revolutionary reflections | Rethinking the Concept of Revolution Part 1

The centenary of the Russian Revolution provides an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by revolution, and reconsider its relevance today. In the first of a two-part exchange Chris Wright  makes the case for a  gradualist theory of revolution based on the emerging ‘solidarity economy’ and a repudiation of theories that focus on rupture and the taking of state power.

A rejoinder by Joe Sabatini will be published in the Autumn.

A PDF of this piece can be found here: 20170803_Rethinking the Concept of Revolution FINAL

Karl Marx

Photo: thierry ehrmann, flickr


Introduction

In the twenty-first century, as capitalism enters an epoch of unprecedented crisis, it is time to reconsider the Marxist theory of proletarian revolution. More precisely, it is time to critically reconsider it, to determine if it has to be revised in order to speak more directly to our own time and our own struggles. It was, after all, conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, in a political and social context very different from the present. Given the 160-year span from then to now, one might expect it to require a bit of updating. In this article I’ll argue that it does need to be revised, both for a priori reasons of consistency with the body of Marx’s thought and in order to make it more relevant to the contemporary scene. That is, I’ll argue that when Marx conceptualized revolution in terms of a fettering of the productive forces by production relations, as well as in terms of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” he was the victim of both analytical imprecision and a misunderstanding of his own system. Accordingly, I will rectify Marx’s conception of revolution. What we’ll find is that the correction not only makes the theory more cogent but updates it for our own time, in such a way that it can teach activists strategic lessons.

In brief, I’ll conclude that in order to make Marxism consistent with itself it is necessary to abandon the statist perspective to which Marx and Engels arguably were committed, and which they transmitted to most of their successors. It is necessary to conceive of revolution in a gradualist way, not as a sudden historical “rupture” in which the working class or its representatives take over the national state and organize social reconstruction on the basis of a unitary political will (the proletarian dictatorship). According to a properly understood Marxism, even the early stages of the transition from capitalism to post-capitalism must take place over generations, and not in a straightforwardly planned way but somewhat unconsciously, in a process slightly comparable to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I will also argue that my revision can be the basis for a partial rapprochement between Marxists and anarchists.[1]

Rethinking revolution

Marx has, in effect, two theories of revolution, one that applies only to the transition from capitalism to socialism and another that is more transhistorical, applying, for instance, also to the earlier transition between feudalism and capitalism. The former emerges from his analysis of capitalist economic dynamics, according to which a strong tendency toward class polarization divides society, in the long run, between a small elite of big capitalists and a huge majority of relatively immiserated workers, who finally succeed in overthrowing the capitalist state and organizing a socialist one. It is the transhistorical theory, however, that I will focus on here. Its locus classicus is the last four sentences of the following paragraph from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

This paragraph has inspired reams of commentary and criticism, but for our purposes a few critical remarks will suffice. First of all, it is clearly the barest of outlines, desperately in need of elaboration. Unfortunately, nowhere in Marx’s writings does he elaborate it in a rigorous way. Second, it is stated in functionalist terms. Revolution happens supposedly because the productive forces—i.e., technology, scientific knowledge, and the skills of the labor force—have evolved to such a point that production relations are no longer compatible with their socially efficient use and development. But what are the causal mechanisms that connect this functionalist concept of “fettering of the productive forces” to social revolution? As far as I know, nowhere does Marx express his theory in causal, as opposed to functionalist, terms.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that, as it is stated above, the theory verges on meaninglessness. How does one determine when production relations have started to impede the use and development of productive forces? It would seem that to some extent they are always doing so. In capitalism, for example, one can point to the following facts: (1) recurring recessions and depressions periodically make useless much of society’s productive capacity; (2) enormous amounts of resources are wasted on socially useless advertising and marketing campaigns; (3) there is a lack of incentives for capital to invest in public goods such mass transit, the provision of free education, and public parks; (4) the recent financialization of the Western economy has entailed investment not in the improvement of infrastructure but in glorified gambling that doesn’t benefit society; (5) artificial obstacles such as intellectual copyright laws hinder the development and diffusion of knowledge and technology; (6) a colossal level of expenditures is devoted to war and destructive military technology; (7) in general, capitalism distributes resources in a profoundly irrational way, such that, for example, hundreds of millions of people starve while a few become multi-billionaires. Despite all this, however, no transition to a new society has happened.

