What does “21st Century Socialism” mean?

Srinivasan Ramani is a member of the editorial team of Economic & Political Weekly and Rohit, a former JNU Students’ Union President, teaches at South Asian University. The writers can be contacted at srinivasan.vr[at]gmail.com and rohit.jnu[at]gmail.com.


Srinivasan Ramani

Brief Introduction

It is a concept that was so termed by sociologist Heinz Dietrich and though Dietrich’s ideas do not necessarily seem to characterise the concept, the term itself has received a lot of popularity following the events in Latin America with the emergence of the “new socialist movements” particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Let’s develop these ideas in a simple format of asking some basic questions with respect to the 20th Century Socialist experiments and see what it holds for the socialism of the present century. This note is organised in the following format. It begins with posing two theoretical questions viz. the stage-theory interpretation of Marxism and the principle of democratic centralism, both of which have had effects on the current praxis of certain communist parties. To draw a contrast with this theoretical understanding of Marxism and the consequent praxis, of which China is an apt example, we present the case of alternative forms of socialist experiments being tried in the Third World, particularly in Latin America. To locate them in a historical context, a brief overview of the neoliberal model and its devastating impact on these countries is presented to show where they first derived their strength from. Following this overview, a somewhat detailed political-economic analysis is made of the countries which could be a starting point for the road map for the 21st Century Socialism.

Is the stage-theory of Feudalism-Capitalism-Socialism-Communism the only interpretation of Marxism?

Wrong praxis almost invariably follows from an incorrect theory. It couldn’t be more true for the stage-theory interpretation of Marxism. This is a very mechanical understanding of Marx’s analysis of history. Two pitfalls of this analysis are worth mentioning. First, in the context of a not-so-developed capitalist economy, one would need to wait for the development of productive forces and, therefore, capitalist relations of production for a condition generated for the ‘transition’. Second, one would be searching for the socialist project as a definitive stage in history instead of a process.

Certain trends in the post-reform China are quite informative in this regard. Implicit in the current model of Chinese development is the idea that socialism cannot be built in a country unless the productive forces are developed to a certain level where redistribution among the masses becomes feasible. Such an understanding can be seen as a parallel to the welfare-state capitalism that came as a response to the Great Depression in the Global North prior to the advent of Neoliberalism. However, it is ironical that the process in China itself has entailed dispossession of the very classes for whom this has ostensibly been embarked upon. The communist party of China has even come up with a stage called ‘primary stage of socialism’ to define the current phase.

It should be understood that the dispossession is not a by-product (or a collateral damage) of this process but is an intrinsic part of it. China’s growth process is dependent on external demand especially from the US. This has two important implications. First, this requires the cost of production in China to be kept at a relatively lower level and, hence, the workers’ wages. At the same time, it keeps the working class in the Global North on tenterhooks, who Alan Greenspan had famously categorised as the traumatised workers. So, this process, instead of moving in favour of the working class, works to their detriment across the globe. What we see as the growing surplus globally during the current phase has some of its roots in this export-oriented strategy. Second, it is obvious that the fate of the two economies would move in tandem. Disappearance of an important concept of imperialism, which is central to understanding the global political economy, from their party documents is just a reflection of the incorrect praxis that follows from an incorrect theory.

The next question that arises is how has this contradiction been controlled politically for so long. It is here that the organisational principle of democratic centralism comes into play. Democratic centralism entails that while democratic discussions would be allowed at the level of lower committees but in cases of difference of opinion with respect to the decisions of a higher committee, it is the latter that prevails. Criticism of this principle has normally focussed on its faulty implementation where centralism takes over democracy even as the state itself, and not just the communist party, gets organised based on this principle. But one needs to question the concept itself as it stops the flow of ideas from below-to-above. In conditions of ideological deviations from Marxist praxis of a communist party such a principle could create havoc as the top takes no signal from those below, who are at the receiving end of the faulty praxis. It creates a vicious cycle which works completely against any course correction. Many communist parties, like the Greece’s KKE or our own Indian communist parties have met with similar fate and are increasingly getting alienated from the very classes they swore to represent.

What led to the crisis of Neoliberalism in the Third World?

Globalization is not a new phenomenon. It started with the European colonial expansion five centuries ago signalled by the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Columbus. What distinguishes Neoliberal globalisation, however, is that the process of global integration today has accelerated at an unprecedented pace with finance, and not industry alone, ruling the roost. And all this is happening without any directpolitical control over the third world countries. Wayne Ellwood argues that the advantages of today’s globalisation are enormous: ‘no army, no costly colonial administration, rock-bottom prices of raw materials… It’s a dream system and Western powers won’t abandon it’.

