Will socialism make a comeback?

The time has come for various streams of the global socialist movement to put their heads together and shape a new world of hope.

Published : May 20, 2020 07:00 IST

Cuban  doctors and medical professionals before leaving for Italy, in Havana, Cuba, on March 21.

Cuban doctors and medical professionals before leaving for Italy, in Havana, Cuba, on March 21.

The ongoing global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has raised fundamental questions regarding globalisation and claims of its invincibility. These questions are social, political, economic, ideological and ecological in nature. The current world order, dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideologies, has fallen woefully short in the face of this global health crisis. Out of their despair and the abysmal global response that has seen over one lakh victims dying, people across the world have begun questioning the powers that be. Various groups of people have started thinking about alternatives and are asking, “Will socialism come back?”

Before examining these questions, it is worthwhile to state the following. The unquestionable supremacy of neoliberal capitalism over the world order has suffered a severe setback. The vanguard of this mode of development has become incapacitated in the face of a problem that does not adhere to the logic of the market. The foundational myth of capitalism that the market will be the ultimate source of human development has been exposed, leaving in its wake a series of promises as fleeting as soap bubbles. The “trickle down theory” that justified the accumulation of unequal wealth has been rendered hollow. Faced with the unprecedented human distress brought on by COVID-19, the market has been crippled, forcing many governments to depend largely on measures that are unfamiliar to present-day market dynamics. The crisis has unveiled the acute insufficiency of the much-celebrated welfare schemes invented by the welfare state concept of capitalism itself. Still, its proponents have been exploring the possibilities of mitigating people’s anguish with new pro-poor steps. They fail to understand that the crisis is not at all cyclical but more fundamental and systemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the severe blow it has caused to the global economy reveal the inevitable contradictions that have existed within the system. The interconnection between globalisation, global warming, the spread of the pandemic and its economic fallouts has now become more and more visible. Storm troopers of global capital cannot hide it anymore. In its citadel, the United States, the death toll and the number of positive cases have been increasing uncontrollably. As on April 2, as many as 56,164 people had died there and 9,87,467 people were reported to have been infected. In the most advanced capitalist nation, with a raging free market, health care workers at the forefront of battling the virus face an acute shortage of the most basic safety equipment and essential drugs. Many of them lost their lives because of the lack of protective equipment. Commodities such as masks, sanitisers and personal protective equipment are being imported. Health insurance also stands curtailed; three crore Americans have no health coverage at all. Thirty-three per cent of the people are unwilling to undergo treatment as they are unable to bear the expenses.

The doctor-patient ratio in the U.S. is lower than the ratio in many poor countries. The frenzy in that country over the last decade to privatise the health care system now appears to have been highly misplaced. Similar is the plight of other advanced, capitalist countries in Europe. All these are the inevitable aftermath of throwing the health care system to the whims and fancies of profit-centred market forces. When profit alone becomes the sole concern of health care, the concept of public health system becomes a hapless casualty.

Crisis of capitalism

In 1998, when George Soros published his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism, there were not many takers for it. Being a billionaire himself, Soros approached the issue from the viewpoint of a free-market advocate. His anguish was that global capitalism was moving rapidly towards market fundamentalism, disturbing the very foundations of capitalism itself. But with laissez-faire, the free market system, that urge is instinctive, and hence unavoidable. The unbridled greed for super profits by the super rich has caused the biggest ever crisis in the “era of globalisation”.

Marx had explained the unending pursuit of profit by capital in Volume 1, Chapter 31, of Capital , referring to T.J. Dunning, a famous writer of those days. “Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent, positive audacity; 100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both.” This observation was possible not because Marx was a prophet. It is his objective study and analysis of the basic nature of capitalism that helped him arrive at such conclusions. It threw light on the basic character of the capitalist mode of production where the output of social labour was appropriated for private profit. This intrinsic nature of capital would lead to inevitable contradictions within society. The more capitalism grows, the more this contradiction too will grow. Its manifestation and features may change, but the basic character will not change.

In the era of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation that followed the decline of global socialism, capitalism became more aggressive and unquestionable, with maximum profit becoming the only concern. It paved the path for ruthless exploitation of human beings and nature. The socialist ideology has the potential to analyse the capitalist contradiction. If properly developed and applied, it gives one the capability to understand the causes of the fall of the erstwhile model of socialism as well. That alone will not solve the problems. As Marx stated, interpretation of the world alone will not be sufficient: “The question however is how to change it.”

The return of socialism cannot be ruled out. At the same time, it needs to be stated equally categorically that it cannot happen in a dramatic way. Its re-emergence in the new world situation should be conceived as a historical process that addresses various fundamental questions relating to the current economic, political, ideological, social and environmental aspects. It is not at all a simple task as many wish it to be. Objective and subjective factors, their development and correlations, determine the course of social change. Sincerity, however deep it is, alone will not be sufficient to translate those desires into reality. As the most foundational task, various streams of the socialist movement in the world must introspect and rectify their shortcomings that led to the downfall of socialism in the Soviet era and after. At the moment the movement is not at all equipped to provide answers to the new challenges posed by the post-COVID-19 world.

