Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 12 Mandel vs Warren

mandel3In 1969 the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel wrote an article for ‘New Left Review’ that discussed the question “when, why and how will the great majority of the American working class (the white working class) revolt . . . by making a socialist revolution.”

He went on to say that “in the history of the world socialist movement, there are only three fundamental answers to this question. One is the answer given by utopian socialists, and various propaganda sects of very different colours and origins, who all agree on one basic point: that the working class (or mankind for that matter) will never move towards socialism as long as it has not ‘seen the light’—i.e. let itself be persuaded by the particular creed of the particular sect in question.”

“The second answer, diametrically opposed but parallel to the first one (and as fundamentally wrong) is that ‘when objective conditions are ripe’ (when ‘the productive forces have ceased to grow’; or when ‘misery has become unbearable’; there are many variations of fatalism), the ‘workers will become socialists’ and ‘make a revolution’.”

“The third and correct answer, that of the classical socialist movement, perfected by Lenin, says that workers will make a revolution when (a) socialist consciousness has been introduced in their midst by an organized vanguard; (b) this consciousness merges with a growing militancy of the whole class, which is a function of growing social contradictions, and (c) that militancy emerges into an objective situation of sudden and extreme instability of the ruling class (a ‘prerevolutionary situation’, a ‘revolutionary crisis’).”

I don’t agree with this third answer.  Experience has been that point (a) has been very much like the first answer; that (b) is just a restatement of the second answer and that (c) is an inadequate basis for socialist revolution, as this series of posts on capitalist crises has hopefully demonstrated.

The introduction of socialist consciousness by an organised vanguard can only be something more than a propagandistic sect if there is some material basis for the generation of socialist consciousness among the working class.  By the latter I mean recognition that workers must own the means of production, not capitalists and not the state, and that they need to rule politically, through their own state.  A small propagandistic group cannot generate and convince millions and a vanguard would need to be so large that it needs explanation itself and is not an explanation.

Militancy is necessary arising from social contradictions but this militancy is never without purpose so the nature of the contradictions on which it is propelled plays a large role in determining this purpose, in channelling the militancy along certain lines, towards certain solutions and with a certain consciousness and political understanding appropriate to it.  Militancy usually takes the form of action around the role of the workers as seller of his or her labour power – over wages, conditions or the inability to sell labour power at all and suffering from unemployment.

Since the key to socialist consciousness is rejection of labour power as a commodity, the ‘wages system’, there is a qualitative leap in consciousness required from such militancy. Reformist politics which simply seeks better terms for the sale of workers’ labour power is normally better placed to represent and capture such consciousness, whether this reformism genuinely seeks to achieve the aims of the militancy or not.

So whatever contradiction exists within capitalism that brings to the fore workers’ lack of ownership of the means of production is best placed to provide the soil and nourishment for the socialist consciousness out of the militancy generated by this contradiction.

So a better definition of the conditions conducive to socialist revolution would involve, if we take Mandel’s approach: (1) a socialist vanguard which is a mass movement that is derived from a fundamental objective feature of capitalism committed to the conscious building by workers of a mass party plus (2) a wider militancy that is based upon a contradiction of capitalism that points to socialism as the resolution. These are two expressions of the same process with different levels of consciousness characterising different layers of the working class arising from the relevant capitalist contradiction, which is necessary for (3) any crisis of class rule, which is to lead to socialist revolution.

The key is not therefore the crisis or, as Mandel puts it at the end of the article: “these subjective factors, reacting from the social superstructure on class relations, cannot be the main cause of a new mass radicalization of that working class. The main cause can only be found in a change of material conditions. The growing crisis of American imperialism can only transform itself into a decisive crisis of American society through the mediation of a growing instability of the American economy. This is our key thesis.”

