What is political party for Marxism?

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

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

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

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

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

New politics

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

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

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

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

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

Class and history

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

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

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

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

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

“Party of the new type”?

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

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

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

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

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

Symptomatic socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism and socialism

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

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

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

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

Redeeming history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript on party politics

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 idea of communism: Badiou, Lacan, Althusser (audio recording)

Chris Cutrone

Alain Badiou’s recent book (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Zizek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.” Zizek has spoken of “the Badiou event” as opening new horizons for both philosophy and communism. Badiou and Zizek share a background in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent post-New Left thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency. For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology.


Audio recording of presentation and discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 12, 2011

Suggested background readings:

• Cutrone, “The Marxist Hypothesis: A Response to Badiou’s ‘Communist Hypothesis’” (2010)

• Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis” (2008)

• Cutrone, “Chinoiserie: A Critique of the RCP, USA on Badiou” (2010)

• Badiou, “Tunisia, Egypt: The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings” (2011)

• Wal Suchting, “Althusser’s Late Thinking about Materialism” (2004)

Left Forum NYC 2011: Badiou’s Communism

Badiou’s “communism” — a gerontic disorder

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Nayi Duniya (Demarcations journal), co-author of Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation:” A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World, and Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University) at the Left Forum 2011, Pace University, New York, March 19, 2011; and on the panel “Badiou and post-Maoism: Marxism and communism today,” with Mike Ely, Joseph Ramsey and John Steele at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 30, 2011 (audio recording). (An audio recording of the related April 12, 2011 lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on “The Idea of Communism: Badiou, Althusser and Lacan,” is available.)

Perhaps the most condemnatory thing that could be said of Badiou’s “communism” was something Badiou himself wrote, when he defined “communism” as a “Kantian regulatory idea,” a norm to be aspired to, rather than a concrete reality to be achieved. This not only besmirched the historical Marxist idea of “communism,” but also Kant! For Kant addressed freedom as something that could and should be, not as a utopia. And Marx remained deeply engaged in practical politics. Leon Trotsky wrote, more than a hundred years ago, after the 1905 Russian Revolution (in the 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects), that “Marxism converted socialism into a science, but this does not prevent some ‘Marxists’ from converting Marxism into a Utopia.” Trotsky also wrote that, “[I]n academies . . . it might be possible artificially to detain the proletariat for fifty, a hundred or five hundred years, but in the course of all-round life in capitalist society, on the basis of unceasing class struggle[,] . . . [t]he growth of the consciousness of the proletariat transforms this class struggle, gives it a deeper and more purposeful character.” Trotsky was not a utopian any more than Kant or Marx were.

However, as we know, such “unceasing class struggle” that Trotsky had in mind, which could “transform” the “consciousness of the proletariat” and potentially “give it a deeper and more purposeful character,” is precisely what the world has been missing, for at least a generation. The Marxist vision for proletarian socialism has passed, almost completely into oblivion. Badiou’s late redefinition of “communism” is a response — an adaptation — to this historical reality. Indeed, Trotsky was writing at the crest of 2nd International Marxism, which developed in the period from 1871 to 1917, whose history Badiou deliberately seeks to bury. Badiou characterizes this period, like our own, as an “interval,” in which “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable,” “with the adversary in the ascendant.” What is the basis of Badiou’s judgment of this period, 1871 to 1917, in which, not only did bourgeois society go through its last great flowering, in the Belle Époque, but Marxism flourished as an international workers’ movement, commanding a dedication to socialist revolution by millions in the core capitalist countries? The period between the Paris Commune and the October Revolution was not in any way like ours; it was not cynical, but optimistic in the sense of historical mission and the real potential of human progress. Badiou shares the skepticism that has developed regarding such historical potential. Indeed, we can say that Badiou is typical of the 1960s-era New Left in this regard. Badiou cannot recognize 2nd Intl. Marxism as an advance. Moreover, Badiou is, in Trotsky’s sense, “academic,” despite his avowed intentions. The last thing Badiou imagines is that he has conceded. Badiou’s entire philosophy was developed out of concern for “fidelity,” resisting the apostasies of the 1968 generation in the decades that followed. — The question is, to what does Badiou claim fidelity? Certainly not Marxism.

What has sanctioned Badiou to bury the admittedly obscure history of the first wave of Marxism in the 2nd Intl., today? And why does Badiou find an affinity in our moment with that of the pre-WWI world, which otherwise seems so unlikely? In certain respects, Badiou is rather optimistic in finding such an affinity, hoping that today we are in a period of preparation for the realization of more radical social transformation — “revolution” — down the road. Badiou thus tries to keep fidelity to “the revolution” in his estimation of the present. But which “revolution?” Badiou is clear that his model for revolution is May 1968 in France and the contemporaneous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Presumably, in the latter case, this means a commitment to Mao and “Marxism-Leninism.” But, beneath this, there is a certain unmistakable pessimism to the characterization of the formative era of Lenin’s Marxism in the 2nd Intl., as being, like ours, one of conservative reaction. — Was the growth of Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries really a retreat, after the defeat of the Paris Commune? Or, has Badiou mistaken one revolution for another? Badiou has maintained fidelity, not to “communism,” in Marx’s sense, but rather to “democracy,” that is, the eternal bourgeois revolution. It is thus significant that Badiou dates modern communism, not to Marx in 1848, but to the Jacobins in 1792. This obscures the history that came between.

The truth is that Badiou’s “communism” is deeply anti-Marxist. Not merely non-Marxist, in the sense of what it tends to leave out, but actually hostile to historical Marxism. Perhaps this is unremarkable. Perhaps it is not a problem in itself. But it may bear some inquiry into the potential consequences that might flow from this. Perhaps Badiou is quietly acknowledging that Marxism may have become an obstacle to the kind of social change that, in his estimation, is possible and desirable — and necessary. That is a real question. Does Marxism speak to the needs of the present? But to consider this — to consider what Badiou may have to offer as an alternative to Marxism — we must address what Badiou means by “communism.”

Badiou defines communism as “radical democratic equality.” The “hypothesis” that motivates communism, according to Badiou, is that,

the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. . . . [A] different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. . . . The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

Furthermore,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.

However, the potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx’s thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles — or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. So what was Marx’s distinct contribution? As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.” This was because, according to Marx, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.” Marx was not the preeminent communist of his time but rather its critic, seeking to push it further. The best Marxists who followed, such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, similarly sought to push their respective political movement of “revolutionary social democracy” in the 2nd Intl. further. In so doing, they revealed and grappled with the form of capital of their moment in history, what they called “imperialism,” seeking to make it into capital’s “highest” and last stage, the eve of revolution. Badiou, by contrast, addresses inequality as a timeless, perennial problem. He thus departs fundamentally from Marx and Marxism, and liquidates the revolution of capital.

Badiou conceives of the relation between freedom and equality as an ontological one, in the mathematical terms of set theory, transhistoricizing it. Badiou’s background is in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent New Left-era thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency. Althusser took great inspiration from Mao in China and Lenin in Russia for advancing the possibility of emancipation against a passive expectancy of automatic evolution in the historical process of capital. For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology. Badiou does not conceive of the transformation of the capitalist mode of production that would allow for overcoming the socially pernicious aspects of specifically capitalist forms of inequality. By contrast, Marx looked forward to the potential for overcoming the conditions of possibility for the reproduction of capitalist class dynamics in the mode of production itself: capital’s overcoming of the need to accumulate the value of surplus labor-time. Marx saw the historical potential to overcome this socially mediating aspect of labor, expressed, for instance, in automated machine production. However, Marx also foresaw that, short of socialism, the drive to accumulate surplus-value results in producing a surplus population, an “industrial reserve army” of potential “workers” who thus remain vulnerable to exploitation. A politics based only in their “democratic” discontents can result, not in the overcoming of the social need for labor, but in the (capitalist) demand for more labor, the demand to be put to work. Or, as Max Horkheimer, director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, put it, machines “have made not work but the workers superfluous.” Marx anticipated this when he warned that realization of the socialist demand to abolish of “private property” would (merely) make society as a whole into one giant capitalist dominating its members. Marx even went so far as to analogize this with socialist calls to abolish marriage as a “bourgeois” institution, which he said would result only in universal prostitution — indeed, that capitalism was already bringing this about.

