Ends of philosophy

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 108 | July-August 2018

Prepared opening remarks for an internal discussion by members of Platypus on “Marxism and philosophy” to be held on August 11, 2018.* An audio recording of the event can be found at: <https://archive.org/details/180812PhilosophyAndMarxismAndPlatypus>.

Video recording at: <https://youtu.be/_lq3LOEI7R4>.

Misery

MARXISM CONSIDERED PHILOSOPHY as “bourgeois ideology.” This meant, first and foremost, radical bourgeois philosophy, the modern philosophy of bourgeois emancipation, the thought of the revolt of the Third Estate. But pre-bourgeois philosophy, traditional philosophy, was also addressed as bourgeois ideology, as ideology. But ideology is a modern phenomenon. There’s little point in calling either Aristotle or Augustine “ideology.” It is when philosophy is invoked in bourgeois society that it becomes ideological. (Religion, too!)

So what is meant by philosophy as “ideology”?

This goes to the issue of Marxist “ideology-critique.” What did Marxism mean by ideology as “false consciousness”? “False” in what way? For if bourgeois ideology were considered the ideology of the sociological group of the bourgeoisie — capitalists — then there would be nothing “false” about it: it would be the consciousness adequate to the social being of the ruling class; it would be the true consciousness of the bourgeoisie. So it must be false not for the bourgeoisie but rather for others — for the “proletariat.” This kind of “class analysis” of ideology would be concerned that the workers not fall for the ideology of the ruling class. It would be a warning against the workers adopting the idealism of the bourgeoisie that would blind them to their real social condition in capitalism. The idea here is that somehow the workers would remain ignorant of their exploitation by the capitalists if they remained mired in bourgeois ideology.

Of course Marxism was originally no such “material analysis” — debunking — of wrong thinking. No.

Rather, the original Marxist ideology-critique — Marx and Engels’s ideology-critique of bourgeois society — was the immanent dialectical critique of the way society in capitalism necessarily appears to its members, bourgeois and proletarian — capitalists and workers — alike. It was the critique of the true consciousness of the workers as well as of the capitalists.

Now, that formulation just lost me 99% of ostensible “Marxists” as well as all of the rest of the “Left,” whether socialist or liberal, who do indeed think that the poor benighted workers and other subaltern need us intellectuals to tell them what their true social interests are.

This is not what Marxism — Marx and Engels — originally thought, however.

Marxism began with the critique of socialism, specifically with the critique of the most prominent socialist thinker of Marx and Engels’s formative moment in the 1840s, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon — who coined the term “anarchism” — claimed that he respected only three authorities, intellectually, Adam Smith, Hegel and the Bible!

Marxism is usually thought of as the synthesis of German Idealist philosophy, British political-economy, and French socialist politics. But what Marxism actually was was the immanent dialectical critique of these three phenomena, which Marx and Engels considered three different forms of appearance of the same thing: the most advanced bourgeois ideology of their time, of the early–mid 19th century. They were all true expressions of their historical moment, of the Industrial Revolution. But as such, they were also all false.

Proudhon wrote of the “philosophy of misery,” attacking the heirs of Adam Smith in Utilitarianism — James Mill and Jeremy Bentham — and other contemporary British political economists such as Malthus and David Ricardo and their French counterparts. Marx wrote his first major work on political economy and the class struggle in industrial capitalism as a critique of Proudhon, cleverly inverting its title, The Poverty [Misery] of Philosophy.

I was deeply impressed by this work — and especially by its title — when I first read it as an aspiring young “Marxist” in college. It signified to me a basic truth, which is that the problem of capitalism and its potential overcoming in socialism was not a matter of “philosophy,” not a problem of thinking. Reading further, in Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, I read and deeply internalized Marx’s injunction that “communism is a dogmatic abstraction” which was “one-sided,” expressing the same thing as its opposite, private property, and, like bourgeois society itself, was internally divided, for instance, between collectivism and individualism, and so could not be considered a vision of an emancipated future society, but only a negation of the present. I had read in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto their critique of “reactionary socialism,” and their observation that everything of which communism stood accused was actually the “specter” of what capitalism itself was already doing — “abolishing private property,” among other things.

This all told me that, for Marx and Engels at least, the problem of bourgeois ideology was not a matter that could be addressed let alone rectified by proper methodology — by a kind of right-thinking opposed to it.

In short, I recognized early on that Marxism was not some better philosophy.

Marxism was not a philosophical critique of philosophy, but rather something else entirely. For instance, Marx and Engels’s critique of the Young Hegelians was not as philosophers, but in their philosophical claims for politics. This was also true of Lenin’s critique of the Machians among the Bolsheviks (in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908). The critique was of the relation between philosophy and politics. It was thus also not a political critique of philosophy.

Ends

I have titled my talk here, “Ends of philosophy,” after the title for the week in our Platypus primary Marxist reading group syllabus when we read Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” the recommended background reading for today’s discussion. In the syllabus week title as well as here, I intend to play on the multiple meanings of the word “ends.” What are the ends of philosophy, according to Marxism, in terms of its telos, its goals, its purposes, and its satisfaction; what would it take to attain and thus overcome the aspirations of philosophy?

Specifically, what would it take to satisfy bourgeois — that is to say, modern — philosophy? What would make philosophy superfluous?

This is posed in the same way that Marxism sought to make labor as social value superfluous. How does labor seek to abolish itself in capitalism? The same could be said of philosophy.

What would it take to bring philosophy to an end — to its own end? Not by denying the need for philosophy, but by satisfying it.

But there have been other moments, before (and after) Marxism, which sought to overcome philosophy through its satisfaction, through satisfying the need for philosophy.

The need for — the necessity of — philosophy in the modern world is different from its need previously — fundamentally different. The need to account for freedom in bourgeois emancipation was new and different; this did not motivate and inform traditional philosophy. But it fundamentally tasked modern philosophy — at least the philosophy that mattered most to Marxism, the Enlightenment and German Idealism at its culmination. But the need for philosophy in capitalism is also different from its need in the bourgeois revolution.

Please allow me to address several different historical moments of the end of philosophy. I use this concept of moments of the “end of philosophy” instead of alternative approaches, such as varieties of “anti-philosophy,” because I think that trying to address Marxism as an anti-philosophy is misleading. It is also misleading in addressing other such supposed “anti-philosophies,” such as those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Existentialism, Heidegger, etc., as well as other traditions entirely, such as the Enlightenment philosophes contra “philosophy,” or Empiricism and Analytic Philosophy contra “metaphysics.” (For instance, Heidegger sought the potential end to “thousands of years of Western metaphysics,” going all the way back to Plato.) Yet all these various phenomena express to my mind a common issue, namely the problem of “philosophy” per se in the modern era, both in the era of bourgeois emancipation and subsequently in capitalism.

What is “philosophy,” such that it can experience an end? It is not merely its etymological meaning, the love of knowledge, or wisdom, or the love of thinking. Philosophers are not merely smart or sage — not merely sophists, clever thinkers: philosophy cannot be considered merely the mastery of logic or of semantics. If that were true, then most lawyers would be better philosophers than most avowed “philosophers.”

The end of philosophy cannot be considered an end to sophistry, finally putting the clever fellows down. It cannot be considered an analogue to Shakespeare’s “First, we kill all the lawyers.” It is not meant to be the triumph of Philistinism. Although you might think so from a lot of “Marxist” deprecation of philosophy, especially as “bourgeois ideology.” Such “Marxists” want to put a stop to all mystification by putting a stop to the mystifiers of bourgeois society, the lackeys — the paid liars — of the capitalist bourgeoisie. They want to stop the “philosophers” from pulling the wool down over the eyes of the exploited and oppressed. This is not my meaning. — This was not even Socrates’s (Plato’s) meaning in taking down the Sophists.

Authoritarianism

Philosophy cannot be considered, either negatively or positively, as the arrogation of all thinking: it is not some Queen of the Sciences that is to make proper sense of and superintend any and all human thought in every domain. It is not the King of Reason; not the thought-police. Marxism did not seek to replace philosophy in such a role. No. Yet this seems to be precisely what everyone wants from philosophy — or from anti-philosophy. They want their thinking dictated to them.

Korsch addresses this as “Bonapartism in philosophy:” we seem to want to be told how and what to think by philosophers — or by anti-philosophers. It is an authoritarian impulse. But one that is an authentic expression of our time: capitalism brings forth its own Philosopher Kings.

This is not at all what the immediate predecessors for Marxist thought in philosophy, Kant and Hegel, considered as their task: Kant, in “beginning” philosophy (anew), and Hegel in “completing” this, did not seek to replace the thinking of others. No. Precisely the opposite: they sought to free philosophy, to make it “worldly.” They thought that they could do so precisely because they found that the world had already become “philosophical.”

After them, they thought there would no longer be a need to further develop Philosophy as such, but only the need for philosophical reflection in the various different diverse domains of human activity. Our modern academic institutions reflect this: one receives the PhD, Doctor of Philosophy, in Chemistry, meaning one is qualified to “doctor,” to minister and correct, to treat the methods and attendant thinking — the “philosophy” — of the science of chemistry, without however necessarily becoming an expert specialist “philosopher of science,” or studying the specialized discipline Philosophy of Science per se. According to Lukács, such specialized knowledge as found in academia as well as in the various technical vocations — such as law, journalism, art, etc. — exhibited “reification” in capitalism, a disintegrated particularization of atomized consciousness, in which losing the forest for the trees was the very predicate of experience and knowledge. But this was the opposite of what Kant and Hegel had expected. They expected not disintegration but the organic, living and changing relations of diverse multiplicity.

Marx found a very different world from Kant and Hegel’s, after the Industrial Revolution. It was not a philosophical world in capitalism — not an “enlightened” realm of “sober senses,” to which bourgeois philosophy had aspired, but something much darker. It was a “phantasmagoria” of “commodity fetishism,” full of beguiling “metaphysical subtleties,” for which one needed to refer to the “mist-enveloped regions of religion” for proper models. In capitalism, bourgeois society was sunk in a kind of animism: a world of objects exhibiting “theological niceties.”

There was a need for a new Enlightenment, a Second Enlightenment specific to the needs of the 19th century, that is, specific to the new needs of industrial capitalism, for which the prior thinking of bourgeois emancipation, even at its best, for instance by Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant and Hegel, was not equipped to adequately address. It needed a new recognition of the relation between social being and consciousness.

But for Marx and Engels, this new task of enlightenment was something that could not be accomplished philosophically — could not be brought to fruition in thinking — but only in actual political struggle and the transformation of society.

History

This was because, unlike the emancipation of bourgeois society, which took several centuries and came to consciousness of itself as such only late, no longer cloaking itself in the religious garb of Christianity — the Protestant Reformation as some return to true Christianity of the original Apostles, freed from the corruptions of the Church — and arrived at self-consciousness only at the end of its process of transformation, in the 18th century. As Hegel put it, “The Owl of Minerva [that is, knowledge] flies at dusk:” proper consciousness comes only “post-festum,” after the fact of change.

But Marx and Engels found the task of socialism in capitalism to be motivated by a new need. The proletarianization of the bourgeois social relations of labor — the society of cooperative production in crisis with the Industrial Revolution — required a new consciousness of contradiction, a “dialectical” and “historical” “materialism,” to properly recognize its tasks. As Marx put it, the social revolution of the 19th century — in contradistinction to the bourgeois revolution — could not take its poetry from the past, but needed to take its poetry from the future. This was quite a paradoxical formulation, especially since Marx and Engels explicitly abjured “utopian socialism,” finding it a realm of images of capitalism, and not of a world beyond it.

