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Is There a Future for Socialism?

We all wondered, as we watched Back to the Future, how alternative futures could change the whole universe while Marty McFly stayed the same.

They say history repeats itself
But history is only his story
You haven’t heard my story
My story is different than his story
My story is a mystery
My story is not a part of history

Sun Ra

We all wondered, as we watched Back to the Future, how alternative futures could change the whole universe while Marty McFly stayed the same. Those movies amounted to a Reaganite philosophy of history: the short-circuit between the fifties and the eighties which converts every contingent encounter into one reactionary loop, centered on the white man who secretly invents rock ‘n’ roll, seduces his mother, and conquers the space-time continuum.

Against this philosophy, we say there’s no point in historical counterfactuals. History is that which is the case; while we start with the premise that history could have happened differently, we can’t escape the fact that the vantage point of our analysis is history that happened the way it did. The twentieth century as we know it might not have taken place; but our world is constituted by its explosions, tragic and ecstatic.

This is why we’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” would be felt throughout the nineteenth century — just as, in 1848, the Jacobinism of Blanqui would be challenged by the growth of working-class neighborhood clubs.

To talk about the future of socialism, we’ll have to begin with its past. We’ll have to look at the future that past socialists projected — a future that was “guaranteed” by the lingering ideology of the bourgeois revolution — and measure it carefully against the reality.


The socialist political program was framed after 1890 by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Until then, German revolutionaries had been subject to Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws, which banned socialist meetings and propaganda. To circumvent this obstacle, socialists ran for Parliament, where their speech was protected; and they put forth democratic demands, playing a crucial role in securing universal suffrage and legal protection for unions. Since socialism was based on the political agency of industrial workers, they were able to bring this newly developing class and its economic interests into alliance with movements for democratic reform, giving those movements a powerful base.

But when the Anti-Socialist Laws were repealed, the party found itself facing a serious challenge — now it was legal, and its democratic demands were no longer necessarily a threat to the capitalist state. The party attempted to surmount this with the Erfurt Program of the following year. This unusual document seems to advance a revolutionary objective (abolishing the capitalist mode of production) through strictly reformist measures (the gradual accumulation of reforms through sustained parliamentary activity). But as Friedrich Engels himself pointed out, the relationship between ends and means was not explained: “If all the 10 demands were granted we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved.”

The SPD’s solution to this problem was faith in a story about history. The rapid economic growth of Germany was paralleled by the growth of their party. Economic development was the pure and central force: technology would improve, agriculture would be fully rationalized, and the population would be systematically reshaped into a unitary industrial proletariat. Meanwhile, ownership of property would centralize, and the market would give way to planning — to the point where it would be possible to run society on the basis of collective ownership of property, which the powerful representatives of the proletariat could do once they won an absolute majority in parliament and inherited the state.

This isn’t how it all turned out. The Erfurt synthesis, which made some sense in non-revolutionary situations like the one which gave birth to it, quickly proved ineffective when a new cycle of struggle took shape in the decade before the First World War. The party, failing to register this changed situation, stuck to the old line — it misunderstood the growing militancy of the rank and file because its institutional structure had so dangerously exacerbated the distance between an increasingly bureaucratized party apparatus and the everyday lives of workers. A socialist subculture had been the foundation of class solidarity, based on grassroots practices of selfreliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations (also known as “potato clubs”) to horseplay on the shop floor. But the SPD leadership increasingly tried to measure up to respectable bourgeois standards, with patriarchal families, “high culture,” and patriotism, which immediately set them against the militancy of migrant workers in the Ruhr mines, and the wildcat strikes of female textile workers. “Women don’t want to know about politics and organization,” said one male socialist. “They appreciate a May Day festival, with singing and speeches and dancing. . .  but they don’t appreciate political and trade union meetings.”

While the SPD won reforms like social security and taxes on the rich, it confirmed its abandonment of any semblance of a revolutionary program when it came out in favor of the war in 1914. And when the party finally did take control in parliament, it openly attacked the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1918 revolution, later employing the vicious paramilitary violence of the proto-Nazi Freikorps to suppress the Spartacist uprising, famously leading to the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Even before this it had become clear, across the whole world, that social democracy could no longer be sustained as a revolutionary project. New forms and new programs had already ruptured this narrative. Workers’ councils directly confronted the new SPD-led government, and the self-organized “red army” of the Ruhr miners had to step in to beat back a right-wing coup in 1920, while the government fled the capital. In the background was the rise of a new party, with a new name — the Communist Party — that now battled the SPD. Social democracy was violently challenged by the very class it once claimed to represent.


