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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whose Lukacs and Theirs?

A defence of ‘History and class consciousness’: tailism and the dialectic- Georg Lukács

Thursday, April 16, 2009

lukacsThe recent publication of Tailism and the dialectic, apparently written in 1925-26 but never referred to by the author in his numerous autobiographical writings and interviews, marks another stage in the attempt of the Socialist Workers Party to appropriate the work of Georg Lukács as one of their own.

The book has a thought-provoking introduction from John Rees, one of the SWP’s leading theoreticians (pp1-38) and has received a number of complimentary reviews in various SWP publications, alongside some critical comment in its International Socialism journal.

The most positive thing about the SWP’s engagement has been its recognition of the need to fuse the understanding of complex philosophical themes with revolutionary praxis. When Althusserian ‘Marxism’ was fashionable amongst academics in the 1960s and 1970s, the almost overriding motif was its complete divorce from practice (although this failed to discourage the SWP’s Alex Callinicos – a writer who was always more sceptical of Lukács – from embracing Althusser).

It should be stressed, however, that the SWP’s project is not without its contradictions: indeed John Rees illustrates that it is likely to become intensely problematic. The root of this is the SWP’s need to find theoretical sustenance for its current practice, which in its essentials is both formalistic and economistic. Alongside this is the organisation’s traditional hostility to ‘official’ communism. In this review we will show how the dual commitment to idealistic political practice and defending Trotskyism leads Rees and others into any number of theoretical knots.

It is surely not an overstatement to say that History and class consciousness (1923) is the seminal text of 20th century Marxism. For those unfamiliar with the work, Lukács subjected the primitive, mechanistic ‘Marxism’ of the Second International to a blistering theoretical assault, making Marxist theory the object of an incisive revolutionary practice, in contrast to a dusty rehearsal of disembodied ‘objective’ laws. Lukács’s negative comprehension of the development of bourgeois philosophical trends and their cross-fertilisation into the theoretical fallacies of the likes of Kautsky and Bernstein was essentially a response to the Second International’s miserable surrender to nationalism in August 1914 and the subsequent success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lukács himself had played a courageous role in the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1919 and in the later illegal organisation of the Communist Party of Hungary.

History and class consciousness (hereafter HCC) was to receive a controversial reception inside the communist movement, the debate beginning shortly after its publication and running through the 5th Congress of Comintern in mid-1924. Tailism and the dialectic contains an extended polemic against two of Lukács’s major critics at the time, Lazslo Rudas, a former associate of Lukács in the Hungarian movement, and the former Menshevik philosopher, Abram Deborin.

John Rees is quite clear that what we have here is Georg Lukács defending “his masterpiece, History and class consciousness” (p1). In case we are in any doubt, Rees adds: “Lukács’s reply to Rudas and Deborin makes an unequivocal case for seeing a fundamental unity between History and class consciousness, Lenin and Tailism and the dialectic” (p27).

However, the title, A defence of ‘History and class consciousness’, is something not written on Lukács’s unpublished manuscript, but added posthumously (partly because the publishers want to feed off HCC’s international reputation), his own title being merely Tailism and the dialectic.

On the very first page of his manuscript Lukács casts considerable doubt on the status of such a ‘defence’: “There are many things in the book [HCC] that I deem needful of correction. I would formulate many of the things contained therein quite differently today. It is certainly not my intention to defend the book itself ” (original emphasis – p47). Which is not to say that Lukács does not vigorously defend elements of HCC, but he instantly casts doubt on Rees’s whole project. It was not Lukács’s intention to defend HCC, but John Rees wants to do so.

Which naturally leads on to the question: why is Rees so concerned to construct his case in this manner? I would argue that his willingness to preserve Lukács’s essentially Hegelian construct of the communist party as the ‘identical subject-object’ of the historical process is a complex theoretical rationalisation of how some sections of the SWP see their organisation in relation to the class struggle.

The point that Lukács was attempting to make in the formulation of the proletariat as the ‘identical subject-object’ of history was a simple one. Under the rule of capitalism, the working class is alienated from the products of its labour. Through the operation of the commodity and exchange value, ‘things’ appear to be beyond rational human control. Worse, the commodity appears to control the producer. Social constructs in this instance become reified, seemingly plucked out of the flow of human history. For Lukács it was the position of the working class inside a process which consistently degraded the means of social labour, allied to the conscious, subjective force of the Leninist party, which meant it could overthrow the capitalist order and be able to become the ‘identical subject-object’ of history: i.e., objects would no longer be alien entities, but henceforth amenable to human reason and control.

Rees lauds this sentiment in the following passage: “Subjective and objective constantly trade places. Our wrong subjective decision today will reappear as an objective determinant of our action tomorrow. The objective process and such moments of decision are like a knotted rope; each knot of decision forms part of the objective structure of events stretching out behind us, determining what and how we can decide today” (p30).

On the other hand, this is how Lukács formulates his position in Tailism and the dialectic: “It is impossible to separate the ‘moment’ from the ‘process’. The subject does not face the object inflexibly and unconnectedly. The dialectical method does not intend either an undifferentiated unity or a definite separation of moments” (p56).

Now Rees has the intellectual honesty to present this alongside his above argument and goes on to applaud the notion of ‘differentiated unity’ in relation to the dialectic of nature. Nevertheless, the comparison is not flattering to Rees, who is still stuck with the idea of the ‘identical subject-object’ (”Subjective and objective constantly trade places …” is actually an example of an ‘undifferentiated unity’), whilst Lukács actually appears to be pulling apart his earlier Hegelianism, something that was in fact begun in HCC itself with its emphasis on concrete, historical action.

This is clearly recognised by SWPer Mark O’Brien, who argues that, in Tailism and the dialectic, Lukács ” … aims to defend his materialism, having rejected the possibility of an immediate connection between consciousness and the real world”, thus marking a clear break with HCCInternational Socialism No89, winter 2000). Rees’s notion of a “fundamental unity” between the two works begins to look more and more shaky. (

The reader will forgive the excursion into formal philosophical arguments; we can now judge Rees’s formulation more concretely. Do the subjective and objective “constantly trade places”? Take the Bolshevik Party’s decision to launch the insurrection in 1917 – a perfectly correct tactic considering the objective balance of forces that existed internationally at the time. Now this act is certainly proof of Lukács argument that subjective forces do not face the objective world inflexibly, in that it wove itself into one of the key objective determinants of 20th century politics. But the idea that the Russian Revolution ‘traded places’ with its objective environs is laughable when you consider the panoply of problems that the Soviet regime then faced (civil war, allied intervention, the failure of the world revolution), all of which went on to distort its liberatory promise. Which pays testimony to the complexity of reality and its subsequent impact on subjective decisions, often turning them into the opposite of what was originally intended.

Rees does appear to have some understanding of this. His argument that each decision “forms part of the objective structure of events” is a partial corrective that remains distorted by the overall presentation. Any attempt to pose the identity of subject-object is pure idealism: it can only be achieved in thought. The subjective direction of the proletarian party certainly has the ability to impact on the outside world, but social mediations will take their share of the proceeds. To argue anything else is merely the worst kind of ultra-left voluntarism.

Why then does Rees argue in this way? In reality his desire to enhance the status of HCC emanates from the present practice of the SWP. Even those most sympathetic to the organisation would have to admit that some of its recent analyses of the class struggle have been formalist in the extreme. A good example is the current thesis that we are now experiencing the ‘1930s in slow motion’.

At the CPGB’s Communist University 2000, Chris Bambery illustrated perfectly the superficial nature of this perspective by his elevation of Seattle, various strike waves and the apathetic working class discontent with New Labour into key determinants of a supposedly growing class polarisation. Stuck at the level of peripheral appearances, the SWP fails to acknowledge the period of ideological reaction which was ushered in with the fall of the USSR in 1991.

In reality such theses are not really intended to provide the SWP with a compass in a variegated and contradictory social world: rather they are intended to keep the membership on the boil – which is perfectly buttressed by Rees’s utilisation of Lukács’s philosophy. If the subject (SWP) and the objective (class struggle) manifest themselves as an identity, if they “constantly trade places”, then theories of ‘the 1930s in slow motion’ do not have to explain society in any sophisticated sense. As long as the organisation is kept sufficiently motivated, problems of revolutionary strategy will be solved by the SWP’s simple insertion into the social world. In this manner the SWP kids itself that its analyses will turn themselves into a political pot of gold. The strategy of the organisation thus becomes emasculated around its narrow desire to keep itself together in the short term.

In a key section of Tailism and the dialectic Lukács gets to grips with Rudas’s lame critique of the idea of ‘imputed’ consciousness (pp63-86), a passage that Rees lauds in his introduction.

Lukács gives a clear explanation of how a revolutionary organisation can impute from a given situation what a correct strategy for the working class should be: “By leaving out the inessential details of an objective situation, one can distinguish what people acting according to normal and correct knowledge of their situation were able to do or to allow. According to this measure, their mistakes or their correct insights, etc can be assessed” (p64). Lukács backed up this fundamental Leninist tenet with a number of references to the practice of Marx and Engels: “The criticism that Marx and Engels levelled at the bourgeois parties in 1848-49 consists – methodologically – in always showing what they could have done and should have done, given the objective economic and political situation, and what they, however, failed to do” (pp64-65).

Lukács thus spelled out an interventionist notion of class consciousness: the task of the communist parties is always to point out to the working class what they should and what they are able to do in a given scenario. In other words, it has a clear idea of what is correct and false consciousness on the part of the proletariat.

Rudas, on the other hand, thought this was idealism: “The consciousness of humans is a product of the world that surrounds them … This elementary truth is however incompatible with any ‘imputation’ [of what a correct class consciousness should be] … there is no other hypothetical consciousness, which exists nowhere but in the head of the philosopher …” (p22).

Lukács was not slow to point out that this proscribed the role of the conscious elements of the revolutionary process, Rudas being seemingly content to fall back into the mechanical determinism of Second International ‘Marxism’. For him, class consciousness arose automatically out the objective processes of capitalism. Rudas writes: “The English and the French are already beginning to become conscious of their historical tasks. And the others will follow. How do I know that? Because – says Marx – I know as a materialist that consciousness depends on social being, is a product of this social being. Since this being is constituted such that the proletariat through its suffering, etc is absolutely of necessity forced into action, so too is it absolutely necessary that in time its consciousness will awaken” (p67).

There you have it. Lukács pins the fate of revolution on the conscious action of revolutionaries leading the class, while Rudas looks forward to more proletarian “suffering”. As you might expect, Lukács destroys Rudas’s argument through his greater command of Leninism, making the trenchant point that Rudas is actually making a case for tailing the spontaneity of the class.

