Home > political-economy > The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution (2)

The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution (2)

Karl Kautsky

(I want to clarify that I am discussing certain writers, while withholding judgement on their overall work. It is not my intention to assert they were wrong in their time and place, only that their arguments have been taken out of context by what is currently referred to generally as “Marxism”. Moreover, by “Marxism” I include the body of work that traces its origins to both the Soviet experience and to Western Social-Democracy.)

Convergence of the economic and political conflict in society

In the first part of this series, I introduced some fundamental assumptions about 21st Century society. I also took issue with the Marxist theory of the state, as elaborated by Louis Althusser in his 1970 work, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Now, I want to sketch out my understanding of the historical materialist conception of both the State and Capital, in order to trace the error in the ‘Marxist theory of the State’ back to its likely roots.

The nexus of the relation between the two appears to arise just before Lenin and his work, What is to be Done. In chapter II of this book, Lenin quotes Karl Kautsky on the relationship between Marxist theory and the practical economic struggle of the working class:

“Many of our revisionist critics believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create, not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness of its necessity. And these critics assert that England, the country most highly developed capitalistically, is more remote than any other from this consciousness. Judging by the draft, one might assume that this allegedly orthodox Marxist view, which is thus refuted, was shared by the committee that drafted the Austrian programme. In the draft programme it is stated: ‘The more capitalist development increases the numbers of the proletariat, the more the proletariat is compelled and becomes fit to fight against capitalism. The proletariat becomes conscious of the possibility and of the necessity for socialism.’ In this connection socialist consciousness appears to be a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle. But this is absolutely untrue. Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle. The new draft copied this proposition from the old programme, and attached it to the proposition mentioned above. But this completely broke the line of thought…”

Kautsky’s statement concerns the formation of consciousness under the capitalist mode of production. In it he proposes a dual track model of communist consciousness, where the direct conflict between wage labor and capital coexists side by side with, but separately from, the understanding of the implication of this conflict. The worker is engaged in the direct struggle, the intellectual brings to her a consciousness of the implications of her struggle — the need for her to assume control of the state.

In chapter III of the above book, Lenin imports Kautsky’s statement into his argument against what would later become the Mensheviks in Russian communism. However, we now have a problem: societies do not imagine themselves into existence. (I got this statement from somewhere, but can’t remember who, perhaps the Marxian writer Chris Cutrone) This is, in my opinion, a restatement of the fundamental historical materialist assumption — material conditions first, ideas second.

Kautsky’s statement, therefore, violates a fundamental assumption of historical materialism — its most important assumption. Perhaps a correction is in order: he does not directly violate this assumption, since he is only talking about Marx’s theoretical conclusion. As a theory, he may be correct, but communism cannot possibly rest on general acceptance of a theory. Which is to say, communism, as a real movement of society, must have been inevitable even if Marx had not discovered it. If the science had advanced no further than, say, Ricardo or Hegel or St Simon, the emergence of communism would still occur.

Discovering this inevitability, of course, was science, and this is a product of the intelligentsia — but not the historical process itself. The result is, if all communists were to disappear tomorrow, this process would still unfold according to its own logic. Communists are superfluous to it — a fifth wheel. We can no more change the outcome than can Ben Bernanke over at the Federal Reserve Bank.

I tried this argument out at Kasama.org and (after having a collective seizure) they asked me if this was true why was I a communist? More importantly, Why was Marx a communist? Why did he organize the working class movement? I had no real answer for this at the time.

I do now, because a tweep, @, asked how I would explain 1929 from a materialist perspective.

I think it was because Marx saw 1929 coming, and the implications of the Event — Engels actually stated it explicitly. At a certain point, both knew, the State would have to seize control of the entire machinery of production. Whether this ended in a social revolution, or what I now call the Fascist State would depend on the “political consciousness” of the class. How much of the theory of its own material condition it had absorbed would decide the outcome — not the final outcome, but the intermediate outcome.

That was the Event that should have seen the Paris Commune reborn on a global stage — a form for the proletariat to work out its final liberation — a liberation, not just from wage slavery, but from labor itself.

