Looking Back in Order to Look Ahead: Twenty Years of Research and Publishing by the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy 1

By Frank Rosengarten

The project of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy (RGSD), as originally conceived by its co-founders, Mike Brown and myself, had  a three-fold purpose: historical, theoretical, and methodological. We approached the project with only two presuppositions, which, as stated in our introduction to the first issue of Socialism and Democracy (Fall 1985), were: 1) “that modernization, if it is to be a process involving the development of society as a whole, requires some measure of socialist organization and planning”; and 2) “that socialism and democracy are two aspects of the same general problematic.” Beyond these two basic presuppositions or “premises,” we left the door wide open for reflections coming from a wide spectrum of intellectual and political sources. It was in this spirit that the RGSD invited speakers of different ideological persuasions to share their thoughts in public, organized seminars on a variety of topics, and sponsored one major conference in 1989 that featured a large number of speakers on the history, theory, and future prospects of the Communist Party USA. The conference was suggested to us by Gil Green, long a kind of maverick of the Party who, despite his advanced years, was engaged in the polemics that accompanied the crisis of “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The historical part of the project was motivated by a desire to explore the moments of the last several hundred years where intersections and interactions could be detected between socialist and democratic movements of various kinds: political, of course, but social and cultural as well. We were interested in testing the hypothesis that socialism and democracy were, indeed, “two aspects of the same general problematic,” not only in theory but in historical and documented fact.
I brought a specific set of experiences to this historical part of the RGSD’s activities, inasmuch as I had devoted many years of my professional life as a teacher and writer to the study of Italian fascism and anti-fascism, which generated in turn a series of questions about what 19th- and 20th-century Italian history could reveal about the historical relationship between socialism and democracy. This relationship lay at the heart of many of the writings of distinguished figures in the Italian anti-fascist resistance, a resistance which began at the outset of the fascist era in the early 1920s and continued right through the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the organized Resistance movement, resulting in a resurgence of democratic and socialist idealism that can be seen in several of the fundamental clauses of Italy’s republican Constitution of 1946. This idealism generated a considerable quantity of treatises, books, essays and other interventions by men and women whose task was to lay the groundwork for a new order that would not repeat the errors of liberal Italy after the first World War, but instead move decisively forward to guarantee to the people as a whole, collectively, irrespective of class and professional status, the basic rights of both liberal and socialist movements as articulated by their major theorists. This aspiration was not fulfilled, but a framework for ongoing struggle was established.
What I found in my research was the strong tendency of Italian anti-fascist thought to expand the conception of both socialism and democracy in order to allow these two sometimes mutually antagonistic terms to coalesce in meaningful and practical ways. In other words, the problem for the new Italy that arose on the ashes of a disastrous period of right-wing dictatorship was to incorporate the democratic components of socialist thought and the socialist components of democratic thought into a single political philosophy that would transcend the antagonisms of the past.
Was the Italian case in any way typical of the historical relationship between socialism and democracy? Were there moments in European and US history of the past several hundred years when socialists had stood up for the ideals of pluralism and political democracy, and when democrats had expressed a vision of democracy that could win the support of the masses of people? US history provided noteworthy examples of both tendencies, but Europe was also a seedbed for converging traditions that gave the lie to categorical claims that socialism and democracy had nothing to do with each other. Furthermore, we were aware, as co-founders of the RGSD, that the historical experience enfolded by these two tendencies was not exemplified only by left-wing political parties. Movements such as English Chartism, American abolitionism, Italian federalism, French anarchism, German social democracy, women’s struggles east and west, and a host of other national and international movements were testimony to the persistent struggles waged by ordinary as well as exceptional individuals for a social order in which the rights of labor, the rights of black people, the rights of women, in short, the rights of all people would be advanced and safeguarded by appropriate institutions.
We were aware that the historical dimension of the RGSD’s project was enormously complicated by two 20th-century developments of epochal importance: the Russian Revolution, and the national liberation movements initiated after World War II by peoples long subjugated by western imperialism. These two developments challenged comfortable assumptions about the relationship between socialism and democracy because the new forces that they unleashed did not automatically accept the terms socialism and democracy as defined by Western political thought. The RGSD welcomed the chance to come to grips with the tensions generated by this crucial difference of perspective. At the same time, the divisive controversies that had long circulated around the regimes that established themselves in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the fact that national liberation movements were in many instances led by people who identified themselves with a brand of Marxism-Leninism which many in the western countries saw as inimical to their conception of “democracy,” made the project a difficult one.
