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.

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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

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 9 crises and contradictions iii

economic crisisCapitalism’s crises are the expression of its contradictions, among which must be those that provide grounds for resolution through working class creation of a socialist society.  While the absence of crisis at any time does not mean that the system’s contradictions have been removed, it signals that they must at least have been temporarily contained or limited while continuing to develop, without erupting into violent disruptions of the system. Marx reacted to the return to some sort of prosperity following a crisis as a signal that socialist revolution was for the time being off the agenda.

For capitalism the eruption of economic crisis is also the means by which the contradictions of capitalist accumulation are (temporarily) resolved, by reducing the costs of raw materials and machinery etc.; destroying competitors by making the least efficient firms go bust; increasing unemployment, so putting pressure on workers to increase the pace of work and reducing wages; and by prompting the state to lower legal protections for workers or lower corporate taxes etc.

Only in a crisis does it seem obvious that capitalism is unable to cater for the needs of the majority, and to a degree that stimulates mass resistance and opposition, so what then may result is a political crisis of its rule.  There is less reason to expect the working class and other oppressed parts of society to seek an alternative to the system if it is not in some sort of difficulty.

On the other hand if workers are not prepared to react to crises by defending gains and can’t be radicalised sufficiently to achieve overthrow of the system, or have the social and economic power to do so, then socialists must accept that the limits placed on the scope of working class action at such times do not yet include the system’s overthrow.

While economic and political crises signal the possibility of an alternative and a possible opportunity to create one there is no longer a view that they point to the inevitable triumph of socialism.  Crises can awaken workers to politics, can propel them to political organisation, push them to fight and make them seek out alternatives but if this is true of the vast majority and such development only takes place on the eve of revolution then it is only a minority who enter the fight with some idea of what that fight is, about how it might be won and what constitutes victory.  These are rather weak grounds on which to expect success.

As I noted in the last post – what attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  This strongly determines the outcome of crises

“There are no permanent crises” Marx said, which means that such crises in themselves cannot be the grounds for socialism since these grounds must be continuous and persistent conditions within the capitalist system.  Crises therefore cannot be confused with the contradictions of capitalism that provide the source for anticipating its replacement.

So if not permanent crises, is it the nature of the stage of capitalism that warrants the claim that the possibility of socialism exists, as Marx claimed.  It would appear that for the majority of Marxists the answer is yes: we have been living within the highest stage of capitalism for the last one hundred or more years, set out most famously by Lenin in his short book – ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism’.

Further to this, the other Marxist leader of the Russian revolution wrote a political programme for his supporters in 1938 in which he clearly characterised the nature of the epoch during which he lived:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.”

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

This political programme, The Transitional Programme, became the guiding strategy for those Marxists who rejected the distortion of socialism by Stalinism in the Soviet Union and who stood in the revolutionary tradition of Marx.

The view that socialism was retarded not so much by capitalism itself, or the political forces that defended it, but by other factors can easily be appreciated in a world in which the most powerful forces claiming to be Marxist ruled over vast parts of the globe. In these countries workers held no political power except through a bureaucracy that ruled in its name and unilaterally claimed to be its leadership.  As long as this was the case the struggle for genuine socialism had to counter the claims of Stalinism that the degenerate bureaucratic dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the future socialist society which Marx foresaw.  In this sense, the view that the crisis facing socialists boiled down to who was able to claim the mantle of leadership might seem to have not a little currency; if only because if Stalinism was socialism then the majority of workers and many Marxists weren’t interested.

Trotsky’s predictions of catastrophe should also be viewed in light of the headlong march towards world war, a war that would exceed the death and destruction of the Great War that had ended only twenty years before.  In fact this second world war had already begun with already catastrophic results for the Chinese people.  When we consider that the possible number of deaths due to World War II is as high as 80 million people it is no exaggeration to have stated in 1938 that “a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

What matters today is whether the context in which this happened now prevails, or has prevailed ever since it was written in 1938; in other words that “the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism.”

