Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 15 – the Preface of 1859

The Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ of 1859 is a short couple of pages but, as perhaps one of the most vital expositions of Karl Marx’s interpretation of history, it has not unexpectedly been the subject of much controversy. Since Engels said of Marx, at his graveside, that one of his two fundamental contributions was the materialist theory of history, it would appear that the controversy is quite important.  An interpretation provides not only the grounds and principles upon which we can understand history but also how we can change it.

A second reason is that this Preface of 1859 appears not to be entirely consistent with that other famous declaration of the principles lying behind the course of history, set out in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. The 1859 preface only mentions classes twice and doesn’t mention them in the context of class struggle at all; so not only does it seem that class struggle is not central to historical development but it scarcely matters.

So, before I go on, let’s quote the relevant section of ‘The Preface’:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”

“In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”

So why should the short couple of pages of ‘The Preface’ be so important to understanding the course of historical development and therefore to the contradictions within capitalism that give birth to the alternative and so explain what this alternative to capitalism is?

The most recent biography of Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones (Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion) spends little time analysing specifically the claims of Marx in relation to history within the Preface, which is rather remiss since he acknowledges it as one of a rather small number of canonical texts by Marx upon which 20th century Marxist organisations were built.  The impression given is that it was written when “Karl’s judgements at this time were increasingly disordered, perhaps even touched by delusion, with mood changes ranging from unreal euphoria through uncontrolled paranoia to fantasies of revenge.”

We are informed that Marx had, in his own words, been “overwhelmed with work’” and had to deal with what Jones describes as “continuing health problems, his wife’s shattered nerves” and “financial desperation.”  Jenny Marx had been unable to post the manuscript of ‘The Critique’ – “as I haven’t even a farthing for postage or insurance”.  She was “‘a nervous wreck’, haunted “by the spectre of final and unavoidable catastrophe.”

An earlier explanation for the ostensible inconsistency, between Marx’s view of history as one of class struggle and it apparently being missing from the Preface, formed the thesis of an article published in 1969: ‘Background and Ulterior Motive of Marx’s “Preface” of 1859’.

This argued that the absence of the role of class struggle within the Preface arose from Marx’s desire to get the book published against the constraints of the Prussian censor, who would undoubtedly be expected to prohibit publication of a text by the notorious Marx in which class struggle and revolution featured prominently.  The argument is that Marx decided to publish anyway despite the Preface hiding, if not silencing, his previous views on their importance.  Its careful wording was therefore an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the censor with the consequence perhaps that some wool was pulled over the eyes of the reader, even taking into account whatever ‘hints’ were hidden behind otherwise soothing formulations.

Why he should seek to do so is partially explained by his extended absence in exile from Germany, his political home and home to his biggest and most important band of followers, to which he was prevented from returning to from London, and for whom he could only influence and continue to be recognised from publications.

These had been very few and not recent, having struggled to get published for some years.  Even when he had got published, as with ‘Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne’ in 1853, almost all copies were confiscated by the police.  Thus, the argument goes, that the rather abstract and bloodless language of ‘The Preface’ owed a lot to Marx’s desperation to avoid the censor and get published, in so doing establishing a foot in a door which might lead to further publication.

Unfortunately, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ was a publishing failure and not read much today either, another vantage point from which to minimise the importance of the Preface.  Nevertheless, it is argued that the publication of the Preface, for which the whole book is more remembered, meant that Marx felt compelled to defend it, or at least not repudiate it – “lest he destroy his own credibility” – and therefore saddling himself with “high-sounding phrases” that obscured and obfuscated his real goals for generations to come.

In some ways these criticisms are examples of academic approaches to Marx which, despite their erudition, fail to understand the real motives of the man and his political objectives.  Despite a keenness to understand his writings in context, they misunderstand the context so that his personal circumstances are used to prop up an explanation or failure to find complete formulations of the appropriate academic rigour is considered to undermine the sense of what he has written.

So Marx was either slightly unhinged at the time or he hid what he really wanted to say, so we can, to a greater or lesser extent, ignore what he did say.

Yet Stedman Jones acknowledges that Marx’s motive was directly political: “to win a scientific victory for our party’, ‘party’ here meaning those followers of Marx and his ideas however organised.