Theoretically, the RGSD operated on the assumption that the existing socialist countries, whatever their democratic shortcomings, had to be included in our purview simply because they had repudiated the political economy of capitalism. Within these countries, it was not difficult to find areas of socialist organization and planning that, one could argue, met at least some of the criteria of modern social development and democracy. The crux of the problem, from a strictly political point of view, lay in the overwhelming predominance in these countries of the Communist Party, which arrogated to itself a leadership role in society that seemed to brook no opposition to its authority and decision-making. But was this so-called absolute power really as unilateral and monolithic as described in the popular western media? Were there no avenues in these countries through which to express dissenting opinions, or at the very least to provide ordinary people with ways and means of expressing their political will? Coming up with tentative answers to these questions constituted one of the Research Group’s main foci of theoretical interest. We paid somewhat less attention to the dynamics of socialism and democracy in the previously colonized countries of the third world. However, several members of the Group’s Editorial and Advisory Boards had specialized knowledge of African, Latin American and Asian political cultures and institutions, which facilitated access to sources of information not otherwise easily available.
Given the premises of the RGSD, the onset of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union arrived almost providentially, inasmuch as the reforms effected by the new Soviet power structure gave evidence of a long transformative process not only in Russian society, but also within the Communist Party itself. In other words, from within the very core of an institution that many ideologues of western liberalism had dismissed once and for all as uncongenial to any form of democracy whatsoever, here was a political leader who apparently spoke for a significant percentage of Party faithful in voicing a call for more openness, for radical restructuring, for a greater measure of popular involvement in day-to-day decision-making on all levels of Soviet society. This development was a direct challenge to the mindset of the dominant sectors of the American ruling class, which had long claimed that all resources for a renewal of Soviet “communism” had dried up forever.
Yet the Gorbachev reforms were not the first time currents of renewal had flowed in the Soviet Union, even if against powerful resistance. The name of Nikita Khrushchev comes readily to mind, because Khrushchev did not limit his revelations to the crimes of Stalin, but had spoken instead of a pervasive disregard for law and individual rights under Stalin’s rule that had threatened the foundational principles of socialist democracy. So, all was not lost after all. There were, as Mike Brown had often insisted, what could be called “critical and active publics” in the Soviet Union, and “areas of tension in the relationship between the Soviet state and society.” What this added up to for the RGSD was an unprecedented opportunity to explore socialism and democracy as interactive and interdependent even in societies conventionally regarded, by anti-communist circles, as alien presences in the global political universe.
Certain methodological problems came to the fore as the RGSD began to carry out its work in the mid-1980s. Many of the Group’s members favored analyses based on Marxist theory, but it was felt that Marxism did not provide, by itself, all of the tools needed to confront the problems the Group was interested in. There was a consensus among the RGSD membership that our approach to the problematic of socialism and democracy had to be interdisciplinary. The reason for this was not only the obvious one, that concepts as complex as socialism and democracy demanded many different approaches and angles of vision. A deeper reason was to be found in the fact that both concepts were deeply embedded in virtually all of known human history. The founders of  scientific socialism, especially Frederick Engels, as well as major thinkers in the liberal-democratic tradition, recognized that no single aspect of life could somehow be detached from the congeries of human behaviors and given exclusive responsibility for why and how human civilizations evolved into their present forms. How could it be acceptable to remove education, art and literature, the study of geography, science and technology, and many other domains of creative human activity from one’s concerns about socialism and democracy? Humankind does not live by politics alone, or by economics alone. It was necessary to draw upon as many of the established disciplines as possible to deal adequately with forms of human coexistence that stretch back thousands of years.
Along with its interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach to the socialism/democracy dynamic, the RGSD felt the need to restate the validity of an often-articulated but rarely practiced principle, namely that the variety of social and political types of human coexistence demand a comparative methodology and an international perspective. How does one, for example, deal with the communal experiments launched in Tanzania in the 1960s? Or the collective farms in Israel? Or the burgeoning institutions of People’s Power in Cuba? Or the huge cooperatives in Spain and Italy? Or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa? Or Danish social democracy? One could go on and on to complete this list of attempts to organize the everyday life of communes and towns, of regions and states, of entire nations that, in one fashion or another, were established in accordance with the broadly accepted values of socialism and democracy. There is a danger, of course, in lowering the bar of what constitutes socialist and democratic institutions, but the danger of raising it too high is equally if not more dangerous. Furthermore, Brown argued that “existing socialisms cannot be evaluated directly by ideal standards any more than can other types of society.” The impulse to regularize and normalize the study of socialism, to remove it from a context of preconceived and bias-ridden judgments, was what motivated Brown to draw this point to the attention of our readers.
In order to give expression to this comprehensive, comparative, and international approach to the study of socialism and democracy, the RGSD began to collect materials being produced by socialist research groups worldwide. It did this on the assumption that the specific experiences of people in diverse parts of the world could and would enlarge our understanding of the issues involved in creating the bases for a type of democracy that includes prevalently socialist institutions, and for a type of socialism that is respectful of democracy. The question of how viable these various attempts would turn out to be, especially if carried out in poorly developed parts of the world, arose fairly frequently. But this was a positive thing as well, in that the conventional wisdom thinks of socialism mainly in terms of countries with almost unlimited resources, when in fact most of the world is poor, ill-equipped, minimally educated, and subject to the self-interest of richer nations. This was one of the many issues that presented themselves to the RGSD from its inception.

