Society, totality, and history

Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

That Vladi­mir Len­in and his fel­low re­volu­tion­ar­ies of 1917 con­sidered the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic lead­er Karl Kaut­sky a ped­ant and a phil­istine is well known. Len­in pin­pointed the reas­on for Kaut­sky’s post-1914 reneg­acy in his di­lu­tion of Marxi­an dia­lectics. “How is this mon­strous dis­tor­tion of Marx­ism by the ped­ant Kaut­sky to be ex­plained…??” the Bolshev­ik asked rhet­or­ic­ally in a sec­tion of his 1918 po­lem­ic, The Pro­let­ari­an Re­volu­tion and the Reneg­ade Kaut­sky, “How Kaut­sky Turned Marx in­to a Com­mon Lib­er­al.” “As far as the philo­soph­ic­al roots of this phe­nomen­on are con­cerned,” he answered, “it amounts to the sub­sti­tu­tion of ec­lecticism and soph­istry for dia­lectics.” In an­oth­er chapter, Len­in ac­cused Kaut­sky of “pur­su­ing a char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally petty-bour­geois, phil­istine policy [ти­пич­но ме­щан­скую, фи­лис­тер­скую по­ли­ти­ку]” by back­ing the Men­shev­iks. Need­less to say, Len­in’s im­mense re­spect for the so-called “Pope of Marx­ism” be­fore the war had all but evap­or­ated.

What is less well known, however, is that Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels shared this ap­prais­al of Kaut­sky. But this would only be re­vealed in 1932, sev­er­al years after Len­in’s death, in ex­tracts pub­lished from their cor­res­pond­ence. En­gels con­fided to Eduard Bern­stein in Au­gust 1881 that “Kaut­sky is an ex­cep­tion­ally good chap, but a born ped­ant and hair­split­ter in whose hands com­plex ques­tions are not made simple, but simple ones com­plex.” Marx, for his part, sus­pec­ted that En­gels’ fond­ness of Kaut­sky was due to his ca­pa­city to con­sume al­co­hol, as he re­cor­ded in a note to his daugh­ter Jenny Longuet from April that same year:

[Jo­hann Most, grand­fath­er of le­gendary Bo­ston Celt­ics an­noun­cer Johnny Most,] has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker [Kautz, pun­ning on Kautz-ky] since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker [Kautz], I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

Le­on Trot­sky was caught off-guard by the ca­su­istry Kaut­sky dis­played after 1914, re­mem­ber­ing the praise he had showered on the Rus­si­an work­ers’ move­ment a dec­ade or so earli­er. “Kaut­sky’s re­ac­tion­ary-pedant­ic cri­ti­cism [пе­дант­ски-ре­ак­ци­он­ная кри­ти­ка Ка­ут­ско­го] must have come the more un­ex­pec­tedly to those com­rades who’d gone through the peri­od of the first Rus­si­an re­volu­tion with their eyes open and read Kaut­sky’s art­icles of 1905-1906,” de­clared Trot­sky in his pre­face to the 1919 re­is­sue of Res­ults and Pro­spects (1906). “At that time Kaut­sky (true, not without the be­ne­fi­cial in­flu­ence of Rosa Lux­em­burg) fully un­der­stood and ac­know­ledged that the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion could not ter­min­ate in a bour­geois-demo­crat­ic re­pub­lic but must in­ev­it­ably lead to pro­let­ari­an dic­tat­or­ship, be­cause of the level at­tained by the class struggle in the coun­try it­self and be­cause of the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al situ­ation of cap­it­al­ism… For dec­ades Kaut­sky de­veloped and up­held the ideas of so­cial re­volu­tion. Now that it has be­come real­ity, Kaut­sky re­treats be­fore it in ter­ror. He is hor­ri­fied at Rus­si­an So­viet power and thus takes up a hos­tile at­ti­tude to­wards the mighty move­ment of the Ger­man com­mun­ist pro­let­ari­at.”

