Critical authoritarianism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

Immanent critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Society

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

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

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

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 315.

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

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

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

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

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

Adorno paraphrases Marx here when he writes that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 178.

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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Why not Trump?

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #89 | September 2016

Distributed as a flyer [PDF] along with “The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” (June 22, 2016) [PDF].

If one blows all the smoke away, one is left with the obvious question: Why not Trump?[1]

Trump’s claim to the Presidency is two-fold: that he’s a successful billionaire businessman; and that he’s a political outsider. His political opponents must dispute both these claims. But Trump is as much a billionaire and as much a successful businessman and as much a political outsider as anyone else.

Trump says he’s fighting against a “rigged system.” No one can deny that the system is rigged.

Trump is opposed by virtually the entire mainstream political establishment, Republican and Democrat, and by the entire mainstream news media, conservative and liberal alike. And yet he could win. That says something. It says that there is something there.

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.

It is especially remarkable that such vociferous opposition is mounted against such a moderate political figure as Trump, who until not long ago was a Centrist moderate-conservative Democrat, and is now a Centrist moderate-conservative Republican — running against a moderate-conservative Democrat.

Trump claims that he is the “last chance” for change. This may be true.

Indeed, it is useful to treat all of Trump’s claims as true — and all of those by his adversaries as false. For when Trump lies, still, his lies tell the truth. When Trump’s opponents tell the truth they still lie.

When Trump appears ignorant of the ways of the world, he expresses a wisdom about the status quo. The apparent “wisdom” of the status quo by contrast is the most pernicious form of ignorance.

For example, Trump says that the official current unemployment rate of 5% is a lie: there are more than 20% out of work, most of whom have stopped seeking employment altogether. It is a permanent and not fluctuating condition. Trump points out that this is unacceptable. Mainstream economists say that Trump’s comments about this are not false but “unhelpful” because nothing can be done about it.

The neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with post-1960s identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo means allowing greater profits — necessitated by lower capitalist growth overall since the 1970s — while including more minorities and women in the workforce and management. Trump is attacking this not out of “racism” or “misogyny” but against the lowered expectations of the “new normal.”

When Trump says that he will provide jobs for “all Americans” this is not a lie but bourgeois ideology, which is different.

The mendacity of the status quo is the deeper problem.[2]

For instance, his catch-phrase, “Make America Great Again!” has the virtue of straightforward meaning. It is the opposite of Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” or Hillary’s “Stronger Together.”

These have the quality of the old McDonald’s slogan, “What you want is what you get” — which meant that you will like it just as they give it to you — replaced by today’s simpler “I’m loving it!” But what if we’re not loving it? What if we don’t accept what Hillary says against Trump, “America is great already”?

When Trump says “I’m with you!” this is in opposition to Hillary’s “We’re with her!” — Hillary is better for that gendered pronoun?

Trump promises to govern “for everyone” and proudly claims that he will be “boring” as President. There is no reason not to believe him.

Everything Trump calls for exists already. There is already surveillance and increased scrutiny of Muslim immigrants in the “War on Terror.” There is already a war against ISIS. There is already a wall on the border with Mexico; there are already mass deportations of “illegal” immigrants. There are already proposals that will be implemented anyway for a super-exploited guest-worker immigration program. International trade is heavily regulated with many protections favoring U.S. companies already in place. Hillary will not change any of this. Given the current crisis of global capitalism, international trade is bound to be reconfigured anyway.

One change unlikely under Hillary that Trump advocates, shifting from supporting Saudi Arabia to détente with Russia, for instance in Syria — would this be a bad thing?[3]

But everything is open to compromise: Trump says only that he thinks he can get a “better deal for America.” He campaigns to be “not a dictator” but the “negotiator-in-chief.” To do essentially what’s already being done, but “smarter” and more effectively. This is shocking the system?

When he’s called a “narcissist who cares only for himself” — for instance by “Pocahontas” Senator Elizabeth Warren — this is by those who are part of an elaborate political machine for maintaining the status quo who are evidently resentful that he doesn’t need to play by their rules.

