The Sandernistas

The final triumph of the 1980s

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 82 | December 2015 – January 2016

sandersjackson-croped

Bernie Sanders with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s

THE CAMPAIGN CYCLE for the 2016 general election in the U.S. has been characterized by some throwbacks to the 1980s, most notably in the two major party challengers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Most remarkably, the Sanders campaign has introduced the word “socialism” into mainstream political discourse. It’s clear that what socialism means in Sanders’s mouth, however, is New Deal liberalism — despite the poster of Eugene V. Debs that hangs in Sanders’s Senate office.1 The specter of “socialism” is just that: the meaning it has for Obama’s Tea Party opponents. As Marx wrote over 150 years ago,

“Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism’.” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

Just because Sanders embraces instead of rejecting the pejorative hurled at any and all proposed reforms of capitalism doesn’t make the charge any more true in fact: for Sanders it is a mere ethic. But it appeals nonetheless.2 Sanders’s candidacy seems to fulfill the demands borne of the post-2008 economic crisis and downturn, the discontents with neoliberalism — itself an artifact of the post-1973 crisis that was met by the 1980s “Reagan revolution” — and to offer the electoral vehicle for the Occupy Wall Street generation of activists disenchanted by Obama and the Democrats after 2012.3

weekend_at_bernies-med size

Weekend at Bernie’s?

The Occupy generation’s wielding of the corpse of social democracy in getting behind Sanders as the standard-bearer of reform recalls the 1980s film Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), in which the protagonists in the movie hide behind the eponymous man’s body as an excuse for wild adventure — in this case, a hardly naïve adolescent misadventure with the Democrats. It is regressive. In a dynamic reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns of the 1980s, Sanders has offered “Left” opposition to Democratic Party Centrism, but not by opposing but trying to capture it as well. Sanders meeting with Killer Mike isn’t the answer — Mike already had endorsed him back in June.

Sanders’s campaign from its inception in May has been surprisingly and increasingly successful. But it has since plateaued. For a moment in September, it looked like Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy was in jeopardy due to the Benghazi hearings. Even Obama threw the Democrats’ favorite under the bus, acknowledging in an interview on 60 Minutes (October 11, 2015) that Clinton had mishandled her email communication as Secretary of State. In the same interview, Obama asserted that he would win a third election, and — much the same thing — that Biden’s experience as Vice President eminently qualified him to be President. But Hillary survived Benghazi; and Biden bowed out.

The Democrats, since the 2014 midterm elections in which they failed to dislodge the Republicans’ Congressional majority, have been faced with the problem of reproducing the “Obama majority” that was victorious in 2008 and 2012.4 This has been described as the challenge of uniting the Democrats’ “Left” and “Center” voters: the “Left” is organized labor and others concerned with socio-economic issues; the “Center” — really, the Right — are those concerned with identity-group politics, women, blacks and gays. This potentially fatal split among the Democrats was seen in the 2015 Chicago city-wide election, in which Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was challenged by fellow Democrat, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who had the support of the Chicago Teachers Union that had struck against Emanuel and his neoliberal education reforms in 2012, seeking to embarrass the Chicago native Obama precisely during his campaign for reelection.

In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, black Democrats supported Rahm against Chuy. This was not merely a division between blacks and Latinos, but rather a split of and within the Democrats’ organized labor base from its ethnic constituency “community”-based neoliberal politics. The former 1960s Black Panther, U.S. Congressional Representative Bobby Rush, for instance, denounced Chuy’s campaign for trying to usurp the mantle of the (first black mayor of Chicago) “Harold Washington majority” (as against the prior Daley political machine) that first emerged in the 1980s, which Rush implied could only be reproduced (if at all) by black (and not Latino) leadership — that is, a neoliberal Center/Right majority, and not a labor-based politics. Washington was supported by the “Left:” his campaign chief was a former Maoist — shades of Van Jones? For Rush and other black Democrats in Chicago, Rahm is the “Washington majority” candidate. As Obama was, and Hillary will be. Chuy’s challenge to Rahm has actually provided Emanuel with the opportunity for achieving the electoral mandate endorsement he previously lacked: now a majority has voted in favor of his neoliberal policies. Far from a crisis for neoliberalism, neoliberalism has been further consolidated against any contenders. This is a lesson for Sanders’s supporters: when Hillary is elected by primary voters as the Democratic Party candidate for President, they will have chosen and given a mandate to neoliberalism.

Hillary’s ability to unite the “Left” and Right of the Democrats is uncertain: if she can do so, still, she will not be able to generate the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in 2008. Certainly this goes for labor. Obama’s 2008 campaign for instance offered organized labor the prospect of passing the Employee Free Choice Act under a Democratic majority, but was unceremoniously dropped after the election. Obama’s campaign demanded — and achieved — a reuniting of labor in the AFL-CIO from its split in the Change to Win Federation, so that they would have to negotiate with only one rather than multiple labor constituencies: Obama sought to bring labor under control, specifically in the context of the potentially explosive 2008 economic crisis. The Democrats did not face a labor insurgency. Neither will they now.

Into this bitter legacy steps Sanders, whose call for “political revolution” he explicitly described as an electoral strategy for raising turnout, especially among younger, newer voters, and thus returning the Democrats to a Congressional majority that they enjoyed when Obama was elected until the 2010 Tea Party Congressional election insurgency. Sanders has offered himself as a better champion for the Democrats in the 2016 general election than Hillary can be. The problem has been on the Democratic Right: Sanders’s alleged “problem with women and blacks.” Hillary has supposedly maintained appeal to the social identity constituencies, despite some turbulence from Black Lives Matter and the memory by gays that both Clintons have had a poor record on marriage equality. The presumptive character of Hillary’s nomination, especially as a woman candidate, has exhibited a complacency that chafes and is not guaranteed to pay off in terms of voter mobilization.5

The degree to which the “Left” has gotten on-board with Sanders, it has been in the form of the alleged “brocialists” — straight white men. “Socialism” has meant a backlash against identity politics, an attempt to return to the Democrats’ historic role as economic reformers going back to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, which had pressured the Republicans such that even Eisenhower and Nixon were purportedly to the “Left” of the Clintons on economic policy. There is also the sense that in the post-2008 environment Sanders could appeal to and win back an older generation of disaffected voters, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” whose shifting allegiances allowed the Republicans to triumph since the ’80s, now approaching retirement age and concerned about the opportunities for their children and grandchildren bequeathed by 30 years of decrepit neoliberalism.6

Sanders thus offers the Democrats an answer to the Tea Party that has been sorely lacking since 2010, as expressed by the frustration that bubbled over in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. A new generation of activists was mobilized to “get the money out of politics,” especially in opposition to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited campaign spending, a generation whose concerns about “social justice” and the erosion of “democracy” Sanders speaks to. The question has been whether the Sanders campaign is “for real,” or whether, rather, it is merely a protest pressure-tactic on Hillary, slowing and perhaps redirecting, however slightly, the Clinton juggernaut.7 Sanders’s claim that higher turnout means electoral gains for the Democrats neglects that not only the Republicans but they themselves engage in and benefit from voter suppression, especially among blacks, especially in the Democrats’ urban strongholds. The Democrats have no interest in popular political mobilization, even behind the most anodyne and unthreatening symbolic gestures — see Black Lives Matter — and so seek to curtail it.8

Not least, this is because the Democrats don’t want the political responsibility that would come with large majorities, as was clear in 2008-10, in which they bent their Congressional supermajority over backwards to placate the utterly prostrate Republicans. Any substantial increase in the voting electorate would present problems of political integration. See the Tea Parties’ challenge to the Republican establishment, which would really rather do without such berserkers in their midst. Even before the Tea Parties, in the 2008 bailout crisis, it was unclear whether Congressional Republicans were to fall victim to their own neoliberal rhetoric instead of taking required action to prevent a complete financial meltdown. International financial markets constantly worry over the “political paralysis” in the U.S. yielded by the Republicans hostage to the Tea Party Congressmen and the implications of this for the world economy. The Democrats would be challenged by such unruly voters (especially at the local level of municipal and state governments, as in Illinois) at least as much if not more so than the Republicans are.

Neoliberalism needs to be seen as both an accommodation to and a reinforcement of social and political demobilization after the 1960s, visible for instance in the decimation of labor unions but also of other civil society institutions, after abandonment of their original liberal raison d’être in favor of integration in what the Frankfurt School called the authoritarian “administered state,” already observable to C. Wright Mills and other political scientists after the waning of the radicalization of the 1930s through WWII: what remained was the political parties’ organization of a “power elite.” But even this structure has atrophied since the 1960s. Privatization through NGOs has not meant a renaissance of civil society, but has left the political field abandoned of any substantial forces for reform since the 1980s. Even what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” in the Cold War has been revealed after the Iraq war as a massively corrupt freewheeling affair, and not a political force to be reckoned with: Enormous sums of money may be thrown around to government contractors, but this hardly amounts to political control over policy; 1970s Ford administration veteran Donald Rumsfeld went to war not only against foes in Afghanistan and Iraq but against the Pentagon itself, in a neoliberal privatization campaign of “slimming down” the military, to the embitterment of the officer corps, even amid soaring expenditures. What C. Wright Mills warned about “political irresponsibility” in “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” has only grown more unchecked since the ’60s. Indeed, Mills seems too optimistic in light of even more miserable realities today. The “political establishment” is actually quite threadbare and in evident disarray, not a convincing “power elite.” But: “There is no alternative.”

