The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Anti-Semitism and the Aristocracy

Last night I put up a piece debunking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, based on the chapter about this vile book in Jon E. Lewis’ The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups (London: Constable & Robinson 2007), pp. 433-50. The Protocols are a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, probably concocted by Matvei Golovinski of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, to make his master, Nicholas II, even more anti-Semitic and to intensify the persecution of the Jews.

The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting of a group of elite Jews, intent on destroying all non-Jewish religions and conquering and enslaving Christians and gentiles. They claimed that the Jews were at the centre of a massive conspiracy controlling the banks and were encouraging the downfall of Christian civilization by promoting liberalism, democracy, socialism and anarchism. At the same time they were distracting gentiles from uncovering this plot through using alcohol, gambling, games and other amusements.

There is absolutely no truth in any of this whatsoever. But the book became an immense success and was read and influenced many Fascists and anti-Semites. These included Adolf Hitler, who made the book a compulsory part of the German school syllabus.

Like much of Fascism, it’s a rejection of modernity – the mass society of modern politics that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Modern politics and secular ideologies were attacked. At one point, the Protocols claim that Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheanism have been successful because they have been promoted by the conspiracy. (Lewis, Mammoth Book of Covers-Ups, p. 444). The forger’s own view of what constitutes the best society is revealed very clearly in another passage, in which the conspirators celebrate their destruction of the aristocracy.

The people, under our guidance, have annihilated the aristocracy, who were their one and only defence and foster-mother for the sake of their own advantage, which is inseparably bound up with the well-being of the people. Nowadays, with the destruction of the aristocracy, the people have fallen into the grips of merciless money-grinding scoundrels who have laid a pitiless and cruel yoke upon the necks of the workers. (p.446).

Historically, some of the persecution of the Jews in the later Middle Ages was due to the fact that a large number of the aristocracy had become seriously in debt to Jewish bankers, and tried to get out of their obligation to pay it back by urging for their persecution and expulsion.

A significant number of aristocrats and the upper middle class were supporters of Nazism before the Second World War. The leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, was a baronet. Aristocrats and landlords joined pro-Nazi and appeasement organisations like the Anglo-German Fellowship. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the Wars describes how the aristos welcomed members of the Nazi elite at dinner parties on their estates, when the swastika was discreetly flown from the flagpoles.

And there still seems to be a fascination and dangerous sympathy with Nazism even today. Way back in the 1990s and early part of this century, Private Eye published a number of stories about one Cotswold aristocrat, who had very strong anti-Semitic, racist and anti-immigrant opinions.

And then there’s the Traditional Britain Group on the far right of the Tory party. These also have the same, genuinely Fascist attitudes, and one of their leaders is fascinated with the Nazis and the Third Reich. It was the Traditional Britain Group, who invited Jacob Rees-Mogg to their annual dinner, which Mogg accepted. When the Observer published the story, Mogg claimed that at the time he hadn’t known anything about them. If he had, he wouldn’t have gone. Which doesn’t really sound convincing, as people don’t normally accept dinner invitations from organisations and people they know nothing about. But perhaps Mogg, as well as being viciously right-wing, is also very naïve.

As for the Tories being good friends of the Jews, as the current head of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyle claimed in a speech, David Rosenberg posted up in response a series of incidents across the decades which put the lie to it. These showed very clearly how anti-Semitic the Tories had been, and which parts of it may very well still be.

And one of the attractions of anti-Semitism, apart from sheer racism, is that, in the form of conspiracy theories like the Protocols, they blame the Jews for all the forces of modernity that threaten the aristocracy and the upper middle class, and celebrate the aristocracy itself as the people’s saviours, and so appealing very strongly to certain types of Tories.

Notes on Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 17/09/2018 - 8:04am in



image/png iconScreen Shot 2018-09-17 at 10.32.35.png

I recently read Cedric J. Robinson's Black Marxism, the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, here's some quick notes.

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The left has no need to be defensive over anti-semitism – a response to Rachel Shabi and why Marxism helps

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/09/2018 - 3:16am in

Rachel Shabi is a strong supporter of the “Corbyn project” and makes many interventions defending it from right wing critics. But I found this well intentioned piece aiming to do that unnecessarily defensive, mistaken and detached from the social reality … Continue reading →

Now, Now, We Are all Socialists.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/09/2018 - 11:25am in


history, Marxism

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The fortune of the word “socialism” seems to be changing, particularly when compared to its political alternatives, not only worldwide (above), but also locally (below). When even “centre-right, conservative, libertarian” penny-a-liners can see that, one would need to be as blind as Anthony Albanese or Richard Di Natale to miss it.

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Chris Dillow does not have that problem. He thinks this may have something to do with the life experiences of youngsters. He may be onto something, I reckon. Capitalism’s failure is becoming more and more evident as Millennials and maybe even post-Millennials come of age.

It’s not that capitalism was problem-free before (ask anyone hailing from poor countries). What makes it so dramatic now is that it affects kids from even the so-called rich countries. Even if we leave aside more catastrophic possibilities (like climate change), that failure alone is bound to shape their whole lives.

Still, I doubt this turnaround in opinion about socialism can be attributed solely to different life experiences. While he welcomes this sudden rehabilitation of the word “socialism” (as I do) Corey Robin seems to be slightly cynical and so remarked on “how eerie and unsettling it can be when people change their minds”.

Robin wasn't talking about youngsters, but about mature, respectable, petty bourgeois … sorry … middle-class, people with a long history of open anti-socialism … as befitting, well, mature, respectable, middle-class people. He didn't name names of course, but upon reading him at least one Baby Boomer felt compelled to explain that he had been “a socialist now” … for a long time (go figure!).

(click here for the Google interactive chart)
In fact, the claim “we are all socialists now” has a surprisingly long history. I could trace it back to the 1880s. Kids should know about it, for a little history goes a long way into instilling realism. Characters as unlikely as King Edward VII and his loyal MPs, Sir William Harcourt (Britain) and George Laurenson (New Zealand) are credited with having made it … during the most unequal era in advanced nations' history: the Victorian/Edwardian Era (the Belle Epoque in France or Gilded Age, in the US). Sobering, uh?

Moreover, the late British Marxist Edgar Hardcastle wrote about “we are all socialists now” as far back as 1962 -- believe it or not -- long before Millennials (let alone post-Millennials) were born. Get this: at the time yours truly was a baby.

Hardy, as his comrades used to call him, may have been wrong about many things. He wasn’t wrong about “we are all socialists now”. You should read that.

Well, he was wrong about this: “While the phrase is no longer used … ”

Reformism Yesterday and Social Democracy Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/09/2018 - 3:53pm in


history, Marxism

“It it also true to say that the Belgian bourgeoisie found itself coming under almost constant pressure from a proletariat which had been both radicalized and held back by Social Democracy, which was both increasingly militant and increasingly contained. Social Democracy depended for its political credibility upon the power of a [workers’] movement it distrusted and which it wanted to hold back; its ability to negotiate was determined by actions which both gave it its strength and threatened its reformist strategy.”

Regular readers may have noticed I am not much of fan of the New Left, Eurocommunism, and the Frankfurt School. Although those labels do not mean much to younger socialists, there’s much to learn from their many failings.

In fairness, however, those readers should concede that my attitude towards all those once new shining things, now old, dimmed and forgotten, is less negative than my attitude towards reformism.

That ambivalence extends to names like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, associated to them. Now, it extends to a Belgian Marxist I had not read before: Marcel Liebman.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t question the intellectual merits of Thompson, Hobsbawm and -- now -- Liebman. It’s because I find merits in Liebman that I recommend his 1985 essay “Reformism yesterday and Social Democracy today”, of which I learned from Jacobin.

I don’t like Liebman’s rhetoric of impartiality, which he paradoxically adopts … together with the reformist point of view … in an article about reformism and the degeneration of Social Democracy into social democracy.  From that perspective, he complains about the “simplistic”, “almost caricatural” picture of reformist Social Democracy more radical Marxists allegedly entertain. Radicals, in his opinion, thought that “opting for legalism and gradualism [as reformists did] looked like an easy choice. It seemed to promote prudence as opposed to heroism, a pusillanimous moderation as opposed to heroic energy.”

