Saturday, 24 November 2007

From the new UNITY: Building It Now

The following is the editorial article from the most recent issue of UNITY magazine - "Socialism for the 21st century". Follow the link for subscription information.

Editional information
Building it now

If there was ever a time in history when socialists and revolutionaries could be forgiven for sitting back and letting others make the running, it is certainly long past. The failed and failing imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are dragging the current world system down with them.

On a political and military level, it looks increasingly like the people of Iran will be made to pay with their lives for the hurt prestige of Bush and his new best buddy Brown. On an economic level, the chickens are coming home to roost for the Western economies, as the credit bubble which has kept consumption high and wages low deflates.

Ordinary people throughout the world – even in the rich capitalist countries – increasingly know something is going wrong. Neo-liberal capitalism is increasingly making it difficult to put food on the table – and the civil liberties which are the "free West"'s other main selling point are also increasingly curtailed by the endless War on Terror. In many areas,about the only thing which is holding back an explosion at the grassroots is fear – fear that the only alternative to the modern world of police torture and more work for less money is something even worse. Which is, of course, the main ideological effect that the War on Terror is meant to perpetuate.

The job of socialists in the current world climate is to tip the balance between fear and anger in the consciousness of the masses. We need to get across the idea that there is not only an alternative, but a credible means of fighting for it. We need to argue the case for a mass party of workers and the other oppressed and exploited communities, fighting for a socialist transformation of society.

This is why Socialist Worker in New Zealand points to the increasingly important example of the ongoing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. For the first time in living memory, we are able to point to a social process of ordinary people taking control of their own lives and telling the corporates where to get off, and say: "That's what we're talking about." Seattle put anti-capitalism back on the agenda. But Caracas has put socialism back on the agenda – most famously, in the statement of President Hugo Chávez Frias of Venezuela that his government is moving towards "socialism of the 21st century".

This issue of UNITY is devoted to exploring exactly what that idea means. As Marxists, we see socialism as a post-capitalist economy, run by bottom-up democracy, where production is carried out for need and for use rather than for profit. As Venezuela is the only nation in the world where a process informed by this idea is being carried out on a national level, much of this issue is devoted to examining critically where the Bolivarian process is going, the opportunities and pitfalls that it evokes.

As most of our readers know by now, Socialist Worker – NZ has been carrying on this discussion within the worldwide network of revolutionary groups to which we belong, the International Socialist Tendency. To put it mildly, our statements have been controversial. The first half of this issue is devoted to reprinting some of the major contributions on this issue. Two discussion papers from the Socialist Worker Central Committee are reproduced, along with a rebuttal from Alex Callinicos, representing our British sister group, the Socialist Workers Party. This ongoing discussion – including IST parties and others – is archived on full at our UNITYblog. We encourage you to check out the whole thing at

The remainder of this issue is grouped around various themes which we consider vital to imagining a post-capitalist society. Such a society will be thoroughly democratic, with all power of effective decision-making devolved to the lowest level. We include two articles on the current struggle to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution to make "popular power" even more of a reality. But the question of building a bottom-up structure of administration will be an empty shell without building a bottom-up structure of political debate and mobilisation. The fate of "worker self-management" in Yugoslavia shows that workers councils without a real workers' party are like a gun without any ammunition.

The formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela both mirrors and determines the future shape of the constitution of the Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and these articles deal with the two questions together. But along with the new politics must come a new economics – democracy in the workplace, and production for use rather than profit. Two opposite threats to this new economy arise in revolutionary Venezuela – from bureaucratic elements trying to impose a state-capitalist system to squash workers' democracy, and from elements within the working class themselves who want factory democracy as a means to compete and make profit in a market economy. Vaughan Gunson discusses INVEVAL, the worker-controlled valve manufacturer, for a glimpse of what workers' power for the 21st century might look like, while Stuart Munckton interviews Fred Fuentes about the problems facing organised labour's struggle to come into its own power in revolutionary Venezuela.

21st century socialism will need a new form of making production and consumption decisions which relies on neither bureaucratic commandism or the anarchy of a money-based marketplace. We reproduce a review of the book Parecon by Michael Albert, an American anarchist writer who has written an intriguing and plausible description of what a post-capitalist economy might look like. Most intriguingly, the centrepiece of his model – Producers' and Consumer Councils negotiating production decisions – increasingly resembles Venezuela's networks of factory councils and communal councils. Albert has visited Venezuela and is enthusiastic about what he's seen.

What will popular culture and the media look like in a free, post-capitalist civilisation? Chávez's decision not to renew the licence of the coup-plotting RCTV network drew nervous reactions from Western liberals intent on defending "freedom of speech". But Rob Sewell ably demonstrates why corporate media control is the precise opposite of freedom of speech – and draws from the Russian revolutionary tradition to suggest what an alternative media democracy might look like. Your UNITY editor also contributes her own thoughts as to the importance of mass media and the people who produce it to capitalism of today and the movement to overcome it.

So much more could have been written about in this issue but had to be cut for reasons of space. We regret not being able to provide an indepth look at the current credit crisis, or discuss the vital role of indigenous people at the heart of the Bolivarian project, or further explain what we see as the situation of “dual power” in Venezuela. We do offer Joe Carolan’s response to accusations that Marxists “fetishise” Muslim peoples and their struggles, and Anna Potts' thoughtful discussion of the place of women's struggle in a 21st century revolutionary movement.

In our final major article of this issue, your UNITY editor reviews Build It Now, a short but dynamite book by Michael Lebowitz, an academic who has been at the heart of the Bolivarian revolutionary process. In a model of what Marxist scholarship should look like, he cogently explains Marxist economics, discusses where the Bolivarian movement came from and how it has changed over time, and gives valuable hints and clues to how workers' power and popular democracy can mesh to create a new world.

The role of the Bolivarian revolution in ideologically sorting out the various strands of opinion in the anti-capitalist movement is perhaps the surest sign of its vital importance for today. The British autonomist John Holloway wrote a book entitled Changing the world without taking power – a seductive concept to generations who had been let down by various figures who had seized state power only to betray. Recently, Gregory Wilpert – one of the founders of the website – has released a book entitled Changing Venezuela by taking power. It can be argued that Holloway's central thesis – a variation on the old adage that "power corrupts" - has proved inadequate to the test of practice.

One vital lesson of Venezuela is that there are opportunities as well as dangers for revolutionaries in moving into the sphere of state power. Those of us who hold to the Marxist view of the state – that it is an apparatus devoted to the preservation of the power of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system – have rightly concentrated on the dangers when we argue about reformism. But in the current historical era, where capitalism and imperialism are undergoing crises but there is no credible worldwide alternative, Marxism is faced with the question of either moving into the mainstream – or perhaps losing the last, best chance to save our civilisations and our planet.

By the time the next UNITY comes out, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela will have begun to take shape. This new party, as well the various new broad-left formations in which socialists have played a central role – Respect, the various Socialist Alliances, the German Left party and our own RAM – will be the central theme of the next issue of UNITY.

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