Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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The crisis of neoliberalism and Marxism in the age of Trump (Platypus 3rd European Conference video and audio recordings)

Audio recording:


Platypus 3rd European Conference Vienna closing plenary panel discussion

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute of Globalisation Studies and Social Movements, Moscow), John Milios (former chief economic advisor of SYRIZA) and Emmanuel Tomaselli (Funke Redaktion, International Marxist Tendency, Vienna), moderated by Lucy Parker, at the Platypus 3rd European Conference, University of Vienna, February 18, 2017. Also presented at the teach-in on “What is Trumpism?” at the University of Illinois at Chicago UIC on April 5, 2017; and on a panel with Greg Lucero and Catherine Liu at the 9th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, University of Chicago, April 7, 2017. Published in Contango issue #1: Auctoritas (2017).

The present crisis of neoliberalism is a crisis of its politics. In this way it mirrors the birth of political neoliberalism, in the Reagan-Thatcher Revolution of the late 1970s – early 1980s. The economic crisis of 2007-08 has taken 8 years to manifest as a political crisis. That political crisis was expressed by SYRIZA’s election in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to leadership of the Labour Party, the Brexit referendum, and Bernie Sanders’s as well as Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the U.S. Now Trump’s election is the most dramatic expression of this political crisis of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has been an unclear concept, often substituting for capitalism itself. It clarifies to regard neoliberalism as politics. It is neoliberal politics that is in crisis.

It is easy to mistake Trump as an anti-neoliberal politician. This is what it means to call him a “Right-wing populist” — presumably, then, Sanders, Corbyn and SYRIZA are “Left-wing populist” phenomena? This suggests that democracy and neoliberalism are in conflict. But neoliberalism triumphed through democracy — as demonstrated by the elections (and reelections) of Thatcher, Reagan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama.

Neoliberalism is a form of democracy, not its opposite. If neoliberalism is in political crisis, then this is a crisis of democracy. Perhaps this is what it means to distinguish between “populism” and democracy. When the outcome of democracy is undesirable, as apparently with Trump, this is attributed to the perversion of democracy through “populism” — demagoguery.

Capitalism and democracy have been in tension if not exactly in conflict for the entirety of its history. But capitalism has also been reconstituted through democratic means. For instance, FDR’s New Deal, to “save capitalism from itself,” was achieved and sustained through (small-d) democratic politics. But that form of democratic politics experienced a crisis in the 1960s-70s. That crisis gave rise to neoliberalism, which found an opportunity not only in the post-1973 economic downturn but also and perhaps especially through the crisis of the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition and its related politics elsewhere such as in the U.K. and the rise of Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution against not only Labour but also the established Conservative Party. The same with Reagan, who had to defeat the Nixonite Republican Party as well as the Great Society Democrats.

Similarly, Trump has had to defeat the neoliberal Republican Party as well as the neoliberal Democrats.

Just as David Harvey found it helpful to describe neoliberalism not as anti-Fordism but as post-Fordism, it is necessary to consider Trump not as an anti-neoliberal but as a post-neoliberal. There will be continuity as well as change. There will be a political realignment of mainstream, liberal-democratic politics — just as happened with FDR and Reagan.

The “Left” — the Communist Party — initially called FDR a “fascist,” just as the New Left called Reagan a “fascist” when he was elected — as if liberal democracy were collapsing rather than experiencing a political transformation. Such hysteria amounts to thinly veiled wishful thinking.

The problem with the “Left” is that its hysterics are less about society than about itself. The “Left” cries foul when mainstream politics steals its thunder — when change happens from the Right rather than through the Left’s own “revolutionary politics.” Capitalism has continued and will continue through political revolutions of greater or lesser drastic character.

Avowed “Marxists” have failed to explain the past several transformations of capitalism. Neither the Great Depression, nor the crisis of the New Deal Coalition leading to the New Left of the 1960s-70s, nor the crisis of Fordist capital that led to neoliberalism, have been adequately grasped. Instead, each change was met with panic and futile denunciation.

As such, the “Left’s” response has actually been affirmative. By the time the “Left” began to try to make sense of the changes, this was done apologetically — justifying and thus legitimating in retrospect the change that had already happened.