Crises are an intrinsic part of capitalism; like troubles, we do not have them to seek.  What we do have to seek is the objective contradictions of capitalism upon which a subjective socialist movement of workers can be built.  And like crises, the contradictions of capitalism are also not hard to find. The creation of a workers movement that seeks their resolution in socialism is the task and not a vanguard that can lead workers to take advantage of episodic crises, which are not permanent, to seize political power without first having established that for the working class itself this is what its objective should be.

Just as capital is both a thing and a social relation; money, commodities, machinery and factories etc. while also the relation of the exploitation of workers labour power to create more value than that which they are paid; so the movement that overcomes capital will be both a thing that demonstrates the objective overcoming of capitalism and also the relation of workers breaking from capitalist exploitation through breaking the monopoly ownership of the means of production.

In 1974 Mandel engaged in a debate with Bill Warren, a writer with quite different views, about the capitalist crisis that had developed at that time and about what the crisis meant for the strategy for a working class conquest of power.

Warren argued that capitalism and its development of the productive forces was less and less effective in responding to the social needs of workers which the system itself had developed.  This incapacity of capitalism was reflected in the increasing role of the state which carries out roles of economic distribution that allocation through the market cannot.  The working class develops new aspirations for itself and becomes a decisive factor in the direction of this increasing state control.

Warren therefore writes that “It therefore seems to me that the long-run strategy of the working class must be to centre the struggle around the control of economic policy. To put it somewhat differently: if the working class is to develop as the leading class within society, as a hegemonic class, it must itself become a leading class within capitalism before it conquers state power. . . it seems to me that the present characteristic of Western capitalism is not one where the working class can rely on stagnation, slump or decline in order to conquer power, but, on the contrary, must rely upon its ability to increasingly lead society in such a way as to control the economy in a fashion more relevant to social need.”

Mandel disagrees and comes straight to the point:

“I would agree with Bill Warren that the case for socialism should not be based on the fact that capitalism produces increasing misery, or even a decline in material wealth . . . I do not think that the working class can become the leading class in society before it has taken political and economic power. I think that the very characteristic of the capitalist economy is that you cannot run that economy on basic lines other than those of capitalist interest. That is to say: on the lines of profit.”

Warren’s reply is that the British economy had already changed dramatically since the 19th century, that a large proportion of the population was employed in non-profit sectors and a large part of investment was state led.  This is a process that had taken a long time but one which had gradually been able to impose working class social priorities on capitalism.  The problem has been that the working class had not attempted to carry out these changes within capitalism as a leading class, as a class leading society in order to bring about its social priorities.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it has not acted as a dominant class within society, but rather as a subordinate class, it had nevertheless brought about extremely fundamental changes in capitalist society. What’s more to the point, it had been able to bring these changes about without any major disruption in the ability of capitalist society to continue to work relatively effectively. These extremely fundamental changes had been compatible with the operation of the profit motive.

He went on to argue that “The kind of process that I am invisaging, in other words, is one in which the working class actually intensifies class struggle over the imposition of social priorities, but does so in a way which is consistent with a realistic way of keeping the capitalist economies operating. This has already happened in the past.”

Mandel concludes by recognising that “the might of the working-class movement has enabled it to realize through society, to impose on the capitalists, a certain number—I would be much less optimistic than he in my assessment of its achievements—but a certain number of social priorities. That is the main contribution which the working-class movement has made up to now, through the improvement of the situation of the working class and to the change in social conditions in general. There is no dispute about that. People who dispute that would dispute the very existence of more than 100 years of mass organization of the working class. But I would strongly deny the possibility that this process can grow in an unlimited way without bringing social and economic contradictions within the capitalist system to an explosive point.”

to be continued

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

How Northern Ireland Works

rhiTurn to a certain page of ‘The Irish News’ on any day and one will find an editorial and two opinion pieces, on a Thursday always by Newton Emerson and Allison Morris.  Today’s tells you a lot about how the British State in Ireland works.