The issue is whether the post-2008 crisis has been an opportunity for undoing neoliberalism — reversing the ’80s — or for further entrenching it. But to overcome neoliberalism there would need to be an organized political force for doing so. The Democrats are decidedly not this, in any conceivable way. The crisis in Europe has demonstrated an opportunity for expanding and deepening neoliberalism, and not for returning to “social democracy” — despite SYRIZA, Podemos, and Jeremy Corbyn’s wresting seasoned 1980s (Bennite) leadership of the U.K.’s Labour Party, back away from the “Third Way” spectacularly unconvincing 1990s-offspring Blairite runts.

Sanders has more evident conviction than Hillary could ever exhibit. This recalls heroic opposition to Reaganism — why his followers have been affectionately nicknamed after the Sandinistas. One key issue for the Sandernistas that is also similar to the dynamic of Corbyn’s supporters in the U.K. is the 2000s George W. Bush-era anti-war movement as touchstone: Sanders, like Corbyn, opposed the Iraq war, which makes him amenable to the “Left.” Does the Sanders campaign represent a potential political turn, or is it the last gasp of Occupy activism before growing up and joining the fold of the Democrats? Sanders’s abandoning his hitherto vintage 1960s “independence” from the Democrats points the way for the younger generation of 21st century activists.

The “Left” may be tempted to imagine the Sanders campaign as a potential crisis for the Democrats — just as Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party could be seen as a crisis and opportunity for the “Left.” It is more likely that — just as Corbyn will save and not wreck the Labour Party — Sanders will boost and not undermine the Democrats’ campaign around Hillary in 2016. Or at least that is his avowed hope.

What if any kind of political movement could come out of the Sanders campaign? The Sandernistas certainly do not think of the campaign as a way to reconcile themselves to the Democratic Party but rather hope to transform it. Like with Chuy in Chicago, the hope is to mobilize new forces through the campaign that will be sustained after the election. Will this be within or outside the Democratic Party? Perhaps it will be both. In the 1980s, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was established; in 2004, the Progressive Democrats of America was founded out of the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich Presidential campaigns. The first was, in DSA founder Michael Harrington’s words, “a remnant of a remnant” of the New Left; the second was in many respects a repeat of the first. These have not been auspicious developments indicating possibilities for where the Sandernistas might go after 2016. The DSA supported Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party campaign for President, which Sanders also endorsed, in protest against Reaganism. The precedents in the 1980s legacy of the 1960s New Left suggest the further adaptation to — through protest of — the Democrats’ moving ever Right-ward.

Sanders like Trump demonstrates the hollowness of the two U.S. political parties today, if only through the inability to stop their candidacies by the “establishment.” The parties are no longer the formidable “machines” they were in the 20th century — confronted by the 1960s New Left generation — but are merely brandings anyone can buy into — whether wholesale by billionaire magnates like Trump himself or the Koch Brothers Tea Party-backers, or through tiny payments to Sanders’s 2016 campaign, as had been made to Obama in 2008, as an internet media phenomenon. Clinton at least still needs to win over union endorsements and particular capitalist business-sector funding. But in any case there is no political process involved, but only the aestheticization of politics as a consumer article9. As such it can and will be rendered in typical postmodernist pastiche of non-partisan eclecticism. “Politics” means what any- and everyone wants to make of it. This is even claimed as a virtue, of “divided government.”

The worst possible outcome of this is the most likely, that Hillary will be elected as President, but the Republicans will retain a Congressional majority, reproducing the polarized stalemate and deadlock that actually sustains — stabilizes — U.S. politics around a conservative neoliberal consensus, in which certain social issues are given obligatory genuflections without being actually addressed let alone ameliorated. Since the Democrats won the “culture wars” under Obama’s neoliberal leadership, a new division of labor with the Republicans has been established: that the Republicans will represent “straight white men,” especially in rural and exurban areas; and the Democrats, under the leadership of the Clintonite neoliberal Center/Right, will represent “women, blacks and gays” in their petit bourgeois ethnic constituency urban (and more urbane suburban) communities. Welcome to the “new normal.” It began in the ’80s with Reagan’s Presidency, under which the Democrats retained control of Congress.

In the 1980s, the “yuppies” — young urban professionals, that is to say, grown-up children of the 1960s — were regarded as new but conservative; today, they are called “hipsters” and considered liberal as well as entirely normal: an electoral demographic spanning everyone from college to middle-age, referred to in conventional polling analysis as “voters under 50,” i.e., the generation that came of age after the ’80s. Sanders (like Trump) indicatively does best among them — where Clinton does better among those over 50. In the 1980s, identity politics consolidated the accommodation to and resolution of neoliberalism in the “Reagan revolution.” What Adolph Reed has called the “Jesse Jackson phenomenon” exemplified this. It has continued up to the present, through such eminently respectably conservative measures as gay marriage equality. Obama has not brought about any social changes, but only granted them legal legitimacy. But where Obama at least seemed to symbolize “change” — a new post-’60s generation — Sanders as well as Clinton represent a return: diminished expectations. Sanders raising the specter of the “Old Left” 1930s-60s New Deal Coalition’s venerable political heritage for the Democrats, which came to grief in the ’80s, will be the means not for resuscitating but finally burying it.

daniel ortega

Daniel Ortega in the 21st century

There will be no “political revolution” — apart from the one already long underway since the 1980s. The final decades of the 20th century were successfully seized by the same “end of history” to which the 21st century will yet continue to belong, evidently for a long time to come. Daniel Ortega’s return to power as part of the greater Latin American “Pink Tide” in the 2000s represented the final surrender — or was it rather the ultimate triumph? — of the Sandinistas, and put paid to any ’80s “Left” nostalgia on which he may have traded. The same will go for Sanders. Sanders, as an outlier 1960s remnant of the Reagan era, becomes a mainstream political phenomenon today only as a function of giving up the ghost. The 1960s were not defeated but institutionalized in the 1980s. Today, this recent historical process has been completely naturalized, the domesticated televised version of the 1960s as historical curiosity. What needs to be reconciled today — by contrast with 2008 — is not the ’60s but the ’80s: not the last hurrah of the former 1960s radical Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers who helped Obama get his political start as a generational bequest 40 years after Chicago’s Days of Rage, but the 1980s Mayor of Burlington, Vermont (alongside the vintage 1980s New York City real estate speculator) will be the specter haunting 2016.

The 1960s New Left in which Sanders and Clinton — and Corbyn — took part could not and will not give any rebirth to “socialism,” however defined. It could not prevent and indeed actively assisted and not merely accommodated the demise of the Great Society. Whatever regrets it may have now do not point any way forward, but only towards its retirement, and a historical settling of the past.

Just as Clinton’s election in 1992 did not reverse Reaganite neoliberalism by pot-smoking former campaigners in 1972 for George McGovern, Sanders’s late protest today may seal neoliberalism’s unalloyed triumph. Margaret Thatcher claimed Tony Blair as her ultimate achievement. Sanders begging to differ from Hillary before her election as Clinton II will thus be the final victory of the 1980s. | §


Postscript on the March 15 primaries

The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.

Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.

Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”10 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §


P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

June 22, 2016

Further amendment after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,” but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.

Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §


Notes

  1. Bernie Sanders, Speech on “democratic socialism,” Vox.com, November 19, 2015 http://www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9762028/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism; and Dylan Matthews, “A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right — and wrong: An interview with Jacobin magazine editor Bhaskar Sunkara,” Vox.com, November 20, 2015 http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9767096/bernie-sanders-socialism-jacobin []
  2. Ben Geier, “Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he’s not a Socialist,” Fortune, September 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/09/19/bernie-sanders-socialist/; and “Bernie Sanders just answered the biggest question of his campaign,” Fortune, November 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/11/19/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism/ []
  3. Walker Bragman, “More like Reagan than FDR: I’m a Millennial and will never vote for Hillary Clinton,” Salon.com, November 30, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/30/more_like_reagan_than_fdr_im_a_millennial_and_ill_never_vote_for_hillary_clinton/  []
  4. Jonathan Martin, “After losses, liberal and centrist Democrats square off on strategy,” New York Times, November 14, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/us/politics/democratic-party-iberals-and-moderates.html []
  5. Michael Eric Dyson, “Yes she can: Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama: A skeptic’s journey,” The New Republic, November 29, 2015 https://newrepublic.com/article/124391/yes-she-can []
  6. Christopher C. Schons, “From Reagan to Bernie Sanders: My political odyssey,” Counterpunch, November 4, 2015 http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/04/from-reagan-to-bernie-sanders-my-political-odyssey/ []
  7. Bruce A. Dixon, “Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016,” Black Agenda Report, May 6, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/bernie-sanders-sheepdog-4-hillary []
  8. Glen Ford, “Blacks will transform America, and free themselves, but not at the ballot box in 2016: Black voters cannot be counted on to support the most progressive presidential candidates available at the polls,” Black Agenda Report, October 21, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/blacks_wont_free_themselves_at_ballot_box_in_2016 []
  9. See Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). []
  10. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at:<http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []

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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Future class

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1054 (April 16, 2015). [PDF]

Mike Macnair accuses me of “Toryism” (“Magna Carta and long history,” Weekly Worker 1051, March 26, 2015), to which my natural response would be to accuse him of “Whiggism” and progressivist history. Macnair’s recent article (“Thinking the alternative,” Weekly Worker 1053, April 9, 2015) helps dispatch that potential charge, however, in favour of a new issue: the politics of ‘class’ beyond the socialist revolution.