This was because they found the workers’ struggles against the capitalists to be motivated by bourgeois consciousness, the consciousness of the bourgeois revolution. Socialism was born in the Jacobinism of the French Revolution, for instance, in the former Jacobin Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals, still motivated by the aspirations of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Proudhon, for example, was motivated in his anarchist socialism, avowedly, by Adam Smith and Hegel (and the Bible) — animated, unabashedly, by bourgeois political economy and philosophy.

Marx and Engels didn’t think that this was wrong, but only inadequate. They didn’t offer an alternative to Proudhon — to Smith and Hegel (or the Bible!) — but only a critique of how bourgeois thought mystified the crisis and task of capitalism. The world necessarily appeared in bourgeois terms — there were no other terms. There was no other form of consciousness. There was no other philosophy. Nor was there a need for a new philosophy.

Bourgeois philosophy, for Marx and Engels, had successfully summed up and appropriated all prior philosophical enlightenment. They agreed with Kant and Hegel. Bourgeois social thought had successfully summed up and completed all prior thinking about society. Marx and Engels neither disputed nor sought to replace it. They were concerned only with its self-contradiction in capitalism. Not its hypocrisy, but its authentic antinomies, which both drove it on and left it stuck. The bourgeois “end of history” turned out to be the opposite of what it intended: not a final stage of freedom, but rather a final stage of unfreedom; the crossroads of “socialism or barbarism.”

Impossibility

This affected the status of philosophy. Bourgeois philosophy no longer described freedom but rather unfreedom. Or, more dialectically, it described both: the reproduction of unfreedom in the struggle for freedom. As a result, the task of freedom was no longer expressed by the need for all human activity to achieve an adequate — Hegelian — philosophically reflective self-consciousness, but rather to realize in practice and thus recognize in consciousness the limits of such self-consciousness, of such philosophical reflection. There was a crisis in radical bourgeois philosophy. The crisis and decay of Hegelianism was an authentic historical phenomenon, not a mistake.

Like liberal democracy, philosophy in capitalism was no longer itself, and was no longer tasked with becoming itself, attaining its aspirations, but rather was tasked with overcoming itself, superseding its achievements. The achievements of bourgeois emancipation seemed ruined in the 19th century.

Indeed, capitalism already accomplished such self-overcoming of bourgeois society, but perversely, negating itself without satisfying itself. In so doing, it constantly re-posed the task of achieving itself, as an impossible necessity. Bourgeois philosophy became the opposite of what it was, utopian. Not worldly philosophy, but an ideal, a mere notion, mocked by the real, ugly and anything-but-philosophical world.

Because of this — precisely because of this — bourgeois philosophy did not end but constantly reinvented itself, however on an increasingly impoverished basis. It radically revolutionized itself, but also, in so doing, radically undermined itself.

Philosophy remained necessary but proved impossible. It disintegrated, into epistemology, ontology and ethics. They went their separate ways. But they also drove themselves into blind alleys — dead-ends. This actually indicates the task of philosophy to overcome itself, however in perverted form.

Metaphysics

So, what is philosophy? One straightforward way of answering this is, simply, metaphysics. Kant, following Rousseau, had overcome the division and opposition between Rationalism and Empiricism by finding a new foundation for metaphysics. This was the Kantian “Copernican Turn” and “revolution” in philosophy. But it was not simply a new metaphysics, but rather a new account of metaphysics — of philosophy — itself. Moreover, it was revolutionary in an additional sense: it was not only a revolution, but also accounted for itself as revolutionary. This is because it was a metaphysics of change, and not merely change but radical qualitative transformation: it was a revolutionary account of the fundamental transformability of the substance of philosophy itself. In short, it was a philosophy of freedom. It was the self-reflection of practical freedom in society — that society made human life’s transcendence of nature possible, at all, but in so doing created new problems to be worked through and overcome.

It is precisely this metaphysics of freedom, however, that has gone into crisis and disintegrated in capitalism. This has been the expression of the crisis and disintegration — the decay — of bourgeois society.

The goal of philosophy in overcoming itself is to free thinking from an overarching and underlying metaphysics at all. Kant and Hegel thought that they had done so already, but capitalism — in its crisis of the metaphysics of bourgeois society — revealed that there was indeed an underlying and overarching metaphysics still to be overcome, that of social practice — society — itself. The self-production and self-overcoming of the subject in its socially and practically objective activity — labor — needed to be overcome.

The end of philosophy — the end of a singular metaphysics, or of metaphysics per se — aims at the freeing of both action and thinking from any unitary framework. It is the freeing of an ever-expanding and limitless — without end — diverse multiplicity of new and different forms of acting, being and knowing.

Postmodernism was, as Moishe Postone put it, “premature post-capitalism.” It aimed at the freeing of the “small-s subjects from the big-S Subject.” It also aimed at freedom from capital-H History. It meant overcoming Hegel’s philosophy of history.

We already live in such freedom in bourgeois society, however perverted by capitalism. Diverse activities already inhabit different realms of being and call forth different kinds of ethical judgments. Doctors and lawyers practice activities that define being — define the “rights of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — in different ways, and are hence ethically bound in different ways. Doctors discipline themselves ethically differently from scientists. Among scientists, Biology has a different epistemology from Physics: there are different methods because there are different objects. There is no “philosophy” in the sense of a metaphysical logic that encompasses them all. Lawyers, for example, practice differential ethics: prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal law are bound by different rules of behavior; the practice of civil law is ethically distinct from criminal law; the rules of evidence are different. We do not seek to bind society to one form of knowledge, one code of conduct, or one way of life. There is no “philosophy” that could or should encompass them all. It would be arrogant to claim that there is one singular logic that can be mastered by anyone for governing everything.

Bourgeois society has already established well the reasonable limits to philosophy and its competence.

In Ancient civilization there were differentiated realms of being, knowing and acting. There was a caste system, in which there were different laws for peasants; for merchants; for artisans (and for different kinds of artisans, for different arts and different sciences); and for the nobility; and for the clergy. But they were unified in a Divine Order of the Great Chain of Being. There was heterogeneity, but all with a single origin in God: all of God’s creatures in all of God’s Creation. That mystery was to remain unknown to Man — known only to God. There was a reason for everything, but only God could know it. There was not philosophy but theology, and theology was not to arrogate to itself the place of the Mind of God, but only ponder Man’s place in and relationship to it. Theology established the limits to man’s knowledge of God: we knew only what God had revealed to us, through his Covenant. We all heard the Word of God; but God told His different creatures different things. In overcoming theology, philosophy did not seek to replace it. It sought to explore the mind of man, not to relate to and limit itself with respect to the Mind of God. It was not concerned with Divine or Natural limits, but with freedom.

There is no possible one single or once-and-for-all account of freedom, for then freedom would not be free. There is no possible account of “being” free, but only of becoming free. And there is only one such account, that of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilization. It was to set free all the diverse and multiple activities of mankind, in relation to other humans, to Nature, and to ourselves.

Overcoming

Marx was both a Hegelian and departed from Hegel, with a historical and not a philosophical difference. As Marx put it, for Hegel himself the Hegelian system was not ready-made and finished as it was for those who came after. As Marx observed, Hegelianism went into crisis for real historical reasons, not due to misunderstanding by his followers; but rather the crisis came from Hegelian philosophy’s actual contact with the world, and that world had become as internally contradictory in capitalism as Hegelianism became in contact with it. The Hegelian dialectic is both appropriate and inappropriate to the problem of capitalism. The crisis and disintegration of Hegelianism was a crisis of metaphysics — of philosophy — at a higher and deeper and not a lower or more superficial level from Hegelianism. Hegelianism was falsified not in itself but by history. But Hegelianism was also borne out by history as the last word in philosophy — in metaphysics. Marxism cannot be purged of its Hegelianism without becoming incoherent; Marxism remains Hegelian, albeit with what Lukács called an “additional twist” in the “pure historicization of the dialectic.”

If society in capitalism remains bourgeois in its ideals, with the goal of providing opportunities for social labor, materially, it has become its opposite: as capitalist, it prioritizes not labor but capital, and at the expense of labor. This means society is tasked with the material challenge of overcoming its ideals. But, as Marx recognized, this can only be done on the basis of this society’s own ideals, in and through their self-contradiction. In philosophy, this means the task expressed by the self-contradiction of Hegelianism.

Capitalism is the model of the Marxist-Hegelian procedure of immanent dialectical critique: this is how capitalism itself moves, how it reproduces itself through self-contradiction. Capitalism is its own practical critique, reproducing itself by constantly overcoming itself. As Marx put it, the only limit to capital is capital itself; but capital is the transgression of any and all limits. It is the way capitalism overcomes itself, its dynamic process of change, which is its unfreedom, its self-limitation. The Marxian horizon of freedom beyond capitalism is freedom beyond the Hegelian dialectic, beyond the bourgeois dialectic of transformation — beyond labor as a process of self-overcoming through production.

There thus remains a unitary metaphysics binding all social practices, dominating, constraining and distorting their further development in freedom under capitalism: the bourgeois right of labor. The form of total freedom in bourgeois emancipation — self-production in society — has become in capitalism the form of total unfreedom. The social condition for labor has become that of the self-destruction of labor in capital. The goal of labor in capital is to abolish itself; but it can do so only by realizing itself — as self-contradiction. Hegel’s “negative labor of the concept” must be completed; short of that, it dominates us.

Overcoming this will mean overcoming metaphysics — overcoming philosophy. At least overcoming philosophy in any way known — or knowable — hitherto. | P


Further reading

Cutrone

Chris Cutrone, “Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (2008),” Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

Cutrone, “Rejoinder on Korsch,” PR 20 (February 2010), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2010/02/26/rejoinder-to-david-black-on-karl-korschs-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

Cutrone, “Book review: Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (1981, 1995 and 2009): Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism,” PR 21 (March 2010), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2010/03/15/gillian-roses-hegelian-critique-of-marxism/>.

Cutrone, “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau, Kant and Hegel,” PR 61 (November 2013), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2013/11/01/rousseau-kant-hegel/>.

Cutrone, “Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism,” PR 63 (February 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/02/01/why-still-read-lukacs-the-place-of-philosophical-questions-in-marxism/>.

Cutrone, “Book review: Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis (2014),” Marxism & Philosophy Review of Books (February 14, 2015), available online at: <https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/7988_the-philosophy-of-praxis-review-by-chris-cutrone/>.

Cutrone, “Back to Herbert Spencer! Industrial vs. militant society.” PR 82 (December 2015 – January 2016), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2016/01/12/back-to-herbert-spencer/>.

Korsch

Karl Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm> [PDF].

Korsch, “The Marxist dialectic” (1923), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxist-dialectic.htm>.

Korsch, “On materialist dialectic” (1924), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/materialist-dialectic.htm>.


Introductory remarks on the topic of “Marxism and philosophy”*

Chris Cutrone

August 11, 2018

An audio recording of the internal discussion by members of Platypus on “Marxism and philosophy” can be found at: <https://archive.org/details/180812PhilosophyAndMarxismAndPlatypus>.

Video recording at: <https://youtu.be/_lq3LOEI7R4>.