Such “explanation” may serve as substitute for understanding. But reconciling to change and grasping the change, albeit with hindsight, let alone taking political opportunity for change, is not the same as adequately critiquing the change.

What is needed — indeed required — is seeing how a crisis and change may point beyond itself.

What is the Trump phenomenon, as an indication of possibilities beyond it? This is the question that must be asked — and answered.

Unfortunately, the only way the “Left” might be posing this question now is in order to advise the Democrats on how to defeat Trump. But this is to dodge the issue. For even if the Democrats were to defeat Trump, this might avoid but cannot erase the crisis of neoliberalism, which is not an accident of the 2016 election outcome, but a much broader and deeper phenomenon.

The heritage of 20th century “Marxism” — that of both the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s — does not facilitate a good approach to the present crisis and possibilities for change. Worse still is the legacy of the 1980s post-New Left of the era of neoliberalism, which has scrambled to chase after events ever since Thatcher and Reagan’s election. A repetition and compounding of this failure is manifesting around Trump’s election now.

For instance, while Harvey’s work from the 1980s — for example his 1989 book The Condition of Postmodernity — was very acute in its diagnosis of the problem, his work from more recent years forgot his earlier insights in favor of a caricatured account of neoliberal political corruption. This played into the prevailing sentiment on the “Left” that neoliberalism was a more or less superficial political failure that could be easily reversed by simply electing the right (Democratic Party or UK Labour) candidates.

More specifically, the Millennial “Left” that grew up initially against the Iraq war under George W. Bush and then continued in Occupy Wall Street under Obama, and last year got behind the Sanders campaign, is particularly ill-equipped to address Trump. It is confounded by the crisis of neoliberalism, to which it has grown too accustomed in opposition. Now, with Trump, it faces a new and different dilemma.

This is most obvious in the inability to regard the relationship between Sanders and Trump in the common crisis of both the Republican and Democratic Parties in 2015–16.

For just as the New Left — and then neoliberalism itself — expressed the crisis of the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition, Trump’s election expresses the crisis of the Reagan Coalition of the Republican Party: a crisis of not only neoliberalism as economic policy in particular, but also of neoconservatism and of Christian Fundamentalist politics, as well as of Tea Party libertarian Strict Constructionist Constitutional conservatism. Trump represents none of these elements of the Reaganite Republican heritage — but expresses the current crisis common to all of them. He also expresses the crisis of Clintonism-Obamaism. So did Sanders.

“Marxists” and the “Left” more generally have been very weak in the face of such phenomena — ever since Reagan and up through Bill Clinton’s Presidency. Neoliberalism was not well processed in terms of actual political possibilities. Now it is too late: whatever opportunity neoliberalism presented is past.
It was appropriate that in the Democratic Party primaries the impulse to change was expressed by Bernie Sanders, who predated the Reagan turn. Discontent with neoliberalism found an advocate for returning to a pre-neoliberal politics — of the New Deal and Great Society. While Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sounded like nostalgia for the 1950s, actually it was more a call for a return to the 1990s, to Clintonite neoliberal prosperity and untroubled U.S. global hegemony. In the 2016 campaign, Sanders was more the 1950s–60s-style Democratic Party figure. Indeed, his apparent age and style seemed to recall the 1930s — long before he was born — and not so much the New Left counterculture, whatever youthful writings of his that were dug up. What’s remarkable is that Sanders invoked the very New Deal Coalition Democratic Party that he had opposed as a “socialist” in his youth, and what had kept him independent of the Democrats when he first ran for elected office in the 1980s Reagan era during which the Democrats were still the majority (Congressional) party. Sanders who had opposed the Democrats now offered to save them by returning them to their glory days.

But Trump succeeded where Sanders failed. It is only fitting that the party that led the neoliberal turn under Reagan should experience the focus of the crisis of neoliberal politics.

If Sanders called for a “political revolution” — however vaguely defined — Trump has effected it. Trump has even declared that his campaign was not simply a candidacy for office but a “movement.” His triumph is a stunning coup not only for the Democrats but the Republicans as well. Where Sanders called for a groundswell of “progressive” Democrats, Trump won the very narrowest of possible electoral victories. Nonetheless, it was a well-calculated strategy that won the day.

