Rosa Luxemburg and the party

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

IN ONE OF HER EARLIEST INTERVENTIONS in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), participating in the notorious theoretical “Revisionist Dispute,” in which Eduard Bernstein infamously stated that “the movement is everything, the goal nothing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) clearly enunciated her Marxism: “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle.”1

Critique of socialism

What did it mean to say that socialist politics was necessary to have “class struggle” at all? This goes to the heart of Luxemburg’s own Marxism, and to her most enduring contribution to its history: her Marxist approach to the political party for socialism—a dialectical understanding of class and party, in which Marxism itself was grasped in a critical-dialectical way. When Luxemburg accused Bernstein of being “undialectical,” this is what she meant: That the working class’s struggle for socialism was itself self-contradictory and its political party was the means through which this contradiction was expressed. There was a dialectic of means and ends, or of “movement” and “goal,” in which the dialectic of theory and practice took part: Marxism demanded its own critique. Luxemburg took the controversy of the Revisionist Dispute as an occasion for this critique.

In this, Luxemburg followed the young Karl Marx’s (1818–83) own formative dialectical critiques of socialism when he was in his 20s, from the September 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge calling for the “ruthless critique of everything existing,” to the critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), as well as in The German Ideology and its famous Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx had written of the socialist movement that:

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles . . .

[W]e must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis—the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines—such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc.—arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle . . .

Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. . . . We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for . . .

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.

Such formulations recurred in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach a couple of years later:

But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice.

For Marx, this meant that socialism was the expression of the contradiction of capitalism and as such was itself bound up in that contradiction. A proper dialectical relation of socialism with capitalism required a recognition of the dialectic within socialism itself. Marx followed Hegel in regarding contradiction as manifestation of the need for change. The “proletariat”—the working class after the Industrial Revolution—contradicted bourgeois society, not from outside but from within. As such, the contradiction of capitalism centered on the proletariat itself. This is because for Marx “capitalism” is nothing in itself, but only the crisis of bourgeois society in industrial production and hence its only meaning is the expression of the need for socialism. The very existence of the proletariat—a working class expropriated from its bourgeois property-rights in labor as a commodity—demanded socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a Stuttgart crowd in 1907. Here she is flanked by portraits of Karl Marx (right) and Ferdinand Lassalle (left), the founders of the German Socialist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a Stuttgart crowd in 1907. Here she is flanked by portraits of Karl Marx (right) and Ferdinand Lassalle (left), the founders of the German Socialist movement.

Lassallean party

But had the social-democratic workers’ party been from its outset a force for counterrevolution—for preserving capitalism—rather than for revolutionary transformation and the achievement of socialism? Its roots in Ferdinand Lassalle’s formulation of its purpose as the “permanent political campaign of the working class” evinced a potential contradiction between its Lassalleanism and Marxism. Marxists had not invented the social-democratic workers’ party, but rather joined it as an emergent phenomenon of the late 19th century. The social-democratic workers’ party in Germany, what became the SPD, had, through its fusion of 1875 at Gotha, attained Marxist or “revolutionary” leadership. But this had elicited Marx’s famous Critique of the Gotha Programme, to which Marx’s own followers, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, could only shrug their shoulders at the difficulty of pleasing the “old men in London” (that is, Marx and Engels). The development of the SPD towards its conscious direction beyond mere Lassalleanism was more clearly enunciated in the SPD’s Erfurt Programme of 1891. Nonetheless the ghost of Lassalle seemed to haunt subsequent developments and was still present, according to Engels’s critique of it, in the “Marxist” Erfurt Programme itself. (Indeed, one of Rosa Luxemburg’s earliest achievements in her participation in the life of the SPD was to unearth and discover the significance of Engels’s critique of Bebel, Kautsky, and Bernstein’s Erfurt Programme.)

Luxemburg, in her critique of the SPD through regarding the party as a manifestation of contradiction, followed Marx and Engels, whose recognition was the means to advance it beyond itself. Lassalle had made the mistake of opposing the political against and derogating the economic action of the workers, rejecting labor unions, which he called merely the “vain efforts of things to behave like human beings.”2 Lassalle thus ontologized the political struggle. For Lassalle, the workers taking political power would be tantamount to the achievement of socialism; whereas for Marx this would be merely a transitional revolutionary “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would lead to socialism. Engels called it the transition from the “governing of men” to the “administration of things”—an eminently dialectical formulation, since humans are both subjects and objects of society.

Lassalle’s political ontology of socialism was complementary to the one-sided “vulgar Marxist” misapprehensions of the Revisionists who prioritized and indeed ontologized the economic over the political, reducing the social to the economic, and relating the social to the political “mechanically” and “undialectically”—neglecting the contradiction between them in an “economic determinism” that subordinated politics. Where Lassalle subordinated economics to politics in a “state socialism,” Marx regarded this rather as a state capitalism. Indeed, despite or rather due to this antinomy, the Lassalleans and the economistic reformists actually converged in their political perspectives—giving rise later to 20th century welfare-state capitalism through the governance of social-democratic parties.

Rather than taking one side over the other, Luxemburg, as a Marxist, approached this problem as a real contradiction: an antinomy and dialectic of capitalism itself that manifested in the workers’ own discontents and struggles within it, both economically and politically. For instance, Luxemburg followed Marx in recognizing that the Lassallean goal of the workers achieving a “free state” in political revolution was a self-contradiction: An unfree society gave rise to an unfree state; and it was society that needed to be emancipated from capitalism. But this was a contradiction that could be posed only by the workers’ revolutionary political action and seizing of state power—if only to “wither” it away in the transformation of society beyond capitalism. In this way the Lassallean party was not a mistake but rather a necessary stage manifesting in the history of the workers’ movement. So it needed to be properly recognized—“dialectically”—in order to avoid its one-sided pitfalls in the opposition of Revisionist, reformist economic evolutionism versus the Lassallean political revolutionism. Kautsky followed Marx in a critical endorsement of Lassalleanism in regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat as the seizing of state power by the workers’ party for socialism. Hence, Luxemburg expressed her sincere “gratitude” that the Revisionists had occasioned this critical self-recognition, by posing the question and problem of “movement” and “goal.”

Antinomy of reformism

Luxemburg made her great entrance onto the political stage of her time with the pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution? (1900). In it, Luxemburg laid out how the original contradiction of capitalism, between its chaotic social relations and its socialization of production had been further developed, exacerbated, and deepened by the development of a new contradiction, namely the growth of the workers’ movement in political organization and consciousness: Its movement for socialism was a self-contradictory expression of the contradiction of capitalism. This contrasted with Bernstein’s view that the growth and development of the workers’ movement was the overcoming of the contradiction of capitalism and the gradual “evolution” of socialism. For Bernstein, the movement for socialism was the achievement of socialism, whereas the goal of socialism was a dispensable figment, a useful enabling fiction.

For Luxemburg, however, the contradiction of the industrial forces of production against their bourgeois social relations in capitalism was recapitulated in the contradiction between the means and ends of the workers’ movement for socialism. Socialism was not built up within capitalism; but only the contradiction of capital deepened through workers’ struggle against exploitation. How so? Their demand for a share of the value of production was a bourgeois demand: the demand for the value of their labor as a commodity. However, what was achieved by increases in wages, recognition of collective bargaining rights, legal protections of workers in capitalist labor contracts and the acceptance of responsibility of the state for the conditions of labor, including the acceptance of the right to political association and democratic political participation in the state, was not the overcoming of the problem of capital—that is, the overcoming of the great divergence and social contradiction between the value of capital and wages in industrial production—but rather its exacerbation and deepening through its broadening onto society as a whole. What the workers received in reforms of capitalism was not the value of their labor-power as a commodity, which was relatively minimized by developments of industrial technique, but rather a cut of the profits of capital, whether directly through collective bargaining with the employers or indirectly through state distribution of social welfare benefits from the tax on capital. What Bernstein described optimistically as the socialization of production through such reforms was actually, according to Luxemburg, the “socialization” of the crisis of capitalist production.

The workers’ party for socialism, through its growth and development on a mass scale, thus increasingly took political responsibility for capitalism. Hence, a new contradiction developed that was focused on the party itself. Was its purpose to manage capitalism, or rather, as Luxemburg put it in her 1898 Stuttgart speech, to “play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company”? Luxemburg posed the political task of the socialist party in Reform or Revolution? succinctly: “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.” The proletarian socialist party was the means for creating that political power. This differed from the development of bourgeois social relations in feudalism that led to revolution:

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.

However, according to Luxemburg, “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 is not a mere phrase.” This is because the proletariat does not develop a new form of “property” within capitalism, but rather struggles economically, socially and politically, on the basis of “bourgeois property”—on the basis of the bourgeois social relations of labor, or of labor as a commodity. What the working class’s struggle within capitalism achieves is consciousness of the need to overcome labor as a commodity, or, to transform capital from bourgeois property into social property that is no longer mediated by the exchange of labor. This is what it meant for Marx that the proletariat struggles not to “realize” but to abolish itself, or, how the proletariat goes from being a class “in itself” to becoming a class “for itself” (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847) in its struggle for socialism.

For Luxemburg, the achievement of reforms within capitalism accomplish nothing but the greater practical and theoretical realization, or “consciousness,” of the need to abolish labor as a commodity, since the latter has been outstripped by industrial production. The further economic, social, and political reforms only dramatically increase this disparity and contradiction between the economic value of labor as a commodity and the social value of capital that must be appropriated by society as a whole.

In other words, the workers’ movement for socialism and its institution as a political party is necessary to make the otherwise chaotic, unconscious, “objective” phenomenon of the economic contradiction and crisis of wage-labor and capital into a conscious, “subjective” phenomenon of politics. As Luxemburg wrote later, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (AKA the “Junius Pamphlet,” 1915):

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind. For this reason, Friedrich Engels designated the final victory of the socialist proletariat a leap of humanity from the animal world into the realm of freedom. This ‘leap’ is also an iron law of history bound to the thousands of seeds of a prior torment-filled and all-too-slow development. But this can never be realized until the development of complex material conditions strikes the incendiary spark of conscious will in the great masses. The victory of socialism will not descend from heaven. It can only be won by a long chain of violent tests of strength between the old and the new powers. The international proletariat under the leadership of the Social Democrats will thereby learn to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.

Why “violent tests of strength”? Was this mere “revolutionary” passion, as Bernstein averred? No: As Marx had observed in Das Kapital, in the struggle over the “working day,” or over the social and legal conventions for the condition of labor-time, workers and capitalists confronted each other, both with “bourgeois right” on their side. But, “Where right meets right, force will decide.” Such contests of force did not decide the issue of right in capitalism, but only channeled it in a political direction. Both capital and wage-labor retained their social rights, but the political arena in which their claims were decided shifted from civil society to the state, posing a crisis—the need for “revolution.”

