Discuss: Marxism (CKDU Radio show)

Discuss. Marxism.

When the young Marx was writing of spectres haunting Europe he might not have imagined his ideas hanging around for so long.

Nonetheless, Marx’s revolutionary ideas persist today, thanks in no small part to Soviet dogma and Western academic obsession. But is there any practical relevance to Marxism anymore? What can this revolutionary doctrine offer to today’s students, politicians, and activists?

This week, we’ve invited two guests from the Platypus Affiliated Society, an organization devoted to the contemporary uses of Marxist theory, to try and answer that question. President and co-founder Chris Cutrone and Halifax Citywide Coordinator Quentin Cyr join host John Last to discuss Marxism after Marx, the state of the Left today, and why the ’60s might not have been so groovy after all.

Discuss. Marxism.

Discuss is a coproduction of Dalhousie University Halifax CKDU Radio and The Watch Magazine.
– See more at: http://watchmagazine.ca/2015/02/discuss-marxism/

Audio at: https://archive.org/details/lastjohn_marxismcutronecyr_discussepisode15_021715

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

Articles by month

Article dates

March 2015
S M T W T F S
« Feb    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Review of Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis (2014)

Review of Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School (London and New York: Verso, 2014)

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books (February 14, 2015).

“The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.”
— Walter Benjamin, “To the planetarium,” One-way Street (1928)

Andrew Feenberg’s new book The Philosophy of Praxis is a substantial revision of a much earlier work, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981). If one were to sum up Feenberg’s main point it would be to recover Marxist Critical Theory’s ability to recognize technology as a social relation, and to thus grasp the crisis of capitalism expressed through the crisis of technology. Feenberg arrives at this recognition of Marxism through an investigation of critical theory as the self-reflection of social and political practice, “praxis,” with its roots in the origins of social theory in Rousseau and the German Idealism of Kant and Hegel that had followed upon Rousseau’s breakthrough. The sources of Critical Theory are thus critical theory’s origins in the critique of society. Society, indeed, is a modern invention, in that only modern society recognizes social relations as such, as part of the emancipation of those social relations. The new, modern concept of freedom beginning with Rousseau — Hegel had written that “the principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite” (The Philosophy of Right) — originated in the revolution of bourgeois society: a new consciousness of social relations came with the experience of their radical transformation. As Adorno, one of the subjects of Feenberg’s book, put it pithily, “Society is a concept of the Third Estate” (“Society,” 1966).

Technology as a social phenomenon, specifically as a phenomenon of social relations, or, technology as a social relation, is Feenberg’s way into political questions of capitalism. His new title for the revised book takes its name from Gramsci’s term for and description of Marxism (in The Prison Notebooks), the “philosophy of praxis,” which Gramsci took over from Croce’s Neo-Hegelian concept of self-reflective practice. The question for politics, then, is the degree of social reflexivity in the recognition of technology. In this, Feenberg follows from Marcuse’s writings from the 1960s, which were concerned with the post-WWII world’s exhibiting what Horkheimer and Adorno had earlier called the “veil of technology,” or, “technology as ideology.” There was a deliberate attempt to overcome the prevailing Heideggerian critique of technology, in which humans became victims of the tools they had fashioned. As Heidegger succinctly phrased it in a barb directed against Marxism, “The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (“Overcoming Metaphysics,” 1936–46). Feenberg asks, what would it mean to overcome this reification of technology? And, what would it mean to overcome the political pessimism that the problem of technology seems to pose in capitalism?

The “philosophy of praxis,” then, is Feenberg’s attempt to recognize technology as self-alienated social practice, or to use Lukács’s term, “reified” action that engenders political irresponsibility, the false naturalization or hypostatization of activity that could be changed. Feenberg traces this problem back to the origins of social theory in Rousseau’s critique of civilization, the inherently ambivalent character of social “progress” in history. Feenberg locates in Rousseau what he calls the origins of the “deontological” approach to society: a new conception of freedom which is not merely a “right” but is indeed a “duty.” What Feenberg calls the “deontological grounds for revolution” in Marx, then, is the Rousseauian tradition that Marx inherited from Kant and Hegel, if however in a “metacritical approach.”

Why “metacritical?” Because in the Rousseauian tradition followed by Kant and Hegel, there remains the possibility of a theoretical affirmation and justification of society as being free already, where it would need to become free through radical transformation. Hence the peculiarity of “critical theory” in Marx. According to Feenberg, it was necessary for Marx to transcend the post-Rousseauian “utilitarian” framework of maximizing happiness through addressing “true needs.” For Feenberg, Marx overcomes the “split between reason and need,” or between freedom and necessity, precisely because freedom is understood by Marx as the transformation of necessity. Marx thus followed upon the most radical implications of Rousseauian recognition of “second nature.”

This bears on the centrality of the problem of “technology” in capitalist utilitarianism, which is subject to a precipitous lowering or narrowing of horizons through concern with needs that are falsely naturalized: what is “second nature,” a social product, is mistaken for “first nature,” or what Marx considered a “false necessity.” Such critique of ideology is how Marx overcame the potential conservative implications of how Kant and Hegel regarded “necessary forms of appearance” of social reality. Social practices such as those reified in “technology” seem responsive to necessities that can actually be transformed.

For Feenberg, there is a recurrent problem of neglect but also a red thread of rediscovery of this problem from Marx up to the present, with Lukács and the Frankfurt School providing key moments for recovery along the way.

This is a problem specific to capitalism precisely because of the centrality of labor. Marxism’s point of departure was to regard capital not as a “thing” in terms of the means of production or as “technology” but rather as a social relation, specifically as a social relation of the commodity form of labor. Marx regarded capital as labor’s own product in order to demystify the capitalist estrangement of social relations in technologized production. What Marx called the “capitalist mode of production” was a “contradiction” between the “bourgeois social relations” of production in labor and their unrealized potential beyond themselves, or “industrial forces” that had yet to be mastered socially — that is, politically.

The danger lay in accepting false limits to politics seemingly imposed by technology which poses “nature” as static where it is actually the existing social relations that are recalcitrant obstacles to be overcome.

However, capitalism is not only a problem of false static appearance, but also a “reified” or self-alienated dynamic, in which concrete practices or “technologies” change, but without adequate social-political awareness and agency. This is why the dynamics of technical change and its invidious social effects appear deus ex machina (literally a theodicy for Heidegger; techne as a god), and why it makes sense at all to characterize the problem in Marx’s terms as capital-ism. It is not a problem of “capitalist-ism,” that is, a problem of society subject to the greed and narrow interests of the capitalists, but rather a deeper and more endemic problem of overall participation in social practice.

This brings us back to the original Rousseauian problem of society and political sovereignty: the unlimited, free development both collectively and individually that Rousseau apotheosized in the “general will.” What does it mean, following Marx, that the “general will” appears in the form of “capital,” and, in the 20th century, in the even more alienated form as the imperative of “technology?” It means that the problem of capitalism deepened, and social freedom became even more obscure.

Feenberg provides an important Appendix to his book that addresses the history of Marxism as a phenomenon of this problem. There, Feenberg discusses the issue of Lukács’s “self-identical subject object” of the proletariat in the form of the Communist Party. For Feenberg, Lukács followed both Luxemburg and Lenin’s approaches to the problem of political party and social change. In Feenberg’s formulation, for Lukács, following Lenin and Luxemburg, the political party for proletarian socialism, or the Communist Party, was not only or even especially the “subject” but was at least as if not more importantly the “object” of the working class’s political action in trying to overcome capitalism.

In this sense, the problem of “reification” was not merely an economic or even “political-economic” problem (in the sense of the workers versus the capitalists), but was indeed first and foremost for Lukács a problem of politics. The party was objectified political practice. The question was its critical recognition as such. What had motivated Lukács’s recovery of Marx’s original point of departure, what Feenberg calls the “deontological grounds for revolution,” was precisely the phenomenon of how Marxism itself had become reified and thus went into political crisis by the time of WWI and the revolution — the civil war in Marxism — that had followed in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, etc. It was Lukács’s attempt to explain the underlying problem of that crisis in which Luxemburg and Lenin had been the protagonists that led to his rediscovery of Marx, specifically in the form of the “subjective,” “conscious” or “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism that had fallen out as Marxism had degenerated or become “vulgarized” as a form of objectivistic economic determinism. The crisis of Marxism had led Lukács following Lenin and Luxemburg to a rediscovery of the potential for freedom concealed in capitalism.

The subsequent reification of Marxist politics in Stalinism presented a new problem that the Frankfurt School following Lukács had tried to address. This was paralleled by others, according to Feenberg, such as Merleau-Ponty and Lucien Goldmann. There were problems and some stumbles along the way, however, as Feenberg addresses in discussing the recently translated and published (2011) conversation in 1956 between Horkheimer and Adorno regarding the crisis of official Communism in Khrushchev’s (partial and abortive) attempt at de-Stalinization, which Feenberg finds them to have failed to adequately pursue, an opening only taken up by the 1960s New Left, encouraged not by Adorno and Horkheimer but rather by Marcuse (167–171).

Thus the New Left was another such moment of recovery for Feenberg, motivating an attempted further development of Marxist Critical Theory under changed historical conditions of society and politics. Feenberg’s book, both in its original and its newly revised form, is an ongoing testament to that moment and its continued tasks up to the present. | §

Bernsteinian

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1045 (February 12, 2015). [PDF]

I would not call Mike Macnair’s historiography “garbage”, as he labels mine (Letters, January 29), because it is as good as far as it goes. I would only raise what Macnair leaves out, which I would not oppose to Macnair’s perspective, but seek only to add to it. Perhaps it complicates it, but it does not necessarily “contradict” it. I have tried to find what is useful in Macnair’s observations. He only dismisses mine. Fine, then: opposition it is. Non-dialectically and polemically.

