“Chris Cutrone is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, a professor at The School of Art Institute of Chicago, and a returning guest to the Zero Books podcast. He is the author of a controversial essay entitled “Why Not Trump.” The piece was a half-hearted endorsement of Trump as the better adversary for the left, an opinion that is not at all self-evident today under Trump. However, this week we discuss the late Moishe Postone as well as Adolph Reed in the context of the death of politics.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
Presented as the President’s report at the closing plenary of the 10th annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago on April 7, 2018. Full audio recording of discussion available online at: https://archive.org/details/CenturyCounterrevolution
RECENTLY, I CAME ACROSS a 1938 article by the “Left communist” Paul Mattick, Sr., titled “Karl Kautsky: From Marx to Hitler.” In it, Mattick asserted that the reformist social democracy that Kautsky ended up embracing was the harbinger of fascism — of Nazism. There is a certain affinity to Friedrich Hayek’s book on The Road to Serfdom (1944), in which a similar argument is made about the affinity of socialism and fascism. If Marxism (e.g. Kautsky) led to Hitler, as Hayek and Mattick aver, then this is because the counterrevolution was in the revolutionary tradition. The question we face today is whether and how the revolutionary tradition is still within the counterrevolution. For that is what we live under: it is the condition of any potential future for the revolutionary tradition whose memory we seek to preserve.
2018 marks two anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the failed German Revolution of 1918; and the 50th anniversary of the climax of the New Left in 1968.
Moishe Postone died this year, and his death marks the 50th anniversary of 1968 in a certain way.
A strange fact of history is that both Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Father but bitter political opponent, whose Presidency Jefferson unseated in his Democratic-Republican Revolution of 1800, John Adams, died on the precise 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence to the day, on July 4, 1826. John Adams’s dying words were “Jefferson still lives.” He was mistaken: Jefferson had died several hours earlier. But he was correct in another, more important sense: Jefferson had lived just long enough to see the survival of the American Revolution for its first half-century.
Perhaps Moishe Postone lived just long enough to see the survival of the New Left 50 years later. If that is true, however, then he lived just long enough to see the survival of not the revolution but the counterrevolution.
As I presented all the way back at our very first annual Platypus convention in 2009, in my contribution to The Platypus Synthesis, on “History, theory,” the Spartacists and Postone differ on the character of historical regression: Postone taking it to be the downward trend since the missed opportunity of the New Left in the 1960s; while the Spartacists account for regression since the high-point of the revolutionary crisis after WWI in which the October Revolution took place in 1917. But perhaps we can take the occasion this year to date more precisely the regression affecting both the Spartacists and Postone, the failure of the German Revolution of 1918, whose centennial we mark this year.
The question of historical regression raises its potential opposite, that is, history as Hegel took it to be, the progress in (the consciousness of) freedom. What we face in 2018 is that the last 50 years and the last 100 years have not seen a progress in freedom, but perhaps a regression in our consciousness of its tasks, specifically regarding the problem of capitalism. Where the Spartacists and Postone have stood still, waiting for history to resume, either from 1918 or from 1968, we must reckon with not history at a standstill but rather as it has regressed.
In this we are helped less by Hegel or Marx than by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose essay on “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1874/76) I cited prominently in my Platypus Synthesis contribution. There, I quoted Nietzsche that,
“A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. . . .
“Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force. . . .
“[But there is a danger in the] attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.”
So the question we have always faced in Platypus is the borderline between freeing ourselves from the past or rather participating in its liquidation. Are we gaining or losing history as a resource? In losing its liability we might sacrifice history as an asset. We must refashion history for use in our present need, but we might end up — like everyone else — abusing it: it might end up oppressing rather than freeing us.
Indiana Jones, who as we know was a Professor of Archaeology, in the 1989 film The Last Crusade, said that “Archaeology is about the search for fact, not the search for truth — for the search for truth, see Philosophy!” If Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can get it, then certainly we should!
In our approach to history, then, we are engaged not with its “facts” but with the truth of history. We are not archeologists: we are not antiquarians or historians — at least not affirmatively: we are not historicists. The events and figures of the past are not dead facts awaiting discovery but are living actions — past actions that continue to act upon the present, which we must relate to. We must take up the past actions that continue to affect us, and participate in the on-going transformation of that action. How we do so is extremely consequential: it affects not merely us, today, but will affect the future. History lives or dies — is vital or deadly — depending on our actions.
We are here to consider how the actions of not only 50 years ago in 1968 but 100 years ago in 1918 affect us today. But to understand this, we must consider the past actions that people 100 years ago in turn were affected by. We must consider the deeper history that they inherited and sought to act upon.