The real problem of the twentieth century was the day after the revolution. Socialism exploded in the underdeveloped world — first in Russia, then later in China. Everyone, even the most vehement critics of the Russian Revolution, assumed that the task of the revolutionary state was to industrialize, to develop the productive forces. In this context, “socialism” returned to the forefront: the term now described the period of transition, in which societies had to accumulate enough wealth to pass to the higher stage of communist society.

It was not a simple task. The advanced capitalist countries had arrived at their stage of development after a lengthy process, spanning centuries, in which the means of production were gathered and an industrial workforce was generated by driving peasants off the land. In Capital, Karl Marx called this process “primitive accumulation.” He pointed to the contradictory nature of the technology to which workers were now subjugated: it introduced new possibilities, but it also represented the social power of capital, written in the language of steel and cement. Machines were the capitalist response to proletarian struggles against the working day, ensuring the production of a surplus in spite of the reduced hours.

To catch up with capitalism, socialism attempted to achieve primitive accumulation in underdeveloped countries on a national scale, in increments of five years. And like the primitive accumulation in England that Marx had recounted, this process was marked by incredible violence and suffering. In the context of twentieth-century technology, it also meant imposing the brutal regime of Taylorism, with its daily repetition of violence against factory workers.

Development, however, is contradictory. The push towards industrialization prevented these countries from being destroyed by imperialism. The USSR developed its industrial capacity and military technology to the point where it could beat back Nazi invasion, and achieve surprising levels of growth into the mid-Seventies. Even the infamous mass starvation in China could be traced to the inability of agriculture to produce enough grain to keep with up the incredible rise in population, generated by dramatic socialist reforms like widespread access to health care and vaccination.

But these economies were never able to measure up to capitalist development that took place within the market. Within this unmerciful survival of the fittest, firms are forced to innovate or die, ensuring that capital is constantly expanding and technology is constantly improving. “Would it not be better,” Nixon asked Khrushchev, as they argued inside a model of a typical American kitchen, “to compete in the relative merit of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?” Khrushchev did have better rockets; but the debate was taped in American RCA color video, and All-State Properties would market replicas of that model home, dismissed in the Soviet press as an unrealistic “Taj Mahal,” to middle-class vacationers in Florida.

The contradictions are not surprising; these changes emerged from a state of great disorder, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society. One of these marks was the violent and vacillating leaderships of socialist states, who were forged in imperialist domination and civil war. When the story of development failed to unfold in the manner expected — when peasants tried to hold on to their land, when a mine blew up — they imposed the process by force, and used repressive state power to eliminate ideological currents that could be used as scapegoats for this regrettable mismatch of theory and practice.

Socialists in the rest of the world often made excuses for the leadership. We should be careful about how we criticize their excuses. Like so many others, they believed the story of development: they thought that these ugly episodes would be dialectically superseded and progress would unfold. Elevated out of violence and starvation, the human race would finally awaken from the nightmare of history.


So it’s the story of development itself that we have to try and reconceive. And this is nothing less than the story of Enlightenment. In evolutionary biology there’s a theory, now widely accepted, called endosymbiosis: it holds that autonomous bacteria were incorporated into cells and developed into mitochondria, which are not only structural elements but the energy source of the organism. As the cell evolves, the DNA of its new element is transferred to the nucleus.

This story of biology helps us to understand the transition to capitalism. Critics of civilization from Theodor Adorno to Theodore Kaczynski have described the discontents of the drive towards limitless development, the fantasy of progress which accompanies the violent subjugation of nature and the hierarchical organization of society. For most of human history, developmentalism coexisted with static and organic forms of social organization. Even if the Ancient Greeks dreamed of dominating nature, slave societies, much like “primitive communist” societies, couldn’t have sustained the constant revolutionizing of their forces and relations of production. Only with the advent of capitalism did development become a global and universal principle, subsuming and reshaping every form of life in its territorial and economic expansion.

