End of the Cold War
Prospects for Worker-socialism
Radio KPFK's Interview with Mansoor Hekmat
Suzie Weissman: How do you see the ending of the Cold War and what it means for the struggle for social justice in the other parts of the world?
Mansoor Hekmat: Basically in the short term it has had a negative impact on socialist work and socialist movement. I must say in the beginning here that I am among those socialists and communists who never believed that the Soviet bloc represented communism or developed a socialist economy and society. Nevertheless, that has not prevented the present offensive of the West to primarily turn against communism in general and every ideology that advocates some kind of social justice, human equality and so on. In the short term, at least, it is a tight situation. What is going on is an offensive not only against modern communism but also against age-old human ideals of equality, liberty and rights of humanity. But this is going to pass. It will create confusion, new conflicts and confrontations but I am sure we can survive.
Suzie Weissman: You are absolutely right to state it like that. And you obviously have a lot of company in the world, including the 250 million people in the Soviet Union itself who now say that what they had was not communism or socialism. But it also raises a broader issue. Some people would argue that the Cold War was less about containing the threat in the Soviet Union than about containing the threat of socialism world-wide and particularly in Europe and the United States. What you are hinting at is that although it may not be a conscious effect, the powers in the world are still able to use the collapse of the Soviet Union as another piece of their arsenal in the offensive against the idea on which Soviet Union was based but was not able to develop.
Mansoor Hekmat: That may be a short term consequence of what is going on in the Eastern Europe now. But the socialism of today, or of the future, has the advantage of not being able to be easily identified with the Soviet bloc, which was the West's rival bloc, militarily and so on, and it is actually going to emerge in the shape of working class movements in the same countries that are now apparently victorious against the 'socialism' of the Eastern bloc. It will have the advantage of emerging inside the structure of these societies and cannot therefore, be easily distorted as some 'evil empire' which was the way socialism was portrayed in the past. I think, therefore, that in the long term the situation allows working class socialism, egalitarian socialism, a socialism that is against wage labour and calls for the reorganisation of the whole economic structure in favour of abolishing classes, profit and so on, to come to the fore and play a more expressed role than it did during the Cold War.
Suzie Weissman: We have this situation now, which you said is a transitory phenomenon, that there is an apparent victory of the free market ideology even within the sectors in the Soviet Union and elsewhere where they have nothing to gain from the free market and every thing to lose from it. The Soviet workers often see it as a mechanism to get beyond the power of the apparatus and the ministries and those who have repressed them for so many years. They see it as a tactic rather than anything that they are really interested in living under. The question I have is fairly complex. Given that the collapse of communism is associated with the collapse of the communist idea, that the very language of liberation that would allow workers across the world to overthrow the system of capitalism is discredited even though the concepts are not and have never been tried, how do see in the next period that the people who are in favour of creating a more just and egalitarian society, one in which the economy is put at the service of the community rather than the owners of the means of production, developing, Remembering that it is going to be very difficult to use this language.
Mansoor Hekmat: The way people in general treat ideology and social theory is very objective and materialistic. The question of credit and discredit does not come into it. If any social theory and ideology is to find a central role in the egalitarian struggles of tomorrow, it has to be rooted in the history of human thinking. It has to be elaborate and expressed in a sufficiently profound form. Such a theory already exists there and I do not think that the discrediting of the Soviet brand of socialism can in any way overshadow the fact that there is a trend of thought in the existing human society identified with ideas ex pressed and put forward by Marx. That body of revolutionary and egalitarian theory is already there and people are not going to go round this very strong tool for social change and try to find some thing obscure in the things that may be packaged under a different name. I think the terms socialism, communism and Marxism are going to be taken up again once the working class, both in the West and in the East, finds itself more sharply in contrast with the market economies that exist now. The humanity has a capacity to go and look back at its history and revise it, just as it is being done today. I am not worried about that aspect.
Another point is that this so-called discrediting of such terms is more a phenomenon observable in the official media and intellectual circles. I don't get the impression that within the working class movement socialism is so much discredited as an idea or that Marxism is so much on the defensive within the working class movement as such.