1848: state and revolution

For Luxemburg, the modern state was itself merely the “product of the last revolution,” namely the political institutionalization of the condition of class struggle up to that point. The “last revolution” was that of 1848, in which the “social question” was posed as a crisis of the democratic republic. As such, the state remained both the subject and the object of revolutionary politics. Marx had conflicted with the anarchists in the First International over the issue of the need for “political” as well as “social action” in the working class’s struggle for socialism. The Revisionists such as Bernstein had, to Luxemburg’s mind, reverted to the pre-Marxian socialism of anarchism in abandoning the struggle for political power in favor of merely social action. In this, Luxemburg characterized Bernstein as having regressed (like the anarchists) to mere “liberalism.” What Bernstein like the anarchists denied was what Marx had discovered in the experience of the revolutions of 1848, namely, the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and hence the necessary political separation of the workers’ “social democracy” from the mere “democracy” of the bourgeois revolution, including the necessary separation from the “petit bourgeois democrats” who earned Marx’s most scathing scorn.

While liberals denied the need for such “social democracy” and found political democracy to be sufficient, anarchists separated the social from the political, treating the latter as a fetishized realm of collusion in the bourgeois state and hence capitalism. Anarchists from the first, Proudhon, had avoided the issue of political revolution and the need to take state power; whereas Marxists had recognized that the crisis of capitalism inevitably resulted in political crisis and struggle over the state: If the working class failed to do so, others would step in their place. For Marx, the need for workers’ political revolution to achieve socialism was expressed by the phenomenon of Louis Bonaparte’s election in 1848 and coup d’état in 1851, which expressed the inability of the “bourgeoisie to rule” any longer through civil society, while the proletariat was as yet politically undeveloped and thus “not ready to rule” the state. But for Marx the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was that the “workers must rule” politically in order to overcome capitalism economically and socially.

Marx characterized Louis Bonaparte’s politics as both “petit bourgeois” and “lumpenproletarian,” finding support among the broad masses of capitalism’s discontented. But according to Marx their discontents could only reproduce capitalism since they could only at best join the working class or remain dependent on the realization of the value of its labor as a commodity. Hence, there was no possible withdrawal from the crisis of bourgeois politics and the democratic state, as by libertarians and anarchists, but the need to develop political power to overcome capitalism. For the capitalist wage-labor system with its far-reaching effects throughout society to be abolished required the political action of the wage laborers. That the “workers must rule” meant that they needed to provide political leadership to the exploited and oppressed masses. If the organized working class did not, others would provide that leadership, as Bonaparte had done in 1848 and 1851. The means for this was the political party for socialism. As Luxemburg put it in her 1898 Stuttgart speech:

[B]y final goal we must not mean . . . this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.

The socialist political party was for Luxemburg the means for this necessary achievement of political power. But the party was not itself the solution, but rather the necessary manifestation and concretization of the problem of political power in capitalism and indeed the problem of “society” itself.

1905: party and class

Luxemburg took the occasion of the 1905 Revolution in Russia to critique the relation of labor unions and the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906). This was a continuation of Luxemburg’s criticism of the reformist Revisionist view of the relation of the economic and political struggles of the working class for socialism, which had found its strongest support among the labor union leadership. In bringing to bear the Russian experience in Germany, Luxemburg reversed the usual assumed hierarchy of German experience over Russian “backwardness.” She also reversed the developmental order of economic and political struggles, the mistaken assumption that the economic must precede the political. The “mass” or political strike had been associated with social- and political-historical primitiveness, with pre-industrial struggles and pre-Marxian socialism, specifically anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism (especially in the Latin countries), which had prioritized economic and social action over political action. Luxemburg sought to grasp the changed historical significance of the political strike; that it had become, rather, a symptom of advanced, industrial capitalism. In the 1905 Russian Revolution, the workers had taken political action before economic action, and the labor unions had originated out of that political action, rather than the reverse.

The western Russian Empire was rapidly industrialized and showed great social unrest in the 1890s–1900s. It exhibited the most up-to-date techniques and organization in industrial production: The newest and largest factories in the world at this time were located in Russia. Luxemburg was active in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in the Russian part of Poland, through her own organization, the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). The 1905 Russian Revolution was precipitated by a political and not “economic” crisis: the shaking of the Tsarist state in its losing war with Japan 1904–05. This was not merely a liberal-democratic discontent with the arbitrary rule of the Russian absolutism. For Luxemburg, the Russo-Japanese War was a symptom of capitalism, and so was the resulting crisis of Tsarism in Russia triggered by this war. The political strike was, as she put it, a revolt of “bourgeois Russia,” that is, of the modern industrial capitalists and workers, against Tsarism. What had started out in the united action of the capitalists and workers striking economically against the Tsarist state for liberal-democratic political reasons, unfolded into a class struggle by the workers against the capitalists. This was due to the necessity of reorganizing social provisions during the strike, in which mass-action strike committees took over the functions of the usual operations of capitalism and indeed of the Tsarist state itself. This had necessitated the formation of workers’ own collective-action organizations. Luxemburg showed how the economic organization of the workers had developed out of the political action against Tsarism, and that the basis of this was in the necessities of advanced industrial production. In this way, the workers’ actions had developed, beyond the liberal-democratic or “bourgeois” discontents and demands, into the tasks of “proletarian socialism.” Political necessity had led to economic necessity (rather than the reverse, economic necessity leading to political necessity).

For Luxemburg, this meant that the usual assumption in Germany that the political party, the SPD, was “based” on the labor unions, was a profound mistake. The economic and social-cooperative actions of the unions were “based,” for Luxemburg, on the political task of socialism and its political party. This meant prioritizing the political action of the socialist party as the real basis or substance of the economic and other social action of the working class. It was the political goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat through socialist revolution that gave actual substance to the workers’ economic struggles, which were, for Luxemburg, merely the necessary preparatory “school of revolution.”

Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet while summering at a retreat with Lenin and other Bolsheviks in Finland. It was informed by her daily conversations with Lenin over many weeks. Lenin had previously written, in What is to be Done? (1902) (a pamphlet commissioned and agreed-upon by the Marxist faction of the RSDLP as a whole, those who later divided into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), that economism and workerism in Russia had found support in Bernsteinian Revisionism in the SPD and the greater Second International, trying to subordinate the political struggle to economic struggle and thus to separate them. In so doing, they like the Revisionists had identified capitalist development with socialism rather than properly recognizing them as in growing contradiction. Lenin had, like Luxemburg, regarded such workerism and economism as “reformist” in the sense of separating the workers’ struggles for reform from the goal of socialism that needed to inform such struggles. Luxemburg as well as Lenin called this “liquidationism,” or the dissolving of the goal into the movement, liquidating the need for the political party for socialism. In What is to be Done? Lenin had argued for the formation of a political party for the workers’ struggle for socialism in Russia. He took as polemical opponents those who, like the Revisionists in Germany, had deprioritized the necessity of the political party, thus deprioritizing the politics of the struggle for socialism, limiting it to economic action.3 The political party had thus redeemed itself in the 1905 Revolution in Russia, showing its necessary role for the workers’ political, social, and economic action, confirming Lenin and Luxemburg’s prior arguments against economism.

Luxemburg regarded the lessons of the 1905 Revolution in Russia to be a challenge to and hence a “crisis”—a potential critical turning point—of the SPD in Germany. Continuing her prosecution of the Revisionist Dispute, Luxemburg argued for the concrete necessity of the political leadership of the party over the unions that had been demonstrated by the 1905 Revolution in Russia. By contrast, the tension and indeed contradiction between the goal of socialism and the preservation of the institutions of the workers’ movement—specifically of the labor unions’ self-interest—which might be threatened by the conservative reaction of the state against the political action of the socialist party, showed a conflict between movement and goal. The Revisionists thought that a mass political strike would merely provoke the Right into a coup d’état.

Demand for redemption

Walter Benjamin, in his draft theses “On the Concept of History” (AKA “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), cited Luxemburg in particular when describing history itself as the “demand for redemption.” Not only did Luxemburg raise this demand with her famous invocation of Marx and Engels on the crossroads in capitalism of “socialism or barbarism,” but as a historical figure she herself calls out for such redemption.

The conflict in and about the party on which Luxemburg had focused was horribly revealed later by the outbreak of war in 1914, when a terrible choice seemed posed, between the political necessity to overthrow the Kaiserreich state to prevent or stop the war, and the need to preserve the workers’ economic and social organizations in the unions and the party. The war had been the Kaiserreich’s preemptive coup d’état against the SPD. The party capitulated to this in that it facilitated and justified the unions’ assertion of their self-preservation at the cost of cooperation with the state’s war. This self-preservation—what Luxemburg excoriated as trying to “hide like a rabbit under a bush” temporarily during the war—may have been justified if these same organizations had served later to facilitate the political struggle for socialism after the Prussian Empire had been shaken by its loss in the war. But the SPD’s constraining of the workers’ struggles to preserve the state, limiting the German Revolution 1918–19 to a “democratic” one against the threat of “Bolshevism,” meant the party’s suppression of its own membership. Past developments had prepared this. The Revisionists’ prioritization of the movement and its organizations over the goal of socialism had been confirmed for what Luxemburg and Lenin had always warned against: the adaptation and liquidation of the working class’s struggles into, not a potential springboard for socialism, but rather a bulwark of capitalism; the transformation of the party from a revolutionary into a counterrevolutionary force. As Luxemburg had so eloquently put it in WWI, the SPD had become a “stinking corpse”—something which had through the stench of decomposition revealed itself to have been dead for a long time already—dead for the purposes of socialism. The party had killed itself through the Devil’s bargain of sacrificing its true political purpose for mere self-preservation.

In so doing, supposedly acting in the interests of the workers, the workers’ true interests—in socialism—were betrayed. As Luxemburg put it in the Junius Pamphlet, the failure of the SPD at the critical moment of 1914 had placed the entire history of the preceding “40 years” of the struggles by the workers—since the founding of the SPD in 1875—“in doubt.” Would this history be liquidated without redemption? This underscored Luxemburg’s warning, decades earlier, against dissolving the goal into the movement that would betray not only the goal but the movement itself. Reformist revisionism devoured itself. The only point of the party was its goal of revolution; without it, it was “nothing”—indeed worse than nothing: It became a festering obstacle. The party was for Luxemburg not only or primarily the “subject” but was also and especially the object of revolutionary struggle by the working class to achieve socialism. This is why the revolution that the party had facilitated was for Luxemburg merely the beginning and not the end of the struggle to achieve socialism. The political problem of capitalism was manifest in how the party pointed beyond itself in the revolution. But without the party, that problem could never even manifest let alone point beyond itself.

During the German Revolution—provoked by the collapse of the Kaiserreich at the end of WWI—Luxemburg split and founded the new Communist Party of Germany (KPD), joining Lenin in forming the “Third” or Communist International, in 1919: to make clear the political tasks that had been manifested and advanced but ultimately abdicated and failed by the social-democratic parties of the Second International in war and revolution. Just as Luxemburg and Lenin had always maintained that the political party for socialism was necessary to advance the contradiction and crisis of capitalism as it had developed from Marx’s time to their own, so it became necessary in crisis to split that party and found a new one. Turning the international war of capitalism into a socialist revolution meant manifesting a civil war within the workers’ movement and indeed within Marxism itself. Whereas her former comrades in the SPD recoiled from her apparent revolutionary fanaticism, and “saved” themselves and their party by betraying its goal (but ultimately faded from historical significance), Luxemburg, as a loyal party-member, sacrificed herself for the goal of socialism, redeeming her Marxism and making it profoundly necessary, thus tasking our remembrance and recovery of it today. | §

Re-published in Weekly Worker 1115 (July 14, 2016). [PDF]


Notes

  1. Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>. []
  2. Quoted in Georg Lukács,“The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” Part III of “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923), trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 195. Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_5.htm>. []
  3. See also my essay ‘Lenin’s Liberalism’, Platypus Review 36 (June 2011). Available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/>. []

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. ( . . . )

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The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries

Chris Cutrone

Postscript to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (December 2015).

