The long transition from capitalism to socialism

There is a tendency to see the various attempts to establish socialism such as the Paris Commune, Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Algiers, Vietnam, Chile, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, Nepal, and Venezuela–you name them–as failures, showing the impossibility of the project on the one side and capitalism ability to adjust and survive, on the other.

However, capitalism is a historical mode of production like all the others. It has a beginning and an end. As the transition from the different forms of precapitalist modes of production to capitalism took centuries, hence is the transition to socialism a long process.

As capitalism developed as a globalized process, the process of transition towards socialism is also global. However, it is not a sudden global simultaneous transformation. It contains many revolutions. The struggle between capitalism and socialism has wavered back and forth since the mid-19th century. These historical circumstances do not eliminate the fact that the capitalist system has an end, although they have prolonged and complicated the process of transition.

The frustration over the failures of “real existing socialism” has been augmented by a tendency to demand the impossible – the realization of the socialist ideals – in a world where capitalism still is dominant economically and politically.

The communist movement did not manage to develop a theoretical understanding that united the ideals of socialism of the 19th century, with the practical attempts to construct socialism in the 20th century. The disappointments of the result of “real existing socialism”, the inability to remould and even erase the state, nation, religion, market, inequality, and so forth, made a decisive contribution to the defeat suffered by the socialist project in 1989-1991 and the general crises of socialism in the past decades. In the intensive and dramatic struggle for socialism in the 20th century, the ideals of socialism, “acts like a kind of drug, burdening the struggle for social change with excessive expectations. Intoxication gave way to exhaustion. And on the eve of its collapse, the condition of real socialism in Eastern Europe was one of exhaustion.”[2]

One of the tasks today is to draw conclusions from the past experience, of how to construct socialism in the past century, into a theory and strategy for the transition to socialism in this century. It is not a revival or rejection of the old socialist ideals, but an attempt to turn them into practice.

This does not mean that the previous attempt to build socialism has been naive and in vain. They have had an impact on capitalism in changing its course of development in various ways and they have been lessons, which is important in the continued struggle for the transformation of capitalism.

Marx underestimated the longevity of capitalism and so did Lenin and Mao. Many of us, in the “1968 generation” have also predicted the end of capitalism several times, and our high hopes for a world revolution in the sixties have been frustrated. This has led to the mistake that capitalism can assimilate all critiques, adjust, mutate, and innovate its way out of all problems. Universalization of the present is to deny the historical specificity and thus the transitory character of capitalist social relations.[3] Capitalism is reaching the limits of the exploitation of humans and nature. There is no longer a “territorial fix” to the problem. The unequal exchange, which has transferred value from South to North, is declining. The debt bubble as a solution to the under-consumption problem is also reaching its limits. Apart from the transfer of value from the Global South, the creation of debt has helped to sustain the consumption power, pushing the problems into the future. Public and private debt is now reaching the two times global GNP. The capitalist mode of production is not only blocking, but also destroying human life on planet earth, through ecological disasters and climate change.

Capitalism is not a system in balance. It is due to its historical impurities that it has been able to reproduce itself. The trade union struggle gave the working class higher consumption power from the late 19th century, which extricated European capitalism from its dead end of overproduction against the will of the individual capitalist, but saved the capitalist system itself. The growth of mass consumption in the countries at the centre of global capitalism was achieved without a drop in the profit rate by the super-exploitation of the periphery and import of cheap colonial goods. Yet since there is no periphery for the planet Earth as a whole, this is only a viable escape plan for some countries and certainly not for countries with populations the size of China or India today. Capitalism is necessarily an expansive system, and at the same time, it has been a polarizing system. This dynamic enabled capitalism’s growth and longevity.

However, like the late Immanuel Wallerstein, I believe that the decline of US hegemony is a forewarning of the end of capitalism. The 21st century is the autumn of the capitalist system. Future expansion opportunities are limited, and the polarizing dynamics are changing. The industrialization of the Global South, in recent decades, represents not only a new international division of labor but signals a significant change in the dynamics of global capitalism itself. The system is losing the balancing force of the center-periphery dichotomy, which made expanded reproduction possible.

