Washington Beats the Drum of Regime Change, but Cuba Responds to Its Own Revolutionary Rhythm: The Twenty-Ninth Newsletter (2021). By: Vijay PrashadRead Now
Préfète Duffaut (Haiti), Le Générale Canson, 1950.
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
In 1963, the Trinidadian writer CLR James released a second edition of his classic 1938 study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. For the new edition, James wrote an appendix with the suggestive title ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’. In the opening page of the appendix, he located the twin Revolutions of Haiti (1804) and Cuba (1959) in the context of the West Indian islands: ‘The people who made them, the problems and the attempts to solve them, are peculiarly West Indian, the product of a peculiar origin and a peculiar history’. Thrice James uses the word ‘peculiar’, which emerges from the Latin peculiaris for ‘private property’ (pecu is the Latin word for ‘cattle’, the essence of ancient property).
Property is at the heart of the origin and history of the modern West Indies. By the end of the 17th century, the European conquistadors and colonialists had massacred the inhabitants of the West Indies. On St. Kitts in 1626, English and French colonialists massacred between two and four thousand Caribs – including Chief Tegremond – in the Kalinago genocide, which Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre wrote about in 1654. Having annihilated the island’s native people, the Europeans brought in African men and women who had been captured and enslaved. What unites the West Indian islands is not language and culture, but the wretchedness of slavery, rooted in an oppressive plantation economy. Both Haiti and Cuba are products of this ‘peculiarity’, the one being bold enough to break the shackles in 1804 and the other able to follow a century and a half later.
Osmond Watson (Jamaica), City Life, 1968.
Today, crisis is the hour in the Caribbean.
On 7 July, just outside of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince, gunmen broke into the home of President Jovenel Moïse, assassinated him in cold blood, and then fled. The country – already wracked by social upheaval sparked by the late president’s policies – has now plunged even deeper into crisis. Already, Moïse had forcefully extended his presidential mandate beyond his term as the country struggled with the burdens of being dependent on international agencies, trapped by a century-long economic crisis, and struck hard by the pandemic. Protests had become commonplace across Haiti as the prices of everything skyrocketed and as no effective government came to the aid of a population in despair. But Moïse was not killed because of this proximate crisis. More mysterious forces are at work: US-based Haitian religious leaders, narco-traffickers, and Colombian mercenaries. This is a saga that is best written as a fictional thriller.
Four days after Moïse’s assassination, Cuba experienced a set of protests from people expressing their frustration with shortages of goods and a recent spike of COVID-19 infections. Within hours of receiving the news that the protests had emerged, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, south of Havana, to march with the protestors. Díaz-Canel and his government reminded the eleven million Cubans that the country has suffered greatly from the six-decade-long illegal US blockade, that it is in the grip of Trump’s 243 additional ‘coercive measures’, and that it will fight off the twin problems of COVID-19 and a debt crisis with its characteristic resolve.
Nonetheless, a malicious social media campaign attempted to use these protests as a sign that the government of Díaz-Canel and the Cuban Revolution should be overthrown. It was clarified a few days later that this campaign was run from Miami, Florida, in the United States. From Washington, DC, the drums of regime change sounded loudly. But they have not found much of an echo in Cuba. Cuba has its own revolutionary rhythms.
Eduardo Abela (Cuba), Los Guajiros (1938).
In 1804, the Haitian Revolution – a rebellion of the plantation proletariat who struck against the agricultural factories that produced sugar and profit – sent up a flare of freedom across the colonised world. A century and a half later, the Cubans fired their own flare.
The response to each of these revolutions from the fossilised magnates of Paris and Washington was the same: suffocate the stirrings of freedom by indemnities and blockades. In 1825, the French demanded through force that the Haitians pay 150 million francs for the loss of property (namely human beings). Alone in the Caribbean, the Haitians felt that they had no choice but to pay up, which they did to France (until 1893) and then to the United States (until 1947). The total bill over the 122 years amounts to $21 billion. When Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried to recover those billions from France in 2003, he was removed from office by a coup d’état.
After the United States occupied Cuba in 1898, it ran the island like a gangster’s playground. Any attempt by the Cubans to exercise their sovereignty was squashed with terrible force, including invasions by US forces in 1906-1909, 1912, 1917-1922, and 1933. The United States backed General Fulgencio Batista (1940-1944 and 1952-1959) despite all the evidence of his brutality. After all, Batista protected US interests, and US firms owned two-thirds of the country’s sugar industry and almost its entire service sector.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 stands against this wretched history – a history of slavery and imperial domination. How did the US react? By imposing an economic blockade on the country from 19 October 1960 that lasts to this day, which has targeted everything from access to medical supplies, food, and financing to barring Cuban imports and coercing third-party countries to do the same. It is a vindictive attack against a people who – like the Haitians – are trying to exercise their sovereignty. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez reported that between April 2019 and December 2020, the government lost $9.1 billion due to the blockade ($436 million per month). ‘At current prices’, he said, ‘the accumulated damages in six decades amount to over $147.8 billion, and against the price of gold, it amounts to over $1.3 trillion’.
None of this information would be available without the presence of media outlets such as Peoples Dispatch, which celebrates its three-year anniversary this week. We send our warmest greetings to the team and hope that you will bookmark their page to visit it several times a day for world news rooted in people’s struggles.
Bernadette Persaud (Guyana), Gentlemen Under the Sky (Gulf War), 1991.
On 17 July, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to defend their Revolution and demand an end to the US blockade. President Díaz-Canel said that the Cuba of ‘love, peace, unity, [and] solidarity’ had asserted itself. In solidarity with this unwavering affirmation, we have launched a call for participation in the exhibition Let Cuba Live. The submission deadline is 24 July for the online exhibition launch on 26 July – the anniversary of the revolutionary movement that brought Cuba to Revolution in 1959 – but we encourage ongoing submissions. We are inviting international artists and militants to participate in this flash exhibition as we continue to amplify the campaign #LetCubaLive to end the blockade.
A few weeks before the most recent attack on Cuba and the assassination in Haiti, the United States armed forces conducted a major military exercise in Guyana called Tradewinds 2021 and another exercise in Panama called Panamax 2021. Under the authority of the United States, a set of European militaries (France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) – each with colonies in the region – joined Brazil and Canada to conduct Tradewinds with seven Caribbean countries (The Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago). In a show of force, the US demanded that Iran cancel the movement of its ships to Venezuela in June ahead of the US-sponsored military exercise.
The United States is eager to turn the Caribbean into its sea, subordinating the sovereignty of the islands. It was curious that Guyana’s Prime Minister Mark Phillips said that these US-led war games strengthen the ‘Caribbean regional security system’. What they do, as our recent dossier on US and French military bases in Africa shows, is to subordinate the Caribbean states to US interests. The US is using its increased military presence in Colombia and Guyana to increase pressure on Venezuela.
Elsa Gramcko (Venezuela), El ojo de la cerradura (‘The Keyhole’), 1964.
Sovereign regionalism is not alien to the Caribbean, which has made four attempts to build a platform: the West Indian Federation (1958-1962), Caribbean Free Trade Association (1965-1973), Caribbean Community (1973-1989), and CARICOM (1989 to the present). What began as an anti-imperialist union has now devolved into a trade association that attempts to better integrate the region into world trade. The politics of the Caribbean are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of the US. In 2010, the US created the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, whose agenda is shaped by Washington.
In 2011, our old friend Shridath Ramphal, Guyana’s foreign minister from 1972 to 1975, repeated the words of the great Grenadian radical T. A. Marryshow: ‘The West Indies must be West Indian’. In his article ‘Is the West Indies West Indian?’, he insisted that the conscious spelling of ‘The West Indies’ with a capitalised ‘T’ aims to signify the unity of the region. Without unity, the old imperialist pressures will prevail as they often do.
In 1975, the Cuban poet Nancy Morejón published a landmark poem called Mujer Negra (‘Black Woman’). The poem opens with the terrible trade of human beings by the European colonialists, touches on the
war of independence, and then settles on the remarkable Cuban Revolution of 1959:
I came down from the Sierra
to put an end to capital and usurer,
to generals and to the bourgeoisie.
Now I exist: only today do we own, do we create.
Nothing is alien to us.
The land is ours.
Ours are the sea and sky,
the magic and vision.
My fellow people, here I see you dance
around the tree we are planting for communism.
Its prodigal wood already resounds.
The land is ours. Sovereignty is ours too. Our destiny is not to live as the subordinate beings of others. That is the message of Morejón and of the Cuban people who are building their sovereign lives, and it is the message of the Haitian people who want to advance their great Revolution of 1804.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.
This article was republished from The Tricontinental.
Beginning from May 2020, the unending violence of USA’s racial capitalism was brought to the fore as a Black-led movement flowed through the bloodstained paving stones of clamorous streets. The wretched masses of America united in their call for an end to police brutality and the existing apparatuses of exploitative rule. However, these protests - instead of culminating in a significant change in the dynamics of power - rewarded the revolting people with Joe Biden - a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeoisie politician who once opposed de-segregation, called on police to shoot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the leg, rejected the smallest of concessions to the working class, vehemently supported imperialist wars and refused to commit to even the minimal reforms of the Green New Deal.
Biden’s victory in the presidential election was a direct expression of what Antonio Gramsci called a “time of monsters” - a moment in which we are fully aware of the future direction of societal forces but it is blocked at a particular point. In the American context, the corridors leading to historical metabolization were shut off on the level of formal politics, not on the stage of grassroots mobilization. In the streets, things were moving forward by leaps and bounds - a continuous subjective churning was taking place within the helical relations of domination. In spite of these explosive potentialities, Biden succeeded in initiating a process of ideological mutilation, which included the co-optation of demands from below, the forming of new political coalitions, paying lip service to the goals of leading figures of the underclass, all done while keeping intact the hegemony of the status quoist forces.
While many factors account for the defeat of the American rebellion, the strategic errors committed by the country’s Left stick out for their obdurateness toward the complex reality of oppression. Many sectors of the country’s socialist camp promoted class reductionism, remaining insensitive to the racial roots of the then ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Their exclusive emphasis on Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All reduced systemic racism to a merely economic issue. Electoral exigencies overrode the creation of robust bases of social resistance. The uncritical subsumption of racism under an ahistorical banner of class proved unsuccessful in carrying forward the militant momentum of an explicit mutiny against the structural cruelty of racist capitalism.
Frantz Fanon was a thinker who forcefully shed light on the aporias of class reductionism, arguing in favor a radical project of Black advancement. The moorings for this vibrant model of praxis were provided by G.W.F Hegel. In a famous passage of “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Hegel had written about the progression of human beings from merely self-conscious entities that are motivated by need to consume material goods into social beings who engage in recognition. The achievement of an independent self-consciousness is seen not only as an inter-subjective process, driven by a desire for recognition by the other, but also as a fundamentally conflictual one: each consciousness aspires to assert its self-certainty, initially, through the exclusion and elimination of all that is other; each thus seeks the death of the other, putting at the same time its own life at stake.
This struggle to the death can lead either to the obliteration of one consciousness (or both), whereby the process of mutual recognition will never be complete, or to one consciousness submitting to the other in the face of fear of imminent death, thus becoming the slave. The other becomes the master, the victor of the struggle. The master nevertheless depends on the slave - not only for the fulfillment of material needs, but also for his/her recognition as an independent being. His self-sufficiency is hence only apparent. The slave, by contrast, becomes aware of himself as an independent self-consciousness by means of the transformative, fear-driven labor in the natural and material world.
For Fanon, racialized colonial subjects are not in a position to sign up to the Hegelian vision of political struggle as a reciprocal structure of recognition and interdependency when colonization has denied their humanity. Race is a process in which the unity of the world and self becomes mediated by a racialized objectification of the subject. Therefore, according to Fanon, race is a form of alienation. For Hegel, the slave’s existence is an expression of the objective reality or power of the master. The master is recognized and the slave lives in a state of non-recognition. Similarly, for Fanon the alienated racial subject exists as an expression of the objective reality of whiteness. Racial existence, then, is a negation of the human character of racialized people; it is a profound state of derealization. The process of racial objectification, according to Fanon, turns people into things, identified by their skin, racial or ethnic features, as well as culture.
Hence, racialized people first need to overcome ontological denial and, in so doing, forge the basis for a positive political grouping. Thus, Fanon rejects the static Hegelian notion of the master-slave relationship - one forged among ontologically equal adversaries - and instead posits that the slave is always-already marked as less-than-being. The slave, according to Fanon, transcends that racial othering by vehemently rejecting it through what George-Ciccariello Maher - in his book “Decolonizing Dialectics” - calls “combative self-assertion” that enables the slave to reject “her self-alienation,” to “turn away from the master” and to force the master to “turn toward the slave”. The slave’s action re-starts dialectical motion and forces the master and the slave to contend with each other.
“For the racialized subject,” Maher writes, “self-consciousness as human requires counter-violence against ontological force. In a historical situation marked by the denial of reciprocity and condemnation to nonbeing, that reciprocity can only result from the combative self-assertion of identity”. In fact, it is precisely this violence that “operates toward the decolonization of being”. In this way, Fanon decolonized Hegel’s approach from the “sub-ontological realm to which the racialized are condemned,” gesturing toward the pre-dialectical and counter-ontological violence that dialectical opposition requires. Ontological self-assertion needed to identify with negritude, which, however imperfect and empirically imprecise, provided the necessary mythical mechanism through which the dialectic of subjectivity could operate. In the words of Fanon, “to make myself known” meant “to assert myself as a BLACK MAN”.
Fanon conceived of the black subject emerging in the active negation of the social relations of white supremacy. Since blackness is the objective condition of its existence in a white supremacist society, the black subject thereby establishes its own identity on this basis by inverting its objectification, effectively making the conditions of its existence subject to its own power. The existential substance of racialized people now becomes real and actual in the world by changing it to fit its own needs. In the struggle, the black subject establishes independent self-consciousness, and begins to exist as a being for itself with a liberatory aim. The self-determination of the black subject - through the forceful affirmation of black history - establishes, for the first time, the basis for mutual recognition. Blackness has now established itself, not as moral plea for admission into the liberal and idealistic world of equality, but as a material, immanent fact. Blackness remakes the world in its own image.
Here, it is important to note the two distinct but interrelated facets of Fanon’s perspective on black assertion. On the one hand, he frames the identitarian dimension of anti-colonial struggle as a social symptom of colonial alienation, on the very level of its problematic status from the perspective of more evolved forms of postcolonial consciousness. On the other hand, Fanon advances an absolute claim in favour of the black colonized subject’s right to the expression of his symptomatic alienation. In other words, Fanon wishes to underline the historical, psychological and political necessity of what he nevertheless viewed in unambiguous fashion as a defensive, repressive and narcissistic phase of anti-colonial consciousness during which the native subject constructs - out of nothing - the self-image that was simply impossible to develop in the racial context of the colonial administration.
The Fanon-Sartre Debate
The debate between Jean Paul Sartre and Fanon on the relations between class and race stand out for their continuing relevance. Sartre wrote one of the definitive commentaries on the Negritude movement for a French audience in the preface to Leopold Senghor’s important Negritude anthology, “Black Orpheus”. There Sartre argued that blackness is the “negative moment” in an overall “transition” of the non-white toward integration into the proletariat - a “weak stage of a dialogical progression,” passed over and left for dead as swiftly as it came to life. Fanon’s reply - in “Black Skin, White Masks” - was fiercely critical of Sartre:
“For once that born Hegelian had forgotten that consciousness has to lose itself in the night of the absolute, the only condition to attain to consciousness of self. In opposition to rationalism, he summoned up the negative side, but he forgot that this negativity draws its worth from an almost substantive absoluteness. A consciousness committed to experience is ignorant, has to be ignorant, of the essences and the determinations of its being”.
Fanon firmly upheld the view that racially based identity claims on the part of non-European subjects in colonized situations carried an irreducible, cathartic importance. Sartre fails to account for this dialectic of experience through the detached intellectualization of black consciousness. “[W]hen I tried,” Fanon writes, “on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me”. Sartre’s narrative of decolonization did not incorporate the properly experiential dimension of black subjectivity. With the European working class lying unconscious in the stupor of post-WWII capitalism, Sartre imagines revolutionary consciousness, in the manner of the Hegelian Spirit, manifesting itself in the anti-colonial resistance of Africa and the Caribbean. This new proletarian spirit descends from the heights of abstract dialectical theory to make use of the concrete culture of negritude as a vehicle for the reactivation of a universal anti-capitalist project.
Sartre’s dialectic of abstract universalism has a disheartening effect on the colonized subjects. By passively inserting black rebellion within a pre-determined dialectic, he robs it of all agency. As Fanon states:
“[I]t is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history. In terms of consciousness, the black consciousness is held out as an absolute density, as filled with itself, a stage preceding any invasion, any abolition of the ego by desire. Jean-Paul Sartre, in this work, has destroyed black zeal… The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position. Still in terms of consciousness, black consciousness is immanent in its own eyes. I am not a potentiality of something; I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is.”
“Black zeal” is a mythical self-discovery which by necessity refuses all explanation. After all, how precisely does one adopt an identity which is dismissed ahead of time as transitory? The Sartrean subject never gets “lost” in the negative. Sartrean consciousness remains in full possession of itself. And therefore, it can have no knowledge of itself - or the other. History, society, and corporeality recede from view and what remains is a timeless and abstract ontology. Contrary to this view, Hegel remarked: consciousness “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself...nothing is known which does not fall within experience or (as it is also expressed) which is not felt to be true”. The truth that emerges from black consciousness is possible only via a phenomenological reassembly of the self. That is why Fanon continues to push forward: “I defined myself as an absolute intensity of beginning… My cry grew more violent: I am a Negro, I am a Negro, I am a Negro”.
Fanon does not quickly pass over human suffering in the pursuit of the universal, but attends to suffering, creating space for the communication of bodily and emotional pain. In Sartre’s hands, this dialectical negation explicitly lacks positive content and, consequently, any objectivity. The rupture with racism brings forward its own content - a re-woven fabric of daily existence and new ways of organizing social life - which challenges white supremacist society. Therefore, with Sartre, the negativity expressed by this rupture is a critique of existing reality, but does not generate new conditions - a new reality - based on its own self-active negation of white supremacist social relations. In his quest to brush aside the unmediated, affect-laden, passionate dimension of the native subject of colonialism’s sensuous, lived experience, Sartre short-circuits the dialectic through an intangible leap - ignoring the necessity of slow and patient labor.
He becomes a condescending adult speaking to a child: “You’ll change, my boy; I was like that too when I was young…you’ll see, it will all pass”. In effect, the non-white is subsumed into a pre-existing, white reality. Sartre, Fanon argues, is forced to conclude that the proletariat already exists universally. Yet, Fanon states that a universal proletariat does not exist. Instead, the proletariat is always racialized; the universal which Sartre emphasizes must be built upon the foundations of mutual recognition. However, establishing the conditions of mutual recognition depends upon the dislodgment of racial alienation and establishment of the claims of a non-white humanity. Sartre misses the point that such a process unfolds within the racial relation: black existence can only become the grounds of disalienation to the extent that the specifically black subject becomes conscious of itself and the white recognizes the absoluteness of those who exist as non-white.
To summarize, though Fanon does endorse Sartre’s notion of the overcoming of negritude, he still wants to underline the necessity of re-articulating the dialectic in terms of the experiential point of view of the Black subalterns. In more general terms, the path to the universal - a world of mutual recognitions - proceeds through the particular struggles of those battling racial discrimination. While race is undoubtedly a form of alienation which needs to be abolished, one can’t subsumes the concrete, for-itself activity of black existence into a universal proletariat. We always have to keep in mind the rich process of the self-abolition of race, which develops as a series of negations. The American Left needs to valorize black consciousness, to claim it as an integral part of the emancipatory experience of revolutionary socialism, but without overlooking its basic nature as a byproduct of racial capitalism.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
The name Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is commonplace in the field of education. Ask any teacher or professor of education about Vygotsky and chances are they will at least recall the name from their child development or educational psychology classes. His theories are still foundational to even mainstream education but, as is the case with so many revolutionaries, they have been stripped of their Marxist foundations. One result is that the revolutionary potential of Vygotsky’s theories have remained largely unknown not only inside schools and teacher education programs, but also inside social movements.
This article introduces Vygotsky’s theories on educational psychology and human development, contextualizes them within the transition from Czarist Russia to the Soviet Union, draws out the main elements of his work that have utility for revolutionary organizers, and provides concrete illustrations of their utility.
Conditions in Czarist Russia
Lev Semionovich Vygotsky was born in 1896 to a Jewish family in the town of Orsha, Belarus, which, at the time, was part of the Russian Empire. Coming from a Jewish family in Czarist Russia meant being subjected to a lifetime of discrimination. Jewish people lived in restricted territories, were subject to strict quotas for university entrance, and were excluded from certain occupations.
These restrictions nearly blocked Vygotsky’s admittance to university despite his youthful brilliance. His experiences with anti-Jewish bigotry would undoubtedly influence his later work reorienting psychology. Most clearly, these experiences would push Vygotsky to critique conceptions of the mind that treated the development of cognitive processes as purely internal, unaffected by the surrounding world. As we will see, Vygotsky demonstrated that as the child develops cognitive processes are increasingly mediated—both constrained and enabled—by cultural, social, and economic factors.
