BOOK REVIEW: Whose Millennium?

Daniel Singer, “Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?” Monthly Review Press, 1999. 295 pp. $17.95 (paper).


Daniel Singer, the well-known European correspondent of The Nation, seeks in “Whose Millennium?” to demonstrate both the possibility and the need for creating a new society through collective political action.

Marxists have often falsely been portrayed by their ideological opponents as determinists who exclude the role in history of the human will, but now the defenders of capitalism, echoing Margaret Thatcher, keep repeating that “there is no alternative” to the inexorable force of “globalization.”

Singer shows that “globalization” is not the automatic product of the computer but the conscious choice of governments, spurred by the structural crisis of capitalism, to lift restrictions on the international movements of capital.

“Globalization” has brought an immense and increasing disparity in wealth between rich countries and poor countries and between rich and poor within all countries. In Western Europe it has brought mass unemployment; in the United States it has brought a proliferation of “the working poor.”

Singer contends that, though “sobered by past defeats” and cognizant of the great difficulties of the project, we can fight for and achieve a better future than capitalism offers us. He addresses himself not only to socialists but also to others who recognize that we are living in an unequal and unjust society but have allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the propaganda that there is no escape from it.

Writing with modesty (he does not pretend to have all the answers) and wit, he is probably more persuasive than those who thunderously proclaim, as he puts it, “the impending collapse of capitalism and the advent of a socialist millennium.”

Capitalism, he makes clear, will not collapse of itself, as Jericho did at the sound of Joshua’s trumpet; it must be knocked down by a superior force that has to be organized, an exceedingly difficult but necessary task.

Yeltsin’s “triumph of democracy”

In an insightful and fact-filled review of some of the chief events of our century, he shows how we have arrived at where we are. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the great hope for humanity, but, isolated in a backward country devastated by a civil war promoted by the capitalist powers, it degenerated after revolution in Western Europe was defeated, giving rise to an autocratic bureaucracy.

A friend and disciple of Isaac Deutscher, Leon Trotsky’s biographer, Singer in his analysis of the rise of the bureaucracy and its subsequent attempt to consolidate its power through acquiring ownership of property seems to be indebted to Trotsky’s prescient analysis of more than 60 years ago.

At present, he finds, “despite the progress of privatization and the high degree of capitalist concentration,” the economic structure of Russia, “fragile, uncertain, unfinished,” has a “provisional nature.” Capitalist restructuring has not kept pace with the transfer of property rights.

The economic crisis in Russia today, he asserts, is greater that in capitalist countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s. How then did Yeltsin, whose popularity had been measured in the single digits in opinion polls before the election of 1996, win that election? And, similarly, how did the discredited and reviled Communist Party come to be the main opposition force in Russia?

Singer describes in detail the immense funds at Yeltsin’s command from the wealthy beneficiaries of the new order, his control of the media-in which his chief opponent, the Communist Zyuganov, was invariably presented as a villain and Yeltsin as a hero-his use of a subservient electoral commission as an adjunct to his campaign, his munificent state-funded pledges and gifts, his demagoguery, and his invoking the specter of civil war-that is, his implicit threat not to acknowledge electoral defeat-if Zyuganov were to win.

Clinton’s hailing of Yeltsin’s victory as a “triumph of democracy” is rich in unconscious humor.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, benefited from the shock of the economic collapse and the mass pauperization, which caused many to look back nostalgically at the job-security and welfare services that were part of the Soviet system and that persisted, albeit in attenuated form, even in the years of stagnation under Brezhnev.

The Communist Party, too, engaged in its own kind of demagoguery, making alliances with chauvinistic nationalists and playing upon anti-Semitism in the name of resisting the West’s plot against Russia.

Singer’s hope is that a new generation of workers and intellectuals will, profiting from their experiences, learn to distinguish between Stalinism and genuine socialism and between capitalism and genuine democracy. This, however, is a process that will take time-and time in Russia’s explosive situation is dangerously short.

Corruption of Polish Solidarity

The problems facing Eastern Europe, he asserts, are similar to those facing Russia, but they are not so acute since Stalinism there was of shorter duration and was not so deeply rooted. Yet the same kind of strange reversals occurred in Poland as occurred in Russia.