Trump’s victory is the beginning not the end of a process of transforming the Republican Party as well as mainstream politics more generally that is his avowed goal. Steve Bannon announced that his main task was to unelect recalcitrant Republicans. Trump economic advisor Stephen Moore, a former neoliberal, declared to Congressional Republicans that it was no longer the old Reaganite neoliberal Republican Party but was going to be a new “economic populist” party. Trump said during the campaign that the Republicans should not be a “conservative party” but a “working-class party.” We shall see whether and how he may or may not succeed in this aim. But he will certainly try — if only to retain the swing working class voters he won in traditionally Democratic Party-voting states such as in the Midwest “Rust Belt.” Trump will seek to expand his electoral base — the base for a transformed Republican Party. The Democrats will necessarily respond in kind, competing for the same voters as well as expanding their electoral base in other ways.

Is this a process of “democratization?” Yes and no. The question is not of more or less “democracy” but rather how democracy takes shape politically. “Populism” is a problematic term because it expresses fundamental ambivalence about democracy itself and so fails to clarify the issue. It is understood that new and expanded political mobilization is fraught with danger. Nonetheless, it is a fact of life for democracy, for good or for ill. The frightening specter of “angry white voters” storming onto the political stage is met by the sober reality that what decided Trump’s victory were voters who had previously elected Obama.

So the question is the transformation of democracy — of how liberal democratic politics is conducted, by both Democrats as well as Republicans. This was bound to change, with or without Trump. Now, with Trump, the issue is posed point-blank. There’s no avoiding the crisis of neoliberalism. | §


Video recording of April 5, 2017 University of Illinois at Chicago teach-in on “What is Trumpism?”:


Audience at April 7, 2017 opening plenary of the 9th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention at the University of Chicago:

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

Audio recording:

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

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

“Bolshevism, in any case, never identified itself either with the October Revolution or with the Soviet state that issued from it. Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its ‘conscious’ factor — a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor – on the existing basis of productive forces — in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Cutrone

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.

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

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

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

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

Critical authoritarianism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

Immanent critique

Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

Everything is taken not merely as it “is,” as it happens to exist, but rather as it “ought” to be, as it could and should be, yielding as-yet unrealized potentials and possibilities. So it is with “authoritarianism,” in Adorno’s view. For Adorno, the key is how psychological authoritarianism is self-contradictory and points beyond itself. Adorno is interested in the “actuality” of authoritarianism: as Wilhelm Reich put it, the “progressive character of fascism;”[1] as Walter Benjamin put it, the “positive concept of barbarism.”[2]

This demands a critical approach rather than a merely descriptive or analytically positive or affirmative approach. For something can be affirmed either in its justification and legitimation or in its denunciation. In either case, the phenomenon is left as it is; whereas, for Adorno, as a Marxist, “the point is to change it.”[3]

So, what possibilities for change are indicated by authoritarianism, and how are such possibilities pointed to by the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis? For Adorno, it is unfortunate that social contradiction has passed from ideology and politics in society to individual psychology (indeed, this expresses a political failure), but there it is.[4] The “F-scale” is misleading, as Adorno notes, in that it might—despite its being posed as a “scale” —be mistaken for a matter of difference in kind rather than degree. Meaning that, for Adorno, everyone is more or less susceptible to fascism—everyone is more or less authoritarian.

The competing aspects of the individual psyche between liberal individuality and authoritarian tendencies is itself the self-contradiction of authoritarianism Adorno sought to explore. In capitalism, liberalism is the flip-side of the same coin as fascism. Individualism and collectivism are an antinomy that express capitalist contradiction. For individualism violates true individuality and collectivism violates the true potential of the social collectivity. Individuality and collectivity remain unfulfilled desiderata, the aspirations and goals of bourgeois society, its emancipatory promise. For Adorno (as for Marx), both are travestied in capitalism—mere “shams.”

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, Jan 15 2016.

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, January 15, 2016.

Authoritarianism is an expression of that travesty of society. Fascism is the sham collectivity in which the sham individuality hides itself; just as liberalism is the sham individuality that conceals the collective condition of society. That collective condition is not a state of being but the task of the need for socialism beyond capitalism. Fascism as well as liberalism expresses that unfulfilled need and tasking demand for socialism in capitalism.

