Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2017

We need communism

Filed under: anti-capitalism,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm

November 21, 2016

Reading the fine print in Seth Ackerman’s blueprint for a new party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Seth Ackerman

Issue #23 of Jacobin, which I received today, is devoted to an examination of “The Party We Need”. Since I have been advocating a new left party for the past 35 years both on and off the Internet, I was curious to see what the DSA supporters on the editorial board had to say on this topic. I probably will be evaluating other articles in the issue but want to start off with Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party” that was available at least a month before it came out. It made sense that Ackerman’s article would be highlighted since it encapsulates perfectly the fence-straddling politics of DSA today, especially the youth wing that has made Jacobin its semi-official organ.

To start with, I was wary about Ackerman’s title since the word blueprint is antithetical to Karl Marx’s approach. Keep in mind that he once wrote in defense of the “critical analysis of actual facts instead of writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. Of course, when Marx wrote this he was referring to the sort of grand designs for classless societies found typically in Albert-Hahnel’s Parecon and not how to build parties. That being said, Ackerman has displayed a susceptibility to recipe-writing in the past as we can see from his Jacobin article “The Red and the Black”:

Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.”

Ackerman felt that Marx violated his own rules in “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, where he supposedly wrote “his own little cookshop recipe” that “involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.”

One imagines that Ackerman was referring to Marx’s reference to a worker receiving a certificate based on the amount of labor he or she has contributed and that could be used in turn to purchase goods equal to the amount of labor embodied in the certificate. That is not only the sole reference to such a mechanism in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” but in Karl Marx’s entire body of work.

Indeed, the opening sentence in the relevant paragraph should give you a better idea of Marx’s approach: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” If you want to get a handle on Marx’s concept of a socialist society, the place to go is the 1871 “Civil War in France” that puts forward the Paris Commune as its concrete realization. The book is focused entirely on the steps workers had taken to reshape society according to their own class interests with nary a word about certificates.

After recruiting Karl Marx as a fellow blueprint writer, Ackerman shows his true colors by recommending Albert and Hahnel’s Participatory Economics:

Parecon, as it’s called, is an interesting exercise for our purposes, because it rigorously works out exactly what would be needed to run such an “anarchist” economy. And the answer is roughly as follows: At the beginning of each year, everyone must write out a list of every item he or she plans to consume over the course of the year, along with the quantity of each item. In writing these lists, everyone consults a tentative list of prices for every product in the economy (keep in mind there are more than two million products in Amazon.com’s “kitchen and dining” category alone), and the total value of a person’s requests may not exceed his or her personal “budget,” which is determined by how much he or she promises to work that year.

Preposterous, isn’t it? And any connection between this and the 104 words in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” about labor certificates is purely coincidental.

Ackerman’s article on a blueprint for a new party starts out promisingly enough:

This political moment offers a chance to fill in some of these blanks — to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class.

Yeah! Gosh-darn-it. Let’s get on board with this.

But there are obstacles in the way of implementing such a proposal as should be obvious by Ackerman’s discussion of the stillborn Labor Party of 20 years ago, an effort I was quite familiar with. It was initiated by Tony Mazzochi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW). After an initial flurry of interest, it withered on the vine because the left bureaucracy that was willing to endorse it was not ready to “go all the way”. Ackerman describes why. “Running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.” In other words, the same kind of union officials who urged a vote for Hillary Clinton this year would have been reluctant to run candidates who might siphon votes away from Al Gore in 2000 just as the NY Times reported that year:

This outpouring of enthusiasm for Mr. Nader worries many Democrats, who fear that so many steelworkers, auto workers, teamsters and other union members will vote for him this fall that Mr. Gore could lose in Ohio and other Midwestern swing states. For the Democrats, an added concern is that two of the most powerful unions in the Midwest, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, have flirted with Mr. Nader and have not endorsed Mr. Gore, even though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is backing the vice president.

Was there a way for the Labor Party to advance its agenda without generating the opprobrium heaped upon the Nader campaign? Ackerman believes there was, namely to avoid creating a separate ballot line. Having a separate ballot line is practically a fetish in Ackerman’s eyes, the sort of exercise that reminds me quite a bit of my time in the Socialist Workers Party:

These parties are frequently forced to devote the bulk of their resources not to educating voters, or knocking on doors on election day, but to waging petition drives and ballot-access lawsuits. The constant legal harassment, in turn, ends up exerting a subtle but powerful effect on the kinds of people attracted to independent politics. Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.

Yes, this certainly evokes the days I spent collecting signatures for the party in the 60s and 70s standing in front of supermarkets in Vermont in 1972 with a clipboard in my hand, freezing my nuts off. I suppose that I must confess to being “less interested in winning elections” and “disdainful of practical politics” at the time although I didn’t find anything “symbolic” about getting Linda Jenness and Andrew Pulley on the ballot. The war in Vietnam was still raging and for someone like myself George McGovern did not begin to address the underlying cause of the war, namely the capitalist system. At the time the SWP had about 2000 members and was still growing rapidly. Our election campaigns were one of the primary ways that young people could be attracted to the socialist movement. We were right about the need for running such openly socialist campaigns even if none of us had an inkling of what a bizarre sect-cult the SWP would turn out to be.

Ackerman adds, “The official parties are happy to have such people as their opposition, and even happy to grant them this safe channel for their discontent.” Gosh, someone might have mentioned that to the FBI. That would have save them the trouble of trying to get me fired from my job as a programmer in 1968 when they sent Metropolitan Life a postcard fingering me as a red.

For Ackerman, a different strategy is needed, one that is more “creative”. Does that mean working in the Democratic Party? He answers his own question: “No. Or at least, not in the way that phrase is usually meant.”

After casting doubt on some of the traditional left-liberal and social democratic strategies for working in the DP such as supporting candidates like McGovern or serving as a tail to the DP’s kite after the fashion of the Working Families Party, Ackerman enunciates a spanking new approach.

The widespread support for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, particularly among young people, has opened the door for new ideas about how to form a democratic political organization rooted in the working class.

The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.

Hmm. Intriguing. But be sure to read the fine print in a paragraph to follow:

But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line. [emphasis added]

It could choose to run in major- or minor party primaries?

Oh, I get it. It could run in the DP primaries just like Bernie Sanders did, who asked us to vote for Hillary Clinton and now describes the execrable Charles Schumer as being better prepared and more capable than anybody else of leading the Senate Democrats–god help us.  (I have no idea what Ackerman meant by “minor party primaries”. Does the Working Families Party hold primaries? The SWP certainly doesn’t.)

