The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State (1971)

Farbmuster Visualisierung Politischer Tendenzen (Color Pattern Visualization of Political Tendencies), silkscreen on polyester (K.P. Brehmer, 1970).

“If socialism is improbable, it will require an all the more desperate determination to make it come true. What stands in its way is not the technical difficulty of its implementation but the apparatus of domination of the ruling class.”

– Heinrich Regius1

Historical materialism’s critical economic prognoses on the natural course of the capitalist world order have been confirmed. The conditions for the economic breakdown and crisis of capital have been fulfilled; the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation has long since reached the degree of concentration and centralization that Marx and Engels designated as its naturally produced historical terminus.2 The existence of the authoritarian state is just as much an expression of the “final crisis” as it is of the temporary, politically mediated success of the attempt to manage it in the interests of monopoly capital. Scholars have long feared, however, that the economic breakdown and crisis does not yet spell the political end of the capitalist social formation:

Even if the theory of the imminent collapse were correct as an economic theory, no unambiguous political consequences would flow from it. If it were correct that the process of capitalist production must necessarily lead to the collapse of this production, this still would not mean that a political collapse would have to follow on the economic collapse. It could very well be that the ruling class would draw the inference from the threatening collapse of the capitalist system that it must use political means to prevent this collapse from becoming politically effective.3

Franz Neumann’s hypothesis is notable for historical materialism as the only general model [Formtypus] of revolutionary theory to date, that is, of a doctrine the propositions of which describe society in terms of its revolutionary transformability. To equate the system’s final economic crisis with its elimination from the whole of society would contradict all of the theoretical determinations that structure the materialist concept of history in the doctrine of Marx and Engels. A tendency towards economic breakdown, generalized in terms of the philosophy of history and social theory, would imply that humans are inescapably under the heel of a social being that is beyond their conscious control; revolution then would be an absurdity of the historical process. The “final battle,” however, should definitively annul the shabby materialist doctrine of capitalist reality, according to which material being determines consciousness. That the history humanity makes is also made consciously, that “mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work,” is a central emancipatory exigency of the Marxian concept of history.4 Thus the natural logic of capitalist development, according to which “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation,” implies no optimistic belief in progress as a kind of fate.5 The natural laws of capitalist society are of a qualitatively different constitution from those of nature itself [ersten Natur]. They can be abolished; their abstract existence relies on the producers’ false consciousness of their own production. The objective validity of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not immutable in the same way as the physical law of gravity. Such views are left over from Marx’s epigones in the Second International, for whom the idea of unstoppable human progress according to natural laws exempted the proletariat, as well as themselves, from the task of revolutionary liberation even while rationalizing their own reformist betrayal.6

Against Wilhelm Dietzgen’s “religion of social democracy” – “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter” – Benjamin also applies his accurate critique of the social democratic concept of time, in which history, formalized as a transcendental time-continuum, in truth delivers an apology for a dehistoricized time-consciousness that, through exploitation, comes to appear as unchangeable labor-time.

Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims… The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.7

When raised to a historical principle, the practical stabilization of capitalism through the politics of social reform corresponded to the vulgarized reprise of the bourgeois philosophy of history in social democratic theory. Bernstein, as a sort of Kant of social democracy, delivered the nicely packaged teleology that inserted a hidden natural rationality into the history of the human species as capitalism’s evolutionary “growing into” socialism. He glorified the logical unreason of capitalist development as the rational course of world history itself. History is then expected to perform what only the revolutionary praxis of a united proletariat can accomplish. By contrast, Marx and Engels consistently stress:

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.8

Social reformism repeats the idealistic and Young Hegelian mystification of history as a “person apart, a metaphysical subject of which the real human individuals are merely the bearers.”9 It ossifies the ambivalent objectivity of the law of value, which indeed places itself over the heads of the individuals who are thus reduced to accidental agents of capital-in-process and which imposes itself, in the manner of a law of nature, as an unfaltering natural history. According to Marx and Lenin, it is only the final crisis that will be brought about with the necessity of natural law, by no means revolutionary liberation and much less a rational society – a critique that forms the systematic conceptual basis of Georg Lukács’ early work. “Lenin was very right to go against the front of opinion that mechanistically and fatalistically deemed the imperialist crisis of capitalism—which he himself thoroughly comprehended—as hopeless; there is, he said, no situation that could be abstractly, and in and for itself hopeless. The proletariat, the action of the proletariat blocks the way out of the this crisis for capitalism. Of course, the fact that the proletariat can be in such a position that the solution to the crisis depends on the proletariat is the consequence of economic necessity, of ‘natural laws.’ But the ‘natural laws’ only determine the crisis and rule out that this crisis (like earlier ones) will reach a capitalist sort of solution. The unhindered effects of this crisis allow for another solution: ‘the joint downfall of the struggling classes,’ the reversion to a condition of barbarism. The ‘natural laws’ of capitalist development can only lead society into the the final crisis, they are not able to point to the path that would lead out of the crisis.”10 The final crisis that historically announces the economic collapse of the capital relation does not necessarily compel the proletariat, but rather offers it the objective possibility to break through the economic power structures internalized by terroristic means for hundreds of years – the real semblance of capitalist conformity to the laws of nature – and to illuminate the darkened memory of exploitation through the historical anamnesis of a class consciousness that is aware of the mediations of politics and the economy at the level of society as a whole. This could then materialize the diffuse position of the wage-dependent masses as a class-in-itself into a revolutionary subjectivity and an objectively determined organization of the proletarian class struggle. Liberation can only occur through the consciousness and will of the exploited, or it does not occur at all.

The dictatorship of capital can, however, find an exit from the final crisis, as Marx and Engels, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg emphasized in historically different ways. An extreme dialectic of monopolistic and imperialist phases in the collapse of the capitalist social formation admits of two objectively possible resolutions, one at the scale of world history and the other in the dimension of the history of the species: the historical abolition of the system through the self-conscious associated producers, the “leap into the realm of freedom” (Engels), or else the blind reproduction of the unconscious “spiritual animal kingdom” of capitalist prehistory – “either transition to socialism or regression to barbarism.” More than fifty years ago, in reference to the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg articulated this world-historical alternative with which imperialism confronts humanity.

Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.11

The natural decision in favor of fascist barbarism and the destructive power of highly technologized forces of production in late capitalism, the danger of an atomic catastrophe, all confirm the world-historical and species-historical character of the alternative that the phase of capitalist collapse has put to the human species: the question of a better life is inextricably bound, on the level of global history, to that of mere survival; the final crisis forces the species to confront the question of its own continued existence.

The authoritarian state is capital’s political exit from the economic crisis. Its absolutized extra-economic coercive power, typically represented by the Bonapartist coercion of the nineteenth century and the fascist terror of the twentieth, furnishes the repressive instrumentarium necessary to delay definitive economic collapse and to sabotage the real possibility that the action of the “unified proletarians” could bring the capitalist system to an “unnatural end” (Horkheimer). Nevertheless, Thalheimer’s phenomenological description – correctly developed in connection with Marx’s materialist historiography of Louis Bonaparte’s regime – of a structural equivalence between the Bonapartist and the fascist forms of the authoritarian state’s appearance founded upon the mechanism of “the independence of the executive authority” (Marx) vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie,12 which blindly delegates its political power to the “the dictatorship of an adventurer and his gang” for the sake of maintaining its existence and economic dominance, should not lead us to overlook the essential differences between the two that result from changes within the economic production process itself owing to the progressive concentration of capital. The monopolist and imperialist final phase of capitalism transforms the relation between valorization and crisis. Monopoly capital is crisis capital in intentione recta; it requires the state’s uninterrupted intervention into the economic valorization process, which ultimately elevates the state to the material personification of national capital [den Staat zum materiellen Gesamtkapitalisten]. If we follow Max Horkheimer’s early analyses, fascism is a potentiality inherent to monopoly capital that the state can actualize at any time. “In any case, with trusts or without,” Engels writes,

the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways… All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees… But, the transformation – either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership – does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces… And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine – the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital… The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.13

The theory of the authoritarian state is determined by this historical endpoint of the capital relation; if the concept of late capitalism is to have more than a formal meaning, then it will have it only in the philosophical context of the tendency towards state capitalism that Engels described and that Horkheimer once broached theoretically:

This theory of the end grows out of a situation which was still ambiguous, and is itself ambiguous: either it counts on collapse through an economic crisis, thereby ruling out stabilization of an authoritarian state, as Engels in fact predicted. Or else the theory expects the triumph of the authoritarian state, thus foreclosing collapse through a crisis, which was always defined by the market economy. But state capitalism does away with the market and hypostatizes the crisis for the duration of eternal Germany.14

Out of scientific necessity, the critique of political economy breaks off at the endpoint of capital historically fixed by Marx and Engels themselves, if it is not to degenerate into prophetic abstraction. Revolutionary theory still applies to the end phase of capitalism, which is partly but not wholly characterized by its form of appearance, the increasing primacy of the political. It is highly questionable whether revolutionary theory is still possible as the critique of political economy, or whether it must already be written, like Marcuse implicitly assumes, as a critique of political technology. In any case the dogmatists still treat revolutionary theory as if no further historical development were possible. Critique, however, is the theoretical life of the revolution. It would be a logical absurdity to claim that a doctrine that is so much a theory of history and of conscious change as is historical materialism should itself be removed from history and in no need of change. With the historical transformation of social facts, historical materialism’s propositions about these facts must also change. The historicity of the theory demands the critical application of historical materialism to itself, which Karl Korsch elevated to a program. Through its desire, grounded in practical reason, for a revolutionary transformation of the world, historical materialism ultimately presents itself with the immense theoretical claim to be the first self-aware doctrine in the history of human thought.

The level of revolutionary subjectivity in historical materialism was critically and philosophically uncovered by Korsch and Lukacs in the early 1920s through their explications of the genuinely negative relationship of Marxism and philosophy. This was a time of actual historical world revolution defined by the objective terrain of the first imperialist world war and the great October socialist revolution and the failed November German revolution, which structured the thought of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, the theoretical development of the constituent phase of the Comintern, as well as the representatives of the Dutch school in regard to controversial theories of organization.15 Yet the emancipatory subjective dimension of the revolutionary theory of the proletariat brought to light theoretically in this way was condemned to either suffocate or be of practical inconsequence for decades to come due to the Soviet Union’s transformation of once revolutionary politics into pragmatic Realpolitik. This went along with the growing terroristic demands of forced collectivization of the countryside and stunted technical industrialization under Stalinism,16 not to mention the ever-more intensifying context of the world economic crisis and fascism’s solution of violence.

To a similar degree, Marxist theoreticians were less and less able to analytically describe monopoly capitalism and its imperialist world system as guided by the emancipatory rational interest to connect revolutionary theory to such a praxis. The reconstruction period of West European capitalism following the Second World War seemed to permanently extinguish the actuality of revolutionary praxis and put off revolution forever and a day. Critical political economy continued to ossify into a positive economics unable to conceptualize society as a whole. As a result, its practical strategic significance remained in the dark. To unite historically new facts with the conclusions of a handed-down theory, the “system” of Marxism was either fragmentarily “amended” into dogmatic orthodoxy, or parts were broken off from it in a revisionist manner to bring it into accordance with the changed conditions. The possibility that the fundamental stratification of the social totality – of production and circulation, of economic “base” and the derivative institutional “superstructure” – could have historically transformed itself was left entirely out of consideration, due not least to the historical situation of theory, marked as it was by the absence of any practical experience of revolutionary actuality. The “system” in toto was assumed to be inalterable; orthodox dogmatism and system-adapted revisionism agree in liquidating the dialectical quintessence of critique, the historical difference between the essence and appearance of things. According to this view, historical mutability should pertain only to the empirical manifold of capitalism’s world of appearances, not the consistent identity of its exploitative essence. If such profound changes in the reified forms of appearance of capitalist production – of the flow of exchange and of the legal, political-moral, and cultural-scientific superstructure – take place as happened in the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism in the highly industrialized countries at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th century, then it stands to reason to assume, in terms of historical materialism, that the derivative relationship of economy and industrialized ideology had changed together. This suggests a change of “the system of needs,” of the economic essence of capitalist social forms themselves and, with that, bourgeois society in general.