If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I derive my approach from Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet Reform or revolution? and related writings, and that I accept Luxemburg’s claim to be following Marx contra Bernsteinian revisionism and, later, contra Kautsky. As Michael Harrington quoted Luxemburg in his essay on ‘Marxism and democracy’ (1981):

“Marx proved that each political movement of a social class has a specific, economic basis. And he showed that all previous classes in history had achieved economic power before they succeeded in winning political power. This is the model which David, Woltmann and Bernstein apply slavishly to contemporary social relations. And it demonstrates that they have not understood either the earlier struggles or those taking place today. What does it mean that the earlier classes, particularly the third estate, conquered economic power before political power? Nothing more than the historical fact that all previous class struggles must be derived from the economic fact that the rising class has at the same time created a new form of property, upon which it will base its class domination. . . .
“Now I ask, can this model be applied to our relationships? No. Precisely because to chatter about the economic might of the proletariat is to ignore the great difference between our class struggle and all those which went before. The assertion that the proletariat, in contrast to all previous class struggles, pursues its battles not in order to establish class domination, but to abolish all class domination. It is not a mere phrase. . . . It is an illusion, then, to think that the proletariat can create economic power within capitalist society. It can only create political power and then transform (aufheben) capitalist property.”

If Macnair were to be honest, he would have to admit that he not merely disagrees with Luxemburg, but indeed agrees with Bernstein – and not Marx. Macnair has no use for Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution, such as The class struggles in France 1848-50, the ‘Address to the central committee of the Communist League’, and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, nor for much of Marx’s and Engels’ Communist manifesto or Marx’s later political writings, such as The civil war in France and Critique of the Gotha programme, on which Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky based their perspectives. But the 1848-50 writings were dismissed by Kautsky as those of Marx and Engels “before they turned 30”, on the basis of which Kautsky said sneeringly that the “communist theoreticians” like Lukács produced a “series of absurdities” in a “childish game” (‘A destroyer of vulgar Marxism’, 1924). This is what Macnair accuses me of doing. It is consistent with Macnair’s approach, which Luxemburg called the revisionist “opportunist method.”

Macnair adopts the Bernsteinian revisionist method of the supposed linear-progressive development of “evolutionary socialism”, in which the “movement is everything and the goal nothing” because the movement absorbs the goal, and thus Macnair like Bernstein identifies the goal with the movement rather than recognising, as Marxists did, the real contradictions that emerge between means and ends, practice and theory, and social being and consciousness in capitalism. This demands a dialectical approach to the struggle for socialism that Macnair dismisses, as Bernstein and Kautsky did, substituting apologetics for Marxian critical theory. For Macnair, the struggle for democracy in the workers’ collective movement is a direct political line to socialism, understood as democratic republicanism in society. Anything else – anything contradictory – is understood merely as an error based on the purported competing principle of bourgeois individualism. Macnair thus identifies socialism with democracy.

For Luxemburg, such an affirmative and not critical approach to bourgeois social and political relations in capitalism was understandable, if not forgivable, for Bernstein et al in a period of rising proletarian socialist organisation and consciousness. But that can hardly be said of Macnair’s perspective today. What Macnair leaves out and seeks to repress about the history of Marxism is more important than what he says about it. He thus conceals more than he reveals.

Macnair is not a Marxist, but, like Bernstein and Kautsky before him, an ideologist for democracy. Such ideology showed its limits in 1848: hence the need for Marxism, which was not opposed to democracy, but recognised the need in socialism to go beyond it. | §

Concrete issues

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1042 (January 22, 2015). [PDF]

Not Weberian

Mike Macnair’s January 15 letter comes closer than his December 18 article to the concrete issues with which I have been concerned in my writings on democratic revolution, the contradiction of capital, and the issue of political party for the Left. It’s evidently possible that I have written on these issues poorly or at least unclearly. But that does not mean that I should be saddled with conventional misreadings of the Frankfurt School or Lukács. I wrote my PhD dissertation on “Adorno’s Marxism” and addressed there the prevalent and glaring misinterpretation of Adorno that neglected or misunderstood his Marxism. But I am not a historian and so I approach the issue at the textual level of theoretical “ideas” rather than tell a story of influences and development. If Adorno had a critique of Lukács, it was not against Lukács’s own (Marxist) critique of Weber, with which Adorno agreed. — So, no “Weberian Marxism” there. Lukács and Adorno disagreed with Weber that capitalism was aporetic theodicy, a wrong turn and dead end beginning with the Protestant Reformation and its “work ethic,” but followed Marx in considering capitalism as constrained revolution become self-contradictory, which is different. For Lukács and Adorno, Weber was counterrevolutionary. Was Weber a “bourgeois liberal?” Certainly not in the sense of Benjamin Franklin. For Weber, capitalism would continue “until the last ton of fossil fuel is burned up.” Not so for Lukács and Adorno, who continued to regard capitalism as “dialectical” and subject to change and not one-dimensional. I’ve tried to lay out the political categories for this.

Police state

I agree with Macnair that the difference between Hegel and Marx is “concrete,” but not in terms of “method” but what changed historically between Hegel and Marx’s time. This change was “capitalism,” meaning, for Marx, the Industrial Revolution. Regarding my use of categories in the “Marxist” rather than “colloquial” sense, this doesn’t mean that Marx et al. never used terms colloquially. But they did use them in specific and, to those unfamiliar, peculiar ways. One such category is “the state,” which Lenin, following Marx, defined strictly as “special bodies of armed men.” This does not mean the legislature, judiciary or even the government bureaucracy. The “state” for Marxists is not the “rule of law.” It is the “special bodies of armed men.” Prior to the failed revolution and Bonapartist resolution of 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx had characterized the state as the “committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” But after 1848 the essence of the state was revealed to be rather the “special bodies of armed men.”

One concrete issue that demonstrates this specifically Marxist sense of “the state” is the new rise of police forces in the early 19th century, and not previously. This was meant to be according to the liberal “Peelian Principles” that however have never been realized but only violated. It is not a coincidence that the police arose during the Industrial Revolution, nor that they have always betrayed their original liberal principles. This goes to the issue of “Bonapartism,” in the Marxist and not colloquial sense. Specifically, about Louis Bonaparte or “Napoleon III,” not Napoleon Bonaparte the First, and hence about 1848 and its aftermath, not the Great French Revolution: Louis Bonaparte’s gang of criminals became the perfect police force for the capitalist state in the 19th century. Marx asked why, politically.

Trotsky called the USSR under the Stalinized Communist Party, not “totalitarian,” but a “police state,” and a “criminal” one at that — criminal against the revolution. This wasn’t an accident but of necessity. Trotsky wrote that where there is a line for bread there must be police to maintain order. The “police” in question was the Party’s own Central Control Commission under Stalin. The Party itself was the primary object of repression in the USSR as a “police state.” However, if the USSR is not regarded as a “police state,” then perhaps a Gulag — a prison? Foucault wrote, in Discipline and Punish (1975), of how from its original inception in the early 19th century the prison has violated its intended principle of labor rehabilitation, and that in its “austere institution” one could nevertheless still hear the “distant roar of battle” — of the Revolution of 1848 and its failure. For Foucault, the prison is the parodic “farce” of the “tragedy” of industrial labor: it was punitive “discipline” for its own sake — and not Franklin’s or even Jeremy Bentham’s ideal. Furthermore, for Foucault in this “carceral” society starting in the 19th century, “power” leads to either “politics or prison.” The police state and its prisons are “Bonapartist” in Marx’s sense: counterrevolutionary, undemocratic, and illiberal; politically repressive. It is a nihilistic travesty of bourgeois society. It is a symptom specific to capitalism — to the 19th century — and the failure to transition from the Industrial Revolution to socialism in the crisis of the 1840s.

1848 crisis

Regarding the failure of 1848, Marx wrote, in The Class Struggles in France 1848-50, that,

Just as the period of crisis began later [elsewhere] than in England, so also did prosperity. The process originated in England, which is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. [Elsewhere] the various phases of the cycle repeatedly experienced by bourgeois society assume a secondary and tertiary form. . . . Violent outbreaks naturally erupt sooner at the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, because in the latter the possibilities of accommodation are greater than in the former. On the other hand, the degree to which revolutions [elsewhere] affect England is at the same time the [barometer] that indicates to what extent these revolutions really put into question bourgeois life conditions, and to what extent they touch only their political formations. On this all the reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development will rebound just as much as will all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.

I think that this grasps recent history very well, with regard for instance to the Wall Street crash and resulting Arab Spring and Occupy. Marx does not serve merely as a description of the crisis of the “hungry 1840s” and the resulting Revolution of 1848, but of the historical trajectory of bourgeois society in capitalism more generally — “world historically.” What this means is that bourgeois-democratic revolution in the “extremities” will fail the degree to which it does not “put into question bourgeois life conditions” in the “heart” but “touch only their political formations.” This will be to “all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.” This was Marx’s estimation of the necessary “revolution in permanence” revealed by 1848. The bourgeois revolution was not finished but in crisis in capitalism. Marx was Marx because of his formative historical moment, the 1840s, which remains with us: Marx’s critique of 1848’s failed democratic republicanism still tasks us.