The rest of Ackerman’s article takes up minutiae such as establishing a PAC, etc. But they are incidental to the overriding question of whether DSA’ers like Ackerman and the rest of the hustlers at Jacobin have any intention of breaking with the Democratic Party.

The title of the article is a complete fraud. When you penetrate through Ackerman’s prose, you will understand that it is not a “new party” he talking about at all. Instead it is a caucus of the Democratic Party that will not be encumbered by the need to go out and collect signatures to gain ballot status like Jill Stein did.

And if you think a bit more deeply about what this is about, it is really less about the onerous task of getting on the ballot that Ackerman exaggerates but remaining acceptable to the prevailing mood of the middle-class intelligentsia that Jacobin orients to at Vox, The Nation, Dissent, etc. Do you think that you will see fawning articles about the young intellectuals involved with magazines like n+1 or Jacobin if they got involved with a project that took a clear class line? Forget about it.

This debate about the Democratic Party has been going on for a half-century at least. In 1964, SDS adopted the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. It took five years of brutal war to create a mood of resistance on campus and in the professional classes that produced the Peace and Freedom Party, a promising initiative that was hobbled by sectarian “intervention”.

This year there was significant support for Jill Stein’s candidacy that was undermined by an understandable fear of a Trump presidency. Unlike others who identify with the Greens, I was not disappointed by her modest vote total, which it must be noted was triple that of her last campaign. My problem is with the inability of the Greens to cohere as a membership organization that can begin to function as a nerve center for the left nationally even if it never wins another election.

A vacuum of leadership exists today that is crying out to be filled. There are basically three strategies that are being put forward. Groups such as the ISO and Socialist Alternative see work in the Green Party as a means to an end, namely the growth of their own group that is the nucleus of the future vanguard party that will topple the capitalist system. Even if they give lip-service to the idea of a broad left party (the ISO much less so), they continue to believe that it is only they who have the winning program that can rally the working class under the banner of socialism.

The DSA is both more modest and more circumlocuitous. Despite being on record in favor of the socialist transformation of the United States, their real orientation is to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that they see as the only political force capable of delivering Scandinavian type reforms even though the capitalist system in 2016 and for the foreseeable future is incompatible with such goals.

Finally, there is the liberal establishment itself that the DSA’s umbilical cord is attached to. It is the source of both intellectual and real capital. It exerts pressure on people such as Seth Ackerman that he is probably not even aware of. Like many of the contributors to Jacobin who are PhD students, there is a tendency to tailor their Marxism to the prevailing sensibility of the academy—one that encourages careerism and servility. The dissertation process is ultimately geared to reining in radicals and housebreaking them. When the rewards are a tenured professorship with the prestige, emoluments and job security that go along with it, the temptations to play it safe are irresistible.

Finally, the real challenge for people such as Seth Ackerman and the other Jacobin writers is to begin testing their ideas in practice. A magazine so invested in theory and “reading clubs” has little chance to test its ideas in practice. Granted, the low ebb of the class struggle today hardly gives people such as Ackerman the opportunity to assume leadership in the mass movement even though the responsibilities of completing a PhD likely would stand in the way to begin with.

In the 60s and 70s, there ample opportunities to learn about organizing people with so many different forms of rebellion both on and off the campus. I suspect that the Trump presidency will be providing brand new opportunities over the next four years as it begins to encroach on gains that were won over the past half-century. Let’s hope that people such as Seth Ackerman will avail themselves of the opportunity to build the movement, something that will be a lot more rewarding as I discovered in 1967 after dropping out of the New School and devoting every free moment to building the Vietnam antiwar and socialist movements.

September 20, 2016

A conversation with Jon Flanders

Filed under: socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

September 2, 2016

Every Cook Can Govern

Filed under: democracy,national question,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

Among the more than a thousand films I have reviewed over the past 24 years, “Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact & works of CLR James”  earns pride of place as the most intelligent, serious and passionate application of Marxism among all of them. I strongly urge buying the DVD from the film’s website since it is not only a study of arguably the most important Marxist thinker since the death of Leon Trotsky but a chronicle of some of the major events of the 20th century class struggle seen through the prism of James’s career. The documentary brings together the most respected CLR James scholars (among them Paul Buhle, Scott McLemee and Kent Worcester) as well as family members such as his former partner Selma James and his nephew Darcus Howe, a revolutionary activist and major thinker in his own right. Finally, you can see James himself discussing his life-long career as a revolutionary that culminated with what he considered his greatest achievement—helping to destroy Stalinism.

When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, party veterans would always speak derisively of those dissidents who eventually found themselves removed either voluntarily or involuntarily from the group that Leon Trotsky considered the gold standard of his ill-fated Fourth International. CLR James was the leader of a tendency in the party along with Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote articles under the names of Johnson and Forest. When the standard turned out to be made of fool’s gold, I made it a point to read the “renegades” who were always portrayed as fleeing helter-skelter from Marxism. James’s writings were an epiphany for me. All the appetites that I had suppressed in the SWP could be satisfied by reading James, especially his brilliant discussions of both high and popular culture. James was not only capable of writing on Shakespeare and Herman Melville. He also wrote “Beyond a Boundary”, a combination memoir and salute to the game of cricket. Indeed, the title of that book expressed my vision of the kind of Marxism that was necessary, one that sought to transcend sterile sectarian divisions on the left.

I was not the only person inspired by James. What makes the film so compelling was the passionate interviews with people who knew him when he was alive or through his writings, including a number of British college students who were familiar with his work as well as activists in the ongoing struggle against racism and imperialism.

What sets James apart from other Marxists was his lived experience as a subject of the British Empire. Born in 1901 in the town of Tunapuna in Trinidad, then a British colony, he became acutely aware of the racism of the white upper crust and the injustice of being ruled from afar. That racism expressed itself in a number of ways, including the unwritten rule that Blacks could not coach cricket teams as well as the poverty suffered by the descendants of slaves. His earliest achievements were in writing fiction, especially about the lower classes he identified with. Paul Buhle refers to his novel “Minty Alley” as remarkably contemporary and accomplished, one that could have been the first in a chain of critically acclaimed and financially rewarding works. Instead James devoted himself to a revolutionary career, something that Horkheimer once referred to as leading to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown. Not only did James choose such a career but one inside its most isolated and woebegone sector—the Trotskyist movement.

