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My May Day Post: How Kautsky and Lenin Fundamentally Revised Marx

April 10, 2013 4 comments

leninkautsky

Part One: “… the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution”

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”

In this statement Marx is arguing changes in material existence and social relations must produce changes in consciousness.

Based on his argument, we can assume when, in the German Ideology, he and Engels wrote capitalism gives rise to,

“a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”,

they were making the argument capitalism gives rise to changes in material existence, social relations and social life that produces a communist consciousness.

I ask this, because I certainly don’t want to be accused of “stringing quotes together”. I want to be sure these two concepts — one from the Communist Manifesto, the other From the German Ideology — actually are related. I want to be sure the two arguments form a discrete, coherent and continuous line of reasoning going through their life’s work. This is so when I ask dumb fucking vanguardist groupuscules (like, e.g., the SWP (UK)) why they exist, I am on solid ground. But. more important, I want to make sure I am on solid ground when I begin looking at the arguments of both Kautsky and Lenin on the issue of working class consciousness. I don’t want any silly mindless vanguardists to say I am taking Engels or Marx out of context when I rip Kautsky and Lenin new assholes.

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Professor Kliman’s “Radical” Critique of David Graeber and the Occupy Movement

May 5, 2012 44 comments

Or, why Zizek believed, ‘We must not succumb to the temptation to act’

Between Kliman’s critique of the Occupy movement, Ollman’s critique of Marx on working class consciousness and Zizek’s critique of Negri, I notice something of a pattern. Ollman in his piece, which I examined in my last blog, argues “between determining conditions and determined response is the class consciousness of the actors”. Action without this class consciousness is insufficient to accomplish the revolutionary project.

Similarly, in his 2001 critique of Negri, Zizek warns us not to yield to the temptation to act without questioning the hegemonic ideological coordinates because, as he argues,

“If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space”.

The space within which we act is dominated by the “liberal-parliamentary consensus” where the only rule is “say and write whatever you want-on condition that what you do does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus.” To act against existing social relations without calling into question the political expression of these social relations is not sufficient.

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#OtMA: A Reply To JMP

February 9, 2012 2 comments

In a response to my post, #OtMA: Was George Washington a Maoist?, JMP, a blogger makes several claims against me in a post entitled, Without Revolutionary Theory… Among other things, JMP claims:

  • that I make the “same banal and confused claims certain sectors of the directionless left have been making for years.”;
  • that I am “demonstrating an inability to grasp both the movement of history and the historical meaning of theory.”;
  • that the American Revolution was “simply a war between brothers, the younger of whom wanted the right to exploit for itself…”;
  • that I am, “assuming that theory is nothing more than a bland act of expressing meaning after the fact of a revolutionary movement…”;
  • that I pretend my argument is not “a theorization of history and revolution”;
  • that my post, “‘occupies’ marxist academia merely by occupying a position within the ranks of marxist academia… it challenges nothing.”;

Well, I promise not to be blase’ or flippant in my response since the writer raises serious issues regarding my argument.

First, I want to concede, if I really need to, that my argument is a theory of the role of theory in the historical movement of society — JMP is correct on this. Since I have offered this theory, his accusation amounts to demand for me to reveal the premises of this theory. The premises of my argument are the premises of historical materialist method as outlined by both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. These premises are available to JMP in both the German Ideology and the eleven Theses on Feuerbach. I think I need not expand on them, since I assume JMP is completely familiar with both works. If my argument that violates the premises of historical materialism as outlined in those texts, I hope JMP will bring the specific statements in question to my attention.

Assuming we agree on the premises of historical materialism offered by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, JMP and I can together evaluate Lenin’s statement:

Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.

What is Lenin stating here?

He is stating that the revolutionary character of a movement is not to be found within that movement, but arises from the ideas external to this movement that motivate it. To explain why a particular movement is revolutionary, our attention should be focused on the ideas and conceptions of its members and not on their actions.

Is this historical materialism?

No.

