Reflecting on the Chinese manifestation of ultra-Leftism in the epoch of Mao, let us ask, what are ultra-Leftist tendencies in the progressive and socialist movements in the nations of the North today? In general, ultra-Leftist tendencies are rooted in a failure to take into account the need for advancing economic productivity. In the vast regions of the planet that form the Third World, where more than two-thirds of humanity lives, economic development is necessary in order to provide for the social and economic needs of the people. Most of the intellectuals of the North live in a context of advanced economic development, established on a foundation of the colonial and neocolonial domination and superexploitation of the Third World. They tend not to appreciate sufficiently the urgent need to produce and to improve production, a situation invariably confronted by Third World revolutionary leaders that have been carried by popular social movements to political power. Northern intellectuals of the Left often propose ideas worthy of careful consideration and planning, especially in the long term, but first the people must be fed.
The ultra-Leftist underestimation of the importance of production not only influences attitudes toward Third World revolutions; it also has negative political consequences in the political dynamics of the nations of the North. Many of the ecological and anti-militarist proposals of the U.S. Left, for example, do not adequately address the nation’s economic situation, characterized by dependency on environmentally destructive patterns of production and consumption and on the military-industrial complex, a dependency that complicates an alternative direction with respect to the environment and militarization. Of course, the Left must call the people to the protection of the environment and the reversal of the expansion of military industries. However, the Left must make its proposals in a form that (1) appreciates the preoccupations of the people with respect to employment; and (2) shows that it possesses the comprehensive knowledge necessary for leading the nation in a direction that promotes peace and protects the environment, and yet responds to the material needs of the people.
In addition, ultra-Leftism tends to possess a rigid concept of property ownership, objecting to space in the economy for private property. Some insist on cooperatives, objecting to private property as a form of worker exploitation, and at the same time rejecting state ownership as a top-down form of management that does not differ from capitalism. Others insist on state ownership of all means of production, viewing cooperatives as a form of private ownership, and defining private ownership as inappropriate for socialist economies. Ultra-Leftism ignores the challenges that socialist nations face with respect to the production and distribution of goods and services, and it thus cannot see that, in determined circumstances, private ownership can be a useful mechanism for distributing particular goods and services to the people or for contributing to the expansion of national production. In different moments and circumstances, Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba all found it necessary to allow space in various ways for private capital. They did so, however, in a form in which state ownership of the economy was extensive, and state management of the economy was fundamental, with control and regulation of private enterprises, and with extensive state interrelationships with cooperatives. Moreover, they defined space for private capital in a context in which the various institutions of the society were guided by socialist values. Similarly, in the new popular socialist revolutions that have emerged in recent years in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, the revolutionary leaders have proclaimed a new form of socialism, with the economy under the direction of the state and with state ownership of the principal and most important industries, but with a mixed economy, including private property.
Moreover, ultra-Leftism tends to an exaggeration of the concept of equality. Modern bourgeois and socialist revolutions have affirmed the fundamental principal of equality, proclaiming the equality of all persons, regardless of race or ethnicity, class, or gender. However, socialist nations in practice have found it necessary to tolerate some differences in income, because production tends to suffer when highly productive work is not rewarded. Socialist nations have arrived to the view that some differences in income, not great, should exist, in order to reward those who make greater sacrifices and are more committed with respect to work, thus ensuring the continuity of highly valued and necessary labor. Ultra-Leftism has a tendency to protest income inequalities in all forms, even when they are necessary and sensible. Although the nations constructing socialism permit modest levels of income inequality, they are more advanced than capitalist societies with respect to the principal of equality, for they affirm in practice that social and economic rights to education, health care, nutrition, and housing are not conditioned on capacity to pay.
Ultra-Leftism tends to advocate the abolition of disciplined work. It views management demands for productive work as an oppression of workers, and it objects to the adoption of normal management practices in socialist nations as anti-socialist. It does not see that, in the context of overcoming the legacy of underdevelopment, revolutionary leaders must exhort the people to disciplined work. Socialist nations protect the rights of workers not by being relaxed with respect to work expectations and demands, but by establishing and supporting worker’s mass organizations, in which all workers are members, and that elect their own leaders. The workers’ organizations raise all issues of concern to the workers, including salary, working conditions, and living conditions. In Cuba, for example, the company managers and the union leadership work together in balancing the nation’s need to elevate production with the worker’s right to humane work and living conditions. Although Marx envisioned the reduction of labor time to marginal time, humanity is not close to such a communist paradise, especially in the Third World. Socialism does not yet mean the abolition of work. In the construction of socialism, we are all called to disciplined work, each in the areas and specializations where our talents and capacities lie, which also implies the necessary continuation of a functional division of labor.