Still, the problem of Bernsteinian evolutionism versus Marxist revolutionism remains – which is not that the goal is literally nil, but rather the gradualist belief that socialism is nothing apart from the struggle for it and as a goal is thus absorbed into the movement itself. By contrast, Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, recognised a dialectic of means and ends, practice and theory, movement and goal: the struggle for socialism took place within the contradiction of capital, and the revolution was a necessary expression of that contradiction to be worked through.

The problem with Bernstein as well as Kautsky is the endless deferral of the political revolution for socialism at the expense of its actuality. It should not take us centuries to get out of capitalism. Neither the storming of the Bastille nor the Tennis Court Oath nor the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence were the realisation of Machiavelli’s vision of politics or a confirmation of Hobbes on the state. On the other hand, they consolidated bourgeois society politically in ways that the political revolution for socialism will only inaugurate the struggle for its potential achievement.

Macnair thinks that an adequate socialist politics needs to offer a better collectivism than Islamism or Christian fundamentalism, etc, which is conservative-reactionary, but I think that socialism needs to offer a better individualism (as well as a better collectivism) than capitalism, which is progressive-emancipatory. But the progressive-emancipatory character of capitalism is expressed in bourgeois-revolutionary terms, not that of capital: ‘capital’ is a critical term.

Islamic State is not a misguided freedom movement, but revels in unfreedom. So does neoliberalism, which must be distinguished from classical bourgeois thought, as bourgeois emancipation must be distinguished from capitalism. Neoliberalism does not posit religious fundamentalism or the police state as external and internal other: these are expressions of the failure of society in capitalism, not the success of the capitalist politics. Liberal democracy has failed, and for a long time now: the only question is, why?

The Abbé Sieyès was inspired both conceptually and politically not by the Christian Bible, but by Locke and Rousseau. The French Revolution was not a peasant jacquerie, but a bourgeois revolution, expressed through urban plebeian revolt. Communists historically are not on the side of the peasants against the clergy and nobility, but with the burghers against all of the above. The question is what happens in the industrial revolution when the labouring classes against the ruling castes become the working class against the capitalists, which is a new and different social contradiction, the self-contradiction of bourgeois society: wage-labour against capital.

The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Marxism’s original sense was meant to be global: if not absolutely every single territory of the earth, then at least in very short order all the advanced capitalist countries, and so a form of political rule of global import.

Comrade Macnair’s attribution of class to productive technique is mistaken. This causes him to reconceive the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of egalitarianism against the basis of middle classes in the development of high productive technique. Lenin, by contrast, followed Marx and described the problem not in such sociological terms, but in the historical social relations of ‘bourgeois right’, which came into self-contradiction in capitalism.

Macnair mistakes capital for social surplus: that, so long as advanced technique allows the opportunity for accumulation of social surplus through knowledge of specialist technicians, it will be necessary to suppress them. But capital is not like the surplus of grain in peasant agriculture, on which the aristocracy and church depended. According to Bukharin’s ABC of communism, capital is not a thing, but a social relation. And it is one not of the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but of the domination of society by the valorisation process of capital. This is a change and crisis of both individuality and collectivity in society. Marx distinguished between the phases of bourgeois society in cooperation, manufacture and industry for just this reason. Industry was a crisis for bourgeois society, not due to technology itself, but its role.

According to Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s critique of capital, after the industrial revolution the issue is the accumulation not of goods, but time – or a matter of the power to command not the value of work, but time in society – not by proprietor capitalists as either entrepreneurs making a killing through competition or as capital-rentiers living off interest, but rather by capital in its ‘valorisation process’. Liberalism is inadequate to just this problem. Furthermore, capital dominates – constrains and distorts – not only living, but also dead, labour.

So credit is an entirely different matter in capitalism than previously. Interest expresses not usury, but the imperative to increase productivity in time, and not for the purpose of profit, but rather to preserve the social value of capital from the depreciation of the value of labour-power in production in the changing organic composition of capital.

Overcoming capitalism will not mean a continuation of wage-labour, but its abolition. The compulsion to wage-labour is not the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but rather the need to valorise capital in society – at least according to Marx. Macnair finds labour subsisting.

The point is that the social value of capital is for Marx the (distorted expression of) ‘general social intellect’ and the (self-contradictory) social relations of this, which is no longer, after the industrial revolution, adequately mediated by the value of the exchange and circulation of labour-power as a commodity. Capital is not a thing; it is not the means of production, but a social relation of the working class to the means of production through the self-alienation of their wage-labour in capital, which is not the same as capitalist private property ownership of the means of production, but rather the role of the means of production as ‘general social intellect’ in the valorisation process of capital. Capital is a social relation not of the capitalists to the means of production through their private property, but of the working class through their wage-labour.

So the dictatorship of the proletariat will mean making the social value of both capital and labour (human activity as a social resource) into an explicitly political rather than chaotic (and politically irresponsible) ‘economic’ matter. Marx thought that this was already placed on the agenda by the demand for the ‘social republic’ in the mid-19th century.

This is a very different issue from that of the social surplus commanded by the ruling castes in feudalism that Macnair thinks produced ‘directly’ capitalism rather than a bourgeois society of free exchange. The accumulation of capital is not the same as the political command of social resources (as in feudalism). And it is not a matter of individual countries, but rather of the global system of production.

When Luxemburg wrote that the proletariat could not build its economic power in capitalism as the bourgeoisie did in feudalism, she did not mean to distinguish between economics and politics, but rather to foreground the issue of society.

This will not mean a levelling down to protect equality, enforced by the working class in a protracted dictatorship of the proletariat, but the separation of human activity from the social value of production, which will become an immediate political issue, as it is indeed already in capitalism, however obscurely. That will be decided by a free (‘democratic’) association of the producers, whose status as producers will not be literally through their labour, but rather as subjects of humanity, as the inheritor of the accumulated history of technique, no longer mediated as a function of time in capital. The relation between society and time will be changed.

Technique will not be the province of specialised technicians potentially become capitalists, but rather the collective property of society, and on a global scale – as it already is under capitalism, but in alienated form: in the form of ‘capital’.

For Luxemburg as well as Lenin this meant that, for instance, the already developed system of banking and credit provided the coordinating technique for socialist planning. But it will require a political revolution and a continued politics of socialism – subject to dispute – after the revolution to achieve this. Politics will survive the dictatorship of the proletariat into socialism.

That is what it will mean, as Lenin put it, to achieve socialism “on the basis of capitalism itself”. | §

What is political party for the Left?

platypus_whatispoliticalparty041115

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

Full panel discussion audio recording:

Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat and state capitalism

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankfurt Institute for Social Research director Max Horkheimer’s essay on “The Authoritarian State” was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which were his draft aphorisms in historiographic introduction to the unwritten Arcades Project, concerned with how the history of the 19th century prefigured the 20th: specifically, how the aftermath of 1848 was repeating itself in the 1920s–30s, the aftermath of failed revolution from 1917–19; how 20th century fascism was a repeat and continuation of 19th century Bonapartism. So was Stalinism. Horkheimer wrote that the authoritarian state could not be disowned by the workers’ movement or indeed separated from the democratic revolution more broadly. It could not be dissociated from Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, but could only be understood properly dialectically with respect to it. The authoritarian state was descended from the deep history of the bourgeois revolution but realized only after 1848: only in the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, which made the history of the bourgeois revolution appear in retrospect rather as the history of the authoritarian state. What had happened in the meantime?

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

The question is how the Lassallean social-democratic workers’ party that Marx’s followers joined in Bismarckian Germany was a state capitalist party, and whether and how Marx’s followers recognized that problem: Would the workers’ party for socialism lead, despite Marxist leadership, to state capitalism rather than to socialism? Was the political party for socialism just a form of Bonapartism?

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

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

We should be clear: State capitalism in the underdeveloped world was always a peripheral phenomenon; state capitalism in the core, developed capitalist countries posed the contradiction of capitalism more acutely, and in a politically sharpened manner: What was the political purpose of state capitalism in post-proletarian society, rather than in “backward” Russia or China and other countries undergoing a process of industrializing-proletarianizing? How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

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

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

Historical Marxism was bound up with the history of state capitalism, specifically as a phenomenon of politics after the crisis of 1873 — for this reason, the history of capitalism is impacted by the absence of Marxism 100 years later, after the crisis of 19-73. After 1873, in the era of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, there was what Marxists once called the “monopoly capitalism” of global cartels and financialization, organized by a world system of states, which Marxists regarded as the “highest (possible) stage of capitalism.” It was understood as necessarily bringing forth the workers’ movement for socialism, which seemed borne out in practice: the history from the 1870s to the first decades of the 20th century demonstrated a growth of proletarian socialism alongside growing state capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, against social-democratic reformists who affirmed this workers’ movement as already in the process of achieving socialism within capitalism, that, “[T]he proletariat . . . can only create political power and then transform (aufheben) capitalist property.” That Aufhebung — the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — would be the beginning not the “end” of the emancipatory transformation of society. As Michael Harrington noted, drawing upon Luxemburg and Marx, “political power is the unique essence of the socialist transformation” (“Marxism and democracy,” Praxis International 1:1, April 1981). It is this political power that the “Left” has avoided since the 1960s.

