[Marxism] Winners and losers - reply to Louis Proyect

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Fri Nov 28 12:42:43 MST 2003

Louis, you wrote:

"One of the drawbacks of the anti-globalization movement is its failure to
posit an alternative to capitalism despite nebulous calls that "another
world is possible". To a degree, this is the result of being dependent on
fuzzy thinking from anarchist and autonomist intellectuals who provide
input to this movement."

I've still got the 'flu but I wanted to say this: this must be the most
excellent thing you said today, and is the reason why I continue to believe
and subscribe to your list and its ideals. This is precisely what it is
about. If globalisation is the problem, then what is the solution ? The
problem is that no definite solution can be specified or inferred, and the
most convincing political answer if you oppose globalisation is really to
join the flat earth society. Then people will talk about "capitalist
globalisation" as a qualifier but what does that mean ? How can you specify
a coherent socialist strategy on that basis ? It is an ideology without a
clear analysis which underpins it.

Anyone who bothers to survey the facts, must reach the conclusion that the
real internationalisation processes are heavily concentrated between rich
countries, whether we talk about capital flows, investment, income flows,
internet connections, political exchanges, travel or whatever. That is to
say, a few billion people hardly even participate in this "globalisation",
they are excluded from it, they have little money to travel even, to
understand its implications.

The test of the validity of globalisation theories is whether in fact it is
true, that the organisational principle of the corporation is really able to
supplant the organisational principle of the capitalist nation state. Now if
you actually look at the real behaviour of corporations and nation states,
then I think this isn't the case, just as the "new economy" is a passing
phase. But suppose that this hypothesis was true, or became true. Then you
would need to study the potential for a socialist transformation which
corporate organisational forms contain, and this would involve analysing
corporate forms, in a way which doesn't simply treat them as a demonic
bogey, but as an objective socialisation of production which is an
adaptation to the current requirements for operating in an (increasingly
criminal) capitalist world market.

What people like Harry Cleaver will do, is that they will read Marx's
Capital "politically". What they do not really do systematically, is read
the book in terms of: if this mode of producing and distributing  is not
adequate for longterm human survival, what does this imply for alternatives
to the logic of capital ? Antonio Gramsci anticipates some of this in his
radical essay "The revolution against 'Capital'". The "reading" of Marx's
Capital I am suggesting here is a reading which says, "here you have the
terms of the problem you are dealing with presented in its essentials,
specifying the sorts of limits within a solution can be formulated, but how
now can we specifically "invert" the phenomena of exchange and
commercialisation, so that a viable solution to the social question can
result ?". I don't pretend to have all the answers yet, but that is the
approach I am suggesting as being more fruitful.

If people have a political, cultural or personal objection to Marxism these
days, it has almost nothing to do with the intellectual merits of Marxism,
but simply with the fact that it is a negative critique of capitalism and
its limits, which expresses itself mainly in the discontent articulated in
protests against its effects. It's often mainly anti something, and no pro
something else, so then people know what they should oppose but not what
they should do positively beyond exercising consumer preferences. However,
Marx never claimed capitalism was all bad, all negative, he claimed rather
that capitalist development occurs by way of a mediation of numerous
contradictory social forces, which means that every step forward in social
progress goes together with a step backwards (social regression), resulting
in fantastic social disparities and social inequalities worldwide and mass
suffering, rather than balanced development. But it also provides many new
possibilities for human development which should not be ignored.

Any theory of socialist transition must however ground itself in those
progressive features of capitalist development which would make a process of
socialist transition possible and feasible. If this isn't done, it also
becomes incomprehensible to understand how an egalitarian socialist society
could be possible at all. I tend to think that globalisation ideologies tend
to obstruct this, because, politically, they suggests social forces are
unleashed which transcend anybody's control to do anything, and therefore,
do not show how exactly you could politically intervene in a constructive
way. It doesn't really tell you what to do. But that is just to say that
this interpretation adapts to the idea that one can only but adjust to the
impersonal forces of the capitalist world market and its vagaries.

