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 accept. JF SOCIALISTS WANT TO BE SOCIALISTS IN 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- tions. 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 function. 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 others. 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 Left.

Tags: US immigration law, Undocumented, Texas, farmworkers union, deportations

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.