Indeed, in other respects capitalism continues to develop productive forces, as shown by recent momentous advances in information technology. It’s true that most of this technology was originally developed in the state sector;[2] nevertheless, the broader economic and social context was and is that of capitalism. It is therefore clear that a mode of production can “fetter” and “develop” productive forces at the same time, a fact Marx did not acknowledge.

In order to salvage his hypothesis quoted above, and in fact to make it quite useful, a subtle revision is necessary. We have to replace his idea of a conflict between productive forces and production relations with that of a conflict between two sets of production relations, one of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. This change, slight as it might seem, has major consequences for the Marxist conception of revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that, in addition to making the theory logically and empirically cogent, it changes its entire orientation, from advocating a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that directs social and economic reconstruction to advocating a more grassroots-centered long-term evolution of social movements that remake the economy and society from the ground up.

My revision of the theory, then, is simply that at certain moments in history, new forces and relations of production evolve in an older economic, social, political, and cultural framework, undermining it from within. The gradual process of social revolution begins to happen when the old set of production relations fetters, or irrationally uses, productive forces in relation to the new set of widely emerging production relations. The “in relation to…” that I have added saves the Marxian theory from meaninglessness, for it indicates a definite point at which the “old” society really begins to yield to the “new” one, namely when an emergent economy has evolved to the point that it commands substantial resources and is clearly more “effective” or “powerful” in some sense than the old economy. The first time such a radical transformation ever happened was with the Neolithic Revolution (or Agricultural Revolution), which started around 12,000 years ago. As knowledge and techniques of agriculture developed that made possible sedentary populations, the hunter-gatherer mode of production withered away, as did the ways of life appropriate to it.

Similarly, starting around the thirteenth century in parts of Europe, an economy and society organized around manorialism and feudalism began to transform into an economy centered in the accumulation of capital. Several factors contributed to this process, among them (1) the revival of long-distance trade (after centuries of Europe’s relative isolation from the rest of the world), which stimulated the growth of merchant capitalism in the urban interstices of the feudal order; (2) mercantile support for the growth of the nation-state with a strong central authority that could dismantle feudal restrictions to trade and integrated markets; (3) the rise, particularly in England, of a class of agrarian capitalists who took advantage of new national and international markets (e.g., for wool) by investing in improved cultivation methods and enclosing formerly communal lands to use them for pasturage; (4) the partly resultant migration of masses of the peasantry to cities, where, during the centuries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth, they added greatly to the class of laborers who could be used in manufacturing; (5) the discovery of the Americas, which further stimulated commerce and the accumulation of wealth.

In short, from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, capitalist classes—agrarian, mercantile, financial, and industrial—emerged in Europe, aided by technological innovations such as the printing press and then, later on, by all the technologies that were made possible by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. All this is just to say that in the womb of the old society, new productive forces and production relations evolved that were more dynamic and wealth-generating than earlier ones. Moreover, on the foundation of these new technologies, economic relations, and scientific discourses arose new social, political, and cultural relations and ideologies that were propagated by the most dynamic groups with the most resources, i.e., the bourgeoisie and its intellectual hangers-on.[3]

My correction of Marx’s formulation of his hypothesis in the abovementioned Preface has another advantage besides making the theory more meaningful: it also supplies a causal mechanism by which a particular mode of production’s “fettering of the productive forces” leads to revolution—indeed, to successful revolution. The mechanism is that the emergent mode of production, in being less dysfunctional or more socially rational than the dominant mode, eventually (after reaching a certain visibility in the society) attracts vast numbers of adherents who participate in it and propagandize for it—especially if the social context is one of general economic stagnation and class polarization, due to the dominant mode of production’s dysfunctionality.

