Harry Cleaver debates Hillel Ticktin: on capitalism's present crisis... danger and opportunity

A debate organised by Radical Chains and London Notes in London in the 1990s.

Submitted by Fozzie on January 15, 2019

It's not often that you can bring together people from very different revolutionary traditions for a public debate that attracts one hundred and thirty five people who represent most strands of the revolutionary left as it exists in this country today.

Harry Cleaver, a former editor of the journal Zerowork and author of Reading Capital Politically (Harvester/Humanities, 1979), was one participant in this debate.

The other was Hillel Ticktin, editor of the journal Critique and author of a series of important articles on the political economy of the USSR.

Cleaver is an American who has drawn on and developed the important work of Italian autonomists such as Toni Negri and Mario Tronti, helping to challenge various 'orthodox' versions of marxism and placing class struggle firmly at the centre of his analysis.

Ticktin, of South African origin, is closer to the Trotskyist tradition (although he carefully distances himself from the orthodox Trotskyism of the Fourth International) but no less innovative than the autonomists in his approach which has helped stress the importance of the law of value.

The debate was organised by Radical Chains in conjunction with the autonomist magazine London Notes. The organisers believed that there is not enough interchange between the different fragments of the Marxist tradition and when they heard that Cleaver would be visiting Britain in July they decided to ask him if he would debate with Ticktin. While there has always been a degree of criticism within autonomism or within Trotskyism or within situationism, critical engagement between different traditions has been rare. It is this engagement of the adherents of one tradition with the ideas of another which is necessary if the fragmentation and dispersal of the revolutionary left is to be overcome.


When looking at the present capitalist crisis it appears to me that there are four aspects to it. Since it's not possible for me to go into any detail in twenty minutes I am just going to have to assume that people have some understanding of certain of the concepts. So in the first instance it seems to me we are talking about the long wave and a long term downturn that began roughly in 1973. My view of the long wave is not the same as Ernest Mandel who most people would identify with it. I'd see it much rather in a kind of classical way which underlies what I am going to say and might differentiate me, I'm not at all certain, from the other speaker. That is to say, if one looks at the movement of history in Marxist terms, there are always two aspects to it: the movement in the categories themselves and the class struggle. And it seems to me the art or duty of the Marxist is to be able to put the two together correctly to see how, in fact, the form of the class struggle is merging with movement of the categories. If one simply analyses the movement of the class struggle you will not understand the history. All you do is end up with an amount of empirical detail, which is useful but which will not really give you a proper understanding of the nature of the economic system or movement. So one has to understand the categories. In other words, in this instance, one has to understand what is happening to value, to accumulation.

Now the difference I think that I have with Mandel here is that Mandel looks at it in a much more technical way and would place much more accent effectively on accumulation and technological change. I don't. For me the long waves are much more to do with changes which are related to accumulation which in turn is related to the class struggle itself.

Accumulation has proceeded to a certain point, the class struggle has become so intense, that the capitalist class sees the only solution in pulling the plug, if one can put it that way. And I think that is precisely what happened in 1973. In 1973 they realised - I think it was completely conscious - that unless they went for a long-term downturn and raised the level of unemployment, they would be faced with increasing demands for control over production. The result was the permanent mass unemployment that we have seen over the last twenty to thirty years.

But what they also did, and that's the second aspect of this crisis, was to go for finance capital. That is to say, they switched from the overall decision that had been made by the capitalist class of 1940, and made more permanent in 1945 when they decided to go for industrial capital. If you look at it historically, when referring to the world capitalist economic structure, the various documents of the Comintern constantly refer to finance capital. If you look at Trotsky and Lenin, they refer to finance capital and never to anything else.

Now quite clearly what happened after 1940-45 was again a deliberate decision by the capitalist class to go for growth, which had enormous effects. It changed the whole mode of accumulation, leading to the possibility of a welfare state which otherwise would not have been possible. But in 1973, by pulling that plug, everything was of course called into question. And then effectively they turned towards finance capital. In effect they took one step back and saw to it that they received their surplus value indirectly - through interest, rent, insurance companies, pension funds, and so on, rather than immediately through production. This appeared to be at some distance from the working class, and it appeared much easier for the capitalist class to actually extract its surplus value through this form.

Now what has happened is that this twenty year period has come to an end. It's fairly obvious that one cannot go on extracting surplus value in this way without killing the host. The parasite finance capital can't go on taking surplus value from industry without industry itself being harmed. Now it's quite obvious in the case of Britain, but it is not only true of Britain of course. Inevitably there would have to be an end to this. There would have to be a downturn. At some point industry could not supply the surplus value and the attempt to make money out of money would come to an end, and of course it did come to an end in 1989. Which effectively means that the strategy to which they turned after 1973 has come to an end. That is to say finance capital has exhausted itself. But this crisis has now shown itself in another form which, in a certain sense they didn't anticipate. And this raises two questions.

One is the question of long term decline; the other is the question of Stalinism. You will not find Stalinism as a political-economic concept of Western capitalism in many Marxist textbooks or Marxist theories but it seems to me it's absolutely fundamental in understanding modern capitalism. It is precisely the explosion or implosion or death of Stalinism which is now creating a crisis of a kind that has not existed in capitalism for now sixty to seventy years. One has to understand what is lying behind it. It seems to me, to come to another point, that at least since 1917, or some other date in the early part of this century, we are talking about a decline in capitalism and if one is talking about a decline in capitalism, then there are not many solutions available to capitalism itself.

In effect declining capitalism can only do one thing - it can delay. It can't succeed in avoiding its own overthrow. But it can delay it. Some people might want to argue it can delay it 300 years, 500, a thousand years, I wouldn't argue that. I don't think it can delay it all that long. But it has had a whole series of forms of delay and I have actually mentioned one, that's finance capital, and one can go into the other forms as well. Now the obvious immediate forms which come to mind are social democracy and Stalinism. I see them not just as subjective forms but as objective forms. If social democracy did not actually come to power, it did come to a position where it was governing at some sort of level, and we did have a welfare state and that again affected accumulation itself. Stalinism was embodied in Eastern Europe and China and so on. These were objective facts in history, they were objectified. And it appears to me that it was precisely these that acted as the subjective forms of delay, of maintaining capitalism, in other words.

