What is socialism? The principles and characteristics of socialism cannot be formulated idealistically, on the basis of the abstract concepts isolated from real social movements and from the practice of socialism in nations where socialist revolutions have triumphed. If we observe popular movements and socialist nations through encounter, with a listening that seeks understanding, we learn that the meaning of socialism has evolved over the last two centuries, and that there are a diversity and plurality of socialist practices. But we also can discern that there are common practices in socialist nations. Twelve such practices can be identified, on the basis of observation of two nations that once were socialist (Russia in the time of Lenin and Chile under Allende) and six nations that continue to develop socialist projects (China, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador). These twelve practices have not been fully developed in all eight cases, but they can be identified as general patterns.
(1) Power is in the hands of delegates of the people. Socialist nations seek to develop a political process that is an alternative to representative democracy, which is a type of government originally created by Western bourgeois revolutions and subsequently developed by the Western powers. Representative democracy is susceptible to elite control, for it is able to impose a debt on elected officials through its capacity to finance election campaigns, and it is able to frame and manipulate public discourse by virtue of its ownership of the media of communication and as a result of its capacity to fund think tanks. As an alternative to representative democracy, socialist nations have developed popular democracy, which is established on a foundation of a multitude of small popular assemblies. The people meet in numerous local assemblies in order to discuss problems and issues and to make recommendations, and this structure of face-to-face dialogue weakens the capacity for ideological manipulation by a wealthy class. The popular assemblies also meet to select delegates to serve in a higher level of popular power. The elected delegates in turn select delegates to serve in a still higher level, until ultimately the highest political authority of the nation is established. In socialist nations, citizens who serve in the highest levels tend to have the same demographic characteristics as the people: they are professionals, workers, peasants, students, women, and members of ethnic groups. Political parties tend not to participate in the selection of those who hold political authority. Political parties play more of a role of educating, disseminating ideas, and participating in the public discourse. Citizens who hold political authority are selected by the people without mediation by political parties, and they are selected on the basis of personal characteristics that they possess. In some socialist countries, like Cuba, representative democracy has been eliminated, and the country is governed through structures of popular power; in others, like Venezuela, structures of representative democracy and popular democracy exist side-by-side.
(2) Sovereignty. The nations of the Third World are historically colonized. Their most important economic, political, and cultural institutions were under the control of the colonizers. They successfully struggled to attain political independence, but the independence that they achieved was not a true independence, as a result of the fact that the colonial powers were able to preserve important economic and commercial structures established during colonialism. The transition to neocolonialism was accomplished with the help of the collusion of the national bourgeoisie in the newly independent nations, and neocolonial control is reinforced by financial and ideological penetration and political maneuvering of the neocolonial power(s). When neocolonial control breaks down, the global powers turn to military intervention, under any pretext. Responding to this neocolonial situation, socialist nations of the Third World affirm the true sovereignty of the nation as a fundamental principle. They maintain that each nation has the right to decide on its type of government and form of development, and the right to control over its natural resources and the cultural formation of its people. In their quest for definitive independence, the socialist nations have played a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement and in the processes of South-South cooperation. (See various posts in the categories of Neocolonialism, Latin American and Caribbean unity and integration, and South-South cooperation).
(3) Cooperation among nations. The socialist nations of the Third World maintain that the world-system should be guided by the principle of cooperation among nations, and they have tried to develop cooperative relations with other nations. This has not always been possible, because the global powers have adopted a policy of conflict toward the socialist nations. But the socialist governments have historically welcomed opportunities of cooperation with other governments. Today, as the crisis of the world-system deepens, and as the incapacity of the global powers to respond constructively to the crisis becomes manifest, many progressive governments are taking the road of cooperation with the socialist governments. This can been seen with respect to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC for its initials in Spanish) and the BRICS, which are multi-national associations that seek to develop mutually beneficially commerce as well as social and cultural exchanges. These associations are establishing in practice an alternative model for humanity: the development of a world-system based on cooperation and mutual respect rather than conflict and domination. (See declarations emitted by CELAC and BRICS).
(4) Solidarity among peoples. Parallel with the principle of cooperation among nations, socialism has practiced solidarity among peoples. There are numerous examples of persons who, driven by commitment to social justice, have gone to other countries to join in a political struggle for liberation. Socialism calls for international support for any people confronting hardship, whether its roots be political, commercial, or climatic. Socialist governments participate in solidarity among peoples, by fostering cultural, academic and sports exchange among peoples; as well as by coming to the support of another nation in difficulty, as is illustrated by the support of the Cuban government for the government of Angola in the 1980s, and by the sending of medical missions to Africa by Cuba in response to the Ebola epidemic of 2015.
(5) Social and economic rights. The concept that democratic rights include the social and economic rights is one of the most important principles of socialism, and socialist governments have invested considerable resources to national projects that seek to provide a minimal standard of living, adequate nutrition and housing, access to education, and health services. Socialism maintains that these goods and services, necessary for living well and in dignity, should never be distributed solely on the basis of market principles, and it maintains that decisive state action is necessary to ensure that the economic and social rights of all persons are protected.