Earlier this summer, I visited Athens and made a pilgrimage to Aristotle’s Lyceum. I was struck by the idea that perhaps what I am doing in Platypus is essentially the same as what Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were doing back in Ancient Greece. Spencer and I were recently discussing the recurrent trope of Aristotle and Marx, apropos of today’s discussion of Marxism and philosophy, and he recalled his feeling nauseous when reading Castoriadis’s famous essay on Aristotle and Marx, published in the same issue of the journal Social Research alongside Moishe Postone’s seminal essay, “Necessity, Labor and Time.” Spencer said he had felt sick at the thought that nothing had changed since Aristotle’s time.

I recalled how Frantz Fanon wrote, in Black Skin, White Masks, that he would be happy to learn that an African philosopher had corresponded with Plato, but this wouldn’t make a difference for 8 year-olds in Haiti and the Dominican Republic forced to cut sugar cane for a living. This compares well to the former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who, writing from her exile in Cuba on Black Lives Matter, referred to black Americans as “Africans lost in America.” But are blacks any less lost in Africa today? Am I an Italian or Irish lost in America, too? I often feel that way, that my peasant ancestors were dragged into bourgeois society to ill effect, to my present misery. What would it mean not to be lost? Was I returning home, in a sense, when, as an intellectual, I returned to Aristotle’s school in Athens? Was I any less lost in Athens?

Adorno wrote, in his inaugural lecture on “The idea of natural history,” that “I submit myself, so to speak, to the materialist dialectic.” What he meant of course was that he could only speak misleadingly of submitting himself to the materialist dialectic, as if he would not already be dominated by it, whether he was conscious of his submission or not. This reminds us of Trotsky’s statement to his recalcitrant followers who rejected Hegelianism that, “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

Why should we be interested in “philosophy,” then? Adorno did not mean that he was submitting himself to Marxism as the “materialist dialectic” in the sense of submitting to Marx’s thought. No. He meant, as we must mean in Platypus, that he accepted the challenge of Marx’s thought as thinking which registered a greater reality, as a challenge and call to task for Adorno’s own thinking.

Foucault wrote about his chagrin that just when one thinks one has overcome Hegel, Hegel is still there smiling back at you. This rather paranoid claim by Foucault as a mental phenomenon has a real meaning, however, which is that Hegel still speaks in some unavoidable way to our real condition. What is meant by “Hegel” here, of course, is the entirety of the alleged “Master Narrative” of the Western philosophical tradition culminating in bourgeois modernity.

Engaging philosophy then, is not being told how to think, but allowing one’s thinking to be challenged and tasked in a specific way. It is a microcosm of how society challenges and tasks our thinking, whether we are inclined to it or not.

Historical philosophers are not some “dead white males” the authority of whose thinking threatens to dominate our own; we do not, or at least ought not, to read philosophy in order to be told how to think. No. The philosophy that comes down to us from history is not the dead weight of the past, but it is part of that past. And the past is not dead or even really past, since past actions still act upon us in the present, whether we like it or not. Marx reminds us that, “Man makes history, but not according to conditions of his own choosing.”

We cannot avoid the past, but we are concerned with the symptomatic attempts to free ourselves from the past by trying to avoid it. Especially on the “Left,” and especially by ostensible “Marxists.”

As Korsch reminds us, among other ways, this can take the form of trying to avoid the “philosophical” aspects of Marxism.

We might recall that Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” the background reading for today, was the very first text we read in the Platypus reading group. This was before it was called Platypus, of course, but it was still our first collective discussion of a reading as a group. Our reading was predicated on opening up, not philosophy, but rather the political foundations for Adorno’s thinking. It was meant to help lead my academic students of Adorno, not from Marxism to philosophy, but rather from philosophy to Marxism.

This is the intention of today’s event as well: we come full circle. Perhaps indeed nothing has changed. | P

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 end of the Gilded Age: Discontents of the Second Industrial Revolution today

Reading and discussion broadcast on Radical Minds, WHPK radio, Chicago:

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 102 | December 2017 – January 2018

THE ACCOUNT OF HISTORY is the theory of the present: How did we get here; and what tasks remain from the past — that however appear to be “new” today? As Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.”[1] This is true of capitalism and its crisis now.

The present crisis is a crisis of the world system of capitalism that emerged in the 20th century, a crisis of the capitalist world created by the Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century — in fits and starts (such as the two World Wars and the Cold War) but nonetheless consistently and inexorably. That system has been led by the countries newly industrialized at the end of the 19th century, the U.S., Germany and Japan. All three have come to be in crisis in the early 21st century — the crisis of the EU can be regarded as a crisis of the management of “German” capital.

David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), written and published in the heyday of neoliberalism, regarded the history of capitalism as a succession of “regimes of accumulation” — concrete forms for socially and politically mediating the need to accumulate capital in its valorization process. But since, according to Marxism, capitalism is itself a form of social contradiction and thus a crisis and decay of society and politics, each successive form of capitalism takes up and perpetuates the crisis of the preceding form, however in an altered way.[2] Capitalism really is a matter of “kicking the can down the road,” apparently indefinitely. But the banging can eventually returns, and we must ultimately pay the added costs of its deferral.

The characterization by critical contemporaries of the late-19th – early-20th century era as the “Gilded Age”[3] expressed its quality as what Kant warned about a century earlier, in his 1784 essay on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” namely, “the danger that the vitality of mankind may go to sleep:” “Everything good that is not based on a morally good disposition, however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery.”[4] Gilded Age capitalism was such “glittering misery.” This quality of capitalism continues today, especially in the last generation of neoliberalism whose spell was broken in the recent crisis. Joseph Schumpeter tried to put a happy face on capitalism by calling it “creative destruction,” but Marxism recognized to the contrary that it is actually destructive creation.[5] And its destructiveness is not only immediate but has long-term consequences. The destruction of capitalism is cumulative: it makes claims on future generations that cannot be settled cheaply.[6]

Industrial production and Robber Barons

It was during the period of the late 19th century Gilded Age that capitalists appeared not as entrepreneurs of production but as “Robber Barons” — an aristocracy of looting. Marx had already mordantly observed that in industrial production, with its high capital requirements, it was not the case that being a captain of industry made you money, but rather that having money made you a captain of industry. In industrial capitalism, it was not, as Adam Smith had thought, production developed by reinvestment of relatively low profits in the long run, with high wages facilitating increased consumption — wealth — in a virtuous cycle, but rather, as Marginal Utility Theory, developed precisely in this late 19th century era, regarded more cynically, that use-values of commodities decrease over time, so investors in their production better get in early and take their profits out while the going is still good and before it becomes a matter of diminishing returns — the miserable reasoning of what Smith regarded as “mercantile interest,” the profiteering of “buying cheap and selling dear,” that he thought actually constrains and undermines the productivity of wealth in society, and so needed to be overcome as an impediment to growth. Marx pursued rather the self-contradiction in what became of Smith’s labor theory of value in industrial capitalism.

The accelerated technical production of the Industrial Revolution increased along with it the accumulation and concentration of capital, which Marx thought produced a crisis of value in industrial capitalism, in that such production was still socially mediated by the value of wage-labor, however anachronistically. Wage labor was inadequate for the social appropriation of industrial production. This was the self-contradiction of the capitalist mode of production in political-economic terms, according to Marx: the “bourgeois social relations” were contradicted by the “industrial forces of production;” industrial technique served to increase capital but this outstripped the actual social productivity of human labor, eliminating workers from production so that, as Max Horkheimer wryly observed, “machines have made not work but the workers superfluous.”[7] Adam Smith’s “proprietors of stock” were only a slight variation on the prior traveling merchants collecting the products of cottage industry, now gathering the previously disparate producers in factories; they were not capitalists in the Marxist sense of “owners of the means of production:” the role of the proprietors in Smith’s view of production was minimal by comparison to the laborers who were actually making things with increased efficiency. Where Smith would have expected higher productivity to result in the increased value of time in work through cooperation that would not only increase the purchasing power of labor but also decrease labor-time and increase leisure-time, what happened for labor instead, at a societal level, was the pernicious combination of over-work and unemployment, not attributable merely to temporary labor-market corrections. Human labor was progressively eliminated from production in absolute and not only relative terms: increased production was no longer based primarily on human labor-power inputs in efficient cooperation (as in Adam Smith’s example of the pin-factory), but rather on the development of science and technology, or what Marx called the “general social intellect,” objectified in machine production.

The “combined and uneven [i.e. self-contradictory] development” of capitalism is exhibited by the paradoxical phenomena of simultaneously coexisting “robots and sweatshops.” Industrial development and the accumulation of capital undermine the entire bourgeois social ethos of rewarding productivity through work, the exchange of labor as a commodity. Contrary to Smith’s expectation, Marx observed how in capitalism labor sinks from the most precious to “the most wretched of commodities.”[8] The workers are expropriated of the value of their labor at a societal level, and not merely through being super-exploited by their employers. There is a glaring problem in the development of wealth in society based on the value of labor. The ramifications of this are found in capitalism’s social effects.

This is what makes capitalists appear ambiguously as performing a social duty as investors but also as criminals ripping off society — what Smith had warned about, the constant danger of their “conspiracy against the public.” Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 book Fable of the Bees, a parable of “private vices, public benefits,” seemed mocked by what was actually happening in the Gilded Age. Were the capitalists really, as today’s parlance goes, “job creators?” Yes and no: as often as not. When President Theodore Roosevelt went after J.P. Morgan for violation of anti-trust laws, and Morgan, a Republican supporter, complained, asking what he could do to avoid prosecution by the government, Roosevelt replied with a variation of Robespierre’s injunction that if someone feels implicated by the gaze of judgment it is because he is guilty. Who wouldn’t side with Roosevelt’s sentiment against the Robber Baron? But Roosevelt was motivated not by altruism but what he regarded as necessary policy, to make capitalists responsible investors: Build the railroads, just don’t rip us off. Marx thought that socialism would allow industrial production to go beyond capital and overcome the need for and value of labor in a socially beneficial and not destructive way. This was a problem of society, not reducible to the criminality of the individual capitalists. Even Roosevelt recognized the need for a change in policy beyond the mere curbing of excesses. For Marxism, the accumulation of capital in industrial production was a crisis for bourgeois society, but also an opportunity for changing it. Indeed, realizing the social potential of capitalism was a necessity — a task: it was “inevitable.” The only question was the depth and breadth of the needed change in society.

Discontents old and new

In the 20th century, the discontents of Gilded Age capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution led to what Harvey (after Antonio Gramsci) called “Fordism,” a new “regime of accumulation” or concrete form for the valorization process of capital. It was a new and different form of production and consumption, a new economics and new politics, a new culture: a new way of life. The 20th century and its continuing legacy today express unresolved problems inherited from Gilded Age capitalism that Fordist capital was not able to overcome. We suffer today from discontents with the results not, for instance, of the 16th–18th century African slave trade or the 15th century Reconquista and New World discovery, but rather from, for example, the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S.,[9] and the late, 2nd-wave colonialism from the era of what Marxists called “imperialism” at the end of the 19th century — hence the problem of so-called “neo-colonialism.” We live in the world created by the early 20th century’s attempts to solve those problems.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the “long 19th” and “short 20th” centuries.[10] He regarded 1789–1914 as one cycle, and 1914–1991 as another. But perhaps we should consider the short 19th century, the core of which runs from the 1820s–70s (from the aftermath of the French Revolution until the U.S. Civil War, the Meiji Restoration and Franco-Prussian War), and the long 20th century which began, perhaps as early as the 1870s but certainly by the 1890s, and continued until the recent crisis of the 2000s–10s.[11] The high 19th century of liberalism contrasts with the 20th century of state capitalism.

