The role of capitalist crisis in socialist revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 50

Marx notes that commercial crises ‘by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society.’ (Collected Works Vol 6 p 490)

Whether capitalism is then found guilty is a matter of objective conditions and the class struggle, with its own requirements for success.  We know however that it is not the case that crises are each time more threatening.  Like many statements in the Communist Manifesto it is a political declaration, a proclamation of belief and exhortation to action written in broad strokes, not a studied analysis.  In other words, a manifesto.

Capitalist crises nevertheless were considered to play an important role in determining the potential for revolution, even if in themselves they did not answer to the possibility of success.  In a letter to Bernstein in January 1882, Engels wrote:

‘The fact that these crises are one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals has already been stated in the Communist Manifesto and is explained in the review section of the Neue Reinische Zeitung up to and including 1848, but it is also explained that the returning prosperity also breaks revolutions and lays the foundations for the victory of reaction.’

It should be noted that this refers to political revolution, that is those social convulsions causing or attempting to cause more or less important changes to the Government or State, and not to the fundamental class structure that supports them.  That this is under-appreciated is because the former is conflated with the latter since it is assumed that that there is little social transition before capture of state power by the working class and that the new state structure is what will be constitutive of the new social relations of production.

That this is the case is understandable since it is possible to find statements by Marx and Engels about the role of a new workers’ state arising from crisis and revolution that is consistent with this view and we have addressed this before in a number of posts beginning here.

In relation to views on the relation of crises to revolution we can record the view here:

‘The virtual repeal of the act of 1847 will force manufacturers into such a rush of overtrading that revulsions upon revulsions will follow, so that very soon all the expedients and resources of the present system will be exhausted and a revolution, made inevitable, which, uprooting society far deeper than 1793 and 1848 ever did, will speedily lead to the political and social ascendancy of the proletarians . . .’  (The Ten Hours Question, Collected Works Volume 10 p 275-6)

The quotation above, written by Engels in February 1850, betrayed his over-optimistic view at that time, following the 1848 revolutions across much of Europe.  Capitalism proved more dynamic and adaptive than allowed for, and the preconditions for the political and social revolution envisaged were much greater than existed at that point, even in the most advanced society. 

Both Marx and Engels were enthusiasts of revolution and sometimes optimistic about its proximity and success.  But optimism was always tempered by more realistic evaluation when it came to specifying the line of march, and Marx in particular showed remarkable realism in assessing revolutionary opportunities when they appeared to arise. 

He continued after 1848 to analyse economic developments with a view to their potential impact on the potential for revolution, this time from the crisis in 1857:

‘`What the most far- sighted politicians now are sure of is an enlarged edition not only of the crisis of 1847 but also of the revolutions of 1848 … In 1848 the movements which more immediately produced the Revolution were of a merely political character … Now, on the contrary, a social revolution is generally understood, even before the political revolution is proclaimed; and a social revolution brought about by no underground plots of the secret societies among the working classes, but by the public contrivances of the Crédits Mobiliers of the ruling classes.’

Here, Marx not only looks to the potential for political revolution but also argues that the development of capitalism itself is bringing about a social revolution. Of course, much of this speculation was in private correspondence so cannot be presented as considered political statements (to be carried forward as holy writ into the 21st century).

Hal Draper is right when he excoriates those who quote Marx to advance whatever and any purpose they have: ‘I have seen remarks by Marx that were hastily dashed off in a letter to a friend, or a few words jotted down in a note, solemnly quoted (without identification) as if they were long-pondered programmatic statements every syllable of which had been thought out for its exact scientific meaning–indeed, even without regard to other statements on the subject of greater reliability.’

So, in relation to the crisis of 1857 Engels wrote to Marx that ‘this time it is coming properly, now it’s a case of do or die.’  Yet Engels did not want the crisis to develop too quickly, hoping for ‘a period of chronic pressure . . . to get the people’s blood up.’  (Marx to Engels 1857) Yet later Engels noted that ‘there are as yet few signs of revolution . . .’  Marx wrote to Engels drawing comfort from an apparent recovery: `The momentary lull in the crisis is, or so it seems to me, most advantageous to our interests –- party interests, I mean’ (Letter Marx to Engels Jan 1858, CW Vol 40, p243).  You could almost make what you want out of such quotations if you were prepared to be selective.