As we have stated above, John Rees gives his whole-hearted support to Lukács’s enterprise in this instance. Yet we must stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether the contemporary practice of the SWP appertains to that of a Rudas or a Lukács?

Let us take the example of the Socialist Alliance. Does the SWP impute from this objective situation, where the working class has been disenfranchised from New Labour, and the main revolutionary organisations have come together, what is necessary and achievable? Does it attempt to lead the Socialist Alliance toward a revolutionary strategy? Does it propagandise for the formation of a single Communist Party? Not at all. Instead, it tails the social democratic elements of the Alliance and seeks to make it an outlet for the low level of discontent against Blairism.

The products of this classical economism can be seen in the ahistorical manner in which the SWP refers to the Socialist Alliance as a ‘united front’, which in reality is merely an attempt to step around the fact that the SA is composed, in the main, of members of existing revolutionary organisations. A more perfect example of the kind of politics that Lukács was polemicising against would be hard to find.

Lukács also offers us another passage which has clear echoes in today’s ideological struggles. Lumbered with the idea that class consciousness is essentially fixated on mass psychology, Rudas attempts to mock Lukács: “Now one might believe that comrade Lukács has discovered a third place, where class consciousness realises itself. Perhaps in the head of a god or many gods, perhaps in the head of Madame History or some such thing” (p74).

This extract could have been lifted out of any contemporary polemic against the CPGB. When you pose supposedly ‘maximalist’ demands (abolition of the monarchy for example), the likes of the SWP (alongside their economistic bedfellows in the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Workers Liberty and Workers Power) will give you a Rudas-like reply: ‘real’ workers aren’t interested in that! Our protagonists then move on to accuse us of being obsessed with abstraction.

Lukács gives a pertinent reply to Rudas and his modern-day followers: “But let me mollify comrade Rudas (or, better put, let me upset his tail-ending): this ‘third place’ is not that difficult for a communist to find: it is the Communist Party” (original emphases – ibid.). Therefore Lukács makes it perfectly clear that any attempts to proscribe a party putting forward slogans that are beyond the current psychology of the working class actually leads on to the undermining of the conscious element in the preparation of the revolution.

The above passages illustrate why the SWP’s promotion of this book is such an excellent thing. Mired in economism, it has continually failed the test of Leninism throughout its existence. The fact that young comrades will be picking up Lukács’s text, and finding in it a demolition of their world view can only be to the ultimate benefit of the SWP.

The other major problem with Rees’s introduction is its conceptualisation of Lukács relationship with Stalinism (pp32-35). Now admittedly Rees states that he does not have enough space to do justice to this complex subject. Nevertheless, he does make some detrimental accusations concerning Lukács’s mature development.

After producing HCC in 1923, Lukács brought himself to a tactical accommodation with Stalin in the mid-1920s after perceiving that the post-war revolutionary wave had run its course. Lukács subsequently argued in 1968 that Trotsky’s faction of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union offered no alternative to those of Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin, because it shared their subordination to the technical and economic consolidation of the Russian Revolution at the expense of the strategic perspective of working class democracy (G Lukács The process of democratization New York 1991, pp107-115). Lukács remained politically hostile to Trotskyism throughout his life, although he never questioned either Trotsky’s ability or his personal integrity.

Whilst the SWP is not an orthodox Trotskyite organisation, Trotskyism remains one of the cornerstones of its world view. Hence writers such as Rees are forced to limit their appreciation of Lukács to a relatively thin band of work: HHC (1923), Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought (1924) and now Tailism and the dialectic (1925-26). Anything published after this (i.e., around 45 years of work) is simply beyond the Stalinist pale.

As far as I can judge, Rees follows the thinking of Michael Löwy’s Georg Lukács – from romanticism to Bolshevism (which offers a wonderful account of Lukács’s early development, but falls to bits when Löwy views ‘Lukács and Stalinism’ through orthodox-Trotskyite spectacles). This is particularly evident in his treatment of ‘Moses Hess and the problems of idealistic dialectics’ (1926), where Rees sees Lukács’s respect for Hegel’s ‘reconciliation with reality’ as a motif for his accommodation with Stalin and the partial collapse of his dialectical outlook (p34).

Rees makes the questionable assumption that, “Thereafter, Lukács was often a critic of Stalinism, but only ever a right critic” (p35). In a similar vein he argues that, after the defeat of the ‘Blum theses’ in 1928 (in which Lukács attempted to steer the Hungarian Party away from ultra-leftism), Lukács “decided to withdraw from active politics and to cultivate philosophical and aesthetic concerns” (p34). Contained within this compact analysis are a whole raft of misconceptions.

The latter statement makes it look as if Lukács ducked out of the struggle at a time when the Stalinist regime was consolidating itself. In fact this is only a very partial truth. This is how Lukács judged his writings of the 1930s and 1940s at the end of his life: “It is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time. Stalin and his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to their current political policies … As everyone knows, no open polemics were possible during that period. Yet I did protest consistently against such a conception of literature. A revival of Marx and Lenin’s views regarding the complicated dialectic, rich in contradiction, between the political and social positions of writers and their actual works, ran counter to Zhdanov’s prescriptions. In expounding such and similar views through analyses of a Balzac or a Tolstoy, I not only offered a theory in opposition to the official line but also by clear implication a critique of the official literature” (G Lukács Writer and critic and other essays London 1970, p7).

The reader will forgive the length of the quote, but it does clarify exactly what Lukács was trying to do in constructing a ‘guerrilla struggle’ against the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is not to say that this approach does not have its problems. Mészáros has pointed out on a number of occasions that the abstract nature of this conflict eventually left Lukács bereft of concrete solutions to the crisis of ‘official’ communism. Nevertheless, his concentration on aesthetics and philosophical themes, which Rees refers to as “scholarly seclusion in Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute”(p35), was not an idle fancy on his part.

In the above passage Lukács demonstrates the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy: its essentially subjective and manipulative approach to the problems of constructing a socialist society – the logical outcome of its inability to develop democratic control on the part of the proletariat in the Soviet Union. Thus, as Jack Conrad has well illustrated, this left the bureaucracy adrift in a society that it simply could not control in any rational sense. Therefore Lukács’s literary emphasis on realism, as opposed to mere tactical manipulation, cut to the very core of the bureaucracy’s oppressive existence. In no sense can this so-called ‘reconciliation with reality’ be judged as criticism from the ‘right’, precisely because of the democratic questions it begged about the USSR.

Through his evident inability to conceptualise the nature of the bureaucracy, Rees proves unable to give any sort of balanced assessment of Lukács’s opposition to Stalinism. His problems also stem from the deeper source of squaring his views against a Trotskyite assessment of the Soviet Union. In general terms Trotskyites impose a rigid identity-reasoning on their perceptions of Stalinism and the ‘official’ communist movement. All the facets of its existence are ruled against its anti-Bolshevik usurping of the Russian Revolution. The logical incoherence of this idealist standpoint is beautifully illustrated by Rees’s assessment of Lukács’s relationship with Stalinism. Important contradictions fall from view, simply because of his (completely correct) unwillingness to align himself with Leon Trotsky.

Having dealt with John Rees, let us now move to deal with some of the issues raised by Mark O’Brien in International Socialism No89 (pp119-129).

As we have seen above, O’Brien usefully backs up Lukács’s statement that the object of Tailism and the dialectic is not merely to defend HCC in its entirety. O’Brien’s critique is centred on the second part of the book, where Lukács deals with the dialectics of nature (pp94-137). Despite the interesting points raised by O’Brien it must be said that he never really moves beyond abstract, philosophical themes (although, as we shall see, he has a ‘hidden’ political case to make), whereas Lukács is much more concrete about the context of the argument.

The scenario which Lukács establishes is once again that of combating economism and the tail-ending of spontaneity in the workers’ movement: “The bourgeois class, even its most significant scientific representatives, sticks to the immediacy of social forms and is therefore not able to recognise society in its totality, and in its becoming: that is to say … as theoretically and historically dialectical. The opportunistic streams of the labour movement have sensed instinctively why they have to direct their attacks precisely against the dialectic: only by getting rid of the dialectic has it become possible for them to forget historical materialism’s advance beyond the immediacy of bourgeois society, and for them to complete their ideological capitulation in the face of the bourgeoisie” (p94).

Therefore it was Lukács’s recognition of Lenin’s long struggle against all forms of economism that proved the foundation for his denial of an immediate relationship between humans and nature (and the social structures built on its foundation): ” … what my critics call my agnosticism is nothing other than my denial that there is a socially unmediated – i.e., an immediate – relationship of humans to nature in the present stage of social development … Therefore, I am of the opinion that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, because its material foundation is socially mediated …” (p106).

Rudas showed just how disastrous the rejection of such a standpoint could be when he argued that natural scientists were spontaneously coming toward dialectical materialism through contact with the natural world: “They too are gradually realising that their science is ‘drumming’ dialectics into them” (p95). Lukács was not slow to link this reliance on spontaneity and immediacy with Rudas’s miscomprehension of the role of the Party. The insistence that correct knowledge can be gained through immediate contact with nature and society effectively strips Marxism of its ability to criticise the partiality of bourgeois science and the need for revolutionaries to consciously intervene.

Lukács also rejects any reliance on simple categories of mediation (the way in which humans conceptualise the world), arguing that their determination and discernibility are dependent on higher, more structured forms of mediation. He quotes Marx to suggest that, “the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is … the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category” (p110).

To make this point more concrete, Lukács goes on to quote a passage from Marx’s Theories of surplus value: ” … [capitalist] crisis … cannot exist without manifesting itself at the same time in its simple form, as the contradiction between sale and purchase and the contradiction of money as a means of payment. But these are merely forms, general possibilities of crisis, and hence also forms, abstract forms, of actual crisis. In them, the nature of crisis appears in its simplest forms … But the content is not yet substantiated … These forms alone, therefore, do not explain why their crucial aspect becomes prominent and why the potential contradiction contained in them becomes a real contradiction” (p111).

Therefore, higher forms of mediation are vital if the working class is to master an understanding of capitalism in its totality. If its critique remains fixed at the level of appearances (i.e., the forms of simple mediation such as sale and purchase) then it stays at the stage of bourgeois political economy with its apologetic or reformist political conclusions. Again we are brought against the necessity of fighting any tendency towards spontaneity and immediacy on the part of the workers’ movement. Capitalism is fought with Marx’s ascent from the abstract to the concrete or it is not fought at all.

Mark O’Brien has immense problems with all this. Indeed the comrade perceives much more clearly than John Rees that Tailism and the dialectic cannot be simply squared off against existing SWP practice, although he leaves us to read this from between the lines.