The problem is that both are dying or dead, and the capitalist class does not appear to have a means of replacing them. What else is going to replace Stalinism? I think it's worthwhile saying a few more words about what Stalinism actually has done and what the removal of Stalinism now leads to. In the first place, it's fairly obvious that because of Stalinism we had the Cold War, and the Cold War provided again a means of accumulation.

Now, I don't mean the Cold War was just on the side of the US; it was just as much on the side of USSR. But the US knew perfectly well that the USSR was much weaker but preferred to maintain it, to make a whole period in which it could have a particular form of accumulation. Now that of course has come to an end. It is no longer possible to invest in the arms industry in the old way. The arms industry is very important because its prime function lies in the way it can discipline the working class.

As long as you have an arms industry it is much easier to control the working class both inside and outside the arms industry. It is possible to argue that there is an enemy which has to be fought, people have to work harder, there are spies all over the place, and in the US of course anti-communism played a particular role. As it happens I think the anti-communism in the US had a partial truth. That is to say, it is perfectly true that the USSR was a horrible society and nobody would want to live under it. But what it was serving as was a very important means of control. That's gone. What is going to replace it? What is the disciplinary form of control that is going to replace the Cold War? I don't think there is a form that they can actually use.

Stalinism didn't serve in the Cold War only in a particular economic way. It also served politically and was most important in the post-Cold War period in supporting social democracy. It is no accident that the two are dying together. One can't understand social democracy without understanding the tremendous importance of Stalinism for it. I'm not saying that the social democrats before 1917, before there were Stalinists, were supported by Stalinists or that in the period before the Second World War Stalinism was that important. I'm saying in the post war period Stalinism was crucial in maintaining the welfare state and social democracy and the forms of concessions that were being introduced by the capitalist class. And in so far as you don't have Stalinism in the working class, you don't have the same kind of mass support that could come into existence in order to support the ruling class in this country or in any other country.

So one then has to ask exactly how are they going to deal with the situation. I don't know. If one looks at it politically again the elimination of the Communist Parties is a fantastic gain. It may not look like that in so far as bookshops like Collets are going under and one can't buy Marxist books any more, and there are fewer Marxist firms that will take Marxist publications. But in reality what it means that the kind of suppression of the left that existed for so many years is going or has gone. It's no accident that in this country and in other countries the far left is beginning to show itself in a similar form, in a similar way or in similar places where the Communist Parties did before. What does this lead to? The point is that Stalinism is no longer there as a means of control, therefore the ruling class no longer has the same form of delay that it did.

Or, if you invert it, I don't think there could have been any real change in the world until Stalinism had been removed. I don't think there could have been a victory in Spain, or later, by the far left, precisely because Stalin or Stalinists did not want it and they had this enormous measure of control. But it's gone. So the capitalist class is now faced with the fact that it's in industrial decline, finance capital as a means of control and as a form of retreat is in trouble, the various forms of delay it had through Stalinism are no longer there. What strategy can it actually use today? And that is its real crisis: that it has no strategy. It is a unique crisis, there hasn't been a crisis like this since 1923.

One can put it another way. In terms of the long-term downturn, or in terms of the long wave, what we are in is a position where the working class has to be defeated in order for accumulation to proceed. If one actually looks at Trotsky's description of the long wave you can see that he is arguing that it is precisely through the defeat of the working class that the capitalist class has the possibility of extracting extra surplus value. Now to the degree that it does not have that it won't accumulate.

In a certain sense, this becomes a subjective phenomenon above the capitalist class: if the capitalist class does not think it will make sufficient profit, it will not invest, and that is where we are. It has to actually defeat the working class under conditions that are no longer as favourable as they were before. It may not appear like that, and most people I encounter seem to be pessimistic, but in my view it is just the opposite. We are in an extremely optimistic position. It may not be that there are enormous numbers; there aren't. There may be very few but that is neither here or there. Let me remind you that the Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD, only had one per cent of the vote in 1878 but by 1890 it was already a major party. So, change can happen very quickly, and I think that is what we must expect.

So the crisis we are in is a unique crisis, it's a crisis in every aspect of capitalist civilisation. It's a crisis of ideology, it's a crisis of politics, it's a crisis of the ruling class, and we've witnessed the way the ruling class cannot hold itself together whether in Japan or this country. The ruling class is now divided; it no longer has a means of keeping itself together. The former means that it used, the Cold War and Stalinism, are not there. It hasn't the collectivity it had before, precisely because of the collapse of Stalinism. In a certain sense when Stalinism came to an end the capitalist class managed to shoot themselves in the foot. I'm not saying that the position today is wonderful; it certainly could be better. But the position is far better objectively than it has been for sixty or seventy years. The crisis is enormous. It's not a terminal crisis: tomorrow we won't have a socialist society. But it is a crisis from which the capitalist class cannot recover as it were. It has no solution.


Now you get a different view, at least partially. As there is a certain amount of overlap in the positions that we take, at the same time as there are radical differences, I will try to emphasise the latter more than the former so that we can in fact have something like a debate. I think that Hillel was intuitively correct when he said that there were some fundamental theoretical differences between us. In particular, I would say that his opening comments about there being a difference between the movement of the categories and the movement of the class struggle is a difference.

Categories of what? Categories of capital that is, in some sense, different from the class struggle? Not from my point of view. The categories of Marxist analysis are the categories of class relations; capital is a class relation - a class relation of struggle. All of the categories of Marxist analysis in the three volumes of Capital and elsewhere are those of that social relation -which is the class struggle.

The only movement of the categories is a movement that occurs as part of the class struggle. There is no other subject as far as I am concerned. The crisis of capital is a crisis of the class relation. That means that it is a crisis from the point of view of both classes. With respect to capital, Hillel has said some relevant things. But, we also have to recognise that the crisis for capital is simultaneously, in certain ways, a crisis for the working class.

The crisis of capital, the manifestations of which began to appear from the early seventies, can be traced to an international cycle of class struggle which ruptured an epoch, a particular organisation of capitalist organisation, of its command. It was epoch making in the sense that we are still in the same crisis. We've gone through business cycles, we've gone through a variety of kinds of changes, but fundamentally the problems that were created in that period of time, the late sixties and early seventies, have not been resolved - nor is there any evidence that they are likely to be resolved in the near future.