If this were so then the series of posts of which this one is a part, dealing with Marx’s alternative to capitalism growing out of capitalism itself, would have little need to go beyond a political analysis of the class struggle and specifically how and why the working class still allows itself to be politically led by political forces opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

to be continued

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 8 – crises and contradictions ii

A view common among Marxists is that socialism will arise out of a crisis of capitalism.  This is believed for a number of reasons.  The most fundamental is the view that socialism will arise from the contradictions of capitalism and these contradictions give rise to repeated crises; crises of overproduction, of profitability and of class relations.  Economic and political crises point to the inevitable triumph of socialism as every such capitalist difficulty signals the possibility of an alternative and the opportunity to create one.

A more common sense way of understanding it is that if capitalism continued to deliver the goods then why would anyone fight to change it?

These contradictions include the contradiction between capital and labour in which capital accumulates and grows through augmenting itself with the value created by labour for which labour is not remunerated in wages.  These contradictions also include the tendency for the development of the forces of production to conflict with the relations of production within which they develop.  The productive forces of machinery, technology and other means of production and productive relations determined by the ownership of these means of production by capitalists and the exclusion from ownership of those who create and work with these means of production, the working class.

The contradictions are the tension between the more and more effective socialisation of production and its private capitalist appropriation. Production is more and more subject to a division of labour with hundreds if not thousands of components produced and shipped from all over the world before final assembly in one location.  This final product such as a computer can then join thousands of other products in creation of another final product such as a car.  The workers who produce this final product likewise consume commodities created from all across the world which are themselves assembled from products created across the globe.  A vast meshed network of companies, of communications and transport has been created by capitalism that requires an enormous degree of co-ordination and planning by millions of workers to ensure this all takes place, and takes place profitably.

Yet this production is sold on a market in competition with other similar products from other companies or in competition with very different goods that could equally be bought instead.  Only after the fact is it recognised whether the labour employed in producing these goods has been wasted.  If the prices obtained for them do not result in sufficient profit the capitalists will close down, reducing production and reducing the market for goods generally as workers are laid off and supplier companies equally reduce employment.  If this happens on a big enough scale economic crises result.

Were imbalances in production to arise in an economy under workers’ collective ownership this production would be rebalanced without making workers suffer for any misallocation.  It would be in the interest of everyone to reallocate this labour to produce goods or services for which there is more need.  With capitalist appropriation however, despite the socialised nature of production, despite the enormous cooperation and scale of planning required, it is only the private profit of individual capitalist companies that counts.  And if this means closing down productive assets, wasting resources and creating unemployment well . . production is only for profit under capitalism.  It is competition not cooperation which predominates, competition between companies for sales of commodities and competition between companies to extract the maximum surplus from their own and other workers.

For Marxists this global economic result arises from the very nature of the commodity itself and its simultaneous existence as a use value and as a value.  As a commodity it must have usefulness for it to be purchased by anyone but it must also have a value that can be exchanged with other commodities and money.  At the end of the day it is the value in exchange that matters for the capitalist because it is from this aspect of the commodity that profit is derived.

A more common way of describing this is that production is for profit and not for use; commodities are produced only in so far as they procure a profit but which are only purchased in so far as they are useful.  Goods and services are produced which are profitable but which only a tiny minority of the world’s population find useful while goods useful to millions are not produced because they are not profitable.

The craziness of this has been on display in Ireland, which has had an enormous economic boom largely built in its last years upon housing and other property production. A boom that eventually turned to bust not because everyone had a decent home, or the commercial fabric of society had been completely renovated, but because the prices demanded by developers and construction firms could no longer be afforded by those expected to buy or rent. Prices collapsed, building firms went bust sacking tens of thousands of construction workers; developers went bankrupt, their loans could not be paid and the banks that lent them the money then also went bust, unable to remain solvent given the scale of the bad loans on their books.

The capitalist State then stepped in to assure the banks’ solvency by guaranteeing their loans and when it was proved that it could not afford to do so it too went bust; so the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund also stepped in to ensure that the State could make good its guarantees to the banks – in exchange for the State cutting the tripe out of state services, increasing taxes, lowering public sector wages and reducing public sector employment.  The State survived all this by spreading its debts across the generations so that even in 2050 the children and grandchildren of the boom generation will be paying for the boom and the bust.