The film wisely chose to stick to James’s political life rather than his personal story. While I am sure that his marriage to someone as outspoken and talented as Selma James could have been a story in itself, co-directors Ceri Dingle and Rob Harris wisely focused on his activism and his ideas.

One of the most interesting parts of that life was the time he spent in Nelson, England that was to the textile industry that Detroit was to the auto industry. In both cases, the factories have either been levelled to the ground or lay dormant. Nelson was not only a stronghold of the Labour Party but its left wing. James felt at home among these workers and especially their love of cricket and football that were virtually the only entertainment for the masses in the age before television.

Alan Hudson, an Oxford professor who grew up in Nelson, must be singled out for his tour of the town that has the charm of the best guide you have ever heard as well as the erudition of someone with a scholarly grasp of working class history. In one memorable scene, he is sitting at a picnic table with young college students having what amounts to a seminar on James’s relationship to the town that makes you realize that leftists still have an important role in academia.

CLR James’s masterpiece “Black Jacobins” is dedicated to his “good friends” Harry and Elizabeth Spencer of Nelson, Lancashire, England. Harry Spencer was a leftist and well off enough to provide the 100 pounds that James needed to work full time on researching Toussaint L’Ouverture. The discussion of the book by various scholars in the film is worth the price of the DVD since it provides an eye-opening perspective on why France and England had diverse class interests on the slave trade. We learn that James had little use for William Wilberforce, the icon of British abolitionism and much more for the textile workers who refused to work on cotton exported from the south during the Civil War even though the loss of wages created severe hardship for their families.

If Deutscher was justified in calling Leon Trotsky a prophet, you can reasonably describe James in the same terms for his role as a tribune of the anti-colonial struggle. His advocacy put him in touch with some of the outstanding leaders of the liberation movement in British colonies like Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah. Williams, who was James’s student when he taught secondary school in Trinidad, wrote “Capitalism and Slavery”, a work that was a kind of companion piece to “Black Jacobins”. As much as James admired Williams as a scholar and revolutionary anti-imperialist, he was outspoken in his assessment of how Williams (and Nkrumah) cut deals with the British after their nations became independent. If James were alive today, you can be sure that he would be just as scathing on the African National Congress. As an uncompromising defender of the working class, James always knew what side of the barricades he belonged on.

Averse as I am to hype, let me conclude by saying that this film belongs in every socialist’s collection. It is one that you can watch repeatedly for both pleasure and edification. It cost 20 pounds for Britons and $33 for Americans. At five times the price, it would still be a bargain. This was a labor of love for the people who made the film and those who were interviewed. It is a stunning example of how Marxist ideas can be communicated in a film that other filmmakers would find worthy of emulation—including me.

Let me conclude with something I wrote about twenty years ago as part of a series of articles on Black Nationalism, long before I began blogging and before blogs were invented for that matter. It was based on Scott McLemee’s excellent introduction to “CLR James on the Negro Question”, a collection of articles he edited and well worth reading.

CLR James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian revolutionary intellectual and writer who was won over to Trotsky’s ideas in the 1930s when he was living in London. He arrived in the United States in 1938 shortly after the publication of his “Black Jacobins”, a study of Toussaint Louverture, who led the Haitian revolution. In 1939 the public figure of CLR James disappeared. What happened is that he reemerged as “JR Johnson”, a member of the Socialist Workers Party. For the next decade he functioned as a disciplined member of the Trotskyist movement and all his writings were targeted for publication in party journals or internal documents.

James was not particularly interested in the “Negro question” when he came to the United States. The question did become important to him through his discussions with Trotsky, who did view the question as paramount as early as 1933. James was part of a delegation that visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1939, as I mentioned yesterday. It was there that the subject of Garveyism and black nationalism arose. Trotsky was more favorably disposed to the call for self-determination than James was, who doubted that Garvey’s mass appeal had much to do with the desire for a separate nation.

When James returned to the US after the Mexican visit, he went through a transforming experience. He visited New Orleans in order to learn about Jim Crow on a first-hand basis. He was astonished to learn that if he was seated on a crowded bus, a white passenger would expect him to give up his seat. This came as a profound shock to the aristocratic intellectual who had read William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” at least twenty times by the age of fourteen.

In April 1940, James went with the Schachtman group into the new Workers Party. The Workers Party differed from the SWP on the nature of the USSR, which they no longer considered a workers state. In 1941, James ventured south again, this time to Missouri where sharecroppers were on strike for higher pay. The struggle was extremely militant, as the sharecroppers defended themselves with firearms. This was the closest James had been to the class struggle in the flesh. Workers Party organizers who were involved with strike support shuttled him back and forth to keep him away from any violence.

In the 1940s, James developed a fascination with popular culture. Unlike the Frankfurt exiles, James was enthralled with commercial entertainment, including radio soap operas. At this time, he also led a study circle in the Workers Party that had a rather unique approach to politics and culture. James explained:

We struggled to understand Marx in the light of European history and civilization, reading Capital side by side with Hegel’s Logic in order to get a sense of dialectical and historical materialism. We explored the world of Shakespeare, of Beethoven, of Melville, Hawthorne, and the Abolitionists, of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism. At the same time most of us worked in the plant, struggling to squeeze every ounce of revolutionary significance out of what American workers were saying and doing.

In the late 1940s, James started to hook up with artistic figures in Greenwich Village, in particular at a club called The Calypso, where radical intellectuals of all races gathered alongside artists and stage performers. One of the waiters was James Baldwin, who was at work on his first novel. The dishwasher was a Schachtmanite named Stan Weir who claimed that regulars at the club thought that the Russian and American state leaders were “incapable of leading the world to more personal freedom and were part of the problem.” It was a place where “people were genuinely entertaining each other, and as an extension of their enjoyment, discussing politics.” No such places exist in Greenwich Village today, I can assure you.

At this time James became friendly with the CP writer Richard Wright and he soon discovered that they had a common appreciation for the revolutionary dynamics of black nationalism. In a letter to his wife, James explained their shared perspective:

Briefly, the idea is this, that the Negro is ‘nationalist’ to the heart and is perfectly right to be. His racism, his nationalism, are a necessary means of giving him strength, self-respect and organization in order to fight for integration into American society. It is a perfect example of dialectical contradiction. Further, however, the Negroes represent a force in the future development of American society out of all proportion to their numbers. The repression has created such frustration that this, when socially motivated, will become one of the most powerful social forces in the country.

