Karl Marx

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Book on Utopias from the 17th Century to Today

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2011).

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for several days. Part of that is because the news doesn’t really inspire me. It’s not that it isn’t important, or that the Tories have stopped trying to strip working people of their rights and drive them further into poverty and degradation. Or that I’m unmoved by Trump trying to organise a coup to keep himself in the Oval Office like just about every other tin pot dictator throughout history. Or that Brexit isn’t threatening to destroy whatever remains of British industry and livelihoods, all for the benefit of the Tory superrich and investment bankers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have their money safely invested in firms right across the world. Or that I’m not outraged by even more people dying of Covid-19 every day, while the government has corruptly mismanaged their care by outsourcing vital medical supplies and their services to firms that are clearly incompetent to provide them, because those same firms are run by their chums. Ditto with the grossly inadequate food parcels, which are another vile example of Tory profiteering. It’s just that however disgusting and infuriating the news is, there is a certain sameness about it. Because all this is what the Tories have been doing for decades. It’s also partly because I can’t say anything more or better about these issues than has been already said by great bloggers like Mike, Zelo Street and the rest.

But I’ve also been kept busy reading some of the books I got for Christmas, like the above tome by Ruth Levitas, a sociology professor at Bristol Uni. The blurb for this runs

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of Utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia offers the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

It has the following chapters

  1. Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition
  2. Castles in the Air: Marx, Engels and Utopian Socialism
  3. Mobilising Myths: Utopia and Social Change in Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim
  4. Utopian Hope: Ernst Bloch and Reclaiming the Future
  5. The Education of Desire: The Rediscovery of William Morris
  6. An American Dream: Herbert Marcuse and the Transformation of the Psyche
  7. A Hundred Flowers: Contemporary Utopian Studies
  8. Future Perfect: Retheorising Utopia.

I wanted to read the book because so many utopias have been socialist or socialistic, like the early 19th century thinkers Karl Marx described as utopian, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, and was interested in learning more about their ideas. In this sense, I’m slightly disappointed with the book. Although it tells you a little about the plans for the reformation of society, and the establishment of a perfect state or political system, the book’s not so much about these individual schemes as a more general discussion of the concept of utopia. What, exactly, is a utopia, and how has the concept been used, and changed and developed? Much of this debate has been within Marxism, beginning with the great thinker himself. He called his predecessors – Owen, Fourier and Owen ‘utopian’ because he didn’t believe their particular schemes were realistic. Indeed, he regarded them as unscientific, in contrast to his own theories. However, Marx did believe they had done a vital job in pointing out the failures of the capitalist system. Marxists themselves were split over the value of utopias. The dominant position rejected them, as it was pointless to try to describe the coming society before the revolution. Nevertheless, there were Marxists who believed in their value, as the description of a perfect future society served to inspire the workers with an ideal they could strive to achieve. This position has been obscured in favour of the view that Marx and his followers rejected them, and this book aims to restore their position in the history of Marxist thought. This idea of utopia as essentially inspirational received especial emphasis in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. Syndicalism is a form of radical socialism in which the state and private industry are abolished and their functions carried out instead by the trade unions. Sorel himself was a French intellectual, who started out on the radical left, but move rightward until he ended up in extreme nationalist, royalist, anti-Semitic movements. His ideas were paradoxically influential not just in the Marxist socialism of the former Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy. Sorel doesn’t appear to have been particularly interested in the establishment of a real, syndicalist utopia. This was supposed to come after a general strike. In Sorel’s formulation of syndicalism, however, the general strike is just a myth to inspire the workers in their battle with the employers and capitalism, and he is more interested in the struggle than the workers’ final victory, if indeed that ever arrived.

The book also covers the debate over William Morris and his News from Nowhere. This describes an idyllic, anarchist, agrarian, pre-industrial society in which there are no leaders and everyone works happily performing all kinds of necessary work simply because they enjoy it and find it fulfilling following a workers’ revolution. Apart from criticisms of the book itself, there have also been debates over the depth of Morris’ own socialism. Morris was a member of one of the first British Marxist socialist parties, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and the founder of another, the Socialist League, after he split from them. Critics have queried whether he was ever really a Marxist or even a socialist. One view holds that he was simply a middle class artist and entrepreneur, but not a socialist. The other sees him as a socialist, but not a Marxist. Levitas contends instead that Morris very definitely was a Marxist.

When it comes to the 20th century, the book points out that utopias have fallen out of fashion, no doubt due to the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist, which have claimed to be ideal states. However, the critic Tom Moylan has argued that utopias have still been produced in the SF novels of Joanna Russ, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delaney. He describes these as ‘critical utopias’, a new literary genre. The heroes of this literature is not the dominant White, heterosexual male, but characters who are off-centre, female, gay, non-White, and who act collectively rather than individually. The book criticises some earlier utopias, like News from Nowhere, for their exclusive focus on the male viewpoint, comparing them with the Land of Cockayne, the medieval fantasy that similarly presents a perfect world in which everything is seemingly ordered for men’s pleasure. In contrast to these are the feminist utopias of the above writers, which began in the late 19th century with Harriet Gilman’s Herland. It also discusses the value of satires like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and dystopias like Eugene Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Levitas does not, however, consider utopianism to be merely confined to the left. She also considers Thatcherism a form of utopianism, discussing the late Roger Scruton’s Conservative Essays and citing Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. This last argued that the Conservative promotion of heritage was being used to reinforce old hierarchies in a markedly racist way. Some members of society were thus delineated as truly members of the nation, while others were excluded.

The book was first published in 1990, just before or when Communism was falling. It shows it’s age by discussing the issue whether the terrible state of the Soviet Union served to deter people dreaming and trying to create perfect, socialist societies. She argues that it doesn’t, only that the forms of this societies are different from the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR. This is a fair assessment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the future colonisation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, the colonists not only succeed in terraforming the planet, but also create socialist society in which authority is as decentralised as possible, women are fully equal and patriarchy has been overthrown and businesses run by their workers as cooperatives. At the same time, those wishing to return to a more primitive way of life have formed hunter-gatherer tribes, which are nevertheless also conversant with contemporary technology.

Further on, although the Fall of Communism has been claimed to have discredited not just Marxism but also socialism, recent history has shown the opposite is true. After forty years of Thatcherism, an increasing number of people are sick and tired of it, its economic failures, the glaring inequalities of wealth, the grinding poverty and degradation it is creating. This is why the Conservative establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party, were so keen to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, a Communist and Trotskyite, or whatever else they could throw at him. He gave working people hope, and as Servalan, the grim leader of the Terran Federation said on the Beeb’s classic SF show, Blake’s Seven, ‘Hope is very dangerous’. A proper socialist society continues to inspire women and men to dream and work towards a better world, and it is to stop this that the Blairites contrived to get Corbyn’s Labour to lose two elections and have him replaced by Keir Starmer, a neo-liberal vacuity who increasingly has nothing to say to Johnson and his team of crooks.