The industrialization of the Global South was certainly not introduced to create a more equal world system. The export-oriented industrialization of the Global South and the global chains of production makes it possible to transfer value from workers in the South to corporations and consumers in the North, through the difference in wage levels. The result of neoliberal globalization is, on the one hand – and in the first instance – a continuing transfer of value and, therefore, a tendency to continue polarization of living standards. However, on the other hand, we have witnessed an unprecedented development of productive forces in the Global South, which has turned the table. It is a peripheral state that is becoming the crank in the capitalist system of production. The emergence of China as a global economic power was an unintended side effect of the capitalist desire to exploit the Chinese proletariat. The development of the productive forces in the Global South is in the process of reconfiguring the world-system into a more multipolar system, both economically and politically.

My method of analyzing

In the introductory chapter of my forthcoming book, I present the methodical tools which I use to analyze the attempt to build socialism in the past two hundred years.[4] Through the lens of “the global perspective”, the concept of “the principal contradiction” and emphasis on the importance of the development of the forces of production, I draw the following conclusions:

As the capitalist system is global–its accumulation is based on international value transfer, and its political framework is guaranteed by dominating states in the world-system–any attempt to build socialism within a national framework will be under pressure and have a limited possibility of success. This does not mean that such attempts should not be done or that are in vain. They are necessary steps both in the transformation process, as they have an impact on the capitalist world-system, and as learning process in the construction of socialism. However, more advanced forms of socialism cannot be realized as long as capitalism is dominating the world-system.

The use of the concept of “the principal contradiction” as a tool for analyzing, is actually a practical specification of the global perspective. The changing principal contradiction in the world-system has had a huge impact on the attempts to build socialism.

In the first part of the 20th century, the principal contradictions were centered around the question of who was going to succeed the English Empire as the world’s hegemonic power. (Main competitors were US and Germany) It took two world wars and a global economic crisis in between to answer that question. The First World War created a revolutionary situation in Russia leading to the first state trying to build socialism. That process was significantly influenced by Germany’s attempts to be a leading global power by expanding to the East.

In the post-Second World War period, the attempts to build socialism, in the wake of the decolonization process, were determined by the contradiction between the US and the Soviet Bloc and the US and the Third World. However, within a world-system still dominated by capitalism economically, politically, and militarily these attempts were crippled. This dominance of capitalism was reinforced by neoliberal globalization from the late 70’s. In that period, the principal contradiction was between transnational capital’s desire for the free enterprise under the wings of the US as one aspect, and the national states of different observances attempting to control and manage flows of capital, goods, and people as the other aspect. Up until the financial crisi in 2007, the neoliberal aspect was dominant, even dissolving the Soviet block and penetrating deep into the Chinese economy. However, from then, the balance has begun to tip toward nationalism in different political forms. In Russia, in a nationalist capitalist and conservative form. In China, by sliding to the left into socialism with “Chinese characteristics” and “common prosperity”. Countries in Latin Amerika and Africa are also abandoning neoliberal policies.

The third and last of my methodical pillars and tool for analyzing the historical process of the translation from capitalism to socialism is the contradiction between the development of forces of production and the mode of production.

The socialist mode of production is not an ideal utopia – it is a rational and realistic solution to the problems caused by centuries of capitalism. Inequality on the national and global levels creates social problems leading to conflicts, wars, and the destruction of the earth’s ecological balance.

In the last decade, the capitalist mode of production has turned from a dynamic factor leading to the huge development of the productive forces to a system that blocks the solution of global problems and thereby of the continuation of human development on planet Earth.

The continued development of the productive forces demands a socialist mode of production. The task is to develop this mode of production as a realistic, rational praxis of how we manage society. How do we produce, distribute and consume social production to solve global inequality and ecological problems?

Judging by the attempts to develop socialism, I think too much emphasis has been put on the mode of production and too little attention has been given to the need to develop the forces of production in order to develop socialism. In the Global South, developing socialism is not sharing poverty, but erasing poverty by developing productive forces. The current Chinese “market socialism” is not in opposition to the former Maoist economic policy. Mao’s main concern in 1949. was the development of the Chinese productive forces. Both agricultural and industrial production improved rapidly. The aim of the political campaigns, the people’s communes, and the nationalization of means of production was to develop the productive forces and not to implement a socialist mode of production “prematurely”. It took the Maoist era to develop the necessary infrastructure creating the base to become a major player in the global economy. Mao, Deng, and Xi have all repeated that socialism is a long-term project, and it has to be constructed in the dangerous circumstances of a world-system still dominated by capitalism. Hence, the strategy, tactic, and discourse had to be adjusted to the different stages of capitalist development and its changing principal contradictions.