The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.

Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.

Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”1 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 85 (April 2016).


Note

  1. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at:<http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []

Horkheimer in 1943 on party and class

Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets

Chris Cutrone

Contribution to a symposium with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org.


Audio recording


Horkheimer’s remarkable essay “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution — regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality — Marxism — is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” — freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” — on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers’ consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers — as well as of intellectuals! — that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class — in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism — what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century — that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism — which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party’s struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature — or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized “racket” capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | §


Notes

  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478> []
  2. Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
    “The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” []
  3. A half-century earlier, Rosa Luxemburg had expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.) []
  4. Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. []
  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M> []
  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.) []
  7. See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. []
  8. See Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished “socialist” from “trade union consciousness:” “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.” (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.)
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things.” (Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>.) []

Back to Herbert Spencer

fuchschristian_marx_spencer_highgate
Marx and Spencer’s facing graves (photograph by Christian Fuchs)

Chris Cutrone argues that the libertarian liberalism of the late 19th century still has relevance today

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1088 (January 7, 2016). [PDF] Also published in The Platypus Review #82 (December 2015 – January 2016). Re-published by Bitácora (Uruguay).


Audio recording


Herbert Spencer’s grave faces Marx’s at Highgate Cemetery in London. At his memorial, Spencer was honoured for his anti-imperialism by Indian national liberation advocate and anti-colonialist Shyamji Krishnavarma, who funded a [lectureship] at Oxford in Spencer’s name.

What would the 19th century liberal, utilitarian and social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was perhaps the most prominent, widely read and popular philosopher in the world during his lifetime – that is, in Marx’s lifetime – have to say to Marxists or more generally to the left, when such liberalism earned not only Marx’s own scorn but also Nietzsche’s criticism? Nietzsche referred to Spencer and his broad appeal as the modern enigma of “the English psychologists.” Nietzsche critiqued what he took to be Spencer’s assumption of a historically linear-evolutionary development and improvement of human morality leading to a 19th century epitome; where Nietzsche found the successive “transvaluations of values” through profound reversals of “self-overcoming” (On the genealogy of morals: a polemic, 1887). Nietzsche regarded modern liberal morality not as a perfection but rather as a challenge and task to achieve an “over-man,” that, failing, threatened to result in a nihilistic dead-end of “the last man” instead. Marx regarded Spencerian liberalism as an example of the decrepitude of bourgeois-revolutionary thought in decadence. Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, wrote, just after Marx’s death, against Spencer’s “bourgeois pessimism”, to which he offered a Marxist optimism.1 Such Marxism fulfilled Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the strong.” By the late 19th century, Marxists could be confident about transcending bourgeois society. Not so today.

Spencer’s distinction of “militant” vs “industrial” society (The principles of sociology Vol 2, 1879-98) – that is to say, the distinction of traditional civilization vs bourgeois society – is still, unfortunately, quite pertinent today, and illuminates a key current blind-spot on the ostensible ‘left’, especially regarding the phenomenon of war. Spencer followed the earlier classical liberal Benjamin Constant’s observation (‘The liberty of the ancients as compared with that of the moderns’ 1816) that moderns get through commerce what the ancients got through war; and that for moderns war is always regrettable and indeed largely unjustifiably criminal, whereas for ancients war was virtuous – among the very highest virtues. Do we moderns sacrifice ourselves for the preservation and glory of our specific “culture,” as “militants” do, or rather dedicate ourselves to social activity that facilitates universal freedom – a value unknown to the ancients? Does the future belong to the constant warfare of particular cultural differences, or to human society? Marx thought the latter.

The question is whether we think that we will fight or, rather, exchange and produce our way to freedom. Is freedom to be achieved through “militant” or rather “industrial” society? Marx assumed the latter.

When we seek to extol our political leaders today, we do not depict them driving a tank but waking at 5 o’clock and staying up past midnight to do society’s business. We do not speak of their scars earned in combat but their grey hairs accumulated in office. Not enjoying the spoils of war on a dais but getting in their daily morning jog to remain fit for work. We judge them not as cunning warriors but as diligent workers – and responsible negotiators. In our society, it is not the matter of a battle to win but a job to do. Carl Schmitt thought that this has led to our dehumanization. But few would agree.

What would have appeared commonplace to Spencer’s contemporary critics, such as Nietzsche and Marx, must strike us today, rather, as profoundly insightful and indeed critical of our society. This is due to the historical regression of politics and society since Marx’s time, and, moreover, to the liquidation of Marxism. What Marx would have regarded as fatally one-sided and undialectical in Spencer, would today seem adequate to the prevailing condition, in the absence of the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The Marxist critique of liberalism has been rendered moot, not in the sense of liberalism’s actual social supersession but by historical regression. Society has fallen below the historical threshold of not only socialism but of classical liberalism – of bourgeois emancipation itself. Not only have we fallen below the criteria of Kant and Hegel that surpassed 18th century empiricism, we have fallen below its 19th century successor, positivism, as well. The question is the status today of liberalism as ideology. It is utopian. As Adorno put it, it is both promise and sham.

Militant and industrial tendencies confront each other today not as different societies, but as opposed aspects of the same society, however contradictorily and antagonistically, in capitalism. Similarly, the phases of “religious,” “metaphysical” and “positive” forms do not succeed one another sequentially in a linear development but rather interact in a dynamic of social history. What Spencer regarded as regressive “metaphysics” remains valid in capitalism, as “ideology” calling for dialectical critique. We cannot now claim to address problems in the clear air of enlightenment.

If Adorno, for instance, critiqued sociological “positivism,” this was not as a romantic anti-positivist such as Max Weber, but rather as a critique of positive sociology as ideology in capitalism. For Adorno, positivism and Heideggerian ontology, as well as Weberian “cultural sociology,” opposed each other in an antinomy of capitalism that would be overcome not in one principle triumphing over another, but rather in the antinomy itself being succeeded dialectically in freedom. Weber denied freedom; whereas Spencer assumed it. Both avoided the specific problem of capitalism. To take a condition of unfreedom for freedom is the most salient phenomenon of ideology. This is what falsified positivism as liberal enlightenment, its false sense of freedom as already achieved that still actually tasked society. Freedom is not to be taken as an achieved state but a goal of struggle.

An emancipated society would be “positivist” – enlightened and liberal – in ways that under capitalism can only be ideologically false and misleading. Positivism should therefore be understood as a desirable goal beyond rather than a possibility under capitalism. The problem with Herbert Spencer is that he took capitalism – grasped partially and inadequately as bourgeois emancipation – to be a condition of freedom that would need yet to be really achieved. If “metaphysics,” contra positivism, remains valid in capitalism, then this is as a condition to be overcome. Capitalist metaphysics is a real symptom of unfreedom. Positivism treats this as merely an issue of mistaken thinking, or to be worked out through “scientific” methodology, whereas it is actually a problem of society requiring political struggle. The antinomy of positivism vs metaphysics is not partisan but social. As Adorno observed, the same individual could and would be scientifically positivist and philosophically ontological-existentialist.

Spencer’s opposition to “socialism” in the 19th century was in its undeniable retrograde illiberal aspect, what Marx called “reactionary socialism.” But Marx offered a perspective on potentially transcending socialism’s one-sidedness in capitalism. Spencer was entirely unaware of this Marxian dialectic. Marx agreed with Spencer on the conservative-reactionary and regressive character of socialism. Marx offered a dialectic of socialism and liberalism presented by their symptomatic and diagnostic antinomy in capitalism that pointed beyond itself. 18th century liberalism’s insufficiency to the 19th century problem of capitalism necessitated socialist opposition; but liberalism still offered a critique of socialism that would need to be fulfilled to be transcended, and not dismissed let alone defeated as such.

Only in overcoming capitalism through socialism could, as Marx put it, humanity face its condition “with sober senses.” This side of emancipation from capital, humanity remains trapped in a “phantasmagoria” of bourgeois social relations become self-contradictory and self-destructive in capital. This phantasmagoria was both collective and individual – socialist and liberal – in character. Spencer naturalized this antinomy. His libertarian anti-statism and its broad, popular political appeal down through the 20th century was the necessary result of the continuation of capitalism and its discontents.

Spencer regarded the problem as a historical holdover of traditional civilization to be left behind rather than as the new condition of bourgeois society in capitalist crisis that Marx recognised needed to be, but could not be, overcome in Spencer’s liberal terms. Marx agreed with Spencer on the goal, but differed, crucially, over the nature of the obstacle and, hence, how to get there from here. Not only Spencer’s later followers (more egregiously than Spencer himself), but Marx’s own, have falsified this task. It has been neglected and abandoned. We cannot assume as Marx did that we are already past Spencer’s classical liberalism, but are driven back to it, ineluctably, whether we realize it or not. Only by returning to the assumptions of classical liberalism can we understand Marx’s critique of it. The glare of Marx’s tomb at Highgate stares down upon a very determinate object. If one disappears, they both do. | §


Note

1. www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1884/06/herbert-spencer.htm

The Sandernistas

The final triumph of the 1980s

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 82 | December 2015 – January 2016

sandersjackson-croped

Bernie Sanders with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s

THE CAMPAIGN CYCLE for the 2016 general election in the U.S. has been characterized by some throwbacks to the 1980s, most notably in the two major party challengers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Most remarkably, the Sanders campaign has introduced the word “socialism” into mainstream political discourse. It’s clear that what socialism means in Sanders’s mouth, however, is New Deal liberalism — despite the poster of Eugene V. Debs that hangs in Sanders’s Senate office.1 The specter of “socialism” is just that: the meaning it has for Obama’s Tea Party opponents. As Marx wrote over 150 years ago,

“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 stigmatized as ‘socialism’.” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

Just because Sanders embraces instead of rejecting the pejorative hurled at any and all proposed reforms of capitalism doesn’t make the charge any more true in fact: for Sanders it is a mere ethic. But it appeals nonetheless.2 Sanders’s candidacy seems to fulfill the demands borne of the post-2008 economic crisis and downturn, the discontents with neoliberalism — itself an artifact of the post-1973 crisis that was met by the 1980s “Reagan revolution” — and to offer the electoral vehicle for the Occupy Wall Street generation of activists disenchanted by Obama and the Democrats after 2012.3

weekend_at_bernies-med size

Weekend at Bernie’s?