In this country (the U.S.), the liberal democratic ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, the idyll of the American Revolution, was shattered by the crack of the slave-whip — and by the blast of the rifle shot to stop it. Jefferson’s election in 1800, through which he established the political domination of his Democratic-Republican Party, was called a “revolution,” and indeed it was. It defeated the previously dominant Federalists. What we now call the Democratic Party, beginning under Andrew Jackson, was a split and something quite different from Jefferson. The Republican Party, whose first elected President in 1860 was Abraham Lincoln, was a revolutionary party, and in fact sought to continue the betrayed revolution of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. It was the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and the Reconstruction under Ulysses S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant that followed. Its failures demonstrated, as the revolutions of 1848 had done in Europe, the limits of political and social revolution in capitalism: it showed the need for socialism. The last major crisis of U.S. politics was in the 1960s “New Left” challenge to the ruling Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition that had been the political response to the 1930s Great Depression. But both fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1960 that the strife the 20th century — expressed by the Cold War struggles of Communism and decolonization — was an extension of the American Revolution to which the U.S. needed to remain true.

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

The question of Left and Right is a matter of the degree of facilitation in addressing practically and consciously the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

The notion of politics apart from the state, and of politics apart from parties is a bourgeois fantasy — precisely a bourgeois fantasy of liberal democracy that capitalism has thrown into crisis and rendered obsolete and so impossible. Capitalism presents a new political necessity, as Marx and his best followers once recognized. — Anarchism is truly “liberalism in hysterics” in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party.

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

To abandon the task of political party is to abandon the state, and to abandon the state is to abandon the revolution. It is to abandon the political necessity of socialism whose task capitalism presents. It is to abandon politics at all, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The “Left” has done this for more than a generation. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §

What is political party for Marxism?

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

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

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

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

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

New politics

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

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

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

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

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

Class and history

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

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

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

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

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

“Party of the new type”?

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

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

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

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

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

Symptomatic socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism and socialism

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

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

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

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

Redeeming history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript on party politics

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bibliography: (PR=Platypus Review; WW=Weekly Worker)

Cutrone, Chris. “Capital in history” PR 7 (October 2008) http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/.

Cutrone, Chris “1917” PR 17 (November 2009) http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The Marxist hypothesis” PR 29 (November 2010) http://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848” PR 33 (March 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/03/01/egypt-or-historys-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s liberalism” PR 36 (June 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The philosophy of history” WW 869 (June 9, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/869/the-philosophy-of-history/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Defending Marxist Hegelianism” WW 878 (August 10, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/878/defending-marxist-hegelianism-against-a-marxist-cr/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s politics” PR 40 (October 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/09/25/lenins-politics/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Whither Marxism?” PR 41 (November 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/11/01/whither-marxism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “1873-1973: The century of Marxism” PR 47 (June 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

What is meant by a ‘democratic republic’? Chris Cutrone critiques Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1030 (October 16, 2014). [PDF]

Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (London 2008) is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.Macnair’s initial motivation was engagement with the debates in and around the French Fourth International Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire prior to its forming the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste electoral party in 2009. The other major context for the discussion was the Iraq anti-war movement and UK Respect electoral party, which was formed around this in 2004, with the Socialist Workers Party driving the process. This raised issues not only of political party, democracy and the state, but also united fronts among socially and politically heterogeneous groups and the issue of imperialism.

One key contribution by Macnair to the latter discussion is to raise and call attention to the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s writings on imperialism, in which the former attributed the failure of (metropolitan) workers’ organisation around imperialism to a specifically political compromise with the (national) state, whereas Lenin had, in his famous 1916 pamphlet, characterised this in terms of compromised “economic” interest. So with imperialism the question is the political party and the state.

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

Elsewhere, Macnair has criticised sectarian Marxism for “theoretical overkill” in a “philosophy trap”.1 But he might thus mistake effect for cause: ‘philosophical’ questions might be the expression of a trap in which one is nonetheless caught; and Marxist ‘theory’ might go beyond today’s practical political concerns. Philosophy may not be the trap in which we are caught, but rather an expression of our attempts – merely – to think our way out of it. The mismatch of Marxism today at the level of ‘theoretical’ or ‘philosophical’ issues might point to a historical disparity or inadequacy: we may have fallen below past thresholds and horizons of Marxism. The issue of political party may be one that we would need to re-attain rather than immediately confront in the present. Hence, ‘strategy’ in terms of Marxism may not be the political issue now that it once was. This means that, where past Marxists might appear to be in error, it may actually be our fault – or a fault in the present situation. How can the history of Marxism help us address this?

New politics

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

It is important to recall Marx’s formulation, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that (neo-)Bonapartism was the historical condition in which the bourgeoisie could “no longer” and the proletariat “not yet” rule politically the modern society of capitalism.2 Bonapartism was the symptom of this crisis of capitalism and hence of the need for socialism revealed by the unprecedented failure of revolution in 1848 – by contrast with 1830, as well as 1789 and 1776, and the Dutch Revolt and English civil war of the 17th century. The bourgeoisie’s ‘ruling’ character was not a legal-constitutional system of government descended from the 17th century political and social revolutions in Holland and England so much as it was a form of civil society: a revolutionary system of bourgeois social relations that was supposed to subordinate the state. What requires explanation is the 19th century slipping of the state from adequate social control, and its ‘rising above’ the contending political groups and social classes, as a power in itself. Even if Bonapartism in Marx’s late 19th century sense was the expression of a potential inherent in the forms of bourgeois politics emerging much earlier, there is still the question of why it was not realised so until after 1848. There is also the matter of why Marx characterised Louis Napoleon as a “lesser” and “farcical” phenomenon of post-1848 history by contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the Great Revolution.3 It was not the mere fact of repetition, but why and how history “repeated itself” – and repeated with a difference.

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

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

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

Class and history

Conventionally, Marxists have distinguished among political parties on their ‘class basis’, regarding various parties as ‘representing’ different class groups: ‘bourgeois’, ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’. This is complicated by classic characterisations such as that by Lenin of the UK Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Furthermore, there has been the bedevilling question of what is included in the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. But Marxists (such as Lenin) did not define politics ‘sociologically’, but rather historically: as representing not the interests of members of various groups, but rather different ‘ideological’ horizons of politics and for the transformation of society.

So, for instance, what made the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Russian Revolution of 1917 ‘represent’ the peasants was not so much their positions on agrarian matters as the ‘petty bourgeois’ horizon of politics they shared with the peasants as petty proprietors. SRs were not necessarily themselves petty proprietors – they were like Lenin ‘petty bourgeois intellectuals’ – but rather had in common with the peasants a form of discontent with capitalism, but one ‘ideologically’ hemmed in by what Marxism regarded a limited horizon.

In Marx’s (in)famous phrase from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the peasants as a group, as a ‘petty bourgeois’ “sack of potatoes” of smallholders, could not “represent themselves”, but must rather “be represented” – as they were, according to Marx, by Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire’s succeeding the counterrevolutionary Party of Order in 1848.4 Marx called attention to the issue of how representation functioned in the politics of capitalism. Likewise, “bourgeois” parties were not pro-capitalist as much as they sought to manage the problems of capitalism from a certain historical perspective: that of ‘capital’. This was the horizon of their politics; whereas ‘petty bourgeois’ parties were concerned with the perspective of smaller property holdings; and ‘workers’ parties’ that of wage-labour. To be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, such as Labour in the UK, meant to represent the horizon of wage-labour in terms compatible with (especially, but not exclusively, UK ‘national’) capital. This was the character of ideology and political action – ‘consciousness’ – which was not reducible to, let alone determined by, economic interest of a particular concrete social group.

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

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

‘Party of the new type’?

Macnair notes potential deficits and inadequacies in the Third (Communist) International’s endorsement of ‘soviet’ or ‘workers’ council’ government, with its attempt to overcome the difference between legislative and executive authority, which seems to reproduce the problem Macnair finds in parliamentary government. For him, executive authority eludes responsibility in the same way that capitalist private property eludes the law constitutionally.

This is the source of Macnair’s conflation of liberalism and Bonapartism, as if the problem of capitalism merely played out in terms of liberalism rather than contradicting it. Liberal democracy should not be conceived as the constitutional limit on democracy demanded by capitalist private property. The “democratic republic” Macnair calls for by contrast should not be conceived as the opposite of liberal democracy. For capitalism does not only contradict the democratic republic, but also liberal democracy, leading to Bonapartism, or illiberal democracy.

Dick Howard, in The specter of democracy has usefully investigated Marx’s original formulations on the problem of politics and capitalism, tracing these back to the origins of modern democracy in the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century and specifying the problem in common between (American) “republican democracy” and (French) “democratic republicanism”.5 Howard finds in both antinomical forms of modern democracy the danger of “anti-politics”, or of society eluding adequate political expression and direction, to which either democratic authority or liberalism can lead. Howard looks to Marx as a specifically political thinker on this problem to suggest the direction that struggle against it must take. Socialism for Marx, in Howard’s view, would fulfil the potential that has been otherwise limited by both republican democracy and democratic republicanism – or by both liberalism and socialism.