I think furthermore that the real project is obstructed by a political
tradition which sees Marxist politics as being about more or less subtly
demarcating a revolutionary stance from a reformist stance in any political
discussion, because this tradition implies paradoxically that the
formulation of constructive alternatives negates the revolutionary revolt
against the capitalist status quo, whereas the revolt against the effects of
capitalist misdevelopment should be linked to positive alternative solutions
which might be conducive to it. If this is is the case, the result of that
counterposition to which I refer is, that you can never win, and that
co-operation among different sectors of the Left is hindered thereby. It
suggests that there is only one way to fight the downside of private
enterprise, rather than many ways, and this has implications for the very
way in which successful political organisation might occur. In the real
world, however, revolutionary politics aren't generated mainly or primarily
by a revolutionary ideology, they are generated quite simply by the fact
that capitalist development fails to deliver the goods, and therefore
radicalises people, because unless you are an idealist, you have to
recognise that, what most people really respond to and draws them into
politics, is the real deterioration in the real conditions of their own
lives and existence, a conflict between reality and what they believe in.

In one of his books, Isaac Deutscher remarked how Marxism provided thinking
people with an easy-to-understand bunch of concepts which permitted them to
understand and interpret the movement of society as a whole, when the
endless fragmentation of bourgeois disciplines and specialism prevented this
total picture, or indeed claimed it was impossible to understand a society
as a living totality, the social organism as a whole, other than through
piecemeal engineering directed at parts of it; there was said to be a direct
link between a totalising understanding and totalitarianism (even as such a
totalising understanding is a necessary requirement of any bourgeois
government). This suggests that the proper function of Marxism is really as
a means for investigation and interpretation of society, a guide to
practice, a toolkit.

But it does not follow from this that Marxism itself must be a party
ideology. Lenin, who promoted this idea ("Marxism is omnipotent because it
is true" - Three Components of Marxism) and suggested that Marxism is both a
science and an ideology, was not even able the realise this, and Stalin only
realised it, by suppressing any idea not compatible with it, with very bad
consequences. If Marxism is both a science and an ideology, it ends up being
neither, since you end up not being able to apply it, not being able to
reconcile theory and practice, this leads to personal unhappiness, and this
is best shown by East European jokes about the role of Marxism in their
societies in four decades after the second world war. Moreover you get
bogged down in perpetual disputes about how Marxism might be consistently
developed, what orthodoxy consists in, and so on. It mystifies the very
sources and origins of public or personality morality and how debates about
it might be tackled. James Cannon was fond of talking about how people had
to "remould" their lives to conform to the Marxist creed, but just what
results this has, can be seen in the evolution of the US SWP. That wasn't a
very intelligent approach, it attracted talent but also tore up many lives.

Personally, this has led me years ago to drop the very notion of Marxism in
favour of socialism. I am personally still very happy to include Marxists in
my idea of the socialist movement and take Marx very seriously, as I have
shown on the list (it does provide some common language), but any idea than
Marx provides the final answer to questions of politics or morality must be
rejected, because that excludes the creativity of living people and requires
them to adopt an entire belief system. It is much more fruitful to
concentrate on socialist goals and aspirations, a vision of the future and
the steps to get there, whatever language is used, and have due regard for
ethical questions to which Marx did not supply any ready-made answer.

If people panic about a reformist perpetuation of capitalism with
progressive motives, what they forget is that the question of revolution
versus reform is really relevant only when there is (a) already a large mass
movement for social change and reform, or (b) a genuine contest for state
power, i.e. a genuine situation of dual power, social disintegration, a
(pre-)revolutionary situation, and this situation doesn't arise even mainly
out of the spreading or revolutionary ideas itself, but out of the fact that
capitalist economy just happens to be unable to "deliver the goods" or solve
social problems, which force people to think, search for alternatives and
become radicalised, leading to an intensification of class conflict which
permits an alternative set of values to be promoted as a better alternative.

In this sense, my difference from you I guess is that I think the problem is
not simply rooted in a question of "Zinovievism" or some such thing. It goes
deeper than that. It concerns a whole political tradition, which is unable
to frame problems in a way which allows them to be solved successfully and
effectively, and consequently doesn't attract people other than in a certain
phase of their lives. The proof I see of my idea is that many people on the
left lack certainty about what an effective political method might be or
could be, that they are mystified about how they might "win friends and
influence people". My own conclusion about this is that our own way of
thinking and style of work might contain, or have contained, ideas and
logics which prevent any good conclusions from being drawn which could lead
to success. As such this is no fatal problem, what is fatal is an
unwillingness to change ideas or flexibly adjust new circumstances. Terry
Eagleton has just published a book in Britain called "After Theory", but
after going through what I went through, I think there ought to be a book
called "Before Theory". Somebody might object that what I say is too general
or abstract, but if a problem cannot even be posed in its purest and
simplest form, how then can you expect to elaborate a specific answer to it
? It is all very well for people to reject the use of theory, but just look
where it really gets them, as far as politics in concerned.


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