Vygotsky’s groundbreaking work was frequently and painfully interrupted—and eventually ended when he was 37-years-old—by tuberculosis. To his peers he was a child genius. By the time he was 15-years-old he was known as the “little professor.”
Vygotsky’s contributions to educational psychology stemmed not just from his own insights, but from the influences of such monumental figures as Lenin and the inspiration of his environment: Revolutionary Russia.
A communist theory of cognition
Replacing a stagist view of cognitive development with a dialectical orientation is part of Vygotsky’s indispensable legacy. That is, Vygotsky discredited the belief that child thought evolves through fixed, natural, separate, and unrelated stages.
Cognitive development is not simply a matter of biological predeterminations, but is mediated by social factors. Consequently, as society changes—quantitatively within a system or qualitatively between systems through revolution—cognitive development also changes. This is what it means to say that Vygotsky’s theory of development is historical. Because references to Marx and Lenin were purged from English translations of Vygotsky’s work, the fact that his approach is both dialectical and historical in its core is largely unknown, especially in the U.S.
Cognitive development is not necessarily about an individual’s inherent potential. Rather, cognitive development is about the general potential of specific classes, which is an expression of historical processes. To get more specific: it is an expression of a society’s particular technologies, discourses, signs, tools, and modes of production. Uncovering these processes points toward the historically determined and changing nature of cognitive processes.
These insights were deeply influenced and inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, which coincided with Vygotsky’s graduation from Moscow University in 1917. The Revolution transformed many disciplines and opened up new realms of inquiry and opportunities for young, formerly oppressed and marginalized scholars such as Vygotsky.
The Bolshevik leadership heavily emphasized education after the revolution, since the predominantly peasant feudalistic social formation promoted a conservative, reactionary ideology. Lenin (1919/2019) sums this up in his address to the First All-Russian Congress on Adult Education. He emphasizes the working class and peasantry’s thirst for knowledge, noting “how heavy the task of re-educating the masses was, the task of organization and instruction, spreading knowledge, combating that heritage of ignorance, primitiveness, barbarism and savagery that we took over” (p. 24).
As renowned Vygotskian scholar James Wertsch (1985) puts it, “Vygotsky and his followers devoted every hour of their lives to making certain that the new socialist state, the first grand experiment based on Marxist-Leninist principles, would succeed” (p. 10).
Vygotsky’s work is therefore an embodiment of one of the most intellectually and culturally stimulating settings of the 20th century. His project was dedicated to remaking psychology in Marxist terms in order to overcome the practical problems inherited from Czarist Russia, including illiteracy and the oppression of national and gender minorities.
Working in this exciting time of revolutionary transformation, which unleashed a radical desire for new knowledge, Vygotsky was taken by socialism’s elevation of the general potential of cognitive development.
Influences of Lenin
Some of Vygotsky’s (1986) most central conceptions of mind were based on Lenin’s philosophical notebooks. For example, Vygotsky draws on Lenin’s distinction between “primitive idealism” and Hegelian idealism. This distinction allowed Vygotsky to demonstrate that a particular society’s general level of development is not biologically determined or fixed, but rather historically determined and therefore capable of transformation. It brought revolutionary optimism, in other words, to the field of psychology. Whereas primitive idealism attempts to universalize a particular being, which Lenin calls “stupid” and “childish,” Hegelian idealism distinguishes an object from the idea of the object. Such insights were fundamental in challenging decontextualized, racialized conceptions of mind used to justify the oppression of national minorities.
Vygotsky developed a complex conception of the “mind in society” that explores the dialectical relationship between thought and imagination as unity and contradiction. For Vygotsky, thought emerges from an engagement with the concrete world. Imagination is a sort of sublated thought that begins to appear in young children when they cannot fulfill their immediate desires. When this occurs:
The preschool child enters an imaginary, illusory world in which the unrealizable desires can be realized, and this world is what we call play. Imagination is a new psychological process for the child; it is not present in the consciousness of the very young child…Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action…Imagination in adolescence and school children is play without action. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 93)
While the development of imagination seems to be a consistent aspect of human cognitive development, as sublated thought, it is the negation of the thought of “the very young child,” and is therefore contradictory.
However, like development more generally, the sublation of early childhood thought and the emergence of imagination is not immediate but develops quantitatively by degree, bit by bit. Vygotsky (1978) argues this is because “there is such intimate fusion between meaning and what is seen” (p. 97). For example, young children have difficulty repeating the phrase, “’Tanya is standing up’ when Tanya is sitting in front of” them (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 97).
The presence of imagination as a human quality is the basis of our ability to engage the world reflectively rather than instinctively. This powerful quality accounts for the wide variance in cultures and is the basis for history. It makes possible misinformation, bigotry, domination, as well as creativity and resistance.
This discussion on thought and imagination reflects how Vygotsky was taken by Lenin’s observation that the distinction between objects and the idea of them is vulnerable to being consumed by an always latent element of fantasy, as ideas can never mirror, with complete exactness, the objects they intend to represent. There is always a gap between reality and representation. For Vygotsky, attending to the gap between objects and the ideas they intend to represent is fundamentally connected to the process of navigating the gap between what is and what can be.
This is particularly significant for challenging decontextualized and racialized conceptions of mind because there is a tendency in capitalist schooling to attribute students’ actual level of development with innate or biological factors, thereby ignoring the ways unequal and highly segregated educational systems produce unequal outcomes. Challenging racist biological determinism, Vygotsky shows that what students can do on their own, their independent activity, does not necessarily correlate to what they can achieve with a teacher, peer, or other leader. This is where the zone of proximal development comes into play.
The Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky named the gap between what is and what can be the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and created a whole educational theory around it. Like social formations, individual children or learners have historically determined levels of development in particular subjects or domains that can be assessed through appropriate testing instruments. Based on their actual level, learners have an immediate developmental potential in each domain. The difference between actual and potential is the ZPD. According to Vygotsky (1986):
The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that can mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than the “fruits” of development. (p. 86)
Vygotsky referred to potential developmental levels as “buds or flowers” rather than “fruits” because they are in the process of coming into being and therefore not yet fully ripe. Further, their process of coming into being isn’t predetermined. No one can know in advance what form the developed function will take.
The ZPD represents the gap between an existing level of development and what can be achieved with the help of more capable or differently situated peers. For example, two children may test at the same math level, so their actual level of development is identical. However, when they are pushed with examples, questions, and demonstrations, one may achieve a potential developmental level significantly different than the other. That is, even if their actual levels of development are the same, their zones of proximal development are not. The prompting by a teacher or peer will push them but from different places and in different directions. For Vygotsky, such scenarios point to the complex, non-linear nature of the relationship between instruction, development, and history.
Vygotskian researchers have long pointed out that things like arithmetic systems and their uses are not natural or universal but are specific to socio-historical contexts. The ZPD, consequently, can only be understood if the historically-specific context is accounted for. As contexts change, ZPDs also transform.
Taken together, these are key examples of how Vygotsky’s theories guard against ableist theories of development, in that it is all about unleashing the unique potential of all students during a particular historical moment.
It is important to stress that the content of this gap between ability and potential isn’t predetermined, which is what makes it a gap and not a lack or deficiency. This is particularly important as a challenge to capitalist schooling that tends to define that which deviates from some normative standard as a lack or deficiency. Rather than Spanish-speaking, for example, we are confronted with the discourse of the non-English-speaking or English as a second language. The emphasis, in capitalist normative discourse, is on what is not rather than on what is.
“Left-Wing” Communism as an example of ZPD
Lenin’s (1920/2016) pamphlet, “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is an indispensable illustration of Vygotsky’s ZPD, one that brings home the theory’s importance for communists.
By 1905, the suffering Russian masses had developed a revolutionary mood that coincided with a revolutionary crisis within Czarist Russia. The spontaneous movement of the masses pushed for the overthrow of the government. The crisis-ridden state was not only practically obsolete; it was politically obsolete because the masses held a revolutionary consciousness. The actual level of development was therefore revolutionary, rendering an actual revolution within the proximal zone of development. Since the masses actual level of development was revolutionary, a communist orientation or consciousness was within their proximal level of development. Lenin held a deep awareness of this situation and therefore understood the indispensable nature of education.
The defeat of the 1905 revolution and the government’s subsequent wave of repression worked together to temper the radical mood of the masses. The people increasingly looked to the provisional, bourgeois government to meet their needs. Yet the Bolsheviks continued calling for a boycott of the parliamentary elections for the next few years. Lenin writes that this was a mistake, one that became more serious each year. Parliamentarism might have been practically obsolete in that it couldn’t meet the needs of the masses, but it was no longer politically obsolete because the people had faith in it. The Bolsheviks thus incorrectly judged the ZPD.
Communists therefore had to learn from their mistakes and focus on doing political education work and mass outreach meeting the masses where they were at in terms of their consciousness. This entails promoting the vision, program, and desire for revolution while maintaining close contact with the working class. It is imperative that revolutionaries are in tune with the mood of the masses and their ZPD. Calling for revolution before the people are ready is equivalent to abandoning and alienating the people.
Even if the mood of the masses is revolutionary, without an irreconcilable crisis within the capitalist class, launching an insurrection will likely end in failure and unimaginable persecution. Closely following the development of the capitalist system and its ruling class, consequently, is extremely important for assessing the ZPD of capitalism itself. In other words, the ZPD has to take the totality into account.
While the ZPD of the masses can be transformed through intervention, the ZPD of capitalism itself is less open to direct intervention, and therefore must be monitored through daily assessment of concrete situations.
Advancing the struggle through challenging the discipline
While Lenin was conscious of the changing roles of revolutionaries at different stages in the dialectical process toward communism, Vygotsky too was attuned to the changing significance of multiple interacting factors in human cognitive processes. In laying the theoretical groundwork for his revolutionary approach to educational psychology Vygotsky took up the task of challenging the world’s leading educational psychologist of the day, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) of Switzerland.
Significantly, Vygotsky draws heavily on Lenin in his challenge to Piaget. For example, in Thought and Language, Vygotsky (1986) reproduces a long quote from Lenin where he argues that Hegel’s insistence that people’s thought produces their activity must be “inverted.” That is, Lenin argues that it is the endless repetition of people’s activity (i.e. the labor act) that produces consciousness.
Similarly, Vygotsky notes that, “it was Piaget himself who clearly demonstrated that the logic of action precedes the logic of thought, and yet he insists that thinking is separated from reality” (p. 53). Piaget demonstrated that action precedes thought by observing that children playing together understand each other despite how unclear their language is because it is accompanied by gesture and mimicry, the beginning of action. Consequently, Piaget questions weather children truly understand each other through speaking/language without acting, yet in theory he puts thought before action.
Sounding remarkably like Marx in his use of metaphor, Vygotsky summarizes the inadequacy of Piaget’s formulation: “…if the function of thinking is to reflect upon reality, this actionless thinking appears as a parade of phantoms and a chorus of shadows rather than the real thinking of a child” (p. 53). Having established the dynamic relationship between mind and society, Vygotsky took social formation as the ultimate determining factor influencing the dynamic development of human personalities and consciousness.
Producing his major works during the transition from an underdeveloped peasant-based economy to socialism, Vygotsky was deeply interested in the socialist alteration of humanity. It was the intellectually exciting and creative context of the Soviet Union that Vygotsky found himself in, combined with the work and example of Lenin, that offered the concrete context from which Piaget’s formulation unveiled itself to Vygotsky as incorrect.
Throughout Vygotsky’s body of work he insists that at “moments of revolutionary dislocation the nature of development changes” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19). This is key because it once more emphasizes that the gap between what is and what can be isn’t predetermined and is historically situated.
Vygotsky defined transition points in development in terms of changes in mediation. A fundamental feature of Vygotsky’s genetic analysis is that he did not assume one can account for all phases of development by using a “single set of explanatory principles” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19).
Rather, Vygotsky emphasized that
…at certain points in the emergence of a psychological process new forms of development and new explanatory principles enter the picture. At these points…there is a ‘change in the very type of development’ and so the principles which alone had previously been capable of explaining development can no longer do so. Rather, a new set of principles must be incorporated into the overall explanatory framework, resulting in its reorganization.” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19-20)
At certain points there is a fundamental reorganization of the forces of development. This occurs as language and social interactions become more and more prominent mediators in child development through the years. The character of social mediators impacting the development of human personalities also undergoes significant alteration with the transition from capitalism/feudalism to socialism.
Vygotsky’s revolutionary theory of development is therefore one that recognizes the many forms of capacity, intelligence, and potential in all beings.
From the perspective of Vygotsky’s ZPD we might argue that as proletarian consciousness moves back to the left, and as the political crisis continues to deepen within the capitalist class political establishment, more revolutionary-oriented approaches to education are once again coming closer to our contemporary ZPD.
– Lenin, V. I. (1919/2019). First All-Russia Congress on Adult Education: Speech of Greeting. In D.R. Ford and C. Malott (Eds.). Learning with Lenin: Selected Works on Education and Revolution (pp. 23-25). Charlotte, NC: IAP.
– Lenin, V.I. (1920/2016). “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: A Popular Essay in Marxist Strategy and Tactics. New York: International Publishers.
– Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
– Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Edited by Alex Kozulin. London: MIT Press.
– Wertsch, J. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
This article was republished from Liberation School.
“Marcusian” and “Brownian” are odd words to put on display in modern political commentary. Some might even argue they are not political. Maybe they shouldn’t be. But then, why are we here? Here: as in somewhat interested in an article on Midwestern Marx for whatever reason, and here: as in living right now under certain specific conditions in a particular revolutionary moment dragging on endlessly with what feels like no end in sight. Initially, this question displays somewhat of a heavy sense of presence, yet it is destructively and even painstakingly fixated on a past movement either lacking guile or still not entirely realized; a movement concerning both time and human touch. It is our business to understand every moment as a relation, and the status of American political culture now is no exception. The American counterculture, the civil rights era, the Vietnam protests, those great acid dreams of Gonzo madness and degenerative jouissance still vibrate purposefully and very often in modern political discourse, radical or otherwise. At least, much more so than we would like to think. The fascination that we should have with what I am calling the Marcusian and Brownian split, derived from the great works of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, will be found in the heavy presence of this countercultural moment but actually begins with a more contemporary and slightly less gigantic, though no less important, theoretical figure, Mark Fisher. All will be made clear soon, as Jerry Garcia once said, “you just gotta poke around.”
Mark Fisher was a British cultural and critical theorist specializing in Frankfurt School critical theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the study of ideology. What is most important for us is the extensive work Fisher did on what he called capitalist realism [i], defined as, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (MF, 2). We actually see examples of this all around us daily. Capital is notorious for its ability to co-opt any movement going against its systematic reach, eventually bringing counter-hegemonic movements under the umbrella of capital. Purchase a trendy t-shirt of Che Guevara on Amazon or watch a Netflix documentary like The Social Dilemma to see what I mean. Capital not only profits on the co-optation of movements aimed against it, but also weaponizes them for its own psychological and ideological purposes. This latter point is key for both myself and Fisher, as the inability to imagine an alternative to the current mold of the human condition is incredibly worrisome, and the evidence points to at least some validity to this conclusion. What’s more, the United States—the great agent of neoliberalism, according to Fisher—has effectively worked to eliminate any real alternatives to the capitalist system like democratic socialism or libertarian communism. Granted, there are also daily examples of individuals and groups fighting against these co-optations, like us! but the haunting spectre of capitalism continues to divide and weaken the potential for a unified form of consciousness among the working class, often leading to in-fighting amongst individuals in the same economic class and ideological posturing for red and blue parties that only represent destruction and status-quo symbolizations. It should be noted that Fisher himself did not accept this as a defeat for radical politics, only theorizing capitalist realism as a way to portray what we are really up against in the 21st century. As Slavoj Žižek writes, “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality - that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself.” [ii] This is the danger Fisher attempts to illustrate.
The spectre of capitalist realism, or the seeming victory of capital ideologically and materially, has both historical and psychological foundations. Maybe even magic pillars, as we might come to discover. Fisher locates the historical victory of capitalism in the failures of Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in Chile in the early 1970s. Following dictator Augusto Pinochet’s ascension to power, the United States began using Chile as a breeding ground for developing global economic innovations such as financial deregulation, opening up the economy to foreign capital, and privatisation. Policies that were “maintained through the violent oppression of the majority and the brutal eradication of opposing political ideals in order to transform the country’s political profile and economic system.” [iii]. Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys made much of this possible, and I’m sure many are at least somewhat familiar with this history. What we are not given in Fisher’s work, however, is a coherent exploration of the psychological effects capitalism produces and where this origin might be discovered. Obviously, the scope of this project would be a massive undertaking, but my goal is to offer us somewhat of a starting point. If the historical and material victory of capitalism came in the early 1970s, then perhaps we can locate the psychological origins around the same time.
Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown represented the intellectual heights of the counterculture movement but also foreshadowed its eventual failures. Both rose to prominence in the late fifties and continued to develop important work throughout the sixties and seventies. Marcuse was a German Marxist philosopher, a psychoanalyst by trade and a core member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He, like his colleagues Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm, sought to ally the insights of Freud with the writings of Marx to understand why the great workers revolution had not happened, and to account for the horrors witnessed in their German homeland during WWII. Marcuse produced a stunning array of theoretical work, and there are two ideas in particular that I want us to focus on. First, a major theme of his work was that the continued development of capitalism also brought with it the continued development of its blatant contradictions; contradictions which could eventually be used against capital’s domination for the creation of a world beyond toil and exploitation. This was Marcuse’s gaya scienza, the incorporation of human beauty in the production of a new science, an outgrowth of capitalism’s technological advances and paralleled contradictions. [iv] Capital essentially created the tools necessary for its own destruction. Through inquiries into the structure of advanced capitalist society present in all forms of social phenomena, Marcuse aimed to show that the structure contained at its core “unrealized potentialities” capable of being redirected against the system itself. These unrealized potentials were exhibited in countless instances, any and all forms of social protest and social progress were minor illuminations of the possibility for overcoming capitalism’s destruction.
Second, Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality has remained perhaps his most well known and timeless contribution to Marxist thought. Capital produces constant states of “unfreedom” which appear as a set of free choices, all contributing to the near sterilization of the free subject and the elimination of aesthetic, intellectual, and physical freedoms. This is not the representation of reality as a “false consciousness,” but reality as such. Social connectivity and human relations become thus moderated by the exchange and commodification of objects in the material universe. The search for human community becomes exhaustive, never-ending, and incredibly destructive, aiding in the creation of neurotic, anxiety-ridden subjects who can no longer find connection through sensual ephemeralities of beauty, love, or thought. Both of these ideas work together in a number of ways. The cultivation of a new consciousness, which Marcuse called the new sensibility, [v] would lead to both a psychological awakening of the repressed, one-dimensional subject and a political movement capable of utilizing the tools for capital’s overcoming.
Given the status of Marcuse as a torchbearer of the New Left in the sixties, one may very well wonder why his project failed to achieve notable success as a political platform or set of political ideas. Certainly, there were elements of the hippie counterculture which undermined actual Marxist progress, often diluting radical politics with a liberal politic much like progressive movements today. Regardless of the disconnect between the actual revolutionaries of the time and their liberal, peace-loving counterparts, there existed a stark psychological break within the counterculture movement that both Marcuse and Brown adequately portray. In this split, Marcuse represents the political side of a psychological break containing at its base the erotic elements of human sensuality, pleasure, community, beauty, freedom, and love noted above. The gaya scienza and the one-dimensional thesis signify a psychological reinterpretation of the orthodox Marxian notion of the base-superstructure, this time flipped on its head. Instead of interpreting changes to the human psyche as a product of the material modes of production, something Marx in the German Ideology calls “the language of real life”, [vi] Marcuse used the cultural and psychological elements of the superstructure to interpret material change. This type of analysis allows for the freedom to develop a psychological theory explaining the effects of capitalist progress, while not straying too far from the original Marxist position of dialectical historical materialism.
Brown, on the other hand, developed his own dialectic in strict relation to the human body. Unlike Marcuse’s political aesthetic and growth as a leader of the Political New Left, Brown rose to prominence as the mystical poet of the growing radical scene in the fifties and sixties. Brown, for what it's worth, was a classicist by training. He and Marcuse were friends, and it was actually Marcuse who introduced him to the work of Freud, setting off a project for Brown that would lead to one of the most radical readings of Freud ever offered. In his most famous work, Life Against Death, Brown not only developed what he called “the psychoanalytic meaning of history,” but contributed greatly to psychoanalytic studies by giving Freud’s instinctually dualistic understanding of Life and Death (Eros and Thanatos) a necessary dialectical interpretation. The dialectic, Brown observed, returned to the origin of what he called, citing Anaximander and Heraclitus, “the undifferentiated unity.” [vii]
“We need,” Brown writes, “a metaphysic which recognizes the continuity between man and animals and also the discontinuity.” [viii] Like Marcuse, Brown noticed that the dualistic separation of the human from nature, and much more so the dualism of human life in seemingly endless conflict with the inevitable prospects of death, greatly hindered the possibility for any formulation of hope and human community beyond the repression of modern capitalist society. Unlike Marcuse, however, Brown spoke not of the technologies of advanced capitalist society or of its inherent contradictions pointed out by leading activists at the time, but offered an incredibly complex analysis of the human organism—the physical life of the human body and its near mystical instinctual counterpart—within history and the society this history has continuously reinforced. Freud presented the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, and the corresponding effect this has on the individual within human society (i.e. the Marcusian transformation from the pleasure principle to the reality principle) as a biological necessity. The dualistic interpretation of the conscious and the unconscious, which for Freud calcified the irreconcilable conflict between Eros – seeking to preserve and enrich life–and Thanatos–seeking to return life to the peace of death – seemed only to establish human history as a biological phenomenon undergirded by factors which prevent the possibility for full human transformation and freedom.