The Enlightenment represents the moment when this developmentalist drive was incorporated into the emerging mode of production. It provided capital with an energy source — the endosymbiotic origin of the expanded reproduction of capital, the inherent dynamism of the bourgeoisie celebrated in the Communist Manifesto and the “reckless terrorism” condemned in Capital.

When actually existing socialism centered the process of socialist construction on the development of the productive forces, the socialist state incorporated DNA that gave it a family resemblance to capital. Today we are able to reject the socialist attempt to complete the project of modernity with forced collectivization and show trials — but let’s set the hand-wringing aside and look at what the past was unwilling, or unable to achieve: institutions which absolutely prevent the reproduction of a social division between exploiters and exploited.

Technology and industrial production are part of our world — they’ve constituted our present, and contrary to primitivist delusions, the present contains open possibilities. So just as we recognize that being against development is not a political position, let’s avoid the other trap, the trap that introduced an unbridgeable chasm between the workers’ movement and its project. The equation of socialism and progress has buried the greatest legacy of the twentieth century: the refusal of work, of class domination and exploitation.

Those who equate political liberation with the flowering of the bourgeois individual often say that the French Revolution represented the Enlightenment’s point of culmination. What they leave out is that it was also its point of explosion. The slaves of Haiti — who watched their newly enlightened French masters continue to lop off their limbs, bury them to the neck, and burn their families alive — quickly learned that there was little difference between a master who read Rousseau and one who didn’t. The Enlightenment was just slavery under another name. So on August 21, 1791, while the noble revolutionaries in Paris tried to find the most effective way to keep the slaves tied down to the plantations of their most profitable colony, the Haitian slaves forced their own counter-Enlightenment by emancipating themselves through revolution. Inspired by their Caribbean comrades, almost exactly one year later, the same Parisian masses who seized the Bastille and held the king hostage stormed the Tuileries Palace, declared a Republic, and exploded the continuum of history, imposing an entirely new calendar to mark the birth of a new world.

The Haitians formed the flag of their new nation by cutting the white out of the French flag, leaving blue and red. Blue and red were the traditional colors of plebeian Paris; in 1789 General Lafayette, the “great mediator,” first created the tricolor by inserting the white of the Bourbons in between the blue and the red of the Parisian masses, symbolizing a compromise between people and king. In tearing out the center, the slaves were not only destroying their white masters, they were also reconnecting with the Parisian masses. The exploited joined together to answer the Enlightenment of their exploiters.


In his thought experiment “Four Futures,” Peter Frase establishes that the passage from scarcity to abundance can be imagined — and that it is just as possible to conceive of forms of social organization that reject hierarchy in favor of egalitarianism, or at the very least, some form of democratic planning. We push beyond this revolution in imagination to the unimaginable, and suggest that revolutionary politics does not occur in the future tense — it’s not a state of affairs to be established. We refer instead to the future anterior: the real movement, the current activity of the proletariat which will have been the basis for the transformation of society.

The future that Marx forecasted is unemployment. And this historical tendency has brought the whole story of development into question. As Doug Henwood points out, our recent economic “recovery” is the weakest since they started to keep track of the numbers. The fact that we’ve failed to recover the majority of the jobs lost during the recession is part of a wider historical change: the decline of the dynamism on which capitalism built its reputation. In the past few years, the famous “creative destruction” that should have been incessantly generating new technologies, new markets, and new modes of life, has been missing in action. The delusions of the dot-com bubble made it look like capitalism could be dynamic again, but as Henwood puts it, “Our most recent bubble built a lot of subdivisions in exurban Las Vegas, with no payoff either in the productive or phantasmic realms.”

Even China, the contemporary capitalist success story, faces an uncertain path. Puzzling over a 16–25% wage increase in Chinese Foxconn factories, Forbes dismisses the idea that public pressure has caused Apple to shift towards fair-trade iPhones. Following a trend in the confused financial literature, Forbes confesses that Marx provides “a much better explanation of what is going on”: “it’s not the calls for everyone to be nicer that are raising wages, it’s that there’s no reserve army of the unemployed left.”

