century socialism's abandonment of its own ideals, originally articulated in the communist vision of Karl Marx. To understand the problem, one needs to go beyond the recent attempts on the left to understand communism philosophically, which have led, in the last decade, to abstract perceptions of the “communist idea”, the “communist hypothesis” and the “communist horizon” debated by Alain Badiou, among others.15 What is needed instead is a more historically concrete starting point that squarely focuses on the two-stage theory of socialist/communist development that emerged from the Gotha program critique, by Marx, and by The State and the Revolution, by Lenin. Paul M. Sweezy's article, "Communism as an Ideal", published more than half a century ago in the Monthly Review of October 1963, is a classic text in this regard.16

Marx's communism as a socialist ideal

Na Gotha program critique ― Written in defiance of the economicist and labor notions of the branch of German social democracy influenced by Ferdinand Lassalle ― Marx designated two historical “phases” in the struggle to create a society of associated producers. The first phase would be initiated by the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”, reflecting the experience of class warfare in the Paris Commune and representing a period of workers' democracy, but one that would still have the “distortions” of capitalist class society. In this initial phase, there would be not only a break with capitalist private property, but also a break with the capitalist state as a political command structure.17 Reflecting the limited nature of the socialist transition at this stage, production and distribution would inevitably take the form of “to each according to his work”, perpetuating conditions of inequality while creating the conditions to transcend them. In contrast, in the later phase, the guiding principle of society would change to “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, with the elimination of the wage system.18 Likewise, while the initial phase of socialism/communism would require the formation of a new political command structure in the revolutionary period, the objective in the upper phase was to shrink the state as a separate apparatus, above society and in an antagonistic relationship with it, and replace it with a form of political organization that Frederick Engels called “community”, associated with a community-based mode of production.19

In the last, upper phase of the socialist/communist transition, not only would property be collectively owned and controlled, but the constitutive cells of society would be reconstituted on a communal foundation, and production would be in the hands of the associated producers. Under these conditions, Marx asserted, “work” will have become not “a mere means of life” but itself “the first necessity of life”.20 Production would be directed towards use values ​​and not exchange values, in line with a society in which “the free development of each” would be “the condition for the free development of all”. The abolition of capitalist class society and the creation of a society of associated producers would lead to the end of the exploitation of one class by another, in addition to the elimination of divisions between mental and manual labor and between city and countryside. The patriarchal monogamous family based on the domestic slavery of women would also be overcome.21 Fundamental to Marx's vision of the higher phase of the society of associated producers was a new social metabolism of humanity and the earth. In his most general statement about the material conditions that would govern the new society, he wrote: “Here [in the realm of natural necessity], freedom can be nothing more than the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulate his metabolism with nature… with the least use of forces possible” in the process of promoting conditions for sustainable human development.22

Em The State and the Revolution and in other writings, Lenin deftly captures Marx's arguments about the lower and upper phases, describing them as the first and second phases of communism. He went on to emphasize what he called “the scientific distinction between socialism and communism”, where “what is usually called socialism was defined by Marx as the inferior, 'first phase' of communist society”, while the term communism, meaning “complete communism” would be more appropriate to designate the higher phase.23 Although Lenin closely aligned this distinction with Marx's analysis, in later official Marxism it became frozen into two entirely separate stages, with the so-called communist stage so far removed from the socialist stage that the former became utopian, no longer seen as part of an ongoing struggle. or current. On the basis of an artificial conception of the socialist stage and the intermediate principle of distribution “to each according to his work”, Joseph Stalin waged an ideological war against the ideal of true equality, which he characterized as “an absurd petty bourgeois reactionary of a primitive sect of ascetics, but not of a socialist society organized along Marxist lines”. This same stance would persist in the Soviet Union, in one form or another, until Mikhail Gorbachev.24

