Tuesday, September 6, 2011

20 years since the funeral

The Senile Dementia of Post-Marxism: Empire, Multitude and the “Death of Communism”

Corrections Appended

The November 1999 “battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization made “anti-globalization” a household word. The publication shortly thereafter of Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) turned its authors, a young American academic named Michael Hardt and his mentor, veteran Italian New Left intellectual Antonio Negri, into self-appointed media spokesmen for anti-globalization activists. Loaded with arcane post-modernist jargon and paragraph-length sentences, this dense, often impenetrable opus was far more widely talked about than read. But its promise of providing some theoretical coherence to a disparate protest movement made Empire and its sequel, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), a focal point in a larger debate about globalization, class and social change in the post-Soviet era.

In Empire and Multitude, Hardt and Negri seemed to synthesize the ideas of a layer of “post-Marxist” intellectuals who maintain that the structure and functioning of world capitalism has changed fundamentally over the past few decades. Because we now live in a “post-industrial, information-based” economy, they argue, the industrial proletariat is no longer the uniquely revolutionary social force that traditional Marxist doctrine holds it to be. Transnational corporations and banks have effected a complete globalization of production. States and other forms of centrally organized power have been superseded by an intangible network of global interconnections, “Empire.” Hardt and Negri conclude:

“The current global recomposition of social classes, the hegemony of immaterial labor, and the forms of decision-making based on network structures all radically change the conditions of any revolutionary process. The traditional modern conception of insurrection, for example, which was defined primarily in the numerous episodes from the Paris Commune to the October Revolution, was characterized by a movement from the insurrectional activity of the masses to the creation of political vanguards, from civil war to the building of a revolutionary government, from the construction of organizations of counterpower to the conquest of state power, and from opening the constituent process to establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such sequences of revolutionary activity are unimaginable today.”


Claiming to update Marx, Hardt and Negri jettison the programmatic core of Marxism: proletarian revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. They dismiss the lessons distilled from the 1871 Paris Commune, the first proletarian insurrection, and the subsequent history of the revolutionary workers movement. They deride class war and proletarian power as “old, tired and faded” notions (ibid.). But far from proposing anything new, Hardt and Negri offer up an amalgam of anarchistic lifestyle radicalism and utopian reformism reminiscent of the “counterculture” trend in the 1960s New Left: “As we will argue in the course of this book, resistance, exodus, the emptying out of the enemy’s power, and the multitude’s construction of a new society are one and the same process” (ibid.).

Noting that Negri “has learned nothing and forgotten nothing” since the 1970s, reviewer Tony Judt captured something of the dreary quality of Empire and Multitude in his “Dreams of Empire”:

“This is globalization for the politically challenged. In the place of the boring old class struggle we have the voracious imperial nexus now facing a challenger of its own creation, the decentered multitudinous commonality: Alien versus Predator…. With the American left reading Multitude, Dick Cheney can sleep easy.”

New York Review of Books, 4 November 2004

After some 900 tortuous pages of Empire and its sequel, Hardt and Negri allow that they cannot, in a “philosophical book like this,...evaluate whether the time of revolutionary political decision is imminent,” adding: “A book like this is not the place either to answer the question ‘What is to be done?’” (Multitude). This frankly know-nothing conclusion corresponds to the vaunted diversity of what’s called a “movement of movements,” of “one no and a million yeses.”

As Marxists and Leninists we do know what is to be done. We are fighting for new October Revolutions: the overthrow of the capitalist system by the proletariat, allied with other sections of the exploited and oppressed. The victory of the proletariat on a world scale would place unimagined material abundance at the service of human needs, lay the basis for the elimination of classes, the eradication of social inequality based on sex and the very abolition of the social significance of race, nation and ethnicity. For the first time mankind will grasp the reins of history and control its own creation, society, resulting in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential.

In the late 1930s, following the victory of fascism in Germany and the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed: “As always during epochs of reaction and decay, quacks and charlatans appear on all sides, desirous of revising the whole course of revolutionary thought” (Transitional Program [1938]). The triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe in the early 1990s has nurtured a new generation of ideological quacks and charlatans. Hardt and Negri peddle their ideological wares to young leftists who, having no sense of the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat, accept the subjective outlook that a new world will be won not by uprooting the material reality of oppression but by changing the ideas in people’s heads.

It is therefore necessary to reassert the basic premises of historical materialism and the corresponding programmatic principles of Marxism. In doing so, we recall the example of Friedrich Engels’ polemic against a charlatan of his day, Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1877-78). Engels actively collaborated with Marx in writing this work, which is commonly known as Anti-Dühring (sections of which were later published in abridged form as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific [1880]). Engels derided Dühring for excelling in “bumptious pseudo-science” and “sublime nonsense” and charged him guilty of “mental incompetence due to megalomania.” But he also methodically dissected Dühring’s arguments and his idealist philosophical outlook, producing a powerful exposition of the materialist conception of history.

For a Materialist Understanding of Class Society

Hardt and Negri toss sand in the eyes of young leftist activists outraged by the manifold horrors of the world capitalist system—the destitution of the masses in the “global South,” racist terror, imperialist war—by providing obscure, confusionist and demonstrably false “theoretical” justifications for prevailing anti-communist prejudices. They solace the largely petty-bourgeois anti-globalization milieu with the false belief that it is itself a force for social change, denying the need for would-be revolutionaries to ally with the social power of the proletariat. They mangle precise Marxist terms like “class” and promote an “anti-capitalist” movement, centered on the World Social Forum, that is funded by and relies on capitalist foundations and even capitalist governments. Throughout, they make absolutely no attempt to analyze reality or provide hard facts to back up their impressionistic claims.

Contrast the meticulously researched historical and statistical documentation to be found in Marx’s Capital or Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism with how Hardt and Negri spin economic and political theories that the reader must accept, like religion, on faith. A review of Multitude by Tom Nairn, long associated with New Left Review, takes note of Hardt and Negri’s rejection of both Marxism and capitalist neoliberalism in favor of an essentially spiritual approach. Citing the authors’ fixation with 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a precursor to 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism, Nairn comments: “Many readers will sense something odd about such reliance on a vision predating not only David Hume and Adam Smith, but Darwin, Freud, Marx and Durkheim, from an age when genes and the structure of human DNA were undreamt of” (“Make for the Boondocks,” London Review of Books, 5 May 2005). A more recent post-Marxist discourse by Malcolm Bull, citing Cicero, Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes among others, argues that Hardt and Negri misconstrue poor Spinoza, whose concept of “multitude” in any case provides no framework for discussion of contemporary politics (“The Limits of Multitude,” New Left Review, September-October 2005).

Hardt and Negri are representative of what we have described as a profound retrogression in political consciousness—especially pronounced among the leftist intelligentsia—which prepared and was in turn deepened by the final overturn of the October Revolution and imperialist triumphalism over the supposed “death of communism.” This is an era truly awash in bumptious pseudoscience, in which increasingly influential Christian fundamentalist forces in the corridors of power of the world’s most powerful state try to palm off the biblical creation myth as the last word in “science.”

Most young leftists now consider not only proletarian socialism but any form of programmatically defined revolutionary strategy off the agenda. Much of the pseudo-Marxist left disavows even nominal adherence to the Marxist aim of the dictatorship of the proletariat—the replacement of capitalist class rule by the revolutionary rule of the working class. In a short polemic against post-modern idealism titled “In Defence of History,” historian Eric Hobsbawm commented:

“Most intellectuals who became Marxists from the 1880s on, including historians, did so because they wanted to change the world in association with the labour and socialist movements. The motivation remained strong until the 1970s, before a massive political and ideological reaction against Marxism began. Its main effect has been to destroy the belief that the success of a particular way of organising human societies can be predicted and assisted by historical analysis.”

