Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 7, 2007

A reply to Wright

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

First of all, I want to thank Erik Olin Wright for taking the trouble to write such a thorough and considered response to my critique. In keeping with remarks I already made, it demonstrates his true respect for the democratic culture of the Internet, which will certainly be as key to our future revolutions as the Gutenberg press was for the peasant revolts of an earlier epoch.

In point one of Wright’s response, he states, “Once you acknowledge that capitalism may be an indefinitely robust, dynamic form of economic organization, then one has to directly engage the issue of how to convince people that an alternative is possible, viable, and desirable.”

After reading this, it reminded me of a real gap in AM literature. One can not think of a single work that actually describes the history of an actual living revolution. It is mainly theorizing about revolution, as in G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History.” I imagine that it is not just a coincidence that Wright has many of the same preoccupations as Cohen, who is fixated on the statement in the Communist Manifesto that the “fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are inevitable.” “If the advent of socialism is inevitable,” Cohen asks, “then why should Marx and Engels, and those who they hoped to activate, strive to achieve socialism?”

If you study the history of living revolutions since the days of the Paris Commune, you will discover that people go to the barricades not because they have developed ideas about a new economic system that is superior to the one that they are living under, like Linux compared to Microsoft Windows. Rather, they are driven to such extremes because the system that they are living under becomes intolerable.

Ever since the 1930s, this has meant that revolution is an event that takes place mainly in the global South. People took up arms in Nicaragua against Somoza not because Carlos Fonseca had succeeded in persuading them that a socialist Nicaragua was preferable, but because the current system was condemning infants to death by diarrhea and students protesting against these conditions were being thrown out of helicopters.

If you examine the historic program of the FSLN (alas, long forgotten in the wake of the US victory), you will find very little in the way of a roadmap or compass. It includes basic demands very much in line with those put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:

The revolutionary government will apply the following measures of an economic character:

–It will expropriate the landed estates, factories, companies, buildings, means of transportation, and other wealth usurped by the Somoza family and accumulated through the misappropriation and plunder of the nation’s wealth.

–It will expropriate the landed estates, factories, companies, means of transportation, and other wealth usurped by the politicians and military officers, and all other accomplices, who have taken advantage of the present regime’s administrative corruption.

–It will nationalize the wealth of all the foreign companies that exploit the mineral, forest, maritime, and other kinds of resources.

–It will establish workers’ control over the administrative management of the factories and other wealth that are expropriated and nationalized, etc.

You don’t need an advanced degree in social science to formulate demands such as these. You simply need to respond to the deeply felt needs of the population for justice.

In point three of his rebuttal, Wright defends the use of ‘ideal types’:

The ‘ideal type’ on the other hand, abstracts from all of the forms of variation and tries to identify those mechanisms in capitalism which are most systematically generative of its common properties across these variations. These are the mechanisms which make all capitalisms varieties of capitalism. If we are to talk about modes of production or systems of production ­ capitalism, feudalism, socialism, etc. ­ then we cannot dispense with such abstractions, whether or not they are called ‘ideal types.’

I think that there is a significant difference between an abstraction and an ‘ideal type’, especially when it comes to the question of socialism. As opposed to feudalism and capitalism, which have been around for over 1000 years and 500 years respectively, there is little evidence of an ‘ideal type’ such as socialism to compare them to. When Marx wrote “Capital,” he developed an abstraction out of a mountain of historical detail. You can see the same kind of analysis at work in Robert Brenner’s writings on the immediate precapitalist period. However, your discussion of socialism is not grounded in any kind of historical reality. Before I would embark on a project to replace Marxist concepts about socialism with your own ideas, I would at least make an attempt to grapple with that history.

For example, you write, “Whether because of inherent tendencies of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever potential for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the early years of the revolution.” After you raise the question, you answer it in a backhanded way by stating that the USSR became “the archetype of authoritarian statism under the ideological banner of socialism.”

I would argue that studying this history–warts and all–has much more value than coming up with “ideal types” for socialism. We know that socialist revolution will inevitably take place under conditions of “terrible constraints,” either in a desperately poor country like Nicaragua or in an advanced industrialized society in the future. By studying how our ancestors grappled with real-life challenges, we can come up with our approaches. Of course, studying such histories can only have partial value in light of the fact that every revolution in history has its own distinctive features.

In point four, Wright defends his use of the Israeli Kibbutz as “a democratic egalitarian economic organization.” I would only respond that to use this example risks alienating Arab intellectuals for reasons I have already tried to explain, but that is certainly his business as author.