At the peak of the boom 90,000 houses a year were being built by employing around 274,000 workers. Last year fewer than 13,000 new homes were built while demand is running at 25,000 a year.  There are over 1,000 families homeless compared to 400 at the beginning of last year while there are an estimated 90,000 families on waiting lists for social housing.  But this is happening in a country that has 230,000 vacant homes, some in “ghost estates” in far-flung towns where few Irish people now wish to live — if they ever did.

This is reported in Ireland and elsewhere as if this was a peculiarly Irish problem, but not only have there been property booms across the world but housing and property booms are only the most visible manifestations of classic crises of overproduction that have been a feature of capitalism for almost two centuries.  Visible because the commodities overproduced sit there staring everyone in the face for years.  This is not an Irish problem, although it has to be said that the Irish are very good at doing it with houses, but is a classic capitalist problem of desperate need not being addressed because to do so would not deliver the requisite profit.

housing 1
It has been reported by the Society of Chartered Surveyors in Ireland that it costs €330,000 to provide a standard family home, a figure that appears to have changed little despite the deep recession!  Construction costs account for less than half of this figure with the rest made up of fees, levies, site acquisition costs, finance costs, and tax and profit margins.  Developers would rather hoard land they over-paid for in the boom because to do otherwise would mean them accepting a loss.  This would then hit the banks who everyone is pretending are now fine and no one wants a repeat of the 2008 crash.  So the process of the previous boom and bust is repeated for the sake of avoiding another one.
Housing 3

But very few people can afford houses at these prices and single people and those on even average incomes can’t afford them and would drown in a sea of debt if, or rather when, interest rates increase (although of course no one is thinking of this now). Instead the solutions put forward by the Government include grants to first time buyers, which will simply increase prices by the amount of the grant, or subsidies to developers, who will probably pocket the money while maintaining their asking price.  In short, the same policies pursued during the boom.  As the table below shows the huge debt already built up is a big constraint on any solution that seeks to stuff working class people with even more credit.

Housing 2

The solution is to build affordable houses by expropriating the land holdings of developers and re-employing many of the construction workers who were made unemployed in the crash.  However, this calls for a radical break with the prerogatives of private property which is a more entrenched religion in Ireland than theCatholic Church.

From the point of view of our look at Karl Marx’s alternative to this sort of mess there is another striking question that arises.  Just how do such crises lead to replacement of the system that produces them with a new one called socialism?

Yes, capitalism leads to these crises and yes, they would not arise within a socialist society, but what is the mechanism by which this contradiction leads from the former to the latter? What leads workers from recognising there’s a crisis to understanding that it’s a result of capitalism and agreeing that socialism is the answer, and then fighting to introduce it?  All while their starting point is not so much a very conscious rejection of socialism so much as a recognition/acceptance of capitalism because it is the system that actually exists, works (however badly) and places them in a subordinate position within which, by and large, they are powerless to effect very radical change, either as individuals or even as individuals that are part of collective organisations.

A lack of understanding of what socialism actually is and little confidence that the world can be changed, or that they must do it themselves, are not even the first condition of this problem but the result of the more basic conditions within which workers live.  Is there a contradiction at this more basic level of workers’ everyday lives that can provide the experience that they can learn from either directly or indirectly; that capitalism does not have to be accepted and that an alternative can actually exist, already exists even if in an underdeveloped form that must be developed further?

In all this it is clearly 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 over society.  But Marxists believe that it is material conditions that generate consciousness and it is not at all clear that conditions of crisis can generate socialist consciousness.  They have not done so in Ireland.  Some of the first posts on this blog were a record of how previous capitalist crises generated reactionary solutions and the growth of xenophobic and racist solutions today are testament to this.

Marxists do not believe that the rational superiority of socialism on its own will lead to socialism.  Or rather, to be more precise, Marxists do not believe that rational argument about the superiority of socialism over capitalism will bring it about.  It plays a vital part in the work of socialists in the workers’ movement but rational argument is ultimately only powerful if it corresponds to the rational development of capitalism itself.