Post-World War II era created the Bretton Woods trio – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (World Trade Organisation now) – which furthered the interests of the capitalist core. This was also the time that the erstwhile colonies were trying to chart out an independent economic trajectory. Faced with declining terms of trade, the peripheral countries created tariff barriers, producer cartels like the OPEC and implemented import-substituting industrialisation.

However, these attempts broke down with the 1970s oil price spikes, which marked a watershed in global politics. Flooded with petrodollars, the OPEC countries parked them in the financial centres of the North. These petrodollars got routed back to the Third World in the form of aids building their debt levels up. At the same time President Nixon, faced with burgeoning trade deficits, floated the dollar and increased the interest rates to attract foreign capital. Increased interest rates made the Third World Debt, which was denominated in dollars, balloon to unimaginable proportions.

The IMF and the World Bank used this opportunity beginning with the Latin American countries, in the name of bailing out, to impose structural adjustment policies, which involved reversal of the post-colonial self-reliant measures. Countries were asked to withdraw their tariff barriers, eliminate fiscal deficits (through withdrawal of state spending on social sectors and privatisation of public assets), open up capital account to allow foreign capital to flow-in-and-out. These measures led to severe output deflation and increasing inequality in these countries. At the same time, it provided ideal conditions for international finance and multinational corporations to exploit their condition. While ‘hot money’ flowing into these countries created some initial spurt in growth, it devastated them equally badly when they flew out. The spectre of crisis hit the global system hard. This was combined with severe restrictions on unionisation, cuts in welfare and social security which resulted in hardships for the working people.

It was not only the Third World that was affected by the deregulated global finance. The current global crisis, comparable to the Great Depression, originating in the US itself compares to what Mr. Keynes famously called a ‘situation … [where] enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation’.

It is in this context of global crisis of Neoliberal capitalism that one has to locate the current movements of resistance across the world and, in particular, and alternative regimes that have emerged in the Third World – predominantly in Latin America.

What are these alternative regimes all about in Latin America?

Latin America since the mid-1970s till the 1990s was considered the laboratory of the Neoliberal Experiment run at the behest of the IMF-WB. These new regimes, therefore, have to seen in the context of what preceded them because only then could one appreciate their importance both in terms of the struggles waged by them as well as a possible image of what the future holds for those countries, like India, which are now enthusiastically following the Neoliberal model.

The neoliberal project in the continent was first adopted and tried out by Augusto Pinochet’s government following a coup in Chile in 1973 (after killing socialist premier Salvador Allende with the CIA’s help). Later various countries followed the model creating rampant inequality, widespread foreign debt, and soon bankrupting these economies for the reasons described above.

After two decades (more or less) of neoliberalism in most of the Latin American countries, the people hit back at the ruling elite through the ballot box – electing left-of-the-centre and leftist governments in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador in the 2000s (1998 in Venezuela).

Among these countries, the regimes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were openly socialist – Hugo Chavez’s popularity crystallised into a movement that called itself the PSUV (which had the communist party of Venezuela in alliance), Bolivia’s indigenous people led Moviemento AlSocialismo whose leader was a trade unionist named Evo Morales also managed to win power through the ballot box while Rafael Correa in Ecuador managed an alliance between anti-neoliberal forces and indigenous parties to build a successful electoral coalition called the Allianza Pais.

In other countries – Brazil, Argentina, etc, the parties in power from the left are more to the center-left in the sense though they have taken stances against neoliberalism and have favoured some kind of pro-people policies, they have not taken recourse to abolishing monopolies or going about nationalisations as the Bolivarian socialists in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have done.

Governed by Praxis

What distinguishes the Bolivarian socialists (the term, Bolivarian references to Simon Bolivar, a former freedom fighter who played a major role in liberating “Latin America” from rule by the Spanish empire and is revered and referenced in these countries to symbolise anti-imperialism and pan-Latin American unity) from “20th century socialists” is their emphasis on learning from praxis instead of focussing only on grand theory. 

By noting that democratic struggle that allows for pluralist views and inclusion of social movements (the water wars and indigenous movements in Bolivia, the indigenous movements in Ecuador and the movement for doing away from the power sharing dual party rule of the elite in Venezuela) has empowered their struggles against neoliberalism, the Bolivarian socialists have kept that as key for their organisation. There is a distinct lack of vanguardism and “single line philosophy” – in other words, no democratic centralism – but a democratic coalition of various currents that believe in socialism – including the communist party in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela.