So what would it mean to critique authoritarianism in an immanently dialectical manner? What is the critical value of authoritarianism, in Adorno’s view? How can the potential possibility pointing beyond capitalism be expressed by authoritarianism and revealed rather than concealed by individual psychology? How is society critically revealed in authoritarianism, pointing to socialism?

Psychology

In “Sociology and psychology”[5] Adorno diagnoses the division of psychology from sociology as itself a symptom of contradiction in society—of the actual separation and contradiction of the individual and the collective in capitalism.

In The Authoritarian Personality,[6] Adorno et al. wrote that the fascist personality was characterized by identification with technology, the love for instruments as “equipment.” Here, Adorno found the emancipatory potential beyond capitalism precisely in such identification and imitation: it becomes a matter of the form of individuation. In “Imaginative excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia,[7] Adorno wrote that,

[N]o… faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.

The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.

In “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” Adorno seeks to redeem authoritarianism in his conclusion when he offers that, “Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content.” He goes on that, “As little as [authoritarianism] is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if [individual psychology], in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical”[8] — that is, in going beyond capitalism. Here, critical authoritarianism is met by a critical individualism in which “collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving, but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.”[9] What are the aims of the collectivity expressed by the identification with technology? What Adorno following Benjamin called “mimesis”[10] Freud analyzed psychologically as “identification.” Adorno wrote that “the pressure to be permitted to obey… is today more general than ever.” But what Marx called the “industrial forces of production” are constrained and distorted by the “bourgeois social relations of production” in capitalism. There is a homologous contradiction within the individual personality.

In “Reflections on Class Theory”, Adorno wrote that,

Dehumanization is no external power, no propaganda, however conceived, no exclusion from culture. It is precisely the intrinsic reality of the oppressed in the system, who used formerly to stand out because of their wretchedness, whereas today their wretchedness lies in the fact that they can never escape. That they suspect that the truth is propaganda, while swallowing the propaganda culture that is fetishized and distorted into the madness of an unending reflection of themselves.

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. They catch up with the technical forces of production in which the relations of production lie hidden: in this way these relations lose the shock of their alien nature because the alienation is so complete. But they may soon also lose their power. Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.[11]

Society

Karl Marx regarded the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” — the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte as a result of the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in France. This was Marx’s difference from the anarchists: the recognition of the necessity of the state in capitalism.[12] Hence one should regard Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat as a “critical Bonapartist.”[13] Bonapartism expressed an objective societal need rather than a subjective attitude. Bonapartist response to the objective social crisis and contradiction of capitalism pointed beyond itself and so required a dialectical critique, which Marx thought the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon failed to provide by treating Bonapartism as objectively determined, apologizing for it, as did the sentimental socialist Victor Hugo who treated Bonapartism as a monstrous historical accident like a “bolt from the blue.”[14] Fatalism and contingency were two sides of the same contradiction that obscured a necessity that could be addressed properly only in a dialectical way. These are the terms in which Adorno addressed “authoritarianism.”

Adorno’s “critical authoritarianism” addresses what the “immanent dialectical critique” of authoritarianism would mean, both in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic categories of description, and in terms of (absent) politics for socialism. Adorno’s Dream Notes records a dream of his participating in a gang-rape, as a primal scene of fascism.[15] The “delightful young mulatto . . . the kind of woman one sees in Harlem” who catches his eye admonishes him that “This is the style of the Institute.” The homosexuality and sado-masochism of authoritarianism in pre-Oedipal psychology; the desire as well as fear to “liquidate the ego” in ambivalence about individuality; critical (as opposed to methodological or affirmative) individualism; the desire and fear of collectivity in authoritarian collectivism; projection, identification and counter-identification providing for social cohesion as well as for separation and atomization —these are the themes of Adorno’s critical approach to psychology in late capitalism.