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Capital as subject and the existence of labor

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Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995

Editorial note

Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]


Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

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Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Anti-imperialism, like anti-Zionism, is hardly sufficient cause to categorize a group or individual as “progressive.” Vladimir Lenin, whose pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1915) remains by far the most influential work on the topic to date, specifically warned against lending material or ideological aid to regressive political groups. In his “Draft Theses on Colonial and National Questions” (1920), he wrote:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

  1. first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;
  2. second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
  3. third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Lenin was expanding here on some ideas he’d laid out in an earlier work, from 1915. Rebutting Kievsky, he wrote:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author [Kievsky] admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the tricky, historically fraught relationship between nationalism and internationalism in socialist movements. What relationship is there, if any, between national liberation and global revolution? In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a dispute over demands for national autonomy reverberated throughout the Second International. Oppressed nationalities living in multinational empires (e.g., the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) and in the overseas colonies of European empires (e.g., the German, French, and British Empires) agitated for secession and self-government on a linguistic, geographic, or ethnic basis. These disparate movements rallied around the banner of a “right to national self-determination.”

Essentially, there were three different sides to this debate. First, there was Lenin, who argued that national liberation struggles could be supported within a frame of imminent world revolution, in the context of inter-imperialist war and widespread rebellion in the colonies. Second, there was Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected even Lenin’s highly qualified defense of national self-determination out of fear that this might lead to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities within the states thus founded. Third, there were the Austromarxists, who upheld the principle of “national-cultural autonomy” with separate schools for each nationality to celebrate its unique language and culture. Lenin and Luxemburg both thought this amounted to chauvinism, and opposed it resolutely.

By 1959, the council communist Paul Mattick already noticed that shifting conditions had rendered the arguments of both Lenin and Luxemburg moot. “[The postwar] ‘renaissance’ of nationalism contradicts both Rosa Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s positions on the ‘national question’,” Mattick observed. “Apparently, the time for national emancipation has not come to an end. However, the rising tide of anti-imperialism does not serve world-revolutionary socialist ends.” While Lenin may have had the cooler head in the debate, and though his positions perhaps made sense given the impending interimperialist war, today Luxemburg’s unwavering opposition to nationalism — even national self-determination — seems more correct in retrospect. Loren Goldner, editor of the left communist online publication Insurgent Notes, made a similar point in 2011. “We consider nationalism in the current epoch to be reactionary,” Goldner explained. “Nationalism in the period from the French Revolution until approximately World War I could play an historically progressive, even revolutionary, role (i.e., in the era of bourgeois revolutions) when the formation of viable nation states out of the old dynastic order (e.g., Germany, Italy) was still possible. Even then, the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was never part of the revolutionary tradition as an abstract principle, separate from a strategic geopolitical orientation to unite the working class (which is always international).” Continue reading

Remembering revisionism: The reform vs. revolution debate in Second International Marxism

The so-called “revisionism” debate represented the greatest trial of Second International Marxism prior to its crisis in August 1914 and subsequent collapse. Its result was probably the most important theoretical outcome of the period, whatever practical disagreements remained hidden beneath the unified doctrine of Marxian orthodoxy (only to be exposed later on). Eduard Bernstein, the executor of Engels’ estate and a longtime exponent of the theories of Marx, had come to have doubts about the revolutionary predictions made by his recently departed mentors from the 1840s up through the 1860s. From about the middle of the 1890s to the turn of the century, Bernstein would wage a fierce polemic against those aspects of Marxist theory he considered falsified or outdated. Namely, the idea of a violent revolution leading to the seizure of state power, which he felt was founded on the residual idealism inherited by Marx and Engels via the Hegelian dialectic.

