People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 40

October 02, 2011




Challenges and Possibilities for Building

Socialism of the 21st Century


Nachiket Kulkarni


A PANEL discussion on ‘20 years after the fall of USSR: Contemporary Challenges before the Left’ was organised by web magazine Newsclick on September 24, 2011 at the Constitution Club, New Delhi. The panelists included Professor Aijaz Ahmad, Professor Prabhat Patnaik and  CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat. From Newsclick, Prabir Purkayastha convened the discussion and laid out the objective and significance of the theme under discussion.


Professor Aijaz Ahmad began by saying that the theme of discussion makes us discuss two topics, firstly the consequences of the collapse of the USSR and secondly the contemporary reality of ‘here and now’ and the task is to draw out the correlations between these two. Underlining the importance of the existence of socialist bloc or Warsaw pact countries as a support for national liberation movements and to maintain the balance of forces in the UNSC, Ahmed highlighted the consequences of the fall of USSR, some of which would have been inconceivable earlier even as the neo-liberal project had started in the 70s itself.   He also explained how the collapse has led to the profusion of anti-communist ideologies from millenarianism of different types -- Rightwing Populism to Anarchism-reformism-postmodernism. He also explained how the collapse has effected the intensification of the savage war on the gains made by working classes, dissolution of the social welfare gains in Europe and abrogation of national sovereignty. Stressing the need for the Left to reflect on the character of the capitalism of our times, he emphasised that the contemporary capitalism has exhausted its capacity to create employment and further expand the industrial proletariat. He further underlined the relevance of the worker-peasant alliance in overwhelmingly agrarian societies and multi-class alliances.


Emphasising the growing threat of rising neo-fascism, AIjaz pointed out the alarming possibility of functionally fascist regimes coming into being in the western world. While applauding the wave of demonstrations against neo-liberal policies and autocracies,  Aijaz Ahmed added a note of caution saying that if the socialist intellectual becomes too optimistic it runs the risk of succumbing to crass populisms. He concluded by saying that even though the capitalism is beset with crises and the discontent of the people is manifested in popular protests, without an authentic movement of the Left, a better future cannot be realised.


Professor Prabhat Patnaik started by saying that in the collapse of USSR also there is a confirmation, in a way, of Marx’s fundamental insights, albeit ironic. Firstly, the essential component of philosophical materialism is that there is no necessary coincidence between intention and outcome; this is borne out by huge expectations that could be seen at the time of collapse and its actual devastating effects on the Russian economy and society. Secondly, the collapse has also proved that there is no halfway house between capitalism and socialism and thirdly the reality of imperialism and the relevance of the analytical category of imperialism has been strongly emphasised by the fact that even when the challenge of socialist camp is withdrawn still the imperialism very much exists. He further underlined the necessity of making the qualitative shift from being trapped in history to transcending history to achieve socialism and the role of conscious intervention in the form of political praxis. Adding that there would be pitfalls in this process he explained the predicament of USSR of building socialism in a capitalist world and highlighted the lessons to be learnt from this experience. Explaining how this predicament led to the ‘closure of political arena’ for focusing on material development, Patnaik highlighted the problem of depoliticisation of working class in USSR. Saying that dictatorship of Party coupled with growth and armed might did not prove enough to cope with the imperialist onslaught, he underscored the necessity of ‘politicisation of the masses’ for the survival of socialist project.


Prabhat Patnaik pointed out that today we are facing not one but two crises, namely recession and also the food crisis. Both are the result of the hegemony of finance capital. He further stated that the State being hegemonised by finance capital has become a part of the immanence of the system, which further intensifies the crisis. On an optimistic note he added that this prolonged crisis opens up the possibility of revolutions as the contemporary times are reminiscent of the phase of revolutionary upsurge from 1914-50, the period which was also beset with the crises of capitalism. However, he added that each phase of the revolutionary upsurge must have its own forms of struggle and own agenda. In lieu of conclusion, Patnaik laid out the contours of such an agenda which Left must devise for the largest sections of the society. Firstly, it must entail defending beside working class, large masses of petty producers and peasants from the onslaught of neo-liberal policies, secondly anti-imperialism has to be a major component of this agenda and the struggle against imperialism would also entail the struggle against our own big bourgeoisie which is collaborating with imperialism and thirdly this agenda must have the project of modernity as an important component which involves the struggle for equality and political democracy, which has the potential to strike a blow at the oppressive and hierarchical systems such as caste. As a closing remark he underscored the significance of Marxism's struggle in the realm of theory and called upon the students to have a taste for theory.


Prakash Karat discussed the role of the Left today in the framework of the imperialism of today and the prospects for socialism in 21 century and spelt out the challenges and emerging possibilities. Saying that undoubtedly imperialism has become more aggressive and even reckless in the absence of USSR and the socialist project in retreat, he stressed on emerging resistance across the world to imperialist globalisation and the disastrous impact of neo-liberal policies. Discussing the crisis of social democracy in Europe as the social democratic parties have embraced neo-liberal policies and accepted the hegemony of NATO, Karat explained this predicament in terms of the shift away from anti-imperialism and stressed that for the reconstitution of the Left, the cardinal principle is the recognition of and struggle against Imperialism. Analysing the popular protests and struggles in Europe, he underlined the fact that these protests can only be effective if there is an organised Left political force and working class movement. He took the example of Greece where a communist party with substantial mass base and a strong trade union exist and thus the radical demand of giving up Euro is voiced strongly in the popular protests. Without belittling the defensive struggles waged across Europe he said that it needs to be kept in mind that in the absence of a political agency no new headway can be made. He also pointed this out in case of Egypt and Tunisia where the working class ferment has been the bedrock of mass upsurge. Prakash Karat underlining the progressive aspects of the popular protests in Arab world , categorically stated that whatever happens in Egypt one thing is certain that there is no going back to the earlier order. Karat also underlined the necessity of learning from the experiments in Latin America, especially in Venezuela and Bolivia, where the possibilities for socialism are being explored.


Taking the discussion of building socialism in current situation forward, Karat stated that there is no going back to the socialism of 20th century and in many aspects the socialism of the 21st century will be different from its 20th century counterpart. Stressing that one has to see the socialism of the 20th century as a product of a specific historical conjuncture, he underlined the necessity of deciding upon the aspects of 20th century socialism which need to be carried forward and ones to be discarded. However, he made it clear that this decision is to be based on the relevance or irrelevance of these aspects and not on any moral or political judgment. Karat clearly stated that in the vision for socialism, working class cannot be written off as a vast mass of wage labourers still exists in spite of the restructuring of labour process. Taking a cue from Lenin, he pointed out that within proletariat many sections exist and as the big sections are out of the formal industrial sector, new ways of organisation have to be devised and trade unions are trying to come to terms with this challenge. Highlighting the necessity for keeping the concrete situation in mind, he added that if CPI(M) escaped from the dismantling effects of the collapse of USSR (unlike many communist parties, especially in Europe) it was because we were aware of its imperfections. He also underlined significance of CPI(M)'s engagement with parliamentary democracy. While concluding Karat emphasised three issues as those of vital importance to the struggle for building socialism, namely anti-imperialism, struggle against Indian bourgeoisie, which is growingly collaborating with imperialism, and the struggle for social justice.