Marx was notorious for not talking about the future, only the immediate was important — because he was not given to making blueprints. The world did not need another utopian system — it only needed to understand its actuality and the process inherent in it. In Volume 3, however, and Engels in “Utopian and Scientific Socialism” we get a glimpse into the implications of his theory.

The fact is, in historical materialism properly understood, the Proletarian never even realizes she is a wage slave. As individuals, they act exactly like any other commodity seller, like small commercial players. The worker sells her one commodity over and over again and the conflict with the capitalist over the terms of this sale falls completely within the bounds of commercial rivalry.

Lenin explicitly states this idea in chapter III of What is to be Done; he argues that the trade union fight alone is insufficient for the development of a communist consciousness among the working class:

“The overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats have of late been almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions. Suffice it to recall Rabochaya Mysl to see the extent to which they have been absorbed by it — so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is in essence still not Social-Democratic work, but merely trade union work. As a matter of fact, the exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that the sellers of labour power learned to sell their “commodity” on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal. These exposures could have served (if properly utilised by an organisation of revolutionaries) as a beginning and a component part of Social-Democratic activity; but they could also have led (and, given a worshipful attitude towards spontaneity, were bound to lead) to a “purely trade union” struggle and to a non-Social-Democratic working-class movement. Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness. “

What does Lenin’s statement imply about the empirical relation between these two great classes of capitalist society, and for the mode of production itself?

The capitalist as buyer of labor power confronts the worker as seller; and, later, the worker as buyer of subsistence commodities confronts the capitalist as seller. Both poles of this relationship rests on the successful exchange of labor power for wages. The sale of labor power appears, in the first instance, as the direct result of the exchange of labor power for wages. And, the sale of labor power appears, in the second instance, as the condition for the exchange, as means of purchase in the form of wages for commodities.

Historical materialism states that labor power has undergone a change between the first instance and the second instance. This change is both qualitative: labor power is consumed and this consumption turns it into various useful objects — shoes, cars, etc. But, there is also a quantitative change: the value of the latter — shoes, cars, etc. — is greater than the former — the initial labor power.

Empirically, however, it appears otherwise: while a qualitative change has taken place, there has been no quantitative change. This is because all the quantitative change has taken place outside the purview of the commodity sellers — outside of exchange.

Everything which, from the standpoint of the law of value, appears as a necessary result of the improvement in the productivity of social labor, appears to the society of commodity sellers in its inverse form: theoretically, there is creation of surplus value, but, empirically there is “not enough money in circulation”. Society is constantly threaten by overproduction and crises.

The entirety of the reality of the material relations of production is hidden behind money, not only from the capitalist but also the worker. Both classes are fucking clueless. And, they are engaged in this meaningless, never-ending, commercial squabble over terms of a filthy transaction. But, as repulsive as the relationship is, they are both trapped in it: without it, the capitalist cannot be a capitalist, while the worker starves.

The reproduction of the relation, the purchase/sale of labor power, is their entire, and intimately shared, basis for existence. And, as Engels shows, and many writers like Kevin Carson recount, the relationship becomes increasingly dependent on the state. Now let’s look again at the quote from Engels, I referred to in the previous part of this series:

But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions [my emphasis] of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.

What Engels is predicting here is an Event: that impending convergence of the purely commercial relation between the wage worker and the capitalist over the purchase/sale of labor power, with the incremental expansion of state management of the process of production itself. Stated simply: in 1880, Engels was predicting that the purely commercial conflict between the two great classes would be converted by the convergence with increasing state control over production into a directly political struggle — into a direct fight against the national — i.e., social — capitalist, the state.

In 1929, capitalism enters its end-stage, and becomes absolutely dependent on the State. The state, in turn, becomes the fascist state, representing not capitalist or worker, but Capital — the relationship itself. And, this happen 50 years after Engels wrote these words:

“The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist…”

From the moment this process culminates, the capitalist class is a side-show, lacking any real role in production beyond clipping coupons. Everything is being managed by the state. The fight against capital is now immediately political — expressed directly in the conflict with the state itself.

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  1. October 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm

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