Several texts are helpful in understanding the origins, development, and consequences of the revisionist controversy. A great deal of it centered on the famous question: “Reform or revolution?” (I’ve already expressed my opinion of this dichotomy, along with a third term of “resistance,” in the past). But other issues were necessarily drawn into it as well, such as the notion of the progressive immiseration or pauperization of the masses culminating in a breakdown or collapse [Zusammenbruch], as well as problems of Marxist methodology mentioned above. The most comprehensive survey of this struggle within the party, by far, is the collection edited by H. and J.M. Tudor. Preconditions of Socialism by Bernstein, which condensed and systematized his arguments over the two preceding years, is also a crucial work. Last but not least, when it comes to primary documents, there is Rosa Luxemburg’s outstanding Reform or Revolution? (1898). What is to be Done?, Lenin’s well-known diatribe against the economists, can be seen — and indeed was seen by Lenin himself — as an echo of the revisionism debate in the Russian context.

You can download these three primary sources, translated into English, by clicking below:

Secondary sources are always helpful, too, so here are some that might aid readers in their effort to understand the significance of this dispute. Here are some good ones:

Below you will find a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti on “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International.” Frankly, it surprised me, given Colletti’s reputation as a staunch anti-Hegelian. Readers of this blog will know that I am above all sympathetic to the Hegelian Marxist reading that emerged around Lenin right before the war and continued by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch after the war. In this essay, Colletti is deeply critical of his former master Galvano Della Volpe, and finds himself in agreement with many things Lukács wrote during the 1920s and Korsch wrote during the 1930s (I find Korsch had already declined by this point, but he still had the occasional insight). Colletti also makes use of an Hegelian metaphor in explaining the way labor-time “congeals” in Marx’s account of the commodity. He discusses, moreover, the writings of Luxemburg and Preobrazhenskii — left-wingers within the Second and Third Internationals, respectively. Moishe Postone even considers Colletti’s insights in this essay quite valuable: “Like Isaak Rubin, Colletti maintains that what has rarely been understood is that Marx’s theory of value is identical to his theory of the fetish. What must be explained is why the product of labor assumes the form of the commodity and why, therefore, human labor appears as a value of things…Colletti’s argument parallels some aspects of that developed in this work, [although] his critique remains one of the mode of distribution.” The argument Colletti builds on the basis of abstract labor and its relation to fetishism and the value-form helps to explain the revisionism debate very well.

A couple words about the aftermath of the revisionism debate, specifically with regard to the way many matters were left unsettled. Karl Korsch explained admirably in Marxism and Philosophy how its apparent resolution in favor of revolutionism masked deeper divisions which persisted up to World War I:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the long period of purely evolutionary development of capitalism came to an end, and a new epoch of revolutionary struggle began. Because of this change in the practical conditions of class struggle, there were increasing signs that Marxist theory had entered a critical phase. It became obvious that the extraordinarily banal and rudimentary vulgar Marxism of the epigones had an extremely inadequate awareness of even the totality of its own problems, let alone any definite positions on a whole range of questions outside them. The crisis of Marxist theory showed itself most clearly in the problem of the attitude of social revolution towards the State. This major issue had never been seriously posed in practice since the defeat of the first proletarian revolutionary movement in 1848, and the repression of the revolt of the Commune of 1871. It was put concretely on the agenda once again by the World War, the first and second Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. It now became clear that there was no unanimity whatever within the camp of Marxism on such major issues of transition and goal as the “seizure of State power by the proletariat,” the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the final “withering away of the State” in communist society. On the contrary, no sooner were all these questions posed in a concrete and unavoidable manner, than there emerged at least three different theoretical positions on them, all of which claimed to be Marxist. Yet in the prewar period, the most prominent representatives of these three tendencies — respectively Renner, Kautsky, and Lenin — had not only been regarded as Marxists but as orthodox Marxists. For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the Social Democrat parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism. But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself. On one side of this rift, there appeared Marxist neo-reformism which soon more or less amalgamated with the earlier revisionism. On the other side, the theoretical representatives of a new revolutionary proletarian party unleashed a struggle against both the old reformism of the revisionists and the new reformism of the “center,” under the battle-cry of restoring pure or revolutionary Marxism. This crisis erupted within the Marxist camp at the outbreak of the World War.

