Brenner in context

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 26 09:16:31 MST 2000

Mac Stainsby asked about the political consequences of the Brenner thesis.
In order to address this properly, we have to dig deeper into the
theoretical roots of Dr. Brenner, a UCLA professor. It is widely
acknowledged that Brenner emerged as a figure within the Analytical Marxist
school. Although he has not written much that is specifically AM in
character--his academic focus is history rather than philosophy--he
obviously shares with his mentor G. A. Cohen a deep desire to delineate the
specific stage of capitalism in civilization. This kind of theoretical
obsession is a hallmark of the Second International, which was heavily
influenced by Social Darwinism. Karl Kautsky, the acknowledged leader of
the 2nd International, was writing articles for the German socialist press
filled with formulations derived from Herbert Spencer. Kautsky influenced
Georg Plekhanov, who was also so deeply into "stagism" that when the
Russian Revolution of 1917--which defied this approach--became an enemy of
the revolution, as did Kautsky.

If you turn to Marcus Roberts' excellent book "Analytical Marxism: a
Critique", you will find Cohen's stagism described in telling detail. Keep
in mind that although Brenner attacked the technological determinism of
G.A. Cohen, he never repudiated the general stagist framework of this
school. Roberts points out that Alan Carling argues for a synthesis of
Cohen and Brenner, since Brenner's analysis will "fill in the pieces that
are missing from Cohen's theory." Here is Roberts on the Kautskyist nature
of the Cohen body of work, which certainly applies to the AM school as a

"Cohen’s return to an orthodox historical materialism represented a
significant departure when considered from the perspective of the proximate
development of the Marxist programme. Technological determinism had
acquired a guilt by association with the highly deterministic readings of
Marxism which dominated the Second International and, after the
Stalinisation of the international communist movement, the Third
International. At best, it had come to be associated with the complacent
evolutionism of those leading theorists of the Second International — most
prominently, Kautsky and Plekhanov — who had confidently declared in the
early 1890s that the inevitable ‘shipwreck of capitalist production’ was
imminent. . . In Marx’s Theory of History, also published in 1978, Shaw —
one-time student of Cohen, and fellow-in-arms in defence of technological
determinism — explicitly acknowledges that this version of historical
materialism ‘seems to have enjoyed currency among Marx’s early and
'orthodox' followers (notably Plekhanov), although they never subjected the
theory to close enough critical scrutiny’. Taking this assertion at face
value, Cohen and Shaw defend a reading of the Marxist theory of history
which has been rejected by almost every major Marxist theorist in the
intervening period, from Lukács to Althusser. Cohen’s defence of
technological determinism therefore marks a return to orthodox Marxism: to
a reading of Marxism that had been more or less abandoned by Marxist
theorists after the migration of serious Marxist theoretical work to
Western Europe in the 1920s, and which was subjected to decades of highly
damaging criticism within the Anglophone academy."

The other important theoretical influence on Brenner was one Hal Draper, a
left Shachtmanite whose disciples now run the US group Solidarity, which
publishes the magazine "Against the Current". While there are a number of
Trotskyists in the group, the main theoretical orientation of the magazine
appears to be an unmodified version of Draperism, which entails an
indifference at best or hostility at worst toward revolutions in the 3rd
world. This attitude is grounded in a notion that unless the "forces of
production" have created a powerful working class in European terms, it is
useless to storm the heavens and overthrow capitalism. You will only end up
with "state capitalism", "bureaucratic collectivism" or other forms of
tyranny, no matter the Marxist intentions of people like Fidel Castro or
Mao tse-Tung. Here are Draper's ruminations on the Cuban revolution:

"The right of Cuba (or any other country) to self-determination has
absolutely nothing to do with whether we or anyone else approve of its
government. This is, as we said, a democratic demand even under an
undemocratic government. We would like to, see the Castro regime overthrown
by the Cuban people in favor of a regime of socialist democracy, but this
task cannot be contracted out to American imperialism, which is interested
only in installing a regime subservient to world capitalism."

Another important guide to understanding this kind of neo-Kautskyism is the
journal New Politics, which was launched by Hal Draper and Julie Jacobson
in the 1960s. It continues to be another important source of hostility
toward revolutionary movements such as those that liberated Cuba, Vietnam
and China. Here is a sentence from Barry Finger's article on "bureaucratic
collectivism" that establishes the limitations of revolutions in countries
that have not reached the minimal standards required for successful
socialist construction:

"Bureaucratic Collectivism is socialism's Doppleganger. It is a distorted
reflection of the fact that real social advance requires some form of
collectivization. Where the working class cannot organize its forces to
overthrow capitalism and establish the free rule of labor, bureaucracy
invariably arises as an independent, substitute social force. The state
bureaucracies, Stalinist or otherwise, can address the unengaged historic
tasks of labor, but only with reactionary, anti-socialist consequences."

Needless to say, in places like Cuba, Vietnam and China the "free rule of
labor" does not exist for neo-Kautskyians at journals like Against the
Current and New Politics just as it failed to exist in the USSR of the
1920s for the original Kautsky.

This is the main explanation for Brenner's frontal attack on the Monthly
Review in his 1977 New Left Review article. The Monthly Review was
synonymous with third world revolutions. Sweezy and Magdoff were open
Maoists and the magazine had also embraced the Cuban revolution. Baran and
Sweezy's "Monopoly Capital" was dedicated to Che Guevara.

The reason it is important for Brenner to equate capitalism with the
specifics of British history is that it helps to resituate the arena of
struggle from the third world to the "main line" of the class struggle as
envisioned in the 2nd International. Obviously this is a false premise
since the front lines of the revolution continue to be in places like
Colombia, which is assiduously ignored by all the magazines at which Dr.
Brenner keeps an editorial seat warm.

Louis Proyect
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