Liebman, like Hobsbawm and Thompson in different contexts, may want to present himself as ostensibly neutral, but it’s clear that’s more appearance than reality. He carefully abstains from going into how the reformists saw themselves and their radical opponents. Nowhere he mentions their self-interested appeals to “pragmatism”. Not a peep about their “arguments”.

There’s hippie bashing in that article.

Still, I honestly find Liebman’s essay valuable. In spite of his sympathies, he was objective enough to write things like the opening paragraph, or this:

“It should be quite clear to attentive readers, careful observers, informed critics, and lucid participants in the political battle that the reformism of the past has fulfilled its historical mission, that it has lost its dynamism, and that its narrow limitations are now obvious. It is no more than a shadow of its former self, a ghost, a form of nostalgia. A nostalgia, ridiculous and poignant, for something which once existed and will never exist again.”

The Tale of the Scorpion and the Frog.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/08/2018 - 12:19pm in



Intent on crossing the creek, the scorpion was searching everywhere for a way: a branch fallen from a tree would be a natural bridge; perhaps something it could use as a barge. It was useless: no branch was that long, no twig or leaf would carry its weight.

Suddenly, it saw a frog resting safely on the sun, just across the creek. Frog was observing all Scorpion’s comings and goings. The solution to its problem, Scorpion thought, might be at hand.

“Oi, Frog!” it called. “Can you help me across, please?”

Frog was, understandably, reluctant. Even if there was something to gain from helping Scorpion (and it was unclear there was), it was a risky proposition. Among all creatures in the forest, scorpions had the reputation of, well, scorpions: evil, in one word.

Frog explained all that as diplomatically but as sincerely as it could.

After some thought, Scorpion politely explained that scorpions, as everybody knew, cannot swim. Any aggressive move against Frog would mean its own death. If nothing else, Frog could trust Scorpion’s enlightened self-interest. Frog had nothing to fear. Besides, precisely because of its reputation, Scorpion had no friends in the forest. If Frog helped it, it would become its only friend and gain its gratitude. That would be useful against other creatures, because Frog itself had its own enemies.

Scorpion was persuasive and thoughtful. That didn’t fit with their notoriety, Frog thought. Indeed, all Scorpion said sounded eminently reasonable. Maybe that reputation wasn’t deserved, after all. So Frog agreed to help. It crossed the creek and, with some residual trepidation, allowed Scorpion climb on its back.

Midway across the stream, however, Frog felt a stinging pain precisely where Scorpion was. “Scorpion stung me!” it realised.

“But … But … But … I thought we were fr … ” Frog tried to protest, but was cut short by Scorpion's cackle.

Quickly starting to sink, it asked in disbelief: “Why? Don’t you understand you’ll die with me?”

“Why? Why?” Scorpion repeated mockingly. “Because I’m a scorpion! That’s what we do! We sting and kill, without that our life is not worth living” it added, full of hatred and contempt.

The credit for that story is not mine and it has an obvious reading. Considered by itself, in abstract, it’s probably less than fascinating. Things may change when one takes into account concrete situations.

Who are the scorpions and who the frogs is for you to decide:

A few days ago Mike Isaacson gave us a glimpse of a phenomenon of actuality, given the first anniversary of the Charlottesville events: Nazis in hiding disavowing Nazis in public. The result is what you see in the link above.

Isaacson is onto something, I reckon. I’ve been observing a number of internet identities popping up in some comment threads and, while they deny being Nazis, they tick all the boxes. (As regular readers may know, I think comment threads in blogs can be most instructive). Apparently, Nazis less than successful in hiding their Nazism are infiltrating blogs which purportedly “avoid the mainstream and are virulently anti-neoliberalism”. Birds of a feather flock together, as old folks used to say.

Proselitising, of course, is not new. But that kind of proselitising is different and there is at least one historical precedent for it. The Fabians made extensive use of it: “permeation”. The idea was to send “missionaries”, pretending to mix with the heathens, with the secret purpose of evangelising them. You know, they would join a socialist group they disagreed with. After being accepted into the group they would start making “friendly” criticisms: any criticism would do. The point was to undermine the host and gain converts. (A related concept is the "concern troll"). Think of a virus.

They, in other words, just like the new breed of crypto-Nazis, added an ingredient to the recipe: false advertising.

Keynesians are known for their evangelic zeal.

What is evident in a fable, it seems, can be less than evident in real life: the use of persuasion to push an individual or group into self-destruction, at times even at the expenses of the persuader.

Image Credits:
[A] “Black scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda)”. Author: Per-Anders Olsson. File licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia. Olsson neither knows me or the use I make of this file, therefore there’s no reason to believe he endorses either.

So, What is Socialism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/08/2018 - 7:51pm in


Marxism, Politics

Millennials (those born between 1981-1996) are coming of age and I think they aren’t too happy with the world they are about to inherit. So, as they become voters, they are searching for ways to fix the godawful mess they found.

That’s why we are witnessing a revival of interest in socialism in the Anglophone world. First it was Jeremy Corbyn in the UK: 2015. Next, Bernie Sanders in the US: 2016. This year is the turn of 28-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also in the US. Moreover, although Aussie politicians haven’t kept up with the times, Aussie kids aren’t far behind their American and British peers.

But, what on earth is “socialism”?

I think this is a good definition:

“[S]ocialism consists of three interrelated parts:
  1. “the class rule of the proletariat [i.e. workers];
  2. “the abolition of private control of the means of production and the drive for profit by replacing them with social ownership and production for social need;
  3. “finally, a lengthy transitional stage whereby society is transformed with the ultimately mission of ending exploitation and oppression in order to create communism.”

That isn’t a capricious definition. There are good reasons for all those points. The explanation Neal Meyer gives (“What Is Democratic Socialism?”, July 20) covers all the bases. The quote, however, is from Doug Greene’s article “More Than Universal Healthcare: The Meaning of Socialism” (July 29). If you have time, you should try both, otherwise I’d recommend Meyer’s article.

Marxists believe in clear, well-thought out definitions. Why is that important?

I’ll use some examples to explain. This comes from a blogger who shall remain anonymous:

“My own summary answer [to the question of what socialism is] is that socialism is the socio-economic system that favors people and the environment as a whole over other factors and political theory that prioritizes human rights.”

Compare that with this:

“We believe:


“In those most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy - the freedom of thought, worship, speech and association.

“In a just and humane society in which the importance of the family and the role of law and justice is maintained.

“In equal opportunity for all Australians; and the encouragement and facilitation of wealth so that all may enjoy the highest possible standards of living, health, education and social justice.”

Both sound rather similar and pretty good, yes? .

Would that sound equally good if I told you that the first quote’s anonymous author is a self-proclaimed “lefty” who claims to avoid the mainstream and to be virulently anti-neoliberal, while the second comes from the very mainstream and neoliberal Australian Liberal Party (the local equivalent to the Republican and the Conservative parties of the US and Britain, respectively)?

Whether they honestly believe what they write or not is irrelevant here. What’s relevant is that those words do not translate into reality. That cheap talk may sound good, but it’s still cheap talk, platitudes: false advertisement. Anti-Marxist politicians (and, make no mistake, that blogger is as much a politician as the author of the Liberal Party page) know that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

Like Greene wrote:

“The surest way to deradicalize and discredit socialism is to empty it of all revolutionary content and make it perfectly compatible with the status quo. The simple fact is that words have meaning, and definitions matter.”

That’s what that “lefty” is doing.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but we’ll leave that for the future.

Poulantzas Revisited: State, Classes and Socialist Transition; An Interview with Panagiotis Sotiris

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/08/2018 - 3:26am in



Panagiotis Sotiris and Thomas Goes

Viewpoint Magazine, May 7, 2018


Thomas Goes: Why should we, today, study the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a theoretician who died almost 40 years ago? Or to put it differently, what can activists, organizers, and cadres within the anti-capitalist left learn from his writings that could be useful, indeed, even necessary to build a strong, promising left?

