What does it mean to be a socialist nowadays and what is socialism in the 21st century – discussed the participants of a joint conference organised by Jacobin magazine and the Transform!Europe network. They were also looking for answers to questions: why, after a good beginning of the second decade of the XXI century, with the successes of SYRIZA or the progress of the Corbyn Labour Party, has there been a stagnation on the left? How to break the stagnation?
Left-wing male and female politicians, academics who use Marxist methodology in their research, activists – they all gathered on 10 and 11 June at the Oyoun community centre in Berlin’s multicultural district of Neukolln. Exactly the same one from which, a little over a month earlier, the many thousands strong anti-capitalist May Day parade had marched off. An excellent place for a discussion about socialism and possible ways of breaking with capitalist system.
How to transition to socialism – this is the question that was asked during the first plenary discussion between the philosopher, feminist and socialist Nancy Fraser and the philosopher and researcher of the history of socialism associated with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Michael Brie.
Defining what socialism is for him, Michael Brie pointed out that it would be a system based on care for the common good, including nature, and supporting all forms of human freedom and self-expression.
He concluded that the time for arguing about reform or revolution or the superiority of parties over social movements (or vice versa) is past – the time has come for all forms of contestation of capitalism to work together. Without building a very broad coalition of emancipation movements, he concluded, we will never defeat the current system. Nancy Fraser supported him in this, stating that capitalism and the injustice it generates affects different people in very different ways. Therefore, only a broad alliance of classical labour, women’s, environmental or queer movements can effectively fight the system. – Socialism in our time must transform everything,” she assessed. – From labour relations and ownership of the means of production, to the relationship between man and nature, to questions of care and reproductive labour.
Nancy Fraser also proposed a new, broader definition of the working class, including people (mainly women) who do unpaid reproductive work or whose actions contribute to improving the environment. She also assessed that no contemporary struggle for socialism can afford to neglect gender issues, ecology or, finally, internal democracy. Changing the ownership of the means of production is not enough, she stressed.
Both panellists were of the opinion that the struggle between socialists and representatives of the right will continue unabated. In Fraser’s opinion, the time of multifaceted crisis we are living in is conducive to new ideas or visions that undermine the system. The philosopher expressed her conviction that no one believes in capitalism and free market anymore. The question is whether people looking for an alternative will be more effectively reached by representatives of the left or the extreme right, which suggests simple but terrible solutions.
The first conference panel was closed with a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, former chairman of the Labour Party, now primarily a peace activist. Highlighting what a misfortune war is was the main theme of his speech. Corbyn called for the creation of an international movement for peace, to stop the bloodshed from which workers are primarily, if not exclusively, the losers. He reminded us that the world needs a fight against the climate crisis, poverty or hunger, not massive spending on armaments. Condemning Russia because it invaded Ukraine and there is no justification for such actions, the British politician reminded of other ongoing wars and their victims, in particular mentioning the decades-long struggle of Palestinians for an independent state.
The conference participants then had to split up, as the organisers decided to hold four panels each in English and German. I spent the morning on the German-language sessions, and after the lunch break I joined the English-language path.
German-speaking attendees had the chance to start the second day of the event by meeting experienced urban policy activists Andrej Holm, Katalin Gennburg (both Berlin-based) and Max Zirngast (Graz city councillor from 2021).
The Austrian speaker talked about the long-standing commitment of his party, the Communist Party of Austria, to defend tenants’ rights, to protest (successfully) against the privatisation of municipal housing stock, to implement progressive solutions (including rent subsidies) at the municipal level.
The example from Graz is particularly instructive, as the leader of the Communists, Elke Kahr, became mayor of the city in 2021 due to her work for accessible housing, and her party won the local elections. Nowadays, Zirngast pointed out,
the Communists are the first force in Graz’s governing coalition, and Elke Kahr, by regularly meeting with voters at the town hall, shows that it is possible to run the city democratically.
Katalin Gennburg pointed out that it is not enough to demand more affordable housing or to fight against the privatisation of municipal buildings. – The capitalist city as such is in crisis – she pointed out, citing problems such as overcrowding and the inaccessibility of public services. Andrej Holm also spoke of the need to develop a comprehensive strategy for the new functioning of cities, noting that very often the various actors interested in urban policy fail to coordinate their efforts. Tenants’ and housing movements, urban movements and parties act independently of each other, focusing their efforts only on part of the problem, while a completely new concept of the city is needed: ecological, friendly, meeting the needs of residents.
After the panel on housing movements, political scientists dealing with the rise of the far right and fascist or openly fascist movements sat behind the table.
Greek researcher Gerassimos Kouzelis opened the discussion with a key statement: capitalism does not need democracy to exist at all, nor the freedom and equality we consider to be its attributes.
If the ruling class sees this as an advantage for itself, it will not prevent the development of fascist tendencies, which can grow anywhere, on individual, historically rooted grounds or prejudices. And now, he stressed, they can grow all the more easily because for many years the dominant current of public debate has been doing everything it can to eradicate real alternatives from the imagination. The corporate media convince us that there are no alternatives, and even the smallest elements of class terminology disappear from the language of discussion, replaced by the fuzzy concept of “the people”. And when needed, the authorities plant enemies – most recently, for example, refugees.
Political scientist Gabriele Michalitsch drew attention to the connection between the introduction of draconian austerity policies and the attempts of the underprivileged to resist, to find ways of expressing their opposition – which often ends up with the adoption of far-right language and slogans. The researcher assessed that this is also an effect of the pseudo-capitalist ethics, based on the assumption that everyone should only look after themselves.