O’Brien shows that he is completely blind to the Leninist problematic of Lukács’s analysis, appearing confused as to why he throws out the notion of humans having immediate contact with the world with such “urgency”: “For once the unmediated contact between the human subject and the world has been rejected, subject and object are indeed irredeemably thrown apart” (M O’Brien International Socialism No89, winter 2000, p127). As we have demonstrated above, Lukács ditched the notion of immediacy (and thus the idealist construct of the ‘identical subject-object’) precisely because it would potentially lead in practice to the disorganisation of the vanguard Party. If workers can spontaneously gain a knowledge of capitalism through immediate contact with its structures, then what price Bolshevism?

It therefore becomes clear why O’Brien finds Lukács’s rigorous defence of Leninism so uncomfortable. In its practice the SWP appears to rely on the proletariat’s immediate contact with capitalist economics as enough to solve the development of class consciousness. That is why Socialist Worker, its agitational paper, seeks to mirror the spontaneous reality of the working class back to them in a more concentrated form. Any project of developing the working class politically (in other words, leading the class) is completely absent from its pages. This approach precisely neglects the fact that even in a ‘radical’ spontaneous outbreak of strikes, the culture of the workers will be heavily mediated by the ideological superstructures of capital. The SWP must cling on to this idea of immediacy, otherwise its whole modus operandi begins to disintegrate.

We encounter similar errors when we move on to consider O’Brien’s rejection of Lukács’s concentration on the higher, as opposed to simple, forms of mediation. He argues: “… in relation to the question of immediacy, Lukács seems blind to the first part of [a] quote from Marx – ‘Hunger is hunger’. Humans have immediate needs which are invariant. If human experience were entirely historically mediated, there would be no underlying continuity between epochs, and Marx’s concept of ‘labour’ could never have been the key to understanding all other forms of society with their concrete historical mediations” (p125).

Of course, Lukács was well aware of simple mediations such as ‘hunger’, but, in the context of defeating tailist politics, is an ‘immediate’ emphasis on this effective? O’Brien does give the game away: “The relative weight of the ‘higher’, more theorised categories and the ’simpler’, less theorised categories is a matter of real history and not one of a priori assertion” (ibid.).

You will not find a more complete distortion of Lukács’s case. It was precisely “real history” (and not some abstract ordering) that he was interested in. More specifically the Second International with its simplistic economism, and the Bolshevik victory in 1917 with its ‘higher’, political categories. In short the difference between tailism and Leninism.

Once again, the reason O’Brien defends simplistic forms of mediation is that these are a staple diet of SWP practice. The organisation’s propaganda consists of simple economistic ‘them-us’, ‘good-bad’ platitudes. Socialist Worker does not attempt to point the proletariat to the sophisticated understanding it needs of the totality of capitalist relations. Rather it suggests that ‘real workers’ are not interested in all this. To which we answer that it is precisely the job of Leninists to propagate it.

If it has done nothing else, this review has shown how the SWP’s attempt to laud Lukács is fraught with difficulty. His pre-1927 work is saturated with polemical assaults on the economism that the SWP practises today. Lukács’s later output is similarly difficult because of his rejection of Trotskyism. Precisely the reasons why the SWP’s engagement with the greatest Marxist theoretician of the 20th century is so significant.

Quantity-into-quality explained

Ten Ways You Turn Into Your Opposite--
Every Day Before You Leave Your House!

    Here are 10 ways that you and your body become their opposites--before you even get out the door in the morning. (Of course, not everybody has the same routine, or even has a house to live in (!), but you get the idea.)

    TIME TO GET UP!
    1. You go from asleep to awake

    2. You go from in bed to out of bed

    3. You go from unwashed to washed (plus some more opposites here):
    You go from out of the shower to in the shower
    The water goes from off to on to off
    You go from unsoapy to soapy and then to rinsed
    You go from wet to dry

    4. Your bladder goes from full to empty

    5. Your bowels go from full to empty

    6. Your teeth go from unbrushed to brushed

    7. Your hair goes from messy to combed

    8. You go from undressed to dressed (lots of opposites here):
    Your clothes go from off to on
    Your shoes go from untied to tied
    Your zippers go from unzipped to zipped
    Your shirt goes from unbuttoned to buttoned

    9. You go from hungry to fed (lots of opposites here too):
    The refrigerator goes from closed to opened to closed
    Your food goes from uncooked to cooked
    Eggs go from soft to hard
    Oatmeal goes from runny to ready
    Your food goes from uneaten to eatened (even more opposites here):
    Your food goes from out of your mouth to in your mouth
    Your food goes from unchewed to chewed
    Your food goes from unswallowed to swallowed
    Your stomach goes from empty to full
    Your milk goes from unpoured to poured/undrunk to drunk
    Vitamins go from untaken to taken

    10. Your coat goes from off to on; your door goes from closed to opened; and you go from in the house to out of the house!

    So our bodies and the world around us are always changing into opposites. Remember that we, like everything else, have many opposing sides--at first one side is in control, but eventually the other side becomes stronger and--all at once--we go from asleep to awake, undressed to dressed, . . .

    Dialectics for Kids

Spinoza


Spinoza's World‑View

by A. M. Deborin

excerpts

The 21st of February of this year [1927] was the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Benedict Spinoza. On that day a solemn celebration in Spinoza's memory was held under the auspices of the Spinoza Society (Societas Spinozana) in The Hague—the city where Spinoza spent the last years of his life where his ashes rest. At this grand meeting there were in attendance, besides official representatives of the universities and of science, official representative of the League of Nations, who demonstrated in his speech that if Spinoza were alive today he would be an ardent admirer of the League of Nations, since it strives for the realization of universal peace. A representative of the church—no celebration, as is well known, can get along there without a representative of the church—for his part, demonstrated that Spinoza's teaching does not in the least contradict the Christian religion.

There were other speeches as well, but I shall not dwell on them. At all events, everyone was agreed that Spinoza was a great idealist, pantheist, and mystic, the founder of a new religion, etc. But at Hague no voice was raised to cry out loudly to all these fine gentlemen: 'You are impudent liars.'

I

We have gathered within the walls of the Communist Academy and are devoting this evening to Spinoza's memory not from the considerations which guided the organizers of the Hague celebration but from quite different considerations; for us Spinoza is essentially a great atheist and materialist. In this appraisal of Spinoza I am in complete agreement with Plekhanov. In all of Plekhanov's works, as I know, the fundamental thought is emphasized that Marxism, considered as a world‑view, is nothing other than a 'variety of Spinozism.' But I shall set this question aside for the moment, in order to cite a passage from Plekhanov's preface to my Introduction to Philosophy (the preface was written in 1914) in which he sharply criticizes the historians of philosophy who have numbered Spinoza among the idealists.

'With the present universal prevalence of idealism,' he says, 'it is quite natural that the history of philosophy should now be interpreted from the idealistic point of view. As a consequence, Spinoza his long since been numbered among the idealists. Hence, certain readers will probably be very much surprised to learn that I understand Spinoza in the materialistic sense; yet this is the only correct understanding of Spinozism.

'As early as 1843 Feuerbach asserted his fundamental conviction that the teaching of Spinoza was "an expression of the materialistic conceptions of the modern age." Of course, even Spinoza did not escape the influence of his time. His materialism, as Feuerbach remarked, was clothed in a theological costume, but the important thing was that, in any case, he eliminated the dualism of mind and nature. Nature in Spinoza is called God, but extension is one of the attributes of this God. And this constitutes the radical difference between Spinozism and idealism.' [a1]

With such a universal prevalence of idealism it is not surprising that Spinoza has long since been enlisted in the camp of the idealists. Unfortunately, there are even some Marxists who defend the tradition of the historians of philosophy, despite the fact that Feuerbach, to some extent Engels, and more recently Plekhanov have done a great deal in explaining Spinoza's materialistic views. We still have to struggle against this idealistic tradition, to prove to comrades from our own midst that Spinoza is not to be ranked among the idealists. In the last few years, two 'fronts' have been formed in connection with the treatment of Hegelian dialectics and Spinoza's world-conception: the Hegelian front and the Spinozistic front. The disagreements and disputes which are going on in our own midst focus on two basic points: the disputes about Hegel touch the foundations of our method, the differences of opinion with regard to Spinoza concern our world‑view and involve the conception of materialism itself. But, since method and world‑view are not separate from one another, the disputes and disagreements in the first area—those concerning method—are indissolubly connected with the disputes in the second area—those concerning world‑view. I shall not dwell further on this point; I wished merely to indicate the extent to which these two fronts are connected.

Let us now proceed to a general. characterization of Spinoza's world‑view as a whole, to an examination of what Spinoza brought into philosophy, science, and the scientific view of the world that was new, and how Spinozism as a new, scientific, philosophical world‑view differs from the world‑view with which Spinoza had to contend.

The first proposition which links Spinoza to the materialists of our time, that is, to the Marxists, is his recognition of the existence of the objective world, the avowal of a principle for the enunciation of which Spinoza was subsequently branded a 'dogmatist' by the partisans of Kantian 'critical philosophy.' This appraisal of Spinoza by the critical philosophers is extremely important, for by 'dogmatism' such writers often mean materialism. According to Fichte, only two consistent and rigorously sustained philosophical systems are possible: dogmatism and critical philosophy, meaning by dogmatism Spinozism or materialism. By dogmatism is meant the 'uncritical' admission of the possibility of adequate knowledge of the world. A critical investigation of our cognitive faculties, it is held, leads to the establishing of the truth that the external world is unknowable. In this connection it should be pointed out that Spinoza devotes a good deal of space to the investigation of our cognitive faculties, but the conclusion which he reaches is the exact opposite of the conclusion reached by the critical philosophers. As is well known, empiriocriticism, Machism, empiriomonism, and other varieties of positivism also deny the external world. But the denial of the external world leads inevitably to idealism. In Spinoza we find a brief but extraordinarily apt critique of the point of view which assumes that sensations are all that exist and that we can know only our own sensations. Here is what Spinoza writes in this connection:

'They assert that the mind can be conscious of and perceive in a variety of ways, not itself nor things which exist, but only things which are neither in itself nor anywhere else, in other words, that the mind can, by its unaided power, create sensations or ideas unconnected with things. In fact, they regard the mind as a sort of god.’ [b1]

Thus those who deny that the mind feels and knows external things, who assert that the mind by its own unaided strength creates sensations and ideas, turn the mind into a god, i.e. into a substance which creates the whole world out of itself. This means that the mind, from their point of view, is entirely independent of the external world, being self‑caused and creating the world of things. But such a point of view is entirely unacceptable to Spinoza, who considers that 'it is before all things necessary for us to deduce all our ideas from physical things.' [b2]

Another characteristic feature of Spinoza's over‑all world‑view is his denial of teleology and his assertion of strict determinism. In studying reality—whether natural or social—it is necessary to use the category of causality exclusively. With unsurpassed power of thought and rare sarcasm he ridicules those philosophers who see final causes everywhere. For these final causes are only human inventions, the product of ignorance, prejudice, and superstition. In attempting to prove that nature does everything for the use of men, these philosophers 'seem only to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all gone mad together.’ [b3] Since men find in themselves and in nature many means which assist them in their search for what is useful, says Spinoza, they come to look on all natural means as means for obtaining what is useful, and they explain everything by ends, seeing everywhere the will of God.

