Things did not turn out the way Parsons had expected. The capitalist world-economy began in the 1960s and 1970s to show signs of serious problems, resulting from basic structural contradictions. Beginning in 1979, the global elite, not understanding the source of its problems, took a turn to the Right. It rolled back reformist concessions to the working and middle classes in the core and to the national bourgeoisies of the periphery and semiperiphery, and it launched aggressive economic and military actions against the nations and the peoples of the world. With these actions, global elites has demonstrated their incapacity for taking an enlightened road toward capitalism with a human face. For China and the Third World, the turn to the Right by the global elite deepened the moral and political unacceptability of the neocolonial world-system. For the Third World, it became increasingly evident that an alternative road for humanity was the only possible option.
The alternative Third World road has been developed most fully and successfully by China, Vietnam, and Cuba, which have developed sustained socialist projects. The three socialist revolutions were led by charismatic leaders with exceptional understanding and leadership capacities. In the case of China, three exceptional leaders have emerged: Mao, who led the people in the restoration of Chinese sovereignty and in fundamental social transformation; Deng, who directed the opening of the economy toward commerce in the capitalist world-economy, promoting the economic development of the nation; and Xi, who currently leads the nation in the “New Reform,” which gives greater emphasis to the protection of social and economic rights, ecological sustainability, and international cooperation. (See various posts in the category China).
In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh led the people in the unification of the nation and the establishment of its sovereignty. Since Ho’s death, the party that he created and formed has led the nation as a vanguard party. (See the category Vietnam).
In Cuba, the socialist revolution is in transition from personal leadership by charismatic authority to collective leadership by a vanguard party. The initial steps toward the development of a collective structure to replace the personal authority of Fidel were taken in the 1960s. For five decades, Fidel formed the revolutionary vanguard party through pedagogical discourses. When Fidel retired for reasons of health in 2009, the party began to play a more dynamic leadership role. However, there did not occur a full transition from charismatic leadership to vanguard party leadership, inasmuch as Raúl assumed positions, previously held by Fidel, at the head of the state and the party; and Raúl possesses a level of charismatic authority, by virtue of his leadership capacities, and because of his historic role as second in command of the Cuban Revolution. Recently, Raúl has stepped down from his position of head of state, and the National Assembly of Popular Power has elected Miguel Díaz-Canel as President of the Council of State. Although this represents a further step toward vanguard party rule, the transition is not yet complete. In his initial address to the National Assembly on April 19, 2018, Díaz-Canel proclaimed that Raúl, in his capacity as head of the Party, will continue to make important decisions. Raúl’s term as First Secretary of the Central Committee of Party ends in 2021, and he has indicated that he will step down at that time.
Leadership by a charismatic leader and a revolutionary vanguard formed by a charismatic leader is a general phenomenon of revolutionary processes (see the category Charismatic Leaders). Such a political process, an alternative to the political structures developed as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions, is necessary for the triumph and consolidation of popular revolutions. In general, the people possess a rebellious attitude, and they often organize protest actions spontaneously. However, the people must be led, because most do not have a historical and theoretical understanding of the structural roots of their problems, nor do they necessarily understand the art of politics.
Because the three socialist revolutions have developed alternative political processes, different from those of representative democracy, global corporate and elite actors exploit the differences in an effort to discredit the revolutions. Such ideological manipulations seek to promote among the peoples of the world the belief that charismatic/party leadership is undemocratic and authoritarian. This elite propaganda is supported by news media and educational systems, which are structured to prevent the people from observing the structures and dynamics of the alternative revolutionary political process.
We should not be deceived. The alternative charismatic/party leadership, far from being an anti-democratic process, is actually an alternative form of democracy, which in most respects is more advanced than representative democracy. Its foundational structure is the popular council, developed in places of work and study and in neighborhoods, in which the people express their interests, concerns, criticisms, hopes, and desires. They elect their delegates, who in turn elect higher-level delegates, in a system of indirect elections in various interrelated institutions. In this process, the party plays an important role in educating and leading the people, but it does not direct the nation without popular support. It could not possibly do so, because of the highly developed structures that give space to the voices of the people.