While assimilating the lessons from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the experiences from Cuba have great significance. It was predicted that Cuba, the tiny country in the Caribbean, located close to the U.S. coast, would be doomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, with a remarkable resilience, it attracted the world’s attention.

Message of hope

Now, the Cuban brigade of doctors and health workers who landed in Italy and elsewhere were conveying a message of hope. Cuba also underlined the difference between two systems: one of market-controlled economy and social structure and the other of state-regulated economy and social values. Cuba stood apart in developing a health infrastructure that could provide hope for people even in fighting an unprecedented viral attack like COVID-19. The uninterrupted research in the field of virology heralded by the Cuban Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology under its Ministry of Public Health is commendable in this regard. While the U.S. was concentrating its research and efforts in the field of armaments, Cuba was consciously focussing on developing vaccines to protect human life.

In this context, it is worthwhile to look at the Kerala experience too. It rose to world attention because of its glowing achievements in the fight against COVID. It is the first State in India where a coronavirus case was reported, on January 29. Now it stands as a model for India in successfully resisting the pandemic. It has the highest rate of recovery and the lowest rate of death. This was the result of massive and consistent efforts under the leadership of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Left Democratic Front government. Analysts within and outside India have applauded Kerala’s success story.

This is not an achievement made in a small period. The root of Kerala’s success in the health sector goes back to the 19th century when the princely State of Travancore opened a “Dharma Asupathri” (free hospital) thanks to the social reform movement that was deep-rooted in the State in various forms. Following in the footsteps of various social reforms movements, the freedom movement led by the Congress, and the peasants’ and workers’ movements led by the Communist Party, also contributed to this effect.

The course of pro-people measures was accelerated by the first government of united Kerala, led by the Communist Party that came to power on April 5, 1957. Generally one could say that successive governments followed this narrative of governmental role in vital areas such as health, education and social security. Attainment of complete literacy, opening up of primary health centres in all villages, and adoption of multiple social welfare measures to support the poor, and so on, laid a strong foundation for Kerala’s growth. Local self-governments in the State are the proof of comprehensive, decentralised governance at the grassroots level. These factors together provided a strong foundation for the current government to work out the best performing model that the whole world appreciates.

These two examples are relevant to the current discussions as they point to the difference between two systems and their approaches to governance. The prospects of socialism making a comeback depend mainly on the alertness and ability of the socialist movement to find new answers to new questions. Socialist forces have spent much of their time in the past in discussing comparatively less important matters, mainly their internal squabbles, which have further led to their marginalisation in many countries. They have to come out of this self-destructive framework and learn to apply their ideology and politics to cope with the new situation.

History stands at a crossroads today. It would now be classified as “before and after COVID-19”. Nothing in the world will be the same as what it was before the pandemic. Everything relating to human life will be different in the days to come. Not only health care but economics, politics, society will undergo change. All forms of private ownership in all sectors will have to depend on the public sector and government funds even for their survival. More than once in the past a capitalist crisis was resolved by utilising people’s money and government funds. Even when a crisis was the creation of private capital, its solution was possible only by pumping in public funds.

Markets, which were the driving spirit behind globalisation, had nurtured a fierce income divide even before the pandemic hit. As a result, the richest 1 per cent in the world have more than double the wealth of 6.9 billion people. The combined wealth of the world’s richest 22 men is more than the wealth of the total women population in the whole of the African continent. The World Bank estimates that almost half of the world’s population live on less that $5.50 a day. Now during the pandemic all the mechanisms built up by the market stand exposed. They are helpless in providing solutions to people’s distress. The TINA (There is no alternative) theory has been punctured. Naturally, people will search for alternatives. Socialist forces have to rise up to new occasions. The basic philosophical traits of socialism again emerge as the source of new solutions.

The ideological, political and organisational preparedness of the forces that subscribe to socialism is on test. Issues such as environment and social and gender justice cannot be secondary in their thinking anymore. Commitment to democracy should be at the heart of the quest for a new path.

Contemporary political developments across the world have witnessed a rightward swing where rulers, with their blind allegiance to the market, have become more and more authoritarian whereas the masses crave for democracy. Socialist forces should understand the meaning of the democratic aspirations of the people. That remains one of the crucial lessons from the fall of the command-control system of socialism, which cannot be a model anymore. The ways and means to translate this philosophical potential to a workable plan of action is also a part of the present challenge. The time has come for various streams of social change to put their heads together and shape a new world of hope. History will wait for none.

Binoy Viswam is the secretary of the National Council, Communist Party of India, and leader of its parliamentary wing.

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