If capitalism tended more and more to a state antithetical to socialism, to a position that was further and further away from the possibility of collective workers’ ownership of the means of production, then ultimately no amount of rational argument about the putative superiority of socialism would matter because it could not arise in the real world. And if it could not arise in the real world the argument as to its superiority would not be rational either. A world built on unqualified love between all members of humanity may appear a rational argument, as opposed to the hate and oppression of the existing one, but it is not rational because we all know such a society cannot exist.

Crises are ephemeral, they are the means by which capitalism resolves its contradictions, even if only temporarily. They generally weaken the working class and its movement and they often present opportunities to disorient them.  They invite immediate solutions when many workers generally experience capitalism as individuals or are not grouped in organisations that are by their nature capable of providing answers.  What attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  Generally this experience does not prepare them for taking conscious control of society, which is the essential challenge posed by the greatest crises.

Capitalist crises therefore give expression to the contradictions of capitalism but are not themselves the contradictions upon which the alternative higher form of society will arise.  History is replete with subordinate classes’ willingness to fight against their oppressor classes, such as the countless rebellions by Chinese peasants against their ruling dynasties or medieval peasants against their feudal lords.  But even when the contradictions involved in their class antagonism burst through in successful rebellion no stable society was created by these victorious oppressed class because the class contradiction evoked no mode of production resting on the unified class interests of the victorious class.

Even when the class of feudal lords disappeared from history it was not a peasant mode of production that was eventually built on the bones of their feudal rule.  Similarly, when the working class in Russia succeeded in overthrowing the Tsarist state and the capitalist economy in Russia it failed to create a new socialist society because the material conditions would not allow a new socialist mode of production to grow and develop.

So basing the alternative to capitalism on the crises of capitalism is not enough.  Developing consciousness of the need for an alternative is not even enough.  The contradictions that exist must contain within them the potential for a new socialist society to arise out of them.  In other words, it is not enough that there is contradiction but that the contradiction is resolved, in this case in a new and higher form of society.  And for this to be the case the nature of the contradiction has to contain the potential for this to occur.

It is not that the contradiction creates a clean slate upon which something new can be built but that the new arises from within the development of the contradiction itself.  Clearly the nature of this is therefore key, for its development must not only contain the end of the old but the beginning of the new at one and the same time.  Consciousness by the working class of the necessity for a new society is necessary for it to happen because it must be its creation but this is only possible if the process exists in reality.

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 7 – crises and contradictions i

white-america-1-e1448033371744Last year an academic paper noticed that there has been a marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.  The effect of this has been dramatic: if the previous decline in mortality among this group of people had continued as before there would have been almost half a million fewer deaths during these years.

There has also been an increase in morbidity among this section of the population, reflected in increased self-reporting of poor health, pain and psychological stress.  Nor can this be put down to the well-known increase in obesity among some sections of the American population because this decline in the health of middle-aged men and women has affected both the obese and non-obese, with the former accounting for only a small fraction of the overall deterioration in health.  This worsening has particularly hit those with a poorer education, those with only a high school degree or less, and is primarily the result of increases in the rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

fd2a8a276c172deed75f43e23ef7b229The significance of this is even more noteworthy because this segment of the US working class was part of the embodiment in the middle of the twentieth century of the American dream and therefore of the capitalist vision epitomised during the American century.  Visions of white families in suburbs, owning automobiles and domestic appliances, in new homes with pretty gardens and white picket fences were a domestic ambition so strong it fired the imagination not only of American workers but millions of the poor across the world who wished to become American.  An ambition millions succeeded in achieving.

In the twenty first century this dream is collapsing amid widening inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation and an increase in economic insecurity, with precarious employment and pensions reliant on the vagaries of the stock market.  It is reflected in large increases in disability; falling participation in the labour market, particularly among women and addiction to prescription painkillers where for every death in 2008 due to addiction there were 10 admissions for abuse, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who were abusers or dependent and 825 non-medical users of the drugs.