Brown developed his dialectic as a way to return creative powers back to humanity. What Freud and others had for so long considered inevitable or biologically necessary—the fear of death in the face of overabundant life—appeared for him to be the continuing production and reproduction of a history that maintained the human organism as a neurotic and repressed piece of a neurotic and repressed history. Brown wanted to destroy this history and discover eternity, something entirely within reach of a new humanity. He was fascinated by the aesthetic in a way radically different from Marcuse, he saw it as a way to integrate mystery back into human life, which for so long now has sought to eliminate mystery through democratized knowledge or positivistic research:
And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new. [ix]
Between Marcuse and Brown we see a marked distinction between political, Marxist aestheticization as a form of analysis in a social project, and a poetic, bodily mysticism devoid of a political project or goal. Marcusian politicization took seriously both the psychologically repressed capitalist subject and the importance of Marxist material dialecticism. Brownian mysticism was not explicitly political, but also succeeded in creating a poetic theorization of the body and psycho-social space-time which did not succumb to the now famous Young Hegelian tendency of “descending from Heaven to Earth.” [x]. Given Brown’s ability to not only formulate the instinctual dialectic, overcoming the dualism of life and death, but also his theorization of poetics as a new avenue for revolutionary dialectics, he was able to create a necessary psychoanalytic history to accompany historical materialism. Thus, the Marcusian-Brownian split: the separation of the political from the mystical in Marxist analysis, captures the core psychoanalytic rupture between two of the leading revolutionary intellectuals of the sixties. The significance of the split is that instead of developing together or at least with some potential for reunification, the monumental success of capitalist realism at the same time ensured their continued separation. There was no “commingling with new aesthetic forms,” as Fisher once playfully wrote. Not only this, but the ideological victory of the capitalist system also increased the perceived oasis between the political and the mystical in the human psyche. To quote Marcuse, the “elimination of the spectre of a world which could be free,” [xi] necessitated the loss of both. The political and the mystical were drastically reduced. Even Marcuse and Brown, quarrelling in a series of letters published in Commentary Magazine in 1967, failed to notice the insightful oneness of political and mystical, poetic consciousness as a potentially unifying project itself. Only a year later the events of May 1968 would engulf France. Streets would fill with student protesters, college dormitories would be consumed by the naked bodies of young lovers, protest art sprawled across the walls, lamp posts, subways, and restaurants of the French capital, while a president secretly fled to Germany. The “social revolution,” as it is called, was a success, but once again the political revolution did not come to fruition.
There is much to be learned from the disagreements between Marcuse and Brown, most important of which is that insightful and radical reevaluations of the body, language, and human history are a necessary accompaniment to structural Marxism and its many appendages. Capitalist ideology really “holds” us in place now because these two elements of human experience are often held in stark contrast to one another, especially amongst the new alleged torchbearers of the modern political and social moment. We might do well now to take seriously both Marcuse’s assertion that “at the highest stage of capitalism, the most necessary revolution appears as the most unlikely one,” [xii] and Brown’s notable tactic for this revolution, “(to put it simply) the simultaneous affirmation and rejection of what is; not in a system, as in Hegel, but in an instant, as in poetry.” [xiii].
I will have many more articles up soon. Thanks for checking out my first piece!
[i] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Washington: Zero Books Publishing, 2009), 2.
[ii] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso Books, 1989), 49.
[iii] Elizabeth Dicken, “An Assessment of the Pinochet Regime in Chile,” E-International Relations, 2015, https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/56089
[iv] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969).
[v] Ibid., 19.
[vi] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 154.
[vii] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Origins of History (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), 83.
[viii] Ibid., 83.
[ix] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 4.
[x] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
[xi] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation , (Routledge, 1987), p. 2
[xii] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press 2010)
[xiii] Norman O. Brown, “A Reply to Herbert Marcuse,” Commentary Magazine, March 1967. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/commentary-bk/a-reply-to-herbert-marcuse/
Hunter Hilinski is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. He received a dual BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Wilkes University and an MA in Political Science from Colorado State University. His current research interests are in the American counterculture of the 1960s and Latin American political movements at about the same time. His work is deeply indebted to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. At UCI he is a labor union steward/organizer and member of the Housing and Anti-Policing committees.
Book Review: Eric-John Russell- Spectacular Logic in Hegel and Debord: Why Everything is as it Seems. Reviewed By: Carson WelchRead Now
The work of Guy Debord has often been associated in the English-speaking world with the ubiquity of some vague menace called “the spectacle,” which amounts to little more than an impenetrable mass of images that paper over the reality of social antagonism. A few recent studies have begun to remedy such misunderstandings of Debord’s central concept by restoring the complexity of its engagement with the Hegelian Marxist philosophical tradition. Spectacular Logic in Hegel and Debord both contributes to this restoration and offers some revisions of the studies that preceded it. But in doing so, it provides far more than a mere analysis of Hegel’s influence on Debord. Having situated Debord’s thought among a range of dialectical thinkers, Russell ultimately shows how Debord’s engagement with Hegel evinces the continuing use of the concept of “appearance” for understanding, as Russell puts it, the “phenomenality of a world that cannot be seen otherwise” (4).
At the heart of Russell’s study is the form of appearances in societies organized by political economy. What Russell means by “appearance,” as his subtitle suggests, is the way in which the world seems to subjects in a broad sense that includes the sort of conceptual immediacy associated with the term “ideology.” In Hegel’s Science of Logic, appearance more specifically denotes how the object reveals itself; there, in a complex dynamic that Russell lays out with refreshing clarity, mere illusion, Schein, unfolds into the more complex Erscheinung, the appearance whose necessity compels the phenomenal world to bear its own truth: as per Hegel’s famous phrase, which Adorno compared to the great climaxes of Beethoven’s symphonies, “essence must appear!”. The category of appearance thus spans the historically determinate meanings of “phenomenology” that each reflect in various ways on how the world ‘reveals itself’ to consciousness. But for Russell, “appearance” is more specifically the concept that renders possible Hegel’s speculative philosophy. The central gambit of Russell’s study hinges on precisely such elective affinities between “the speculative,” as a direct relation between appearance and essence, and “the spectacle,” as a historical manifestation of that relation.
This realm of appearances was likewise the starting point of Marx’s critique of political economy. In Capital, Marx begins this critique not with labor, circulation, the working day, Feudalism, or any of the other possible starting points, but rather with the commodity, the sensible and ubiquitous manifestation of the mode of production whose logic it soon reveals. As for Debord, that the first sentence of The Society of the Spectacle should play on the opening sentence of Capital indexes from the outset the intent to update this analysis of the commodity for his own time: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (Debord, 1995; 12). Not only does the replacement of “commodities” with “spectacles” denote a generalized commodification, but it also encapsulates Debord’s project of updating those forms of appearance that, for Marx, offer a profound view onto the dynamics of capital (if only to give way to other views as Capital progresses). The shift of emphasis from commodity to spectacle does not entail the effacement of the commodity form as a central analytic concept, but rather the commodity’s emerging tendency toward the visual. As the highest form of commodification, the “image” is one of the obvious-seeming manifestations of the spectacle in the age of ubiquitous advertising, celebrity, mind-numbing TV, and so on, but it more importantly indexes a certain encroachment of the commodity form upon the sensory apparatus. While the image is thus an important site for understanding the mutations in the commodity form, the spectacle is not identical with “images,” and its tendency toward visuality in the 20th-century ultimately “refers back to the riddle of the money-fetish” (104).
As a condensed expression of the historical transformation in the capitalist mode of appearance witnessed by Debord, this first sentence of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle also serves as a prime example of the Situationist logic (adopted from the Lettrists) of détournement—the estrangement of old content or an imposition of a new context that makes the old material suddenly give off a flash of relevance. But perhaps another détournement from Society of the Spectacle serves as a better entry into Russell’s erudite study, this time a reworking of Hegel: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood” (14). The first chapter of Russell’s book is devoted to working through the development of the Hegelian aphorism from which this sentence is derived: “the true is the whole.” Taken up by Adorno, this aphorism revealed that social totality could only be comprehended at the expense of the very particulars of which it is composed, admitting of a profound reversal: “the whole is the untrue.” Russell draws clear parallels between Debord’s own engagement with this problematic and that of Adorno’s, especially insofar as both take heed of the form of appearances under late capitalism as the true expression of a corrupt world. For Russell, this is the only way to make sense of the concept of spectacle: the spectacle is not the illusion that obscures the way a society really functions; rather, it is that functioning itself. Spectacle is not an obfuscation of class struggle but one of its many facets.
Returning to Hegel’s terminology, Russell argues that many misreadings of Debord ignore this rational kernel in the mystical shell of spectacle and could be remedied by recognizing that the spectacle is not so much caught in the illusory dualism of Schein—illusion and reality, misrecognition and truth—as it is an expression of the internal necessity of Erscheinungen described above. The moments of this paradoxical identity of essence and appearance in the spectacle follow so closely those articulated in Hegel’s Logic that, for Russell, the spectacle can be considered the latter’s manifestation in reality (in much the same way that Adorno considered the culture industry a realization of the most fanciful formulations of German Idealism, industrializing the function of conceptual schematization that Kant had reserved for the individual). As Russell makes clear, this is because the concept of spectacle is not so much concerned with appearances per se as their unity or organisation in a given social formation, aligning the spectacle with the dialectical reversals in use- and exchange-value detailed by Marx. Though Russell ultimately argues that the spectacle should be considered the manifestation of Hegel’s subjective logic, such assertions in large part sidestep the usual thorny disputes as to Hegel’s relationship to the critique of capitalism, insofar as the spectacle names not capitalism in particular but a “critical theory of society” that is better understood alongside the Frankfurt School than the so-called postmodern theorists like Baudrillard. Such disputes return, however, when the contemporary spectacle is considered the self-moving and internally differentiating force that Marx called the “automatic subject” of capital and that bears such a striking formal similarity to the self-movement of Hegel’s world spirit (making it no surprise that Hegel, too, was familiar with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market”).
Another such problem addressed in Russell’s book is that of “separation,” inherited by Debord from Lukács and the early Marx. Like in the studies of Tom Bunyard and Anselm Jappe on which Russell builds, Spectacular Logic gives detailed accounts of the process by which subjects are unable to recognize the products of their labor as their own when the objective social world becomes “separated” from those who have created it, acquiring the status of an inalterable “second nature.” Russell adequately traces this tradition and its problems, revising at times its treatment in recent scholarship—in particular what Russell considers Jappe’s over-emphasis on the value-form and Bunyard’s opposition of Hegel’s speculative philosophy to the real logic of spectacle. Though taking into account the influence of French Hegelians like Hyppolite and Lefebvre, Russell focuses more directly on Debord’s engagement with the German tradition from Hegel to Lukács. But it is only when Russell returns to his sustained reading of Hegel’s subjective logic and of the “Force and Understanding” section from the Phenomenology that this work most starkly stands out from its predecessors’. It is best not to spoil any of Russell’s thorough and idiosyncratic reading of Hegel’s speculative philosophy, except to point out that Spectacular Logic, as Étienne Balibar writes in the book’s foreword, “might very well become one of the best critical introductions to the reading of the Subjective Logic” (xviii).
From the book’s opening, Russell admits that he will somewhat narrowly focus on the logic of appearances in capitalist society, leaving untouched a great deal of material at the margins of this already massive scholarly undertaking. Nonetheless, since Debord’s artistic works constitute in their own right a profound meditation on the social organisation of appearances, one might have expected Russell to extend his own insights into a consideration of Debord’s artistic practice. Despite his limited output, Debord primarily considered himself a filmmaker, even as he made one of the first, but certainly not the last, proclamations of cinema’s end—not to mention the possibility for art to transcend itself in the construction of a new reality (and as for media more generally, Debord could not have more clearly stated that “the media” constitute only the most immediate and particular example of a mode of appearance that extends far beyond them).
Many of the strengths of Russell’s book, however, stem from this decision to bracket such topics within Debord’s thought. Such bracketing allows him to provide much more than a corrective to the reception of Debord in the Anglophone academy, however needed one may still be. Russell goes far beyond such correctives by providing a strong statement about why, to play on a sentence from Oscar Wilde that serves as the book’s epigraph, it is only shallow critics who do not judge by appearances.
Carson Welch is a PhD student in the Program in Literature at Duke University.
This article was republished from Marx & Philosophy.
Book Review: Henry Heller- The French Revolution and Historical Materialism: Selected Essays. Reviewed By: Jean-Pierre ReedRead Now
The French Revolution, a collection of articles and (review) essays previously published in Historical Materialism, is a must read. In it, Heller sets out to challenge the revisionist history associated with this historical event. What is at stake? The Marxist interpretation of the French revolution as a bourgeois revolution, a position that goes back to the work of Marx (among others, the German Ideology, Capital, Vol. 1, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850) and Engels (in the Origin of the Family), and which gains serious scholarly recognition starting at the turn of the twentieth century with the work of French Socialist Jean Jaurés and through the late 1960s at which point under the intellectual context of post-structuralism and post-modernism and the already existent geopolitical context of the Cold War, the Marxist – historical materialist – interpretation is challenged, first by French scholars (prominently François Furet representing the cultural turn) and subsequent to them, Anglo scholars (deniers of its historical impact). All in all, Heller provides us with an insightful and astute account of the historiography on the French revolution in the service of demonstrating the significance of historical materialism as an interpretative framework for the event in question. He does this in an expository way and in an elucidating back-and-forth manner with his critics (William Beik, David Parker, and Stephen Miller), whose essays are also part of the collection.
At the centre of the revisionist debate are some obvious but important questions: Was the bourgeoisie a class-in-itself and/or a class-for-itself at the time of the revolution? Is there any historical evidence that can support the claim that capitalism and its representative class actors existed at the time of revolution? Revisionist accounts, Heller shows, deny both the existence of a bourgeois class actor and the history of capitalist development that would have given rise to it. Historical records show, Heller further conveys of the revisionist history, that the absence of a capitalist infrastructure in seventeenth century France undermined the development of the bourgeoisie into a class-in-itself and class-for-itself capable of overthrowing the ancien régime. These latter factors imply that class conflict as portrayed in Marxist accounts was non-existent since the actors implied in the scenario of class conflict were also, in essence, non-existent, given the absence of a fully formed (or even despite an emergent) capitalist infrastructure. State sanctioned property rights – ‘seigneurial rights, venal offices, tax farms, noble titles, and bonds sold by office holders, municipal magistracies, and provincial estates’ – similarly got in the way of capitalist infrastructural development (112). If the bourgeoise was in fact a “viable” actor in the socio-political context that resulted in the outbreak and overthrow of the French monarchy as one of his critics contends, they played ‘a relatively small role’ (84). The real struggle between contending forces was not between the monarchy and emergent entrepreneurial middle classes. It was, so revisionists claim, between the nobility and the monarchy, if not between the monarchy and a reactionary peasantry. Revisionist accounts, to succinctly summarise, have ‘questioned the link between’ the bourgeoisie and capitalism, ‘cast doubt on the strength of both capitalism and the bourgeoisie … sought to deny the meaning of the terms,’ and ‘questioned the significance of the revolution to French history, which, it is claimed, is a history of continuity rather than change’ (127).
Heller’s response to revisionist contentions is to acknowledge, as the revisionists do, that the seventeenth century was indeed a period where the development of the French bourgeoisie was undermined on account of state practices that bolstered the logic of a feudal system. Yet, Heller further conveys, their undermining was not an indication that they lost momentum entirely from their emergence in the sixteenth century. The key to making sense of their influence is connected to what Marx referred to as primitive accumulation. A type of accumulation that comes in the form of rural capitalism and the social, economic, and technological changes that are correspondent to it. To make sense of this latter phenomenon that revisionist accounts readily dismiss, Heller conveys, one must consider the rationalisation of agricultural practices and the emergent wage system associated with a coming-into-being new mode of production and how these factors were connected to the material interests and the development, if in a limited way, of an emergent rural capitalist class and its influence (on agricultural practices, see 122-23). Yes, the seventeenth century was not as conducive to their development, as it was the case in the sixteenth century. The aforementioned feudal-state sponsored property practices are a key factor that largely explains their retardation. Yet, shifting agricultural and land practices in place – and despite ‘increased taxes and rents’ – kept them in a holding pattern that made it possible for them to sustain profits and to re-emerge and gain momentum in the eighteenth century, a more favourable context of opportunity to their material and political interests (122).
Heller also maintains that their influence in the unfolding of revolutionary situations is easily found in the discourse of the time. The fact that the artisan classes frequently engaged in strikes is also telling, not to mention the role finance capital played in the expansion of external commerce and development of industry before and after the overthrow of the monarchy. The reality that a language of class was present at the time of the revolutionary crisis and soon thereafter tells us something about the transformation processes already in place. The discourse against and for the revolution – as found in the language of key figures and journals – for example, was often consistent of warnings against bourgeois hegemony or calls for alliances with them against the monarchy. It not only proved the presence of a class actor, it also projected inchoate class interests that eventually matured and took hold of French society. Artisan strikes were in effect Luddite attacks against the imposition of an emergent economic regime that was displacing them through technological innovation, and the surest indicator of class conflict in the revolution. Regarding finance capital, Heller notes the following: ‘bankers were clearly involved in the development of both mining and metallurgy as well as large-scale commercial capitalism, the latter being the most dynamic sector of the economy prior to the revolution. It was in this sector in particular that industrial enterprises developed prior to 1789. The revolutionary period further advanced the development of capitalism and the development of a capitalist class’ (236).
The debate over whether the French revolution was a bourgeoisie revolution is likely to continue as past accounts are scrutinised, historical records come to light and are interpreted, and new insights develop from paradigm shifts in academia. Heller’s The French Revolution, however, gives credence to the usefulness of historical materialism, and in a significant way settles the score, to date, between liberal and radical interpretations. In this reviewer’s opinion The French Revolution has set the standard for Marxist interpretations for years to come. For this reason alone, it should be read.
Jean-Pierre Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies, and Philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, USA. His scholarship falls within the sociology of revolutions/social movements, social theory, and culture. It explores the signiﬁcance of popular culture (especially religion), discourse, emotion, and storytelling in (revolutionary) politics. He has published extensively on the religious dimensions of the Nicaraguan revolution. He is author of Sandinista Narratives: Religion, Sandinismo, and Emotions in the Making of the Nicaraguan Insurrection and Revolution (Lexington Books 2020).
This article was republished from Marx & Philosophy.
Since various economics professors noticed that Marxists had been publishing articles showing, from empirical data, that the labour theory of value was right[ 5,3,4,6,1 7,2 ], they have felt the need to come up with objections. Whilst in the past the objections economists raised to the labour theory of value were purely abstract and theoretical, now they had a harder job. They now had Marxists producing actual figures which they had to cast doubt on.
The objections raised by economists then get relayed in a popularised form on blogs or social media debates. It is worth my while giving a brief rundown of the 3 favourite objections along with an explanation of why these are all groundless. We have refuted them all in the open literature but since the relevant paper is not well known here is a short informal account.
1. The objection from money
The first objection is to say that the Marxists have not demonstrated a correlation between exchange values and labour but only between wages and exchange value. This, it is argued is circular, money quantities are being used to explain value not quantities of labour.
This objection is simply false. Zachariah used Swedish I/O tables that contain data on the number of person-years used in each industry there and obtained a correlation of 96.5% between integrated labour contents and market values of industrial output.
We[2 ] used UK I/O tables which have total wage bills for each industry along with other statistics on average hourly wages for each industry to do a similar correlation between hours directly and indirectly used in each industry and market values of outputs and obtained a 96.4% correlation. So it has been demonstrated that if you start out from actual hours worked you get a very strong correlation between price and labour value.
2. The objection from social necessity
Another objection that economists raise is to say: ‘Marx said it was socially necessary labour time that determines value, but the empirical studies just take clock time not socially necessary time’. This objection shows that some economists do not understand how Marx defined socially necessary labour time:
The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.
He is explicit that the socially necessary time that creates value is the average time that it takes to make a commodity of a given class. So the socially necessary time to produce 1Kwh of electricity is the average time used across all power plants active on the grid. Or expressed in money, the socially necessary time to produce £1 of electricity is the average time spent to produce £1 of electricity across all power plants weighted by the amount of electricity each plant produced.
Now the empirical studies use, for each industry, the total labour required to produce the output of the industry. So for the electricity, they give the total hours of labour to produce the total sales of electricity for the year. But by definition, this total is equal to the average labour content multiplied by the number of units produced. So the empirical studies are strictly and exactly using the Marxian definition of socially necessary labour in the calculations.
3. The objection from size
Another objection is that the observed correlations are a spurious side effect of industry sizes. For a third factor to be the common cause of the variation in the two vectors of interest, that third factor must itself be quantifiable. How do you measure industry size?