The Occupy generation’s wielding of the corpse of social democracy in getting behind Sanders as the standard-bearer of reform recalls the 1980s film Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), in which the protagonists in the movie hide behind the eponymous man’s body as an excuse for wild adventure — in this case, a hardly naïve adolescent misadventure with the Democrats. It is regressive. In a dynamic reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns of the 1980s, Sanders has offered “Left” opposition to Democratic Party Centrism, but not by opposing but trying to capture it as well. Sanders meeting with Killer Mike isn’t the answer — Mike already had endorsed him back in June.

Sanders’s campaign from its inception in May has been surprisingly and increasingly successful. But it has since plateaued. For a moment in September, it looked like Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy was in jeopardy due to the Benghazi hearings. Even Obama threw the Democrats’ favorite under the bus, acknowledging in an interview on 60 Minutes (October 11, 2015) that Clinton had mishandled her email communication as Secretary of State. In the same interview, Obama asserted that he would win a third election, and — much the same thing — that Biden’s experience as Vice President eminently qualified him to be President. But Hillary survived Benghazi; and Biden bowed out.

The Democrats, since the 2014 midterm elections in which they failed to dislodge the Republicans’ Congressional majority, have been faced with the problem of reproducing the “Obama majority” that was victorious in 2008 and 2012.4 This has been described as the challenge of uniting the Democrats’ “Left” and “Center” voters: the “Left” is organized labor and others concerned with socio-economic issues; the “Center” — really, the Right — are those concerned with identity-group politics, women, blacks and gays. This potentially fatal split among the Democrats was seen in the 2015 Chicago city-wide election, in which Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was challenged by fellow Democrat, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who had the support of the Chicago Teachers Union that had struck against Emanuel and his neoliberal education reforms in 2012, seeking to embarrass the Chicago native Obama precisely during his campaign for reelection.

In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, black Democrats supported Rahm against Chuy. This was not merely a division between blacks and Latinos, but rather a split of and within the Democrats’ organized labor base from its ethnic constituency “community”-based neoliberal politics. The former 1960s Black Panther, U.S. Congressional Representative Bobby Rush, for instance, denounced Chuy’s campaign for trying to usurp the mantle of the (first black mayor of Chicago) “Harold Washington majority” (as against the prior Daley political machine) that first emerged in the 1980s, which Rush implied could only be reproduced (if at all) by black (and not Latino) leadership — that is, a neoliberal Center/Right majority, and not a labor-based politics. Washington was supported by the “Left:” his campaign chief was a former Maoist — shades of Van Jones? For Rush and other black Democrats in Chicago, Rahm is the “Washington majority” candidate. As Obama was, and Hillary will be. Chuy’s challenge to Rahm has actually provided Emanuel with the opportunity for achieving the electoral mandate endorsement he previously lacked: now a majority has voted in favor of his neoliberal policies. Far from a crisis for neoliberalism, neoliberalism has been further consolidated against any contenders. This is a lesson for Sanders’s supporters: when Hillary is elected by primary voters as the Democratic Party candidate for President, they will have chosen and given a mandate to neoliberalism.

Hillary’s ability to unite the “Left” and Right of the Democrats is uncertain: if she can do so, still, she will not be able to generate the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in 2008. Certainly this goes for labor. Obama’s 2008 campaign for instance offered organized labor the prospect of passing the Employee Free Choice Act under a Democratic majority, but was unceremoniously dropped after the election. Obama’s campaign demanded — and achieved — a reuniting of labor in the AFL-CIO from its split in the Change to Win Federation, so that they would have to negotiate with only one rather than multiple labor constituencies: Obama sought to bring labor under control, specifically in the context of the potentially explosive 2008 economic crisis. The Democrats did not face a labor insurgency. Neither will they now.

Into this bitter legacy steps Sanders, whose call for “political revolution” he explicitly described as an electoral strategy for raising turnout, especially among younger, newer voters, and thus returning the Democrats to a Congressional majority that they enjoyed when Obama was elected until the 2010 Tea Party Congressional election insurgency. Sanders has offered himself as a better champion for the Democrats in the 2016 general election than Hillary can be. The problem has been on the Democratic Right: Sanders’s alleged “problem with women and blacks.” Hillary has supposedly maintained appeal to the social identity constituencies, despite some turbulence from Black Lives Matter and the memory by gays that both Clintons have had a poor record on marriage equality. The presumptive character of Hillary’s nomination, especially as a woman candidate, has exhibited a complacency that chafes and is not guaranteed to pay off in terms of voter mobilization.5

The degree to which the “Left” has gotten on-board with Sanders, it has been in the form of the alleged “brocialists” — straight white men. “Socialism” has meant a backlash against identity politics, an attempt to return to the Democrats’ historic role as economic reformers going back to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, which had pressured the Republicans such that even Eisenhower and Nixon were purportedly to the “Left” of the Clintons on economic policy. There is also the sense that in the post-2008 environment Sanders could appeal to and win back an older generation of disaffected voters, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” whose shifting allegiances allowed the Republicans to triumph since the ’80s, now approaching retirement age and concerned about the opportunities for their children and grandchildren bequeathed by 30 years of decrepit neoliberalism.6

Sanders thus offers the Democrats an answer to the Tea Party that has been sorely lacking since 2010, as expressed by the frustration that bubbled over in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. A new generation of activists was mobilized to “get the money out of politics,” especially in opposition to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited campaign spending, a generation whose concerns about “social justice” and the erosion of “democracy” Sanders speaks to. The question has been whether the Sanders campaign is “for real,” or whether, rather, it is merely a protest pressure-tactic on Hillary, slowing and perhaps redirecting, however slightly, the Clinton juggernaut.7 Sanders’s claim that higher turnout means electoral gains for the Democrats neglects that not only the Republicans but they themselves engage in and benefit from voter suppression, especially among blacks, especially in the Democrats’ urban strongholds. The Democrats have no interest in popular political mobilization, even behind the most anodyne and unthreatening symbolic gestures — see Black Lives Matter — and so seek to curtail it.8

Not least, this is because the Democrats don’t want the political responsibility that would come with large majorities, as was clear in 2008-10, in which they bent their Congressional supermajority over backwards to placate the utterly prostrate Republicans. Any substantial increase in the voting electorate would present problems of political integration. See the Tea Parties’ challenge to the Republican establishment, which would really rather do without such berserkers in their midst. Even before the Tea Parties, in the 2008 bailout crisis, it was unclear whether Congressional Republicans were to fall victim to their own neoliberal rhetoric instead of taking required action to prevent a complete financial meltdown. International financial markets constantly worry over the “political paralysis” in the U.S. yielded by the Republicans hostage to the Tea Party Congressmen and the implications of this for the world economy. The Democrats would be challenged by such unruly voters (especially at the local level of municipal and state governments, as in Illinois) at least as much if not more so than the Republicans are.

Neoliberalism needs to be seen as both an accommodation to and a reinforcement of social and political demobilization after the 1960s, visible for instance in the decimation of labor unions but also of other civil society institutions, after abandonment of their original liberal raison d’être in favor of integration in what the Frankfurt School called the authoritarian “administered state,” already observable to C. Wright Mills and other political scientists after the waning of the radicalization of the 1930s through WWII: what remained was the political parties’ organization of a “power elite.” But even this structure has atrophied since the 1960s. Privatization through NGOs has not meant a renaissance of civil society, but has left the political field abandoned of any substantial forces for reform since the 1980s. Even what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” in the Cold War has been revealed after the Iraq war as a massively corrupt freewheeling affair, and not a political force to be reckoned with: Enormous sums of money may be thrown around to government contractors, but this hardly amounts to political control over policy; 1970s Ford administration veteran Donald Rumsfeld went to war not only against foes in Afghanistan and Iraq but against the Pentagon itself, in a neoliberal privatization campaign of “slimming down” the military, to the embitterment of the officer corps, even amid soaring expenditures. What C. Wright Mills warned about “political irresponsibility” in “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” has only grown more unchecked since the ’60s. Indeed, Mills seems too optimistic in light of even more miserable realities today. The “political establishment” is actually quite threadbare and in evident disarray, not a convincing “power elite.” But: “There is no alternative.”

The issue is whether the post-2008 crisis has been an opportunity for undoing neoliberalism — reversing the ’80s — or for further entrenching it. But to overcome neoliberalism there would need to be an organized political force for doing so. The Democrats are decidedly not this, in any conceivable way. The crisis in Europe has demonstrated an opportunity for expanding and deepening neoliberalism, and not for returning to “social democracy” — despite SYRIZA, Podemos, and Jeremy Corbyn’s wresting seasoned 1980s (Bennite) leadership of the U.K.’s Labour Party, back away from the “Third Way” spectacularly unconvincing 1990s-offspring Blairite runts.

Sanders has more evident conviction than Hillary could ever exhibit. This recalls heroic opposition to Reaganism — why his followers have been affectionately nicknamed after the Sandinistas. One key issue for the Sandernistas that is also similar to the dynamic of Corbyn’s supporters in the U.K. is the 2000s George W. Bush-era anti-war movement as touchstone: Sanders, like Corbyn, opposed the Iraq war, which makes him amenable to the “Left.” Does the Sanders campaign represent a potential political turn, or is it the last gasp of Occupy activism before growing up and joining the fold of the Democrats? Sanders’s abandoning his hitherto vintage 1960s “independence” from the Democrats points the way for the younger generation of 21st century activists.

The “Left” may be tempted to imagine the Sanders campaign as a potential crisis for the Democrats — just as Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party could be seen as a crisis and opportunity for the “Left.” It is more likely that — just as Corbyn will save and not wreck the Labour Party — Sanders will boost and not undermine the Democrats’ campaign around Hillary in 2016. Or at least that is his avowed hope.

What if any kind of political movement could come out of the Sanders campaign? The Sandernistas certainly do not think of the campaign as a way to reconcile themselves to the Democratic Party but rather hope to transform it. Like with Chuy in Chicago, the hope is to mobilize new forces through the campaign that will be sustained after the election. Will this be within or outside the Democratic Party? Perhaps it will be both. In the 1980s, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was established; in 2004, the Progressive Democrats of America was founded out of the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich Presidential campaigns. The first was, in DSA founder Michael Harrington’s words, “a remnant of a remnant” of the New Left; the second was in many respects a repeat of the first. These have not been auspicious developments indicating possibilities for where the Sandernistas might go after 2016. The DSA supported Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party campaign for President, which Sanders also endorsed, in protest against Reaganism. The precedents in the 1980s legacy of the 1960s New Left suggest the further adaptation to — through protest of — the Democrats’ moving ever Right-ward.

Sanders like Trump demonstrates the hollowness of the two U.S. political parties today, if only through the inability to stop their candidacies by the “establishment.” The parties are no longer the formidable “machines” they were in the 20th century — confronted by the 1960s New Left generation — but are merely brandings anyone can buy into — whether wholesale by billionaire magnates like Trump himself or the Koch Brothers Tea Party-backers, or through tiny payments to Sanders’s 2016 campaign, as had been made to Obama in 2008, as an internet media phenomenon. Clinton at least still needs to win over union endorsements and particular capitalist business-sector funding. But in any case there is no political process involved, but only the aestheticization of politics as a consumer article9. As such it can and will be rendered in typical postmodernist pastiche of non-partisan eclecticism. “Politics” means what any- and everyone wants to make of it. This is even claimed as a virtue, of “divided government.”