I remember seeing a programme on the collapse of the Soviet Union which noted that a French researcher had predicted its fall due to an increase in infant mortality.  No one is predicting the collapse of US capitalism but things are really bad when people stop living longer and start dying earlier.

In my previous posts in this series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I have noted the prodigious development of the capitalist system across the globe and its achievement of what Marx called its ‘civilising mission’.  This, I showed, was evidenced by increasing life expectancy, better health, higher levels of education, higher living standards and the sheer increase in numbers of the working class and the world’s population. In fact five out of six of my posts were an attempt to substantiate the argument that the civilising mission of capitalism continues into the twenty first century.

But surely this is now blown apart by this example of the death of the American dream, something inconceivable 60 years ago?

A few years ago I met an American socialist who I believe was from Detroit who was not so much arguing but simply incredulous that anyone could believe other than that capitalism was in crisis and failing badly

But world capitalism is not Detroit.

Accepting this point however, is it not the case that socialists should be pointing out the failures of capitalism, its crises and its contradictions?  After all, if capitalism is to be overthrown and replaced it must be because in some way it has failed.  Surely a capitalism that keeps on developing and retains a ‘civilising mission’ is not one that will suffer this fate? 

Should socialists not criticise capitalism and certainly not heap praise on it and its achievements?

Marx himself, although he praised capitalism’s prodigious development of the productive forces and the human capacities it had unleashed, hardly spared it his condemnation. Development brings industrialisation and the goods and services that change peoples’ lives for the better but it is built on exploitation of humanity and degradation of the planet’s resources and ecosystem.  Capitalist industrialisation brings the capitalist phenomenon of periodic or partial unemployment on a massive scale – “it makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.” (Marx)

So the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were 218 million unemployed workers in 2009 and that of the 1.4 billion wage workers in 2011 many are only employed part time or precariously employed and a further 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed”, being “own-account” workers (including street workers in poorer countries or those engaged in subsistence agriculture) and “contributing family workers” (those who worked unpaid in the home).  “In most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programmes.  Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions” (Michael Yates, all quoted in ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labour and the New Imperialism’)

So why the series of posts on capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’?

The short answer is that the arguments set out above are mistaken.  The slightly longer answer is that they are wrong because they are one-sided.  The longer response again is that the whole answer is not simply an addition of capitalism’s achievements and its failures, of its successes and crises, or more simply of its good bits and its bad bits.  Even to understand its contradictions is not to think of a good side and a bad side in opposition.

To seek simply to condemn capitalism requires a standard by which it should be judged to have failed – it must have failed against some criteria.  Even if there were ‘good bits’ to capitalism to weigh in the balance against its ‘bad bits’, which together would allow one to make a judgement, some measuring criteria would be required by which to determine the relative weight and importance of its good and bad aspects.

But what would these criteria be?  They could be derived from what capitalism itself claims to defend, uphold and promote – economic growth, political equality, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, efficiency, modernisation and progress.  It would then be possible to, indeed socialist regularly do, expose these claims as hypocritical, false, misleading, one-sided and often simply untrue.  But this would be to limit one’s case to the criteria that capitalism’s defenders themselves identify as important and socialists usually find themselves making arguments that go beyond what capitalism can accommodate and what its supporters will consider legitimate.

Appeals to loftier ideals such as justice or fairness beg the question of how such things are to be defined and how realistic or practical any definition is, given the real world we live in.  A definition of justice that cannot possibly exist in the real world is not just because these criteria must apply to a world which is possible.  A just and fair world that cannot exist is neither just nor fair.  The civilising mission of capitalism is therefore not one of the ‘good’ sides of capitalism against which the bad must be weighed.  This civilising role of capitalism is itself grounds on which the alternative to capitalism rests.

I have tried to make this easier to appreciate by pointing out that the amazing economic growth of capitalism has produced an ever larger world working class without which, obviously, there can be no socialism.  And without a working class that has developed a relatively high cultural level we cannot expect socialism either.  The civilising mission of capitalism has created both.