'For, by way of example, if a stone has fallen from some roof on somebody's head and killed him, they will demonstrate in this manner that the stone has fallen in order to kill the man. For if it did not fall for that purpose by the will of God, how could so many circumstances concur through chance (and a number often simultaneously do concur)? You will answer, perhaps, that the event happened because the wind blew and the man was passing that way. But, they will urge, why did the wind blow at that time, and why did the man pass that way precisely at the same moment? If you again reply that the wind rose then because the sea on the preceding day began to be stormy, the weather hitherto having been calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will urge again—because there is no end of questioning—But why was the sea agitated? why was the man invited at that time? And so they will not cease from asking the causes of causes, until at last you fly to the will of God, the asylum ignorantiae.’ [c1]

Thus Spinoza declares the will of God to be a refuge of ignorance. Our philosopher sees everywhere only natural events, which are subject to investigation and explanation by means of the universal law of necessity. In contrast to many contemporary philosophers and scientists, who consider it possible to study social processes, if not natural phenomena, from the point of view of morality, Spinoza extends the law of necessity to man and society. He denies completely the validity of applying ethical or teleological principles to reality. The study of reality leads to a discovery of the causal connections and objective laws which operate therein. Spinoza is much closer to Marxism in this respect than are many contemporary trends in philosophy.

Spinoza entered into history with the honorary title 'prince of atheists.' Actually, what we have already said adequately characterizes the world‑view of our philosopher as purely materialistic and atheistic. But Spinoza considered it necessary to wage direct warfare on religious prejudices—the special type of ignorance which supports the power of the clergy and every kind of authority. Today we consider it especially important to emphasize our philosopher's historic contributions in this field, and the enormous cultural and educational role which was played by his Theologico‑Political Treatise. Spinoza was the true leader of the whole period of Enlightenment which followed.

Spinoza's name is indissolubly linked and historically has always been associated with freethinking, for he was one of the first to raise the banner of revolt against religious superstition in defence of free scientific thought. He was the first to subject the Scriptures to scientific criticism, not being satisfied with a simple, bare rejection of religion. And all subsequent scientific biblical criticism takes Spinoza's Theologico‑Political Treatise as its point of departure. It is impossible for us now to imagine the liberating influence of this work. As a matter of fact, the period of the Enlightenment dates from its publication. All the leading, progressive elements, all the philosophers of the Enlightenment in whatever country, drew from Spinoza's writings, directly or indirectly, irrefutable arguments for their struggle against religious prejudices. For this reason we should in justice regard Spinoza as the father of freethinking. Although it is not possible for me to analyse the Theologico‑Political Treatise here, I consider it necessary to point out that we find the basic motifs of this treatise later in the French and German philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Religion, as Spinoza makes clear, has no theoretical significance; it has always been significant only for practical life, i.e. those in power have used it in order to keep the people in check. Superstition arises, is sustained and supported by fear. Hence religious prejudices are essentially the vestiges of an ancient bondage, maintained in our time. Since religious prejudices are connected with ancient bondage, there can be no place for these superstitions in a free state, and here at least freedom of judgment regarding these prejudices should prevail. Spinoza shares the opinion of Curtius that 'the mob has no ruler more potent than superstition' (History, Bk. IV, ch. 10). By this he wishes to emphasize the connection of politics and religion—a proposition that received its further development in the French philosophes and materialists. Among the Turks, men's minds are weighed down by such a mass of prejudices, says Spinoza, that there is no room left for sound reason, not even for doubt. But what is said about the Turks applies to all other nations in which monarchical government prevails. Monarchical government, according to Spinoza, rests largely on religious superstitions. The French philosophes, we repeat, shared this view.

'If, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear which keeps them down with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted. Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men's minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi‑religious sedition. [d1]

'Faith has become a mere compound of credulity and prejudices,' Spinoza says in another place, 'aye, prejudices, too, which degrade man from rational being to beast, which completely stifle the power of judgment between true and false, which seem, in fact, carefully fostered for the purpose of extinguishing the last spark of reason.’ [d2]

Perhaps no thinker of modern times has used such biting and blasphemous language as Spinoza here does. The social order, and especially the monarchical form of government, is based on fear, and the people's fear is supported and cultivated by religious superstitions and ignorance. These basic motifs, put forward by Spinoza in his critique of religious superstitions, were taken up by all the later philosophers of the Enlightenment and in particular by the French Encyclopedists and materialists of the eighteenth century.

In a free state reason, that is, free judgment, should prevail and hence religious prejudices, being survivals of a regime of slavery, are incompatible with the new form of social organization. Religion should not be looked upon as theoretical knowledge of the world; it demands of its adherents a definite form of practical conduct—obedience and piety, which are the result of certain historical and political conditions. The church should be subordinated to the state, that is, to the civil interests of the people. Science and the state are based on natural knowledge and natural law and have nothing in common with theology.

Proceeding from these considerations, Spinoza contends for the separation of philosophy, that is, natural knowledge, from religion. He demands the broadest freedom of philosophizing, freedom of thought and scientific knowledge. We are leaving aside the question of how far Spinoza's biblical criticism may be considered scientific from the point of view of contemporary scholarship. This is not essential to our purpose. We are concerned here with an historical appraisal of Spinoza's activity, and from this point of view the, significance of the Theologico‑Political Treatise is enormous. It was this book which served as a basis for the accusation of atheism levelled at Spinoza, and as the pretext for new persecutions. Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community has, as it were, a local, national significance; the second catastrophe in his personal life was connected with the publication of the Theologico‑Political Treatise. Spinoza now became a target of attack and an object of persecution on the part of clergymen of all sects, theologians and metaphysicians, professors of philosophy, and state authorities. Many of his personal friends, who as a result of their narrow‑mindedness had not been able to foresee that Spinoza would take such an extreme anti‑religious position, also turned away from him. But, on the other hand, the appearance of the Treatise made our philosopher world famous. Around his banner the radical and revolutionary elements of all countries gradually gathered.

Having underlined a few basic principles of Spinoza's worldview, we can now consider the central problem which faced Spinoza. His chief work bears the title Ethics. But it would be erroneous to suppose that Spinoza, like Kant, set himself the goal of discovering some sort of supersensory, divine, ethical law on the order of the Kantian categorical imperative. In general, Spinoza denies the existence of two levels of reality: what is and what ought to be, the latter being opposed to the former and supposedly having its source in another, extra­empirical world. By 'ethics' Spinoza meant simply a certain way of life, which must result from a knowledge of the reality of nature, man, and human society. Ethics defines the place of man in nature and derives his mode of life in a completely realistic and materialistic way from a knowledge of his natural passions and strivings. In this quite definite and natural sense, ethics is also a doctrine of what is, unopposed by abstract ethical norms or laws of what ought to be. Man's power over nature, his cultural creativity, in the broadest sense of the word, is a basic factor in the right conduct of life, whether individual or social. For this reason, all the sciences and all human knowledge have a definite practical goal. But I shall return to this question later.

Theory trading cards


As a long-term sufferer from my grandson's interest in trading cards and game cards (Bakugan, et cetera), I enjoyed finding these theory trading cards online.

What is to be done UK?

Can a New Workers' Party Emerge?

One of the things that sealed the deal when I was thinking about joining the Socialist Party in autumn/winter 2005 was its decision to launch the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. For a long time the SP had been agitating around the need for a new party to take up the mantle of working class political representation, but up until then (at least as far as I was aware) it had not taken any concrete steps to bring it about. A declaration was circulated and there was a very successful launch conference. There followed a run of public meetings up and down the country and the statement managed a couple of thousand signatures. But gradually, save the ritual of steering group gatherings and an annual conference that diminished year on year, the CNWP failed to develop a life of its own and faded into the background with the development of No2EU, and its progeny, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

Everyone knew the CNWP was not going to be the embryo of a new organisation, but it was hoped it would facilitate the coming together of the left, the trade unions and community campaigns in some way. And here in lies the problem with the strategy for building a new workers' party. None as such exists. I know from having done CNWP work that there is little appetite for a new party. People were certainly happy to come up to Stoke SP stalls and sign the petitions, chuck a quid or two in the pot, take a paper and nod along as you give them the spiel about the need or a new party, but only a tiny number would sign the declaration and the few that did invariably ended up joining the branch.

One shouldn't be too surprised about this. As anyone on the left will tell you 30 years of neoliberalism, a declining labour movement and the restructuring of British capitalism has thrown back working class consciousness, confidence and combativity. This being the case, where is a new workers' party going to come from? Is the emergence of a new alternative to Labour's left a likely prospect or fundamentally out of kilter with where the working class is?

Taking things as they are there are two possible avenues one could come about. The first is through trade unions breaking from Labour. This is more or less the position of the SP. They argue the Blair-Brown leadership has gutted the party of working class content in their quest to become the preferred party of British capital, and so are quite happy to privatise away, treat the unions as embarrassing relatives and happily launch attacks on workers at home and abroad. The SP argues the unions would neither stomach attacks on their members forever or be happy with their lack of influence over Labour, and so will be forced to seek political influence elsewhere - principally in the direction of founding a party that reflects their interests.

In part this perspective has been borne out. The FBU and RMT are no longer affiliated to Labour, the CWU's support hangs by a thread and even Dave Prentis of Unison has been forced to rattle the saber. But that's as far as it has gone. The RMT have retreated from being directly involved in elections after last year's
No2EU vote and are backing Labour (though branches have the freedom to decide who they endorse). The PCS will be doing its usual Make Your Vote Count campaign.

As for remaining trade union affiliates, if anything they are
increasing their commitment to Labour. Andy has variously blogged about the GMB's influence-building strategy it has adopted in Labour. It's oft-noted that Unite are bankrolling the party. And Paul Holme's Unison general secretary campaign makes clear the union should be using the Labour link to promote its policy agenda in the party, not the other way round. It seems unlikely the main unions will move away from Labour if they think there are still ways and means of securing their objectives through it, especially in the absence of an alternative home to go to.