Back to the book, its discussion of the nature of utopia therefore tends to be rather abstract and theoretical as it attempts to describe the concept and the way it has changed and been used. I didn’t find this really particularly interesting, although there are nevertheless many valuable insights here. I would instead have been far more interested in learning more about the particular ideas, plans and descriptions of a new, perfect, or at least far better, society of the many thinkers, philosophers and authors mentioned.

Book Review: Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary edited by Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini

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In Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences, editors Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini bring together contributors to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth and to discuss the relevance of his theoretical and political legacy today. The book offers an open-minded, informative and thought-provoking collection of contributions that inspires in-depth discussions not only of past Marxian and Marxist legacies, but also of how we learn from them to act upon our present and future world, writes Janaína de Faria.

Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary. Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini (eds). Palgrave Macmillan. 2019.

Karl Marx’s Life, Ideas, and Influences, edited by Shaibal Gupta, Marcello Musto and Babak Amini, brings together a selection of high-quality papers that were presented at one of the largest international conferences organised in 2018 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth and to discuss the relevance of his theoretical and political legacy to today’s world.

As a byproduct of the international diversity of the participants of the conference – held at the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, India – the book contains sixteen chapters by scholars from and/or based in various parts of the globe and it includes four women among its contributors. This deliberately internationalist approach is undoubtedly welcome and necessary. More fundamentally, it is not a mere formality: the editors do justice to this internationalism in showcasing the heterogeneous nature of the revival of Marxism in the 21st century around the world. This heterogeneity concerns the wide range of complex topics and styles explored in the book as well as its openness to different and controversial (re)interpretations of Marx and Marxism. While the anti-dogmatic perspective can be considered the stamp mark of the book, readers should not expect it to be an easy read for complete beginners in the broad research field on Marx and Marxism.

The structure of the book was designed with consistency by the editors: the various themes are organised under the intertwined umbrellas of Part One, ‘On the Critique of Politics’, and Part Two, ‘On the Critique of Political Economy’. I found this organisation particularly clever because it directly alludes to Marx’s early project in 1844 to write a two-volume work on the Critique of Politics and Political Economy. For reasons explained in his famous 1859 ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx’s studies led him to instead begin with an in-depth study of Political Economy, which later culminated in his (unfinished) masterpiece Capital.

However, as Michael Krätke has pointed out elsewhere, Marx’s plan to develop a critique of politics was deferred, but never abandoned, throughout his lifetime. In my view, despite all the efforts and advances made in the past 150 years or so to unfold the mediating elements between the inner laws of capital accumulation and national and international politics, this articulation remains one of the core frontiers for categorical development within Marxism. The editors’ structuring of the book is thus not only appropriate when it comes to the content of its chapters, but also reminds us of the need to strengthen the theoretical nexus between the critique of politics and the critique of political economy.

It is in this sense that I share my reflections on the theory of fetishism and the theory of interest that were triggered by the seemingly unconnected chapters by Paula Rauhala and Jan Toporowski, respectively presented in Parts One and Two. Rauhala’s analysis brilliantly articulates different interpretations of Capital from West and East Germany by providing the historical context of each side of the country both in terms of the general living conditions of the working class as well as the (geo)political structure under which they lived. Rauhala is especially interested in counterposing West German readings of Capital that stress Marx’s theory of money and commodity fetishism but are dismissive of the underpinning role of the theory of surplus value in Marx’s more complex concept of capital fetishism. Toporowski, in turn, is spot on when he emphasises that Marx antagonised both classical political economy – mainly David Ricardo, who regarded ‘interest as determined by the current rate of profit’ (225) – as well as French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who ‘attributed the evils of capitalism to excessive interest or usury’ (215). For Marx, they both held a fetishistic conception of money and interest.

Rauhala is thus absolutely right when she insists that: ‘fetishism is a crucial concept, and it is present in all three books of Capital. The fetishisms of commodities and money are just the beginning of the story, and after the fourth chapter of the first volume, the concept of fetishism is always related to surplus value and to the mechanisms of its production, circulation, and distribution’ (186). In Chapter Four of the first volume of Capital, one reads that:

capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in terms of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorises itself independently. […] By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself (Capital, vol. I, Penguin ed. 1990, 255).

Indeed, Marx further argues in the third volume that ‘in interest-bearing capital […] this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valorising value, money that makes (breeds) money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing (money) to itself’ (Economic Manuscripts of 1864-5 [vol. III], Brill ed. 2016, 492-93).

Toporowski particularly discusses Marx’s argument in Capital that capitalist industrial investments allow for the extraction of surplus value from workers, the source of profits, ‘out of which interest may be paid’ (225). It is thus class exploitation that underpins capitalist interest payment but, in contrast to Ricardo’s position, ‘not necessarily from the surplus value produced at the time of the interest payment’ (219). I do have reservations, nonetheless, about Toporowski’s claim that Marx’s theorisation was limited by his ‘time of ‘’classic capitalism’’’ (225), when productive and commercial capitalists depended primarily on past accumulated monetary hoards for loans, through the intermediation of banks. I find this view overlooks the fact that Marx sketched an analysis of the credit system in the third volume of Capital grounded on his concept of fictitious capital, with a particular focus on banking, share capital and public debt assets. Crucially, he was well aware that banks did not rely, in absolute terms, on accumulated deposits and reserves in order to provide credit money for those who demanded it – a feature of the banking system that is today reinforced by post-Keynesians.

In short, Rauhala’s and Toporowski’s chapters highlight that class exploitation and surplus-value extraction cannot be sidelined – they are at the heart of Marx’s critique of political economy’s trinity formula. Capital indeed culminates in revealing that the capitalist mode of production encompasses a particular mode of distribution that reproduces the illusion that revenues (rent, interest, profit, wages) emerge out of things themselves (land, money, machines, labour) instead of from underlying exploitative social relations. The deep political implications of this involve the predominant liberal fetishistic notions of equality, freedom and fairness, which many Marxists may also fall prey to up until today.

Regarding other notable contributions in the edited collection, Ramaa Vasudevan’s chapter on the state-credit standard particularly caught my attention and inspired me to search for her other works. Ajit Sinha’s chapter is very coherent and elaborates effectively on the discussion of the supposedly logical inconsistency in Marx’s exposition of the transformation of value into prices of production in Capital. He takes the standpoint of the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, but readers would have benefitted from a critical engagement with Fred Moseley’s counterarguments on the topic, developed in his latest book, Money and Totality. Kohei Saito’s chapter effectively clarifies the intertwined relation between the economic and political spheres in Marx’s works, and can be read alongside Musto’s and Amini’s contributions, as they complement each other.