A similar thought was articulated contemporaneously by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, which characterizes negrophobic racism as “repressed homosexuality” and a “narcissistic disorder.” Fanon describes the Freudian approach to rape fantasies as a masochistic fear and desire that is an internalized projection of parental authority, a self-sadism. One fears what one wishes to happen; a wish is a way of mastering a fear by internalizing it; a fear is a way of repressing a wish. The reason rape is so traumatic is that it activates and violates such infantile experiences. There is the experience of parental seduction harking back to the anal phase of libido development, when the child experiences itself as unable to control its excretion, which is experienced as disturbingly involuntary, a blow to narcissism in the difficulty of toilet training, seeking to please the parents’ expectations. The parents’ cleaning of the infant is pleasurably stimulating, and the child internalizes the parent’s simultaneous desire and disgust, attraction and repulsion, which becomes the complex of feelings, the combination of shame and guilt with pleasure, that the child takes in its own bodily functions. Humiliation at loss of self-control is a formative experience of transforming narcissism into identification. The infant’s desire for the parents is an identification with the feared power.[16] The parents embody the ego-ideal of self-control. This is channeled later through gendered object-libido in the Oedipus complex as genital pleasure, but retains the sado-masochistic qualities of the anal phase, which precedes gender identification and so exhibits more basic, homosexual (ungendered) qualities that prevents the recognition of difference and individuality. In a narcissistic—authoritarian—society everyone becomes trapped in a static and self-reinforcing identity, where the need was actually to allow the opening to non-identity of freedom: the freedom to “overcome oneself” allowed by the healthy ego.

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

“The madness of an unending reflection of themselves.” Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

Fanon sought to provide an account of how “racial narcissism”—the failure of the individual ego—could yet point beyond itself, specifically in its treacherously dyadic character of Self and Other, to the need that was blocked: “the world of the You.”[17]

Adorno brings into his discussion of The Authoritarian Personality a key background writing for Fanon’s BSWM, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, which assumes, as Adorno does, contemporary anti-Semitism as a norm and not an aberration. He states simply that what needs to be explained is why anyone is “not anti-Semitic.” But this pointed not to a problem of psychology but of society. As Adorno commended Sartre’s treatment of anti-Semitism:

We distinguish between anti-semitism as an objective social phenomenon, and the anti-semite as a peculiar type of individuality similar to Sartre’s exposé which, for good reasons, is called “Portrait of the Antisemite” rather than “Psychology of Anti-semitism”. This kind of personality is accessible to psychological analysis…. It would be quite impossible to reduce the objective phenomenon of present-day anti-semitism with its age-old background and all social and economic implications, to the mentality of those who, to speak with Sartre, have to make their decision in regard to this issue. Today, each and every man is faced with a tremendous bulk of objectively existing prejudices, discriminations and articulate anti-semitic attitudes. The accumulated power of this objective complex is so great and apparently so far beyond individual powers of resistance that one might indeed ask, why are people not antisemitic, [sic] instead of asking why certain kinds of people are anti-semitic. Thus, it would be naive to base a prognosis of anti-semitism, this truly “social” disease, on the diagnosis of the individual patients.

This means that the self-contradiction expressed by (non-)racism is one of society as well: the racist society points beyond itself objectively as well as subjectively, socially as well as individually. Racism as a problem contains the key to its own solution.[18] Anti-Semitic demagogues identified with Jews when imitating their stereotypical mannerisms;[19] white racists of the Jim Crow era performed minstrel shows in black-face. As Fanon put it, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence;” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”[20] Racism will end when black people become white. Or, as Adorno put it in “Reflections on Class Theory,” “Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.” Racism’s abolition will be its Aufhebung: it will be its Selbstaufhebung, its self-completion as well as its self-negation. So will be the overcoming of authoritarianism in capitalism more generally.

The infamous “F-scale” of The Authoritarian Personality is a scale, which means that authoritarianism or predisposition to fascism is not a difference in kind but of degree: Everyone is more or less authoritarian. The most authoritarian thing would be to deny—to fail to recognize—one’s own authoritarianism.| §


Notes

[1] “[T]he mass basis of fascism, the rebelling lower middle classes, contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces. This contradiction was overlooked [by contemporary Marxists]” in Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as Material Power” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933/46], trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 3–4.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” [1933], Selected Writings vol. 2 1927 –34, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, Harvard, 1996), 732.

[3] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [1845], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/>.

[4] See Max Horkheimer, “On the Sociology of Class Relations” [1943] and my discussion of it, “Without a Socialist Party, there is no Class Struggle, only Rackets,” Nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), available on-line at: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. In “The Authoritarian State” [1940/42], Horkheimer wrote that,

Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable. (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gephardt [New York: Continuum, 1985], 95–117.)

