Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy, and Imagination

Leo Panitch, Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy, and Imagination (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001)

As we begin the new millennium we are haunted by the specters of neo-liberal reform, the political ascendancy of the New Right, and the dramatic advance of global capitalism. In the wake of this advance many of the gains made by the Left in the past century have been swept away and forgotten. Moreover, new currents of complacency and conformity are being generated by the pervasive rhetoric of this “New World Order.” In various ways, we are reminded again and again of the triumph of capital. We are constantly told that there is no other alternative. For some, this new political and economic climate has made any serious discussion of socialist renewal a pointless and empty prospect. But for others, the revolutionary spirit has not died. As the title of his latest book suggests, Leo Panitch holds out hope for a new socialism, a new democracy, a new strategy, and most importantly, a new imagination. But first, we must transcend the pessimism that permeates our society.

Panitch calls for the renewal of socialist politics and the development of a socialist imagination. Stylistically, he captures what is best in Gramsci and Marx. His selection of quotes from these authors makes the work very appealing, as does his use of epigrams (from such figures as Raymond Williams, Lewis Carroll, Bertolt Brecht, and Leonard Cohen). Methodologically, Panitch incorporates a variety of approaches. He uses a historical approach to analyze the demise of communism. He also takes stock of existing democratic structures in an effort to discern what is salvageable and conducive to the development of freedom. He questions some of the false dichotomies that keep the Left divided and ineffective. He critiques some of the current strategies of the Left in the face of globalization. Most importantly, however, he always returns his key focus on the cultivation of capacities and imagination.

I found particularly intriguing the chapters on reform and revolution, on the demise of communism, on globalization, and on “Transcending Pessimism” (chaps. 1, 2, 5, and 7). The first chapter begins with a brief analysis of the ascendancy of the New Right, during the Reagan-Thatcher years. Panitch views this ascendancy as a kind of reaffirmation or reassertion of the bourgeois revolution. He re-evaluates the current rhetoric of “revolution” and “reform” that has arisen in its wake. He recognizes how these terms have been co-opted into the discourse of the New Right, to reinforce and legitimize a “bourgeois revolution from above.” Panitch stresses that it would be a mistake “to dismiss such rhetoric as mendacious nonsense.” Such dismissal “misses an important dimension of what [the terms] have been about” (14). In part, the “revolution” has been about undermining socialist aspirations and marginalizing the very possibility of socialist renewal. This has led to a “deep pessimism” on the Left in recent years (20). Advocacy of socialism is relegated to the periphery of the Left’s political debates. Panitch fears that the pressure to “get real” has reduced the Left to engaging in “a moderate pragmatism” that is careful “not to offend the sensibilities of those seduced by the appeal of the bourgeois revolution from above” (21f).

What is needed for socialist renewal, Panitch argues, is “the penetration of socialist ideas and creative organizational and intellectual capacities throughout society” Drawing on Gramsci, Pantich advocates the development of a socialist counter-hegemony. Socialist ideals must permeate “the broadest possible range of institutions in society”: not merely parties, unions, and movements “but also in factories, offices, schools, universities, churches, community centers, and even in that contemporary center of working class life¾the shopping mall” (43). To some this may seem utopian, but this is precisely the point. According to Panitch “it is first of all necessary to dream” (12). We may never realize a better world if our complacency, conformity and “moderate pragmatism” render us incapable of even imagining one.

In the second chapter, Panitch seeks to understand the demise of some previous institutional forms of socialism. He counters many of the right-wing views of this process, such as the “end of history” argument. The fate of communism does not indicate that socialism is inherently unworkable, nor does it suggest that capitalism is the only workable system. One factor in communism’s collapse was the outside pressure of capital. This pressure typically led to a coercive and oppressive military and police apparatus. Another factor is the particular experience or lack of experience that these regimes had with democracy. Panitch maintains that the specific types of organization that were necessary for revolution in these states were not necessarily conducive to democracy once the revolution was complete. There is more to the analysis, but what is most important is Panitch’s emphasis on learning from past examples and pitfalls as we try to work toward a new socialism.