Reviewing their attitude during this period Simon Clarke (‘Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p119) says 

‘Marx and Engels were certainly excited by the onset of the crisis of 1857, but despite their optimistic rhetoric, they didn’t really seem to have much expectation that anything would come of it, they didn’t throw themselves into political activity, and did not appear surprised when the crisis passed, leaving only minor dislocations in its wake.  Nevertheless, the crisis, and its failure to develop according to the course anticipated by Marx, provided the stimulus for Marx to return to his economic studies . . .’

This alerts us to awareness that Marx didn’t arrive at ‘Marxism’ at one (relatively early) point in his political life and spend the rest of it setting it out.  He learned, as we all do, as we go along; consider, for example, the lessons he learned as a 53 year-old from the Paris Commune in 1871 when he wrote of ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.’

Clarke goes on to recognise that the ‘ identification of the contradictory foundation of capitalist accumulation and crisis is the basis on which the emphasis of Marx’s theoretical attention moves away from crisis, which has very little part to play in his later works, just as politically Marx moved away from the apocalyptic vision of the revolution as a political event precipitated by a crisis, to the vision of the revolution as the culmination of a longer struggle to build a working class movement’. (Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p 175). Clarke also makes a similar point in relation to war.1

‘We have seen that through the 1850s Marx looked to the onset of the crisis as the precipitant of an upsurge of working class militancy, which would provide the driving force of the coming revolution. This expectation was based on little more than wishful thinking, for nowhere in their works did Marx or Engels spell out precisely how they saw such a development taking place, and they certainly had little faith in the ability of any of the revolutionary groupings with which they were loosely associated to provide a political focus for such a revolutionary upsurge. They hailed the crisis of 1857 as the herald of the revolution, but when it passed without significant political incident they didn’t express any surprise, nor feel any need for a re-evaluation of their position. Although the rapid recovery from crisis prevented the expected revolutionary upsurge from happening, it also swept Proudhon and his followers from the political stage.’ (Clarke p248 print edition)’ 

‘Thus the theory of crises plays a rapidly diminishing role in Marx’s work after 1862, to be replaced by an emphasis on the secular tendencies of capitalist accumulation, just as the conception of revolution as the culmination of struggles unleashed by economic crisis is replaced by a conception of revolution as the outcome of an extended period of class development.’  (Clarke p 245)

Clarke might be said to summarise his reading of the relationship between Marx’s analysis of capital and politics at the end of his book:

‘The focus of orthodox Marxism on general crises, as opposed to the permanently contradictory and crisis ridden character of capital accumulation, has equally proved a distraction. Although Marx and Engels bolstered their revolutionary faith by appealing to the inevitable crisis, in practice they quietly abandoned the illusion that the revolution would be precipitated by a general crisis when that of 1857 turned out to be a damp squib’

‘By the time that Marx wrote the first volume of Capital the emphasis of his analysis of capitalism was on the secular tendencies of capitalist development, the tendency to the concentration and centralisation of capital, to the polarisation of wealth and poverty, the coexistence of overwork and unemployment, and to the increasing instability of social existence which underlay the development of the organised working class. The crisis is no longer a cataclysmic effect, it is a part of the normal pattern of capitalist accumulation, the pattern of overaccumulation and crisis that underlies the permanence of the class struggle as capitalists seek to resolve the crisis tendencies of accumulation at the expense of the working class.’ (Clarke p 285)

  1. ‘Through the 1860s and early 1870s Marx looked to war rather than economic crisis as the precipitant of the political development of the working class. By the middle 1870s, however, Marx and Engels had come to see war, like crises, as events which divided and demoralised the working class.