Then, by giving importance to issues related to alienation and exploitation of identities such as indigenous people, there is no specific centrality or privilege given to the organised working class in these movements. This has also meant a rejection of “vanguardism” in the movements.

After attaining power: In these three countries, after attaining power, a comprehensive policy has been evolved to redistribute returns from surpluses earned from natural resources and to invest in education, health, housing and other basic needs of the majority of the population.

Structural reforms such as nationalisation of various extractive resources or renegotiating profit sharing with companies involved in extraction; policies related to greater investment and regulation of economic activity; largely characterise political economy for the past decade that these socialist forces have been in power.

More importantly, all these three countries have embarked upon strong political reforms to deepen democracy and instill Constitutionalism in their countries with the participation of the majority of the people including the very poor. By setting up new Constituent Assemblies to write fresh Constitutions and following up with several referendums to include progressive policies, these three Socialist forces have managed to bring about revolutionary political changes to their respective systems.

There is also emphasis on electorally determining outcomes and no recourse to any “dictatorship” of any kind. Losses in provincial elections and national referendums – rare events considering the immense popularity among the poor- have been cordially accepted and the separation of powers of various estates of democracy have been respected as well.

A new form of international relations have also evolved in Latin America under the leadership of these three socialist forces. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador along with the long established socialist nation Cuba and others including Nicaragua (and Honduras for a while) are part of the ALBA, which is a regional grouping committed to anti-imperialism and even the formation of a new alternative trading currency to counter the hegemony of the dollar.

Beyond ALBA, all Latin American countries have organised more integrative regional forums that includes nearly all countries in Latin and Central America (the Caribbean) called the CELAC and the Latin American UNASUR as an alternative to the historically USA dominated OAS. This grouping apart from ALBA have been active in assuring that anti-democratic coups through external interference – such as what happened in Honduras recently and in Paraguay to certain extent – are no longer tolerated and CELAC/ALBA/UNASUR will have an important role to play to deter as well as act in such cases. These forums have also fostered trade and economic relations among the Latin American countries.

The effect of socialist rule in these countries has been a great improvement in HDI indicators – very clearly in the three countries of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador – and a domino effect that has seen the strengthening of left forces across the continent.

These socialist forces are also trying to engage in issues such as Climate Change from a more strongly environmental and developing world perspective.

Other important projects undertaken – especially in Venezuela – are socialist alternatives such as “worker led management” (such in the oil company PDVSA), promotion of open source software and research, participative management of companies etc, which are pitched as strong alternatives to capitalist ownership, patents and financing.


As the global financial crisis affected Europe and the large economies of the European Union, it soon metamorphosed into a currency and sovereign financial crisis that adversely affected the weaker economies of the EU in particular. Countries such as Spain, Greece and Portugal were worst affected because of the financial crisis and the governments (mostly centrist ones) had to take recourse to taking financial aid and loans from the EU in lieu of massive cuts in welfare and government spending in the name of austerity.

The severity of the crisis has de-legitimised the ruling parties of the countries affected by the crisis. In Greece in particular, the two dominant parties – especially the centrist Pasok – lost their strong bases and new radical socialist parties such as the Syriza and the communist party KKE won support because of the economic crisis and the repeated imposition of austerity by the governments. A strong voice against the hegemony of finance capital – here based in Germany as that is the epicenter of the EU – emerged and which was led by Syriza and the KKE.

However, in the last elections held in Greece, Syriza emerged as the no 1 opposition party garnering close to a quarter of the electorate’s support.

Syriza is a radical socialist collective of various left platforms – including the ecological left, the reformist Eurocommunist Left, the post-Maoist left, and others – and which functions as a democratic coalition. It has taken strong radical positions against the hegemony of finance capital, against the “Memorandums” that called for austerity, for a newer “alter-globalist” perspective about the European Union, for greater worker rights etc. It has also organised itself in a similar manner to some of the Latin American socialist forces by avoiding vanguardism and democratic centralism. Instead the left platforms are allowed differing voices even after a particular decision is taken but are asked to adhere to the decision that has been commenced upon democratically.

The Die Linke in Germany, the Left Front in France and the Socialist Party in Netherlands have exhibited similar visions of a socialist resurgence and structuring. All of these parties are also against imperialism – the Die Linke is the only party in Germany that has consistently opposed German forces’ deployment in Afghanistan for e.g.; the Left Front has pro-immigrant and pro-third world perspectives; and the Socialist Party shares these views as well.