Which brings me to the second possible avenue for a new party: the existing far left. When I was in the SP leading comrades were firmly of the opinion that cobbling together "the sects" would not bring us a step closer to a new party (and for some, left unity itself was a diversion from this task). Instead we'd have to wait for the trade unions and/or the vaunted "fresh layers" to become involved. But in Britain at least, experience has partially negated this perspective. At its height the Scottish Socialist Party attracted trade union support in the shape of the RMT. This would not have happened had Scottish Militant Labour not pursued a unity project with the rest of the left, and the subsequent fate of the SSP does not render this lesson null and void.

So left unity can work and pull in support from beyond the far left. But what prospects for it today? What are the chances of the positives of the SSP experience being replicated? The SP, SWP plus a few others are formally united under the TUSC banner for the next election, and Respect and the SSP will be ploughing their own furrows. So on the surface things don't look too bad. But look under the surface of TUSC and it has every appearance of being an alliance of convenience. SP members will be promoting SP candidates. SWP members will promote SWP candidates. There will be very little in the way of joint, unified action. And what about after the election? Will TUSC take on flesh or officially talked up at the moment it's being buried? Perhaps the worst won't happen, but the experience of the Socialist Alliance, Respect when the SWP were in it, and the barely-remembered Socialist and Green Unity Coalition are not encouraging.

This brings us to the basic problem at the heart of the British left. Its dominant tendencies act as discrete self-contained entities in competition for recruits, paper sales and influence. Each maintain a full-time apparatus with a semi-permanent leadership and collective world views that are more the subject of dispute and polemic than scientific investigation. Furthermore because none have wealthy backers the basic round of stalls, paper sales, and recruitment has to take precedence to keep the show on the road. This means working with other lefts are seldom and fleeting. So the problems with the far left are not entirely rooted in particular interpretations of democratic centralism, as the cpgb and others maintain, but more so the mode of work they undertake out
of necessity.

For example, where the SP have bases in working class communities - Coventry and Lewisham - the branches in those areas have grown to the extent that 'community work' can be undertaken in addition to the basic work. Respect is another case in point. Because its model of organisation building is not reliant on the same staples as its Trotskyist competitors they have been able to concentrate on putting down roots, with the result they stand a strong chance of
winning in three constituencies.

To return to the main point, because of the competitive models of party building favoured by the far left it is unlikely they will put together a lasting, unified organisation and therefore will not attract support from any union thinking twice about its links to Labour.

Perhaps an upsurge in struggle will change this situation, but I doubt it. Time and again the labour movement has proven it prefers to work pragmatically with the instruments it has to hand. The far left hasn't provided anything the unions can turn to, and they will not take the risks of founding something new themselves. On the other hand power has shifted in the Labour party. The independence the bourgeois pole assumed during the Blair years has receded and the party is dependent on the unions for resources. This constitutes a real opportunity for moving Labour to the left and strengthening the hand of socialist ideas in the labour movement. It's a tough perspective and a difficult one to argue for thanks to this government's record, but there is no way around it. The best place for rebuilding the labour movement and renewing working class politics is inside Labour.

The task in front of socialists today is not founding a new workers' party. It's working with the one we've got.

When the Red Army was red


Socialists and soldiers – the Bolsheviks and the Red Army: Francesco Benvenuti: Review

Debating the role of the army in a workers’ state
CUP / 2008 / £18.99
Purchasing info

This is one of those priceless books. Not valuable, just with no price printed anywhere on it. So it is not the sort you are likely to happen upon by chance in Borders or Waterstones. It is rather the sort of worthy academic treatise you will find tucked away in the history or politics section of a university bookshop which, as anyone who has been in one recently will agree, are thankfully free of any students at all. That bloody internet . . .

Enough. What is the book like, what is it about, what does it tell us?

Benvenuti’s study of the political disputes within Bolshevism during the formation of the Red Army is as dry as a Saharan river bed. If you judge the ease with which you can read a book by its anecdotes – and there are many who do – this is no easy read. So, if you are a military buff who enjoys a good yarn, don’t bother. But Benvenuti’s study does contain valuable information about the political arguments within Bolshevism that shaped the Red Army. It also contains the interesting thesis that Trotsky’s success as Commissar for War contributed to his eventual defeat within the Communist Party at the hands of Stalin.

The Red Army saved Soviet Russia and enabled the Bolshevik Revolution to survive through a period when the entire imperialist world was ranged against it. But the question that interests Benvenuti is not how it did this on the battlefield, but how it did it through the political decisions taken by the Bolshevik Party – which by the summer of 1918 was the sole governing party in Russia.

Foremost amongst these decisions was the early agreement to, in effect, replicate the model of an imperialist army. The Tsarist army had disintegrated at the hands of soldiers committees who aligned themselves with the revolution during the course of 1917. These committees embodied distrust in the officers and encouraged a spirit of revolt against orders. They also fought for the political rights of soldiers. All of this met the revolutionary need to break the armed power of the bosses.

But could the same forms of organisation adequately meet the new task of defending revolutionary power? The initial advances of counter-revolution drew a clear answer to this question from the Bolsheviks – no. The militia was not capable of defending the revolution because it was too small, too local and too democratic. Only a centralised army under a centralised command, said the Commissar for War, Trotsky, was able to defend the revolution. And so the organisation of and recruitment to the Red Army commenced, as early as March 1918, on the basis of mass recruitment of workers and peasants and the reintroduction of a bourgeois officer corps as “specialists”, “instructors” and “technicians”.

Given the co-ordinated attacks on Soviet power that were unleashed from the summer of 1918 onwards, the Bolshevik call for a centralised army – in breach of its programme for an armed militia – was absolutely necessary. Indeed, as early as the American War of Independence, the limitations of localised militia had been harshly exposed. They cannot win full-scale wars and only an idealist would say that victory for the Soviet cause lay through pitting such militia against the armed might of the Whites.

The Bolsheviks were quite right to opt for the building of a centralised army, as a temporary measure, in order to win. Furthermore they were quite right to make use of former officers. Without them, conducting a full scale war was a pipe dream. Like it or not the expertise on the battlefield that such officers could bring was decisive to winning battles, and if the Red Army had not won, the consequences for the people of Russia would have been every bit as disastrous as the eventual victory of Stalin was. It was a move worth making in order to buy time for the revolution.

Having said that we need to remember that the Bolsheviks were only improvising, experimenting. And the value of Benvenuti’s book is that it enables us to assess the outcome of their experiments. How could the officers be prevented from organising a counter-revolution from within? One solution may have been to have re-introduced soldiers’ committees. Perhaps the Bolsheviks were wrong to rule this out (regarding it as akin to reintroducing “craftism” in the economy). The method of checking the growth of an independent army they hit upon was to introduce Military Commissars to work alongside, supervise and, in dire circumstances, countermand, the officers.

From the outset the Commissar was defined as “the political organ of Soviet power within the army”. But given the task was both to check the officers and instil a sense of centralised discipline, this meant that this particular organ was not merely an instrument of supervision but also of repression. Commissars were given the power to dissolve soldiers’ committees as well as keep an eye on potentially rebellious officers. In other words they checked dissent – from whatever quarter.

The improvisation was insufficient. Benvenuti traces a shift that took place between the seventh congress of the Bolsheviks in March 1918 and the eighth congress in 1919. The change involved a series of publicly staged debates and the creation of a “Military Opposition” to Trotsky and the War Commissariat within the Bolshevik Party. Whatever tragic mistakes were made, the process narrated by Benvenuti demonstrates that throughout this period the spirit of political independence and criticism within Bolshevism was remarkable and very much alive.

The debate revolved around the extent to which the need for discipline and the deployment of “specialists” had endangered the revolution. The Military Opposition argued that Trotsky’s pursuit of military perfection had led to the very real danger of allowing the army, now made up of a majority of peasants, becoming a force independent of the revolution and therefore capable of turning against it.

The Military Opposition was a variegated force. It included defenders of the old militia concept alongside nascent Communist bureaucrats, like Stalin and Voroshilov, who regarded Trotsky’s emphasis on “military specialism” and discipline as a threat to the power of the Communist Party and its ability to control the armed forces. Stalin had already clashed sharply with Trotsky in the preceding period over the way in which he had operated in Tsaritsyn in 1918. The clash occurred over Trotsky’s insistence on appointing a specialist, General Sytin, to command the southern front. On 3 October 1918, in a letter to Lenin, Stalin and Voroshilov wrote:

“Accordingly we, as members of the party, categorically declare that we consider the execution of Trotsky’s orders to be criminal, and his threats unworthy. The party Central Committee needs to discuss the behaviour of Trotsky, who abuses very eminent party members to the advantage of traitors among the military specialists and to the detriment of the front and of the revolution.” (p47)

Following on from this, accusations against Trotsky grew in the lead up to the eighth congress. Articles in the press even accused him of unjustly having Communists shot in the name of military discipline.

The issue here is clear, and it highlights the great dilemma of the Bolsheviks in maintaining their revolution until help could arrive from a western spread of the revolution. For Trotsky the victory of the Red Army was the means of buying the time necessary for aid to come to the Russian revolution. To secure this victory he was prepared to compromise on the make up and leadership of the Red Army. His sole criterion was – what was best to win the war.

For Stalin, and many within the Military Opposition, the question was more about how could the party maintain its control of the Red Army. Sections of the opposition justifiably feared the encroachments on the democratic rights of soldiers and the dilution of the class character of the army that Trotsky’s position appeared to imply. But for Stalin it was about party prerogative in the army. Why should the specialists boss the Communists?

When the eighth congress finally came the result was a compromise. The fear of the counter-revolution and the apparent efficacy of Trotsky’s methods persuaded a majority that his position should not be overthrown entirely. But the combined concerns of those who feared a loss of democracy and those (Stalin and Voroshilov) who feared an erosion of party privilege, were enough to produce a compromise.

As so often happened, Trotsky himself played little part in shaping the outcome in the party. He went to the front, missed the whole congress and declared that it did not matter as the disputes were purely of a technical character. This, argues Benvenuti, was yet another example of him isolating himself from the inner life of the party, thereby weakening his position later when those defending party privilege moved against him. Whether this was true or not, however, is beside the point. The main thing to emerge was the strengthening of the Commissars (and the political departments) as agents of the party within the army rather than as agents of Soviet Power.

The compromise did involve certain democratic aspects, such as the increased right of party cells within the army. But the overall thrust of the eighth congress was to strengthen the bureaucratic control of the party over both the specialists and the mass of soldiers. The party strengthened itself at the expense of Soviet power. In the theses adopted (and drafted by Trotsky) it was stated that Commissars could henceforth only be, “bearers of the spirit of our party”. The party interpreted this to mean that only party members could be Commissars. And Stalin was able to point to various counter-revolutionary plots by specialists to bolster his push to strengthen party control in the army.