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

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

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

Symptomatic socialism

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

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

Lenin and Trotsky meant something other than what Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, JP Nettl, called the “inheritor party” or “state within the state” exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as the flagship party of the Second International.6 The social democratic party was not intended by Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky to be the democratic republican alternative to capitalism. They did not aim to replace one constitutional party-state with another. Or at least they did not intend so beyond the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which was meant to rapidly transition out of capitalism to socialism. Beyond that, a qualitative development was envisioned, beyond ‘bourgeois right’ and its forms of social relations – and of politics. ‘Communism’ remained the essential horizon of potential transformation.

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

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

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

Liberalism and socialism

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

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

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

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

Redeeming history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

1. ‘The philosophy trapWeekly Worker November 21 2013.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. D Howard The specter of democracy New York 2002.

6. JP Nettl, ‘The SPD 1890-1914 as political model’, 1965.

When was the crisis of capitalism?

Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 70 | October 2014

LENIN STATED, infamously perhaps, that Marxists aimed to overcome capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself.” This was in the context of horrors of not only industrial exploitation but also and especially of war: WWI. Lenin was not, as he might be mistaken to be, merely advocating so-called “war communism” or statist capitalism.1 No. Lenin recognized state capitalism as the advancing of the contradiction of capitalism. By contrast, after Lenin, there was state capitalism, but no active political consciousness of its contradiction. This affected the Left as it developed—degenerated—subsequently.2

The question is, when was the definitive crisis of capitalism, after which it could be plausibly asserted that the world suffered from the overripeness for change? Was it in 1968, as the New Left supposed? Or was it much earlier, in WWI, as Marxists such as Lenin thought?

Moishe Postone is arguably the—by far—most important interpreter of Marx to come out of the generation of the 1960s-70s “New Left.” Contributing to that generation’s “return to Marx,” motivated by the widespread discontents and political crisis of the 1960s, and finding increased purchase in the economic crisis and downturn of the ’70s, Postone’s work on Marx participated in the shaping of the self-understanding of the transition from what has been called the “Keynesian-Fordist” synthesis of predominant modes of capitalism in the mid-20th century to its neoliberal form starting in the 1970s. If Postone, as well as others of the New Left generation, found neoliberalism to be the travesty of the emancipatory aspirations of the 1960s, where does this leave his work today? For Postone’s work was very much of its moment, the 1960s-70s. It recalls an earlier era.

A full generation has passed since Postone’s initial works,3 and 20 years since publication of his book Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993): younger readers of Marx who encounter Postone’s interpretation are likely to have been born after Postone’s formulations were written and published. The recent economic crisis, the still on-going “Great Recession,” has prompted a renewed “return to Marx” moment that has reached back to the prior generation’s return to Marx in the 1960s-70s. The most perspicacious of young would-be Marxisants have discovered Postone’s work, and have begun to try to make sense of the present in Postone’s terms.

Such belated recognition of Postone’s work is well and long-deserved and can only be welcomed by anyone interested in Marx’s distinctive and indeed sui generis approach to the problem of capitalism.

Postone’s specific contribution was to direct attention to Marx’s critique of the relation between abstract labor and abstract time in the self-contradiction of value in capital. This allowed Postone to recognize how Marx grasped the accumulation of history in capital, the antagonism between “dead labor” and “living labor” in the ongoing reproduction of capital and of the social relations of the exchange of labor in the commodity form of value.

Much of the basis for resistance to Postone’s critical insights into Marx’s approach to capitalism, largely of a political character, has since fallen away. This centered on the question of “proletarian-transcending” vs. “proletarian-constituting” politics and the problem of the “ontology of labor.” At the same time, however, the political assumption for Postone’s work—the possibility of transcending the politics of labor—has become eroded and undermined along with the basis for resistance to it: Postone’s object of critique in recovering Marx in the 1960s-70s has largely if not entirely disappeared. Most importantly, the political prognosis that motivated Postone was falsified by subsequent history: Postone’s work was not able to help clarify the New Left moment to itself because the New Left failed in its aspirations. It did not help to transcend capitalism.

Liberal and statist periods of capitalism—individualist and collectivist discontents

The failure of the New Left is a deeply obscure problem because its success wears the mask of failure and its failure wears the mask of success: the New Left failed precisely where it thought it succeeded; and succeeded precisely where it thought it failed. But neither its failure nor its success had anything to do with being part of the history of the Left but rather with its furnishing the ideological consciousness for a renewed Right.

For instance, where the New Left thought it transformed with greater freedom a diversely heterogeneous multiplicity of socio-cultural practices, relations and identities, for instance, of “race, gender and sexuality,” as against what it supposed was a stultifying, oppressive and even genocidal homogenizing social conformism rooted in industrial-capitalist labor, in fact it smoothed the way towards even more widespread and deeper social participation in the capitalist labor process on a global scale that has not made corporations and governments more responsible to their constituencies but rather more intractably elusive as targets of political action.

Few on the avowed “Left” today would claim that there has been greater progress against capitalism let alone towards socialism since the 1960s: whatever the “balance sheet” of “gains and losses” in the past generation, the scale tilts ineluctably in the direction of loss. Still, the idea that “we know better now,” as an accomplishment of and development beyond the New Left, is unfortunately prevalent.

But every generation thinks it improves upon previous ones. It is this assumption of progress that is perhaps the most pernicious of ideological phenomena of consciousness.

The metaphysics of consciousness—the fact that consciousness transcends its concrete empirical moment in time and space—means that history does not constitute merely a factual record of events, but rather that purported historical “causality” is grasped only according to changes in “theoretical” perspectives on our on-going practices and their reproduction in society. History is not merely a set of accumulated effects but a development of consciousness—or at least should be, according to Hegel.4 The question is whether and how the development of social practices has facilitated or rather hindered and retarded—perhaps even blocked—the further development of consciousness.

So, what kind of consciousness is provided by Moishe Postone’s work, and how has this been grasped by Postone’s followers? What does this tell us about the history from the formative moment of Postone’s consciousness to the present?

The 1960s New Left moment

It is necessary to characterize the moment of the 1960s New Left. What kind of an opportunity was that moment?

The 1960s saw the deepening crisis of the Keynesian–Fordist liberal social-democratic “welfare state.” In the United States, which set the pattern for the rest of the world, the New Deal political coalition of the leading Democratic Party became unraveled. First, the Civil Rights Movement undermined the Democrats in the South, the so-called “Dixiecrats.” Then, the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam undermined the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Civil Rights Movement offered to go “part of the way with LBJ” in the election of 1964, in hopes of trading a quieting of protest against the U.S. anti-Communist war in Southeast Asia for LBJ’s support for Civil Rights legislation. Johnson’s reelection raised the prospects of a crisis in the Democratic Party, which was seen as an opportunity for its transformation. Bayard Rustin wrote that it was necessary to move the Civil Rights Movement “From Protest to Politics” in order to remake the Democrats into a party of blacks and labor, building upon the labor unions’ support for both the Civil Rights Movement and the new Students for a Democratic Society that emerged from the Civil Rights and student Free Speech Movements of the late 1950s–early ’60s. This didn’t happen, but rather the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” first floated in the 1964 election but fully realized in 1968 moved the southern Democratic voters to the Republicans’ camp. The tide change in U.S. politics is illustrated by the contrast between the 1952 and 1968 Presidential elections: Where the Democrats lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson winning only states in the Deep South; in 1968 the South provided the base for Republican Richard Nixon’s victory. What Rustin’s plan would have meant was a rejuvenation of the New Deal Coalition under changed conditions. It failed. The Democrats, who had been the majority party since 1932, went on the defensive, however holding onto Congressional majorities all the way up to the 1994 “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich. Since the 1930s, the Republicans were the party of opposition, which is still the case today in 2014. The Democrats have remained most often the majority party in Congress. The Republicans have never enjoyed the sustained occupation of the Presidency and majority in Congress that the Democrats have enjoyed more or less consistently since the 1930s. This character of ruling-class politics in the U.S. has meant certain conditions for any purported “Left.”

In the 1960s, being on the “Left” politically meant opposing an overwhelming Democratic majority government, and moreover one which claimed to be in the interest of working-class and minority people. The 1930s New Deal Coalition saw an uneasy alliance of white working class people including in the South with ethnic minority constituencies in the Northern cities, cities which exploded in the 1960s. For instance, it was only in the 1930s that blacks began voting in large numbers for Democrats, having supported Republicans since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Blacks were integrated into the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition as yet another Northern urban ethnic constituency vote: Adam Clayton Powell personified this politics. There was the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to the North from the period of WWI through WWII and the unionization of blacks through the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in the 1930s Great Depression-era radicalization as well as in the war industries of the 1940s.

By the mid-1960s, LBJ, who was far more supportive of Civil Rights demands than JFK had been, while dramatically escalating the war in Vietnam, was opposed by the emergent New Left as a “fascist”—a representative of the authoritarian state that seemed to stand in the way of social change rather than as its instrument. The Civil Rights Movement’s pressure on the Democratic Party (seen in the Mississippi Freedom Democrats’ protest at the 1964 national convention) was met by the military risk to the state in the Cold War running hot in Southeast Asia.