Panagiotis Sotiris: The work of Nicos Poulantzas is one of the most important contributions to a possible Marxist theory of the state and of class antagonisms within the state. His was a highly original, relational conception of the state — the state as not simply an instrument in the hands of the ruling class but as the “condensation of a class relation.” He offered invaluable insights into the complexity of state apparatuses, articulating multiple relations between the state and the terrain of class struggle including the realm of production, and the myriad ways that the state functions as a crucial node in the (re)production of bourgeois class strategies.1

Poulantzas’s final book, State, Power, Socialism, offers one of the most sophisticated conceptualizations of how the state plays a crucial role in the production and reproduction of repressive measures and ideological interpellations, but also shapes discourses, strategies and technologies of power, to borrow Foucault’s term. This approach is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s integral state, the “entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.”2 In this sense, Poulantzas’s theory is a tool to help militants understand what they are up against.

At the same time, Poulantzas’s relational conception of the state offers a way to theorize the effectiveness of class struggles. It is true that there has been a tendency to interpret this relational conception as a form of reformism, that it points toward a gradual transformation of the state by means of the struggles that are “interiorized” within it. I disagree with a reading that would turn Poulantzas’s work into something like Eduard Bernstein’s reformism. According to Poulantzas, state apparatuses are the “materialization and condensation of class relations.” So, we are talking about a class state inscribed with the strategic and tactical interests of the bourgeoisie.3 In any case it is neither fortress nor instrument but a terrain of class antagonisms. Subaltern classes can induce ruptures, openings, and gains as part of a strategy for hegemony, which in the end will also need a confrontation with the very materiality of the repressive apparatuses of the state (what in classical Marxist theory was described as the necessity to smash the state). This is yet another useful reminder for militants: radical politics is neither a long march through institutions nor a simple preparation for a final confrontation with the state. We might think of it instead as a complex dialectical process: of changing the class balance of forces in favor of the subaltern classes, creating conditions for working class hegemony and preparing for the confrontation with the class strategies materially inscribed in the state.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of Poulantzas’s theorization of authoritarian statism. Poulantzas was one of the first Marxist theorists in the aftermath of the capitalist crisis of 1973-4 to suggest that the reaction of the capitalist classes and their political representatives in the state was the result of extensive capitalist restructuring (and the first signs of the neoliberal turn) along with an authoritarian transformation of the state. I think that this dual tendency has since been a constant feature of social and political power. On the one hand it is exemplified in developments within capitalist states e.g. the expansion of repressive surveillance, the move of the center of power from the legislative to the executive, insulation of the decision processes against any form of intervention by the popular classes, and reduction of the scope of political debate with important strategic choices presented as simply technical. On the other hand, it is evident in the authoritarian institutional framework of the European Union, in some ways the model par excellence of authoritarian statism in Europe.

TG: Maybe we can move on to Poulantzas’s class analysis. What is its importance for our activism today? Why should we distinguish between a working class and what he called the “new petty bourgeoisie” composed of different layers of wage earners?

PS: Poulantzas offered a theory of class structures grounded in three key points.

First, he suggested that social classes are unthinkable outside of the terrain of class struggle. He wrote that “social classes involve in one and the same process both class contradictions and class struggle; social classes do not firstly exist as such, and only then enter into a class struggle. Social classes coincide with class practices, i.e. the class struggle, and are only defined in their mutual opposition.”4

Second, he argued that relations of production are not simple relations of legal ownership but rather complex relations of power and control of the means and process of production.

Third, he said that when we deal with the relations of production and the formation of class we are not simply talking about “economic” aspects but also political and ideological ones. In this sense, we avoid both the narrow economism of many traditional Marxist approaches and, at the same time, the underestimation of the centrality of relations of production that characterizes neo-Weberian theories of class stratification.

Poulantzas’s insight into the new petty bourgeoisie was essential.5 It was based upon a conception of the primacy of the social division of labor over the technical division of labor (which is the reflection of the primacy of the relations of production over the productive forces). For Poulantzas, “it is the social division of labor, in the form that this is given by the specific presence of political and ideological relations actually within the production process, which dominates the technical division of labor.”6

Consequently, he stressed the fact that the emergence of contradictory class positions that represent at the same time aspects of the collective laborer and of the collective capitalist was not a “neutral” technical evolution, but the expression of a deepening of the capitalist character of the labor process and of the political and ideological relations within the terrain of production. Despite certain shortcomings, such as Poulantzas’s tendency to identify the working class with productive labor (a choice that leaves out important working class segments), I think that this is an important contribution to any Marxist theory of social classes.

Moreover, I think that Poulantzas’s analysis can help us understand why treating these social strata as “working class” would mean taking for granted this form of the capitalist labor process and of the capitalist division between intellectual and manual labor. Moreover, it would also mean the incorporation of important elements of the petty-bourgeois ideology.

This does not mean that these strata could not be a part of the “people” as the alliance of the subaltern classes. Indeed one of the most important challenges today is gaining these strata in such political direction. In our time, contemporary capitalist restructurings tend at the same time to expand such positions but also to worsen their working conditions, thus polarizing them towards the working class. Organizing such strata, incorporating them in trade unions, engaging them in collective practices and demands and breaking the ideology that they are “middle class” or “professionals” is indeed one of the most important stakes of class struggles today.

TG: Poulantzas argued for a class alliance between the working class and the old and new petty bourgeoisie. He named it “the people.” So, first, how did he assume such a “people” develops? And what was, in his understanding, the role of the state and the party within this process? My impression is that his understanding of the party’s role was quite traditional.

PS: Poulantzas attempted a reconstruction of a theory of class alliances based upon his conception of the people as an alliance under the hegemony of the working class. In this sense, he offers a class-theoretical perspective of the people in contrast to current positions such as the ones associated with reading of the work of Ernesto Laclau that tend to treat the people as a form of interpellation and as a discursive construction.

It is true that Poulantzas treated the Communist party as the main terrain for the creation of the political conditions of such an alliance. He had in mind both the experience of the Greek communist movement, how the KKE became the leading force of the people in the Resistance and the Civil War, and the experience of the titanic Communist parties of Italy and France. He therefore also had in mind the idea of an alliance of the forces of the Left.

However, it is important to note that he did not restrict his view to the Party or parties. He also underscored the significance of autonomous social movements. In his last interventions, shortly before his suicide, we can find elements of a deeper apprehension of a certain crisis of the Western mass workers’ parties and an even stronger emphasis on autonomous social movements.7

Unfortunately, because of his untimely death, we cannot say to which direction his work would have gone. Nowadays, we know that we cannot deal with these questions simply within a traditional party-form. Social movements, especially new forms of political intervention also based upon the reclaiming of public space, such as the Movement of the Squares in Greece or Indignados in Spain, have enabled exactly this coming together of the different social classes and groups that the “people” is comprised of. However, I still think that the question of working-class hegemony within the articulation of such an alliance still requires a common political project and the organizational form that can support it, namely a novel form of the radical left front in its encounter with autonomous initiatives from below.

TG: How would you judge Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory? One can easily recognize a Maoist inflection to his work, especially in Fascism and Dictatorship and in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. What was the precise influence of Maoism on Poulantzas?

PS: Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory began with his experiences as a youth in Athens, within the Greek Left (the illegal organizations of the Communist Party and the legal organizations of the EDA) and then by his close experiences of the French developments surrounding May 1968. It also included a series of theoretical influences beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre and Lucien Goldmann before his turn to Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Another important experience for Poulantzas was the particular way he experienced not only May 1968 in France, but also the split in the Greek Communist Party in 1968 and his participation in the Communist Party of the Interior.8

The traditional approach is to describe the rupture in the Greek Communist movement in terms of a split between the pro-USSR hardliners of the KKE and the more “eurocommunist” or “right-wing” approach of the Communist Party of the Interior (KKE-Es). However, many militants that sided with KKE-Es were looking for a radical or even revolutionary renovation of the strategy and tactics of the Communist movement, and did so in opposition to the more traditional and bureaucratic approach of the KKE.

The local organization of KKE-Es in Paris, of which Poulantzas was an active member, was far to the left of the leadership. At the same time, it is obvious that Poulantzas was also influenced by both the radical critique of economism and reformism not only by his experiences with May 1968 but by the Chinese experience, by Mao and also the Cultural Revolution. For example, his insistence on not treating the hierarchies within the labor process as “neutral” and “technical” echoes the Cultural Revolution’s critique against the capitalist social division of labor.