It is an invention passed on by Lenin from European social-democracy. The source of this argument is not Marx or Engels, but the renegade Kautsky, who sided with his own capitalists in the Great War. Kautsky is actually quoted by Lenin in “What is to be done” as the authority for Lenin’s argument on the relation between theory and practice. Since most people are only familiar with Lenin’s formulation above, I want to quote it so everyone can see just how raw and elitist Kautsky’s argument really is.

Kautsky states:

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 [K. K.’s italics]: 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].

So, according to Kautsky, “socialist consciousness” — whatever that means — is not a product of the class struggle. Kautsky doesn’t offer any definition of “socialist consciousness”, but does classify this “socialist consciousness” as a science beside other modern sciences and argues “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.”

So, according to Kautsky, Lenin’s authority on the matter, science cannot be created by the working class, “The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia…”

So, when we return to Lenin’s statement, we can amend it as follows:

Without the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia there can be no revolutionary workers’ movement.

Lenin is basically stating the working class movement owes its revolutionary character, not to its material position in society, but to the bourgeois intelligentsia who become its leaders.

Perhaps I am unfairly mischaracterizing or distorting Lenin’s argument in some way. Well, let’s let Lenin speak from the grave:

…there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement

Now, I suppose, JMP can parse this sentence to make say something else, but I have always loved reading Lenin because his shit was clearly spoken. There are no metaphysical gymnastics in Lenin’s writing; I don’t have to keep running to Wikipedia to find out what a word means. In Lenin’s argument, the working class is incapable of creating a revolutionary movement because it lacks the capacity to create a theory.

However, in the These on Feuerbach, we are called to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.” Marx appears to be arguing that human action itself has a practical-critical or revolutionary character that does not depend on the ideas held by the people performing those action. Earlier materialist philosophy, Marx argues,

forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

And, this is precisely the argument Kautsky advanced, and Lenin adopted in the case. The working class is not capable of creating a revolutionary practical-critical activity on it own; it must be led by the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia. The ugly history of Leninist sectarianism (aka vanguardism) essentially results from this notion that workers themselves are incapable of creating theory. It is a notion that theory must be brought in from outside the worker’s movement if this movement will have a revolutionary character. According to Lenin, communists are supposed to stand in front of the workers’ movement and declare:

“You are incapable of freeing yourself unless we lead you; your fight against capital is only a filthy commercial argument and can never become more than this, because you are incapable of creating your own theory.”

So JMP, let me ask you something: How’s that working for you?

I want to continue this discussion to touch on the other objections JMP makes above, but I want to be sure we are using the same methods of social criticism. So before, we begin discussing my criticisms of academic Marxism; before we address the question of whether I am criticizing academic Marxism from within academic Marxism; and, before we begin discussing whether my opinion reasserts a very common academic position that is opportunist and petty bourgeois, can we agree on terms of this discussion?

Those terms can be simply stated according to historical materialism:

Without a revolutionary movement there can be no revolutionary theory.

Do you hold to historical materialism or not?

Anarchism versus Marxism (Or, Dumb and Dumber, Part two)

January 17, 2012 5 comments

Marx (L) and Bakunin

I had a conversation with Tim (@timthesocialist) last night which was really interesting. I have not debated a Marxist about Marx in some time. I am really trying to understand the Marxist argument on the state — at least the Leninist wing of Marxism. As a Marxist by history this should be easy for me, but surprisingly it is not. I am looking for some distinction between anarchism and Marxism on the state — but it is quite difficult to find one.

Both anarchists and Marxists insist Marx’s theory involves something called the “worker’s state”, that replaces the present state. They both insist on this despite the lack of any reference to such an abomination in Marx’s own writings. Marx does indeed insist that had there been a successful revolution during his lifetime, the result would have been a “revolutionary dictatorship”. But, there are many curious features of his argument.

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The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution (3)

August 13, 2011 Leave a comment

“…the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”

In the first part of the series, I made three critical assumptions about present political-economic relations.

First, in 1929, Capitalism suffered a general breakdown, brought on by absolute over-accumulation — absolute over-production. This crisis, known popularly as the Great Depression, occurred in every major industrialized nation in the world market, and constituted a global over-accumulation of capital that was irreversible. It took the form of a great mass of unemployed workers, side by side with a mass of unemployed means of production and subsistence.