Last year we marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the closing plenary panel discussion at our international convention in which I participated, alongside Bryan Palmer and Leo Panitch, I raised the possibility that, after a century, we had the opportunity of approaching this history differently. There, I said that,
“The paradox of 1917 is that failure and success are mixed together in its legacy. Therefore, the fact that 1917 is becoming more obscure is an opportunity as well as a liability. We are tasked not only with understanding the opportunity, but also with trying to make the liability into an asset. The various ways in which 1917 is falsely claimed, in a positive sense — we can call that Stalinism, we can call it all sorts of things — has dissipated. We have to try to make use of that. What has faded is not the revolution, perhaps, but the counter-revolution. In other words, while not entirely gone, the stigmatization of 1917 throughout the 20th century and the horror at the outcome of revolution [i.e., Stalinist repression] — these are fading. In that way we might be able to disentangle the success and the failure differently than it has been attempted in the past.”
This year we must reckon with the changing fortunes over the last century, not of the revolution, but rather of the counterrevolution. If not the revolution but the counterrevolution has disappeared, perhaps this is because it has become invisible — naturalized. It is so much the fundamental condition of our time that we don’t even notice it. But that does not mean that it doesn’t continue to act upon us. It might be so powerful as to not even provoke resistance, like atmospheric pressure or gravity. The effort it takes to read history against the grain — Benjamin said it must be done with the leverage of a “barge-pole” — is in denaturalizing this history of the counterrevolution, to make it visible or noticeable at all. Can we feel it? This has changed over the course of the past century. In the first half-century, from 1918 to 1968, the naturalization of the counterrevolution took certain forms; in the last half-century, since 1968, it has taken other forms. We can say indeed that the action of the counterrevolution provoked more resistance in its first 50 years, from 1918–68, than it has in its second 50 years, from 1968 to the present. That would mean that 1968 marked the decisive victory of the counterrevolution — to the degree that this was not entirely settled already in 1918.
As Richard [Rubin] pointed out at my presentation at this year’s 4th Platypus European Conference in London, on “The Death of the Millennial Left,” there has been nothing new produced, really, in the last 50 years. I agreed, and said that whatever had been new and different in the preceding 50 years, from 1918 to 1968 — Heidegger’s philosophy, for example — was produced by the counterrevolution’s active burial of Marxism. Max Weber had remarked to Georg Lukács in 1918 that what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in the October Revolution and its aftermath would mitigate against socialism for at least 100 years. He seems to have been proven right. But since 1968, such active efforts against the memory of Marxism have been less necessary. So we have had, not so much anti-Marxism, as the naturalization of it. Ever since 1968, everyone is already a “Marxist” — as Foucault himself said — precisely because everyone is already an anti-Marxist. This is how things appear especially this year, in 2018. And necessarily so.
The failure of the 1918 German Revolution was not only that, but was the failure of Marxism as a world-historical movement. As Rosa Luxemburg posed the matter, the failure of revolution in Germany was the failure of revolution in Russia. 1918 and 1917 are inextricably linked. But the failure of 1918 has been hidden behind the apparent success of 1917. The failure of 1917 wears the deceptive mask of success because of the forgetting of the failure of 1918.
Marxism failed. This is why it continues to fail today. Marxism has forgotten its own failure. Because Marxism sought to take up the prior — bourgeois — revolutionary tradition, its failure affected the revolutionary tradition as a whole. The victory of the counterrevolution in 1918 was the victory of counterrevolution for all time.
What do we mean by the “counterrevolution”?
Stalin declared the policy — the strategy — of “socialism in one country” in 1924. What did it mean? What was it predicated upon? The events in Germany in 1923 seemed to have brought a definitive end to the post-WWI revolutionary crisis there. Stalin concluded therefore that Russia would not be saved by revolution in Germany — and even less likely by revolution elsewhere — but needed in the meantime to pursue socialism independently of prospects for world revolution. Stalin cited precedent from Lenin for this approach, and he attracted a great deal of support from the Communist Party for this policy.
Robert Borba, a supporter of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA, speaking at our 4th European Conference in London earlier this year, addressed the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism in response to Hillel Ticktin on the panel discussion of “50 Years of 1968,” as follows:
“Hillel [Ticktin] defined Stalinism as socialism in one country, which supposedly cannot exist. It is not viable. We should think seriously about what that means. Imagine you are Lenin in 1918. You have led a revolution. You are counting on the German revolutionaries to come to your aid, as you envision this whole process of revolution throughout Europe. But it does not happen. Now what do you do? Say, “This cannot exist, it is not viable,” and give up? Lenin and the Bolshevik Party did not give up. The proletariat had taken power in one country. The imperialists were invading. They did the best they could for the world revolution. They retained a base from which to spread revolution. To give that up would harm the interests of oppressed humanity.”