However, later, particularly in the second half of the 1970’s we see a different political approach by Poulantzas. He opts for what he defined as a Left Eurocommunism and he seemed to be sympathetic towards both a strategy of left unity and democratic road to socialism. This is more obvious in the last chapter of his last book where he defended such an approach, where he insists on the possibility of combining a parliamentary majority with strong autonomous movements from below.9 This is indeed a contradictory position. Still, it is an attempt to think thoroughly about an important problem. Since we have the benefit of hindsight, we can say that at that particular moment he was overly optimistic about such possibilities. At the same time he did not discern how the socialist parties of that period (such as PS in France or PASOK in Greece), in the end, would end up implementing capitalist restructuring from the 1980’s onwards.

It is important to stress that this debate with the interventions of Poulantzas, Althusser, Balibar, the replies by Henri Weber or Daniel Bensaïd, the interventions by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, and the parallel Italian debate (see for example the texts by Ingrao) all represent the last major debate on questions of strategy regarding socialist transition as a real, not simply theoretical, question.10

TG: You mentioned Poulantzas’s critique of economism and reformism. What was his criticism exactly about? And how did it influence his own theoretical and strategic thinking? For example, in Fascism and Dictatorship we find a constant argument that the parties of the Third International had an economistic approach. But his only strategic suggestion is that a more mass line politics would have been necessary. For example, how did it influence the politics of the local group of the KKE-Es in Paris?

PS: Poulantzas’s critique of economism is evident in many aspects of his work. First of all, the very idea of attempting to elaborate on a complex theory of the state and its role is in contrast to any instrumental conceptualization of the state. Second, the critique of Third International economism is a crucial aspect of the argument he attempts to present in Fascism and Dictatorship. Third, his theory of social classes, which includes political and ideological determinations and insists on the primacy of social division of labor to the technical division, also represents a rupture with economism.

Regarding his critique of the Third International, it is very interesting how Poulantzas attempted to draw a line of demarcation with both “third-period” sectarianism but also a reformist conception of “popular fronts” and political alliances with “democratic” bourgeois parties. Having said that, I would like to draw attention to his interventions in the debates within the Greek Communist Party of the interior.

I would like to draw attention to a text he wrote under an alias in 1970, in Agonas (“Struggle”) the organ of the Paris local organization of the KKE-Es.11 This is an answer to an article by L. Eleutheriou, a member of the leadership of the Party who suggested a strategy of alliances from above with democratic parties (such as the parties of the center), based on the idea that these parties represented the petty bourgeois strata.

Poulantzas opposed this conception of political representation, rejected the idea of alliances only “from above” and insisted that the United Front tactic required work from below and an attempt from the communist parties to also work within the peasantry and other petty bourgeois strata. Since Eleutheriou evoked the 7th Congress of the Communist International and Dimitrov’s positions, Poulantzas uses his critical approach to these positions that we also find in Fascism and Dictatorship, to suggest that a different approach to political alliances was necessary.

I would like to stress here that the question of political alliances was very crucial in the debates of the Greek Left in the period of the 1967-74 dictatorship and the challenges that the Left faced such as how to create unity in struggle against the dictatorship while avoiding giving the bourgeois forces the hegemonic role in the anti-dictatorship struggle. This was also evident in his interventions after the dictatorship, in the debates around the strategy of KKE-Es where Poulantzas criticized “national anti-dictatorship alliance” that promoted, again, an alliance with bourgeois forces. In this sense, we can say that, in his interventions, Poulantzas was always to the left of the leadership of KKE-Es.

On the other hand, Poulantzas always referred to the communist movement, not to some form of heterodoxy. His positions were, by all accounts, to the left of European communist parties, and we can find, in his work, many positions that were critical of what we might call “communist reformism.” However, he never opted for a form of gauchisme [ultra-leftism] and his focus was on the communist parties. He never seemed to suggest that the solution was to adopt the positions of Maoist or Trotskyist groups of that period, whose positions he treated as one-sided; he stressed the importance of autonomous and radical mass movements.

TG: At least since 1989 there has been little discussion about a socialist transition within the broad European left. Except for some smaller groups within the revolutionary left, for example the Socialist Workers Party in England or the LCR (now the NPA) in France, left parties have focused more or less on fighting for reforms. In one way or another this was tied to strategies that tried to build alliances with social democratic and/or left-liberal parties. This was even true for the PRC [Communist Refoundation Party] in Italy – a party that tried to rethink the relationship between social movements and the party. To put it another way: The anti-neoliberal government has been the main strategic idea within the broader European Left. From a Poulantzian point of view, and also based on the Greek experience, what do you think about this strategic orientation?

PS: It is true that the period after 1968 represents a strategic crisis of the Left that took many forms. One of these was the “de-communization” of major parties of the Left and their transformation into social-democratic and later social-liberal parties. The Italian Communist Party is the one that comes first to mind. On the other hand, most of the tendencies that refused such an openly social-democratic turn did not develop something more than an anti-neoliberal position in the 1990’s, along with a defence of mass movements and a general, abstract support of socialism.

At the same time most tendencies of the revolutionary or anti-capitalist Left, or the Left that referred to the experience of 1968, also experienced an ideological crisis. Many groups dissolved and those tendencies that persisted were relatively small and lacked strategic renovation. This was obvious in the 4th International, the IST, and others.

At the same time, especially after the second half of the 1990’s with the symbolic expression of the anti-globalization movement, there was a renewed radicalism. This radicalism was expressed in the streets, in social movements, and in confrontations with the police. In some cases it was manifested in important electoral results such as the LCR-LO in 1999 France and the impressive result for Olivier Besancenot in the 2002 French presidential election, or at a different register in the PRC’s newfound appeal with youth. However this was not followed by a strategic debate. This was obvious in the European Social Forum and the World Social Forum where one could find thousands of militants, social movements of great significance, and a burgeoning interest in Marxist theory, but no real strategic debate. Daniel Bensaïd’s call to reopen the strategic debate went unanswered.

Even more unfortunate was the substitution of left strategy for alliances with social democracy especially anti-neoliberal governments or – worse yet – “anyone but” governments. The disastrous experience of the PRC’s participation in the second Prodi government, from which the communist left in Italy never recovered, offers a lesson we cannot ignore. It is true that in various instances, Poulantzas was invoked to support such strategies, but there was no depth and no strategic debate. It was not a “democratic road to socialism” but a full capitulation to parliamentary logic and the ceding of hegemony to social democracy in a period when it was one of the main political forces that implemented “actually existing neoliberalism.”

This vacuum of strategy created by this approach and the fact the substitution of electoral politics and basic anti-neoliberal reforms is the fundamental limitation of this left variety; it created a version of the Left that is rhetorically radical yet incapable of thinking about strategies of rupture. The most tragic example of this is SYRIZA whose programmatic unpreparedness and compulsive Europeanism paved the way for a thoroughgoing capitulation to the Troika and now a full-fledged acceptance of an aggressive neoliberal logic. The younger members of SYRIZA’s leadership, including Tsipras himself, received their “political education” in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, exactly during the period of European Social Forum and peak popularity for the idea of an “anti-neoliberal front.”

TG: Some comrades would argue that the balance of forces as well as the “character of the period” do not allow more than anti-neoliberal politics. In the German left it is common to hear the argument that, given different possible roads of capitalist development (either more authoritarian and neoliberal or more social and democratic) as well as the balance of forces, anything we do is pushing for a better capitalism. Thus we create better conditions for class struggle, social movements and more space for the Left. In other words, in their perspective there is only one solution. But that’s not revolutionary politics; it is called in German the “Reformalternative.” The late Poulantzas, with his interest in left Eurocommunism, is a point of reference for these kind of strategies. What is your reply to these strategic suggestions?

PS: I think that such an approach is a very anti-dialectical one. The very idea that the Left can present a project of a better capitalism and thus create a better terrain for movements is almost absurd. I mean the very history of the workers’ movement suggests that whenever there was a “better” capitalism, this was not the result of the Left promoting alliances for a good capitalism. It has always been the outcome of autonomous and militant struggles and of a broader anti-capitalist challenge to the existing social order, exemplified in the communist movement of the 20th century. Only such dynamics could force the capitalist powers to make reforms and concessions to the subaltern classes.

