Posted with permission from Green Left Weekly
21 February 2009
“For us there is no valid definition of socialism other than the abolition of the exploitation of one human being by another”, insisted Argentinean-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria, 1965.
That one quote should make it clear that the “socialism” Che, whose famous image is still seen on banners and T-shirts at protests around the world, fought for has little to do with the desperate state interventions and partial nationalisations carried out by panicked governments in the US and Europe recently.
Much has been made of the supposed conversion to “socialism” by previously militant free marketers, however these actions are simply temporary measures brought on by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.
It is about saving capitalism, and any interests taken over by pro-corporate governments will be given back to corporate hands once it is profitable again.
When Guevara spoke of creating socialism, he spoke of fighting for a system dramatically different to the one that we live under today, in which the economy is owned and run by a corporate elite according to one principle only: how to maximise profits.
The concept of such a humane alternative was supposed to be buried when the bureaucratic dictatorships that took the name socialism collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
Yet, a December 4 article in the London New Statesman wrote of growing support for left-wing parties across Europe: “At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again.
“Make no mistake, socialism — pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists — is making a strong comeback.
“Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.”
These parties, on the rise in places that include Greece, France, Germany and Holland, “challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital”.
In Latin America, socialism is a major issue, thanks largely to the Venezuelan revolution led by President Hugo Chavez, which has made constructing a “new socialism of the 21st century” its goal — a humanist and democratic socialism, Chavez has insisted, that will not be based on the flawed model of the Soviet Union.
While the process is still in its early stages, with capitalism and its many social ills still surviving, the revolution has already achieved miracles by breaking with capitalist logic and seeking to distribute resources according to the principle of human need — the halving of poverty being one example.
Venezuela is setting an example to the region’s poor. Even in Peru, governed by one of the last remaining pro-US regimes in South America, a 2007 Gallup poll revealed significantly more Peruvians (nearly 50%) favoured socialism over capitalism.
Only 16% favoured capitalism.
Guevara, who helped led the Cuban Revolution before attempting to spread the anti-capitalist rebellion to the Congo and then Bolivia, was murdered in cold blood on the orders of the CIA in 1967.
However, the ideal for which he died clearly lives. The reason why is not hard to see.
The system Che fought against is in severe crisis, one that had a leading International Monetary Fund economist warning of a second great Depression, according to a December 23 AFP report. Others have suggested that warning could prove overly optimistic.
The dramatic financial collapse that began last September has escalated into a full scale global economic meltdown. No part of the world is immune.
In the US, 1.9 million jobs were lost in the last four months of 2008. In China, (supposedly the saviour of the Australian economy) the numbers of jobs lost are in the tens of millions.
While governments have thrown billions of dollars at this crisis, offering massive bailouts to the corporate elite, workers are being increasingly forced to pay via job cuts, attacks on wages and conditions, and rises in the cost of living.
And why? Because the casino nature of capitalism, whereby the search for endlessly growing profits created a ballooning financial bubble fuelled by speculation with little relation to actual productive activity.
Too many of the people with too much money put their money in the wrong places. The financial collapse then endangered access to credit needed to keep the real economy going and industries afloat.
As a result, billions of ordinary people will suffer. Not because the capacity to produce, to meet people’s needs, is any less. But because the system is organised in such a way that things only get produced if capitalists believe they can profit from it.
When this belief is threatened by the sort of crisis now engulfing the world, the economy enters a downward spiral.
This is not a rational system.
For instance, war is one of its essential features. First World nations wage devastating wars for control over markets and natural resources like oil.
The Iraq war is estimated by the British medical journal The Lancet to have killed more than a million people so far.
War and economic crisis are not even the greatest problems facing humanity. That belongs to the growing threat of catastrophic, runaway climate change caused by escalating greenhouse gas emissions.
Coal-fired power stations are maintained because they are cheap and profitable, despite the warning that CO2 emissions are raising the temperature of the planet to an extent where we are now passing crucial “tipping points” defined by scientists as a “point of no return”.
According to a February 15 Sydney Morning Herald article, a top scientist, Chris Field, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which “published a landmark report warning of rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more intense storms and the extinction of up to 30 per cent of plant and animal species”, stated that the latest evidence is that warming is happening even faster than the IPCC predicted.