Guardian [London], 15 January 2005

Marxism took the struggle for an egalitarian society out of the realm of a spiritual or philosophical ideal and rooted it in a scientific, materialist analysis of the historical development of human society. “The final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange,” wrote Engels in Anti-Dühring. Poverty, oppression, exploitation and war are not caused by bad ideas, greed, power-lust or other presumed traits of a supposedly unchanging “human nature.”

The course of human history has been shaped by an ongoing struggle to secure enough food, clothing and shelter to provide for survival and propagation. For many thousands of years, humans lived in small kinship groups, sharing what they got through hunting and gathering, on the basis of a rough communism of distribution. The invention of agriculture allowed for the production of a surplus beyond that necessary for immediate survival, opening the road to further development of the means of production and posing the question of who would appropriate that surplus and how. The development of private property and the division of society into classes also brought the rise of the family, the chief institution for the oppression of women (and youth), as a way of handing down privately appropriated wealth to the next generation. All history since has been the history of class struggle: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party [1848]).

Capitalism, Imperialism and the Nation-State

Capitalism was historically progressive because it enormously raised the productive forces of society—so much so, that for the first time there was a material basis for envisioning an end to scarcity and class divisions altogether: “Only the immense increase of the productive forces attained by modern industry has made it possible to distribute labour among all members of society without exception, and thereby to limit the labour-time of each individual member to such an extent that all have enough free time left to take part in the general—both theoretical and practical—affairs of society” (Anti-Dühring).

At the same time, private ownership of the means of production increasingly became a barrier to the continued development of the productive forces. Engels explained:

“Both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions. On this tangible, material fact, which is impressing itself in a more or less clear form, but with insuperable necessity, on the minds of the exploited proletarians—on this fact, and not on the conceptions of justice and injustice held by any armchair philosopher, is modern socialism’s confidence in victory founded.”


The emergence of modern imperialism at the end of the 19th century marked the onset of an epoch of global capitalist decay. The nation-state system, which had served as a crucible for the rise to power of a modern capitalist class, came ever more sharply into conflict with the needs of the international economic order that capitalism had itself brought about. The capitalist Great Powers, having divided the world through bloody imperial conquest, embarked on a series of wars to redivide it, seeking to expand their colonial holdings and spheres of influence at the expense of their rivals.

The gory barbarism of World War I—described by Trotsky as a “furious pogrom of human culture” (Terrorism and Communism [1920])—was followed by barely two decades of “peace” before the imperialist powers embarked on a second global conflagration. World War II saw the epitome of capitalist barbarism with the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry—which ended only with the Soviet Red Army’s liberation of Nazi-occupied East Europe—and the incineration of some 200,000 Japanese civilians by U.S. atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A future interimperialist world war will likely be fought with nuclear weapons on all sides, threatening the annihilation of all humanity.

Under the modern imperialist system, a handful of advanced capitalist states in North America, Europe and Japan exploit and oppress the downtrodden colonial and semicolonial masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America, arresting the all-round socioeconomic and cultural modernization of the vast majority of humanity. A just, egalitarian and harmonious society requires the overcoming of economic scarcity on a global scale through an internationally planned, socialist economy. Yet many Greens and anarchists regard large-scale technology as inherently evil (though few would personally give up modern medicine, communication and transport for a life where survival itself is a daily scramble). For their part, Hardt and Negri “rebut” Marxist materialism by simply conjuring scarcity away:

“The notion of a foundational war of all against all is based on an economy of private property and scarce resources. Material property, such as land or water or a car, cannot be in two places at once: my having and using it negates your having and using it. Immaterial property, however, such as an idea or an image or a form of communication, is infinitely reproducible…. Some resources do remain scarce today, but many, in fact, particularly the newest elements of the economy, do not operate on a logic of scarcity.”


Our pioneering post-Marxist professors are neither very original nor radical. Charles Leadbeater, an admirer of and highly praised freelance adviser to Tony Blair’s Labour government in Britain, wrote two years before Empire:

“There is no better way of conveying the economic value of knowledge transformation than to think about the home economics of food. Think of the world as divided up into chocolate cakes and chocolate-cake recipes…. We can all use the same chocolate-cake recipe, at the same time, without anyone being worse off. It is quite unlike a piece of cake.”

—Leadbeater, Living on Thin Air: The New Economy (London: Penguin Books, 1999)

Shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, the queen, Marie Antoinette, upon being told that the poor people of Paris had no bread, reputedly replied: “Then let them eat cake.” Leadbeater has gone Marie Antoinette one better. To the impoverished masses of the “global South,” he says: Let them eat cake recipes! As Engels said of Herr Dühring: “Such is the ease with which the living force of the hocus-pocus of the philosophy of reality surmounts the most impassable obstacles” (Anti-Dühring).

The response to Hurricane Katrina showed vividly how the “logic of scarcity” continues to dominate even in the richest capitalist country on earth. The contempt of the venal American ruling class for the black poor of New Orleans—left to the mercies of the flood waters because they did not have the means to get out of town—was evident to horrified TV viewers around the world.

Hardt and Negri’s conceptual meanderings are not to be taken any more seriously than computer-generated special effects in Hollywood films like The Matrix. In the virtual reality world of Empire, Hardt and Negri call for “global citizenship” and a universal social wage. To realize a universal social wage based on even the U.S. legal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour would require an annual outlay greater than the current (2004) gross national income of the whole world. To achieve this goal would entail an enormous leap forward in human productivity, not to mention a revolution in the mode of production and distribution. Yet Hardt and Negri reject the perspective of an international planned economy and deny even that material scarcity remains a central problem facing humanity.

Red October, the Soviet Union and Its Fate

The so-called “failure of the Soviet experiment” is held up by both pseudo-leftists and open right-wingers as irrefutable proof that any attempt to replace capitalism with a “hegemonic system” or “hierarchical socialism” is doomed to collapse under the weight of its necessarily “totalitarian” aims. Echoing the common wisdom of imperialist ideologues and tabloid trash regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hardt and Negri intone: “Resistance to the bureaucratic dictatorship is what drove the crisis” (Empire). And what of the aftermath? Hardt and Negri make no mention at all of the catastrophic and historically unprecedented social and economic collapse of post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The immiseration of much of the population of East Europe and the former USSR would seem to be immaterial to these self-proclaimed prophets of the future.

The October Revolution gave flesh and blood to Marx and Engels’ teachings. The workers, leading behind them the impoverished peasant masses, took state power, replacing the class dictatorship of capital with a dictatorship of the proletariat—a necessary step on the road to a global, classless, egalitarian society in which the state as an instrument of repression has completely withered away. A government based on democratically elected councils (soviets) of workers and peasants expropriated the capitalists and landlords, broke their resistance and set about organizing a planned economy based not on profit but on the needs of society. Despite unimaginable poverty and backwardness, Soviet Russia was in the vanguard of all forms of social liberation (see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” page 56).