Moreover, such an approach underestimates another important aspect of the current conjuncture: the combination of the neoliberal fuite en avant. This has been the answer to the 2007-8 capitalist crisis. Increased authoritarian statism and an almost “post-hegemonic” approach, along with the erosion of any democratic process, has meant there is not much space for reforms towards a “better” capitalism. Of course, the class struggle never ends and there is a constant character to social antagonism. At the same time, the actual decision-making processes are more insulated against the intervention of the subaltern classes than at any time in the past.

What is needed is a much more confrontational approach that presents a radical alternative. We are now talking about a transitional program, a series of interlinked demands and goals that challenge the power of the capitalists, accentuate the contradictions of the current form of bourgeois politics and crisis-management and open up the way for a post-capitalist social configuration. Such a programmatic approach can, on the one hand, re-establish the Left as a truly anti-systemic force, draw a line of demarcation with bourgeois forces, suggest an alternative narrative (and not the fantasy of a better capitalism) and offer a political perspective for mass movements. Such an approach can really open up the way for truly hegemonic projects of the forces of labor, and can create conditions for a Left that aims at not only resistance, but also power and hegemony.

I can understand the possible invocation of Poulantzas in such debates and positions. Yet Poulantzas never referred to a left that would simply struggle for reforms. Even when he made a political turn to the “democratic road” we should never forget that he was referring to a “democratic road to socialism,” a process where a parliamentary victory of the Left with a radical program towards socialist transformation would be combined with strong autonomous social movements in a complex process of social transformation. We can criticize these positions and bring forward their contradictions and lacunae, such as Poulantzas’s underestimation of how the state apparatus would react to such a challenge, or his all-too-positive approach to the possibility of collaboration of the communist left with parties like PASOK, yet we must admit that he never suggested an alliance with social-democratic forces just in the name of “better capitalism.”

Moreover, Poulantzas also realized that simply aiming at governmental power was not the answer to the question of strategy, even if he championed – contra more classical “insurrectionist” approaches – the possibility of a “democratic road.” He always gave credence to the importance of mass movements from below, autonomous movements that would also pressure even a left-wing government to overcome its shortcomings, move in a more radical direction, initiate processes of transformation and answer any potential counter-offensives from the part of the bourgeois forces. Take the following passage from a 1979 interview by Poulantzas:

However, to modify the balance of power [le rapport de force] within the state, and furthermore, radically modify the materiality of the state, is only one aspect of a democratic transition to socialism. The other aspect of the process depends on, at the same time, grassroots social movements propelling the spread [l’essaimage] of spaces of direct democracy: in short for movements to ground themselves in popular struggles that always spill over beyond, and keep a distance from, the state. To remain limited to the state terrain, even in order to adopt a strategy of ruptures, is to unwisely slip towards social democracy; because of the specific weight of the materiality of the state, to even change the relation of forces within the state can only happen by also relying on struggles and movements which go beyond the state.12

TG: What would an alternative strategy look like? As far as I can see, there are three major alternative strategies discussed in the radical left. First, the idea of an anti-monopolistic alliance and a progressive democracy. This is for example the strategic framework of the declining German Communist Party. Second, the idea of non-state radical politics, in its different varieties – anarcho-syndicalism or some autonomous currents. And last but not least, revolutionary Marxist organizations mostly of a Trotskyist current, organizing their politics around the idea of a deep revolutionary crisis and the development of situations of dual power. Do you see an alternative approach? In a discussion I attended last year, Stathis Kouvelakis argued for a left government that would mobilize for anti-capitalist reforms working together and in tension with social movements.

PS: This is surely an open and rather difficult question. First, I think that the idea of an anti-monopolistic alliance is based on a misapprehension of the dominant social bloc. The contrast between monopolies and more medium or small bourgeoisie is a tension within the dominant bloc which is managed by the dominant segments of the power bloc. For instance, we can see how “monopoly capital” instrumentalizes labor deregulation and overexploitation to maintain its leading role relative to medium and small businesses. Moreover, the reproduction of medium and small businesses in many cases is conditioned upon the strategy of monopoly capital (outsourcing and new flexible forms of concentration/centralization). It is one thing to try to think of a potential alliance with the self-employed or very small business and another to insist on the fantasy of an alliance with progressive elements of the bourgeoisie.

There is the idea that we can do away with politics in the sense of a struggle for revolutionary power. From Alain Badiou’s “politics at a distance from the state” to John Holloway’s notion of changing the world without taking power, there is an abundance of examples.13 However great the changes made by autonomous movements, there is a limit. We need strong, autonomous, and victorious social movements, just as we need successful experiments of alternative social configurations such as the experience in self-management. Yet this is not enough. Social change also needs confrontation with the power of the dominant classes: the power that is materialized and condensed in state apparatuses. This is especially true if we look at current forms of authoritarian statism, especially in the form of state of permanent economic exception and urgency (such as the “regime” imposed by the Troika in Greece). There is a tendency towards the pre-emptive undermining of social movements and towards the drastic reduction of the possibility of major changes induced by movements. There is an extreme insulation of the decision-making process against such developments. In such a conjuncture you need political power to change the world.

However, the idea that the seizure of power would be a simple repetition of October 1917 is absurd. This is more fantasy than an actual strategy, and in certain cases (the current anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Greek Communist Party is an example that comes to mind) an excuse for not doing much. I can understand the defence of the revolutionary road as an ideological reference point against political and theoretical anticommunism, yet this has to be translated into strategy. This means actually thinking about the conjuncture, the opportunities offered and the original ways necessary to take advantage of them. In no case does it mean constantly treating the situations as “not ripe enough.” In 2010-12 Greece came closer to a hegemonic crisis than any European country since the “fall of the dictatorships” in the mid-1970’s. What could be more “ripe” than that?

Does this mean simply combining a left government with a transitional program and strong autonomous movements form below? I think that we need a more dialectical approach. On the one hand, recent developments not only in Europe but also in the previous decade in Latin America have shown the possibility that in a condition of extreme social and political crisis that leads to mass movements and to major breaks in the relations of representation articulated around systemic parties, it is possible for forces of the radical left to reach governmental power. At the same time, the extent of the transformation of the state (the solidification and materialization of a class relation of forces in favor of capital), and the degree of development of authoritarian statism mean that it is very difficult to exercise power in a normal way. This is especially true when we talk about a government that (in contrast to SYRIZA) would have gone all the way towards a rupture with the European Union and imperialism (since it is impossible to have any form of social change within the embedded neoliberalism of the Eurozone and the EU institutional framework).

What is needed is an excess of popular power from below to counter the capitalist strategies inscribed in the very materiality of the state and to answer potential bourgeois counter-offensives. We need not just strong movements but also novel forms of dual power. Sooner or later it would need to not only run the state or reform it but also to bring about a more profound transformation in a process that would require a rupture with the bourgeoisie and lead to a constituent process that could implement institutional arrangements antagonistic to the capitalist ones: limits to ownership, new forms of democracy, new forms of participatory planning, democratic control, and reduction of oppressive mechanisms.

These cannot be simple abstract blueprints for the future. They must be based on real experiences and experimentations, the collective ingenuity of the masses, the learning process associated with movements and radical politics, and open theoretical debate. Radical or revolutionary politics is a process of constant experimentation. Unfortunately most organizations and fronts of the Left have failed so far to become the kind of collective laboratories for the production of strategies, discourses, and intellectualism needed. Even the experience of SYRIZA, if we take it as a test case, has not dealt with its tragic deficiencies and defeats.

Some will argue that now we only need resistance and movements since the “window of opportunity” for revolutionary politics has closed, where perhaps it was open in 2010-12. The reply is that strategic debate has never been a luxury for the Left. From 1848 to the Paris Commune to the 1905 revolution to 1917 the idea that we learn from major experiences and constantly reassess and transform communist theory and practice and even revolutionize strategy has been like oxygen for both Marxism and the working class movement. We need that oxygen today.

