Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 13 Mandel vs Warren

neoliberalismnCertain aspects of the debate between Mandel and Warren obviously reflect the period in which it occurred, particularly post-war social democracy, Keynesianism and the accepted role of the state in economic policy.  Some of this would appear to have been misunderstood as simply due to the power of the working class in defining the priorities of society; as opposed to the socialisation of capital and production noted by Marx as a developmental law of capitalism, with an increased role for the capitalist state in this process.  In this development the priorities being asserted were primarily those of capital and capitalism.

The period commonly called neoliberalism has demonstrated both that the working class does not shape economic and social policy through the capitalist state but against it, and that even when it has been unable to assert its interests as much as previously, the welfare state may have reduced and become more strict and punitive but it has not been abolished.

The economic role of the state despite the rhetoric has continued to be large and no one now should be confused that this somehow signals the presence in its operation of the predominance of social priorities set by the working class.  All this should be apparent from the experience of the last 50 or so years, at least with hindsight, although the renewed appearance of a Labour Party left demonstrates the need to learn these lessons again.

This period has also demonstrated that the need for capitalist profitability conflicts with the social needs of working people and that Mandel is surely correct that there are limits to the extent which the latter can be accommodated within the former without instability and explosive conflict.

While both Mandel and Warren are keen to emphasise the political nature of the means by which capitalism will transition to capitalism – class struggle and revolution in the case of Mandel and class struggle and reform, particularly of the state (within limits set by capitalism) in the case of Warren – both appear to take for granted that the productive forces and relations of production have laid the grounds for their particular approach.

Except however that Warren does integrate the development of the productive forces into his analysis of the development of socialism out of capitalism better than Mandel, for whom they are simply a precondition already achieved.  Warren envisages their further development, which has been the case since he wrote, but suggests a means by which this can be the growth of the socialist alternative within the capitalist system.

He argues that socialism will not be the result of a revolution, which must provide its own grounds for success, but from the working class developing itself and its role, to be the leading class in society based on the growth of the productive forces.  Mandel is correct that ultimately working class direction of these forces is not compatible with capitalism, the working class cannot be hegemonic within capitalism, but Warren is correct that the working class needs to develop its social and political power in advance of a political contest for state power.  How far this might go is not predetermined even if its limits are.

Warren is wrong to have seen the developing role of the state as reflecting the increasing role of the working class and its priorities within capitalism but not wrong to see that the latter could take place.  The working class must seek to take a greater and greater conscious role in directing society, within capitalism, firstly by creating and directing its own organisations – its trade unions and political parties.  Its imposition of reforms upon the capitalist state is entirely secondary.

But it should also seek to direct the forces of production themselves through worker-owned cooperatives.  In this way it begins to challenge the capital-labour relationship even if only, as Marx says, to be its own exploiter.  In doing so it becomes its own boss, it raises the horizon of cooperation outside the cooperative enterprise as well as within it – in other words a cooperative economy, and it raises the need for a state that can defend, extend and advance workers ownership, a workers’ state that really does reflect working class priorities.

Otherwise the desire to control society upon which a socialist revolution is predicated is presumed to arise from a pure inability to have any control whatsoever; from disempowerment and failure of capitalism.  But the failure of capitalism to do what?  To deliver the goods in terms of standard of living?  But both Mandel and Warren agreed that this will not be the case, at least not in terms of immiserating the working class.

The case for workers’ cooperatives, as also with trade unions, is not reduced but can actually be strengthened during periods of capitalist prosperity.  Their possibility is not reliant for credibility or purpose purely on capitalist crises, which, Marx noted, are not permanent.  The growth of such cooperative production thus does indeed place the working class in a position to more and more become the leading, hegemonic class in society, even if this must be consummated by capturing political power, an objective to be fought for by a mass working class party.

Of course, it is extremely unlikely that either the capitalist class or its state will facilitate or allow the development of workers’ ownership and of a cooperative sector within the economy that would grow to such scale that it determines the overall dynamic of society’s productive forces and its productive relations; that simply needs completion by creation of a new workers’ state for there to be a new working class mode of production, one that is the direct road to socialism.  But such capitalist opposition is testament to the objective role of the growth of cooperative production in digging the grave of capitalist production.

In all this however it is clear that it is the development of political consciousness that is key.  Only through its development will workers become active makers of their own future, seeking greater and greater control over their lives and thus greater and greater control of society.