A note on the Vietnam War: The U.S. proceeded through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War with the attempt to sustain and mobilize the United Nations of WWII, turning from opposition to fascism to opposing Communist “totalitarianism:” the U.S. prosecuted both the Korean War and increasingly in the 1960s the Vietnam War as extensions of strategies pursued in WWII and its immediate aftermath. The Greek Civil War set the pattern for counter-insurgency in the post-WWII world. Already in Korea the U.S. and its allies pursued counterinsurgency and not only a conventional military war. In Vietnam, counterinsurgency gave way to conventional warfare with the bombing campaigns initiated by LBJ and pursued further by Nixon succeeding him. The form of warfare pursued placed certain pressures on the Keynesian-Fordist social-democratic “welfare state” administered by the U.S. Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition. Those pressures were political and socio-cultural as well as economic: such pressures were political-economic and social-political in character, setting the stage for the New Left.

The U.S. New Deal Coalition’s alliance of labor with the “welfare state” set the pattern throughout the world in the Cold War era, both in advanced capitalist countries and in newly independent post-colonial states. Its unraveling also set the historical political pattern, for student and worker discontent, in the 1960s. Moreover, discontent with the conservatism of the Soviet-bloc by the end of the 1950s meant an identification of the New Deal Coalition and the social-democratic “welfare state” with Stalinism in “state capitalism” and “state socialism,” both regarded as politically compromised obstacles to new upsurges “from below” in the 1960s. Political problems of both capitalism and socialism were thus identified with the state.

The political defections identified with the crisis of the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition involved not only the disaffection of blacks and other workers, especially among younger people, but also intellectuals of the establishment. There was a crisis in the ideological edifice of the post-WWII state. For instance, “neo-conservatism” was a phenomenon of the loss of confidence in the Democrats’ successful prosecution of the Cold War, both at home and abroad. Many former supporters of and even ideologues for the Democrats provided the brain-trust for the Republicans taking political advantage of this crisis. For instance, there was former Frankfurt School assistant Daniel Bell, who first supported and then opposed the Democrats on grounds of non-ideological technocracy.

Thus discontents with the post-WWII state were far-ranging and even endemic by the 1960s, reaching both down among those marginalized at the bottom of society and up into top echelons of governmental power.

In France, May 1968 was a deep crisis of the post-WWII Gaullist state. It began as a student protest against gender segregation of student dormitories—against the educational–institutional repression of sex—and grew into a student and working class mass mobilization against the state. It was rightly regarded as a potential revolutionary situation. But it failed politically. Many on the French New Left became a New Right.

Moishe Postone characterized this as a crisis of “new social movements” expressing discontents with “state capitalism” as a historical formation. That formation could trace it roots, prior to the 1940s and WWII and the Great Depression of the ’30s, back to WWI and perhaps even further, back to the late 19th century transformations that took place after the economic crisis of 1873, such as the post-Civil War and Reconstruction “imperial Presidency” in the U.S., Bismarckian policies in Germany, state-sponsored capitalist development in Meiji Restoration Japan, among other phenomena.

1968 and 1917

Postone attributes “state capitalism” to the crisis of WWI and the Russian Revolution of 1917 and characterizes Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks as unwitting instruments of state capitalism. In this view, in certain respects common with and descending from the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, Lassallean social democracy, fascism, Lenin’s Bolshevism as well as ostensible “Leninism” (meaning Stalinism), Keynesianism (FDR New Deal-ism), all participated in the turn from 19th century liberal laissez-faire capitalism to 20th century state capitalism, which went into crisis by the time of the 1960s New Left.

The crisis of modernist state capitalism led, however, not to socialism in Marx’s sense but rather to the neoliberal “postmodernist” turn of capitalism in the 1970s-80s, leading to the present. Postone’s idea was that the 20th century was a “post-bourgeois” form of capitalism. But for the Frankfurt School, it was a form of bourgeois society in extremis: as Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.”5

There is an important equivocation with respect to the Russian Revolution in Postone’s view. Postone condemns the USSR et al.’s “state capitalism,” as not merely inadequate but also misleading regarding potential possibilities for socialism. But such state capitalism was (and remains) a form of political mediation of the working class to the means of production. Postone, despite his critique of and political opposition to Soviet Communism, addresses the USSR as a progressive development, in ways that Adorno, for instance (or Trotsky in his critique of Stalinism), did not. Rather, the USSR et al. (as well as fascism) could be regarded as a decadent, barbaric form of bourgeois society, rather than as Postone attempted to address it, as “post-bourgeois.” On the other hand, Postone is (retrospectively) opposed to Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, whereas Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School were supportive. Postone treats such support as a combination of theoretical blindness and historical limitation—unripeness of the means as well as the relations of production for socialism. The character of that “progress”—really, regression—of capitalism in the 20th century would be in terms of advancing the contradiction of the commodity form of labor, and how to make sense of and work through that contradiction politically.

The proletariat would need to be constituted politically, subjectively, and not merely “objectively” (economically). The commodity form of the value of labor needs to be constituted through political action, but such action, today, like at any moment since the Industrial Revolution, would manifest the self-contradiction of the commodity form.

The question is, what constitutes a “social relation?” It must be addressed not as a static fact but a developing social activity in history. Postone addresses it economically but not politically. In this he follows Marx’s Capital, which however was left incomplete and hence not mediated “all the way up” to the level of politics—as if Marx never wrote anything else that indicated his politics. Yes, the question is, as Postone puts it, not the existence of a capitalist (that is, private-property-in-the-means-of-production owning) class, but rather the existence of a proletariat, in the sense of a class of people who relate to the means of production through their social activity of wage-labor. That class still exists, “objectively” economically, but the question is, how is it mediated, today, politically?

Do we still live in capitalism?

James Heartfield has pointed out that the present-day “Left” considers such Marxist categories as “class” to be “objective.” This has effaced the purchase of politics regarding capitalism. If the working class has ceased to constitute itself as a class “for itself,” subjectively, then this has affected politics more generally.6 Moreover, it means that the working class is not even constituted as a class “in itself,” objectively. For Marx, there was a subject-object dialectic at work — in which subjectivity was objectively determined, and objectivity was subjectively determined, in practice—in the working class’s struggle for socialism.

Marx pointed out that after the Industrial Revolution, the working class can only constitute its labor-power as a commodity collectively. Marx also pointed out that the capitalist class is constituted as such, as capitalist, only in opposition to the working class’s collective demands for the value of its labor. This was because, as Postone points out, for Marx, the dynamics of the value of the time of labor has become that of society as a whole. For Marx, the collective bargaining for the value of labor-power measured in time does not take place at the level of trade unions in individual firms or even in industrial unions across entire fields of production, but rather at the societal level in the form of the workers’ political struggle for socialism. Without that struggle for socialism, the working class is not constituted as such, and so neither is the capitalist class. Rather, as Adorno observed in the mid-20th century, society had devolved into a war of “rackets” and had thus ceased to be “society” in the bourgeois sense at all. Politics for Marx was the “class struggle”—the struggle for socialism. Without that, politics itself, as Marx understood it, ceases.

In this sense, we must confront the question of whether we still live in capitalism as Marxists historically understood it. An admirer of Postone, Jamie Merchant of the Permanent Crisis blog, spoke in dialogue with Elmar Flatschart of EXIT! and Alan Milchman of Internationalist Perspective at a Platypus panel discussion on Wertkritik. They stated the following in response to the question that I posed to them:

Neoliberalism might well have obscured the experience of the Fordist era, rendering it more esoteric, but didn’t Fordism, and the nationalism from which it is inseparable, in its own way occlude even deeper issues of capitalism? Elmar [Flatschart], you warn against “privileging” the workers as a revolutionary subject, but you seem to conflate earlier Marxism, in which the proletariat’s role is characterized negatively, with 20th century Stalinism and Social Democracy. What other subject would manifest the self-overcoming of capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself,” as Lenin put it in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920)?

EF: Marx had a negative notion of class, insofar as he saw it as immanent to capitalism and this is evident in the logical approach of Capital. But then again you already have with Marx, and more so with Engels, this political privileging of class as an emancipatory actor. There were no other questions of oppression, and hence no other emancipatory subjectivities. There is no one subject anymore, and this is what we can learn from the New Left and the postmodern turn.

JM: Yes, Fordism definitely occluded capital in many ways, especially, in the Cold War context, in terms of the role of the nation-state. But my point was that it was a form of society in which the social whole did appear, and so the idea of society had more currency. There was this concern during the Fordist period of the individual being absorbed into the social whole and losing individualism. But this was just the inversion of the cultural logic of neoliberalism. The point is that different periods of accumulation provide different versions of society and apprehension of the “social”; the social form appears in differently mediated ways. Different regimes of accumulation can lead to different perceptions of what society is, which could open up avenues for new forms of politics.7

These responses seem rather optimistic, especially regarding the legacy of the 1960s-70s New Left moment, let alone that of 1980s-90s postmodernism. Postone avers that whereas traditional Marxism affirmed and indeed aspired to the social totality of capitalism, true socialism would abolish it. But the question is its transformation—its “sublation” (Aufhebung). If Marxism ever recognized capitalism as a “totality,” it was critically, as a totality of crisis, a total crisis of society, which the struggle for socialism would advance, and not immediately overcome. But the crisis has been occulted, appearing only in disparate phenomena whose interrelatedness remains obscure.

Postone offered the clearest consciousness of the discontents of the 1960s understood as the first opportunity to transcend capitalism, by transcending proletarian-constituting forms of politics. But this was not transcended but rather liquidated without redemption. To transcend proletarian politics, it would be necessary first to constitute it.