Without the assumption that the “essence” of the capitalist mode of production is part of its historical dynamic and in no way ontologically separate from it, and that it alone corresponds to the historically transitory character of the capitalist mode of production that Marx systematically revealed, neither Horkheimer’s conception of the authoritarian state nor Marcuse’s systematic hypothesis of the one-dimensionalization of social antagonisms would be thinkable.17 Both theoretical conceptions offer complementary systematic approaches that target the changed whole of the capitalist social formation. They set out to hold onto Marx and Engels’ theory of the historical endpoint of capitalist relations, albeit without adequately subjecting their new systematic approach to a critique of political economy in its Marxian version. Marcuse and Horkheimer relate to each other, with different emphases, by reference to two overlapping socioeconomic tendencies that are bound to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

1. Horkheimer, in agreement with Engels, refers essentially to the growing and manifestly emergent socialization of the productive forces at the foundation of the capitalist mode of production itself. According to Marx and Engels, with the joint stock company form this immanent though suppressed basic contradiction in the capital relation – the intrinsically social character of the forces of production that are coerced into the guise of capitalist private property – historically becomes an “empirically perceptible” appearance that can be practically experienced and gains explosive revolutionary force.18 Engels takes the Marxian theory of the joint-stock company further by exposing this immanent tendency toward monopoly and the authoritarian state:

Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. The bourgeoisie demonstrated to be a superfluous class. All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees.19)

It was under the historically new effect of monopolization, in which the inner-capitalist socialization of the productive forces corresponded to an increasingly coercive statification [Verstaatlichung] of society, that Horkheimer near the end of the 1930s drafted – in however fragmentary a fashion – a theory of the authoritarian state. At the heart of this theory is the assumption of an admittedly inadequately defined liquidation of the sphere of circulation by the monopolist market controls of centralized authoritarian production. With the abolition of competition and the liberal free market economy, this process eliminates from bourgeois society its ideologically distorted emancipatory content and unleashes the exploitative relationship of violence between capital exchange and wage labor, which was previously concealed by the law of contract. By no means does the term “authoritarian state” stand for a problematic isolated to theories of legal philosophy and of the state, but rather for a historically new system constituting the social totality. “State capitalism is the authoritarian state of the present.”20

2. Where for Horkheimer the systemic accumulative dynamic toward authoritarian [autoritativen] state capitalism is based on the historically new monopolistic quality of socializing productive forces immanent to capital and the resulting changed constellation of production and circulation, Marcuse, more than thirty years later, deals with the changed constitution within the “metabolism between man and nature” itself: the increasing automation of industrial forces of production radically shifts the weight of the constitutive moment of the labor process from the position of the producers to machines [Maschinenwesen], from living to objectified labor.21 The technical and scientific advance by means of automation is more “than quantitative growth of mechanization,” rather “a change in the character of the basic productive forces.”22 Automation “is an explosive or non-explosive catalyst in the material base of qualitative change”23 that actualizes a “totalitarian” systemic transformation of bourgeois society even as it potentially opens the “historical transcendence toward a new civilization.”24 With this, Marcuse is able to invoke what Marx in the Grundrisse referred to as the highest and last developmental tendency of the capitalist mode of production, in which technology and science have reached a productively implemented stage of development on a scale that threatens to explode the system. The “growth of scientific power… the measure in which it is already posited as fixed capital, the scope and width in which it is realized and has conquered the totality of production” is one of those explosive moments of contradiction found at the natural end of capital’s violent history of crisis “in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production.”25 The technological and scientific reshaping of production is no longer able to tolerate its compulsory capitalist objectification. For Marx, automation—the scientific reshaping of industrial machinery— produces a totalitarian technologization of political economy.26 But with that, according Marcuse, the principle of “technological rationality,” which is part and parcel of industrial technique [Technik] and modern science from the beginning and inseparable from domination over nature and human beings seems to reach its fully developed reality, as he asserts in his critique of Max Weber’s concept of rationality. “[W]hen technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a historical totality—a ‘world’.”27

Following Marcuse’s logic, theory can no longer be carried out as a critique of political economy; rather, it is driven on by the force of its intrinsic historical tendency to become to a critique of political technology.