Suzie Weissman: What is the effect of the collapse of communism on its twin in the capitalist society, the social democracy and the social democratic idea? Because both of them arose pretty much at the same time and one was the opponent of the other. Do you think social democracy will suffer because communism has been discredited?
Mansoor Hekmat: It will suffer because it is clinging to the same basic tenets that communism expressed in a more consistent way. If you are somebody who believes that society is responsible towards the individual or human beings are equal or poverty is bad and human initiative cannot be a justification for class differences and deprivation, if you believe in such things, and social democrats do to some extent in a very faded way now, then you still suffer because the offensive coming from the right is not against communism as a sect or as a particular ideology, but against egalitarianism in human society. It is against any notion that human beings can live more equally and freely. The basis of market ideology is the fact that they leave you alone with your individual capability and want you to fight and take the consequences. Social democracy to some extent rejects this and wants society to take a share in the destiny of people. So social democracy will also suffer when such a right wing offensive is in progress.
Suzie Weissman: Given that the history of social democracy is very much intertwined with the history of Soviet communism in a sense, going back right to the great movements of the time of the revolution and the divisions between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks and the way it developed in Europe versus in those countries that were part of the Soviet bloc, many people may think that the demise of communism is victory in a sense [for social democracy] and that the Mensheviks were always right. And yet, if we look at the records in the last decade every social democratic government that has come to power in southern Europe has simply imposed austerity 'with a human face'. In other words the social democrats came in to do the same thing that the free marketeers would do, but did it, in a sense, representing the working class. One example that, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, is given as the model that they are aspiring to is the model of Sweden. I wondered if you think that Sweden is a particular case and I'd like you to comment on the role that social democracy could play in this regard.
Mansoor Hekmat: Social democracy with its own ideas is also a thing of the past. The trend is towards a break between social democracy and the unionist labour movement. The problem with social democracy in Europe, as far as I can see, is that it is coming away from the traditional social base it has had without being able to substitute it with any other. This is one aspect. the other aspect is that the ideas on which the social democratic model was based, although there are difference between the Swedish model and the French or the British one, all to some extent depended on the role of the state in the economy. The discrediting of this role of the state has been part of the offensive against the Soviet Union. The social democracy has not been able to develop an economic alternative which would not be so much based on the active economic role of the state. I think there will have to be a revision in social democratic thinking if they are to play any role at all. At the moment it appears that, perhaps on the basis of a popular reaction to the extreme aspects of the right-wing offensive, there may be a case for Left-of-the-centre parties to defend levels of social welfare that exist now. But that cannot be effectively done unless they provide a model for their own government as well as a defensive oppositionism. I do not see much role for them unless some school of social democratic thought overcomes these voids that are left in social democratic theory and its social base.
Suzie Weissman: You raised a really crucial issue which is the role of the state in the economy. If there is one thing that has been entirely discredited the world over, from East to West, is the statist economy. In the Soviet Union even the so-called left talks about de-state-icising the economy. In other words turning the principal means of production over to labour collectives or to the smaller decentralised groups. Somehow this notion in the past that just having state-owned property would guarantee a more just system have been discredited and now in the West you don't hear even former communist parties, socialist parties, call out for the all out nationalization of the means of production. Do you think that Marxists as a whole would have to re-think this idea of the role of the state and the state-owned property and maybe think of things in more decentralised terms?
Mansoor Hekmat: I have been a Marxist for ages now and at no point have I regarded myself as being someone who believed in the role of the state in managing the economy or in relation to property. Classical Marxist teaching is about collective property and collective involvement of the producing class, or citizens as a whole, in the process of production and political decision making. The reduction of this notion to state-ism was one of the aspects that separated the Soviet experience from the Marxist tradition, from what I call worker-socialist tradition. That therefore does not create any confusion for Marxists of my type. We had, even before, the task of an economic system based on collective property and not on state property. This was one of our differentiations with the Soviet model. But I understand that the bulk of the so-called communist movement had this role of the state at the centre of their economic theory. And I think there is a great deal of confusion there. I don't think they have come up with any bright notions.
