“Chris Cutrone is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, a professor at The School of Art Institute of Chicago, and a returning guest to the Zero Books podcast. He is the author of a controversial essay entitled “Why Not Trump.” The piece was a half-hearted endorsement of Trump as the better adversary for the left, an opinion that is not at all self-evident today under Trump. However, this week we discuss the late Moishe Postone as well as Adolph Reed in the context of the death of politics.”
Distractions of anti-Trump-ism
Presented at the Left Forum 2018 on the panel “Has ‘the Left’ Accommodated Trump (and Putin)? A Debate,” with Ravi Bali, Brendan Cooney, Anne Jaclard, Daphne Lawless and Bill Weinberg, organized by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative at John Jay College in NYC on June 2, 2018. A video recording of the event is available online at: <https://youtu.be/tUvBeXO02JY>.
AS A MARXIST academic professional and a gay man living in a Northern city, married to a nonwhite Muslim immigrant, it would have been beneficial to me for Hillary Clinton to have been elected President of the U.S. That would have served my personal interests. No doubt about it.
I am opposed to all of Trump’s policies.
I am especially opposed to Trump on his signature issue, immigration. But I was opposed to Obama on this as well, and would have been opposed to Hillary too. I am opposed to DACA and its hierarchy of supposedly “deserving” recipients. “Full citizenship rights for all workers!”
One response to Trump was a Mexican nationalist slogan, in response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again!,” “Make America Mexico again!” But, as a Marxist, I go one step further: I am for the union of Mexico and the U.S. under one government — the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Trump made Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Sessions wear hats saying “Make Mexico Great Again Also.” This was wholly sincere, at least on Trump’s part but probably also for Sessions and Giuliani. Why not? If I am opposed to making America great again, then I suppose I am also opposed to making Mexico great, too.
For the purposes of the struggle for socialism I seek to pursue, I wish Hillary had won the election. All the anti-Trump protest going on is a distraction from the necessary work, and, worse, Trump feeds discontent into the Democrats as the party of “opposition.” With Hillary in office, this would have been less the case — however, we must remember that, had she won, Hillary still would have faced a Republican Congressional majority, and so we would have still heard about how important it would be to elect Democrats this year!
I am opposed to Trump’s law-and-order conservatism. Not that I am against law and order per se, mind you, and perhaps I am not even so opposed to the order and law of society as it is now. I play by the rules and follow the law. Why wouldn’t I? — And, anyway, honestly, who here doesn’t: “rebels,” all?
But I am aware that laws are selectively enforced and that the social order is run by those who don’t always play by the rules — don’t always play by their own rules! I am aware that the social order and the law are used as excuses for things that are not so lawful and orderly, for things that are not so social. I am aware of Trump’s demagogy.
But it is funny watching the established social and political order go into fits over Trump’s insistence on law and order!
Trump’s election gave the “Left” something to do — they should be grateful! They would have been bored under Hillary. Especially after 8 years of Obama. “Fascism” is much more exciting, isn’t it?
I would have been grateful if Hillary had been elected instead — Saturday Night Live’s jokes about Hillary are much funnier than about Trump.
My family voted for Trump — mostly. My mother and my brother and his wife voted for Trump. But my father voted for Hillary. When Hillary collapsed due to fatigue from pneumonia, my father dutifully went to get his pneumonia shot. But my mother previously had voted twice for Obama; I’m not sure if my father did, too — he might have voted for McCain and Romney.
In the primaries, I intended to vote for Bernie, but it turned out the Democrats sent the wrong ballots to my precinct (which was more likely to vote for Bernie than other precincts: I thus personally witnessed in action the Democrats’ suppression of votes for Bernie in the primaries), so I went to the (empty) Republican line and voted for Trump. — In November, too: I knew that Hillary would win Illinois, but I wanted her to win by one vote less: no sense rewarding the Democrats for being greedy.
I expected Trump to win.
From the very moment that Trump descended the golden escalator and announced his candidacy, I thought he could win. As time went on, I increasingly thought that he would win.
I had mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, I dreaded the shit-show that ensued in Trump’s campaign and that I knew would only get worse if he was elected.
But on the other hand, I felt an obligation as a teacher to prepare my students for Trump’s victory. — If he had not won, nothing would have been lost: my students didn’t require any special preparation for a Clinton Presidency. But if Trump won, I knew that there would be a great deal of confusion — and scare-mongering by the Democrats. I couldn’t stand by and watch my students be lied to.
I had lived through the Reagan Revolution and watched The Day After on television along with everyone else. I heard Reagan denounced as a “fascist” by the “Left” and experienced the multiple anti-climaxes of Mondale and Dukakis. The world hadn’t ended. As an adult, I lived through the George W. Bush Presidency, 9/11 and the War on Terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crash, and the “change we can believe in,” the election of the First Black President. In all that time, not much changed. At least not much attributable to the Presidency.
So I didn’t expect much to change with Trump either.
But I did expect a lot of hysterics in response. I knew that my students would be scared. I wanted to protect them from that.
So I sought to get out ahead of it.
My students asked me to write a statement on the election in the beginning of the new academic year before the election, something short that could be handed out as a flyer.
So I wrote, “Why not Trump?” — which is why I was invited here to speak to you now: to answer for my alleged crime. It was not an endorsement, nor an equivocation, but an honest question: Why not Trump? Perhaps it was too philosophical.
As I wrote in that article, I thought that the mendacity of the status quo defending itself against Trump was a greater threat than Trump himself. I was prompted to re-read Hannah Arendt’s article on the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics:” she said that the ability to lie was inextricably connected to the ability to create new things and change the world.
I don’t know.
I did find however a difference in quality and character between Trump’s lies and the Democrats’.
The only argument I found for Hillary was that we lived in the “best of all possible worlds” — as Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss described it in Candide. I didn’t want to be Professor Pangloss. I wanted to spare my students that.
But perhaps we did live in the best of all possible worlds under Obama, and would have continued to do so under Hillary. Perhaps Trump really has ruined everything for everyone. Perhaps the world has come to an end.
I don’t know.
I wish Hillary had won — so I could have found out. | P
Platypus Review 106 | May 2018
Presented as the President’s report at the closing plenary of the 10th annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago on April 7, 2018. Full audio recording of discussion available online at: https://archive.org/details/CenturyCounterrevolution
RECENTLY, I CAME ACROSS a 1938 article by the “Left communist” Paul Mattick, Sr., titled “Karl Kautsky: From Marx to Hitler.” In it, Mattick asserted that the reformist social democracy that Kautsky ended up embracing was the harbinger of fascism — of Nazism. There is a certain affinity to Friedrich Hayek’s book on The Road to Serfdom (1944), in which a similar argument is made about the affinity of socialism and fascism. If Marxism (e.g. Kautsky) led to Hitler, as Hayek and Mattick aver, then this is because the counterrevolution was in the revolutionary tradition. The question we face today is whether and how the revolutionary tradition is still within the counterrevolution. For that is what we live under: it is the condition of any potential future for the revolutionary tradition whose memory we seek to preserve.
2018 marks two anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the failed German Revolution of 1918; and the 50th anniversary of the climax of the New Left in 1968.
Moishe Postone died this year, and his death marks the 50th anniversary of 1968 in a certain way.
A strange fact of history is that both Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Father but bitter political opponent, whose Presidency Jefferson unseated in his Democratic-Republican Revolution of 1800, John Adams, died on the precise 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence to the day, on July 4, 1826. John Adams’s dying words were “Jefferson still lives.” He was mistaken: Jefferson had died several hours earlier. But he was correct in another, more important sense: Jefferson had lived just long enough to see the survival of the American Revolution for its first half-century.
Perhaps Moishe Postone lived just long enough to see the survival of the New Left 50 years later. If that is true, however, then he lived just long enough to see the survival of not the revolution but the counterrevolution.
As I presented all the way back at our very first annual Platypus convention in 2009, in my contribution to The Platypus Synthesis, on “History, theory,” the Spartacists and Postone differ on the character of historical regression: Postone taking it to be the downward trend since the missed opportunity of the New Left in the 1960s; while the Spartacists account for regression since the high-point of the revolutionary crisis after WWI in which the October Revolution took place in 1917. But perhaps we can take the occasion this year to date more precisely the regression affecting both the Spartacists and Postone, the failure of the German Revolution of 1918, whose centennial we mark this year.
The question of historical regression raises its potential opposite, that is, history as Hegel took it to be, the progress in (the consciousness of) freedom. What we face in 2018 is that the last 50 years and the last 100 years have not seen a progress in freedom, but perhaps a regression in our consciousness of its tasks, specifically regarding the problem of capitalism. Where the Spartacists and Postone have stood still, waiting for history to resume, either from 1918 or from 1968, we must reckon with not history at a standstill but rather as it has regressed.
In this we are helped less by Hegel or Marx than by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose essay on “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1874/76) I cited prominently in my Platypus Synthesis contribution. There, I quoted Nietzsche that,
“A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. . . .
“Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force. . . .
“[But there is a danger in the] attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.”
So the question we have always faced in Platypus is the borderline between freeing ourselves from the past or rather participating in its liquidation. Are we gaining or losing history as a resource? In losing its liability we might sacrifice history as an asset. We must refashion history for use in our present need, but we might end up — like everyone else — abusing it: it might end up oppressing rather than freeing us.
Indiana Jones, who as we know was a Professor of Archaeology, in the 1989 film The Last Crusade, said that “Archaeology is about the search for fact, not the search for truth — for the search for truth, see Philosophy!” If Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can get it, then certainly we should!
In our approach to history, then, we are engaged not with its “facts” but with the truth of history. We are not archeologists: we are not antiquarians or historians — at least not affirmatively: we are not historicists. The events and figures of the past are not dead facts awaiting discovery but are living actions — past actions that continue to act upon the present, which we must relate to. We must take up the past actions that continue to affect us, and participate in the on-going transformation of that action. How we do so is extremely consequential: it affects not merely us, today, but will affect the future. History lives or dies — is vital or deadly — depending on our actions.
We are here to consider how the actions of not only 50 years ago in 1968 but 100 years ago in 1918 affect us today. But to understand this, we must consider the past actions that people 100 years ago in turn were affected by. We must consider the deeper history that they inherited and sought to act upon.
Last year we marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the closing plenary panel discussion at our international convention in which I participated, alongside Bryan Palmer and Leo Panitch, I raised the possibility that, after a century, we had the opportunity of approaching this history differently. There, I said that,
“The paradox of 1917 is that failure and success are mixed together in its legacy. Therefore, the fact that 1917 is becoming more obscure is an opportunity as well as a liability. We are tasked not only with understanding the opportunity, but also with trying to make the liability into an asset. The various ways in which 1917 is falsely claimed, in a positive sense — we can call that Stalinism, we can call it all sorts of things — has dissipated. We have to try to make use of that. What has faded is not the revolution, perhaps, but the counter-revolution. In other words, while not entirely gone, the stigmatization of 1917 throughout the 20th century and the horror at the outcome of revolution [i.e., Stalinist repression] — these are fading. In that way we might be able to disentangle the success and the failure differently than it has been attempted in the past.”
This year we must reckon with the changing fortunes over the last century, not of the revolution, but rather of the counterrevolution. If not the revolution but the counterrevolution has disappeared, perhaps this is because it has become invisible — naturalized. It is so much the fundamental condition of our time that we don’t even notice it. But that does not mean that it doesn’t continue to act upon us. It might be so powerful as to not even provoke resistance, like atmospheric pressure or gravity. The effort it takes to read history against the grain — Benjamin said it must be done with the leverage of a “barge-pole” — is in denaturalizing this history of the counterrevolution, to make it visible or noticeable at all. Can we feel it? This has changed over the course of the past century. In the first half-century, from 1918 to 1968, the naturalization of the counterrevolution took certain forms; in the last half-century, since 1968, it has taken other forms. We can say indeed that the action of the counterrevolution provoked more resistance in its first 50 years, from 1918–68, than it has in its second 50 years, from 1968 to the present. That would mean that 1968 marked the decisive victory of the counterrevolution — to the degree that this was not entirely settled already in 1918.