He was also able to present his campaign for what was to eventually become party autocracy as “democratic” because of Trotsky’s own limited programme at the time. Trotsky had a strategy for victory and that strategy depended upon the use of specialists and a “German” model for army discipline. In other words Trotsky had a primarily technical strategy. By elevating the role of the party – something that in later years evolved into the chilling nostrum of the “leading role of the party” – Stalin appealed to the Bolshevik old guard as a defender of them, of their traditions, of their rights and of their hard won gains.

It’s possible that Benvenuti sees too much of the later struggle between the two men in these earlier battles over military policy. After all, later chapters reveal the overcoming of the differences exposed in the run up to the eighth congress and the happy union of Trotsky with the former Military Opposition. But regardless of this the author does provide plenty of evidence for the way in which slowly but surely the party came to replace the soviet as the decisive organ of power, even before the completion of the bureaucratic counter-revolution.

Trotsky may have got carried away with the importance of the specialists, but he was trying to win a war and preserve a revolution. Others were trying to win a war and preserve a developing position of privilege. Despite being one of the most plodding books on the Red Army around, revealing this historic development in its earliest phase makes it a pretty useful one.

Mark Hoskisson

What is to be done?

Seize the Crisis!
Samir Amin


The principle of endless accumulation that defines capitalism is synonymous with exponential growth, and the latter, like cancer, leads to death. John Stuart Mill, who recognized this, imagined that a “stationary state of affairs” would put an end to this irrational process. John Maynard Keynes shared this optimism of Reason. But neither was equipped to understand how the necessary overcoming of capitalism could prevail. By contrast, Marx, by giving proper importance to the emerging class struggle, could imagine the reversal of power of the capitalist class, concentrated today in the hands of the ruling oligarchy.

Accumulation, which is synonymous with pauperization, provides the objective framework of the struggles against capitalism. But accumulation expresses itself globally mainly by the growing contrast between the affluence of the societies in the center of the world system that benefit from imperialist “rent,” and the misery of the societies in the dominated peripheries. This center-periphery conflict becomes, therefore, the central axis of the alternative between socialism and barbarism.

Historically, “really existing” capitalism is associated with successive forms of accumulation by dispossession, not only at the beginning (primitive accumulation), but also at each stage of the unfolding of the capitalist system. Since the seventeenth century, Atlantic capitalism has sought to conquer the world, which it has remade on the basis of permanent dispossession of the conquered regions, transforming them into the dominated peripheries of the system.

But this victorious globalization has been unable to impose itself in a durable manner. Just about half a century after its triumph, marked by Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851 (which already seemed to inaugurate the “end of history”), this model was questioned by the revolution of the Russian semi-periphery and the (victorious) liberation struggles in Asia and Africa. These constituted the defining global historical events of the twentieth century — the first wave of struggles in favor of the emancipation of the workers and the peoples.

Accumulation by dispossession continues in front of our eyes in the late modern capitalism of the contemporary oligopolies. In the centers, monopoly rents — the beneficiaries of which are the oligopolistic plutocracies — are synonymous with the dispossession of the entire productive basis of society. In the peripheries, this pauperizing dispossession manifests itself in the expropriation of the peasantry and the plundering of natural resources of the regions in question. These practices constitute essential pillars for the expansion of the late capitalism of the oligopolies.

In this spirit, I situate the “new agrarian question” at the heart of the challenge of the twenty-first century. The dispossession of the peasantry (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) is the major contemporary form of the tendency towards pauperization (in the sense that Marx ascribed to this “law”) linked to accumulation. Its implementation cannot be separated from the strategies of imperialist rent-seeking and rent-capturing by the oligopolies, with or without agrofuels. I deduce from this that the main historical results will be a product of these struggles over the future of the peasant societies in the South (almost half of humanity). They will largely determine the capacity of the workers and peoples to progress on the road of constructing an authentic civilization, liberated from the domination of capital — for which I see no name other than socialism.

The plundering of the South’s natural resources, required by the pursuit of the model of wasteful consumption that exclusively benefits the North’s affluent societies, destroys any prospect of development worthy of the name for the peoples in question, and therefore constitutes the other face of pauperization on a worldwide scale. In this spirit, the “energy crisis” is neither the product of the absolute scarcity of certain resources necessary for production (oil, obviously) nor the outcome of the destructive effects of energy-devouring forms of production and consumption that are currently in place. Reference to an “energy crisis” — which is not wrong — fails to go beyond banal and immediate evidence. The real “energy crisis” is the product of the will of oligopolies and a collective imperialism to secure a monopoly of access to the planet’s natural resources, whether these be scarce or not, in such a way as to appropriate the imperialist rent. This is true whether the utilization of these resources remains the same as it is now (wasteful and energy-devouring) — or whether it is subject to “environmentally friendly” measures and new correctives. I deduce from this that the pursuit of the expansionist strategy of the late capitalism of oligopolies will inevitably clash with the growing resistance of the nations of the South.

The current crisis is, therefore, neither a financial crisis nor the sum of multiple systemic crises, but the crisis of the imperialist capitalism of oligopolies, whose exclusive and supreme power risks being questioned once more by the struggles of the entire popular classes and the nations in the dominated peripheries, even if they are apparently “emerging markets.” This crisis is, at the same time, a crisis of U.S. hegemony. Taken together, the following phenomena are inextricably linked to one another: the capitalism of oligopolies; the political power of oligarchies; barbarous globalization; financialization; U.S. hegemony; the militarization of the way globalization operates in the service of oligopolies; the decline of democracy; the plundering of the planet’s resources; and the abandoning of development for the South.

The real question, therefore, is as follows: will these struggles manage to converge in order to pave the way — or ways — on the long road to the transition to world socialism? Or will these struggles remain separate from one another, perhaps even clashing with each other, leaving the initiative to the capital of the oligopolies?

From One Long Crisis to Another

The financial meltdown in September 2008 took most conventional economists and advocates of “sweet spot” globalization entirely by surprise, while disconcerting some of the manufacturers of liberal discourse, triumphant since the “fall of the Berlin wall” — as they are accustomed to say. If, however, this event did not surprise me — I expected it (without of course predicting its date, like Mrs. Soleil1) — it is simply because, for me, this event was to be understood as part of the unfolding of the long crisis of an aging capitalism, begun in the 1970s.

It is good to return to the first long crisis of capitalism, which gave shape to the twentieth century, because the parallel between the stages of the unfolding crises is so striking.

Industrial capitalism, triumphant in the nineteenth century, entered a crisis from 1873 onwards. Profit rates dropped, for the reasons highlighted by Marx. Capital reacted by a double movement of concentration and globalized expansion. The new monopolies confiscated, in addition to their profits, a rent levied on the massive value-added generated by the exploitation of labor power. They reinforced the colonial conquests of the planet. These structural transformations allowed a new surge in profits and led to the “belle époque” — from 1890 to 1914 — the first period of global domination by financialized monopoly capital. The dominant discourses of that time praised colonization (“civilizing mission”) and described globalization as synonymous with peace, earning the support of the workers’ social democracy.

However, the “belle époque,” announced as the “end of history” by the ideologues of this period, ended — as only Lenin had foreseen — in the First World War. And the period that followed and lasted until the aftermath of the Second World War was the period of wars and revolutions. In 1920, after the revolution in Russia (the “weak link” of the system) had been isolated following the defeat of revolutionary hopes in Central Europe, financialized monopoly capital managed, against all odds, to restore the system of the belle époque. This restoration, denounced by Keynes at the time, was the origin of the financial collapse of 1929 and the consequent Great Depression that endured until the start of the Second World War.

The “long twentieth century” — 1873-1990 — is therefore both the century of the deployment of the first systemic and profound crisis of aging capitalism (to the point where Lenin thought that this monopoly capitalism constituted the “highest stage of capitalism”) and that of the first triumphant wave of anti-capitalist revolutions (Russia, China) and the anti-imperialist movements of Asia and Africa.

The second systemic crisis of capitalism began in 1971, almost exactly a century after the commencement of the first, with the abandoning of the gold convertibility of the dollar. Profit rates, investment levels, and growth rates all collapsed (and never again reverted to the levels in the period 1945-75). Capital responded to the challenge, not unlike its response in the previous crisis, by a double movement of concentration and globalization. As such, capital established structures that defined the second “belle époque” (1990-2008) of financialized globalization, allowing oligopolistic groups to levy monopoly rent. The same discourse accompanied this process: the “market” guarantees prosperity, democracy, and peace; it’s the “end of history.” The same eager support occurred, this time by European socialists, for the new liberalism. However, this new “belle époque” was, from the onset, accompanied by war: the war of the North versus the South, begun in 1990. Just as the first financialized globalization had led to 1929, so the second produced 2008. Today we have reached a crucial moment, suggesting the probability of a new wave of wars and revolutions. The more so, since the ruling powers do not envisage anything other than the restoration of the system as it was before the financial meltdown.

The analogy between the unfolding of these long, systemic crises of aging capitalism is striking. There are, nonetheless, differences whose political significance is important.

Behind the Financial Crisis: A Systemic Crisis of the Capitalism of Oligopolies

Contemporary capitalism is, first and foremost, a capitalism of oligopolies in the full sense of the term (in previous capitalism, oligopolies were only partial). What I mean by this is that the oligopolies alone command the production of the economic system in its entirety. They are “financialized” in the sense that they alone have access to capital markets. This financialization grants to the monetary and financial market — their market, in which they compete only with each other — the status of dominant market, which, in turn, structures and commands the labor and commodity exchange markets.

This globalized financialization expresses itself by a transformation of the ruling bourgeois class, which has become a rent-capturing plutocracy. The oligarchs are not only Russian, as is too often presumed, but also, and much more often, U.S., European, and Japanese. The decline of democracy — to the exclusive benefit of the oligopolies — is the inevitable product of this concentration of power.

The new form of capitalist globalization that corresponds to this transformation — in contrast with the one that characterized the first “belle époque” — is also important to specify. I have expressed it in a sentence: the passage from imperialisms (that of the imperialist powers in permanent conflict with each other) to the collective imperialism of the triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan).

The monopolies, which emerged in response to the first crisis of profit rates, constituted themselves on a basis that reinforced the violence of competition between the major imperialist powers of the time, and led to the armed conflict begun in 1914, which continued through the “peace” of Versailles and the Second World War until 1945. That is what Giovanni Arrighi, André Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, and I described in the 1970s as the “thirty years war,” a notion that has been taken up by others since.

By contrast, the second wave of oligopolistic concentration, begun in the 1970s, constituted itself on totally other bases, within the framework of a system dominated by the “collective imperialism” of the triad. In this new imperialist globalization, the domination of the centers is no longer exercised by a monopoly of industrial production (as had been the case hitherto) but by other means: control of technologies, financial markets, access to the planet’s natural resources, information and communications, weapons of mass destruction. This system, which I have described as “apartheid on a global scale,” implies a permanent war against the states and the people of the recalcitrant peripheries, a war begun already in the 1990s by the deployment of military control over the world by the United States and its subordinate NATO allies.

