Why do we do it? By William Bowles

12 June 2006

There must be thousands of us, banging out our ‘blogs’ (damn, I hate this word!). Broadly speaking, we seem to be united by a common ethos, namely justice and a deep commitment to making some kind of positive impact on the way the world is shaped. We identify ourselves by all sorts of names but I suppose anti-capitalist would seem to cover the gamut.

Beyond this however, it would be foolish to be specific, in fact, there would appear to be more things we disagree on than agree especially when it comes to analysis of why and what to do about the shameful behaviour of our respective governments. So, what are we for?

The history of the struggle against capitalism across the previous century is a very mixed bag, even our successes are the subject of fierce disagreements over what exactly we succeeded in achieving.

On the one side of the many-faceted left, we have those who defended the Soviet socialist experiment to the very end and on the other we have those who don’t even admit to it being socialist, deformed or otherwise in the first place. State capitalism, bureaucratic socialism, statism, a Stalinist autocracy, a dictatorship of the Party, are just a few of the descriptions of what I choose to call ‘actually existing socialism’ (as it was).

How can we explain this? After all, we have a very good understanding of how capitalism works down to the details. Literally hundreds of thousands of books have been written on the subject following the groundbreaking work of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who in turn built their understanding on those had come before them. In all, it’s something like 300 years of analysis!

Moreover, we have the combined experience of almost a century of countries who have tried to build alternatives to capitalism and in spite of what the propaganda says, every one of them developed very different forms of socialism determined by the very specific conditions that existed in their respective countries.

But perhaps the most important aspect of these experiences is the fact that not a single one of these experiments in alternatives to capitalism enjoyed the freedom to develop without the most virulent opposition from capitalism up to and including invasion. So virulent was the opposition in fact, that it shaped and distorted the very nature of the way the various socialisms developed.

Hence I think it’s true to say that our experience of socialism was distorted from the very beginning. This raises the question-a question that was asked immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-in a world dominated by Capitalism, is it possible to construct a truly socialist society (the so-called dilemma of ‘Socialism in one country’)?

This is no mere abstract question, it is moreover a ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma, for if it is true that in a world dominated by Capitalism, building a ‘real socialism’ is impossible, unless Capitalism (in its most developed expressions) is overthrown (or collapses), how are we to build an alternative if we can’t even get past first base?

In part this dilemma answers the question of why there are so many conflicting ideas about what ‘real’ socialism is.

Then there is the question of under-development, itself a direct result of Capitalism’s control of the resources needed for national development. Thus there are two fundamental problems confronting us; on the one hand, capitalism does everything in its power to make sure that alternatives to capitalism fail, and failing that, it mounts decades-long propaganda campaigns to convince people that there is no viable alternative to Capitalism.

And on the other, as long as the under-developed countries of the planet are totally dependent on a global economy controlled by Capitalism, they are faced with an impossible situation. For socialism to succeed it requires a relatively developed society, not only economically but what we now choose to call a developed civil society. But how is it to develop ‘real socialism’ if it tries to do it under conditions that are not under its control?

A perfect example is Venezuela which although possessing valuable natural resources such as oil, is totally dependent on the advanced capitalist economies and on a global trading system that is beyond its control. Thus it faces several linked problems:

1. In order to utilise the wealth generated from the sale of oil in order to develop its domestic economy, it must do it under conditions determined in large measure by the US who obviously do not want to see an independent Venezuela develop because it sets a ‘bad example’ to the rest of the developing world and;
2. It faces an ‘internal’ opposition from its domestic capitalist class who are for the most part in cahoots with US capital;
3. It must attempt to strike out in an independent direction under the most adverse domestic conditions with broad swathes of its population living in abject poverty, in a word, under-development. Understandably, this great mass of people who have elected a government that broadly represents their interests, want what’s due them;
4. Thus the Chavez government is caught between two fires; on the one hand it has to deliver what it has promised to its constituents and on the other it must do it under conditions not under its control, namely a global economic system controlled by the US which is doing everything in its power to ensure the failure of the Chavez ‘experiment’.