In the 1990s, it seemed as if, after the “long detour” of fascism and “Communism” (Stalinism) in the 20th century,[12] a responsibly reformed “progressive” capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution would finally have its unobstructed day in the sun: the U.S., Germany and Japan could inherit a progressively productive world at peace. The mirage of the purported Third Industrial Revolution of the post-WWII mid–late 20th century was revealed to be merely the full flowering of the turn-of-the-20th century electromagnetic revolution that had succeeded the original Industrial Revolution’s thermodynamics: cybernetics turned out to be the latest expression of liberal democracy; however Steampunk fantasies haunted historical memory in the 1990s. But already in the 1970s, Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner showed us the “used future” of decrepit Fordist capital. Neoliberalism naturalized this.

Mount Rushmore U.S. National Monument, depicting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed in 1923, begun in 1927, before the Great Depression, and finished in 1941 during the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mount Rushmore U.S. National Monument, depicting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed in 1923, begun in 1927, before the Great Depression, and finished in 1941 during the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Retrospective history

The retrospective view from the present allows for regarding the 20th century as the outcome of the Gilded Age — of the Second Industrial Revolution. But the 20th century was conditioned by the mounting discontents of the Gilded Age and its crisis in the early 20th century — most apocalyptically in the First World War and its aftermath. We still live in the after-effects of the crisis that conditioned the 20th century. The inability to overcome the discontents of capital from a century ago still swamps us today.

In the late 19th century U.S., the Second Industrial Revolution was governed largely by the Republican Party, which was the combined party of progressive liberalism and big capital. The Democratic Party in this period, by contrast, was the party of the middle class and conservatism. So, for instance, Populism as a 1890s Depression phenomenon fed into the Democratic Party, with William Jennings Bryan the Democrats’ (unsuccessful) candidate for President in 1896 and (again in) 1900. But Progressivism emerged as a reform effort from within the Republican Party against manifest problems of liberal capitalism in the 1890s–1900s — most dramatically under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In Europe, discontents with the Gilded Age / Second Industrial Revolution manifested in the Socialist Parties of the Second International. Liberal capitalism was opposed by a mass industrial workers politics — most significantly in the major party of the Second International, the SPD (Social-democratic Party of Germany). In the U.K., discontents with liberalism led to the formation of the Labour Party. These parties had origins in the 1870s but experienced phenomenal growth especially in the aftermath of the crisis of the 1890s. Countries drawn into the Second Industrial Revolution more broadly but on a subordinate subsidiary basis included the Russian Empire and Italy, which also experienced mass radicalization in the form of new Social-Democratic and Socialist Parties.

However these new socialist parties also experienced a crisis of their growth in the 1890s — a crisis of their political purpose: Were they, as they claimed, parties of political revolution, or rather of social reform? Eduard Bernstein was the most perspicacious of the commentators on the developments of this period in the 1890s. He regarded the growth of the U.K. workers movement that led to the formation of the Labour Party as evidence that a revolutionary socialist political party may not be necessary for the transformation of capitalism into socialism: socialism may socially evolve within capitalism rather than requiring its political overthrow. The eventual election of majority socialist or labor parties may be sufficient to crown the development of the social movement of the working class through its civil society organizations such as labor unions and other social collectives (such as women’s organizations, etc.).

The 20th century belied this socialist optimism of the late 19th century that Marxism had in common with liberalism. Just as Progressivism expressed manifest problems of liberal capitalism, so the new distinctly “revolutionary” current in socialism beginning circa 1900 represented by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky as well as by Debs (who was converted to Marxism in the late 1890s) expressed discontent with socialist reformism. Luxemburg for instance called Bernstein simply a “liberal.” What this meant was that Bernstein regarded liberal democracy as politically adequate for the activity of the working class in its struggle for socialism. Bernstein thought that the capitalist interest could be subordinated to a political majority. What Bernstein didn’t reckon with was how the working class would become politically split in the crisis of capitalism.[13] In the First World War and the Revolutions in Russia, Germany, Italy and Hungary that broke out in its aftermath 1917–19, the former socialist parties of the Second International divided between reformist Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists. In 1919, responding to criticisms of the course of the Russian Revolution, Debs declared that, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”[14]

This is related to how Progressivism emerged contemporaneously from the crisis of liberalism. It was acrimonious as well, with incumbent President Taft condemning his challenger, his former friend and colleague Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate for President in 1912, as “the most dangerous man in America.” It led, via the actual beneficiary of the split among the Republicans, Woodrow Wilson’s more socially conservative (for example, avowedly racist) Democratic Party Progressivism, to (Theodore Roosevelt’s nephew-in-law) Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.[15]

“Progressive” capitalism

The question is the alternative to capitalist progressivism offered by Marxist socialism. In the U.S. Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America sought to intervene with working-class socialism across the division of Republican Party big-capitalist liberalism versus Democratic Party middle-class conservatism. “Industrial democracy” was the term of this socialist opposition under Marxist leadership.

As a Marxist, Debs like Rosa Luxemburg understood that this pressed a contradiction.[16] Marxism was not an authoritarian collectivist opposition to liberalism, but sought to combine and transcend middle class conservative-reactionary discontents over the destructive effects of capitalism with the revolutionary social potential of the dynamism of big capital. Debs articulated this in his 1900 election manifesto, first delivered as a speech in Chicago, on “Competition versus cooperation:”[17]

The Republican platform is a self-congratulation of the dominant capitalist class. “Prosperity galore, give us four years more.” The Democratic platform is the wail and cry of the perishing middle class; calamity without end. The Social Democratic platform is an indictment of the capitalist system; it is the call to class consciousness and political action of the exploited working class; and it is a ringing declaration in favor of collective ownership of all the means of production and distribution, as the clarion voice of economic freedom.

Progressivism sought to similarly transcend the liberal capitalist vs. conservative populist divide emerging from industrialization, which is why liberals could observe in 1912 that Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party was seeking to usurp the mantles of both William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Democrats and Debs’s Socialists. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s election as President was the result of the split among the Republicans between Progressives and old-style liberals. This set the stage for the triumph of New Deal progressivism under FDR — however 20 years later, after the crisis of the Great Depression.

But FDR’s New Dealism, specifically as a Democratic Party phenomenon, combined but did not transcend the split of progressive capitalism with middle-class conservatism. The working class was thus bound in the Democratic Party to both big capital and the middle class. The working-class struggle for socialism found earlier in the old Socialist Party of America was squeezed out between these two aspects of the progressive New Deal Democrats. Socialism in the U.S. never recovered from this suppression. The New Deal Coalition Democrats became the ruling party in the U.S. in the high 20th century.

The Democrats have tried ever since FDR to retain a progressive capitalist alliance of liberal capital with middle-class conservatism. But what happened in the political crisis of the New Deal Coalition in the 1960s (signaled by the Civil Rights Movement as well as the U.S.’s losing war in Vietnam), combined with the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, was that the form of middle-class conservatism changed — and was captured by the Republicans instead. This was not only expressed in the Southern Strategy that captured the Dixiecrat middle class (racial) conservatives, but also the appeal to “law and order” that captured the Northern urban and suburban working class ethnics who had previously supported the New Deal Democrats.

Subsequently, this has taken the otherwise longstanding form of the old split within liberalism that Progressivism represented: progressive liberalism versus conservative liberalism. The conservative liberals have promised the middle class that it will benefit from big capital; whereas the progressive liberals have actively sought policies that will ensure this. But neither the promise nor the policies have been able to prevent the social destruction and hence the conservative reaction of the middle class. Both the Republicans and Democrats have exploited middle-class discontents without satisfying them.

The working class has been the passive object of this process, oscillating between big-capitalist liberalism and middle-class conservatism, however in the obscure form of oscillating between greater or lesser support for progressive liberalism — greater or lesser support for the Democrats. Politically, this means the subordination of the working class to the middle class. But which middle class?

The 20th century saw the rise of the “new middle class” of corporate capitalist managers, as opposed to the old middle class of small proprietors as well as of artisanal workers. The old middle class were the petite bourgeoisie, which were always distinct from the new industrial working class ever since the 19th century. So the question in the 20th century became the relation between the proletarianized working class of wage-earners and the capitalist managerial middle class. Could the middle class be captured by progressive liberalism? Or would the perennial crisis of capitalism lead instead to populist conservatism? How could populism, whether middle or working class, be neutralized as a disruptive threat to the negotiations of big-capitalist politics?

From the era of the late-19th century Second International, Debs serves as an example of how a populist could become a socialist — and not a progressive liberal. By contrast, Eduard Bernstein shows how a Marxist could become a progressive liberal, via the liquidation of proletarian socialism by neglect of the appeal of middle-class conservatism to which the working class could succumb in its trade unionism.

Proletarian socialism vs. middle-class revolt

The working class is susceptible to middle-class conservatism insofar as it remains attached to a prior form of capitalism — the accumulated ensemble of previous concrete forms of wage labor — that undergoes crisis and is destroyed. Progressivism depends conversely upon the amenability and “liberalism” of the middle class to go along with changes in capitalism led by big capital. Big capital benefits from all changes anyway — capitalists can shift their investments or retire into philanthropy and entire countries can adopt what Lenin called “coupon-clipping”[18] — so the real issue is the struggle to come out on top or simply not to sink entirely but keep one’s head above water in the next wave of capitalism. Conservatives are always there to try to take advantage of those swamped and potentially left behind, with demagogic appeals to the status quo that people forget was itself once something new.

The question is, who are the progressives and who are the conservatives, politically? Perhaps the progressives are the more cunning conservatives — or the conservatives are the more cunning progressives. In the last generation of neoliberalism the Republicans could plausibly claim to be the “true revolutionaries” in advancing capitalism, and thus addressed and exploited the manifest liabilities of the Democrats’ conservatism. The game is to capture middle-class discontents in “progressive” capitalist “reforms” (e.g. “welfare reform,” “trade reform” etc.). The Republicans did so through the “Reagan Revolution,” just as the Democrats had done in the 1930s FDR New Deal Coalition through which they had replaced the Republicans as the dominant majority party since the Civil War. Every “old conservative” was once a “new revolutionary” in capitalism.

Proletarian socialism — Marxism — by contrast sought to subordinate the middle class to the working class in reappropriating capital, which it proposed could only happen through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The political party for proletarian socialism thus sought to lead the broader “masses” in “social democracy” in order to achieve socialism.

This would be especially true of the new managerial middle class which could simply take direction from the working class where they formerly did so from the capitalists — including from the capitalist state and its state capitalist managerial policies. Thus the capitalists could be retired into philanthropy. This was the vision of the Second International (1889–1914) and of mid-20th century Social Democratic politics. Especially since it was understood by Marxism, for instance by Lenin’s conception of contemporary “imperialism” or monopoly capitalism, that not only the new middle class as corporate employees but also the working class itself subsisted not on the value of their own laboring activity but rather on a cut of the profits of capital, which was granted to them for political reasons, through a myriad of government subsidies, to prevent revolution — not merely to soften the blows of the business cycle of boom and bust.

