Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – part 34
The previous post argued that capitalism continues to develop the forces of production while at the same time, in a contradictory process, continuing to fetter their development. This process opens the road to a new society of completely socialised productive forces, or socialism. In order to reach it a certain level of development of the productive forces is necessary, which requires that this transformation take place internationally.
This is so because capitalism has long ago developed not only a world market but also, through the continuing socialisation of production, developed an international division of labour. It therefore follows that the development of socialism in any single country cannot be achieved from an inferior level of development and cannot do so on its own. While the overthrow of capitalism may first occur in a single country, the creation of socialism will face insuperable barriers and without further international development will fail.
Many analyses treat the development of the forces of production as a technological question or from a purely economic perspective, separate from consideration of class struggle or politics, divorced from the latter to the extent that they form a purely background enabling condition long since achieved. This arises partly from the influence of Stalinism, for which purely national roads to socialism are already part of the ‘theory’, and partly from those Trotskyists for whom this constraint is no longer strictly binding because of a one-sided application of the theory of permanent revolution, positing that the tasks of capitalist development may and can, rather unproblematically, be taken forward by a working class regime due to the weakness of native capitalism.
The theory of permanent revolution is taken to have relaxed somewhat the constraint on possible socialist progress at a purely national level, while the decades of capitalist development since its first elaboration have actually tightened the constraint on the potential evolution of a country separated from the capitalist international division of labour.
In this theory the development of productive forces must be considered as a whole, at the level of the world, and at this level capitalism is ripe for socialism. It is correctly recognised that for any revolution in a single country to survive it must spread. However, because this revolution is considered mainly in political terms the grounds for socialist revolution as a social transformation engendered by the social power of the international working class is not fully appreciated. The social power of the working class includes its role in the international division of labour, which provides the grounds for its political as well as economic unity, and is the basis for overcoming the much more uneven and volatile development of political struggles across the world that might otherwise leave working class political revolution isolated in a single country.
For many, socialist revolution is wrongly considered as implying that the task is simply one of destroying a system that is already historically decaying without consideration of the implications of its continuing development for a working class that is far from being able to impose its own solution. This approach believes that capitalism is declining in a historic sense, evidenced by economic crises and general stagnation, along with other pathological conditions that are all held to be derived from decline.
Such conceptions become a dogma that is a given, and within which every malignant social and political phenomenon is interpreted and becomes an example thereof and not as more or less endemic expressions of the system. While the laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx have produced results, ironically they are treated as if they no longer operate, which means his analysis in effect no longer applies. So capitalism is no longer considered to revolutionise society by developing the forces of production and, despite all evidence to the contrary, is conceived as being in stagnation or perpetual crisis. What we are left with is a dogmatic Marxism that ironically facilitates a political practice seemingly at odds with such an approach.
The effect is to reduce analysis to the level of immediate political struggle with an empirical approach to events. As all the fundamental factors for socialism are considered to already be in place it encourages short-termism and an opportunist approach. This does not necessarily mean that the wrong position is taken on any immediate political question but it does mean that even when the right one is taken it is not securely grounded.
If we consider the reality of the continued development of the international forces of production, we are forced to reject the nationalist perspectives of earlier left conceptions and their more recent expressions and inspirations.
For example, in this corner of the world there is no ‘British road to socialism’ and no way forward through attempts to constrain the dynamic of class struggle within national limits through a ‘left’ Brexit. There is nothing progressive about some sort of Scotland of a ‘common weal’ that is common only to a select nationality and which believes social equality can be created within the boundaries of this small European country. There can be no emancipation and liberation of the Irish working class – through pursuit of some mythical ‘real’ independence of the Irish nation in a Workers’ Republic – that is not part of a successful international revolution.
What all these have in common is that the international development of the forces of production makes all their struggles for national separation on supposedly progressive grounds utopian, and if they are utopian they will fail. Whether they apparently achieve short term political success or not doesn’t matter in the end, fundamental economic and social forces will crush their promises, although these promises will long be abandoned by its sponsors before this happens. The apparent victory of nationalism in the twentieth century and its defeat of its great ideological rival socialism hasn’t prevented the continuing International development of capitalism against which nationalist measures are impotent. Only an international political arrangement can adequately address the governance of an international economy as capitalism already acknowledges (through the IMF, WTO, UN, NAFTA, G10, EU, ASEAN, BIS, OECD etc.) and the only consistent International ideology and political programme is socialism.
If the Soviet Union could not develop a superior society to capitalism despite its size and resources, and if Britain cannot develop a superior capitalism to the EU, today bleeding from a thousand cuts that are barely reported, then the idea, for example, of Ireland or Scotland creating oases of social equality are fanciful.
The conditions for social equality cannot exist because the forces of production necessary for them, for socialism, must exceed the development of these forces under capitalism. The productivity of labour and the most advanced techniques of production must go beyond that currently achieved by capitalism through its particular socialisation of production at the international level. It is not a question of resisting and turning back what is now called globalisation but transforming the relations of production and the political determinations of these globalised productive forces.