This includes the ostensible “Left,” which has a vested interest in continuing to do things as they have been done for a very long time already. The “Left” is thus nothing of the sort. They don’t believe change is possible. Or they find any potential change undesirable: too challenging. If change is difficult and messy, that doesn’t make it evil. But what one fears tends to be regarded as evil.

Their scare-mongering is self-serving — self-interested. It is they who care only for themselves, their way of doing things, their positions. But, as true narcissists, they confuse this as caring for others. These others are only extensions of themselves.

Trump says that he “doesn’t need this” and that he’s running to “serve the country.” This is true.

Trump’s appeal is not at all extreme — but it is indeed extreme to claim that anyone who listens to him is beyond the boundaries of acceptable politics. The election results in November whatever their outcome will show just how many people are counted out by the political status quo. The silent majority will speak. The only question is how resoundingly they do so. Will they be discouraged?

Many who voted for Obama will now vote for Trump. Enough so he could win.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion: Anti-Trump-ism is the problem and obstacle, not Trump.

The status quo thinks that change is only incremental and gradual. Anything else is either impossible or undesirable. But really the only changes they are willing to accept prove to be no changes at all.

This recalls the character in Voltaire’s novel Candide, Professor Pangloss, who said that we live in “The best of all possible worlds.” No one on the avowed “Left” should think such a thing — and yet they evidently do.

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

There is significant ambivalence on the “far Left” about opposing Trump and supporting Hillary. A more or less secret wish for Trump that is either kept quiet or else psychologically denied to oneself functions here. There is a desire to punish the Democrats for nominating such an openly conservative candidate, for instance, voting for the Greens’ Jill Stein, which would help Trump win.

The recent Brexit vote shows that when people are given the opportunity they reject the status quo. The status-quo response has been that they should not have been given the opportunity.

Finding Trump acceptable is not outrageous. But the outrageous anti-Trump-ism — the relentless spinning and lying of the status quo defending itself — is actually not acceptable. Not if any political change whatsoever is desired.

In all the nervous hyperventilation of the complacent status quo under threat, there is the obvious question that is avoided but must be asked by anyone not too frightened to think — by anyone trying to think seriously about politics, especially possibilities for change:

Why not Trump?

For which the only answer is: To preserve the status quo.

Not against “worse” — that might be beyond any U.S. President’s control anyway — but simply for things as they already are.

We should not accept that.

So: Why not Trump? | P


Notes

[1] See my June 22, 2016 “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis in the Republican Party,” amendment to my “The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries,” Platypus Review 85 (April 2016), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2016/03/30/the-sandernistas/#pps>.

[2] See Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” Crises of the Republic (New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1969): “A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new. . . . In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed. . . . Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves . . . and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. . . . [T]he deliberate denial of factual truth — the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”

[3] See Robert Parry, “The Danger of Excessive Trump Bashing,” in CommonDreams.org August 4, 2016, available on-line at: <http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/08/04/danger-excessive-trump-bashing>.

The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

Chris Cutrone, June 22, 2016

Further amendment to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (Platypus Review 82, December 2015 – January 2016) and “Postscript on the March 15 primaries” (Platypus Review 85, April 2016), after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,”1 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. | §


Note

  1. 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/>. []

Rosa Luxemburg and the party

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

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

Critique of socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lassallean party

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

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

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

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

Antinomy of reformism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1848: state and revolution

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

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

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

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

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

1905: party and class

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

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

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

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

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

Demand for redemption

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries

Chris Cutrone

Postscript to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (December 2015).

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,”1 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. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 85 (April 2016).


Note

  1. 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/>. []

Back to Herbert Spencer

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Marx and Spencer’s facing graves (photograph by Christian Fuchs)

Chris Cutrone argues that the libertarian liberalism of the late 19th century still has relevance today

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1088 (January 7, 2016). [PDF] Also published in The Platypus Review #82 (December 2015 – January 2016). Re-published by Bitácora (Uruguay).