The worst possible outcome of this is the most likely, that Hillary will be elected as President, but the Republicans will retain a Congressional majority, reproducing the polarized stalemate and deadlock that actually sustains — stabilizes — U.S. politics around a conservative neoliberal consensus, in which certain social issues are given obligatory genuflections without being actually addressed let alone ameliorated. Since the Democrats won the “culture wars” under Obama’s neoliberal leadership, a new division of labor with the Republicans has been established: that the Republicans will represent “straight white men,” especially in rural and exurban areas; and the Democrats, under the leadership of the Clintonite neoliberal Center/Right, will represent “women, blacks and gays” in their petit bourgeois ethnic constituency urban (and more urbane suburban) communities. Welcome to the “new normal.” It began in the ’80s with Reagan’s Presidency, under which the Democrats retained control of Congress.

In the 1980s, the “yuppies” — young urban professionals, that is to say, grown-up children of the 1960s — were regarded as new but conservative; today, they are called “hipsters” and considered liberal as well as entirely normal: an electoral demographic spanning everyone from college to middle-age, referred to in conventional polling analysis as “voters under 50,” i.e., the generation that came of age after the ’80s. Sanders (like Trump) indicatively does best among them — where Clinton does better among those over 50. In the 1980s, identity politics consolidated the accommodation to and resolution of neoliberalism in the “Reagan revolution.” What Adolph Reed has called the “Jesse Jackson phenomenon” exemplified this. It has continued up to the present, through such eminently respectably conservative measures as gay marriage equality. Obama has not brought about any social changes, but only granted them legal legitimacy. But where Obama at least seemed to symbolize “change” — a new post-’60s generation — Sanders as well as Clinton represent a return: diminished expectations. Sanders raising the specter of the “Old Left” 1930s-60s New Deal Coalition’s venerable political heritage for the Democrats, which came to grief in the ’80s, will be the means not for resuscitating but finally burying it.

daniel ortega

Daniel Ortega in the 21st century

There will be no “political revolution” — apart from the one already long underway since the 1980s. The final decades of the 20th century were successfully seized by the same “end of history” to which the 21st century will yet continue to belong, evidently for a long time to come. Daniel Ortega’s return to power as part of the greater Latin American “Pink Tide” in the 2000s represented the final surrender — or was it rather the ultimate triumph? — of the Sandinistas, and put paid to any ’80s “Left” nostalgia on which he may have traded. The same will go for Sanders. Sanders, as an outlier 1960s remnant of the Reagan era, becomes a mainstream political phenomenon today only as a function of giving up the ghost. The 1960s were not defeated but institutionalized in the 1980s. Today, this recent historical process has been completely naturalized, the domesticated televised version of the 1960s as historical curiosity. What needs to be reconciled today — by contrast with 2008 — is not the ’60s but the ’80s: not the last hurrah of the former 1960s radical Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers who helped Obama get his political start as a generational bequest 40 years after Chicago’s Days of Rage, but the 1980s Mayor of Burlington, Vermont (alongside the vintage 1980s New York City real estate speculator) will be the specter haunting 2016.

The 1960s New Left in which Sanders and Clinton — and Corbyn — took part could not and will not give any rebirth to “socialism,” however defined. It could not prevent and indeed actively assisted and not merely accommodated the demise of the Great Society. Whatever regrets it may have now do not point any way forward, but only towards its retirement, and a historical settling of the past.

Just as Clinton’s election in 1992 did not reverse Reaganite neoliberalism by pot-smoking former campaigners in 1972 for George McGovern, Sanders’s late protest today may seal neoliberalism’s unalloyed triumph. Margaret Thatcher claimed Tony Blair as her ultimate achievement. Sanders begging to differ from Hillary before her election as Clinton II will thus be the final victory of the 1980s. | §


Postscript on the March 15 primaries

The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.

Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.

Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”10 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §


P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

June 22, 2016

Further amendment after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,” but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.

Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §


Notes

  1. Bernie Sanders, Speech on “democratic socialism,” Vox.com, November 19, 2015 http://www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9762028/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism; and Dylan Matthews, “A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right — and wrong: An interview with Jacobin magazine editor Bhaskar Sunkara,” Vox.com, November 20, 2015 http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9767096/bernie-sanders-socialism-jacobin []
  2. Ben Geier, “Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he’s not a Socialist,” Fortune, September 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/09/19/bernie-sanders-socialist/; and “Bernie Sanders just answered the biggest question of his campaign,” Fortune, November 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/11/19/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism/ []
  3. Walker Bragman, “More like Reagan than FDR: I’m a Millennial and will never vote for Hillary Clinton,” Salon.com, November 30, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/30/more_like_reagan_than_fdr_im_a_millennial_and_ill_never_vote_for_hillary_clinton/  []
  4. Jonathan Martin, “After losses, liberal and centrist Democrats square off on strategy,” New York Times, November 14, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/us/politics/democratic-party-iberals-and-moderates.html []
  5. Michael Eric Dyson, “Yes she can: Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama: A skeptic’s journey,” The New Republic, November 29, 2015 https://newrepublic.com/article/124391/yes-she-can []
  6. Christopher C. Schons, “From Reagan to Bernie Sanders: My political odyssey,” Counterpunch, November 4, 2015 http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/04/from-reagan-to-bernie-sanders-my-political-odyssey/ []
  7. Bruce A. Dixon, “Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016,” Black Agenda Report, May 6, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/bernie-sanders-sheepdog-4-hillary []
  8. Glen Ford, “Blacks will transform America, and free themselves, but not at the ballot box in 2016: Black voters cannot be counted on to support the most progressive presidential candidates available at the polls,” Black Agenda Report, October 21, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/blacks_wont_free_themselves_at_ballot_box_in_2016 []
  9. See Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). []
  10. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at:<http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []

Art and freedom

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1077 (October 8, 2015). [PDF]

Entire exchange with Rex Dunn on art and Marxism available as compiled PDF.

Rex Dunn poses “teleology” against “accident” in support of “essentialism” (“Obfuscations”, Letters, October 1). But this neglects that, according to Hegel, Geist, as the “self-moving substance [essence] that is subject”, is the expression of the unfolding and development of freedom. Art is certainly geistig activity, but is not itself Geist. Hegel’s telos is not posed as a future, but rather in the present: the present as a necessary and not accidental result of history.

The telos is not the future in the present, but what Hegel called “the eternally present in the past”. We cannot judge humanity according to an as yet unrealised potential ought – what could and should be – but rather we are tasked to find the actuality in what is. Not where is the present headed, but how does it point beyond itself? This means that what appears as humanity’s “essence” is an expression of necessity in the present – the necessity of the present. We should not assume that such necessity will not change, for that would prematurely foreclose possibilities we cannot see now. We are not serving the future, but are failing the present – and the past.

Schiller wrote of the “play drive” that unites freedom and necessity, in Homo ludens. But even Schiller didn’t think that art should replace all other human activity. Play may express freedom, but it is not itself freedom. Beauty is the symbol, not the realisation, of freedom. Our goal is not a beautiful society, but a free one.

Marx and Adorno, following him, dismissed the idea that work was to become play. Rather, from “life’s prime need” it was to become “life’s prime want”: that we will work because we want to do so, out of a sense of social and individual duty, and not capitalist compulsion. Our task is not to realise human play, but rather to actualise freedom. According to Adorno, art, like everything else in capitalism, expresses necessity – the necessity of freedom. But it is not itself freedom. Nor will it become that as some final end. Freedom is not the end of necessity in play, but the transformation of necessity – giving rise to new necessities. Freedom is not a state of being, but a process of becoming. More specifically, it is the movement of that process. Human “essence” is not art, but freedom. There is no reason to believe it will ever end – without an end to humanity. We do not know freedom’s end, but only its need, its next necessary step. Art in capitalism points to that, the next stage of history, not its end.

As Adorno put it, in the last line of the concluding chapter of Aesthetic Theory, on ‘Society’, “…what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering?” The history of art, as that of Geist, expresses the history of freedom. We suffer not from lack of play, but from the task of freedom. | §

Phantasmagoria

Chris Cutrone

rowlandsonthomas_phantasmagoriasatire1810
(Thomas Rowlandson, political satire with phantasmagoria show [c. 1810])

Letter in Weekly Worker 1075 (September 24, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker 1076 on (October 1, 2015). [PDF]

Rex Dunn (‘No to “Marxist art”,’ September 17) replies to my letter on ‘Marxism and art’ (September 3) to invoke Adorno, but only partially and critically. And undialectically.

I think it is a mistake to try to adjudicate Marxism on the basis of postmodernist categories, such as ‘essentialism’ versus ‘anti-essentialism’ and ‘structuralism’ or ‘post-structuralism’. Marxism is none of these. They are too beholden to the New Left’s concerns, and neglect the older, deeper history. Such antinomies of postmodernism are nonetheless potentially related to what Marx called the “phantasmagoria” of capitalism, in which cause and effect and means and ends become confused and reversed.

As Adorno wrote to Benjamin about capitalism, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness … perfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”

While this may seem terribly abstract, it does say something about art and capitalism, as well as the struggle for socialism. Socialism is a symptom of capitalism, as is modern art. It is capitalism’s unrealised potential, necessarily distorted as it is constrained. But to regard that potential properly means returning to the bourgeois-emancipatory character of art in the modern world. It will appear ‘inhuman’.

While humans may have always made art, they did not always make art as an ‘end in itself’. Like production for its own sake, art for art’s sake is a bourgeois value, but one perverted by capitalism. Its ideal remains – as Dunn himself acknowledges with his vision of a socialist homo aestheticus.

So this is why it becomes necessary to follow modern art, as Adorno did, in an “immanently dialectical” method of “critique”. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory seems general and unsatisfactory because it remains a meta-theoretical statement that should have been unnecessary from the standpoint of his concrete critical essays on art and literature. Yet it was still necessary for him (to try) to write. Why?

Adorno’s concrete essays have apparently sometimes given the mistaken impression that he was a partisan for some art over others. Dialectical critique was mistaken for polemic. That’s why Adorno also sometimes appears to equivocate: the dialectic is lost.

That is the problem with the apparent oppositions of postmodernism that actually share something in common that is unacknowledged: that the antinomies of society in capitalism point beyond themselves. So does art.

Socialism will not mean returning to pre-bourgeois ‘art’, but fulfilling the freedom of art, announced, but betrayed and mocked, by bourgeois society in capitalism. That will mean going beyond art in capitalism, but in ways neither Aristotle nor Adorno nor Kant nor Hegel nor Marx himself – nor we ourselves – would quite recognise.

Adorno, like Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution (1924) and other writings on art and culture were profoundly inspirational for him, did not prescribe what a true – free – ‘human culture’ would be, but recognised the need to struggle in, through and beyond capitalism – beyond art – on the basis of capitalism, to make it possible. | §

Marxism and art

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1072 (September 3, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn responded in Weekly Worker 1074 (September 17, 2015). [PDF]

Marxism cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe, and also cannot tie down art to its (supposed) context of production. But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change – in all domains.