Newton Emerson covers the £80 million Social Investment Fund run by the Westminster sub-contractor at Stormont, which, when it was set up, was widely and accurately described as a paramilitary slush fund.  It is meant to help paramilitary criminals ‘transition’ from sectarian thuggery and criminal racketeering to normal society by giving them money.  Much as previous Direct British rule gave them money, weapons and intelligence, all the better that they could kill and intimidate opposition to that rule.  Think of giving money to criminals in order to stop them beating the shit out of you or killing you and you will get the picture – it’s called protection.

The current controversy revolves around a police statement that ‘active’ UDA members are involved in one of the ‘community’ bodies which is funded by this Social Investment Fund.  The two parties running Stormont – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein – both defend the governance of this fund and say that it has all the checks and scrutiny that disbursement of public money normally involves.

However, this appears to involve giving money to intermediary bodies who decide who gets the funding, so it’s not directly given by Stormont, and no particular monitoring, in fact no monitoring at all, of just what outputs or outcomes or performance measurements are expected to be demonstrated by these ‘community’ groups.  In fact, the front page of this edition of ‘The Irish News’ reports that accounting records can be burned and a qualified statement made on the organisation annual accounts and you will still get the money, rather raising the question of just what checks and scrutiny Sinn Fein and the DUP are referring to.

It might be expected by the ignorant or just naive that Sinn Fein might object and try to stop money being given by the DUP to sectarian loyalist criminals but this would be, well, either ignorant or naïve.  For Sinn Fein it’s a case of allowing each party to slush its own funds.  And anyway, these loyalist gangs are a much greater menace to working class Protestants than working class Catholics and Sinn Fein is a Catholic party.

It might also be expected that the law enforcement agencies might take steps to prevent the funding of terrorist organisations, of which the Ulster Defence Association is one.  Much of Newton Emerson’s opinion piece is taken up by setting out all of the anti-terrorist law that appears to have been broken by everyone involved, including, if I’ve got this right, you and me, now that you have read these lines and I have written them.

It is against the law to be a member of the UDA and it doesn’t matter if you are ‘active’ or otherwise.  Financial support to such an organisation is against the law, even when you merely have “reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for the purposes of terrorism.”  “Entering into or becoming concerned with” any suspicious “funding arrangement” is also against the law.  And there is a duty to disclose any “belief or suspicion” regarding these offences, with failure to do so itself an offence that could send you to jail for five years. This law applies in Britain and not just in Northern Ireland – so if you’re reading this in Britain it also applies to you! –  so now that both of us have had our suspicions awakened we are all obliged to report this to . . . who exactly?

The second opinion piece by Allison Morris is about what is now called the biggest financial scandal to hit Stormont, since it’s reckoned to be going to cost £400m over 20 years.  It centres on the innocuous sounding Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) run by the now-renamed Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI).  This involves payments to people who burn renewable biomass (wooden pellets) and is part of the UK wide initiative to reduce climate change.  The scheme in Northern Ireland originated from a similar scheme in GB except the GB scheme had a cap on the money handed out and the local one didn’t.  Bit of a bummer from the kick-off you might think.

The scheme involved a further design feature that meant you could get more money for burning the wood pellets than it would cost you to buy and burn them.  So, let’s say I bought and burnt wood pellets to heat my farm and this cost me £1,000; the scheme would give me more than £1,000 to do it!

What would you do?  Would you economise on your fuel bills to help save the planet and human kind? Or would you join one scheme participant who is heating an empty barn, or others who have heated their property while opening the windows?  Apparently one farmer will earn £1m over the life of the scheme, and there is no suggestion he is doing anything other than playing by the rules.

This is a scandal not because it is stupid but because one concerned citizen reported to DETI that with five minutes research anyone could work out that this scheme was a mess.  It’s a scandal because the scheme wasn’t immediately stopped when this was pointed out.  It’s a scandal because the relevant Minister responsible has blamed almost everyone but herself and excused herself by saying that she cannot be expected to know “every jot and tittle.”