Moreover, this latter condition means that, after a long evolution, the emergent economic relations and their institutional partisans will have access to so many resources that they will be able to triumph economically and politically over the reactionary partisans of the old, deteriorating economy. This, of course, is what ultimately ensured the political success of the bourgeoisie in its confrontations with the feudal aristocracy. Likewise, one can predict that if capitalism continues to stagnate and experience massive crisis over the next century, a new, more cooperative mode of production that has developed in the interstices of capitalist society may eventually mount the summits of political power.

In short, my seemingly minor revision provides a condition for the success of anti-capitalist revolution, and thus helps explain why no such revolution has so far been successful in the long run (namely because the condition has been absent). Another way of seeing the implications and advantages of the revision is by contrasting it with the views of orthodox Marxists. A single sentence from Friedrich Engels sums up these views: “The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production into state property.”[4] This statement, approved by Lenin and apparently also by Marx, encapsulates the mistaken statist perspective of the orthodox Marxist conception of proletarian revolution.

This perspective is briefly described in the Communist Manifesto, where Marx writes, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class,” and then lays out a ten-point plan of social reconstruction by means of state decrees. By the 1870s Marx had abandoned the specifics of his earlier plan, but his (qualified) statism remained, and transmitted itself to his followers.[5] It is true that orthodox Marxists expect the state, “as a state,” to somehow (inexplicably) wither away eventually, but they do have a statist point of view in relation to the early stages of revolution.

This statist vision emerges naturally from Marx’s famous passage quoted above, in that the idea of a conflict between the rational use and development of productive forces and the fettering nature of current production relations suggests that at some point a social “explosion” will occur whereby the productive forces are finally liberated from the chains of the irrational mode of production. Pressure builds up, so to speak, over many years, as the mode of production keeps fettering the socially rational use of technology and scientific knowledge; through the agency of the working class, the productive forces struggle against the shackles of economic relations; at long last they burst free, when the working class takes over the state and reorganizes the economy. These are the metaphors naturally conjured by the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

But there are logical and empirical problems with the statist view, the view according to which the substance of social revolution occurs after the seizure of state power. First of all, it is in tension with the Marxian conception of social dynamics. Briefly stated, Marx sees the economy—rightly, I think—as the relative foundation of the rest of society, including politics, which suggests that a post-capitalist social revolution cannot just be politically willed and imposed. This would seem to reverse the order of “dominant causality,” from politics to the economy rather than vice versa. Moreover, such extreme statism exalts will as determining human affairs, a notion that is quite incompatible with the dialectical spirit of Marxism.

According to “dialectics,” history really happens “behind the backs” of actors: it evolves “unconsciously,” so to speak, as Hegel understood. Social and institutional conflicts work themselves out, slowly, through the actions of large numbers of people who generally have little idea of the true historical significance of their acts. As Marx said, we should never trust the self-interpretations of historical actors. And yet apparently he suspends this injunction, and his whole dialectical method, when it comes to the so-called proletarian revolution. These historical actors are somehow supposed to have perfect understanding of themselves and their place in history, and their historical designs are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly—despite the massive complexity and “dialectical contradictions” of society.

The reality is that if “the working class” or its ostensible representatives seize control of the state in a predominantly capitalist society—and if, miraculously, they are not crushed by the forces of reaction—they can expect to face overwhelming obstacles to the realization of their revolutionary plans. Some of these obstacles are straightforward: for example, divisions among the new ruling elite, divisions within the working class itself (which is not a unitary entity), popular resistance to plans to remake the economy, the necessity for brutal authoritarian methods of rule in order to force people to accept the new government’s plans, the inevitable creation of a large bureaucracy to carry out so-called reconstruction, etc. Fundamental to all these obstacles is the fact that the revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They cannot be magically transcended through political will. In particular, it is impossible through top-down directives to transform production relations from authoritarian to democratic: Marxism itself suggests that the state is not socially creative in this way. The hope to reorganize exploitative relations of production into liberatory, democratic relations by means of bureaucracy and the exercise of a unitary political will is utterly utopian and un-Marxist.