According to my analysis, the financialization of this system is inextricably linked to its clearly oligopolistic aspect. What pertains between them is a fundamentally organic relation. This point of view is not prevalent, either in the expansive literature of conventional economists or in the majority of critical writings on the current crisis.

It Is the Entire System that Henceforth Is in Difficulty

The facts are clear: the financial collapse is already producing, not a “recession,” but a profound depression. But beyond this, other dimensions of the crisis of the system have surfaced in public consciousness, even before the financial meltdown. We know the main headings — energy crisis, food crisis, environmental crisis, climate change. Numerous analyses of the aspects of these contemporary challenges are produced on a daily basis, some of which are of the highest quality.

Nonetheless, I remain critical of this mode of treating the systemic crisis of capitalism that excessively isolates the different dimensions of the challenge. I would, therefore, redefine the diverse “crises” as facets of the same challenge — that of the system of contemporary capitalist globalization (whether liberal or not), founded upon the principle that the field of operation of imperialist rent is now global — benefitting the oligopolies of the imperialist triad.

The real battle is fought on this decisive ground between the oligopolies that seek to produce and reproduce the conditions that allow them to appropriate the imperialist rent and their intended victims — the workers of all the countries in the North and the South, the peoples of the dominated peripheries, condemned to give up any perspective of development worthy of the name.

Exiting the Crisis of Capitalism or a Capitalism in Crisis?

This formula was suggested by André Gunder Frank and me in 1974.

The analysis we developed about the new great crisis that we thought had begun led us to the major conclusion that capital would respond to the challenge by a new wave of concentration, followed by massive dislocations. Later developments largely confirmed this. The title of our intervention at a conference organized by Il Manifesto in Rome in 1974 (“Let us not wait for 1984,” referring to the work by George Orwell) invited the radical left at that time to renounce any strategy of coming to the aid of capital by looking for “exits from the crisis,” but rather to seek strategies aimed at an “exit from capitalism in crisis.”

I have pursued this line of analysis with a kind of stubbornness that I do not regret. I have suggested a conceptualization of new forms of domination on the part of the imperialist centers, grounded in new modes of control that replaced the old monopoly over exclusively industrial production. This has been confirmed by the rise of “emerging market” countries. I have described the new globalization now being constructed as an “apartheid at the global level,” requiring the militarized management of the planet, and in this way perpetuating, in new conditions, the polarization that always accompanies the expansion of “really existing capitalism.”

There Is No Alternative to a Socialist Perspective

The contemporary world is governed by oligarchies. The financial oligarchies in the United States, Europe, and Japan dominate not only economic life but also politics and daily life. The Russian oligarchy, which the Russian state tries to control, was created in their image. Statocracy in China and autocracies common throughout the periphery (sometimes hidden behind the appearance of an electoral democracy — of “low intensity”) are inscribed into this worldwide system.

The management of contemporary globalization by these oligarchies/autocracies is in crisis. The oligarchies of the North seek to remain in power once the present crisis is over. They do not feel threatened. By contrast, the fragility of the power held by the autocracies of the South is clearly visible. The model of globalization that is currently in place is therefore vulnerable. Will it be called into question by the revolt in the South, as was the case in the previous century? Probably so, but that could prove tragic. For humanity as a whole will only commit itself fully to the socialist road — the only humane alternative to chaos — once the powers of the oligarchies, their allies, and their servants, have been broken, both in the countries of the South and those in the North. Long live the internationalism of the people in the face of the cosmopolitanism of the oligarchies!

Is the Reinstatement of the Global Oligopoly-Finance Capital Possible?

Capitalism is synonymous with “liberalism” if, by this we mean not the beneficent image that the “liberal” label frequently brings to mind, but the plain and total exercise of the domination of capital, not only over work and the economy, but over all aspects of social life. There can be no “market economy” (a vulgar expression for capitalism) without a “market society.” Capital stubbornly pursues this distinct objective — money; accumulation for its own sake. Marx, and after him other critical thinkers like Keynes, understood this perfectly. But not our conventional economists, including many of those ostensibly on the left.

This model of total and exclusive domination by capital was imposed ruthlessly by the ruling classes throughout the previous long crisis until 1945. Only the triple victory of democracy, socialism, and the national liberation of peoples in innumerable struggles made possible the replacement for a time of this capitalist ideal. From 1945 to 1980, it was supplanted by the conflictual coexistence of three socially regulated models: the welfare state of Western social democracy; the “really existing” socialism in the East; and the popular nationalisms in the South. The demise and collapse of these three models made possible the return of the exclusive domination by capital, this time described as the neoliberal phase of capitalism.

I have linked this new liberalism to a series of new aspects that appear to me to merit the description of “senile capitalism.” My book of this title, published in 2001 (Au-delà du capitalisme senile, Presses Universitaires France), is probably one among the very rare writings at the time that, far from viewing globalized and financialized neoliberalism as the “end of history,” analyzed the system of aging capitalism as unstable and condemned to eventual collapse, precisely by reason of its financialization (its “Achilles Heel,” as I wrote then).

Conventional economists have remained persistently deaf to any questioning of their own dogma — so much so that they were unable to foresee the financial collapse of 2008. Those whom the media have portrayed as “critical” hardly deserve this description. Even Joseph Stiglitz remains convinced that the system as it stands — globalized and financialized liberalism — can be fixed by means of some corrections. Amartya Sen preaches morality without daring to see “really existing” capitalism as it is.

The social disasters caused by the deployment of liberalism — “the permanent utopia of capital,” as I wrote — have inspired quite a bit of nostalgia in relation to the recent or distant past. But such nostalgia cannot respond to the present challenge. It is the product of an impoverished theoretical critique that has gradually blocked understanding of the internal contradictions and the limits of the post-1945 systems; their erosions, diversions, and collapses appeared as unforeseen cataclysms.

Nonetheless — in the void created by this retreat of critical, theoretical thinking — a consciousness about the new dimensions of the systemic crisis of civilization managed to chart a path. I am referring here to the ecological movement. But the Greens, who have purported to distinguish themselves radically from both the Blues (the Conservatives and the Liberals) and the Reds (the Socialists), are locked into an impasse, since they have failed to link the ecological dimension to the challenge of a radical critique of capitalism.

Everything was therefore ready to ensure the triumph — in fact, ephemeral but experienced as final — of the alternative of “liberal democracy.” This reflected a poverty of thought — a veritable non-thinking — disregarding Marx’s decisive argument about bourgeois democracy’s failure to acknowledge that those who decide are not those negatively affected by the decisions. Those who decide and benefit from the freedom reinforced by the control over property are nowadays the plutocrats of capitalism’s oligopolies, and states are their debtors. Perforce the workers and the people in question are little more than their victims. This sort of liberal nonsense might, at some point, have been credible, at least for a short while, as a result of the decline of the three post-1945 systems, East, West, and South. But the prevailing dogmas, in their poverty of theory, could no longer understand the origins of the crisis. Under these conditions, liberal democracy might well have appeared to be “the best of all possible systems.” Yet, its hegemony was threatened by a deepening crisis of its own making.

Today the powers that be — those who did not foresee anything — are busy attempting to restore the same system. Their possible success, as in the case of the conservatives in the 1920s — which Keynes had denounced without much of an echo at the time — will only exacerbate the scope of the contradictions that are the root cause of the 2008 financial collapse.

No less serious is the fact that economists on the “left” have long since embraced the essential tenets of vulgar economics and accepted the erroneous idea that markets are rational. The same economists have focused their efforts on defining the conditions for this market rationality, thereby abandoning Marx, who had discovered the irrationality of markets from the point of view of the workers and the peoples — a perspective deemed “obsolete.” According to this “left-wing” perspective, capitalism is flexible, and adjusts itself to the requirements of progress (technological and even social) if it is properly constrained. These “leftist” economists are not prepared to understand that the crisis that has erupted was inevitable. They are even less prepared to confront the challenges that are faced by the peoples as a result. Like other vulgar economists, they will seek to repair the damage without understanding that it is necessary to pursue another route if we are to overcome the fundamental logic of capitalism. Instead of looking for exits from a capitalism in crisis, they think they can simply exit the crisis.

U.S. Hegemony in Crisis

The recent G20 Summit in London in April 2009 in no way marks the beginning of a “reconstruction of the world.” And it is perhaps no coincidence that it was followed by a summit meeting of NATO, the right hand of contemporary imperialism, and by the reinforcement of NATO’s military involvement in Afghanistan. The permanent war of the North against the South must continue.

We already knew that the governments of the triad — the United States, Europe, and Japan — would pursue the singular goal of restoring the system as it existed before September 2008, and one must not take seriously the interventions at the G20 Summit in London by President Obama and Gordon Brown, on the one hand, and those of Sarkozy and Merkel, on the other. Both were aimed at amusing the spectators. The purported differences, identified by the media but without any genuine substance, respond to the exclusive needs of the leaders in question to make the best of themselves in the face of naïve public opinion.

“Recreate capitalism,” “moralizing financial operations”: such similar grand declarations are made in order to avoid the real questions. That is why restoring the system, which is not impossible, will not solve any problem but will, in fact, exacerbate the gravity of the crisis. The “Stiglitz Commission,” convened by the United Nations, is part of this strategy of tricking the public. Obviously, one could not expect otherwise from the oligarchs who control the real power and their political debtors. The point of view that I have developed, and that puts the emphasis on the inextricable links between the domination of the oligopolies and the necessary financialization of managing the world economy, is confirmed by the results of the G20.

More interesting is the fact that the invited leaders of the “emerging markets” chose to remain silent. A single intelligent sentence was said throughout this day of great spectacle, by the Chinese President Hu Jintao, who observed “in passing,” without insisting and with a (mocking?) smile, that it would be necessary to envisage the creation of a global financial system that is not based on the U.S. dollar. Some commentators immediately linked this — correctly — to Keynes’s proposals in 1945.

This remark is a rude awakening to the fact that the crisis of the capitalist system of oligopolies is inextricably linked to the crisis of U.S. hegemony, which is on the ropes. But who will replace it? Certainly not “Europe,” which does not exist apart from or outside Atlanticism and has no ambition to be independent, as the NATO summit meeting once more confirmed. China? This “threat,” which the media repeat ad nauseam (a new “Yellow Peril”?) in order to justify the Atlantic alignment, has no foundation in reality. The Chinese leadership knows that the country does not have either the means or the will. China’s strategy is confined to promoting a new globalization without hegemony — something which neither the United States nor Europe deems acceptable.