In the “long sixties” (1955-75), hoping for the revolutionary wave in the Third World to succeed, China tried to be the leading ideological force in the world revolution by supporting the revolutionary movements worldwide. In the hay days of neoliberalism–in the nineties–China bent to the pressure of global capitalism like a bamboo branch, but without breaking the power of the party as it happened in the Soviet Union. China used the dynamic power of neoliberalism against itself, first by allowing it to develop China’s productive forces, and then by breaking away from neoliberalism. With this Kung-Fu-tactic, China used capitalism to develop the prerequisites for socialism. Today, as neoliberalism is in crisis and the hegemony of the US is challenged, China promotes the development of a multipolar world-system pragmatically, not to provoke major wars, but to facilitate a peaceful transition towards socialism in the world-system. The Communist Party preserved the sovereignty of China and allowed it to develop through stages, taking into consideration the struggle against imperialism at each stage.

Anti-imperialism: past and present

Anti-imperialism today is not and cannot be the same as in the 60s–history does not repeat itself.

We should not be nostalgic for the national liberations of the sixties. Its strength, its revolutionary spirit, and the success of the anti-colonial national liberation struggle were mainly due to a combination of contradictions in the world-system at the time:

  • The contradiction between the old colonial powers in Europe and the new hegemonic power–the USA.
  • The contradiction between the socialist block coming strong out of the Second World War and the USA.
  • Finally, the Third World on the one side and the USA trying to implement neocolonialism on the other side.

The USA wanted to open up the old European colonial empires for US investment, trade and political influence. The Socialist bloc excluded the USA from one-third of the world-system. The former colonies did not want continued economic exploitation and political domination from the West.

In the first decade after the Second World War, the contradiction between the US, the old European colonial powers and the Socialist bloc was the most important. This made space for the Chinese revolution to succeed. In the long sixties, the contradiction between new states and anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and US neocolonialism became the principal contradiction. This made space for the anti-imperialist struggle to bloom.

The history of the Soviet revolution, the role of the COMINTERN in the 20s and 30s, the role of communist partisans in many countries during the Second World War, and the existence of a strong Socialist Block in the post-war period made it possible for socialists and communists to lead many of the national liberation struggles.

There was a strong desire in the Third World to get out of the grip of the West, as reflected in the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the formation of the Non-Alignment Movement–a broad anticolonial and anti-imperialist alliance, crossing class and political boundaries.

This set of interlinked global contradictions opened up the wave of anti-imperialist liberation struggle with a socialist perspective across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Guerrilla forces were able to confront European and US imperialism and liberate country after country. Algiers, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique Zimbabwe Guinea Bissau, and it seemed that many more victories were possible in the future.

The vision was that the communist liberation movements would take state power and transform the economy in the Third World in direction of socialism: nationalize the productive forces, delink from the imperialist exploitation, and  expand cooperation with other new socialist Third World countries and the Socialist Block. This would cut off the value transfer pipeline of imperialism and create economic and political crises in Europa and North America, which would put the revolutionary class struggle for socialism on the agenda again in this part of the world, paving the way for a global transformation from capitalism to socialism.

This game plan did not come through. It might seem naive today, but you have to see this hope in the light of “the revolutionary spirit of the 60s”, and that of the many liberation movements which at the time had succeeded in liberating their countries. Even the United Nations voted for “New Economic International Order” a concept developed by Non-Aligned Movement as a more just framework for trade that effectively would diminish the unequal exchange. We were not the only ones believing in that scenario – I think the Mao 65-70 believed the same.

Our miscalculation was cursed by much deeper economic and political historical structures. Socialism cannot be constructed in a world-system still dominated by capitalism economically, politically and militarily, which was the case at the time. By “socialism” here, I mean, the socialist ideals are more or less fulfilled: a production system owned by the state, an egalitarian distribution of goods where political priorities are in command and not the consumption and the power of money, a state which is open, democratic, and withering away. This was actually what Lenin and the Bolsheviks aimed at in 1914, (see: Lenin, “The State and Revolution”) and also in 1917, but had to realize it was impossible in 1918 and on.

