The Need for a New Democratic Socialist Ideology and Programme

Published: 15 March 2021

Draft Topic for our ‘Transformation, a Manifesto for Democratic Socialism

Suggested improvements welcome at the Facebook discussion page link (available at the end of the text)

With the collapse of Social Democracy and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Left lost its ideology and lost its way. We urgently need a new democratic socialist ideology to successfully challenge capitalism in decline. Plus, a practical and credible programme with which to replace it.

Under modern capitalism there is a growing level of discontent. And no wonder as life gets harder and more uncertain for most of us. Thus, increasingly obscene wealth for a shrinking, super-rich minority starkly contrasts with falling living standards for the rest of us. Under modern capitalism each new generation is increasingly worse off than the one before.

In response to these worsening conditions, we see increasing anger and prejudice, political polarisation and degenerating public debate. All reflected in rising racial, ethnic and religious conflict. Conflict that sometimes breaks out into civil war. Looming over everything there is the threat of Climate Change. And the wider destruction of our animals, forests and habitat forced on us by the incessant drive for profit.

But what can be done to stop this headlong rush to disaster? That is the question at the back of everyone’s mind. Even for the capitalists whose system drags them further forward to destruction.

What is the way forward? That is the profound vacuum that lies at the heart of politics today.

Neoliberalism – Capitalism’s Ideology
Clearly, the capitalists and their right-wing followers have their own ideology in the form of Neoliberalism. As we explain in our Appendix on ‘The Origins and Rise of Neoliberalism’, this ideology arose from the 1930s onwards as a response to the failure of classical laissez-faire liberalism, the earlier capitalist ideology.

The Left were generally ignorant of the new Neoliberal movement as it grew in influence during the 1950s and 60s. When it emerged into the limelight in the form of Monetarism in the late 1970s, we often dismissed it as just another set of self-serving, right-wing arguments. As such, we failed to see that it was the new ideology of a well-organised movement that had been building up for three decades.

Since then, as we outline in our Manifesto section on ‘Modern Capitalism’, Neoliberalism has served the capitalist class well. It has drastically raised the share of national wealth going to the wealthy elite and allowed them to gain control of almost all of society’s institutions including its democratic elements.

Meanwhile, neoliberalism has dramatically damaged the interests of the vast majority. Far from fulfilling its promises of increasing competition and efficiency in the economy, accompanied by raising wealth for society as a whole; neoliberalism has ended up delivering more monopoly, inefficiency, corruption, inequality and poverty. And it has brought back capitalism’s old problems of recession and slump.

Yet, the rise of neoliberalism contains some positive lessons which the Left can learn from:
Firstly, the neoliberals have demonstrated how to respond to a crisis in an ideology.
Looking back, Liberal capitalist economic theory lay in ruins in the 1930 and 40s. Their old policy of government non-intervention in the economy was dead in the water. In response, a section of mainly right-wing economists were willing to face up to this and admit the failure of their ideology. And to systematically reshape their ideas into a new one. As such, the new neoliberals took theory and ideology very seriously.

As we pointed out earlier in our ‘The Origins and Rise of Neoliberalism’, “Friedrich Hayek, the father of the neoliberal movement, laid out their counter-revolutionary strategy in 1949: “We must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia… which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realisation. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their realisation, however remote.

The new neoliberal movement did not set out with a short-term perspective. Rather they recognised that it would take at least a generation to develop into a serious intellectual and political force. They then set about applying their new ideology in a practical way to the world.

Compare this to the lack of reaction by the Left when its ideology faced a deep crisis in the early 1990s. By then it had become obvious that the Left’s 19th Century Socialist ideology had failed when put into practice in the 20th. The collapse of Social Democracy represented the failure of the reformist wing of the socialist movement. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc (the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) represented the failure of the stalinist wing of the socialist movement. These two wings represented the whole socialist project in the eyes of the world’s population.