Marxists believe that it is material conditions that generate consciousness and the purpose of the last number of posts in this series has been to argue that it is not at all clear that conditions of crisis can generate socialist consciousness.  They have not done so in Ireland and some of the first posts on this blog were a record of how previous capitalist crises generated reactionary solutions.  The growth of xenophobic and racist solutions today are testament to this.

Back to part 12

8 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 13 Mandel vs Warren

  1. The Bolsheviks were not wrong in principle to look to foreign firms to attract industry and the new learning that comes with it. However they had political control over the manner and the pace of the process, they could stipulate how much say the workers should have etc. Without the political control the process takes on a an alien complexion. The American trans-nationals have brought skills and learning to Ireland but they also have brought non-union manufacturing plants, policies favourable to low taxation on corporations, and even have a significant over the entire macro economic- political mix. So the objection comes down to this : trans-nationals bring modern industry and technologies, ie advanced productive forces, they also bring their own kind of productive relations with them, they also bring the ideological mind of the Corporation, and a political culture that has a big impact on the pre-existing one. Some of this might be good in theory depending on national circumstances, yet there has been a big downside on the practical side for socialist politics in Ireland. In Ireland the Trade Unions have all but removed or excluded form the Trans-national sector as the price of progress. And this was done in cooperation with the officials of the Trade Union movement.

    • The Bolsheviks did not have control, and Lenin specifically admitted that the cost of encouraging the foreign capital to Russia would be an acceptance of the exploitation of Russian workers by that capital – which in reality was no different than accepting the need for such exploitation by the Russian capital re-established under NEP. In the end, as lenin and Trotsky realised, they needed that foreign capital for development, and they were in a weak position to bargain the terms over its establishment in Russia.

      But, as Trotsky points out even the advantages that the Bolsheviks did have in Russia were not shared by Mexico, where no socialist revolution had taken place, and where there was no workers state. Yet, Trotsky still recognised the need for capital if you are going to have development of the productive forces as a pre-condition for the future establishment of socialism, and the only place that capital could come from was foreign capital.

      It seems to me that what you are proposing is a form of the Stalinist idea of “Socialism in One Country”, of some kind of economic autarchy, as Trotsky criticises above, but one, which again as Trotsky says is not even “Socialism In One Country”, but merely a utopian dream of some kind of national bourgeois development in one country, or capitalism in one country. Such a concept is not just thoroughly utopian, but any attempt to put into practice, would have serious reactionary consequences for workers in the country concerned.

      • Not true. I don’t subscribe to the dogma of socialism in one country. I point to the conception of historical materialism espoused by Bill Warren as a progressive rendition of Marxism which is very serviceable for those seeking a general class peace with the trans-nationals, that is how it was used in Ireland and has been used in other countries. See the article by Haldun Gulap called ‘Debate on capitalism and development the theories of Samir Amin and Bill Warren.’ Warren was keen to highlight what he thought was the historic mission of capitalism to develop the productive force on a world scale. He was less keen to highlight the crimes of developing the productive forces on a world scale ie imperialism. I have criticised some of the material on this blog in the past for coming close to doing something similar as Warren ie providing a concept of historical materialism that is overly focused on the historical mission of capitalism, initiating ‘progress’. I don’t agree with the progressive interpretation of historical materialism, I prefer to place the emphasis on the contradictions wrought by capitalism. I made this clear in a review I wrote for this blog covering the book solely about Marx by Kevin B. Anderson. The account he provides of what Marx really thought about History and Progress is not perfect but it is the one I subscribe to.

      • I don’t think that the view you put forward is the view of Marx. Rather it is the view of Proudhon, criticised by Marx, that dialectics means that you can somehow simply have the “good” aspects of historical progress, and discard the “bad”, both of which are moral rather than scientific terms. Instead, Marx emphasises that historical development involves a process whereby longer term benefits for the whole are only bought at the cost of immediate costs for the vast majority, and significant benefits for a minority. That is the reality of his method historical materialism, and those that oppose it, because they cannot escape their disdain for the negative aspects of that process, end up like Sismondi being utopian, and reactionary drags on the necessary social development.