As Richard [Rubin] pointed out at my presentation at this year’s 4th Platypus European Conference in London, on “The Death of the Millennial Left,” there has been nothing new produced, really, in the last 50 years. I agreed, and said that whatever had been new and different in the preceding 50 years, from 1918 to 1968 — Heidegger’s philosophy, for example — was produced by the counterrevolution’s active burial of Marxism. Max Weber had remarked to Georg Lukács in 1918 that what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in the October Revolution and its aftermath would mitigate against socialism for at least 100 years. He seems to have been proven right. But since 1968, such active efforts against the memory of Marxism have been less necessary. So we have had, not so much anti-Marxism, as the naturalization of it. Ever since 1968, everyone is already a “Marxist” — as Foucault himself said — precisely because everyone is already an anti-Marxist. This is how things appear especially this year, in 2018. And necessarily so.
The failure of the 1918 German Revolution was not only that, but was the failure of Marxism as a world-historical movement. As Rosa Luxemburg posed the matter, the failure of revolution in Germany was the failure of revolution in Russia. 1918 and 1917 are inextricably linked. But the failure of 1918 has been hidden behind the apparent success of 1917. The failure of 1917 wears the deceptive mask of success because of the forgetting of the failure of 1918.
Marxism failed. This is why it continues to fail today. Marxism has forgotten its own failure. Because Marxism sought to take up the prior — bourgeois — revolutionary tradition, its failure affected the revolutionary tradition as a whole. The victory of the counterrevolution in 1918 was the victory of counterrevolution for all time.
What do we mean by the “counterrevolution”?
Stalin declared the policy — the strategy — of “socialism in one country” in 1924. What did it mean? What was it predicated upon? The events in Germany in 1923 seemed to have brought a definitive end to the post-WWI revolutionary crisis there. Stalin concluded therefore that Russia would not be saved by revolution in Germany — and even less likely by revolution elsewhere — but needed in the meantime to pursue socialism independently of prospects for world revolution. Stalin cited precedent from Lenin for this approach, and he attracted a great deal of support from the Communist Party for this policy.
Robert Borba, a supporter of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA, speaking at our 4th European Conference in London earlier this year, addressed the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism in response to Hillel Ticktin on the panel discussion of “50 Years of 1968,” as follows:
“Hillel [Ticktin] defined Stalinism as socialism in one country, which supposedly cannot exist. It is not viable. We should think seriously about what that means. Imagine you are Lenin in 1918. You have led a revolution. You are counting on the German revolutionaries to come to your aid, as you envision this whole process of revolution throughout Europe. But it does not happen. Now what do you do? Say, “This cannot exist, it is not viable,” and give up? Lenin and the Bolshevik Party did not give up. The proletariat had taken power in one country. The imperialists were invading. They did the best they could for the world revolution. They retained a base from which to spread revolution. To give that up would harm the interests of oppressed humanity.”
This blackmail of the necessity to “defend the gains of the revolution” is crucial to understanding how the counterrevolution triumphed within the revolution — how Bolshevism led to Stalinism.
Even supposed “Trotskyists” however ended up succumbing to the exigencies of supposedly “defending the gains” — Trotsky himself said that an inability to defend the gains of the revolution would mean an inability to advance it: Trotsky was still addressing Stalinism as a retreat. His followers today are even more willing than Trotsky himself to defend any and all purported “gains” — but at the expense of possibilities for any advance. What was perhaps a temporary necessity for Trotsky has become permanent for the supposed “Left.”
So-called “Marxism” today is in fact an agency of the counterrevolution — has become part of the counterrevolution’s on-going action — which is why it is not surprising that the “Left” today even champions the counterrevolution — by denouncing the revolutionary tradition. But this didn’t happen just recently, but has been going on increasingly over the course of the past century. First, in small ways; but then finally comprehensively. Equivocations became judgments against the revolutionary tradition. It began in marked ways at least as early as the late 1960s. For instance, in 1967 Susan Sontag wrote, in the formerly Communist- and then Trotskyist-affiliated journal Partisan Review, that,
“If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. . . . The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
Sound familiar? It is a voice very much for our time! Here, Sontag explicitly rejects the revolution — “parliamentary government,” the “emancipation of women,” and “Marx” included — because of its “eradication of autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads,” and as “what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.” Let’s accept this characterization of “Western white civilization” by Sontag, but try to grasp it through the revolution. For this is what revolution does: eradicate the prior form of civilization. What is America the “culmination” of, exactly? Let’s look to its Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and think about the American Revolutionary leader alongside the protagonist of the 1918 German Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg.
I will start with the concluding scene of the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris. Here, Jefferson negotiates a contractual agreement with his slave James Hemings for the freedom of himself and Sally Hemings and her children — Jefferson’s own offspring. It is observed by his white daughter. This scene encapsulates the revolution: the transition from slavery to social contract.
In the 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg, Sonja Liebknecht says to Luxemburg in prison that, “Sometimes I think that the war will go on forever” — as it has indeed gone on forever, since we are still fighting over the political geography and territorial results of WWI, for instance in the Middle East — and, responding to Luxemburg’s optimism, about the mole burrowing through a seemingly solid reality that will soon be past and forgotten, “But it could be us who will soon disappear without a trace.” In the penultimate scene of the film, Karl Liebknecht reads the last lines of his final article, “Despite Everything,” and Luxemburg reads her last written words, “I was, I am, I shall be!” — referring however to “the revolution,” not Marxism!
Luxemburg’s “I was, I am, I shall be!” and Liebknecht’s “Despite everything!” — are they still true? Is the revolution still on-going, despite everything? If not Luxemburg’s, then at least Jefferson’s revolution?
But aren’t Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Luxemburg on “opposing sides” of the “class divide” — wasn’t Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund [“Spartacus League”] on the side of the slaves (named after a Roman slave who revolted); whereas, by contrast, Jefferson was on the side of the slave-owners? No!
To quote Robert Frost, from his 1915 poem “The Black Cottage,”
That all men are created free and equal. . . .
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman [Jefferson] got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.”
How will we reconsider it for our age? Apparently, we won’t: Jefferson’s statues will be torn down instead. We will take the “easy way” and “decide” that Jefferson’s revolutionary character “simply isn’t true.” This has long since been decided against Luxemburg’s Marxism, too — indeed, as a precondition for the judgment against Jefferson. As Max Horkheimer said, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.” The failure of revolution in 1918 was its failure for all time. We are told nowadays that the American Revolution never happened: it was at most a “slaveholder’s revolt.” But it certainly did not mark a change in “Western white civilization.” Neither, of course, did Marxism. Susan Sontag tells us so!
Platypus began in 2006 and was founded as an organization in 2007, but we began our conventions in 2009. In 2018, our 10th convention requires a look back and a look ahead; last year marked the centenary of 1917; this year marks 1918, hence, this specific occasion for reflecting on history from Platypus’s point of view. What did we already know in 2006–08 that finds purchase especially now, in 2018? The persistence of the counterrevolution. Hence, our special emphasis on the failure of the 1918 German Revolution as opposed to the “success” of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which has been the case throughout the history of our primary Marxist reading group pedagogy. But we should reflect upon it again today.
I would like to refer to some of my convention speeches for Platypus:
In my 2012 convention President’s report, “1873–1973: The century of Marxism,” I asserted that the first 50 years saw growth and development of Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, which saw the steady destruction of the memory of Marxism.
So today, in regarding 1918–2018 as the century of counterrevolution, I ask that its first 50 years, prior to 1968, be considered as the active counterrevolution of anti-Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, after 1968, as the naturalization of the counterrevolution, such that active anti-Marxism is no longer necessary.
But I would like to also recall my contribution to a prior convention plenary panel discussion in 2014, on “Revolutionary politics and thought,” where I asserted that capitalism is both the revolution and the counterrevolution. To illustrate this, I quoted a JFK speech from 1960:
“We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”
Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York:
“I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of [Fidel] Castro coming to this hotel, [Nikita] Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveler in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognize that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”
With Kennedy, the counterrevolution, in order to be successful, still needed to claim to be the revolution: the counterrevolution still struggled with the revolution. By the end of the 1960s — at the other end of the New Left — however, this was no longer the case.
We can observe today that what was lacking both in 1918 and in 1968 was a political force adequate to the task of the struggle for socialism. The problem of political party links both dates. 1968 failed to overcome the mid-20th century liquidation of Marxism in Stalinism and related phenomena, in the same way that 1918 had failed to overcome the capitulation of the SPD and greater Second International in WWI, and thus failed to overcome the crisis of Marxism.
For this reason, we can say, today, 50 years after 1968, that the past 100 years, since 1918, have been the century of counterrevolution. | P
 Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1939/kautsky.htm>.
 “History, theory,” available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2009/06/14/the-platypus-synthesis-history-theory/>.
 Platypus Review 99 (September 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/08/29/1917-2017/>.
 Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’” (1940), Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40, Howard Eiland and Michael William Jennings, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 407.
 “50 years of 1968,” Platypus Review 105 (April 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/04/01/50-years-of-1968/>.
 Sontag, “What’s happening in America?,” Partisan Review 34.1 (1967), 57–58.
 Karl Liebknecht, “Despite everything” (1919), in John Riddel, ed., The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 1918–19: Preparing for the Founding Conference (New York: Pathfinder, 1986), 269–271; Rosa Luxemburg, “Order prevails in Berlin” (1919), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm>.
 In North of Boston, available on-line at: <http://www.bartleby.com/118/7.html>.
 Horkheimer, “A discussion about revolution,” in Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39. Available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/readings/horkheimer_dawnex.pdf>.
 Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.
 Platypus Review 69 (September 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/09/05/revolutionary-politics-thought-2/>.
 Available online at: <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25785>.
A book talk on the newly published collection of essays Marxism in the Age of Trump (Platypus Publishing, 2018) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on March 9, 2018.
What kind of illness is capitalism?
Platypus Review 105 | April 2018
An abridged version of this article was presented at the 4th Platypus European Conference closing plenary panel discussion, “What is the Future of Socialism?,” with Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute of Globalization and Social Movements), Alex Demirovic (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), Mark Osborne (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; Momentum) and Hillel Ticktin (Critique journal), at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018.
The liquidation of [Marxist] theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth-content only by those who agree with [Friedrich] Schiller that “world history is the world tribunal.” What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth-content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.
—Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966)
THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM is the future of capitalism—the future of capitalism is the future of socialism.
Socialism is an illness of capitalism. Socialism is the prognosis of capitalism. In this respect, it is a certain diagnosis of capitalism. It is a symptom of capitalism. It is capitalism’s pathology. It recurs, returning and repeating. So long as there is capitalism there will be demands for socialism. But capitalism has changed throughout its history, and thus become conditioned by the demands for socialism. Their histories are inextricably connected and intertwined. This is still true today.
Society under capitalism in its concrete form will be conditioned by the need to realize capital. This means that society will be conditioned by the contradiction of capital. The future of socialism will be conditioned by that contradiction. This is an illness of self-contradiction of society in capitalism.
What kind of illness is capitalism?
Friedrich Nietzsche described the modern affliction of nihilism in capitalism—he didn’t use the term “capitalism” but described it—as an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness.”
Socialism is the pathology of capitalism—in terms of Marx and Engels’s Manifesto, “communism” is the “specter” —and capitalism is the pathology of socialism, always threatening its return. The question is the prognosis of socialism—the prognosis of capitalism.
Capitalism is an illness—a pathology—of potential. We suffer from the unrealized potential of capital.
Capitalism is an imbalance of production and appropriation. It is a problem of how society produces, and how society appropriates its own production. As such it is a problem of metabolism. This is often referred to, for instance by Keynesians, as a problem of overproduction—a problem of underconsumption. But it is more self-contradictory than that. It is more than a temporary market imbalance awaiting correction, either by the state or by the market itself. Turning over the issues of production and consumption, we find that capitalism is also a problem of an overconsumption of resources—Marx called it the wearing-out of both the worker and nature—and an underconsumption of value, for instance in an overabundance of money without outlet as capital investment. It is also, however, an underproduction of resources—a wastage of nature and labor—and an overproduction of value. It is, as Marx called it, a problem of surplus-value—of its production and consumption.
The pathology of capitalism is a metabolic disorder. As capitalism is usually addressed by contemporary commentators, it is not however a disorder of scarcity or of (over-)abundance, nor of hierarchy or of equality—for instance, a problem of leveling-down. But, rather, as a problem of what Marx called the “social metabolism,” it exhibits all of these symptoms, alternately and, indeed, simultaneously.