So, the crisis of capitalism is, first and foremost, once we cut through the fetishism of its categories like money and finance, a failure of old methods of control. The crisis is profound because it is a crisis of capital's most fundamental mechanism of control: the endless imposition of work. At the heart of the crisis lies the rupture not only of the capitalist productivity deal (higher wages for more work), but also, more generally, the capitalist ability to continue to shape and to subordinate life to work -throughout what some of us call the social factory.
Now the crisis for the working class comes precisely when the old mechanisms of command are abandoned, because workers always struggle about, against and beyond problems that they face, the limitations that work sets on them. When capital counter- attacks, it shifts the ground of the class relationship, and that means a problem of adapting, of figuring out what the hell is going on, of dealing with the new strategies that are mobilised against them. This is what workers have been struggling with for the last twenty years.

The counter-attacks have occurred at all levels. They began with the devaluation of the dollar in 1971 and continued through the food and energy crises, changes in the monetary system, increases in the price of oil, restructuring in industry and so on. In too many ways capital has had a considerable amount of success. Especially in beating down wages and reducing standards of living but also, to some degree, in imposing more work especially in the Third World, but in the First World as well. In the US, workers today are working a twelfth more on the average than they were twenty years ago - an extra month of work per year. That's a substantial defeat any way you look at it. So, at the level of austerity there has been some success and we have had some defeat.

Yet, at the level of the reorganisation of class relationships, which is what is necessary in order to found a new, long wave of accumulation, capital has made much less progress. Some reorganisation of industry and reorganisation of the relationship between the state and the market has been undertaken for some time, but it is not at all clear that it has been successful or that it has laid the foundations for future capitalist development. The reorganisation of the relation between the state and the market has been a prominent feature of this attempt to create a new (decomposed) set of class relationships. Britain, like the US, has suffered through Thatcherism, Reaganism, the substitution of market mechanisms for certain kinds of government regulations. But this is merely a recomposition. Despite the ideology of vaunting the market against the state, what has been involved has been a recomposition of the relationship between them.

Ultimately the market is merely a planning mechanism. It is used when it works (i.e., gives the desired results). It is abandoned when it doesn't work. It is one planning mechanism among others. Market and plan cannot be juxtaposed in the way that they have traditionally been.

Understanding the crisis involves seeing through such ideological constructs and reinterpreting them in class terms. Besides talking about the nature of the crisis, we were also asked to talk about the associated dangers and the opportunities. The dangers are self-evident in the successes that capital has had in making life worse for us, in making our situation more unlivable. The process of decomposition has been undertaken on a world scale, and one of the biggest dangers is not to recognise that it is global and not to deal with it at that level. It isn't enough to talk about it in national terms.

The major state institution today is the International Monetary Fund, which has overseen the imposition of the new organisation of capitalist rules at a global level; the deindustrialization of the North is closely connected to the reindustrialization of the South; jobs are not disappearing from industry, they are just being displaced - at least in many industries. In the US, the old industrial belt of the North has become a rust belt and the numbers of Ford auto workers is increasing by the tens of thousands across the border in Mexico. The electronics industry has also moved many of its operations south. Industry hasn't disappeared, it has just been recomposed geographically at the same time as it has been recomposed technologically. At the same time work is being imposed massively, partly in industry, partly outside of industry, throughout the world.
The history of the debt crisis of the eighties was exactly the history of that imposition. The IMF assumed a central role as it has gone around the world telling governments and private capital how they have not been doing a proper job in imposing the rules of the game and that they must do so. The state has imposed such changes with austerity and with privatisation, which is to say countries have been opened up to foreign and multinational investment in order to achieve this process of capitalist recomposition (through the decomposition of working class power). This process has been going on at both the microlevel and the macro level and we have to respond to both.

In his talk Hillel noted the end of the Cold War, the death of the Soviet bogey-man as a means to a permanent arms economy and the social control of the working class, and raised the question of what might replace the Cold War in capitalist strategy. Roughly speaking, I agree with this bit of his analysis. In class terms, the role of the Russian bomb was basically to help the Americans and the West Europeans to keep control and the American bomb helped the Russians do the same thing. Now those threats are no longer there - and in a certain sense they haven't been since the movie, Dr. Strangelove, came out, which was after all subtitled, How to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. In the end many realized that the bomb was not really a threat - at least not the generalised threat of annihilation that everybody had been convinced that it was. We had been lied to. We eventually realised that the Americans weren't going to drop thermo-nuclear bombs on the Russians and the Russians weren't going to drop them on us. Having understood this, we stopped worrying about it, and realized we could fight against racism, the war in Vietnam, and authoritarian schooling because they were not going to drop a nuke on the San Francisco Bay area - it just wasn't going to happen. That whole strategy of fear collapsed as the New Left joined Southeast Asian peasants and took the offensive against capital in the sixties.

Of course, there was an attempt to bring the fear back in the mid-seventies with the discussion of limited nuclear war. Pentagon scenarios were leaked. Ex-NATO General Hackett wrote his novel of World War Three in which Birmingham (England) was nuked by the Soviets while the US took out Minsk. And then the Ukrainians overthrew the Politburo, dismembered the USSR and the war was over. But of course instead of provoking fear and trembling and reintroducing the bomb as an effective weapon of political control, these efforts to launch a second Cold War produced the biggest peace movement in history and deepened the ongoing problems of capitalism. Well, as Hillel suggests, we certainly should ask with what might such a mechanism be replaced?

The theoretical answer is that it can only be replaced by the same kinds of mechanism: those that divide us in order to conquer us. Capital rules through divide and conquer. The replacement of one such mechanism by another happens historically and must be appropriate to the level of the crisis of command. One of the characteristics of the struggles that created the current crisis was that it was an international cycle of struggles. It wasn't just the Americans over here and the French over there, and the Italians over there, and the Vietnamese over there, and Che Guevara down in South America. These things were all interlinked. There was an overcoming of international divisions at that period in time as struggles circulated internationally - even the struggles that overthrew the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had such an international character.