Clement Greenberg defined ‘avant-garde’ art as having a “superior consciousness of [the] history [of art]”, where ‘kitsch’ elides that. But the necessity of such consciousness is a symptom of the need to overcome capitalism. We may need avant-garde art now, but its criteria didn’t apply before capitalism and so won’t apply (in the same way) after capitalism.

This is what Howard Phillips shies away from in condemning “transcendence” – even while also writing that good art should “point beyond” its context (‘Dylan and the dead’, August 13). As Adorno wrote, art is the attempt to make something without knowing what it is. In other words, art goes beyond theoretical understanding or analysis through concepts, and so must be experienced aesthetically. That aesthetic experience can either affirm society as it is or point beyond it. Often it does both. Art is dialectical – as anything under capitalism.

Certainly one can essay at what makes art good or bad. But the art itself cannot be reduced to such theoretical essaying. As Walter Benjamin put it, art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no-one.

Specialisation is necessary: critics are not artists; artists are not politicians. There are important interrelations among art, criticism and politics, but they are not the same thing. Marx’s Capital was not a work of economics or even of political economy, but rather a (political) critique of political economy. Such critique pointing beyond existing social conditions, with consciousness of potential historical change (ie, beyond the law of the value of labour) could indeed be attempted in any domain (eg, in the physical sciences), but would remain speculative, provisional and disputable. The dialectic is unfinished.

The question is whether Marxist theoretical critique helps potential possibilities – both within and pointing beyond capitalism – become better realised in practice. That effect will always be indirect or oblique. Critical theory is not prescriptive or programmatic, but it is critical. Good critical theory can have some – however indirect and weak, but still productive – effect on the practices of art: on its production and consumption.

But, above all, we need not Marxist art or theory, but Marxist politics. Without that there is only pseudo-theory (pseudo-critique), pseudo-art (ie, kitsch: art without historical consciousness), and pseudo-politics.

The problem with Stalinism, in art as in all other domains, was not in its authoritarianism, but in its opportunist adaptation to the status quo (which required authoritarian enforcement), at the expense of more radical possibilities for changing society. | §

Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism

The meaning of political party for the Left

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015). [PDF]

Tamás Krausz’s recent book Reconstructing Lenin (2015) notes the foundational opposition by Lenin to ‘petty bourgeois democracy’ – Lenin’s hostility towards the Mensheviks was in their opportunistic adaptation to petty bourgeois democracy, their liquidation of Marxism.

The real objects of Lenin’s political opposition in proletarian socialism were the Narodniks and their descendants, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were the majority of socialists in Russia in 1917. The SRs included many avowed ‘Marxists’ and indeed supported the ‘vanguard’ role of the working class in democratic revolution. The split among the SRs over World War I is what made the October revolution in 1917 possible – the alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Left SRs.

Conversely, the collapse of that alliance in 1918, due to the Bolsheviks’ policy of pursuing a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, led to the Russian civil war. The SRs, calling for a “third Russian revolution”, remained the most determined enemies of the Bolsheviks, all the way up through the Kronstadt mutiny of 1921, calling for “soviets without political parties”: ie, without the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks considered them ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and thus ‘counterrevolutionaries’. As Engels had already foretold, opposition to proletarian socialism was posed as ‘pure democracy’. It was ‘democracy’ versus the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Hal Draper’s four-volume Marx’s theory of revolution (1977-90) similarly finds Marx’s essential lesson of 1848 in the need to oppose proletarian socialism to petty bourgeois democracy. In the democratic revolution “in permanence” the proletariat was to lead the petty bourgeoisie.

What has happened since Marx and Lenin’s time, however, has been the opposite: the liquidation of proletarian socialism in petty bourgeois democracy, and the workers’ acceptance of the political lead of the latter – what Trotsky in the 1930s called the “crisis of revolutionary leadership”, the result of the self-liquidation of Marxism by Stalinism in the popular front. Today, the left is characterised by the utter absence of proletarian socialism and the complete domination of politics by what Marxism termed petty bourgeois democracy.

This did not, however, prevent Marx – and Lenin, following him – from endorsing the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’, which remained necessary not only in apparently holdover feudal-aristocratic states, such as Germany in 1848 or Russia in 1905 and 1917, but also in the US Civil War of 1861-65 and the Paris Commune of 1871. This is because capitalism in the 19th century was a crisis undermining the bourgeois revolution begun in the 16th-17th centuries (in the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War).

The question is, what is the relation between the task of the still ongoing bourgeois democratic revolution, the contradiction of capital and the struggle for socialism? How has Marxism regarded the problem of ‘political action’ in modern society?

Programme

Mike Macnair’s four-part series on the “maximum programme” of communism – ‘Thinking the alternative’ Weekly Worker April 9, 16 and 30 and May 14 2015 – argues for the need “to proletarianise the whole of global society”. Macnair means this more in the political than economic sense. So what is the proletariat as a political phenomenon, according to Marxism? Georg Lukács, following Marx, however, would have regarded the goal of the complete ‘proletarianisation of society’ precisely as the ‘reification’ of labour: ie, a one-sided opposition and hypostatisation that Macnair articulates as the proletariat’s “denial of property claims” of any kind. But this leaves aside precisely the issue of ‘capital’ in Marx’s sense: the self-contradictory social relation of the workers collectively to the means of production, which for Marxism is not reducible to the individual capitalists’ property.

‘Capital’, in Marx’s sense, and the petty proprietorship of shopkeepers, for example, let alone the personal skills of workers (either ‘manual’ or ‘intellectual’), are very different phenomena. Macnair addresses this issue in the final, fourth part of his series, ‘Socialism will not require industrialisation’ (Weekly Worker May 14 2015), which clarifies matters as regards his view of wage-labour, but not with respect to capital specifically as the self-contradiction of wage-labour in society. Moreover, there is the issue of how capital has indeed already ‘proletarianised the whole of global society’, not only economically, but also politically. This cuts to the heart of what Marx termed ‘Bonapartism’.

Macnair’s “maximum programme”, if even realisable at all, would only reproduce capitalism in Marx’s sense. Whereas, for Marx, the proletariat would begin to abolish itself – ie, abolish the social principle of labour – immediately upon the workers taking political power in their struggle for socialism. If not, then petty bourgeois democracy will lead the lumpenproletariat against the workers in Bonapartist politics, typically through nationalism – a pattern seen unrelentingly from 1848, all the way through the 20th century, up to the present. It has taken the various forms of fascism, populism, ethno-cultural (including religious) communalism (eg, fundamentalism), and Stalinist ‘communism’ itself. How have the workers fared in this? They have been progressively politically pulverised and liquidated, up to today.

Marxism’s political allegiance to the working class was strategic, not principled. What Marxism expressed was the socialist intelligentsia’s recognition of the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a means to achieve socialism, not as an abstract utopia, but rather, as Lenin put it, “on the basis of capitalism itself”, and thus the necessary “next stage” of history.

This is because capitalism produces not only proletarianised workers, but also their opposite: a reserve army of lumpenised unemployed to be used against them – not merely economically, but also politically – as fodder for petty bourgeois demagogy and objects of capitalist technocratic manipulation, but also as enraged masses of capitalism’s discontented. If the working class in revolution would open its ranks to all and thus abolish the lumpenproletariat as well as the petty bourgeoisie through universalising labour, then this would be a civil war measure under socialist leadership, to immediately attack and dismantle the valorisation process of capital, as well as to mobilise the masses against competing petty bourgeois democratic leadership: it will not be as a new, ostensibly emancipatory principle of society. It would be rather what Lukács dialectically considered the “completion of reification” that would also lead potentially to its “negation”. It would be to raise to the level of conscious politics what has already happened in the domination of society by capital – its ‘proletarianisation’ – not to ideologically mystify it, as Macnair does in subsuming it under the democratic revolution, regarded as ‘bourgeois’ or otherwise.

But this can only ever happen at a global and not local scale, for it must involve a predominant part of the world working class asserting practical governing authority to be effective. This would be what Marxism once called the “proletarian socialist revolution”. But it would also be, according to Marx and Lenin, the potential completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, going beyond it. This ambivalent – ‘dialectical’ – conception of the proletarian socialist revolution as the last phase of the bourgeois democratic revolution that points beyond it has bedevilled ‘Marxists’ from the beginning, however much Marx was clear about it. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s practical political success in October 1917 was in pursuing the necessity Marx had recognised. However, consciousness of that original Marxist intention has been lost.

Democracy

This must be ideologically plausible as ‘socialism’, not only to the workers, but to the others they must lead politically in this struggle. That means that socialism must be as compelling ideologically as the working class is politically organised for the dictatorship of the proletariat – what Marx called “winning the battle of democracy”. Note well that this was for Marx the battle of democracy, which he took to be already established, and not the battle ‘for’ democracy as some yet unattained ideal. For Marx democracy was constitutive of the modern state in bourgeois society and capitalism: hence his statement that the “secret of every constitution is democracy” – a notion Marx had in common with bourgeois revolutionary thought going back to Machiavelli, but especially with respect to Locke and Rousseau. ‘Socialism’, as the phenomenon of a new need in capitalism, must win the battle of the democratic revolution. The political party for socialism would be the means by which this would take place.

The issue is whether we are closer to or rather further away from the prospect of socialism today, by contrast with a hundred years ago. If socialism seems more remote, then how do we account for this, if – as Macnair, for instance, asserts – we have already achieved socially what Marx demanded in the Critique of the Gotha programme? The return to predominance of what Marx considered Bonapartism through petty bourgeois democracy after the liquidation of proletarian socialism in the early 20th century would seem to raise questions about the ‘progress’ of capitalism and of the very social conditions for politics. Have they advanced? It could be equally plausible that conditions have regressed, not only politically, but socially, objectively as well as subjectively, and that there has been a greater divergence of their interrelation by comparison to past historical moments, especially the revolutionary crisis of 1914-19.

The question, then, would be if the necessity of Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has been overcome or rather deepened. Redefining the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Macnair, along with many others, has tried to do, will not suffice to address adequately the issues raised by consideration of historical Marxism, specifically how Marxists once regarded the workers’ movement for socialism itself, as well as capitalism, as self-contradictory. And, most pointedly, how Marxism considered capitalism and socialism to be ‘dialectically’ intertwined, inextricably – how they are really two sides of the same historical phenomenon – rather than seeing them as standing in undialectical antithesis.

The task posed by capitalism has been for proletarian socialism to lead petty bourgeois democracy, not adapt to it. The classic question of politics raised by Lenin – ‘Who-whom?’ (that is, who is the subject and who is the object of political action) – remains: the history of the past century demonstrates that, where ostensible Marxists leading proletarian socialist parties have tried to use the petty bourgeois democrats, really the latter have used – and then ruthlessly disposed of – them.

So let us return to Marx’s formulation of the problem and retrace its history – for instance, through the example of the revolutionary history of the US.