Still revolutionary

To return to my primary thesis to which Macnair has not yet responded, the question of revolutionary politics and capitalism, Rosa Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution (1900), pointed out that the state in the bourgeois epoch was the product of revolution, and continued to be informed in its action by the energy of that revolutionary origin. This was true in capitalism as well, and so affected politics. Even Luxemburg’s Wilhelmine Prussian Empire was the product of revolution — of 1789 if not 1848. In 1806, Hegel had regarded Napoleon’s “history on horseback” in liberated Jena and popped a champagne cork to celebrate. The most important political party of Wilhelmine Prussia was the SPD, which was the only legitimate political inheritor of the revolutionary energy of 1789 and the new, continued tasks of 1848.

If the Hegelian dialectic had become for Marx “ideological” by the mid-19th century then this was due to capitalism, and not a “thought error” by Hegel. What was once a bourgeois dialectic of freedom had become falsified in capitalism as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Marx indicated as early as the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts that he was concerned with how the original bourgeois-revolutionary categories had been betrayed in capitalism — that is, since the Industrial Revolution — and that he was proceeding to critique such bourgeois categories “immanently.” The problem with Hegel as with all bourgeois-revolutionary thought was that it became merely formal or “abstract” as a description of the concretely changed society of capitalism, which was thus a crisis of bourgeois society and its categories of self-understanding. Such categories had come to merely describe and hence affirm, and so were no longer critical, revolutionary insights into the potential emancipatory transformation of society.

No anachronism

The problem with retrospective and hence anachronistic critiques of Hegel et al. is that they neglect precisely this concrete historical change in capitalism. Capitalism is a concrete issue that Hegel’s as all revolutionary bourgeois dialectical categories could not adequately grasp in their self-contradiction in capitalism. This was true in practice and not merely in theory. So what was once a productive dialectic of freedom between the individual and the collective in society, or between liberty and equality or justice, for Locke and Rousseau and their revolutionary followers such as Smith and Kant in the 18th century, became instead a destructive antinomy of unfreedom and crisis in 19th century capitalism. Such self-contradiction indicated for Marx and his followers a potential change originating from within bourgeois society, not outside it: still the bourgeois revolution’s struggle for liberal democracy, but in self-contradiction. This contradiction was for Marx expressed not only by communism but in capitalist politics as well. Today’s advanced capitalist countries are ruled by a police state that calls itself liberal and democratic, and indeed still regards itself as revolutionary — at least in the U.S. For Marx and for later Marxists this contradiction of the bourgeois revolution arose also within the working class’s own political parties. I think this is still so, necessarily and not accidentally, remaining to be worked through. Marx’s dialectic goes beyond Hegel’s because capitalism goes potentially beyond bourgeois society. | §

Ruminations

Chris Cutrone

Originally published as a letter in Weekly Worker 1040 (January 8, 2015). [PDF]

Mike Macnair mounts an unfortunate attack on my recent articles on Marxism and political party in capitalism (“Fantasy history, fantasy Marx,” Weekly Worker 1039, December 18, 2014). This leads Macnair to draw conclusions from my writings that are the precise opposite of what I think.

I think that any socialist revolution will necessarily be a democratic revolution and so subject to bourgeois social relations and the crisis and contradiction of them in capitalism; and that the problem of political party was recognised by Marxism as expressing a new need evident after the industrial revolution and the crisis of liberal politics – a crisis in civil society expressed by the metastatic state. It was capitalism that caused Marx to critique liberalism for its evident inadequacy in the face of new problems. But Marx’s critique of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was pursued by the immanent dialectical critique of liberalism, which Marx found socialism to follow. Dick Howard is not mistaken to draw the continuity between the young and mature Marx.

I use terms in their strict Marxist sense, which can be quite peculiar, rather than colloquially. Macnair thinks that finding coherence both within and among the thinking of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, among others, is either “fantasy” or “myth-making”. But Macnair disagrees with historical Marxists, or agrees with them only selectively, leaving him free to subordinate their main theses to relatively minor points. Macnair takes the same approach to my writing, making the error converse to cherry-picking, nit-picking: picking apart arguments, and thus losing the forest for the trees. But a whole cloth do not nits make.

Macnair’s anti-liberalism is striking. In denying what is new in modern, bourgeois society, Macnair doubts that free social relations could ever replace rule of force. Bourgeois society’s liberalism was not only ideology, but also promise. If ideology eclipses promise in capitalism, the task is to find the socialist promise in capitalist ideology. It is not discontinuous with the liberal promise of bourgeois society. Otherwise, we are left with what Kant called mere “civilisation”, which is barbaric. It was bourgeois civil society that meant to transcend the rule of law – to transcend the state as such. Socialism, too, wants this. As I pointed out in my article, Macnair elides the difference Marxists recognised between the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism: democratic republicanism as a necessary means and not a desirable end to emancipation.

It goes back to 1848 and its ideology. Bonapartism was for Marx characteristic of the entire revolutionary cycle of 1848 in France, in which Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, as the first elected president of the Second Republic (1848-52), and then, after his coup d’état, as emperor of the Second Empire (1852-70), could not be characterised as expressing the interest of some non-bourgeois class (the ‘peasants’, whom Marx insisted on calling, pointedly, “petit bourgeois”), but rather of all the classes of bourgeois society, including the “lumpenproletariat”, in crisis by the mid-19th century.

Furthermore, Bonaparte’s Second Empire was an international phenomenon, receiving support from British capital. When he took power, Bismarck announced: “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.” Marx wrote of Bonaparte’s coup: “Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’ … Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned … in the name of property, of family … and of order … Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms … the ‘saviour of society’.”

This is what, according to Marxism, has repeated since 1848. Trotsky was repeating Marx word for word when he called Stalin an “outstanding mediocrity” – what allowed Stalin like Bonaparte to succeed. This expressed politically the greater failure of the “general intellect” of society, its crisis in capitalism.

Liberalism is not merely a mistake facilitated or trap abetted by “material class interests” of elites; socialism is not proletarian collectivism, as against the alleged individualism of property. Bourgeois society has been, and so socialism will be, an intrinsic relation – a “dialectic” – of the individual and the collective, not some balance between the two. As opposed to Hobbes, Locke, with his profound influence on Rousseau, formed the basis not only for Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel and hence for Marx’s own thought, but indeed for American and French revolutionaries (among others) in the 18th century. Bourgeois society has not been mere market relations, but those of labour, as “first property”, according to Locke and those who followed him, such as the Abbé Sieyès, in the revolt of the Third Estate.

And labour is a social relation. Modern democracy is based on the social relations of commodity production, including politically. The question is what becomes of this in capitalism, and how the latter marks a potential qualitative change in history.

The dialectical crisis and contradiction of liberalism and socialism means that they are inextricable from each other: socialism must, according to Marxist Hegelianism, be the Aufhebung (sublation) of – must realise, as well as overcome, complete as well as transcend – liberalism in modern democracy. Marx thought that this was a new problem of the 19th century that made it impossible to proceed according to either the Jacobinism of the French Revolution, the liberalism of the UK’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 or the July Revolution of 1830. Something new was revealed in the crisis of the 1840s, leading to 1848 – and to its failure.

When Macnair recommends Chartism as model, he acknowledges that we still live in that failure. What Macnair doesn’t recognise, however, is how Marx and later Marxists tried to diagnose as well as work through the problem of political party, which went beyond Chartism.

Regarding the purpose of my arguments, this may indeed be pursuit of “self-knowledge” in “small-e enlightenment”. Marxism historically may have been right or wrong, but it can yet be food for thought. I apologise if my ruminations appear obscure. | §

Postscript on party politics

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Coda to “What is political party for Marxism? Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital: On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (2008),” The Platypus Review 71 (November 2014). Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).

The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognized that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events:” “Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists.”

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business — kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

But, as Lenin had written in What is to be Done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October Revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it.”

Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its “Conscious” factor — a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor — on the existing basis of productive forces — in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.

So, what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labor unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form — as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out, in The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), about Lukács’s account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and Class Consciousness and related writings — the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also, and perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international Communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism — as well as FDR New Deal-ism — as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the Left as a political force is signaled by its shying away from and anathematizing the political party for social transformation — revolution — not only in anarchism and “Left communist” notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognized, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, warns of the “anti-political” crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state, all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognized in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support — for instance by what Marx called the “lumpenproletariat,” an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary “class consciousness” of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the “antithesis” of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause but was an effect of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 72 (December 2014 – January 2015).

Dangerous

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014). [PDF]

I would like to respond to the letter (‘Off-piste’, October 23) regarding my article on ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ (October 16), critiquing Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (2008), and specify the issue of the proletariat as alleged “passive victim of history”. The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognised that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events”: “… whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists”. But, as Lenin had written in What is to be done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development, but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class, but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it”. So what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labour unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies, including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form – as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out in The philosophy of praxis (2014), about Lukács’ account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and class consciousness and related writings – the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also and, perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg, as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the left as a political force is signalled by its shying away from and anathematising the political party for social transformation – revolution – not only in anarchism and left communist notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognised, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, means, when he warns of the ‘anti-political’ crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state – all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognised in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support – for instance by what Marx called the ‘lumpenproletariat’; an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary ‘class-consciousness’ of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the antithesis of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic, but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause, but was an effect, of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

What is political party for Marxism?

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (London: November Publications, 2008)

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.