Certainly, the capitalists saw this failure of the Left’s ideology as a profound and potentially fatal crisis for the Left. And many of their intellectual representatives remarked on it. Most famous among them was Francis Fukuyama’s assessment in his ‘End of History’. Fukuyama asserted that this collapse of socialist ideology represented the victory of liberal democracy and capitalism. And the death of all future alternative ideologies: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

His characterisation has since been widely derided. But in one important respect he was correct. His claim that the Left’s ideology had been fatally defeated and only ‘liberal democracy’ was now left standing.

Tragically, this momentous defeat was not recognised as such by almost all socialists. Whether they were in Social Democracy, in the Communist Parties, or on the revolutionary Left. And thus, they failed to take the steps needed to reconsider and renew their ideology.

In particular, the Left was unable to see that its old ideology had been missing the vital ingredient of democratic control by working people. The Left’s emphasis on planning, public ownership and public services had left out the key question of how these institutions were going to be run. How they would be made accountable to their workers, service users, customers etc. In the absence of any clear programme for participatory democracy in the state and the public sector, these institutions had ended up under the control of bureaucrats or elites. Or both. As a result, each attempt at socialist reform or revolution has produced top-down, bureaucratic and inefficient systems. With working people continuing to be alienated from power.

This had never been the intention of Marx and Engels, the founders of Socialism. They had assumed that the introduction of their ideas would inevitably put working people in charge. But this assumption has been repeatedly disproved in practice. It is also strange given that the elevation of working people as rulers of society was absolutely central to their ideology. And could not be achieved through spontaneous change as had occurred in previous social revolutions such as the transitions from slavery to fedualism, or feudalism to capitalism. In those overturns we witnessed a struggle between two privileged groups, a ruling class and a rising elite, which ended with one powerful minority replacing another. However, a change from capitalism to democratic socialism must involve replacing rule by the minority with rule by the majority.  A system in which working people run society rather than one wealthy elite group or another.

In view of this, Marx and Engels warned on numerous occasions that a socialist revolution would not be achieved by chance. But could only come about through the conscious act of working people themselves.

Experience has shown time and time again that democratic control of society by working people will not emerge automatically. It must be specifically planned for and campaigned on if we are to see it arrive and flourish. Because of this, popular control has to be at the heart of any new democratic socialist ideology for the 21st Century. Not added on as an afterthought. The lack of this is the root cause of the failure of the old Socialist ideology. Both in practice and in the eyes of the world’s population.

An honest admission of this failure must be our starting point if we are to develop a new and successful alternative to capitalism. One that can convince working people and regain their trust.

The second lesson that can be learnt by the Left from the Neoliberals, is the difference a new ideology, supported by a serious movement can make to the world.

Notably, the neoliberal ideology did not limit itself to a few concepts or slogans. Rather, it set out to develop practical proposals for the implementation of its new ideology in society. Out of this determination came all the reactionary neoliberal ideas we are now familiar with: for deregulation and privatisation; for cuts in public spending, welfare and workers incomes; for independence of central banks and lifting of exchange controls; for reduction of taxes and tariffs; for labour market reforms and outsourcing; for the opening up of countries to direct foreign investment and the abolition of local ownership rules.

Who can question the incredible reach of this Neoliberalism today? Of the damaging grip that it has gained on economics, culture and politics? And, despite its obvious failings and contradictions, the neoliberals continue to make the running. Introducing one new reform after another and confidently advancing their agenda all over the capitalist world.

The contrast with the Left couldn’t be more stark. The lack of a credible ideology on the Left is plain for all to see. As is the absence of a coherent Left programme for transforming society. The result is all too predictable. A weak, defensive and divided movement. Uninspired and depressed. Short-sighted and visionless.

More widely, the lack of any alternative to capitalism constantly undermines the consciousness of working people and cripples their struggles. Who can really resist an attack when they can’t see an alternative or even the hope of success?

Not surprisingly, the central target of the neoliberals was the inefficiency of the top-down, bureaucratic public structures of Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc. Their relentless critique of these structures helped undermine both Social Democracy and the Soviets in academia, politics and the public. And it was no accident that the Neoliberals ended up in place to replace these bureaucratic systems with their own neoliberal programmes.