The productiveness of any single country can no longer encompass all the goods and services considered as necessary consumption in the most advanced capitalist countries, in fact in all countries. Inferior productivity than the most developed capitalism will see workers in any isolated regime buy goods and services from capitalist countries, so undermining their own economy and empowering capitalist industry to out-compete it. It will see workers seek higher levels of living standards in capitalist countries, which their higher productivity delivers, by moving to these countries.
Only increased productivity can undermine the requirement for differential reward as an incentive to work, while this incentive will meanwhile exacerbate inequality. Whatever the intentions, or the more democratic relations of production in any progressive departure from capitalism, superior capitalist forces of production will destroy such a departure if based on a narrow nationalist basis. This is but a negative formulation of the earlier posts in this series emphasising the role of the forces of production determining – by bringing about, or in this case preventing – the development of new relations of production.
Of course, attempts at preventing all this can be made by administrative measures. By curbing the entry into the country of cheaper goods produced by the more advanced capitalist countries and by reducing the supply of their new products and services. By preventing investment in the country by capitalist firms and by restricting freedom to move to these countries of workers seeking a better life. But how would this be possible if this society is ruled by the workers themselves? How could they restrict their own freedoms if they are in charge?
These administrative measures would have to be imposed from without, and the mechanism for doing so is the state. Since some workers would already have partially bought into this – if the project they supported was to create a new and separate ‘progressive’ state – they might at least initially support sacrifices and restrictions on freedoms, while others would not. Those who would support them would seek reward for supporting the new state. Either by compulsion or reward the new ‘progressive state’ would generate its own inequality and its own restrictions of freedoms required to support this inequality – all in the name of progress and equality! We have seen this film before and we know how it ends.
It is more than unfortunate that this understanding of the grounds for socialism elaborated by Marx and Engels have to be argued for again today, rather than having been forgotten, ignored of wilfully distorted or rejected by many of their so-called adherents. The importance of internationalism and of embracing the interests of the working class as a whole was set out over 170 years ago:
“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” (The Communist Manifesto)
Forward to part 35
Back to part 33
“Should this have been what socialists conveyed to the miners involved in an intense class struggle, don’t fight to save your ‘uneconomical jobs’, : it as futile to stand in the way of international imports of cheaper products and services.”
They should not have argued against a struggle to oppose pit closures, but they certainly should, and did argue against basing that struggle on the idea that to save the jobs it was necessary to make Miners elsewhere pay the price for the problems of British capital. In fact, much of the coal that came to Britain during the strike came from Stalinist Poland, which for a brief time even made hardline Stalinist Scargill question his support for Jaruzelski.
It was necessary to explain calmly to British miners that ultimately the uneconomic nature of UK coal production would lead to continuing battles, short of a socialist transformation. Indeed, during the strike, whilst being the secretary of the local Miners Support Committee, and out on picket lines every day, as well as collecting money, organising mass pickets at collieries and power stations etc., I did indeed write articles to that effect. Similarly, we have to tell these unpleasant truths to steel workers, and workers in a whole series of industries, or else we end up being not better than Trump, who has made all sorts of populists promises to workers that he was unable to keep due to economic reality. Indeed, what did happen in Britain? The mines did close eventually, because short of a socialist revolution, the economic reality did impose itself.
What was required was a short term solution to fight against pit closures, and make capital pay, whilst pointing out the need for a longer term solution, based upon a phased closure of pits, the retraining of miners, the investment in new replacement industries and so on. I suspect that the same applies in relation to Southern Irish agriculture and Brazil.
You are right that the working-class – though it is already objectively a global class – does not see itself as such, i.e. it lacks the required consciousness of its true position. But that is a dire practical weakness, not something to be pandered to. The ruling class does have such consciousness, and does act practically according to such logic. Its why, the interest of that ruling class will override whatever the interests of Irish food and agricultural producers might be, in the same way that in the 19th century the interests of industrial capital overrode the interests of British agricultural capitalists and landlords, and led to the repeal of the Corn Laws, splitting the Tory Party in the process of doing so. Whilst some politicians might act as representatives of certain sections of capital with which they are connected, ultimately the capitalist state acts in the interests of capital as a whole, and that interest is not served by limitations on the free movement of capital and labour, and goods and services.
Your argument, here, in relation to pragmatism and of politicians acting according to such pragmatism is the same as that put forward by Sismondi, and the Narodniks in Russia. It assumes that there is some objective logical course of action that simply has to ne deduced for the good of “the nation”, rather than that these politicians and the state acts according to the interests of specific social groups, and predominantly, therefore, the dominant section of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, that is why they have been so prepared to trash the real economy in general in order to inflate asset prices, the form of property in which that ruling class owns its wealth and from which it derives its power.