Macnair’s initial motivation was engagement with the debates in and around the French Fourth International Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire prior to its forming the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste electoral party in 2009. The other major context for the discussion was the Iraq anti-war movement and the U.K. Respect electoral party, which was formed around this in 2004, with the Socialist Workers Party driving the process. This raised issues not only of political party, democracy and the state, but also united fronts among socially and politically heterogeneous groups and the issue of imperialism. One key contribution by Macnair to the latter discussion is to raise and call attention to the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s writings on imperialism, in which the former attributed the failure of (metropolitan) workers’ organization around imperialism to a specifically political compromise with the (national) state, whereas Lenin had, in his famous 1916 pamphlet, characterized this in terms of compromised “economic” interest. So with imperialism the question is the political party and the state.

Macnair observes that there are at least two principal phases of the party question: from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and beginning in the middle of the 19th century. He relates these phases to the development of the problem of the state. He offers that constitutional government involves the development of the “party state” and that revolutionary politics takes its leave of such a “party state” (which includes multiple parties all supporting the constitutional regime). Furthermore, Macnair locates this problem properly as one of the nation-state within the greater economic and political system of capitalism. By conflating the issue of government with “rule of law,” however, Macnair mistakes the contradiction of the modern state and its politics in capitalism.

Elsewhere, Macnair has criticized sectarian “Marxism” for “theoretical overkill” in a “philosophy trap.” But he might thus mistake effect for cause: “philosophical” questions might be the expression of a trap in which one is nonetheless caught; and Marxist “theory” might go beyond today’s practical political concerns. Philosophy may not be the trap in which we are caught but rather an expression of our attempts—merely—to think our way out of it. The mismatch of Marxism today at the level of “theoretical” or “philosophical” issues might point to a historical disparity or inadequacy: we may have fallen below past thresholds and horizons of Marxism. The issue of political party may be one that we would need to re-attain rather than immediately confront in the present. Hence, “strategy” in terms of Marxism may not be the political issue now that it once was. This means that where past Marxists might appear to be in error it may actually be our fault, or, a fault in the present situation. How can the history of Marxism help us address this?

New politics

The key to this issue can be found in Macnair’s own distinction of the new phenomenon of party politics in the late 19th century, after the revolutions of 1848 and in the era of what Marx called “Bonapartism,” the pattern set by Louis Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III in the French Second Empire, with its emulation by Bismarck in the Prussian Empire, as well as Disraeli’s Tories in the U.K., among other examples. While Macnair finds some precedent for this in the 18th century U.K. and its political crises as well as in the course of the Great French Revolution 1789-1815 especially regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, the difference of the late 19th century party-politics from prior historical precedence is important to specify. For Macnair it is the world system of capitalism and its undermining of democracy.

It is important to recall Marx’s formulation, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that (neo-)Bonapartism was the historical condition in which the bourgeoisie could “no longer” and the proletariat “not yet” rule politically the modern society of capitalism. Bonapartism was the symptom of this crisis of capitalism and hence of the need for socialism revealed by the unprecedented failure of revolution in 1848—by contrast with 1830 as well as 1789 and 1776 and the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War of the 17th century. The bourgeoisie’s “ruling” character was not a legal-constitutional system of government descended from the 17th century political and social revolutions in Holland and England so much as it was a form of civil society, a revolutionary system of bourgeois social relations that was supposed to subordinate the state. What requires explanation is the 19th century slipping of the state from adequate social control, and its “rising above” the contending political groups and social classes, as a power in itself. Even if Bonapartism in Marx’s late 19th century sense was the expression of a potential inherent in the forms of bourgeois politics emerging much earlier, there is still the question of why it was not realized so until after 1848. There is also the matter of why Marx characterized Louis Napoleon as a “lesser” and “farcical” phenomenon of post-1848 history by contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the Great Revolution. It was not the mere fact of repetition, but why and how history “repeated itself,” and repeated with a difference.

This was according to Marx the essential condition for politics after 1848, the condition for political parties in capitalism. That condition was not only or primarily a matter of politics due to constitutional legal forms of bourgeois property and its social relations, but rather was for Marx the expression of the crisis of those forms as a function of the Industrial Revolution. There was for Marx an important contradiction between the democratic revolution and the proletarianization of society in capitalism.

Macnair addresses this by specifying the “proletariat” as all those in society “dependent on the total wage fund”—as opposed to those (presumably) dependent upon “capital.” This is clearly not a matter of economics, because distinguishing between those depending on wages as opposed to capital is a political matter of differentiation: all the intermediate strata depending on both the wage fund and capital would need to be compelled to take sides in any political dispute between the prerogatives of wages versus capital. Macnair addresses this through the struggle for democracy. But this does not pursue the contradiction far enough. For the wage fund according to Marx is a form of capital: it is “variable” as opposed to “constant capital.” So the proletarianization of society according to Marx is not addressed adequately as a matter of the condition of labor, but rather the social dependence on and domination by capital. And capital for Marx is not synonymous with the private property in the means of production belonging to the capitalists, but rather the relation of wages, or the resources for the reproduction of labor-power (including the “means of consumption”), to society as a whole. This is what makes it a political matter—a matter of politics in society—rather than merely the struggle of one group against another.

Macnair characterizes the theory of Marxism specifically as one that recognizes the necessity of those dependent upon the wage fund per se to overcome capitalism; he characterizes the struggle for this as the struggle for democracy, with the adequate horizon of this as “communism” at a global scale, as opposed to “socialism” which may be confined to the internal politics of individual nation-states. Macnair points out that the working class is necessarily in the “vanguard” of such struggle for adequate social democratization insofar as it comes up against the condition of capitalism negatively, as a problem to be overcome. The working class is thus defined “negatively” with respect to the social conditions to be overcome rather than “positively” according to its activity, its concrete labor in society. The goal is to change the conditions for political participation as well as economic activity in society.

Class and history

Conventionally, Marxists have distinguished among political parties on their “class basis,” regarding various parties as “representing” different class groups: “bourgeois,” “petit bourgeois” and “proletarian.” This is complicated by classic characterizations such as that by Lenin of the U.K. Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party.” Furthermore, there has been the bedeviling question of what is included in the “petite bourgeoisie.” But Marxists (such as Lenin) did not define politics “sociologically” but rather historically: as representing not the interests of members of various groups but rather different “ideological” horizons of politics and for the transformation of society. So, for instance, what made the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Russian Revolution of 1917 “represent” the peasants was not so much their positions on agrarian matters as the “petit bourgeois” horizon of politics they shared with the peasants as petty proprietors. SRs were not necessarily themselves petty proprietors—they were like Lenin “petit bourgeois intellectuals” —but rather had in common with the peasants a form of discontent with capitalism, but one “ideologically” hemmed in by what Marxism regarded a limited horizon.

In Marx’s (in)famous phrase from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the peasants as a group, as a “petit bourgeois” “sack of potatoes” of smallholders, could not “represent themselves” but must rather “be represented”—as they were, according to Marx, by Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire’s succeeding the counterrevolutionary Party of Order in 1848. Marx called attention to the issue of how representation functioned in the politics of capitalism. Likewise, “bourgeois” parties were not so much pro-capitalist as much as they sought to manage the problems of capitalism from a certain historical perspective: that of “capital.” This was the horizon of their politics; whereas “petit bourgeois” parties were concerned with the perspective of smaller property holdings; and “workers parties” that of wage-labor. To be a “bourgeois workers’ party” such as Labour in the U.K. meant to represent the horizon of wage-labor in terms compatible with (especially but not exclusively U.K. “national”) capital. This was the character of ideology and political action—“consciousness”—which was not reducible to, let alone determined by, economic interest of a particular concrete social group.

So, various political parties as well as different political forms represented different historical horizons for discontents within capitalism. For Marxists, only “proletarian socialist” politics could represent adequately the problem—the crisis and contradiction—of capitalism. Others ideologically obscured it. A “bourgeois workers’ party” would be a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” insofar as “nature abhors a vacuum” and it filled the space evacuated by the failure of bourgeois politics while also falling short of the true historical horizon of the political tasks of proletarian socialism. It was a phenomenon of the contradiction of capitalism in a particular way—as were all political parties from a Marxist perspective.

There are great merits and significant clarity to Macnair’s approach to the problem of politics in capitalism and what it would require to transcend this.

The issue, though, is his taking as a norm the parliamentary system of government in the European mode and thus neglecting the U.S. constitutional system. For at issue is the potential disparity and antagonism between legislative and executive authority, or between the law and its enforcement. The American system of “checks and balances” was meant to uphold liberal democracy and prevent the tyranny of either the executive or the legislative (or the judicial) aspects of government. There is an important domain of political struggle already, between executive and legislative authority, and this would affect any struggle to transform politics. The question is the source of this antagonism. It is not merely formal. If the “separation of powers” in the U.S. Constitutional system has served undemocratic ends, it is not essentially because it was intended to do so. The problem of adequate and proper democratic authority in society is not reducible to the issue of purported “mob rule.” Any form of government could be perverted to serve capitalism. So the issue is indeed one of politics as such, the social content of or what informs any form of political authority.

“Party of the new type”?

Macnair notes potential deficits and inadequacies in the Third Communist International’s endorsement of “soviet” or “workers’ council” government, with its attempt to overcome the difference between legislative and executive authority, which seems to reproduce the problem Macnair finds in parliamentary government. For him, executive authority eludes responsibility in the same way that capitalist private property eludes the law constitutionally. This is the source of Macnair’s conflation of liberalism and Bonapartism, as if the problem of capitalism merely played out in terms of liberalism rather than contradicting it. Liberal democracy should not be conceived as the constitutional limit on democracy demanded by capitalist private property. The “democratic republic” Macnair calls for by contrast should not be conceived as the opposite of liberal democracy. For capitalism does not only contradict the democratic republic but also liberal democracy, leading to Bonapartism, or, illiberal democracy.