It spoke to the proletariat’s unique role as the agency of social revolution in this epoch that the workers could seize and retain state power in a backward country in which they, themselves by and large only a generation or two removed from their peasant origins, were a small minority compared to the peasantry. This understanding had been elaborated by Trotsky in Results and Prospects (1906) as part of his theory of permanent revolution, which asserted that the outstanding democratic tasks in backward, tsarist Russia, such as the agrarian and national questions, could only be resolved in the context of proletarian power. But the permanent revolution was premised on victorious proletarian revolutions in the industrial powers of West Europe. The mass of Russia’s workers, not only the Bolshevik leaders, saw the October Revolution as the beginning of the world socialist revolution. Red Russia helped to inspire millions of workers around the globe with revolutionary consciousness. Revolutionary turbulence did engulf much of Europe, centrally Germany, after World War I. However, in no other country did the working class come to power. This was mainly the result of the counterrevolutionary policies of the workers’ social-democratic misleaders and the absence of authoritative vanguard parties like the Bolshevik Party that Lenin had built in tsarist Russia.

Thus Soviet Russia emerged from seven years of imperialist war and civil war internationally isolated and economically devastated, its proletariat physically decimated and politically exhausted, its huge peasantry (particularly the better-off layers) beginning to assert its own petty-bourgeois class interests. (For further discussion on the latter, see “Kronstadt 1921: Bolshevism vs. Counterrevolution,” page 6.) These conditions allowed for the growth of a bureaucratic layer in the governing apparatus of the Soviet state and ruling Communist Party. Seizing on widespread demoralization following the failure of yet another revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1923, the bureaucracy asserted its political control. While maintaining the social foundations put in place by Red October, this political counterrevolution marked a qualitative transformation in how and for what purposes the Soviet Union was governed.

The bureaucracy became increasingly hostile to the fight for socialist revolution in the capitalist countries. In late 1924 Stalin promulgated the ridiculous dogma that socialism could be built in the Soviet Union alone, if only the imperialists could be kept from militarily attacking it. Communist parties around the world were transformed into tools of Soviet diplomacy in the search for “peaceful coexistence.” Trotsky, at the head of the Left Opposition (LO), fought against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution in both the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International. The LO fought to maintain the internationalist program of extending the gains of the Russian Revolution to other countries, the program that had animated the Soviet state and party in the early years of the revolution.

Because of the economic devastation caused by the Civil War and the extreme backwardness of the rural economy, the Bolshevik regime had been forced in 1921 to allow for a limited private market in grain and consumer goods. The LO understood that the layer of better-off peasants (kulaks) and small merchants represented a potential danger to the collectivized property on which the workers state was based. While the growing bureaucratic caste increasingly conciliated the kulaks, the LO advocated a tax on the agricultural surplus to help fund planned industrial development, as well as a policy of material incentives for the poorer peasants to voluntarily collectivize their lands. As the kulaks systematically hoarded grain to drive up prices in 1928, threatening to starve the cities, the bureaucracy was forced, in a deformed way, to implement part of the LO’s program. In typically brutal and bureaucratic fashion, Stalin forcibly collectivized the peasantry. This turn foreclosed the immediate threat of capitalist restoration in the USSR. The accompanying policy of planned industrial development, while rife with tremendous bureaucratic distortions and mismanagement, enabled the Soviet Union to construct a modern, industrial society in which the working class had access to medicine, science, education and culture.

It is not Marxism that failed in the Soviet Union, but the Stalinist perversion expressed in the dogmas of “socialism in one country” and “peaceful coexistence.” Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union, despite its economic successes, could not in the historical long run survive in a world dominated by capitalist-imperialist states. Central planning can only function effectively under a regime of soviet democracy, which allows for the necessary participation of the workers themselves in regulating and implementing the plan. Nonetheless, as Trotsky wrote in his incisive analysis of Stalinism:

“Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface—not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse—which we firmly hope will not happen—there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.”

The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

Throughout the 1930s, the collectivized Soviet economy expanded rapidly even as the capitalist world was mired in depression. Rebuilt after the devastation of the Second World War, by the late 1950s Soviet technological development was such that it could send a man into space. From 1960 to 1980, a massive construction campaign was undertaken, aimed at providing every urban family with an apartment for a nominal rent. This was considered a right of Soviet citizenship—as was the right to a job, public education and free health care. These were historic achievements of the planned economy, despite the terrible bureaucratic overhead of Stalinist misrule, which engendered a dull grayness throughout society, from the slipshod quality of consumer goods to the stifling of intellectual life.

And now? In the six years after counterrevolution, the gross domestic product of post-Soviet Russia fell by 80 percent. Real wages plummeted by a similar amount. Much of the urban population was forced to grow food on small urban garden plots to survive. Today millions in Russia and the other former Soviet republics are on the edge of starvation, while homelessness is rampant.

Hardt, Negri and other worshippers of the accomplished fact proclaim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. In fact, had a revolutionary-internationalist program prevailed, the outcome could have been far different. The decades after the October Revolution saw numerous opportunities for proletarian revolutions in advanced capitalist countries, which would have broken the isolation of the world’s first workers state, shattered the stranglehold of the nationalist bureaucracy and revived the revolutionary consciousness of the Soviet proletariat. Trotsky and the Left Opposition waged an unrelenting struggle to defend the revolutionary gains against both external and internal threats. They fought to defeat Stalinism and restore Bolshevik internationalism and soviet democracy in the Soviet Union. Guided by our Trotskyist program, in 1989-92 the International Communist League intervened uniquely, first in East Germany and then in the Soviet Union, with the program of proletarian political revolution: the overthrow of the disintegrating Stalinist bureaucracy and its replacement by a government based on workers councils.

Despite the destruction of the USSR, about a quarter of the world’s population still lives in countries over which the capitalist exploiters do not exercise direct dominion—the remaining deformed workers states of Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and above all China, the most populous country in the world. Yet China barely merits a mention in Empire and Multitude, much less any indication that it is a society with anything worth defending. In this as well, Hardt and Negri take their cues from the imperialist rulers who, echoed by the anti-Communist labor and social-democratic misleaders, portray China as a giant “slave labor” camp. This was evident at the 1999 Seattle protests where, behind the cute images of “Teamsters and turtles united” lauded by Hardt, Negri and other anti-globalization ideologues, there was a sinister drumbeat by the American AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy for Washington to take stiffer action against China.

The ICL, in contrast, fights for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution. China today remains what it has been since the 1949 Revolution: a bureaucratically ruled workers state structurally similar to the former Soviet Union. Despite major inroads by both foreign and indigenous capitalism, the core elements of its economy are collectivized. At a time when almost all advanced capitalist countries are practicing fiscal austerity, China’s government has launched mammoth infrastructural projects such as dams and canals. State ownership of the banking system has to date insulated China from volatile flows of short-term speculative capital, which periodically wreak havoc on the economies of neocolonial capitalist countries in East Asia and also Latin America.

To the extent that they police the vast “free-trade zones” for offshore Chinese and foreign capital, the Beijing bureaucrats have in a sense become labor contractors for the imperialists. But the capitalist powers will not rest until China is fully under the thumb of the imperialist world market. The U.S. has been building bases in Central Asia, attempting to surround China with American military installations, and recently consummated a pact with Japan to defend the offshore capitalist bastion of Taiwan. Sooner or later, the explosive social tensions in Chinese society will shatter the ruling bureaucracy. Then the question will be starkly posed: proletarian political revolution to open the road to socialism or capitalist enslavement and imperialist subjugation. Working people and leftist youth all over the world have a stake in this struggle. Capitalist counterrevolution would be devastating for China’s workers, women and rural poor, and would embolden the capitalists internationally to launch more savage attacks on workers, rural toilers, women, minorities and immigrants. It would also intensify competition among the imperialist powers, especially the U.S. and Japan, and lead to further imperialist military adventures against the semicolonial countries around the globe.