I must also mention that I learnt a lot from Miguel Vedda’s discussion on the ‘elective affinity between dialectical materialism and the tradition of essayism’. Vedda convincingly argues that this affinity – ‘not only as a genre but also, and more importantly, as a method of enquiry and even as an ethical and political stance towards the world’ (4) – can be particularly helpful for grasping ‘the possibilities and the limits of Marxism in Latin America’ (5). Finally, it should be noted that Peter Beilharz’s chapter is very impressive, not only when it comes to its academic content, which focuses on the recent revival of interest in Marx’s works across the globe, but also regarding its creative ‘breakdance’ style.

All in all, the book offers an open-minded, informative and thought-provoking collection of contributions that inspires in-depth discussions not only of past Marxian and Marxist legacies, but also of how we learn from them to act upon our present and future world.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Statue of Karl Marx, Berlin, Germany (David Merrett CC BY 2.0).

 


Book on Revolutionary Trade Unionism, Fascism and the Corporative State

David D. Roberts, Syndicalist Tradition & Italian Fascism (University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

Syndicalism is a form of revolutionary socialism that seeks to overthrow the liberal state and replace it with a society based on the trade unions in which they run industry. It was particularly strong in France, and played a major role in Catalonia and the struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has also been a strand in the British labour movement, and produced a peculiar British form, Guild Socialism, whose leaders included the great socialist writer and former Fabian, G.D.H. Cole.

Fascism Mixture of Different Groups

Fascism was a strange, heterogenous mixture of different, and often conflicting groups. These included former syndicalists, radicalised veterans from the First World War, ultra-conservative Nationalists and the Futurists, an aggressive modern artistic movement that celebrated war, speed, violence, masculinity, airplanes, cars and the new machine age. Some of these groups shared roughly the same ideas. The war veterans were deeply impressed with the corporative constitution drafted by Alceste de Ambris for D’Annunzio’s brief regime in Fiume, the Carta de Carnaro. Superficially, the Fascist syndicalists shared the same goal of creating a corporate state to govern industrial relations and run industry. However, they approached this from very different directions. The Nationalists, led by Alfredo Rocco, were ultra-Conservative businessmen, who attacked liberal democracy because of the corruption involved in Italian politics. At the same time they feared the power of the organised working class. As Italy modernised, it underwent a wave of strikes. In response, Rocco recommended that the state should take over the trade unions, using them as its organ to discipline the workers, keep the masses in their place while training them to perform their functions efficiently in the new, industrial Italy. The syndicalists, on the other hand, wanted the trade unions to play a role in industrial management and at the same time draw the working class into a fuller participation in politics. The working class had been excluded from the liberal state, but through their economic organisations, the unions, they could play a much fuller role as these governed their everyday lives. They saw the corporations and the corporate state as a means of increasing democracy and popular participation, not limiting it.

Fascist Corporativism

The corporations themselves are industrial organisations rather like the medieval guilds or trade unions. However, they included both the trade unions and employers organisations. There were already nine of them, but by the end of the regime in 1943 there were 27. Under Rocco’s Labour Charter, the Carta del Lavoro, strikes and lockouts were forbidden in the name of industrial peace and class collaboration. The corporation were required to settle labour disputes. However, if management and the unions were unable to reach agreement, then the dispute was to be referred to labour magistracy for settlement in special labour courts. Mussolini also reformed the Italian parliament, transforming the Chamber of Deputies into a Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. In practice the corporate state never amounted to very much. It never won over real working class support, and the corporations were never given real legislative power. It merely added another layer of bureaucracy and acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp to pass the policies Mussolini had already made. And he seems to have used it as ideological window dressing to give the impression that here was more to Fascism than his personal dictatorship.

The Unification of Italy and Political Alienation

The book argues that the corporate state was a genuine attempt to solve the deep problems of Italian unification left over from the Risorgimento. At the same time, it was also a radical response to the crisis, breakdown and revision of Marxist socialism and the failure of Marxist syndicalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The process of unification has produced an attitude of deep alienation from the state and politics amongst Italians, and Fascism was partly a response to this. This alienation isn’t confined to Italians, but it is particularly acute. Social studies in the 1970s showed that Italians are less likely than Americans, Brits or Germans to become politically involved. They regard the state as distant with little interest in them. At the same time, there is also an expectation that the bureaucrats in Rome will help them.

Like Germany, Italy was unified by military force and the invasion of the other, constituent states. However, for reasons of speed and a determination to preserve the new nation’s fragile unity, the other Italian states were simply annexed by Piedmont to be governed from there. There was supposed to be a constituent assembly in which the other states were to have their say in the creation of the new Italy, but this simply didn’t happen. At the same time, the industrialisation promoted by Italian liberals was concentrated in the north, so that the south remained backward and agricultural. The franchise was extremely restricted. It excluded illiterates, so that originally only 2 per cent of the population could vote. This was later extended to 7 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s leaders prevented the formation of proper political parties by taking over individuals from different parliamentary factions in order to form workable governing majorities. At the same time there was discontent and widespread criticism of the protectionism imposed to help the development of Italian heavy industry. Middle class critics believed that this unfairly benefited it at the expense of more dynamic and productive sectors of the economy. This led to the belief that Italy was being held back by class of political parasites.

This backwardness also led to an acute sense of pessimism amongst the elite over the character of the Italian people themselves. The Americans, British and Germans were disciplined with proper business values. Italians, on the other hand, were lazy, too individualistic and defied authority through lawlessness. This meant that liberalism was inadequate to deal with the problems of Italian society. ‘This English suit doesn’t fit us’, as one Fascist said. But this would change with the adoption of Fascism. One of Mussolini’s minions once declared that, thanks to Fascism, hard work and punctuality were no longer American, German and British values.

Syndicalism, Marxism and the Revision of Socialism

By the 1890s there was a crisis throughout Europe in Marxist socialism. Marx believed that the contradictions in capitalism and the continuing impoverishment of working people would lead to eventual revolution. But at this stage it was evident that capitalism was not collapsing. It was expanding, wages were rising and the working class becoming better off. This led to the reformist controversy, in which socialist ideologues such as Bernstein in Germany recommended instead that socialist parties should commit themselves to reforming capitalism gradually in order to create a socialist society. The syndicalists were originally Marxists, who looked forward to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, they became increasingly disenchanted with Marxism and critical of the leading role of the working class. They originally believed, as with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, that the class-conscious workers would be a new source of values. But they weren’t. They also believed that this would only be achieved through a long process of education through general strikes. They were horrified by the biennio rosso, the two years of strikes and industrial unrest that came after the end of the war, when it seemed that the Italian labour movement was going to follow the Russian Bolsheviks and create a revolution for which Italy and it working class were not ready.