Solidarity, the trade union that had battled the Stalinist regime, had been opposed to the special privileges of the bureaucracy, and had been democratic in its procedures, became in the course of time converted to neo-liberalism and was rejected by the masses when the “shock therapy” of its politicians brought about unemployment and a polarization of wealth.

The Communist Party, for its part, electioneered that it would ameliorate the effects of “shock therapy” but assured Western capitalism that it was not a threat to it, proclaiming itself to be converted to social democracy and asking to join NATO and the European Union.

What caused the change in Solidarity? Singer explains it by comparing it to the European Social Democratic parties who came to office and, on finding it impossible to do away with capitalism by working within the system, came to terms with it.

So Solidarity politicians heeded the dictates of international capital, seeing no other way. The funding Solidarity received from American business unionists and from the American government helped in its corruption.

“Spontaneity, the elemental force,” Singer concludes, “is not quite enough. …. To achieve its historical task, a movement probably requires a fairly clear vision of its project and its purpose, but also some form of organization.” It was this lack of a vision of what it was aiming to achieve and this lack of an organization geared to its project that led Solidarity astray.

Although Singer rules nothing out, it is to the advanced capitalist countries of the West that he looks for the development of a movement that will initiate a break with capitalism. He points to the “French winter of discontent” of 1995 as evidence of the possibilities.

Provoked by the government’s abrupt attack on social services in violation of its recent election promises, workers in the public sector went on strike and organized huge demonstrations throughout the country.

The size of the demonstrations, says Singer, was the equivalent of “a million protesters marching in New York, two hundred thousand in Philadelphia, and nearly one hundred thousand in Atlanta.” In most towns the crowds were even greater than in the great general strike of May 1968.

Stunned by the gigantic opposition to its plans, the government retreated and effected a settlement, but French capitalism continues gingerly in its drive against the welfare measures previously won by the working class.

Superficially, it may seem that the strikes and demonstrations of 1995 were a passing episode, but Singer finds that the challenge to the idea that the imperatives of globalization must be accepted has brought an awakening, manifested in such things as demonstrations against the victimization of foreigners, organizations of the unemployed, and intellectual questionings of the establishment.

Transitional demands

In rejecting the idea that there is no alternative, that there is no combatting the austerity imposed in the name of “competitiveness,” the French workers, he says, made a “crucial beginning,” but “it is only a beginning.” “On the basis of this negative achievement, the genuine search for a radically different society must begin.”

To gain this society, there has to be worked out a “strategy of radical counterproposals, designed to promote action and develop consciousness stage by stage until the [labor] movement is driven to confront the logic of the system.”

These counterproposals, providing “solutions that, sooner or later, lead beyond the confines” of “existing society,” should not be treated as a sacred text, but as a draft, a provisional guide, which will be amended, improved, and broadened as the movement advances.”

This strategy would seem to resemble the “system of transitional demands” propounded by Trotsky in the midst of the Great Depression.

“It is necessary,” said Trotsky, “to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution.”

Transitional demands, “stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class,” would by their radical rejection of what “property owners and their lawyers” call their “unrealizability” be “ever more openly and decisively” directed against “the very foundations of the bourgeois regime.”

The blood of tens of millions killed in World War II acted as a transfusion for world capitalism, as the postwar boom temporarily revived the system. Now, however, Trotsky’s program, which many had thought outdated, is as timely as before.

Although not a “sacred text” to be mechanically applied, it points the way to escape from the future capitalism has ordained for humanity. Notably, the demand to eliminate unemployment by cutting the workweek without reduction in pay has come to the forefront.

Whether or not Singer’s sketch of a strategy of radical counterproposals has its origin in Trotsky’s program of transitional demands, it is generally consonant with it. Singer, however, differs with Trotsky in regard to the concept of the vanguard party.

The vanguard party in Singer’s understanding is one that does not engage in debate but takes orders from a central committee that provides it with ready-made plans. This, however, is the Stalinist caricature of a vanguard party, not the vanguard party of Lenin and Trotsky that mobilized the masses in the Russian Revolution.

As Trotsky said in “The Death Agony of Capitalism,” in which he presented the concept of the transitional program, the principle of democratic centralism by which the vanguard party is governed is “full freedom in discussion, complete unity in action. Without internal democracy” there is “no revolutionary education”; “without discipline” there is “no revolutionary action.”

Such a party, which learns from the masses in participating in their struggles as well as from the study of past struggles, is equipped to help the masses find a bridge to socialism.

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