The EU question (Response to Louis - I)

Julio Huato juliohuato at SPAMhotmail.com
Wed May 2 14:44:37 MDT 2001


I
Louis Proyect wrote:

>Julio, it is a little hard sometimes for me to figure out where you are
>coming from ideologically.

Labels will not help us.  Let me type away.  You be the judge.

In 1867, Marx wrote: "The country that is more developed industrially only
shows to the less developed the image of its own future."  Then, "even when
a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws
of its movement, it can neither clear by bold leaps nor remove by legal
enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal
development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs."  Again, 1867.
Marx was at the top of his game.  After Engels's death, while the "center of
the revolutionary movement" shifted to Russia thus giving a third generation
of young, ambitious Marxists the political and ideological upper hand in the
socialist movement, the history of Marxism became the history of refuting,
denying, ignoring, running away from, or forgetting these statements.

The old Marx had to explain himself to Russian revolutionaries (who
interpreted Capital as the Hegelian assertion of a meta-historical telos
realizing itself through history according to some recipe) that he meant it
instead as a historical central tendency, as the resultant of what concrete
human beings, under contingent, historical-time-and-space constraints do
with their lives.  In his letters to Russian revolutionaries (early
populists whom he admired for the bold challenge they posed to the
reactionary Russian autocracy), Marx praised their revolutionary effort and
explained that there was nothing in Capital that excluded a priori their
illusions of an "exclusively" Russian path to communism.  Yes, he said,
Russians can enter communism without undergoing capitalist
industrialization, but that will depend on socialism establishing itself in
the rich West such that Russians can be given a hand.

In 1882, the Marxist fuels to the flame of populist hopes had almost
officially dried out.  Capitalism in Russia was quickly eroding the
traditional forms of collective ownership.  And Engels, who noticed it, felt
it necessary to qualify Marx's statement even more by listing additional
feasibility conditions for the populist path to communism, namely that (1)
the traditional forms of collective ownership in Russia didn't reach yet
some threshold of irreversible degradation (assaulted as they were by
endogenous and exogenous commodification and capitalist class
differentiation), (2) a successful revolution took place in Russia, and (3)
it triggered a series of revolutions in Western Europe and the US ("the
West") so that these rich countries could come and assist the Russians.

In the whole of Marx's work, the letters to the Russians stand out as --
perhaps -- the only passages where he expressed warm sympathy towards
traditional collective ownership and found a use for them looking forward.
And then, again, in evaluating his letters we must consider the political
context, the regressive role of Russia in European history, and the role of
Russian revolutionaries in the configuration of the events Marx was most
concerned about.  Most of Marx's work indicates clearly that, for him,
collective ownership of the traditional kind, based on a backward productive
force of labor, was -- by itself -- fundamentally hopeless.  Marx's
communism is alien to any nostalgia of bygone -- or "bygoing" --
precapitalist "paradises."  His concern was about human beings, not about
old social structures that limit their ability to attain true freedom.
Large passages in Grundrisse extol the virtues of capitalist civilization
against the backdrop of precapitalist structures.  So do his articles on
colonialism, his critique of utopian socialism, or the Communist Manifesto.

Forgive me this in extenso quote, but consider what Marx and Engels wrote in
The German Ideology:

<This "alienation" can, of course, only be abolished given two practical
premises. For it to become an "intolerable" power, i.e. a power against
which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great
mass of humanity "propertyless", and produced, at the same time, the
contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which
conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of
its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive
forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their
world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary
practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with
destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business
would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this
universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse
between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the
phenomenon of the "propertyless" mass (universal competition), makes each
nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put
world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.
Without this, (i) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the
forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal,
hence intolerable powers: they would have remained homebred conditions
surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would
abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act
of the dominant peoples "all at once" and simultaneously, which presupposes
the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse
bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers - the
utterly precarious position of labour - power on a mass scale cut off from
capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely
temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life - presupposes
the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist
world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a
"world-historical" existence. World-historical existence of individuals
means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world
history.

<Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an
ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the
real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of
this movement result from the premises now in existence.>

That is, the premises required are (1) a mass of absolutely alienated
producers, who are (2) highly able to produce wealth and (3) interconnected
at a world scale.  And, as a proof of his grasp of the driving forces of
human history, if communism were to be tried at a local scale (nationally,
say in a hypothetical country named Russia), then "each extension of
intercourse" (i.e., the pressures of capitalist competition, a new ascending
wave of capitalist expansion) would "abolish local communism."  I'm not
saying Marx could foresee with accuracy the events of the last 12 years in
Russia and Eastern Europe.  All I'm saying is that whenever we think that
new conditions have rendered Marx's fundamental conclusions obsolete, we
better think twice.  The guy could see very far.

Finally, let me stress the last paragraph of the quote: "The conditions of
communism result from the premises now in existence."  Not from our wishful
thoughts, but from the premises now in existence.  What we can actually
achieve depends on this, which shouldn't be a reason to be modest in
wanting.  (This is not Biblical exegesis; it sounds to me like plain common
sense.)

But there is a continuously renewed social basis for populist illusions.  It
is nice to think that there is a free ride to communism on the train of past
history, with no premises to build or wait for.  The new generation of
Russian populists came up with an elaborate rationale in defense of their
exclusive branch of socialism.  They resorted to Sismondian and Malthusian
theses that attributed to capitalism a tendency to choke for lack of demand.
  They predicted capitalism would never penetrate Russia because there was
no domestic market for it to grow, all vital external markets had already
been carved out by the European powers, etc.  Plekhanov and above all Lenin,
with ruthless logic, exposed the inconsistencies of all populist objections
to capitalist development in Russia and showed the historical infertility of
their project.  By the way, the theoretical contempt with which Lenin judged
Rosa Luxemburg's work on accumulation was not alien to the populist notes it
rang: Purely endogenous capitalist expanded reproduction lacked the
purchasing power required to "realize" the entire social surplus value,
therefore the constant engagement of noncapitalist zones was vital for
capitalism to keep going, etc.

Then came Lenin's theory of imperialism based on a supposed fundamental
change in the laws of motion of capitalism.  At least this is the way many
interpreters have regarded it.  Not me.  I have studied this document as
carefully as I've been able to, and I respect it deeply.  But this is not a
book in the same league as Marx's Capital.  I don't mean to say in style or
even in the quality of the intellectual effort.  Of course, Lenin and Marx
were two different individuals even if Lenin was also a man of genius.  No
doubt.  I just mean to say that Lenin's Imperialism didn't try to follow up
on Marx's theoretical plan.  It was, fundamentally, a historical analysis
aimed to draw immediate political conclusions out of immediate economic
events, to take a congruent socialist position vis-à-vis the world war, and
to steer the workers' movement in the direction of its highest communist
political payoff.

Lenin's goals were entirely legitimate, but Marx's Capital was aimed to
something else.  It was aimed "to examine the capitalist mode of production,
and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode.
[...] Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of
development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of
capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these
tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results."  I've
learned to take these remarks seriously.

Colonial conquests, military threats, wars, assassinations, annexations,
bribery, trade conditions imposed on poor countries by means of economic,
political, legal, cultural, and military blackmail, bare theft, all these
and others are "business" methods capitalists will never forego.  The nature
of commodity production, more specifically, the profit motive is such that
capitalists are continuously pushed to break laws, ethical boundaries, and
codes of conduct -- including those of their own doing.

But just as Marx explained the nature of surplus value production (the
fundamental driving force of capitalism) by excluding sheer theft and
deceit, it must be stressed that the "imperialist" methods belong to the
logical -- though not the chronological -- prehistory of capitalism.  They
conform the permanent process "primitive capital accumulation" that will
accompany "normal" capitalist accumulation perhaps until its demise, but
they are not inherent, necessary conditions for capitalism to exist.
Capitalism can be (yes, it can be, in principle) clean, decent, and well
groomed.  Yet, as far as communists are concerned, it'll remain the same
"old filthy business."   The communists' desire to overthrow capitalism may
increase proportionally to the moral disgust caused by its violence and
hypocrisy, but the historical justification of communism cannot stem from
mere moral indignation.