This blackmail of the necessity to “defend the gains of the revolution” is crucial to understanding how the counterrevolution triumphed within the revolution — how Bolshevism led to Stalinism.
Even supposed “Trotskyists” however ended up succumbing to the exigencies of supposedly “defending the gains” — Trotsky himself said that an inability to defend the gains of the revolution would mean an inability to advance it: Trotsky was still addressing Stalinism as a retreat. His followers today are even more willing than Trotsky himself to defend any and all purported “gains” — but at the expense of possibilities for any advance. What was perhaps a temporary necessity for Trotsky has become permanent for the supposed “Left.”
So-called “Marxism” today is in fact an agency of the counterrevolution — has become part of the counterrevolution’s on-going action — which is why it is not surprising that the “Left” today even champions the counterrevolution — by denouncing the revolutionary tradition. But this didn’t happen just recently, but has been going on increasingly over the course of the past century. First, in small ways; but then finally comprehensively. Equivocations became judgments against the revolutionary tradition. It began in marked ways at least as early as the late 1960s. For instance, in 1967 Susan Sontag wrote, in the formerly Communist- and then Trotskyist-affiliated journal Partisan Review, that,
“If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. . . . The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
Sound familiar? It is a voice very much for our time! Here, Sontag explicitly rejects the revolution — “parliamentary government,” the “emancipation of women,” and “Marx” included — because of its “eradication of autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads,” and as “what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.” Let’s accept this characterization of “Western white civilization” by Sontag, but try to grasp it through the revolution. For this is what revolution does: eradicate the prior form of civilization. What is America the “culmination” of, exactly? Let’s look to its Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and think about the American Revolutionary leader alongside the protagonist of the 1918 German Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg.
I will start with the concluding scene of the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris. Here, Jefferson negotiates a contractual agreement with his slave James Hemings for the freedom of himself and Sally Hemings and her children — Jefferson’s own offspring. It is observed by his white daughter. This scene encapsulates the revolution: the transition from slavery to social contract.
In the 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg, Sonja Liebknecht says to Luxemburg in prison that, “Sometimes I think that the war will go on forever” — as it has indeed gone on forever, since we are still fighting over the political geography and territorial results of WWI, for instance in the Middle East — and, responding to Luxemburg’s optimism, about the mole burrowing through a seemingly solid reality that will soon be past and forgotten, “But it could be us who will soon disappear without a trace.” In the penultimate scene of the film, Karl Liebknecht reads the last lines of his final article, “Despite Everything,” and Luxemburg reads her last written words, “I was, I am, I shall be!” — referring however to “the revolution,” not Marxism!
Luxemburg’s “I was, I am, I shall be!” and Liebknecht’s “Despite everything!” — are they still true? Is the revolution still on-going, despite everything? If not Luxemburg’s, then at least Jefferson’s revolution?
But aren’t Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Luxemburg on “opposing sides” of the “class divide” — wasn’t Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund [“Spartacus League”] on the side of the slaves (named after a Roman slave who revolted); whereas, by contrast, Jefferson was on the side of the slave-owners? No!
To quote Robert Frost, from his 1915 poem “The Black Cottage,”
That all men are created free and equal. . . .
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman [Jefferson] got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.”
How will we reconsider it for our age? Apparently, we won’t: Jefferson’s statues will be torn down instead. We will take the “easy way” and “decide” that Jefferson’s revolutionary character “simply isn’t true.” This has long since been decided against Luxemburg’s Marxism, too — indeed, as a precondition for the judgment against Jefferson. As Max Horkheimer said, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.” The failure of revolution in 1918 was its failure for all time. We are told nowadays that the American Revolution never happened: it was at most a “slaveholder’s revolt.” But it certainly did not mark a change in “Western white civilization.” Neither, of course, did Marxism. Susan Sontag tells us so!
Platypus began in 2006 and was founded as an organization in 2007, but we began our conventions in 2009. In 2018, our 10th convention requires a look back and a look ahead; last year marked the centenary of 1917; this year marks 1918, hence, this specific occasion for reflecting on history from Platypus’s point of view. What did we already know in 2006–08 that finds purchase especially now, in 2018? The persistence of the counterrevolution. Hence, our special emphasis on the failure of the 1918 German Revolution as opposed to the “success” of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which has been the case throughout the history of our primary Marxist reading group pedagogy. But we should reflect upon it again today.
I would like to refer to some of my convention speeches for Platypus:
In my 2012 convention President’s report, “1873–1973: The century of Marxism,” I asserted that the first 50 years saw growth and development of Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, which saw the steady destruction of the memory of Marxism.