We continue to pay the price for past failures of Marxism, which have become naturalized and hypostatized: reified. In this sense, we must still redeem Lenin. We still need to overcome capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 70 (October 2014).


  1. Lenin wrote that, “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!” (The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, 1916/17, available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/miliprog/ii.htm >.) []
  2. See my “1873-1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>. []
  3. See Moishe Postone, “Necessity, Labor, and Time: A Reinterpretation of the Marxian Critique of Capitalism,” Social Research 45:4 (Winter 1978). []
  4. Hegel, The Philosophy of History. []
  5. “Reflections on class theory,” Can One Live after Auschwitz?, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (University of California Press, 2003), 95. []
  6. Sp!ked May 9, 2014, available on-line at: <http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-left-is-over-i-hate-to-say-i-told-you-so/#.U4OXbCgVeSo>. []
  7. “Marx and ‘Wertkritik’,” Platypus Review 56 (May 2013), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2013/05/01/marx-and-wertkritik/>. []

A “rational kernel” of racism?

A reply to disingenuous “critics”

Chris Cutrone

 

 
I must speak to my alleged “rational kernel of racism” comment, which has been deliberately distorted in its meaning. I did not mean that somehow it is reasonable or otherwise acceptable to be racist.

By this statement I was applying Marx’s comment about the “rational kernel” of the Hegelian dialectic, which aimed to take it seriously and demystify it, not debunk or dismiss it. The same is true in addressing racism as ideology — as the “necessary form of appearance” of social reality. I was trying to address the issue of supposed “racism” in terms of the Marxist tradition of “ideology-critique,” or the immanently dialectical critique of ideological forms of appearance, or, explained more plainly, the critique from within of ideologies according to their own self-contradictions, in the interest of seeking how they might be changed.

In this, I follow Wilhelm Reich, who wrote in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46) that Marxists had failed to recognize the “progressive character of fascism” — by which he meant of course not that fascism was itself progressive (Reich was a Communist), but that fascism was a new ideology that met a new historical situation more successfully than Marxism did, and that Marxists were wrong to dismiss fascism as irrational, by which they tried to alibi their own failure to do better politically. The point was why did members of the working class, to whatever degree, support an ideology that was against their interests? Reich thought that Marxists needed to be more like Marx in his critique of ideology.

So, what I meant by the “rational kernel of racism” was the need to address why otherwise rational people would have racist ideologies. It won’t do, I think, to try to dismiss racism as irrational. Rather, the question is, why are people racist? What social realities do racist ideologies express? What social needs are expressed, in however distorted form, by racist ideologies? For it is not a matter that those with racist attitudes have them in their own self-interest. Quite the contrary, it is against their better interests.

In other words, I think that racist ideologies need to be addressed not as straightforward expressions of interests, which concedes too much to the realities of competition of some workers against others, but rather as phenomena of self-contradiction, of living in a self-contradictory society, “capitalism,” which is something real that needs to be changed, not merely ethically deplored, and moreover changed from within: as Lenin put it, capitalism needs to be overcome “on the basis of capitalism itself;” as Marx thought, according to capitalism’s internal contradictions. Racist ideologies need to be regarded as part of this.

However, it must be admitted that nowadays racist ideologies are not nearly as centrally important a part of the social reality of capitalism as they once were. Racism is no longer considered anywhere near as reasonable as it once was. And this is a good thing — though it does present challenges to the “Left’s” own ideologies about the nature and character of social reality. Culturalism is not the same as racism, and what is often called “racism” today is actually culturalism, not biologically based: such cultural chauvinism would also be subject to a Marxist ideology-critique as a phenomenon of capitalism.

Beyond that, there is the issue of the actual politics of “anti-racism,” which my old mentor Adolph Reed has helpfully pointed out leads nowhere today, and so recommends junking present strategies of “anti-racist politics,” in favor of struggling against the concrete social and political disadvantages people face. There’s no point to a “politics” that tries to change people’s attitudes, where the real issue is material circumstances. But it does suit the “Left” today very well, in its own subcultural lifestyle consumerist taste community and paranoid authoritarian moral hectoring to focus on racist attitudes, as a substitute for real politics. | §

Published as part of a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker, June 6, 2013.

Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today

Chris Cutrone

First presented at Ramón Miranda Beltrán’s art exhibit Chicago is my kind of town, Julius Caesar Gallery, Chicago, November 4, 2012. [PDF]

FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect.

Modern classes are different from ancient separations between castes, such as between the clergy or priestly caste, and the noble aristocracy or warrior caste, and the vast majority of people, “commoners,” or those who were ignorant of divinity and without honor, who, for most of history, were peasants living through subsistence agriculture, a mute background of the pageantry of the ancient world.

Modern, “bourgeois” society, or the society of the modern city, is the product of the revolt of the Third Estate, or commoners, who had no property other than that of their labor: “self-made” men. During the French Revolution, the Third Estate separated itself from the other Estates of the clergy and aristocracy, and declared itself the National Assembly, with the famous Tennis Court Oath. This fulfilled the call of the Abbé Sieyès, who had declared in his revolutionary pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, that while under the ancien régime the Third Estate had been “nothing,” now it would be “everything.”

As the 20th century Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, “society is a concept of the Third Estate.” What he meant by this was that unlike the previous, ancient civilization in which people were divinely ordered in a Great Chain of Being, the Third Estate put forward the idea that people would relate to one another. They would do so on the basis of their “work,” or their activity in society, which would find purchase not in a strict hierarchy of traditional values, but rather through a “free market” of goods. People would be free to find their own values in society.

Modern society is thus the society of the Third Estate, after the overthrow of the traditional authority of the Church and the feudal aristocrats. Modern, bourgeois society is based on the values of the Third Estate, which center on the values of work. The highest values of modern society are not religion or the honor of a warrior code, but rather material productivity and efficiency, being a “productive member of society.” From this perspective, the perspective of modern bourgeois society, all of history appears to be the history of different, progressively developing “modes of production,” of which capitalism is the latest and highest. The past becomes a time of people toiling in ignorance and superstition, held back by conservative customs and arrogant elites from realizing their potential productivity and ingenuity. The paradigmatic image of this state of affairs is Galileo being forced to recant his scientific insight under threat by the Church.

With the successful revolt of the Third Estate it appeared that humanity attained its “natural” condition of Enlightenment, in relation both to the natural world and in humans’ relations with each other. Seemingly unlimited possibilities opened up, and the Dark Ages were finally brought to an end.

With the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, however, a new “contradiction” developed in bourgeois society, that of the value of capital versus the value of the wages of labor. With this contradiction came a new social and political conflict, the “class struggle” of the workers for the value of their wages against the capitalists’ imperative to preserve and expand the value of capital. This came to a certain head in the 1840s, known at the time as the “hungry ’40s,” the first world-wide economic crisis after the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to go beyond a mere adjustment of the market, but pointed to new and deeper problems.

This new conflict between the workers and capitalists that raged in the mid-19th century was expressed in the desire for “socialism,” or of society becoming true to itself, and the value of the contributions of all society’s members being recognized and their being allowed to participate fully in the development and political direction of humanity. This was expressed in the Revolutions of 1848, the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe that resulted from the crisis of the 1840s, which called for the “social republic” or “social democracy,” that is, democracy adequate to the needs of society as a whole.

For the socialists of the time, the crisis of the 1840s and revolutions of 1848 demonstrated the need and possibility for getting beyond capitalism.

In late 1847, two young bohemian intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were commissioned by the Communist League to write a manifesto ahead of the potential revolutions that appeared on the horizon. Issued mere days ahead of the revolutions of 1848, the Communist Manifesto was a survey of the contradictory and paradoxical situation of modern society, its simultaneous radical possibilities and self-destructive tendencies in capitalism.

For Marx and Engels, as good followers of Hegel’s dialectic of history, the phenomenon of contradiction was the appearance of the possibility and necessity for change.

Marx and Engels could be confident of the apparent, manifest crisis of modern society and the need for radical change emerging in their time. They were not the originators of socialism or communism but rather tried to sum up the historical experience of the struggle for socialism in their time. They did not seek to tell the workers their interest in overcoming capitalism, but rather tried to help clarify the workers’ own consciousness of their historical situation, the crisis of bourgeois society in capital.

What Marx and Engels recognized that perhaps distinguished them from other socialists, however, was the utterly unique character of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class. What made the modern working class, or “industrial proletariat” different was its subjection to mass unemployment. Marx and Engels understood this unemployment to be not a temporary, contingent phenomenon due to market fluctuations or technical innovations putting people out of work, but rather a permanent feature of modern society after the Industrial Revolution, in which preserving the value of capital was in conflict with the value of workers’ wages. Unlike Adam Smith in the pre-industrial era, who observed that higher wages and lower profits increased productivity in society as a whole, after the Industrial Revolution, increased productivity was not due to workers’ greater efficiency but rather that of machines. This meant, as the director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research Max Horkheimer put it, that “machines made not work but the workers superfluous.”

On a global scale, greater productivity increased not employment and wealth but rather unemployment and impoverishment, as capitalism destroyed traditional ways of life (for instance of the peasants) but failed to be able to provide meaningful productive employment and thus participation in society for all, as originally envisioned in the revolt of the Third Estate and promised in the bourgeois revolution against the hierarchy of the ancien régime. The promise of the modern city is mocked by the mushrooming of slum cities around the world. The old world has been destroyed but the new one is hardly better. The promise of freedom is cruelly exploited, but its hope dashed.