Is it defined in money terms?
Is it defined in employment terms?
We can intuitively see that ‘big’ industries employ more people and ‘big’ industries have a larger money output. But employment and money output are the two variables being taken as data by the empirical studies. What they are demonstrating is that the money turnover of the industry is 96% explained by the direct plus indirect employment of labour by the industry. So ‘size’ defined in either money or employment terms is not a third factor that could be causing the spurious correlation.
One could, of course, use some physical definition of size, output in Kg or land area occupied. But none of the economists has attempted to use such physical measures of size to show that weight of output or land area used is the ‘size’ that is causing the spurious correlation. Of course, as soon as you try to think of some such physical measure it becomes obvious that the task will be hopeless. There will only be a relatively weak correlation between the weights of the output of industries and their money output or employment, the same for land use.
1. Nils Fröhlich, “Labour values, prices of production and the missing equalisation tendency of profit rates: evidence from the German economy“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 37, 5 (2013), pp. 1107–1126.
2. G. Michaelson, W. P. Cockshott, and A. F. Cottrell, “Testing Marx: some new results from UK data“, Capital and Class (1995), pp. 103–129.
3. E. M. Ochoa, “Values, prices, and wage–profit curves in the US economy“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 13 (1989), pp. 413–29.
4. P. Petrovic, “The deviation of production prices from labour values: some methodology and empirical evidence“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 11 (1987), pp. 197–210.
5. A. M. Shaikh, “The empirical strength of the labour theory of value“, in Marxian Economics: A Reappraisal vol. 2, (Macmillan, 1998), pp. 225–251.
6. David Zachariah, “Testing the labour theory of value in Sweden” (2004).
7. David Zachariah, “Labour Value and Equalisation of Profit Rates“, Indian Development Review 4, 1 (2006), pp. 1–21.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
This article was republished from Paul Cockshott Blog.
With capitalism’s rapid descent into environmental catastrophe, epidemiological crises, and neo-fascist forms of governance, the forceful necessity of a socialist revolution seems evident. However, the specific modes of realization of such a historical change remain elusive. Decades of neoliberalism have resulted in a sharp decline in mass movements and struggles that represent vibrancy of subaltern praxis and popular power. The vast reservoirs of creativity, solidarity and existential resoluteness have been dealt a solid blow by undiminished austerity attacks which target the core of human dignity. And this explains the prolonged collapse of long-term imagination and revolutionary perspectives on the international Left.
An article in the April 2021 issue of “Reform and Revolution” - a magazine run by a Marxist caucus within Democratic Socialists of America - argues: “reforms are only won through struggle, and…if our class organizes on a larger scale and in a direct fight for political power, far more can be won.” This line of reasoning closely resembles Erik Olin Wright’s proposed strategy to “erode” capitalism. What these viewpoints share in common is a failure to understand the structural texture of capitalist totalities, overlooking the interlinked nature of the various elements which compose such social formations. More specifically, a reformist perspective is theoretically underdeveloped, being incapable of locating the particular positions of the political and social levels within capitalism.
State-forms in East and West
In his famous “Prison Notebooks”, Antonio Gramsci once wrote: “In the East, the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying - but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.” In this passage, Gramsci affirms the existence of a strong state-form in the West that includes, importantly, the multiple articulations and mediations of a mature civil society.
The real subsumption of society under capital in the West provides the basis for social cohesiveness. This may be a corollary of the mediating role of representative institutions, or the more abstract phenomenon of social democratization - juridical equality that allows increased national political and economic participation. In the East, by contrast, the state lacks the complex of defensive trenches that a developed and articulated civil society can provide to the state in the West, and which helps to resist the immediate eruption of conflicts in the sphere of production into the political terrain.
Gramsci’s comparison of advanced capitalist formations - with high state viscidity - to politically disarticulated and heterogeneous ones, characterized by arrangements of pre- or non-capitalist elements alongside capitalist ones was borrowed from Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s “Report on War and Peace” - published in 1923 - contained the following:
“The revolution will not come as quickly as we expected. History has proved this, and we must be able to take this as a fact, to reckon with the fact that the world socialist revolution cannot begin so easily in the advanced countries as the revolution began in Russia - in the land of Nicholas and Rasputin, the land in which an enormous part of the population was absolutely indifferent as to what peoples were living in the outlying regions, or what was happening there. In such a country it was quite easy to start a revolution, as easy as lifting a feather. But to start without preparation a revolution in a country in which capitalism is developed and has given democratic culture and organization to everybody, down to the last man - to do so would be wrong, absurd.”
Gramsci’s differentiation of state-civil society relations in the East and West was used by reformist thinkers - most prominently Eurocommunists - for patently non-revolutionary purposes. They asserted that insofar as the Western state was based largely in the civil society, capitalism could be slowly weakened through cultural and parliamentary struggles against bourgeoisie hegemony. Thus, Nicos Poulantzas was writing about his hopes of building democratic footholds in the capitalist state in the 1970s in Europe, when labor was relatively strong and social democratic parties seemed to be able to take over the administrations of different western European countries. Nevertheless, his hopes never materialized.
The reformist reformulations of the “Prison Notebooks” are aided by a selective reading. According to Gramsci, the Western bourgeoisie’s full-fledged articulation of a hegemonic project reproduces itself at the institutional scale in the form of a qualitatively new apparatus - the “integral state”. The state is no longer an intermittent entity in quotidian life. Instead, it percolates into the micro-pores of society, penetrating into the sumps of civil society. Gramsci identifies civil society closely with the “consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group”. In addition to civil society, there also exists political society, comprising the “apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.”
As Gramsci further notes, “This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command direction when spontaneous consent has failed” - thus, the integral state equals “political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion”. Here, the distinctions between political society and civil society are heuristic, not organic and ontological. In reality, both the components of the integral state exist as dialectical moments in a wider picture of fundamental unity. This point can be clarified through a brief delineation of the contours of hegemony.
In “Dominance without Hegemony”, Ranajit Guha developed a useful analytical schema. Hegemony involves a relation of Dominance [D] to Subordination [S] - and these two terms imply each other. Both aspects of power have their correlates: Dominance can take the forms of Coercion [C] and Persuasion [P], whereas Subordination” can take the form of Collaboration [C*] and Resistance [R]. In the words of Guha, the “mutual implication of D and S is logical and universal in the sense that, considered at the level of abstraction, it may be said to obtain wherever there is power, that is, under all historical social formations irrespective of the modalities in which authority is exercised there.” But the specific mix of coercion, persuasion, collaboration and resistance is contingently variable in different historical situations.
In any given society, and at any given point in time, the relation D/S varied according to what Guha termed - following the terminological style of “Das Kapital” - the “organic composition” of power, which depended on the relative weights of C and P in D, and of C* and R in S, which were always, he argued, contingent. Hegemony was a condition of dominance in which P exceeded C. “Defined in these terms, hegemony operates as a dynamic concept and keeps even the most persuasive structure of Dominance always and necessarily open to Resistance”. But at the same time, “since hegemony, as we understand it, is a particular condition of D and the latter is constituted by C and P, there can be no hegemonic system under which P outweighs C to the point of reducing it to nullity. Were that to happen, there would be no Dominance, hence no hegemony”.
This conception, he noted, “avoids the Gramscian juxtaposition of domination and hegemony as antinomies”, which had “alas, provided far too often a theoretical pretext for a liberal absurdity - the absurdity of an uncoercive state - in spite of the drive of Gramsci’s own work to the contrary”. As is evident, hegemony - unlike reformist conceptions - only constitutes the social basis of power in the state (conceived in a limited sense, as governmental apparatus); expressed in terms of the dialectical unity of the integral state, dominance in political society depends upon a class’s ideological capacities in civil society. Given the earthworks and trenches that exist in the West, a class that aspires to be hegemonic must pass through the different, yet unified, moments of civil and political hegemony before reconstituting the state - the final war of maneuver.
When the integral state is understood in all its comprehensiveness, civil society becomes the terrain upon which social classes compete for social and political leadership or hegemony over other social classes. Such hegemony is guaranteed, however, in the ultimate instance, by capture of the legal monopoly of violence embodied in the institutions of political society. Hence, the political society is a condensation of the social forces in civil society that are themselves overdetermined by economic interests and relations of forces originating from the political arena. The state apparatus of the bourgeoisie can be defeated only when the proletariat has deprived it of its social basis through the construction of an alternative hegemonic narrative and its concretization in a corresponding hegemonic apparatus. Contemporary reformists deny the indispensability of the latter.
Hence, rather than locating hegemony in either civil society or political society, or characterizing hegemony as invariably involving consent by the ruled to their subordinate status, or seeing hegemony as a process working at the molecular level in an almost non-political way, we need to see hegemony as a way of amalgamating social forces into political power. The exercise of hegemony, initially done within civil society, must also have a substantive effect upon political society - because political society itself is integrally intertwined with civil society and its social forces, as their mediated, higher forms. In fact, any attempt for the attainment of hegemony within civil society has to progress towards political hegemony in order to maintain itself as such.
Dual Power Strategy
By now, it should be obvious that Gramsci posits no deep-seated differences between East and West, as far as the state goes. Despite any ease of access to political power on one side of the divide, there is still - to use Gramsci’s phrase - that intense “labour of criticism” (part and parcel of a lengthy war of position) which needs to be carried out in any historical process of intellectual and moral reform; hegemony needs to be molded in a manner that reaches popular consciousness. Any conquering of a “gelatinous” state needs to be followed by this work. Thus, different historical formations are at different levels in terms of their development of civil society. These formations purely differ in the quality of the relationship between state and civil society.
Now, the types of the state-civil society linkages in the West depend crucially upon material apparatuses. In “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, Perry Anderson turned his emphasis away from culture as the mechanism of consent to “the general form of the representative State,” which “deprives the working class of the idea of socialism as a different type of State.” Communication, consumerism, and “other mechanisms of cultural control” could only reinforce, in a complementary and secondary manner, this more fundamental mechanism, which belonged to the sphere of the state itself. The bourgeois state abstracted the population from its class divisions, “representing” individuals as equal citizens:
“[I]t presents to men and women their unequal positions in civil society as if they were equal in the State. Parliament, elected every four or five years as the sovereign expression of popular will, reflects the fictive unity of the nation back to the masses as if it were their own self-government.” The “juridical parity between exploiters and exploited” conceals “the complete separation and non-participation of the masses in the work of parliament.” The consent extracted by the bourgeois state “takes the fundamental form of a belief by the masses that they exercise an ultimate self-determination within the existing social order.” The belief in equality of all citizens, that is, in the absence of a ruling class, produced by the institutions of parliamentary representation, is the structure of consent found in a developed capitalist society.
Since parliamentary apparatuses are themselves responsible for the preservation of capitalist society, a “democratic road to socialism” ends up reinforcing the ideology of bourgeois democracy. Hence, socialism will require not the uncritical takeover of the existing state apparatuses but their dismantlement through the cultivation of new institutions of grassroots democratic popular power. This revolutionary perspective is described as a dual power strategy because it promotes new centers of popular power outside of (an in opposition to) the apparatuses of the old state. But such a revolutionary position is ignored by present-day reformists who neglect the conjoined status of civil society and political society.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
The British materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is one of the fathers of social contract theory and modern political philosophy. His magnus opus – Leviathan[i] – is a text which á la Plato’s Republic covers a wide breadth of subjects from epistemology, science, religion, and moral and political philosophy. However, his text is most widely remembered for its monarchism-endorsing political philosophy and its speculative warring state of nature. Nonetheless, there is a contradiction at the heart of Hobbes’ work, between his notorious political thought and his moral philosophy, which is surprisingly egalitarian, collectivist, and progressive (esp. for the 17th century). Before we embark on the examination of this contradiction, let us refresh his position on the ideal political state and the state of nature.
In his political philosophy Hobbes espouses three forms of commonwealth, viz., monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – each with their respective corrupted forms (tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy) (TH, 143). From these three options (whose minimum threshold is having some form of absolute sovereign power) he considers monarchy the most practical. In his ideal absolute monarchy, the sovereign, instituted by either force (“sovereignty by acquisition”) or choice (“sovereignty by institution”), uses fear – either the fear men have to return to a state of nature, or the fear men have of the sovereign himself – to rule over his subjects. This absolute monarch is paradoxically described as a “mortal god” and analogized to a leviathan – a biblical sea monster which Isaiah 27:1 urges God to slay (TH, 132). With very minor exceptions, Hobbes ideal political state is one in which the autonomy of the subjects is alienated onto the Monarch, making the later a singularity through which the multiplicity of suspended wills expresses itself.
Written during the English civil war, Hobbes’ Leviathan’s state of nature is a projection of the de facto chaotic state of England, where the warring factions of parliamentarian, absolute monarchist, and recently expropriated peasants – led by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers agrarian socialist movement – battled it out. In this context, Hobbes projects that in the state of nature (who he warns against interpreting as existing generally the same in all places), humanity is in a state of war, “every man, against every man” (TH, 92). This state of nature, we must clarify, is not limited to the condition pre-state primitive societies lived in. Beyond this, Hobbes describes conditions in a civil war (which he was in) and those in international relations between sovereigns as constitutive of a state of nature as well. For Hobbes, this state of nature in “continual fear” provides infertile grounds for industrial and human development, for the security of one’s life is the prime concern (TH, 94). In essence, within the state of nature “the life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Ibid.).
Out of his political philosophy and speculation on the state of nature, the latter has remained the most influential in contemporary discourse. I remember the news reports during hurricane Katrina claiming that New Orleans was under a ‘Hobbesian state of nature,’ where rape, lootings, and killings dominated. This, of course, was false. Instead, as was shown in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (among many other places), events like Katrina show that in times of adversity, when formal institutions seem to temporarily fall, people generally turn to collectively cooperating for the community. Nonetheless, the narrative that the “general inclination of all mankind” is “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” remains essential in a system that can survive only insofar as it can “perpetually and restlessly” accumulate capital and reproduce the relations that facilitate this accumulation (TH, 73).
Hobbes’ political philosophy’s emphasis on an absolute sovereign is unacceptable for modern socialists. His anthropology, as constitutive of a portion of his theory on the state of nature, is also a perspective diametric to a Marxist position which shuns from these forms of speculative bourgeois essentialisms. Nonetheless, Hobbes’ laws of nature, the study of which he relegated as “moral philosophy,” retains interesting insights that lend themselves to striking moral criticisms of contemporary neoliberal capitalism (TH, 119).
Although before coming together into a commonwealth, humanity exists in the anxiety of the state of nature, Hobbes nonetheless posits that the laws of nature, centered around preserving life and keeping peace, are “immutable and eternal; for injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, [and] iniquity… can never be made lawful” (TH, 119). Proceeding from the fundamental first law of keeping peace, let us examine a few of the nineteen laws Hobbes lays out for us. It is important to clarify that in our analysis we will be assuming that the modern political scenario is not constitutive of a state of nature, i.e., the grand majority of existing governments are not simply failed, sovereign-less states, most states do have an instituted sovereign power with roles similar to those needed to pass the threshold for Hobbes (even if some might be categorized within the three previously mentioned ‘corrupted forms’). Nonetheless, since for Hobbes, international relations, that is – relations between sovereigns – are constitutive of a state of nature, a loophole for excusing violations of the laws of nature in international relations is present. We will say more on this below.
To begin with – what is a lex naturalis (law of nature)? He says, “a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (TH, 97).
The first and most fundamental law of nature for Hobbes is that one must “seek peace, and follow it,” and if peace cannot be obtained, then one is allowed to defend themselves “by all means” (TH, 98). What greater violation of this law on earth than American imperialism? A system in which the supremacy of capital forces it to go abroad, as Marx said, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,”[ii] to continuously plunder foreign lands, is in a direct contradiction with peace. A nation which has been at war 226 out of its 244 years of life does not seem to be too fond of peace. And as to the times when violence, even when we seek peace, is inevitable, does not Hobbes’ proposition remind us of Fanon’s dictum to the colonized, who stuck in a “web of a three-dimensional violence”, are told they must “[end] the colonial regime by any means necessary?”[iii]
A Hobbesian might respond that within international dealings the laws of nature do not apply since international dealings are, for Hobbes, constitutive of a state of nature. Hence, the activities of American imperialism are fair game. It is important that we deal with this early, for similar international violations of the laws of nature are referenced below. This argument fails to distinguish two points: 1) international relations are always bound to national conditions – a sovereign does not take aliens to fight in wars of plunder, but his own citizenry, which, as in the case of the US, often return dead or physically and psychologically mutilated; 2) As Plato had already noted, states whose economic foundation is grounded on the “endless acquisition of money,” find it that they must “seize some of [their] neighbor’s land.”[iv] International relations reflect the national relations of class. To suppose, as Hobbes does, that international relations are in a state of nature is to presuppose a national economy based on accumulation, plunder, and expansion – and to ignore the possibility, effectively realized under socialism, of international relations based on cooperation and mutual development. Thus, the conditions of imperialism and global capital relations, instead of simply being brushed away through Hobbes’ categorization of them, further highlight the antinomies in Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy. For they demonstrate a condition where the commonwealth, that is, the general organization the laws of nature thrust humans into, is presupposed by Hobbes to be continuously flickering into a state of nature (the condition the laws of nature and commonwealth is supposed to negate) when dealing with the international realm of national politics. Nonetheless, let us continue our examination of his laws of nature.
In the fifth law of nature, the law of mutual accommodation, Hobbes states that just like an architect must toss aside material that takes “room from others” in the “building of an edifice”, so too “a man that by asperity of nature, will strive to retain those things which to himself are superfluous, and to others necessary; and for the stubbornness of his passions, cannot be corrected, is to be left, or cast out of society, as cumbersome thereunto” (TH, 114). In a world where the eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorest half (almost 4 billion people), we live according to global relations which directly violate Hobbes’ fifth law of nature. For the Hobbesian unconvinced with the global nature of this violation (for reasons previously mentioned), in the US, the country which spearheads the G7 in income inequality, the richest 1% of American households hold 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. This inequality exists at a time when hundreds of thousands are homeless, and when 42 million people, including 13 million kids, experience hunger in the country. From a Hobbesian moral philosophy, all those who are superfluously hoarding those things which others lack, must be immediately expropriated and expelled from society. Of course, a change in the society that allowed this in the first place is a precondition of the former.
The ninth law against pride gives an insight to how the inequality mentioned in five arose. Hobbes states, “the question who is the better man, has no place in the condition of mere nature; where, as has been shown before, all men are equal” (TH, 115). If men are equal, where did inequality come from? He says, “the inequality that now is, has been introduced by the laws civil” (Ibid.). In essence, men are born equal, it is their social formation which makes them unequal. Interesting enough, although Hobbes and Rousseau are seen to be in polar opposites, Rousseau also agrees that inequality is a development of our transition into society, specifically seen in the development of private property.[v] Hobbes concludes that every man must “acknowledge another for his equal by nature” (TH, 116).
The tenth law is an extension of the ninths into the realm of the jus naturalis (rights of nature). Hobbes asserts that no man can desire a right for himself, “which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest” (Ibid.). He continues, “as it is necessary for all men that seek peace, to lay down certain rights of nature; that is to say, not to have liberty to do all they list: so it is necessary for man’s life, to retain some; as right to govern their own bodies, enjoy air, water, motion, ways to go from place to place; and all things else, without which a man cannot live, or not live well” (Ibid.). There are a few important things to note with this law. Firstly, the notion of rights applying to all was something that took more than three centuries after the writing of this text for the US to figure out. In some places, namely, in the settler colonial state of Israel, this law is still being violated. Secondly, the right to enjoy such things as clean air and water seems dim in a world where fossil capitalism is taking humanity and various other species on the planet to the brink of extinction. Lastly, Hobbes sustains as jus naturalis not just the right to all things one needs to live, but also to all things one needs to live well. In the US, the leading economic power in the history of the planet, having more than enough resources to do so, guarantees neither the latter nor the former to its people as a right. Shelter, food, water, and medical care, i.e., the basic necessities people need to survive, are not guaranteed to the American public. Beyond this, those specific things which each person requires in order to ‘live well,’ to virtuously develop themselves in community, are restricted for only those who can afford it. A system which is dependent for its reproduction on the commodification of people and nature is fundamentally unable to exist non-antagonistically to Hobbes’ tenth law.
Laws twelve and thirteen may also seem surprising to some. Here he states:
The twelfth, equal use of things common. And from this followeth another law, that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the equality of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right. For otherwise the distribution is unequal, and contrary to equity.
These passages deserve the reply Marx gives the “intelligent” bourgeois of his time, who, while rejecting communism promote co-operative production and societies – he tells them, “what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, ‘possible’ communism?”[vi] We must ask Hobbes here, ‘what is this, if not communism?’ From law twelve and thirteen we get three forms of property: 1) property that can be distributed equally to all deserving, 2) property that can be enjoyed in common, 3) property that can neither be enjoyed in common nor distributed equally but is assigned by lottery. Although it might not be what Marx deems the highest phase of communism, where relations are based “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,”[vii] Hobbes nonetheless conjures the necessity for a form of lower phase communism out of his ‘laws of nature.’