[5] “Sociology and Psychology” [1955], originally written by Adorno for a festschrift celebrating Max Horkheimer’s sixtieth birthday, The piece was published in English translation in two parts in the New Left Review, vol. 46, Nov-Dec 1967, 63-80 and vol. 47, Jan-Feb 1968, 79-97.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[7] Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” an unpublished piece intended for Minima Moralia,[1944–47] published as section X of “Messages in a Bottle,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, New Left Review, vol. 200, July-August 1993, 12–14.

[8] Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” [1938], Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 314.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] See Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34, Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 19989). 720–722: “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but a windmill and a train” (720).

[11] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory”, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 93-110.

[12] See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852] Ch. VII, where he finds that political atomization leads inexorably to the authoritarian state in Bonapartism:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection . . . and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them . . . and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The[ir] political influence . . . therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself. (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm>.)

Marx’s discussion of the French peasants of the mid-19th century also applied to what he called the “lumpenproletariat” as a constituent of Bonapartism, and so would apply to the working class in capitalism today without a political party organized for the struggle to achieve socialism. The “sack of potatoes” or of “homologous magnitudes” is what Adorno, among others, characterized as the “masses” in the 20th century. (For instance, Benjamin wrote in the Epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] that fascism gave the masses the opportunity to express themselves while depriving them their right to change society.)

Adorno paraphrases Marx here when he writes that,

The masses are incessantly molded from above, they must be mulded, if they are to be kept at bay. The overwhelming machinery of propaganda and cultural industry evidences the necessity of this apparatus for the perpetuation of a set-up the potentialities of which have outgrown the status quo. Since this potential is also the potential of effective resistance against the fascist trend, it is imperative to study the mentality of those who are at the receiver’s end of today’s social dynamics. We must study them not only because they reflect these dynamics, but above all because they are the latter’s intrinsic anti-thesis.

The manifestation — and potential resolution — of this contradiction of the masses in capitalism that otherwise resulted in Bonapartism was through the politics of socialism: Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be achieved by the mass-political socialist party. Marx broke with the anarchists over the latter’s refusal to take “political action” and to thus consign the working class to merely “social action.” i.e. to avoid the necessary struggle for state power.

[13] See my “Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism,” Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015), available on-line at: <http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1064/proletarian-dictatorship-and-state-capitalism/>.

[14] Marx, Preface to the 1869 edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/preface.htm>.

[15] Adorno, “New York, 8 February 1941” in Dream Notes (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 5-6.

[16] See Anna Freud, “Identification with the Aggressor,” Ch. IX, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence [1936].

[17] Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, [1952], trans., Charles Lam Markmann, (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 181.

[18] This is because, according to Adorno, “Those who are incapable of believing their own cause… must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.” Violent action takes the place of thought and self-reflection; but this suggests the converse, that critical thinking could prevent such disastrous action. See Adorno, “Education after Auschwitz” [1966], in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. and ed. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 191–204.

[19] See Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” [1951], in The Culture Industry (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 132–157.

[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 178.

Deferred

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1116 (July 21, 2016). [PDF]

I would like to follow up on my articles, ‘What was social democracy?’ (July 7) and ‘Sacrifice and redemption’ (July 14), and comment on the question of social democracy and the need for a socialist political party today, especially in light of controversies around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the challenge to the Democratic Party represented by the ostensibly social democratic – ‘democratic socialist’ – Bernie Sanders, as well as the crisis of the EU around Brexit and its social democratic parties, such as the collapse of Pasok and rise of Syriza in Greece, and the equivocal role of Portuguese, Spanish and French socialists.

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

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

This is what the liquidation into petty bourgeois democracy means: naturalising the framework of capital. International social democracy once signified the means for achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this as its goal, it has come to mean something entirely different. The working class has deferred to those it once sought to lead. | §

Rosa Luxemburg and the party

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

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

Critique of socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lassallean party

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

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

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

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

Antinomy of reformism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1848: state and revolution

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

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

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

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

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

1905: party and class

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

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

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

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

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

Demand for redemption

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

What is socialism? International social democracy

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


Full panel discussion audio recording:


Communism, socialism, social democracy

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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