Dick Howard, in The Specter of Democracy has usefully investigated Marx’s original formulations on the problem of politics and capitalism, tracing these back to the origins of modern democracy in the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century, specifying the problem in common between (American) “republican democracy” and (French) “democratic republicanism.” Howard finds in both antinomical forms of modern democracy the danger of “anti-politics,” or of society eluding adequate political expression and direction, to which either democratic authority or liberalism can lead. Howard looks to Marx as a specifically political thinker on this problem to suggest the direction that struggle against it must take. Socialism for Marx in Howard’s view would fulfill the potential that has been otherwise limited by both republican democracy and democratic republicanism—or by both liberalism and socialism.

Macnair equates communism with democratic republicanism and thus treats it as a goal to be achieved and a norm to be realized. Moreover, he thinks that this goal can only be achieved by the practice of democratic republicanism in the present: the political party for communism must exemplify democratic republicanism in practice, as an alternative to the politics of the “party-state” in capitalism.

Marx, by contrast, addressed communism as merely the “next step” and a “one-sided negation” of capitalism rather than as the end goal of emancipation: it is not the opposite of capitalism in the sense of an undialectical antithesis but rather an expression of it. Indeed, for Marx, communism would be the completion and fulfillment of capitalism, and not in terms of one or some aspects over others but rather in and through its central self-contradiction, which is political as well as economic, or, “political-economic.”

What this requires is recognizing the non-identity of various aspects of capitalism as bound up in and part and parcel of the process of capitalism’s potential transformation into communism. For example, the non-identity of law (as legislated), its (judicial) interpretation, and (executive) enforcement, or, the non-identity of civil society and the state, as expressed by the specific phenomenon of modern political parties. States are compulsory; political parties are voluntary, civil society formations. And governments are not identical with legislatures. Politics as conditioned by capitalism could provide the means but cannot already embody the ends of transforming capitalism through communism. If communism is to be pursued, as Macnair argues, by the means of democratic republicanism, then we must recognize what has become of the democratic revolution in capitalism. It has not been merely corrupted and degraded but rather rendered self-contradictory, which is a different matter. The concrete manifestations of democracy in capitalism are not only opportunist compromises but also struggles to assert politics.

Symptomatic socialism

The history of the movement for socialism or communism generally and of Marxism in particular demonstrates the problem of capitalism through symptomatic phenomena of attempts to overcome it. This is not a history of trials and errors but rather of discontents and exemplary forms of politics, borne of the crisis of capitalism as it has been experienced through various phases, none of which have been superseded entirely.

Lenin and Trotsky were careful to avoid, as Trotsky put it, in The Lesson of October (1924), the “fetishizing” of the soviet or workers’ council form of politics and (revolutionary) government. Rather, Marxists addressed this as an emergent phenomenon of a specific phase of history, one which they sought to advance through the proletarian socialist revolution. But, according to Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, the soviet form did not mean that preceding historical forms of politics, for instance parliaments and trade unions, had been superseded in terms of being left behind. Indeed, it was precisely the failure of the world proletarian socialist—communist—revolution of 1917-19 that necessitated a “retreat” and reconsideration of perspectives and political prognoses. Certain forms and arenas of political struggle had come and gone. But, according to Lenin and Trotsky, the political party for communism remained indispensable. What did they mean by this?

Lenin and Trotsky meant something other than what Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer J.P. Nettl called the “inheritor party” or “state within the state” exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as the flagship party of the Second International. The social-democratic party was not intended by Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky to be the democratic republican alternative to capitalism. They did not aim to replace one constitutional party-state with another. Or at least they did not intend so beyond the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was meant to rapidly transition out of capitalism to socialism. Beyond that, a qualitative development was envisioned, beyond “bourgeois right” and its forms of social relations—and of politics. “Communism” remained the essential horizon of potential transformation.

One key distinction that Macnair elides in his account is the development of bourgeois social relations within pre-bourgeois civilization that will not be replicated by the struggle for socialism: socialism does not develop within capitalism so much as the proletariat represents the potential negation of bourgeois social relations that has developed within capitalism. The proletariat is a phenomenon of crisis in the existing society, not the exemplar of the new society. Socialism is not meant to be a proletarian society but rather its overcoming. Capitalism is already a proletarianized society. Hence, Bonapartism as the manifestation of the need for the proletariat to rule politically that has been abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Bonapartism is not a form of politics but rather an indication of the failure of politics. Marxism investigates that failure and its historical significance. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be the “highest” and most acute form of Bonapartism, but one that intends to immediately begin to overcome itself, or “wither away.”

The proletariat aims to abolish itself as a class not simply by abolishing the capitalist class as its complementary opposite expression of the self-contradiction and crisis of capitalism. This is why Marx recognized the persistence of “bourgeois right” in any “dictatorship of the proletariat” and down into the transition to socialism in its “first stage.” Bourgeois right would overcome itself through its crisis and self-contradiction, which the dictatorship of the proletariat would “advance” and not immediately transcend. The dictatorship of the proletariat or “(social-)democratic republic” would be the form in which the struggle to overcome capitalism would first be able to take place politically.

Macnair confuses the proletariat’s struggle for self-abolition in socialism with the bourgeois—that is, modern urban plebeian—struggle for the democratic republic. He ignores the self-contradiction of this struggle in capitalism: that capitalism has reproduced itself in and through crisis, and indeed through revolution, through a process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) in which the bourgeois revolution has re-posed itself, but resulting in the re-proletarianization of society, the reconstitution of wage labor under changed concrete conditions. This has taken place not only or perhaps even primarily through economic or political-economic crises and struggles, but through specifically political crises and struggles, through the recurrence of the democratic revolution. The proletariat cannot either make society in the image of itself or abolish itself immediately. It can only seek to lead the democratic revolution—hopefully—beyond itself.

Liberalism and socialism

The problem with liberal democracy is that it proceeds as if the democratic revolution has been achieved already, and ignores that capitalism has undermined it. Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor—but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits—in crisis.

The crisis of capitalism means that the forms of bourgeois politics are differentiated: they express the crisis and disintegration of bourgeois social relations. They also manifest the accumulation of past attempts at mediating bourgeois social relations in and through the crisis of capitalism. This is why the formal problems of politics will not go away, even if they are transformed. The issue is one of recognizing this historical accumulation of political problems in capitalism, and of grasping adequately how these forms are symptomatic of the development—or lack thereof—of the politics of the struggle for socialism in and through these forms. For example, Occupy, which took place after the writing of Macnair’s book, clearly is not an advance in politically effective form. But it is symptomatic of our present historical moment, and so must be grappled with as such. It must be grasped as an endemic phenomenon, a “necessary form of appearance” of the problem of capitalism in the present, and not treated merely as an accidental and hence avoidable error.

Macnair’s preferred target of critical investigation is the “mass strike” and related “workers’ council” or “soviet” form. But this did not exist in isolation: its limits were not its own but rather also an expression of the limits of labor unions and parliamentary government as well as of political parties in the early 20th century. For Macnair the early Third or Communist International become a blind alley, proven by its failure. But its problems cannot be thus settled and resolved so summarily or as easily as that.

If Occupy has failed it has done so without manifesting the political problem of capitalism as acutely as the soviet or workers’ council form of revolutionary politics did circa 1917, precisely because Occupy did not manifest, as the soviets did, a crisis of parliamentary democracy, labor union organization and political party formation, as the workers’ council form did in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918-19 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 as well as the crisis in Italy beginning in 1919, and elsewhere in that historical moment and subsequently (e.g., in the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution of 1927). Indeed, Occupy might be regarded as an attempt to avoid certain problems, through what post-New Leftists such as Alain Badiou have affirmed as “politics at a distance from the state,” that nonetheless imposed themselves, and with a vengeance—see Egypt as the highest expression of the “Arab Spring.” Occupy evinced a mixture of liberal and anarchist discontents—a mixture of labor union and “direct democracy” popular-assembly politics. The problem of 20th century Third (and Fourth) International politics, regarding contemporaneous and inherited forms of the mass strike (and its councils), labor unions and political parties, expressed the interrelated problems accumulated from different prior historical moments of the preceding 19th century (in 1830, 1848, and 1871, etc.), all of which needed to be worked through and within, together, along with the fundamental bourgeois political form of (the struggle for) the democratic republic—which Kant among others (liberals) already recognized in the 18th century as an issue of a necessary “world state” (or at least a world “system of states”)—not achievable within national confines.

Redeeming history

Political forms are sustained practices; they are embodied history. Because none of the forms emerging in the capitalist era—since the early to mid-19th century—has existed without the others, they must all be considered together, as mediating (the crisis of) capitalism at various levels, rather than in opposition to one another. Furthermore, these forms do not merely instantiate the bourgeois society that must be overcome—in a reified view—but rather mediate its crisis in capitalism, and inevitably so.

History cannot be regarded as a catalogue of errors to be avoided, but must be regarded, however critically, as a resource informing the present, whether or not adequately consciously. If past historical problems repeat themselves, they do not do so literally but with a difference. The question is the significance of that difference. It cannot be regarded as itself progressive. Indeed the difference often expresses the degradation of a problem. One cannot avoid either the repetition or the difference in capitalist history. An adequate “proletarian socialist” party would immediately push beyond prior historical limits. That is how it could both manifest and advance the contradiction in capitalism.