Therefore, not surprisingly, we find that one of the fundamental and more obvious aspects of capital's attempt to regain control has been the reintroduction -with a vengeance - of nationalism and racism. The situation in Central Europe is just the most blatant and disturbing example. Nationalism and racism are being wielded to divide and conquer throughout Western Europe, North America and the South as well. Everywhere we find not only extremists preaching hate and carrying out acts of violence, but also moderate politicians adopting an only slightly more subtle form of racism to kindle fear of the enemy within (e.g., the immigrant, the Jew, the minority, the religious other), now that the enemy without (the global communist conspiracy) is gone.

At the heart of the international cycle of struggles which ruptured the old capitalist (and, if you like the term, Stalinist) mode of accumulation were those of women, people on the streets, people in their homes, people at school, i.e., those of unwaged workers whose battles circulated into the factories and back again.

Fundamental to all of these were the struggles of women. Thus along with nationalism and racism, sexism and the attack on women has also been central to the new capitalist efforts to divide and conquer. The other side of the Reagan attack on the welfare and government regulation was the so-called social agenda.

That agenda - most of which could not be implemented at the level of government and was pursued instead through private groups such as the religious Right - was aimed squarely at the womb. It was aimed squarely at making women barefoot and pregnant and pushing them back into the house. It is extremely basic to the situation in the States and I warrant elsewhere. If you go to Italy today you see the consequences for women's struggle to gain divorce rights and then abortion rights: plummeting birth rates, reproducing in just a few years the whole earlier pattern of the post war period in Western Europe. The capitalist response has involved importing prostitutes from Africa and increased violence against women.

Such are part of the dangers we face due to new forms of divide and conquer. The opportunities which are present in the current crisis can only be perceived through understanding our own processes of political recomposition that caused the crisis. If we can understand how the mechanisms of accumulation were ruptured, what were the class forces that ruptured them and how they have been modified by the struggles over the last twenty years then we are in a position to talk about where we go from here. In other words, the only basis for the elaboration of effective working class politics against capital is a proper assessment of our own strengths.

One of the problems in Hillel's discussion of the crisis (one he shares with many other Marxists) is a tendency to spend most of his time talking about capital as if it were something separate from our relationship to it. We need to talk about us, about how we (the working class both collectively and specifically) created this situation, the degree to which we have suffered setbacks, the degree to which we have avoided defeat and the strength we have to push forward our own demands. Hillel is quite right that this is an epoch-making period of crisis. It really does threaten the continuation of capital, even more so than the situation in the nineteen thirties, for example, which did force a fundamental reorganisation at all levels. But what constitutes the threat? The content of the struggle that has brought on and maintained this crisis goes to the very heart of the capitalist organisation of life around work, the subordination of society to work.

The nature of the struggles that precipitated the crisis, once we understand them, give us an indication of what the alternatives to capital are; and their analysis means that we can abandon a lot of old illusions. On the basis of analysing the processes of self-valorisation that people are trying to develop, we can reject the old ideas of transition and the old conception of socialism as a homogeneous social project. The struggles that ruptured the system, did not simply break the mechanisms of domination, they also have had a positive content: they were proposing new ways of being and developing projects of new ways of being.

I'm thinking here not merely of what workers in cities have done, but what women have done, what the environmentalist movement has done. We need to look at the positive content of these so-called new social movements, to see how they have been trying to create new social relations in the present (the future in the present as Marx said). Those new relations are not out there, and there is no transition to them. They are already being constructed and while the problem for capital is, and always has been, to recuperate, reintegrate and to instrumentalise them, our problem is not only to recognize the emergence of real substantive alternatives to the present order but to facilitate and foster their development.

We not only need to be aware of projects like those of women to achieve androgyny, the recomposition of gender relations in society, but we need either to participate in them, or to elaborate other projects and work out the politics of the circulation of struggle across the diversity of such efforts. Now there you have a political project that damn few Marxists have been involved in as far as I can see.

The fact that capital counter attacks in new ways, means that we have new opportunities. I don't like the language that Hillel uses about objective conditions, but the fact of the matter is that because European capital is moving toward EEC unity, it is both responding to and forcing a level of international working class collaboration of struggle that we have never seen before. Because the US is pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement to link Canada, the US and Mexico, we are seeing an internationalisation of struggle that has never existed. Today in the US there is a coalition of almost 300 groups fighting against NAFTA - labour groups, women's groups, student groups, environmental groups, all kinds of groups. In Canada there is a similar coalition; in Mexico there is another series of coalitions, and those of all three countries are linked and working closely together. They are connected with computer networks; they are circulating information, at a rate which only capital has been able to do over the last forty years.

Workers are by-passing the old institutions of control, creating a new international fabric of alliances and cooperation. As Marxists we need to draw the implications for politics. What we are seeing is a reconstitution of politics, an abandonment of the old institutions (trade unions and political parties) with which we are so familiar and have often tried to work through, and the problem is to figure how to elaborate new kinds of politics within and among struggles which are diverse and will not be homogenised. The usefulness of the old 'Unite and Fight' slogan is finished. It's useless. To talk about socialism as a homogeneous project is useless.

The end of capital is not going to involve, as far as things look at this point, a replacement of one homogeneous system by another homogeneous system. It is going to be more like what Marx evoked in the Grundrisse: an explosion, or, as people like Deleuze and Guattari like to say, the emergence of various lines of flight of alternative kinds of social relations and experience. The problem then is that of creating a politics of difference minimising antagonism. It is not a problem which will be solved automatically. Politics, especially new politics, always has to be constructed.


FIRST SPEAKER: How far do the causes of crises as put forward by Marx in Capital contribute to, or account for, the present economic crisis that we're in and why did neither speaker mention any of them?

HARRY CLEAVER: I think nobody mentioned them because of lack of time. Marx's theory must be resituated within a historical context; there is considerable complexity in his analysis of various aspects of crisis. Unfortunately, much of the discussion of those theories has been mired in an endlessly useless circle, because for the last fifty years, for the most part, the categories have been taken as fetishised categories. Money has been understood as money; the tendency of the rate of profit to fall has been understood in terms of the monetary rate of profit, etc. Whereas, if you reinterpret these categories as categories of the class relationship then you can see all kinds of things in a new light. For example, take the tendency of the rate of profit to fall - which derives from the tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise. That in turn has to do with the displacement of labour from production. Therefore, the tendency can be re-read in terms of the increasing difficulty of imposing work - which being the most fundamental means of capital's command, makes it, as Marx said, the most fundamental problem for capital in the long run.