Engels wrote to Sorge that the old international was now dead, as national rivalries and differences emerged after the fall of the Paris Commune (04.08.74). Marx clearly regarded a further war as a barrier to the progress of the working class. `A new war is inevitable au peu plus tôt, au peu plus tard, and before its conclusion there are hardly likely to be any violent popular movements anywhere.’ (Marx to Kugelman 18.05.74, CW45, 18)

`General European conditions are such as to increasingly wage a general European war. We shall have to pass through it before there can be any thought of decisive overt activity on the part of the European working class.’ (Marx to Sorge, 12-17.09.74, CW45, 30)’

Back to part 49

Breakdown, crises and the door to revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 49

Arguments based on Marx’s 1859 Preface are often considered to be ‘reductionist’ or ‘determinist’, robbing the oppressed of their agency. Productive forces are reduced to technology which drives accumulation, while in reality the order is the reverse – it is accumulation that drives technology and this accumulation is the growth of capital, of relations of production that involve the existence primarily of two classes which are involved in struggle.  

People inhabit the forces of production and drive it forward and people inhabit the relations of production and perform the roles appropriate to the classes that are included in them.

The forces and relations of production therefore provide the grounds on which such agency makes sense and can be accounted for.  Of course, they also involve constraints on such agency, but if they didn’t, they wouldn’t provide any sort of explanation at all.

This approach can be contrasted with real determinist arguments based on the idea of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism, which subject it has been said ‘is one which has plagued students of Marx for at least a century . . . veritable rivers of ink have been spent in an effort to fill up this gap in Marx’s theoretical system.” (Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968. P55)

Marx does not hold a breakdown theory of capitalism but since as long as capitalism exists it will continue to develop through its contradictions, these contradictions must develop to certain limits.

First, he notes in Capital Volume III, that: 

`As soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which the mass of profit compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out.’ 

Elsewhere, in the Grundrisse:

‘To the degree that large-scale industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour-time and on the quantity of labour expended, and more on the power of the instruments which are set in motion during labour-time, and whose powerful effectiveness itself is not related to the labour-time immediately expended in their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and the progress of technology…. ‘

‘As soon as labour in its direct form has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth, labour- time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange-value the measure of use-value. . . . With that, the system of production based on exchange-value collapses. . . . Capital is its own contradiction- in-process, for its urge is to reduce labour-time to a minimum, while at the same time it maintains that labour-time is the only measure and source of wealth.’

‘Productive forces and social relations—both of which are different sides of the development of the social individual—appear to capital only as means, and only means to produce on its limited basis. In fact, however, these are the material conditions to blow this basis sky-high.’ (Marx, Grundrisse pp 592–94, quoted in Nicolaus pp 58–59)

Marx did not expect capitalism to last long enough to get to this stage of its development and anticipated the contradiction between ‘productive forces and social relations’ to precipitate its replacement long before it. The continued expansion of capitalism and growth of what is conventionally called service industries means that neither lack of competition or an approach to the limit of labour in production has resulted in either of these limits being nearly approached.

In 1850, shortly after the failed revolutions of 1848, Marx wrote:

‘While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution.  Such a revolution is only possible when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and bourgeois forms of production . . . A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.’ (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850’)

These have not been the constraints that successive generations of Marxists have thought placed unwanted boundaries on their objectives. Instead, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production is viewed as objective conditions already being in place with only purely subjective ones required to come into line through the effects of capitalist crises.  These objective crises express the fetters on the development of the forces of production and the social relations in which they are encased and are assumed to rapidly advance the subjective requirements for revolution.

For Marx however, economic crises are ‘always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.’  (Capital Vol III). They are therefore not only ‘the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production’, but their ‘violent destruction of capital’ is ‘a condition of its self-preservation.’ (Grundrisse)

Far from signalling stagnation of the forces of production, these forces are most developed just as crises erupt.  And as we have noted before, concomitant with the growth of the forces of production is expansion of the relations of production: of the capitalist and working classes, upon which is dependent the struggle for socialism.

Socialism thus becomes more relevant and feasible as crises worsen but not because they get worse but because of what this says for the development of the forces of production.  There is no final crisis and therefore no final breakdown we can look towards as a resolution to capitalism and advent of socialism; even if nothing lasts forever.  Crises allow capitalism to seek an equilibrium, while also demonstrating its historical redundancy and potential for replacement, but neither is automatic, and while the former has occurred often, the latter has unfortunately not.