History, according to Adorno (following Benjamin), is the “demand for redemption.” This is because history is not an accumulation of facts but rather a form of past action continuing in the present. Historical action was transformative and is again to be transformed in the present: we transform past action through continuing to act on it in the present. No past action continues untransformed. The question is the (re-)direction and continuing transformation of that action. Thinking is a way, too, of transforming past action.

Political party is not a dead form, but rather lives in ways dependent at least in part on how we think of it. The need for political party for the Left today is a demand to redeem past action in the present. We can do so more or less well, and not only as a function of quantity but also of quality. Can we receive the task of past politics revealed by Marxism as it is ramified down to the present? Can the Left sustain its action in time; can it be a form of politics?

Marxism never offered a wholly new or distinct form of political action, but only sought to affect—consciously—forms of politics already underway. Examples of this include: Chartism; labor unions (whether according to trade or industry); Lassalle’s political party of the “permanent campaign of the working class;” the Paris Commune; the “mass” or “general strike;” and “workers’ councils.” But not only these: also, the parliament or congress, as well as the sovereign executive with prerogative. These are all descended to us as forms not merely of political action and political struggle over that action, but also and especially of revolution, revolutionary change in society in the modern, bourgeois epoch.

One thing is certain regarding the history of the 19th and 20th centuries as legacy, now in the 21st century: since the politics of the state has not gone away, neither has the question of political party. We must accept forms of revolutionary politics as they have come down to us historically. But that does not mean inheriting the forms of state and party as given but rather transforming them—in revolution. Capitalism is a social crisis that calls forth political action. The only questions are how and why—with what consciousness and with what goal?

If social and political crisis—revolution—has up to now given us only more capitalism, then we need to accept that—and think of how communism could be the result of revolutionary politics in capitalism. Again, as Marx and the best Marxism once did: we need to accept the task of redeeming history.

The difference Macnair observes, between the political party formations of the early original bourgeois era of the 17th and 18th centuries and in the crisis of capitalism manifesting circa 1848 (including prior Chartism in Britain), is key to the fundamental political question of Marxism as well as of proletarian socialism more broadly (for instance in anarcho-syndicalism)—as symptoms of history. There is not a static problem but rather a dynamic of the historical process that is moreover regressive in its repetition in difference. Marxism once sought to be conscious of the difference, and so should we. | §

Postscript on party politics

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).

The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognized that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events:” “Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists.”

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business — kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

But, as Lenin had written in What is to be Done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October Revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it.”

Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its “Conscious” factor — a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor — on the existing basis of productive forces — in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.

So, what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labor unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form — as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out, in The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), about Lukács’s account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and Class Consciousness and related writings — the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also, and perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international Communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism — as well as FDR New Deal-ism — as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the Left as a political force is signaled by its shying away from and anathematizing the political party for social transformation — revolution — not only in anarchism and “Left communist” notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognized, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, warns of the “anti-political” crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state, all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognized in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support — for instance by what Marx called the “lumpenproletariat,” an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary “class consciousness” of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the “antithesis” of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause but was an effect of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 71 and 72 (November and December 2014 – January 2015).


Bibliography: (PR=Platypus Review; WW=Weekly Worker)

Cutrone, Chris. “Capital in history” PR 7 (October 2008) http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/.

Cutrone, Chris “1917” PR 17 (November 2009) http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The Marxist hypothesis” PR 29 (November 2010) http://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848” PR 33 (March 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/03/01/egypt-or-historys-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s liberalism” PR 36 (June 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The philosophy of history” WW 869 (June 9, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/869/the-philosophy-of-history/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Defending Marxist Hegelianism” WW 878 (August 10, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/878/defending-marxist-hegelianism-against-a-marxist-cr/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s politics” PR 40 (October 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/09/25/lenins-politics/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Whither Marxism?” PR 41 (November 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/11/01/whither-marxism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “1873-1973: The century of Marxism” PR 47 (June 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The relevance of Lenin today” WW 922 (July 12, 2012) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/922/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/; and PR 48 (July-August 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/07/01/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today” PR 51 (November 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/11/01/class-consciousness-from-a-marxist-perspective-today/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Why still read Lukács?” WW 994 (January 23, 2014) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/994/debate-why-still-read-lukacs/; unabridged version in PR 63 (February 2014) http://platypus1917.org/2014/02/01/why-still-read-lukacs-the-place-of-philosophical-questions-in-marxism/.

Cutrone et al. “Revolutionary politics and thought” PR 69 (September 2014) http://platypus1917.org/2014/09/05/revolutionary-politics-thought-2/.

Adorno, Theodor. “Reflections on class theory” [1942], in Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A philosophical reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Palo Alto, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Howard, Dick. The Specter of Democracy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Nettl, J.P. “The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a Political Model,” Past and Present 30 (April 1965), 65-95.

“Off-piste”

leninskiingzimmerwald

Letter in Weekly Worker 1031 (October 23, 2014).

In writing this letter on Chris Cutrone’s critique of Mike Macnair’s book Revolutionary strategy (‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’, October 16), I am fully aware that: (a) Mike is probably considering a reply himself; (b) comparing a full-length book with a two-page article is potentially inherently unfair to the latter; and (c) that I am perhaps not the best qualified person to enter the debate, having only recently come to a serious engagement with issues of Marxist political strategy. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worth sharing how a comparison of the two has impressionistically struck a ‘general reader’.

Macnair’s approach has the following virtues that appear lacking in Cutrone’s account: (a) it is relatively comprehensible; (b) it appears rooted in a close reading of concrete historical events (aka ‘the materialist conception of history’), whereas Cutrone appears to wander off-piste into free-floating philosophising, bordering on the worst of post-modernism; (c) Macnair offers concrete proposals as to what the Marxist left should be doing in the here and now, whereas Cutrone appears to be promoting a deeply depressing view of the proletariat as still primarily the passive victim of history.

Sean Thurlough
London

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

What is meant by a ‘democratic republic’? Chris Cutrone critiques Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1030 (October 16, 2014). [PDF]

Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (London 2008) is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.Macnair’s initial motivation was engagement with the debates in and around the French Fourth International Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire prior to its forming the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste electoral party in 2009. The other major context for the discussion was the Iraq anti-war movement and UK Respect electoral party, which was formed around this in 2004, with the Socialist Workers Party driving the process. This raised issues not only of political party, democracy and the state, but also united fronts among socially and politically heterogeneous groups and the issue of imperialism.

One key contribution by Macnair to the latter discussion is to raise and call attention to the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s writings on imperialism, in which the former attributed the failure of (metropolitan) workers’ organisation around imperialism to a specifically political compromise with the (national) state, whereas Lenin had, in his famous 1916 pamphlet, characterised this in terms of compromised “economic” interest. So with imperialism the question is the political party and the state.

Macnair observes that there are at least two principal phases of the party question: from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and beginning in the middle of the 19th century. He relates these phases to the development of the problem of the state. He offers that constitutional government involves the development of the “party state” and that revolutionary politics takes its leave of such a “party state” (which includes multiple parties all supporting the constitutional regime). Furthermore, Macnair locates this problem properly as one of the nation-state within the greater economic and political system of capitalism. By conflating the issue of government with “rule of law”, however, Macnair mistakes the contradiction of the modern state and its politics in capitalism.

Elsewhere, Macnair has criticised sectarian Marxism for “theoretical overkill” in a “philosophy trap”.1 But he might thus mistake effect for cause: ‘philosophical’ questions might be the expression of a trap in which one is nonetheless caught; and Marxist ‘theory’ might go beyond today’s practical political concerns. Philosophy may not be the trap in which we are caught, but rather an expression of our attempts – merely – to think our way out of it. The mismatch of Marxism today at the level of ‘theoretical’ or ‘philosophical’ issues might point to a historical disparity or inadequacy: we may have fallen below past thresholds and horizons of Marxism. The issue of political party may be one that we would need to re-attain rather than immediately confront in the present. Hence, ‘strategy’ in terms of Marxism may not be the political issue now that it once was. This means that, where past Marxists might appear to be in error, it may actually be our fault – or a fault in the present situation. How can the history of Marxism help us address this?

New politics

The key to this issue can be found in Macnair’s own distinction of the new phenomenon of party politics in the late 19th century, after the revolutions of 1848 and in the era of what Marx called “Bonapartism” – the pattern set by Louis Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III in the French Second Empire, with its emulation by Bismarck in the Prussian empire, as well as Disraeli’s Tories in the UK, among other examples. While Macnair finds some precedent for this in the 18th century UK and its political crises, as well as in the course of the Great French Revolution 1789-1815, especially regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, the difference of the late 19th century party-politics from prior historical precedence is important to specify. For Macnair it is the world system of capitalism and its undermining of democracy.

