What is political party for the Left?


Presented on a panel with Mike Macnair (Communist Party of Great Britain), Adolph Reed, and Tom Riley (International Bolshevik Tendency) at the seventh annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention April 11, 2015 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Full panel discussion audio recording:

Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat and state capitalism

Chris Cutrone

In a letter of March 5, 1852, Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer that his only original contribution had been recognizing the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Bourgeois thought, Marx wrote, had already recognized the existence and the struggle of classes: indeed, the existence and struggle of classes — the struggle of the workers against the capitalists — had been recognized 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 the necessity of both 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 recognizing that they were not the cause but the effect of the self-contradiction of society in capitalism. 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 is 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 summarized 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 characterize Louis Bonaparte’s success as both “petit bourgeois” and “lumpen-proletarian,” 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” but not in the sense of the rule of the capitalists, but rather in terms of the political necessity of the state continuing to organize 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 that,

“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, Louis Bonaparte and others who took their cue from him 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 apologized for it as some expression of historical necessity, even going so 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.

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 realized 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 WWI and its aftermath. Indeed, socialism 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 favor, blaming lack of adequate political organization 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 industrializing-proletarianizing? How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

Organized 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 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.

Historical 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, after the crisis of 19-73. After 1873, in the era of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, there was what Marxists once called the “monopoly capitalism” of global cartels and financialization, 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, “[T]he 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” (“Marxism and democracy,” Praxis International 1:1, April 1981). It is this political power that the “Left” has avoided since the 1960s.

In this country (the U.S.), 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’s election in 1800, through which he established the political domination of his Democratic-Republican Party, was called a “revolution,” and indeed it was. It 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. It was the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and the Reconstruction under Ulysses S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant that followed. Its failures 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. The last major crisis of U.S. 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. But both fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1960 that the strife the 20th century — expressed by the Cold War struggles of Communism and decolonization — was an extension of the American Revolution to which the U.S. needed to remain true.

The history of the state in the modern era is inextricable from the politics of revolution. 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 consciously the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

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 recognized. — Anarchism is truly “liberalism in hysterics” in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party.

In the absence of a 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 at all, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The “Left” has done this for more than a generation. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §

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