The idea of decentralised control of property runs to a large extent against technological development. You can decentralise things only to the extent that you can somehow re-connect them into a social whole, otherwise meeting diverse demands of human population would not be very easy. We cannot go back to small scale decision making and employ the high level of technology that is available today and is necessary if people are to live in comfort.
Suzie Weissman: Well, this is a really important aspect of what we could call the future viability of the socialist ideas, to try to get this relationship a little clearer. The needs of a modern economy, which obviously means that there has to be a great deal of inter-linking and planning and the democratic control at the base. I think it does come to a head in this question of ownership. So when you say collectivised property I assume that you are talking about what Marx said about the socialised means of production. How does it work out though, in terms of state versus collective, versus democracy and so on?
Mansoor Hekmat: What I understand is that to the extent that you abolish the system of wage-employment, the system in which the individual is offering his/her labour power to a body outside itself to be made use of, only to that extent can you talk of collective control and collective ownership and collective decision making. I can't see a form in which you keep wages as a basic category in the economy and at the same time not pass decision making to those who pay wages. I think a socialist economy must be an economy without wages, in which needs are somehow registered and conscious working units decide on meeting them. I think it is possible and I am very optimistic with the great advance in computer systems and communications technology that it will not be very difficult for human society to know in advance what it needs for a period of, say, one year and to whom the task of producing it would fall. These are possible. But to do that we have to create a political situation in which this wage-labour relationship can be abolished.
Suzie Weissman: What about the other side, the side that everyone in the mainstream press talks about in terms of the Soviet Union, that what has collapsed there is not so much production but distribution? Do you think distribution being a problem in a newer society that is based on more democratic smaller collectives in which wage labour has been abolished? And related to that, how the various consuming needs of the population are taken into account and are really met?
Mansoor Hekmat: Distribution has a number of aspects. On the technical side of actually getting the things that are produced to the ones who are sup posed to consume them I don't think there will be a difficulty. No society actually collapsed because it couldn't do that. There is another aspect, that is, what needs in society are legitimate as far as the producers are concerned. In other words, what has to be produced and distributed according to the needs. This is not difficult to organise either given the fact that social needs can be consciously registered by individuals, by collectives and by consuming units and so on. But there is also a value aspect of distribution which is the basic problem. The question is not so much the distribution of goods and services among people. Every society will find a way to do that. The question is according to what proportions and percentages this wealth should be distributed among people. The market does it in a blind way and you can find nobody who is responsible for the fact that a large percentage of people even in the United States live below the poverty line. Because an entity called the market does that distribution, deprives a number of people and makes some others privileged. To get rid of this situation, to have an actual distribution according to the needs, we have to challenge the different positions of human beings in relation to production, whether they are wage-earners, interest-takers, profit-makers etc. You have to get rid of these differences and put people on an equal footing with regard to production. This is what socialism is all about. Overthrowing the rule of capital as an economic entity that assigns people to different economic roles and deprives some from independent use of the means of production because they are under the control and property rights of somebody else. No matter how much we think about it, everything comes back to the question of the overthrow of capital as an economic and political entity. If it is not done, reforms in the economic structure can get us nowhere. We have to abolish this worker-capitalist relationship.
Suzie Weissman: You said that human beings and human society will find a way to do this, but what about the difficult problem of the difference between the worker when he is producing and when he is consuming. Do you think there is a diversion, a split division, between the worker as a producer and as a consumer?
Mansoor Hekmat: I think the answer is clear even from the standpoint of classical Marxist theory. In a socialist society you are not assigned with the role worker forever or at all times. You are a worker when you appear as a producer in society and you become a citizen when you are consuming. And even when you are a worker, everybody is a worker just like you and is doing something to help society produce what it needs. I think there must be no connection whatsoever between the amount or intensity of work which one contributes to production and the mode that he or she consumes. I think to consume the wealth created by society is a right given to citizens at birth and, against that, what is required of them is to contribute to society as best as they can. There must be no economic connection there. In the capitalist system there is an absolute economic relation. If you are put in a certain position in terms of production, your lifestyle and your consumption is already decided. No matter what you do, if you appear in production as a worker, as an unskilled worker, then it is already decided that your children will not have proper education, that you might die of diseases that don't kill other people and you might live in houses that stink. That is already decided by the way they have made you contribute to social production. If they prevent you from contributing to production, if they make you unemployed, it is even worse. Your place in production decides your place in consumption. In socialism that is not the case. When you are born you have a right to live like everybody else and socialism assumes that you have the common sense to get up and contribute something to society according to your creative ability. I think there must not be any economic or political connection between people's contributions to production and their enjoyments of its fruits.