Distinctive Features and similarities vis-a-vis classical Marxism-Leninism

All of these socialist tendencies draw their lessons on socialism from the writings of Karl Marx apart from other thinkers relevant to their praxis. The Bolivarian Latin American socialists have successfully merged Marxist theory with perspectives from innovative Marxists such as Jose Carlos Mariategui. They believe in the principle of “From each according to one’s ability to each according to one’s need” as socialism defined by Marx but also adhere to the understanding that in order to build socialism, they have to build a new coalition of the poor – represented by the indigenous people and those living in urban shanty towns in their respective countries.

They however do not subscribe to the concept of “democratic centralism” or “vanguardism” or “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – which were distinguishing features of the Soviet Socialist system as well as what predominated in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Berlin Wall/ the Soviet Union and the overthrow of communism from various countries in that part of Europe.

The emphasis is on learning through constant praxis – and not too much on theorisation – and through horizontal organisation, linking up with various progressive forces committed to anti-neoliberalism, anti-imperialism, democracy and the betterment of the poor.

Even countries that have as their organising principle, Classical Marxism, such as Cuba have come around enthusiastically to accept the Latin American socialists as their comrades in the project to build a socialist world. Reforms in Cuba recently are also in tune with the experiences that are there in other Latin American countries as hitherto denied private enterprise for small businesses such as agricultural produce, distribution, transportation etc have been re-initiated in that country.

The Latin American socialists are still undecided about the “right to public property” even as they are committed to a system of rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It is an open question as of now as they believe that small producers should be guaranteed hold to land and tenure while monopoly and big businesses can be regulated and if need be abolished by the state.

On the question of armed struggle

Another important feature of the Latin American socialists is that they have learnt from the failures of the various kinds of guerilla movements – either “foco”ist based on Che Guevara and his comrades’ successes in Cuba or urban guerilla movements – that sought to establish socialism in many countries in Latin America by trying to emulate for e.g. the Chinese communist revolution.

Most of these movements or leaders of such movements have since given up on violent struggle and have joined the socialist forces. Hugo Chavez himself was a former (unsuccessful) coup plotter who later turned to democratic struggle to establish the PSUV’s rule over the country.

Some guerilla movements such as the FARC-EP still continue to do armed struggle in places like Colombia, but their position remains weaker than ever before. The Bolivarian socialists have shown a distinct apathy toward armed struggle and have instead tried to democratise structures such as their respective armies through democratic struggle from within. This is a sharp contrast to both the past as well as Marxist oriented movements that have used violence as a basis of struggle such as Cuba itself in Latin America.

Relevance to the Indian context

In India, the political economic situation as it prevails now and the similarity between Latin America in terms of the presence of marginalised communities and their political demands are quite there. There are also similar vibrant social movements that have fought for food security, employment guarantee, anti-corruption, and environmental protection who have operated outside the purview of the organised left.

The organised left is still itself splintered. The Maoists, despite their exaggerated threat value according to the Indian government, have suffered severe organisational setbacks and are a force on the retreat, limited to the remotest parts of the country. Violent praxis of the Maoists have seen them increasingly marginalised from their core sections itself.

The mainstream Left parties – including the communist parties on the other hand, despite the formation of the Left Front and its presence in pockets of India, have been unable to extend their influence beyond a few states.

They have not managed to stitch coalitions with marginalised sections of Indian community in various parts of India and have also been unable to attract support from youth in any large numbers through the inspiration provided by their ideology unlike the Latin American socialists.

On the other hand, with increasing focus on emulating the Chinese approach to increasing productive forces and improving GDP, they have alienated some of their core support bases in the peasantry in states like West Bengal, while organisational difficulties have severely curtailed their party in Kerala.

Is there something to emulate from the Latin American experiences? Do these experiences call for a rethink on concepts such as the practise of “Democratic Centralism” within the organised Left? Should there be an emulation of forming new united fronts with social movements effectively. Should one give up the notion of “vanguardism”. How about engagements with issues related to “identity politics” and recognition of the struggles of marginalised identities – including that of gender, the casteless, the “lower” castes, the minorities, both linguistic and religious?

It is perhaps in praxis – struggle for a better progressive regime for the rights of the above – and a struggle against imperialism and monopoly capitalism that these questions will be answered in the quest for “socialism in the 21st century”. 

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