HILLEL TICKTIN: I agree with what Harry said to a large degree, but it seems to me that Marx is not saying that there's a simple decline or a sudden collapse or that there is one factor that immediately leads to this. What he is saying is that in a period which leads to a crisis the contradictions in a society reach a point where they can no longer be held. That is the point at which one actually has a crisis. So then one has to look at the different forms of that contradiction: there's the question of the declining rate of profit, there's the question of disproportionality and the third one is one of markets.

The trouble with talking about the declining rate of profit is that it's not that simple. It is not at all clear that one has to argue that there is a simple declining rate of profit and a crash. The same force leading to the rising organic composition of capital leads to a rise in productivity. The result is that it is not at all clear that you get an automatic decline in the rate of profit. So then one is involved in a fairly complex question as to exactly what is going on. It seems to me that what is then involved are the different aspects of the rate of profit.

That is to say one then has to talk about the rate of surplus value. One has to talk about the cost of the different elements which go into it. Now the interpretation of the declining rate of profit is different but I don't see it as an automatic feature. Perhaps we agree - I don't know - but it seems to me you will only get a declining rate of profit if the capitalist class is not able to offset the decline which is occurring for other reasons (largely because the rise in the organic composition of capital, but that again is complicated) by a rise in the rate of surplus value. In other words, if it is not able to cause a decline in the relative wage. In general it is often able to do that through a series of complex forms: taxation; directly attacking the wage; extending the amount of time that people work.

So when discussing the declining rate one is discussing not one category but effectively all categories in the end and that is why it is so complex. But it is a crucial category and those are the three aspects. But having said that, what is interesting is not to go over what Marx had to say, but to discuss the present in a more general context. One has to ask why, when one doesn't get that kind of crisis in exactly that form, why isn't it taking place in that form? The answer of course has been that the ruling class has been in a position to have a degree of control which it didn't had before and we haven't had the same sort of sudden slumps as you had before 1944 and for very good reasons. But we are now back in it.

SECOND SPEAKER: Both speakers have emphasised the positive aspects of the current period so I just want to throw in a couple of questions. To start with, I disagreed with the last bit of Harry's speech. Socialism is nothing if it cannot become a homogeneous movement. A lot of the movements he talked about are atomised and sectionalised. They are not the new within the old; they are spanners in the works of capitalism. Hillel argued that the splits in ruling classes of various countries are occurring now because they are losing their collectivity. But isn't it also because, with the collapse of the old accommodationist forms of working class representation like social democracy and Stalinism, the ruling class senses that the working class has no collectivity? They feel safer to carry out recomposition in a situation in which the working class actually has no homogeneous collectivity. Harry talked about emergence of regional blocks and the positive side of that in actually internationalising class struggle but neither of the speakers actually mentioned the prospect of a third inter-imperialist war.

HILLEL TICKTIN: There is not the same degree of fear of the working class. But I'm not at all certain that the ruling class really regarded the Communist Party as a threat. I think they knew perfectly well they didn't want to take power. I think they knew perfectly well that in Britain, America, France, Italy or Japan there was no possibility of the working class reaching any degree of threat. So it's true that the limited degree in which the working class did constitute a threat is no longer there, and I'm sure it plays some role. But I think the fundamental aspect which has led to their internecine conflict, is the fact the Cold War having gone, they can no longer find a mechanism for their collectivity. Let's remember that before the Cold War there wasn't the same degree of collectivity as during the Cold War; before 1917, there was the same degree. I think it is no accident that that is so.

You also asked if there would be an inter-imperialist war. I am not a prophet so I don't know. However, I think it is extremely unlikely. I never thought that one side would drop bombs on the other side, I thought that was highly unlikely and I think today that it is equally unlikely that god knows who will drop bombs on anybody else. I don't see who is going to fight who. It's perfectly true that one can imagine minor wars occurring: the Ukraine could fight Russia and I could imagine a few more globally unimportant wars, as it were, but a war between the US and another imperialist power e.g.., Japan or Germany, seems extremely unlikely. For one reason, if one actually looks at the present day, you still have US control over those two countries. There are still troops in Germany. Japan is still forced to invest in bonds in the US which is losing money. Why on earth is it doing that if it is an independent country? So I find it difficult to imagine an inter-imperialist war at least in the next twenty years.

HARRY CLEAVER: I'll respond to two things. First the business of homogeneity. You said socialism is nothing if not homogeneous. I would say socialism has always dreamed of homogeneity but has never gotten it, never will get it; it's not in the nature of the species.

So socialism is nothing in a sense, and particularly today. Second, the other issue: the prospect of inter-imperialist war. If by that you mean what Lenin meant by imperialist war (war between competing blocks of capitalists: e.g., WWI, WWII), then I agree with Hillel that it's not likely. However, if you understand inter-imperialist war not in terms of competition for raw materials and capitalist markets or commodity markets but in terms of a political mechanism used for the control of the working class, then the fact of the matter is that we already have war. We have war all over the damn place.

Our world is rotten with war and a couple of years ago we just went through a war that is being discussed as paradigmatic of the future of war under capitalism - the damn Gulf War. The fundamental role of the Gulf War was regulating labour relations in the Gulf and at home. The strategy of the US government was to try to use the so-called need to send US troops into the Persian Gulf to break through a whole series of blockages which workers have placed to capitalist development within the US, not least of which is in the field of energy which is not surprising. The Gulf after all, from the US point of view, is nothing but an oil pit, one big gas station which has to be available.

So what do they try to do? Workers and people in the US defeated the nuclear energy industry back in the seventies. Capitalist planning was for nuclear power plants to be supplying 60-70% of electricity in the US by the year two thousand, but after 1974 there were no more nukes being built, there were no more nukes being commissioned and most of the ones that were being built were being abandoned. That industry was killed.

One of the things that Bush tried to do with the Gulf War was to use it as an excuse to revitalise the nuclear power industry and to open up the north shore of Alaska to oil exploration. Both of which had been blocked by social struggles in the US up until that point -mostly struggles by the peace and environmental movement.
As for other wars, we can talk about Yugoslavia, South East Asia, Timor, and elsewhere, Southern Africa and so on. War has always been an integral part of capitalist class relations; it’s not about to disappear; it will continue.