Up through the 20th century, the socialist forces have been split and not able to transcend each other’s nationalism to form a united economic and political alternative to the dominating capitalist system. The neoliberal economic and political offensive crushed the spirit of the 60s in a decade. Capitalism was not finished yet and it had an ace to play: globalization of industrial production. It had to dig its own grave by industrializing the Global South. It gave capitalism forty golden years of high profit and cheap goods by exploiting the proletariat in the Global South, but it also developed the productive forces, and transferred technology to the Global South, turning it into the factory of the world, thereby creating the economic liberation from the West and possibilities for a transformation to socialism.

We are now seeing the political consequences of this huge change in the international division of labor, created by neoliberal globalization. The decline of US hegemony and the rise of China together with the other BRICS members in the world economy, promoting a multipolar world system.

This new principal contradiction in the world system is also reflected in the proxy war between NATO and Russia on Ukrainian soil.

The positions adopted by countries throughout the Global South with respect to the Ukraine War point to the new divisions that exist today between the Global North and the Global South. It is “the West against the rest”. The world outside the imperialist triad of the United States/Canada, Europe, and Japan, comprising more than 80 percent of the global population, refused to join the West sanctions against Russia. In the United Nations, “the rest” vote, neither to support NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine nor to condemn Russia for its military intervention. Similarly, the Global South opposed the US generating a crisis concerning Taiwan’s position as part of China. We are seeing the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement back as a major player in the world-system.

The US is trying to uphold a unipolar world by “disciplining” EU, Japan and Australia into a “global NATO” structure. EU–Russia economic relations are destroyed. The German capital and that of other EU countries, is very dependent on trade with China. However, the US now pressuring Europe to downgrade its ties to China. We are seeing that US and EU transnational capital are placing imperialist political and military interests over its short-term economic goals–to save US hegemony– and thereby its economic prosperity in a longer perspective.

Besides more than 200 military interventions since 1991, “global NATO” was engaged in major wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and now in Ukraine. The New Cold War against China and Russia is aiming to get a “regime change” in those countries, which opens them up for Western capital to retake the command over the forces of production. This third wave of Western colonialism is now generating a renewed thrust of an anti-imperialist Non-Aligned Movement in the Global South.

Like in the sixties this new constellation of major contradictions in the world-system between the West trying to uphold its century of hegemony and the “rest” meaning the Global South, can create space for movements struggling for socialism, and much better opportunities for nations trying to implement socialist policies. The development of the productive forces in the Global South in the past decades has placed them in a much better position to move towards socialism than in the sixties. Compared to the Soviet Union in the sixties, China is much stronger both economically and politically. BRICS has united the largest Global South economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa to develop an alternative to the US dollar-dominated neoliberal economic system. Many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are supporting this agenda. We are seeing alternative finance and trading patterns developing that may give the Third World the possibility to accomplice the economic transformation it could not make in the seventies.

Imperialism is crumbling. The ruling elite has calculated that the US cannot compete with China economy-wise, making its rise an existential threat to the future of US-led imperialism. This made the US shift the strategy from economic competition to geopolitical territorial rivalry. However, in this process of economic warfare using boycotts, blockades, economic punishment packets and turning to cold and hot wars, the financial, trade, and political transnational institutions built under neoliberalism are eroding. The globalized world market of neoliberalism is split apart. The US is killing the golden goose, which had laid golden eggs in the past decades. The position of the dollar as a world currency is under pressure. China has a grip on US debt through its position of huge amounts of US bonds. In addition, the raising wages in China are coursing a decline in unequal exchange, which is damaging imperialism. The imperialist motor coughs.

The situation has some similarities with the long sixties when the balance between the US and the Socialist Block led by the Soviet Union, opened up for liberation movements and decolonization with a socialist perspective. However, at the time Western capitalism was still virile. It was superior in technological terms, it was leading in industrial production and it ruled the world market. The liberation movements wanted to continue the national liberation into an economic liberation from imperialism. However, the Socialist Block at the time did not have the technological and economic strength to support such a change. The Third World was not able to cut the pipelines of imperialism. Instead, US imperialism wriggled free of the anti-imperialist offensive and launched neoliberal globalization as a counterattack, which gave it forty golden years under US hegemony.