James eventually rejoined the SWP after WWII, but found himself politically isolated. His unorthodox views on the USSR were one of the main sticking points. When he left party politics, James became an important and respected black intellectual who influenced a wide range of American and African revolutionaries, including George Padmore.

Even though James had long left the SWP, his views on black nationalism continued to exert an influence among Trotskyists since Trotsky’s own views and James mature views had so much in common. When the SWP began working with Malcolm X in the mid-1960s, Conrad Lynn (a civil rights lawyer and friend of James’s) gave Malcolm copies of James’s writing. When Lynn and Malcolm began discussing James, Malcolm stated that he was aware of James’s oratorical gifts. It is interesting to speculate on the transmission belt of ideas between Lenin, Trotsky, CLR James and Malcolm X.

May 8, 2016

Karl Marx rides again

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

**FILE**John Wayne appears in a scene from "True Grit," a Hal Wallis production, directed by Henry Hathaway. Wayne won his best-actor Oscar for his role in the 1969 movie. Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, would have turned 100 on Saturday, May 26, 2007. He died at the age of 72 of stomach cancer in June of 1979 after a career that spanned more than 170 films. (AP Photo)

(From my 2014 archives)

Seemingly three or four years late in the game, Rolling Stone weighed in on the relevance of Karl Marx. In an article titled Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014, Sean McElwee told his readers that the Great Recession of 2008 confirmed Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as “chaotic” and “crisis-prone”.

Just to make sure that nobody would accuse him of being a Commie, McElwee also points out that Marx was wrong about many things, especially failing to offer a proposal about what should replace capitalism. This lack left his writing “open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century.” Now it should be said that Marx never intended to write about the workings of socialism, not that this would have made any difference to Stalin. The horrors of the USSR have much less to do with Marx’s failure to write what he called “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Afterword to the 1873 edition of V. 1 of Capital) than the sheer backwardness of Czarist Russia, exacerbated by a bloody civil war.

I could not help but notice the renewal of interest in Karl Marx’s ideas just after the 2008 financial crisis began. While the Communist Manifesto is the second-best selling book in history, there was a pronounced spike in sales around that time, no doubt aided by Marx’s words that read like a prophecy: “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.” McElwee paraphrases Marx: “Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.”

It is interesting to note that Sean McElwee does not allow his past associations with John Stossel, the Hudson Institute and Reason Magazine to prejudice him against Karl Marx, a sure sign that history is moving in the right direction. There was a time when McElwee found rightwing ideas more useful. After graduating from King’s College in New York, a school with the dubious distinction of having Dinesh D’Souza named president in 2010, McElwee’s writings tilted rightward as evidenced by his Reason article arguing that plastic garbage floating around in the oceans was not that worrisome.

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

It is, of course, only natural that Marx’s books get taken off the bookshelves and dusted off during a period of profound economic crisis. For that matter, a political crisis will also have the same effect. In 1967 I took the unprecedented steps of reading the Communist Manifesto after two years of facing the draft and working in Harlem as a welfare investigator. A combination of napalm bombing of peasant villages and urban rebellions against racism and poverty convinced me that a revolution was necessary and who better to consult on that matter than Karl Marx?

I made the decision at that time to join the movement founded by Leon Trotsky since his connections to Karl Marx seemed to have more of a pedigree than those of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. I failed to realize at the time that notions of pedigrees were exactly what prevented Marxism from full development.

In April 1939, just a year before his assassination, Leon Trotsky wrote Marxism in Our Time as an introduction to a new edition of Karl Marx’s V. 1 of Capital. It is of extraordinary value as a statement of the ABC’s of Marxism, as well as unwitting evidence of its unresolved contradictions.

Trotsky does not shy away from the key challenge to Marxism that I first heard in a social studies class in 1958 when the American economy was reaching new heights–what his article refers to as “the theory of increasing misery”. Our teacher said something that most of us heard in public school growing up in the USA. It goes something like this: Karl Marx was right about workers being oppressed and exploited in 1850 but he never would have dreamed about how wealthy they would become a hundred years later. Probably the first person to articulate this seemingly irrefutable point of view was Werner Sombart, the German ex-Marxist and author of Why there is no Socialism in America.

Writing in 1939, when misery was widespread throughout the capitalist world, Trotsky would seem to have had the upper hand but interestingly enough he sought to vindicate Marx’s analysis not on the basis of what existed during the depths of the Great Depression but at the height of its economic vitality: the roaring 20s. Trotsky observed that while industrial production increased by 50 per cent between 1920 and 1930, wages only rose only by 30 per cent. The workers were getting screwed in the best of times.

Like the nuclear reactor that withstood a meltdown in China Syndrome, the American economy supposedly is in recovery. Of course there are those unfortunates who cannot seem to find a job, especially in the Black community, but the stock market is at an all-time high and the housing market—according to the experts—is doing quite well. GM is showing a handsome profit even if it faces criminal charges for failing to inform owners of their cars that a faulty ignition might lead to fatal accidents.

More to the point, the NY Times of March 12, 2014 reported on economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that would be of little assurance to anybody except the wealthy. Piketty deploys a mountain of data to prove that economic inequality will not only persist into the future but that the system itself is the primary generator, not “vampire squids” as Matt Taibbi put it. It is the very nature of the system that leads to a concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. Timesman Eduardo Porter, not a critic of capitalism after the fashion of Nouriel Roubini, puts it bluntly:

The deep concern about the distribution of income and wealth that inspired 19th-century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx was attributed to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of growth leavened with the natural pessimism that would come from living in a time of enormous wealth and deep squalor, an era that gave us “Les Misérables” and “Oliver Twist.”

Today, of course, it’s far from obvious that the 19th-century pessimists were entirely wrong.

Glancing back across history from the present-day United States, it looks as if Kuznets’s curve swerved way off target. Wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age.

Recently, a trend within Marxism has emerged that argues against the importance of “immiseration” altogether. To somehow link revolution with a declining standard of living is tantamount to what they call “Catastrophism”, a word in the title of a collection of essays edited by West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Lilley’s chapter (Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left) in the collection can be read in Google books, something I highly recommend it even if I disagree with every word. Lilley is a stimulating thinker who can at least be given credit for being forthright. While she correctly discredits the notion that the capitalist system will collapse as a result of its own contradictions (Marx instead believed that cyclical crisis was endemic to the system), she goes too far in saying that crisis itself was inimical to class consciousness and political struggle and that an expanding capitalist economy was far more propitious for the left:

With the exception of the 1930s, periods of intense working class combativeness in the United States have tended to coincide with periods of economic expansion, not contraction and crisis. The two big strike waves of the early twentieth century, from 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920, took place during years of growth. These were periods in which radical workers forced employers to raise wages—by 35 percent between 1890 and 1920—and, through struggle, successfully shortened the workweek by nine hours. These strikes were fueled by relative prosperity, and industrial action fell off when the economy moved downward.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in Sleeper after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I do not think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture Marxist’s attention are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today.