It is scarcely conceivable that a man who dedicated his life to the political objectives of the working class; who sacrificed so much of himself and his family through his political activity and intellectual endeavours; who sought to do this during this particular time of his life through intensive study to elaborate the theory and politics of the working class; that he should sacrifice all this by writing something which rather than elucidate, actually obscured his politics and his theory. To believe such an explanation lies behind the words of ‘The Preface’ is hardly credible.

The themes of ‘The Preface’ were ones written before, in ‘The German Ideology’, so unless we are expected to believe that this writing was also the product of a ‘disordered’ approach, “perhaps even touched by delusion. . . unreal euphoria [and] uncontrolled paranoia”, we must assume he knew what he was doing.

It is equally inconceivable that, having struggled to get his views published, he would, when he eventually got the opportunity, publish something that he didn’t profoundly believe encapsulated his views.

This is so because it is the conciseness and sharpness of this summary of the Marx view of historical development that has led to the Preface’s influence on later generations of Marxists.  Notwithstanding his undoubted desire to work round the censor, he would not have allowed this to result in his writing presenting something with which he did not agree.  What would be the point in that?

The view that Marx might have wanted in any way to repudiate ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ doesn’t appear to withstand scrutiny.  Martin Nicolaus in ‘The Unknown Marx’ wrote that “Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) . . .”

If he wanted to retreat in any way from this work why did he quote from it in the first sentence of the first chapter of his most famous work, Capital Volume 1, the first of a number of references, and defend ‘The Preface’ in a footnote within the same chapter?

It is all the more necessary to appreciate the particular importance of ‘The Preface’ because it has been noted that, unlike the usual role of a preface, which sets out the purpose and scope of the rest of a book, this preface was part autobiographical sketch and part summary of views that were not the subject of the rest of the book.  He obviously felt it important to set out this summary of his views and identify himself closely with it.

So, let’s go through the relevant section above to see what it implies for Marx’s view about the alternative to capitalism and how such things as productive forces and productive relations are fundamental to it.

Back to part 14

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 14

The socialist society envisaged by Karl Marx can only be built on the achievements of capitalism and what has been called its civilising mission.  This progress rests on an enormously increased productivity of labour, which has reached such a level that the productive forces of society now realistically promise a society that more and more meets the needs of all its members, with inequality and insecurity vastly reduced and material poverty eliminated.

Within capitalism, progress inevitably involves increased exploitation since exploitation of labour is how this society increases productivity.  But progress there has undoubtedly been and without it socialism would not be possible.

Capitalism has created this possibility but capitalism now stands in its way.

When I first became interested in socialist politics in the mid-seventies I used to visit the Communist Party bookshop on High Street in Glasgow.  I remember picking up a CP pamphlet extolling the virtues of the ‘socialist’ countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.  It set out the daily calorific intake of the average citizen in a number of these countries with East Germany the top performer.

Even at the time this jarred and seemed somewhat disappointing.  I was by no means rich.  I lived in a tenement with an outside toilet and shared a bedroom with my sister, while my mother slept in the living room.  But I never once thought that I was going to suffer from a lack of calories; in fact I barely thought about food and was too busy running around to worry about it.

Now of course, in the space of less than a lifetime, a problem in the most developed capitalist societies is not a lack of calories for the average working class person, which I knew from my Scottish granny had been a problem in the past, but too many calories!

Reading some material on inequality and its effects, as argued in the book ‘The Spirit Level’, I came across some quotes that illustrated how very different the problem is now.  Now the stereotypical poor person is overweight or obese, or rather the latter are nearly always working class or poor, while the equivalent rich person is slim and healthy.  The capitalist food and drink industry specialises in feeding fatburgers and sugar-filled drinks to the poor while offering exotic sounding pulses, vegetables and bottled water in delicatessens for the discerning middle class.

I exaggerate of course; this is a distorted caricature albeit with a grain of truth, but the most important truth is that in many countries, for the vast majority of the population, an adequate food supply is not a problem.  Problems with its supply lie elsewhere, including in the exploitation of the humanity and nature that ensures its production.