Of course, there had been developments in the meantime — especially after 1909 — that should have been recognized internationally and acted upon (at the very least) nationally. Lukács explained in an article I posted previously the rapprochement between Kautsky and Bernstein around 1910. Even Lenin was unaware of the depths to which the German party had sunk. Trotsky recalled: “Rosa Luxemburg did not pose the question of the struggle against centrism with the requisite completeness. Lenin’s position was entirely superior in this respect. But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there is a lapse of thirteen years; in the course of the major part of this period Rosa  was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formalistic, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character. Up until 1914, Lenin did not participate in this fight and did not support Luxemburg. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters. In Lenin’s eyes Bebel and Kautsky stood immeasurably higher as revolutionists than in the eyes of Luxemburg, who observed them at closer range, in action, and who was much more directly subjected to the atmosphere of German politics.”

Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of the revisionism controversy in this connection, its official revolutionary policy remains an important legacy. Of course, in the absence of a mass movement, the existence of which Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Bernstein took more or less for granted, the question “reform or revolution?” is purely hypothetical today. Reform is unlikely to come about without at least the plausible threat of revolutionary upheaval. Bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the US can barely tolerate a soft Social Democrat like Sanders running in its primary. My earnest hope is that these questions will become less abstract given time, with the increase of an independent proletarian movement in the core capitalist countries.

Erinnerungskarte mit den Mitgliedern der sozialdemokratischen Reichstagsfraktion, 1890

Bernstein and the Marxism
of the Second International

Lucio Colletti
Ideology and

Engels’ “political testament”

In the introduction he wrote for the first reprinting of The Class Struggles in France, in March 1895 — only a few months before his death — Engels observes that the chief error made by Marx and himself at the time of the 1848 revolution was that they had treated the European situation as ripe for socialist transformation:

History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a long way ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution, which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent… and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank.1

According to Engels, this error of judgment concerning the real level of capitalist development in 1848 was to a considerable extent matched by a mistaken political conception that he and Marx had derived from preceding revolutionary experience, and particularly that of France: the idea of revolution as the action of a minority. “It was… natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly colored by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830.” While “all revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another,” “all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people”; hence, “the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of the minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.”

The undue extension of this character of preceding revolutions to “the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation” had now been sharply contradicted by history. History “has done even more: it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.”

Continue reading

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)

Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches. Continue reading

Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

From the Monthly Review press release: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is among the most enigmatic and influential figures of the twentieth century. While his life and work are crucial to any understanding of modern history and the socialist movement, generations of writers on the left and the right have seen fit to embalm him endlessly with superficial analysis or dreary dogma. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and “actually-existing” socialism, it is possible to consider Lenin afresh, with sober senses trained on his historical context and how it shaped his theoretical and political contributions. Reconstructing Lenin, four decades in the making and now available in English for the first time, is an attempt to do just that.

Tamás Krausz, an esteemed Hungarian scholar writing in the tradition of György Lukács, Ferenc Tőkei, and István Mészáros, makes a major contribution to a growing field of contemporary Lenin studies. This rich and penetrating account reveals Lenin busy at the work of revolution, his thought shaped by immediate political events but never straying far from a coherent theoretical perspective. Krausz balances detailed descriptions of Lenin’s time and place with lucid explications of his intellectual development, covering a range of topics like war and revolution, dictatorship and democracy, socialism and utopianism. Reconstructing Lenin will change the way you look at a man and a movement; it will also introduce the English-speaking world to a profound radical scholar.

Krausz, wrote this shorter piece that was translated for the Platypus Review back in 2011. Though I’m not a Wallersteinian, hopefully a PDF will appear of his new biography shortly so that I can read and review it.