Theodore Roosevelt called this the need for a “Square Deal” — indicatively not a “fair” deal, not merely enforcing liberal capitalism, but the government actively ameliorating its defects — and understood it explicitly as required to stave off socialism. But Roosevelt had, not Marx’s vague “specter of communism,” but Debs’s actual mass Socialist Party of America staring him down to draw this political conclusion: it was a rear-guard action, but with a visionary long view. Progressivism was meant to institute political reforms required to be up-to-date with capitalist development: it was a matter not so much of advancing history as catching up with it; in this sense it still accorded with classical liberalism that the state should follow society and not try to determine it. But since Roosevelt’s time, new problems arising from reforms attempted in the 20th century have clouded the issue; however, the essential political predicament of liberal democracy in the industrial era remains.

The problem and task of “progressive capitalism” is the attempt to maintain capitalism through its manifest social and political crisis. The alignment of the working class with the middle class in common capitalist interest with big capital is always temporary and inevitably fraught. There is always a struggle for supremacy in the fractious, politically negotiated social alliance of capital, which will eventually burst forth from the inexorable obsolescence of any and all concrete forms of capitalism in society.

The question the capitalists periodically face is: Can the conservative-reactionary middle class be made to go in peace (e.g. overdose on opioids — before that, on whiskey: it is important to note that the Progressives advocated Prohibition), or will it freak out and disrupt society and politics in uncontrollable ways? Trotsky called fascism the “petite bourgeoisie run amok.”[19] But every old middle class was once a new middle class — just as every old form of wage-labor was once a new form of capitalism: the working class’s discontents are subsumed under middle-class conservatism; the potential for socialism in capitalism thus disappears. The contradiction of capital that Marxism once recognized is submerged.

The “progressive capitalist” political forms that emerged as an alternative to Marxist socialism after the crisis of the Gilded Age and were carried through the 20th century have exhausted themselves in two waves of crisis: the crisis of the 1960s–70s that led to neoliberalism; and the present crisis of neoliberalism itself in the 2000s–10s.[20] The attempted return to the Gilded Age since the 1980s–90s has clearly failed — which is why this deeper history leading to the present reasserts itself today. It is undigested.

Glenn Beck was not wrong to panic at the sight of Trump and take his ascendancy as the occasion to condemn the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson from a century ago.[21] Beck counterposed the “America of the Founding Fathers Washington and Jefferson” to that of the “Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,” calling the 2016 election the final defeat of the former by the latter. Neglected by Beck in his division of American history is Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as a second founding moment of the U.S. But the evident desire for return to the apparently more innocent time of the Second Industrial Revolution and its liberal optimism neglects its real discontents and actual crisis in the Gilded Age, which once were expressed by Marxist socialism in the era of the Marxist-led parties of the Second International, including the Socialist Party of America of Eugene Debs, but were captured instead by “progressive” state capitalism in the 20th century that Beck and other conservative liberals constantly bemoan — regretting its political necessity.

Today, the question is the future of that 20th century state capitalism that, no matter how rickety, still dominates the world. Its prospects look grim — China notwithstanding.

But actually it is no more grim than the 20th century itself — or the late 19th century Gilded Age of Second Industrial Revolution capitalism that gave birth to the 20th century.

Now as before, the Republicans and Democrats compete over the political capture of middle-class conservative reaction by big capital in service of a capitalist “progress” that is none. What disappears is the possibility once recognized by Marxism of the working class, through proletarian socialism, superseding both “progressive” capital and middle-class reaction. Without it, capitalism is permanent, the middle class under threat periodically runs amok, old tenements are torn down, slums cleared, and new dormitories for the working class are hastily constructed, and in the end the best we can hope for is another Industrial Revolution — with all the destruction that it will inevitably bring. | P

[1] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.

[2] See my “Symptomology: Historical Transformations in Social-Political Context,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/symptomology/>.

[3] The term originated from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, co-written by Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which expressed disappointments with the post-Civil War boom era in the U.S. It was adopted in the 1920s and retrospectively applied to the entire preceding era, especially from the 1870s–1890s.

[4] Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.

[5] Marx and Engels had observed, in their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/>), that the crisis of capitalism would end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

[6] See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (AKA “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), available online at <https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html>.

[7] Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1942), Telos 15:2 (Spring 1973), 3.

[8] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Estranged Labour,” available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.

[9] For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his high Jim-Crow era 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, recognized it was the capitalist crisis of the 1870s after the Panic of 1873 that had spelled the doom of Reconstruction.

[10] See Hobsbawm’s books The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987), and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994).

[11] Another way of considering this history is to regard the history of Marxism relative to the phenomenon of the emergence of so-called “state capitalism.” See my “1873–1973: The Century of Marxism: The Death of Marxism and the Emergence of Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[12] See James Weinstein, The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left (2003), excerpts in The Nation (July 7, 2003) and In These Times (May 28, 2003) available online, respectively, at <https://www.thenation.com/article/long-detour/> and <http://inthesetimes.com/article/the_long_detour/the_long_detour>.

[13] See my “Rosa Luxemburg and the Party,” Platypus Review 86 (May 2016), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2016/05/03/rosa-luxemburg-party/>.

[14] “The Day of the People” (February 1919), written about the assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg during the Spartacist Uprising of the German Revolution, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1919/daypeople.htm>.

[15] See Ken Burns’s recent documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014), which traces this lineage of Progressivism from TR to FDR, including that of TR’s niece, FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt.

[16] See Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm>.

[17] Available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1900/0929-debs-competitionvcooperation.pdf>.

[18] See his pamphlet on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/>.

[19] Trotsky’s writings on fascism’s nature and character were collected in Fascism: What It Is, and How to Fight It (Pioneer Publishers, U.S., 1944), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm>.

[20] See my “Symptomology,” op. cit.

[21] See for instance, Glenn Beck, “Why Teddy Roosevelt is America’s New Founding Father” (May 11, 2016), online at <http://www.glennbeck.com/2016/05/11/history-lesson-teddy-roosevelt-americas-new-founding-father/>, where Beck says that,

So the country is going to vote — the parameters are the Roosevelts. Those are the bookends. Theodore Roosevelt, the beginning of progressivism, to FDR, heavy statism. That’s where we’ll vote. And we’ve just voted two people in the FDR category. Hillary Clinton is FDR. Trump could be Woodrow Wilson, where he silences people and throws them into jail if you have a differing opinion. He could be Woodrow Wilson. But she’s probably FDR.

1917 – 2017 (Platypus 9th annual international convention audio recording)

Chris Cutrone




Presented on a panel with Bryan Palmer and Leo Panitch at the 9th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 8, 2017.

The Frankfurt School approached the problem of the political failure of socialism in terms of the revolutionary subject, namely, the masses in the democratic revolution and the political party for socialism. However, in the failure of socialism, the masses had led to fascism, and the party had led to Stalinism. What was liquidated between them was Marxism or proletarian socialism; what was liquidated was the working class politically constituted as such, or, the class struggle of the working class — which for Marxists required the goal of socialism. The revolutionary political goal of socialism was required for the class struggle or even the working class per se to exist at all. For Marxism, the proletariat was a Hegelian concept: it aimed at fulfillment through self-abolition. Without the struggle for socialism, capitalism led the masses to fascism and led the political party to Stalinism. The failure of socialism thus conditioned the 20th century.

The legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is a decidedly mixed one. This variable character of 1917’s legacy can be divided between its actors — the masses and the party — and between the dates, February and October 1917.

The February 1917 revolution is usually regarded as the democratic revolution and the spontaneous action of the masses. By contrast, the October Revolution is usually regarded as the socialist revolution and the action of the party. But this distorts the history — the events as well as the actors involved. What drops out is the specific role of the working class, as distinct from the masses or the party. The soviets or workers’ and soldiers’ councils were the agencies of the masses in revolution. The party was the agency of the working class struggling for socialism. The party was meant to be the political agency facilitating the broader working class’s and the masses’ social revolution — the transformation of society — overcoming capitalism. This eliding of the distinction of the masses, the working class and the political party goes so far as to call the October Revolution the “Bolshevik Revolution” — an anti-Communist slander that Stalinism was complicit in perpetuating. The Bolsheviks participated in but were not responsible for the revolution.

As Trotsky observed on the 20th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution in his 1937 article on “Stalinism and Bolshevism” — where he asserted that Stalinism was the “antithesis” of Bolshevism — the Bolsheviks did not identify themselves directly with either the masses, the working class, the revolution, or the ostensibly “revolutionary” state issuing from the revolution. As Trotsky wrote in his 1930 book History of the Russian Revolution, the entrance of the masses onto the stage of history — whether this was a good or bad thing — was a problem for moralists, but something Marxism had had to reckon with, for good or for ill. How had Marxists done so?

Marx had observed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848 that the result was “Bonapartism,” namely, the rule of the state claiming to act on behalf of society as a whole and especially for the masses. Louis Bonaparte, who we must remember was himself a Saint-Simonian Utopian Socialist, claimed to be acting on behalf of the oppressed masses, the workers and peasants, against the capitalists and their corrupt — including avowedly “liberal” — politicians. Louis Bonaparte benefited from the resentment of the masses towards the liberals who had put down so bloodily the rising of the workers of Paris in June 1848. He exploited the masses’ discontent.

One key reason why for Trotsky Stalinism was the antithesis of Bolshevism — that is to say, the antithesis of Marxism — was that Stalinism, unlike Bolshevism, identified itself with the state, with the working class, and indeed with the masses. But this was for Trotsky the liquidation of Marxism. It was the concession of Stalinism to Bonapartism. Trotsky considered Stalin to be a Bonapartist, not out of personal failing, but out of historical conditions of necessity, due to the failure of world socialist revolution. Stalinism, as a ruling ideology of the USSR as a “revolutionary state,” exhibited the contradictions issuing out of the failure of the revolution.

In Marxist terms, socialism would no longer require either a socialist party or a socialist state. By identifying the results of the revolution — the one-party state dictatorship — as “socialism,” Stalinism liquidated the actual task of socialism and thus betrayed it. Claiming to govern “democratic republics” or “people’s republics,” Stalinism confessed its failure to struggle for socialism. Stalinism was an attempted holding action, but as such undermined itself as any kind of socialist politics. Indeed, the degree to which Stalinism did not identify itself with the society it sought to rule, this was in the form of its perpetual civil-war footing, in which the party was at war with society’s spontaneous tendency towards capitalism, and indeed the party was constantly at war with its own members as potential if not actual traitors to the avowed socialist mission. As such, Stalinism confessed not merely to the on-going continuation of the “revolution” short of its success, but indeed its — socialism’s — infinite deferral. Stalinism was what became of Marxism as it was swallowed up by the historical inertia of on-going capitalism.

So we must disentangle the revolution from its results. Does 1917 have a legacy other than its results? Did it express an unfulfilled potential, beyond its failure?

The usual treatment of 1917 distorts the history. First of all, we would need to account for what Lenin called the “spontaneity of spontaneity,” that is, the prior conditions for the masses’ apparent spontaneous action. In the February Revolution, one obvious point is that it manifested on the official political socialist party holiday of International Working Women’s Day, which was a relatively recent invention by Marxists in the Socialist or Second International. So, the longstanding existence of a workers’ movement for socialism and of the international political party of that struggle for socialism was a prior condition of the apparent spontaneous outbreak of revolution in 1917. This much was obvious. What was significant, of course, was how in 1917 the masses seized the socialist holiday for revolution to topple the Tsar.