For Marx, elimination of a separate capitalist class would not in itself be emancipatory unless a transformation in the “mode of production” and its social relations came about. Marx did not think that the capitalists were the cause, but the effect of capital, calling them its “character masks.” Nonetheless, Marx endorsed, however critically, the traditional socialist demand to abolish private property and “expropriate the expropriators,” regarding this as a necessary first step: necessary, but not sufficient, to realize a society beyond the mode of production and social relations of capital. As Lenin underscored this, in The State and Revolution, on the eve of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, such social relations of bourgeois society, namely, the mutual exchange of labor as the form of social solidarity in capital, could only be transformed gradually and thus “wither away,” and not be abolished and replaced at a stroke. The proletarian socialist revolution was supposed to open the door to this transformation. But, since then, the history of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions showed another potential, that is, the reconstitution of capital, under the guise of “socialism.” Marx had already foreseen such a possibility in the limited consciousness of his socialist and communist contemporaries of the 19th century, and he criticized them “ruthlessly” for this. Marx and Lenin recognized a problem in “socialism” itself that their supposed followers have neglected or avoided.

All this remains hidden to Badiou. But it was precisely this Marxist approach to capital as a “mode of production,” or form of society, that distinguishes Marx from other socialists or communists, and motivated revolutionaries who followed Marx, such as Lenin, maintaining that Marxism pursued the possibility of overcoming capital “on the basis of capitalism” itself. Badiou situates emancipatory possibilities rather atavistically, in a pre-historical ontology, to which the philosophy of mathematics — for instance, the question of “number and numbers” (the title of one of his books) — can be an adequate guide. For Badiou, in a procedure that recalls a self-criticism session or assembly at a “reeducation” camp, matter itself, in its open-ended recombinations, poses the solution to what Marx called “communism,” the “riddle of history.” Each element must be broken down to its radical potentiality for permutation — for instance, in the Maoist “revolutionary people,” for emancipatory change to take place. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceives of revolution not as a process but an event, or, that his conception of “process” is founded on a conception of the “event.” On the other hand, Badiou finds Marxists such as Lenin (and Marx himself) conceding to the existing social hierarchies and thus betraying the “idea of communism,” for instance in the party-state, which Badiou regards in retrospect as a “failed experiment.” Thus, Badiou.

What of Marx and Marxism? Marx distinguished capitalist inequality from that of the traditional caste system that had characterized civilization for millennia before the emergence of bourgeois society in the post-Renaissance world. As Adorno pointed out, to call all of history the “history of class struggles” was to indict all of (“recorded”) history, and to thus consign it to the mere “pre-history” of authentic humanity. But this humanity was itself historically specific, and emergent — to the era of capital. Just as traditional inequality was not the cause of the form of community that the ancients regarded as being divine in origin, capitalist inequality was not the cause but the effect, the product of the cosmos of capital. Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, explored how the post-Industrial Revolution society of capital produced a new form of inequality, between capitalist and worker, but one liable to be cast and responded to in the form of the original Revolt of the Third Estate that had ushered in modern bourgeois society in the 17th and 18th centuries. Marx found an important disparity — a self-contradiction — to have developed between the political aspirations of the subjects of capital, for “social democracy,” and the potential of capital to go beyond bourgeois society and its forms of politics — liberalism and democracy. This did not make Marx and those who followed him illiberal or anti-democratic, but they did regard liberalism and democracy — the combined libertarian and social-egalitarian impulses in modern politics — as means and not ends in and of themselves. This is because they regarded capitalism itself as a process and not merely a state of being. Marx and his best followers, such as Lenin, looked forward not merely to more liberalism and more democracy, but to the potential transcendence of the need for both liberalism and democracy, an “end” to politics as presently practiced. But not all at once, and not by denying them in the present. Capital is not an eternal event of inequality that needs to be met with the event of revolution. Badiou does not deny liberalism and democracy, but rather unconsciously reaffirms their present, bourgeois forms, at a deeper and more obscure level. Badiou’s ontology of “radical egalitarian democracy,” provides not a critical recognition, but a philosophical affirmation of the way bourgeois society already proceeds, however contradictorily. Badiou mystifies.

The challenge is to recognize the symptomatic character of liberalism and democracy in the crisis of capital, as it had developed in the 19th century, setting the stage for the history that came later. But such symptomology was not to be “cured” in the sense of elimination, but rather undergone and worked through — as Nietzsche put it, modernity is an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness,” bringing forth new life. The problem, as Marx recognized it, was that, by the mid-19th century, when bourgeois society entered into crisis, after the Industrial Revolution, and became “proletarianized,” humanity faced a situation in which, as Engels later described it, the capitalists were no longer and the workers not yet able to master the society of capital. Marx regarded this as the source of the authoritarianism of the modern, capitalist (nation-)state, despite the promises of classical bourgeois liberalism for a minimal state and a free, cosmopolitan civil society that would, for instance, reduce legislatures to, at most, sites of public debate and political recognition of social facts already accomplished on the ground — what Kant, for one, expected. But the bourgeoisie could no longer and the proletariat not yet rule modern society. The genie of capital had been let loose. The historical task of emancipating humanity had thus fallen from the bourgeois to the proletarian members of society. Marxists have recognized that this is the situation in which the world has remained stuck ever since then — ever since the failed “social democratic” Revolutions of 1848, on the eve of which Marx and Engels had published their inaugural Manifesto. For Marx, the demand for “social democracy” was part of the history of capital, to be worked through “immanently” and transcended. But none of this registers for Badiou. Marx marked a potential turning point for humanity; he was not merely one in a chain of prophets reaching back for thousands of years. He was thinker and political actor for our, modern time.

The cost of liquidating the specific history of capital — its peculiar constraint on society and its potential beyond itself — is Badiou’s reduction of “communism” to the perennial complaint of the subaltern, the millennial dream of social equality, as a specter haunting the world that has more in common with eschatological “justice,” posed by religion at the end of time, than with the pathology of the modern, bourgeois world of capital, in which humanity actually suffers today. We must awaken from this nightmare — the vain wish that things be otherwise — of the oppressed. For we are not only oppressed, but tasked by capital.

Nevertheless, the failure of historical Marxism has made Badiou an evidently adequate symptomatic expression of our time — its confusion and diminished expectations, well shy of the epochal transformation that had motivated Marx and the best Marxists, historically. We must remember Marxism, so we can forget Badiou: forget the time that made such ideology — such naturalization, indeed ontologization — of defeat so appealing, and finally consign it, where it belongs, to pre-history. | §

The Marxist hypothesis

A response to Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”

Chris Cutrone

Against Badiou

ALAIN BADIOU’S RECENT BOOK (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.”[1] This is also the title of the Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review[2] on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency.[3] There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.[4]

Badiou goes on to state that,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.[5]

Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history.

Badiou divides what he calls the modern history of the “communist hypothesis” into two broad periods, or “sequences,” from 1792–1871 and from 1917–76. The first, from Year One of the revolutionary French Republic through the defeat of the Paris Commune, Badiou describes as the “setting in place of the communist hypothesis.” The second, from the October 1917 Revolution in Russia to Mao’s death and the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, Badiou calls the sequence of “preliminary attempts at . . . [the] realization [of the communist hypothesis].”[6]

The two periods remaining in this historical trajectory sketched by Badiou, 1871–1917 and 1976 to the present, Badiou describes as “intervals” in which “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable,” “with the adversary in the ascendant.”[7]

But the period from 1871–1917 saw the massive growth and development of Marxism (alongside and indeed bound up with the last great flowering of bourgeois society and culture in the Belle Époque[8]), and culminated in the crisis of war and revolution, which Badiou’s account avoids — or, more precisely, evades. That is, this period raises the question of Marxism as such, and its significance in history.