  1. Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 1979), 26. ↩

  2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 244. ↩

  3. Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, 25. ↩

  4. Ibid., 14. ↩

  5. Poulantzas argued that the conditions of monopoly capitalism give rise to a new petty bourgeoisie class of non-productive salaried workers. Examples include office workers, engineers, and technicians. ↩

  6. Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, 21. ↩

  7. See, for example, Nicos Poulantzas, “The State, Social Movements, Party: Interview with Nicos Poulantzas (1979),” trans. Patrick King, Viewpoint Magazine. ↩

  8. Nicos Poulantzas, “Interview with Nicos Poulantzas,” in The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, trans. James Martin (London: Verso, 2008) 387-388. ↩

  9. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: New Left Books, 1978). The chapter in question is entitled “Part Five: Towards a Democratic Socialism.” ↩

  10. See the debate between Henri Weber and Poulantzas in The Poulantzas Reader, 334-360 and Buci-Glucksmann’s many interventions in the review Dialectiques. ↩

  11. Nicos Poulantzas, “On the question of alliances,” Agonas, July 1970 (in Greek, written under the pseudonym, N. Skyrianos). ↩

  12. Poulantzas, “The State, Social Movements, Party.” ↩

  13. John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London: Pluto, 2002). ↩

Panagiotis Sotiris has taught social and political philosophy as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Crete, Panteion University, the University of the Aegean, and the University of Athens. His research interests include Marxist philosophy, the work of Louis Althusser, and social and political movements in Greece.

Thomas Goes is a sociologist, focusing on Sociology of Work and Labor Relations. He is working at the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut (SOFI) Göttingen, is a member of »Organisieren Kämpfen Gewinnen«, Projekt M and DIE LINKE.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (and xi)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/07/2018 - 10:12am in


history, Marxism

“Looks like she didn't have nobody to help her. I felt right sorry for her. She seemed...” Tom Robinson

In spite of the absolute lack of evidence against him, in spite of the best efforts of his defence attorney, Tom Robinson was found guilty. Those words sealed his fate. He was innocent of the crime he had been charged with, but he had to be convicted of a crime, any crime. The one at hand was that him, a black man, had felt sorry for a white woman.

With this post I conclude my present series on Eduard Bernstein's Preconditions. Those following it have seen me going to great lengths to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Bernstein not only failed to prove his case against Marxism, but that, indeed, Marxism survived the test and found its main claims confirmed. There’s no need to repeat that.

I’ve also given ample evidence that Bernstein was as dishonest in his criticism as personally ambitious and hostile in his aim. The previous series focused on Bernstein, the man, presents additional proof. His self-assurance was only matched by his recklessness and incompetence.

All of Bernstein’s hand-waving, all his of “data”, were just a cover for this:

“Are we to accept a deterioration of the worker which is only a deterioration relative to the rise in the general level of culture? I am not inclined to do so, and neither, probably, is Cunow.” (p. 168, E3§d)

The similarity between Preconditions and a fraudulent criminal trial has been established. It’s my turn to ask for a verdict: Bernstein is guilty.

That happened long ago. In spite of recent attempts to resurrect Eduard Bernstein or Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, why should socialists and workers care about that today?

Personally, I believe there are many reasons.

I could begin with historical truth. Bernstein was a careerist and a mediocre one at that. Die Voraussetzungen was what one would have expected from such an author. In our times of “alternative facts”, those are absolute facts that need to be upheld.

Considerations of justice are harder in this case. The oblivion into which Bernstein had fallen was undeserved. Opprobrium, not oblivion, is what he earned. That is extensive to those attempting to lift him from his grave.

That story is no antiquarian concern, nor can one dismiss those as “moral” reasons.


If Piketty is right, the fall in the curves above was not attributable to Bernsteinian “social democracy” (including in it Keynesian macroeconomic management policies, welfare state, and “progressivism”), but to war and depression. “Social democratic” potions and incantations didn’t do the trick then, there’s no reason to believe they’ll do it now.

At any event, for decades those curves fell. Social democracy fell with them: from a more or less Marxist revolutionary working class movement into Bernsteinian gradualist, reformist, “parliamentarian come what may”, class collaborationist, petty bourgeois “social democracy”; from there to the identitarian New Left and its “new social movements”, and finally to Third Way/Neue Mitte “social democracy”.

Decade after decade of defeats, decade after decade of doubling down on its betrayal of the working class in pursuit of a new “secret formula”. Decade after decade of “utopias”:

  1. Lord Keynes, who despised the working class, would deliver salvation to the working class in the shape of 15-hour workweeks … after 100 years; 
  2. horny male students, singing Kumbaya My Lord and smoking weed, would make the revolution by not taking showers and having free access to the girls’ dormitories;
  3. Nirvana meant living in a mortgaged suburban McMansion.

In other words, born unprincipled, Bernsteinian “social democracy” has since its birth attempted to pull principles, utopias, goals, out of its hat (say hi to “Darwinian lefty” Peter Singer).

For the first time since the 1910s, those curves have been lifting. Slowly and tentatively (and considering Piketty’s inclusion of owner-occupier housing as “capital”, maybe deceptively slowly), but for the first time since the 1910s they have been lifting.

Will that come to an end? Maybe. But in Capital Piketty didn’t seem to think so. Me, I think he might be right.

I also doubt “social democracy” will ever, of its own accord, go back to what Marx and Engels had envisaged by late 19th century.

“Social democracy” is dead and socialists and workers shouldn’t regret its passing. It may be too early to add “Long live Social Democracy” and we may be running out of time, but hope springs eternal. If the degeneration of social democracy ran parallel to the first half of the inequality U, maybe a re-birth of the socialist movement may run parallel to the second half.

If a second time comes, let’s try to avoid those mistakes. That’s my ambition with this series.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (x)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 14/07/2018 - 4:01am in


history, Marxism

“Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig; es ist nicht einmal falsch!” Wolfgang Pauli.

In the last two posts in this series we’ve introduced Thomas Piketty’s “capital” inequality data. As is well-known, Piketty and co-workers derive their findings largely from tax return data. Bernstein employed similar data.

Piketty’s results seem to corroborate Marxist views on distribution of wealth. Bernstein’s, however, contradict them. Someone has got to be wrong. It’s time to scrutinise Bernstein’s empirical argument.

At the risk of repeating myself, let’s proceed by steps.

Marx and Engels depicted in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto how capitalism in general lines should evolve:

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

Those two sentences are meant as a simplification, but never mind that (Bernstein threw his gauntlet there, as we’ll see; one must meet him there). One can put that in terms of proportions of population and owned wealth: the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, a fraction of the population (whose relative size is left unspecified, but presumably small) owns 100% of the means of production; the proletariat, the rest of the population (relative size also unspecified, although presumably large) owns no means of production (i.e. 0%). Readers will note that passage makes no demand whatsoever on the distribution of what one calls now “financial assets”, although one may infer they, too, should be concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie (later Marx would develop the related category of “fictitious capital”, but never himself finished that work).

(As an aside: the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the bourgeoisie, according to Marxism, makes of it hegemonic over society and forces the proletariat to work for the capitalists).

We’ve already considered Piketty’s results (this is the second time I present that chart in this series). Although it pretty much speaks for itself, I’ll add a few comments. Although Piketty’s “capital” includes financial assets, there’s more than a clear family resemblance between Marx’s passage and Piketty’s results, between Marx’s bourgeoisie and Piketty’s “upper class” (the top 10%), on the one hand, and Marx’s proletariat and Piketty’s “middle” and “lower” classes, on the other:

  1. Marx’s stylised bourgeois own 100% of all means of production; Piketty’s “upper class” own 90% of “capital”.
  2. Piketty adds a measurement to Marx’s presumably small bourgeoisie: 10% (or even 1%, if one were to consider a Marxist notion not included in the passage above: the petite bourgeoisie as the “well-to-do” class).
  3. Marx’s presumably majority proletariat owns 0% of the means of production; Piketty’s “middle” and “lower” classes (90% of the population) own 10% (probably as cash -- financial asset -- maybe some own their homes, or some family microbusiness or likely marginal farmland), remaining, at any event, as dependent on the 10% for work as Marx’s proletarians are dependent on the bourgeoisie.

In a nutshell: Piketty’s findings seem to corroborate Marx’s views on wealth distribution.

There may be some reason why the first half of Piketty’s U inequality curves seem to tell the story of the Left in the developed world.

But I suggested something else last time: late 19th century observers in Europe didn’t quite need Piketty’s results, however useful they may be to us, moderns, to intuit that situation. They were there, after all, and could see things with their own eyes; we can only picture things from afar, through data.

Moreover, there was already a considerable literature, independent from Marxism, dealing with inequality. Let’s not fall for self-flattery: we moderns did not “invent” those debates.