In the final analysis, it is politics that is key for Marxism in our time. Accepting Piketty’s findings at face value (something made easier by the “new normal” of unemployment, stagnating wages, environmental despoliation, and decaying infrastructure), the emphasis should be on strengthening the left and challenging the rich on every single issue that divides us. Nobody can predict when and if the class struggle will reach such an advanced level that workers will become revolutionary, but the best way to move forward in that direction is by exploiting every injury and insult to those who own nothing but their labor power.

Although Marx was the first to understand the laws of motion in capitalism, it was really up to Lenin to think through what strategies were most effective. Ironically, it was lessons he learned from the German Social Democracy that helped him to formulate policies for a Czarist state that on the surface had little in common with a parliamentary democracy like Germany’s.

In “What is to be Done?”, Lenin appealed to his Russian co-thinkers to learn from the Germans:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

You have to wonder how our dogmatic Marxists of today can have so little appreciation for how the Russian social democracy operated. Could you imagine any of the 57 varieties of “Leninist” sects ever taking up the cause of a “bourgeois progressive” being denied the right to take office? Just recently, the Senate rejected Obama’s appointment of Debo Adegbile to a top civil rights post because he had participated in an appeal filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A powerful left party in the USA would have raised hell about this, even if the Democrats did not lift a finger.

In terms of the laws against “obscene” publications and pictures, and governmental interference in the election of professors, Lenin is amazingly prophetic when you think of Piss Christ and Ward Churchill. In many ways, capitalism is not just about whether the boss is enjoying a higher return on profits than a worker’s rise in wages since Marxism is not reducible to economic determinism. Capitalism constitutes an assault on our lives during every working moment of the day and the duty of a revolutionist is to find ways to get people to come out of their apolitical shell and take part in civil society in order to fight for greater freedoms now and total liberation after the final conflict.

But in order to become effective, Marxism has to learn how to avoid the “pedigree” trap alluded to above since size matters. Nothing prevents growth more than hairsplitting after all. To be taken seriously by working people, socialists have to get out of their isolation chambers and use ideas and language drawn from their nation’s own experience. This means first and foremost casting off the iconography of the Russian Revolution and especially terms like “communism” that would be totally misunderstood by the ordinary person even if they excite Slavoj Žižek.

In early 2010 the Gallup Poll discovered that 36 percent of Americans view socialism positively. Can you imagine if Gallup had used the word communism instead? That word might have registered more positively in the NYU sociology department but we are far more interested in what appeals to the average American.

As is most likely the case, Kshama Sawant was elected to City Council in Seattle by representing herself as a socialist rather than a communist and downplaying the dogmatic beliefs of her Trotskyist organization. Instead of making speeches about the need for a Leninist party, it was the need for a $15 minimum wage that won her volunteers and votes.

As a sign of how intoxicated the left can become when it loses track of what century it is in, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA—a group Leon Trotsky hailed as most faithful to his party-building conceptions—dismissed Sawant’s campaign as “reformist”:

Constrained to the narrow boundaries that typify capitalist election contests for local offices, her literature avoided important political issues that affect all workers, such as high unemployment and a woman’s right to choose abortion. It made no mention of key international issues, Syria, the place of the Cuban Revolution, the common interests of working people worldwide against the bosses or the global crisis of capitalism that is driving their attacks against us.

Considering that her bid was for City Council, it made eminent good sense for her not to make speeches about Syria and the Cuban Revolution (whatever that means in 2014, when the country seems poised to adopt the Chinese model).

Not long after the cops expelled the last Occupy protester out of the last public park, I had hopes that the movement could have come together and run candidates under the name of the Occupy Party. Unfortunately, the autonomist and anarchist prejudices of the key activists made this impossible. For the ordinary person, taking a leave of absence from their job in order to camp out in the bitter cold was never a realistic possibility to begin with.

Making every possible tie to the Occupy movement, the Sawant campaign became a small token of what may be possible if the American left puts aside its petty differences and began to come together in a common organization to defend the rights of working people for a livable wage as well as their freedom to go to a museum and see works like Piss Christ or photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

We have no crystal ball that would indicate when such an organization has reached the critical mass that is necessary to lead to the explosive reaction that can transform society and usher in a new civilization based on freedom and justice but we must do everything in our power to remove all obstacles in our way, especially those put there in the name of Marxism.

August 7, 2015

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now”

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 12:32 pm

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.29.52 AM

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION, AUGUST 7 2015

What Now? The Left in a Time of Lowered Expectations

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now” is a collection of articles and speeches that the author has given to left-leaning audiences around the world that elaborate on ideas presented in works such as “The Socialist Alternative” and “The Contradictions of Real Socialism”. Even if you are familiar with his theories on socialist development, this new book is very much worth reading because it represents a deepening of his thinking on the problems facing the left in a period of lowered expectations. For those who have never read Michael Lebowitz, the book will introduce you to one of the most important theorists of the socialist project today—in many ways our István Mészáros.

In a talk he gave in Athens to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in December 2010, Lebowitz urged the Greek left to think beyond resisting austerity. While the need to say no to joblessness, cutbacks and fascist violence is essential, there is a need to break with the capitalist system itself that generates such ills. As a kind of prophet of the Chavista project in Venezuela, he must have anticipated shortcomings in the recently elected Syriza government even back then. As might be the case with all such broad-based left parties that do not proclaim the need for socialism, the contradictions of capitalism will eventually catch up to them once they take power. Even though it was misattributed to Trotsky, the observation that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” would apply to events in Greece if you substitute the word capitalism for war. Indeed, Yanis Varoufakis’s statement that “In 1967 there were the tanks and in 2015 there were the banks” would seem to apply in spades.

read full article

May 24, 2015

The Swedish model (part 1)

Filed under: socialism,Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

Otto von Bismarck: a forerunner to Swedish socialism

Bob Schieffer: Let me just start out by asking you, what is a socialist these days? I mean, I remember when a socialist was somebody who wanted to nationalize the railroads and things like that.