In the way that Nietzsche regarded capitalist modernity as an illness, but an illness the way pregnancy is an illness, it is not to be cured in the sense of something to be eliminated, but successfully gone through, to bring forth new life.
Is it a chronic or an acute condition? Capitalism is not well analogized to cancer because that would imply that it is a terminal condition. No. Rather than socialism waiting for capitalism to die, however, the question is whether socialism is merely a fever-dream of capitalism: one which chronically recurs, occasionally, but ultimately passes in time. Capitalism is not a terminal condition but rather is itself a form of life. A pathological form of life, to be sure, but, as Nietzsche—and Christianity itself—observed, life itself is a form of suffering. But what if capitalism is not merely a form of life—hence a form of suffering—but also a potential form of new life beyond itself? What if the recurrent symptom of socialism—the crisis of capitalism—is a pregnancy that we have failed to bring to term and has instead miscarried or been aborted? The goal, then, would be, not to eliminate the pregnancy of socialism in capitalism, not to try to cure the periodic crises of capitalism, but for capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism.
This would mean encouraging the health of capitalism in a certain sense. Perhaps humanity has proven too ill when undergoing capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism; but the pregnancy has been mistaken for an illness to be cured, rather than what it actually was, a symptom of potential new life in the process of emerging.
Past Marxists used the metaphor of “revolution as the midwife of history,” and they used this very precisely. Socialist revolution would make socialism possible, but would not bring forth socialism ready-made. An infant—moreover one that is not yet born—is not a mature form of life.
These are the stakes of properly recognizing capitalism for what it is—the potential for socialism. If we mistake capitalism for an illness to be eliminated, then we undergo its pathology periodically, but fail to bring forth the new life that capitalism is constantly generating from within itself. The point then would be, not to avoid capitalism, not to avoid the pregnancy of socialism, but to allow capitalism to give birth to socialism. Bourgeois ideology denies that there is a new form of life beyond itself—that there is socialism beyond capitalism—and so seeks to terminate the pregnancy, to cure the ailment of capitalism, to eliminate the potential that is mistaken for a disease, whether that’s understood as infection by a foreign body, or a metabolic imbalance to be restored. But capitalism is not a malignant tumor but an embryo. The recurrent miscarriage of socialism, however, makes capitalism appear as a tumor, more or less benign, so long as it passes—or is extracted or otherwise extirpated.
As a cancer, capitalism appears as various kinds of cancer cells running rampant at the expense of the social body: whether of underclass criminals, voracious middle classes, plutocratic capitalists, or wild “populist” (or even “fascist”) masses, all of whom must be tamped down if not eliminated entirely in order to restore the balanced health of the system. But capitalism does not want to be healthy in the sense of return to homeostasis, but wants to overcome itself—wants to give birth to socialism. Will we allow it?
For this would mean supporting the pregnancy—seeing the symptoms through to their completion, and not trying to stop or cut them short.
What is the prognosis of socialism?
Socialism is continuous with the “rights of human beings and citizens,” according to the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” that “all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Socialism seeks to realize the bourgeois principle of the “free association of producers,” in which each is provided “according to his need” while contributing “according to his ability.” The question is how capitalism makes this both possible and impossible, and what it would take to overcome its impossibility while realizing its possibility.
Moishe Postone, in his 2006 essay on “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey”—a companion-piece to his other well-known essay from 2006, “History and Helplessness”—grasped this contradiction of our time as that between islands of incipient post-proletarian life surrounded by seas of superfluous humanity—postmodernist post-humanism and religious fundamentalist defense of human dignity, in a world simultaneously of both post-proletarian cities of abundance and sub-proletarian slums of scarcity.
Peter Frase, in an early foundational article for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jacobin magazine in 2011, wrote of the “Four Possible Futures”—this was later expanded into the 2016 book subtitled “Life after Capitalism”—on the supposed “inevitable end” of capitalism in four potential outcomes: either in the “communism of abundance and egalitarianism;” the “rentism of hierarchy and abundance;” the “socialism of egalitarianism and scarcity;” or the “exterminism of hierarchy and scarcity.” The future was supposed to lie between two axes of contradiction: egalitarianism vs. hierarchy; and scarcity vs. abundance.
Unlike Postone—who, like Slavoj Žižek around the same moment, grasped the simultaneous existence of postmodernism and fundamentalism as two sides of the same coin of late capitalism—Frase neglects the dialectical proposition that all four of his “possible futures” will come true—indeed, that all four are already the case in capitalism. They are not merely in the process of coming true, but have been the actual condition of capitalism throughout its history, ever since its inception in the Industrial Revolution. There has been the coexistence of hierarchy and egalitarianism and of scarcity and abundance, and each has been the precondition for its—dialectical—opposite.
One could say that this has been the case since the early emergence of bourgeois society itself—that capitalist contradiction was always the case—or, indeed, since the beginning of civilization itself. One could say that this has been the condition of “class society as a whole,” the condition of the existence of a “social surplus” throughout history.
This is the perspective of Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” for example. Badiou has mobilized a rather literal reading of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and a straightforward, if rather naïve, interpretation of communism or socialism from Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equals” onwards—indeed perhaps all the way back from Jesus and His Apostles onwards. “Communism”—in Peter Frase’s terms, “egalitarian abundance”—is the “land of milk and honey,” where the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Capitalism, understood undialectically, then, is, by contrast, the exterminism of rentism, the inhumanity of exploitation, in which scarcity and hierarchy rule through elite appropriation of the surplus. But this has been true since the dawn of civilization, since the beginning—in terms of Engels’s clever footnote to the Manifesto’s assertion that “history is the history of class struggle”—of “recorded history.”
So what is different with capitalism? What has changed is the form of the social surplus: “capital.” To say, as Marxists did, that, as the possibility for socialism, capitalism is the potential “end of prehistory” is to say that all of history is the history of capital: the history of civilization has been the development of the social surplus, until it has finally taken the form of capital.
Ancient civilizations were based on a specific kind of social surplus, however. The surplus of grain beyond subsistence produced by peasant agriculture allowed for activity other than farming. Peasants could tighten their belts to feed the priests rather than lose the Word of God, and so that some knights could protect them from the heathen. But for us to return to the religious basis of civilization would also mean embracing values quite foreign to the bourgeois ethos of work, such as that “the sick are blessed,” with the divine truth of the vanity of life, whereas we rightly consider sickness to be a curse—at the very least the curse of unemployability in society.
So what is the social surplus of capital? According to Marx, capital is the surplus of labor. It is also, however, the source of possibilities for employment in production: the source of social investment. Does this make it the source of hierarchy or of equality, of scarcity or of abundance, of post-humanism or of ontological—fundamental—humanity? It is the source of all these different apparently opposed values. It is their common condition. It is society itself, albeit in “alienated” form. As such, it is also the source of society’s possible change.
Socialism aims at the realization of the potential of society. But it will be achieved—or not—on the basis of capitalism, under conditions of capital. The social surplus of capital is the source of potential societal change, of new forms of production—manifold new forms of human activity, in relation to others, to Nature, and to ourselves. Changes in capital are changes in our social relations. Capital is a social relation.
Capital is the source of endless new forms of social scarcity and new forms of social abundance—of new forms of social expropriation and of social production—as well as of new forms of social hierarchy and of new forms of social equality. Capital is the source of all such changes in society over the course of the last two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution.
Hillary Clinton, in an interview during her failed campaign for President of the U.S., said that what keeps her “awake at night” is the problem of figuring out policy that will encourage the investment of capital to produce jobs. Indeed, this is precisely what motivated Trump’s—successful—campaign for President as well. Interestingly, it is unclear whether this is what properly motivated Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Clinton, or if this now motivates Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the U.K. Labour Party. In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, it seems that they have been motivated less by the problem of capital and labor than by a more nebulous concern for “social justice”—regardless of the latter’s real possibilities in capitalism. In the U.K., for example, Theresa May’s “Red Toryism”—by prioritizing the circumstance of the “British worker,” like Trump’s stated priority for the “American worker”—is actually more realistic, even if it presently has a rather limited organized political base. Corbyn, as a veteran New Leftist “social justice warrior,” is actually closer to the criteria of neoliberal politics than May, whose shifting Conservative Party is not (yet) able to support her agenda. By contrast, it is a solidly neoliberal Blairite Labour Party that Corbyn leads. But Brexit, and the crisis of the EU that it expressed, is changing the landscape. May is still, however, leading the way. As is, of course, Trump.
In this sense, the issue of socialism was closer to the actual concerns of Clinton and Trump than to Sanders. Sanders offered to his followers the Obama Presidency that never was, of a “new New Deal” that is never going to be. By contrast, both Clinton and Trump were prepared to move on from the 2008 economic crisis: How to make good of the crisis of neoliberalism, now a decade old? For every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism. This is what must be the concern of politics.
This is the ageless question of capitalism: How is society going to make use of its crisis of overproduction, its surplus in capital—its surplus of labor? How are the social possibilities of capital going to be realized? What is the actual potential for society in capitalism?
Of course, the narrow horizons of the perspectives of both Clinton and Trump and of May for realizing the potentials of capitalism are less appealing than the apparent idealism of Corbyn and Sanders. But, realistically, it must be admitted that the best possible outcome—with the least disruption and danger—for U.S. and thus global capitalism at present would have been realized by a Clinton Presidency. If Trump’s election appears to be a scary nightmare, a cruise into the unknown with a more or less lunatic at the helm, then, by contrast, a Sanders Presidency was merely a pipe-dream, a safe armchair exercise in idealism. Today, the stock market gambles that, whatever Trump’s gaffes, the Republican Party remains in charge. The captain, however wild-eyed, cannot actually make the ship perform other than its abilities. The question is whether one trusts a CEO trying to build the company by changing it, or one trusts the shareholders who don’t want to risk its profitability. Trump is not a safe bet. But he does express the irrepressible impulse to change. The only question is how.
So the question of the future of socialism is one of potential changes in capitalism. The question is how capitalism has already been changing—and will continue to change.
What seems clear is that capitalism, at least as it has been going on for the past generation of neoliberalism, will not continue exactly the same as it has thus far. There has been a crisis and there will be a change. Brexit and the fall of David Cameron as well as Trump’s victory and Hillary’s defeat—the successful challenge by Sanders and the rise of Corbyn alongside May’s Premiership—cannot all be chalked up to the mere accidental mistakes of history.
In the face of historical change, continuity must be reckoned with—precisely as the basis for this change. How is neoliberal capitalism changing out of its crisis?
Neoliberalism is old and so is at least in need of renewal. The blush has gone off the rose. Its heroic days are long behind us. Obama rallied it to a certain extent, but Hillary was unable to do so again. The Republicans might be stuck in vintage 1980s Reaganism, but Trump is dragging them out of it. In the face of Trump, the question has been posed: But aren’t we all good neoliberals? Not only Nancy Pelosi has said that, all respect to Bernie, we need not try to become socialists but remain capitalists. The mainstream Republican contender Marco Rubio said the same about Trump, while Ted Cruz retired to fight another day, against what he indicatively called Trump’s “socialism.” But the Tea Party is over. Now, the specter of “fascism” in the crisis of neoliberalism—which, we must remember, regards any and all possible alternatives to itself as more or less fascist—is actually the specter of socialism.
But what does the actual hope for socialism look like today? Does it inevitably appear as nationalism, only with a difference of style? Must the cosmopolitanism of capitalism take either the form of unmediated globalization (which has never in fact existed) or rather inter-nationalism, relations between nations? These apparent alternatives in themselves show the waning of neoliberal optimism—the decline of Clinton’s “global village.” We are now living—by contrast with the first Clinton era of the 1990s—in the era of neoliberal pessimism, in which all optimism seems reckless and frightening by comparison: Hillary’s retort that “America is great already!” raised against Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” Trump was critical of, and quite pessimistic about, existing conditions, but optimistic against Hillary’s political pessimism—to which Hillary and Obama could only say that things aren’t so bad as to justify (either Sanders or) Trump.