Audio recording


Herbert Spencer’s grave faces Marx’s at Highgate Cemetery in London. At his memorial, Spencer was honoured for his anti-imperialism by Indian national liberation advocate and anti-colonialist Shyamji Krishnavarma, who funded a [lectureship] at Oxford in Spencer’s name.

What would the 19th century liberal, utilitarian and social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was perhaps the most prominent, widely read and popular philosopher in the world during his lifetime – that is, in Marx’s lifetime – have to say to Marxists or more generally to the left, when such liberalism earned not only Marx’s own scorn but also Nietzsche’s criticism? Nietzsche referred to Spencer and his broad appeal as the modern enigma of “the English psychologists.” Nietzsche critiqued what he took to be Spencer’s assumption of a historically linear-evolutionary development and improvement of human morality leading to a 19th century epitome; where Nietzsche found the successive “transvaluations of values” through profound reversals of “self-overcoming” (On the genealogy of morals: a polemic, 1887). Nietzsche regarded modern liberal morality not as a perfection but rather as a challenge and task to achieve an “over-man,” that, failing, threatened to result in a nihilistic dead-end of “the last man” instead. Marx regarded Spencerian liberalism as an example of the decrepitude of bourgeois-revolutionary thought in decadence. Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, wrote, just after Marx’s death, against Spencer’s “bourgeois pessimism”, to which he offered a Marxist optimism.1 Such Marxism fulfilled Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the strong.” By the late 19th century, Marxists could be confident about transcending bourgeois society. Not so today.

Spencer’s distinction of “militant” vs “industrial” society (The principles of sociology Vol 2, 1879-98) – that is to say, the distinction of traditional civilization vs bourgeois society – is still, unfortunately, quite pertinent today, and illuminates a key current blind-spot on the ostensible ‘left’, especially regarding the phenomenon of war. Spencer followed the earlier classical liberal Benjamin Constant’s observation (‘The liberty of the ancients as compared with that of the moderns’ 1816) that moderns get through commerce what the ancients got through war; and that for moderns war is always regrettable and indeed largely unjustifiably criminal, whereas for ancients war was virtuous – among the very highest virtues. Do we moderns sacrifice ourselves for the preservation and glory of our specific “culture,” as “militants” do, or rather dedicate ourselves to social activity that facilitates universal freedom – a value unknown to the ancients? Does the future belong to the constant warfare of particular cultural differences, or to human society? Marx thought the latter.

The question is whether we think that we will fight or, rather, exchange and produce our way to freedom. Is freedom to be achieved through “militant” or rather “industrial” society? Marx assumed the latter.

When we seek to extol our political leaders today, we do not depict them driving a tank but waking at 5 o’clock and staying up past midnight to do society’s business. We do not speak of their scars earned in combat but their grey hairs accumulated in office. Not enjoying the spoils of war on a dais but getting in their daily morning jog to remain fit for work. We judge them not as cunning warriors but as diligent workers – and responsible negotiators. In our society, it is not the matter of a battle to win but a job to do. Carl Schmitt thought that this has led to our dehumanization. But few would agree.

What would have appeared commonplace to Spencer’s contemporary critics, such as Nietzsche and Marx, must strike us today, rather, as profoundly insightful and indeed critical of our society. This is due to the historical regression of politics and society since Marx’s time, and, moreover, to the liquidation of Marxism. What Marx would have regarded as fatally one-sided and undialectical in Spencer, would today seem adequate to the prevailing condition, in the absence of the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The Marxist critique of liberalism has been rendered moot, not in the sense of liberalism’s actual social supersession but by historical regression. Society has fallen below the historical threshold of not only socialism but of classical liberalism – of bourgeois emancipation itself. Not only have we fallen below the criteria of Kant and Hegel that surpassed 18th century empiricism, we have fallen below its 19th century successor, positivism, as well. The question is the status today of liberalism as ideology. It is utopian. As Adorno put it, it is both promise and sham.