The structures of popular democracy facilitate that party members are aware of the desires of the people. In the three socialist projects of China, Vietnam, and Cuba, this structured capacity to understand the people led to awareness by the party of the need and desire of the people for an improvement in their material conditions. So the parties turned to the development of pragmatic economic policies that were designed to elevate the general standard of living of the people.
We can see a pattern here: an evolution of pragmatic socialism in two stages. During an initial stage of thirty years or so, the definitive sovereignty of the nation and fundamental social transformations are accomplished. On this foundation, there evolved a second stage, during which leaders in the three socialist nations turned to pragmatic, beneficial relations with the governments, corporations, and organizations of the capitalist-world economy, with the intention of elevating the standard of living of the people. Various pragmatic policies have been adopted, including the expansion of self-employment, small-scale private capital, material incentives, cooperatives, joint ventures with foreign capital, and foreign-owned enterprises. These pragmatic reforms, it should be understood, are undertaken in the context of socialist projects, in which the state, rather than the market, rules the economy; in which state planning is fundamental; in which state ownership of the principal means of production persists; and in which the capitalist enterprises, foreign and domestic, are strongly regulated. These reforms are undertaken with the intention of elevating the material needs of the people, inasmuch as the people have expressed their desire to develop a form of socialism that does not require long-lasting material hardships. During this second stage, there also emerges rectification of negative consequences of the economic development, such as increasing social inequality. Such policies of rectification become more common as the economic development proceeds.
The pragmatic economies policies developed by China, Vietnam, and Cuba do not imply that these nations have turned to capitalism, and this is a point concerning which many Western intellectuals do not have a clear understanding. In a capitalist political economy, the market rules. Those who benefit most from the market live in obscene wealth, separate from the people; while those who cannot provide for their needs are left to their fate. The rule of the market distorts the political process, in that the elite and the wealthy finance the electoral campaigns and careers of politicians, who have become adept at pretending to defend the needs of the people while they in reality protect the interests of corporations and financiers. After decades of this political game, the political processes of the representative democracies have become decadent, characterized by superficial, ahistorical, non-theoretical, and segmented debate. As the decadence deepens, a spectacle emerges with frequency, in which those who make critical exposés are converted into the issue by virtue of public dissemination of information about their private lives. To some extent, the people have discerned such decadence, and as a result, “representative democracy” had entered into a crisis of legitimation.
None of these dynamics of the capitalist political-economic system are found in the political-economic systems that have been developed in the socialist projects of China, Vietnam, and Cuba. These three nations have developed socialist political-economic systems in which the state is controlled by the delegates of the people, and the state rules, guides, and regulates the market, defending the interests of the nation and the people. These political-economic structures and dynamics are fundamentally different from the political-economic systems of the core nations of the capitalist world-economy, in crisis and in decadence.
An important consequence of the decadent political system of representative democracy is that the political leaders of the powerful nations are not able to respond with intelligence or morality to the problems that emerge from the contractions of the world-system. Indeed, there is not even a clear understanding among the global elite that the world-system has been immersed in a sustained structural crisis since the 1960s, as a result of the fact that the world-system, following an international standard of competing imperialisms, had reached the geographical limits of the planet and had overextended its ecological limits. Incapable of understanding the roots of its problems, the capitalist political economy since 1968 has responded to its sustained structural crisis with economic and military attacks on the peoples of the world. In doing so, the global elite has demonstrated the unsustainability of the world-system as a capitalist world-economy, thus revealing that socialism is the necessary road for humanity.
But the socialism that is the necessary road is the pragmatic socialism exemplified by China, Vietnam, and Cuba. The necessary socialism is not an extreme ultra-Leftist socialism that sees no room in the economy for private capital or for foreign capitalist enterprises, or that expects of the people a level of understanding and commitment that are beyond the capacities of most. Rather, it is a pragmatic socialism, in which state planning rules; and the plan, with practical and common sense intelligence, defines a role for the market, in response to the productive requirements of the system and the needs of the people. A pragmatic socialism that appropriates techniques and strategies from capitalism, giving space to private capital in order to enhance productivity, and channeling the surplus that private capital generates to pay the social debt and to modernize the economy. A pragmatic socialism in which the political process is guided by delegates of the people, whose rise to positions of authority was not driven by money or ideological manipulation. A pragmatic socialism in which concessions are made to the materialist desires of the people, even as an exemplary vanguard, formed from the most committed of the people, demonstrates the qualities of sacrifice, study, and disciplined work. Meanwhile, the state stands as the director of the economy and as the expression of the political will of the people, whose delegates constitute the highest authority within the state.
