Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.


A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

One thought on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

  1. “It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.”

    Yes and no. It seems to me that the question of whether capitalism is capable of continuing to develop the forces of production further, is different to the question, has capitalism already developed the forces of production to a level adequate for the construction of socialism. I would answer yes to both these questions. Trotsky in some of his writings takes a similar position. H says, that in some ways, the more developed a particular capitalism is, for example British capitalism as opposed to Russian capitalism, the more difficult it might be to actually ignite a revolution, but on the other hand, the easier it would then be to make the transition to socialism once such a revolution was undertaken.

    My disagreement with Trotsky here, and one I’m sure you also share, is that his view about the nature of the revolution that is to be ignited is in reality a political revolution, not a social revolution. In other words, it is a revolution to take hold of the political regime, and then to utilise it to carry through the social revolution from above. Now my objection to this is essentially two-fold.

    So, it conflates a political revolution which secures control over the political regime with the securing of state power. But, the same political regime (governmental power) can exist within a range of different class states. For example, as Lenin argued against the Narodniks, the Russian state, at the end of the 19th century, was already a capitalist state. In his writings on Economic Romanticism, Lenin attacks the Narodniks, who thought that Russia could skip the stage of capitalism, by having the Russian state support and extend the existing co-operative elements of the traditional village economy.

    Lenin points out devastatingly in “The Development of Capitalism in Russia”, that, in fact that old village production, was reactionary viz a viz capitalist production. The worst conditions for workers were found in the most traditional forms of production, and improved as you moved up through handicraft workshops, to factories, to large-scale capitalist production. But, he also points out that because it was capitalist production that Russia increasingly depended upon for its economic well-being, the Russian state itself had to protect and advance the interests of that capitalist production, in order to advance the economic interests of Russia itself.

    Yet, despite the fact that the Russian state was then already a capitalist state, and the ideas of capitalism pervaded it, that did not change the fact that the political regime in Russia continued to be Tsarist/feudalism. It is the debate Marxists have had frequently about reformism. The Allende government was based upon the workers, and had a mildly socialist agenda, yet it found out most cruelly where the real power resides, as the Chilean capitalist state undermined it, and crushed it.

    It is what made the ideas of the Militant in the 1970’s and 1980’s so dangerous with their calls for such top-down transformation by the nationalisation of the 200 top monopolies, and the same confusion was evident amongst all those who made calls such as “Labour Take The Power”, when what they really meant was Labour take government office!

    In short, the problem comes down to the need first to undertake a social revolution. As Marx puts it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme,

    “The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.”

    If you do not transform the society, i.e. undertake a social revolution that transforms the productive and social relations, you cannot change the nature of the state, which is based upon those relations. Trying to establish a “socialist state”, as the means of then creating “socialist” productive and social relations is back to front, idealism.

    So, it is not at all necessary to believe that capitalism is incapable of further developing the productive forces, which then leads to crises and catastrophes that its hoped will lead workers to revolt, in order to carry through such a political revolution. The Bolsheviks had to carry forward their revolution in that way, because of the specific conditions they faced, but those conditions are far from ideal, which is why all such revolutions – and premature bourgeois revolutions also failed for the same reason – have failed disastrously.

    Yet, it seems to me quite clear that the productive relations have developed sufficiently for the establishment of socialism. Indeed, in many ways, we could say that according to many of the criteria of Marx, we already have socialist production relations. The productive forces have developed on a sufficient scale as Marx and Engels outlined for socialised capital to exist in the form of both worker owned co-operatives and of joint stock companies, both of which they argued wire the transitional form of property between capitalism and socialism.

    Indeed, we have gone way beyond that. As Engels described in his Critique of the Erfurt programme, the productive forces had developed to a stage where huge trusts and corporations had become the rational form of organisation and production, and with them not only had private capitalist production ceased, but so too had the “planlessness” that contributed to the outbreak of crises. More than 20 years ago, Simon Clarke pointed out that the average capitalist corporation carried out detailed planning on a far greater and more effective scale than the whole of Gosplan in the USSR.

    The problem in terms of working-class leadership is a failure to recognise the actual development of the productive and social relations that have actually already occurred, and to keep seeing capitalism in terms of 19th century private capital. Its obvious why some sections of working-class leadership adopt that position. The Trades Union bureaucracy depends for its continued existence on playing a mediating role between capital and labour, and the social democratic parties occupy a similar position. For the revolutionary sects, they continue to depend on the notion of a top-down political revolution, in which, of course, they play the leading role, and the working-class are relegated to the role of willing foot soldiers. Again Simon Clarke wrote perceptively about twenty years ago, about the way, where such organisations do succeed in carrying through a revolution, they then quickly see their function as being to hold on to power for the benefit of the working-class, even where that means attacking the real working-class itself!

    For more than a century it has been possible for workers to establish co-operatives on a large scale, and as Marx suggested to utilise credit to extend such co-operative production on a national, indeed international scale. Yet, for the various sectarian ends, the reformist bureaucracy and the elitist revolutionary sects have actively opposed such a development. In that sense, there is a crisis of leadership that has persisted for all that time. Indeed, the support of both the reformists and the revolutionary sects for welfarism, and state capitalism has again been an active misleadership of the working-class.

    If we look at somewhere like China, tens of thousands of peasants flood into the towns and cities, not because, as happened in the British Industrial revolution, they have been dispossessed, but because, in a similar way to that pointed out by Lenin against the Narodniks, the advanced capitalist production that is now possible in China, is capable of providing Chinese peasants with a much higher living standard than they can achieve as independent peasants living in the countryside.

    In Britain, workers in general only sink back into such a peasant existence out of desperation. Unable to obtain permanent, stable full-time employment, they become self-employed, peasant producers and artisans, scraping a living as window cleaners and so on. The success of capitalism, in providing a high standard of living for the majority of workers, despite the stagnation of wages in the UK over the last 30 years, means that in order to provide workers with a credible, and attractive alternative, it must be something which here and now offers them at least some comparable standard of living together with some real control over their lives.

    Co-operative production has clearly been shown to offer such a credible alternative, but to be a truly attractive proposition, it needs as Marx and Engels argued, undertaken on a large scale via a co-operative federation, which today would have to extend across the EU. Production is already socialised production undertaken by socialised capitals. The contradiction today is that private money-capitalists are allowed to exercise an unwarranted control over that capital, and to leach interest from it.

    Even bourgeois politicians like Clinton, and May, and bourgeois representatives like Carney, propose changes to corporate governance laws, to facilitate a degree of industrial democracy such as workers on boards, something which has existed in Germany for a long time. Yet, the left fails to pursue such political and democratic struggles, remaining within the straitjacket of Economistic industrial struggles for higher wages, and so on, coupled with the desire to “build the party” in preparation for the long awaited political revolution.

    No, the objective conditions for socialism already exist, and the political leadership of the working-class has been sorely lacking in recognising their existence, and waging a determined struggle for control over them, instead continuing to wage the battles of the 19th century, and being dominated by romantic delusions more appropriate to the Great French Revolution than the revolution we must now undertake.

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