Dictatorship

In a letter of March 5 1852, Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer that his only original contribution had been recognising the necessity of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Bourgeois thought, Marx wrote, had already recognised the existence and the struggle of classes: indeed, the existence and struggle of classes – the struggle of the workers against the capitalists – had been recognised by bourgeois thought in terms of liberalism. Recognition of the class struggle was an achievement of liberal thought and politics. Marx thought that socialists had fallen below the threshold of liberalism in avoiding both the necessity of the separation of classes in capitalism and the necessity of the class struggle resulting from that division of society. Socialists blamed the capitalists rather than recognising that they were not the cause, but the effect, of the self-contradiction of society in capitalism.1 So Marx went beyond both contemporary liberal and socialist thought in his recognition of the historical necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat revealed by capitalism.

Marx wrote this letter in the wake of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte and his establishment of the Second Empire. It was the culmination of Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution and its aftermath. Weydemeyer was Marx’s editor and publisher for his book on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Later, in his writings on the Paris Commune in The civil war in France, Marx summarised the history of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire in terms of its being the dialectical inverse of the Commune, and wrote that the Commune demonstrated the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in action. How so?

Marx’s perspective on post-1848 Bonapartism was a dialectical conception with respect to the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat that Bonapartism expressed. This was why it was so important for Marx to characterise Louis Bonaparte’s success as both ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘lumpenproletarian’, as a phenomenon of the reconstitution of capitalism after its crisis of the 1840s. Bonaparte’s success was actually the failure of politics; and politics for Marx was a matter of the necessity of the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. Bonapartism was for Marx a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ – not in the sense of the rule of the capitalists, but rather in terms of the political necessity of the state continuing to organise capitalism on a bourgeois basis and the imperative for doing so after the capitalists had lost the ability to lead through civil society. After all, as Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire, in Bonaparte’s coup, “bourgeois fanatics for order [were] shot down on their balconies in the name of … order”. It was a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ in the sense that it did for them what they could not.

The crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism ran deep. Marx wrote:

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’ (18th Brumaire).

It was in this sense that the Bonapartist police state emerging from this crisis was a travesty of bourgeois society: why Louis Bonaparte was for Marx a “farcical” figure, as opposed to his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the course of the Great Revolution. Where Napoleon tried to uphold such bourgeois values, however dictatorially, Louis Bonaparte and others who took their cue from him after 1848 abjured them all. 1848 was a parody of the bourgeois revolution and indeed undid it. The “tragedy” of 1848 was not of bourgeois society, but of proletarian socialism: Marx described the perplexity of contemporaries, such as Victor Hugo, who considered Bonapartism a monstrous historical accident and, by contrast, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who apologised for it as some expression of historical necessity, even going so far as to flirt with Louis Bonaparte as a potential champion of the working class against the capitalists – a dynamic repeated by Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany with respect to Bismarck, earning Marx’s excoriation. Marx offered a dialectical conception of Bonapartism.

State capitalism

Frankfurt Institute for Social Research director Max Horkheimer’s essay on ‘The authoritarian state’ was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, which were his draft aphorisms in historiographic introduction to the unwritten Arcades project, concerned with how the history of the 19th century prefigured the 20th: specifically, how the aftermath of 1848 was repeating itself in the 1920s-30s, the aftermath of failed revolution from 1917-19; how 20th century fascism was a repeat and continuation of 19th century Bonapartism. So was Stalinism.

Horkheimer wrote that the authoritarian state could not be disowned by the workers’ movement or indeed separated from the democratic revolution more broadly. It could not be dissociated from Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, but could only be understood properly dialectically with respect to it. The authoritarian state was descended from the deep history of the bourgeois revolution, but realised only after 1848: only in the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, which made the history of the bourgeois revolution appear in retrospect rather as the history of the authoritarian state. What had happened in the meantime?

In the 20th century, the problem of the Bonapartist or authoritarian state needed to be addressed with further specificity regarding the phenomenon of ‘state capitalism’. What Marx recognised in the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was the same as that of state capitalism in Bonapartism. Hence, the history of Marxism after Marx is inseparable from the history of state capitalism, in which the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inextricably bound up. Marx’s legacy to subsequent Marxism in his critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) was largely ignored.

The question is how the Lassallean Social Democratic Workers’ Party that Marx’s followers joined in Bismarckian Germany was a state capitalist party, and whether and how Marx’s followers recognised that problem: would the workers’ party for socialism lead, despite Marxist leadership, to state capitalism rather than to socialism? Was the political party for socialism just a form of Bonapartism?

This is the problem that has beset the left ever since the crisis of proletarian socialism over a hundred years ago, in World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, Marxism has seemed to be haunted by this historical verdict against it, as state capitalism, and so disqualified forever as a politics for emancipation.

Marxism fell apart into mutual recriminations regarding its historical failure. Anarchists and council communists blamed ‘Leninism’; and ‘Leninists’ returned the favour, blaming lack of adequate political organisation and leadership for the grief of all spontaneous risings. Meanwhile, liberals and social democrats quietly accepted state capitalism as a fact, an unfortunate and regrettable necessity, to be dispensed with whenever possible. But all these responses were in fact forms of political irresponsibility, because they were all avoidance of a critical fact. Marx’s prognosis of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ still provoked pangs of conscience and troubling thoughts. What had Marx meant by it?

We should be clear: state capitalism in the underdeveloped world was always a peripheral phenomenon; state capitalism in the core, developed, capitalist countries posed the contradiction of capitalism more acutely, and in a politically sharpened manner. What was the political purpose of state capitalism in post-proletarian society? Rather than in ‘backward’ Russia or China and other countries undergoing a process of industrialising-proletarianising. Socialism was not meant to be a modernising capitalisation project. And yet this is what it has been. How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

Neoliberalism

Organised capitalism relying on the state is a fact. The only question is the politics of it. Lenin, for one, was critically aware of state capitalism, even if he can be accused of having allegedly contributed to it. The question is not whether and how state capitalism contradicts socialism, but how to grasp that contradiction dialectically. A Marxist approach would try to grasp state capitalism, as its Bonapartist state, as a form of suspended revolution; indeed, as a form of suspended ‘class struggle’. The struggle for socialism – or its absence – affects the character of capitalism. Certainly, it affects the politics of it.

A note on neoliberalism. As with anything, the ‘neo’ is crucially important. It is not the liberalism of the 18th or even the 19th century. It is a form of state capitalism, not an alternative to it. Only, it is a form of politically irresponsible state capitalism. That is why it recalls the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of ‘imperialism’, of the imperial – Bonapartist – state. However, at that time, there was a growing and developing proletarian movement for socialism, or ‘revolutionary social democracy’, led by Marxists, in nearly all the major capitalist countries. Or so, at least, it seemed.

Historically, Marxism was bound up with the history of state capitalism, specifically as a phenomenon of politics after the crisis of 1873. For this reason, the history of capitalism is impacted by the absence of Marxism 100 years later, today, after the crisis of 1973.2 After 1873, in the era of the second industrial revolution, there was what Marxists once called the ‘monopoly capitalism’ of global cartels and financialisation, organized by a world system of states, which Marxists regarded as the ‘highest (possible) stage of capitalism’. It was understood as necessarily bringing forth the workers’ movement for socialism, which seemed borne out in practice: the history from the 1870s to the first decades of the 20th century demonstrated a growth of proletarian socialism alongside growing state capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out – against social democratic reformists, who affirmed this workers’ movement as already in the process of achieving socialism within capitalism – that “the proletariat … can only create political power and then transform [aufheben] capitalist property”. That Aufhebung – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – would be the beginning, not the “end”, of the emancipatory transformation of society. As Michael Harrington noted, drawing upon Luxemburg and Marx, “political power is the unique essence of the socialist transformation”.3 It is this political power that the ‘left’ has avoided since the 1960s.

History

In the US, the liberal democratic ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, the idyll of the American Revolution, was shattered by the crack of the slave whip – and by the blast of the rifle shot to stop it. Jefferson had tried to call for abolition of slavery in his 1776 Declaration of Independence, accusing British policy of encouraging slavery in the colonies, but the Continental Congress deleted the passage. Jefferson fought against slavery his entire political life. Towards the end of that life, in a letter of August 7 1825, Jefferson wrote to the abolitionist, women’s rights activist and utopian socialist, Frances Wright, supporting her founding the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee for the emancipation of slaves through labour:

I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter [the abolition of slavery], and which has been thro’ life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. and I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. That which you propose is well worthy of trial. It has succeeded with certain portions of our white brethren, under the care of a [Christian communist George] Rapp and an [utopian socialist Robert] Owen; and why may it not succeed with the man of colour?4

Jefferson’s election to president in 1800, through which he established the political supremacy of his new Democratic-Republican Party, was called a ‘revolution’, and indeed it was. Jefferson defeated the previously dominant federalists. What we now call the Democratic Party, beginning under Andrew Jackson, was a split and something quite different from Jefferson. The Republican Party, whose first elected president in 1860 was Abraham Lincoln, was a revolutionary party, and in fact sought to continue the betrayed revolution of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The Republicans came out of the destruction of the Whig party, which produced a revolutionary political crisis leading to the Civil War. They were the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and Reconstruction under Ulysses S (‘Unconditional Surrender’) Grant that followed. Its failure demonstrated, as the revolutions of 1848 had done in Europe, the limits of political and social revolution in capitalism: it showed the need for socialism.5

The last major crisis of US politics was in the 1960s ‘New Left’ challenge to the ruling Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition that had been the political response to the 1930s great depression.6 In the 1930s Franklin D Roosevelt had disciplined the capitalists in order to save capitalism, subordinating the working class to his efforts. He thus remade the Democratic Party. Trotsky, for one, considered FDR New Dealism, along with fascism and Stalinism, despite great differences, a form of “Bonapartism”.7 The crisis of the 1960s was essentially the crisis of the Democratic Party, challenged by both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. The Republicans, first led by Richard Nixon in 1968 then by Ronald Reagan in 1980, were the beneficiaries of that crisis. Both the 1930s and 1960s-70s, however, fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism in the 1860s-70s, which was the most democratic period in US history. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats, considered the ‘left’ of the American political party system, have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite Democratic Party presidential candidate John F Kennedy’s declaration on October 12 1960 that the strife of the 20th century – expressed by the cold war struggles of communism and decolonisation – was an extension of the American Revolution to which the US needed to remain true.8

The history of the state in the modern era is inextricable from the politics of revolution.9 The crisis of the state is always a crisis of political parties; crises of political parties are always crises of the state. The crisis of the state and its politics is a phenomenon of the crisis of capitalism.

The question of left and right is a matter of the degree of facilitation in addressing practically and with consciousness the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

Regression

Politics today tends to be reduced to issues of policy, of what to do, neglecting the question of who is to do it. But this is depoliticising. Politics is properly about the matter of mobilising and organising people to take action: their very empowerment is at least as important as what they do with it. Marxism never identified itself directly with either the working class or its political action, including workers’ revolution and any potential revolutionary state issuing from this.10 But Marxism advocated the political power of the working class, recognising why the workers must rule society in its crisis of capitalism. Marxism assumed the upward movement of this trend from the 1860s into the early 20th century. But, in the absence of this, other forces take its place, with more or less disastrous results. After 1919 matters have substantially regressed.