The situation is quite different today. The US is no longer the driving force in the development of the productive forces on a global scale. They do not have a monopoly on high-tech development and they do not dominate global trade. While the Socialist Block already was in a political and economic downturn in the 70s, China has a tailwind. It is the leading industrial producer and the biggest actor in the world market. It is the head force behind the effort to establish a multipolar world-system. Its “Belt and Road project” aims to change the pattern of world trade from the century-old North-South structure to South-South and West the East, while also moving away from a dollar-based financial monetary system.

The relationship between USA and Soviet Union in the First Cold war is very different from the relationship between USA and China in the current Cold war. There, was hardly any economic relationship between the Soviet Union and the US. In contrast, China has a trading volume with the United States of $2-3 billion per day. A similar pattern is repeated between the EU and China. While the West can live without Russia, they are dependent on China.

On the surface, the ideological struggle of the “second Cold War” between China and the US is very different from the first Cold War. The US is not talking about the struggle against communism but democracy versus authoritarianism and China is not talking about the socialist world revolution but the establishment of a multipolar world system.

In the sixties, China had an explicitly anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and pro-Communist foreign policy. It supported revolutionary movements in many countries. Currently, Chinese foreign policy is pragmatic and has an emphasis of “non-interference” in other states’ internal affairs. China aims at calm international relations in which it can build socialism in continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy” for China: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time”. China has its reasons for not fighting the US ideologically: it wants to build socialism with “Chinese characteristics” in a calm international atmosphere. It does not longer want to lead the world revolution as in the sixties. Instead, other states should develop socialism in accordance with their national characteristics. However, this development is still a threat to the accumulation of global monopoly capital.

The new confrontation between “the West and the rest” is indeed an anti-imperialist struggle, even though the ideological struggle is turned down. In the sixties, it was the old European colonial powers and US versus the Third World. Today it is the same imperialist powers against the Global South.

The decline of US hegemony and the rise of China as a driver for a more multipolar world system can lead to a geopolitical balance, in which social movements and nations in the Global South can move in the direction of socialism and thereby a more peaceful world and a genuine possibility to solve the ecologic problems of the planet.

Strategic implications for the left

When you develop strategies, you have to identify the principal contradiction on the global level, because it has a huge impact on the outcome of local contradictions. The principal contradictions for the time being are between the US defending its hegemony and China as a driver for a more multipolar world-system. It is not a simple imperialist rivalry. You cannot take a neutral position or fight against both aspects like a perplexed fly battering against the window.

A continued US hegemony through increased violence will lead to barbarism and ecological disaster. A multi-polar world system can lead to a geopolitical balance, in which social movements and nations in the Global South can move in the direction of socialism. The states in the Global South are a mixture of progressive and reactionary regimes, but they have one thing in common, they do not want to be ruled by the West, as in the past two hundred years and they do not want a new form of imperialism based on violent forms of suppression. In each of these states, class struggle determines the direction of development – nationalist capitalism or a transition towards socialism. It is important to support the socialist movements and states in the Global South political and material, but also to do what we can to contribute to the decline of US hegemony on the global level, as it is a precondition for progress of the out struggle.

Torkil Lauesen 10.3.2023.

  1. The text presents some thoughts from my forthcoming book on the transition from capitalism to socialism.
  2. Losurdo, Domenico (2016) Class Struggle. A Political and Philosophical History. 242-243. Palgrave Macmillan. New York 2016.
  3. Foster, John Bellamy (2022) Ecology and the Future of History. Monthly Review. Vol 74. No. 3.
  4. I have also presented them here:

Torkil Lauesen
In the 1970s and 80s, Torkil Lauesen was a member of a clandestine communist cell which carried out a series of robberies in Denmark, netting very large sums which were then sent on to various national liberation movements in the Third World. Following their capture in 1989, Torkil would spend six years in prison. In 2016, Lauesen’s book Det Globale Perspektiv was released in Denmark. In it, he explains how he sees the world political situation today, and his thoughts about the future.

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