Ultra-Leftism romanticizes the small and the local as a more humanist form of production and politics, leading to a disdain for centralized state planning. Certainly, in some cases, small is beautiful. However, in the constant pressure to expand production, the national commitment to the small and the local must include evaluation of productivity. To the extent that they respond to the productive needs of the nation, or in other ways respond to local needs or to the needs of the workers, small and local industry should be supported by the state. In such cases, the state would include them as part of its centralized plan, and it would include subsidies when feasible and intelligent. Local and smaller scale production has its place, and in rural areas, it can contribute to agricultural production and reduce rural unemployment, thus reducing the unsustainable rural-urban migration. However, recognizing the place of the small and the local does not imply a rejection of centralized state planning or large-scale industry. Ultra-Leftism has a general disdain for the large and for centralized planning, on the basis of an idealist vision that is removed from the practical challenges that revolutions confront.
Ultra-Leftism in the North tends to ignore the need for the taking of political power. It views political power as corrupting, and this belief to some extent nourishes its quickness in criticizing socialist revolutions that have taken power. However, it is idealist to think that a better world can be made without delegates of various sectors of the people taking political power and directing the state toward the fulfillment of the needs of the people. Popular socialist revolutions in China and the Third World have demonstrated that the taking of power by the people is possible through the creative political application of fundamental principles and concepts. To confine political action to protest, without an intention or plan for the taking of power as delegates of the people, is to ensure that political power will be in the hands transnational corporations and their political allies, which will continue to defend their particular interests, at the expense of the needs of the nation, the people, humanity, and nature.
Ultra-Leftist tendencies damage the Left in the North in two ways. First, ultra-Leftist attitudes lead to judgmental evaluations of socialist projects in China and the Third World on the basis of impossible standards, giving the impression that socialist revolutionary leaders betray the revolution when they come to power. They thus imply that socialism is an impossible dream. Secondly, inasmuch as ultra-Leftism involves the advocacy of idealist proposals, it is in conflict with the common sense intelligence of the people, and thus it undermines the credibility of the Left among the people, who must be mobilized to support the alternative project proposed by the Left.
The insights necessary for overcoming ultra-Leftism emerge in the context of social and political movements. Following the October Revolution of 1917 (since the early eighteenth century in the case of Latin America), advanced movements emerged in what would become the Third World, fueled by colonial and neocolonial structures of superexploitation. These dynamics have given rise to advances in understanding, most clearly expressed by exceptional and committed Third World revolutionary leaders and by Third World intellectuals tied to the movements. In contrast, the nations of the North materially benefitted from colonial/neocolonial structures of exploitation, so that they possessed, until the 1970s, sufficient resources for reformist concessions to popular movements. In these political dynamics, ideological development in the North has been hampered by the political need to ignore the colonial/neocolonial foundation of the world-system and to justify imperialist policies necessary for the preservation of the economic advantages for the neocolonizing nations. Therefore, Leftist intellectuals in the North have developed their understandings in an ideological context that is less mature than the Third World, and they live and work in a situation that is isolated from the neocolonial context. Accordingly, they do not have the necessary social and political base to make judgements concerning the difficult political decisions that Third World revolutions must make; they tend to make judgements on the basis of idealist conceptions, disconnected from the struggles of the most advanced popular movements.
The solution to this problem is for Northern intellectuals to encounter the Third World revolutions, taking seriously their insights and reformulating their own understandings, empowering them to lead their peoples in an alternative road toward a must just world-system. This is a political possibility in the current context of sustained global structural crisis. Third World leaders and intellectuals consistently demonstrate their openness to dialogue with leaders and intellectuals of the North. At the same time, the unsustainability of the neocolonial world-system and the moral and intellectual unpreparedness of the political leaders of the core nations is increasingly evident to the peoples of the North. Indeed, as the structural crisis of the world-system deepens, liberalism gives rise to its invisible partner, neofascism, exposing the brutality of the neocolonial world-system. These dynamics create opportunity for the emergence of an alternative Left in the North, with an advanced understanding and a politically intelligent discourse inspired by the examples and teachings of Third World revolutions, capable of playing a dynamic political role in the nations of the North, challenging and offering an alternative to both liberalism and neofascism.