Despite the mounting evidence, First World governments, including Australia’s, refuse to take desperately needed action that threatens the profits of powerful corporations.
It is starkly clear that the same irrational system that can plunge the global economy into the chaos of recent months cannot be trusted to carry out the changes needed to deal with the climate threat.
Even before the current crisis, poverty and inequality were endemic to the system — even in the “land of the free”.
In 2003, the richest 20% of the US population received 49.8% of total national wealth. Comparatively, the poorest fifth received only 3.4%, according to the US census bureau.
Since income distribution across households began to be recorded in 1967, the amount of income in the hands of the wealthiest has steadily increased. In fact, real wages (inflation-adjusted) in the US have not risen since the early 1970s.
In the richest nation in the world, some 35 million people suffer from hunger.
Globally, more than 2.8 billion people — close to half the world’s population — live on less than US$2 a day.
The total number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition has reached 963 million worldwide, including 40 million people pushed into poverty in 2008 alone.
As the bastions of the system begin to crumble and the planet veers closer and closer to disaster, it is the working people and the poor who are seeking to construct an alternative way forward.
Alternatives are emerging; the struggles across Latin America are developing into a systematic challenge to US corporate domination. While the Venezuelan revolution is at the forefront, it is not alone.
In Bolivia, South America’s poorest nation, there have been repeated uprisings since 2000 against the devastating effects of pro-corporate neoliberal policies on the poor (there was even an attempt to privatise water that would have made it a crime to collect rainwater!)
This culminated in the election of President Evo Morales from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in December 2005. Morales, a leader of coca growers’ union, is Bolivia’s first president to come from the impoverished indigenous majority.
His government has nationalised gas reserves, promoted a new constitution adopted by referendum based on justice for the long-oppressed indigenous people and has redistributed wealth to the poor.
In Venezuela, what began as a rebellion against corruption, poverty and the worst excesses of neoliberalism, has become outright socialist. In 2005, Chavez argued that Venezuela, and the world, required a “socialism of the 21st century”.
Chavez has argued that if “we do not change the world now, there may be no 22nd century for humanity”.
The significance of his comments comes from the mass movement he is leading. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), led by Chavez, received more than five million votes in the November regional elections. Its nearest competitor received a little over a million.
Around 1.5 million people are estimated to be active on a weekly basis as PSUV militants.
But the uprisings are branching out across the world. Europe has been the stage of numerous mass revolts and protests.
Iceland’s right-wing government has already been toppled, almost as spectacularly as its economy, by a mass movement.
In France — as the people reject President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pro-corporate response to the economic crisis, with massive job losses prompting general strikes — the most popular politician, according to current polls, is a revolutionary socialist, Olivier Besancenot.
The recently formed New Anti-capitalist Party, led by Besancenot, is rapidly gaining popularity.
We can also see the potential for what could be achieved, if control over the economy is taken from the hands of the corporate elite, in the poor, blockaded island of Cuba.
Punished with a crippling blockade by the US for its crime of resisting US corporate domination, Cuba has still managed to achieve giant strides in social progress through a planned economy free from corporate interests.
Cuba has more doctors per head of population and a lower infant mortality rate than the US. Due to the high cost of education in the US, impoverished African American students are granted scholarships to study in Cuba, where education is entirely free.
Most importantly, Cuba has made massive leaps forward in environmental sustainability, especially in food production. A 2007 Worldwide Fund for Nature report listed Cuba as the only nation with a sustainable economy.
The words of Che seems eerily prophetic. He stated in a 1964 speech to a UN trade conference: “The feeling of revolt will grow stronger every day among the peoples subjected to various degrees of exploitation.”
While a small minority controls the wealth, the fundamental conditions under which we live continue to be subject to an unjust, profit-driven system.
Socialism, by contrast, seeks to organise the economy along the lines of what people and the planet require — a democratically planned economy not subjected to whims of an out-of-control market.
Socialists call for a radically more accountable, transparent and democratic political and economic system.
Democracy must be an inherent feature of socialism. Without it socialism cannot work because it is based on the actions of ordinary people.
Under socialism, all sections of society are drawn into decision-making processes that determine what needs to be produced and for whom. In a socialist system, need replaces profit as the main economic motive.
Breaking with capitalism and seeking to construct socialism is the only path that can take bring the planet back from the brink of catastrophe — and this is realised by increasing numbers globally.