So today, in regarding 1918–2018 as the century of counterrevolution, I ask that its first 50 years, prior to 1968, be considered as the active counterrevolution of anti-Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, after 1968, as the naturalization of the counterrevolution, such that active anti-Marxism is no longer necessary.
But I would like to also recall my contribution to a prior convention plenary panel discussion in 2014, on “Revolutionary politics and thought,” where I asserted that capitalism is both the revolution and the counterrevolution. To illustrate this, I quoted a JFK speech from 1960:
“We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”
Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York:
“I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of [Fidel] Castro coming to this hotel, [Nikita] Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveler 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 recognize 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.”
With Kennedy, the counterrevolution, in order to be successful, still needed to claim to be the revolution: the counterrevolution still struggled with the revolution. By the end of the 1960s — at the other end of the New Left — however, this was no longer the case.
We can observe today that what was lacking both in 1918 and in 1968 was a political force adequate to the task of the struggle for socialism. The problem of political party links both dates. 1968 failed to overcome the mid-20th century liquidation of Marxism in Stalinism and related phenomena, in the same way that 1918 had failed to overcome the capitulation of the SPD and greater Second International in WWI, and thus failed to overcome the crisis of Marxism.
For this reason, we can say, today, 50 years after 1968, that the past 100 years, since 1918, have been the century of counterrevolution. | P
 Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1939/kautsky.htm>.
 “History, theory,” available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2009/06/14/the-platypus-synthesis-history-theory/>.
Platypus Review 99 (September 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/08/29/1917-2017/>.
 Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’” (1940), Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40, Howard Eiland and Michael William Jennings, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 407.
 “50 years of 1968,” Platypus Review 105 (April 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/04/01/50-years-of-1968/>.
 Karl Liebknecht, “Despite everything” (1919), in John Riddel, ed., The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 1918–19: Preparing for the Founding Conference (New York: Pathfinder, 1986), 269–271; Rosa Luxemburg, “Order prevails in Berlin” (1919), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm>.
 In North of Boston, available on-line at: <http://www.bartleby.com/118/7.html>.
 Horkheimer, “A discussion about revolution,” in Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39. Available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/readings/horkheimer_dawnex.pdf>.
Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.
Platypus Review 69 (September 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/09/05/revolutionary-politics-thought-2/>.
 Available online at: <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25785>.
An abridged version of this article was presented at the 4th Platypus European Conference closing plenary panel discussion, “What is the Future of Socialism?,” with Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute of Globalization and Social Movements), Alex Demirovic (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), Mark Osborne (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; Momentum) and Hillel Ticktin (Critique journal), at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018.
The liquidation of [Marxist] theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth-content only by those who agree with [Friedrich] Schiller that “world history is the world tribunal.” What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth-content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.
—Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966)
THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM is the future of capitalism—the future of capitalism is the future of socialism.
Socialism is an illness of capitalism. Socialism is the prognosis of capitalism. In this respect, it is a certain diagnosis of capitalism. It is a symptom of capitalism. It is capitalism’s pathology. It recurs, returning and repeating. So long as there is capitalism there will be demands for socialism. But capitalism has changed throughout its history, and thus become conditioned by the demands for socialism. Their histories are inextricably connected and intertwined. This is still true today.
Society under capitalism in its concrete form will be conditioned by the need to realize capital. This means that society will be conditioned by the contradiction of capital. The future of socialism will be conditioned by that contradiction. This is an illness of self-contradiction of society in capitalism.
What kind of illness is capitalism?
Friedrich Nietzsche described the modern affliction of nihilism in capitalism—he didn’t use the term “capitalism” but described it—as an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness.”
Socialism is the pathology of capitalism—in terms of Marx and Engels’s Manifesto, “communism” is the “specter” —and capitalism is the pathology of socialism, always threatening its return. The question is the prognosis of socialism—the prognosis of capitalism.
Capitalism is an illness—a pathology—of potential. We suffer from the unrealized potential of capital.
Capitalism is an imbalance of production and appropriation. It is a problem of how society produces, and how society appropriates its own production. As such it is a problem of metabolism. This is often referred to, for instance by Keynesians, as a problem of overproduction—a problem of underconsumption. But it is more self-contradictory than that. It is more than a temporary market imbalance awaiting correction, either by the state or by the market itself. Turning over the issues of production and consumption, we find that capitalism is also a problem of an overconsumption of resources—Marx called it the wearing-out of both the worker and nature—and an underconsumption of value, for instance in an overabundance of money without outlet as capital investment. It is also, however, an underproduction of resources—a wastage of nature and labor—and an overproduction of value. It is, as Marx called it, a problem of surplus-value—of its production and consumption.