– There is no longer any place for responsibility for the other. Responsibility only for oneself turns into ‘self-optimization’, ‘self-branding’, but also blaming oneself for failures or even illnesses – she said. With what can the left counter the deadly logic of permanent competition? A logic of care and concern, Michalitch suggested.
Cornelia Hildebrandt of transform!europe, who spoke after her, recalled the concept of ‘community socialism’, local socialism – building local groups that strive to create a friendly and equal environment on the scale of a neighbourhood, a district, a town. She also had no doubts that in order to be successful in competition with right-wing rivals, the left must improve its level of organisation and propose social and ecological solutions at the same time, as well as remain anti-fascist.
In the afternoon, Ukrainian-German sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, European Left MEP Ozlem Demirel, former Transform!europe political coordinator Walter Baier and Jeremy Corbyn were waiting for those who chose the panel in English. “Every war is a defeat” was the keynote of the discussion; as the participants quickly added, it is about the defeat of ordinary working people – for it is they who die at the front or under bombs, lose their livelihoods, become refugees. Opposition to Russia’s war against Ukraine united all speakers – like they once spoke out against the bombing of Libya and the invasion of Iraq. Ozlem Demirel recalled that neither of these wars had brought prosperity or social justice to the people of the country invaded, supposedly in order to bring democracy. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, called for an international movement for peace, even stronger than the one that tried to stop the intervention in Iraq in 2003. He declared that citizens must by all means pressure their governments to end the war diplomatically. He acknowledged that the UN had failed to bring about an easing of tensions before February 2022. Finally, he recalled the fate of refugees, of whom there are now 70 million worldwide, more than ever.
The speech of Volodymyr Ishchenko was of a different nature, as he gave the audience a valuable insights into Russian capitalism and the Russian ruling class, which today supports the war against Ukraine.
The Russian capitalists, he pointed out, simply enfranchised themselves on the property earned in the USSR by the workers in general. This is how transformation and privatisation took place in the 1990s.
The source of influence, he stressed, in Russia is the proximity of a given oligarch to the government and the possibility of exploiting these connections. Therefore, Russian capitalists are categorically opposed to allow foreign transnational capital into Russia. Ishchenko also assessed that Putin’s system is in constant crisis because it is unable to resolve the fundamental contradictions of capitalist Russia, but only to mitigate their effects on an ad hoc basis (e.g. through higher pensions).
Therefore, war has been seen by the Russian elite as an excellent means of consolidating society and diverting its attention from the problems of existence or inequality that outrage the younger generation in particular.
The next English-language panel of the day was entitled ‘The Left in Purgatory’ and attempted to critically reflect on the current situation of radical left, socialist organisations in the US and Europe. The starting point for the discussion by the editors of the Jacobin magazine was the observation that anti-capitalist parties, after a period of marked growth, have stagnated again, unable to improve past electoral results or even repeat them. Meagan Day, drawing on her own political path, talked about the experience of the Democratic Socialists of America: she acknowledged that the beginning of their growth in numbers and importance was the first – unsuccessful – campaign of Bernie Sanders, and that without the figure of this democratic senator it would be difficult to talk about the progress of American socialists at all.
She pointed out that the party has attracted thousands of new members in recent years with very different (even if within the spectrum of left-wing) views, which has created quite obvious problems in terms of political tactics.
Another blow for the DSA proved to be pandemic: online meetings, she pointed out, were no substitute for live discussion, let alone reaching out to people still outside the movement.
Another problem was pointed out by David Broder, also from Jacobin: parties of the radical left, he said, very easily fall into the role of “smaller partners” of social democratic or even centrist parties.
By giving up fight for their own clearly alternative programme, he said, they are perhaps able to enter parliament again, but again with a score of a few percent, never the 20 or even the 30 and 40 that the left can theoretically gain.
The panellists also noted that the Democratic Socialists of America – as well as most left-wing parties in Europe – profess to defend the interests of the working class, but have no lasting connection with it. They are still organisations that middle class people or students join for ideological reasons: the conviction that the current order of things cannot hold any more.
At the conference, however, alongside the – deservedly – critical words, there were also words of optimism. More than one speaker noted that even if the march of the left-wing parties to reach new groups of voters was halted, the situation of anti-capitalists is better than it was 20 years ago.
The word socialism is no longer – I could add: at least in the West – rejected a priori, and more people, especially young people, agree that the current system is unjust, toxic for humans and the environment.
Even in parties that need internal change and are experiencing identity crises, like Germany’s Die Linke, there are now thousands of young people wanting to act. This potential, it was stressed, must finally bring fruit.
The two days of debates and talks – including unofficial ones – in Berlin were a creative and inspiring time. Even if the composition of the speakers inevitably pushed the discussion in the direction of a Western European or American perspective, and the voices of the left from outside these regions were missing, sometimes noticeably. This was perhaps most evident during the debate on Russia’s war against Ukraine, in which three voices of Western left-wing activists – very close to each other by the way – resounded, while there was no place for a representative from Central and Eastern Europe, a region which today bears the lion’s share of the costs of war and aid for refugees – and which fears very seriously for its place in the future balance of power in Europe. Coming back to the strengths of the event, it is undoubtedly praiseworthy that the speakers did not stop with a general declaration that “we need to create a new vision”, but tried – in the limited time available – to present the beginnings of this vision.
The proposals to create very broad alliances combined with a critique of various aspects of capitalism or the skilful combination of party-election tactics with grass-roots work in local communities are undoubtedly concepts which – being an activist – are worth considering, critically assessing their usefulness for work in specific national conditions. Incidentally, the fact that we will arrive at socialism in the 21st century in different ways depending on local conditions is also one of the theses of the conference.