Bernie Sanders: When we talk about Democratic socialism, I think it’s important to realize that there are countries around the world like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, who’ve had social democratic governments on and off for many, many years. And we can learn a whole lot from some of those countries.

Face the Nation interview, May 10, 2015

Sweden is a funny country to call socialist. In France or Austria the government owns a much larger share of industry, and I would expect that in a socialist country personal income taxes would be low and company taxes high, whereas in Sweden it is the opposite. It has the world’s highest personal income taxes and it’s a tax haven for companies!

–A statement made in 1976 by Rune Hagelund, a member of the board of the Swedish Employers’ Federation (SAF), a former professor of economics, and president and chairman of the board of two of Sweden’s major corporations.

In my freshman year at Bard I was a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears libertarian who got schooled by upperclassmen why Sweden’s welfare state was a good thing (from my unpublished memoir):

bard sweden 1

bard sweden 2

After being converted to a Camus-styled liberal, I naturally became predisposed to the welfare state and voted for LBJ in 1964 in the expectation that he would govern as a New Deal reformer, which he did for the most part.

When the war in Vietnam began, I radicalized and joined the Trotskyist movement out of a belief in part that the New Deal was a fraud, just something to help keep American capitalism afloat, which was after all FDR’s hope. I never thought much about Sweden in this period except to welcome its socialist Prime Minister Olof Palme as an ally of the antiwar movement. I was also happy to see Swedish material aid to Nicaragua when I was working with Tecnica. So, all in all, Sweden had a much more benign image for me even if I understood it operated on the basis of capitalist property relations.

In 2014, after having read a couple of Stieg Larsson novels and watching Swedish TV adaptation of Marxist detective novels by other writers, I began thinking more deeply about the Swedish model. It was these writers focus on the corporate/fascist presence that motivated me primarily but I always wondered in the back of my mind how Sweden became such a success story, at least enough of one to allow Bernie Sanders to embrace it unabashedly.

In writing about the ultraright, I discovered that Sweden had a chummy relationship with Nazi Germany during WWII. I didn’t realize at the time I was exposing this relationship in a CounterPunch article that it was the Social Democrats who were in power, not some rightwing party. Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson advocated a national front that included all the parties except for the CP.

While the image we have of Sweden is one of resistance to Nazism, based on the country providing a haven for Jews and Raul Wallenberg’s efforts on behalf of Hungarian Jews, it is worth noting that the Wallenbergs—arguably the most powerful capitalist family in Sweden—were capable of cutting deals with the Nazis after the fashion of the socialist Prime Minister as an article in a Bay Area Jewish newspaper reported:

The Wallenberg documents shed light on “Sweden’s involvement with and collaboration with the Nazis during the war,” Steinberg said.

“Sweden is clearly emerging as one of the places where the Nazis moved assets.”

According to the documents, The Enskilda Bank, owned by Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, Raoul’s uncles, dealt in large black-market operations, money laundering and concealing German investments in the United States.

The documents also contain evidence disproving the belief in some circles that Marcus Wallenberg was on the side of the Allies. He traveled to the United States in 1940 on behalf of German interests to buy back a block of German securities being held by America, according to the documents.

The disclosed information about the collaboration between the Nazi regime and Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg suggests a reason for the feeble attempt to find their nephew.

“It’s long been out there that the Wallenberg family in Stockholm apparently did very little to locate Raoul after his disappearance into the Soviet gulag in January 1945,” Steinberg said.

Perhaps the main reason Sweden has such an elevated status is its ostensible commitment to the welfare state. In a period of deepening austerity, the fact that there was a nation like Sweden that apparently departed from the neoliberal model for well over a half-century had a tendency to mesmerize Bernie Sanders and allow the more Marxist-minded members of the left to cut it some slack.

In this, the first in a series of articles on Sweden, I hope to convince the left to think more critically about the Swedish model if for no other reason than to put Bernie Sanders socialism into some kind of context.

The first place to start is with some discussion about the real origins of the welfare state, which was not in 20th century Sweden (or the USA for that matter) but under Bismarck’s Germany.

For the best appraisal of Bismarck’s “state-socialism”, the term that the Lassalleans would apply to his regime, I recommend the chapter in volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution” titled “Of State-Socialism”: Bismarckian Model”. Draper writes:

Bismarck was too shrewd to depend only on the policeman’s club. The stick to the donkey’s rear had to be supplemented by the carrot dangled in front.5 In the course of the 1880s Bismarck brought out a whole bunch of carrots. Familiar to us now, they then looked revolutionary to many: a series of social-welfare measures providing for accidents, illness, old age, and other workers’ disabilities.

Bismarck’s first proposal, for insurance against industrial accident. came in 1881 and was defeated in the Reichstag by the bourgeois parties. After all, Bismarck’s aim was not only to isolate the working class from the socialists but also to mobilize a “bodyguard proletariat” of its own i order to dish the liberal bourgeoisie and its demands for constitutional liberties, its aspirations for bourgeois dominance in the government and the weakening of absolutism. The new measures being proposed by the Bismarck government were going to be paid for by the class that was the government’s main target. The proletariat was not only supposed to come all over grateful to the state but also to turn antagonistic to the state’s main political opposition, the Liberals or “Progressive party.” But the bourgeois liberal deputies could not resist very long, in this as in anything else.

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these mea- sures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie. (However, unemployment insurance was never passed; it took a revolution to achieve this reform under the Weimar Republic.) There was a connection between this beneficent program and the coming world war, for Bismarck’s social strategy had still another side: it was intended to ensure internal unity and class peace while the state intensified an aggressive foreign policy of colonialism and foreign-market penetration, thereby compensating the bourgeoisie (at least its upper reaches) for its social-welfare expenses. This foreign policy was also going to drive a wedge between the right wing and left wing of the Social-Democratic Party, but we will see only the beginning of this process before this chapter ends. In part to finance the technological substructure for war, Bismarck introduced another installment of “socialism”: a state tobacco monopoly in 1882 (a big source of revenue) and the nationalization of the railways. Here was something that began to really look like socialism to many people; at any rate, it was a definite intervention by the state into the economy, even if on a small scale.

As I will point out in my next post, the Swedish bourgeoisie and its partners in the social democracy had pretty much the same agenda.

January 21, 2015

Kshama Sawant commentary on Obama’s State of the Union Address

Filed under: electoral strategy,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

October 6, 2014

Socialism and democracy

Filed under: democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Karl Marx in the offices of The Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie (“New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy“), a German daily newspaper he published between June 1, 1848 and May 19 1849.