It is important to recall Marx’s formulation, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that (neo-)Bonapartism was the historical condition in which the bourgeoisie could “no longer” and the proletariat “not yet” rule politically the modern society of capitalism.2 Bonapartism was the symptom of this crisis of capitalism and hence of the need for socialism revealed by the unprecedented failure of revolution in 1848 – by contrast with 1830, as well as 1789 and 1776, and the Dutch Revolt and English civil war of the 17th century. The bourgeoisie’s ‘ruling’ character was not a legal-constitutional system of government descended from the 17th century political and social revolutions in Holland and England so much as it was a form of civil society: a revolutionary system of bourgeois social relations that was supposed to subordinate the state. What requires explanation is the 19th century slipping of the state from adequate social control, and its ‘rising above’ the contending political groups and social classes, as a power in itself. Even if Bonapartism in Marx’s late 19th century sense was the expression of a potential inherent in the forms of bourgeois politics emerging much earlier, there is still the question of why it was not realised so until after 1848. There is also the matter of why Marx characterised Louis Napoleon as a “lesser” and “farcical” phenomenon of post-1848 history by contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the Great Revolution.3 It was not the mere fact of repetition, but why and how history “repeated itself” – and repeated with a difference.

This was, according to Marx, the essential condition for politics after 1848 – the condition for political parties in capitalism. That condition was not only or primarily a matter of politics due to constitutional legal forms of bourgeois property and its social relations, but rather was for Marx the expression of the crisis of those forms as a function of the industrial revolution. There was for Marx an important contradiction between the democratic revolution and the proletarianisation of society in capitalism.

Macnair addresses this by specifying the ‘proletariat’ as all those in society “dependent on the total wage fund” – as opposed to those (presumably) dependent upon ‘capital’. This is clearly not a matter of economics, because distinguishing between those depending on wages as opposed to capital is a political matter of differentiation: all the intermediate strata depending on both the wage fund and capital would need to be compelled to take sides in any political dispute between the prerogatives of wages versus capital. Macnair addresses this through the struggle for democracy. But this does not pursue the contradiction far enough. For the wage fund, according to Marx, is a form of capital: it is ‘variable’ as opposed to ‘constant capital’. So the proletarianisation of society, according to Marx, is not addressed adequately as a matter of the condition of labour, but rather the social dependence on and domination by capital. And capital for Marx is not synonymous with the private property in the means of production belonging to the capitalists, but rather the relation of wages, or the resources for the reproduction of labour-power (including the ‘means of consumption’), to society as a whole. This is what makes it a political matter – a matter of politics in society – rather than merely the struggle of one group against another.

Macnair characterises the theory of Marxism specifically as one that recognises the necessity of those dependent upon the wage fund per se to overcome capitalism; he characterises the struggle for this as the struggle for democracy, with the adequate horizon of this as “communism” at a global scale – as opposed to “socialism”, which may be confined to the internal politics of individual nation-states. Macnair points out that the working class is necessarily in the “vanguard” of such struggle for adequate social democratisation, insofar as it comes up against the condition of capitalism negatively, as a problem to be overcome. The working class is thus defined “negatively” with respect to the social conditions to be overcome, rather than “positively” according to its activity, its concrete labour in society. The goal is to change the conditions for political participation, as well as economic activity, in society.

Class and history

Conventionally, Marxists have distinguished among political parties on their ‘class basis’, regarding various parties as ‘representing’ different class groups: ‘bourgeois’, ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’. This is complicated by classic characterisations such as that by Lenin of the UK Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Furthermore, there has been the bedevilling question of what is included in the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. But Marxists (such as Lenin) did not define politics ‘sociologically’, but rather historically: as representing not the interests of members of various groups, but rather different ‘ideological’ horizons of politics and for the transformation of society.

So, for instance, what made the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Russian Revolution of 1917 ‘represent’ the peasants was not so much their positions on agrarian matters as the ‘petty bourgeois’ horizon of politics they shared with the peasants as petty proprietors. SRs were not necessarily themselves petty proprietors – they were like Lenin ‘petty bourgeois intellectuals’ – but rather had in common with the peasants a form of discontent with capitalism, but one ‘ideologically’ hemmed in by what Marxism regarded a limited horizon.

In Marx’s (in)famous phrase from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the peasants as a group, as a ‘petty bourgeois’ “sack of potatoes” of smallholders, could not “represent themselves”, but must rather “be represented” – as they were, according to Marx, by Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire’s succeeding the counterrevolutionary Party of Order in 1848.4 Marx called attention to the issue of how representation functioned in the politics of capitalism. Likewise, “bourgeois” parties were not pro-capitalist as much as they sought to manage the problems of capitalism from a certain historical perspective: that of ‘capital’. This was the horizon of their politics; whereas ‘petty bourgeois’ parties were concerned with the perspective of smaller property holdings; and ‘workers’ parties’ that of wage-labour. To be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, such as Labour in the UK, meant to represent the horizon of wage-labour in terms compatible with (especially, but not exclusively, UK ‘national’) capital. This was the character of ideology and political action – ‘consciousness’ – which was not reducible to, let alone determined by, economic interest of a particular concrete social group.

So various political parties, as well as different political forms, represented different historical horizons for discontents within capitalism. For Marxists, only ‘proletarian socialist’ politics could represent adequately the problem – the crisis and contradiction – of capitalism. Others ideologically obscured it. A ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ would be a phenomenon of ‘Bonapartism’, insofar as ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and it filled the space evacuated by the failure of bourgeois politics, while also falling short of the true historical horizon of the political tasks of proletarian socialism. It was a phenomenon of the contradiction of capitalism in a particular way – as were all political parties from a Marxist perspective.

There are great merits and significant clarity to Macnair’s approach to the problem of politics in capitalism and what it would require to transcend this. The issue, though, is his taking as a norm the parliamentary system of government in the European mode and thus neglecting the US constitutional system. For at issue is the potential disparity and antagonism between legislative and executive authority, or between the law and its enforcement. The American system of ‘checks and balances’ was meant to uphold liberal democracy and prevent the tyranny of either the executive or the legislature (or the judicial) aspects of government. There is an important domain of political struggle already, between executive and legislative authority, and this would affect any struggle to transform politics. The question is the source of this antagonism. It is not merely formal. If the ‘separation of powers’ in the US constitutional system has served undemocratic ends, it is not essentially because it was intended to do so. The problem of adequate and proper democratic authority in society is not reducible to the issue of purported ‘mob rule’. Any form of government could be perverted to serve capitalism. So the issue is indeed one of politics as such – the social content of or what informs any form of political authority.

‘Party of the new type’?

Macnair notes potential deficits and inadequacies in the Third (Communist) International’s endorsement of ‘soviet’ or ‘workers’ council’ government, with its attempt to overcome the difference between legislative and executive authority, which seems to reproduce the problem Macnair finds in parliamentary government. For him, executive authority eludes responsibility in the same way that capitalist private property eludes the law constitutionally.

This is the source of Macnair’s conflation of liberalism and Bonapartism, as if the problem of capitalism merely played out in terms of liberalism rather than contradicting it. Liberal democracy should not be conceived as the constitutional limit on democracy demanded by capitalist private property. The “democratic republic” Macnair calls for by contrast should not be conceived as the opposite of liberal democracy. For capitalism does not only contradict the democratic republic, but also liberal democracy, leading to Bonapartism, or illiberal democracy.

Dick Howard, in The specter of democracy has usefully investigated Marx’s original formulations on the problem of politics and capitalism, tracing these back to the origins of modern democracy in the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century and specifying the problem in common between (American) “republican democracy” and (French) “democratic republicanism”.5 Howard finds in both antinomical forms of modern democracy the danger of “anti-politics”, or of society eluding adequate political expression and direction, to which either democratic authority or liberalism can lead. Howard looks to Marx as a specifically political thinker on this problem to suggest the direction that struggle against it must take. Socialism for Marx, in Howard’s view, would fulfil the potential that has been otherwise limited by both republican democracy and democratic republicanism – or by both liberalism and socialism.

Macnair equates communism with democratic republicanism and thus treats it as a goal to be achieved and a norm to be realised. Moreover, he thinks that this goal can only be achieved by the practice of democratic republicanism in the present: the political party for communism must exemplify democratic republicanism in practice, as an alternative to the politics of the “party-state” in capitalism.

Marx, by contrast, addressed communism as merely the “next step” and a “one-sided negation” of capitalism rather than as the end goal of emancipation: it is not the opposite of capitalism in the sense of an undialectical antithesis, but rather an expression of it. Indeed, for Marx, communism would be the completion and fulfilment of capitalism, and not in terms of one or some aspects over others, but rather in and through its central self-contradiction, which is political as well as economic, or ‘political-economic’.

What this requires is recognising the non-identity of various aspects of capitalism as bound up in and part and parcel of the process of capitalism’s potential transformation into communism. For example, the non-identity of law (as legislated), its (judicial) interpretation, and (executive) enforcement, or the non-identity of civil society and the state, as expressed by the specific phenomenon of modern political parties. States are compulsory; political parties are voluntary, civil-society formations. And governments are not identical with legislatures. Politics as conditioned by capitalism could provide the means, but cannot already embody the ends, of transforming capitalism through communism. If communism is to be pursued, as Macnair argues, by the means of democratic republicanism, then we must recognise what has become of the democratic revolution in capitalism. It has not been merely corrupted and degraded, but rather rendered self-contradictory, which is a different matter. The concrete manifestations of democracy in capitalism are not only opportunist compromises, but also struggles to assert politics.

Symptomatic socialism

The history of the movement for socialism or communism generally and of Marxism in particular demonstrates the problem of capitalism through symptomatic phenomena of attempts to overcome it. This is not a history of trials and errors, but rather of discontents and exemplary forms of politics, borne of the crisis of capitalism, as it has been experienced through various phases, none of which have been superseded entirely.