An excellent account. I have covered many of the points on similar grounds in my response to Paul Mason some weeks ago. The proper positing of Permanent Revolution, is also useful in that context. Its not only Marx’s analysis of the progressive nature of capitalism that much of the Left today dismisses – see my posts on Lenin on Economic Romanticism to see the links with today’s Sismondists and petty-bourgeois socialists amongst the anti-imperialists” and “anti-capitalists”, but also the use of Marx’s method as a tool for continued analysis, instead turning it into an ossified tablet to be read from. So, today’s Left continues to operate as though capitalism is still the free market, private capitalism of the early 19th century, and not the large-scale socialised capital of the late 19th century, as analysed by Marx and Engels, and whose conclusion are extrapolated in Anti-Duhring. So, for example, there is no understanding of the analysis I have set out further extrapolating Marx and Engels conclusions that this socialised capital is already the collective property of the workers, and that the dominant form of property of the ruling class is now not this productive-capital, but rather fictitious capital, i.e. bonds, shares and their derivatives, and that this fictitious capital stands in contradictory opposition to the productive-capital, and thereby to the workers as the collective owners of that productive-capital.
The manifestation of that is the extent to which the state, acting in the interests of the owners of fictitious capital has been prepared to destroy the real economy, in order to reflate and further inflate asset prices. That in turn requires further theorising, given that the ruling class, as owners of this fictitious capital now already exists clearly as a global class able to own this property, and buy and sell it across the globe at the press of a button, but that whilst large-scale socialised capital is also global, and creates the conditions for workers also to establish themselves as a global class, the failure of the labour movement to exert control over its collective property, and instead to limit itself to purely nationally, even, regionally or locally based distributional struggles over wages, means it has completely failed to do so. This is one reason that sections of the labour movement have actually aligned themselves with the forces of reaction, even compared to the ruling class. Marx’s comments in the Critique of the Gotha Programme about forces being relatively progressive etc. is relevant here.
I have posts on many of the issues raised here, due to be published in the coming weeks, on Permanent Revolution, Socialism In One Country, The Popular Front, United Front and Workers Government, which should compliment the ideas you have set forward, here.
There are problems with your formal analysis based on the idea that capitalism can only be understood as a unified world economic system that has transcended local and national political limits. This as a theoretical statement of the facts is conceded by most ‘marxists’ even the Stalinists can not dispute the evidence.
Yet once again we come up against the theory versus practice dilemma. A very long time ago Aristotle in his appraisal of Plato and his Republic argued that what was wrong with it was that it sought to have political life redrafted at the behest of Philosophy or Theory. Aristotle argued for a politics grounded in practical reason, what he called ‘phronesis’ sometimes translated as prudence.
Your account of Marxism harks back to Plato in at least one sense, that it priorities theory at the expense of practice, capitalism as a theoretical world system over what you call the immediate situation. Practical reasoning concerns itself chiefly with the immediate or current situation, something particular and pending rather than something universal and distant.
Here is a ready to hand example of what can happen. During the British miners strike the coal board backed by the conservative government sought to close down the mines on theoretical economic grounds. The required coal could to be imported at a lower cost from South Africa to Great Britain. The closing down of the British mines was the correct thing to do said economic theory.
You write in a critical tone about socialists taking administrative measures ‘by curbing the entry into the country of cheaper goods produced by the move advanced capitalist countries and by reducing the supply of their products and services’
Should this have been what socialists conveyed to the miners involved in an intense class struggle, don’t fight to save your ‘uneconomical jobs’, : it as futile to stand in the way of international imports of cheaper products and services.
Take the south of Ireland today, the agricultural and food industry lives in fear of a free trade agreement between the EU and Brazil. Brazil is a massive producer of food products, especially of beef products, it can produce beef products at a lower cost that is the case of beef products produced in Ireland. A free trade agreement with Brazil threatens to eliminate a successful farming industry in Ireland, so politicians in Ireland on prudential grounds are opposed to a free trade deal with Brazil .
In the immediate world, practical tasks come before theoretical understanding, not theory ruling over practice but practice ruling over theory.
In theory the working class constitutes an international class because capitalism is a world system of production and exchange, this is a universal statement, like a mathematical axiom, the problem is that it is realised more in the conception of it than in the empirical world. Maybe Marxism needs to perfect its practical reasoning more than its theoretical reasoning, for now is not a time of international revolution even though capitalism is a theoretical world system.
One can say that to downgrade the theoretical mind in favour of the practical mind is to endorse pragmatism, and therefore opportunism, pragmatism as a modern intellectual current was denounced by Trotsky, (In defence of marxism) the fight was taken up more thoroughly by George Novack in his book attacking the American version of pragmatism. However pragmatism is older than John Dewey and company.
St Thomas Aquinas the greatest of commentators on the practical works of Aristotle, speaking about the doctrine of Plato that virtue is knowledge wrote ‘He that has knowledge in the universal is hindered because of a passion’…Plato’s error was to suppose virtue to be a form of scientific knowledge, therefore once a person knows what justice is, he can never again act on the basis of an injustice without making a logical contradiction. And one who has knowledge of internationalism is not bound to act out one’s knowledge of it, one is also hindered by a passion.