Second, the fascist states which emerged from this economic catastrophe took the form of the ‘political rule of the proletariat over itself’, effected through its suffrage in the nations where it formed the largest class.

Third, the only alternative solution to the breakdown of capitalism and the “political rule of the proletariat over itself” was and remains the reduction of labor hours.

I also attacked the “Marxist theory of the state” and argued this “theory” is, in fact, not supported by Marx’s critique of capitalist society. So far as I can determine, not a single point of Althusser’s 1970 statement of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ is found either in Marx’s or Engels’ writings of the state. While it is true, Althusser agrees with historical materialism that the state is an organ of class rule, this simplistic description of the state is ahistorical and does not satisfy the historical materialist description of the capitalist mode of production as a distinct historical stage in the development of the forces and relations of production.

Althusser’s statement can be applied to any epoch of human civilization, and to every known mode of production. It does not explain what of the capitalist state is specific to the capitalist mode of production and the social relations within society that are founded on this mode. What is specific to the state under the capitalist mode of production is not merely, or even primarily, that it is an instrument by which the ruling class imposes its will on society: in the writings of Marx and Engels, the state under the capitalist mode of production is “essentially a capitalist machine,” that displaces and renders the capitalist class itself superfluous to the mode of production and functions as the national, i.e., social, capitalist.

Althusser treats the state as an ahistorical category, not as a real thing situated in the capitalist epoch. The state is reduced to an instrument of repression, which appears in the capitalist epoch already in its complete and unchanging form. Essentially, Althusser recycles Duhring’s argument on force and dresses it in 20th Century “Leninist” clothing. While he does not go so far as Duhring and Anarchism to give force the determining role in historical development, he treats the state itself as essentially unchanged by the material changes in society.

This essentially static view of the state can not help us understand our present condition, as it throws no light on existing social relations.

*****

In the second part of the series, I examine Lenin’s and Kautsky’s argument that the class conflict takes place completely within the bounds of a commercial transaction and confirm it as agreeing with my understanding historical materialism. The recognition by Lenin and Kautsky of the limits of the purely economic struggle — of the struggle with the capitalist over the terms and conditions of the sale of labor power, however, is converted by Leninism into an argument that the proletariat is incapable of carrying out its historical mission of burying capital without theory. And, since the proletariat is not “the bearer of theory”, into an argument for a vanguard party.

The argument for a Leninist vanguard party on these grounds, however, is a non-sequitur, since, despite the limitations of the economic struggle, historical materialism insists the working class abolishes capital based on empirical comprehension of their circumstances — not on a theory purporting to describe these circumstances.

Marxists take Kautsky’s and Lenin’s arguments completely out of context of the capitalist mode of production itself, and abstracted from the impact the mode of production has on the state. Although the conflict between capitalist and wage laborer is essentially a commercial conflict, Engels description of the State shows how the capitalist (as personification of the relationship) is progressively displaced by the state as Capital develops. The marginalization of the capitalist does not resolve — overcome — the class conflict; rather, it converts it into a directly political struggle. Which is to say, the worker to assert her purely commercial interests in the class conflict, must also assert her political interest against the state.

If, on this basis, historical materialist investigation of the Fascist State refutes the arguments of the Marxists who trace their thinking to Lenin, still more clearly does it refute the European Social-Democrats who, having thrown Marx and Engels out the window entirely, propose to tinker with existing relations to render capitalism more humane. This latter gang of opportunists aspire to nothing more than perfecting the Fascist State as the social capitalist.

Against both failed variants of this tradition, we demand not a new brand of sectarian organization, nor reform of politics, but the abolition of the state.

*****

While the historical task of the worker is simplified by the convergence of Capital and the State power and the emergence of the Fascist State, it is obvious this fascist state rests on universal suffrage of the proletarian majority. To put it bluntly, in her political activity the worker constitutes the very machinery of exploitation against which she fights. Her commercial interest as a seller of labor power, sparks her political activity to ensure this sale is consummated; the terms and conditions of this sale, and the prerequisites of these, figure as this or that economic policy of the fascist state. On the other hand, the enlargement of the state, its increasingly pervasive economic role, is no more than the expansion of the state as social capitalist and must lead to the ever increasing exploitation of the worker. The more she struggles to realize political relations to satisfy her requirements as a seller of labor power, the more indifferent the State becomes to her needs as a human being.