“New Economy” Nonsense and Petty-Bourgeois Arrogance

It was a tremendous step forward when Marx and Engels realized that the class struggle was the road to the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and that the proletariat was the revolutionary class of the modern epoch. When they joined the League of the Just in 1847, it became the Communist League and its slogan changed from “All men are brothers” to “Workers of the world, unite!” Hardt and Negri travel this road in reverse, rejecting the class struggle and dissolving the working class into a supposedly classless “people.”

At the core of Empire and Multitude’s arguments is the claim that the proletariat has been subsumed in the “multitude,” an amorphous term encompassing almost everybody on the planet—industrial worker and peasant smallholder, engineer and janitor, homeless beggar and corporate manager, prisoner and prison guard. With the labor movement weaker than at any time since the 1920s, at least in the United States, most young leftist activists view the working class as irrelevant or, at most, simply one more victim of oppression. Hardt and Negri serve up a “theory” to justify and reinforce this impressionism among the university-educated intellectuals they speak to and glorify. This is nothing new. Pioneer American Trotskyist James P. Cannon put it well in a 1966 speech (though the Socialist Workers Party he had founded had by the early ’60s abandoned a revolutionary perspective):

“You have now a new phenomenon in the American radical movement which I hear is called ‘The New Left.’ This is a broad title given to an assemblage of people who state they don’t like the situation the way it is and something ought to be done about it—but we mustn’t take anything from the experiences of the past; nothing from the ‘Old Left’ or any of its ideas or traditions are any good….

“We have a definite orientation whereas the New Left says the working class is dead. The working class was crossed off by the wiseacres in the twenties. There was a long boom in the 1920s. The workers not only didn’t gain any victories, they lost ground. The trade unions actually declined in number. In all the basic industries, where you now see great flourishing industrial unions—the auto workers, aircraft, steel, rubber, electrical, transportation, maritime—the unions did not exist, just a scattering here and there…. It took a semi-revolutionary uprising in the mid-thirties to break that up and install real unions.”

—Cannon, “Reasons for the Survival of the SWP and for Its New Vitality in the 1960s,” 6 September 1966, reprinted in Spartacist No. 38-39, Summer 1986

It took the May 1968 French general strike to break a layer of West European and North American leftists from New Left nonsense about the demise of the working class. The incipient workers revolution in France reaffirmed in real life the Marxist understanding of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. Exposing the charlatanry of an earlier generation of “post-Marxist” ideologues, it laid the basis for new layers of youth to be won to revolutionary Marxism.

Notwithstanding various changes in industrial technique and in the world economy, the proletariat remains central to a revolutionary perspective today—because it continues to occupy a unique role at the heart of the process of production. It is through the exploitation of the working class that the capitalist derives profit. Concentrating workers in large factories and great urban centers, the capitalists have created the instrument of their own destruction as an exploiting class. Furthermore, for the working class to emancipate itself from the yoke of capitalism on a global scale it must abolish all exploitation, leading to a society in which there are no class distinctions.

Intermediate between the two basic classes in capitalist society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, is the petty bourgeoisie. In neither Empire nor Multitude is there any discussion or even mention of the social role of this heterogeneous layer, which ranges from impoverished peasants, small shopkeepers and fast-food branch managers to the university-educated administrative, technical and cultural cadre of the capitalist system and highflying Wall Street brokers. The petty bourgeoisie has no definite relation to the large-scale means of production under capitalism and therefore no independent social power; as a result, though the petty bourgeoisie (or sectors of it) can veer from one political extreme to another, it cannot play an independent role in the class struggle.

The petty bourgeoisie’s social role in turn determines its social outlook. While workers can improve their economic conditions only through collective struggle against the capitalist employers and their state, members of corporate and government bureaucracies seek to increase their incomes and improve their social status by individual competition with one another. A bank loan officer strives to become manager of the branch. The manager of the branch strives to become head of the bank’s regional division, and so on.

Hardt and Negri legitimize petty-bourgeois elitism and contempt for the working class through the notion of a supposedly post-industrial, information-based economy in which it is no longer the proletariat but the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia that plays a pivotal role. They assert that capitalism has passed from “the domination of industry to that of services and information, a process of economic postmodernization, or better, informatization” (Empire [emphasis in original]). Evoking a Joe Six-Pack image of “the male mass factory worker,” they contend: “Today that working class has all but disappeared from view” (ibid.). In the sequel to Empire, Hardt and Negri drop this absurd claim in favor of a no less false argument:

“Agricultural labor remains, as it has for centuries, dominant in quantitative terms, and industrial labor has not declined in terms of numbers globally. Immaterial labor constitutes a minority of global labor, and it is concentrated in some of the dominant regions of the globe. Our claim, rather, is that immaterial labor has become hegemonic in qualitative terms.” [emphasis in original]


Hardt and Negri’s vision of immaterial reality reads like a particularly demented editorial from Wired magazine, or a Silicon Valley venture capitalist out to draw in a new round of funding for the latest “next big” Web site. Likewise, Blairite huckster Charles Leadbeater waxes eloquent: “Our children will not have to toil in dark factories, descend into pits or suffocate in mills, to hew raw materials and turn them into manufactured products. They will make their livings through their creativity, ingenuity and imagination” (Living on Thin Air).

Again, this is nothing new. A 1964 statement signed by a host of left-liberal luminaries—including James Boggs, Todd Gitlin, Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden, Gunnar Myrdal and Linus Pauling—argued:

“A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor….

“The cybernation revolution proffers an existence qualitatively richer in democratic as well as material values.”

—“The Triple Revolution,” International Socialist Review, Summer 1964

But for its clarity, this statement could have been lifted from Empire or Multitude.

Proletarian Centrality and Revolutionary Consciousness

The myth of a new networked world where everyone is an independent producer behind a touch screen can only be invented and purveyed by intellectuals who don’t have a clue about conditions of labor in the real world. Somebody produces the clothes our post-modern thinkers wear, the cars they drive, the computers on which they cruise the information superhighway, and the electricity on which those computers (and a lot else, besides) run. Computers may manage inventory control in transport operations, but the cargo containers still have to be taken on and off ships by longshoremen and transported by truck drivers and rail workers. Moreover, if it means greater profit, as in the low-wage garment industry, capitalists will readily revert from automated, capital-intensive methods to labor-intensive sweatshops that look much as they did a century ago. Proletarian labor remains repetitive, backbreaking and often dangerous. In 2003, for example, the injury rate in U.S. auto plants was roughly 15 times that in financial and insurance offices.

It is certainly true, as shown by the Midwest rust bowl that engulfed what had been America’s industrial heartland, that there have been significant changes in the U.S. and world economies. Capital continually seeks out the highest rate of profit and, correspondingly, the lowest cost of production, both within and (in the absence of major protectionist barriers) across national borders. Beginning in the late 1970s, American capital increasingly shifted manufacturing operations to the non-union U.S. South, then Mexico and now even lower-wage countries in Asia. This shift has occurred through direct investment, subcontracting, outsourcing and similar mechanisms—a development greatly accelerated by the international retreat and subsequent collapse of Soviet power. At the same time, the “market reforms” carried out by the Beijing Stalinist regime opened China to large-scale investment, concentrated in light manufacturing, by Western, Japanese and offshore Chinese capital. With a labor force of 160 million employed in manufacturing, China’s working class has become a very important component of the industrial proletariat on an international scale.