Viability became a life and death matter when the crisis of 1989 shook the foundations of existing socialist countries. In this respect, what concerned all of the RGSD founding members was the popular nature of resistance to communist party rule in Eastern Europe, and subsequently the apparent inability or unwillingness of ordinary Soviet citizens to defend the achievements of their socialist system. Could it be that a system dedicated to the welfare and freedom of workers would not be defended by its beneficiaries? If there was such a lack of popular mobilization, then one had to ask, as David Laibman has recently done2, what went wrong? What were the causes of the crisis-ridden turn that events took despite the reformist zeal of Gorbachev and his partners? Was the dissolution of the Soviet Union caused by the lack of democracy in Soviet institutions? Or by the overly bureaucratized instruments of economic and social planning? Was the collapse of the Soviet economy a sign of a more fundamental political collapse, characterized by an unbridgeable gap between the ruling party and the people? Several of the authors whose writings on these topics appeared in the pages of Socialism and Democracy had, if not predicted, warned their readers that there were distortions and imbalances in the way the Soviet economy was managed that threatened its survival.

These and other questions form part of our present-day reality, which the RGSD intends to take under consideration with all of the resources at its disposal. These include an expanded group of scholars and writers who bring new knowledge and diverse backgrounds to the task at hand. Our hope is that, in this way, some of the commitments of the past will remain on the agenda, while at the same time new directions will emerge.

1. All the quoted passages in this essay are taken from the Introduction to the first issue of S&D (Fall 1985), 1-4.

2. See David Laibman, “The Soviet Demise: Revisionist Betrayal, Structural Defect, or Authoritarian Distortion?” Science and Society, Vol. 69, No. 4 (October 2005), 594-606.

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