The record of so-called Communist revolutions in the twentieth century is instructive. While some Marxists may deny that lessons should be drawn from these revolutions, since they happened in relatively “primitive” rather than advanced capitalist countries, the experiences are at least suggestive. For what they created in their respective societies was not socialism (workers’ democratic control of production) or communism (a classless, stateless, moneyless society of anarchistic democracy) but a kind of ultra-statist state capitalism. To quote the economist Richard Wolff, “the internal organization of the vast majority of industrial enterprises [in Communist countries] remained capitalist. The productive workers continued in all cases to produce surpluses: they added more in value by their labor than what they received in return for that labor. Their surpluses were in all cases appropriated and distributed by others.”[6] Workers continued to be viciously exploited and oppressed, as in capitalism; the accumulation of capital continued to be the overriding systemic imperative, to which human needs were subordinated. While there are specific historical reasons for the way these economies developed, the general underlying condition was that it was and is impossible to transcend the capitalist framework if the political revolution takes place in a capitalist world, ultimately because the economy dominates politics more than political will can dominate the economy.

In any case, it was and is breathtakingly utopian to think that an attempted seizing of the state in an advanced and still overwhelmingly capitalist country, however crisis-ridden its economy, could ever succeed, because the ruling class has a monopoly over the most sophisticated and destructive means of violence available in the world. Even rebellions in relatively primitive countries have almost always been crushed, first because the ruling classes there had disproportionate access to means of violence, and second because the ruling classes in more advanced countries could send their even more sophisticated instruments of warfare to these countries in order to put down the revolution. But if a mass rebellion came close to overthrowing the regime of one of the core capitalist nations, as opposed to a peripheral one, the reaction of ruling classes worldwide would be nearly apocalyptic. They would likely prefer the nuclear destruction of civilization to permitting the working class or some subsection of it to take over a central capitalist state.

Thus, the only possible way—and the only Marxist way—for a transition out of capitalism to occur is that it be grounded in, and organized on the basis of, the new, gradually and widely emerging production relations themselves. This is the condition that has been absent in all attempts at revolution so far, and it explains why, aside from a few isolated pockets of momentary socialism (such as Catalonia in 1936),[7] they never managed to transcend a kind of state capitalism. They existed in a capitalist world, so they were constrained by the institutional limits of that world.

Ironically, Marx understood that this would be the case unless the revolution was international. He understood that “socialism in one country” is impossible. He knew that unless a revolution in Russia triggered or coincided with revolutions elsewhere, which on an international scale worked together, so to speak, to build a socialist mode of production, it was doomed to failure. What he did not understand was that the only way a revolution can be international is that it happen in a vaguely similar way to the centuries-long “bourgeois revolution” in Europe and North America, namely by sprouting first on the local level, the municipal level, the regional level, and expanding on that “grassroots” basis (albeit with the crucial assistance of changes in state policy). The hope that the states and ruling classes of many nations can fall at approximately the same time to a succession of national uprisings of workers—which is the only way that Marx’s conception of revolution can come to pass—was always wildly unrealistic, again because of the nature of capitalist power relations that Marxism itself clarifies.

The alternative paradigm of revolution sketched here is not only more logically consistent and realistic; it is also the only one appropriate to the twenty-first century. For we are beginning to see the glimmers of new production relations on which a future society will have to be erected. This article is primarily theoretical, not empirical, so I will not discuss recent developments in depth. It will suffice to mention that such ideas as public banking, municipal enterprise, worker cooperatives, and participatory budgeting are becoming ever more popular, as American scholar-activists like Gar Alperovitz, Richard Wolff, and Ellen Brown, and magazines such as Yes! Magazine and In These Times, publicize them. Incipient popular movements are coalescing around anti-capitalist institutions associated with the “solidarity economy,” as this cooperative political economy has been called. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has published a long report on “alternative models of ownership,” including cooperatives, municipal ownership, and national ownership. One can predict that as society descends into prolonged crisis—economic, political, social, and environmental crisis—worldwide activism on behalf of a more democratic economy and politics will grow in influence, ultimately making possible, perhaps, a gradual transformation of the corporatist political economy of the present into something more socialistic.