In 1970, 33 percent of the non-agricultural labor force in the U.S. was employed in the goods-producing sector (manufacturing, construction and mining) and another 6 percent in transport and utilities (U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1971). By 2003, the fraction of the labor force employed in goods production had declined to 20 percent, with 5 percent employed in transport and utilities (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2004-2005). Simultaneously, the proportion of the U.S. labor force employed in wholesale and retail trade, banks, securities outfits, insurance companies, real estate agencies, etc. has grown to some 22 percent.

But this hardly proves the “hegemony of immaterial labor” even in the “dominant regions of the globe.” (Hardt and Negri could not be more blatant in their appeal to the relatively privileged, university-educated petty bourgeoisie of the “First World”; they do not even take note of the proletariat in China and parts of the semicolonial Third World.) The notion of a “new economy” revolutionized by information technology is no less a myth today than it was in the 1960s. The use of carrier pigeons to speedily transmit news in the days before the telegraph in the early 1800s gave the Rothschild family an enormous edge over their competitors in building a Europe-wide banking empire. But it hardly heralded an economic revolution. Even before the Internet boom of the 1990s went bust, one economist noted:

“Most of the initial applications of mainframe and personal computers have encountered the rapid onset of diminishing returns. Much of the use of the Internet represents a substitution from one type of entertainment or information-gathering for another.”

—Robert J. Gordon, “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 2000

Nor has the service sector become dominant over industry. The conventional division of the economy into a goods-producing and a service sector obscures the primacy of the former over the latter. Without buildings there can be no real estate and property insurance companies. Without automobiles there can be no auto dealerships and auto insurance companies. And fast-food places are actually the final phase of the food-processing industry: workers at McDonald’s et al. transform frozen meat patties and frozen French fries into edible (sort of) food. Moreover, a huge part of the service sector is directly integrated in the manufacturing process. A rare quantitative survey in this regard in the 1980s showed that an estimated 25 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product consisted of “services” (e.g., accounting, lawyers, advertising, property insurance, employee health insurance) purchased by manufacturing firms and incorporated into the market price of their products (Stephen S. Cohen and John Zysman, Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy [New York: Basic Books, 1987]).

Pointing to Toyota-style “production teams” in some auto plants and far-flung global operations based on “just-in-time” inventory and production policies, Hardt and Negri also trumpet grandiose claims of a fundamental shift in industry from “Fordism” and “Taylorism”—i.e., assembly-line production in large, concentrated plants—to “post-Fordist” methods. To the extent that manufacturers have extended their production operations globally, it underscores the need for international labor solidarity, but it hardly makes labor struggle passé. In 1998, a walkout against threatened layoffs by several thousand workers at a General Motors stamping plant in Flint, Michigan soon brought to a halt practically the entire GM empire in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In an attempt to break the strike, GM moved the stamping dies from Flint to one of its Canadian operations. But the Canadian auto workers refused to touch them—a powerful example of international labor solidarity. Lasting almost two months, the strike cost GM $12 billion in sales and $3 billion in profits. It was the costliest walkout ever for what was then the world’s largest industrial corporation.

The GM strike underscored in a rather dramatic way that the current prostration of the labor movement is the result not of structural changes in capitalism but of the pro-capitalist policies of the bureaucratic misleadership of the trade unions. With GM on its knees, the United Auto Workers bureaucracy corralled the strikers back to work on the basis of a compromise that settled nothing. We wrote at the time:

“By the mere fact of withdrawing their labor power, GM workers demonstrated the potential power of the working class that lies in its numbers, organization and discipline, and most decisively in the fact that it is labor that makes the wheels of profit turn in capitalist society. But the Flint strike also showed how the power of labor is sapped and undermined by the labor bureaucracy, which preaches an identity of interests between the workers and their capitalist exploiters....

“To take on and roll back the war on organized labor requires a leadership with the understanding that the interests of labor and capital are counterposed, that any serious mobilization of union power threatens the capitalists and will bring the working class into a head-on confrontation with the bourgeois state, whether under a Republican or Democratic administration, and that the working class must therefore vigilantly guard its independence—organizational and political—from the bourgeoisie, its state and its political parties.”

—“For a Class-Struggle Fight Against GM Job Slashing!” Workers Vanguard No. 696, 11 September 1998

The bureaucratic misleaders of the trade unions and of the Labour, social-democratic and other reformist parties outside the U.S. constitute a petty-bourgeois layer within the workers movement, aptly characterized by American Marxist Daniel De Leon as the “labor lieutenants of capital.” While claiming to speak on behalf of the working class, they are in fact loyal to the capitalist system, and are duly compensated for their services. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Marx and his followers believed that the influence of reformism—a program of collaboration with the bourgeoisie and piecemeal reform of capitalism—was rooted in the immaturity of the working class. From this, it followed that as the proletariat grew in size and power, such dangerous illusions would be transcended. However, with the advent of the imperialist epoch, Lenin realized that the situation had fundamentally changed. There now existed a strong objective basis for buying off a small section of the working class in the imperialist countries with the superprofits derived from exploitation of the colonial world. The essence of Leninism is the understanding that a party that genuinely represents the interests of the working class must be politically and organizationally counterposed to the John Sweeneys, the Tony Blairs and the Gerhard Schröders.

For the working class to move from being a class in itself—defined simply by its objective relationship to the means of production—to a class for itself, fully conscious of its historic task to overthrow the capitalist order, requires revolutionary leadership. Absent this, the workers’ consciousness is determined to varying degrees by bourgeois (and pre-bourgeois) ideology—nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, illusions in parliamentary reformism, etc.—leading them to see capitalist society as fixed and immutable. The bourgeoisie has in its hands not only enormous wealth and control over the means of information but a vast repressive apparatus—the army, police, etc.—that is centralized at the highest levels. To take on and defeat that power requires a countervailing power that is no less organized and centralized. When the bourgeoisie was a rising class in the late feudal epoch, it gradually acquired increasing social and economic dominance through the expansion of its property and wealth relative to that of the landed nobility. But the proletariat is not a propertied class and is therefore unable to construct the institutions of a new society within the framework of capitalism. In its struggle for state power, the proletariat must rely exclusively on its organization and consciousness, expressed at the highest level in the construction of a democratic-centralist vanguard party whose leadership, tactics and strategy are determined through full internal democracy and implemented on the basis of iron centralism.

Old Reformism in Post-Modern Jargon

Rejecting the proletariat under Leninist leadership as the agency for revolutionary change, Hardt and Negri present the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia as the new vanguard: “Network struggle, again, like post-Fordist production, does not rely on discipline in the same way: creativity, communication, and self-organized cooperation are its primary value…. No longer is ‘the people’ assumed as basis and no longer is taking power of the sovereign state structure the goal. The democratic elements of the guerrilla struggle are pushed further in the network form, and the organization becomes less a means and more an end in itself” (Multitude).

This harks back to the classic expression of social-democratic revisionism by Eduard Bernstein. The executor of Engels’ writings, Bernstein wrote a series of articles in the two years after Engels’ death in 1895 advancing a frankly reformist view. He declared: “I confess openly I have extraordinarily little interest or taste for what is generally called the ‘final goal of Socialism.’ This aim, whatever it be, is nothing to me, the movement everything” (emphasis in original). “By movement,” he continued, “I understand not only the general movement of society, that is, social progress, but political and economic agitation and organization for effecting this progress” (quoted in Peter Gay, The Dilemmas of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx [New York: Collier Books, 1962]).