Were the Millennials by contrast too optimistic to accept Hillary’s sober pragmatism—or were they so pessimistic as to eschew all caution of Realpolitik and embrace Sanders and Corbyn? Have they clung, after the election of Trump, now, to the shreds of lip-service to their concerns, as the best that they could hope for? Does Sanders—like Corbyn in the U.K.—merely say, better than Hillary or Obama, what they want to hear? By comparison, Hillary and Trump have been a salutary dose of reality—which is bitterly resented. Obama was the “change we can believe in”—meaning: very little if any. Clinton as the continuation of Obama was the sobriety of low-growth “realism.” Now Trump is the reality of change—whether we like it or not. But it is in the name of the optimism for growth: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The problem of capitalism—the problem that motivates the demand for socialism—is that of managing and realizing the possibilities of a global workforce. This is in fact the reality of all politics, everywhere. All countries depend on international and, indeed, global trade, including the circulation of workers and their wages. Even the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea depends not only on goods in trade but on remittances from its workers abroad. This issue of the global workforce is the source of the problem of migration—the migration of workers. For instance, wars are waged with the problem of refugees foremost in mind. Political crisis seeks alleviation in either benign ways such as the “brain drain” of the emigrating middle-class, or malignantly in ethnic cleansing—in either case the exodus of restive surplus populations that cannot be integrated. International aid as well as military intervention is calculated in effects on migration: how to prevent a refugee crisis? The U.S. has paid countries such as Egypt and Pakistan to subsidize their unemployed through bloated militaries. What is to be done with all those seeking work? Where will they find a job? It is a global problem.
Capital is the social form of this surplus of labor—the social surplus of production. Capital is the way society tries to manage and realize the potential of that surplus. But the source of that surplus is no longer so much human activity—labor—as it is science and technology. The problem is that, politically, we have no way of marshaling this surplus other than through possibilities for labor—for instance, through managing nation-states as labor markets. The question is realizing the potential possibilities of the social surplus beyond the reproduction of an increasingly redundant laboring workforce. Will they be starved or exterminated? Or will they be freed?
The only alternatives capitalism offers is in freedom to work—not the worst form of freedom the world has ever known, but its possibilities in capitalism are increasingly narrow. The question is the freedom from work. How will this be realized? There has been mounting evidence of this problem ever since the Industrial Revolution: unemployment. Social Darwinism was not a program but a rationalization for the crisis of capitalism. It remains so today. Will humanity free itself from the confines of capital—the limits of labor?
Were Jacobin’s Peter Frase’s four possible alternative futures merely alternatives in rhetoric? Nearly no one claims to favor exterminism, scarcity, or inequality. The real future of capitalism does not actually belong to such expressions of pessimism. Fortunately, it will be appreciably better than our worst fears—even if, unfortunately, it will be much worse than our best desires. Capitalism for better or worse does indeed have a future, even if it will be different from what we are now used to. It will also be different from our dreams and nightmares.
Jacobin’s Frase seems to assume that not what he calls “communism” but “socialism”—the combination of egalitarianism and scarcity—is both more possible and more desirable: for Frase, abundance carries the danger, rather, of continued capitalist “rentism” and hierarchy. For Frase, among others, the future of social conflict seems to be posed over the terms of scarcity: equality vs. “extermination;” for instance, egalitarianism vs. racism.
Both Moishe Postone’s and Peter Frase’s antinomies—of postmodernism and fundamentalism, and of scarcity and egalitarianism (the latter combination as Frase’s formula for “socialism”)—are expressions of pessimism. They form the contemporary face of diminished hopes. But capitalism will not tarry over them. It will move on: it is already moving on.
What is the future of abundance, however with hierarchy—that of continued capitalism, that is, of “capital rents”—in society, and how does this potential task any future for socialism? Where will the demand for socialism be raised? And how is it to be realized?
We should not assume that capitalist production, however contradictory, is at an end. No. We are not at an end to forms of scarcity under conditions of abundance, or at an end to hierarchies conditioned by social equality.
Citizen Trump shows us this basic fact of life under continued capitalism.
As Walter Benjamin observed in conversation with Bertolt Brecht during the blackest hour of fascism at the midnight of the last century, we must begin not with the “good old days”—which were in fact never so good—but with the “bad new ones.” We must take the bad with the good; we must take the good with the bad.
We must try to make good on the reality of capitalism. As Benjamin put it, we must try to redeem its otherwise horrific sacrifices, which indeed are continuous with those of all of civilization. History—the demand for socialism—tasks us with its redemption.
The future of capitalism is the future of socialism—the future of socialism is the future of capitalism.
Perhaps capitalism is the illness of bourgeois society, and socialism is the potential new form of life beyond the pregnancy of capitalism. Bourgeois society does not always appear as capitalism, but does so only in crisis. We oscillate in our politics not between capitalism and socialism but between bourgeois ideology and anti-capitalism—nowadays usually of the cultural ethno-religious fundamentalist communitarian and identitarian type: forms of anti-bourgeois ideology. But socialism was never, for Marxism at least, simply anti-capitalism: it was never anti-bourgeois. It was the promise for freedom beyond that of bourgeois society. The crisis of capitalism was regarded by Marxism as the tasking of bourgeois society beyond itself by socialism. It was why Lenin called himself a Jacobin; and why Eugene Debs called the 4th of July a socialist holiday. Socialism was to be the realization of the potential of bourgeois society, which is otherwise constrained and distorted in capitalism. So long as we live in bourgeois society there will be the promise—and task—of socialism. |P
 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Seabury Press, 1973), 143–144.
Unedited full audio recording:
Edited for podcast:
Chris Cutrone, founder and President of the Platypus Affiliated Society, interviewed by Douglas Lain of Zero Books, on the results of the first year of the Presidency of Donald Trump.
Cutrone’s writings referenced in the interview can be found at:
Reading and discussion broadcast on Radical Minds, WHPK radio, Chicago:
Platypus Review 102 | December 2017 – January 2018
THE ACCOUNT OF HISTORY is the theory of the present: How did we get here; and what tasks remain from the past — that however appear to be “new” today? As Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.” This is true of capitalism and its crisis now.
The present crisis is a crisis of the world system of capitalism that emerged in the 20th century, a crisis of the capitalist world created by the Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century — in fits and starts (such as the two World Wars and the Cold War) but nonetheless consistently and inexorably. That system has been led by the countries newly industrialized at the end of the 19th century, the U.S., Germany and Japan. All three have come to be in crisis in the early 21st century — the crisis of the EU can be regarded as a crisis of the management of “German” capital.
David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), written and published in the heyday of neoliberalism, regarded the history of capitalism as a succession of “regimes of accumulation” — concrete forms for socially and politically mediating the need to accumulate capital in its valorization process. But since, according to Marxism, capitalism is itself a form of social contradiction and thus a crisis and decay of society and politics, each successive form of capitalism takes up and perpetuates the crisis of the preceding form, however in an altered way. Capitalism really is a matter of “kicking the can down the road,” apparently indefinitely. But the banging can eventually returns, and we must ultimately pay the added costs of its deferral.
The characterization by critical contemporaries of the late-19th – early-20th century era as the “Gilded Age” expressed its quality as what Kant warned about a century earlier, in his 1784 essay on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” namely, “the danger that the vitality of mankind may go to sleep:” “Everything good that is not based on a morally good disposition, however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery.” Gilded Age capitalism was such “glittering misery.” This quality of capitalism continues today, especially in the last generation of neoliberalism whose spell was broken in the recent crisis. Joseph Schumpeter tried to put a happy face on capitalism by calling it “creative destruction,” but Marxism recognized to the contrary that it is actually destructive creation. And its destructiveness is not only immediate but has long-term consequences. The destruction of capitalism is cumulative: it makes claims on future generations that cannot be settled cheaply.
Industrial production and Robber Barons
It was during the period of the late 19th century Gilded Age that capitalists appeared not as entrepreneurs of production but as “Robber Barons” — an aristocracy of looting. Marx had already mordantly observed that in industrial production, with its high capital requirements, it was not the case that being a captain of industry made you money, but rather that having money made you a captain of industry. In industrial capitalism, it was not, as Adam Smith had thought, production developed by reinvestment of relatively low profits in the long run, with high wages facilitating increased consumption — wealth — in a virtuous cycle, but rather, as Marginal Utility Theory, developed precisely in this late 19th century era, regarded more cynically, that use-values of commodities decrease over time, so investors in their production better get in early and take their profits out while the going is still good and before it becomes a matter of diminishing returns — the miserable reasoning of what Smith regarded as “mercantile interest,” the profiteering of “buying cheap and selling dear,” that he thought actually constrains and undermines the productivity of wealth in society, and so needed to be overcome as an impediment to growth. Marx pursued rather the self-contradiction in what became of Smith’s labor theory of value in industrial capitalism.
The accelerated technical production of the Industrial Revolution increased along with it the accumulation and concentration of capital, which Marx thought produced a crisis of value in industrial capitalism, in that such production was still socially mediated by the value of wage-labor, however anachronistically. Wage labor was inadequate for the social appropriation of industrial production. This was the self-contradiction of the capitalist mode of production in political-economic terms, according to Marx: the “bourgeois social relations” were contradicted by the “industrial forces of production;” industrial technique served to increase capital but this outstripped the actual social productivity of human labor, eliminating workers from production so that, as Max Horkheimer wryly observed, “machines have made not work but the workers superfluous.” Adam Smith’s “proprietors of stock” were only a slight variation on the prior traveling merchants collecting the products of cottage industry, now gathering the previously disparate producers in factories; they were not capitalists in the Marxist sense of “owners of the means of production:” the role of the proprietors in Smith’s view of production was minimal by comparison to the laborers who were actually making things with increased efficiency. Where Smith would have expected higher productivity to result in the increased value of time in work through cooperation that would not only increase the purchasing power of labor but also decrease labor-time and increase leisure-time, what happened for labor instead, at a societal level, was the pernicious combination of over-work and unemployment, not attributable merely to temporary labor-market corrections. Human labor was progressively eliminated from production in absolute and not only relative terms: increased production was no longer based primarily on human labor-power inputs in efficient cooperation (as in Adam Smith’s example of the pin-factory), but rather on the development of science and technology, or what Marx called the “general social intellect,” objectified in machine production.
The “combined and uneven [i.e. self-contradictory] development” of capitalism is exhibited by the paradoxical phenomena of simultaneously coexisting “robots and sweatshops.” Industrial development and the accumulation of capital undermine the entire bourgeois social ethos of rewarding productivity through work, the exchange of labor as a commodity. Contrary to Smith’s expectation, Marx observed how in capitalism labor sinks from the most precious to “the most wretched of commodities.” The workers are expropriated of the value of their labor at a societal level, and not merely through being super-exploited by their employers. There is a glaring problem in the development of wealth in society based on the value of labor. The ramifications of this are found in capitalism’s social effects.
This is what makes capitalists appear ambiguously as performing a social duty as investors but also as criminals ripping off society — what Smith had warned about, the constant danger of their “conspiracy against the public.” Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 book Fable of the Bees, a parable of “private vices, public benefits,” seemed mocked by what was actually happening in the Gilded Age. Were the capitalists really, as today’s parlance goes, “job creators?” Yes and no: as often as not. When President Theodore Roosevelt went after J.P. Morgan for violation of anti-trust laws, and Morgan, a Republican supporter, complained, asking what he could do to avoid prosecution by the government, Roosevelt replied with a variation of Robespierre’s injunction that if someone feels implicated by the gaze of judgment it is because he is guilty. Who wouldn’t side with Roosevelt’s sentiment against the Robber Baron? But Roosevelt was motivated not by altruism but what he regarded as necessary policy, to make capitalists responsible investors: Build the railroads, just don’t rip us off. Marx thought that socialism would allow industrial production to go beyond capital and overcome the need for and value of labor in a socially beneficial and not destructive way. This was a problem of society, not reducible to the criminality of the individual capitalists. Even Roosevelt recognized the need for a change in policy beyond the mere curbing of excesses. For Marxism, the accumulation of capital in industrial production was a crisis for bourgeois society, but also an opportunity for changing it. Indeed, realizing the social potential of capitalism was a necessity — a task: it was “inevitable.” The only question was the depth and breadth of the needed change in society.