The pathology of capitalism is a metabolic disorder. As capitalism is usually addressed by contemporary commentators, it is not however a disorder of scarcity or of (over-)abundance, nor of hierarchy or of equality—for instance, a problem of leveling-down. But, rather, as a problem of what Marx called the “social metabolism,” it exhibits all of these symptoms, alternately and, indeed, simultaneously.
In the way that Nietzsche regarded capitalist modernity as an illness, but an illness the way pregnancy is an illness, it is not to be cured in the sense of something to be eliminated, but successfully gone through, to bring forth new life.
Is it a chronic or an acute condition? Capitalism is not well analogized to cancer because that would imply that it is a terminal condition. No. Rather than socialism waiting for capitalism to die, however, the question is whether socialism is merely a fever-dream of capitalism: one which chronically recurs, occasionally, but ultimately passes in time. Capitalism is not a terminal condition but rather is itself a form of life. A pathological form of life, to be sure, but, as Nietzsche—and Christianity itself—observed, life itself is a form of suffering. But what if capitalism is not merely a form of life—hence a form of suffering—but also a potential form of new life beyond itself? What if the recurrent symptom of socialism—the crisis of capitalism—is a pregnancy that we have failed to bring to term and has instead miscarried or been aborted? The goal, then, would be, not to eliminate the pregnancy of socialism in capitalism, not to try to cure the periodic crises of capitalism, but for capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism.
This would mean encouraging the health of capitalism in a certain sense. Perhaps humanity has proven too ill when undergoing capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism; but the pregnancy has been mistaken for an illness to be cured, rather than what it actually was, a symptom of potential new life in the process of emerging.
Past Marxists used the metaphor of “revolution as the midwife of history,” and they used this very precisely. Socialist revolution would make socialism possible, but would not bring forth socialism ready-made. An infant—moreover one that is not yet born—is not a mature form of life.
These are the stakes of properly recognizing capitalism for what it is—the potential for socialism. If we mistake capitalism for an illness to be eliminated, then we undergo its pathology periodically, but fail to bring forth the new life that capitalism is constantly generating from within itself. The point then would be, not to avoid capitalism, not to avoid the pregnancy of socialism, but to allow capitalism to give birth to socialism. Bourgeois ideology denies that there is a new form of life beyond itself—that there is socialism beyond capitalism—and so seeks to terminate the pregnancy, to cure the ailment of capitalism, to eliminate the potential that is mistaken for a disease, whether that’s understood as infection by a foreign body, or a metabolic imbalance to be restored. But capitalism is not a malignant tumor but an embryo. The recurrent miscarriage of socialism, however, makes capitalism appear as a tumor, more or less benign, so long as it passes—or is extracted or otherwise extirpated.
As a cancer, capitalism appears as various kinds of cancer cells running rampant at the expense of the social body: whether of underclass criminals, voracious middle classes, plutocratic capitalists, or wild “populist” (or even “fascist”) masses, all of whom must be tamped down if not eliminated entirely in order to restore the balanced health of the system. But capitalism does not want to be healthy in the sense of return to homeostasis, but wants to overcome itself—wants to give birth to socialism. Will we allow it?
For this would mean supporting the pregnancy—seeing the symptoms through to their completion, and not trying to stop or cut them short.
What is the prognosis of socialism?
Socialism is continuous with the “rights of human beings and citizens,” according to the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” that “all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Socialism seeks to realize the bourgeois principle of the “free association of producers,” in which each is provided “according to his need” while contributing “according to his ability.” The question is how capitalism makes this both possible and impossible, and what it would take to overcome its impossibility while realizing its possibility.
Moishe Postone, in his 2006 essay on “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey”—a companion-piece to his other well-known essay from 2006, “History and Helplessness”—grasped this contradiction of our time as that between islands of incipient post-proletarian life surrounded by seas of superfluous humanity—postmodernist post-humanism and religious fundamentalist defense of human dignity, in a world simultaneously of both post-proletarian cities of abundance and sub-proletarian slums of scarcity.
Peter Frase, in an early foundational article for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jacobin magazine in 2011, wrote of the “Four Possible Futures”—this was later expanded into the 2016 book subtitled “Life after Capitalism”—on the supposed “inevitable end” of capitalism in four potential outcomes: either in the “communism of abundance and egalitarianism;” the “rentism of hierarchy and abundance;” the “socialism of egalitarianism and scarcity;” or the “exterminism of hierarchy and scarcity.” The future was supposed to lie between two axes of contradiction: egalitarianism vs. hierarchy; and scarcity vs. abundance.