The chapter on globalization is one of the most stylistically appealing in the book. Panitch frames this chapter with epigrams from Through the Looking Glass. Alice is running through the garden hand in hand with the Red Queen, trying desperately to keep up. Yet in spite of her efforts, all Alice can do is stay in the same place. The Red Queen then explains, “if you want to get somewhere else,” you must “run at least twice as fast as that!” Panitch uses this image to represent the current stage of global capitalism:

Think of the Red Queen’s garden as capitalism. The bourgeoisie’s relentless search for markets and profits bring about faster and faster changes in production and space, industry and commerce, occupation and locale, with profound effects on the organization of classes and states. It is through this ferocious process of extension and change that capitalism is preserved and reproduced. Now think of Alice, frantically running alongside the Red Queen, as the labor movement, or the social movements, or the broadly defined “Left.” For all the running they did in the twentieth century, for all the mobilization and reform, even the moments of revolution and national liberation, the world today is most certainly still very much capitalist, indeed it would seem ever more so. (139)

Beyond its stylistic appeal, this chapter reviews and critiques some of the Left’s current positions on globalization, such as the view of globalization as a fundamentally new phase of capitalism, in which capital has transcended the nation-state. Panitch explains that this position may be misleading in two ways. One way is through “an overestimation of the extent to which nation-states were capable of controlling capital in an earlier era[,]. as if the Left’s mode of practice was adequate in relation to the nation-state.” (142). The danger here is that this position may lead to a similar approach at the global level. According to Panitch such a strategy amounts to simply running faster to keep pace with the Red Queen. But ultimately, as with Alice, it gets us nowhere. A second way the position is misleading is that it might lead us to overlook “the extent to which today’s globalization is both authored by the state and is primarily about reorganizing the state” (142f). By ignoring this aspect, we promote a false dichotomy between national and international struggles. As examples, Panitch discusses GATT and WTO. Certainly these organizations are operating at a supra-national level, but the role of the nation-state should not be ignored. Thus, the Canadian and Mexican States continue to represent the interests of their own bourgeoisies. The false dichotomy “diverts attention from the Left’s need to develop its own strategies for transforming the state, even as a means of developing an appropriate international strategy” (143).

In the final chapter, “Transcending Pessimism,” Panitch again incorporates some nice imagery, drawing on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, whose leading character “famously symbolizes the tragic dimension of the relentless competitiveness at the heart of the American capitalist dream” (197). Panitch explains that what makes this tale universally tragic is that “even people who wonder whether the capitalist dream isn’t the wrong dream see no way of realizing a life beyond capitalism” (198). In effect, the ideals of revolution and reform have been co-opted and are now part of the New Right’s “revolutionary” discourse. Within this discourse, the failures of past socialist projects are held up as evidence of capital’s triumph. This discourse marginalizes advocates of socialist renewal, who are pressured to adopt a “moderate pragmatism” Anyone who wants qualitative social change must confront these issues and transcend the pessimism they generate. But how do we do this?

Returning to the theme of imagination and capacities, Panitch engages the work of Ernst Bloch, for whom the “utopian intention” is the real “motor force of history.” This motor force “may be found in architecture, painting, literature, music, ethics, and religion” (198). Panitch is critical of the various dismissals of utopian socialism and utopian thought. The capacity for this type of thought is useful to us even if the actual projects lack so much as “a shred of possibility.” Without the capacity to imagine a world different from the one we now have, “people couldn’t run a society even if power was handed over by the ruling classes” (222).

Panitch challenges all of us to imagine a classless society where freedom and equality might be realized. He presents the problem, develops its parameters, and, in the final chapter, drives his argument home. The development of socialism has always been rooted in the development of productive forces¾what Panitch calls “capacities.” Today the productive forces that need to be developed include above all “the collective capacity to govern democratically everyday life, the economy, civil society, and the state” (222). Socialist renewal requires us to cultivate and accumulate our collective liberating capacities. In the process, we can once again “discover the spirit of revolution” and “build a new house where freedom can dwell” (226).

Reviewed by Joseph E. Ethier
Ph.D. student, Department of Sociology
Northeastern University

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