Marxism recognised the non-identity of socialism and the working class. ‘Revolutionary social democracy’ of the late 19th century, in its original formulation by Bebel and Kautsky, followed by Lenin and Luxemburg, was the union of the socialist ideological movement of the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia with the workers in their class struggle against the capitalists.11 For Marxism ‘politics’ is the class struggle. For Marx, the capitalists are only constituted as a class through opposing the working class’s struggle for socialism (see Marx’s 1847 The poverty of philosophy). Otherwise, as Horkheimer recognised, there is no capitalist class as such, but competing rackets. Adam Smith, for instance, had recognised the need for the workers to collectively organise in pursuit of their interests; Smith favoured high wages and low profits to make capitalism work. Marx’s critique of political economy was in recognition of the limits of bourgeois political economy, including and especially that of the working class itself. Marx was no advocate of proletarian political economy, but its critic.

The antagonism of workers against the capitalists is not itself the contradiction of capital. However, it expresses it.12 The goal of socialism is the abolition of political economy, not in terms of the overthrowing of the capitalists by the workers, but the overcoming of and going beyond the principle of labour as value that capital makes possible.13 The question is how the potential for socialism can transcend the politics of capitalism – can emerge out from the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists – that otherwise reconstitutes it.

Rejecting

A political party is necessary to preserve the horizon of proletarian socialism in capitalism over time. Otherwise, the workers will have only consciousness of their interests that reproduces capitalism, however self-contradictorily. A political party is necessary for class struggle to take place at all. According to Marx, the democratic republic is the condition under which the class struggle in capitalism will be fought out to completion; and the only possibility for the democratic republic in capitalism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a revolutionary workers’ state.

Such a revolutionary politics would be concerned not with the whether, but only the how, of socialism. It will be marked by great social strife and political struggle, with competing socialist parties. Its purpose will be to make manifestly political the civil war of capitalism that occurs nonetheless anyway. We are very far from such a politics today.

The notion of politics apart from the state, and of politics apart from parties is a bourgeois fantasy – precisely a bourgeois fantasy of liberal democracy that capitalism has thrown into crisis and rendered obsolete and so impossible. Capitalism presents a new political necessity, as Marx and his best followers once recognised. Anarchism is truly ‘liberalism in hysterics’ in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party. Neo-anarchism today is the natural corollary to neoliberalism.

In the absence of a true left, politics and the state – capitalism – will be led by others. In the absence of meeting the political necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we will have more or less, hard or soft, and more or less irresponsible capitalist state dictatorship. We will have political irresponsibility.

To abandon the task of political party is to abandon the state, and to abandon the state is to abandon the revolution. It is to abandon the political necessity of socialism, whose task capitalism presents. It is to abandon politics altogether, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The ‘left’ has done this for more than a generation, at least since the 1960s. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §


Notes

  1. See my ‘Class-consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today’ Platypus Review No51, November 2012.
  2. See my ‘1873-1973, the century of Marxism: the death of Marxism and the emergence of neoliberalism and neo-anarchism’ Platypus Review No47, June 2012.
  3. ‘Marxism and democracy’ Praxis International 1:1, April 1981.
  4. http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-chron-1820-1825-08-07-3.
  5. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address declared the goal of the Union in the US Civil War to be a “new birth of freedom”. But its declaration that it was fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth” expressed the sobering consciousness that, by contrast with the European states after the failures of the revolutions of 1848, the US was the last remaining major democratic-republican state in the world.
  6. See my ‘When was the crisis of capitalism? Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left’ Platypus Review No70, October 2014.
  7. See The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International aka Transitional programme for socialist revolution (1938).
  8. Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York: “I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of Castro coming to this hotel, Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveller in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognise that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.” Fuller excerpts from Kennedy’s speech can be found at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25785.
  9. See ‘Revolutionary politics and thought’ Platypus Review No69, September 2014.
  10. See L Trotsky, ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937).
  11. See VI Lenin What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement (1902), and One step forward, two steps back: the crisis in our party (1904), where, respectively, Lenin argues for the non-identity of socialist and trade union consciousness, and defines revolutionary social democracy as Jacobinism tied to the workers’ movement.
  12. See my ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ Weekly Worker October 16 2014; and my follow-up letters in debate with Macnair (November 20 2014, January 8, January 22 and April 16 2015).
  13. See my ‘Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism’ Platypus Review No63, February 2014; abridged in Weekly Worker January 23 2014.

Future class

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1054 (April 16, 2015). [PDF]

Mike Macnair accuses me of “Toryism” (“Magna Carta and long history,” Weekly Worker 1051, March 26, 2015), to which my natural response would be to accuse him of “Whiggism” and progressivist history. Macnair’s recent article (“Thinking the alternative,” Weekly Worker 1053, April 9, 2015) helps dispatch that potential charge, however, in favour of a new issue: the politics of ‘class’ beyond the socialist revolution.

Still, the problem of Bernsteinian evolutionism versus Marxist revolutionism remains – which is not that the goal is literally nil, but rather the gradualist belief that socialism is nothing apart from the struggle for it and as a goal is thus absorbed into the movement itself. By contrast, Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, recognised a dialectic of means and ends, practice and theory, movement and goal: the struggle for socialism took place within the contradiction of capital, and the revolution was a necessary expression of that contradiction to be worked through.

The problem with Bernstein as well as Kautsky is the endless deferral of the political revolution for socialism at the expense of its actuality. It should not take us centuries to get out of capitalism. Neither the storming of the Bastille nor the Tennis Court Oath nor the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence were the realisation of Machiavelli’s vision of politics or a confirmation of Hobbes on the state. On the other hand, they consolidated bourgeois society politically in ways that the political revolution for socialism will only inaugurate the struggle for its potential achievement.

Macnair thinks that an adequate socialist politics needs to offer a better collectivism than Islamism or Christian fundamentalism, etc, which is conservative-reactionary, but I think that socialism needs to offer a better individualism (as well as a better collectivism) than capitalism, which is progressive-emancipatory. But the progressive-emancipatory character of capitalism is expressed in bourgeois-revolutionary terms, not that of capital: ‘capital’ is a critical term.

Islamic State is not a misguided freedom movement, but revels in unfreedom. So does neoliberalism, which must be distinguished from classical bourgeois thought, as bourgeois emancipation must be distinguished from capitalism. Neoliberalism does not posit religious fundamentalism or the police state as external and internal other: these are expressions of the failure of society in capitalism, not the success of the capitalist politics. Liberal democracy has failed, and for a long time now: the only question is, why?

The Abbé Sieyès was inspired both conceptually and politically not by the Christian Bible, but by Locke and Rousseau. The French Revolution was not a peasant jacquerie, but a bourgeois revolution, expressed through urban plebeian revolt. Communists historically are not on the side of the peasants against the clergy and nobility, but with the burghers against all of the above. The question is what happens in the industrial revolution when the labouring classes against the ruling castes become the working class against the capitalists, which is a new and different social contradiction, the self-contradiction of bourgeois society: wage-labour against capital.

The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Marxism’s original sense was meant to be global: if not absolutely every single territory of the earth, then at least in very short order all the advanced capitalist countries, and so a form of political rule of global import.

Comrade Macnair’s attribution of class to productive technique is mistaken. This causes him to reconceive the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of egalitarianism against the basis of middle classes in the development of high productive technique. Lenin, by contrast, followed Marx and described the problem not in such sociological terms, but in the historical social relations of ‘bourgeois right’, which came into self-contradiction in capitalism.

Macnair mistakes capital for social surplus: that, so long as advanced technique allows the opportunity for accumulation of social surplus through knowledge of specialist technicians, it will be necessary to suppress them. But capital is not like the surplus of grain in peasant agriculture, on which the aristocracy and church depended. According to Bukharin’s ABC of communism, capital is not a thing, but a social relation. And it is one not of the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but of the domination of society by the valorisation process of capital. This is a change and crisis of both individuality and collectivity in society. Marx distinguished between the phases of bourgeois society in cooperation, manufacture and industry for just this reason. Industry was a crisis for bourgeois society, not due to technology itself, but its role.

According to Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s critique of capital, after the industrial revolution the issue is the accumulation not of goods, but time – or a matter of the power to command not the value of work, but time in society – not by proprietor capitalists as either entrepreneurs making a killing through competition or as capital-rentiers living off interest, but rather by capital in its ‘valorisation process’. Liberalism is inadequate to just this problem. Furthermore, capital dominates – constrains and distorts – not only living, but also dead, labour.

So credit is an entirely different matter in capitalism than previously. Interest expresses not usury, but the imperative to increase productivity in time, and not for the purpose of profit, but rather to preserve the social value of capital from the depreciation of the value of labour-power in production in the changing organic composition of capital.

Overcoming capitalism will not mean a continuation of wage-labour, but its abolition. The compulsion to wage-labour is not the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but rather the need to valorise capital in society – at least according to Marx. Macnair finds labour subsisting.

The point is that the social value of capital is for Marx the (distorted expression of) ‘general social intellect’ and the (self-contradictory) social relations of this, which is no longer, after the industrial revolution, adequately mediated by the value of the exchange and circulation of labour-power as a commodity. Capital is not a thing; it is not the means of production, but a social relation of the working class to the means of production through the self-alienation of their wage-labour in capital, which is not the same as capitalist private property ownership of the means of production, but rather the role of the means of production as ‘general social intellect’ in the valorisation process of capital. Capital is a social relation not of the capitalists to the means of production through their private property, but of the working class through their wage-labour.

So the dictatorship of the proletariat will mean making the social value of both capital and labour (human activity as a social resource) into an explicitly political rather than chaotic (and politically irresponsible) ‘economic’ matter. Marx thought that this was already placed on the agenda by the demand for the ‘social republic’ in the mid-19th century.

This is a very different issue from that of the social surplus commanded by the ruling castes in feudalism that Macnair thinks produced ‘directly’ capitalism rather than a bourgeois society of free exchange. The accumulation of capital is not the same as the political command of social resources (as in feudalism). And it is not a matter of individual countries, but rather of the global system of production.

When Luxemburg wrote that the proletariat could not build its economic power in capitalism as the bourgeoisie did in feudalism, she did not mean to distinguish between economics and politics, but rather to foreground the issue of society.

This will not mean a levelling down to protect equality, enforced by the working class in a protracted dictatorship of the proletariat, but the separation of human activity from the social value of production, which will become an immediate political issue, as it is indeed already in capitalism, however obscurely. That will be decided by a free (‘democratic’) association of the producers, whose status as producers will not be literally through their labour, but rather as subjects of humanity, as the inheritor of the accumulated history of technique, no longer mediated as a function of time in capital. The relation between society and time will be changed.

Technique will not be the province of specialised technicians potentially become capitalists, but rather the collective property of society, and on a global scale – as it already is under capitalism, but in alienated form: in the form of ‘capital’.

For Luxemburg as well as Lenin this meant that, for instance, the already developed system of banking and credit provided the coordinating technique for socialist planning. But it will require a political revolution and a continued politics of socialism – subject to dispute – after the revolution to achieve this. Politics will survive the dictatorship of the proletariat into socialism.

That is what it will mean, as Lenin put it, to achieve socialism “on the basis of capitalism itself”. | §