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

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

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

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

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

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

A few years later Engels made a similar observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Back to part 10









Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.


A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was 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.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

ICTU Congress Ennis 7th and 8th July – David Begg & ICTU should answer for his role on Central Bank Board‏

ICTU_david_beggs_Dec282009When the Irish financial system collapsed in 2008 bringing down the finances of the State with it there were plenty of people to point the finger at.

The banks who lent recklessly; the property developers who speculated wildly, the politicians for having encouraged and benefited from the bubble, the Regulator for having fallen asleep at the wheel, the Finance Ministry for having fuelled the fire with tax breaks, the auditors for having signed off on bankrupt organisations and sanctioning absurd valuations, the European Union for making us pay for  the bankers, the IMF for not warning about the danger, the economists who saw nothing wrong and assured everyone of a ‘soft landing’, the press and media for eulogising the Celtic Tiger miracle economy that fed it ever growing revenue from property advertising, and of course  the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny who told the people that they were to blame – “What happened in our country was that people simply went mad borrowing” he told the rich and powerful at Davos in 2012.


Have I missed anyone?

Well actually I have.

The following appeal was sent by a reader of the blog in Dublin.

“There is an opportunity to highlight the need to end the culture of collusion between full time trade union bureaucrats and Government/Troika at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions biennial conference on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. We the victims of austerity should let the bureaucrats and delegates attending know the collusion must end. They have sold out Irish workers.

It has been rumoured that David Begg former General Secretary of ICTU who sat on the Central Bank board for 13 years and never uttered a word of warning to Irish workers about what was happening will be receiving a send off as he retired last year. Mr Begg was formally representing ICTU on the CB board and crucially was chair of the Central Bank Audit committee during the crucial years of the boom and subsequent bust.  He’s due to appear before the banking inquiry on 22nd July.

Activists could leaflet delegates to demand that Mr Begg compile a report answering to Irish workers and their families for his failure to alert us about what was going on and for which we’re now paying. He and ICTU had a watchdog role on the CB and owe us an explanation for their failure in fulfilling that role. Some of the responsibility for water charges, cuts, misery, poverty, homelessness and plundering of resources falls on their shoulders because of their inaction in the years leading up to the crash and bail out.

ICTU have other questions to answer –Mr Begg’s role on the Central Bank board was raised on RTE’s Liveline, following the programme ICTU complained and RTE immediately took down the podcast of the programme and issued a disclaimer the following day.

Can ICTU now reveal what their role was in this episode of censoring entirely legitimate questions and debate on Mr Begg’s role on the Central Bank Board? Perhaps Denis O’Brien has just been following in their footsteps in demanding censorship. In case anyone wants to get in contact I have a page Stop Union Sell out which I’m promoting and would be more than happy for you to post on it.”