        As Marx puts it,

        “To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo’s did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself. To oppose the welfare of the individual to this end, as Sismondi does, is to assert that the development of the species must be arrested in order to safeguard the welfare of the individual, so that, for instance, no war may be waged in which at all events some individuals perish. Sismondi is only right as against the economists who conceal or deny this contradiction.) Apart from the barrenness of such edifying reflections, they reveal a failure to understand the fact that, although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed for the interests of the species in the human kingdom, as in the animal and plant kingdoms, always assert themselves at the cost of the interests of individuals, because these interests of the species coincide only with the interests of certain individuals, and it is this coincidence which constitutes the strength of these privileged individuals.”

        (Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 9)

        Unfortunately, the labour movement for a long time has been full of these moralising, sentimental Sismondists, who end up as reactionary drags on social development and the longer term, and often shorter term interests of the working class and humanity. AS Lenin said about such elements amongst the Russian Narodniks, in his writings against Economic Romanticism and Sismondism, the individuals themselves may be very well-meaning, and indeed as he describes in relation to some of the individual Narodniks, committed revolutionaries, and yet objectively the ideas they were espousing, and which drove and determined their actions, were nonetheless utopian and reactionary, acting as a drag on the necessary social development, and rapid development of the productive forces.

  2. Bill Warren, definitely not a fan. I have a document published by the British and Irish Communist Organisation called Imperialism and neo-colonialism dating from 1974.

    It contains two essays by Bill Warren admonishing anti-imperialist politics in general. It was published by BICO for the obvious reason; around that time BICO was involved in a polemic against the Peoples Democracy and the Trotsky inspired Left in Ireland. The document was given to me in about 1980 by one of my politics teachers who was an intellectual affiliated to the evolving Workers Party. The version of Marxism offered by Warren played a part in the ideological shift taken by the Official IRA as it became a hybrid Stalinist organisation. His theory of imperialism allowed the Workers Party and its Trade Unionist affiliates to come up with their own version of Britain’s Road to Socialism programme.

    The Workers Party version argued that Ireland should encourage the Trans-nationals to come to Ireland and modernise the country, thus preparing the economic basis for socialism in Ireland. The native Irish capitalist class were a ‘Lazy Bourgeoisie’. The Irish Unions agreed to the programme without acknowledging the intellectual source and called it social partnership.

    So the ‘progressive’ version of Marxism offered by Warren holds an especially nefarious spot on my political consciousness. Have I been been wrong all along?

    • You are wrong if you believe that because a writer takes a wrong position on one or a number of questions he or she must be damned for everything they have written. However I don’t think that is what you actually believe so your comment is really a warning that his writings come with a health warning. Fair enough, as far as it goes, but I would like to think that most readers will take a critical view of what they read and that this would not be necessary.

      • In terms of encouraging multinationals to set up in Ireland, what is heinous about that in any case. Lenin tried desperately to get large companies to set up in Russia after the revolution, and saw the previous foreign investment in Russia as a very important and progressive means by which the advance of capitalism in Russia, and development of the Russian working class took place. Lenin’s main regret was that although he had good relations with people like Armand Hammer he had little success in bringing large amounts of foreign capital to the coutnry.

        Moreover, Trotsky adopted exactly that same position in his advice for Mexico under Cardenas, as set out in his article on the Second Six Year Plan for Mexico. Trotsky wrote,

        “The reactionaries are wrong when they say that the expropriation of the oil companies has made the influx of new capital impossible. The government defends the vital resources of the country, but at the same time it can grant industrial concessions, above all in the form of mixed corporations, i.e. enterprises in which the government participates (holding 10 percent, 25 percent, 51 percent of the stock, according to the circumstances) and writes into the contracts the option of buying out the rest of the stock after a certain period of time. This government participation would have the advantage of educating native technical and administrative personnel in collaboration with the best engineers and organisers of other countries. The period fixed in the contract before the optional buying out of the enterprise would create the necessary confidence among capital investors. The rate of industrialisation would be accelerated….

        Despite all these advantages (enjoyed by Russia) the industrial reconstruction of the country was begun with the granting of concessions. Lenin accorded great importance to these concessions for the economic development of the country and for the technical and administrative education of Soviet personnel. There has been no socialist revolution in Mexico. The international situation does not even allow for the cancellation of the public debt. The country we repeat is poor. Under such conditions it would be almost suicidal to close the doors to foreign capital. To construct state capitalism, capital is necessary.”

  3. This is a really excellent series of posts. I was aware of Warren’s “Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism”, of which I am a fan, but I was not aware of these other writings, so thank you for drawing them to my attention. If I ever have some free time, I must check them out.

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