Even if by themselves those two things didn’t allow that precise conclusion, they already pointed in that direction.

As a result of our examination of Bernstein’s analysis, I will argue his reasoning was flawed. I will argue, too, that Bernstein was aware of that. To dismiss Marxism he had no choice but to attempt to “disprove” what he at least suspected was right. Bernstein had no way to know it, but he would eventually enter in conflict with Piketty.

Readers may remember I have been mentioning two paragraphs present in Preconditions but missing in Evolutionary. This is where they play a role.

Readers will find the following passage in the Foreword to both Preconditions and Evolutionary (emphasis added):

“The intensification of social relations has not in fact occurred as the Manifesto depicts it. It is not only useless but extremely foolish to conceal this fact from ourselves. The number of property-owners has grown, not diminished. The enormous increase in social wealth has been accompanied not by a fall in the number of capitalist magnates but by an increase in the number of capitalists of all grades.” (p. 2, Evolutionary)

That’s where Bernstein threw his gauntlet. For convenience, let’s call that BQ1: Bernstein’s quote #1. Once his target was Marx’s 1859 Preface. His target now is the Manifesto: concretely, the passage quoted above, before the chart. Bernstein is quoting verbatim from his letter to the 1898 SPD Stuttgart Party Conference. Contra common misunderstandings of his work, that’s the great achievement Bernstein wants his readers to buy, the one he returns to, during and after his empirical argument: the number of property-owners, allegedly, has grown. If not exactly the rich are getting richer, his claim was that the rich are getting more numerous.

It may be helpful to break Bernstein’s passage down. One can use a table, which I already presented, to that end. Although Preconditions appeared in 1899, nine years before the data presented in that table were available, Evolutionary, which appeared in 1909, would have been roughly contemporary to it.

Table 1:
Estates in the UK (1908)
Number of   Aggregate value  Average per
persons      of estates (£)     head (£)
      7          15,779,000    2,254,142
     17          16,638,000      978,705
     51          20,086,000      393,843
     90          18,748,000      208,311
    109          16,452,000      150,935
    422          33,740,000       79,952
  3,249          75,790,000       23,327
 17,356          65,737,000        3,766
 46,232          19,688,000          425
 67,533         282,658,000
Source: Board of Trade, as quoted in The Case for the Labour Party (p. 41).

In his passage, Bernstein was concerned with the numbers of property-owners (their absolute frequency, in statistical lingo). The counterpart of that in Table 1 is the absolute frequencies of capitalists’ estates (first column). According to him, those numbers were increasing. The Manifesto, according to Bernstein, allegedly argued those numbers would fall and had nothing to say about their relative frequencies (in statistical lingo; percentages for the rest of us), thus, Bernstein’s earth-shattering discovery. It’s telling that in Evolutionary he makes no attempt whatsoever to trace that to Marx’s work. (Hereby I issue a friendly challenge to readers better disposed towards Bernstein: prove me wrong. Find any passage where Bernstein explains, with unambiguous quotes from Marx or Engels, that the absolute number of capitalists should fall. Here’s Evolutionary).

An ancillary concern is with capitalists’ gradation: the third column shows different “grades” of estates.

Beyond acknowledging the existence of “social wealth” (which grew), Bernstein doesn’t give it a second thought (column #2 displays a fraction of it).

But if he doesn’t care much about data like that in the second column, he cares nothing about an additional element not included in that table: the untaxed 632,000 estates valued less than £100. They however, represented 90% of the total number of estates that year. Bernstein’s analysis is not about the workers: this is not a particularity of that quote.

It’s instructive to compare Table 1 with a conceptually similar tabulation, much more modern, I’ve also presented in this series:

Table 2:
Extract from Table 7.2, Piketty’s Capital
                                 Very high
Share of different groups       Inequality
in total capital             (Europe 1910)
The top 10% "upper class"              90%
    Top 1%
    ("dominant class")                 50%
    Next 9%
    ("well-to-do class")               40%
The middle 40% ("middle class")         5%
The bottom 50% ("lower class")          5%

What’s in red in Table 2 is entirely missing in Table 1. What’s in blue above, in percentages, is presented as integers in Table 1. What’s in green cannot be calculated in Table 1: it lacks the totals. Given the current state of the art, we know that although it presents valuable data, Table 1 leaves too many important things out of the picture. Therefore, conclusions based on ideas like Bernstein’s are bound to be flawed.

Yet, that is precisely how Bernstein reasoned. His empirical argument is meant to substantiate his claims. Again, data I’ve presented elsewhere illustrates that.

This was Bernstein’s first exhibit (p. 59; E2§b). This time, however, I present the data in pounds, following Bernstein’s Evolutionary at the rate of 20 marks per £:

Table 3
English Sewing Thread Trust (1899?)
Equity type        Owners    capital
Original shares     6,000         60
Preference shares   4,500        150
Debentures          1,800        315
Total:             12,000

With that Bernstein seems to be announcing to the world two astounding discoveries, product of path-breaking research and backed by scientific data: (1) the existence of joint-stock companies, and (2) that such companies have multiple shareholders.

What one fails to see is how those two indisputable facts, unchallenged by Marxists, support his hypothesis that the number of shareholders has grown (or, for that matter, that even the number of English Sewing Thread Trust shareholders has grown).

(Nor does Table 3 provide much support to the claim, often made, that joint-stock companies were turning the hoi polloi into capitalists: 90% of estates in Table 2 were valued less than £100; the minimum average “capital” in Table 3 is £60. It seems likely that many estates in Table 2 had shares, what it seems dubious is that many estates outside that Table had any. In Appendix 1 there’s the equivalent table for the Trust of Fine-Cotton Spinners, the other joint-stock company whose data Bernstein included.)

But, never mind that. Note that he is dealing with stocks of wealth: “capital”, as one sees in the table itself.

Then, in the same page 59, Bernstein adds (that’s BQ2):

“[T]he number of shareholders and their average holding of shares have seen a rapid growth. Altogether the number of shareholders in England is estimated at considerably more than a million, and that does not appear extravagant if one considers that in the year 1896 alone the number of joint-stock companies in the United Kingdom ran to over 21,223 with a paid-up capital of 22,290 million marks”. (My emphasis)

He provides an additional tidbit of empirical wisdom (“the number of shareholders in England is estimated [by whom?] at considerably more than a million”), which his readers must accept on his word. I mean, really, you wouldn’t doubt Bernstein’s word, would you?

With that (i.e. number of English Sewing Thread Trust shareholders, for instance, and Bernstein’s iffy estimate “the number of shareholders in England is estimated at considerably more than a million”) Bernstein gives his argument as proven: “[T]he number of shareholders and their average holding of shares have seen a rapid growth.” To paraphrase Winnie: Never a conclusion owed so much to so sparse and dubious and incomplete data.

Bernstein, however, doesn’t spell out his real achievement, and an impressive achievement it is: he determines the growth in the number of shareholders without a subtraction. He has a minuend, but no subtrahend. Subtraction-shmraction, he could have said. He found that the number of shareholders grew rapidly to 1 million (or more) but can’t tell from what initial number. But there’s more: from that he concludes that the number of all property-owners in general, too, grew rapidly. And, on top, he was talking about 2.5% of the UK population in 1899 (40,774,300).

Impressive, uh? No wonder he counts Noah Smith, Matt, and Sidney Hook among his fans.

Okay, but, if that data already made his case, then there’s no much point in the rest of his empirical discussion, is there? I refer, of course, to the income data Bernstein presents in pages 60 and 61. For brevity’s sake, one could skip that altogether.

Given, however, that an individual as talented as Bernstein put so much effort into gathering them, one should at least give them a look.

There he deals with “incomes from business profits, higher official posts, etc.” or “incomes from land and real estate (annuities, ground rent), house rents, and taxable capital investments”; which accrue to “the middle and petty bourgeoisie and the top labour aristocracy”, “big bourgeois or petty bourgeois”, “the well-to-do and the petty bourgeoisie”. Like I said, Bernstein isn’t much interested in the riff raff: the red part of Table 2 is missing in all his analysis, whether of incomes (flows) or “capital” (level). Note as well that Bernstein conflates income (flows) with capital (stock): all fall into the wealth category.