Discontents old and new
In the 20th century, the discontents of Gilded Age capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution led to what Harvey (after Antonio Gramsci) called “Fordism,” a new “regime of accumulation” or concrete form for the valorization process of capital. It was a new and different form of production and consumption, a new economics and new politics, a new culture: a new way of life. The 20th century and its continuing legacy today express unresolved problems inherited from Gilded Age capitalism that Fordist capital was not able to overcome. We suffer today from discontents with the results not, for instance, of the 16th–18th century African slave trade or the 15th century Reconquista and New World discovery, but rather from, for example, the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S., and the late, 2nd-wave colonialism from the era of what Marxists called “imperialism” at the end of the 19th century — hence the problem of so-called “neo-colonialism.” We live in the world created by the early 20th century’s attempts to solve those problems.
Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the “long 19th” and “short 20th” centuries. He regarded 1789–1914 as one cycle, and 1914–1991 as another. But perhaps we should consider the short 19th century, the core of which runs from the 1820s–70s (from the aftermath of the French Revolution until the U.S. Civil War, the Meiji Restoration and Franco-Prussian War), and the long 20th century which began, perhaps as early as the 1870s but certainly by the 1890s, and continued until the recent crisis of the 2000s–10s. The high 19th century of liberalism contrasts with the 20th century of state capitalism.
In the 1990s, it seemed as if, after the “long detour” of fascism and “Communism” (Stalinism) in the 20th century, a responsibly reformed “progressive” capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution would finally have its unobstructed day in the sun: the U.S., Germany and Japan could inherit a progressively productive world at peace. The mirage of the purported Third Industrial Revolution of the post-WWII mid–late 20th century was revealed to be merely the full flowering of the turn-of-the-20th century electromagnetic revolution that had succeeded the original Industrial Revolution’s thermodynamics: cybernetics turned out to be the latest expression of liberal democracy; however Steampunk fantasies haunted historical memory in the 1990s. But already in the 1970s, Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner showed us the “used future” of decrepit Fordist capital. Neoliberalism naturalized this.
The retrospective view from the present allows for regarding the 20th century as the outcome of the Gilded Age — of the Second Industrial Revolution. But the 20th century was conditioned by the mounting discontents of the Gilded Age and its crisis in the early 20th century — most apocalyptically in the First World War and its aftermath. We still live in the after-effects of the crisis that conditioned the 20th century. The inability to overcome the discontents of capital from a century ago still swamps us today.
In the late 19th century U.S., the Second Industrial Revolution was governed largely by the Republican Party, which was the combined party of progressive liberalism and big capital. The Democratic Party in this period, by contrast, was the party of the middle class and conservatism. So, for instance, Populism as a 1890s Depression phenomenon fed into the Democratic Party, with William Jennings Bryan the Democrats’ (unsuccessful) candidate for President in 1896 and (again in) 1900. But Progressivism emerged as a reform effort from within the Republican Party against manifest problems of liberal capitalism in the 1890s–1900s — most dramatically under President Theodore Roosevelt.
In Europe, discontents with the Gilded Age / Second Industrial Revolution manifested in the Socialist Parties of the Second International. Liberal capitalism was opposed by a mass industrial workers politics — most significantly in the major party of the Second International, the SPD (Social-democratic Party of Germany). In the U.K., discontents with liberalism led to the formation of the Labour Party. These parties had origins in the 1870s but experienced phenomenal growth especially in the aftermath of the crisis of the 1890s. Countries drawn into the Second Industrial Revolution more broadly but on a subordinate subsidiary basis included the Russian Empire and Italy, which also experienced mass radicalization in the form of new Social-Democratic and Socialist Parties.
However these new socialist parties also experienced a crisis of their growth in the 1890s — a crisis of their political purpose: Were they, as they claimed, parties of political revolution, or rather of social reform? Eduard Bernstein was the most perspicacious of the commentators on the developments of this period in the 1890s. He regarded the growth of the U.K. workers movement that led to the formation of the Labour Party as evidence that a revolutionary socialist political party may not be necessary for the transformation of capitalism into socialism: socialism may socially evolve within capitalism rather than requiring its political overthrow. The eventual election of majority socialist or labor parties may be sufficient to crown the development of the social movement of the working class through its civil society organizations such as labor unions and other social collectives (such as women’s organizations, etc.).
The 20th century belied this socialist optimism of the late 19th century that Marxism had in common with liberalism. Just as Progressivism expressed manifest problems of liberal capitalism, so the new distinctly “revolutionary” current in socialism beginning circa 1900 represented by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky as well as by Debs (who was converted to Marxism in the late 1890s) expressed discontent with socialist reformism. Luxemburg for instance called Bernstein simply a “liberal.” What this meant was that Bernstein regarded liberal democracy as politically adequate for the activity of the working class in its struggle for socialism. Bernstein thought that the capitalist interest could be subordinated to a political majority. What Bernstein didn’t reckon with was how the working class would become politically split in the crisis of capitalism. In the First World War and the Revolutions in Russia, Germany, Italy and Hungary that broke out in its aftermath 1917–19, the former socialist parties of the Second International divided between reformist Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists. In 1919, responding to criticisms of the course of the Russian Revolution, Debs declared that, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”
This is related to how Progressivism emerged contemporaneously from the crisis of liberalism. It was acrimonious as well, with incumbent President Taft condemning his challenger, his former friend and colleague Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate for President in 1912, as “the most dangerous man in America.” It led, via the actual beneficiary of the split among the Republicans, Woodrow Wilson’s more socially conservative (for example, avowedly racist) Democratic Party Progressivism, to (Theodore Roosevelt’s nephew-in-law) Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The question is the alternative to capitalist progressivism offered by Marxist socialism. In the U.S. Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America sought to intervene with working-class socialism across the division of Republican Party big-capitalist liberalism versus Democratic Party middle-class conservatism. “Industrial democracy” was the term of this socialist opposition under Marxist leadership.
As a Marxist, Debs like Rosa Luxemburg understood that this pressed a contradiction. Marxism was not an authoritarian collectivist opposition to liberalism, but sought to combine and transcend middle class conservative-reactionary discontents over the destructive effects of capitalism with the revolutionary social potential of the dynamism of big capital. Debs articulated this in his 1900 election manifesto, first delivered as a speech in Chicago, on “Competition versus cooperation:”
The Republican platform is a self-congratulation of the dominant capitalist class. “Prosperity galore, give us four years more.” The Democratic platform is the wail and cry of the perishing middle class; calamity without end. The Social Democratic platform is an indictment of the capitalist system; it is the call to class consciousness and political action of the exploited working class; and it is a ringing declaration in favor of collective ownership of all the means of production and distribution, as the clarion voice of economic freedom.
Progressivism sought to similarly transcend the liberal capitalist vs. conservative populist divide emerging from industrialization, which is why liberals could observe in 1912 that Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party was seeking to usurp the mantles of both William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Democrats and Debs’s Socialists. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s election as President was the result of the split among the Republicans between Progressives and old-style liberals. This set the stage for the triumph of New Deal progressivism under FDR — however 20 years later, after the crisis of the Great Depression.
But FDR’s New Dealism, specifically as a Democratic Party phenomenon, combined but did not transcend the split of progressive capitalism with middle-class conservatism. The working class was thus bound in the Democratic Party to both big capital and the middle class. The working-class struggle for socialism found earlier in the old Socialist Party of America was squeezed out between these two aspects of the progressive New Deal Democrats. Socialism in the U.S. never recovered from this suppression. The New Deal Coalition Democrats became the ruling party in the U.S. in the high 20th century.
The Democrats have tried ever since FDR to retain a progressive capitalist alliance of liberal capital with middle-class conservatism. But what happened in the political crisis of the New Deal Coalition in the 1960s (signaled by the Civil Rights Movement as well as the U.S.’s losing war in Vietnam), combined with the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, was that the form of middle-class conservatism changed — and was captured by the Republicans instead. This was not only expressed in the Southern Strategy that captured the Dixiecrat middle class (racial) conservatives, but also the appeal to “law and order” that captured the Northern urban and suburban working class ethnics who had previously supported the New Deal Democrats.
Subsequently, this has taken the otherwise longstanding form of the old split within liberalism that Progressivism represented: progressive liberalism versus conservative liberalism. The conservative liberals have promised the middle class that it will benefit from big capital; whereas the progressive liberals have actively sought policies that will ensure this. But neither the promise nor the policies have been able to prevent the social destruction and hence the conservative reaction of the middle class. Both the Republicans and Democrats have exploited middle-class discontents without satisfying them.
The working class has been the passive object of this process, oscillating between big-capitalist liberalism and middle-class conservatism, however in the obscure form of oscillating between greater or lesser support for progressive liberalism — greater or lesser support for the Democrats. Politically, this means the subordination of the working class to the middle class. But which middle class?
The 20th century saw the rise of the “new middle class” of corporate capitalist managers, as opposed to the old middle class of small proprietors as well as of artisanal workers. The old middle class were the petite bourgeoisie, which were always distinct from the new industrial working class ever since the 19th century. So the question in the 20th century became the relation between the proletarianized working class of wage-earners and the capitalist managerial middle class. Could the middle class be captured by progressive liberalism? Or would the perennial crisis of capitalism lead instead to populist conservatism? How could populism, whether middle or working class, be neutralized as a disruptive threat to the negotiations of big-capitalist politics?
From the era of the late-19th century Second International, Debs serves as an example of how a populist could become a socialist — and not a progressive liberal. By contrast, Eduard Bernstein shows how a Marxist could become a progressive liberal, via the liquidation of proletarian socialism by neglect of the appeal of middle-class conservatism to which the working class could succumb in its trade unionism.
Proletarian socialism vs. middle-class revolt
The working class is susceptible to middle-class conservatism insofar as it remains attached to a prior form of capitalism — the accumulated ensemble of previous concrete forms of wage labor — that undergoes crisis and is destroyed. Progressivism depends conversely upon the amenability and “liberalism” of the middle class to go along with changes in capitalism led by big capital. Big capital benefits from all changes anyway — capitalists can shift their investments or retire into philanthropy and entire countries can adopt what Lenin called “coupon-clipping” — so the real issue is the struggle to come out on top or simply not to sink entirely but keep one’s head above water in the next wave of capitalism. Conservatives are always there to try to take advantage of those swamped and potentially left behind, with demagogic appeals to the status quo that people forget was itself once something new.
The question is, who are the progressives and who are the conservatives, politically? Perhaps the progressives are the more cunning conservatives — or the conservatives are the more cunning progressives. In the last generation of neoliberalism the Republicans could plausibly claim to be the “true revolutionaries” in advancing capitalism, and thus addressed and exploited the manifest liabilities of the Democrats’ conservatism. The game is to capture middle-class discontents in “progressive” capitalist “reforms” (e.g. “welfare reform,” “trade reform” etc.). The Republicans did so through the “Reagan Revolution,” just as the Democrats had done in the 1930s FDR New Deal Coalition through which they had replaced the Republicans as the dominant majority party since the Civil War. Every “old conservative” was once a “new revolutionary” in capitalism.
Proletarian socialism — Marxism — by contrast sought to subordinate the middle class to the working class in reappropriating capital, which it proposed could only happen through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The political party for proletarian socialism thus sought to lead the broader “masses” in “social democracy” in order to achieve socialism.
This would be especially true of the new managerial middle class which could simply take direction from the working class where they formerly did so from the capitalists — including from the capitalist state and its state capitalist managerial policies. Thus the capitalists could be retired into philanthropy. This was the vision of the Second International (1889–1914) and of mid-20th century Social Democratic politics. Especially since it was understood by Marxism, for instance by Lenin’s conception of contemporary “imperialism” or monopoly capitalism, that not only the new middle class as corporate employees but also the working class itself subsisted not on the value of their own laboring activity but rather on a cut of the profits of capital, which was granted to them for political reasons, through a myriad of government subsidies, to prevent revolution — not merely to soften the blows of the business cycle of boom and bust.
Theodore Roosevelt called this the need for a “Square Deal” — indicatively not a “fair” deal, not merely enforcing liberal capitalism, but the government actively ameliorating its defects — and understood it explicitly as required to stave off socialism. But Roosevelt had, not Marx’s vague “specter of communism,” but Debs’s actual mass Socialist Party of America staring him down to draw this political conclusion: it was a rear-guard action, but with a visionary long view. Progressivism was meant to institute political reforms required to be up-to-date with capitalist development: it was a matter not so much of advancing history as catching up with it; in this sense it still accorded with classical liberalism that the state should follow society and not try to determine it. But since Roosevelt’s time, new problems arising from reforms attempted in the 20th century have clouded the issue; however, the essential political predicament of liberal democracy in the industrial era remains.