This is generally understood among some Marxists only in the sense that unless the productive forces have developed sufficiently there will not be the level of resources necessary to ensure that inequality will not breed class divisions after any successful socialist revolution.  If society cannot develop sufficient levels of consumption to satisfy the needs of everyone then class divisions will re-emerge.  Society’s productive powers will be distributed so that these are owned by a separate class because society as a whole cannot address the needs of everyone. 

Leon Trotsky explained how this laid the foundation for the development of Stalinism after socialist revolution in Russia in 1917:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.

A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of “bourgeois law”, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.

In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. At the same time the “equalizing” character of wages, destroying personal interestedness, became a brake upon the development of the productive forces. Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

So there are two reasons why socialists in particular should welcome the development of the productive forces that capitalism is responsible for – the material foundations for socialism in terms of sufficient consumption for everyone in society and the growth of the working class that develops as these productive forces develop.

To these are added the civilising mission of capitalism through the productive forces developing new and higher needs that lead to a higher cultural level among the working class, on which basis it becomes more and more fit to become the ruling class of a new society.

The development of the productive forces must also be welcomed for other reasons which we shall come to in future posts.  What is important for the argument here is that the development of capitalism’s productive forces is necessary for the future of socialism.  As Marx explained in a letter written two years before his death:

“The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.  . . . Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government – while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides – all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].”

In this quote Marx does not seek to place class struggle and the development of the productive forces, which can only mean the development of capitalism, as opposites but welcomes both as positive factors leading to socialist revolution.  Yet many socialists cannot think how the development of capitalism assists its eventual overthrow and can only conceive that capitalism must be in perpetual crisis, feeling that without this not only is there no prospect for socialism but no rationale for it either.  But if this were true then the prodigious development of capitalism over the last two centuries or so would have proved the advent of socialism impossible.

It is enough to recognise that such a viewpoint, which leads to denying capitalism’s continuing growth, divorces socialists from some of the concerns of workers who experience its reality, its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, without ideological blinkers. If it were indeed true that only capitalism’s failures or crises were grounds for socialism then we would have to recognise that those grounds are not enough.

So, the marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013 is all the more remarkable because it contrasts sharply with the experience of other demographic groups.  Mortality declines among Hispanics and black non-Hispanics continued to decline, as they did for this segment of the population in France, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.


All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).

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Does capitalism still have a civilising mission? Marx’s alternative – part 4

huajian-shoe-factoryIn the last post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I noted that he extolled the achievements of capitalism, without which socialism could not be built.  In the Grundrisse he noted “the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.”

This is very far from the attitude of most Marxists today, who have a tendency to see crisis and decline everywhere.

Perhaps, as might be implied from the quote above, the progressiveness of capitalism is only in relation to previous society, and that today it is a wholly reactionary system from which no development is possible or at least none with any progressive features.  Its replacement must therefore arise from its contradictions and crisis and not from any progressive element within it.

The days of the progressive development of capitalism are over.

The Communist Manifesto is famous for its paean of praise to the wonders of capitalist achievements, and this at a time when capitalism hardy existed on most of the globe – “It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades . . . The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. ”

But perhaps again this praise is purely relative to earlier epochs.  Capitalism has exhausted any progressive content it once may have had.  After all, didn’t Lenin refer to the highest stage of capitalism and did Trotsky not say that:

“the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth . . . The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

That catastrophe did of course arrive in the shape of the Second World War and the potential for catastrophe undoubtedly continues to exist within capitalism today.  The decline of the United States and the rise of new powers once again raise the spectre of economic competition that may drive rival nation states into war.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Guardian review of books and a review of a book by the BBC correspondent Mark Urban, who argued that new powers are developing conventional forces that can begin to rival those of the US. This means that in any conventional conflict the US may be tempted or driven to use nuclear weapons.  It’s not as if they haven’t used them before.

“Now, says Urban, Russia, China and India have such strong conventional forces, and America has cut its forces so much, that in the event of a conflict “the US would be left with the choice of nuclear escalation or backing down”.  He adds: “Against a full-scale invasion of South Korea, the US would have little choice but to go nuclear.” Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some other countries could “mount a credible conventional defence that would leave the United States having to think the unthinkable, with profound implications for the world”.”