A sample of that data, put together as a table, is below:

Table 4
Prussia (1854-1894)
High Income Tax Payers vs Total Population
Year   Tax Payers      Total Population
1854       44,407(a)(c)            16.3
1894      321,296(b)               33.0
(a) Over 1,000 thalers (1 thaler exchanges for 3 marks).
(b) Over 3,000 marks.
(c) The figure in Preconditions is 440,000. A typo?
(d) In the text Bernstein added this delightful bit “In 1887-8 the number had risen to 347,328”. Go figure.
Source: Unsourced as quoted p. 60, E2§b

Note that Bernstein understands now what he didn’t seem to understand in the previous page: the need for a comparison in time to determine the direction of change in a variable. But he remains fixated on integers. Given the figures he quoted (although Bernstein didn’t specify, we’ll assume they represent individuals, not tax units), he was talking about 0.3% of the population in 1854 and 1% in 1894. That sounds a lot less impressive than 44,407 versus 321,296, yes? (Which suggests a reason for Bernstein’s fixation on integers). It sounds even less impressive if one makes an allowance for inflation: in those 40 years even the Prussian currency changed.

So, beyond those insights, which I doubt Bernstein intended, what’s the revelation he expects his readers to get? That there are different income groups in a population and some earn more than 3,000 marks? That’s undeniably true; Marxists, however, never denied it.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to speculate. BQ3 is the conclusion Bernstein intended his readers to reach (page 61):

“It is thus quite wrong to suppose that the present development shows a relative or indeed absolute decrease in the number of property-owners. The number of property-owners increases, not ‘to a greater or lesser extent’, but simply to a greater extent, that is absolutely and relatively. If the activity and the prospects of Social Democracy depended on a decrease in the number of property-owners, then it might indeed ‘go to sleep’.” (Emphasis mine)

Did you see that? Hint: check the text in bold and underlined font. I’ll invite readers to re-read Bernstein’s quotes 1 and 2 (for their convenience I compiled the three of them in Appendix 2, below).

Up to that precise point Bernstein appeared physically incapable of thinking in terms of relative frequencies. Despite having worked as a banking clerk, one would have thought Bernstein could not calculate a simple percentage.

Up to that precise point, he had been talking exclusively about absolute frequencies: non-negative integers, natural numbers. He did so in quotes 1 and 2. His empirical argument dealt with absolute frequencies: we’ve seen that with our own eyes. There’s virtually no percentages in Bernstein’s argument (compare that with Piketty’s own argument). In general, lacking totals in his data he couldn’t have calculated percentages, even if he wanted (and one suspects he didn’t want: in the few instances where he offers totals or where totals can be found easily, one finds him referring to tiny minorities).

In the quote above for the first time Bernstein mentions relative frequencies. Now the guy tries to extend a fabricated demonstration of growth in the numbers of property-owners into a non-existent demonstration of growth in the proportion of property-owners in the population. Give us some credit, Bernie, we aren’t that dumb.

But if one thinks about it, he does two more things. In the first place, he acknowledges the importance of proportions, the same proportions he avoided. He does that in his typically underhand, sly, deceitful manner, as we have seen in this series.

And he does another thing. I’ll quote him: “If the activity and the prospects of Social Democracy depended on a decrease in the number of property-owners, then it might indeed ‘go to sleep’.” He makes there explicit what until then was only implicit. Bernstein claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that Social Democracy relied on the decrease in the number of property-owners. In Bernstein’s version of it, Marxism required the spontaneous extinction of Capitalosaurus rex (his book was titled Evolutionary Socialism after all :-)).

Screen capture of Evolutionary. That’s where the missing paragraphs go.
Which is doubly funny, because in Preconditions after giving his account of what Marxism does well, one finds this passage right before Bernstein embarks in his empirical argument:

“The reader gets the impression that the number of owners of capital is constantly declining, if not absolutely then relatively to the growth of the working class. In Social Democracy, accordingly, the notion is prevalent, or at least constantly suggests itself, that concentration of industrial entrepreneurs runs parallel with the concentration of wealth.” (p. 58)

That, and the two paragraphs of which it is a part, never made its way into Evolutionary. Thanks to Henry Tudor, for the first time those two paragraphs are made available to the English speaking public (see Appendix 3). Matt was unwittingly right: in spite of Bernstein, those two paragraphs and Tudor’s work make of Preconditions a must-read. Sorry, Bernie, there goes your reputation as Great Theoretician of Reformism.

Put yourself in Bernie’s shoes. It certainly makes no sense to highlight the need to consider questions of distribution and of the relativity of having and not having wealth when one has nothing to contradict it but a smattering of irrelevant figures, at least some of them evidently dodgy. You, too, would have wanted every single memory of those paragraphs erased, wouldn’t you?

But Bernstein was first and foremost himself: an incompetent fool. He could have done the job well and erased all traces of his misdeed. Instead, he botched it. He got those two paragraphs deleted, but he forgot this footnote (p. 168 or here): “The theory of collapse can be based on this antithesis” of relative immiseration. Bad luck that he “was not inclined” to accept it. Interpretations less than biased against Marxism are “Pickwickian”.

So much for that load of petty bourgeois hypocritical bullshit:

“An economic writer requires from his reader much goodwill and intelligence and a large measure of co-operation.”

Appendix 1

Trust of Fine-Cotton Spinners (1899?)
Equity type        Owners    capital
Original shares     2,904        300
Preference shares   1,870        500
Debentures            680        130
Total:              5,454

Appendix 2:

All the quotes are copied verbatim from Preconditions (i.e. Henry Tudor’s translation), the page numbers refer to that book. Readers will find them with slightly different wordings in Evolutionary (i.e. Edith C. Harvey’s translation) in the links provided to the Marxists Internet Archive.

Quote 1:

“The intensification of social relations has not in fact occurred as the Manifesto depicts it. It is not only useless but extremely foolish to conceal this fact from ourselves. The number of property-owners has grown, not diminished. The enormous increase in social wealth has been accompanied not by a fall in the number of capitalist magnates but by an increase in the number of capitalists of all grades.” (p. 2, Evolutionary)

Quote 2:

“[T]he number of shareholders and their average holding of shares have seen a rapid growth. Altogether the number of shareholders in England is estimated at considerably more than a million, and that does not appear extravagant if one considers that in the year 1896 alone the number of joint-stock companies in the United Kingdom ran to over 21,223 with a paid-up capital of 22,290 million marks.” (p. 59, Evolutionary)

Quote 3:

“It is thus quite wrong to suppose that the present development shows a relative or indeed absolute decrease in the number of property-owners. The number of property-owners increases, not ‘to a greater or lesser extent’, but simply to a greater extent, that is absolutely and relatively. If the activity and the prospects of Social Democracy depended on a decrease in the number of property-owners, then it might indeed ‘go to sleep’.” (p. 61, Evolutionary)

Appendix 3:

The two paragraphs included in Preconditions (p. 58) but missing in Evolutionary:

“Thus in the first volume of Capital (chapter 23, section 2), Marx speaks of the formation of investors of capital through division (‘repulsion of many individual capitals from one another’) and remarks that, in consequence of such divisions, the number of capitalists ‘grows to a greater or lesser extent’ with the accumulation of capital (4th edn, p. 589). However, in his subsequent account, this growth in the number of capitalists is completely ignored, and even joint-stock companies are dealt with only under the perspective of the concentration and centralisation o capital. So far as the above ‘to a greater or lesser extent’ is concerned, the case appears to be closed. At the end of the first volume, there is talk only of the ‘constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates’, and in this respect the third volume is, in principle, no different. In the treatment of the rate of profit and of mercantile capital, facts are indeed mentioned which point to the splitting up of capital, but without being brought to bear on our point. The reader gets the impression that the number of owners of capital is constantly declining, if not absolutely then relatively to the growth of the working class. In Social Democracy, accordingly, the notion is prevalent, or at least constantly suggests itself, that concentration of industrial entrepreneurs runs parallel with the concentration of wealth.

“That is, however, by no means the case. By virtue of its form the joint-stock company tends to be a very significant counterweight to the centralisation of wealth trough the centralisation of business enterprises.  Although non-socialist economists have used his fact to present social conditions in a falsely favourable light, this is no reason for socialists to conceal it or to explain it away. The point is, rather, to understand the true extent and significance of the fact.”