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Storm Warning: Are Left and Right Obsolete?

Mark Dowie, an investigative historian living in northern California, is finishing a book for MIT Press chronicling the first century of American foundation philanthropy.

There is a serious misconception that's been circling the globe since the end of the Cold War. It alleges that the 1981 breakup of the Soviet Union and the heralded "triumph of capitalism" signal the death knell of socialism, and a global loss of faith in communal ideals. This is utter nonsense.

What the collapse of Soviet totalitarian socialism (sometimes inaccurately described as "communism") did signal was the end of totalitarian authority, and a welcome change in the definition and structure of socialism. In fact, it was totalitarianism itself, not capitalism, liberalism, or militarism, that defeated the Soviet model of socialism. The victor was democracy, pure and simple, not Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, the pope, or free enterprise. Democracy trumped autocracy. It was a historical inevitability that has cleared the way for a much more "radical" revolution than anything the Bolsheviks had to offer.

Despite the incessant chest beating of Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man, Avon Books, 1993) and global free-marketeers, there is still enormous faith in socialist ideas and systems throughout the world. They just aren't recognized as such, because post?Cold War "neo-socialism" is so different from totalitarian socialism.

If socialism were really dead, the governments of western Europe would look very different from the way they do today, and declared socialists would not have been freely elected to the highest offices in Venezuela, Chile, and South Africa. Nor would the strongest opposition parties in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union be dominated by former Communists, men and women who continue to embrace the economic critique of Karl Marx but have seen the folly of trying to impose socialism on the proletariat and peasantry through dictatorship.

Almost every argument about politics or philosophy is eventually reduced to semantics. The semantic of "socialism" is no exception. What is socialism? And what is it not? Orthodox Marxists will surely regard twenty-first century models of democratic socialism as something else?neo-liberal capitalism, social democratic reformism, or quasi-socialist fakery. If private individuals are allowed to own any means of production, it can't be socialism, they will say. Those who call it such will be denounced as heretics.

Neo-leftists, many of whom will not allow themselves to be called "socialist," nevertheless argue that private ownership of capital does not necessitate classical "capitalism." Nor does it negate socialism. When people who own the means of production oversee only the productive capacity of their own capital, and cease unduly influencing government, education, and other institutions of civil society to the extent they do today, then we will no longer have hegemonic capitalism as we've known it up until now. At that point, neo-leftists suggest, regulated free enterprise will provide an opportunity for socialism?not the socialism that confiscates capital from the private sector and donates it to the state, but a socialism that extends the ownership of productive capital as widely as possible, and limits the power of private capital to its own productive pursuit. The opportunity is thus to reform and to re-form socialism in a democratic context; and to push private enterprise forcefully toward ecologically responsible practices, without destroying its productive potential.

The most important lesson learned from the withered Soviet experiment with social and economic revolution is that no system can survive for more than a few decades without support of the people. Even in Mother Russia, with its awkward and profoundly corrupt post-USSR government, leaders have discovered that the best way to express the will of the people is through some sort of electoral process?a prelude, we must hope, to the first Russian democracy.

The challenge in Russia, of course, as in other emerging democracies (particularly those intent upon moving beyond left and right) is to purge corruption from the electoral process, and then to expand democracy beyond the legislative domain into the economic, religious, and philanthropic sectors. This can be done, but not without struggle, not without revolution?perpetual revolution.

Democracy, true and total democracy, is and always has been the most radical of all political notions, far more so than socialism or communism ever were. True democracy is dreaded by partisans of the old left and right alike. Traditional Communists still harbor a disdain for elections, a distrust of populism and a passion for central authority. It is the task of new socialists to lead the old guard to democracy, despite the gigantic challenges facing both socialism and democracy from economic globalization and the profoundly anti-democratic influence of transnational corporatism.

If neo-socialists succeed, the left-right spectrum of the twenty-first century will dissolve into air, and the democratic revolution begun in 1776 (or was it earlier, with Cromwell?), which has remained mired and corrupted in electoral politics, will be pushed beyond its carefully protected boundaries into civil society and beyond.

A third-millennium socialism that evolves through democratic processes?electoral and economic?will thus look very different from totalitarian socialisms of yore, rife as they were with bureaucratic conceit, state-capitalist charades of socialism, and condescending concepts like "dictatorship of the proletariat." In fact the next generation of socialisms (and there will be many) will feel so different, and evolve so slowly, that few will recognize them as socialism. Marxists and other orthodox socialists will certainly deride them as revisionist bourgeois incrementalism, simply because neo-socialists allow a certain amount of free enterprise to exist in society.

But as Cold War definitions melt into air, there's an opportunity to stop defining socialism in terms formulated by dead philosophers?no matter how brilliant their critique of capitalism?or by living "PC" leftists?no matter how sincere their quest for justice or their compassion for the oppressed. Only when a socialist system is defined by broad democratic processes will people accept its premises long enough to make it work. And this will happen. The specter of socialism is still haunting Europe...the whole world, in fact.