(6) State directed economic development plans and various forms of property. There has been some tendency to think that the nationalization of the means of production is the defining characteristic of socialism. It is true that nationalization of the major means of production has been an important feature of socialist nations. However, socialist nations in practice have sanctioned other forms of property as well, giving varying degrees of emphasis to them in accordance with productive and commercial needs under particular conditions. These forms of property, in addition to state ownership, include joint ventures with foreign capital, cooperatives, medium and small-scale capitalist enterprises, and private entrepreneurship. What has distinguished the socialist nations is the central role of the state as an economic actor and as the author of a national plan for economic development. In socialist nations, economic development is not left to market demands, nor do capitalists’ interests shape economic policy. Economic policies are developed by the state in representation of the interests of the majority of the people. When socialist states grant space to private capitalist enterprises, they have made the judgment that such a policy can contribute to the production and distribution of goods and services, always a pressing concern, and as such it is beneficial to the people and to the long-term development of the nation. It is an error to think that when a socialist nation grants space to foreign or domestic capital, it is no longer socialist.
(7) Diversity in production. Most socialist revolutions came to power in conditions in which the economy of the nation was characterized by the exportation of two or three raw materials and the importation of a variety manufactured goods and food products. This created a situation of economic and political dependency on the international market and on one or two core nations that were the destiny of its exports and the source of its imports. In order to facilitate true independence, the socialist nations have tried to strengthen and diversify their manufacturing and agricultural productivity. This is often a difficult challenge, as a result of limited capital.
(8) Public media. Socialist governments have sought to place the media of information under public control. Socialism does not believe that state ownership of the media restricts freedom of speech. To the contrary, it maintains that private ownership of the media limits and distorts the awareness of the people, and this places constraints on their capacity to freely develop as persons. When there is state ownership of the media, the directorship of the various networks and outlets of the media are appointed by ministers of the state, which are appointed by political authorities that are directly and indirectly elected by the people. This implies that editorial judgements, rather than being guided by the particular interests of corporations and the powerful, ultimately must respond to the political leaders of the people, thus increasing the possibility that the media will serve the public good. Some socialist nations, like Cuba, have entirely eliminated private ownership of the media; others, like Venezuela, have invested in the expansion of the public media at the international, national and local levels, which exists alongside a regulated privately-owned media.
(9) Gender equality. Socialist nations have been at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of women. They have been guided by the principle of the full participation of women in the construction of a socialist society, including positions of authority in political and economic institutions. This has been accomplished in a form that has not been conflictive. In Cuba, for example, the struggle for gender equality has been consistently presented as “a women’s revolution within the socialist revolution,” and it has been supported from the beginning by the highest levels of leadership of the socialist revolution.
(10) Ecological sustainability. Socialist nations were not at the forefront of the ecology movement prior to 1990. However, beginning in 1992, the socialist nations began to integrate the issue of the protection of the environment into its comprehensive project for the creation of an alternative, more just and sustainable world-system. It has recognized and proclaimed that the current patterns of production and consumption of the world-system are unsustainable, and that they are likely to lead to climatic and ecological consequences that could threaten the survival of the human species. While they recognize that all nations have a responsibility toward nature, they also insist on a “differentiated responsibility,” in which the industrialized nations of the North, which are primarily responsible for environmental degradation and have greater resources, take a particular responsibility for responding to the environmental crisis that threatens all of humanity. Within their own nations, socialist nations seek to protect the environment, to the extent that their resources permit, and taking into account that they must balance ecological issues with the need to provide for the basic necessities of the people (see “Sustainable development” 11/12/13).
(11) Patriotism. Inasmuch as the popular struggles in the Third World were struggles for the sovereignty of the nations, their charismatic leaders were great patriots, and they called the people to patriotic service of their nation. Ho Chin Minh, for example, formed in the tradition of Confucian nationalism, at the age of 29 took the name of Nguyen the Patriot. Fidel Castro, educated in the nationalist tradition formed by the Cuban revolutionary José Martí, constantly invoked patriotic symbols in his discourses. Revolutionary patriotism in the Third World, however, is completely unlike patriotism in the North, where politicians manipulate the patriotic sentiments of the people in order to induce them to support unjust and imperialist wars. In the Third World, the patriotic sentiments of the people are invoked in order to defend the sovereignty and the dignity of the nation against imperialist interventions. The meaning and context of patriotism varies greatly, depending on which side of the colonial divide it is found (see “Revolutionary patriotism” 8/15/2013).
(12) Spirituality and revolutionary faith. Third World socialist revolutions have been guided by spirituality. Revolutionary spirituality draws from and is influenced by religious traditions. Ho Chi Minh, for example, was formed by Confucian scholars; and Fidel was educated in Catholic schools. But revolutionary spirituality re-expresses religious spirituality. It proclaims the essential dignity of the human species, and it calls upon all to live in accordance with human dignity and to fulfill duties toward humanity as a whole and to nature. Revolutionary spirituality sets aside the cynicism of the North, and it is based on faith in the future of humanity. As the Cuban essayist Cintio Virtier has observed, it is “a revolutionary faith in the potentialities of the human being.” It is an “uncontainable force” that “sees in history what is not yet visible” (2006:197). This faith is the source of revolutionary sacrifice. When it looks at the structures of domination and exploitation in our world, it does not escape to other-worldliness or to personal acquisitions; rather, it proclaims that “a better world is possible.” (See “Universal human values” 4/16/2014 and “The revolutionary faith of Fidel” 9/15/2014).
Socialism cannot be implemented from above. The global elite has demonstrated, particularly since 1980, its indifference to the long-term wellbeing of their own nations and of the peoples of the earth as well as to the sustainability of the earth itself. In the countries of the North, where socialism has not triumphed, the people must take political and economic power away from the global elite. How can this be done? We should form an understanding of the answer to this question by observing how Third World socialist movements were able to do it. This will be the subject of our next post.
Vitier, Cintio. 2006. Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. La Habana: Editorial Félix Varela.