Unlike Postone—who, like Slavoj Žižek around the same moment, grasped the simultaneous existence of postmodernism and fundamentalism as two sides of the same coin of late capitalism—Frase neglects the dialectical proposition that all four of his “possible futures” will come true—indeed, that all four are already the case in capitalism. They are not merely in the process of coming true, but have been the actual condition of capitalism throughout its history, ever since its inception in the Industrial Revolution. There has been the coexistence of hierarchy and egalitarianism and of scarcity and abundance, and each has been the precondition for its—dialectical—opposite.
One could say that this has been the case since the early emergence of bourgeois society itself—that capitalist contradiction was always the case—or, indeed, since the beginning of civilization itself. One could say that this has been the condition of “class society as a whole,” the condition of the existence of a “social surplus” throughout history.
This is the perspective of Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” for example. Badiou has mobilized a rather literal reading of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and a straightforward, if rather naïve, interpretation of communism or socialism from Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equals” onwards—indeed perhaps all the way back from Jesus and His Apostles onwards. “Communism”—in Peter Frase’s terms, “egalitarian abundance”—is the “land of milk and honey,” where the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Capitalism, understood undialectically, then, is, by contrast, the exterminism of rentism, the inhumanity of exploitation, in which scarcity and hierarchy rule through elite appropriation of the surplus. But this has been true since the dawn of civilization, since the beginning—in terms of Engels’s clever footnote to the Manifesto’s assertion that “history is the history of class struggle”—of “recorded history.”
So what is different with capitalism? What has changed is the form of the social surplus: “capital.” To say, as Marxists did, that, as the possibility for socialism, capitalism is the potential “end of prehistory” is to say that all of history is the history of capital: the history of civilization has been the development of the social surplus, until it has finally taken the form of capital.
Ancient civilizations were based on a specific kind of social surplus, however. The surplus of grain beyond subsistence produced by peasant agriculture allowed for activity other than farming. Peasants could tighten their belts to feed the priests rather than lose the Word of God, and so that some knights could protect them from the heathen. But for us to return to the religious basis of civilization would also mean embracing values quite foreign to the bourgeois ethos of work, such as that “the sick are blessed,” with the divine truth of the vanity of life, whereas we rightly consider sickness to be a curse—at the very least the curse of unemployability in society.
So what is the social surplus of capital? According to Marx, capital is the surplus of labor. It is also, however, the source of possibilities for employment in production: the source of social investment. Does this make it the source of hierarchy or of equality, of scarcity or of abundance, of post-humanism or of ontological—fundamental—humanity? It is the source of all these different apparently opposed values. It is their common condition. It is society itself, albeit in “alienated” form. As such, it is also the source of society’s possible change.
Socialism aims at the realization of the potential of society. But it will be achieved—or not—on the basis of capitalism, under conditions of capital. The social surplus of capital is the source of potential societal change, of new forms of production—manifold new forms of human activity, in relation to others, to Nature, and to ourselves. Changes in capital are changes in our social relations. Capital is a social relation.
Capital is the source of endless new forms of social scarcity and new forms of social abundance—of new forms of social expropriation and of social production—as well as of new forms of social hierarchy and of new forms of social equality. Capital is the source of all such changes in society over the course of the last two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution.
Hillary Clinton, in an interview during her failed campaign for President of the U.S., said that what keeps her “awake at night” is the problem of figuring out policy that will encourage the investment of capital to produce jobs. Indeed, this is precisely what motivated Trump’s—successful—campaign for President as well. Interestingly, it is unclear whether this is what properly motivated Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Clinton, or if this now motivates Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the U.K. Labour Party. In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, it seems that they have been motivated less by the problem of capital and labor than by a more nebulous concern for “social justice”—regardless of the latter’s real possibilities in capitalism. In the U.K., for example, Theresa May’s “Red Toryism”—by prioritizing the circumstance of the “British worker,” like Trump’s stated priority for the “American worker”—is actually more realistic, even if it presently has a rather limited organized political base. Corbyn, as a veteran New Leftist “social justice warrior,” is actually closer to the criteria of neoliberal politics than May, whose shifting Conservative Party is not (yet) able to support her agenda. By contrast, it is a solidly neoliberal Blairite Labour Party that Corbyn leads. But Brexit, and the crisis of the EU that it expressed, is changing the landscape. May is still, however, leading the way. As is, of course, Trump.
In this sense, the issue of socialism was closer to the actual concerns of Clinton and Trump than to Sanders. Sanders offered to his followers the Obama Presidency that never was, of a “new New Deal” that is never going to be. By contrast, both Clinton and Trump were prepared to move on from the 2008 economic crisis: How to make good of the crisis of neoliberalism, now a decade old? For every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism. This is what must be the concern of politics.
This is the ageless question of capitalism: How is society going to make use of its crisis of overproduction, its surplus in capital—its surplus of labor? How are the social possibilities of capital going to be realized? What is the actual potential for society in capitalism?