Four days ago I received a query from a Latin American journalist:

Dear Louis:

I am an editor at a leading newspaper in Quito, Ecuador, and I will like to make a you one question (if you agree of course) for an article I am trying to write, after the international leftist meeting that was held this week here in this city.

My piece is about, how is it that the new and modern left is so tolerant with authoritarian regimes. Castro, Chávez and even Correa have been very sympathetic with leaders such as Lukashenko, Mugabe and Kaddafi.

So my question is if you think that this is part of a stalinist legacy that has not been thrown away by the left, despise all the horrors that the stalinist regime was responsible for?

All the best

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public response as follows.

This is a very complex question. To start with, Hugo Chavez is something of a paradox on the question of democracy. Keep in mind that the entire premise of “21st Century Socialism” rested on the assumption that Stalinism tainted the 20th century version. In a speech to the World Social Forum in 2005, Chavez stated that “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” On the other hand, in the very same speech he said, “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s… there is new Russian nationalism, and I have seen it in the streets of Moscow… there is a good president, Mr. Putin, at the wheel.”

That, in a nutshell, is the contradiction we see on the left. There is acknowledgement, at least verbally, that Stalinism was unviable. If you keep people repressed there is always a tendency for them to do as little as possible to keep the system going and to look for ways to game it. Stalinist societies rot from within. Even if there is pressure from imperialism, the bigger threat is always the spiritual and psychological disaffection of workers and farmers.

But what good does it do for Chavez to make this observation while at the same time nodding in approval of Vladimir Putin? It is obvious that there would be an affinity with Putin since he superficially had the same agenda as Chavez, namely to use the revenue from petro-exports to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen. Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations. So naturally he would tend to see all petroleum exporting states with a populist but repressive regime and enemies of his own enemy—the USA—as partners. This meant that Russia, Iran, Libya and Syria were hailed in the Venezuelan press as forward-looking societies even though their jails were filled with political prisoners.

You are absolutely right to understand this as rooted in Stalinism. The belief that socialism could be built in a single country was in contradiction to the core Marxist belief that socialism had to be built on a global scale, just as was the case with the social system that preceded it: capitalism. Despite the fact that the USSR was an enormous country with all of the resources advanced industry would require, Leon Trotsky warned that the system would collapse unless revolutions triumphed in Western Europe: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.” (I should add that Trotsky used the term “dictatorship” in the technical Marxist sense of a particular class dominating the state rather than what exists in Zimbabwe et al.)

With Trotsky’s defeat, the USSR tended to see other countries less as candidates for social transformation and more as potential allies for “socialist development”. If there was a clash between the workers in a capitalist country and their rulers who were seen as favoring Soviet interests, the workers got short shrift. When Greek workers took up arms against a fascist dictatorship, Stalin decided to sell the workers out rather than jeopardize the friendly relations he had with FDR, who was amenable to allowing Eastern Europe to become a “buffer” against invasion. This was not a socialist foreign policy but a global chess game in which a struggling people were sacrificed as a pawn.

This is the same thing that is happening today even though capitalism has returned to Russia. It would probably make more sense to speak of neo-Stalinism since Vladimir Putin would be the last person on earth to favor a socialist Russia. If Stalin saw Ukraine as a kind of outpost dedicated to the defense of the USSR, not much has changed under Putin, except that the social relations being defended are based on private property rather than state ownership. Hitler invaded Russia in order to smash collective ownership while the West never had any such intentions. Why would it if Exxon is invited in as a partner in some of the biggest oil exploration deals in history, including drilling in the most ecologically sensitive areas?

It is understandable why some on the left would be anxious to smear every protest movement in the Russia/China orbit as an imperialist plot. There is ample evidence that Washington will exploit every movement to see its own agenda advanced. When I was involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was incensed about reports that the NED was funding parties opposed to the FSLN. That explains why some are so anxious to write off the Hong Kong protesters as tools of the USA. But revolutionary politics is not based on algebraic formulas. You have to be able to understand that sometimes X can be equal to Y and not equal at the same time. In other words, Hegel is a better guide to social reality than Aristotle, the father of formal logic.

In places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, the protest movements have both progressive and reactionary tendencies. To some extent, this is a function of the socialist left having lost its moral authority. In Ukraine, with the CP being an unabashed supporter of Russian domination, is it any wonder that ordinary people topple Lenin statues? Those statues, I should add, never had much to do with defending socialism. They were like George Washington statues in American parks, empty symbols of national sovereignty.

Very often when people begin fighting for freedom, they bring certain prejudices along with them. Although it would be best if a social movement had a crystal-clear agenda based on a combination of Enlightenment and socialist values, there is often a mixture of past, present and future that can be confusing to the onlooker. For example, there are many Syrians who have fought against the Baathist dictatorship who are for Sharia courts, a symbol to many on the left of a feudal past. But when you keep in mind that the judicial system in Syria was rigged to favor the Baathists, the temptations of Sharia law become more understandable. When the Irish rose up against British colonialism during WWI, the same kind of confusion cropped up on the Marxist left. Why support a movement that seemed to be tainted by Catholic dogma? Lenin tried to answer this question in an article titled “The Irish Rebellion of 1916”:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

It is regrettable that so few on the left can understand many grass roots movement today in the same light.

In order for the left to regain its moral authority, it has to once and for all stop functioning like the CP did in the 1930s, least of all when Russia and its allies lack even the economic justification that once existed for that type of “border guard” stance. Unless socialism and socialist politics are once again synonymous with democracy, the left will have nothing to say to young people fighting for social change.

When you stop and think about, Marx and Engels entered politics in the same spirit as the Syrians who marched in the streets of Homs and Aleppo in early 2011 for an end to a system that used torture and murder to enforce neoliberal rule. They were deeply involved with the movements for democracy in 1848 that challenged the old feudal order, the counterpart to Baathist rule in those days.

August Nimtz, an American scholar, wrote a book titled “Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough” that reaffirmed their commitment to democracy that has unfortunately been forgotten by much of the left. In an interview with Socialist Project this year, Nimtz explained what his goals were in writing such a book:

As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.”

Ultimately, this statement might serve as a litmus test for the left. Although I am too old to get involved with organizing a movement, this pro-democracy orientation would be at its core. I have not only seen the USSR collapse because of dictatorship, I have also seen the socialist organization I belonged to for more than a decade collapse as well. The right to speak freely and act freely is as natural as breathing. When it is taken away, we suffocate, as does society. Ultimately, as Nimtz points out, democracy is a means to an end: the creation of a new world based on a just and rational economic order. Anything that stands in the way has to be rejected. It is not even a problem if this is a minority viewpoint today because in the long run it is the only one that can succeed.