Suzie Weissman: I want now to turn to the more concrete present and ask you to describe what you think the world is going to look like now following the collapse of the Cold War, specifically in the Middle East that is considered so volatile and unstable.
Mansoor Hekmat: Generally, I think we are entering a decade of confusion, contradiction and social confrontation. Contrary to what many thought probably a few years ago that the collapse of the East and the victory of the market is going to usher in a decade of peace and harmony, I think it is going to be the opposite and it has already begun to look like that. I don't think the Middle East would remain a very central area for much longer. The focus of this instability and confusion, in my view, is going to be the developed capitalist world itself. Because it rested on a polarity of East and West and that polarity is falling down and many things in the advanced capitalist world itself have to be redefined. This calls forth various social forces and movements and creates more confrontations.
As for the Middle East I think so long as, due to the heritage of the Cold-War period, the West is tied to Israel there is going to be a great many problems there because that is no longer necessary in terms of the political economy of Western capitalism. At some point perhaps the Arab-Israeli divide corresponded to East-West divide. The latter is no longer there and there has to be a trend toward normalisation of the situation in the Middle East, making it a less critical area in the world. It seems that the trend would be towards an integration of the Arab bourgeoisie into the main body of the capitalist world and a gradual weakening of the polarity that exists there.
Suzie Weissman: Do you see the Gulf War as feeding into that or as some sort of a trashing about for a policy at this end and getting rid of somebody who was potentially dangerous?
Mansoor Hekmat: No matter how the Gulf War came about, it has been an offensive against the more militant elements of Arab nationalism, which is no longer even a banner of anti-colonialism or anti- imperialism but rather a banner of Arab states in asking for a larger share in the world economy and the political structure of the world. To the extent that the war forced the militant wing of Arab nationalism into isolation, it had the contrary effect of giving concessions to the moderate sections within the same movement. That was probably an intended objective. I personally don't appreciate nationalism in any form and have no positive view towards it at all and what I said is not to be taken as meaning that I am for or against this process. What I am saying basically is that if there is to be some settlement and normalisation in the Middle East, the Arab world has to feel that it is not victimised for the existence of Israel and the special ties that exist between the West and Israel. If that assurance is made, which is not a diplomatic thing but has to show itself in the economic integration of the Arab world with the West along with the transfer of technology and so on, then I think that area will be a less sensitive area. I think the Gulf war had the effect of opening ways for compromise between the West and the Arab world.
Suzie Weissman: Does that include Iran? Do you include Iran in this process and how do you see it coming out of this new world situation?
Mansoor Hekmat: The impact of the recent developments on Iran has been the isolation of the pan-Islamic tendency inside the ruling forces. It has helped the non-pan-Islamic, the national-Islamic, tendencies to consolidate themselves and make Iran less of a nuisance internationally. I think Iran is heading towards becoming a more or less ordinary state, eager to have economic ties with the west and not so eager to make problems here and there. But that belongs to the future. It is not so today. I don't think Iran is going to be a major player in the Middle East in any sense.
Suzie Weissman: You talked, and I agree with you wholeheartedly, about not agreeing with nationalism in any of its forms. But even as we speak these words, nationalism seems to be the main question in Eastern Europe, central Europe, the Soviet Union and the Arab Middle East as well. It seems to me that as competing ideologies collapse people focus all their attention on the question of nation and also religion. We have the question of the Kurds and the role they played in this whole process. You see in Yugoslavia it has even broken into open war and open armed conflict.