At the same time, they came to reject Marxism’s doctrine that the political was determined by the economic sphere. They believed that Italy’s political problems could not be reduced to capitalism. Hence they believed that capitalism and private industry should be protected, but made subordinate to the state. Work was a social duty, and any industrial who did not run his company properly could, in theory, be removed and replaced. They also sought to give the workers a greater role in industrial management. This led them to go beyond the working class. They found a new revolutionary group in the Italian war veterans, who were radicalised by their experiences. These would have joined the socialists, but the latter had been strongly neutralist and as a result rejected and ridiculed the former soldiers for their patriotism. These found their ideological and political home with the syndicalists. At the same time, the syndicalists rejection of Marxist socialism led to their rediscovery of other, non-Marxist socialist writers like Mazzini, who also rejected liberalism in favour of a tightly knit Italian nation. Their bitter hatred of the corruption in Italian politics and its parasites led them to join forces with anarchists and other sectors of the Italian radical tradition. They believed that for Italy truly to unite and modernise, the workers should join forces with properly modernising industrialists in an alliance of producers.

Syndicalist Opposition to Mussolini’s Rapprochement to the Socialists

Looking at the development of Italian Fascism, it can seem that there was a certain inevitability to the emergence of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the totalitarian Fascist state. But this argues that there was nothing inevitable about it, and that it was forced on Mussolini in order to stop his movement falling apart. When Mussolini entered parliament and took over as prime minister, he seemed to be transforming what was originally a movement into the very type of party that the Fascist rank and file were in revolt against. Fascism was reconstituted as a party, and when the future Duce met the kind, he wore the top hat and frock coat of an establishment politician. Worse, Mussolini had started out as a radical socialist, and still seemed determined to work with them and other working class and left-wing parties. He signed a pacification pact with the Socialists and Populists, the Roman Catholic party, stopping the Fascist attacks on them, the trade unions and workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives. This horrified the syndicalists, who saw it as a threat to their own programme of winning over the workers and creating the new, corporatist order. As a result they pressurised Mussolini into rescinding that pacts, Mussolini and Fascism moved right-ward to ally with the capitalists and industry in the destruction of working class organisations.

Syndicalists and the Promotion of the Working Class

But it seems that the syndicalists were serious about defending the working class and giving it a proper role through the corporations in the management of industry and through that, political participation in the Italian state. Left Fascists like Olivetti and Ugo Spirito believed that the Italian state should operate a mixed economy, with the state running certain companies where appropriate, and the trade unions owning and managing cooperatives. Some went further, and recommended that the corporations should take over the ownership of firms, which would be operated jointly by management and the workers. This never got anywhere, and was denounced by other left syndicalists, like Sergio Pannunzio, one of their leaders.

From Internationalism to Imperialism

The book also raises grim astonishment in the way it reveals how the Syndicalists, who were initially quite internationalist in outlook, came to support Fascist imperialism. They shared the general Fascist view that Italy was being prevented from developing its industry through British and French imperialism. The two powers blocked Italy from access to trading with their colonies. They were therefore also critical of the League of Nations when it was set up, which they saw as an attempt by the great powers to maintain the international status quo. The Nationalists, who were formally merged with the Fascists, went further and demanded that Italy too should have an empire to benefit its industry, but also to provide land for colonisation by the surplus Italian population. Without it, they would continue to be forced to emigrate to countries like America and Britain, where they would become the lowest and most despised part of their working class. The syndicalists were also acutely aware of how low Italians were regarded and exploited in these countries, even by other members of the working class.

The syndicalists during the war and early post-war years criticised the Nationalists for their militarism and imperialism. Instead of looking forward to perpetual war, as the Nationalists did, they wanted to see instead the emergence of a new, federal European order in which nations would cooperate. This new federal state would eventually cover the world. They also looked forward to a new, equitable arrangement over access to the colonies. Pannunzio did support colonialism, which he believed was bringing civilisation to backward areas. But he also believed that colonies that were unable to become nations in their own right should be taken over by the League of Nations. Pannunzio declared ‘Egotism among nations is a material and moral absurdity; nations … cannot lived closed and isolated by must interact and cooperate’. This changed as time went on and Mussolini established the corporate state. This was always fragile and tentative, and accompanied by concessions to other sectors of Fascism on the right. In order to defend their fragile gains, the syndicalists gave their full backing to the Second World War and its imperialism, which they saw as a crusade to bring the corporate state, the great Italian achievement, but a backward world.

Workers Should Have a Role In Government, But Not Through Totalitarianism

I have to say I like certain aspects of the corporate state. I like the idea of trade unionists actively involved in the management of industry and in a special department of parliament, although as Sidney and Beatrice Webb point out in their Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, there are severe drawbacks with it. But any such corporatist chamber would have to be an expansion of liberal democracy, not a replacement for it. And I utterly reject and despise Fascism for its vicious intolerance, especially towards socialism and the working class, its rejection of democracy, and especially the militarism, imperialism and racism. Like Nazism it needs to be fought everywhere, in whatever guise it arises.

And the book makes very clear that the corporate state was an exaggerated response to genuine Italian problems, problems that could be solved within liberal, democratic politics.

Perhaps one day we shall see the return of trade unionists to parliaments reformed to allow them to play their proper role in government and industry. I make this recommendation in my booklet, For A Worker’s Chamber. But it should never be through any kind of autocratic, totalitarian regime.

How Does the Ban on Teaching Anti-Capitalist and Extremist Materials Affect Mainstream Textbooks?

Yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, issued his departments guideline informing schools what they could not teach. This included materials from organisations determined to end capitalism, as well as anti-Semitic material, opposition to freedom of speech and which approves of illegal activity. The Labour Party’s John McDonnell pointed out that this would mean that it’s now illegal to teach large sections of British history and particularly that of the Labour Party, trade unions and socialism, because all these organisations at different times advocated the end of capitalism. He is, of course, right. In 1945 or thereabouts, for example, the Labour Party published an edition of the Communist Manifesto. He concluded

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

The economist and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varousfakis, who has also written a book, The Crisis of Capitalism, also commented this guidance showed how easy it was for a country to lose itself and slip surreptitiously into totalitarianism. He said

“Imagine an educational system that banned schools from enlisting into their curricula teaching resources dedicated to the writings of British writers like William Morris, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Paine even. Well, you don’t have to. Boris Johnson’s government has just instructed schools to do exactly that.”