The problem and task of “progressive capitalism” is the attempt to maintain capitalism through its manifest social and political crisis. The alignment of the working class with the middle class in common capitalist interest with big capital is always temporary and inevitably fraught. There is always a struggle for supremacy in the fractious, politically negotiated social alliance of capital, which will eventually burst forth from the inexorable obsolescence of any and all concrete forms of capitalism in society.
The question the capitalists periodically face is: Can the conservative-reactionary middle class be made to go in peace (e.g. overdose on opioids — before that, on whiskey: it is important to note that the Progressives advocated Prohibition), or will it freak out and disrupt society and politics in uncontrollable ways? Trotsky called fascism the “petite bourgeoisie run amok.” But every old middle class was once a new middle class — just as every old form of wage-labor was once a new form of capitalism: the working class’s discontents are subsumed under middle-class conservatism; the potential for socialism in capitalism thus disappears. The contradiction of capital that Marxism once recognized is submerged.
The “progressive capitalist” political forms that emerged as an alternative to Marxist socialism after the crisis of the Gilded Age and were carried through the 20th century have exhausted themselves in two waves of crisis: the crisis of the 1960s–70s that led to neoliberalism; and the present crisis of neoliberalism itself in the 2000s–10s. The attempted return to the Gilded Age since the 1980s–90s has clearly failed — which is why this deeper history leading to the present reasserts itself today. It is undigested.
Glenn Beck was not wrong to panic at the sight of Trump and take his ascendancy as the occasion to condemn the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson from a century ago. Beck counterposed the “America of the Founding Fathers Washington and Jefferson” to that of the “Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,” calling the 2016 election the final defeat of the former by the latter. Neglected by Beck in his division of American history is Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as a second founding moment of the U.S. But the evident desire for return to the apparently more innocent time of the Second Industrial Revolution and its liberal optimism neglects its real discontents and actual crisis in the Gilded Age, which once were expressed by Marxist socialism in the era of the Marxist-led parties of the Second International, including the Socialist Party of America of Eugene Debs, but were captured instead by “progressive” state capitalism in the 20th century that Beck and other conservative liberals constantly bemoan — regretting its political necessity.
Today, the question is the future of that 20th century state capitalism that, no matter how rickety, still dominates the world. Its prospects look grim — China notwithstanding.
But actually it is no more grim than the 20th century itself — or the late 19th century Gilded Age of Second Industrial Revolution capitalism that gave birth to the 20th century.
Now as before, the Republicans and Democrats compete over the political capture of middle-class conservative reaction by big capital in service of a capitalist “progress” that is none. What disappears is the possibility once recognized by Marxism of the working class, through proletarian socialism, superseding both “progressive” capital and middle-class reaction. Without it, capitalism is permanent, the middle class under threat periodically runs amok, old tenements are torn down, slums cleared, and new dormitories for the working class are hastily constructed, and in the end the best we can hope for is another Industrial Revolution — with all the destruction that it will inevitably bring. | P
 Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.
 See my “Symptomology: Historical Transformations in Social-Political Context,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/symptomology/>.
 The term originated from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, co-written by Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which expressed disappointments with the post-Civil War boom era in the U.S. It was adopted in the 1920s and retrospectively applied to the entire preceding era, especially from the 1870s–1890s.
 Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.
 Marx and Engels had observed, in their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/>), that the crisis of capitalism would end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
 See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (AKA “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), available online at <https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html>.
 Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1942), Telos 15:2 (Spring 1973), 3.
 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Estranged Labour,” available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.
 For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his high Jim-Crow era 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, recognized it was the capitalist crisis of the 1870s after the Panic of 1873 that had spelled the doom of Reconstruction.
 See Hobsbawm’s books The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987), and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994).
 Another way of considering this history is to regard the history of Marxism relative to the phenomenon of the emergence of so-called “state capitalism.” See my “1873–1973: The Century of Marxism: The Death of Marxism and the Emergence of Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.
 See James Weinstein, The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left (2003), excerpts in The Nation (July 7, 2003) and In These Times (May 28, 2003) available online, respectively, at <https://www.thenation.com/article/long-detour/> and <http://inthesetimes.com/article/the_long_detour/the_long_detour>.
 See my “Rosa Luxemburg and the Party,” Platypus Review 86 (May 2016), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2016/05/03/rosa-luxemburg-party/>.
 “The Day of the People” (February 1919), written about the assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg during the Spartacist Uprising of the German Revolution, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1919/daypeople.htm>.
 See Ken Burns’s recent documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014), which traces this lineage of Progressivism from TR to FDR, including that of TR’s niece, FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt.
 See Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm>.
 Available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1900/0929-debs-competitionvcooperation.pdf>.
 See his pamphlet on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/>.
 Trotsky’s writings on fascism’s nature and character were collected in Fascism: What It Is, and How to Fight It (Pioneer Publishers, U.S., 1944), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm>.
 See my “Symptomology,” op. cit.
 See for instance, Glenn Beck, “Why Teddy Roosevelt is America’s New Founding Father” (May 11, 2016), online at <http://www.glennbeck.com/2016/05/11/history-lesson-teddy-roosevelt-americas-new-founding-father/>, where Beck says that,
So the country is going to vote — the parameters are the Roosevelts. Those are the bookends. Theodore Roosevelt, the beginning of progressivism, to FDR, heavy statism. That’s where we’ll vote. And we’ve just voted two people in the FDR category. Hillary Clinton is FDR. Trump could be Woodrow Wilson, where he silences people and throws them into jail if you have a differing opinion. He could be Woodrow Wilson. But she’s probably FDR.
Platypus Review 100 | October 2017
Audio recording of reading and discussion of this essay at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on October 18, 2017 is available at: <https://archive.org/details/cutrone_millennialleftisdeadsaic101817>.
Video recording of discussion of this essay at the 4th Platypus European Conference at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018 is available at: <:https://youtu.be/tkR-aSK60U8>.
Those who demand guarantees in advance should in general renounce revolutionary politics. The causes for the downfall of the Social Democracy and of official Communism must be sought not in Marxist theory and not in the bad qualities of those people who applied it, but in the concrete conditions of the historical process. It is not a question of counterposing abstract principles, but rather of the struggle of living social forces, with its inevitable ups and downs, with the degeneration of organizations, with the passing of entire generations into discard, and with the necessity which therefore arises of mobilizing fresh forces on a new historical stage. No one has bothered to pave in advance the road of revolutionary upsurge for the proletariat. With inevitable halts and partial retreats it is necessary to move forward on a road crisscrossed by countless obstacles and covered with the debris of the past. Those who are frightened by this had better step aside. (“Realism versus Pessimism,” in “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” 1933)
They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist. (“Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” letter of January 29, 1938)
The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters.” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong—and life passes them by. (“Splinters and Pioneers,” in “Art and Politics in our Epoch,” letter of June 18, 1938)
— Leon Trotsky
THE MILLENNIAL LEFT has been subject to the triple knock-out of Obama, Sanders, and Trump. Whatever expectations it once fostered were dashed over the course of a decade of stunning reversals. In the aftermath of George W. Bush and the War on Terror; of the financial crisis and economic downturn; of Obama’s election; of the Citizens United decision and the Republican sweep of Congress; of Occupy Wall Street and Obama’s reelection; and of Black Lives Matter emerging from disappointment with a black President, the 2016 election was set to deliver the coup de grâce to the Millennials’ “Leftism.” It certainly did. Between Sanders and Trump, the Millennials found themselves in 2015–16 in mature adulthood, faced with the unexpected—unprepared. They were not prepared to have the concerns of their “Leftism” become accused by BLM—indeed, Sanders and his supporters were accused by Hillary herself—of being an expression not merely of “white privilege” but of “white supremacy.” The Millennials’ “Leftism” cannot survive all these blows. Rather, a resolution to Democratic Party common sense is reconciling the Millennials to the status quo—especially via anti-Trump-ism. Their expectations have been progressively lowered over the past decade. Now, in their last, final round, they fall exhausted, buffeted by “anti-fascism” on the ropes of 2017.
A similar phenomenon manifested in the U.K. Labour Party, whose Momentum group the Millennial Left joined en masse to support the veteran 1960s “socialist” Jeremy Corbyn. But Brexit and Theresa May’s election did not split, but consolidated the Millennials’ adherence to Labour—as first Sanders and then Trump has done with the American Millennial Left and the Democrats.
All of us must play the hand that history has dealt us. The problem is that the Millennial Left chose not to play its own hand, shying away in fear from the gamble. Instead, they fell back onto the past, trying to re-play the cards dealt to previous generations. They are inevitably suffering the same results of those past failed wagers.
The Left has been in steady decline since the 1930s, not reversed by the 1960s–70s New Left. More recently, the 1980s was a decade of the institutionalization of the Left’s liquidation into academicism and social-movement activism. A new socialist political party to which the New Left could have given rise was not built. Quite the opposite. The New Left became the institutionalization of the unpolitical.
Michael Harrington’s (1928–89) Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), established in 1982, was his deliberate attempt in the early 1980s Reagan era to preserve what he called a “remnant of a remnant” of both the New Left and of the old Socialist Party of America that had split three ways in 1973. It was the default product of Harrington and others’ failed strategy of “realigning” the Democratic Party after the crisis of its New Deal Coalition in the 1960s. No longer seeking to transform the Democratic Party, the DSA was content to serve as a ginger-group on its “Left” wing.
Despite claims made today, in the past the DSA was much stronger, with many elected officials such as New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. The recent apparent renaissance of the DSA does not match its historic past height. At the same time, Bernie Sanders was never a member of the DSA, considering it to be too Right-wing for his purposes.
In 2017, the DSA’s recent bubble of growth—perhaps already bursting now in internal acrimony—is a function of both reaction to Hillary’s defeat at the hands of Trump and the frustrated hopes of the Sanders campaign after eight years of disappointment under Obama. As such, the catch-all character of DSA and its refurbished marketing campaign by DSA member Bhaskar Sunkara’s Jacobin magazine—Sunkara has spoken of the “missing link” he’s trying to make up between the 1960s generation and Millennials—is the inevitable result of the failure of the Millennial Left. By uniting the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), and others in and around the way-station of the DSA before simply liquidating into the Democrats, the Millennial Left has abandoned whatever pretenses it had to depart from the sad history of the Left since the 1960s: The ISO, Solidarity, and SAlt are nothing but 1980s legacies.
The attempted reconnection with the 1960s New Left by the Millennials that tried to thus transcend the dark years of reaction in the 1980s–90s “post-political” Generation-X era was always very tenuous and fraught. But the 1960s were not going to be re-fought. Now in the DSA, the Millennials are falling exactly back into the 1980s Gen-X mold. Trump has scared them into vintage Reagan-era activity—including stand-offs with the KKK and neo-Nazis. Set back in the 1980s, It and Stranger Things are happening again. The Millennials are falling victim to Gen-X nostalgia—for a time before they were even born. But this was not always so.
The founding of the new Students for a Democratic Society (new SDS) in Chicago in 2006, in response to George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War, was an extremely short-lived phenomenon of the failure to unseat Bush by John Kerry in 2004 and the miserable results of the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections. Despite the warning by the old veteran 1960s SDS members organized in the mentoring group, the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), to not repeat their own mistakes in the New Left, the new SDS fell into similar single-issue activist blind-alleys, especially around the Iraq War, and did not outlive the George W. Bush Presidency. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, the new SDS was already liquidating, its remaining rump swallowed by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO)—in a repetition of the takeover of the old SDS by the Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party after 1968. But something of the new SDS’s spirit survived, however attenuated.
The idea was that a new historical moment might mean that “all bets are off,” that standing by the past wagers of the Left—whether those made in the 1930s–40s, 1960s–70s, or 1980s–90s—was not only unnecessary but might indeed be harmful. This optimism about engaging new, transformed historical tasks in a spirit of making necessary changes proved difficult to maintain.