The Marxist hypothesis

A very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the specifically modern society of capital, the different historical phases of capital as characterized by Marx’s and other Marxists’ accounts, beginning in the mid-19th century. But, as the Nietzsche scholar Peter Preuss put it, “the 19th century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man.”[9]

Marx is the central figure in developing the critical recognition of history as an invention of the 19th century.[10] (The other names associated with this consciousness of history are Hegel and Nietzsche; relating these three thinkers is a deep problem, long pondered by Marxists.[11])

The Marxist hypothesis is based on Marx’s theoretical and political engagement with the problem he articulated throughout his life, from the Communist Manifesto to Capital, and includes the political thought and action inspired by and seeking to follow and develop upon Marx. This problem is the historical specificity of capital — and hence of history itself. For the Marxist hypothesis is that capital is the source of what Kant called “universal history.”[12]

By contrast with Badiou’s history of the “communist hypothesis,” a history of the “Marxist hypothesis” will be complicated, layered, not quite linear, and non-evental. It is divided into the different periods in the history of Marxism: from 1848–95, the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto to Engels’s death, to 1914–19, the crisis of Marxism in war and revolution; and from 1923–40, post-Bolshevik Marxism, to 1968–89, the “New Left” and the collapse of “Communism.” These are periods in the history of Marxism, which are conceived as the history of what Marx called “capital.” This is the history of capital and its potential overcoming, as expressed in the history of Marxism.[13]

Such history is motivated by the need for what Karl Korsch called, in his 1923 essay “Marxism and Philosophy,” the historical-materialist analysis and critique of Marxism itself, or a Marxist history and theory of Marxism.[14] This would be a history of the emergence, crisis, and decline of Marxism as expressing the possibility of getting beyond capital, as Marx and the best Marxists understood this. Today, as opposed to Korsch’s time in 1923, this would include consideration of the possibility that the potential Marxism expressed missed its chance, and has carried on only in a degenerate, spectral way, until passing effectively into history. That such an account is possible at all is what motivates the fundamental “hypothesis” of Marxism, or the Marxist hypothesis — the hypothesis that Marxism, as a perspective and politics, could be the vital nerve center of modern history. For Marxism is the grandest of all Grand Narratives of history, with reason. Today, the question is what was Marxism?

For most Marxists in the 20th century (and hence also for Badiou), the period of Marxism from 1871–1917, which saw the foundation and growth of the parties of the Second International, was the era of “revisionism,” in which Marxist revolutionary politics was swamped by reformism. But this was also the period of the struggle against the reformist revision of Marxism by Marx and Engels’s epigones, such as Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, and Plekhanov. This struggle against reformism was conducted by the students of these very same disciples of Marx, and involved a complex change, itself an important historical transition, in which the students were disappointed by and came to surpass their teachers.[15]

The greatest achievement of the struggle against reformism in the Second International was the Bolshevik leadership of the October Revolution, followed by the (however abortive) revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Italy, and the establishment of the Third “Communist” International.[16] The world crisis of war and revolution 1914–19 should be regarded properly as the Götterdämmerung of Marxism, which raised the crisis of capital to the realm of politics, in a way not seen before or since. The crisis of Marxism 1914–19 was a civil war among Marxists. On one side, the younger generation of radicals that had risen in and ultimately split the Second International and established the Third International, most prominently Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, led the greatest attempt to change the world in history. They regarded their division in Marxism as expressing the necessity of human emancipation.[17] That their attempt must be judged today a failure does not alter its profound — and profoundly enigmatic — character.[18]

The stakes of the Revolution attempted by the Second International radicals, inspired by Marx, cannot be overestimated. For Marx and his followers, the epoch of capital was both the culmination of history and marked the potential end of pre-history and the true beginning of human history, in communism.[19] As Walter Benjamin put it, “humanity is preparing to outlive culture, if need be”[20] — that is, to survive civilization, as it has been lived for an eon.[21]

The specter of Marx

While Marx and Engels had written of the “specter” of communism, today it is the memory of Marx that haunts the world. This difference is important to register: Marx and Engels could count on a political movement — communism — that they sought to clarify and raise to self-consciousness of its historical significance. Today, by contrast, we need to remember not the historical political movement so much as the form of critical consciousness given expression in Marxism. This must be traced back to the thought and political action of Marx himself.

If Marx is mistaken for an affirmer and promulgator of “communism” as opposed to what he actually was, its most incisive critic (from within), we risk forgetting the most important if fragile achievement of history: the consciousness of potential in capital. As Marx wrote early on, in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge that called for the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.”[22]

The potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx’s thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles — or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.”[23] Communism, as a form of discontent in capital, thus demanded critical clarification of its own meaning, and not one-sided endorsement. For Marx thought that communism was a means and not an end in itself.

So what does it mean that, today, we continue, politically, to have “communism” — in Badiou’s sense of demands for “radical democratic equality” — but not “Marxism?” Badiou’s periodization of the history of modern communism in the history of civilization dissolves Marxism into one of its constituent parts — or at least submerges it in this history. But Marx sought, in his own thought and politics, to comprehend and transcend the specifically modern phenomenon of communism, that is, the modern social-democratic workers’ movement emerging in the 19th century, as a constituent of capital, as a historically specific form of humanity. So, what would it mean, today, to view the history of the modern society of capital through the figure of Marx? The possibility of such a project is the Marxist hypothesis.

“Marx-ism”

It goes a long way in making sense of the most important historical figures of communism after Marx, such as Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, Stalin, and Mao, among others, to evaluate them as followers of Marx. It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet. (For instance, Leszek Kolakowski dismissed Marxism as the “farcical aspect of human bondage.”[24]) But what of Marx as a philosopher? If Marx has been widely discredited as a political thinker, nevertheless, in 2005, for instance, a survey of BBC listeners polled Marx as the “greatest philosopher of all time,” well ahead of Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. On the face of it, this does not seem like a particularly plausible judgment of Marx, either in terms of his own thinking and practice or of “philosophy” as a discipline, unless Marx’s philosophy is understood as indicating how we have not yet overcome the problems he identified in modern society.[25] As far as the reputation of Marx as a thinker is concerned, we seem to have been left with “Marxism” but without Marx’s own “communist” politics: “Marxism” has survived as an “analysis,” but without clear practical importance; “communism” has survived as an ethic without effective politics. How might we make sense of this?

The Marxist hypothesis is that the relation between Marx and “communism” needs to be posed again, but in decidedly non-traditional ways, casting the history of Marxism in a critical light. For it is not that communism found a respected comrade in Marx — perhaps more (or less) estimable than others — but that Marx’s thought and political action form an irreducibly singular model that can yet task us, and to which we must still aspire. Hence, the continued potential purchase of “Marx-ism.” The question is not, as Badiou would have it, what is the future of communism, but of Marx.

To address any potential future of Marxism, it is necessary to revisit Marx’s own Marxism and its implications.

Marx in 1848

Marx pointed out about the revolution in Germany, in which he immediately involved himself after writing the Manifesto, that the capitalists were more afraid of the workers asserting their bourgeois rights than they were of the Prussian state taking away theirs. This was not because of a conflicting class interest between the capitalists and Junkers (Prussian landed aristocracy), but rather because of the emerging authoritarianism in post-Industrial Revolution capital, at a global scale. For such authoritarianism was also characteristic of the revolution of 1848 in France, in which Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte’s rule, as the first elected President of the Second Republic (1848–52), and then, after his coup d’etat, as Emperor of the Second Empire (1852–70), could not be characterized as expressing the interest of some non-bourgeois class (the “peasants,” whom Marx insisted on calling, pointedly, “petit bourgeois”), but rather of all the classes of bourgeois society, including the “lumpenproletariat,” in crisis by the mid-19th century.[26] As Marx put it mordantly, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), bourgeois fanatics for order were shot down on their balconies in the name of defense of the social order.[27] The late 19th century rule of Napoleon III and Bismarck — and Disraeli — mirrored each other. Marx analyzed the authoritarianism of post-1848 society, in which the state seems to rise over civil life, as a situation in which the bourgeoisie were no longer and the proletariat not yet able to master capital.[28] This was the crisis of bourgeois society Marx recognized. Badiou’s account, on the other hand, is rather a history of ruling class power opposed by the resistance of the oppressed. As early as 1848 Marx was not a theorist of classes but capital, of which modern socio-political classes were “phantasmagorical” projections.[29] Marx sought to situate, not capital in the history of class struggle, but history in capital,[30] to which social struggles and their history were subordinate.[31]

Napoleon III and Bismarck after the French defeat at Sedan, 1870.

Capitalism, communism, and the “state of nature”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau had raised a hypothetical “state of nature” in order to throw contemporary society into critical relief. In so doing, Rousseau sought to bring society closer to a “state of nature.” Liberal, bourgeois society was a model and an aspiration for Rousseau. For Rousseau, it was human “nature” to be free.* Humans achieved a higher “civil liberty” of “moral freedom” in society than they could enjoy as animals, with mere “physical” freedom in nature. Indeed, as animals, humans are not free, but rather slaves to their natural needs and instincts. Only in society could freedom be achieved, and humans free themselves from their natural, animal condition.[32] When Rousseau was writing, in the mid-18th century, the promise of freedom in bourgeois society was still on the horizon. Bourgeois society aspired to proximity to the “state of nature” in the sense of bringing humanity, both collectively and individually, closer to its potential, to better realize its freedom. With Marx, communism, too, aimed for the realization of this potential. The imagination of a “primitive communism,” closer to a “state of nature” of unspoiled human potential, recapitulated the Rousseauian vision of bourgeois society as emancipation. But, in capitalism, bourgeois society had come to violate its own promised potential. It had become a “state of nature,” not in Rousseau’s sense, but rather according to Hobbes, a “war of all against all” — a conception that Rousseau had critiqued. Society was not to be the suspension of hostilities, but the realization of freedom. Moreover, humanity in society exhibited a “general will,” not reducible to its individual members: more than the sum of its parts. Not a Leviathan, but a “second nature,” a rebirth of potential, both individually and collectively. Human nature found the realization of its freedom in society, but humans were free to develop and transform themselves, for good or ill. To bring society closer to the “state of nature,” then, was to allow humanity’s potential to be better realized. Communism, according to Marx, was to follow Rousseau, not Hobbes, in realizing bourgeois society’s aspirations and potential. But, first, communism had to be clear about its aims.