Quite. I wonder how the ban affects even mainstream textbooks, which included anti-capitalist or other extremist literature. For example there are any number of readers and anthologies of various political or historical writings published by perfectly mainstream publishers for school and university students. Such as the one below, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to ‘Political Economy’, edited by Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1986). This collects a variety of writings authors such as John Francis Bray, Thomas Carlyle, Marx and Engels, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hill Green, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. These texts obviously document and illustrate the reactions to the rise of economics as an academic subject in the 19th century, and several of the authors are titans of 19th century British culture, literature and political philosophy, like the art critic Ruskin, the socialist, writer and artist, William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the liberal political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green, and Matthew Arnold, the headmast of Rugby, the author of Culture and Anarchy. This is quite apart from Marx and Engels and John Francis Bray, who was a socialist and follower of Robert Owen. Carlyle’s now largely forgotten, but he was a philosopher and historian who was massively influential in his day.

Clearly this is an entirely respectable text from a very respectable publisher for history students. But, thanks to the government’s new guidelines, you could well ask if it’s now illegal to teach it in schools, thanks to its anti-capitalist contents.

The same question also applies to very respectable histories by respectable, mainstream historians and political scientists, of extremist movements and ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism and anarchism. For example, one of the books I used while studying the rise of Nazism at college was D.G. Williamson’s The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982). It’s an excellent little book published as part of their Seminar Studies in History range. These are short histories of various periods in history from King John and the Magna Carta to the origins of the Second World and the Third Reich, which include extracts from texts from the period illustrating particularly aspects and events. Williamson’s book is a comprehensive history of the Nazi regime, and so includes extracts from Nazi documents like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Goebbel’s diaries and as well as eyewitness account of Nazi war crimes and individual acts of heroism and resistance. It presents an objective account of Hitler’s tyranny including its horrors and atrocities. There is absolutely no way it, nor other books like it, could remotely be considered pro-Nazi or presenting any kind of positive assessment of Hitler’s regime.

But if schools are now forbidden from teaching anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-democratic material, does this mean that they are also forbidden from using books like Williamson’s, which include the writings of the Nazis themselves to show the real nature of the regime and the motivations of the men behind it. I hope not, and Owen Jones in his tweet attacking the new guidelines quotes them. From this, it should be possible to make a distinction between texts produced by extremist organisations and extracts from them in mainstream histories or editions from mainstream publishers. According to Jones’ tweet, the guidelines state

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances, include, but are not limited to

  1. a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or end free and fair elections.

2. opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion and conscience.

3. the use or endorsement of racist, including anti-Semitic language or communications.

4. the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity.

5. a failure to condemn illegal activities in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people and property.

Responding to Jones’ tweet, Jessica Simor QC asks this very pertinent question

Do the fourth and fifth bullet points mean that schools should not accept Government money?

Good point.

I also have no doubt that the vast majority are going to be extremely careful about which organisation’s materials they use because of the danger of using extremist or otherwise inappropriate material.

But I can also how sometimes it may also be necessary for schools to use such materials in order to criticise them and educate their pupils about their dangers. For example, in the 1980s the BNP or NF tried to appeal to schoolchildren by launching a comic. Other extremists have also turned up at the school gates on occasion. When I was at school in Bristol during the ’81/2 race riots, a White agitator with a beard like Karl Marx’s turned up outside the school entrance with a megaphone trying to get the kids to join in. We ignored him and the headmaster next day in assembly said very clearly that any child who did join the rioting would be expelled.

Nazis are also known for lying and deliberately distorting history. If some Nazi group, for example, produced a pamphlet aimed at schoolchildren and teachers found it being passed around the playground one of the actions they could take, as well as simply banning it and punishing any kid who tried to promote it, might be for a suitably qualified teacher to go through it, pointing out the deliberate lies. When Hitler himself seized power, one Austrian university lecturer embarrassed the fuhrer by showing his students how Hitler took his ideas from the cheap and grubby neo-Pagan literature published in the back streets of Vienna. One of these pamphlets claimed that the ancient Aryans had possessed radio-electric organs that gave them superpowers like telepathy. I think it was highly unlikely that anyone listening to this professor’s lectures on Hitler ever came away with the idea that Hitler had some deep grasp of the essential forces of human biology and and natural selection.

I see absolutely no point to this legislation whatsoever. Teachers, parents and educators are already careful about what is taught in schools. In the past few years most incidents of this type have come from fundamentalist religious schools. These have mostly been Muslim schools, which have been caught teaching their students to hate Christians, Jews and non-Muslims, but there was also a Jewish school which became the centre of controversy for its opposition to homosexuality. In the 1980s Thatcher and the right-wing press ran scare stories about Communist teachers indoctrinating students with evil subversive subjects like peace studies. I am not aware that anyone with extreme left-wing, Communist or Trotskite views has been trying to indoctrinate children. But there are concerns about Black Lives Matter, which I have heard is a Marxist organisation. If that is the case, then the guidelines seem to be an attempt to ban the use of their materials. BLM did produce materials for a week of action in schools, which was thoroughly critiqued by Sargon of Gasbag, aka Carl Benjamin, the sage of Swindon and the man who broke UKIP. Sargon has extreme right-wing Conservative views himself, though I honestly don’t believe that he is genuinely racist and his criticisms of the BLM school material was reasonable. Williamson’s guidelines look like a badly thought out attempt to stop them being used without causing controversy by tackling the organisation’s anti-racism or its critique of White society.

But it also marks the growing intolerance of the Tories themselves and their determination that schools should be used for the inculcation of their own doctrines, rather than objective teaching that allows children to come to their own. Way back in the 1980s Thatcher tried to purge the universities of Marxists by passing legislation making it illegal for them to hold posts in higher education. They got round it by making a subtle distinction: they claimed to be Marxian rather than Marxist. By which they argued that they had Marxist culture, but weren’t actually Marxists. It’s a legal sleight of hand, but it allowed them to retain their teaching posts.

These new guidelines look like an extension of such previous legislation in order to preserve capitalism from any kind of thorough critique. Even when, as the peeps Mike quotes in his article, show very clearly that it is massively failing in front of our eyes.

Schools are now for indoctrination, not education, as teaching of non-capitalist ideology is forbidden

Cafiero and Marx: "Capital" in a Nutshell?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 9:28pm in

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Review: Compendium of Karl Marx’s Capital by Carlo Cafiero. Published by the Anarchist Communist Group (ACG).

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Gorbachev’s Final Programme for the Russian Communist Party

Robert V. Daniels’ A Documentary History of Communism in Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press 1993) contains the last party political programme Gorbachev. This was put forward at the last party plenum in 1991 before Communism finally collapsed. It’s an optimistic document which seeks to transform the totalitarian party and the Soviet Union’s command economy into a democratic party with a mixed economy. Gorbachev also cites as the principles underlying the transformation not just the values of the Communist party, but also the wider values of democracy, humanism and social justice.