Lenin and Trotsky were careful to avoid, as Trotsky put it, in The lesson of October (1924), the “fetishing” of the soviet or workers’ council form of politics and (revolutionary) government. Rather, Marxists addressed this as an emergent phenomenon of a specific phase of history, one which they sought to advance through the proletarian socialist revolution. But, according to Lenin, in ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder, the soviet form did not mean that preceding historical forms of politics – for instance, parliaments and trade unions – had been superseded in terms of being left behind. Indeed, it was precisely the failure of the world proletarian socialist – communist – revolution of 1917-19 that necessitated a “retreat” and reconsideration of perspectives and political prognoses. Certain forms and arenas of political struggle had come and gone. But, according to Lenin and Trotsky, the political party for communism remained indispensable. What did they mean by this?

Lenin and Trotsky meant something other than what Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, JP Nettl, called the “inheritor party” or “state within the state” exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as the flagship party of the Second International.6 The social democratic party was not intended by Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky to be the democratic republican alternative to capitalism. They did not aim to replace one constitutional party-state with another. Or at least they did not intend so beyond the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which was meant to rapidly transition out of capitalism to socialism. Beyond that, a qualitative development was envisioned, beyond ‘bourgeois right’ and its forms of social relations – and of politics. ‘Communism’ remained the essential horizon of potential transformation.

One key distinction that Macnair elides in his account is the development of bourgeois social relations within pre-bourgeois civilisation that will not be replicated by the struggle for socialism: socialism does not develop within capitalism so much as the proletariat represents the potential negation of bourgeois social relations that has developed within capitalism. The proletariat is a phenomenon of crisis in the existing society, not the exemplar of the new society. Socialism is not meant to be a proletarian society, but rather its overcoming. Capitalism is already a proletarianised society. Hence, Bonapartism as the manifestation of the need for the proletariat to rule politically that has been abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Bonapartism is not a form of politics, but rather an indication of the failure of politics. Marxism investigates that failure and its historical significance. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be the ‘highest’ and most acute form of Bonapartism, but one that intends to immediately begin to overcome itself, or ‘wither away’.

The proletariat aims to abolish itself as a class not simply by abolishing the capitalist class as its complementary opposite expression of the self-contradiction and crisis of capitalism. This is why Marx recognised the persistence of ‘bourgeois right’ in any ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and down into the transition to socialism in its ‘first stage’. Bourgeois right would overcome itself through its crisis and self-contradiction, which the dictatorship of the proletariat would ‘advance’ and not immediately transcend. The dictatorship of the proletariat or ‘(social) democratic republic’ would be the form in which the struggle to overcome capitalism would first be able to take place politically.

Macnair confuses the proletariat’s struggle for self-abolition in socialism with the bourgeois – that is, modern urban plebeian – struggle for the democratic republic. He ignores the self-contradiction of this struggle in capitalism: that capitalism has reproduced itself in and through crisis, and indeed through revolution, through a process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter), in which the bourgeois revolution has re-posed itself, but resulting in the re-proletarianisation of society: the reconstitution of wage labour under changed concrete conditions. This has taken place not only or perhaps even primarily through economic or political-economic crises and struggles, but through specifically political crises and struggles, through the recurrence of the democratic revolution. The proletariat cannot either make society in the image of itself or abolish itself immediately. It can only seek to lead the democratic revolution – hopefully – beyond itself.

Liberalism and socialism

The problem with liberal democracy is that it proceeds as if the democratic revolution has been achieved already, and ignores that capitalism has undermined it. Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations – the relations of the exchange of labour – but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not ‘capitalism’ as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be), but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious, way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognised as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognised properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits – in crisis.

The crisis of capitalism means that the forms of bourgeois politics are differentiated: they express the crisis and disintegration of bourgeois social relations. They also manifest the accumulation of past attempts at mediating bourgeois social relations in and through the crisis of capitalism. This is why the formal problems of politics will not go away, even if they are transformed. The issue is one of recognising this historical accumulation of political problems in capitalism, and of grasping adequately how these forms are symptomatic of the development – or lack thereof – of the politics of the struggle for socialism in and through these forms. For example, Occupy, which took place after the writing of Macnair’s book, clearly is not an advance in politically effective form. But it is symptomatic of our present historical moment, and so must be grappled with as such. It must be grasped as an endemic phenomenon, a ‘necessary form of appearance’ of the problem of capitalism in the present, and not treated merely as an accidental and hence avoidable error.

Macnair’s preferred target of critical investigation is the ‘mass strike’ and related ‘workers’ council’ or ‘soviet’ form. But this did not exist in isolation: its limits were not its own, but rather also an expression of the limits of labour unions and parliamentary government as well as of political parties in the early 20th century. For Macnair the early Third or Communist International becomes a blind alley, proven by its failure. But its problems cannot be thus settled and resolved so summarily or as easily as that.

If Occupy has failed it has done so without manifesting the political problem of capitalism as acutely as the soviet or workers’ council form of revolutionary politics did circa 1917, precisely because Occupy did not manifest, as the soviets did, a crisis of parliamentary democracy, labour union organisation and political party formation, as the workers’ council form did in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the German revolution of 1918-19 and the Hungarian revolution of 1919, as well as the crisis in Italy beginning in 1919, and elsewhere in that historical moment and subsequently (eg, in the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese revolution of 1927). Indeed, Occupy might be regarded as an attempt to avoid certain problems, through what post-new leftists such as Alain Badiou have affirmed as “politics at a distance from the state”, that nonetheless imposed themselves, and with a vengeance – see Egypt as the highest expression of the ‘Arab spring’. Occupy evinced a mixture of liberal and anarchist discontents – a mixture of labour union and ‘direct democracy’ popular-assembly politics. The problem of 20th century Third (and Fourth) International politics, regarding contemporaneous and inherited forms of the mass strike (and its councils), labour unions and political parties, expressed the interrelated problems accumulated from different prior historical moments of the preceding 19th century (in 1830, 1848 and 1871, etc), all of which needed to be worked through and within, together, along with the fundamental bourgeois political form of (the struggle for) the democratic republic – which Kant among others (liberals) already recognised in the 18th century as an issue of a necessary ‘world state’ (or at least a world ‘system of states’) – not achievable within national confines.

Redeeming history

Political forms are sustained practices; they are embodied history. Because none of the forms emerging in the capitalist era – since the early to mid-19th century – has existed without the others, they must all be considered together, as mediating (the crisis of) capitalism at various levels, rather than in opposition to one another. Furthermore, these forms do not merely instantiate the bourgeois society that must be overcome – in a reified view – but rather mediate its crisis in capitalism, and inevitably so.

History cannot be regarded as a catalogue of errors to be avoided, but must be regarded, however critically, as a resource informing the present, whether or not adequately consciously. If past historical problems repeat themselves, they do not do so literally but with a difference. The question is the significance of that difference. It cannot be regarded as itself progressive. Indeed the difference often expresses the degradation of a problem. One cannot avoid either the repetition or the difference in capitalist history. An adequate ‘proletarian socialist’ party would immediately push beyond prior historical limits. That is how it could both manifest and advance the contradiction in capitalism.

History, according to Adorno (following Benjamin), is the “demand for redemption”. This is because history is not an accumulation of facts, but rather a form of past action continuing in the present. Historical action was transformative and is again to be transformed in the present: we transform past action through continuing to act on it in the present. No past action continues untransformed. The question is the (re)direction and continuing transformation of that action. Thinking is a way, too, of transforming past action.

Political party is not a dead form, but rather lives in ways dependent at least in part on how we think of it. The need for political party for the left today is a demand to redeem past action in the present. We can do so more or less well, and not only as a function of quantity, but also of quality. Can we receive the task of past politics revealed by Marxism as it is ramified down to the present? Can the left sustain its action in time; can it be a form of politics?

Marxism never offered a wholly new or distinct form of political action, but only sought to affect – consciously – forms of politics already underway. Examples of this include: Chartism; labour unions (whether according to trade or industry); Lassalle’s political party of the ‘permanent campaign of the working class’; the Paris Commune; the ‘mass’ or ‘general strike’; and ‘workers’ councils’. But not only these: also, the parliament or congress, as well as the sovereign executive with prerogative. These are all descended to us as forms not merely of political action and political struggle over that action, but also and especially of revolution, revolutionary change in society in the modern, bourgeois epoch.

One thing is certain regarding the history of the 19th and 20th centuries as legacy, now in the 21st century: since the politics of the state has not gone away, neither has the question of political party. We must accept forms of revolutionary politics as they have come down to us historically. But that does not mean inheriting the forms of state and party as given, but rather transforming them – in revolution. Capitalism is a social crisis that calls forth political action. The only questions are how and why – with what consciousness and with what goal?

If social and political crisis – revolution – has up to now given us only more capitalism, then we need to accept that – and think of how communism could be the result of revolutionary politics in capitalism. Again, as Marx and the best Marxism once did, we need to accept the task of redeeming history.

The difference Macnair observes, between the political party formations of the early original bourgeois era of the 17th and 18th centuries and in the crisis of capitalism manifesting circa 1848 (including prior Chartism in Britain), is key to the fundamental political question of Marxism, as well as of proletarian socialism more broadly (for instance in anarcho-syndicalism) – as symptoms of history. There is not a static problem, but rather a dynamic of the historical process that is moreover regressive in its repetition in difference. Marxism once sought to be conscious of the difference, and so should we. | §

Notes

1. ‘The philosophy trapWeekly Worker November 21 2013.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. D Howard The specter of democracy New York 2002.

6. JP Nettl, ‘The SPD 1890-1914 as political model’, 1965.