THIRD SPEAKER: Nobody said anything about communism. Communism is a society without wage labour, without commodity production, a world human community. How do we get to communism? The working class has to overthrow capitalism. It has to become autonomous - from all the forces of capital. I don't think it's a debate any more between communists whether Stalinism, social democracy and Trotskyism are part of the working class or not, some form of working class representation. They are part of capital. The system in the so-called Soviet Union was a capitalist system, the Communist Parties were capitalist parties, and the Trotskyist organisations were capitalist organisations.

We don't need Trotskyism or a new version of Trotskyism. There are some basic definitions we need before we can have a debate. Imperialist war wasn't mentioned. The question of imperialist war separates people very clearly. During the Iran-Iraq war, there were some people who called themselves Marxists who said we should support one side in that war. But if this is declining capitalism, which I think it is, one of the ways that it survives is through imperialist wars. What happened in 1945 was a period of reconstruction after imperialist war. That period came to an end and we're now in a profound crisis. The war in Yugoslavia is an imperialist war, not just a war between Serbs and Croats. There is already the beginnings of new imperialist alignments. Are you on one side or the other or are you for the working class against all the imperialist powers? That's the real question for revolutionary Marxists.

HILLEL TICKTIN: I agree with you that the working class has to be separated from Stalinists and social democrats. I'd go further and say that it's true that most groups today have a long way to go, whoever they are, including your group. Unfortunately the formation of small grouplets over the whole Stalinist period has Stalinised all of them. It doesn't matter what they where. It doesn't matter whether they opposed the Russian Revolution in 1917 and regarded it as state capitalist, they all became small Stalinised-type grouplets. It's impossible to hold out under these conditions and not be deformed. But we are now in a new period where, hopefully, we will not spend all our time fighting one another and leaving everything to the capitalist class.

Under present conditions the previous differences, arising out of Stalinism, are no longer so important. As long as people are opposed to capitalism as a whole and are not reformists, it's important that differences should not become once again important reasons for the development of sectarian groups, and gurus. But it seems to me that the last speaker didn't give us any way forward in that regard. I do agree with the speaker who said that there is only one socialism. And I also agree with the last speaker that we are talking about the working class. I don't think it has been abolished. I think the vast majority of the population do belong to the working class. It is the universal class - I don't think that has changed at all.

But the issue, which the last speaker was not facing, was why nothing happened effectively for the last eighty years, sixty years or whatever it is. It's no good just calling Russia state capitalist and saying we got nowhere. Why didn't we succeed? Why are we in small groups? And why are we marginalised? That question has to be asked. And answered. And it seems to me you don't answer it by saying that that awful society that existed, over there in Russia is just the same as what exists over here. In certain respects it was far, far worse. But whatever it was it was not the same, and it played a crucial role in maintaining capitalism itself, precisely because it was not capitalist.

HARRY CLEAVER: I just want to respond to part of what was said. Yes, of course, the working class must be autonomous from capital, and it has been, and that is why capital is in so much trouble. The question is: what does it mean to be autonomous from capital and what is the content of autonomy? Autonomy is not homogeneous. Capital formed the working class, right, and that's the story of primitive accumulation, the formation of the working class. Capital formed a group which from its own point of view was homogeneous and malleable, could be divided and conquered, and moved around and used.

Now the struggle against that making, from the beginning and on through all the years of accumulation, involved a rejection of that homogeneity, sometimes a utilisation of it, but ultimately a struggle against being, as Marx put it, mere worker. The traditional Marxist vision of socialism - which Hillel seems to share - is a world of workers. Socialism, or communism for that matter, is not understood as a classless society but as a one class society. But that class is what we want out of. We never wanted into it in the first place, and we want out of it now. But out of it to do what? Out of it to do all kinds of things, not to do one other thing.

That's what we mean by domination, the imposition of a single universal order. At least that's what I mean by domination. I can imagine several different kinds of such an order, but the point is that in any form of domination you have the imposition of homogeneity. So, when we talk about autonomy from capital we mean autonomy from homogeneity. It also means we have to recognise the autonomy of different sectors of the class and the struggles of people to get out of their class status. The struggles of women are not the same as the struggles of men; the struggles of blacks are not the same as the struggles of whites.

Our problem is the construction of a politics that gives up the illusion that everyone can be talked into agreeing how the world ought to be and, on that basis, unite and fight. That is what the left has been trying to do for the last one hundred years and it has gotten absolutely nowhere. Now you can, as some do, say that the so-called new social movements have nothing to do with the working class. But what do you think the working class is? If you think the working class is just traditional factory proletarians, I'm afraid that that is only a small part of the whole at this point.

The working class is not just made up of workers throughout the world who are busy producing commodities. It includes all of those people who are busy producing what is the most fundamental commodity of all: labour power. Such producers include women in the home and students in schools and a vast number of other people. That's the reason why the working class continues to make up the vast majority of the population. All of those people are struggling from different positions in the class structure and they are struggling for different things. Now if you don't develop a politics that recognises and appreciates that autonomy among the people opposing capital then you'll just go on in this room talking to each other for ever.

FOURTH SPEAKER: I want to follow on from what Harry has just said. I think the problem we're faced with is that the left is stuck in a nineteenth century paradigm and this is partly due to the experience of Stalinism. The whole approach to the centrality of the workplace and trade unions, and an approach to, and a model of, revolution that hasn't progressed anywhere beyond 1917, shows how far out of step the left is with the way in which capital has developed in the past seventy years and how that development has remade the working class.

Working class experience is far broader than just the experience of the factory or the office or the workplace. In moving beyond a concern solely with workplace struggle, and beginning to take on other areas of struggle, I think we actually begin to develop the whole process of struggle and an attitude to class struggle that is actually far closer to the totality of working class experience. That has to be important if we want to move towards a communist society.

But I think there is a problem in the way Harry has been putting it forward. While it is important to move into a whole multiplicity of arenas that the left has never considered as part of the struggle for communism, I think that if you start denying any possibility of leading or totalising those struggles, you leave those struggle in the hands of the petty bourgeois careerist politicians. If you look at who's dominated the women's movement, anti-racist work, the gay movement, it hasn't been working class activists, it has been middle class activists imposing their values on people in struggle. The question I really want to pose is: what, if any, role is there for the revolutionary party in the struggle for communism?