Communism: not opposed to, but in, through, and beyond the bourgeois society of capital

The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx’s thought and politics correspond to a moment of profound transformation in the history of modern society, indeed, in the history of humanity: the rise of “industrial capital” and of the concomitant “social-democratic” workers’ movement that attended this change. This was expressed in the workers’ demand for social democracy, which Marx thought needed to be raised to greater self-consciousness to achieve its aims.[33] Marx characterized the moment of industrial capital as marking the crisis in modern society — or even, an event and crisis in “natural history”[34] — in which humanity faced the choice, as Luxemburg put it (echoing Engels) of “socialism or barbarism.”[35] This was because classical bourgeois forms of politics that had emerged in the preceding era of the rise of manufacturing capital in the 17th and 18th centuries, liberalism and democracy, proved to be inadequate to the problems and tasks of modern society since the 19th century — Marx’s moment. With Marx, humanity faces a new, unforeseen task. However, unfulfilled, this task has fallen into neglect today.[36]

In the transformed circumstance of capital, liberalism and democracy became necessary precisely in their impossibility, and thus pointed to their “dialectical” Aufhebung — completion and transcendence through negation, or self-overcoming.[37] Liberalism and democracy became not only mutually contradictory but each became self-contradictory in capital. It is thus not a matter of communism versus liberal democracy — as Badiou and Žižek take it to be. Communism was, for Marx, the political movement that pointed to the possibility of overcoming the necessity of liberalism and democracy, or the transcending of the need for “bourgeois” politics per se. But this was to be achieved through the politics of the demands for the bourgeois rights of the working class. Marx regarded the socialism and communism that had emerged in his time as expressing a late, and hence self-contradictory and potentially incoherent form of bourgeois radicalism — expressing the radicalization of bourgeois society — but that demanded redemption. Marx sought the potential in capital of going beyond demands for greater liberalism and democracy. Subsequent “communism” lost sight of Marx on this, and disintegrated into the 20th century antinomy of socialism and liberalism.[38] The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx recognized the possibility, not of opposition, but of a qualitative transformation, in, through, and beyond bourgeois society. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #29 (November 2010).


1. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2010). The book is printed in a pocket-sized red hardcover on which is emblazoned a gold star — a Little Red Book (viz., Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung) for our time?

2. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review 49 (January–February 2008), 29–42.

3. The other book to originate from Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review is The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008).

4. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” 34–35.

5. Ibid., 35.

6. Ibid., 35–36.

7. Ibid., 36–37.

8. See Theodor W. Adorno, “Those Twenties,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 41–48, originally published in 1961, in which Adorno stated that, “Already in the twenties, as a consequence of the events of [the failure of the German Revolution in] 1919, the decision had fallen against that political potential that, had things gone otherwise, with great probability would have influenced developments in Russia and prevented Stalinism.” So, “that the twenties were a world where ‘everything may be permitted,’ that is, a utopia . . . only seemed so” (43). Indeed, according to Adorno, “The heroic age . . . was actually around 1910” (41). See note 13, below.

9. Peter Preuss, Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 1.

10. See Louis Menand’s 2003 Introduction to the republication of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), originally published in 1940, in which Menand cites Wilson’s statement that “Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment” (xvi). Furthermore, Menand points out that,

Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. . . . Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. (xiii)

11. See, for example, Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964–65, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2006).

12. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25.

13. For instance, the title of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) indicates what the historical era of “imperialism” meant to Lenin and other contemporary Marxists: the eve of revolution. The self-understanding of the Marxists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries grounded the history of Marxism itself in the history of capital, even if their propagandistic rhetoric had the unfortunate character of calling the crisis of capital expressed by Marxism “inevitable.” See note 18, below.

14. See Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Originally published in 1923. Also available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm>.

15. See Lars T. Lih’s extensive work on Lenin’s “Kautskyism,” for instance in Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

16. In a portentous first footnote to his book What is to be Done? (1902), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/i.htm>, Lenin put it this way:

Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism [there] is a phenomenon . . . in its way very consoling, namely . . . the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement. . . . [In] the disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers, between Guesdists and Possibilists, between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats . . . really [an] international battle with socialist opportunism, [will] international revolutionary Social-Democracy . . . perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe?

17. See Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” a June 18, 1938 letter to the editors of Partisan Review, available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>:

Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses — if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. . . . The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist [Third] International germinated during [WWI] from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic [Second] International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” . . . carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

18. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:

[A] transformation and development of Marxist theory has been effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism. Yet it is easy to understand both the reasons for this guise and the real character of the process which is concealed by it. What theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia have done, and are doing, in the field of Marxist theory is to liberate it from the inhibiting traditions of [Social Democracy]. They thereby answer the practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle, for these traditions weighed “like a nightmare” on the brain of the working masses whose objectively revolutionary socioeconomic position no longer corresponded to these [earlier] evolutionary doctrines. The apparent revival of original Marxist theory in the Third International is simply a result of the fact that in a new revolutionary period not only the workers’ movement itself, but the theoretical conceptions of communists which express it, must assume an explicitly revolutionary form. This is why large sections of the Marxist system, which seemed virtually forgotten in the final decades of the nineteenth century, have now come to life again. (67–68)

I have elaborated further on the significance of Korsch’s important essay in my review of Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (2008), Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

19. Adorno, in “Reflections on Class Theory” (originally written in 1942), provides the following unequivocally powerful interpretation of the perspective of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto:

According to theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory . . . turns against prehistory itself. . . . By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . . All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. (Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 93–94.)

20. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 735. Originally published in 1933.

21. The term used to describe this effect is the “Anthropocene.” Jeffrey Sachs, in the second of his 2007 Reith Lectures, “Survival in the Anthropocene” (Peking University, Beijing, April 18, 2007, available online at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/lecture2.shtml>), characterized it this way:

“The Anthropocene” — a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet’s physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human-created era of Earth’s history. The geologists call our time the Holocene — the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age — but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth’s physical history as well.

22. Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing,” letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 12–15. Also available online at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm>.

23. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 93. Also available online at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm>.

24. Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents in Marxism (New York: Norton, 2005), 1212.

25. See Robert Pippin, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing,” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004), 424–428, also available on-line at: <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>. Pippin wrote that,

[T]he dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation with respect to, let’s say, “the necessary conditions for the possibility of what isn’t” . . . is what I wanted to suggest. I’m not sure it will get us anywhere. Philosophy rarely does. Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere. (428)

26. See Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

27. Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader:

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.” . . . Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned . . . in the name of property, of family . . . and of order. . . . Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms . . . the “saviour of society.” (602–603)

28. Engels summed this up well in his 1891 Introduction to Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 620.

29. See Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 165.

30. See my “Capital in History: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>.

31. See Platypus Historians Group, “Introduction to the History of the Left: Changes in the meaning of class struggles,” Platypus Review 3 (March 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/03/01/introduction-to-the-history-of-the-left-changes-in-the-meaning-of-class-struggles/>.

32. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Ch. 8 “Civil Society,” trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin, 1968), 64–65. Originally published in 1762.

33. See Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

34. See note 21, above. See also Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History” (originally written in 1932), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Telos 57 (1985): “[I]t is not a question of completing one theory by another, but of the immanent interpretation of a theory. I submit myself, so to speak, to the authority of the materialist dialectic” (124).

35. See Luxemburg, The Crisis in German Social Democracy (AKA The Junius Pamphlet, originally published in 1915), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/index.htm>.

36. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:

[Marx wrote, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), that] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.” This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. (58)

37. On this point, see some of Marx’s earliest writings, which provided the points of departure for his more mature work, such as “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843), “On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish Question” (1843), and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

38. But, for Marx and Engels, there was no necessary contradiction between the freedom of the individual and that of the collective, or, in this sense, between liberalism and socialism: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 491, also available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm>).

For further discussion of this antinomic degeneration and disintegration of the original Marxian perspective, see my “1917” in The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: Toward a theory of historical regression, Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>. See also: Platypus Historians Group, “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neo-liberalism and the question of freedom (in part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/11/01/friedrich-hayek-and-the-legacy-of-milton-friedman-neo-liberalism-and-the-question-of-freedom/>; and my “Obama and Clinton: ‘Third Way’ politics and the ‘Left’,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/12/01/obama-and-clinton-third-way-politics-and-the-left/>.

* As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),

The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility”… suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless…. Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared…. As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.” (xv)

A critique of the RCP, USA on Alain Badiou

Chinoiserie

A critique of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA’s “New Synthesis”

Review of Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, Manifesto from the RCP, USA; and Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World” Demarcations 1 (Summer–Fall 2009).[1]

Chris Cutrone

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait painted by Maurice-Quentin La Tour (1754).

Prologue

DAVID BHOLAT ADOPTED, as epigraph for his essay “Beyond Equality,” the following passage from Joseph Schumpeter’s classic 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

First and foremost, socialism means a new cultural world…. But second — what cultural world?… Some socialists are ready enough with folded hands and the smile of the blessed on their lips, to chant the canticle of justice, equality, freedom in general and freedom from “the exploitation of man by man” in particular, of peace and love, of fetters broken and cultural energies unchained, of new horizons opened, of new dignities revealed. But that is Rousseau adulterated with some Bentham.[2]

Bholat’s essay follows Schumpeter in seeking to demonstrate the inadequacy and problematic character of the call for social “equality,” for which he finds warrant in Marx’s critique of capital. This is most notable in Marx’s statement, echoing the French socialist Louis Blanc, that an emancipated society beyond capital would be governed by the principle of providing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[3]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) argued, in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, that society alone produced “inequality,” since in nature there are only “differences.” Marx sought to fulfill Rousseau’s demand for a society freed from the necessity of commensurability, of making alike what is unlike, in the commodity form of labor — a society freed from the exigencies of the exchange of labor.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the founder of Utilitarian philosophy at the end of the 18th century, famously called for society to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Marx considered his project to fulfill this aspiration as well.

The modern society of capital has indeed sought to achieve these various desiderata, of the individual diversity of incommensurable difference, as well as increased wellbeing of all its members, but has consistently failed to do so. A Marxian approach can be regarded as the immanent critique of capital, the critique of capital on its own ground, as expressed by the classical “bourgeois” liberal thinkers such as Rousseau and Bentham at the dawn of modern capitalist society, in that capital fails to fulfill its promise, but it would be desirable to accomplish this.

Schumpeter, writing in the mid-20th century, thought that modern society was moving inexorably toward “socialism,” and that this was due to the unique and potentially crucial role that modern society allowed “intellectuals” to play. The far greater access to education that modern capitalist society made possible entailed the emergence of a stratum of people who could articulate problems for which they were not directly responsible, on behalf of social groups to which they did not belong. This meant the possibility of a more radical critique and the fostering and mobilizing of broader social discontents than had been possible in pre-capitalist society. This role for intellectuals, combined with the inherent structural social problems of capital and the rise of “democratic” politics, created a potentially revolutionary situation in which “socialism,” or the curtailment of capitalist entrepreneurship, was the likely outcome.

Bholat concluded his essay “Beyond Equality” by citing favorably Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Derrida’s critiques, respectively, of “Marx’s tolerance for the defects of first-phase communism,” and of the principle of “equality before the law.”[4]

The possibility of a “dialectical” transformation, the simultaneous negation and fulfillment of capital, its Aufhebung through a “proletarian socialist” politics, as capital’s simultaneous historical realization and overcoming — as Marx conceived it, following Hegel — has proven elusive, but continues to task theoretical accounts inspired by Marxism.

Entre nous

The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA published in 2008 the manifesto, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage. This was followed, in short order, by the launching of a new theoretical journal, Demarcations, whose inaugural issue included a lengthy critique of Alain Badiou by RCP members* Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., titled “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World.” Taken together, these and other recent writings of the RCP amount to a significant departure and change in orientation for their tendency of American Maoism. This is noteworthy as they are one of the most prominent Marxist Left organizations in the U.S., helping to organize, for instance, the major anti-war group The World Can’t Wait. The RCP’s spokesperson Sunsara Taylor is regularly invited to represent the radical Left on Fox News and elsewhere. Recently, the RCP has conducted a campaign of interventions featuring Lotta and Taylor as speakers at college and university campuses, including the top elite schools throughout the U.S., on the topic of communism today, in light of the history of the 20th century revolutions in Russia and China and their defeats. In this, the RCP demonstrates a reorientation towards intellectuals as potential cadres for revolutionary politics.[5]

The RCP’s critique of the latter-day and post-Maoist “communist” Alain Badiou’s conception of “radical, anarchic equality” is a part of their program of demonstrating “How Communism Goes Beyond Equality and Why it Must.” It strongly resembles David Bholat’s critique of the traditional Marxist Left in “Beyond Equality.” For, as Bholat wrote, “in light of the world-historical failure of Marxism,” the “one-sided emphasis of historical left movements on equity… might be reevaluated today,” for such discontents remained “vulnerable to fascist elements motivated by ressentiment and revenge” that “represented a reactionary desire… to return to a romanticized, precapitalist moment.”[6]

So, some clarification — and radicalization — of discontents has appeared necessary. For what is offered by such apparently disparate perspectives as Bholat and the RCP is what might be called a “post-postmodernist” politics, in which the radical reconsideration of the experience of 20th century Marxism seems in order. This links to Badiou and Žižek’s attempts to advance what they call the “communist hypothesis.” Žižek has spoken of “the Badiou event” as opening new horizons for both communism and philosophy. Badiou and Žižek share a background in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent post-New Left thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency.[7] Althusser took great inspiration from Mao in China and Lenin in Russia for advancing the possibility of emancipation against a passive expectancy of automatic evolution in the historical process of capital. Michel Foucault took Althusser as license to go for an entire historiography of contingency.[8] For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology.[9] There is a common background for such postmodernist politics, also, in Sartre’s “existentialist” Marxism, the anti-Cartesian phenomenology of Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the “Spinozist” materialism of Georges Bataille.[10] The coincidence of vintage 1960s Maoist New Left Marxism with contemporaneous French thought — Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida — has resulted in a veritable chinoiserie prominent in reconsiderations of Marxism today.[11] But what does the — distinctively French — image of China say about the potential for a reformulated Leftist politics?[12]

Rousseau

The mid-18th century Enlightenment philosophe Rousseau stands as the central figure at the critical crossroads for any consideration of the historical emergence of the Left.[13] Rousseau has haunted the self-understanding of Marxism, and indeed of revolutionary politics more generally, if only for the problematic influence he exercised on the pre-Marxian Left, most infamously in the ideas of the radical Jacobins such as Robespierre in the Great French Revolution. Lenin famously described himself as a “Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.”[14] Modern conservatism was in an important sense founded by Edmund Burke’s (1729–97) anti-Jacobin critique of Rousseau.

In his critique of Bruno Bauer’s The Jewish Question (1843), the young Marx cited the following from Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762):

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[15]

The RCP’s Lotta, Duniya and K.J.A., under the chapter heading “Why Alain Badiou is a Rousseauist, and Why We should not be,” point out that Rousseau’s perspective is that of “bourgeois society:”

The forms and content of equality in bourgeois society correspond to a certain mode of production: capitalism, based on commodity production and the interactions it engenders: private ownership, production for profit not need, and exploitation of wage-labor. Commodity production is governed by the exchange of equivalents, the measure of the labor time socially necessary to produce these commodities; that is, by an equal standard.[16]

Like Bholat following Derrida in “Beyond Equality,” Lotta, Duniya, and K.J.A. attack “the standard of ‘equality before the law’ of bourgeois jurisprudence [as] a standard that serves the equal treatment of the capitalist property holders in a society governed by capitalist market relations,” adding that, “for the dispossessed, formal equality masks the condition of fundamental powerlessness.” What Lotta et al. dismiss as “formal equality” is not the liberal conception formulated by Rousseau that Marx cited favorably, precisely in its recognition of the “alienation” of the “changing” of “human nature” in society. Rather, the RCP writers let slip back in the one-sided conception of “politics” that Marx criticized and sought to overcome. For them, the opposition between the social and political that Marx diagnosed as symptomatic of modern capitalist society becomes instead the rigged game between exploiters and exploited. Note the need that Marx identified for the “individual” to “[recognize] and [organize] his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power,” something quite different from simply removing the “mask” of false “equality” from the condition of the “dispossessed” in “bourgeois democracy.” Where does the RCP’s perspective of revolutionary politics originate? This is made apparent in the central section of their critique of Badiou over the interpretation of the Shanghai Commune, an event in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China.