The extract’s several pages long, and so I won’t quote it in full. But here some passages that are particularly interesting, beginning with Gorbachev’s statement of their values.

  1. Our Principles

… In its political activity the CPS will be guided by: – the interests of comprehensive social progress, which is assured by way of reforms…

-The principles of humanism and universal values.

-The principles of democracy and freedom in al ltheir various manifestations…

-The principles of social justice…

– The principles of of patriotism and internationalism…

-The interests of integrating the country into the world economy.

Section III, ‘Our Immediate Goals’ declares

… The CPSU stands for the achievement of the following goals:

In the political system. Development of the Soviet multinational state as a genuine democratic federation of sovereign republics;

setting up a state under the rule of law, and the development of democratic institutions; the system of soviets as the foundations of the state structure, as organs of popular rule and self-administration and of political representation of the interests of all strata of society; separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial…

In the area of nationality relations: Equal rights for all people independently of their nationality and place of residence; equal rights and free development of all nationality under the unconditional priority of the rights of man…

In the economy. Structural rebuilding (perestroika) of the national economy, re-orienting it toward the consumer;

modernization of industry, construction, transport and communications on the basis of high technology, overcoming our lag behind the world scientific technical level, and thinking through the conversion of military production.

transition to a mixed economy based on the variety and legal equality of different forms of property – state, collective and private, joint stock and cooperative. Active cooperation in establishing the property of labour collectives and the priority development of this form of social prosperity;

formation of a regulated market economy as a means to stimulate the growth of economic efficiency, the expansion of social wealth, and the raising of the living standards of the people. This assumes free price formation with stage gains to needy groups of the population, the introduction of an active anti-monopoly policy, restoring the financial system to health, overcoming inflation, and achieving the convertibility of the ruble.

working out and introducing a modern agrarian policy; free development of the peasantry; allotment of land (including leaseholds with the right of inheritance) to all who are willing and able to work it effectively; state support of the agro-price parity in the exchange of the products of industry and agriculture;

comprehensive integration of the country in the world economy, and broad participation in world economic relations in the interest of the economic and social progress of Soviet society.

In the social sphere. Carrying out a state policy that allows us to reduce to a minimum the unavoidable difficulties and expenses connected with overcoming the crisis in the economy and making the transition to the market…

Averting the slide toward ecological catastrophe, solving the problems of [Lake] Baikal, the Aral Sea, and other zones of ecological impoverishment, and continuing the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

In education, science and culture. Spiritual development of the people, impoving the education and culture of each person, and strengthening morality, the sense of civic duty and responsibility and patriotism…

IV. Whose Interest the Party Expresses

… In cooperation with the labour movement and the trade unions we will defend the interests of the workers, to secure: due representation of the working class in the organs of power at all levels, real rights of labour collectives to run enterprises and dispose of the results of their labour, a reliable system of social protection…

We stand for freedom of conscience for all citizens. The party takes a respectful position toward the feelings of believers…

… We are against militant anti-Communism as a form of political extremism and negation of democracy that is extremely dangerous for the fate of society…

V. For a Party of Political Action

Communists are clearly aware that only a radically renewed party – a party of political action – can successfully solve new tasks.

The most important direction of renewal for the party is its profound democratization. This assumes the independence of the parties of the republics that belong to CPS, and space for the initiative of local and primary organizations.

… Guarantees must be worked out in the party so that its cadres never utilize their posts for mercenary interests, never speak contrary to conscience, and do not fear a hard struggle to achieve noble ends.

The renewal of the party presupposes a new approach to the understanding of its place in society and its relations with the state, and in the choice of means for the achievement of its political goals. The party acts exclusively by legal political methods. It will fight for deputies’ seats in democratic elections, winning the support of voters for its electoral platform and its basic directions of policy and practical action. Taking part in the formation of the organs of state power and administration, it will conduct its policy through them. It is ready to enter into broad collaboration wherever this is dictated by circumstances, and to conclude alliances and coalitions with other parties and organizations in the interest of carrying out a program of democratic reforms. In those organs of power where the Communist deputies are in the minority, they will assume the place of a constructive opposition, standing up against any attempt at infringing with the interests of the toilers and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Collaborating with other parliamentary groups, Communist deputies will manifest cooperation toward positive undertakings that come from other parties and movements…

The CPSU is built on the adherence of its members to the ideas of certain values. For us the main one of these is the idea of humane, democratic socialism. Reviving and developing the initial humanitarian principles of Marx, Engels and Lenin, we include in our arsenal of ideas the entire richness of national and world socialist and democratic thought. We consider communism as a historic perspective, a social ideal, based on universal human values, on the harmonious union of progress and justice, of the free self-realization of the individual.

(pp.379-82).

It’s an inspiring document, and if it had been passed and Communism and the Soviet Union not collapsed, it would have transformed the Communist party into a modern, centre-left party, committed to genuine democracy, religious freedom, technological innovation and development, tackling the ecological crisis, rooting out corruption within the party and standing with other groups to defend workers’ rights. I do have a problem with its condemnation of extreme anti-Communism. You would expect this from a leader who still wanted the Communist party to be the leading political force in the Soviet Union. It could just refer to groups like the morons who set up various Nazi parties and organisations in the 1980s. They had absolutely no understanding of what Nazism stood for, just that it was anti-Communist. But that clause could be used against other, far more moderate groups demanding radical change. I was impressed, however, by the statement that the Communists should be prepared to take a back seat in opposition. This completely overturns the central Communist dogma that the party should always take the leading role, even when in a coalition with other parties. It’s how Stalin got them to win democratic elections, before purging and dissolving those parties and sending their members to death or the gulag.

Ultimately the programme failed. One reason is that Gorbachev really didn’t understand just how hated the Communist party actually was. When I was studying the rise of Communist and Fascist regimes at college in the mid-80s, one of the newspapers reported that there were underground pop groups in the USSR singing such ditties as ‘Kill the Commies and the Komsomol too.’ The Komsomol was the Communist party youth organisation.

Daniel Kalder in his book Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through their writing (Oneworld: 2018) that Gorby’s project was undermined by the release under glasnost of Lenin’s suppressed works. Gorbachev had based his reforms on a presumed contrast between a democratic, benevolent Lenin, who had pledged Russia to a kind of state-directed capitalism in his New Economic Policy, and Stalin with his brutal totalitarianism, collectivisation of agriculture and the construction of the Soviet command economy. But Lenin frequently wrote for the moment, and his writings contradict themselves, though there is a central strand of thought that is consistent throughout. More seriously, he himself was viciously intolerant and a major architect of the Soviet one party state through the banning of other parties. The newly republished works showed just how false the image of Lenin as some kindly figure was, and just how nasty he was in reality.