Both endpoints of the capital relation – the authoritarian [autoritär] statification of society as well as its totalitarian one-dimensionalization in a social lifeworld thoroughly rationalized by technology – underlie a peculiar dialectic of historical transition. Both the immanent tendency of socialization toward state capitalism that Horkheimer demonstrated as well as the possible technical and scientific substitution of living labor described by Marcuse refer immediately to the association of producers and the “association of free men.” Capital nevertheless seems to put off its own historical terminus and to stabilize in its transition when immediately faced with the possibility of its demise. State capitalism and a total system of fixed capital embodied in machines typically stand for this final dialectic of capital, which neutralizes in appearance its most historically glaring contradiction and most acute crisis. The authoritarian “Welfare State” presents the image “of a historical freak between organized capitalism and socialism, servitude and freedom, totalitarianism and happiness.”28 In a Hegelian sense, state capitalism is an instance of bad ideality [schlechte Idealität]. The ideal is a speculative result of a historically ripe and perishing reality within the medium of bourgeois post festum consciousness. “History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom.”29 The ideal comprises a two-fold abstraction of the course of history. It releases the old substance that has historically come into being from the medium of the conceptual process within which it realized itself, and abstracts the principle of the historically new from the conceptual unfolding that lies before it, and in which it forms an idea for the first time. It connects ahistorically two moments that repel each other historically, the old substance with the new though still unreal principle.30 State capitalism is just such an ideal end product of a matured crisis and the dying valorization of capital. State capitalism, in its form of appearance, releases the old substance of capital – value – from the shell of capitalist private property and apparently links it to the historically undeveloped principle of the socialization of the means of production, whose socialist, associative concretion it at first blocks; it thus captures the new principle of the associative mode of production in the old substance of value. The authoritarian state is capitalism’s distorted caricature of socialism.

Conversely, the technological and scientific reshaping of production, which pushes for the abolition of capital, is unable to realize its emancipatory potential so long as it remains captured within the limits of the valorization of fixed capital. But this creates the technical and scientific advance that elevates the abolition of work to a concrete utopia, instead of structural unemployment: “In the system of the free market economy, which pushed men to labor-saving discoveries and finally subsumed them in a global mathematical formula, its specific offspring, machines, have become means of destruction not merely in the literal sense: they have made not work but the workers superfluous.”31

This fatal dialectic, which fixes the capital relation in its transition, leads Marcuse and Horkheimer to conclude that the position of revolutionary subjectivity in relation to the objective state of development of the capitalist social formation has changed. The objective appeal to maturity, “the topic probandum and probatum,” of history (Horkheimer), has lost its validity. In its time, Marx’s polemic against Bakunin’s abstractly idealist voluntarism was practically correct and theoretically true, but now seems to have lost its power. When faced with the Willich-Schapper group, Marx dismissed the idealism of pure will in the revolutionary learning process that takes place in the formative epoch-making spontaneity of crisis-ridden and warring social relations, a process in which the working class matures into self-liberation:

The point of view of the minority is dogmatic instead of critical, idealistic instead of materialistic. They regard not the real conditions but a mere effort of will as the driving force of the revolution. Whereas we say to the workers: “You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power,” you say on the contrary: “Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.”32

That the proletariat must be free for its liberation is a conditio sine qua non of insight into the revolution. But regulated fixed capital, at its natural historical endpoint, seems to flip the relationship between Marxism and anarchism on the grounds of historical materialism itself. If the natural laws of capitalist development have run their course, then the appeal to insufficient maturity can only hold off practically the theoretically necessary revolution.

It might be said of past historical enterprises that the time was not yet ripe for them. Present talk of inadequate conditions is a cover for the tolerance of oppression. For the revolutionary, conditions have always been ripe… A revolutionary is with the desperate people for whom everything is on the line, not with those who have time. The invocation of a scheme of social stages which demonstrates post festum the impotence of a past era was at the time an inversion of theory and politically bankrupt. Part of the meaning of theory is the time at which it is developed.33

The conception of the revolutionary theory of the proletariat as an “epistemology of revolutionary will” corresponds to Horkheimer’s idea that the actuality of revolution depends on the practical reason of the voluntary factor. Certainly unheeded in this conception is whether the reification of capital in its endphase does not constitute another contradictory quality, whether revolutionary subjectivity and objectivity do not differentiate themselves anew on another social level. If we presuppose the objective possibility, opened by the last crisis, of a formerly only hypothesized revolutionary liberation in the world historical sense, then Horkheimer’s dictum applies: “The revolution that ends domination is as far-reaching as the will of the liberated. Any resignation is already a regression into prehistory.”34

– Translated by Michael Shane Boyle and Daniel Spaulding

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Feb 17 2016 06:59


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