While there is a lot more to say about such a scenario the point is that under capitalism humanity has no rational control of its own development and no guarantee against the most irrational acts leading to its destruction.

However the view noted above – that capitalism can no longer be viewed in fundamentally the same way as Marx did in the 19th century is mistaken.

Straight after noting capitalism’s wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals Marx states that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

So the development of society continues under capitalism and the imperative to accumulate unpaid labour means the continued development of the forces and relations of production and growth of the working class.  As I will show in the next post this continues to require the phenomenon of the ‘great civilising influence of capital’ because if it did not, the development of capitalism would be away from a possible socialism and not towards it.

A working class more and more exploited and oppressed, more and more demoralised, despite the massively increased social division of labour and the cooperation required for it to function; and despite the undreamed of development of technology, would patently be unable to put itself forward as the new rulers of an even more advanced society.

A purely reactionary system without fundamental contradictions out of which a new society could emerge would not be that investigated by Marx.  A contradiction-ridden system on the other hand will combine development with retrogression, the potential for the new within the embrace of the old.

Crises will occur and must occur in some way if a new society is to be given birth out of the old but the nature of this crisis must be one that allows a new society to fully develop and not simply represent a process of decline of the old.  Under capitalism it is not crisis that create the contradictions of capitalism but crises which are the means of expressing these contradictions and resolving them in whatever way and for whatever period of time.

The importance of acknowledging this is apparent when we consider the ‘new’ phenomenon of anti-capitalism, as if being anti-capitalist is inherently progressive.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx was able to analyse various types of reactionary socialism, and various types of this exist today.  Much of the left is keen to retreat into nationalism and older forms of capitalist development in response to capitalist crises in their latest form, buttressed by the idea that there can be nothing progressive in its current development.

We see this today in much of the left’s opposition to the Euro for example, as if the drachma or punt were some sort of positive alternative.  In Ireland the nationalist and republican tradition has allowed many leftists to seek progress through assertion of a ‘national sovereignty’ that is simply impossible to achieve even if were desirable.

All seem to have forgotten that socialism is not the resistance of the working class to capitalism, which can continue ‘forever’ if it does not involve an alternative, and this alternative is a higher form of society, not a retreat into the past.

In the next post on Marx’s alternative I will look at the evidence that the development of capitalism that Marx thought provides the grounds for socialism continues to exist.

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The civilising mission of capitalism – Marx’s alternative part 3

lewis-hine1So Marx understood that capitalism’s compulsion to increase the appropriation of unpaid labour through development of the forces of production and exploitation of workers also meant the expansion of the consumption of the working class and development of its needs and capacities as a result; what has been called capitalism’s civilising mission. But Marx also referred to the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Today, and over the last half century, many people have been radicalised by the threats of nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe, both of which are products of capitalisms’ productive powers and its irrational social and political relations.  But opposition has more often than not failed to identify the source of the threat or the solution.

It has also been noted at the end of the twentieth century that there had not been a single year since 1816 without at least one war going on in the world.  The twentieth century itself witnessed human slaughter on a truly massive scale with more than 9 million deaths in the First World War and 57 million (37.8 million of them civilians) in the Second World War, with 80 million between 1900 and 1950 in total.  The relative peace since is purely relative with proud claims that war had been abolished in Europe, for example, blown away by the war in the former Yugoslavia and now in the Ukraine.

This contradiction is not one that exists in Marx’s argument but one that exists in reality, as Marx explains in Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital:

“We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.

We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes.

It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.”

Marx compares capitalism favourably to its predecessors:

“Thus the ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.

In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself?

What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion.”

Overall growth of productive powers and increased planning within capitalism – between firms and countries – and increased coordination of a massively developed division of labour is a growth of human power and civilisation, not just potentially, but in creation of the preconditions for socialism; the potential for the creation of a society without material and cultural want, for a future society in which the level of production can remove the necessity for class inequality.

If socialism must arise out of capitalism and capitalism were purely barbaric, containing within it no contradictions that presage the new society, socialism would be a utopian dream because the agents of change who are to bring it about would simply be products of barbarism.

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