As I hope to have shown, there is a persistent contradiction between Hobbes’ moral philosophy – dedicated as a science to knowing the lex naturalis – and his political philosophy, grounded more on his projected conception of human nature, than on the laws of nature which supposedly thrust humanity into a commonwealth. Hobbes’ moral philosophy can be described as a militant egalitarianism, which runs directly counter to his ideal conception of the state. If Hobbes’ moral philosophy were transferred in an honest manner into the political-economic realm, he would be alongside Gerrard Winstanley as a forefather of modern socialist thought. Unfortunately, the baby was dropped in the transfer, and what we received is a reactionary political philosophy.
As is often the case with the best of bourgeois thought, the faithful applicability of their moral philosophy would cause its transition into the political realm to escape beyond the boundaries of possibilities within bourgeois society, e.g., Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Mill. In Hobbes we have the most shocking of these cases. As a thinker whose defense of contractual relations has become sacrosanct for the religion of capitalism (used centrally to justify wage-slavery), and whose views on human nature provided a universal grounding for the capitalist ethos, we nonetheless find in his communistic moral philosophy fertile ground for an immanent critique of his own philosophy and of bourgeois society in general. However, we must remember moral criticism of a system is insufficient for its transformation. For a substantial transformation, i.e., for a revolution, a scientific understanding of the systemic mechanisms through which these morally reproachable things arise is necessary. It is here important to remember American Marxist and Socialist Labour Party leader Daniel DeLeon’s famous dictum, “the moral sentiment is to a movement as important as the sails are to a ship. Nevertheless, important though sails are, unless a ship is well laden, unless she is soundly, properly and scientifically constructed, the more sails you pile on and spread out, the surer she is to capsize.”[viii]
[i] All quotations will be from this edition: Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. (Touchstone, 2008).
[ii] Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 1. (International Publishers, 1974), p. 760.
[iii] Fanon, Franz. “Why we use Violence.” In Alienation and Freedom. (Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 654.
[iv] Plato. “Republic.” In Complete Works. (Hackett Publishing Co, 1997)., p. 1012.
[v] See Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.
[vi] Marx, Karl. “The Civil War in France.” In in The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), p. 635.
[vii] Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), p. 531.
[viii] DeLeon, Daniel. Writings of Daniel DeLeon. (Red and Black Publishers, 2008), p. 13.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student and professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His specialization is in Marxist philosophy and the history of American socialist thought (esp. early 19th century). He is an editorial board member and co-founder of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies.
Edward Baptiste’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism attempts to provide a material analysis of the development of Slavery in the United States leading up to the Civil War. In doing so he reveals the origin of capitalism, and Western Economic Supremacy, to be the Southern Slave Plantations, who provided Northern and English Capitalists with an endless supply of cheap cotton, picked by the hands of slaves. As Eric Foner of the New York Times said in his review of the text in 2014 “American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States” (Foner). Given the lack of analysis that has been done on the development of Capitalism in the United States, The Half Has Never Been Told, serves as an incredibly useful tool for American socialists who seek to understand the historical development of Western Capitalism, so that we may destroy it, and reconstruct a superior system.
Let us first quickly review Marx’s concept of Surplus Value, and his critique of Political Economy, in a manner that hopefully avoids putting the reader to sleep.
A common attack often levied at modern day economists, is that their field of study seems to have no place for historical analysis. To most Western Economists, capitalism’s laws are viewed as “natural.” The field has given very little thought to the historical development of capitalism, or the systems which predated it. In the 1800s, Karl Marx found this to be a major flaw in the works of Classical Economist David Ricardo. Marx argued in Capital Vol 1 “Ricardo never concerns himself with the origin of surplus-value. He treats it as an entity inherent in the capitalist mode of production, and in his eyes the latter is the natural form of social production” (Marx 651). Marx makes this critique of Ricardo, after he himself first laid out a lengthy history of the development of capitalism in Europe, which took place over hundreds of years. Marx’s analysis of production shows us that surplus value, or excess value beyond what society needs for survival, is not present in all modes of human production historically, nor is it exclusive to the capitalist mode of production. Marx draws our attention to the Egyptians, who’s advanced agricultural infrastructure allowed their society to produce what was needed to survive, while using their leftover time to construct giant pyramids in honor of the Egyptian monarchs. The pyramids themselves would be considered “surplus value”, however, they do NOT constitute the specifically capitalist form of surplus value. This is because the Pyramids were produced to show the power of monarchical rulers, and not to make money for a capitalist through their sale on a market. The domination of Private Property owners and giant global commodity markets would take years of development before coming about. Only after years of struggle between classes would capitalists finally wrench the means of production from the hands of monarchical rulers. These specific historical developments led to a change in how Surplus Value is produced. Now, rather than producing what is needed to maintain society, before using any extra time to construct surplus commodities for the monarchy, Surplus Value is produced through capitalists hiring workers, who then add value to a commodity, before selling that commodity on a market, at a price above it’s actual value. Under this capitalist mode of production, the creations of the working class, beyond what is needed for the survival of society, becomes the property of the capitalist class. This excess property appropriated by Capital is Surplus Value within a capitalist mode of production.
In his studies, Marx also found that the capitalist mode of production develops uniquely to every country and geographic location. In Capital, he often jumps around the world to look at the development of capitalism globally, but primarily narrows his analysis to the development of capitalist production in Europe. Here, Marx observed the rapid development of privately owned textile factories. An analysis of the productive output of these factories showed they had been producing commodities at an ever-increasing rate. This output of commodities was maintained and constantly increased by throwing young girls into the factories en masse. If girls died of overwork or succumbed to diseases contracted in the horrid factory conditions, capitalists looked to the newly created mass of unemployed workers to hire a replacement. Additionally, the machinery of production was constantly being improved. Factory owners were now competing with one another to sell the maximum number of products possible. The winners of this newly emergent capitalist competition were those who could produce the most while paying their workers the least. Capitalism becomes a race to produce surplus value, with no regard for the effects it has on the class of workers.
During the time of capitalism's original development, the textile capitalist’s most important raw material was cotton. Thankfully for these European capitalists, they would find an abundant source of cotton at ever affordable prices directly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Edward Baptiste’s The half has Never Been Told may as well be a contribution to Marxist theory for those of us living here in the US, the world’s capitalist stronghold. Upon its release, Baptiste’s book was lambasted by those who Marx would have referred to as ‘bourgeois economists.’ One article from The Economist was removed after the Publication received backlash over their critique that “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the white’s villains” (The Economist). Perhaps economists in the United States have not yet been made aware that the capitalist mode of production they claim to study so closely developed slowly out of a system of chattel slavery, which specifically targeted those with black skin. However, someone should make these folks aware that throughout the 19th-century, capitalists in the Northern United States, Europe, and anywhere else the capitalist mode of production had taken hold, were profiting greatly from cotton picked by black slaves in the southern United States. Despite what our modern-day economists would have you believe, black people were in fact victimized by white owners of capital. These white landowners did all they could to commodify the black body in order to create for themselves an endless source of labour power. This labour could theoretically provide capital with an endless source of surplus value, so long as that labor could be combined with land, which of course was quickly being acquired through the genocide and forced removal of native populations.
Painstakingly conducted research from Baptiste and others reveals Southern Slavery to be its own specific mode of production. So, while Southern Slavery had unique elements which made it distinguishable from Capitalism, they also shared many of the same features. Therefore, the class of Southern slave owners did not have the same motivations as the previously mentioned ruling class of Egypt, who also produced goods under relations of slavery. Instead, plantation owners in the south were subjected to the same market forces as their capitalist counterparts in Europe. Slave owners produced incredible amounts of surplus value through selling their cotton on a world market which provided endless demand for their commodity. Unlike Egyptian enslavers, the surplus value of southern plantation owners did not come in the form of giant stone creations, or sculptures to the gods. The surplus value appropriated by enslavers instead came in the form of money. Much of which was then reinvested in expanding production through purchasing more slaves, plantations, and land. This money used to make more money is what Marx labeled as ‘Capital.’
The endeavors of these Southern enslaver capitalists were heavily financed by banks in Europe and the Northern United States. These financial institutions simultaneously bank rolled massive campaigns of forced removal or genocide of Native peoples, aimed at divorcing them from the land and allowing market-based production to expand. The Native people’s own unique Mode of production had to be destroyed in order to make room for the production of capitalist’s surplus value. The enslavers of the United States essentially functioned as capitalists, subject to the same market forces as the factory owners who Marx studied in Europe. However, plantation owners held a unique economic power that would come to be enforced by the state. This power was the legal ‘right’ not just to commodify human labour power, but the source of that labour power. Human Beings. Through the legal commodification of human beings with black skin, Southern Enslavers used the labor of black bodies to produce obscene quantities of cotton. The sale of these commodities on the Global Market allowed plantation owners to accumulate massive hoards of wealth, and continue their expansion by endlessly investing capital. The brutality of these enslavers was either ignored or justified by capitalists around the globe who saw the South as an endless source of cheap cotton.
Black slaves existed under relations of slavery, while also being subjected to market forces that are usually associated with capitalism. These specific economic conditions incentivized white plantation owners to subject those who toiled in their fields to some of the most horrific crimes in human history. Similar to European capitalists who were consistently working children to death in order to maximize output, Southern slave owners sought any methods possible to increase the quantity of cotton they could produce. Because slave owners had legally enforced ownership of the physical bodies in their labor force, torture became the primary method used to force slaves into increasing the speed of cotton production. Baptiste draws on an analogy from former Politician, and fierce ideological advocate of slavery Henry Clay, who describes a “whipping machine” used to torture enslaved people and make them work faster. Baptiste explains it is unlikely the whipping machine was a real device that existed in the Southern United States. He instead argues that the machine is a metaphor for the use of torture which was the primary technology used by enslavers to increase their production of cotton. While technological innovations such as the cotton gin allowed for an increase in the amount of cotton which could be separated and worked into commodities, far less technology was developed to aid in the process of actually picking the cotton. Therefore, in order for slave owning capitalists to increase the speed of cotton picking on their plantations, the use of torture was systematized and ramped up to an unimaginable degree. Torture was to the slave owner, what developments in machine production were to the factory owner: a tactic for continually increasing the Rate of Exploitation, or the quantity of commodities produced by a given number of workers, in order to produce an increased number of goods for sale on a market, which brings the capitalist his surplus value.
There are many ways in which capitalists can increase their rate of exploitation. The specific function of the whipping machine was to increase what Marx called the ‘intensity of labour,’ i.e., an increase in the expenditure of labour and quantity of commodities created by the workers within a given time period. For example, a slave owner hitting a field worker with a whip until the worker picks double the cotton. This would be an increase in the intensity of labour. There are many ways for capitalists to increase the rate of exploitation without increasing intensity of labour. Two common techniques used by non-slave owning capitalists at the time were increasing the productivity of their machinery and increasing the length of the working day. As was discussed previously, very few technological innovations were created in the realm of cotton harvesting during the time of Southern Slavery. Additionally, the Slave Owners already had free reign to work their labour as long as they pleased, and an extension of the working day would serve them no purpose. Slave owning capitalists had a choice to either give up their pursuit of surplus value or use torture on a mass scale to increase the speed at which their workers produced. Of course, the capitalists chose torture, and the market rewarded those capitalists who refined their torture techniques the furthest. Market competition compelled most all Southern capitalists to adopt torture as an incentive of production or be pushed out of business by those who did. The innovation of the market at work!
Slavery would only die in the United States after a long and protracted struggle between opposing classes culminating in the Civil War. Baptiste details this struggle in his book and in the process refutes the utopian historical myth that the labor of slaves was simply less efficient than wage-laborers, which is what led to the implementation of capitalism. Baptiste instead shows how Northern Capitalists came into a political conflict with the Southern Enslavers. Northerners began challenging the southern capitalist’s unique ‘right’ to own human beings. By the Civil War plantation owners had long been expanding into Mexico while continuing to steal land from Native Americans. Now running low on conquerable land, the enslavers sought to expand their control to various US colonies, or even extend slavery into the Northern US. This brought Southern Slave Capital into a direct conflict with Northern Capital.
By 1860 The North had developed a diversified industrial economy, albeit with the help of cotton picked by slaves. The South on the other hand had seen moderate industrial development, but mostly served as a giant cotton colony for the rest of the world’s capitalists. This limited diversification in the cotton dependent Southern economy and left them slightly less prepared for war. This, among other factors, allowed the Union to win the Civil War replacing slave relations with capitalist ones. Additionally, the Slaves and many workers who hated the Southern Plantation Oligarchy would take up arms and join the Union Army. We see in the civil war the intensification of struggles between classes, which reached its climax in armed conflict between the warring classes. Whether he’s done so intentionally or not, Edward Baptiste’s history of slavery has provided great evidence for Karl Marx’s theory that struggles between classes are what drive history through various modes of production.
For those of us living in the United States who wish to wage a struggle against our current mode of production, the history of Southern slavery is necessary to understand. Marx conducted his historical analysis of the development of Capitalism in England with the explicit goal of helping workers to understand their current situation and how to change it. Similarly to Marx, American socialists have the imperative to understand the historical development of our own capitalist mode of production. A history that shows without question that the propertied class in this country has consistently used race as a tool for maximizing their own surplus value. The commodification of a specific race being the ultimate form of this. Today, capital seeks to sow racial divisions among the diverse mass of working people. This is done to distract the labourers of society from the forces of markets, our relations of production, and designed to maximize our exploitation for the enrichment of a small number of people who do not work, the capitalists. The union army destroyed the uniquely evil mutation of capitalist production that was southern slavery. Let us continue this struggle today by attacking capitalist production at its roots, and take power from the class who exploits us, and the markets which throw our lives into anarchy.
The Economist. “Our withdrawn review "Blood Cotton."” The Economist, 5 September 2014, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2014/09/05/our-withdrawn-review-blood-cotton. Accessed 29 06 2021.
Foner, Eric. A Brutal Process. New York Times, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/the-half-has-never-been-told-by-edward-e-baptist.html. Accessed 02 07 2021.
Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. Penguin Classics, 1976. 3 vols.
Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a co-founder and editor of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. He is currently a graduate student, assistant, and wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Chapter Two: Redefining Capitalism and Socialism
The name “BreadTube” is derived from a book published in 1892 by Anarchist Russian activist Peter Kropotkin. The book, entitled The Conquest of Bread and nicknamed “The Bread Book” is considered a primary text of “Anarcho-Communism.” In the book, Kropotkin critiques both feudalism and capitalism, proposing a decentralized voluntarist collective society as the alternative.
Peter Kropotkin’s ideas were fundamentally opposed to those of the Bolsheviks, who ultimately toppled the Czarist autocracy and later established the Soviet government in October of 1917. However, to discount Kropotkin and his ideas would be mistaken.
The Legacy of Peter Kropotkin
Kropotkin was born in the Russian aristocracy but from his youth, he became dedicated to the liberation of the Russian peasantry, who were brutally repressed. Kropotkin joined the International Workingmen’s Association (The First International), and worked alongside some of the most important revolutionary thinkers of the age. He spent years in prison for his beliefs, and took great risks. When the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, Kropotkin embraced it as a positive development despite his criticisms and ideological differences. When Kropotkin died in 1921, Lenin personally approved a funeral procession of thousands of people to march in his honor. In 1957, the Soviet government named a subway system in his honor.
Kropotkin’s influence spread well beyond Russia. Many Anarchists and leftist intellectuals across the world found his work and writings to be inspiring. Among those who were influenced by Kropotkin’s work was a young man named Mao Zedong. Before joining the Chinese Communist Party at its founding congress in 1921, Mao Zedong was the leader of a Kropotkinist organization called the New People’s Study Society, and many see the influence of Kropotkin popping up throughout Mao’s life as a revolutionary and statesman.
The primary difference that Kropotkin had with the Bolsheviks was about who in Russian society should be the focus of the revolutionary movement. Kropotkin’s focus was on the peasantry as the backbone of a potential revolution, while the Bolsheviks, as Marxists, viewed industrial workers as the sector of society where revolutionary work should be focused.
Kropotkin rejected some of Marx’s economic ideas, arguing that the concept of surplus value was mistaken. As an anarchist, Kropotkin argued that a post-capitalist society could only be built voluntarily and that attempts to reform or seize political power were a waste of time. Kropotkin’s vision was for the Russian peasantry to seize control of land themselves and begin growing crops cooperatively, much like German peasants had done during the event of 1524-1525. Kropotkin was an agrarian socialist rather than an industrial one.
Chapters 4-12 of his magnum opus for which the BreadTube community has taken its name are dedicated to laying an intricate vision of his ideal society of a decentralized, voluntary socialism with vast abundance. Kropotkin writes: “Citizens will be obliged to become agriculturists. Not in the same manner as peasants who wear themselves out, plowing for a wage that barely provides them with sufficient food for the year' but by following the principles of market-gardeners' intensive agriculture, applied on a large scale by means of the best machinery that man has invented or can invent…They will reorganize cultivation, not in ten years' time, but at once, during the revolutionary struggles, from fear of being worsted by the enemy. Agriculture will have to be carried on by intelligent beings; availing themselves of their knowledge, organizing themselves in joyous gangs for pleasant work…when man invents and improves his tools and is conscious of being a useful member of the community.”
Kropotkin’s writing has an almost religious faith in the good intentions of human beings and their willingness to cooperate without coercion, combined with a gentle pacifism that fears the cruelty of authoritarian structures. He writes: “We shall see then what a variety of trades, mutually cooperating on a spot of the globe and animated by the social revolution, can do to feed, clothe, house, and supply with all manner of luxuries millions of intelligent men. We need write no fiction to prove this. What we are sure of, what has already been experimented upon, and recognized as practical, would suffice to carry it into effect, if the attempt were fertilized, vivified by the daring inspiration of the Revolution and the spontaneous impulse of the masses.”
However, despite holding a vision of a voluntary society where all cooperate with each other in the absence of coercion, Kropotkin was not opposed to using force and violence to achieve his goals. The Anarchist organizations and networks he associated with throughout Europe advocated “Propaganda of the Deed,” the use of bombings and assassinations in the hopes of sparking a rebellion among the wider population. How much Kropotkin was directly involved in such activities remains unclear, but it is clear that many people who were inspired by Kropotkin’s teachings and worked with his organizations engaged in Left Adventurist Terrorism.
In 1916, most anarchists and revolutionary socialists were protesting and opposing the war between imperialist powers. Kropotkin published his “Manifesto of The Sixteen” that announced support for British and American imperialism in their war against Germany, Austria, and Turkey. This earned Kropotkin a large amount of scorn and was seen as a slap in the face and betrayal of the many socialists like Rosa Luxemburg and Eugene Debs, who went to prison for opposing the war.
Peter Kropotkin is a figure that is worthy of respect despite criticisms of his political line and actions. He was willing to make great sacrifices and take great risks on behalf of oppressed peasants and factory workers, and he did a great deal to put forward a vision of post-capitalist society that would resolve the injustices of the world. Marxists of course reject Left Adventurism and Terrorism along with idealistic fairy tales. They favor instead to build a mass movement of workers to seize control of the state, and create a rational, centrally planned economy to eliminate all scarcity, marching toward the ultimate goal of a stateless, classless world.
The fact that the BreadTube internet universe claims Kropotkin’s legacy and presents itself as the main representative of not just Kropotkin’s ideas, but all anti-capitalism in 21st Century America is deeply problematic. The intellectual laziness and shallow analysis presented by various BreadTube voices is a total disservice to his legacy, however complex it may be.
The Marxist Definition of Capitalism
The teachings of Karl Marx understand socialism to be a result of the innate human drive for progress and the expansion of productive forces. For most of humanity’s existence, we lived as hunter gatherers in tribes. The first social revolution came with the domestication of animals and the growing of crops. The dawn of agriculture brought forth a new mode of production and a new set of social relations to correspond to it. Soon society was divided between landowners and slaves.
Eventually feudalism, a more efficient mode of production, replaced slavery. In the 1700s capitalism emerged in Europe as the mercantile classes replaced the kings and nobles, and industrial production replaced subsistence farming.
Capitalism resulted in the creation of two social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are those who own the banks, factories, land, means of transportation and other centers of economic power, and operate them in order to make profits. The rest of society makes up another class, the proletariat, a class Marx described as: “the modern working class, developed — a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”
The interests of the capitalists who own the means of production and the workers who sell their labor power to capitalists are diametrically opposed. Capitalists seek to drive wages down and maximize their profits. As a result workers form unions and organize strikes in the hopes of increasing their pay and bettering their conditions.
Capitalism is defined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as a system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated to make profits for those who own them. Marx described capitalism as “the anarchy of production.” Engels explained “For in capitalistic society, the means of production can only function when they have undergone a preliminary transformation into capital.” Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, said that capitalism was a system of “Profits in command.” The capitalist system is defined as a system of production for profit.
The capitalist is always looking to make production more efficient in order to increase his profits. As Marx explained, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production.” The capitalist seeks to hire the least amount of workers, replace human labor with machines, de-skill jobs, and make human labor more easily replaceable, all in order to churn out more and more products for lower and lower cost. The capitalist seeks to increase his profit margin so those profits can be reinvested and his operations can expand only to make more profits, which can then be reinvested again. This is what Marx referred to as “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.”