But even after 30 a years, I still think Gorby’s proposed reforms are an excellent guide to what socialism should be. And his vision was far better than the bandit capitalism and massive corruption of Yeltsin’s administration, when the Soviet economy melted down. And its anti-authoritarianism and intolerance of corruption makes it far better than the regime of the current arkhiplut, Vladimir Putin. Although it has to be said that he’s done much good restoring conditions after Yeltsin’s maladministration.

And it’s also far better than the neoliberalism that has infected the Labour party, introduced by Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schroder in Germany. I think we need something like Gorbachev’s vision here, in the 21st century Labour party, instead of further Thatcherism under Starmer.

Marxism, Black Nationalism and Fascism

Last week or so Sasha Johnson was thrown off twitter for stating that the White man would not be the equals of Blacks, but their slave. Johnson is supposedly one of the leading lights in the Oxford Black Lives Matter movement. She was filmed holding a bizarre paramilitary-style rally in Brixton. Standing in front of a uniformed squad of Black people, she compared the police to the Klu Klux Klan and declared that what was needed was a Black militia. Like the one that was standing behind her, no doubt. She also screamed ‘Black Power!’ and ‘Revolution!’ She then followed that by announcing that, as Black and Asian politicians like Priti Patel and David Lammy were all sell-outs, she was going to found a a new political party solely for Blacks.

Johnson has been called a ‘Black Panther’, though I don’t know whether it was by her admirers in the Black power movement, or by herself. It certainly seems that she’s trying to copy the Black Panthers, who were set up to defend American Blacks against shooting and murder by the police, and set up their own party. But to British eyes it also looks very much like other violent paramilitary movements, like the terrorist organisations in Ulster and White Fascist organisations, such the British Union of Fascists and the National Front.

Black Lives Matter as an organisation, I gather, is Marxist, and the Black Panthers are usually seen as radical left rather than Fascist right. But this passage from Noel Sullivan’s Fascism (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd 1983) may explain how Johnson was able to move from a Marxist position to racial supremacy, albeit one that privileged Blacks against Whites.

Sullivan’s a Conservative historian, who take the view that the origins of Fascism are to be found in the activist style of politics that emerged with the French Revolution. This demanded that the public take an active part in politics as against the older, feudal system in which politics was confined to the king and the aristocracy. This new activism also set up the nation or the people against an outgroup, identified as their enemy. For the French Revolutionaries, the people were the French middle class, and their enemies were the monarchy, aristocracy and clergy. Later in the 19th century, Karl Marx identified the people with the working class. However, that didn’t end the process. This was followed in the 20th century by Asian revolutionary socialists, beginning with Sultan Galiev, identifying their peoples as the oppressed working class and urging revolution against their White colonial oppressors. Sullivan writes

In spite of Marx’s belief that his redefinition of the ‘true people’ as the proletariat represented a scientific and therefore final stage in activist strategy, the subsequent course of twentieth-century intellectual history revealed that his own position was a unstable as the one which he had attacked. Consider, for example, the doctrine advocated by Sultan Galiev in 1919, in an article entitled ‘Social Revolution and the East’. Galiev was a Marxist, in the sense that he followed Marx in identifying the true people with the proletariat. He differed from Marx, however, in his definition of the proletariat itself. The trouble with western socialism, Galiev wrote, is that ‘the East, with its population of a milliard and a half human beings, oppressed by the West European bourgeoisie, was almost entirely forgotten. The current of the international class war bypassed the East and the problem of revolution in the East existed only in the minds of a few scattered individuals. For Galiev, the true proletariat now became the Muslim, Hindu and Chinese masses of the East, and the Marxist class struggle was accordingly transformed into one between the white and coloured races. Other non-European socialists rapidly took up this theme. For example, in 1920 Li Ta-chao, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, defined as class-struggle as racial conflict ‘between the lower-class coloured races and the upper-class white race’. In this struggle, ‘China really stands in the position of the world proletariat.’ In Japan, Ikki Kita also pursued the racial method of defining the true people as the populace of the third world, maintaining in his Outline for the Reconstruction of the Japanese State, 1919) that ‘There are self-contrictions in the fundamental thought of those European and American socialists who approve of proletarian class-struggle within a country but who consider international proletarian war as chauvinism and militarism.’ In recent decades, Frantz Fanon has been the best-known exponent of this particular variant of the new activist style of politics. (pp. 51-2).

Sasha Johnson seems to have made a similar transition, identifying the true people with Britain’s depressed Black population. In so doing, she’s moved from a socialistic Black radicalism to Fascism. She’s become Black Britain’s version of the White Fascists Nesta Webster and Rotha Orne Linton.

I also wonder how long she’ll be a figure on the public stage. She was determined to make herself notorious and a figure of public outrage and terror, like any number of angry young people before her trying to epater le bourgeois. I don’t think Black Lives Matter have done anything to censure her or reel her in, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. At the moment she’s a liability. They and the media have made a point of showing that Blacks and Whites, especially young people, are united in their support of the movement. BLM also released statements on placards stating that they were trying to start a race war. They were trying to end one. But that is precisely what Sasha Johnson wants to do.

My guess is that Black Lives Matter will now try and rein her in, if only for the sake of publicity. As for Johnson herself, she and her supporters come across as young, idealistic and stupid. 19th and 20th century history is full of similar young men and women, angry and radical, trying to threaten the establish order. Hopefully with time she’ll settle down and grow up.

Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France and the historical materialist method!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/03/2016 - 6:00am in

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx did not only involve himself in abstract conceptual work on how to understand the capitalist social relations of production. He was also an engaged analyst of class struggles at his time. This included three separate writings on developments in France: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (1850); The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852); and The Civil War in France (1871). In this post, I will discuss key aspects of Marx’s historical materialist approach in relation to The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 and conclude with some ideas of what this method implies for efforts today to understand the global political economy as well as the possibilities for revolutionary change.

Key aspects of Marx’s method include (1) a focus on the social relations of production, (2) an acknowledgement of different class fractions, (3) the importance of the international dimension in understanding class struggle, as well as (4) the historical specificity of developments in individual countries.

Focus on the social relations of production

For Marx, a focus on the social relations of production is essential, when analysing historical developments and class struggle. He asserts that ‘wage labour is the existing bourgeois organisation of labour. Without it there is no capital, no bourgeoisie, no bourgeois society’. Equally, when examining the reason for the eventual defeat of workers in France in the period of 1848 to 1850, he refers to the social relations surrounding production. ‘What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships, which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonism’. It is on the basis of how production is organised that he identifies a range of different relevant classes and class fractions in the French struggles from 1948 to 1950.