Militant and industrial tendencies confront each other today not as different societies, but as opposed aspects of the same society, however contradictorily and antagonistically, in capitalism. Similarly, the phases of “religious,” “metaphysical” and “positive” forms do not succeed one another sequentially in a linear development but rather interact in a dynamic of social history. What Spencer regarded as regressive “metaphysics” remains valid in capitalism, as “ideology” calling for dialectical critique. We cannot now claim to address problems in the clear air of enlightenment.

If Adorno, for instance, critiqued sociological “positivism,” this was not as a romantic anti-positivist such as Max Weber, but rather as a critique of positive sociology as ideology in capitalism. For Adorno, positivism and Heideggerian ontology, as well as Weberian “cultural sociology,” opposed each other in an antinomy of capitalism that would be overcome not in one principle triumphing over another, but rather in the antinomy itself being succeeded dialectically in freedom. Weber denied freedom; whereas Spencer assumed it. Both avoided the specific problem of capitalism. To take a condition of unfreedom for freedom is the most salient phenomenon of ideology. This is what falsified positivism as liberal enlightenment, its false sense of freedom as already achieved that still actually tasked society. Freedom is not to be taken as an achieved state but a goal of struggle.

An emancipated society would be “positivist” – enlightened and liberal – in ways that under capitalism can only be ideologically false and misleading. Positivism should therefore be understood as a desirable goal beyond rather than a possibility under capitalism. The problem with Herbert Spencer is that he took capitalism – grasped partially and inadequately as bourgeois emancipation – to be a condition of freedom that would need yet to be really achieved. If “metaphysics,” contra positivism, remains valid in capitalism, then this is as a condition to be overcome. Capitalist metaphysics is a real symptom of unfreedom. Positivism treats this as merely an issue of mistaken thinking, or to be worked out through “scientific” methodology, whereas it is actually a problem of society requiring political struggle. The antinomy of positivism vs metaphysics is not partisan but social. As Adorno observed, the same individual could and would be scientifically positivist and philosophically ontological-existentialist.

Spencer’s opposition to “socialism” in the 19th century was in its undeniable retrograde illiberal aspect, what Marx called “reactionary socialism.” But Marx offered a perspective on potentially transcending socialism’s one-sidedness in capitalism. Spencer was entirely unaware of this Marxian dialectic. Marx agreed with Spencer on the conservative-reactionary and regressive character of socialism. Marx offered a dialectic of socialism and liberalism presented by their symptomatic and diagnostic antinomy in capitalism that pointed beyond itself. 18th century liberalism’s insufficiency to the 19th century problem of capitalism necessitated socialist opposition; but liberalism still offered a critique of socialism that would need to be fulfilled to be transcended, and not dismissed let alone defeated as such.

Only in overcoming capitalism through socialism could, as Marx put it, humanity face its condition “with sober senses.” This side of emancipation from capital, humanity remains trapped in a “phantasmagoria” of bourgeois social relations become self-contradictory and self-destructive in capital. This phantasmagoria was both collective and individual – socialist and liberal – in character. Spencer naturalized this antinomy. His libertarian anti-statism and its broad, popular political appeal down through the 20th century was the necessary result of the continuation of capitalism and its discontents.

Spencer regarded the problem as a historical holdover of traditional civilization to be left behind rather than as the new condition of bourgeois society in capitalist crisis that Marx recognised needed to be, but could not be, overcome in Spencer’s liberal terms. Marx agreed with Spencer on the goal, but differed, crucially, over the nature of the obstacle and, hence, how to get there from here. Not only Spencer’s later followers (more egregiously than Spencer himself), but Marx’s own, have falsified this task. It has been neglected and abandoned. We cannot assume as Marx did that we are already past Spencer’s classical liberalism, but are driven back to it, ineluctably, whether we realize it or not. Only by returning to the assumptions of classical liberalism can we understand Marx’s critique of it. The glare of Marx’s tomb at Highgate stares down upon a very determinate object. If one disappears, they both do. | §


Note

1. www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1884/06/herbert-spencer.htm

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.

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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/>. []

Postscript on party politics

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Coda to “What is political party for Marxism? Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital: On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (2008),” The Platypus Review 71 (November 2014). 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 72 (December 2014 – January 2015).

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.

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/>. []