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

An historically adequate interpretation of Lenin’s Marxism must begin with the recognition that Lenin’s legacy is essentially a political application of Marx’s theory of capital as a historically-specific social formation. It required further development in light of experiences under determinate historical circumstances, such as the development of capitalism in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis of Marxism in 1914, the evolution of imperialism, the October Revolution of 1917, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Lenin’s basic awareness of the concrete possibility of social revolution and the transition to communism grew more determinate in the course of his political practice after 1905. Because of this, Lenin’s political and theoretical legacy, as a historical variant of Marxism, is unique and unrepeatable. On the other hand, the original experience of revolutionary theory and action, its “methodology” in practice, has played an undeniably colossal role in the history of the twentieth century. In our own time, under less than promising circumstances, there are attempts to “refurbish” Lenin’s Marxism for the anti-globalization movement.[1] The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone has breached the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended. The world situation over the last two decades demonstrates that the global dominance of capital has engendered new forms of discontent. These did not obviate the need for Marxism as a theory and a movement. Indeed, they could not. Instead, in their search for alternatives, the discontented run into “Lenin’s Marxism” at every turn. Thus, if we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think, for this legacy — that is, the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism — is not a thing of the past.

Concept and systemization

Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.

The systematization of Lenin’s legacy began in his lifetime as part of the struggle over the inheritance of his mantle. What was characteristic of these “deconstructions” was not that Marxism was identified with Lenin’s legacy, nor its embodiment in him, nor that Marxism was “Russified” and, later, “Stalinized” as a result of that struggle. Rather, it was interpreted simply as the theory and practice of revolution and class struggle, omitting the stages and method of development that made the phenomenon what it was. This reductionist approach simplified Lenin’s Marxism to the ideology of political class struggle and eventually to an ideology that justified the Bolsheviks’ preservation of power above all. The subsequent Stalinist period came to see Leninism as party ideology, the main and almost exclusive “vehicle” of Marxism, with the Communist Party, then its general staff, and eventually its leader alone functioning as its sole guardian. The soviets, the labor unions, and other forms of social self-organization, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the “reproduction” of theory and ideology: Everything became nationalized. Marxism-Leninism became the legitimation of this new state socialism. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become an “emperor with no clothes” as Leninism as the Soviet Union’s legitimizing ideology sank into the dustbin of history. The result is a condition in which it is impossible to “excavate” the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis.

The still-powerful elements of pre-Stalinist Marxism were analyzed in the 1960s by [Georg] Lukács and his anti-Stalinist followers, just as they had been earlier by Gramsci. The resulting “Lenin renaissance” permitted under Khruschev rose to a high philosophical level. By the 1970s many European and anti-Soviet Marxist Communist authors (from Rudolf Bahro to Valentino Gerratana, or even Ferenc Tőkei or [György] Bence and [János] Kis) attempted to mobilize these views as a criticism of state socialism, and in the service of constituting an authentic socialist alternative. Such writers made it clear that the historical, political, and theoretical-scientific power of Lenin’s Marxism could not be reduced exclusively to power management or to the “welfare state” as the Soviet ideologues and their bourgeois adversaries had tried to do for the past several decades. These efforts formed part of an attempt worldwide to sketch a new, critical framework for Marxism. Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought during these decades to forge a kind of “third way” between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism — a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. In contrast to these attempts, which may be considered various expressions of individual and collective freedom, or participatory democracy, the arguments of the anti-Leninists, almost regardless of ideology, all derive from folding Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism. To this day they form vital elements of the discourse of anti-Leninist anti-capitalism.

The reservations voiced with regard to Lenin’s Marxism are understandable, as it only became widely apparent after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this historically specific intellectual and practical achievement, which no longer served state legitimation, can resist liberal and nationalist justification of the system. At the same time, the internal logic of Lenin’s Marxism can only be resuscitated through a new combination of Marx’s theory of social formations with revolutionary anti-capitalist practice. Yet another subjective ground for the rejection of Lenin’s Marxism on scientific grounds by leftist experts in academia is that Lenin’s ideas philosophically resist fragmentation by discipline as the experience of many decades has shown. All its constituent elements point toward the totality, the indivisible process. Following Marx, Lenin knocked down the walls separating science from philosophy, and theory from practice. Lenin’s theoretical work cannot possibly be separated from the movement overcoming the capitalist system. In this sense his Marxism is linked indissolubly to the workers movement in the 20th century as a surprisingly adept methodological tool for the apprehension of processes as a whole within different frameworks. Marx’s philosophical and economic achievements may continue apart from any revolutionary workers movement, but not Lenin’s. Until 1917 all his theoretical and political arguments were aimed at the workers movement and revolution. After 1917, as the founder of a Soviet state in the grips of the acute contradictions between holding on to power and the announced aims of the revolution, between tactics and strategy, Lenin tended to vacillate, becoming increasingly aware that the objectives of the revolution had to be postponed for the unforeseeable future.

