Editors’ note: This is the second part (of four) of “The Emerging Left in the ‘Emerging’ World,” by Triple Crisis founding contributor Jayati Ghosh, originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics. We posted the introduction last week (here). In this second part of the lecture, Ghosh presents the first two of “seven common threads” shared by the emerging left: democracy and scale.
What I call “the emerging Left” shares seven common threads that appear in otherwise very distinct political formations and in very different socioeconomic contexts. These are not always “new ideas”—in fact they are more often than not old ideas that appear new because of the changing context and the collective failure of memory, even within the left itself. Still, these seven threads—new attitudes toward democracy, scale and centralization, private property, the discourse of rights, class and other identities, women and gender, and the environment—all represent breaks from 20th century socialist orthodoxy.
In contrast to some earlier socialist approaches, in which the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was misinterpreted (often willfully) to suppress procedural democracy, there is much greater willingness of the emerging left to engage with and even rely upon formal democratic processes associated with “bourgeois democracy”: elections; referenda; legal rights, judicial proceedings, etc. Even as left movements and parties recognize the limitations of electoral democracy—especially the effective takeover of democratic institutions by money power and corporate media—they have come to rely more and more on formal democratic institutions. The radical governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.) derive their legitimacy from the ballot box. In other countries, the emerging left is the greatest champion of democratic and pluralist institutions—as well as the most concerned about their corruption and manipulation by entrenched interests and corporate power.
This stands in sharp contrast from many 20th century socialist movements, which viewed all institutions of the bourgeois state as inherently tainted, incapable of reform, and impossible to use to bring about positive change. As a result, they often rejected formal democracy and pluralism even after attaining government power themselves.
Within emerging left groups today, there is increasingly a trend towards the rejection of top-down models of party organization (such as were exemplified in the practice of “democratic centralism” in the official communist parties). Instead, left movements are moving towards more open, democratic party structures, the embrace of a plurality of opinions, and experiments in alternative systems of decision-making (deliberation, consensus-building, etc.).
On Largeness and Scale
The second relatively “new” feature is the rejection of over-centralization. The centralizing, homogenizing state was a central element of “actually existing socialism” throughout much of the 20th century. Even today, it remains embedded deep in the consciousness of many self-identified socialists. In the classical Marxist view, the trend within capitalism toward production at larger and larger scales was seen, paradoxically, as having a positive side. Though it went hand in hand with the centralization of capital in fewer and fewer hands, it also brought together ever-larger groups of workers, who could (if organized) use their collective power to radically alter production relations. In power, many self-described socialist parties made large-scale production a fetish. This tendency reached an extreme in the Soviet Union, where party leaders and economic planners strove to build the world’s largest factories, dams, and so on— sometimes as ends in themselves.
Still, there were some good reasons for the socialist celebration of largeness, which remain valid. Economic development requires large-scale investment that must be centrally planned, at least to some degree, to be successful. Decisions about some of the most important economic issues—the direction of investment, the production of socially desirable goods and services, and the distribution of income and wealth—necessarily require not just some but often very substantial degrees of centralization. This means that even the emerging left should not engage in a simplistic celebration of everything “small.”
Nonetheless, most tendencies in this newer left emphasize the importance of developing small-scale production. This reflects a strong move, also for good reasons, away from past attempts to centralize control over all aspects of material life, which have been characterized by extreme rigidity, hierarchy, and lack of accountability.
The turn away from largeness towards smaller-scale organization is also a reaction to two features of contemporary capitalist economies. First, there is the recent experience of the downsides of largeness—banks that are too big to fail, giant multinationals that are unaccountable and cannot be taxed, and so on. Second, technology—especially the convergence of new information, communications, and energy technologies—is opening up new possibilities for decentralized production, and suggests the possibilities for a new, locally managed, decentralized, but globally connected economy.
So emerging left movements and the governments they lead do not insist on centralized ownership and control over all economic activities. They recognize small-scale producers as worthy of both direct state support and more general “enabling conditions” necessary for their continued existence and vitality. Where there are significant economies of scale, left movements are exploring organizational forms, like cooperatives, that avoid the rigidity and authoritarianism of past models. The aim is to find a proper balance between large and small, which will obviously vary depending on context.
Look for two more installments of this lecture on the next two Wednesdays. Find the first installment here.