It will certainly not be a peaceful process, as innumerable political clashes with oligarchical authorities will have to occur. And it will not be consummated in the short term, likely requiring well over a century to carve out even the basic infrastructure of a post-capitalist society. Nevertheless, given the unsustainability of the global corporate-capitalist regime, it would seem that the only alternative to complete social collapse and an ensuing Hobbesian state of nature is this slow transformation—proceeding on the foundation of slowly emerging anti-capitalist production relations (facilitated, again, by changes in state policy)—to a more democratic political economy.[8]

Another advantage of the revision I have made to Marx’s conception of revolution—besides providing an analytical framework to interpret the emerging solidarity economy—is that it shows a way out of the sectarian conflicts between Marxists and anarchists that have afflicted the left since Marx’s bitter fight with Bakunin. The way to transcend these old divisions is to recognize that, in its prescriptions and ideals, Marxism is not so different from certain strains of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Indeed, properly understood, Leninist vanguardism and elitism—or any other statist version of Marxism—is less Marxian than anarcho-syndicalism, or any school of thought committed to building the new society within the shell of the old.

“Every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism,” the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker writes. “Without this preliminary any social evolution is unthinkable. Even revolutions can only develop and mature the germs which already exist and have made their way into the consciousness of men; they cannot themselves create these germs or generate new worlds out of nothing.”[9]

The institutions around which anarcho-syndicalists hope to construct a new society are labor unions and labor councils—organized in federations and possessing somewhat different functions than they have in capitalist society—but whatever one thinks of these specific institutions as germs of the future, one can agree with the basic premise of prefigurative politics (or economics). And it is this that is, or should be seen as, quintessentially Marxist.

The revolutionary practice of Lenin, on the other hand, was, as Rosa Luxemburg understood, virtually the opposite of what Marxism entails.[10] Good scholarly accounts of the Russian Revolution, such as Christopher Read’s From Tsar to Soviets (1996) and Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy (1996), make it perfectly clear that the critique given by anti-Leninists like Noam Chomsky is basically correct: the “Revolution” was, in effect, a coup, conspiratorially and secretively[11] organized by Lenin, Trotsky, and the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Soldiers loyal to the MRC occupied Petrograd’s telegraph offices, the railway station, nearby bridges, etc., and then took over the Provisional Government’s headquarters at the Winter Palace. The coup was a swift, decisive series of acts that triggered hardly any fighting and barely disrupted the city’s functioning.

Such a strategy is evidently based on the belief that revolution can emanate from the will of a few men, as long as they command a coterie of loyal soldiers. As argued earlier, this elevation of will above the protracted dialectical processes of history that go on behind the backs of historical actors has nothing in common with Marxism. One might even agree with what Orlando Figes says in the following comments:

All the main components of Lenin’s doctrine—the stress on the need for a disciplined revolutionary vanguard; the belief that action (the “subjective factor”) could alter the objective course of history (and in particular that seizure of the state apparatus could bring about a social revolution); his defense of Jacobin methods of dictatorship; his contempt for liberals and democrats (and indeed for socialists who compromised with them)—all these stemmed not so much from Marx as from the Russian revolutionary tradition. Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, [etc.]….to inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive—content to wait for the revolution to mature through the development of objective conditions rather than eager to bring it about through political action. It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary.[12]

While Marx himself, being a man of action, was occasionally susceptible to this “Leninist” way of thinking, the logic of his system does demand that one “wait” (though not passively) for conditions to mature rather than believe that a few leaders who have, in a sense, risen above history and penetrated all its mysteries can and ought to seize the state and plan out an unimaginably vast social reconstruction from authoritarian capitalism to democratic communism. History is too dialectically contradictory—or, in non-Marxian terms, simply unpredictable—for mere humans to be able to play God in this way.