This must lead to two results that I can think of:

In the first instance, what was once concealed beneath purely monetary relations must become increasingly obvious to the proletarians: that their activity is the enlargement of an alien power standing over against them. As the state becomes the social capitalist, what was previously only a theoretically derived conclusion regarding the relationship between capital and wage labor is made explicit and comprehensible to the worker.

In the second instance, the increasingly comprehensible relation between capital and wage labor appears, not in its commercial form, but in the form of increasing antagonism to the fascist state, and to its role as social capitalist, stated in a political form, i.e., as demands against the state. However, expressed in this purely political form, it is now the empirical expression of a radical critique of all existing relations.

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

August 11, 2011 1 comment

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.

The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Louis Althusser

There is a massive black hole in the center of Marxism that cannot be ignored, since it touches on the question of social revolution itself. That question can be posed this way: What happened to the Soviet Union? But, the better formulation is this:

Why didn’t the Great Depression touch off a revolution in the West?

Numerous explanations of this failure have been offered by commentators of every variety within and without Marxism. During the Great Depression, it is clear, capitalism suffered an irreversible breakdown due to absolute over-accumulation. And, it is also clear that effective control over the state was already in the hands of the proletarian majority through its suffrage. Moreover, as now, the solution to the general crisis of capitalism was already obvious, and universally recognized: reduction of labor hours.

The principal explanations now fashionable within Marxism deny one or more of these facts. They propose: There is,

  1. no general crisis; or,
  2. no effective control over state power by the proletariat; or,
  3. that reduction of hours of labor will not work.

Every one of these explanations violate the assumptions of historical materialism.

If you deny there is a general crisis of capitalism, you are making the argument there can be absolute over-accumulation in one country leading to export of capital to the less developed regions of the world market, but there cannot be absolute over-accumulation in the world market itself. And, since Lenin’s theses on imperialism is entirely based on the concept of global over-accumulation, you have to reject his conclusions. Not too mention a materialist explanation of the more than 130 million dead in two world conflicts and the numerous conflicts following this.

If you want to deny universal suffrage of the proletarian majority is the sufficient condition for its effective political rule you must then impose conditions on this rule other than those that stem from its material position in society. You must then deny Marx’s thesis that the proletariat’s historical mission stems from who they are, not what they think. This position, as in the “Bolshevik model”, denies the capacity of the proletariat to empirically determine their own role in history.

Lenin advances the “Bolshevik Model” in “What is to be Done.” Which, I think, is a reaction to social-democratic reformism. No matter what the cause, this idea becomes embedded in Marxism so firmly that it has been enshrined as the concept of “vanguard party”. Anarchists rightly ridicule this by pointing out Marxism leads either to reformist social-democracy or despotic Leninism.

On the other hand, Marxism borrows from the argument of Anarchists like Noam Chomsky that, somehow, the effective power of the proletariat is a manufactured consent — the working class is indoctrinated. Their leaders are bribed, their organizations are co-opted, and their reality is hidden from them by deceptions spread in the media.

Finally if you deny reduction of hours of labor is the only solution to the general crisis of capitalism you can’t explain the fascist state. The fascist state emerges simultaneously in all industrial nations during the Great Depression despite their numerous historical differences. It clearly emerges as the political response to the general crisis, which is nothing more than massive unemployment a glut of productive capacity and intense competition between national capitals over division of the world market.

But, absolute over-accumulation is just accumulation of capital that can no longer function as capital that cannot expand its own value through exploitation of labor power, cannot realize the surplus value extracted as profit. It takes the form of a mass of superfluous means of subsistence, means of production, and idled workers, who are now available for war.

This surplus of mean of subsistence, means of production and idled workers is produced during the period of the social work day beyond that required for the wages of the productively employed population. Absolute over-accumulation simply means the work day can’t be longer than that needed to satisfy the material requirements of the laborers.