It’s a big scandal because she is now First Minister.  For the reaction of the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister see scandal one above.  It’s an even bigger scandal because it appears the special advisor to the responsible Minister availed of the scheme, as did his brother, as did another brother of another DUP special advisor and as did god knows who else – because the full list of scheme participants hasn’t been revealed.

The First Minister is obviously not into “every jot and tittle” but not being into it does not seem to prohibit strong action, as she is reported to have delayed stopping the scheme when at last someone at Stormont thought the smell had become too much.

But really, this isn’t the point of this post as readers in the North of Ireland will know all this and others will be well aware that corruption is part and parcel of the capitalist system.  What I found interesting in the two opinion pieces was not the hand-wringing of the two columnists but the conclusions.

Newton Emerson believes that funding illegal terrorist organisations in order that they might behave better is against the law and that since the state is doing this and breaking the law we should change the law!

It’s simply brilliant – isn’t it?

“If paramilitary transitioning had a legal basis, would it feel less like putting some people above the law?” he asks.  I’m really sure there’s an answer to that.

Meanwhile Allison Morris has her conclusion:

“Arlene Foster (the First Minister) has refused to fall on her sword, and this is where I will probably differ in view from many other commentators.  I don’t think she should . . . because the alternative as DUP party leader and First Minister is too awful to think about, Sammy Wilson or Nigel Dodds running the place? No thanks.”

So what will Allison say to us when Foster does go, whenever that is and for whatever reason, and we get a Sammy Wilson or a Nigel Dodds to take over?  Who will the DUP put up as next in line to make Allison put up with a Sammy or a Nigel?

Such is the nature of the peace process in British ruled Ireland and such is the nature of the critical nationalist press, that is, those who are supposed to oppose the rottenness of British rule.

Anyway, that’s enough for tonight.  I’m away to watch the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme ‘Spotlight’, which has been trailed as an exposure of the truth by the DUP ex-minister who succeeded Foster at DETI.

Will it be fireworks or a damp squib, like the pathetic indoor fireworks I had to put up with as a child during the troubles because too many loud bangs would send the British Army into apoplexy?

If only I had a bottle of beer in the house I’d open it up and settle down, ready to be delighted or mildly disappointed.

Must go.





Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 11 – crises and contradictions V

paris-communeWhen we consider the role of capitalist economic crises in the creation of a new society we are not short of guidance.  Capitalism has had so many crises that there have been innumerable opportunities to investigate just how such crises prompt or accelerate the socialist alternative.  In Ireland, the economic crash of 2008 destroyed the credibility of the main capitalist Party, Fianna Fail, whose Finance minister had hailed “the cheapest bail-out in the world” before it bankrupted the state and brought in the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission to determine the state’s response to the crisis.

Yet this enormous crisis and exposure of the credibility of the economic and political system did not lead to any qualitative increase in the power of the Irish working class or of those political forces seeking to replace capitalism with socialism.  Indeed there appears to be a greater chance of more or less the same economic and political crises happening again, with an overheated property market, massive debt, and the working class responding only to the rhythms of the capitalist boom and bust, currently by attempting to make wage gains during the boom but without any perspective for the bust.

In this its short-sightedness is understandable and so is that of the left that claims to be far more far-seeing and which would claim that, like Marx, “in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

But only if the left learns that it must properly prepare for such crises and not simply await them, hoping that they push workers into its arms, will it have learnt something.  The experience of previous generations of socialists should be drawn upon to see what lessons must be learned.  It is clear that Marx himself learnt from crises and from the role they could play in ushering in or assisting workers’ revolution.

Even as a young man Marx understood the need for patience and preparation – “we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb.”

A few years later Engels made a similar observation:

Question 15: Do you intend to replace the existing social order by community of Property at one stroke?

Answer: We have no such intention. The development of the masses cannot he ordered by decree. It is determined by the development of the conditions in which these masses live, and therefore proceeds gradually.

