It is from Lenin's Imperialism and State and Revolution that the modern left derives much of its understanding. While stressing the strengths of these works, the authors indicate how acceptance of the various weaknesses obstructs the left in its attempt to comprehend the various forms of administrative practice that have been established in the name of the working class. Unable to understand the real basis of working class opposition to such forms, the left slides into various kinds of contempt for the working class. From Radical Chains no.3.
THE HIDDEN POLITICAL ECONOMY OF THE LEFT
The present disorder and change in world affairs - perhaps too easily labeled crisis - is in its nature marked by disorientation of the left. The left finds itself caught up in structures which it posited as transitional but which are now being revealed, through their disintegration, as the political conditions for, and dependent variables of, the continued existence of bourgeois society in its epoch of decay. Events in the Eastern Bloc and the impact of 'thatcherism', the end of a consensus social welfarism, have provoked a process of re-thinking for much of the left.
Our concern in this section is to examine from where much of this re-thinking begins and to suggest how this may limit the range of its conclusions. The danger, we feel, is that fundamental issues are ignored when the theoretical apparatus conducting the investigation is the same as that which led to the need for re-thinking. Half-hearted efforts only encourage the dissatisfied to compromise with various market orientated projects. This leaves a rump of dedicated revolutionaries unable to fully inhabit real events, reasserting canonical texts, and surviving through a vampiric dependence on the opportunists, renegades, and reformists that it so despises. In short the real fear is that re-thinking by the communist and marxist left will reinforce its present tendencies. Real events have by contrast made a practical demand for a thorough and merciless re- discovery of the fundamentals of working class struggle and movement within a world that has changed significantly since Marx and Lenin.
While many rightly object to the kind of questioning central to revisionism few seem to recognise that it is the stagnation of communist culture, its infertile splintering, and its defensive reiteration of the arguments of the past that encourages the rejection of Marxism. And we only speak of the best. For the worst the defensive posture becomes a hideously depersonalising organisational practice. The absence of a theoretical expression of real historical experience does not mean, however, that causes are not looked for. The problem is from where those explanations are sought. In one form or another the working class is blamed. Attention is diverted from the left. Miraculously it escapes the attention of its own historical materialist analysis. It is time to be critical of those, ourselves included, who have stuck by marxism or communism.
More positively, we hope to contribute to a deeper level of re-thinking. We are confident that the process can and will re-discover a communist perspective that much of the left had lost long before events in the Eastern Bloc. These events have revealed an already existing rottenness in the left. Even now it has not come to terms with the fact that it had needed to rethink well before it was caught out by changes in the USSR and elsewhere.
The left's various forms of complicity with types of administrative practice had already discredited it whilst allowing the success of dubious individuals and social groupings within this left who properly should have had no part in the movement. The continuing discredit of communism has unfortunately appeared to confirm the left in its view of the problem of working class consciousness. Once again the left's own theory manages to protect it from its own responsibilities by enabling it to attach blame elsewhere. Yet it is the left, social democratic and revolutionary, that has persistently championed regimes repugnant not only to commonsense but eventually even to the left itself. At this point it smugly congratulates itself - demands congratulation - for a discovery everyone else made long ago. We have witnessed a real gluttony for the 'gods that failed'. It is surely impossible to believe that the left has somehow avoided reproducing within itself aspects of the prevention of communism. Indeed the relative stability of this process would necessarily require involvement of much of the left. This makes all the more important the retrieval of the theoretical perspective of communism, as the real movement. Otherwise rethinking will amount only to a genetic replication of administrative solutions.
The crisis of the left has been particularly acute within those individuals and tendencies associated in one way or another with the bolshevik tradition. Some have come to reject bolshevism as being responsible for or even identical to stalinism; others have reasserted, with the grim determination of the damned, the abstract non-identity of the two. What is required, however, is serious analysis of the theoretical and historical bases of the tradition. We are less interested in those who have abandoned bolshevism for the market than with those who, critical of both the market and its apparent alternatives, have attempted to maintain the old critical perspectives. The former group, who once sang hymns of praise to Castro, Mao and Guevara, now appear as the ideological heralds of the new age of free enterprise. Our real interest is in those who have remained critical of the existing order. Their personal integrity and sincerity is not in question. The real question is whether the theoretical resources of bolshevism are adequate to the critique that is necessary. The fear is that theoretical ambiguities and confusions might lead to a dissipation of energy, to an abstract revolutionism of little relevance from the standpoint of the working class.