HARRY CLEAVER: I am not opposed by any means to linking struggles. A fundamental concept in the work I do is the notion of the circulation of struggle. Instead of talking about uniting and fighting through ideological methods, it means building concrete linkages between struggles.

In the sixties, the students in the US and the Vietnamese peasants in the rice fields were not linked in a party, but struggle circulated across the Pacific and caused enormous problems for capital and ultimately, its breakdown. The struggles of women are not often united with the struggles of men in a party or in any unified institution, yet it is quite clear that their struggles have circulated and profoundly affected the activities of men and the politics of men.

The problem of politics is the problem of the circulation of struggle and the organisation of the circulation of struggle. When I reject the party, and I do in the traditional sense, it is not a rejection of organisation, it is simply the rejection of a particular form of organisation which was maybe appropriate to the skilled workers at the turn of the century but is certainly inappropriate to workers today. Our problem is to discover the way these connections are being established today. It's not done through a party; it’s not done through a centralised organisation; yet the circulation of struggle is extremely rapid, the speed of optical fibre.

HILLEL TICKTIN: It's impossible to discuss the party in one minute. In my view we certainly can't do without a party. I think we're going to have to have a much firmer party. If we look the way that things are developing I think one has to consider not just the importance of democracy in a party, which is very important, and different centres of influence in a party, which I think is extremely important, but the fact that a party is a fighting party. The ruling class is not just going to go away. They may be fighting one another but when the working class does become a danger the ruling class will stick together. How do you then deal with it?

You can't go around saying I'm opposed to it, or linking up all over the place. When it is fighting you and putting you in gaol, you are in gaol. You have to find a way around it. You have to then go underground if necessary. Now the exact form of the party, the exact form the working class will take in the course of struggle, I don't know. It will come into being. Just as the soviet was the particular form that took place in Russia, so here in the West or wherever there will be another form. I don't know the form, but it will come into being and there will have to be a party or perhaps a number of parties, but there is no other way around it. I don't know any other way of overthrowing a ruling class.

FIFTH SPEAKER: It's a bit dangerous to say capitalism doesn't have any strategy after Stalinism. The threat of proletarian revolution occurs because of inter-imperialist conflict. Therefore, when capitalism is devising a strategy to oppose proletarian revolution, it cannot allow inter-imperialist antagonism to lead to inter-imperialist war. Therefore the strategy that is being developed by the capitalist powers to prevent the proletarian revolution is that of ultra-imperialism. Marxists have been blinkered about looking at the question of ultra- imperialism because at one time it was associated with Karl Kautsky. But the major imperialist nations are getting together to off-load the crisis of capitalism in terms of war, a joint offensive against the international working class.

In trying to divide the working class, the capitalist powers are developing this strategy of ultra-imperialism and therefore the question of internationalism is linked to anti-imperialism. That is how they are trying to redevelop their ideological cohesion after the fall of Stalinism. If one strategy, for various reasons, becomes defunct, then obviously new political strategies have to be developed. I think the real problem in what Hillel Ticktin argued is that of objectivism, fatalism, saying: after Stalinism, it's our turn. That minimises question of the seventy years of the culture of defeat the working class has had that has created fatalism and defeatism within the working class itself.

HILLEL TICKTIN: In terms of what you said, that is not much of a strategy. It's a strategy for chaos. To fight Saddam Hussein a hundred times over doesn't get anywhere. I don't think it's dividing anybody and it's not establishing any form of control. All it is, is a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy, but it is not a means of control. It doesn't compare to the Cold War or the previous forms. None of these small wars are achieving this object. One can see this by the results of ten days ago when Clinton bombed Iraq. What was the result? Did he achieve very much? Did he achieve anything except more criticism of himself? He achieved very little, so I can't see that that is much of a strategy.

So, if you are going to ask: is the strategy a nationalist strategy, dividing people on a nationalist basis, and is it a form of imperialist division, now this is true. Quite obviously there are national differences which are being played on; that is absolutely correct. However, one has to ask how long people are going to go along with that. I don't think Yugoslavia is any example. It is the result of the decay of Stalinist forms. It may be that capitalist powers got involved, but even if they didn't it would still have occurred and it's got to do with Stalinism and not with capitalism as itself, so that is not an example of nationalism.

But for capitalism, nationalism in general is of course crucial and Harry has mentioned it. The problem is that it has obviously failed. Has it worked in Africa where the standard of living is below that which it was under the colonial overlords? Clearly it hasn't worked. How long do people need to be told that it doesn't work? I don't think that it's that long. That isn't a strategy, and if you are talking about imperialism, that is what is actually involved, let's say binding together the whole population on a nationalist basis. My answer, therefore, is that it cannot work, they don't have a strategy. It may work for one or two years. But that's all.

HARRY CLEAVER: I just have a couple of things to say. Just because a strategy fails does not mean there is no strategy; to say that there are limits to what has been achieved so far through the use of the Gulf War is not to say that nothing was intended and nothing was accomplished. The fact of the matter is that there has been a militarisation of the oil fields of the Gulf and around the rest of the world. The message went to Nigeria and to a lot of other places. The uprising in Caracas and Venezuela mirrored that of the Gulf. That militarisation has made the struggles of people in those areas extremely difficult. The Palestinians are suffering the consequences, but they are not alone. The Iraqi working class is suffering the consequences. The fact of the matter is that in the Gulf War Bush was responsible for the killing of Saddam Hussein's opposition. You will remember the Revolutionary Guards were pulled back from the front in Kuwait and they were not wiped out.

In a very real material sense the Gulf War left Saddam Hussein in better control internally than he was before, that was the result, and I would argue that there was a strategy to use the war to regain control over the working class. In the US the war was being used to rationalise all sorts of attacks on the working class. The fact that they haven't always succeeded doesn't mean it wasn't a strategy.

The second thing concerns nationalism and racism. To say nationalism and racism have failed in Africa is a statement I just don't understand. The racism in South Africa, the rupture of that racism, or apartheid, through the struggles of the black working class in South Africa has been an integral part of the crisis of capital. That racism functioned for a very long time in the context of the global accumulation of capital to make possible the existence of a monetary system of a certain sort (based in part on gold) and the extraction of vast quantities of surplus value.