The point is not that both Marx and Engels sought to delay revolution but that they understood its prerequisites.  At this time they believed that not all countries were ripe for social revolution, which would depend mainly on the fate of Britain.

Even in the democratic revolution in Germany in 1848 Marx was clear that revolution could not be decreed, even if certain lines of march could be advanced:

“We do not make the utopian demand that at the outset a united indivisible German republic should be proclaimed, but we ask the so-called Radical-Democratic Party not to confuse the starting-point of the struggle and of the revolutionary movement with the goal. Both German unity and the German constitution can result only from a movement in which the internal conflicts and the war with the East will play an equally decisive role. The final act of constitution cannot be decreed, it coincides with the movement we have to go through. It is therefore not a question of putting into practice this or that view, this or that political idea, but of understanding the course of development. The National Assembly has to take only such steps as are practicable in the first instance.”

Marx also believed that capitalist prosperity could rule out revolution, which could only come from crisis:

“Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors – the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production – come into opposition with each other. . . . A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other.”

But this does not mean that out of each and every crisis would come revolution and it is apparent that as he got older Marx became less sanguine about the impact of crisis itself as the harbinger of workers’ revolution.  The recent biographer Jonathan Sperber notes that “after the disappointment of his hopes of revolution to follow in the wake of the global recession of 1857, Marx rather downplayed the importance of crises for the end of capitalism.” (Karl Marx, a Nineteenth Century Life)

Marx was aware that revolution was not merely an exercise of will and might need decades for the working class to train itself for the exercise of power.  His attitude to the situation facing French workers in 1870 when the Prussian army had defeated France is instructive of his serious attitude to revolution and his understanding of the conditions for success.  He noted that in relation to the new French republican Government that “any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be desperate folly.  . . . Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.”

Nevertheless, when French workers rose up and created the Paris Commune Marx leapt to its defence, explaining the attitude that all sincere socialists take when workers enter struggle: “World history,” he wrote, “would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.”  As Engels noted of the events in the 1848 revolutions:

“A well-contested defeat is a fact of as much revolutionary importance as an easily-won victory. The defeats of Paris in June, 1848, and of Vienna in October, certainly did far more in revolutionizing the minds of the people of these two cities than the victories of February and March. The Assembly and the people of Berlin would, probably have shared the fate of the two towns above-named; but they would have fallen gloriously, and would have left behind themselves, in the minds of the survivors, a wish of revenge which in revolutionary times is one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action. It is a matter of course that, in every struggle, he who takes up the gauntlet risks being beaten; but is that a reason why he should confess himself beaten, and submit to the yoke without drawing the sword?”

We cannot always pick our battles, but if we can we should, and it is on the basis of what we want that we should plan and prepare, what we should build for and base our politics on.  As Marx said of the First International:

“The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.”

“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. . . .  On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.”

“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes.”

In speaking of the results of the Paris Commune Marx noted that:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistably tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”


It would be wrong to see this prognosis as out of date, made archaic and obsolete by almost 150 years of intervening history.  This is obviously not the case.  The working class of today is very different from that of the late 19th century, with the many struggles the latter gained consciousness from a matter of history and not lived experience.  In many ways it has to painfully learn lessons previously acquired through bitter and desperate struggle.  It has also to “pass through long struggles” and “through a series of historic processes” through which it will be transformed and be transforming.

In terms of economic and social development the objective grounds are today much more favourable across the world.  In terms of the social and political power of the working class, in many countries it is no more stronger now than it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago.  This is a glaring contradiction and it is one that requires explanation, although not only that.

As Marx famously said  “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  So it is not so much explanation as practical solution that is required, which necessitates increased organisation and heightened political consciousness.  Crises throw up the need for this and do not offer solutions but simply opportunities to face the challenges that either success or failure in developing this organisation and consciousness make workers more or less ready for.

In the next post I will look at a couple of Marxist contributions to this problem written in the late 1960s and mid-1970s.

Back to part 10