On Jan. 31, 2018, Monthly Review Online published a piece by Professor Benjamin Selwyn of the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, outlining a strategy for socialist development. The prototypes for socialism that Selwyn describes are much needed and are a welcome contrast to the liberal/centrist models pursued by much of the left in the core capitalist countries.
What’s baffling is that what Selwyn outlines already exists in certain parts of the Global South, namely in Latin America. Yet the author makes no reference to these already-existing socialist projects, writing as if these models were a creation of his own intellectual imagination, or a “thought experiment,” as he puts it.
As an introductory remark, he posits that these models do not currently exist but could unfold “in the near future” through a “laboring class” achieving “political and economic power in a poor country.” His outline is divided into three sections: “Intermittent Revolution,” “Reabsorption of the State By Society” and “Redistribution: Reclaiming Social Wealth.”
In this contestation, I will show that while some of the details that Selwyn includes in his essay may very well be original, the overall models he portrays as “new” have actually been in existence for a number of years in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba.
In the section titled “Intermittent Revolution,” Selwyn correctly describes the taking of political power as a “phase of the struggle for a transition to an alternative mode of production” and that “it will be undertaken using tools inherited from the past.”
In Latin America, this process started as far back as 1959 with the Cuban Revolution. Cuba was not able to move from capitalist production to a socialist one from one day to the next. It is still struggling to solidify a socialist system in a world dominated by capitalist trade, even opting to allow some capitalist trading in the country recently.
Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, countries whose governments claim to be socialist, continue to have far-reaching remnants of the old capitalist system. They are experiencing contradictions that to some, especially in the West and the First World, are enough to relegate them to mere “populist” states. Yet, like Selwyn suggests, the emergence of a socialist state can be a “drawn out, contradiction-laden process.” What’s important to note, however, is that these processes are building multiple mechanisms — both state and community-led — that seek to displace the old capitalist system for a new socialist model.
Venezuela, for example, has been organizing socialist communes across the country for at least a decade. The main purpose of these organized communes is to “have the right to plan, define and execute policies and projects within their own territory, and all (in)habitants have the right to participate in this process.” Furthermore, the state itself has created projects such as Misión Barrio Adentro, which involves doctors and clinics being placed in poor neighborhoods to provide basic healthcare needs to workers who once had no access to them or had to go far out into wealthy areas and pay private hospitals and clinics.
In 2016, to combat the economic crisis which was partly caused by capitalists sabotaging the distribution of basic household goods, the government also introduced the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPS in its Spanish acronym). Local production and distribution of basic goods such as bread are unheard of in the neoliberal model that governs most of the world today.
The self-reliability of the people coupled with a state that is leaning towards building a socialist system is putting in place survival mechanisms that can be likened to what Selwyn calls “the process of enhancing laboring class power” or “intermittent revolution.”
Another aspect of this process, according to Selwyn, is “an outward-looking foreign policy” that “can complement domestic extension of laboring class power, through collaboration with international social movements to construct solidarity for the new regime.”
Again, Venezuela has been a leading light for socialism in the region by creating networks of solidarity at both the state level and with social movements. At the state level, Venezuela and Cuba have sought to integrate Latin America and the Caribbean more than ever before. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, known as ALBA, was created in order to officially organize “social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid” around the region.
While Selwyn looks forward to a time when “a democratic laboring class state in one country” is established, he chooses to ignore the already existing ones in Latin America. To him, the emergence of such a state is a prerequisite for other similar states to emerge but fails to recognize the efforts of the laboring class in certain countries of the Global South. These projects often seem to attract more scorn than solidarity with our friends in the North.
In his “Reabsorption of the State By Society” section, he again ignores the progress of social movements in the Global South. He mentions communes and neighborhood communities that could exist in order to establish “democratic planning impulses,” yet fails once again to recognize already-existing projects organized around this principle, which I detailed above.
Interestingly, the author does include a brief quote that mentions participatory planning in Brazil, Venezuela, and India, acknowledging their existence. However, he continues the essay in a tone that suggests that these are still to materialize. Are they not important as blueprints themselves?
In the final section titled “Redistribution: Reclaiming Social Wealth,” he argues that the transformation of social relations to redistribute wealth is the quickest way to end, or at least relieve, poverty — something we can all agree with. It does, however, get a little confusing with a few paragraphs on taxation under capitalism and the hoarding of what should be public wealth.
In this section, Selwyn explains that if the wealthy elites of poor countries could share their wealth, they could eliminate poverty. Ultimately he brings it all back together to state that wealth, which includes not just money but “land, workplaces, and natural environment,” must be transformed through “socializing its ownership and democratic direction,” which we concur with.
While we are in complete agreement with Selwyn’s underlying argument for a radical change in the control of production and the wealth derived from it, we find his omission of current movements in the Global South offensively Eurocentric.
By sidelining projects that are already moving towards socialist modes of production, there is an erasure of the struggles of billions of people across the globe. This patronizing outline of what should or could be done is yet another form of Eurocentrism, in that it attempts to give us an outline of something that many of us are already doing.