(A New Year’s Editorial by Return to the Source)
Although the concept of generations is often abused by idealist historians in lieu of a materialist analysis of great changes in society, there is an element of truth in the idea that a common set of world experiences influence the beliefs and actions of young people. In the Western world, the ruling class goes to great lengths to ‘disprove’ socialism – and more specifically Marxism-Leninism – with all manner of distortions, lies, and falsehoods. With a near monopoly on news media and academia, they have successfully waged an ideological battle against socialism to accompany physical state repression of revolutionaries in the United States and Western Europe.
However, their efforts are not always successful, and at many times in history, young people from the working class and the universities have seen through the propaganda and recognize the achievements of the world socialist revolutions. They use these revolutions and experiences as inspiration for their own struggle against the imperialist ruling class in their own country, and they draw strength through international solidarity with oppressed people in other countries who win their freedom through revolution.
After the October revolution in 1917 through World War II, working people in the US – particularly young people – drew inspiration from the experience of the Soviet people building a new society in which workers and peasants ruled. They saw an alternative to a system of oppression and exploitation, and that alternative pushed many to struggle against capitalism.
Similarly, a whole generation of communist youth – radicalized by the experience of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the uprisings of the 1960s – drew inspiration from the Chinese revolution and the anti-colonial liberation struggles happening in Vietnam, Angola, Cuba and other oppressed countries.
Of course, at every juncture they met ideological opposition from two fronts. The ruling class seized upon every opportunity to slander the accomplishments of the working masses in building socialism. They would spread disinformation about the Soviet Union and actually pay academics, like Harvard Professor Robert Conquest, to write polemics disguised as history to discredit socialism. Wherever there was an ounce of truth in their criticisms, it was accompanied by a gallon of outright lies.
The second front from which these revolutionaries faced ideological opposition was actually elements of the left. Mired in opportunism and idealism, these “left critics” seized on the facts and sources of many bourgeois historians to craft critiques of actually existing socialism on the basis that such revolutions were “not actually socialist.” Hailing back further than even Leon Trotsky, one of the principle architects of the modern anti-communist left in the Western world, these leftists focused only on the shortcomings of these socialist countries, which they exaggerated by comparing them to their relatively privileged lives in developed imperialist countries. Having only lived under liberal democracy for most of their lives, these so-called leftists were constantly aghast at every bourgeois report – true or not – that dissidents in socialist countries were repressed, or poverty remained persistent. Context and the greater global oppression of imperialism did not matter to these leftists, who remained content in their insulated Western lives to write off the experience of actually existing socialism as “state capitalist.”
The fall of the Soviet Union exacerbated this trend, with many Trotskyites and left-communists believing that the collapse of most of the socialist bloc vindicated their slander of actually existing socialism. For some, this was one system of capitalism – free-market capitalism – replacing another, namely state capitalism. For others, like the International Socialist Organization, this was an event that “should have every genuine socialist rejoicing.” (1) This left anti-communism, as Michael Parenti calls it in his book, Blackshirts & Reds, led many so-called leftists to take the most outrageous positions.
For the generation of young leftists growing up in the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union was the pivotal political event in shaping their political consciousness. The slew of denunciations of Marxism-Leninism that followed – from the left or the right – pushed them firmly away from actually existing socialism and towards anarchism or reformism, with comparatively few choosing Trotskyism as an alternative. Thus, many of the activists who came of age in the 1990s believed and still believe many of the anti-communist lies told about modern socialist countries, like China, Cuba, and Vietnam, and are openly hostile to Marxism-Leninism.
However, the generation of revolutionaries who came of age in the US and Western Europe in the 2000s – having witnessed the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression – are more open to re-evaluating socialism as a whole. After a period in which the ruling class declared that “There is no alternative” to capitalism, young people are increasingly interested and favorable towards socialism.
A Pew Research Center poll published in December 2011 found that young people (18-29) are more likely to favor socialism than capitalism by a margin of 49% to 46%. This demonstrates a distinct break from past generations, with only 34% of people aged 30 to 49 having a favorable view of socialism.
No data exists to show the attitudes of young people towards the existing socialist countries – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – and one would not be surprised to find largely unfavorable views of these countries among the general population of all Western countries. The claim by this author is explicitly not that young people are increasingly moving towards Marxism-Leninism.
However, the experiences that pushed so many of the older generation of leftists in the US and Western Europe into anarchism and reformism are not shared by the revolutionaries coming of age today. The experience of Chinese market socialism may not inspire Occupy Wall Street activists like the Tet Offensive did for student radicals in the 1960s, but the vicious denunciations of actually existing socialism – in other words, the painstaking attempts to prove that many socialist countries are simply state capitalist countries in disguise – have ceased, for the most part.
This is not to say that opportunism does not pervade a huge sector of the Western left, which Return to the Source writes about frequently with regards to anti-imperialism in Syria and Libya. Indeed, some parts of the Western left still engage in their fair share of China-bashing. However, left anti-communism is no longer an ideological hallmark of the US and Western European left as it was in earlier periods. It is no longer essential for groups to shout, “Neither Washington nor Beijing” as loudly as possible. Most young revolutionaries correctly understand that as conscious organizers in the United States, their principle task is to organize against the imperialist agenda of their own government and uphold international solidarity with people resisting US imperialism.
Further still, the ongoing Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has inspired many young revolutionaries in the US to thoroughly consider the process of socialist construction. The efforts of President Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan people to build a radically democratic alternative to capitalism and imperialist domination follow in the tradition of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. Venezuela may not be a socialist country yet – and they do not claim to be – but it is undeniably on the socialist path. Like all socialist revolutions, the process in Venezuela is unique to the country’s conditions and has developed differently, but it provides a physical alternative to capitalism for young revolutionaries to look to as a guide.
This author believes that young socialists in the US will come to view the socialist countries of the 20th century dramatically different from the generation before it. They will praise the successes, contextualize the short-comings, and above all else, study and learn from the experiences rather than dismissing them.
The classic anti-communist arguments from the ruling class and the ‘degenerate left’ fall flat in the face of the unbridled imperialism that marks the 21st century. Wikileaks treasure trove of state secrets revealed in 2011 that there was no bloodshed in the so-called Tiananmen Square ‘crackdown’ of 1989. Mass movements in Vietnam and Cuba for gay marriage patently disprove the image of socialist countries as ‘totalitarian’. Even the exaggerated death tolls of the Soviet Union are hard for critics to repeat with a straight face when this generation of young people witnessed at least 1.2 million people killed by the US war in Iraq alone in their lifetime.
Seeing imperialism for what it truly is makes one understand just how different – and how much better – socialism actually is. The lies and distortions all rest on the implicit assumption that Western capitalism is better than socialism, and it takes brain-washing and self-denial to reach that conclusion. This new generation of revolutionaries are beginning to see through the muck and grasp at the truth.
The task of Marxist-Leninists in the US is to build a new communist party that encompasses the advanced detachment of the working class and the oppressed nations. Given the changing attitudes of young people towards socialism, the time is now to begin talking openly about the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. They ought to look to the unique experiences of the five existing socialist countries as they fight to survive and flourish, even while surrounded by imperialism. They ought to draw inspiration and lessons from the ongoing revolutions in Colombia, the Philippines, Palestine, India, Venezuela, and Nepal.
But most importantly, they must organize their workplaces, communities, and campuses to resist imperialism and build the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.