While the productive forces of society more and more are capable of offering increased economic security, freedom from social stress and worry, and a promise of a fulfilling life, capitalism is more and more demanding that this promise can be offered for only some and on more and more unacceptable terms.  These terms include zero hour contracts, massive increases in debt, an absence of rights in the workplace and increasing threats to political rights outside it.  Working into your seventies is now the prospect for those in their youth and young adulthood.

Nevertheless, despite all this, it is unquestionable that progress has been made.  Had it not, then on what grounds could we claim that all these impositions and threats are unnecessary?  That an alternative is eminently possible?

A second aspect of this progress is that because it is capitalist progress it is accompanied by repeated crises, which can lead to sometimes dramatic falls in living standards for some, and constant insecurity and increased exploitation for many others; who are required to work longer and harder and with relatively less remuneration while having less and less security over their employment.

The financial crisis has come and many think it has also gone, with the answer to it being austerity and the bankers going back to business as usual.  Severe world-wide recession threatened after 2008, followed by crisis in the Eurozone and crises in developing countries as commodity prices fell.  This was only partially offset by continued growth in China, which is now also threatened by a similar credit boom and overcapacity

From being the fastest growing country in the west, the UK is now slowing dramatically while the Irish State, although it crashed, is now supposedly booming.  These booms and busts make crisis appear a constant threat, the boom period demonstrating the legitimacy of capitalism and the bust demonstrating the difficulty of, and for, an alternative.

For many these crises are proof that the contradictions of capitalism are insurmountable, are intrinsic to the system and cannot be escaped.  Just as progress under capitalism is built upon exploitation, so it is also achieved through crises.  It is crises that most violently reorganises production and ensures its further development.  Crises therefore not only express the irrationality of capitalism but also its rationality, its ability to achieve further development through destruction.

The most common alternative understanding is one that proposes that the system can be cleansed of its most irrational aspects while also ensuring that the growth that characterises capitalism can continue, and even increase.  The private greed that disfigures the system can be ameliorated by the state, which can be regarded as the representative of society as a whole and can act on its behalf.  Freeing this state from direct and indirect control of the 1% is therefore the most important task.

Marxists question this alternative and point out that inequality is not primarily a feature of market outcomes, of inequality of income, of working conditions, employment, housing and general welfare.  It is a question of utter and complete inequality in the conditions of production that generates income inequality and all the other inequalities that condition the general welfare of the majority of society.  What is distributed, and is considered fair distribution, is determined by how the wealth of society is produced in the first place.

Marx put it like this – “before distribution can be the distribution of products; it is (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production).  The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production.”

If the means by which the wealth in society is produced is not owned in common, by everyone, but by a small number so becoming a separate class, then the distribution of income and wealth that flows from this production will primarily benefit this class.

This is why we have massive increases in productivity and material wealth but it is accompanied by increased exploitation and inequality. Why it is accompanied by crises, in which private appropriation of the fruits of production, and of the means of production itself, conflict with the greater and greater cooperation required to make this production possible.

Nor do Marxists believe that the state is the true representative of society as a whole.  It is not ‘captured’ by the 1%, its functions are determined by the structure of society as a whole, by the fact that the means of production belong to a separate tiny class.  The state can adjust, within limits, inequality of income, housing and working conditions but it cannot fundamentally adjust the ownership of production that is the guarantee of general inequality.  In acting to defend the regular and ordered functioning of society, it must by this fact alone defend society’s fundamental structure, lest any radical change threaten its stability or the stability of the state itself.

And even if this were not the case, the argument for a socialism based on ownership of production by the state has floundered on the experience of the ‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which, before their collapse, could boast that their system fed their people.

Marx’s alternative is not based on the state, which is the instrument of capitalist rule, but is based on the progress that capitalism has created, it development of the productivity of labour and most importantly on the labour itself that performs this productive work.  Marx’s alternative is therefore based on the working class and its potential to control society.

Crises demonstrate the necessity of an alternative but in themselves do not create that alternative.  They can demonstrate what is wrong, but it is what it is possible to replace this system with that is the question.  Only if the contradictions which give rise to crises contain within themselves their progressive resolution is it possible for there to be a progressive alternative to capitalism.  So, what is the nature of the contradiction that Marx identified that promises that a fundamentally different society is possible?

Back to part 13

Forward to part 14

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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Forward to part 14

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

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

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.

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Forward to part 11

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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