La Commune

The GPCR is dear to both Badiou and the RCP. This was the greatest event in the history of Marxism to take place in the era of the 1960s–70s New Left, and it exerted a profound attraction and influence over many at the time. The RCP is a direct product of its broad international impact. It seemed to justify Mao’s claim to be the leading international (and not merely Chinese) opponent of “revisionism,” i.e. of the abdication of proletarian socialist revolution in favor of reformism. Apart from factual questions about what really happened during the Cultural Revolution and the substance of Mao’s own politics, both in China and internationally (thoughtful Maoists do not deny the distortion of Mao’s politics by nationalism, but they tend to gloss over the intra-bureaucratic aspects of the GPCR), the issue of what the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally might mean to people, both then and now, is of more pressing concern. After all, the two most forthright arguments in favor of “communism” today are made by Maoists, Badiou and the RCP. It is also significant that both favor the appellation of “communist” over “Marxist,” which both do on the grounds of their understanding of the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is the basis for regarding Mao as making a unique and indispensable contribution to communism. What the Cultural Revolution means to Maoists is fundamentally informed by their conception of capitalism. So, rather than taking sides in or analyzing the social and political phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution per se, it is necessary to examine what has been taken to be its significance. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is perhaps the most significant recent “Jacobin” moment in the history of Marxism, raising again, in the latter part of the 20th century, long-standing questions about the relation between socialism and democracy — the issue of “communism,” in the strict sense.

The significance of the Shanghai Commune of 1967 is contested by Badiou and the RCP. For Badiou it was a model akin to the 1792–94 radical Jacobin period of the French Revolution. In the Shanghai Commune radicalized students (“Red Guards”) overthrew the local Communist Party apparatus, spreading into a workers’ revolt.  While initially enthusiastic about this spontaneous “anti-revisionist” upsurge against conservative elements in the CP, Mao and his followers ultimately rejected the Shanghai Commune as a model. They advocated instead the “revolutionary committee” in which the Maoist Communist Party cadres’ paramount leading political character could be preserved. Badiou criticizes this straitjacketing of communism in the “party-state,” whereas the RCP defends Mao’s politics of rejuvenating the Party and purging it of “capitalist roaders” as the necessary and sole revolutionary path.

Badiou, by contrast, sees Mao’s eventual rejection of the Shanghai Commune as a betrayal of “egalitarianism.” For him, the “party-state” is a brake on the radical “democratic” egalitarianism that characterizes “communism” as a historically recurrent political phenomenon. The RCP critiques this conception of “equality” and “direct democracy” as “concealing class interests” and thus being unable to “rise above particular interests.” For instance, according to the RCP, as long as there remains a distinction between “intellectual and manual labor,” intellectuals can come to dominate the social process, even under socialism, thus reproducing a dynamic constantly giving rise to the possible return to capitalism, which is understood primarily as a matter of social and political hierarchy. To the RCP, Badiou is thus prematurely egalitarian.

Badiou conceives of the relation between freedom and equality as an ontological one, in the mathematical terms of set theory, transhistoricizing it. The RCP, while recognizing the historically specific nature of capitalist class struggle, conceives of the role of the revolutionary proletarian party as the political means for suppressing tendencies towards social inequality. In either case, neither Badiou nor the RCP conceives of the transformation of the capitalist mode of production that would allow for overcoming the socially pernicious aspects of specifically capitalist forms of inequality, the dangers of which are understood by Badiou and the RCP rather atavistically. Marx, by contrast, looked forward to the potential for overcoming the conditions of possibility for the reproduction of capitalist class dynamics in the mode of production itself: capital’s overcoming of the need to accumulate the value of surplus labor-time. Marx saw the historical potential to overcome this socially mediating aspect of labor in automated machine production. However, Marx also foresaw that, short of socialism, the drive to accumulate surplus-value results in producing a surplus population, an “industrial reserve army” of potential “workers” who thus remain vulnerable to exploitation. A politics based only in their “democratic” discontents can result, not in the overcoming of the social need for labor, but only in the (capitalist) demand for more labor. Or, as Max Horkheimer, director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, put it, machines “have made not work but the workers superfluous.”[17]

For the RCP, Mao in the Cultural Revolution addressed in new and effective ways problems of the “transition to socialism” never attempted under Stalin. The RCP criticizes Stalin for his failed “methods” in advancing the transition to socialism, a failure Mao overcame in the Cultural Revolution in China 1966–76. The RCP celebrates the egalitarian-emancipatory impulse of the Cultural Revolution while also praising Mao’s guidance and political leadership of the process by which the “capitalist” road to China’s development was politically overcome and avoided. This struggle ended, according to the RCP, with Mao’s death and the subsequent purging of his followers, known as the “Gang of Four,” in 1976, embarking China upon its capitalist development up to the present.

Badiou explicitly attacks the limitations of Marxism in general, and not merely the “party-state” form of political rule (for which he holds Marxism responsible), for failing to recognize how the emancipatory striving of “equality” goes “beyond class.” This is why he favors the designation “communism” to “Marxism.” The RCP (rightly) smells a rat in this attempt by Badiou to take communism “beyond” anti-capitalist class-struggle politics. But in so doing they do not pause to reflect on the subordinate position of class struggle in Marx’s own conception of the possibility of overcoming capital.

For Marx, the political-economic struggle of the specifically modern classes of capitalists and workers is a projection of the contradiction of capital. The RCP, by contrast, regards the class struggle as constituting the social contradiction in capital. This flows from their understanding of the contradiction of capital as existing between the socialized forces of production and the privatized and hence capitalist relations of production. Privileged empowerment, whether in the form of capitalist private property or in more developed intellectual capacities, is the source rather than the result of the contradiction of capital in the RCP’s traditional “Marxist” view. For the RCP, Badiou’s perspective of radical democratic “equality” does not address such inherent social advantage that intellectuals would enjoy even under socialism, presenting the constant threat of defeating the struggle for socialism.[18]

But the RCP does not stop at upholding Mao in the Cultural Revolution as a model for revolutionary politics. Rather, they attempt a “new synthesis” in which the relation of Marx, Lenin and Mao as historical figures is reformulated to provide for a 21st century socialist politics that could still learn from but overcome the limitations of the 20th century experience of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.

The “new synthesis”

According to a traditional Maoist view, the RCP considers the historical trajectory from Marx through Lenin to Mao as a progress in the theory and practice of the struggle for socialism. But they also detect distinct limitations among all three historical figures and so regard them as importantly complementary rather than successive. For the RCP’s “new synthesis,” Marx and Lenin can still address the shortcomings of Mao, rather than the latter simply building upon the former. How so?

It is important first to consider the significance of this change in the RCP’s thinking from traditional Maoism. The RCP’s “new synthesis” was the cause of a split in the RCP, with some, including Mike Ely, going on to form the Kasama Project. The RCP replies to criticism of their current articulations of the limitations of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions with reference to earlier criticism of the RCP, over the course of the past three decades, for reducing Communism to a “tattered flag” in their reconsideration of this history. But the RCP should be commended for taking this risk.

The RCP struggles in explaining and relating the limitations of the three principal thinkers in the tradition they look towards for “communism.” With Marx, there is the limitation of relatively lacking historical experience of socialist revolution. Only the Paris Commune figures for this history. With Lenin, the limitations of the Bolshevik Revolution are displaced in the RCP’s evaluation of, not Lenin, but Stalin’s attempt to build “socialism” in the 1920s–30s. Like the disastrous Great Leap Forward in China (1958–61), the first Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union (1928–33), a period of “revolutionary” militancy in the history of Stalin’s rule, is glossed over by the RCP in evaluating the Russian and Chinese 20th century experiences of attempts to “build socialism.”[19]

For the RCP, Mao represents a breakthrough. Through his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the limitations of the experience of Stalinism in the Soviet Union were overcome, in the Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s–70s. But none of these are examples of success — socialism, let alone communism, has not yet been achieved — and they do not exactly add up, but rather require a “synthesis.”