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen, [Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly [Karl] Kautsky. Continue reading

Towards a theory of the development of the world market and the world economy

Isaak Dashkovskii
Under the Banner of
(№ 1, 1927)

Translated by Noa Rodman with light edits by Ross Wolfe. Still waiting on a full copy of the Russian to go over some of the rougher sections. English is not Noa’s first language, to my knowledge. He’s a mysterious figure in general, who sometimes comments on my blog and occasionally Chris Cutrone’s, while also haunting the LibCom forums. Anyway, I’ve done what I can to clean it up.

First of three articles. Under the Banner of Marxism, 1927, № 1 , 86-117. See part two and three.1

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The most fundamental and dominant facts of modern economic life are the world market and the world economy. This is observed in countless written works, devoted to recent history of the economy and its modern situation. Even those authors, who, like [Werner] Sombart, tend to defend the paradoxical idea, that “the single national economy increasingly is becoming a completed microcosmos, and the internal market gradually outweighs for all industries the significance of the foreign market,”2 nevertheless have to recognize, that an essential condition for the growth of the domestic market is a “permanent and continuous extensive expansion of world economic relations.”

The development of international economic relations is a kind of dialectical process. As is known, exchange and trade historically occur “on the margins of social organisms.” International, intertribal trade is the starting point of the development of exchange, with which the capitalist economy also develops. 3 Later on capitalism gradually clears for itself a required “field of exploitation” inside the country, disintegrating the remnants of the natural order, paving the way of commodity economy throughout and transforming the latter into capitalist economy. During this period there occurs an intensive “formation of the internal market” for capitalism. When this work is done in enough depth and breadth, there comes the turn again of international exchange, on no longer primitive foundations, but on the basis of large-scale production and manufacture technology. Capitalism “pulls” all nations one after the other into the world economic orbit. The epoch of world economy arrives.

As troubadours of this international exchange act always the economists of those countries, which occupy a dominant position in the world market. Since the era of development of bourgeois political economy coincided with the dominance of England in the world market, it is only natural that the theory of the classics became the fighting banner of bourgeois “cosmopolitanism,” which essentially was the only adequate form of expression of the national interests of British capital. In the development of the “cosmopolitan” theory one can mention two stages: the first period associated with the names of Smith and Ricardo, characterizing the predominance of the interests of international trade in the strict sense, i.e., in terms of export of goods. Praising the benefits of international exchange both Smith and Ricardo refer negatively to the tendency to transfer capital and entrepreneurship abroad.

But in relation to this already Mill takes a step forward, pointing out that the export of capital is a powerful force for expanding the field of employment of remaining capital. It is quite fair to say that the more, to a certain extent, we will send capital out, the more we will have it and the greater the amount of it we will be able to keep in the fatherland.4 This evolution of the classical theory was closely related to changes in the economic environment. From export of goods British capital turned, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the export of capital. The pursuit of higher profits got the better over “attachment to the fatherland,” and Mill only registered a fait accompli. True, he has not yet completely done away with the old ideology and proves the benefits of export of capital by the consideration that the export contributes to increasing the amount of capital remaining in the fatherland. But this was already a simple tribute to prejudices, from which the later generation of economists managed to entirely escape.