Mansoor Hekmat: This new wave of nationalism in Eastern Europe does not seem to have a solid historical base. It appears to be more an alternative cooked up by the ruling circles in these societies to provide some ideological framework for the states that are being created. I don't think that they in any sense represent an enduring form of nationalist movement. And once that independence is achieved, we will find that other social trends and tendencies, liberalism, fascism probably, social democracy, socialism and so on come to the fore and this pure nationalistic form of expression is pushed to the background. I don't give this wave of nationalism much more serious consideration than that. They are forms of expression for creating new states that lack coherent ideological frameworks to be based on.
Suzie Weissman: You said that the nationalist fervour that we are seeing today is a reflection of a general confusion and if they actually settle it in terms of nations, the same social problems will re-emerge. I don't disagree with that, but I just wonder what you think is going to happen in the process between the expression of nationalist fervour and getting to the states, because it looks like that the situation really could blow up, especially in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe among all the national republics. And it is also true in the Middle East because there are very many national questions that have not been resolved like the issue of the Kurds.
Mansoor Hekmat: My impression is that it will not blow up to something massive in Europe itself. Firstly, because we have the whole Western Europe that is apparently ready to interfere if things got too much out of hand. Secondly we have the need in the newly emerging states for some kind of economic integration, and recognition, with the western economies and that would definitely put some brakes on their movements and their extremism. And probably the disintegration of the Soviet Union will be fast enough not to leave any unsettled issues that can force a really nationalist struggle between various states that are emerging now.
You mentioned the question of Kurds. That question has been there for a long time. In Kurdistan in Iran and Iraq the nationalist aspirations are now challenged by a growing working class movement which is not so nationalistic. In fact it has, especially in its more advanced sections, a very clear anti-nationalistic self-consciousness and the political programmes that are emerging from this various working class movements have a clear distance from old nationalist aspirations. If anything, the recent developments, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan, showed that nationalism is for the first time being challenged by a working class movement which appears to be a solid and more or less influential force.
Suzie Weissman: Are you saying that the question of borders will be second to the question of the struggle for a just society?
Mansoor Hekmat: As a general rule I wouldn't know. But it will be so in some areas. In Kurdistan it will be so. It will definitely be the case that sooner or later, and it has already emerged to some extent, class differences are going to overshadow the national question and national struggle. In Eastern Europe I am not sure. That would depend on many factors which I am not qualified to judge now.
Suzie Weissman: You are a founder of a movement that is called the Iranian Communist Party, and I wondered, in view of the collapse of the communist parties the world over, if you are going to change your name or you think there is a need to hang on to it?
Mansoor Hekmat: We expected these pressures that we feel today some time ago at the Third Congress of the Party, about three years ago. We said we are communists. We have always been critics of what we call the Soviet state capitalism. We have never been pro-Chinese and we have never even appeared to be close to these blocs. The collapse of these blocs, we thought, vindicates us vis-à-vis the parties which were affiliated to them. But we also understood that this collapse is going to put pressure on us because the world is not going to see it in this light. It is a collapse under the pressure of the right wing of the western society and it is going to create a great deal of pressure for socialism as a whole. In fact what we made sure was that during the last three years our party stood as a firm communist and Marxist force. We ensured that. At the moment I am, along with a number of comrades, in the process of coming out of the Iranian Communist Party to build up an even more solid and principled communist organisation based on discussions that we have had during the last 4-5 years about worker-socialism as opposed to the socialism of the propertied classes and other so-called socialist movements.
We will not be changing our name, as far as the question of omitting the terms communist and socialist are concerned. In fact we are qualifying it by adding the adjective worker to it. I prefer to use nowadays the term worker-communism to express my ideas and Marx ism in general. Because I think that was the basic essence of Marxism. It was socialism as expressed by the emerging wage-labouring class and stood, even in the beginning, opposed to the socialism of other classes in the society. What I see in the Soviet Union is basically a shift from a working class revolution to a bourgeois-socialist state of affairs.
In October 1991, Suzie Weissman talked to Mansoor Hekmat about the post-Cold War world developments and a number of key issues of working class and communism. The interview was aired on Radio KPFK on the programme Portraits of the USSR, edited by Suzie Weissman. Radio KPFK broadcasts in California and has an estimated audience of 500,000. The above is the text of the interview
Originally in English