Though he peddled the illusion that socialism could be attained by a gradual process of reform—an illusion of ever deepening historical progress that was ripped apart by the horrible carnage of World War I—at least Bernstein looked to the organized working class to transform society. Hardt and Negri instead counsel petty-bourgeois youth that they can change the world without either having or desiring social power.

They trumpet a “new militancy” of the post-Soviet era, which “does not simply repeat the organizational formulas of the old revolutionary working class…. This militancy makes resistance into counterpower and makes rebellion into a project of love” (Multitude). Another post-Marxist icon, John Holloway, argues explicitly: “The fall of the Soviet Union not only meant disillusionment for millions; it also brought the liberation of revolutionary thought, the liberation from the identification of revolution with the conquest of power” (Change the World Without Taking Power [London: Pluto Press, 2002]).

Hardt and Negri promote petty-bourgeois schemes like “desertion,” “dropping out” and carving out autonomous “spaces” within capitalist society. The latter include the 1970s “counterculture” communes in the U.S. and, Negri’s particular pride and joy, the “autonomous” social centers—often state-funded—set up in Italy after the struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. Low-level community organizing and other forms of “horizontal” activism; trashing Starbucks windows or tearing down fences outside World Bank gatherings; creating nooks and crannies of “liberated spaces” that exist at the sufferance of the state: such activities may be morally satisfying, and may even occasionally inconvenience the capitalist rulers. But none of this brings us even a millimeter nearer to burying capitalist exploitation and oppression; for that, it is necessary for the workers to seize and wield power.

At bottom, Hardt and Negri preach an essentially religious notion that political activists can change the world through moral example, by showing how a new world of peace, love and democracy will look in the mirror of existing “non-hierarchical” forms of organization. A popular model for this is the peasant-based Mexican Zapatistas, who are revered by many young leftist radicals in West Europe and the U.S. Holloway’s book is dedicated to the Zapatistas. Hardt and Negri similarly enthuse that the Zapatistas’ “goal has never been to defeat the state and claim sovereign authority but rather to change the world without taking power” (Multitude).

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) originated in the early 1990s as a guerrilla movement based among the impoverished Indian peasant smallholders in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced in 1994, the EZLN led a brief revolt of the desperate peasants, who knew that they would be further pauperized and driven off the land as a result of this imperialist “free trade” rape of Mexico. But despite Subcomandante Marcos’ facile command of post-modern jargon and Internet communiqués, there is nothing new about the Zapatistas. They are simply a current manifestation of traditional Latin American populist nationalism, a movement led by declassed intellectuals with a certain base among the peasantry.

The Zapatistas have not changed the world much even within the confines of Chiapas. Notwithstanding the EZLN’s brief episode of armed struggle, Chiapas remains a police state with 70,000 government troops, as well as the landlords’ own private paramilitary killers. The economy in EZLN-controlled regions remains largely subsistence-level farming reminiscent of the traditional communal ejido, but without the meager state subsidies the ejidos got for a period of time. While the “caracoles,” the liberated jungle areas, feature “self-managed” schools and even a people’s cyber café, medical care is poor and often continues to utilize relatively ineffective herbal remedies. Social and political leadership is patriarchal, resting to a large extent in the hands of male elders. Furthermore, even this impoverished autonomy is untenable in the long run in the midst of a capitalist world where the drive for profit will inevitably lead to uprooting prior social forms in the interest of expanded access to resources, markets and production.

Hoary Myths of Capitalist “Democracy”…

Multitude is subtitled “War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.” Negri at least is thoroughly familiar with the Marxist doctrine that contemporary parliamentary governments represent the actual political domination of the bourgeoisie. In a blatantly dishonest manner, the book does not address the Marxist position on this key question, either to repudiate or endorse it. Throughout Multitude “democracy” is promiscuously acclaimed as the be-all and end-all of political activism but is almost never defined in concrete institutional terms. However, toward the end of Multitude Hardt and Negri give the game away, proposing a “global parliament”:

“Imagine, for example, that the global voting population of approximately 4 billion (excluding minors from the total global population of more than 6 billion) would be divided into four hundred districts of 10 million people each. North Americans would thus elect about twenty representatives, and the Europeans and Indonesians another twenty each, whereas the Chinese and Indians would elect about one hundred and eighty.”

Imagine, then, Wall Street and the Pentagon sharing wealth and power with India and Indonesia because of a democratic vote! Hardt and Negri’s fantastical proposal to replicate the U.S. Congress or the British “mother of parliaments” on an international scale underlines not only their bourgeois-democratic outlook but also the unreal, idiot utopianism of their whole anti-Empire schema.

Bourgeois electoralism politically reduces the working class to atomized individuals. The bourgeoisie can manipulate the electorate through its control of the media, the education system and the other institutions shaping public opinion. In all capitalist “democracies,” government officials, elected and unelected, are bought and paid for by the banks and large corporations. As Lenin explained in his classic polemic against the German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky:

“Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed people at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves….

“Under bourgeois democracy the capitalists, by thousands of tricks—which are the more artful and effective the more ‘pure’ democracy is developed—drive the people away from administrative work, from freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc.... The working people are barred from participation in bourgeois parliaments (they never decide important questions under bourgeois democracy, which are decided by the stock exchange and the banks) by thousands of obstacles, and the workers know and feel, see and realise perfectly well that the bourgeois parliaments are institutions alien to them.” [emphasis in original]

The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918)

An object lesson in this regard is the aftermath of the courageous, decades-long struggle against the apartheid regime of repulsive segregation and naked police-state terror in South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) assured the embattled masses that black majority rule would mean a radical redistribution of income and wealth from the affluent white elite to the impoverished nonwhite toilers. But that is not what happened when the ANC replaced the white-supremacists in wielding governmental power after the 1994 elections. Rather a small black elite managed to make it onto the “gravy train” and into the white-dominated ruling class, while the economic conditions of the black workers, urban poor and rural toilers have in important ways actually deteriorated.

The big capitalists and landowners will not countenance a serious threat to their profits or property if they are not deprived of their power. Illusions to the contrary are bred by the parliamentary democracy that partly masks the dictatorship of capital, especially in the wealthier industrial countries. Even there, cherished “inalienable” rights will, aside from the right to property, be alienated whenever the bourgeoisie feels threatened. Trotsky put it well in his polemical defense of the proletarian dictatorship against Kautsky:

“The capitalist bourgeois calculates: ‘while I have in my hands lands, factories, workshops, banks; while I possess newspapers, universities, schools; while—and this most important of all—I retain control of the army: the apparatus of democracy, however you reconstruct it, will remain obedient to my will….’

“To this the revolutionary proletarian replies: ‘Consequently, the first condition of salvation is to tear the weapons of domination out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. It is hopeless to think of a peaceful arrival to power while the bourgeoisie retains in its hands all the apparatus of power. Three times over hopeless is the idea of coming to power by the path which the bourgeoisie itself indicates and, at the same time, barricades—the path of parliamentary democracy’.”

Terrorism and Communism

…and of “Progressive” Imperialism

Revolution “without taking power” is not revolution but, at best, superficial reform of the existing system under the powers that be. Behind the fashionable talk of “horizontalism” and “alliance-building” as supposed alternatives to the struggle for a Leninist party and proletarian state power is a very old, tired and faded notion, indeed: that poverty, oppression and war can be ended by bringing together people of good will of all classes against a small, greedy, neoliberal, warmongering elite.