That said, while the neoliberal critique of bureaucratic public administration was correct in certain aspects, their alternative has proved to be even worse. Instead of democratising the public institutions and making them more efficient, the Neoliberals sought to tear down all the public structures. And replace them with privately-owned alternatives. With all the corruption, inequality and chaos that has ensued.

The Consequences of the Left’s Failure to Develop a New Ideology
The failure of the Left in the last thirty years to develop a new ideology is the underlying reason for its weakness today. A huge credibility gap exists about Socialism and the Left in the minds of working people. And who can blame them? 

Imagine a firm of architects whose two prestige projects had collapsed. Like the projects in Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc have done. Who would want to hire them to build another?

Worse still, a firm of architects that has not even been willing to seriously investigate why their projects collapsed. Or to come forward with a new way of building that incorporates the lessons of the collapse. Who would have confidence in such a firm?

No wonder working people today see no alternative to capitalism. And why so few on the Left offer socialism as the way forward. Choosing instead to put forward timid reforms that barely take us back to the 1970s, to the time before the Neoliberals. In some countries like the United States, which never really experienced social democracy, Socialism has become a relatively popular term in recent years. The same is happening among many young people for whom the collapse of Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc was way before their time. However, mostly they use socialism as another term for social democratic reforms. Meanwhile, those who begin to support socialism as an alternative to capitalism are all too easily challenged by reactionary elements.

In the absence of a new credible ideology, the Left is like a rowing boat on the ocean, buffeted by the currents and winds of events, with no sail to drive it forward or rudder to steer by. By the same token, the Left is badly fractured. Ideology often acts as the glue that holds a movement together. In its absence, the Left is repeatedly torn by disunity. Without an overall goal or vision, an objective or direction, the Left is divided by every new question that appears on the scene. Constantly sidelined into potentially disunifying struggles such as identity politics, rather than able to integrate such struggles into the central need to create a democratic socialist society. Or limited only to short-term struggles against the worst aspects of capitalism rather than for its replacement. Occasionally, new versions of the Left can arise but all too soon they fall apart from this lack of ideological direction.

In society more generally, the collapse of the Left’s old ideology has left a vacuum into which has rushed not only neoliberalism, but nationalism, racism, sectarianism, and all sorts of divisive movements. One can even plot a graph that shows how religious fundamentalism rose in the 1990s as the Left’s ideology disappeared.

The need to develop a new Left Ideology and a practical programme for a Democratic Socialist society is the key task of our age. An ideology and a programme that learns from the failures of the past and builds on the possibilities of the present. Not a utopian collection of slogans but a concrete set of proposals based on the real opportunities that are available in existing society. Proposals that are open to testing and experimentation. A new democratic version of socialism that lives up to the dreams of the founders of our movement, while taking account of today’s problems and potential.

The Left’s Missing Response
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and Social Democracy none of the main trends on the Left responded to this crisis in a positive or serious way.

To begin with, the Left failed to organise a collective discussion of the reasons for this failure of the social democratic and stalinist versions of socialism. If it had done so it would have had to recognise that it was indeed the top-down, bureaucratic and inefficient nature of both approaches to socialism that was the common problem. That one part of the criticism of the neoliberals had been essentially correct, even if the conclusions were not.

The failure of the Left to produce a well thought-through critique of these top-down versions of socialism, meant that the neoliberal explanation for these developments became the accepted version of events. A distortion that continues to the present day.

Worse still, the Left’s failure to identify what had gone wrong meant that it was unable to come forward with a new, more democratic and efficient version of socialism. As part of a new popular, democratic socialist ideology. Instead, too many abandoned the goal of socialism altogether. Or just stuck to their old vague socialist slogans and utopian ideas for a post-capitalist future.