Even the old Marxist strategy of forming workers’ parties and entering the electoral arena—which is something anarchists have traditionally been hostile to, since they regard politics and the state as an evil—is not especially “Marxist,” though it is realistic and can produce enormous gains for the working class. Its un-Marxist element is that such parties can, and historically have, become integrated into the dominant political and economic order, so that their radical edge is dulled and the essential antagonism between labor and capital is blurred. They can end up functioning as props for the stability of the system they were originally created to overthrow. This was the fate, for example, of the German Social-Democratic Party, which already by the time of World War I had shed much of its former radicalism. (As we know, it supported Germany in the war, a nationalist position anathema to many Marxists of the time.) Later, European Communist parties followed a similar trajectory.

On top of this, there is the tendency for party activity to degenerate into the “parliamentary cretinism” that Marx and Engels loathed, “a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house….is nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honorable house.”[13] In general, the real conditions and struggles of the working class can be forgotten or neglected by an insular party elite seduced by power or its illusion.

If there is nothing essentially Marxist about forming political parties, so there is nothing un-Marxist about the favored anarchist tactic of “direct action.” Marx himself and most of his followers have consistently engaged in and supported direct action of all kinds, including strikes, sit-ins, armed insurrections, and every manifestation of civil disobedience. Indeed, insofar as direct action highlights antagonistic and asymmetric power relations, striking at the fulcrum of society in the economic sphere or demonstrating that the rule of the powerful rests on pure violence, it emerges straight from the logic of Marxism. Here too, then, anarchism and Marxism are one.

We may recall, in addition, that the “economism” of anarcho-syndicalism that Gramsci so deplored is reminiscent of Marxism’s materialism and economism. Both schools of thought privilege the economic sphere over the cultural and political spheres—insofar as the latter can be distinguished from the economic—focusing on economic struggles and such tools of working-class agency as unions and labor councils (though, again, Marxists tend to acknowledge the potential utility of political parties as well). For both, the class struggle is paramount. For both, workers’ self-organization is the means to triumph over capitalism. James P. Cannon has a telling remark in the context of a discussion of the anarcho-syndicalist IWW: “The IWW borrowed something from Marxism; quite a bit, in fact. Its two principal weapons—the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the workers must accomplish their own emancipation through their own organized power—came from this mighty arsenal.”[14] The very life and work of Marx evince an unshakeable commitment to the idea of working-class initiative, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit), self-organization. The word “self-activity” evolved into the even more anarchist concept of “spontaneity” under the pen of Rosa Luxemburg, who devoted herself to elaborating and acting on the Marxist belief in workers’ dignity, rationality, and creativity.[15]

Traditionally, anarchists and Marxists had another conviction in common (aside from their shared moral critique of capitalism and vision of an ideal, stateless society)—a mistaken one, however. Namely, they both thought a revolutionary rupture was possible and desirable. They had a millennial faith in the coming of a redemptive moment that would, so to speak, wash away humanity’s sins. By concerted action, the working class would with one fell blow, or a series of blows, overturn capitalist relations and establish socialist ones. This is the basic utopian mistake that Marxism (if purified) can prove wrong but anarchism cannot, because it lacks the theoretical equipment to do so. Even anarcho-syndicalists, despite their verbal recognition that the seeds of the new society had to be planted in the old, shared the utopian belief in a possible historical rupture, not understanding that the only feasible way to realize their “prefigurative politics” was to build up a new mode or modes of production over generations in the womb of the old regime. And the only way that would be possible is in the context of the gradual, self-inflicted deterioration of corporate capitalism, such as we are beginning to see now, in the neoliberal era.

It is neoliberalism that has carried to their global consummation the destructive tendencies of capitalism, viz., privatization, marketization, the commodification of everything, suppression of workers’ power, class polarization, integration of the world under the aegis of capitalist relations of production, ever-increasing capital mobility, and consequent despoliation of the natural environment. It is neoliberalism, therefore, that, in bringing about the climax of the capitalist era—sharpening the system’s contradictions to the breaking point—will end up precipitating its demise and making possible the rise of something new.