IMO, it has not been shown that the existence of "monopolies" (large
incorporated capitalist firms) in the rich capitalist countries alters in
any fundamental way the laws of profit-rate equalization (and production
price formation) laid out by Marx in the volume 3 of Capital.  If anything,
the opposite has been shown.  For instance, Anwar Shaikh has shown that for
recent but protracted periods in the history of the United States (the main
"imperialist" country on earth) the evolutions of the
market-price-to-productivity ratios in "monopolized" and "nonmonopolized"
industries exhibit no statistically significant difference.

This body of evidence is widely available in the United States, not so in
other countries.  And it may exist only in English.  IMO, besides land rent
and the like (cases examined by Marx), there is no indication that
"monopolies" make super-profits in a consistent or, at least, systematic
fashion in a way that contradicts volume 3 of Capital.  In other words,
there's a good chance that, as Marx stated it in Capital, super-profits are
relatively ephemeral, temporary phenomena due to transitory technological
advantages.

There are other key aspects of Lenin's theory of imperialism that deserve a
serious critical evaluation.  The notion that monopoly super-profits allowed
(allows) for imperialist countries to bribe "aristocratic" segments of their
national working classes (an idea that, without the monopoly super-profits
part of the argument, Engels advanced for British workers) must be
scrutinized closely.  There are data to test whether rich capitalist
countries exploit poor capitalist countries (read *classes* between my
lines, please) because they are rich or whether they are rich because they
exploit poor countries.  On the other hand, whether poor countries are poor
because "imperialist exploitation" stunts their development or they are
exploited because they are poor.

I'm no expert, but my guess is that the statistical evidence will show that
(1) rich countries are rich, first and foremost, because their workers are
significantly more productive than workers of poor countries; (2) "unequal
trade" (i.e., normal competitive trade under capitalism), "repatriation of
dividends," "debt service payments," etc. can't account for the huge
differences in productivity levels and growth rates observable across
nations; (3) poor countries are poor because their workers are significantly
less productive than others; and (4) workers in poor countries are
significantly less productive, because these societies are less
capitalistic.

Why haven't they become more capitalist already?  Marx's theory of history
gives us clues.  When productive forces can't move ahead, it's usually
because the economic structure needs adjustment or replacement.  When
relations of production are stuck, that's because the political, legal, and
ideological "superstructure" needs adjustment or replacement.  No
imperialism permanent stunting of capitalist development in the "periphery"
is required here. What aspects of the Latin American political, legal, and
ideological "superstructure" require adjustment or replacement?  I hope we
can discuss that later.

Back to the history of ideas.  What strikes me as curious is that Lenin's
theory of imperialism based on "monopoly capitalism" has allowed some
interpreters to impute Lenin a sort of neo-populist stance.  I'm not sure if
this interpretation is valid, but it is common as shown in this list.  What
I know is that the idea that capitalism is impossible in the "Third World"
(because capitalism became "imperialism") has restored wholesale the
populist views that Lenin abhorred.

I can't go into much more detail here.  I've written a lot already and need
to respond to the rest of Louis's comments.  My point is that Lenin's theory
of imperialism must be examined in the context in which it was developed.
I'll end up by listing some traits of the ideological and political climate
in which Lenin and his contemporaries were immersed, and this should give us
clues as to the features of the theory of imperialism: (1) The weight of
Marx and Engels's view of communism as only a few generations away from
their time, (2) the tremendous political force and prestige that socialism
gained from the late 19th century through the early 20th century in the
entire world, (3) the Dickensian brutality of newborn capitalism in the poor
countries, sharpening conflicts that strictly speaking stemmed from the lack
of capitalism (le mort saisit le vif!), and (4) the international conflicts
that led to WWI.  In these circumstances, it's not hard to see why Lenin,
Parvus, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Bukharin and others believed in the imminence,
if not of communism (its earlier stage, socialism), at least of the
proletarian dictatorship safeguarding some transitional period (thus
dilating Marx's tighter schedule in the Critique to Gotha's Program).  But
expectations were not realized.  The early notices of a dying capitalism
were greatly exaggerated.
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