The Communist Left completely lost its moorings. Everything they had been brought up on had fallen away and everything they aspired to had turned to dust. Unsurprisingly, the ranks of the world Communist movement suffered a massive decline. Most communist parties rapidly shifted to the right. The Eurocommunist trend towards reformism accelerated. Some Communist Parties changed their name becoming social democratic parties in practice. Many even voted to dissolve themselves and evolved into pressure groups and think tanks.

The Social Democratic Left became bewildered by these developments. In most social democratic parties and mass socialist parties, the leadership rapidly abandoned all aspirations towards socialism, even though they were usually distant aims. In some cases, this meant removing socialist clauses from party constitutions. Many left social democrats abandoned their parties.

Among most social democratic leaders the neoliberal agenda was adopted without objection. Or they were replaced with new leaders who embraced it. In recent years, many of the social democratic parties left the Socialist International and switched over to the non-socialist Progressive Alliance.

The Mass Broad Left Parties – some Communist Parties evolved into mass broad left parties sitting to the left of social democracy. Examples of these included Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, the Left Party in Sweden etc. However, these parties also suffer from the Left’s missing ideology. Rarely addressing the alternative to capitalism and limiting themselves to reforms within it.

The Revolutionary Socialist Left – most trotskyist groups (and to a lesser extent the maoists and anarchists) welcomed the fall of Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc. After all, they had long condemned the ‘socialism’ of both trends. These groups wishfully thought that the fall of Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc would clear the decks for the success of their own political agenda. That their time had come. But they failed to recognise the wider picture. For the mass of working people the fall of both socialist experiments was not just seen as a failure of particular versions of socialism, but of ‘socialism’ as a whole. Henceforth, there existed a massive question mark over the whole socialist project. And whatever amount of discontent continues to exist with capitalism, there settled in a sense of inevitability. That there was no viable alternative to it. So instead of the fall of the Soviet Bloc and Social Democracy leading to an increase in the ranks of the Revolutionary Socialist Left, it actually caused it to decline and divide. Just as it had done with the Communist and Social Democratic Left movements.

A Top-Down Approach to Working People
Another important result of the democratic deficit within socialist ideology exposed by the crisis in the 1990s can be seen in the approach of most socialist organisations towards working people. Thus, the top-down approach of the Left also applies to its communications. Too often the Left fails to effectively interact with workers, to speak their language, and to prioritise their problems. So, communications with working people are usually one-way only, with no effort to find out how people are thinking and reacting to the Left’s policies and propaganda. As a result, the issues the Left highlights satisfy only themselves.

The same top-down approach applies to the way that the Left continues to run its own organisations. Such as excluding grassroots members from having a real say in policy or administration. We outline the many problems this approach creates in our pamphlet ‘Socialists and the Mass Organisations‘. And suggest ways to overcome them.

The collapse of Social Democracy and the Soviet Bloc was a decisive moment of truth for ‘Socialism’. At least as it was generally understood by the world’s population. For the Left, it was an ideological crisis of the greatest proportions. It threw down a decisive challenge to the whole socialist movement. Unfortunately, the Left has failed to take up this challenge. Or to seriously adjust its thinking, programme and argumentation accordingly.

The organisational example of the Neoliberals – their willingness to confront the failure of their ideology, devise a new one in the face of isolation, and seek to apply it in a practical way to society – provides an important model for us on the Left to follow.

Of course, the Neoliberal ideology soon fell victim to the myriad contradictions of capitalism. Far from overcoming inefficiency, bureaucracy and monopoly, it has ended up reproducing the very problems it professed to combat. Only, we on the democratic socialist side have the potential to overcome such problems and take society forward. But to do so, we must never repeat the mistake of not involving working people in the running of every public institution. Popular control has to be at the heart of any new democratic socialist ideology for the 21st Century.

The solution to the crisis of ideology we are facing on the Left lies entirely in our hands. As the famous Chinese saying goes: ‘a crisis is also an opportunity’. Learning from the rich lessons of both capitalism and bureaucratic socialism, we can and we must develop a new Democratic Socialist Alternative. That is precisely the purpose of the next section of our Manifesto.

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