The October Revolution was not merely the planned coup d’etat by the Bolshevik Party — not alone, but in alliance, however, we must always remember, with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries or SRs. This is best illustrated by what took place between February and October, namely the July Days of 1917, in which the masses spontaneously attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks considered that action premature, both in terms of lack of preparation and more importantly the moment for it was premature in terms of the Provisional Government not yet having completely exhausted itself politically. But the Bolsheviks stood in solidarity with the masses in July, while warning them of the problems and dangers of their action. The July rising was put down by the Provisional Government, and indeed the Bolsheviks were suppressed, with many of their leading members arrested. (Lenin went into hiding — and wrote his pamphlet on The State and Revolution in his time underground.) The Bolsheviks actually played a conservative role in the July Days of 1917, in the sense of seeking to conserve the forces of the working class and broader masses from the dangers of the Provisional Government’s repression of their premature — but legitimate — rising.

The October Revolution was prepared by the Bolsheviks — in league with the Left SRs — after the attempted coup against the Provisional Government by General Kornilov which the masses had successfully resisted. Kornilov had planned his coup in response to the July uprising by the masses, which to him showed the weakness and dangers of the Provisional Government. As Lenin had put it at the time, explaining the Bolsheviks’ participation in the defense of the Provisional Government against Kornilov, it was a matter of “supporting in the way a rope supports a hanged man.” Once the Provisional Government had revealed that its crucial base of support was the masses that it was otherwise suppressing, this indicated that the time for overthrowing the Provisional Government had come.
But the October Revolution was not a socialist revolution, because the February Revolution had not been a democratic revolution. The old Tsarist state remained in place, with only a regime change, the removal of the Tsar and his ministers and their replacement with liberals and moderate “socialists,” namely the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, of whom Kerensky, who rose to the head of the Provisional Government, was a member. To put it in Lenin’s terms, the February Revolution was only a regime change — the Provisional Government was merely a “government” in the narrow sense of the word — and had not smashed the state: the “special bodies of armed men” remained in place.

The October Revolution was the beginning of the process of smashing the state — replacing the previously established (Tsarist, capitalist) “special bodies of armed men” with the organized workers, soldiers and peasants through the “soviet” councils as executive bodies of the revolution, to constitute a new revolutionary, radical democratic state, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

From Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ perspective, the October Revolution was merely the beginning of the democratic revolution. Looking back several years later, Lenin judged the results of the revolution in such terms, acknowledging the lack of socialism and recognizing the progress of the revolution — or lack thereof — in democratic terms. Lenin understood that an avowedly “revolutionary” regime does not an actual revolution make. 1917 exhibited this on a mass scale.
Most of the Bolsheviks’ political opponents claimed to be “revolutionary” and indeed many of them professed to be “socialist” and even “Marxist,” for instance the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries.

The Bolsheviks’ former allies and junior partners in the October 1917 Revolution, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, broke with the Bolsheviks in 1918 over the terms of the peace the Bolsheviks had negotiated with Germany. They called for overthrowing the Bolsheviks in a “third revolution:” for soviets, or workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils, “without parties,” that is, without the Bolsheviks. — As Engels had correctly observed, opposition to the dictatorship of the proletariat was mounted on the basis of so-called “pure democracy.” But, to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, their opponents did not in fact represent a “democratic” opposition, but rather the threatened liquidation of the revolutionary-democratic state and its replacement by a White dictatorship. This could come about “democratically” in the sense of Bonapartism. The opponents of the Bolsheviks thus represented not merely the undoing of the struggle for socialism, but of the democratic revolution itself. What had failed in 1848 and threatened to do so again in 1917 was democracy.

Marx had commented that his only original contribution was discovering the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat was meant by Marxists to meet the necessity in capitalism that Bonapartism otherwise expressed. It was meant to turn the political crisis of capitalism indicated by Bonapartism into the struggle for socialism.

The issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the political rule of the working class in the struggle to overcome capitalism and achieve socialism, is a vexed one, on many levels. Not only does the dictatorship of the proletariat not mean a “dictatorship” in the conventional sense of an undemocratic state, but, for Marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the social as well as political rule of the working class in struggling for socialism and overcoming capitalism, could be achieved only at a global scale, that is, as a function of working-class rule in at least several advanced capitalist countries, but with a preponderant political force affecting the entire world. This was what was meant by “world socialist revolution.” Nothing near this was achieved by the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the Bolsheviks and their international comrades such as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany thought that it was practically possible.

The Bolsheviks had predicated their leading the October Revolution in Russia on the expectation of an imminent European workers’ revolution for socialism. For instance, the strike wave in Germany of 1916 that had split the Social-Democratic Party there, as well as the waves of mutinies among soldiers of various countries at the front in the World War, had indicated the impending character of revolution throughout Europe, and indeed throughout the world, for instance in the vast colonial empires held by the European powers.

This had not happened — but it looked like a real, tangible possibility at the time. It was the program that had organized millions of workers for several decades prior to 1917.

So what had the October Revolution accomplished, if not “socialism” or even the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? What do we make of the collapse of the 1917 revolution into Stalinism?

As Leo Panitch remarked at a public forum panel discussion that Platypus held in Halifax on “What is political party for the Left” in January 2015, the period from the 1870s to the 1920s saw the first as well as the as-yet only time in history in which the subaltern class organized itself into a political force. This was the period of the growth of the mass socialist parties around the world of the Second International. The highest and perhaps the only result of this self-organization of the international working class as a political force was the October Revolution in Russia of 1917. The working class, or at least the political party it had constituted, took power, if however under very disadvantageous circumstances and with decidedly mixed results. The working class ultimately failed to retain power, and the party they had organized for this revolution transformed itself into the institutionalized force of that failure. This was also true of the role played by the Social-Democratic Party in Germany in suppressing the revolution there in 1918–19.
But the Bolsheviks had taken power, and they had done so after having organized for several decades with the self-conscious goal of socialism, and with a high degree of awareness, through Marxism, of what struggling towards that goal meant as a function of capitalism. This was no utopian project.
The October 1917 Revolution has not been repeated, but the February 1917 Revolution and the July Days of 1917 have been repeated, several times, in the century since then.

In this sense, from a Marxist perspective what has been repeated — and continued — was not really 1917 but rather 1848, the democratic revolution under conditions of capitalism that has led to its failure. — For Marx, the Paris Commune of 1871 had been the repetition of 1848 that had however pointed beyond it. The Paris Commune indicated both democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, or, as Marx had put it, the possibility for the “revolution in permanence.” 1871 reattained 1848 and indicated possibilities beyond it.

In this sense, 1917 has a similar legacy to 1871, but with the further paradox — actually, the contradiction — that the political agency, the political party or parties, that had been missing, from a Marxist perspective, leading to the failure of the Paris Commune, which in the meantime had been built by the working class in the decades that followed, had, after 1917, transformed itself into an institutionalization of the failure of the struggle for socialism, in the failure of the world revolution. That institutionalization of failure in Stalinism was itself a process — taking place in the 1920s and continuing up to today — that moreover was expressed through an obscure transformation of “Marxism” itself: avowed “Marxists” (ab)used and distorted “Marxism” to justify this institutionalization of failure. It is only in this self-contradictory sense that Marxism led to Stalinism — through its own failure. But only Marxism could overcome this failure and self-distortion of Marxism. Why? Because Marxism is itself an ideological expression of capitalism, and capitalism must be overcome on its own basis. The only basis for socialism is capitalism. Marxism, as distinct from other forms of socialism, is the recognition of this dialectic of capitalism and the potential for socialism. Capitalism is nothing other than the failure of the socialist revolution.

So the legacy of 1917, as uniquely distinct from other revolutions in the era of capitalism, beginning at least as early as in 1848 and continuing henceforth up to today, is actually the legacy of Marxism. Marxism had its origins in taking stock of the failed revolutions of 1848. 1917 was the only political success of Marxism in the classical sense of the Marxism of Marx and Engels themselves and their best followers in the Socialist or Second International such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky, but it was a very limited and qualified “success” — from Lenin and his comrades’ own perspective. And that limited success was distorted to cover over and obscure its failure, and so ended up obscuring its success as well. The indelible linking of Marxism with 1917 exhibits the paradox that its failure was the same as in 1848, but 1917 and so Marxism are important only insofar as they might point beyond that failure. Otherwise, Marxism is insignificant, and we may as well be liberals, anarchists, Utopian Socialists, or any other species of democratic revolutionaries. Which is what everyone today is — at best — anyway.

1917 needs to be remembered not as a model to be followed but in terms of an unfulfilled task that was revealed in historical struggle, a potential that was expressed, however briefly and provisionally, but was ultimately betrayed. Its legacy has disappeared with the disappearance of the struggle for socialism. Its problems and its limitations as well as its positive lessons await a resumed struggle for socialism to be able to properly judge. Otherwise they remain abstract and cryptic, lifeless and dogmatic and a matter of thought-taboos and empty ritual — including both ritual worship and ritual condemnation.

In 1918, Rosa Luxemburg remarked that 70 years of the workers’ struggle for socialism had achieved only the return to the moment of 1848, with the task of making it right and so redeeming that history. Trotsky had observed that it was only because of Marxism that the 19th century had not passed in vain.
Today, in 2017, on its hundredth anniversary, we must recognize, rather, just how and why we are so very far from being able to judge properly the legacy of 1917: it no longer belongs to us. We must work our way back towards and reattain the moment of 1917. That task is 1917’s legacy for us. | §

The legacy of 1917 (Platypus 3rd European Conference video and audio recordings)

Audio recording:

What is the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution today? A teach-in on problems of Leftist historiography by Chris Cutrone and Richard Rubin at the Platypus 3rd European Conference at the University of Vienna, February 18, 2017.

Chris Cutrone

In 1937, in his article on “Stalinism and Bolshevism,” Trotksy wrote that,

“Is it true that Stalinism represents the legitimate product of Bolshevism, as all reactionaries maintain, as Stalin himself avows, as the Mensheviks, the anarchists, and certain left doctrinaires considering themselves Marxist believe? ‘We have always predicted this.’ they say, ‘Having started with the prohibition of other socialist parties, the repression of the anarchists, and the setting up of the Bolshevik dictatorship in the Soviets, the October Revolution could only end in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Stalin is the continuation and also the bankruptcy of Leninism.’

“The flaw in this reasoning begins in the tacit identification of Bolshevism, October Revolution and Soviet Union. The historical process of the struggle of hostile forces is replaced by the evolution of Bolshevism in a vacuum. Bolshevism, however, is only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it. . . . To represent the process of degeneration of the Soviet state as the evolution of pure Bolshevism is to ignore social reality in the name of only one of its elements, isolated by pure logic. . . .

“Bolshevism, in any case, never identified itself either with the October Revolution or with 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.”

In his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), Trotsky argued as follows:

“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 judgement 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.

“In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

“The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection. The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of ‘demagogues’.”

In 1924, in The Lessons of October, Trotsky concluded his discussion of the essential historical lessons of the Revolution as follows:

“In our country, both in 1905 and in 1917, the soviets of workers’ deputies grew out of the movement itself as its natural organizational form at a certain stage of the struggle. But the young European parties, who have more or less accepted soviets as a ‘doctrine’ and ‘principle,’ always run the danger of treating soviets as a fetish, as some self-sufficing factor in a revolution. . . .

“Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade. It is true that the English trade unions may become a mighty lever of the proletarian revolution; they may, for instance, even take the place of workers’ soviets under certain conditions and for a certain period of time. They can fill such a role, however, not apart from a Communist party, and certainly not against the party, but only on the condition that communist influence becomes the decisive influence in the trade unions. We have paid far too dearly for this conclusion — with regard to the role and importance of a party in a proletarian revolution — to renounce it so lightly or even to minimize its significance.

