Rethink Everything (Maybe It's Always Been This Way)

September 25, 2007

HISTORICALLY THE LEFT--THE WORLD LA- bor and socialist movement of the last hundred
years--has always presumed the existence of an objec-
tive, a program, an organized force capable of carrying
out that program, and a theory that explained the logic of
the system. The program may have been improvised, the
objective unreal, and the organized force nothing of the
kind, but this was how the Left thought about change, at
least how it legitimized its activities.
All of this is now open to question. We can no longer
think in terms of an ideal model with certain characteris-
tics defined by the experience of existing socialist coun-
tries. Although many criticized that experience, it was the
framework everyone used to think about socialism. Nei-
This article is based on an interview with Argentine
historian Josd Aric6 conducted by Report on the Ameri-
cas editorMark FriedinApril oflastyear. Aric6, who died
in August, was the author of numerous books and an
editor of the journal La Ciudad Futura.
ther can we speak any longer of a force like a political
party that represents the struggle for socialism. This
struggle can't be condensed into a party; it takes place at
many levels throughout society. If no class has the historic
destiny of changing society, if the elements that negate or
question the system are scattered in a multitude of places,
then we have to rethink everything. And the Left is not
prepared to do this.
Previously, with the existence of the First Interna-
tional, the Second International, the Third International
and the Fourth International, the Left could conceive of
itself as part of a world movement. But today there is no
center, no rear guard, no way of integrating dispersed
struggles. Perhaps the world has always been this way,
and we on the Left only thought it was otherwise. Perhaps
the Left was always what I describe, rather than what it
believed itself to be.
We can no longer think of revolution as leading to
some ideal goal. Profound reforms can mean revolution-
ary changes, but we can't think of revolution as an act that
"e4 on4 AmiCsiC.
The Left
changes reality. Rather we ought to think of it as a process
ofchanging people's mentality. Socialism is thus acounter-
cultural force, a force for changing culture, rather than one
that seeks particular goals. Of course there are groups who
call themselves socialist and pursue particular goals, but
socialism can't be only that.
The central confusion arises when socialists take the
reins of government and are obliged to assume responsi-
bility for the complexity of the world and to leave behind
the simplicity of their dream. If past experience is any
indication, they don't seem up to the task. They repeat the
same old things, the same speeches, the same formula-
tions, the same words.
The Right doesn't have this problem because it runs
with the system. The Left has to govern against the
current. Not that socialists should avoid taking power, but
once in office they must govern according to the rules of
capitalism. They may modify how profit or growth are
evaluated, but as a national government they can't radi-
cally transform the system because the world economy
won't allow it. National reforms will only work if a world-
wide movement supports them.
If the labor movement operated on a world scale, for
example, it could take on the problem of structural unem-
ployment. In the last century workers succeeded in chang-
ing the workday from twelve to eight hours; why not
propose changing it to four hours today? Who says there
is a limit? The limit is only in our minds. If socialists are
to change the rules of capitalism they can't do it only by
changing government policy. The Left has to transform
political culture. If not, it will just become the administra-
tor of an order that it cannot change and ultimately must
today's world, they have to take on the crucial prob-
lem of North-South relations. Perhaps people should
ponder Marx and Engels' old debate on Ireland. At one
time Marx believed that the independence of Ireland
depended on English workers. If English workers struggled
for Ireland's freedom, then Ireland could be free. Then he
came to believe that the English workers were part of the
system of domination that kept Ireland in bondage, and
that the salvation of English workers lay in Ireland's
Chilean peasants in the early 1970s. If the Left is to transform the capitalist system, it must fight In the arena of
n.*~.-c A -c h .inI. in
SOCIALISMOstruggle for independence. Perhaps we can rethink these
ideas, applying them to the struggle for a redistribution of
wealth between North and South. Perhaps socialism from
here on should focus on reforming the industrialized
countries, rather than solving the problems of poor na-
One of the great question marks for socialists today is
the concept of imperialism. Many stand firm by the old
categories, insisting that nothing has changed. Others
claim that the notion of imperialism pertains to an earlier
epoch and no longer accurately describes the world.
Perhaps they're right. But the old concept of imperialism
sought to explain phenomena that haven't disappeared:
differences in growth rates among certain parts of the
world, dependence of some regions on others, and eco-
nomic mechanisms that by reproducing capital exacer-
bate these differences.
If we don't find some concept to explain these real
differences, we'll be left with the old argument that
capitalism is a truly free system where everything is
possible, and the poor are to blame for their poverty. The
fact is that we live in a world that grows ever more
profoundly unequal in terms of real power.
Society is undergoing great change. It's as if the
definition of class were flexible once again, as if we were
in a process of founding new social and economic group-
ings. Among other things, we are in the midst of an
industrial revolution unlike anything that came before.
Computerization could transform the entire productive
system. Perhaps we are approaching the epoch, which
Marx imagined in The Grundrisse, when the power of
science and technology is so great that labor power is a
miserable way to measure it. Marx said that when society
reached that point the theory of value would no longer
In any case, this transformation of the productive
system will require rethinking and remaking the institu-
tions of society. Socialism could be the ideological,
social, political or cultural force which tackles this
issue. But today socialism is on the defensive. It defends
the status quo, and fights the old battles for employment
and decent wages. It has retreated from its capacity to
mold a new world, leaving that to the physicists, chem-
ists and biologists, who proceed to change the world
without any ethical values to define the work they do.
Either socialists take charge of this great challenge, or
we will end up choosing between alternatives defined by
We have entered a period of cultural struggle. And
once again it is the reactionaries who have recognized it
and acted on it first. The Right has rediscovered Gramsci,
in particular his belief in the primacy of cultural
struggle-the struggle to remold society's sense of what
is right and natural. Today the Right recognizes that
society must be changed from the bottom up to achieve
their vision. The Right relies on an invented history, on a
false, idyllic past. Like the Soviets, they view historiogra-
phy as a political instrument, and have no qualms about
lying. But what's fascinating is how they've honed in on
the arena of struggle that will be fundamental for years to
come: the arena of culture, of values, and the legitimacy
of a political and social order.
One of the signs of the weakness of the Latin American
Left is the fact that it still avoids discussing the experience
of the Soviet bloc. Indeed it has avoided it historically.
The Left has lauded it and criticized it, but it has never
discussed or evaluated it. It still can't talk independently
about Cuba, because it thinks any criticism will lend a
hand to imperialism.
The crisis of the East has opened up an historic
opportunity. Now the wall that contained the debate of
the Left-the existence of the socialist camp-has dis- appeared. The grand issues are finally rising to the
surface: world government, a new design for the world, new types of international organizations, overcoming
North-South oppression, the limits of national capital-
ism, a new type of state. The great issues are before us
and in attempting to answer them we can build a new

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