Different class fractions

Marx assumed that ultimately all capitalist societies would be divided into two large classes, capital and labour. However, he was sensitive to the fact that the development towards this situation was a historical process, within which many more classes and class fractions were involved. In other words, rather than simply thinking in terms of capital and labour, he identified a range of relevant classes on the basis of an analysis of the social relations of production. In France in 1848, this included the industrial proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie such as small shop keepers, the peasant class as well as capital. The latter were sub-divided into different class fractions. ‘The bourgeois class fell apart into two big fractions, which, alternately, the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July monarchy, had maintained a monopoly of order’. He further established that finance capital was dominant in France, while manufacturing played a subordinate role. In short, Marx was prepared to modify and adjust his general concepts such as capital and labour to the concrete empirical situation he was investigating.

The international dimension

Marx always understood capitalism as an international phenomenon and appreciated that class struggles within one country were directly affected by economic developments elsewhere. In 1848 he wrote that ‘French production relations are conditioned by the foreign trade of France, by her position on the world market and the laws thereof; how should France break them without a European revolutionary war, which would strike back at the despot of the world market, England?’. And equally, when discussing why there had been a revolution in France in February 1848, he pointed out that ‘the second great economic event which hastened the outbreak of the revolution, was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England’. The capitalist social relations of production and class struggle can only be understood within an international context.

The historical specificity

When analysing concrete struggles, Marx was careful not to generalise his findings from one country to another. In the case of France, he acknowledged the rather different production structure from the one in England, which then, in turn, led to a different assessment. Discussing the position of French manufacturing, he stated that ‘in England industry rules; in France, agriculture. In England industry requires free trade; in France, protection, national monopoly besides other monopolies. French industry does not dominate production; the French industrialists, therefore, do not dominate the French bourgeoisie. This focus on historical specificity already included an implicit reference to uneven development, the fact that different countries are in rather different positions within the global economy, which was later developed by Leon Trotsky in the notion of ‘uneven and combined development’. ‘Just as the period of crisis occurs later on the Continent than in England, so does that of prosperity. The original process always takes place in England; she is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. On the Continent, the different phases of the cycle through which bourgeois society is ever speeding anew, occur in secondary and tertiary form’. This historically different location has then also implications for where revolutionary uprisings are more likely to erupt. ‘Violent outbreaks’, Marx argues, ‘must naturally occur earlier in the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, since here the possibility of adjustment is greater than there’ (see also Uneven and combined development and the issue of resistance in the UK!).

Karl Marx and the analysis of the global economic crisis

In his assessment of class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850, Marx highlighted the importance of crisis as an opportunity for revolutionary change. ‘A new revolution is only possible in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, also just as certain as this’. Today, we face another, much larger economic crisis on a global, but especially also European scale. Marx’s method developed more than 100 years ago remains relevant. First, we cannot understand the crisis by looking solely at issues such as the regulation of financial markets, as vulgar economists do. Rather, we need to analyse the underlying social relations of production and the related developments, which have brought this crisis about. Second, we need to identify the different social class forces, when thinking about agency for change. We cannot automatically assume, for example, that all workers are likely to be revolutionary agents. Different class fractions of labour are likely to act differently. Third, the international dimension is of importance. As different countries are in a different location in the global economy, so are different labour movements. It is no surprise that Greek workers are much more involved in open resistance, being in the periphery of the European political economy, than British workers from the core. Finally, we need to investigate the historical specificity of the capitalist social relations of production and here the way capitalism has evolved since the mid-19th century. While Marx’s method can be used for an analysis today, his findings cannot simply be transferred.

This post was originally posted on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (5 July 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group. 

Karl Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/03/2016 - 7:35am in

HollowayThe notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is widely vilified. Often linked to Stalin’s authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union, there is little positive said about it. Moreover, the negative evaluation is also regularly linked back to Lenin and his idea of a vanguard party taking over state power in order to change society for the better. As John Holloway argues in Change the World Without Taking Power, ‘you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost’. And yet, these reflections overlook Marx’s own discussion of what the dictatorship of the proletariat may entail in practice. Most importantly they neglect his analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871). For as Engels pointed out in 1891, ‘well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

In this post, I will look more closely at Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune and his ideas about how to organise popular government.

It is especially the third part of the Third Address, given by Marx to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in May 1871, which is relevant for our purpose here. First, Marx makes clear that the proletariat cannot simply take over the bourgeois state and its institutions, if it wants to change society. ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. Parallel to the ‘pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. In order to bring about a new society, therefore, the very institutions of the bourgeois state form have to be changed first. For example, ‘the police was at once stripped of its political attributes’ in the Paris Commune. Furthermore, Marx recognised the importance of education for a truly free society and praised the Commune’s steps in this area. ‘The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state’.

Second, Marx highlights the governance structure, introduced by the Paris Commune. ‘The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms’. In other words, rather than representing authoritarian government, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a fundamentally democratic set-up, within which the individual has a direct impact on decision-making in that delegates have the task to transfer local decisions and can be re-called and replaced at any time. Equally, in relation to the judiciary, ‘like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable’. The overall goal is the ‘self-government of the producers’. This system, once established in Paris, should then also be implemented in the rural communities, with delegates being elected to represent these districts to the National Delegation in Paris. Again, each delegate was ‘to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandate imperative (formal instructions) of his constituents’. In short, for Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat always implied direct participation by the people in all aspects of the decision-making process. It did not mean authoritarian rule.

Importantly, restructuring of the bourgeois state form did not simply focus on bourgeois institutions. For Marx, it was always clear that capitalist exploitation was rooted in the way production was organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production. To overcome exploitation, therefore, it was necessary to abolish private property and this is precisely what the Paris Commune did. ‘Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labor’. In other words, the economy cannot be regarded as separate from politics, if true change is to be accomplished.

Finally, Marx was aware of the importance of the Commune’s international dimension. ‘If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labour, emphatically international’. Thus, for Marx it was always clear that the defeat of capitalism could not only be achieved in one country or even one city – after all the Paris Commune fell after a couple of months – but must always have an international aspiration.

To establish ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as experimented by the Paris Commune is not really on today’s agenda. And yet, perhaps developments in Venezuela are potentially one step into this direction? The so-called Housing Mission, for example, did not only succeed in building thousands of homes for the poor, but also managed to include barrio residents in their planning and construction, as argued by Steve Ellner in 2012. To conclude, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as envisaged by the Paris Commune, is an aspiration at best at this point in time, but an aspiration worthwhile to pursue and push further.

This post originally appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (14 September 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group.