I think, any attempt to explain why the Great Depression did not end in a social revolution must begin with these assumptions. This explanation must, at the same time, account for the failure of the Marxist-Leninist model of revolution. The first failure is only the second failure presented in another form.

We can probably best begin to account for what happened during the Great Depression by examining the flaws in the Marxist theory of the state. For this, I want to use Althusser’s 1970 work, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althusser has this formulation of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ (the quotation marks are his, not mine):

To summarize the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ on this point, it can be said that the Marxist classics have always claimed that (1) the state is the repressive state apparatus, (2) state power and state apparatus must be distinguished, (3) the objective of the class struggle concerns state power, and in consequence the use of the state apparatus by the classes (or alliance of classes or of fractions of classes) holding state power as a function of their class objectives, and (4) the proletariat must seize state power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois state apparatus and, in a first phase, replace it with a quite different, proletarian, state apparatus, then in later phases set in motion a radical process, that of the destruction of the state (the end of state power, the end of every state apparatus).

The problem with this statement by Althusser of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ is that it is a fantasy; and is not historical materialism. To figure out why, we have to work backwards in Althusser’s formulation — from (4) to (1)

With regards to (4), I have never encountered the formulation in Marx or Engels that the workers replace the bourgeois state apparatus with their own. In fact, I have never encountered Marx or Engels speaking of any state apparatus but the present bourgeois state apparatus. And, their verdict on this, based on the Commune, was definitive: It must be broken.

Not reformed, not replaced, not refurbished — broken.

What made the proletarian state power different from all preceding forms is that this apparatus itself was abolished at the outset. The Anarchists of the Commune replaced it with a working body combining both deliberative and executive functions. Marx could have differed with this, but he explicitly did not — he endorsed it.

With deliberative and executive functions combined, there is no state apparatus as distinct from state power. But, the present state consists of this division — of a useless legislative body and power concentrated in the executive. Since, there was no stand-alone executive in the Commune, the idea that the state is destroyed only in later phases is complete bunk. For this reason, Marx referred to what Anarchists created in the commune as no longer a state.

This has to be emphasized: Marx looked at what the Communards created and said it was NOT a state.

And why was this: because the Anarchists had abolished the historical division between the executive and deliberative functions of the state. The new society was itself both the deliberative body and the means for executing its decisions. In both the Soviet despotic and the Western democratic forms of proletarian rule, we find exactly that this division is not done away with.

In (3), Althusser argues that the objective of the class struggle is to wield the state apparatus as a function of class objectives. But, as early as 1845, in The German Ideology, Marx described the proletariat as a class which was not a class, but the dissolution of other classes. In 1851 work, Reflections on Money, he explains how money relations conceal relations of production and classes.

Both classes shop the same stores, pay the same prices for the same goods — the only apparent difference is the amount of money in their wallets. While material relations of production determine society, these relations are buried deep beneath purely monetary ones. Given that, for the proletariat, it is not a class in any real sense, and given that its relation to other classes is concealed from it how is historical materialism to conclude that the proletariat wields state power as a function of its class objectives?

Since all interests are only interests in the exploitation of labor under given relations, how is labor itself to express such an interest? Against what class is this interest to be expressed other than itself?

In (2), Althusser expresses the opinion that state power and state apparatus must be distinguished. So, how are we to do this? Until the Commune had state power ever been exercised in any other form than through the state apparatus? Was there a discovery in 1970 of some epoch in which the state power of the ruling class was exercised directly and not through an apparatus?

Althusser is wrong on this, I think.

Throughout history, state power has consisted of an armed body of men to enforce the domination of the existing ruling class. This special interest, which having raised itself to position of the general interest, must become the objective of all special interests seeking to impose themselves on society as the general interest. The competition between classes over control of this apparatus only expresses the fact that the history of society is the succession of one after another special interests.

In (1), Althusser defines the state as “the repressive state apparatus”. But, Engels, in his 1880 work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, is already describing the state as much more than this: “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.”

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies, trusts, and State property, show how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.

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 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.

Already, under the pressure of the capitalist mode of production, the state was undergoing a profound transformation. The state was not eclipsing the two great classes in bourgeois society, but coming more to function as the social capitalist.