Frustrated by Obama’s first term and especially by the Tea Party that fed into the Republican Congressional majority in the 2010 mid-term elections, 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protest was a quickly fading complaint registered before Obama’s reelection in 2012. Now, in 2017, the Millennials would be happy for Obama’s return.
Internationally, the effect of the economic crisis was demonstrated in anti-austerity protests and in the election and formation of new political parties such as SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain; it was also demonstrated in the Arab Spring protests and insurrections that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and initiated civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria (and that were put down or fizzled in Bahrain and Lebanon). (In Iran the crisis manifested early on, around the reform Green Movement upsurge in the 2009 election, which also failed.) The disappointments of these events contributed to the diminished expectations of the Millennial Left.
In the U.S., the remnants of the Iraq anti-war movement and Occupy Wall Street protests lined up behind Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination in 2015. Although Sanders did better than he himself expected, his campaign was never anything but a slight damper on Hillary’s inevitable candidacy. Nevertheless, Sanders served to mobilize Millennials for Hillary in the 2016 election—even if many of Sanders’s primary voters ended up pushing Trump over the top in November.
Trump’s election has been all the more dismaying: How could it have happened, after more than a decade of agitation on the “Left,” in the face of massive political failures such as the War on Terror and the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent economic downturn? The Millennials thought that the only way to move on from the disappointing Obama era was up. Moreover, they regarded Obama as “progressive,” however inadequately so. This assumption of Obama’s “progressivism” is now being cemented by contrast with Trump. But that concession to Obama’s conservatism in 2008 and yet again in 2012 was already the fateful poison-pill of the Democrats that the Millennials nonetheless swallowed. Now they imagine they can transform the Democrats, aided by Trump’s defeat of Hillary, an apparent setback for the Democrats’ Right wing. But change them into what?
This dynamic since 2008—when everyone was marking the 75th anniversary of the New Deal—is important: What might have looked like the bolstering or rejuvenation of “social democracy” is actually its collapse. Neoliberalism achieves ultimate victory in being rendered redundant.
Like Nixon’s election in 1968, Trump’s victory in 2016 was precisely the result of the failures of the Democrats. The 1960s New Left was stunned that after many years protesting and organizing, seeking to pressure the Democrats from the Left, they were not the beneficiaries of the collapse of LBJ. Like Reagan’s election in 1980, Trump’s election is being met with shock and incredulity, which serves to eliminate all differences back into the Democratic Party, to “fight the Right.” Antifa exacerbates this.
From anti-neoliberals the Millennial Left is becoming neoliberalism’s last defenders against Trump—just as the New Left went from attacking the repressive administrative state under LBJ in the 1960s to defending it from neoliberal transformation by Reagan in the 1980s. History moves on, leaving the “Left” in its wake, now as before. Problems are resolved in the most conservative way possible, such as with gay marriage under Obama: Does equality in conventional bourgeois marriage meet the diverse multiplicity of needs for intimacy and kinship? What about the Millennials’ evident preferences for sex without relationships, for polyamory, or for asexuality? The Millennials act as if Politically Correct multiculturalism and queer transgenderism were invented yesterday—as if the world was tailor-made to their “sensitivity training”—but their education is already obsolete. This is the frightening reality that is dawning on them now.
Signature issues that seem to “change everything” (Naomi Klein), such as economic “shock therapy,” crusading neoconservatism, and climate change, are sideswiped—ushered off the stage and out of the limelight. New problems loom on the horizon, while the Millennials’ heads spin from the whiplash.
Ferdinand Lassalle wrote to Marx (December 12, 1851) that, “Hegel used to say in his old age that directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable.” We see this now with the last gasps of the old identity politics flowing out of the 1960s New Left that facilitated neoliberalism, which are raised to the most absurd heights of fever pitch before finally breaking and dissipating. Trump following Obama as the last phenomenon of identity politics is not some restoration of “straight white patriarchy” but the final liquidation of its criterion. The lunatic fringe racists make their last showing before achieving their utter irrelevance, however belatedly. Many issues of long standing flare up as dying embers, awaiting their spectacular flashes before vanishing.
Trump has made all the political divisions of the past generation redundant—inconsequential. This is what everyone, Left, Right and Center, protests against: being left in the dust. Good riddance.
Whatever disorder the Trump Administration in its first term might evince—like Reagan and Thatcher’s first terms, there’s much heat but little light—it compares well to the disarray among the Democrats, and, perhaps more significantly, to that in the mainstream, established Republican Party. This political disorder, already the case since 2008, was the Millennials’ opportunity. But first with Sanders, and now under Trump, they are taking the opportunity to restore the Democrats; they may even prefer established Republicans to Trump. The Millennials are thus playing a conservative role.
Trump’s election—especially after Sanders’s surprise good showing in the Democratic primaries—indicates a crisis of mainstream politics that fosters the imagination of alternatives. But it also generates illusions. If the 2006 collapse of neoconservative fantasies of democratizing the Middle East through U.S. military intervention and the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession did not serve to open new political possibilities, then the current disorder will also not be so propitious. At least not for the “Left.”
The opportunity is being taken by Trump to adjust mainstream politics into a post-neoliberal order. But mostly Trump is—avowedly—a figure of muddling-through, not sweeping change. The shock experienced by the complacency of the political status quo should not be confused for a genuine crisis. Just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s a fire. There are many resources for recuperating Republican Party- and Democratic Party-organized politics. As disorganized as the Parties may be now, the Millennial “Left” is completely unorganized politically. It is entirely dependent upon the existing Democrat-aligned organizations such as minority community NGOs and labor unions. Now the Millennials are left adjudicating which of these Democrats they want to follow.
Most significant in this moment are the diminished expectations that carry over from the Obama years into the Trump Presidency. Indeed, there has been a steady decline since the early 2000s. Whatever pains at adjustment to the grim “new normal” have been registered in protest, from the Tea Party revolt on the Right to Occupy Wall Street on the Left, the political aspirations now are far lower.
What is clear is that ever since the 1960s New Left there has been a consistent lowering of horizons for social and political change. The “Left” has played catch-up with changes beyond its control. Indeed, this has been the case ever since the 1930s, when the Left fell in behind FDR’s New Deal reforms, which were expanded internationally after WWII under global U.S. leadership, including via the social-democratic and labor parties of Western Europe. What needs to be borne in mind is how inexorable the political logic ever since then has been. How could it be possible to reverse this?
Harry S. Truman called his Republican challenger in 1948, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, a “fascist” for opposing the New Deal. The Communist Party agreed with this assessment. They offered Henry Wallace as the better “anti-fascist.” Subsequently, the old Communists were not (as they liked to tell themselves) defeated by McCarthyite repression, but rather by the Democrats’ reforms, which made them redundant. The New Left was not defeated by either Nixon or Reagan; rather, Nixon and Reagan showed the New Left’s irrelevance. McGovern swept up its pieces. Right-wing McGovernites—the Clintons—took over.
The Millennial Left was not defeated by Bush, Obama, Hillary, or Trump. No. They have consistently defeated themselves. They failed to ever even become themselves as something distinctly new and different, but instead continued the same old 1980s modus operandi inherited from the failure of the 1960s New Left. Trump has rendered them finally irrelevant. That they are now winding up in the 1980s-vintage DSA as the “big tent”—that is, the swamp—of activists and academics on the “Left” fringe of the Democratic Party moving Right is the logical result. They will scramble to elect Democrats in 2018 and to unseat Trump in 2020. Likely they will fail at both, as the Democrats as well as the Republicans must adapt to changing circumstances, however in opposition to Trump—but with Trump the Republicans at least have a head start on making the necessary adjustments. Nonetheless the Millennial Leftists are ending up as Democrats. They’ve given up the ghost of the Left—whose memory haunted them from the beginning.
The Millennial Left is dead. | P
Chris Cutrone, “The Sandernistas,” Platypus Review 82 (December 2015–January 2016); “Postscript on the March 15 Primaries,” PR 85 (April 2016); and “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” (June 22, 2016).
Cutrone, “Why not Trump?,” PR 88 (September 2016).
Cutrone, Boris Kagarlitsky, John Milios and Emmanuel Tomaselli, “The crisis of neoliberalism” (panel discussion February 2017), PR 96 (May 2017).
Cutrone, Catherine Liu and Greg Lucero, “Marxism in the age of Trump” (panel discussion April 2017), PR 98 (July–August 2017).
Cutrone, “Obama: Progress in regress: The end of ‘black politics’,” PR 6 (September 2008).
Cutrone, “Iraq and the election: The fog of ‘anti-war’ politics,” PR 7 (October 2008).
Cutrone, “Obama: three comparisons: MLK, JFK, FDR: The coming sharp turn to the Right,” PR 8 (November 2008).
Cutrone, “Obama and Clinton: ‘Third Way’ politics and the ‘Left’,” PR 9 (December 2008).
Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, Pat Korte, Charles Post and Paul Street, “Progress or regress? The future of the Left under Obama” (panel discussion December 2008), PR 12 (May 2009).
Cutrone, “Symptomology: Historical transformations in social-political context,” PR 12 (May 2009).
Cutrone, “The failure of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” PR 14 (August 2009).
Cutrone, Maziar Behrooz, Kaveh Ehsani and Danny Postel, “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran” (panel discussion November 2009), PR 20 (February 2010).
Cutrone, “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” PR 33 (March 2011).
Cutrone, “To the shores of Tripoli: Tsunamis and world history,” PR 34 (April 2011)
Cutrone, “Whither Marxism? Why the Occupy movement recalls Seattle 1999,” PR 41 (November 2011).
Cutrone, “A cry of protest before accommodation? The dialectic of emancipation and domination,” PR 42 (December 2011–January 2012).
Cutrone, “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today,” PR 51 (November 2012).
 Leon Trotsky, “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew” (1933), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330715.htm>.
 Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” Partisan Review (June 1938), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>.
Unedited full audio recording:
Edited for podcast part 1:
Edited for podcast part 2:
Chris Cutrone, founder and President of the Platypus Affiliated Society, interviewed by Douglas Lain of Zero Books, on the crisis of neoliberalism and the election of Donald Trump.
Cutrone’s writings referenced in the interview can be found at:
Presented on a panel with Bryan Palmer and Leo Panitch at the 9th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 8, 2017.
The Frankfurt School approached the problem of the political failure of socialism in terms of the revolutionary subject, namely, the masses in the democratic revolution and the political party for socialism. However, in the failure of socialism, the masses had led to fascism, and the party had led to Stalinism. What was liquidated between them was Marxism or proletarian socialism; what was liquidated was the working class politically constituted as such, or, the class struggle of the working class — which for Marxists required the goal of socialism. The revolutionary political goal of socialism was required for the class struggle or even the working class per se to exist at all. For Marxism, the proletariat was a Hegelian concept: it aimed at fulfillment through self-abolition. Without the struggle for socialism, capitalism led the masses to fascism and led the political party to Stalinism. The failure of socialism thus conditioned the 20th century.
The legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is a decidedly mixed one. This variable character of 1917’s legacy can be divided between its actors — the masses and the party — and between the dates, February and October 1917.
The February 1917 revolution is usually regarded as the democratic revolution and the spontaneous action of the masses. By contrast, the October Revolution is usually regarded as the socialist revolution and the action of the party. But this distorts the history — the events as well as the actors involved. What drops out is the specific role of the working class, as distinct from the masses or the party. The soviets or workers’ and soldiers’ councils were the agencies of the masses in revolution. The party was the agency of the working class struggling for socialism. The party was meant to be the political agency facilitating the broader working class’s and the masses’ social revolution — the transformation of society — overcoming capitalism. This eliding of the distinction of the masses, the working class and the political party goes so far as to call the October Revolution the “Bolshevik Revolution” — an anti-Communist slander that Stalinism was complicit in perpetuating. The Bolsheviks participated in but were not responsible for the revolution.
As Trotsky observed on the 20th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution in his 1937 article on “Stalinism and Bolshevism” — where he asserted that Stalinism was the “antithesis” of Bolshevism — the Bolsheviks did not identify themselves directly with either the masses, the working class, the revolution, or the ostensibly “revolutionary” state issuing from the revolution. As Trotsky wrote in his 1930 book History of the Russian Revolution, the entrance of the masses onto the stage of history — whether this was a good or bad thing — was a problem for moralists, but something Marxism had had to reckon with, for good or for ill. How had Marxists done so?