Crises may therefore be the occasion for political revolution – conquest of state power by the working class – through stimulation, but the success of political revolution does not fundamentally depend on them or on their severity.  The objective conditions for this we have explained and there is no neat dividing line between these and the subjective conditions constituted out of the class struggle and the capacity, readiness and willingness of the working class to defend and advance its interests through political revolution.

The lack of correspondence between the two has not only involved ripeness of objective conditions and backwardness of the subjective, but also the development of some important subjective conditions in advance of objective constraints on successful revolution.

  1. ‘Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. (1859). Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968 p42.

Back to part 48

Forward to part 50

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The President’s wife doesn’t support war?

Dunleer Co Louth

One can only react with a wry smile at the current kerfuffle over a letter by the wife of the President of Ireland regarding the war in Ukraine. After decades of hypocritical and sanctimonious sermons on the evil of violence, the urgent imperative for peace and negotiations to achieve it, the essential requirement now is for war; victory in war for Ukraine.

The President’s wife, Sabina Coyne Higgins, has written to that august publication ‘The Irish Times’ to express dismay and disappointment that an editorial in the newspaper did not “encourage any ceasefire negotiations that might lead to a peace settlement”. 

This led to indignant indignation among politicians that accused her of asserting moral equivalence between Ukraine and Russia and failing to follow the Government line of support for the former.  Ukrainians in Ireland were quoted as not actually understanding what she was trying to say or of accusing her of not understanding what was going on. One Ukrainian who has lived in Ireland for 15 years said that it is “very easy to call for peace when you live in safe and comfortable conditions for a very long time” although the uproar induced would seem to indicate that it is easier to call for war.

Another Ukrainian stated that “If Russia lays down its arms, there will be no war. If Ukraine lays down its arms, there will be no Ukraine. That is why Ukrainians have not wished each other peace for a long time — they wish only victory. And we won’t settle for less . . .”

The newspaper has recently run a long article extolling the nationalist narrative of Ukrainian history and the inevitable conflict between it and Russia and ‘the real explosion of Cossack identity that started with the Russian invasion in 2014.  Whole units, like the Azov battalion, wear similar [Cossack] haircuts, moustaches and earrings.  It’s popular.’  The headline quotes the Ukrainian interviewee as saying that ‘This is a war of destruction. Either we destroy the Russians or they destroy us.’

So, we read justification of a nationalist programme that would be pilloried as bellicose and reactionary were it presented in support of any other country.  The journalist responsible sees no need to interrogate the place of armed fascists in this resurgence of uncompromising nationalism or the meaning of proposed destruction of whole peoples.

She is not however to be singled out for blame.

What has been striking has been the almost universal acceptance of a tale of childlike simplicity: that Ukraine is the force fighting for freedom against an unprovoked invasion by evil Russia.  As the photograph above shows, the smallest Irish towns in Ireland parade their support for the second most corrupt country in Europe against the first.  In a war barely understood their simple truths have been substituted for the complexity of a messy reality.

But they too are not soleley to blame.  Much of the left has decided to incant Lenin’s policy of ‘self-determination of nations’ in order to apply a rusty Occam’s razor to the war so it too can support ‘Ukraine’.  In doing so they demonstrate that they have not got the first clue about what this policy meant never mind whether it is relevant today to the war in Ukraine.  Self-determination thus becomes support for an already independent capitalist state in a war with another so that it can codify its alliance with the world’s biggest imperialist military alliance.  Freedom to join NATO and to land your own people in a destructive war as a result is what it actually means.

This is what is clearly happening, and as Lenin said: ‘one of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete . . . ‘ This reactionary war on both sides is thus the expression of the reckless policy of seeking NATO membership by Ukraine and Russia’s determination to show that it meant what it said when it warned that this was a red line not to be crossed.

It matters not that Russia has no right to determine the policy of Ukraine.  What right has Ukraine to threaten Russia through membership of NATO on its doorstep?  Neither Ukrainian nor Russian workers have any interest in standing behind either ‘right’, never mind dying for it.  But the pro-war left has decided that the right of capitalist powers to defend their prerogatives is justified under some abstract argument about the principle of self-determination that the working class has to pay for.

