SOCIALISM TODAY is in crisis. Once the banner under which millions of working people resisted the horrors of the factory system and demanded a new society of equality, justice, freedom and prosperity, socialism has become identified in the modern world with monstrous, bureaucratic regimes that deny even the most elementary democratic rights.
At its birth, socialism promised the emancipation of labour, a society founded on workers' control in which work would be transformed from drudgery done in the pursuit of profit to collective activity done in the service of human needs. Yet workers in the 'socialist states' today cry out against the same kind of alienation and dehumanisation denounced by the earliest critics of industrial capitalism. Indeed, so demeaned have workers become in the world's largest 'communist' country, China, that the Chinese government has offered to lease out its labourers to western corporations, promising docility and labour discipline in exchange for foreign currency.
Meanwhile, all the states of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union included, have seen the emergence of mass workers' movements that are demanding basic rights and freedoms. Such working class resistance has exposed the pretence of the claims by these regimes to be workers' states that are charting the course to a new society of freedom.
In a world plagued by violence and war, socialism upheld the banner of world peace and internationalism, of an end to military conflict between the world's peoples. Today, self- proclaimed socialist nations such as Vietnam and China are waging war with one another, creating human tragedies that were once attributed exclusively to capitalism. At the same time, Russia and China have placed hundreds of thousands of troops on each other's borders, contributing to the increase in military tensions around the globe.
The power of the socialist vision has always been that it offered for the first time in the history of humanity a realistic means of overcoming alienation and exploitation, inhumanity and misery, violence and war. Yet, if nearly half the world is socialist and at the same time plagued by these ills, then the very meaning of socialism is put into question. Is socialism to be identified with liberation or oppression? peace or war? abundance or poverty? freedom or totalitarianism? These are the basic questions at the root of the contemporary crisis of the meaning of socialism.
To most of the people of the world today, the word 'socialism' has become a source of confusion. Called upon to assess the role of socialism in the modern world, reporters for Time magazine were forced to conclude in a 1978 special report that 'Socialism is a flag of convenience that accommodates technocrats and market-minded economists, that allows fascist-type dictators or small-time Bonapartes to perpetuate themselves in power ... socialism has become a word appropriated by so many different champions and causes that it threatens to become meaningless ...'.
Yet if ever an effort was needed to establish the meaning of socialism it is today. The world is once again threatened by a return to depression, to poverty and suffering on a massive scale. The threat of war--and, with it, of human annihilation--is greater than at any time in the past thirty years. Mass struggles for an end to old forms of oppression are sweeping countries as different as Poland and El Salvador, South Africa and Brazil. As we enter the second half of the crisis-ridden 1980s, it is becoming a necessity to determine whether the original vision of socialism--of a world society under the democratic control of those who produce the world's wealth and services--holds any validity; to determine whether it offers humanity any hope of escape from poverty, war and oppression; indeed, to determine whether it offers any meaningful chance of human survival.
This pamphlet is an attempt to do precisely that. It is written in the conviction that, if we are to understand the crisis of socialism in the modern world, we must begin by understanding how the socialist idea first emerged in the nineteenth century and how it has taken shape--how it may have been developed or distorted--in the course of the mighty events of the twentieth century. It is also written in the conviction that the heart and soul of socialism is the struggle for human freedom and that now, more than ever before, humanity stands in desperate need of a genuinely socialist transformation of the world order.