You don't measure the efficacy of a capitalist strategy by whether or not the workers are well off in a particular area of the world, for God's sake, or whether constant capital is accumulated in a particular place. Imperialism is the differential accumulation of constant and human capital and an intentional hierarchy of income. When you get right down to it that is what Marxist analysis is about: accumulation is always uneven. The IMF imposition of austerity in Africa facilitates the extraction of surplus value everywhere. The surplus value produced in Africa is being transferred through international pricing, transferred through the manipulation of money and commodity prices out of Africa, like it always has been.

SIXTH SPEAKER: What is socialism?

HARRY CLEAVER: What do I mean by the time for socialism is gone and how else are you going to relieve the problems of war and poverty for humanity? I don't mean that we abandon the struggle against capitalism and that we abandon the struggle to create a new world by any means. I mean that the concept of socialism has been ambiguous in a lot of ways. Ultimately the problem with it was that it posed the idea of replacing one kind of homogeneous society by another homogeneous society. That's the project which it seems to me is gone, or it should be gone.

I also know it's not gone for a lot of people; they are hell bent on doing it. But they are not going to succeed because it's irrelevant at this point in history. The class struggle has moved way beyond that. It may be that it was a sustainable illusion for a certain period of time, but I do not think that it is sustainable in this period of time. That's what I mean by the time for socialism is gone - not that we don't have to replace capitalism, not that we're not to design social alternatives - but that the old models that are still being clung to are obstacles to the social processes which most likely to contribute to the actual transcendence of capitalism.

HILLEL TICKTIN: I was asked to define socialism. I define it as a society where creative labour becomes mankind's prime want - the way it is defined by Marx. Everything else follows from that and it gets away from the question of income and a few other things. Obviously in a socialist society you do not have a law of value. It is planned, and planning involves the conscious regulation by the economy and society by the direct producers. There is total democracy if you want to call it that. You also made the point, that I completely fail to understand, about the present epoch in terms of Iraq or South Africa or god knows where. There are wars all over the place. Of course there are wars all over the place. But that is not the same as before. The question is: are these wars all over the place, these different forms, meant to work in the same way as before, with the same degree of efficiency as before? Are they going to control the working class in the same way? That is the question. When capitalist powers are going into Iraq, does it mean that the crisis in capitalism is reduced, ameliorated, or removed?

(from Radical Chains no.4)

Correspondence (from the same issue of Radical Chains)

From George Gordon

I recently attended the public debate between Harry Cleaver and Hillel Ticktin on 5 July in London, organised by Radical Chains. I wasn't too interested in what Ticktin had to say (he's an unreconstructed Trotskyist) but I listened intently to what was said by Mr.Cleaver to get an idea of the real political approach behind his (often brilliant) writings about economics and ruling class strategy.

My worst suspicions were confirmed. I have no hesitation in saying that Cleaver's approach is essentially just the old leftist racket of finding half plausible Marxist justifications for supporting liberal, 'progressive' politics. At one stage he claimed that 'unlike those who have abandoned Marxism', he did not like or use the term 'new social movements' because he thought that things often described as 'black struggles' or 'women's struggles' are actually expressions of the class struggle. He then went on to spend the rest of the evening talking as if he did believe in 'new social movements', referring completely un-self-consciously to 'the black community', 'women's struggles', 'what blacks/women want... without any reference to class whatsoever.

The most obscene example of this came right at the end when he referred to proposals made by the gang leaders in LA. as an example of' "what black people want". You may recall that these proposals included the policing of labour discipline by the gangs - so much for the refusal of work!

It's interesting how common it is for vehement anti-Leninists (which Cleaver is) to think in a very similar way to Leninists (although their methods of organisation are very different). It became more and more obvious that behind Cleaver's comments about what ordinary people want lay the assumption that there are basically two types of people involved in struggle - on the one hand 'ordinary decent' types who don't have much politics but do have hearts of gold and on the other (implicitly; middle class, academic) people who do have politics but are not directly involved in struggle and need to find ways of 'relating' to those who are. It's a problem of getting the message across - you can't be too critical of ordinary people because that might put them off.

When he was talking about 'what people want' he mentioned with approval Marx's Workers' Enquiry which was a list of questions to ask workers. He then said something along the lines of: 'This is what we should be doing today. Go to the factories, go to the black community, go to the students, go to the women's movement . . find out what people want'. O.K., it's not quite the same as what Bob Avakian {leader of the Maoist RCP in the USA... ed.} would say. But...

To a certain extent he was just recognising his unusual position as a Marxist academic What was offensive is that he was assuming that the audience must be composed of people of a similar social role.

I would describe Cleaver's overall position as 'council communism without the workers’ council'. As with other 'councilists' there is a lot of truth in what he says. He stresses the need for workers to form direct links with each other rather than 'unite and fight' through adopting a common ideology or joining the same party. He rightly stresses the enormous diversity of the class struggle and how it is reactionary to try to impose a uniform way of doing things. It is true that a proletarian community of struggle is, and needs to be, diverse. But it still needs to be a community not (as I think Cleaver wants) a liberal multi-cultural swamp where everybody respects everybody else's views.

He is aware that the trade unions are against the workers (I know this because I had a conversation with him the day before in which he argued with someone who was trying to argue that workers used unions to organise struggles despite the reactionary leadership). However, when it comes to popular fronts
containing 'Labor Organisations' this criticism is forgotten. In this particular case he was talking about the network of groups which was set up to oppose North American Free Trade Agreement, something which he sees as very positive.

What Cleaver’s approach appears to offer is the possibility of being involved in struggle without having to bother about strategic questions (at least not in practice). No doubt if you tried (for example) to attack nationalism in general (black nationalism in US cities, National Liberation movements, the implicit US nationalism of people defending 'constitutional rights'... and so on) you would be accused of trying to impose uniformity on diverse movements. In other words his brand of autonomism offers the possibility of 'keeping politics out of politics'. In practice this always means 'leave politics to the politicians'.

3 out of 10, professor, must try harder!



5 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on January 15, 2019

Interesting but don't miss George Gordon's letter of comment on Cleaver in the same issue.


5 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Fozzie on January 15, 2019


Interesting but don't miss George Gordon's letter of comment on Cleaver in the same issue.

Good spot, I have added that at the end.