Marxists were the first, and have remained the most consistent in recognizing the nature and character of this contradiction of modern society.

The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not in the essential problem of society, its self-contradictory form of value between wages and capital, but rather in the social and political conflicts, which no longer take the form primarily, as in Marx’s time, of the “class struggle” between workers and capitalists. “Class” has become a passive, objective category, rather than an active, subjective one, as it had been in Marx’s day and in the time of historical Marxism. What Marxists once meant by “class consciousness” is no more.

This lends a certain melancholy to the experience of “class” today. Privilege and disadvantage alike seem arbitrary and accidental, not an expression of the supposed worth of people’s roles in society but only of their luck, good or bad fortune. It becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position, and so other politics take its place. Conflicts of culture, ethnicity and religion replace the struggle over capitalism. Impoverished workers attack not orders whose privileges are dubious in the extreme, but rather each other in communal hatred. Consciousness of common class situation seems completely obscured and erased.

Not as Marx foresaw, workers with nothing to lose but their chains, but the unemployed masses wield their chains as weapons against each other. Meanwhile, in the background, underlying and overarching everything, capitalism continues. But it is no longer recognized. This is not surprising, however, since proper recognition of the problem could only come from practically engaging it as such. The issue is why it seems so undesirable to do so, today. Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?

We hear that we are in the midst of a deepening economic and social crisis, the greatest since the Great Depression of the early 20th century. But we do not see a political crisis of the same order of magnitude. It is not, as in the 1930s, when communism and fascism challenged capitalism from the Left and the Right, forcing massive social reform and political change.

This is because the idea of socialism — the idea of society being true to itself — has been disenchanted. With it has gone the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists that sought to realize the promise of freedom in modern society. It has been replaced with competing notions of social justice that borrow from ancient values. But since the sources of such ancient values, for instance religions, are in conflict, this struggle for justice points not to the transformation of society as a whole, but rather its devolution into competing values of different “cultures.” Today in the U.S., it seems to matter more whether one lives in a “red or blue state,” or what one’s “race, gender, and sexuality” are, than if one is a worker or a capitalist — whatever that might mean. Cultural affinities seem to matter more than socioeconomic interests, as the latter burn. People cling to their chains, as the only things that they know. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 51 (November 2012). Re-published by Heathwood Institute, and Philosophers for Change.

Whither Marxism? Why the occupation movement recalls Seattle 1999

Chris Cutrone

The following was written for distribution as a flyer [PDF] at the occupation protests.

THE PRESENT OCCUPATION movement expresses a return to the Left of the late 1990s, specifically the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

They both have taken place in the last year of a Democratic U.S. Presidential administration, been spearheaded by anarchism, had discontents with neoliberalism as their motivation, and been supported by the labor movement.

This configuration of politics on the Left is the “leaderless” and “horizontal” movement celebrated by such writers as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth), John Holloway (Change the World without Taking Power), and others.

A dominant theme in the self-understanding of the 1990s-era Left was, as in the current occupation movement, “resistance,” rather than pressing for reforms — let alone revolution.1

From the 1990s to the present

The collapse of Stalinism in 1989 began a period of disorientation and retreat for the avowed “Marxist” Left in the 1990s. This changed in the late 1990s, as disenchantment with Clinton grew.

Something similar has taken place ever since Obama’s election, amid the financial crisis, in 2008. The anti-war movement collapsed with the end of the Bush II administration. There is a lesson to be learned about the treacherous political effect of election cycles.

The bailout of Wall Street at first prompted a Right-wing response, the “Tea Party” movement. But, after some brief rumblings in campus occupations against austerity in 2009, ever since the Republicans captured a Congressional majority in the 2010 midterm elections, there has been a shift towards Left-wing discontents, beginning with the Wisconsin State House occupation.

Looking back, the movement that emerged in the late 1990s (finding an exemplar in Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela2), blossoming in the 1999 Seattle protests, was dealt a sharp blow, right after the Genoa G-8 protests in summer 2001 that sought to build upon Seattle, by the 9/11 attacks.

The standard narrative is that the anti-globalization movement was spiked and diverted by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath — perhaps even intentionally so, as the Left-wing 9/11 “truth” movement (indicatively prominent in the current occupation movement) was paranoid that the U.S. (or Israeli) government, and not al Qaeda, had perpetrated the attacks. Anti-globalization protest became occluded in the “War on Terror” era.

2000s anti-imperialist “Marxism”

The Left that developed in the 2000s was in contrast to the 1990s. The 2000s Left saw the return of the “Marxist” political organizations, pulling the strings of the anti-war coalitions after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, especially in the lead-up to and after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.3

The preceding 1990s Left consciousness expressed by Hardt and Negri et al. was displaced, precisely because the apparent reassertion of traditional great-power “imperialism,” regarding the U.S. neocons as the essential political players in the post-9/11 wars, defied notions of global neoliberal “Empire.”

The anti-war movement of the 2000s meant a more traditional “Left” of political sectarian groups orchestrating a protest movement that had as its target a Republican U.S. administration. This meant that the anti-war movement inevitably became a shill for the Democrats, especially after Bush’s re-election in 2004, as most of the sentiment of “Left” opposition to the wars was taken from the so-called “realist” vs. neocon foreign policy perspectives of many Democrats, European statesmen, and even some Republicans.4

Post-Obama

Obama’s election dispelled the Left that yearned for a Democratic administration, revealing the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left opposing Bush’s wars.

But the “anti-imperialist” turn in the 2000s had been regrettable from the perspective of the 1990s Left activists who had crystallized their experience in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, as well as in the burgeoning “World Social Forum” movement.

The younger generation of Leftists who came of age around the anti-war movement was divided between those who received their political education from Marxism vs. anarchism. The young leaders in the new Students for a Democratic Society were, for example, mentored in the Chomskyan and Parecon perspective of Z-magazine writers Michael Albert, et al. The new SDS struggled to be more than an anti-war cause. Anti-Marxism informed the new SDS’s “anti-ideological” bias, whose echoes return today in the occupation movement.5

Certainly the “Marxism” of the anti-war movement’s “anti-imperialism” was deeply problematic, to say the least. The financial collapse and deepening economic crisis after 2008 is better ground for the Left than the U.S. wars of the 2000s had been. The issue of capitalism has re-emerged.

It is only right that such inadequate “Marxism” falters after the 2000s. Today, the “Marxist” ideological Left of sectarian organizations struggles to catch up with the occupation movement and threatens to be sidelined by it — as Marxist groups had been in Seattle in 1999.

It is a measure of the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left that organizations could only rejuvenate themselves around the anti-war movement, in terms of “anti-imperialism,” submerging the issue of capitalism. But that moment has passed.

“Anti-capitalism”

In its place, as in Seattle in 1999, an apparently unlikely alliance of the labor movement with anarchism has characterized the occupation movement. Oppositional discontents, not with neoconservatism and imperialism as in the 2000s, but with neoliberalism and capitalism as in the 1990s, characterize the political imagination of the occupation movement. This is the present opportunity for Left renewal. But it is impaired by prior history.

The issues of how capitalism is characterized and understood take on a new importance and urgency in the present moment. Now, properly understanding capitalism and neoliberalism is essential for any relevance of a Marxist approach.6

The discontents with neoliberalism pose the question of capitalism more deeply and not only more directly than imperialism did. A Marxist approach is more seriously tasked to address the problem of capitalism for our time.

The need for Marxism is a task of Marxism

Anarchism and the labor movement, respectively, will only be able to address the problem of capitalism in certain and narrow terms. Marxist approaches to the labor movement and anarchism are needed.7

The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.

The danger, though considerable, is not merely one of the labor movement and the broader popular milieu of the occupation movement feeding into the Democratic Party effort to re-elect Obama in 2012. Rather, the challenge is deeper, in that what is meant by anti-capitalism, socialism, and hence Marxism might suffer another round of superficial banalization and degradation (“We are the 99%!”) in responses to the present crisis. The Left may suffer a subtle, obscure disintegration under the guise of its apparent renaissance.

Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to press the need for Marxism, to reformulate it in better terms and on a more solid basis than was possible during the anti-war movement of the 2000s.

This is the gauntlet that both anarchism and the labor movement throw down at the feet of Marxism. Can Marxist approaches rise to the challenge?8 | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 41 (November 2011).


  1. See Michael Albert, Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, and Brian Holmes, “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and ‘Resistance’: The problematic forms of ‘anti-capitalism’ today,” Platypus Review 4 (April 2008). []
  2. See Marco Torres: “The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  3. See Kevin Anderson, Cutrone, Nick Kreitman, Danny Postel, and Adam Turl, “Imperialism: What is it, why should we be against it?,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  4. See Cutrone, “Iraq and the election: The fog of ‘anti-war’ politics,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008). []
  5. See Laurie Rojas, “Red-baiting and ideology: The new SDS,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008). []
  6. See Platypus Historians Group, “Finance capital: Why financial capitalism is no more ‘fictitious’ than any other kind,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008); and “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neoliberalism and the question of freedom (In part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008). []
  7. See Cutrone, “Against dogmatic abstraction: A critique of Cindy Milstein on anarchism and Marxism,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  8. See Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010). []