Therefore, as Michael Lebowitz explains in The Socialist Imperative, “instead of an ongoing struggle to move beyond what Marx called the 'distortions' inherited from capitalist society, the standard interpretation” of Marxism in the period from the late 1930s to the late 1980s “introduced a division of post-capitalist society. capitalist in two distinct 'stages'”, economically determined by the level of development of the productive forces. Fundamental changes in social relations, emphasized by Marx as essential to the socialist trajectory, were abandoned in the process of coexistence and adaptation to the inherited distortions of capitalist society. Instead, Marx insisted on a project that aimed to build the community of associated producers "from the ground up" as part of an ongoing, though necessarily uneven, process of socialist construction.25

This abandonment of the socialist ideal associated with the higher phase of Marx's communism was completed, in a complex way, by changing material (and class) conditions and, ultimately, by the disappearance of Soviet-type societies, which tended to stagnate as soon as they let go. revolutionary and even revived class forms, finally collapsing when the new class or nomenklatura left the system. As Sweezy argued in 1971, "state ownership and planning are not sufficient to define a viable socialism, immune to the threat of backsliding and capable of advancing in the second stage of the movement towards communism". Something more was needed: the ongoing struggle to create a society of equals.26

For Marx, the movement towards a society of associated producers was the very essence of the socialist path embedded in “communist consciousness”.27 However, as socialism came to be defined in more restrictive and economistic terms, particularly in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s onwards, where substantial inequality was advocated, post-revolutionary society lost the vital connection with the struggle twofold by freedom and necessity, thus disconnecting itself from the long-term goals of socialism from which it had previously drawn its meaning and coherence.

Based on this experience, it is evident that the only way to build socialism in the XNUMXst century is to embrace precisely those aspects of the socialist/communist ideal that allow for a theory and practice radical enough to meet the urgent needs of the present, without losing sight of the needs of the future. If the planetary ecological crisis has taught us anything, it is that we need a new social metabolism with the Earth, a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. This can be seen in the extraordinary achievements of Cuban ecology, as recently demonstrated by Mauricio Betancourt in “The Effect of Cuban Agroecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift”, an article published in the journal Global Environmental Change.28 This is in line with what György Lukács called the necessary “double transformation” of human social relations and human relations with nature.29 Such an emancipatory project must necessarily pass through several revolutionary phases, which cannot be foreseen in advance. However, to succeed, a revolution must seek to make itself irreversible by promoting an organic system geared towards true human needs, rooted in substantive equality and the rational regulation of human social metabolism with nature.

*John Bellamy Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon (USA) and editor of Monthly Review. Author, among other books, of The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (Monthly Review Press).

Translation: Beatriz Vital for the website Other words.

Originally published in the magazine Monthly Review.