Marx had observed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848 that the result was “Bonapartism,” namely, the rule of the state claiming to act on behalf of society as a whole and especially for the masses. Louis Bonaparte, who we must remember was himself a Saint-Simonian Utopian Socialist, claimed to be acting on behalf of the oppressed masses, the workers and peasants, against the capitalists and their corrupt — including avowedly “liberal” — politicians. Louis Bonaparte benefited from the resentment of the masses towards the liberals who had put down so bloodily the rising of the workers of Paris in June 1848. He exploited the masses’ discontent.
One key reason why for Trotsky Stalinism was the antithesis of Bolshevism — that is to say, the antithesis of Marxism — was that Stalinism, unlike Bolshevism, identified itself with the state, with the working class, and indeed with the masses. But this was for Trotsky the liquidation of Marxism. It was the concession of Stalinism to Bonapartism. Trotsky considered Stalin to be a Bonapartist, not out of personal failing, but out of historical conditions of necessity, due to the failure of world socialist revolution. Stalinism, as a ruling ideology of the USSR as a “revolutionary state,” exhibited the contradictions issuing out of the failure of the revolution.
In Marxist terms, socialism would no longer require either a socialist party or a socialist state. By identifying the results of the revolution — the one-party state dictatorship — as “socialism,” Stalinism liquidated the actual task of socialism and thus betrayed it. Claiming to govern “democratic republics” or “people’s republics,” Stalinism confessed its failure to struggle for socialism. Stalinism was an attempted holding action, but as such undermined itself as any kind of socialist politics. Indeed, the degree to which Stalinism did not identify itself with the society it sought to rule, this was in the form of its perpetual civil-war footing, in which the party was at war with society’s spontaneous tendency towards capitalism, and indeed the party was constantly at war with its own members as potential if not actual traitors to the avowed socialist mission. As such, Stalinism confessed not merely to the on-going continuation of the “revolution” short of its success, but indeed its — socialism’s — infinite deferral. Stalinism was what became of Marxism as it was swallowed up by the historical inertia of on-going capitalism.
So we must disentangle the revolution from its results. Does 1917 have a legacy other than its results? Did it express an unfulfilled potential, beyond its failure?
The usual treatment of 1917 distorts the history. First of all, we would need to account for what Lenin called the “spontaneity of spontaneity,” that is, the prior conditions for the masses’ apparent spontaneous action. In the February Revolution, one obvious point is that it manifested on the official political socialist party holiday of International Working Women’s Day, which was a relatively recent invention by Marxists in the Socialist or Second International. So, the longstanding existence of a workers’ movement for socialism and of the international political party of that struggle for socialism was a prior condition of the apparent spontaneous outbreak of revolution in 1917. This much was obvious. What was significant, of course, was how in 1917 the masses seized the socialist holiday for revolution to topple the Tsar.
The October Revolution was not merely the planned coup d’etat by the Bolshevik Party — not alone, but in alliance, however, we must always remember, with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries or SRs. This is best illustrated by what took place between February and October, namely the July Days of 1917, in which the masses spontaneously attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks considered that action premature, both in terms of lack of preparation and more importantly the moment for it was premature in terms of the Provisional Government not yet having completely exhausted itself politically. But the Bolsheviks stood in solidarity with the masses in July, while warning them of the problems and dangers of their action. The July rising was put down by the Provisional Government, and indeed the Bolsheviks were suppressed, with many of their leading members arrested. (Lenin went into hiding — and wrote his pamphlet on The State and Revolution in his time underground.) The Bolsheviks actually played a conservative role in the July Days of 1917, in the sense of seeking to conserve the forces of the working class and broader masses from the dangers of the Provisional Government’s repression of their premature — but legitimate — rising.
The October Revolution was prepared by the Bolsheviks — in league with the Left SRs — after the attempted coup against the Provisional Government by General Kornilov which the masses had successfully resisted. Kornilov had planned his coup in response to the July uprising by the masses, which to him showed the weakness and dangers of the Provisional Government. As Lenin had put it at the time, explaining the Bolsheviks’ participation in the defense of the Provisional Government against Kornilov, it was a matter of “supporting in the way a rope supports a hanged man.” Once the Provisional Government had revealed that its crucial base of support was the masses that it was otherwise suppressing, this indicated that the time for overthrowing the Provisional Government had come.
But the October Revolution was not a socialist revolution, because the February Revolution had not been a democratic revolution. The old Tsarist state remained in place, with only a regime change, the removal of the Tsar and his ministers and their replacement with liberals and moderate “socialists,” namely the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, of whom Kerensky, who rose to the head of the Provisional Government, was a member. To put it in Lenin’s terms, the February Revolution was only a regime change — the Provisional Government was merely a “government” in the narrow sense of the word — and had not smashed the state: the “special bodies of armed men” remained in place.
The October Revolution was the beginning of the process of smashing the state — replacing the previously established (Tsarist, capitalist) “special bodies of armed men” with the organized workers, soldiers and peasants through the “soviet” councils as executive bodies of the revolution, to constitute a new revolutionary, radical democratic state, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ perspective, the October Revolution was merely the beginning of the democratic revolution. Looking back several years later, Lenin judged the results of the revolution in such terms, acknowledging the lack of socialism and recognizing the progress of the revolution — or lack thereof — in democratic terms. Lenin understood that an avowedly “revolutionary” regime does not an actual revolution make. 1917 exhibited this on a mass scale.
Most of the Bolsheviks’ political opponents claimed to be “revolutionary” and indeed many of them professed to be “socialist” and even “Marxist,” for instance the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries.
The Bolsheviks’ former allies and junior partners in the October 1917 Revolution, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, broke with the Bolsheviks in 1918 over the terms of the peace the Bolsheviks had negotiated with Germany. They called for overthrowing the Bolsheviks in a “third revolution:” for soviets, or workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils, “without parties,” that is, without the Bolsheviks. — As Engels had correctly observed, opposition to the dictatorship of the proletariat was mounted on the basis of so-called “pure democracy.” But, to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, their opponents did not in fact represent a “democratic” opposition, but rather the threatened liquidation of the revolutionary-democratic state and its replacement by a White dictatorship. This could come about “democratically” in the sense of Bonapartism. The opponents of the Bolsheviks thus represented not merely the undoing of the struggle for socialism, but of the democratic revolution itself. What had failed in 1848 and threatened to do so again in 1917 was democracy.
Marx had commented that his only original contribution was discovering the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat was meant by Marxists to meet the necessity in capitalism that Bonapartism otherwise expressed. It was meant to turn the political crisis of capitalism indicated by Bonapartism into the struggle for socialism.
The issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, the political rule of the working class in the struggle to overcome capitalism and achieve socialism, is a vexed one, on many levels. Not only does the dictatorship of the proletariat not mean a “dictatorship” in the conventional sense of an undemocratic state, but, for Marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the social as well as political rule of the working class in struggling for socialism and overcoming capitalism, could be achieved only at a global scale, that is, as a function of working-class rule in at least several advanced capitalist countries, but with a preponderant political force affecting the entire world. This was what was meant by “world socialist revolution.” Nothing near this was achieved by the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the Bolsheviks and their international comrades such as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany thought that it was practically possible.
The Bolsheviks had predicated their leading the October Revolution in Russia on the expectation of an imminent European workers’ revolution for socialism. For instance, the strike wave in Germany of 1916 that had split the Social-Democratic Party there, as well as the waves of mutinies among soldiers of various countries at the front in the World War, had indicated the impending character of revolution throughout Europe, and indeed throughout the world, for instance in the vast colonial empires held by the European powers.
This had not happened — but it looked like a real, tangible possibility at the time. It was the program that had organized millions of workers for several decades prior to 1917.
So what had the October Revolution accomplished, if not “socialism” or even the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? What do we make of the collapse of the 1917 revolution into Stalinism?
As Leo Panitch remarked at a public forum panel discussion that Platypus held in Halifax on “What is political party for the Left” in January 2015, the period from the 1870s to the 1920s saw the first as well as the as-yet only time in history in which the subaltern class organized itself into a political force. This was the period of the growth of the mass socialist parties around the world of the Second International. The highest and perhaps the only result of this self-organization of the international working class as a political force was the October Revolution in Russia of 1917. The working class, or at least the political party it had constituted, took power, if however under very disadvantageous circumstances and with decidedly mixed results. The working class ultimately failed to retain power, and the party they had organized for this revolution transformed itself into the institutionalized force of that failure. This was also true of the role played by the Social-Democratic Party in Germany in suppressing the revolution there in 1918–19.
But the Bolsheviks had taken power, and they had done so after having organized for several decades with the self-conscious goal of socialism, and with a high degree of awareness, through Marxism, of what struggling towards that goal meant as a function of capitalism. This was no utopian project.
The October 1917 Revolution has not been repeated, but the February 1917 Revolution and the July Days of 1917 have been repeated, several times, in the century since then.
In this sense, from a Marxist perspective what has been repeated — and continued — was not really 1917 but rather 1848, the democratic revolution under conditions of capitalism that has led to its failure. — For Marx, the Paris Commune of 1871 had been the repetition of 1848 that had however pointed beyond it. The Paris Commune indicated both democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, or, as Marx had put it, the possibility for the “revolution in permanence.” 1871 reattained 1848 and indicated possibilities beyond it.
In this sense, 1917 has a similar legacy to 1871, but with the further paradox — actually, the contradiction — that the political agency, the political party or parties, that had been missing, from a Marxist perspective, leading to the failure of the Paris Commune, which in the meantime had been built by the working class in the decades that followed, had, after 1917, transformed itself into an institutionalization of the failure of the struggle for socialism, in the failure of the world revolution. That institutionalization of failure in Stalinism was itself a process — taking place in the 1920s and continuing up to today — that moreover was expressed through an obscure transformation of “Marxism” itself: avowed “Marxists” (ab)used and distorted “Marxism” to justify this institutionalization of failure. It is only in this self-contradictory sense that Marxism led to Stalinism — through its own failure. But only Marxism could overcome this failure and self-distortion of Marxism. Why? Because Marxism is itself an ideological expression of capitalism, and capitalism must be overcome on its own basis. The only basis for socialism is capitalism. Marxism, as distinct from other forms of socialism, is the recognition of this dialectic of capitalism and the potential for socialism. Capitalism is nothing other than the failure of the socialist revolution.
So the legacy of 1917, as uniquely distinct from other revolutions in the era of capitalism, beginning at least as early as in 1848 and continuing henceforth up to today, is actually the legacy of Marxism. Marxism had its origins in taking stock of the failed revolutions of 1848. 1917 was the only political success of Marxism in the classical sense of the Marxism of Marx and Engels themselves and their best followers in the Socialist or Second International such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky, but it was a very limited and qualified “success” — from Lenin and his comrades’ own perspective. And that limited success was distorted to cover over and obscure its failure, and so ended up obscuring its success as well. The indelible linking of Marxism with 1917 exhibits the paradox that its failure was the same as in 1848, but 1917 and so Marxism are important only insofar as they might point beyond that failure. Otherwise, Marxism is insignificant, and we may as well be liberals, anarchists, Utopian Socialists, or any other species of democratic revolutionaries. Which is what everyone today is — at best — anyway.
1917 needs to be remembered not as a model to be followed but in terms of an unfulfilled task that was revealed in historical struggle, a potential that was expressed, however briefly and provisionally, but was ultimately betrayed. Its legacy has disappeared with the disappearance of the struggle for socialism. Its problems and its limitations as well as its positive lessons await a resumed struggle for socialism to be able to properly judge. Otherwise they remain abstract and cryptic, lifeless and dogmatic and a matter of thought-taboos and empty ritual — including both ritual worship and ritual condemnation.
In 1918, Rosa Luxemburg remarked that 70 years of the workers’ struggle for socialism had achieved only the return to the moment of 1848, with the task of making it right and so redeeming that history. Trotsky had observed that it was only because of Marxism that the 19th century had not passed in vain.
Today, in 2017, on its hundredth anniversary, we must recognize, rather, just how and why we are so very far from being able to judge properly the legacy of 1917: it no longer belongs to us. We must work our way back towards and reattain the moment of 1917. That task is 1917’s legacy for us. | §