All these speculations and conceptual revisions require a more extended treatment, which I have attempted in my above-cited book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. Much more, for example, needs to be said about the relation between anarchism and a purified, updated Marxism. Much more can be said about the historical logic of how a gradualist global revolution will proceed, and why progressive sectors of the ruling class—not understanding the long-term revolutionary potential of local experiments in cooperativism and new types of socialism—will support it and sponsor it (as, indeed, they are already doing in the U.S. with respect to worker cooperatives).[16] Hopefully the foregoing has at least suggested fruitful avenues of research and activism, and has shown how Marxism may be made relevant—rather than antagonistic—to cooperativism, interstitial/decentralized socialism, and the solidarity economy in general. Whatever logical and political mistakes Marxists have made in the past, these (for now) “interstitial” phenomena—which of course must be supported by popular movements and constant pressure on political authorities, including all forms of “direct action”—should be seen as quintessentially Marxist, and in fact as being a key component of any viable path to a post-capitalist order.


References

[1] This essay is a distillation of some of the ideas in Chris Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (Bradenton, FL: Booklocker, 2014).

[2] See, for example, Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O’Neill, Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962–1986 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[3] Among many others, see Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977, 25–92; Rodney Hilton, ed., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1976); T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986); Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (New York: Verso, 1994); and Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] Quoted in Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 15.

[5] See, e.g., ibid., 51, 52. Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France, written in 1871, expresses an attitude close to anarchism, but it is not clear that this essay is a direct statement of his considered views. To a great extent it had to be a eulogy for the Commune and a defense of it against its bourgeois critics, not just a neutral discussion of what it did right and wrong. Elsewhere, Marx is critical of the Commune.

[6] Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 109.

[7] See Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939 (New York: Black Rose Books, 1974).

[8] On the social and political logic of such a gradual transformation, see chapter four of my Worker Cooperatives and Revolution. On the anti-capitalist institutions and initiatives mentioned above, see Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013); John Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital (British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2010); José Corrêa Leite, The World Social Forum: Strategies of Resistance (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005); Carmen Diana Deere and Frederick S. Royce, eds., Rural Social Movements in Latin America: Organizing for Sustainable Livelihoods (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009); Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (New York: Verso, 2010); Ellen Brown, “Banking for California’s Future,” Yes! Magazine, September 14, 2011; David Dayen, “A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love,” In These Times, April 17, 2017.

[9] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 58.

[10] In fact, considering what the long-term (and even short-term) consequences of the Russian Revolution were, I would go so far as to say that the main lessons of that event for us today are in how not to do things.

[11] Notwithstanding Kamenev’s leak to the press about Lenin’s plans before they had been carried out.

[12] Orlando Figes, A Peoples Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin, 1998), 145, 146.

[13] Friedrich Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (1852), chapter 15.

[14] James P. Cannon, “The I.W.W.” (1955), available at http://www.marxists.org.

[15] See, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism?” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961/2000).

[16] See Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, 68, 69, 115.


Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist; Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

 

There is one comment

  1. Chris Wright

    N.B.: I didn’t mean to suggest it isn’t necessary to “take state power” in some sense. Obviously the state will play a major role in any transformation from capitalism to socialism (or whatever you want to call the post-capitalist economy). All I meant was that the national state can’t be *seized wholesale*, rupturally, by the working class, and then used to plan social revolution from above. The transition between modes of production has to be very gradual, involving both leftist political parties and all kinds of local, grassroots, and transnational organizations and networks. The Leninist conception, and any overwhelmingly statist conception, is obsolete, and never made much sense to begin with.

    Really, I think the thrust of the argument is just common sense. But since so many Marxists deprecate the solidarity economy, and in fact all phenomena that aren’t oriented exclusively toward the wholesale seizure of state power, it’s necessary to point out the obvious, and in fact to make the argument that a properly understood Marxism is *not committed* to the sudden and total seizure of state power. Major social revolutions are necessarily gradual–always have been and always will be–and necessarily take place on every axis of social life, not only the top-down statist.

Leave a Reply