Driving down labor costs, however, has an unplanned side-effect. The purchasing power of workers is derived from the wages they are paid. In the drive to efficiently produce goods and maximize profits, the capitalist system is prone to cyclical crises of overproduction. The workers cannot afford to buy back the products they produce. The market becomes glutted with products that cannot be sold. As a result, prices drop, companies go out of business, and workers lose their jobs, because too much has been created.
Marx wrote in his text The Poverty of Philosophy: “From day to day it has becomes clearer that the production relations in which the bourgeoisie moves have not a simple, uniform character, but a dual character; that in the selfsame relations in which wealth is produced, poverty is also produced; that in the selfsame relations in which there is a development of the productive forces, there is also a force producing repression; that these relations produce bourgeois wealth; i.e., the wealth of the bourgeois class — only by continually annihilating the wealth of the individual members of this class and by producing an ever-growing proletariat.”
This problem of abundance creating poverty is uniquely capitalist. In previous systems, people starved because not enough food had been created, but in capitalism, starvation can occur because too much food has been produced. In previous systems, homelessness resulted from a lack of housing, but in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when “the housing bubble burst,” many Americans lost their homes or became homeless because too much housing had been constructed.
Marxists often will cite a parable dialogue between a coal miner and his son.
Son: Father, I am very cold, why can’t we light the stove?
Friedrich Engels explained why cyclical economic crises result from the built-in problem of production organized for profit in his text Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, writing: “The whole mechanism of the capitalist mode of production breaks down under the pressure of the productive forces, its own creations. It is no longer able to turn all this mass of means of production into capital. They lie fallow, and for that very reason the industrial reserve army must also lie fallow. Means of production, means of subsistence, available laborers, all the elements of production and of general wealth, are present in abundance.”
Imperialism: The Capitalism of Our Time
Much of BreadTube’s discussion of capitalism centers around the inequity of relations between employers and employees. This is certainly a very big aspect of Marxian analysis of capitalism. Marx described the alienating environment of the worker, the way workers are reduced to “appendages of machines” who sell their labor power to the employer like any other commodity. Marx described how the worker is not paid the full value of his labor, with the surplus value being stolen from in order to become the profits of the capitalist.
However, the bulk of Marx’s analysis was focused on the problems that flow from production being organized for profits, as shown above. The irrational profit motive leads to capital centralizing into fewer and fewer hands, gluts overproduction, poverty amidst plenty, and all kinds of social chaos.
In the aftermath of Marx’s death, Vladimir Lenin analyzed the further development of capitalism. Lenin showed that increasingly the industries became dominated by financial institutions, and that the banks who supply credit become the central institutions in western countries. In the 1890s, capitalism in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and other western countries became dominated by huge conglomerates. Banks and industries tied together in huge trusts as multinational corporations spread their tentacles across the globe. The western monopolies worked to stop economic development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and maintain their dominance in global trade. Excess commodities were dumped onto the developing world that served as a captive market. This higher stage of capitalism was called “Imperialism.”
Lenin described the five stages of imperialism: “We have to begin with as precise and full a definition of imperialism as possible. Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.”
It is because of this global setup called imperialism that Nigeria can be the top oil producing country in Africa, exporting more of this valued commodity than any other country on the continent. Yet they still have only 62% literacy, along with a very low life expectancy and a high infant mortality rate, according to the CIA World Factbook.
It is because of imperialism that Honduras and Guatemala are drug and gang infested countries where much of the population lacks access to education and running water. In comparison, Nicaragua, which has broken out of imperialism, has been able to roll back poverty and raise living standards. The Central American countries that have economies and governments dominated by the United States are kept poor, subject to foreign domination and impoverishment.
When the British colonized India and Bangladesh, they burned the looms and forced people that had been weaving for thousands of years to import their cloth from British textile mills. In more recent times, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) devastated the agricultural sectors of Mexico, Haiti, and other countries. Writing for the New York Times on November 24th, 2013, Laura Carlsen explained: “As heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other staples poured into Mexico, producer prices dropped and small farmers found themselves unable to make a living. Some two million have been forced to leave their farms since NAFTA. At the same time, consumer food prices rose, notably the cost of the omnipresent tortilla.As a result, 20 million Mexicans live in “food poverty”. Twenty-five percent of the population does not have access to basic food and one-fifth of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition. Transnational industrial corridors in rural areas have contaminated rivers and sickened the population and typically, women bear the heaviest impact.”
Much of the developing world is very rich in terms of natural resources and human labor. In order to maintain a monopoly, the western multinational corporations, with full support of the government apparatus and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, force countries into unnatural poverty due to foreign economic domination.
The mechanism for enforcing the rule of western monopolies is war. If countries break out of the grip of western capitalism and begin to develop their economies, they become subject to attack. If one looks at the economies of Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Syria, or any other country the imperialists target for regime change, one will see a level of independence and striving toward development that the international monopolies cannot permit. Often this independence is directly related to the most valuable commodity in our outmoded fossil fuel economy, petroleum.
Vincent Copeland’s text, Expanding Empire, describes in clear terms the nature of imperialist economics: “The expansion into foreign countries resulted from a new stage in the expansion of business: The export of capital. Business had been exporting ordinary commodities of trade for centuries. The export of capital was something new—especially for the United States. And it couldn’t be done without foreign wars. The reason for this isn’t very complicated. The export of capital goods—that is, machinery, mining equipment, railroad engines, earth-moving tools, etc., is intended not to make just a quick "small" profit, but a constantly repeating profit that can go on forever, if the exploiter can hold onto the "investment." The investment of capital in a foreign country should be regarded somewhat like sending a huge suction pump. The pump pulls out the metals from the ground, the products from the soil and the fruits from the trees—with the help, of course, of the labor of the "native" people working on this suction pump. It is as if the pump were connected to pipes that run back to the "home" country, via the banks and big corporations. All the rich products are showered from the pipes into the treasuries of these institutions, in the form of profits… Whole nations are drained by these great suction pumps—or "investments." And the profits are so great that rival groups of big business, led by small cliques of big banks, go to war with each other over the exploitation of these nations.”
BreadTube voices tend to talk of capitalism in merely the simple factory floor analogies rather than understanding the concentration of global economic power in the hands of monopolistic associations. BreadTubers talk of “pencil factories” where workers produce the pencils, but a capitalist gets the profits. These analogies are certainly relevant in understanding the nature of capitalist production, but BreadTube voices obscure the big picture for a microcosm that obscures analysis of global events.
Furthermore, BreadTube voices tend to argue that anything resembling Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in its imperialist stage is somehow anti-semitic. BreadTubers will often claim that references to bankers, international bankers, or globalism is merely a coded repackaging of Nazi conspiracy theories about Jewish global domination. This allegation is absurd, and would render not just all adherents of Marxism-Leninism, but also many liberal critics of globalization such as Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and Naomi Klein to be Nazi propagandists.
The world is not dominated by low level businessmen who own individual factories, but by an elite of ultra-rich, globally oriented capitalists. These capitalists do not focus their business efforts on a single national market. The ruling class of Wall Street and London are “globalists,” and they dominate the world economy with gigantic financial institutions, “international banks.” To analyze a world of gigantic multinational corporations that beat down entire nations simply in terms of the inequity between the owners of an allegorical pencil factory and his employees is simply inadequate. By declaring analysis of gigantic corporations or finance capitalists dominating the world to be “fascist” or “Trump-like” BreadTube is, in essence, blocking out and “cancelling” essential contemporary Marxist analysis.
Lenin’s understanding of imperialism enabled him to reorient much of the Marxist movement. Marx argued that all nationalism was a barrier to workers solidarity, though in his later life he became somewhat sympathetic to the Irish freedom struggle. Marx argued that European colonialism was bringing development and progress to places like India. Lenin’s understanding of how capitalism developed in the late 19th century laid the basis for revolutionaries embracing the national liberation struggles of colonized people. As the Chinese Communist Party’s document Long Live Leninism, published April 16, 1960, summarizes: "Lenin pointed out that the oligarchy of finance capital in a small number of capitalist powers, that is, the imperialists, not only exploit the masses of people in their own countries, but oppress and plunder the whole world, turning most countries into their colonies and dependencies. Imperialist war is a continuation of imperialist politics.”
Lenin understood that an aristocracy of labor, a strata of well paid workers enabled European social-democratic parties to become reformist and eventually support the First World War. Lenin saw that the revolutionary energy was coming from the east and the colonized world: “In the light of the law of the uneven economic and political development of capitalism, Lenin came to the conclusion that, because capitalism developed extremely unevenly in different countries, socialism would achieve victory first in one or several countries but could not achieve victory simultaneously in all countries.”
Lenin argued that socialism in the developing world would come about with the working class leading the struggle to liberate entire nations from the yoke of imperialist domination. Because of the stratification of the working class within the imperialist homelands and the rise of social reformism and the aristocracy of labor, Communists in western countries had a special task: “The liberation movements of the proletariat in the capitalist countries should ally themselves with the national liberation movements in the colonies and dependent countries; this alliance can smash the alliance of the imperialists with the feudal and comprador reactionary forces in the colonies all dependent countries, and will therefore inevitably put a final end to the imperialist system throughout the world.”
Imperialism, the rule of the world by western monopolies who keep the world poor in order to make themselves rich, is the capitalism of our time. Opposing capitalism in our time means opposing imperialism, and this understanding is essential, especially for those living in the imperialist world centers. The lack of any analysis of imperialism and anti-imperialism, and the constant allegation that those who do analyze such things are covert anti-semites reveals a very big flaw in the BreadTube sphere and its viewpoint.
The Marxist Definition of Socialism
Marxism views Socialism as resolving the inherent contradictions of capitalism, a system of production organized to make profits. Socialism is when the means of production become public property, and are forced by the state to serve society overall, not the profits of private owners. Marx distinguished between the “higher stage of Communism,” the ultimate ideal of a stateless, classless world, and the lower stage of communism; i.e., socialism.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other scientific socialists specifically defined socialism, the lower stage of Communism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State; i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible. Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production. These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.”
Marx went on to list in The Communist Manifesto 10 measures that the proletariat might adopt upon taking power in order to enact the transition to socialism. This list is commonly misrepresented by Libertarians and rightists, who point to planks such as “income tax” and “public education” as proof the USA is already a Communist country. Social-Democrats and reformists will also sometimes misrepresent this list.
In his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Friedrich Engels also defined socialism. He wrote: “The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.”
Using different words, Engels explained: “Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.”
He also wrote: “This point is now reached. Their political and intellectual bankruptcy is scarcely any longer a secret to the bourgeoisie themselves. Their economic bankruptcy recurs regularly every 10 years. In every crisis, society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless, face-to-face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting. The expansive force of the means of production bursts the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them. Their deliverance from these bonds is the one precondition for an unbroken, constantly-accelerated development of the productive forces, and therewith for a practically unlimited increase of production itself. Nor is this all. The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in the crises. Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here. With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.”
In his book The State and Revolution Lenin defined socialism, the lower stage of Communism, in the following passages: “It is this communist society, which has just emerged into the light of day out of the womb of capitalism and which is in every respect stamped with the birthmarks of the old society, that Marx terms the “first”, or lower, phase of communist society. The means of production are no longer the private property of individuals. The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of the socially-necessary work, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work. And with this certificate he receives from the public store of consumer goods a corresponding quantity of products. After a deduction is made of the amount of labor which goes to the public fund, every worker, therefore, receives from society as much as he has given to it.”
Lenin also clarifies: “The first phase of communism, therefore, cannot yet provide justice and equality; differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still persist.” He then goes on to make clear: “And so, in the first phase of communist society (usually called socialism) "bourgeois law" is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained; i.e., only in respect of the means of production. "Bourgeois law" recognizes them as the private property of individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent--and to that extent alone--"bourgeois law" disappears.
“Marx wasn’t a statist”
Probably the most blatant distortion of Marxism that is spread in the BreadTube universe is the belief that somehow Marx did not believe in creating a centrally planned economy, or having the means of production become public property. As the previous quotations make clear, this is the very definitive act of the social revolution that overturns capitalism and creates socialism.
Yet, with smug arrogance and childish desperation, the BreadTube voices insist this cannot be the case. After all, they have been told by US media and educational institutions that each and every society where this transformation has taken place, it has resulted in a brutal human rights violating dictatorship and utter economic failure. Lacking the courage to question these narratives, like a Biblical creationist confronted by the fossil record, they seek to “reinterpret” Marx so both he and mainstream US media can be correct. They wish to uphold Marx, but discount and dismiss all who have put his ideas into practice in order to maintain respectability within (and funding from) the very institutions and society Marxism seeks to overturn.
Matt “Thought Slime” insists that Marx and Engels never called for a centrally planned economy. In a video released on February 5, 2021 entitled “Prager University Does Not Understand Democracy” the content creator simply bluffs, pretending that the quotations above do not exist and assuming that their audience will never bother to fact check assertions. Furthermore, Matt goes on to claim Lenin personally invented the idea of a centrally planned economy, calling his newly invented concept “Democratic Centralism.”
A simple Google search for the term “Democratic Centralism” shows how laughingly inaccurate and ignorant this social-media appointed expert is. Democratic Centralism was the model for decision-making in Lenin’s “party of new type.” Democratic Centralism was a process through which the Bolshevik Party made decisions and obligated all members to carry them out. It distinguished the vanguard party model from the looser social-democratic organizing methods of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party; i.e., the Mensheviks. It has nothing to do with economic planning in a socialist state. It is a method of political organizing by Marxists under capitalism in order to take power. Such a gaffe should be embarrassing and discrediting, but Matt “Thought Slime” has not been discredited for spreading such blatant misinformation. Over 200,000 people have watched this mis-informative video about socialism, most of them probably believing its contents to be accurate.
Ian “Vaush” Kochiniski, also speaking with the authority of the algorithms, frequently claims “Marx wasn’t a statist.” To justify this he utilizes a quotation from Marx’s Civil War in France. Matt ‘Thought Slime’ also invokes this quotation, where Marx proclaims: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”
The misuse of this quotation seethes with ignorance, if not blatant intentional deception. The passage comes from Marx’s presentation Civil War in France in which he discusses the Paris Commune of 1871. This briefly existing regime that took power in Paris after the capitalist government had already surrendered to the Prussian invaders is considered by Marx to be the first historical example of his concept of “Dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx points to the Commune, not as an example of why states are not necessary, but rather for the lessons it taught about what post-capitalist states will look like.
The particular quote refers to the fact that the existing French state had been created to serve capitalism, and the Paris Communards who led the workers uprisings were forced to create NEW state institutions, not simply seize control of the previously existing ones created by capitalism. Marx spends the following paragraphs describing in detail the nature of the new proletarian forms of state power the Communards created and praising them. To claim this quote means Marx opposed states existing at all is laughable.
Here is the entire passage from Marx: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes. The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism. Still, its development remained clogged by all manner of medieval rubbish, seignorial rights, local privileges, municipal and guild monopolies, and provincial constitutions. The gigantic broom of the French Revolution of the 18th century swept away all these relics of bygone times, thus clearing simultaneously the social soil of its last hinderances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice raised under the First Empire, itself the offspring of the coalition wars of old semi-feudal Europe against modern France… The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic... The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people. The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune... Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune…The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subservience to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance… The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.”
What Vaush claims about his cherry-picked quotation is nothing but blatant distortion. Either Kochiniski was handed this quote by someone else and never bothered to look at the context, or he intentionally misrepresented its meaning with deceptive intent. To claim Marx was arguing that no central authority or state power should exist is simply inaccurate. On the contrary, Marx was emphasizing how new forms of state power must be created to correspond with the new class in power and its interests.
Maintaining Profits in Command
Armed with his misrepresentative quotes from Marx, Ian “Vaush” Kochiniski has repeatedly said that socialism in the United States would mean “everything would be exactly the same except every corporation would be a worker cooperative.” While worker ownership and cooperatives are not a bad thing, the problem with this definition of socialism is that it does not eliminate capitalism. Capitalism is a system where, as Engels put it, “the means of production only function as preliminary transformation into capital,” or as Mao Zedong put it, “profits are in command.” Simply instituting worker ownership does not eliminate what Marx called ‘The Anarchy of Production.’
Employee stock ownership programs, co-determination, co-partnership, or profit sharing are not at all foreign to capitalism. Furthermore, those putting forth these ideas have generally not been socialists, but theoreticians and academics assigned with the task of making capitalist corporations more productive and efficient.
While BreadTube adherents fetishize the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of worker cooperatives located in the Basque Region of Spain, the examples of such schemes within the capitalist system are much more widespread.
The Oxford University Act of 1854 in Britain required that the faculty of the University be represented on the board of directors. The Port of London Act of 1908 passed such a requirement for representation of dock workers on the board governing London’s port. The Weimar Republic in Germany passed the Supervisory Board Act of 1922, requiring labor unions to have representation on the board of directors of corporations. Many western European countries maintain such laws up to today.
In the United States, the retirement plans offered to many corporate employees are described as “profit sharing plans” where the pension paid to retirees is related to the performance of the corporation. Many employees across the USA and the world have “stock options,” incentive pay, and other mechanisms that theoretically make them co-owners of the corporation in which they work. Many different stock ownership, employee representation and co-ownership programs exist, and they vary in their degree of success.
During the 1920s and 30s, industrial unions often fought hard against “piece wages.” Often factory employers would attempt to maximize their profits by paying employees only for each item produced, rather than a set hourly wage. In 1938, the Labor Movement celebrated the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act which required all employees receive a minimum hourly wage on top of whatever incentives or productivity linked wages they received. These reforms brought a new level of economic security to industrial workers, because they knew how much money they would receive, rather than having their incomes subject to the unpredictable fluctuations of the market and however many products the capitalist assigned them to produce on a given workday.
BreadTube adherents will generally dismiss the many examples of their ideas being put into practice within capitalism. They will insist that piece wages, employee stock ownership programs, worker representation, co-partnership, and profit sharing are not enough. They will say they advocate 100% worker ownership and democratic control.
However, no matter how egalitarian and democratic a worker-cooperative model may be, it still does not eliminate the very essence of the capitalist system: profits in command. A worker-cooperative will seek to maximize profits for its employee shareholders.
Imagine if the US “defense industry” were operated under a worker-cooperative model. Would this end the “military industrial complex” long decried by leftists? Would the drive to make profits from war no longer influence US foreign policy? Not at all. If anything, the lust for war profits would expand beyond the corporate boardrooms to the factory floor. Employees would be motivated to see the government go to war and for government military spending to increase, as it would directly impact their incomes.
Having the guards as equal, democratic co-owners of private prisons would not eliminate the inherent societal problems flowing from the much decried “Prison Industrial Complex.” Having workers as equal co-owners of pharmaceutical giants would not eliminate the drive to overprescribe potentially addictive or dangerous medications.
Other problems inherent to the capitalist system of production for profit would continue as well. Employee owners would certainly be incentivized to replace labor with machines, as the fewer workers hired by the cooperative firm, the larger their share of the profits would be. Employee owned enterprises would compete with other employee owned enterprises producing the same products and services. Environmental regulations and laws affecting other “externalities” would still be an impediment to the profits of corporate owners just as they are now, even if the corporate owners were the employees themselves. We could, of course, expect that “worker owners” would seek to lift regulations and maximize their own profits just as corporate owners would.
A system of “profits in command” is still irrational and unsustainable, even if those profits are shared. Simply declaring workers to be co-owners of profit centered entities functioning in the chaos of the market does not eliminate the irrationality of capitalism.
In the context of a state centrally planned economy, worker-cooperative ownership is very different. The most successful examples of worker-cooperatives tend to be those that emerge in the absence of the anarchy of production, when an overall state central plan guides their activities.
The most successful example of a profit-sharing corporation, by far, is one that BreadTube avoids highlighting. The largest telecommunications manufacturer in the world is Huawei Technologies, a cooperative corporation established by the Chinese government and its military in 1988. An article in Harvard Business Review published on September 24, 2015 hails it as “A Case Study of When Profit Sharing Works” and speaks of the company in glowing terms. In the context of China’s 5 year economic plans, receiving huge subsidies and directions from the state and military, Huawei has become very successful. The model of worker ownership, profit sharing, and coordination with state central planning and a socialist economy has made Huawei a model that many corporations in the capitalist world have studied. Huawei is widely respected for its efficiency and success. Of course, BreadTube voices largely remain silent on Huawei, as it takes the lead from the US State Department deeming anything associated with China or other anti-imperialist states to be toxic and evil.
In many socialist countries elements of “worker ownership” have been implemented. The collectivization of agriculture in 1931 resulted in the prevalence of collective farms as the dominant form in the Soviet countryside. While some state farms that operated much like state owned factories existed, most of the Soviet Union’s agriculture was carried out by independent kolkhozy, which sold agricultural goods to the state at a set rate. This motivated the farm workers to produce as much as possible in order to maximize the payout they would receive from the central government. This model became the dominant form of agriculture in “really existing socialism” of the Cold War, beyond the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong launched the creation of a collective farm system with his “Hail The Communes” campaign in the 1950s. Cuba, North Korea, and various Eastern European countries adopted the collective farm model. Trotsky criticized this, arguing that state farms were more socialistic in nature than collective farms and arguing that material incentives and differing abilities among farmers would lead to inequality. Stalin defended this model, arguing it was more efficient. Che Guevara and Mao Zedong both upheld the collective farm model as being more egalitarian and decentralized, and presented the Soviet Union as being a bit too centralized and bureaucratic in its planning of production, leading to a lack of participation by the working class and a level of alienation.