Their complete inability to have any purchase on reality is repeatedly exposed.  So through their call for arming Ukraine they fail to expose or oppose the role of NATO and its share of responsibility for the war.  They say Ukraine (by which they must mean this country’s capitalist state) must receive arms to fight, so dependence on NATO weapons, i.e. imperialism, becomes the road to self-determination!  But since such arms as can be effective are only available from NATO they cannot, with any seriousness, now oppose the rearmament of the Western capitalist powers.  A strange sort of ‘anti-capitalism’.

They oppose transfer of offensive weapons but the steady ratcheting up of the weapons supplied leaves them as useless spectators awaiting the transfer of whatever they decide as ‘offensive’, at which point are we to believe this capitalist war will change its character?

In this article one spokesman states that ‘we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.’  But it’s as if the European Union has read this and decided to take the piss out of such ‘lack of support’ by having round after round of sanctions (currently seven) that the pro-war left will not demand are lifted?  Are there no sanctions it would straightforwardly oppose in advance as opposed to accept after the fact?

This blog opposed western sanctions from the beginning because they could only hit working class Russians hardest.  Now we see that they are hitting workers in the west as well but is there now opposition to them among those for whom the ability of a capitalist state to determine its military alliance is paramount?

Across all the issues arising from the war, from the progressive content to Ukrainian nationalism to the primary issue being Russian imperialism, the pro-war left has simply parroted the mainstream bourgeois media. Like support for Brexit; support for total economic lockdown to deal with Covid-19, and now support for sanctions, various parts of the left have championed policies that have disarmed the working class when it comes to identifying the causes of the cost-of-living crisis to which these policies have contributed. 

We can expect that none will accept the slightest responsibility.  Just like the Tories who support Brexit and ‘Ukraine’ they want to have their cake and to eat it. To oppose the capitalist EU but ignore the effects of Brexit on freedom of movement and living standards. Demand more extensive and longer economic lockdowns but ignore the social consequences some of which, like economic dislocation and inflation, now hit them in the face.  Support ‘Ukraine’ but ignore the boost it has given to the NATO imperialist alliance and the effect of sanctions on living standards.

For a blog seeking to advance Marxist politics this is important, but not as important as the failings of the imperialist strategy to which some leftists provide a grotesque mirror image.

The bourgeois media asks us to believe that our ‘freedom’ is being protected by one of the most corrupt countries in Europe whose best fighters are fascists.  We are threatened that unless we support it against the evil Russians, which have such a useless army that Ukraine can defeat it, they will steamroller across Europe.  We must accept the possibility of freezing this winter because Russia has ‘weaponised’ gas supplies, even though the West has sent real weapons to kill as many Russians as possible and started the whole gas thing by preventing operation of the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  We are called upon to blame Russia for potential famine in a range of countries because of its war on Ukraine but ignore the effect of Western sanctions on the supply of Russian food to the world, something that has had to be implicitly admit by its lifting of some of them.

None of this is consistent with the claims of the western bourgeoisie and its yellow media.  In Ireland the homeopathic letter from the Irish President’s wife has opened up a small window for questioning support for the war.

Over the weekend I read the ‘Financial Times’ (FT).  It had a review of the book ‘Nazi Billionaires’ which records the largely hidden history of Germany’s richest capitalist dynasties who escaped punishment after the war for their collaboration with the Nazi regime.  This was the conscious policy of the major western powers for whom strengthening German capitalism was much more important than punishing Nazis for their crimes or imposing justice on behalf of their victims.  This has not stopped regular evocation of the enemies of the Western capitalist powers as the new Nazis with Putin as the new Hitler.  Just like after World War II, these states are not interested in justice but in their own power and that of their capitalist class.

The only consistent position opposed to the war is the socialist argument that workers have no interest in fighting for the system that exploits them, in wars that we pay for in money and blood. To do so we must oppose nationalist flag-waving and a media that on this occasion does not even seek to hide its bias. A certain Mrs Higgins has proved more in tune with such a task than many of the left.