 

July 8, 2014

Questions about socialism and value theory

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:42 pm

Recently a correspondent posed some questions to me that I would like to respond to publicly since others might get something out of my response.

Q: “How would a socialist system account for jobs that don’t occur on property? Or small businesses that adhere to the service industry where minuscule amounts of profit comes from labor time as opposed to capital investment? i.e., I get paid $22 per hour / 89.50 labor rate. 60 otherwise goes overhead. And I sell the parts my boss invests in with his capital.”

I’ve been faced with this question and I’m unsure how to respond; what is a fairly short explanation of how a social system based on workplace democracy would replace this? What’s the socialist solution to this problem?

A: In general, I shy away from questions about how a future socialist system will work but in the Russian revolution the original intent was to only expropriate the big capitalists. In the immediate period, however, a policy of War Communism led to the expropriation of all privately owned firms, large and small. This was a function more of the need to disempower a middle class that was hostile to the revolution rather than comply with any socialist blueprint—which of course Marx never intended to begin with.

Once the civil war ended, War Communism was abandoned. From that point on, large enterprises remained collectivized but small to medium sized peasants were given a lot of leeway—similar to the experiment taking place in Cuba today. Cuba adopted something similar to War Communism in its early years but this was a function more of the prevailing understanding of what “socialism” was about in 1960 than anything else. It really made no sense to expropriate small hotels, restaurants, retail shops and the like.

I am not exactly sure I get the drift of you math but in a way it is beside the point. If the American working class ever seizes control of Exxon, IBM, Chase, GM, Pfizer, Monsanto et al, it will be absolutely unnecessary to take over small enterprises. The important thing to understand is that unlike a pizza parlor or a nail-polishing shoppe, Exxon and Monsanto have enormous social and economic power. Negligence by Exxon destroyed wildlife in Alaska for a generation. Monsanto’s drive to make GM hegemonic will lead to huge risks for the ecosphere. These are our big concerns not whether a bike shop or a frozen yogurt shop adheres to the labor theory of value.

Q: Hello, I’m getting ready for a debate on Marxism and my opponent has in the past pointed out that value is in fact subjective. I may value a pot at $100 yet he may value it at $50. If it is true that Labor determines the value of this pot, how do I argue against the Subjective Theory of Value?

I myself do not possess too much of an understanding of the Labor Theory, and most attempts at reading long articles do little to advance my knowledge. If I’m understanding the Labor Theory wrong, can you give me a simple explanation of it devoid of confusing rhetoric and such?

Thanks a lot.

A: This is a variation I have heard on arguments against the labor theory of value that involve art, which in a way a pot can be seen as. For example, how does a painting by a well-established abstract artist command prices of a million dollars when it was executed in a day while a landscape by a mediocre artist that took a year to paint is valued at $1000?

Marx was far more concerned to explain the pricing of more mundane items like a yard of cotton textiles, which do not involve taste or training. Capitalist production does not involve esthetics. Steel production, mining, manufacturing, rail transportation, etc. all revolve around basic commodities and services that can be produced anywhere. That is why offshoring has become such a powerful weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie.  There was a book review recently in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/business/a-game-of-chairs-and-globalization.html) that takes a close look at what takes place with the Bassett furniture company:

There are superb scenes in which Mr. Bassett’s son, and then Mr. Bassett himself, go in search of the Louis Philippe, finally finding it being made in a grim plant in a remote corner of northeast China near the North Korean border. Their quest climaxes when Mr. Bassett meets face to face with the owner, who is planning a mammoth factory complex that threatens to eradicate what remains of the American industry. Mr. Bassett is coldly informed that the only way Vaughan-Bassett can survive is to shut its factories and sell Chinese furniture.

The furniture company managed to resist offshoring but the overall prospects for that kind of manufacturing is grim.

Another book that I would strongly recommend is “Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-year Quest for Cheap Labor” by Jefferson Cowie that I read when it came out in 1999. Much of it can be read online:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Pyggeea2yj0C

I should add that the labor theory of value is best understood as a way of understanding  the class relationships between worker and boss rather than as a way of pricing commodities—although a couple of British economists have written extensively about how computers would make such a thing possible under socialism: http://users.wfu.edu/cottrell/eea97.pdf. It is very technical, I’m afraid.

I think James Devine, a California economist, wrote one of the best things: http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/notes/Law-of-Value.html

Here is an excerpt:

In an e-mail discussion, Brad deLong of U.C.-Berkeley economics wrote that: “The LTV [labor theory of value] is not true: average market prices are not labor values, and the deviations of the average prices of particular commodities from their labor values are not simple redistributions of ‘surplus value’ from boss to boss…. “

It’s hard to say that Marx’s “labor theory of value” is “not true” if one doesn’t understand it, just as it’s hard to say that it’s “true” if one doesn’t understand it. In fact, there are a lot of questions about what “it” is. In fact, it’s unclear what to call “it.” Below, I present one interpretation of the “LTV” which I hope will make these questions clear, allowing us to move on to other issues.

Finally, there’s a very good piece by Brian McKenna on CounterPunch titled “If Marx’s Math is Fundamental, Why Do So Few Teach It?” that is very good. It is drawn from his personal experience:

I’ve had several fast food jobs. I’ll never forget my first. I was 19 and I flipped burgers at Gino’s (a competitor of McDonald’s) in 1975 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was earning money for college. Ginos advertised “flexible hours” to cater to college student’s busy needs. I signed on at $1.90 an hour, plus one free hamburger per shift.

One day I was called in at the last minute for an evening shift of four hours. Not owning a car, I took public transportation to the place, about 4 miles away, for the 4:00 shift. It started to rain. When I arrived, soaking wet at 4:00, I was told, ‘we don’t need you anymore tonight, Brian.

“But it took an hour to get here and I want to work. Please let me do something.”

“Can’t you see?” the manager pointed out the window, “it’s raining out, hard, and no one is coming into Ginos. We don’t need you. Can you work a shift on Saturday at 11:00 to 2:00?”

“Can I at least have my hamburger?”

“But you didn’t work!” he said.

Needless to say, those bastards at McDonald’s and Ginos will be on the expropriation block the day after the workers seize power.

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