Of course, the narrow horizons of the perspectives of both Clinton and Trump and of May for realizing the potentials of capitalism are less appealing than the apparent idealism of Corbyn and Sanders. But, realistically, it must be admitted that the best possible outcome—with the least disruption and danger—for U.S. and thus global capitalism at present would have been realized by a Clinton Presidency. If Trump’s election appears to be a scary nightmare, a cruise into the unknown with a more or less lunatic at the helm, then, by contrast, a Sanders Presidency was merely a pipe-dream, a safe armchair exercise in idealism. Today, the stock market gambles that, whatever Trump’s gaffes, the Republican Party remains in charge. The captain, however wild-eyed, cannot actually make the ship perform other than its abilities. The question is whether one trusts a CEO trying to build the company by changing it, or one trusts the shareholders who don’t want to risk its profitability. Trump is not a safe bet. But he does express the irrepressible impulse to change. The only question is how.
So the question of the future of socialism is one of potential changes in capitalism. The question is how capitalism has already been changing—and will continue to change.
What seems clear is that capitalism, at least as it has been going on for the past generation of neoliberalism, will not continue exactly the same as it has thus far. There has been a crisis and there will be a change. Brexit and the fall of David Cameron as well as Trump’s victory and Hillary’s defeat—the successful challenge by Sanders and the rise of Corbyn alongside May’s Premiership—cannot all be chalked up to the mere accidental mistakes of history.
In the face of historical change, continuity must be reckoned with—precisely as the basis for this change. How is neoliberal capitalism changing out of its crisis?
Neoliberalism is old and so is at least in need of renewal. The blush has gone off the rose. Its heroic days are long behind us. Obama rallied it to a certain extent, but Hillary was unable to do so again. The Republicans might be stuck in vintage 1980s Reaganism, but Trump is dragging them out of it. In the face of Trump, the question has been posed: But aren’t we all good neoliberals? Not only Nancy Pelosi has said that, all respect to Bernie, we need not try to become socialists but remain capitalists. The mainstream Republican contender Marco Rubio said the same about Trump, while Ted Cruz retired to fight another day, against what he indicatively called Trump’s “socialism.” But the Tea Party is over. Now, the specter of “fascism” in the crisis of neoliberalism—which, we must remember, regards any and all possible alternatives to itself as more or less fascist—is actually the specter of socialism.
But what does the actual hope for socialism look like today? Does it inevitably appear as nationalism, only with a difference of style? Must the cosmopolitanism of capitalism take either the form of unmediated globalization (which has never in fact existed) or rather inter-nationalism, relations between nations? These apparent alternatives in themselves show the waning of neoliberal optimism—the decline of Clinton’s “global village.” We are now living—by contrast with the first Clinton era of the 1990s—in the era of neoliberal pessimism, in which all optimism seems reckless and frightening by comparison: Hillary’s retort that “America is great already!” raised against Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” Trump was critical of, and quite pessimistic about, existing conditions, but optimistic against Hillary’s political pessimism—to which Hillary and Obama could only say that things aren’t so bad as to justify (either Sanders or) Trump.
Were the Millennials by contrast too optimistic to accept Hillary’s sober pragmatism—or were they so pessimistic as to eschew all caution of Realpolitik and embrace Sanders and Corbyn? Have they clung, after the election of Trump, now, to the shreds of lip-service to their concerns, as the best that they could hope for? Does Sanders—like Corbyn in the U.K.—merely say, better than Hillary or Obama, what they want to hear? By comparison, Hillary and Trump have been a salutary dose of reality—which is bitterly resented. Obama was the “change we can believe in”—meaning: very little if any. Clinton as the continuation of Obama was the sobriety of low-growth “realism.” Now Trump is the reality of change—whether we like it or not. But it is in the name of the optimism for growth: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The problem of capitalism—the problem that motivates the demand for socialism—is that of managing and realizing the possibilities of a global workforce. This is in fact the reality of all politics, everywhere. All countries depend on international and, indeed, global trade, including the circulation of workers and their wages. Even the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea depends not only on goods in trade but on remittances from its workers abroad. This issue of the global workforce is the source of the problem of migration—the migration of workers. For instance, wars are waged with the problem of refugees foremost in mind. Political crisis seeks alleviation in either benign ways such as the “brain drain” of the emigrating middle-class, or malignantly in ethnic cleansing—in either case the exodus of restive surplus populations that cannot be integrated. International aid as well as military intervention is calculated in effects on migration: how to prevent a refugee crisis? The U.S. has paid countries such as Egypt and Pakistan to subsidize their unemployed through bloated militaries. What is to be done with all those seeking work? Where will they find a job? It is a global problem.