In the theory of international economic relations as well as in all other matters of political economy, the classics remained true to their main method — to issue the specific laws of bourgeois economy to a natural order of things, to a pre-established harmony. The moving force of the development of world trade they saw in physical conditions of production, and not in the social form, which they take under capitalism. International trade spreads the frame of the division of labor, increasing its productivity. Growth of productivity is a simple consequence of technical factors — the division of labor, which therefore is the most natural order of things. Natural laws inevitably must forge a way through the artificial barriers created by the wrong policies of social organizations — the state, etc. Therefore the development of international trade is inevitable.

From the natural order of things proceeded, incidentally, also a prominent opponent of the classical school on the continent of Europe — Friedrich List. But he, in contrast to the classics, argued that the greatest economic benefits are obtained not from the division of labor between countries, but from the conjunction of labor within the same country, in particular from the conjunction of industrial and agricultural production. A clear case of how the meaning of “natural laws” is modified when they need to express opposing interests of different groups of bourgeoisie, in this case the bourgeoisie of England and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. True, also List did not depart from “cosmopolitanism” in relation to more or less distant future, when circumstances permit “universal” struggle. He also considered it necessary to flirt with “universal” considerations. “That the civilization of all nations, the culture of the whole globe is the mission of mankind, is a consequence of those immutable laws of nature, according to which civilized nations are driven by irresistible power to carry over their productive forces to the less civilized countries.”5

“Natural laws” unconsciously for their interpreters spoke in the purest language of bourgeois categories in those cases, for example, when the benefits of the international exchange strengthened arguments on the profit rate or wages. But since these categories in the representation of bourgeois economy had “antediluvian existence,” these same forces of development of the world market appeared independent of any form of social organization. They were rooted in the “immutable laws of nature.”

In his comments on Ricardo Diehl correctly notes that “​​Ricardo’s idea about foreign trade policy is closely connected with his theory of distribution of national income; he is in favor of free trade because it has the most favorable influence upon the distribution of wealth within the national economy” (K. Diehl, Erläuterungen, Bd. III, II Theil, 326 p.).

Only Marx put the question of the world market on a real scientific ground. He showed that the creation of the world market was not a function of “laws of nature” as such, but a function of capital, and moved, in this way, study on the ground of social laws, peculiar to a determined era. “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx asks. “Freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action.”6

And further, revealing the essence of protectionism, Marx finds it in a strong growth, despite the apparent contrast, with the system of free trade:

The protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade.

In this way, both seemingly mutually exclusive, systems of economic policy, lead, according to Marx, to the same result: the expansion of the scope of capital’s activity, the expansion of world economic relations.

A theory of the world market had no fortune in Marxist literature. Marx himself assumed to devote a significant part of his research to the analysis of foreign trade, international market and international economy. He mentions this in the first lines of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “I examine the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labor; the State, foreign trade, world market.” The incompleteness of Capital is reflected precisely in the last three parts of Marx’s plan. In particular the theory of international economic relations is represented there only in the form of passing remarks, which, however, are themselves of an enormous scientific worth and allow in general outlines to build a system of Marx’s views on this question.

Regarding post-Marxian economic literature, although questions of world economy also were and are paid a lot of attention, a general theory of international exchange remained poorly developed. The dispute about the importance of foreign markets for capitalism between Marxists and populists, renewed in our days around the theory of Rose Luxemburg, revolves mainly around the problem of realization, or the complication of specific questions of modern imperialism, involving the highly advanced monopolization of important sectors of the world economy, the strong influence of “supra-economic” factors , etc., conditions interfering with the economic laws of capitalism “in its pure form.” Meanwhile, without a “pure theory” of the global market one cannot understand the real binding of global economic phenomena, just as without a “pure theory” of commodity and capitalist economy one cannot understand the general course of economic life, relations, classes, etc. The theory of “realization” is only a part of this pure theory. The question about realization of surplus value cannot be separated from the question about prices, for it is only through prices that potential surplus value is converted into real profit. The formation of price in international exchange is impossible to understand, without having a general theory of international exchange, and international exchange is part of a wider field of international economic relations (including the migration of capitals, the so-called “exchange of services,” the movement of labor forces, etc.). In short, here is an untouched region of theoretical research, in which Marxist science has made only first steps. Continue reading