In his final point, Wright defends the use of ‘models’, stating:

Even if it is the case that alternatives to capitalism will only arise when ‘conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality,’ it is still crucial what kinds of models, designs, experiments, innovations are part of the menu of political debate. I suppose if you believe strongly that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ and ‘necessity is the parent of invention’ then there might be no need for a prior exploration of democratic-egalitarian institutional designs, but the historical record of the failure to build democratic egalitarian alternatives in the aftermath of system-challenges is not very encouraging. Furthermore, if you skeptical that a transformation of capitalism in developed capitalist countries will take the form of a “revolt against the system in its totality” leading to a massive ruptural break, then it becomes even more important to understand such cases and to worry about how the spaces for them can be enlarged.

To answer this, I will conclude with a brief excerpt from an article I wrote on neo-Utopian thinking about 10 years ago that answers John Roemer, another Analytical Marxist who makes many of the same mistakes as Wright:

What Marx and Engels saw as the three main features of utopian thought:

1) Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.

2) Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.

3) Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, “To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.”

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”

This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

“Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.”

My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.


  1. Three brief comments on Louis Proyect’s reply to my initial comments:

    1. Proyect argues against the idea of discussing institutional designs for emancipatory alternatives to capitalism by citing the demands of the FSLN and writing “You don’t need an advanced degree in social science to formulate demands such as these. You simply need to respond to the deeply felt needs of the population for justice.” He is of course correct that you do not need much theoretical training or academic research to make demands of this kind, but it doesn’t follow that all you need is a simple, heartfelt expression of demands like this in order to construct a durable, sustainable, form of alternative institutions. The fact is that revolutions in the South have been better at breaking with previous systems of power and domination than in creating an emancipatory alternative. There are many reasons for this, and the debates about why revolutions turned out the way they did are difficult and complex. But one issue, I would argue, is the lack of understanding of the difficulty and complexity of building new institutions in a way that consistently advanced egalitarian democratic practices. Some people believe that institutional design is easy, that the problem of unintended consequences and perverse effects do not pose serious threats, and that really all that is needed is serious ideological commitment and a willingness to experiment. This might be correct, but I am skeptical, and therefore I think there is real value in thinking through these problems in an on-going way now.

    2. On the necessity of studying real revolutions and their fates: I am in complete accord that studying the dynamics, contradictions, successes and failures of actual revolutions “warts and all” is of considerable importance. These are grand, system-level historical experiments in social transformation. But I also feel that studying transformative moments, episodes, attempts, experiments, and so on that fall short of system-ruptures is also important. We can learn from Porto Alegre as well as the Paris Commune, and yes, we can learn from the failure of the kibbutzim as well as the failure of the collectivization drive in the USSR.

    3. A comment on the three accusations against Utopian thought from Marx and Engels:

    (1). On the problem of struggle. It may be the case that utopian socialists rejected the importance of struggle, but my arguments for “envisioning real utopias” argue for the necessity of struggle and for confronting the “limits of possibility” imposed by existing structures of power within capitalism. The central arguments in Part III of the book on Transformations (which I am sure Louis Proyect will dislike) is that these limits of possibility will not just disappear through enlightenment, but they must be fought against and transformed. Parenthetically I should also note that in the exposition of Marx & Engels’ view on point #1, Marx and Engels are quoted as criticizing Utopian socialists on the grounds that they never “understood the historical contradictions that would undermine [capitalism] in the long run”. It is noteworthy that in our previous exchange, Proyect acknowledged that Marx was incorrect in seeing the contradictions of capitalism as generating any self-destructive tendency which would undermine it in the long run (i.e. undermine its conditions of existence). It is precisely because it is no longer so clear that capitalism inherently undermines itself in the long run and creates an historical agent with the inherent capacity to overthrow it in a ruptural manner that the discussion of alternatives becomes more important than Marx’s believed.

    (2). On Moralism. Even if there is an historical agent for radical social transformation, it could still be necessary to convince people of the moral desirability of alternatives. If we are talking about the practical problem of actually motivating people for this specific kind of struggle – not struggle over narrow self-interest with limited time horizons, but struggles for system-level transformation – then they do need to believe that the alternatives for which they are making sacrifices are morally superior. This is especially important under conditions of considerable heterogeneity in immediate interests, in which bonds of solidarity must contain a moral element.

    (3) On the issue of rationalism. While I agree that envisioning alternatives “must make sense” and stand up “to relentless logical analysis,” I reject the implications that this implies that socialism is an expression of “absolute truth, reason and justice and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power.” Making sense and being an expression of absolute truth are not equivalent ideas.

    Comment by Erik Olin Wright — March 7, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

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