The likelihood of a possible evolution in this direction depends once more on the countries of the South. And it is no coincidence that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is the only institution within the UN umbrella that has taken initiatives that are fundamentally different from those of the Stiglitz Commission. It is also no coincidence that UNCTAD’s Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, from Thailand, hitherto considered to be a perfect liberal, has dared propose, in a March 2009 report entitled “The Global Economic Crisis,” realistic ideas that are part of a second wave of a Southern awakening.

For its part, China has begun to build — in a gradual and controlled manner — alternative regional financial systems rid of the U.S. dollar. Similar initiatives complement, on the economic level, the promotion of political alliance within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is a major obstacle to NATO’s belligerence.

The NATO summit meeting, also convened in April 2009, agreed to Washington’s decision not to start a gradual military disengagement but, on the contrary, to reinforce the scope of its military involvement, always under the misguided pretext of the “war against terror.” President Obama deploys his talents to save Clinton’s and Bush’s program of imposing global military control, which is the only way of prolonging the days of U.S. hegemony, now under threat. Obama scored points and obtained a total, unconditional surrender from Sarkozy’s France, which has now rejoined NATO’s military command — the end of Gaullism — something that was difficult to achieve during Bush’s reign when Washington spoke without intelligence but not without arrogance. Moreover, Obama has acted like Bush by giving lessons, with slight concern for Europe’s independence, about how Turkey should be allowed to enter the Union!

Are New Advances in the Struggles for the Emancipation of the Peoples Possible?

The political management of the worldwide domination by oligopoly capital is necessarily marked by extreme violence. For, in order to maintain their status of affluent societies, the countries of the imperialist triad are henceforth obliged to limit access to the planet’s natural resources to their own exclusive benefit. This new requirement is at the origin of the militarization of globalization that I have elsewhere described as the Empire of Chaos (Monthly Review, 1992), an expression others have since taken up.

In line with Washington’s project of military control over the planet and the waging of “pre-emptive wars” under the pretext of the “war against terror,” NATO has portrayed itself as the representative of the international community and has thereby marginalized the United Nations — the only institution entitled to speak in this name.

Of course, these real goals cannot be openly acknowledged. In order to mask them, the powers in question have chosen to instrumentalize the discourse on democracy and have arrogated to themselves the “right to intervene,” so as to impose “respect for human rights”!

At the same time, the absolute power of the new oligarchic plutocracies has hollowed out the substance of bourgeois democratic practice. In former times, political negotiation between different social parties of the hegemonic bloc was necessary for the reproduction of the power of capital. By contrast, the new political management of the capitalism of oligopolies, established by means of a systematic de-politicization, has given rise to a new political culture of “consensus” (modelled on the example of the United States) that substitutes the consumer and the political spectator for the active citizen, necessary for an authentic democracy. The Liberal Virus (the title of another book of mine published by Monthly Review Press, 2004) abolishes the possibility of alternative choices and replaces it with a consensus centered on respect only for a procedural, electoral democracy.

The demise and collapse of the three above-mentioned social models (i.e., “really existing” socialism in the East, social welfarism in the West, and populist nationalism in the South) is at the origin of this drama. The first page of the wave of struggles for emancipation has now been turned; that of the second wave has not yet been opened. In the twilight that separates them, one can discern “monsters,” as Gramsci writes.

In the North, these developments have caused the loss of a real sense of democratic practice. This regression is masked by the pretensions of the so-called “postmodern” discourse, according to which nations and classes have already left the scene and ceded the political space to the “individual,” now the sole active subject of social transformation.

In the South, other illusions dominate the political realm. The illusion of a capitalist, national, and autonomous development that is part of globalization is powerful among the dominant and middle classes in “emerging markets,” fuelled by the swift successes of the last few decades. Or, in the countries excluded from this process, nostalgic (para-ethnic or para-religious) illusions about the past.

What is worse, these developments have strengthened the general embrace of the “ideology of consumption” and the idea that progress is measured by the quantitative growth of consumption. Marx had already shown that it is the mode of production that determines the mode of consumption and not vice-versa, as is claimed by vulgar economics. What is lost sight of in all this is the perspective of a humanist and superior rationality, the basis for the socialist project. The gigantic potential that the application of science and technology offers the whole of humanity, and that would enable the real flourishing of individuals and societies in the North and the South, is wasted by the requirements of its subordination to the logics of the unlimited pursuit of the accumulation of capital. What’s even worse, the continuous growth of the social productivity of labor is linked to the breathtaking use of mechanisms of pauperization (visible at a global scale as the wholesale attack on peasant societies) — as Marx had already understood.

Embracing the ideological alienation caused by capitalism adversely affects not only the affluent societies of the imperialist centers. The peoples of the peripheries, who are, for the most part, deprived of access to acceptable levels of consumption and blinded by aspirations to consume like the opulent North, are losing consciousness of the fact that the logic of historical capitalism makes the extension of this model to the entire globe impossible.

We can, therefore, understand the reasons why the 2008 financial collapse was the result of a sharpening of the internal contradictions peculiar to the accumulation of capital. Only the intervention of forces that embody a positive alternative can offer a way of imagining an exit from the chaos caused by the sharpening of the internal contradictions of the system. (In this spirit, I have contrasted the “revolutionary way” with the model of overcoming the historically obsolete system through “decadence.”) And, in the current state of affairs, the movements of social protest, despite their visible growth, remain, as a whole, unable to question the social order linked to the capitalism of oligopolies — in the absence of a coherent political project that can match the challenges.

From this point of view, the current situation is markedly different from that which prevailed in the 1930s, when the forces of socialism clashed with fascist parties, producing Nazism, the New Deal, and the Popular Fronts.

The deepening of the crisis will not be avoided, even if reinstatement of the system of domination by oligopoly capital were to be potentially successful, which is not impossible. In this situation, the possible radicalization of the struggles is not an improbable hypothesis, even if the obstacles remain formidable.

In the countries of the triad, such a radicalization would imply that the agenda would be to expropriate the oligopolies — a struggle that seems to be off the table for the foreseeable future. In consequence, the hypothesis that — despite the turmoil caused by the crisis — the stability of the societies of the triad will not be questioned cannot be discarded. There is a serious risk of a “remake” of the wave of struggles of emancipation, as happened in the twentieth century, that is to say, a questioning of the system exclusively by some of its peripheries.

A second stage of “the South’s awakening” (the title of yet another book of mine that offers a reading of the period of Bandung as the first stage of awakening [L’Eveil du Sud (Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 2007)]) is now on the agenda. In the best possible scenario, the advances produced by these conditions could force imperialism to retreat, to renounce its demented and criminal project of controlling the world militarily. And, if this were the case, then the democratic movement of the countries at the center of the system could make a positive contribution to the success of this strategy of neutralization. Moreover, the decline of the imperialist rent, which benefits the societies in question — itself a result of the reorganization of the international equilibria of production to the advantage of the South (especially China) — could help the awakening of a socialist consciousness. Nevertheless, the societies of the South could remain mired in the same challenges as in the past — a situation that would produce some of the same limits on their progress.

A New Internationalism of the Workers and the Peoples Is Necessary and Possible

Historical capitalism is all things to everyone, except being durable. It is but a short parenthesis in history. The fundamental questioning of capitalism — which our contemporary thinkers, in their overwhelming majority, deem neither possible nor desirable — is nonetheless the inescapable condition for the emancipation of the dominated workers and the peoples (those of the peripheries, i.e., 80 percent of humankind). The two dimensions of the challenges are inextricably linked with one another. There will be no exit from capitalism by way of the sole struggle of the people of the North, or by the sole struggle of the dominated people of the South. There will only be an exit from capitalism if and when these two dimensions combine with one other. It is far from certain that this will occur, in which case capitalism will be overcome by the destruction of civilization (rather than the malaise of civilization, to use Freud’s terminology) and perhaps life on the planet. The scenario of a “remake” of the twentieth century falls short of the requirements of a commitment by humankind to the long route of transition to worldwide socialism. The liberal catastrophe requires a renewal of the radical critique of capitalism. The challenge is the permanent construction/reconstruction of the internationalism of the workers and the peoples in the face of the cosmopolitanism of oligarchic capital.

Constructing this internationalism can only be envisaged by successful, new, revolutionary advances (like those begun in Latin America and Nepal) that offer the perspective of an overcoming of capitalism.

In the countries of the South, the battle of the states and the nations for a negotiated globalization without hegemonies — the contemporary form of de-linking — supported by the organization of the demands of the popular classes, can circumscribe and limit the powers of the oligopolies of the imperialist triad. The democratic forces in the countries of the North must support this battle. The pseudo-democratic discourse (the support for low-intensity democracy) proposed, and accepted, by a majority on the left, and the “humanitarian” interventions conducted in its name — just like the miserable practice of giving “aid” — repels real engagement with this challenge.

In the countries of the North, the oligopolies are already clearly forms of the “commons,” whose management cannot be left to sectional private interests alone (the crisis has highlighted the catastrophic results of such an approach). An authentic left must dare envision genuine nationalization as the first inescapable stage of the socialization of the oligopolies, deepening democratic practice. The current crisis makes it possible to conceive the crystallization of a common front of the social and political forces, bringing together all the victims of the exclusive power of the ruling oligarchies.

The first wave of the struggles for socialism, that of the twentieth century, has shown the limits of European social-democracies, of the communisms of the third international, and of the popular nationalisms of the Bandung era — and the demise and collapse of their popular, social-democratic, socialist ambitions. The second wave, that of the twenty-first century, must draw lessons from this. In particular, one lesson is to associate the socialization of economic management and the deepening of the democratization of society. There will be no socialism without democracy, but equally, no democratic advance outside a socialist perspective.

These strategic goals invite us to think about the construction of “convergences in diversity” (referring here to the formula used by the World Forum of Alternatives), of the forms of organization, and the struggles of the dominated and exploited classes. It is emphatically not my intention to condemn from the outset the convergences of the forms that, in their own way, would retrieve the traditions of social-democracy, communism, and popular nationalism, or would diverge from them.

According to this perspective, it seems to me necessary to conceive of the condition for the renewal of a creative Marxism. Marx has never been so useful and necessary in order to understand and transform the world — today even more so than yesterday. Being Marxist in this spirit is to begin with Marx and not to stop with him — or Lenin or Mao — as conceived and practiced by the historical Marxisms of the previous century. It is to render onto Marx that which is owed him: the intelligence to have begun critical thinking, a critique of capitalist reality, and a critique of its political, ideological, and cultural representations. A creative Marxism must pursue the goal of enriching this critical thinking par excellence. It must not fear to integrate all reflection, in all areas, including those that have wrongly been considered “foreign” by the dogmas of past historical Marxisms.

French television astrologer, popular in the 1970s