In Empire, Hardt and Negri asserted: “What used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers has in important respects been replaced by the idea of a single power that overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way, and treats them under one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and postimperialist.” This was a crude expression of the widespread view among anti-globalization ideologues that the nation-state system had been supplanted by “transnational” corporations and supranational institutions like the IMF, WTO and World Bank. We extensively refuted such ideas in a 1999 Spartacist pamphlet, Imperialism, the “Global Economy” and Labor Reformism, noting that they had much in common with the theory of “ultra-imperialism” propounded by Kautsky as a justification for repudiating the need for international proletarian revolution at the time of World War I. Drawing on Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), which includes polemics against Kautsky, we argued that “transnational” corporations and banks remained dependent on the military power of their nation-states to protect and expand their foreign investments:

“So-called property rights—whether in the form of loans, direct investments or trade agreements—are just pieces of paper unless they are backed by military force….

“The top managers of Exxon know damn well that without the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force their oil fields in the Persian Gulf would not be theirs for very long.”

Imperialism, the “Global Economy” and Labor Reformism

Hardt and Negri claimed, “In this smooth space of Empire there is no place of power—it is both everywhere and nowhere” (Empire [emphasis in original]). Try telling the people of Baghdad today that they live in a postcolonial and postimperialist order in which there is no place of power! Disdaining the post-modern subtleties of Empire in favor of old-fashioned “America über alles” power politics, George W. Bush launched an effectively unilateral (aside from Blair’s Britain) invasion of Iraq in 2003. As anti-globalization protests were supplanted by much larger antiwar marches, overwhelmingly focused by their reformist organizers on the Bush administration’s policies, Hardt and Negri effected a corresponding shift from Empire to Multitude. Now they speak of “a unilateral, or ‘monarchical,’ arrangement of the global order, centered on the military, political, and economic dictation of the United States,” and argue for an “alliance” between the “multitude” and Europe’s ruling “aristocracies” against the American imperial “monarch” (Multitude).

Hardt and Negri’s idiocy that there is no “place of power” is really meant to assert that there is no place for revolution. The real world consists of capitalist states that are not neutral, benign or irrelevant, that cannot be circumvented, reformed or made to serve the interests of the exploited and oppressed. The bourgeois state is an instrument of organized violence for enforcing the exploitation of the working class by capital. It must be smashed in the course of a thoroughgoing socialist revolution and replaced by the class rule of the workers.

“Multitude” vs. “Empire” is but the latest incarnation of the politically bankrupt notion of uniting “the people” against “monopoly” (or war, fascism, ad nauseam). What Hardt and Negri propose is a classic example of what Marxists call class collaborationism: the subordination of the left and workers movement to a “progressive” wing of the bourgeois rulers in order to achieve reform of the existing system. Such reliance on representatives of the enemy class, long promoted by the Stalinists as the “popular front,” has brought only disaster for workers and the oppressed.

In practice, the sanctimonious anti-power idealism preached by Hardt, Negri & Co. degenerates into the grubby politics of “lesser evil” capitalism. American armchair anarchist Noam Chomsky and Canadian anti-globalization publicist Naomi Klein (who found Multitude “inspiring”) supported Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. election as a more palatable enforcer of global sweatshop democracy, “war on terror” and American Empire. For his part, Negri embraces the supposedly more benign European imperialists against the U.S. This appears to be one of the few concepts in his books that Negri has actually tried to implement. In early 2005, he campaigned for the constitution of the European Union, which is headed by a consortium of imperialist powers committed to driving down wages and benefits for Europe’s workers and bolting shut the gates of Fortress Europe to non-white immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Then there is the World Social Forum (WSF), organizer of the large-scale gatherings against “neoliberalism” that have been held in Brazil and elsewhere over the past several years. In a foreword to a collection of WSF documents, Hardt and Negri claim the WSF “provides an opportunity to reconstitute the Left in each country and internationally” and could herald “the beginning of the democracy of the multitude” (Another World Is Possible, ed. Ponniah and Fisher [London: Zed Books, 2003]). The WSF was set up in the wake of the Seattle protests as a means of defusing street confrontations by providing an ostensibly non-parliamentary milieu for anti-globalization activists. The WSF and its regional counterparts are crystalline expressions of class collaboration, tying workers and ostensible leftists to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois organizations on the basis of a bourgeois program and under the direct auspices of capitalist institutions, politicians and governments. The 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre, for example, received $2.5 million in financing from Brazil’s federal government, which is currently waging savage IMF austerity attacks against workers and the poor, and over $2 million from NGOs like the Ford Foundation, long a conduit for CIA funding. (See “Social Forum Con Game,” Workers Hammer No. 191, Summer 2005, for more details.)

The first European Social Forum (ESF), held in Florence in 2002, was heavily funded by the local and regional governments. It was also strongly promoted by Negri’s followers in the Italian “white overalls,” or disobedienti. Among the pronouncements issued preparatory to this event was a shameless appeal to the imperialist rulers of Europe to oppose the then imminent U.S. war on Iraq: “We call on all the European heads of state to publicly stand against this war, whether it has UN backing or not, and to demand that George Bush abandon his war plans” (Liberazione, 13 September 2002). This grotesque statement of pacifist chauvinism—promoting the butchers of Auschwitz and Algeria as more benevolent and progressive than their U.S. rivals—could only buttress the hold of the European capitalists over “their” working masses. Of course, that is entirely in line with Hardt and Negri’s call to ally with the European “aristocracies” against the American “monarch.”

Pseudo-Marxist groups like the United Secretariat (USec), the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Workers Power (WP) have published sometimes extensive critiques of Empire and Multitude, debunking various of Hardt and Negri’s inconsistencies and idiocies, especially at an academic level. But in the real world these groups share a common starting point with the post-Marxist charlatans. Erasing the class line in order to “build the movement,” they too peddle myths that there can be a “progressive,” “social” capitalism. The SWP, WP and the USec’s flagship French section are all prominent builders of the popular-frontist Social Forums. They all signed onto the appeal to the European imperialist rulers issued around the Florence ESF.

Whatever their formal analytical stances concerning the former Soviet Union, these groups all allied with the forces of capitalist reaction against the gains of the 1917 workers revolution, and they all agree today that it is good that the USSR is dead and buried. Regarding China, they falsely claim that it is already capitalist in order to abandon defense of the bureaucratically deformed workers state against imperialism and counterrevolution. Like Hardt and Negri, these groups reject in practice the fundamental lesson of the October Revolution: the necessity to make the proletariat conscious of its revolutionary tasks, to forge a vanguard party and overturn the capitalist state to open the road to socialism.

The SWP’s Alex Callinicos, a prominent spokesman on the Social Forum circuit, has written a lengthy pamphlet, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2003), that manages to avoid any discussion of soviets, workers revolution, the revolutionary party or the positive significance of the Russian Revolution. The much smaller WP and its League for the Fifth International (L5I) use more radical rhetoric in an L5I pamphlet titled Anti-Capitalism: Summit Sieges & Social Forums (2005), attacking Empire’s “minimum reformist programme” while arguing for the “anti-capitalist movement” represented by the Social Forums to be organized on a more “democratic” and “revolutionary” basis. But what this amounts to is a call for a return to Seattle-style street demonstrations:

“For five years our movement has besieged the summits of the rich and powerful….