During the cultural revolution in China, the model of a “Three in One Combination” was adopted, where each factory was governed by an elected worker representative as well as a Communist Party official and a technical expert. Mao Zedong put forward the “Three in One Combination” as an alternative to the model of total factory autonomy put forward during the infamous “January Storm” of 1967, which established the Shanghai People’s Commune.
Caleb Maupin is a widely acclaimed speaker, writer, journalist, and political analyst. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and in Latin America. He was involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement from its early planning stages, and has been involved many struggles for social justice. He is an outspoken advocate of international friendship and cooperation, as well as 21st Century Socialism. He doesn’t shy away from the word “Communism” when explaining his political views, and advocates that the USA move toward some form of “socialism with American characteristics” rooted in the democratic and egalitarian traditions often found in American history. He argues that the present crisis can only be abetted with an “American Rebirth” in which the radicalism and community-centered values of the country are re-established and strengthened.
Link to the Book:
Book Review: Domenico Losurdo -Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet. Reviewed By: Rory JeffsRead Now
What is most remarkable about Nietzsche’s post-war ascendancy in the philosophico-cultural field is that it emerges out of a prior history of his philosophy’s use in legitimating the Nazi and fascist regimes of Europe in the 1930s. Unlike Heidegger, whose Nazism has certainly impacted his readership, Nietzsche’s reputation was able to attain an efficacious divorce from his Nazi appropriation. This was due in part to Walter Kaufman’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Nietzsche for Anglo-American readership after World War II, with his updated English translations and commentaries that cited Nietzsche’s correspondences that contained critical attitudes to anti-Semitism. It has now become nearly almost commonplace that Nietzsche is innocent not only of any association with Nazism, but that any view of him as conservative, reactionary or proto-fascist, because those interpretations were always based on a selectively biased or distorted reading of his work. This legacy is an effect of what Domenico Losurdo calls the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ – not simply propagated by theorists and commentators, but also editors and translators of the complete works and Nachlass. Losurdo’s epic historiography of Nietzsche’s philosophy extensively exposes the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ for failing to attend to the historical-social origins and wider context of Nietzsche’s thought. For this reason, Losurdo’s book is long overdue in the English scholarship where ‘innocent’ or trusting readings of Nietzsche have arguably prevailed and become ‘canonical’ (734), and where there is a need for a more ‘critical balance sheet’, especially amidst the rise of the far-right in recent decades that continue to feed on Nietzsche’s work.
What emerges from Losurdo’s reconstruction effort of ‘unifying’ Nietzsche’s thought in its various stages (e.g. ‘Young Nietzsche’, ‘Solitary Rebel’, ‘Enlightener’, ‘Mature Nietzsche’) is a core central argument that there exists from beginning to end in Nietzsche’s prolific output, a politics of ‘aristocratic radicalism’. That is, the seeds of a political ‘movement’ or ‘programme’ to counter ‘two millennia of history’ that has led to a crisis of civilisation in the West (862). The importance of this term ‘aristocratic radicalism’ – a term Nietzsche himself accepted as a legitimate description of his philosophy by friend Georg Brandes (355) – is that it helps Losurdo bridge Nietzsche’s wide-sweeping radical critique of metaphysics and modernity with a specific political project that animates or motivates it. Whereas the ‘aristocratic’ aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking has been noted before, it has often been so from an ‘apolitical’ or anarchistic context from Nietzsche’s assumed descriptive or amoralistic ‘genealogy’. In one sense, Losurdo recognises that Nietzsche is psychologically penetrating in his critique of bourgeois (liberal) society on the basis of a ‘tragic disposition’ and ‘crisis of culture’. And furthermore, that his critique of revolution – which Losurdo analyses in terms of Nietzsche ‘four stages’ – exposes a metaphysical faith in historical progress or objectivity. However, understood under the thread of aristocratic radicalism, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s form of critique is a ‘metacritique’ that offers no progressive possibilities with modern civilisation. Whilst metacritique adopts and even mimics the ‘nonconformist flag’ of socialism, it does so for the sake of a ‘singular revolution’: the use of genealogical destruction of democratic-slave ideology underpinning modernity and revolution as a ‘precondition for aristocratic social engineering’ (355-56, 979). And it is on this point where Losurdo disturbs the assumed ‘postmodern’ narrative that Nietzsche’s genealogical method was the critique or deconstruction of power itself.
It is not until Part Three of the book that Losurdo elaborates in detail on how aristocratic radicalism equates to a praxis or political programme of ‘social engineering’. The first thing to note about Losurdo use of a ‘wide-context’ method for a reconstruction of Nietzsche’s thinking is that it subtly shows how Nietzsche formulated reactionary ideas without being under the influence of the German nationalism characterised by Bismarck’s term as Chancellor of the Second Reich (‘Germomania’, ‘national liberalism’) and its extension in anti-Semitism (Wagner-Förster-Dühring). For in comparison to these trends, Nietzsche self-consciously distances himself from historical influences, presenting himself as ‘European soul’ and ‘untimely’ or politically ineffectual figure watching events from above with the ‘pathos of distance’ (a la his protagonist Zarathustra). However, to glean from this distance that Nietzsche was a deeply ‘antipolitical’ philosopher because there was no timely political project fit for his vision, is for Losurdo simply perpetuating Nietzsche’s self-mythmaking. The nuances of Nietzsche’s political project for Losurdo can be identified by way of a closer study of how Nietzsche re-theorises a set of reactionary tropes in a radical modern mode rather than in terms of classic conservative counter-revolutionary mode of a ‘return’ to the past. The central tenets consistently crossing over Nietzsche’s stages that outline such a program concern the real meaning of the last stage of his planned but unfinished project of ‘the revaluation of all values’, which Losurdo reconfigures in terms of Nietzsche’s ‘alternative’ revolution (alluded to in The Gay Science) of aristocratic radicalism that becomes defined by the call for a ‘new slavery’, ‘new nobility’ and a ‘new party of life’ (352-57).
In terms of a new slavery, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s thinking on the topic of slavery via the views of other groups, such as the Junker class in Germany, the American slave-owners and the Czarist monarchy in Russia. Core to all of them was their support of the institution of slavery and aristocratic values of otium et bellum (672-91) – which Losurdo underlines as a ‘watchword’ throughout Nietzsche’s writings. As Losurdo recounts, Nietzsche had formed in his early writings (e.g. ‘The Greek State ’), a view that ‘slavery was the essence of culture’ (678). This view becomes the basis for Nietzsche’s later use of otium et bellum, where war is represented as an aristocratic ‘virtue’ and leisure is characterised by activities exclusive to the aristocracy that also are the source of higher culture (art, music, literature). What the phrase consciously excludes, as Losurdo notes, is labour as the source of virtue or culture – yet paradoxically, Nietzsche acknowledges that otium et bellum will always depend upon the institution of exploited labour of slave-classes in freeing the higher classes from having to work themselves. Therefore, any recovery of aristocratic virtues in a new age of ‘free spirits’ would require a new slave-class rather than the further democratisation of societies. For Losurdo, these links help explain why the crisis of culture was intrinsically connected by Nietzsche to the expansion of otium to the workers that would reduce it to values of peace, pleasure and commodification (929-30).
The key for this project of recovery Losurdo claims is in finding a ‘new nobility’ or model of ‘rank-ordering’ for future societies. In his ‘mature’ period, Nietzsche himself reflected that the problem and aim of his philosophy had always been ‘rank-ordering’ (339, 966). Losurdo refers to Nietzsche’s sought-after model of social hierarchy as a form of ‘transversal racialisation’ (760-62, 780-85), where a social division is always marked between masters and servants and results from the expression of ‘noble’ (well-formed) and ‘base’ (malformed) natures or instincts that in turn determine the meaning of ‘race’. Losurdo distinguishes such a form of ‘rank-ordering’ from the fascist ‘horizontal racialisation’ of biological racism or white supremacy (783). This further explains the peculiarity of Nietzsche’s ‘anti-anti-Semitism’ that in effect even supports the idea of future society ruled by aristocrats and Jewish ‘Big Capital’ (543-45). However, how the noble natures or virtues are generated is an issue in the writings of the ‘mature’ Nietzsche as he refers to aristocratic societies (‘master moralities’) and caste orders of the past (‘Code of Manu’, cited at 793) – which all were ‘corrupted’ by Judaeo-Christianity. Here, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s transversal racism adopts the caste distinction of ‘Aryans’ and ‘Chandalas’ because it can be applied within one nation or race and thus potentially undermine the modern egalitarian value-base of nation-states.
In seeking to establish a clearer outline of Nietzsche’s ‘political programme of aristocratic radicalism’ that would base it in the socio-political circumstances of his own times, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s ideas within the horizon of eugenic discourse of the mid-to-late nineteenth century (582-600, 692-710). Here, the later or ‘mature Nietzsche’ (from the Gay Science  to 1889) is central to the comparative argument – given that his concepts of the will to power, eternal return and Ubermensch emerge in this period. Whilst there are some cited exceptions in the published texts of this period, ultimately, the posthumously published fragments of The Will to Power underline much of the source material used by Losurdo to discuss Nietzsche’s thoughts on a ‘new Party of Life’. This phrase affirmatively used by Nietzsche, as Losurdo cites, originates from the social Darwinist (and eugenicist) Frederic Galton (699). In Nietzsche’s hands, the ‘party’ will be of an intellectual vanguard of free Spirits and Übermenschen who will be unafraid to advocate (not necessarily employ) eugenic measures, for in Nietzsche’s own words, ‘the annihilation [vernichtung] of the millions of malformed’ (596-601). Despite the harshness of Nietzsche’s language in these kinds of passages, left-Nietzscheans such as Gianni Vattimo and Gilles Deleuze have attempted to allegorise or metaphorise these radical concepts on life and their relation to the will to power and the eternal return. Losurdo reveals the absurdity of such an approach that would discount any historical-social origins to the theory and ignore the brutality and danger with which Nietzsche seeks to shock his readers. Hence, the usual interpretation of Nietzsche as a ‘life-affirming’ philosopher is brought to bear on a darker political implication by Losurdo’s rendering here, knowing that where Nietzsche says life, he also states ‘the great majority of men have no right to existence’ (Nietzsche 1967: 464).
Bearing on these sections of the book that dare to go into the eugenic question, the issue of the Nazi ‘appropriation’ is also inevitably addressed by Losurdo. He argues that the rehabilitative work of Nietzsche’s postwar editors (namely, Kaufmann and Colli and Montinari) was successful largely due to their attribution to Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as the key instigator in rendering a Nazi-friendly Nietzsche in her assemblage and ‘forgery’ of the posthumous editions of The Will to Power (1901-06). However, Losurdo argues such defences of Nietzsche discount several important historical details. Firstly, he claims the official account of Elisabeth’s role in creating Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism is an ‘unsustainable conspiracy theory’ (711-15). Nietzsche’s defenders on this front never address Elisabeth’s own distancing of Nietzsche from anti-Semitism in her biography of him (Förster-Nietzsche 1895-1904). Furthermore, there is never any discussion of the fact that Nietzsche was attracting a right-wing audience of his published works before The Will to Power was released (566, 720-22). Whilst this does not necessarily resolve the issue of Nietzsche’s influence on Nazism, it does reveal something arbitrary about the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ when it comes to the distinctions it makes over the ideological precursors to the Third Reich.
With 1000+ pages critically re-examining the Nietzsche legacy, can Losurdo claim posthumously himself (having sadly passed in 2018) to have settled the ‘critical balance sheet’ on Nietzsche? Nothing of course written on Nietzsche has ever been settled, and Losurdo himself avows as much, following Gadamer’s own assessment (1001). Whilst Losurdo, of course, was never going to wait on deconstruction or hermeneutics to work out the questions of interpretation by way of their ‘speculative connections’, he makes a point that a gap steadily widens vis-à-vis Nietzsche between the defence of interpretation or theoretical licence and the historical research or record (726-27, 730-33). One of the risks of any unifying method, especially as politically applied, is what it leaves for future readers of Nietzsche. Throughout his account of Nietzsche’s intellectual history, Losurdo continues to remind us that to extract or ignore these unpalatable aspects of Nietzsche’s writings or his influence on the political right, would not actually ‘save’ Nietzsche, nor would it provide a more consistent method for understanding him. For Losurdo, a ‘theoretical surplus’ can only be recognised in Nietzsche’s work from seeing the whole of his philosophy as ‘totus politicus’ (827-28, 949). But it is this premise of unifying a thinker’s philosophy, via an ‘aristocratic’-political project, that would itself be contested by the hermeneuts of innocence. And as Losurdo notes, his contribution here exposes how deep a ‘conflict of the faculties’ exists, between history and philosophy departments who begin, at least in the case of Nietzsche, from different pages.
Rory Jeffs is a teaching fellow at University College, University of Tasmania.
This Book review was republished from Marx and Philosophy.
One of the more interesting establishment philosophers, MacIntyre has recently had two volumes of his essays and articles published: "The Tasks of Philosophy" and "Ethics and Politics." These observations are based on Constantine Sandis' review of these volumes ("Torn away from sureness") in the TLS of August 15, 2008. Some of MacIntyre's work has relevance to Marxist thought. He says for instance, as Sandis points out, that the concepts that are used to delineate an ideology (and this includes Marxism) cannot be understood free of their original contexts from which they derive their meaning. Treating them outside of this context makes them appear unwarranted or nonsensical. If we, for example, decide to adopt Marxism as a guiding light but lack the requisite background contextual knowledge regarding the origin of its concepts and doctrines, we run the risk of mixing up the ideological statements of Marxism with the ideological statements of other points of view (Liberalism,Buddhism, etc.)and we could end up with an incoherent mishmash of different points of views which will prevent us from having a proper understanding of reality.
It is the job of philosophy to prevent this from happening. We must, as Sandis says, engage "in socio-linguistic palaeontology aimed at unearthing previously hidden meanings and connections." We can then see how our concepts are related to our own tradition and to that of others. Marx, for instance, was influenced by Hegel and some of Hegel's concepts have come over into Marxism. The concept of "Reason", for example, reappears in Marxism as the concept of "Scientific Method." Lenin tends to rule out all theories that are not capable of scientific treatment (all religious explanations of reality, for instance). But, Sandis says, "MacIntyre rejects Hegel's faith in reason's ability to grasp absolute reality, substituting in its place a critical blend of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and W.V. Quine's more pragmatic approaches." This rejection of Hegel, as we will see, has led MacIntyre to abandon Marxism and convert to Roman Catholicism. This is always, to my way of thinking, an unhealthy sign. It does not however, negate, his contention that an ideology must be contextually understood.
Sandis reproduces a quote from the British philosopher Frank Ramsey: "it is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of the two disputed views but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, which we can only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by both disputants." This looks suspiciously like the Hegelian dialectic heuristically applied. Ramsey, along with the physicist Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all influenced MacIntyre. He. for instance, applies Ramsey's dictum to resolve conceptual problems between competing ideologies by rejecting some of the premises of both, and especially the idea that one is "right" and the other "wrong." His application of this method is not too bright.
He rejected voting in the 2004 election seeing the difference between Bush's policies (war and more war) and those of Kerry as insignificant. He said that "when offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives." MacIntyre is completely divorced from reality here. The choice between Bush and Kerry was not "false." Only propositions can be false. It was the historic choice that our history presented to us at that time. There were also other choices: Nader, the Greens, etc. To advocate simply sitting out an election that would determine the lives and deaths of thousands of people over a four year period may not be the most ethical behavior for a philosopher to engage in.
In the early 1980s MacIntyre converted to Roman Catholicism because, Sandis suggests, he no longer thought he could make philosophical progress within a Marxist framework.The reason for this was has adoption of a view called "confirmation holism." This view says that an ideology, say Marxism, can only be understood holistically. This means its doctrines have to accepted completely and made to harmonize with one another and cannot be taken more or less generally and supplemented with doctrines from other traditions or ideologies. Sandis says, "Rationality may consequently require us to readily abandon our commitment to any world-view that comes to face an overbearing obstacle." Sandis doesn't tell us what the "overbearing obstacle" was that mandated a switch from the Marxist world-view to that of Roman Catholicism. Non Marxists, I am sure, can think of many just as non Catholics can think of the "overbearing obstacles" that prevent the adoption of that world-view. This looks like relativism, but Sandis tells us MacIntyre is trying to forge an anti-relativist philosophy.
Here is what MacIntyre says about the language used to explain an ideology: "the languages-in-use of some social and cultural orders are more adequate than those of some others in this and that respect." He also says, "the existence of continuing disagreement, even between highly intelligent people, should not lead us to suppose that there are not adequate resources available for the rational resolution of such disagreement." This is supposed to escape from relativism. But a Marxist will judge Catholic positions from the point of view of Marxism, and vice versa. So I don't see how relativism is overcome.
Sandis says that the "holistic answer is simply that some practices are pragmatically far more attractive than others...." That "attraction", however, will be in the eye of the beholder. Sandis then quotes MacIntyre's "famous" definition of a "practice"-- viz., "any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended." Whew! And we must keep in mind that any given practice, say Nazism, can be replaced by one that is better. That's encouraging.
Since a better practice may always be available any particular practice I hold to must be justified probabilistically. If I think Marxism is "true" [since only propositions can be "true" this is not a good word to use]or rather the most useful theoretical system for describing social reality, then I must realize, as Sandis points out, "one must aim for truth by aiming for justification, and the latter is in principle always open to revision."
MacIntyre's ethical system is cast in a Kantian mould rather that a utilitarian one (i.e., a consequentialist one). He thinks there are some moral rules that we can never be justified in breaking. Against this view stand those who contend "the moral polarity of any act [is] (at least partly) determined by the circumstances in which it was performed." That is that there is no universal ban on any act but each must be judged either by its results and/or motives and the context surrounding it taken into consideration.
Marx in his day didn't think much of utilitarianism, nor did Lenin of Kantianism. How sould a Marxist react to this choice? Sandis indicates that MacIntyre's position is not ironclad and plausible exceptions to it have been suggested. Sandis suggests that morality may be a disposition. To paraphrase him, we might say that if "fragility" is a disposition to break at certain times and not to break at others, so morality is a disposition to act in a certain way in certain cases and not in others. He gives as an example that "an act of intentionally not telling the truth need not be vicious, for there might always be circumstances where one virtuous disposition (say that of kindness) can only be manifested if another (say that of honesty, or of justice) is not."
Marxists can learn something from MacIntyre. I think his views on holism are useful, as are his remarks on the coherence of our ideas and their need for justification as well as his attempt to avoid relativism. A Marxist proposition should be part of a system of coherent (non contradictory)co-propositions which can be justified by an appeal to practice and that serve the interests, broadly defined, of the working class in its efforts to abolish the capitalist system. The construction of this holistic system is the task of 21st century Marxists.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This article was republished from Counter currents.
This is not a new post but a corrected transcript of a talk given by me, as one of the Worker’s Party of Scotland representatives to the Open Polemic Conference about 25 years ago. Open Polemic was a journal that was formed in the wake of the Soviet collapse by anti-revisionist communists in the UK. Its eventual outcome was the CPGB(ML).
I am reposting it now because it relates to the debate that has ensued on Facebook after I posted against the baneful influence of Hegelianism. It draws on concepts from the Marxist legal theorist Pashukanis which are also relevant to the postings here and here I made last year critiquing the Althusserian theory of the subject.
The text was lifted from the version online here including the images and captions which are not my own.
Original Text Begins Here
I am an engineer, so I was naturally pleased when the leading materialist philosopher of today, Daniel Dennet came out in defence of the significance of the engineering viewpoint to philosophy in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.
In what follows I will present some observations on the materialism of Marx, from an engineer’s viewpoint – the materialism of a Watt, Shannon and Turing.
Comrade Dennett continues the hirsute defence of materialism
The leitmotif of these observations is an antagonism to subjectivism and the idealist concept of the subject and of the will, both of which have, I believe, no place in the materialist world-view.
Those familiar with the current state of penetration of idealism into ‘Marxism’, will doubtless be able to identify the schools against whom I am arguing.
Is value the ‘subject’ of Capital?
In Capital, the idea of the circuits of money and of capital play an important roles. In both c-m-c and m-c-m’, value in a sense plays the role of subject. It is tempting to see the whole of the argument in Capital as an investigation into the self development of capital/subject. My grasp of Hegel is not sure enough for me to say if this view of things is actually Hegelian, but whether or not this is the case, it does suffer from drawbacks. One of them is philosophical, the other is historical.
If we see capital as a subject, then the real material subjects of the system of production are not adequately represented, or, if represented at all, appear just as instantiations of the ideal subject.
By the real material subjects I mean abstract legal personalities or subjects of right. Under capitalist systems of law, some of these legal subjects correspond to human bodies, others to bodies corporate. It is these juridical subjects that buy and sell commodities and reproduce themselves in the process. In this reproduction process they are reproduced both as proprietors, and as physical processes (human metabolisms, active oil refineries, … ).
From the standpoint of the self development of capital/subject, material subjects, firms, are thought of as ‘capitals’, instantiations of CAPITAL. This way of looking at things is an idealist inversion.