Capital is the social form of this surplus of labor—the social surplus of production. Capital is the way society tries to manage and realize the potential of that surplus. But the source of that surplus is no longer so much human activity—labor—as it is science and technology. The problem is that, politically, we have no way of marshaling this surplus other than through possibilities for labor—for instance, through managing nation-states as labor markets. The question is realizing the potential possibilities of the social surplus beyond the reproduction of an increasingly redundant laboring workforce. Will they be starved or exterminated? Or will they be freed?
The only alternatives capitalism offers is in freedom to work—not the worst form of freedom the world has ever known, but its possibilities in capitalism are increasingly narrow. The question is the freedom from work. How will this be realized? There has been mounting evidence of this problem ever since the Industrial Revolution: unemployment. Social Darwinism was not a program but a rationalization for the crisis of capitalism. It remains so today. Will humanity free itself from the confines of capital—the limits of labor?
Were Jacobin’s Peter Frase’s four possible alternative futures merely alternatives in rhetoric? Nearly no one claims to favor exterminism, scarcity, or inequality. The real future of capitalism does not actually belong to such expressions of pessimism. Fortunately, it will be appreciably better than our worst fears—even if, unfortunately, it will be much worse than our best desires. Capitalism for better or worse does indeed have a future, even if it will be different from what we are now used to. It will also be different from our dreams and nightmares.
Jacobin’s Frase seems to assume that not what he calls “communism” but “socialism”—the combination of egalitarianism and scarcity—is both more possible and more desirable: for Frase, abundance carries the danger, rather, of continued capitalist “rentism” and hierarchy. For Frase, among others, the future of social conflict seems to be posed over the terms of scarcity: equality vs. “extermination;” for instance, egalitarianism vs. racism.
Both Moishe Postone’s and Peter Frase’s antinomies—of postmodernism and fundamentalism, and of scarcity and egalitarianism (the latter combination as Frase’s formula for “socialism”)—are expressions of pessimism. They form the contemporary face of diminished hopes. But capitalism will not tarry over them. It will move on: it is already moving on.
What is the future of abundance, however with hierarchy—that of continued capitalism, that is, of “capital rents”—in society, and how does this potential task any future for socialism? Where will the demand for socialism be raised? And how is it to be realized?
We should not assume that capitalist production, however contradictory, is at an end. No. We are not at an end to forms of scarcity under conditions of abundance, or at an end to hierarchies conditioned by social equality.
Citizen Trump shows us this basic fact of life under continued capitalism.
As Walter Benjamin observed in conversation with Bertolt Brecht during the blackest hour of fascism at the midnight of the last century, we must begin not with the “good old days”—which were in fact never so good—but with the “bad new ones.” We must take the bad with the good; we must take the good with the bad.
We must try to make good on the reality of capitalism. As Benjamin put it, we must try to redeem its otherwise horrific sacrifices, which indeed are continuous with those of all of civilization. History—the demand for socialism—tasks us with its redemption.
The future of capitalism is the future of socialism—the future of socialism is the future of capitalism.
Perhaps capitalism is the illness of bourgeois society, and socialism is the potential new form of life beyond the pregnancy of capitalism. Bourgeois society does not always appear as capitalism, but does so only in crisis. We oscillate in our politics not between capitalism and socialism but between bourgeois ideology and anti-capitalism—nowadays usually of the cultural ethno-religious fundamentalist communitarian and identitarian type: forms of anti-bourgeois ideology. But socialism was never, for Marxism at least, simply anti-capitalism: it was never anti-bourgeois. It was the promise for freedom beyond that of bourgeois society. The crisis of capitalism was regarded by Marxism as the tasking of bourgeois society beyond itself by socialism. It was why Lenin called himself a Jacobin; and why Eugene Debs called the 4th of July a socialist holiday. Socialism was to be the realization of the potential of bourgeois society, which is otherwise constrained and distorted in capitalism. So long as we live in bourgeois society there will be the promise—and task—of socialism. |P
 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Seabury Press, 1973), 143–144.
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.” 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. 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” 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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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.” 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., 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. 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. 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, 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.
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. 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.”
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.
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. 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:”
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” — 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.” 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. 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. 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
 Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.
 See my “Symptomology: Historical Transformations in Social-Political Context,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/symptomology/>.
 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.
 Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.
 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.”
 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>.
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Estranged Labour,” available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.
 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.
 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).
 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/>.
 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>.
 See my “Rosa Luxemburg and the Party,” Platypus Review 86 (May 2016), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2016/05/03/rosa-luxemburg-party/>.
 “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>.
 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.
 See Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm>.
 Available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1900/0929-debs-competitionvcooperation.pdf>.
 See his pamphlet on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/>.
 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>.
 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.