“It must take to the streets again, and show through mass direct action its intent; to build a world without classes, oppression, racism, war and imperialism.”


“Direct action” based on the popular-front politics embodied in the Social Forums is just class collaboration with a militant face. Yet it is on the basis of such cross-class unity that the L5I proposes to build not only a “movement” but a “revolutionary” party: “The anticapitalist movement, the workers’ movement, the movements of the racially and nationally oppressed, youth, women, all must be brought together to create a new International—a world party of socialist revolution” (ibid.).

Trotsky condemned the popular front as the greatest crime against the proletariat. To suggest today that a revolutionary and proletarian party be built in alliance with other classes is a parody of a travesty. Indeed, insofar as they argue, against Hardt, Negri and the anarchists, that it is necessary to “take power” away from the “neoliberal” capitalists, today’s pseudo-Marxists look not to the model of Lenin’s Bolsheviks but to pro-capitalist social democrats and even outright bourgeois forces. The USec, for example, backed “anti-fascist” French president Jacques Chirac’s re-election in 2002, and has a “comrade” minister in Brazil’s capitalist government.

A particular hero of these outfits is Venezuela’s populist strongman Hugo Chávez, whose speech at the 2005 WSF endorsing a vague “socialism” was cheered by thousands. Aided by windfall profits from high oil prices, Chávez has instituted some social reforms and postures as an “anti-imperialist” in America’s backyard. But Chávez is a bourgeois nationalist who rules for capitalism in Venezuela. Though the Bush neocons backed a military coup against him in 2002, more rational representatives of imperialism recognize that he can be trusted to protect their investments while co-opting the discontented masses through populist demagogy. Yet an extensive polemic against Empire in the British USec’s theoretical journal touts the Chávez regime as an example of “winning the battle for power,” claiming that “Chávez and his supporters have politically organised among the masses and helped to strengthen their self-activity” (Socialist Outlook, Winter 2003).

Even more crudely, the L5I titles a chapter of its adulatory Anti-Capitalism pamphlet, “Hugo Chávez: A New Leader for the Anticapitalist Movement?” While chiding Chávez for “unwillingness” to destroy elements of the Venezuelan state that “frustrate progress,” they positively contrast him to the Zapatistas: “Chávez at least shows that genuine reforms cannot come by pleading, which has brought the precious few results for the Mexican peasants, but rather come from seeking to take hold of power.” What a false “choice” for workers and radical youth: either the utterly ineffectual road of “changing the world” without taking power, or promoting the need to “take hold of power” by pointing to bourgeois politicians managing the capitalist state! This is the epitome of social-democratic reformism—the notion that the bourgeois state need not be smashed on the anvil of proletarian revolution but can be reformed into serving as an instrument of social transformation. In sharp contrast to the fake-Marxists who echo Hardt, Negri et al. in pushing global class collaboration, the International Communist League fights to forge a revolutionary international party rooted in class opposition to the bourgeois rulers of every country.

Forward to a Communist Future!

Hardt and Negri throw around the word “freedom” almost as much as does George Bush. Freedom is not some transcendental absolute toward which humans naturally gravitate; it has always been freedom from some particular constraint, or to carry out some particular act. Man’s actions are constrained by material necessity and the laws of nature. Through scientific investigation, technological innovation and social transformation, humans attain progressively greater knowledge of and control over the conditions of their existence. But what is “freedom” in the abstract? As Marx and Engels wrote: “By freedom is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying. But if selling and buying disappears, free selling and buying disappears also” (Manifesto of the Communist Party).

In popular parlance, freedom is used as a synonym for liberal democracy. Appropriately, a section of Multitude is entitled “Back to the Eighteenth Century!” In particular, Hardt and Negri pay homage to the political wisdom of James Madison, the principal author of the American Constitution:

“The destruction of sovereignty must be organized to go hand in hand with the constitution of new democratic institutional structures based on existing conditions. The writings of James Madison in the Federalist Papers provide a method for such a constitutional project, organized through the pessimism of the will—creating a system of checks and balances, rights and guarantees.”


Like his political mentor Thomas Jefferson, James Madison was the owner of a Virginia plantation worked by black chattel slaves (a biographical fact Hardt and Negri evidently consider too insignificant to mention). Jefferson and Madison insisted on a property qualification even for suffrage for the free white male citizens of the new American republic (another fact ignored by Hardt and Negri). Even the most radical and egalitarian manifestations of 18th-century bourgeois thought (Rousseau) envisioned a society based on economically independent small proprietors—farmers, artisans, shopkeepers.

Classic liberalism was the ideological expression of the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle against the fetters of the late feudal order. Trotsky summarized this doctrinal outlook, which claimed the authority of “natural law”: “The individual is absolute; all persons have the right of expressing their thoughts in speech and print; every man must enjoy equal electoral rights. As a battle cry against feudalism, the demand for democracy had a progressive character” (Terrorism and Communism). However, with the subsequent development of industrial capitalism and therefore of the proletariat, liberal individualism and its political cognate, “pure” democracy, became a potent ideological weapon to suppress the class antagonisms of bourgeois society. The doctrine that all men are equal before the law and have an equal right in determining the fate of the nation masked the actual dictatorship of capital over the exploited and propertyless class that now produced society’s wealth.

Hardt and Negri’s call for a return to 18th-century political thought, i.e., to liberal individualism and “pure” democracy, leads in practice to a capitulation to the savagery of imperialist capitalism, which is the natural offspring of the bourgeois republic of the 18th century. This is but a logical consequence of their rejection of the revolutionary capacity of the only progressive class in the present-day world: the international proletariat.

Only the proletariat has both the social power and social need to reorganize society, eliminating economic scarcity and the deformations of human character conditioned by material want and the resulting competitive struggle. Freedom for the oppressed of the world is not a subjective declaration but requires breaking the material chains of poverty, exploitation and oppression. It is not merely in workers and other toilers taking increasing control of their particular aspects of the productive process that a revolution will occur. Rather, the proletariat must come to recognize that the destructive anarchy of the capitalist mode of production, will, if not overthrown, plunge all humanity into barbarism or nuclear annihilation. It must realize that social control of production means dismantling the capitalist state apparatus of cops, courts, armies and prisons, and founding a workers state in their place. In short, it requires a proletarian revolution.

This alone can lay the basis for a planned, socialized economy on a global scale, the essential precondition for human emancipation from privation and inequality. As Engels wrote in his powerful reassertion of the essentials of Marxist materialism:

“The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history—only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

“To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed class a full knowledge of the conditions and of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism.”



There were several factual errors in “The Senile Dementia of Post-Marxism” in Spartacist No. 59 (Spring 2006). The article stated on page 27: “With a labor force of 160 million employed in manufacturing, China’s working class has become a very important component of the industrial proletariat on an international scale.” While there is a wide range of published figures for the number of manufacturing workers in China, the first clause would have been more accurate as follows: “With an estimated workforce of 160 million or more centered in manufacturing and also in construction, energy and extractive industries and transport and telecommunications….” On page 28, we incorrectly cited a passage by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that asserted a “new militancy” that “makes resistance into counterpower and makes rebellion into a project of love” as coming from their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. In fact, the passage appeared in their earlier book Empire. On page 29, we spoke of Hardt and Negri “proposing a ‘global parliament’” in Multitude. It would have been more accurate to say that they enthuse over such proposals, as Hardt and Negri qualify their support by asserting that such a scheme “would be unmanageable in practice.” (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.)

No comments:

Post a Comment