How is it to resolve this dilemma? This is the 64 billion dollar question that has confronted us for the better part of the last one hundred years.

We in the developed world have an obligation to defend the Bolivarian ‘revolution’ imperfect though it may be, but to what extent? Thus we find ourselves coming full circle as it were, with those who argue that Chavez hasn’t gone ‘far enough’, even to the point of accusing him of ‘selling out’ the ‘revolution’. There also those who defend the Bolivarian ‘revolution’ unconditionally.

It could be argued that there is some kind of ‘middle road’ between the two positions but this over-simplifies the problem, not the least of which is the fact that ‘we’ sit in relative comfort passing judgement on a situation that we have no direct control over (some would say, thank goodness).

So rather than attempt to pass judgement on Chavez and the Bolivarian ‘revolution’, we should focus on what we do have at least the possibility of some influence over, namely the policies of our respective governments.

Moreover, I think we can be quite specific about what form this takes and beyond the slogan, ‘Hands off Venezuela’. This may sound like a leap of faith but it does hinge on our conception of what kind of pre-conditions are necessary for an advance toward a socialist society.

It should be obvious by now that we live in an inter-connected world. The way we live in the developed world to a large extent determines how the people of Venezuela live. Our patterns of consumption for example determine the relationship Venezuela has with us and how the people of Venezuela earn their livings whether it’s producing oil or mangoes (and Venezuelan mangoes are damn tasty!).

Thus for example, the campaign for ‘fair trade’ is part of the solution but by itself it’s not the answer, after all, shipping mangoes all the way from Venezuela to the UK is part of the problem of global climate change if they’re air-freighted. And so too is our outrageous consumption of oil. Yet under the present relationship we have with Venezuela, if we cut our consumption of both oil and mangoes, this has a direct effect on the people of Venezuela!

It should be clear that the root of the problem lies in the fact that we are rich because the people of Venezuela are poor. For us, the cost of mangoes is a fraction of what costs the Venezuelans to buy. Moreover, in all likelihood, they import products that they could produce locally were it not for the fact that they have been forced into creating an exported-oriented economy.

Left to its own devices, the Venezuelan economy can satisfy the needs of its own population, thus if we are to contribute positively to the future of the people of Venezuela, it is incumbent on us to alter our economic relationship to Venezuela. And what goes for Venezuela also applies to every other country in a similar relationship to the developed world.

It should therefore be apparent that without a radical change to our own economy there can be no possibility of Venezuela developing a viable and importantly, lasting alternative to capitalism.

The two worlds are therefore intertwined in ways that are complex and far-reaching. This explains why the media and the state have such hatred of what Chavez is attempting to do, why else should events in Venezuela produce such venom here in the UK and in the US? What can Venezuela do to us here in the UK aside that is from threatening the profits of Shell, BP and Exxon? What possible threat does Venezuela pose to the UK or the US?

It also explains why we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, as it does the threats against Iran, indeed it explains the entire 500-year history of the West’s relationship to all poor countries.

Thus in the immediate period, the issue is not about developing a ‘plan’ for socialism per se but addressing our relationship to the poor of the planet. Ultimately we will have to confront the issue of an alternative to capitalism but if one judges by the response to ‘Live 8′ etc, there does exist an enormous groundswell of good intentions. But as the saying goes, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’

That ‘Live 8′ or whatever avoids the thorny questions implicit in our relationship to the poor of the planet, is of course pertinent. How far are those who parted with their cash prepared to go? Are they prepared to support Venezuela if it is explained to them that cash is not the answer but re-ordering our relationship to the Venezuelan people?

But we are also tied into the same global capitalist relationship, albeit largely on the receiving end of great gobs of cash. However, it’s clear that this is not a sustainable situation as the events of the past few years illustrate.

Will it be change of a negative kind, for example through environmental catastrophe, in which case, it will be a case of basic survival, or will it come because Capitalism itself collapses in which case, the most likely outcome is barbarism of the worst kind, out and out Fascism.

Either way, it seems to me that as a socialist, I have little choice but to continue to expose the nature of the system we live under and to explore solutions.


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