  1. Karl Marx, capital, 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 799. Catastrophe capitalism, in this sense, is different from disaster capitalismby Naomi Klein. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2007). Klein's notion focuses on how neoliberalism, as a political-economic project of capitalism, has sought to systematically exploit disasters of all kinds, many of which are capitalism's own, to impose a "shock doctrine" as a solution, designed in to further increase capitalist power. The notion of catastrophe capitalism employed here deals, on the other hand, with the cumulative growth of catastrophic potential as an inherent feature of a mode of production that places capital accumulation above all other social (and ecological) ends, which results in in the universalization of the tendency towards catastrophes. See John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe", Monthly Review 63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1–17.
  2. For concrete descriptions of these impending converging catastrophes, see John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012); John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, The Robbery of Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020): 238–87; John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi, “COVID-19 and Catastrophe Capitalism", Monthly Review 72, no. 2 (June 2020): 1–20; and Mike Davis, The Monster Enters (New York: OR, 2020).
  3. Samir Amin, Empire of Chaos(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992).
  4. See Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 25: James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). Even the effort to net zero emissions by 2050, although incorporated into the Paris Accords, is not enough and is based on unrealistic assumptions about technologies that today do not exist on a large scale and may never be viable. The reality is that the carbon budget, determined by the remaining possible emissions (with a 67% chance of keeping the average global temperature below 1,5°C), will be blown in just eight years, if everything continues as it is. See Greta Thunberg, Speech at the World Economy Forum, Davos, January 21, 2020.
  5. Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461, no. 24 (2009): 472–75; William Steffen et al., "Planetary Boundaries", Science 347, no. 6223 (2015): 745–46; Michael Friedman, “GMOs: Capitalism's Distortion of Biological Processes”, Monthly Review 66, no. 10 (March 2015): 19–34.
  6. István Meszaros, Beyond Capital(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 39–71.
  7. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 362.
  8. See John Bellamy Foster, Trump in the White House(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017).
  9. It was Engels who first argued, in an 1885 article for the commonweal, edited by William Morris (an analysis which was later incorporated into the preface to the 1892 English edition of The situation of the working class in England), that the development of a socialist labor movement was first possible in Britain in the mid-1880s because of the decline of the labor aristocracy (consisting mainly of adult men and excluding women, children and immigrants) brought about by the decline Britain's imperial hegemony. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol 26 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 295–301. Lenin's famous analysis of the labor aristocracy was built on this conception of Engels. See also Martin Nicolaus, “The Theory of the Labor Aristocracy", Monthly Review21, no. 11 (April 1970): 91–101; Eric Hobsbawm, “Lenin and the 'Aristocracy of Labour'", Monthly Review 21, no. 11 (April 1970): 47–56.
  10. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
  11. Michael D. Yates, “The Great Inequality", Monthly Review63, no. 10 (March 2012): 1–18.
  12. In your The Socialist Manifesto, Bhaskar Sunkara presents an image of Marx divorced from Critique of the Gotha Program, according to which Marx and Engels envisioned a future, in the Communist Manifesto and other writings, in which "a radically transformed democratic state would own formerly private property and use it rationally, under the direction and for the benefit of the people". Rather than an attempt at an accurate description of Marx's views, such an analysis is simply intended to support his own version of a "social democracy with class struggle". Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto(New York: Basic, 2019), 48, 216-17.
  13. To see "Notes from the Editors", Monthly Review72, no. 3 (July to August 2020).
  14. Curtis White, The Barbaric Heart(Sausalito: PoliPoint, 2009).
  15. Alain Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review49 (2008): 29-42; Alain Badiou, “The Idea of ​​Communism”, in The Idea of ​​Communism, ed. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2010): 1–14; Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verse, 2015); Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verse, 2018).
  16. Paul M. Sweezy, “Communism as an Ideal", Monthly Review15, no. 6 (October 1963): 329–40.
  17. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program(New York: International Publishers, 1938), 9–10, 18. Here Marx used the terminology of 'the first phase of communist society' and 'the higher phase of communist society'. This edition of Critique of the Gotha Program includes letters and notes from Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as well as passages from The State and the Revolution, by Lenin. On the Paris Commune, see Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Writings on the Paris Commune, ed. Hal Draper (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971); Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 127-71.
  18. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 6–10, 14; Karl Marx, “Value, Price, and Profit,” in Wage Labor and Capital/Value, Price and Profit(New York: International Publishers, 1935), 62.
  19. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 10, 17 (Marx), 31 (Engels), 47-56 (Lenin); Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25, 247, 267–68. For the still relevant meaning of the idea of ​​state decay, see Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 460-95; Henry Lefebvre, The Explosion(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 127-28.
  20. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 10; Sweezy, "Communism as an Ideal", 337-38.
  21. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 34-35, 41.
  22. Marx, Capital, flight. 3, 959.
  23. Lenin, Selected Works: One-Volume Edition(New York: International Publishers, 1976), 334.
  24. Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 338; Sweezy, in Paul M. Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim, On the Transition to Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127.
  25. Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015). 71; Karl Marx, floorplans (London: Penguin, 1973), 171-72. See also Peter Hudis, Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Boston: Brill, 2012), 190.
  26. Sweezy, in Sweezy and Bettelheim, On the Transition to Socialism, 131.
  27. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, flight. 5, 52.
  28. Mauricio Betancourt, “The Effect of Cuban Agroecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift: A Quantitative Approach to Latin American Food Production,” Global Environmental Change63 (2020): 1-9.
  29. Gyorgy Lukacs, The Ontology of Social Being, vol.2, Marx's Basic Ontological Principles(London: Merlin, 1978), 6.

translation notes

  1. From the original “no analogue”, an ecology term that designates ecosystems, past and future, with different composition from current patterns.



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