“Consciousness, premeditation, and planning played a far smaller part in bourgeois revolutions than they are destined to play, and already do play, in proletarian revolutions. In the former instance the motive force of the revolution was also furnished by the masses, but the latter were much less organized and much less conscious than at the present time. The leadership remained in the hands of different sections of the bourgeoisie, and the latter had at its disposal wealth, education, and all the organizational advantages connected with them (the cities, the universities, the press, etc.). The bureaucratic monarchy defended itself in a hand-to-mouth manner, probing in the dark and then acting. The bourgeoisie would bide its time to seize a favorable moment when it could profit from the movement of the lower classes, throw its whole social weight into the scale, and so seize the state power. The proletarian revolution is precisely distinguished by the fact that the proletariat — in the person of its vanguard — acts in it not only as the main offensive force but also as the guiding force. The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat.

“Much has been spoken and written lately on the necessity of ‘Bolshevizing’ the Comintern. This is a task that cannot be disputed or delayed; it is made particularly urgent after the cruel lessons of Bulgaria and Germany a year ago. Bolshevism is not a doctrine (i.e., not merely a doctrine) but a system of revolutionary training for the proletarian uprising. What is the Bolshevization of Communist parties? It is giving them such a training, and effecting such a selection of the leading staff, as would prevent them from drifting when the hour for their October strikes. ‘That is the whole of Hegel, and the wisdom of books, and the meaning of all philosophy’.“

Adorno’s “Leninism” (Platypus 3rd European Conference audio recording)

Platypus 3rd European Conference Vienna opening plenary panel discussion on The Politics of Critical Theory

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Martin Suchanek (Workers Power, Berlin) and Harizan Zeller, introduced by Stefan Hain and moderated by Jan Schroeder, at the Platypus 3rd European Conference at the University of Vienna, February 17, 2017. [Edited transcript]



THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?” It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

The series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism since the early 20th century. The transcript was published in 2011 in English translation under the title Towards a New Manifesto. The German publication of the transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools.” Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment.

As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step.” Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

30 years later, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in 1956 took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin. This event signaled a possible political opening, not in the Soviet Union so much as for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the potential of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses”:

The development [of history since Marx] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in Towards a New Manifesto was part of a greater crisis of Communism (uprising in Hungary, emergence of the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement, split between the USSR and Communist China) that gave rise to the New Left. Verso’s title was not misleading: this was the time of the founding of New Left Review, to which C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” (1960), calling for greater attention to the role of intellectuals in social-political transformation.

As Adorno put the matter, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination, is mistaken. Marx called “capital” the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic of value-production (M–C–M’). At stake here is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. This went back to Marx and Engels in the 1840s: Engels had written a precursor to the Communist Manifesto, a “Credo” (1847), in which he pointed out that the proletariat, the working class after the Industrial Revolution, was unlike any other exploited group in history, in both its social being and consciousness. The danger was that the working class would mistake their post-Industrial Revolution condition for that of pre-industrial bourgeois society, with its ethos of work. As the Abbé Sieyès had put it, in his 1789 revolutionary pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?,” while the Church’s First Estate with its property of communion with Divinity “prays,” and the aristocratic Second Estate with its property of honor in noble chivalry “fights,” the commoner Third Estate “works,” with no property other than that of labor. Bourgeois society was the result of the revolt of the Third Estate. But the separate classes of increasing numbers of workers and ever fewer capitalists were the products of the division of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, over the value of the property of labor, between wages and capital. This was, according to Marx, the “crisis” of bourgeois society in capital, recurrent since the 1840s.

At issue is the “bourgeois ideology” of the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the working class misrecognized the reasons for its condition, blaming this on exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. As Marx explained in Capital, the workers exchanged, not the products of their work as with the labor of artisans, but rather their time, the accumulated value of which is capital, the means of production that was the private property of the capitalists. But for Marx the capitalists were the “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce and accumulate value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor-time was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it in “The Authoritarian State” (1940), the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous.” The question was, how had history changed since the earlier moment of bourgeois society (Adam Smith’s time of “manufacture”) with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s affirmation of Lenin on subjectivity was driven by his account of the deepening problems of capitalism in the 20th century, in which the historical development of the workers’ movement was bound up. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno pointed out that Marx and Engels’s assertion that the entire history of civilization was one of “class struggles” was actually a critique of history as a whole; that the dialectic of history in capital was one of unfreedom; and that only the complete dehumanization of labor was potentially its opposite, the liberation from work. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” pointed out that the workers were not paid a share of the economic value of their labor, which Marx had recognized in post-Industrial Revolution capitalism was infinitesimal, but rather their wages were a cut of the profits of capital, granted to them for political reasons, to prevent revolution — a very Leninist idea. The ramifications of this process were those addressed by the split in the socialist workers’ movement — in Marxism itself — that Lenin represented.

The crisis of Marxism was grasped by the Frankfurt School in its formative moment of the 1920s. In “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” (in Dämmerung, 1926–31) Horkheimer explained how the “present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” This followed Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which prominently quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

The necessary corrective was not the feeling of this oppression, but the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!” This could only take place through the growth and greater accumulated historical self-awareness of the workers’ movement for socialism. But the growth of the workers’ movement had resulted in the crisis of socialism, its division into revolutionary Communism and reformist Social Democracy in WWI and the revolutions that followed (in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy). Reformist Social Democracy had succumbed to the “reification” of bourgeois ideology in seeking to preserve the workers’ interests, and had become the counterrevolutionary bulwark of continued capitalism in the post-WWI world. There was a civil war in Marxism. The question was the revolutionary necessity and possibility of Communism that Lenin expressed in the October 1917 Revolution that was meant to be the beginning of global revolution. Similarly, for the Frankfurt School, the Stalinism that developed in the wake of failed world revolution, was, contrary to Lenin, the reification of “Marxism” itself, now become barbarized bourgeois ideology, the affirmation of work, rather than its dialectical Aufhebung (negation and transcendence through fulfillment and completion).

To put it in Lenin’s terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the “Hegelian” critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. 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.

For Marx, communism demanded an “immanent critique” according to its “dialectical” contradictions, heightened to adequate historical self-awareness.

The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. Marx’s “Hegelian” question was, how had history made this possible, in theory and practice?

While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them. The experience of Communism in the 1930s was the purge of intellectuals. So the question was the potential continued critical role of theory: how to follow Lenin? In “Imaginative Excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno argued that the workers “no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their work isn’t. | §

Rosa Luxemburg and the party

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

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

Critique of socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lassallean party

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

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

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

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

Antinomy of reformism

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

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

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

What does it mean that the earlier classes, particularly the third estate, conquered economic power before political power? Nothing more than the historical fact that all previous class struggles must be derived from the economic fact that the rising class has at the same time created a new form of property upon which it will base its class domination.

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

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

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

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

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

1848: state and revolution

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

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

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

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

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

1905: party and class

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

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

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

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

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

Demand for redemption

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

What is socialism? International social democracy

Presented on a panel with Bernard Sampson (Communist Party USA), Karl Belin (Pittsburgh Socialist Organizing Committee) and Jack Ross (author of The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History) at the eighth annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention April 1, 2016 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Published in Weekly Worker 1114 (July 7, 2016). [PDF]


Full panel discussion audio recording:


Communism, socialism, social democracy

Chris Cutrone

I would like to begin by addressing some key terms for our discussion.

Communism is an ancient concept of the community sharing everything in common. It has its roots in religious communes.

Socialism by contrast is a modern concept that focuses on the issue of “society,” which is itself a bourgeois concept. Marx sought to relate the two concepts of communism and socialism to capitalism.

Social democracy is a concept that emerged around the 1848 Revolutions which posed what was at the time called the “social question,” namely the crisis of society evident in the phenomenon of the modern industrial working class’s conditions. Social democracy aimed for the democratic republic with adequate social content.

Marxism has in various periods of its history used all three concepts — communism, socialism and social democracy — not exactly equivalently interchangeably but rather to refer to and emphasize different aspects of the same political struggle. For instance, Marx and Engels distinguished what they called “proletarian socialism” from other varieties of socialism such as Christian socialism and Utopian socialism. What distinguished proletarian socialism was two-fold: the specific problem of modern industrial capitalism to be overcome; and the industrial working class as a potential political agent of change.

Moreover, there were differences in the immediate focus for politics, depending on the phase of the struggle. “Social democracy” was understood as a means for achieving socialism; and socialism was understood as the first stage of overcoming capitalism on the way to achieving communism. Small propaganda groups such as Marx and Engels’s original Communist League, for which they wrote the Manifesto, used the term “communism” to emphasize their ultimate goal. Later, the name Socialist Workers Party was used by Marx and Engels’s followers in Germany to more precisely focus their political project specifically as the working class struggling to achieve socialism.

So where did the term “social democracy” originate, and how was it used by Marxists — by Marx and Engels themselves as well as their immediate disciples?

The concept of the “social republic” originates in the Revolution of 1848 in France, specifically with the socialist Louis Blanc, who coined the expression “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to describe the goals of the society to be governed by the democratic republic. Marx considered this to be the form of state in which the class struggle between the workers and capitalists would be fought out to conclusion.

The essential lesson Marx and Engels learned from their experience of the Revolutions of 1848 in France and Germany, as well as more broadly in Austria and Italy, was what Marx, in his 1852 letter to his colleague and publisher Joseph Weydemeyer, called his only “original discovery,” namely the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” or, as he had put it in his summing up report on the Revolutions of 1848 in his address to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850, the need for “the revolution in permanence,” which he thought could only be achieved by the working class taking independent political action in the leadership of the democratic revolution.

This was a revision of Marx and Engels’s position in the earlier Communist Manifesto on the eve of 1848, which was to identify the working class’s struggle for communism with the democratic revolution. They claimed that “communists do not form a party of their own, but work within the already existing [small-d!] democratic party.” Now, after the experience of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, Marx asserted the opposite, the necessary separation of the working class from other democratic political currents.

What had happened to effect this profound change in political perspective by Marx and Engels?

Marx had come to characterize the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 in terms of the treacherous and conservative-reactionary role of what he called the “petit bourgeois democrats,” whom he found to be constitutionally incapable of learning from their political failures and the social reasons for this.

The historical horizon for the petit bourgeois democratic discontents in the social crisis of capitalism was too low to allow the contradiction of capital to come within political range of mere democracy, no matter how radically popular in character. The problem of capitalism was too intractable to the ideology of petit bourgeois democracy. The problem of capitalism exceeded the horizon of the French Revolutionary tradition, even in its most radical exponents such as Gracchus Babeuf’s Jacobin “conspiracy of equals.” Such democracy could only try to put back together, in essentially liberal-democratic terms, what had been broken apart and irreparably disintegrated in industrial capitalism.

This was not merely a matter of limitation in so-called “class interest or position,” but rather the way the problem of capitalism presented itself. It looked like irresponsible government, political hierarchy and economic corruption, rather than what Marx thought it was, the necessary crisis of society and politics in capitalism, the necessary and not accidental divergence of the interests of capital and wage labor in which society was caught. Capital outstripped the capacity for wage labor to appropriate its social value. This was not merely a problem of economics but politically went to the heart of the modern democratic republic itself.

The petit bourgeois attempt to control and make socially responsible the capitalists and to temper the demands of the workers in achieving democratic political unity was hopeless and doomed to fail. But it still appealed nonetheless. And its appeal was not limited to the socioeconomic middle classes, but also and perhaps especially appealed to the working class as well as to “enlightened progressive” capitalists.