The second problem is that the notion of capital as a subject is tied up with the idea of capital as self expanding value. This is what the formula m-c-m’ is all about. Where gold is money, the formula is realistic. But even as it was written this was historically obsolete. Commercial transactions were not carried out using gold. Capitalist trade is a balancing of accounts, either, in Marx’s day, through the circulation of bills of exchange or through the clearance of cheques.
If commerce occurs through cheque clearance, then there is no longer a circuit of value through the forms m-c-m’. An account with a bank, unlike a hoard, has no value. It is instead a record of entitlement to value. I think, therefore, that the use of the circuit m-c-m’ by Marx must be seen as a paedagogic device, presenting what goes on in a simple to understand but nevertheless anachronistic form.
When one is steeped in an old literature, one’s mind become inhabited by dead social relations. Christians today think in categories like Christ the Lord, Christ the Redeemer, which are concepts of a slave society — and which arise, therefore, from practices such as the institution of manumission by a powerful aristocrat. Such practices are without direct equivalence to the modern world but the conceptual categories linger on. We Marxists have our thoughts about money shaped by a presentation, intuitive to workers in Victoria’s day, to whom money was gold, without correlates in a world of debit cards.
If we focus instead on material subjects and their conditions of reproduction, then money appears clearly in the form in which Smith presents it: the power to command the labour of others. A bank balance is power over labour. It is necessary to focus not on the self evolution of sums of value but on how juridical subjects, firms, reproduce their despotism over labour.
Is capital the ‘subject’ of Capital?
Is Marx’s Capital about the self development of the subject ‘capital’, or is it about capitalism? My immediate bias is to say it is about capitalism, since to say that capital was the object of investigation might imply a Hegelian presumption that from the concept of capital all the concrete features of capitalism could be deduced — something which I feel to be mistaken.
Then the issue arises of whether there is one or many laws of motion of modern society, which is clearly related to the above.
My first thought is that one requires several laws to have motion and dynamics — in mechanics one assumes several conservation laws plus the force laws. This would then reinforce the objection to a Hegelian deduction of the development of capitalism from a concept of capital. Then it struck me that work in cellular automata theory has demonstrated that one can derive highly complex laws of motion from a single evolution function of a cell and its neighbours. In fact as Margulis has shown, one can, given a universe of this type, set up a configuration that is Turing machine equivalent.
This indicates that it is not philosophically absurd that one law may be a sufficient foundation for the motion of a very complex system. But although this law may be a foundation for the motion of the whole system, there are other preconditions before you get something of Turing equivalent complexity: e.g. a set of boundary conditions. These initial configurations are guaranteed a certain stability by the underlying cellular evolution law, but in their turn impose other constraints on the future evolution of the system and these constraints become higher level laws.
Thus the simple law may allow a multiplicity of different configurations to evolve and some of these different configurations would have their own, higher level laws of motion — which would not necessarily all be equivalent.
Did Marx ever clearly state the economic law of motion of modern society?
I think that we have to say no, not as a single clearly defined law. Can we say, then, that the law of value is this foundational law? We have the problem that he never stated this explicitly as a law either, i.e. in the sense of Hooke’s law or the laws of thermodynamics. I think, however, one can reconstruct the concept of law that he had beneath the texts on value.
At the level of explanation in Volume 1 the law would state that ‘In the exchange of commodities, abstract socially necessary labour time is conserved.’
Although he does not state this explicitly, I think that it is clearly a logical presupposition of much of his argument. I agree that he does not establish the correctness of this law, but that does not mean that it may not both be a valid law empirically, and one whose assumption allows one to model or simulate the important features of capitalism. There is now a growing body of evidence that the law actually applies, but it would be true to say that we do not know why it applies.
But one could, using the same law of value, hypothesise other systems than capitalism. If we made the auxiliary hypothesis that there was a tendency for the value of labour power to be equal to the value created by labour, then you would not get capitalism but some other social system, perhaps a system of workers’ co-operatives.
The assumption that the value of labour power is systematically below the value creating power of labour is, it seems to me, a boundary condition that is specifically reproduced by capitalism. In this sense, although the law of value is the underlying law of motion of modern society, it is abstractly the law of motion of more than one possible sort of modern society. This incidentally raises the question of what we mean by abstraction.
Abstraction and abstract labour
Is it only in the process of exchange that labour become abstract? There is a confusion here between the role of abstraction in science and the partial way in which the abstract categories discovered by science become apparent to quotidian perception.
Science must always seek the general behind the concrete, the abstract behind the particular. Thus in the development of thermodynamics one has the formation of the abstract concept of heat, which is distinguished from the forms in which it becomes apparent as warmth, temperature or thermal radiation. To measure heat one needs to co-ordinate several distinct observations and data. If you want to measure the number of calories released by by burning 10 grams of sugar under a bombe calorimeter, one must know the starting temperature of the calorimeter, the volume of water it contains, the final temperature, the specific heat of water, etc.
Prior to the development of a coherent theory of heat, and data on the specific heat of water one might come up with regularities like ‘other things being equal, the rise in temperature was proportional to the sugar burnt’, but this is not a measure of abstract heat.
The similarity to exchange is clear, a capitalist can observe that, other things being equal, his turnover is roughly proportional to the number of workers in his employment, but this proportionality does not yet give him a measure of abstract necessary labour time. The fact that such proportionalities exist is an indication that there is an underlying material cause for them, just as the proportionality between temperature rise and fuel burned indicates a similar abstract cause.
A scientific measurement of abstract labour needs the analogue of adjustments for different specific heats and calorimeter volumes, the fact that in a given factory the techniques of production are worse than average, will indicate that the measure of actual expended labour has to be corrected to arrive at a measure of abstract labour.
The existence of objective material causes underlying the phenomenal forms to which they give rise is one of the basic postulates of philosophical materialism. That these causes not only exist but are discoverable and measurable is a further necessary postulate for scientific materialism. This, it seems to me is one of the fundamental distinctions between Marxism and Hayekism, and more generally between materialism and empiricism. For Hayek, the worth of things is in principle unknowable outside of market exchange. Thus the Marxist programme of a communist society in which economic calculation transcends the market, is hopelessly utopian, scientism, the engineering fallacy etc.
I think, therefore, that it is a fundamental philosophical error and one which, moreover can be exploited by our enemies, to say that it is only through market exchanges that abstract labour can be measured. This may be the only form in which it becomes apparent to the practical concerns of bourgeois society, but that does not exhaust the matter.
One must distinguish the scientific abstraction, abstract labour as the expression on a polymorphous human potential, from the empirical abstraction performed by the market.
An analogous polymorphous potential, one regularly used in industry is the computing machine cycle. One costs algorithms in terms of the number of machine cycles they cost. A computer is a universal machine, its computation power can be expressed in a vast variety of concrete forms, so there are different sequences of machine cycles with different concrete effects. But when one uses machine cycles as a metric of algorithmic costs, one abstracts from what these cycles are – adds, subtracts, moves etc, and reduces them to the abstract measure of an almost infinitely plastic potential. The abstraction over labour is analogous.
We cannot use wages to measure abstract labour, although for certain purposes they may be a useful statistical surrogate where other data are lacking. If we measure wages we are measuring the price of labour power not the amount of abstract labour time necessary to manufacture a use value.
To measure the latter, it has obviously to be done in natural units of time, which as such, already abstracts from the concrete form of the labour. As such its study starts with Babbage in his Economy of Machinery, proceeds with Taylor in the machine shop of the Midvale Steel Company and his successors like Charles Bedaux, whose unit of abstract labour the B was defined as ‘ A “B” is a fraction of a minuit of work plus a fraction of a minuit of rest, always aggregating to unity, but varying in proportion according to the nature of the strain’.
There is nothing impossible in principle about such measurement, indeed, the science of systematic exploitation had depended on it for years. But within the capitalist social order such computations are restricted to the factory, the comparative statistics necessary for a social calculus of labour time do not exist. But this is not to say that they could never be produced under some future social order.
James Watt, and the concept of Labour Power
At about the same time as one Adam Smith was professor of Moral Philosophy here, and was setting out a coherent formulation of the labour theory of value, Dr Black of the department of Natural Philosophy along with a technician, one James Watt, were laying the foundations for a proper understanding of heat and temperature. These two exercises have more in common than might be imagined. Reflection upon it, brings out how concepts from engineering science, from the practice of material production, parallel and become the foundation for materialist political economy.
One might, if one were a bourgeois economist, argue that values cannot be measured independently of market prices just as temperature can not be measured independently of the height of mercury on a thermometer. I think that this is basically a fair comparison. But if we rest our analysis at this level, whether in political economy or in natural philosophy, we have a pre-Smithian political economy and a pre-Watt understanding of heat.
What Smith did, drawing on others, was to show that behind relative prices there was an underlying objective cause — the labour required to produce things: ‘’The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil or trouble of acquiring it.” We will leave out for the moment that one can also measure the temperature of a body by analysing its black body radiation spectrum, and concentrate on the analogy between temperature and price. This was a great scientific advance since it related the immediately visible phenomenon — price measured in money — to something behind the scenes: labour time.
Both of the entities involved in the causal theory are independently observable and measurable. This contrasts with the notions of ‘utility’ in vulgar economics which are not objectively observable, but have to be deduced from the observed prices.
The parallel advance by Black and Watt, was the introduction of the notion of heat as something independent of temperature. A necessary component of this theory was the notions of specific and latent heats. Thus, by experiment, they were able to establish that the change in temperature of a body was proportional to the heat input divided by the specific heat of the substance concerned. This again related the observed measurement — temperature to something behind the scenes — heat.
Like labour, heat was independently measurable, for instance in terms of the amount of coal burned. Later, with Carnot, the equation between heat and work is made. Not only does this make the analogy with value and labour even closer in terms of the then existing conceptual framework, but it opens up the way for more accurate objective measures of heat energy. By use of a dissipative calorimeter, Carnot could show that the work of a given weight falling a known distance would produce a definite rise in temperature of water. This then gives a fixed and external measure of heat energy.
Let me construct table of analogy between terms in the two domains of Moral and Natural Philosophy, with a subject matter befiting the Scottish Enlightenment.
1. Price in gold guineas of whisky
2. Specific labour content of gold
3. Value of whisky
4. Labour required to distill whisky measured in hours
5. Ability to work or labouring power of distillery workers
1. Temperature on an alcohol thermometer of whisky
2. Specific heat of whisky
3. Heat content of the whisky
4. Thermal energy of hot whisky measured in foot pounds or horse-power seconds
5. Ability to work or horse-power of the distillery engine (raising barrels?)
Thus the two schools of philosophy reduce the phenomena they are concerned with to indirect manifestations of work done, Smith taking human labour as his standard, Watt taking the labour of horses.
However, in compiling this table I have shown 5 rows. Smith and Watt would probably only have recognised 3 (Smith 1,2,4) Watt (1,2,3). If, however, we take Smith enhanced by Marx and Watt by Carnot, we get the 5 rows. Now the interesting thing about rows 3, 4, and 5 is that in each case they are different ways of considering the same thing. One may measure heat in calories, but it is the same thing as energy in terms of joules, Watt, ergs, foot-pounds, horsepower hours etc. Similarly value is the same thing as labour time.
But value is not price, nor is heat temperature. To obtain a price from a value we need the intervention of gold with its own specific labour/value content per ounce. To obtain a temperature from the heat one needs the specific heat of the substance being heated.
The polemical status of Labour Power
I am using labour in the sense of labour hours, which, to use Watt’s terminology is Work Done (horse-power hours). I think that it is pretty clear that the concept of labour-power could not have been formulated until the genius of Watt had made the concept of horse-power or power in general part of the universal inheritance of the industrial age.
My chief concern is to defend the scientific superiority of the labour theory of value vis-à-vis bourgeois subjectivist ones. What makes the labour theory scientific and the others unscientific is that there is no way that one can determine whether prices do exchange in proportion to marginal utility, since utility has no independent measure.
Labour time, by contrast, is susceptible to measurement. Its measurement, just like that of temperature, presupposed a definite technology. Measurement of temperature depended on the invention of the thermometer, measurement of labour time depended upon the invention, with Galileo, of the pendulum escapement mechanism. In using a clock to determine the time taken to perform a task, one must of course average one’s measures over a large number of runs and a large number of individuals to obtain the average necessary time taken.
If labour-power is ability to perform work, then its dimension must be work-performable/per hour. Clearly if the working day is lengthened with the daily wage being the same, the wage rate per hour has declined. Whether the value of labour power has similarly declined or has remained the same is indeterminate, since we have no means of measuring the value of labour power other than the price paid for it.
I would thus argue that the concept ‘value of labour power’ has no scientific explanatory power and its presence in Capital must be understood as deriving from Marx’s intention to perform a critique of political economy using its own categories. He thus assumes the exchange of equivalents, and assumes that workers, like other sellers get a fair price for their commodity. This necessitates that a value be imputed to labour power.
Ironic answers to a Marxist idealist
I was recently asked, what objective force led me to write a particular polemic against subjectivism. Was it not an expression of my will and thus a living reproof to my anti-subjectivist world-view? That such questions could be raised, and raised by a Marxist, indicates a retreat towards idealism.
Force is an important concept. As a mechanical process, a depression of keys, my writing certainly involved forces exerted by muscle on bone. But the concept of force is quite limited, it relates to the ability to impart motion, to overcome mechanical inertia. Its compass does not extend to explaining the creation of a complex information structure like an article.
Here we need to explain how this particular sequence of characters was generated. This page is so astronomically improbable, its probability of arising by chance being of the order of 1 in 10 raised to the power of 4000, that its particularity demands explanation. Force, the mere overcoming of momentum, can not explain such order. So what is left?
“The will and its creativity”, suggests the humanist.
But is this really an explanation?
I would suggest that it is not an explanation but a place-holder, a linguistic token demanded by a set of possible sentences. This may seem a little obscure, but to illustrate the sort of thing that I am refering to, consider the sentences:
”It is raining.”
”Paul is writing.”
What is the it that rains? There is obviously no real it that does the raining, but English grammar demands a subject for the sentence, structurally equivalent to the Paul who writes. The it is a placeholder demanded by the sentence form. We gain no understanding of the weather pattern that led to the rain by using it, but it is impermissible for us to say simply ”Is raining”.
The question ”what led me to write”, demands an answer of the form ”x led me to write”, with some linguistic subject x. Grammar allows the substitution of a proper name for x, as in ”William led me to write”, or \my Will led me to write”. Instead the abstract noun ‘will’ can be used: ”my will led me to write”.
The word ‘will’ is then a placeholding subject, analogous to the it responsible for the bad weather this last week. The ‘will’ is philosophically more sophisticated, than ‘it’, being one of the conventional tokens that idealist philosophy uses to translate a non-terminal symbol of a grammar into a constituent category of reality. The ‘will’ is the symbolic grammatical subject in philosophical garb, the linguistic subject becomes The Subject.
An explanation of what is causing rain to fall, would go something along the lines of ”an updraft of warm moist air is causing condensation as pressure falls, and this precipitates as rain”. Here, instead of a placemarker, we have a description, albeit abstract, of a physical process. One can give a highly abstract description of my writing in terms of my brain being a probabalistic state machine that undergoes state transitions whose probability amplitudes are functions of it current state and its current input symbols, and whose output symbols are a lagged function of current state. For my article the relevant input symbol would have been the argument that I was replying to, and my current state would be the cartesian product of the states of my individual neurones.
It may be objected that this hopelessly abstract, as abstract almost, as talking about will. But there is an important difference. The approach of treating the brain as an automaton has engendered a productive research program. One can, as Chomsky did in the 1950s ask what class of automaton is required to recognise languages with different classes of grammars, and show that some features of natural language imply automata that are at least Turing equivalent. One can begin to look at how it is that things like visual perception can occur, as neurophysiology has done over the last 30 years, etc. In contrast, ‘will’ will take us nowhere. It closes of discussion.
This is an edited version of a talk given at an ‘Open Polemic’ conference back in the distant 1990s.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
This article was first published by Paul Cockshott.
In a popular booklet by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (P&G), "Global Capitalism and American Empire," Lenin’ theory of imperialism comes in for some heavy criticism. Originally published in 2004 the theories propounded in this booklet (available on Amazon) are still popular with many on the left who feel that Lenin is too dated to be a useful guide to 21st century imperialist practices. The following is an attempt to show the continued relevance of Lenin’s “Imperialism,The Highest Stage of Capitalism."
The authors, in a section entitled "Rethinking Imperialism," caution against considering "globalization as inevitable and irreversible." They quote the “Communist Manifesto” as follows: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." Curiously, they think Marx and Engels were exhibiting "prescience" when they wrote this – which they call a description "of a future that strongly matches our present."
But Marx and Engels were not prophesying the future. They were describing the historical reality of their own day – so manifest, already by 1848, was the imperial drive of capitalism. Incidentally, the fact that P&G can take an 1848 description of capitalism for a future prediction strongly matching the present explains one of the reasons why the classics of Marxism have not become outdated.
P&G look at history and discern three "great structural crises" in capitalism: 1) Post 1870s colonial rivalry leading to World War I; 2) the Great Depression, leading to World War II; 3) globalization rapidly advancing due to economic problems of the 1970s. Because the contours of these crises and the results produced by them could not be predicted in advance, P&G contend that globalization is "neither inevitable" re: classical Marxism, "nor impossible to sustain." Since Lenin’s theory of imperialism implies the opposite conclusions, the authors think his theory is mistaken.
Let’s take a closer look. Lenin’s theory, according to the authors, made the "fundamental mistake" of assuming "capitalist economic stages and crises." Lenin was "defective" in his "historical reading of imperialism" as well as his understanding of capital accumulation and, lastly, his view that "inter-imperialist rivalry" was "an immutable law of capitalist globalization."
After having asserted all this, P&G concluded, contrary to Lenin’s ideas, "A distinctive capitalist version of imperialism did not suddenly arrive with the so-called monopoly or finance-capital stage of capitalism...."
P&G accuse Lenin of "reductionism" in equating monopoly capitalism with imperialism. They maintain that "capitalism" and "imperialism" are independent of each other ("two distinct concepts"). History tells them that imperialism can be traced further back than the 1870s: that it goes at least as far back as mercantilism. This is just playing with words. The Romans were imperialists as far as that goes. Lenin was not discussing some universal ahistorical "imperialism" but the specific historical imperialism of his own epoch based on the domination of financial capital.
Lenin saw that after 1873 (as a result of crises) monopoly capitalism began to consolidate and replace so-called competitive capitalism: the imperialism of Lenin’s days was a direct outgrowth of this new type, a higher type in his words, of capitalism.
We can, without accusing Lenin of having a defective historical understanding, agree with P&G that it is false to maintain that "the nature of modern imperialism was once and for all determined in the kinds of rivalries attending the stage of industrial concentration and financialization associated with turn-of-the [19th]-century monopoly capital."
But of course they are correct. No Marxist, especially Lenin, would maintain history gets frozen at a particular stage of its development. Lenin says of his definition of imperialism that it is convenient to sum up the principle aspects of the phenomena he is describing but "nevertheless inadequate" because all definitions [and theories based on them] are "conditional and relative" because all historical social events and formations are in flux.
P&G would have a better grasp of Lenin’s theory if they understood it in its own terms and did not misrepresent it as a "once and for all" statement of the nature of imperialism. Their mistake is in thinking Lenin’s view of imperialism in terms of an evolution of economic stages and crises within capitalism was itself a mistake.
P&G also deny that imperialism is the "highest stage of capitalism." They do this because they are historically situated in the 21st century phase of "globalization" and Lenin’s theory, now over a century old, dealt with the capitalism of his era. Therefore they maintain that what he was observing was "a relatively early phase of capitalism." They could have saved themselves a lot of unnecessary Lenin criticism had they been more historical themselves. Capitalism is not going to go back to a previous stage of independent national capitalism. It will continue to internationalize itself through the process we call "globalization" and what Lenin was describing was a relatively early phase of the highest stage of capitalism. What we call "globalization" is just a euphemism for the domination of the world by a handful of powerful states dominated by financial and monopoly elites that continue to plunder the world in their own interests (as the crisis of 2008 showed). Lenin saw that this system was really a transitional system to an even higher form of economic development – namely socialism. This transitional nature of the "highest stage of capitalism" is presently obscured by the temporary world dominance of US monopoly capitalism.
We should be absolutely clear about this, Lenin meant by "highest stage" not that the historical features of capitalism in his epoch were fixed for all (capitalist) time, as P&G seem to imply, but only that capitalism had, as capitalism, no higher stage to evolve into that would renounce the need to export capital (finance capital especially) and find markets abroad. Globalization is just the latest stage of monopoly capitalism as it has transformed itself and developed since the days of Lenin, but it is still the logical outcome of the situation described by Marx and Engels in 1848.
It is also, I think, an error to hold, as do P&G, that Lenin and like minded theorists of the past did not recognize the role of the state in relation to the market: that they failed "to appreciate the crucial role of the state in making ‘free markets’ possible and then to make them work."
A strange accusation to make against someone who viewed the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie and thought that it functioned to further the interests of the capitalist class and its struggle to, among other things, build, acquire, and maintain markets both domestic and foreign.
It is true that Lenin could not foresee the specific historical development that has resulted in "neoliberal" globalization dominated by one "superpower." But it is also true that the theory laid out by Lenin in “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” remains the best starting point for any attempt to understand the contemporary world.