Mao provides a salutary contribution only the degree to which the Cultural Revolution overcame the problem of Stalinist “methods,” which are considered bureaucratic and authoritarian in the sense of stifling revolutionary initiative: Stalin did the right things but in the wrong ways. Not secretly manipulated purge “trials,” but people’s justice would have been the better way to stave off the threat of the “capitalist road” in the USSR of the 1930s. Most telling about the RCP’s “new synthesis” is how they conceive its first two figures. For the RCP, a combination of Marx and Lenin taken without Mao becomes a perspective of “Eurocentric world revolution.” This is because, in the RCP’s estimation, there is a significant difference between Lenin and “Leninism,” the degree to which the former, according to the RCP, “did not always live up” to the latter, and the latter is assimilated to what are really phenomena of Stalinism and Maoism, building “socialism in one country,” in which Mao’s own practice, especially in the Cultural Revolution, takes priority. But this begs the question of the Marxist perspective on “world revolution” — and the need for revolution in the U.S., which Marx and Lenin themselves thought was key. Instead, the problem of socialism in China dominates the RCP’s historical imagination of revolution.

World revolution

Kant, in his theses in “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” (1784), addressed Rousseau as follows. Kant warned of the danger that,

[T]he vitality of mankind may fall asleep…. Until this last step to a union of states is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained…. [Mere civilization,] however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery. In such a condition the human species will no doubt remain until… it works its way out of the chaotic conditions of its international relations.[20]

Marx considered his political project to be a continuation of Kant’s, no less than Rousseau’s or Bentham’s, albeit under the changed historical conditions of post-Industrial Revolution capitalism, in which “international relations” expressed not merely an unenlightened state, but the social contradictions of the civilization of global capital.[21] Writing on the Paris Commune of 1870–71, Marx addressed the antithetical forms of cosmopolitanism in capital:

If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labor, emphatically international. Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world…. The [preceding] Second Empire [by contrast] had been the jubilee of cosmopolitan blackleggism, the rakes of all countries rushing in at its call for a share in its orgies and in the plunder of the French people.[22]

The RCP remains hampered by the Stalinist perspective of building “socialism in one country,” at the expense of a direct politics of world revolution that characterized the Marxism of Marx’s own time, in the First International. And so the RCP fails to recognize the degree to which Marx’s own politics was “emphatically international” in nature. As Marx scholar Moishe Postone put it,

Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky — because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918 — entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”[23]

Bob Avakian, the leader of the RCP, writing about “Leninism as the bridge,” put the matter of the relation between Marx, Lenin and Mao this way: “Marxism without Leninism is Eurocentric social-chauvinism and social democracy. Maoism without Leninism is nationalism (and also, in certain contexts, social-chauvinism) and bourgeois democracy.”[24] But Avakian and the RCP have a fundamental ambivalence about Lenin. In the same article, Avakian wrote that, “as stressed before there is Leninism and there is Lenin, and if Lenin didn’t always live up to Leninism, that doesn’t make Leninism any less than what it is.” This is because, for the RCP, “Leninism” is in fact Stalinism, to which they recognize Lenin’s actual politics cannot be assimilated. It is therefore a standing question of what remains of Marx and Lenin when they are unhitched from the Stalinist-Maoist train of 20th century “communism,” the eventual course of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions to which the RCP points for inspiration and guidance. But the RCP’s imagination has always been fired more by the Chinese than the Russian experience. If “Leninism” was a historical “bridge,” it led to Mao’s China.

The image of China

China has provided a Rococo mirror reflecting global realities, whether in the 18th or the 20th and 21st centuries. The Middle Kingdom has stood, spectacular and confounding, for attempts to comprehend in social imagination both civilization and barbarism, now as then. The ancien régime at Versailles awaiting its historical fate would have liked to close itself up in a Forbidden City; the fervid imaginations of the 18th century philosophes such as Rousseau would have liked to breach the walls of its decadent customs. Both projected their world through the prism of China, which seemed to condense and refract at once all the splendors and horrors — Kant’s “glittering misery” — of society. This has also been true of the Left from the latter part of the 20th century to the present. The very existence of China has seemed to suggest some obscure potential for the future of humanity, both thrilling and terrifying. What if China were indeed the center of the world, as many on the Left have wished, ever since the 1960s?

If today China strikes the imagination as a peculiar authoritarian “communist” capitalist powerhouse that may end up leading the world in the 21st century, in the 1960s the Cultural Revolution symbolized China. Immediately prior to the student and worker upheaval in France of May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard directed his film La Chinoise (1967) about young revolutionaries in Paris. At around the same time, Horkheimer worried about the appearance of “Chinese on the Rhine,” as students began reading and quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book. If in the 18th century the Jacobin revolutionaries wanted France not to be China, in the 1960s would-be French revolutionaries wanted China to be the revolutionary France of the late 20th century.

In his critique of Jacobinism, Burke wrote that,

[T]he age of chivalry is gone: that of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded…. The unbought grace of life… is gone!… All the pleasing illusions… which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order…. On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings… laws are to be supported only by their terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests.[25]

Still, the Jacobin terror continues. Today in Communist China, a bribery case in producing chemically adulterated pharmaceuticals, baby milk formula, and pet food results in a death sentence, to prevent any decrease in demand from the United States. Chinese authorities dismiss the criticism made on human rights grounds, pointing to the need to be vigilant against a constant threat of “corruption.” No doubt American consumers wonder what such swift “justice” could do to improve corporate behavior in the U.S.

The connection between revolutionary France and China in the bourgeois epoch, from the 18th century through the 20th century to the present, is summed up well in an apocryphal quip supposedly made by the Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai, in response to a question about the historical significance of the French Revolution: Zhou said it was still “too soon to tell.” Because of its Revolution in the 20th century, China came to have cast upon it the long shadow of Jacobinism and Rousseau’s 18th century critique of social inequality. But, as Marx discovered long ago, inequality is not the cause but the effect of capital. Such confusion has contributed to the perspective of “Third World” revolution that had its heyday in the post-WWII Left — after the 1949 Chinese Revolution — and that still stalks the imagination of emancipatory politics today. Not only post-postmodernist neo-communists such as Badiou, but also Maoists in the more rigorous 1960s–70s tradition such as the RCP, remain beholden to the specter of inequality in the modern world.

China, as a result of its 20th century revolutionary transformation, has gone from being like the India of the 18th century, its traditional ways of life breaking down and swamped in pre-capitalist obscurity, confronted with the dynamics of global capitalism, to becoming something like a potential Britain of the 18th century — the manufacturing “workshop of the world” — albeit in the profoundly changed circumstances of the 21st century. As Marx, in a 1858 letter to Engels, pointed out about his own time,

There is no denying that bourgeois society has for the second time experienced its 16th century, a 16th century which, I hope, will sound its death knell just as the first ushered it into the world. The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market…. For us, the difficult question is this: [in Europe] revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area?[26]

What the 16th century meant to Marx was the “primitive accumulation of capital,” the process by which society was transformed, through the liquidation of the peasantry, in the emergence of the modern working class and the bourgeois social relations of its existence. If this process continued in the 19th century, beyond Britain, through the rest of Europe and the United States and Japan, in the 20th century it proceeded in Asia — through the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. The reconstitution of capital in the 19th century, unleashing a brutal process of late colonial expansion, was, to Marx’s mind, not only unnecessary and hence tragic, but also regressive and potentially counterrevolutionary. Marx’s warning should have resounded loudly through the “revolutionary” history of Marxism in the 20th century, but was instead repressed and forgotten.