But that’s not because everyone in China is busy making gadgets, and Chinese development is more contradictory than it may seem. Wages have actually been increasing for the past decade in China; from 2002 to 2008, hourly labor costs in manufacturing increased 100%, compared to 19% in the US (though average compensation still ended up 4% of that in the US, about $1.36 an hour). Up to the financial crisis in 2008, manufacturing employment was steadily increasing, but when China’s export market crashed during the crisis, 20 million migrant manufacturing workers were laid off. They moved back to the countryside, where subsistence production allows a huge agrarian population to avoid relying on wage labor.

A massive stimulus in 2009 led to some new jobs, at least as many as were lost, and some subsectors like electronics had actually added employees during the crisis. But despite an enormous employable population, the supply of labor is not keeping up with demand, because the population in the countryside is suddenly unwilling to move back to the cities to take jobs. A complex and unusual configuration of elements has led to the recent wage increases, including a more educated workforce (embodying increased “human capital”) and protection of workers’ rights in a 2008 employment contract law. The recent small improvements in the global economy have somewhat renewed demand for Chinese commodities, therefore increasing demand for industrial workers and compromising capital’s ability to drive down wages. But the unique and central fact of the Chinese situation is that the workforce is recomposing itself in unpredictable ways — employers are forced to grant concessions to labor in order to try to tempt a de-urbanizing population into moving back to the city.

Chinese capital may pursue the classical strategy to regenerate labor-power. This means separating Chinese peasants from their means of subsistence, so they are forced to depend radically on the market and exchange their labor-power for wages. In fact, in spite of urban decline, total manufacturing employment in China actually increased in 2008 due to the “town and village enterprises,” which have driven China’s capitalist restoration since the beginning. But at the same time, capitalists will have to respond to labor’s increased bargaining power — a power that workers are wielding politically in waves of strikes — by investing in expensive plant and equipment to try to recover their profit rates and reduce their reliance on workers, driving them into unemployment.

So this is a capitalist development without guarantees: the uneven development of capitalism across the globe leads to the perpetual repetition of primitive accumulation, but it’s possible that this will cast people directly into the surplus population of the global slum. If Marx seemed to present the expropriation of the expropriators as an automatic consequence — of the centralization of highly developed means of production on the one hand, and the socialization of labor on the other — this seems less like a hard and fast prediction than a search for an opening in the present, a political attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fact that technology has rendered so much labor superfluous hasn’t pointed towards a society liberated from work, but instead high unemployment next to long hours, with everyone in debt. And the traditional apparatuses of the worker’s movement, which were supposed to form a nascent counter-power, ended up doing the bosses’ job before practically disappearing. Today the attempt to revive these mediations of class struggle fails to respond to real shifts in the composition of the working class. As Chris Maisano has brilliantly demonstrated, the trouble with American unions isn’t just a dwindling membership. It’s the concentration of unionization in the public sector, and the conversion of “what should have been universalized social goods” — like “health insurance, pensions, vacations” — into private privileges for a unionized elite. It’s easy enough for capital to use this as a powerful instrument of division, blocking a collective proletarian struggle by setting private sector workers against the “labor aristocracy” of teachers and social workers, while everyone’s real wages decline. The unemployed end up excluded from any concept of the political.

Detached from working-class realities, socialist nostalgia for unions and the welfare state perpetuates the illusion that capitalism could meet the demands of the waged and the jobless, and strengthens rifts within the proletariat. The only way that reforms and institutions can advance a workers’ struggle is if struggle itself takes the lead, imposing its self-organized activity and forcing new forms of mediation into being, which it can go on to exceed and disrupt.

The alternative to to the socialist story of development — for better or for worse — has historically been called communism. It consists in the refusal of capitalist development in favor of the proletarian invention of that other kind of institution, the kind which failed to take hold in actually existing socialism. Not the ossified institutions of bureaucratic representation, but the institution of new forms of life beyond classes — which begin with forms of cooperation that are antagonistic to capital. We don’t know what these forms will look like. But it’s not the place of intellectuals to make predictions. Our place is to come into contact with the masses: to listen, discover, and help build a space that the future can call politics. “It’s after the end of the world,” said Sun Ra. “Don’t you know that yet?