The pragmatic socialism of China, Vietnam, and Cuba differs from Western European social democracy, which was an important political sector in Europe for approximately 100 years, from the last years of the nineteenth century to 1979. Social democracy attempted a reformist road to socialism, struggling in the context of a capitalist world-economy and political structures of representative democracy. It had two great weaknesses. First, it acquiesced to neocolonial domination, accepting material gains that were based largely on neocolonial domination. It did not see that its gains were economically and politically unsustainable. Its gains resulted from elite concessions offered in the context of the basic structures of the capitalist world-economy and neocolonial world-system. The elite would not concede the structural transformations necessary for the sustainability of the world-system, implying steps toward the formation of an alternative more just and sustainable world-system. Secondly, social democracy or democratic socialism was operating as an actor in political processes that it did not control. An important actor to be sure, but not the principal actor. It thus could attain no more that reformist concessions, which ultimately would be proven after 1980 to be unsustainable, in the context of the structures of the capitalist world-economy.
Like Western European social democracy, China, Vietnam, and Cuba represent a moderate, gradual path in the construction of socialism. But they do so from a position of political power in their nations. Although they must operate in the context of the capitalist world-economy, they have political control in their own nations. From a position of political power in the nation, they proceed decisively when it is politically and economically possible, demonstrating their fidelity to the people. But they move gradually and with political intelligence when the situation is more complicated, always seeking to proceed on the basis of popular consensus. From a position of political power in particular nations, they are constructing socialism gradually, with political intelligence, on a basis of popular consensus, and on a scientific foundation.
So what the socialist projects of China, Vietnam, and Cuba are developing is different from the other models in modern political experience. It is not capitalism, savage or enlightened; it is not social democracy; and it is not ultra-Leftist utopianism. It is a pragmatic socialism, based on the popular taking of power in particular nation-states; and proceeding gradually and with political intelligence to protect the social and economic rights of the people and the sovereignty of the nation, in a global context that is organized to negate it.
The tragedies, conflicts, and violence of the last fifty years are showing in human experience and in social and political practice the necessary road for humanity. The capitalist political economy is demonstrating is unsustainability. Meanwhile, pragmatic socialism is indicating the necessary road for humanity: a socialism without ultra-Leftism, and a socialism that is pragmatic and not ideological.
In the 1930s in the United States, the “Russian question” was the subject of intense debate. Did the purges of the 1930s mean that Russia had ceased to be socialist? James P. Cannon, who was elected the first secretary general of the Socialist Workers’ Party at its founding in 1938, considered that a full understanding of the Russian question was necessary for a revolutionary party in the United States. He maintained that it was important to distinguish between Leninism and Stalinism, in order to avoid the confused conclusion that the Stalinist deformations were a consequence of Lenin. Such a confusion would lead a party member to the counterrevolutionary view that Marxist-Leninist principles are undemocratic, leading to reformism and other errors. He also maintained that it was necessary for a revolutionary party in the United States to defend the Soviet Union against all imperialist aggressions, in spite of its deformations. Such a clear international understanding, he argued, is necessary for a revolutionary party, in order to capacitate it to educate the workers toward consciousness of the possibilities that they hold, if, with discipline and intelligence, they were to follow the road of the taking of political power.
Cannon’s teachings that have significance for us today. We in the Left must seek to educate the people and to lead them toward the taking of political power. In order to do so, we must have a clear understanding of what has been evolving in the socialist projects of China, Vietnam, and Cuba. These socialist projects are showing that the people can take power from the amoral representatives of the economic elite, and it can subsequently direct the state toward policies in defense of the rights of citizens and the sovereignty of nations. These socialist projects show that socialism, in its pragmatic form, is possible; as the capitalist world-economy, in its savage stage, is showing that socialism is necessary. We must understand these fundamental dynamics, so that we have the foundation for the organization and education of our peoples.