For Marx and Engels, it was not a matter of China and other countries, newly swept into the maelstrom of capitalist development by the mid-19th century, “catching up” with Britain and other more “advanced” areas, but rather the possibility of the social and political turbulence in such “colonial” zones having any progressive-emancipatory impact on global capital at its core. As Marx wrote, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848–50, about the relation of England to other countries,

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

On this all the reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development will rebound just as much as will all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.[27]

This means that the “democratic” politics that engenders “ethical indignation” at the rank inequality in global capital remains woefully inadequate to the task of overcoming the “bourgeois world” within which the RCP accuses Badiou et al. of remaining “locked.” For subsequent history has clearly shown that the Chinese Revolution under Mao remained trapped in global capital, despite the “socialist” ferment of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that gripped the imagination of the international Left of the time, “Maoist” and otherwise.[28] Without revolutionary socialist consequences in the “heart” of the bourgeois world, revolutions in countries such as China cannot, according to Marx, “really put into question bourgeois life conditions” but “touch only their political formations.” As Engels put it, in a 1882 letter to the leading German Social Democratic Party Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky,

[T]he countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated… must be taken over for the time being by the [world] proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say… [Such places] will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution… and [this] would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganized [in socialism], and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilized countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organization, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses.[29]

“Locked within the confines of the bourgeois world”

Despite the RCP’s critique of the post-1960s New Left neo-communism of Badiou, and its partial recognition that Marx and the best of Marxism sought to go beyond “bourgeois” discontents and demands for equality in capital, the RCP perspective on Marxism remains compromised by its focus on capitalist inequality. This leads to an ambivalent and confused conception of the potential role of “intellectuals” in revolutionary politics — a role highlighted in the mid-20th century by even such unreservedly “bourgeois” perspectives such as that of Joseph Schumpeter, and also by figures influential for the 1960s New Left such as C. Wright Mills.[30] The RCP, along with other tendencies of post-New Left politics preoccupied by problems of inequality and hierarchy, such as neo-anarchism, suspects intellectuals of containing the germ for reproducing capitalism through inequality. Likewise, the RCP remains confused about the supposed problem of a “Euro-” or “Western”-centric perspective on “world revolution.” In this sense, the RCP remains trapped by the preoccupations of 1960s-era New Left Maoism in which they originated, despite their attempts to recover the critical purchase of the earlier revolutionary politics of Marx and Lenin. Despite their intended critical approach to this history, they fail to consider how Maoism may have represented a retreat rather than an advance from such revolutionary Marxism. For, as Lenin recognized, the best of Marxist revolutionary politics was not opposed to but rather necessarily stood within the tradition of Rousseau and the radical bourgeois intellectual “Jacobin” legacy of the 18th century, while attempting to transcend it.[31] Like it or not, and either for ill or for good, we remain “locked in the bourgeois world,” within whose conditions we must try to make any possible revolution. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #26 (August 2010).

* Correction: It should not be assumed that writers for Demarcations are members of the RCP.


1. For Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, see <http://www.rwor.org/Manifesto/Manifesto.html>. Lotta et al. is available online at <http://www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html>.

2. David Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” Rethinking Marxism vol. 22 no. 2 (April 2010), 272–284.

3. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 2nd ed., 1978), 531.

4. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.

5. See “An Open Letter from Raymond Lotta to Tony Judt and the NYU Community on the Responsibility of Intellectuals to the Truth, Including and Especially the Truth about Communism,” in Revolution #180 (October 25, 2009), available online at <http://revcom.us/a/180/Lotta_Open_Letter-en.html>, in which Lotta states that,

Yes, revolutionary power must be held on to: a new state power and the overall leadership of a vanguard party are indispensable. But leadership must be exercised in ways that are, in certain important and crucial respects, different from how this was understood and practiced in the past. This [RCP’s] new synthesis recognizes the indispensable role of intellectual ferment and dissent in socialist society.

6. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.

7. See Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962), New Left Review I/41 (January–February 1967), 15–35. Also in For Marx (1965), trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1977), 87–116.

8. See, for instance, Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. D. F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139–164, available online at <http://www.scribd.com/doc/4475734/foucault-nietzsche-genealogy-history>, in which Foucault ignored that Nietzsche’s famous On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) was “a polemic” against any such “genealogy,” and so turned Nietzsche, in keeping with Foucault’s own intent, from a philosopher of freedom into freedom’s “deconstructionist”:

In this sense, genealogy returns to the… history that Nietzsche recognized in [his 1874 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”]…. [But] the critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge. (164)

9. See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2007).

10. See the interview with Badiou by Filippo del Luchesse and Jason Smith, conducted in Los Angeles February 7, 2007, “ ‘We Need a Popular Discipline’: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 4 (Summer 2008), 645–659.

11. See Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

12. See Peter Hallward’s essay on Badiou’s Logiques des Mondes (Logics of Worlds), “Order and Event,” New Left Review 53 (September–October 2008).

13. As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),

The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility”… suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless…. Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared…. As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.” (xv)

14. Quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904), available in English translation as Leninism or Marxism? in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), available online at <http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm>. Luxemburg’s pamphlet was a critique of Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Crisis in our Party (1904), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/q.htm>

15. Marx, “On The Jewish Question,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 46.

16. Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation:” A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World. Available online at <http://www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html>.

17. Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1940), in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds. (New York: Continuum, 2005), 95.

18. There is an important affinity here with the anarchism of Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, who consider Marxism to be an ideology of the aspirations to social domination by the “coordinator class” of intellectuals, which is how they understand the results of, e.g., the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. In this view, Marxism is the means by which the intellectuals harness the class struggle of the workers for other, non-emancipatory ends. Their understanding of the “party-state” is the regime of the coordinator class.

19. The first Five-Year Plan in the USSR saw the accelerated collectivization of agriculture, in which the Communists unleashed “class struggle” in the countryside, with great popular participation. This coincided with the Communist International’s policy of refusing any political alliances with reformists, whom they dubbed “social fascists,” during this period, which they considered the advent of revolution, following the Great Crash. Such extremism caused, not only mass starvation and brutalization of life in the USSR — whose failures to “build socialism” were blamed on “Trotskyite wreckers,” leading to the Purge Trials in the mid- to late 1930s — but also the eventual victory of the Nazis in Germany. Just as the Purge Trials in the USSR were in response to failures of the Five-Year Plans, the Cultural Revolution in China was a response to the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

20. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.

21. See, for instance, the British Trotskyist Cliff Slaughter’s argument, in “What is Revolutionary Leadership?” (1960), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/slaughter/1960/10/leadership.html>, in which he pointed out about Stalinism that,

As a part of [the process of Stalinization], certain theoretical distortions of Marxism play an important part. Above all, Marxism is twisted into an economic determinism. The dialectic is abstracted from history and reimposed on social development as a series of fixed stages. Instead of the rich variety and conflict of human history we have the natural series of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism through which all societies pass…. An apparent touch of flexibility is given to this schematic picture by the doctrine that different countries will find their “own” roads to Socialism, learning from the USSR but adapting to their particular national characteristics. This is of course a mechanical caricature of historical materialism. The connection between the struggles of the working class for Socialism in, say, Britain, Russia and Vietnam, is not at all in the greater or lesser degree of similarity of social structure of those countries, but in the organic interdependence of their struggles. Capitalism is an international phenomenon, and the working class is an international force.

22. Marx, The Civil War in France, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 638. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm>.

23. Moishe Postone, “Marx after Marxism,” interview by Benjamin Blumberg and Pam C. Nogales C., Platypus Review 3 (March 2008). Available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2008/03/01/marx-after-marxism-an-interview-with-moishe-postone/>.

24. Bob Avakian, Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Can and Must, III. “Leninism as the Bridge,” available online at <http://www.rwor.org/bob_avakian/conquerworld/index.htm#section_III>.

25. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790], J. C. D. Clark, ed. (Standford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 239–240. Also available online at <http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm>.

26. See “Europocentric World Revolution,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 676. The selection in Tucker, which omits the first sentence, is from a letter from Marx to Engels of October 8, 1858, available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_10_08.htm>.

27. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 593. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch04.htm>.

28. For instance, even many avowed “Trotskyists” were fascinated and inspired by the GPCR. See, for example, Gerry Healy and David North’s International Committee of the Fourth International’s British journal Newsline of January 21, 1967, where an article by Michael Banda stated that “the best elements led by Mao and Lin Piao have been forced to go outside the framework of the Party and call on the youth and the working class to intervene [in this] anti-bureaucratic [fight].” See David North, The Heritage We Defend: A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1988), 424. North, who became critical of Banda’s positive perspective on Mao in the Cultural Revolution, is currently the leader of the international tendency of which the Socialist Equality Party is the U.S. section.

29. See “Europocentric World Revolution,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 677. The complete letter from Engels to Kautsky of September 12, 1882 is also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_09_12.htm>.

30. See C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review I/5 (September–October 1960), 18–23.

31. Georg Lukács addressed such transcendence in his eulogy, “Lenin — Theoretician of Practice” (1924), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/xxxx/lenin.htm>. It is also included as part of the “Postcript 1967,” in Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), in which Lukács described Lenin as follows:

In the chain of democratic revolutions in modern times two types of leaders, poles apart, made their appearance, embodied by men such as Danton and Robespierre, in both reality and literature….

Lenin is the first representative of an entirely new type, a tertium datur, as opposed to the two extremes. (93)

But Marx was also a representative of this new type of revolutionary intellectual.