The egalitarian sense of justice and fraternal solidarity of the working class was rooted in the bourgeois social relations of labor, the exchange of labor as a commodity. But industrial capital went beyond the social mediation of labor and the bourgeois common sense of cooperation. Furthermore, the problem of capital was not reducible to the issue of exploitation, against which the bourgeois spirit rebelled. It also went beyond the social discipline of labor — the sense of duty to work.

For instance, the ideal of worker-owned and operated production is a petit bourgeois democratic fantasy. It neglects that, as Marx observed, the conditions for industrial production are not essentially the workers’ own labor but rather more socially general: production has become the actual property of society. The only question is how this is realized. It can be mediated through the market as well as through the state — the legal terms in which both exchange and production are adjudicated, that is, what counts as individual and collective property: issues of eminent domain, community costs and benefits, etc. Moreover, this is global in character. I expect the foreign government of which I am not a citizen to nonetheless respect my property rights. Bourgeois society already has a global citizenry, but it is through the civil rights of commerce not the political rights of government. But capitalism presents a problem and crisis of such global liberal democracy.

Industrial capital’s value in production cannot be socially appropriated through the market, and indeed cannot at all any longer be appropriated through the exchange-value of labor. The demand for universal suffrage democracy arose in the industrial era out of the alternative of social appropriation through the political action of the citizenry via the state. But Marx regarded this state action no less than the market as a hopeless attempt to master the social dynamics of capital.

At best, the desired petit bourgeois political unity of society could be achieved on a temporary national basis, as was effected by the cunning of Louis Bonaparte, as the first elected President of Second Republic France in 1848, promising to bring the country together against and above the competing interests of its various social classes and political factions. Later, in 1851 Louis Bonaparte overthrew the Republic and established the Second Empire, avowedly to preserve universal (male) suffrage democracy and thus to safeguard “the revolution.” He received overwhelming majority assent to his coup d’état in the plebiscite referenda he held both at the time of his coup and 10 years later to extend the mandate of the Empire.

Marx and Engels recognized that to succeed in the task of overcoming capitalism in the struggle for proletarian socialism it was necessary for the working class to politically lead the petite bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution. This was the basis of their appropriation of the term “social democracy” to describe their politics in the wake of 1848: the task of achieving what had failed in mere democracy.

The mass political parties of the Second, Socialist International described themselves variously as “socialist” and “social democratic.” “International social democracy” was the term used to encompass the common politics and shared goal of these parties.

They understood themselves as parties of not merely an international but indeed a cosmopolitan politics. The Second International regarded itself as the beginnings of world government. This is because they regarded capitalism as already exhibiting a form of world government in democracy, what Kant had described in the 18th century, around the time of the American and French Revolutions, as the political task of humanity to achieve a “world state or system of states” in a “league of nations” — the term later adopted for the political system of Pax Americana that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson tried to achieve in the aftermath of World War I. As the liberal chronicler of Napoleon, Benjamin Constant had observed a hundred years before Wilson, in the wake of the French Revolution and its ramifications throughout Europe, the differences between nations were “more apparent than real” in the global society of commerce that had emerged in the modern era. But capitalism had wrecked the aspirations of Kant and Constant for global bourgeois society.

The International offered the alternative “Workers of the world, unite!” to the international strife of capitalist crisis that led to the modern horrors of late colonialism in the 19th century and finally world war in the 20th.

The political controversy that attended the first attempt at world proletarian socialist revolution in the aftermath of the First World War divided the workers’ movement for socialism into reformist Social Democracy and revolutionary Communism and a new Third International. It made social democracy an enemy.

This changed the meaning of social democracy into a gradual evolution of capitalism into socialism, as opposed to the revolutionary political struggle for communism. But what was of greater significance than “revolution” sacrificed in this redefinition was the cosmopolitanism of the socialist workers who had up until then assumed that they had no particular country to which they owed allegiance.

The unfolding traumas of fascism and the Second World War redefined social democracy yet again, lowering it still further to mean the mere welfare state, modelled after the dominant U.S.’s New Deal and the “Four Freedoms” the anti-fascist Allies adopted as their avowed principles in the war. It made the working class into a partner in production, and thus avoided what Marx considered the inevitable contradiction and crisis of production in capitalism. It turned socialism into a mere matter of distribution.

For the last generation, since the 1960s, this has been further degraded to a defensive posture in the face of neoliberalism which, since the global crisis and downturn of the 1970s, has reasserted the rights of capital.

What has been forgotten today is the essential lesson for Marxism in the failure of the 1848 Revolutions, why petit bourgeois democracy is not only inadequate, but is actually blind to, and indeed an obstacle for, the political task of overcoming capitalism.

In its heyday, Marxism assumed that social democracy had as its active political constituent a working class struggling for socialism. Today, social democracy treats the working class not as a subject as much as an object of government policy and civic philanthropy. Through social democracy as it exists today, the working class merely begs for good politicians and good capitalists. But it does not seek to take responsibility for society into its own hands. Without the struggle for socialism, the immediate goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the working class merely becomes a partner in production at best, and an economic interest group at worst. This is what the liquidation into petit bourgeois democracy means: naturalizing the framework of capital.

International social democracy once meant the means for achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this as its goal, it has come to mean something entirely different. The working class has deferred to those it once sought to lead.

The “specter of communism” that Marx and Engels had thought haunted Europe in the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of capitalism in the 1840s continues to haunt the entire world today, after several repetitions of the cycle of bourgeois society come to grief, but not as a desired dream misconstrued as a feared nightmare, but rather as the evil spirit the doesn’t fail to drive politics no matter how democratic into the abyss. And, as in Marx’s time, the alternating “ethical indignation” and “enraptured proclamations of the democrats” continue to “rebound” in “all the reactionary attempts to hold back” the ceaseless crisis of capitalism in which “all that is solid melts into air.”

We still need social democracy, but not as those who preceded Marxism thought, to mitigate capitalism, as was attempted again, after the failure of Marxism to achieve global proletarian socialism in the 20th century, but rather to make the necessity for communism that Marx recognized over 150 years ago a practical political reality. We need to make good on the “revolution in permanence” of capitalism that constantly shakes the bourgeois idyll, and finally leverage the crisis of its self-destruction beyond itself. | §

Adorno’s “Leninism” (Global Adorno conference audio recording)

Global Adorno conference panel: Post-Capitalism, Politics of the Concrete

Chris Cutrone


Presented on a panel with Marcel Stoetzler and Thomas Ogrisegg moderated by Johan Hartle at the Global Adorno conference at the University of Amsterdam, March 22, 2016.


(Cutrone presentation and discussion ~0:36:00 – ~1:06:00)


THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?” It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

The series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism since the early 20th century. The transcript was published in 2011 in English translation under the title Towards a New Manifesto. The German publication of the transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools.” Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment.

As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step.” Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

30 years later, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in 1956 took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin. This event signaled a possible political opening, not in the Soviet Union so much as for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the potential of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses”:

The development [of history since Marx] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in Towards a New Manifesto was part of a greater crisis of Communism (uprising in Hungary, emergence of the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement, split between the USSR and Communist China) that gave rise to the New Left. Verso’s title was not misleading: this was the time of the founding of New Left Review, to which C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” (1960), calling for greater attention to the role of intellectuals in social-political transformation.

As Adorno put the matter, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination, is mistaken. Marx called “capital” the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic of value-production (M–C–M’). At stake here is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. This went back to Marx and Engels in the 1840s: Engels had written a precursor to the Communist Manifesto, a “Credo” (1847), in which he pointed out that the proletariat, the working class after the Industrial Revolution, was unlike any other exploited group in history, in both its social being and consciousness. The danger was that the working class would mistake their post-Industrial Revolution condition for that of pre-industrial bourgeois society, with its ethos of work. As the Abbé Sieyès had put it, in his 1789 revolutionary pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?,” while the Church’s First Estate with its property of communion with Divinity “prays,” and the aristocratic Second Estate with its property of honor in noble chivalry “fights,” the commoner Third Estate “works,” with no property other than that of labor. Bourgeois society was the result of the revolt of the Third Estate. But the separate classes of increasing numbers of workers and ever fewer capitalists were the products of the division of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, over the value of the property of labor, between wages and capital. This was, according to Marx, the “crisis” of bourgeois society in capital, recurrent since the 1840s.

At issue is the “bourgeois ideology” of the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the working class misrecognized the reasons for its condition, blaming this on exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. As Marx explained in Capital, the workers exchanged, not the products of their work as with the labor of artisans, but rather their time, the accumulated value of which is capital, the means of production that was the private property of the capitalists. But for Marx the capitalists were the “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce and accumulate value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor-time was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it in “The Authoritarian State” (1940), the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous.” The question was, how had history changed since the earlier moment of bourgeois society (Adam Smith’s time of “manufacture”) with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s affirmation of Lenin on subjectivity was driven by his account of the deepening problems of capitalism in the 20th century, in which the historical development of the workers’ movement was bound up. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno pointed out that Marx and Engels’s assertion that the entire history of civilization was one of “class struggles” was actually a critique of history as a whole; that the dialectic of history in capital was one of unfreedom; and that only the complete dehumanization of labor was potentially its opposite, the liberation from work. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” pointed out that the workers were not paid a share of the economic value of their labor, which Marx had recognized in post-Industrial Revolution capitalism was infinitesimal, but rather their wages were a cut of the profits of capital, granted to them for political reasons, to prevent revolution — a very Leninist idea. The ramifications of this process were those addressed by the split in the socialist workers’ movement — in Marxism itself — that Lenin represented.

The crisis of Marxism was grasped by the Frankfurt School in its formative moment of the 1920s. In “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” (in Dämmerung, 1926–31) Horkheimer explained how the “present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” This followed Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which prominently quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

The necessary corrective was not the feeling of this oppression, but the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!” This could only take place through the growth and greater accumulated historical self-awareness of the workers’ movement for socialism. But the growth of the workers’ movement had resulted in the crisis of socialism, its division into revolutionary Communism and reformist Social Democracy in WWI and the revolutions that followed (in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy). Reformist Social Democracy had succumbed to the “reification” of bourgeois ideology in seeking to preserve the workers’ interests, and had become the counterrevolutionary bulwark of continued capitalism in the post-WWI world. There was a civil war in Marxism. The question was the revolutionary necessity and possibility of Communism that Lenin expressed in the October 1917 Revolution that was meant to be the beginning of global revolution. Similarly, for the Frankfurt School, the Stalinism that developed in the wake of failed world revolution, was, contrary to Lenin, the reification of “Marxism” itself, now become barbarized bourgeois ideology, the affirmation of work, rather than its dialectical Aufhebung (negation and transcendence through fulfillment and completion).

To put it in Lenin’s terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the “Hegelian” critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. 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.

For Marx, communism demanded an “immanent critique” according to its “dialectical” contradictions, heightened to adequate historical self-awareness.

The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. Marx’s “Hegelian” question was, how had history made this possible, in theory and practice?

While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them. The experience of Communism in the 1930s was the purge of intellectuals. So the question was the potential continued critical role of theory: how to follow Lenin? In “Imaginative Excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno argued that the workers “no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their work isn’t. | §

Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism

The meaning of political party for the Left

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

Dictatorship

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

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

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

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

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

Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’ (18th Brumaire).

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

State capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regression

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

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

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

Rejecting

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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