What is required, then, is a critique of this abstract revolutionism. The question is not whether stalinism is a consequence of bolshevism, but whether bolshevik theory forms a sufficiently strong basis for the critique of the prevention of communism. Our concern is that lack of theoretical clarity might obstruct practical opposition to the prevention of communism, leading to reluctant or unwitting support for what is despised ...
For the bolshevik tradition as a whole, there has been a tendency to follow Lenin in explaining opportunism by reference to the imperialist nature of the present epoch. In this article, W.Dixon and D.Gorman develop the basis of a critique of the underlying political economy, the hidden political economy of the left. It is from Lenin's Imperialism and State and Revolution, the authors argue, that the modern left derives much of its understanding of consciousness, transition and planning. While stressing the strengths of these works, Dixon and Gorman also draw attention to their limitations and ambiguities. In particular, they indicate how acceptance of the various weaknesses obstructs the left in its attempt to comprehend the various forms of administrative practice that have been established in different parts of the world in the name of the working class. Unable to understand the real basis of working class opposition to such forms, the left, the authors argue, seeks explanations in terms of a subjectivity abstracted from political economy and slides into various kinds of contempt for the working class ...
The left cannot, of course, be reduced to an intellectual history. Arguments and positions can be comprehended only within an analysis of the real process of the prevention of communism. (This analysis has been initiated within previous issues of this journal. See esp. Binns and Dixon in RC1). The prevention of communism issued form the real need on the part of bourgeois society purposely to intervene into the process of class formation. This itself was rarely more than half understood by its protagonists; requiring conspiratorial elements, it was never a conspiracy in the real sense. It was, rather, the practical outcome of recognition that the old class arrangements could no longer maintain the social order. The left, including the communist left, could not avoid being shaped by the circumstances of the prevention of communist. It is therefore important that we examine the intellectual apparatus by which the left was able, or failed, to confront the phenomena of the prevention of communism.
One thing that emerges clearly is that in so far as it failed to base itself on a concrete analysis of the fate of the law of value, the left was unable to properly comprehend the phenomena that confronted it. In this, the revolutionary left that had split form social democracy in the period from 1915 onwards displays greater continuity with those it castigated as "reneged" than is often acknowledged. Yet it is not even a matter of social democracy having had the "wrong" theory, for social democracy itself was formed in large part by the process of the prevention of communism and was thus deformed. In the present period, as the existing forms of the prevention of communism crumble, we are faced with making a decisive break with Second International orthodoxy in all its aspects. Our analysis of Lenin and of bolshevism is offered as a contribution to that project.
The hidden political economy of the left derives largely from the work of Lenin. To reveal this political economy, and to highlight its repercussions for the understanding of transition, the critique of opportunism and the ability of the left to differentiate itself from administrative structures, we have selected two of Lenin's principal works: Imperialism and The State and Revolution. We aim to demonstrate that the assumption of an essentially inert working class is carried through Lenin's understanding of transition and his conception of planning or communism. Once we have completed these tasks we illustrate, briefly, how the continuation of an unchallenged political economy has formed not just those who stand by Lenin but those who have apparently broken with him. In conclusion we allow ourselves to suggest how we understand what underlies the present period in world economy, in terms of the real historical tendency which we believe to be missing from Lenin's work. In addition we indicate that the limitations in Lenin's approach are the product of an earlier period in the formation of the working class.
The conclusion is where we would have liked to have begun but such are the problems of social consciousness that they are inextricable from the fate of the revolutionary left. There cannot be any immediate access to a pure objective reality. Necessarily, ideological forms are a part of that social reality. In the present epoch these have been dominated by the fate of marxism. The existence of marxist ideology is, moreover, an expression of the objective development of subjectivity within global political economy. To develop a critique of social reality we must also work through a critique of the existing forms of marxism. The revolution, from which these forms derive, was produced by the history in which it sought to intervene: it is not enough to say that it was betrayed, that it failed or that it was impractical. We have still to grasp what it is that is coming into being.
Lenin's Imperialism, despite having been written in 1916, is today a highly influential work shaping the political economic vision of much of the left. It forms the basis of the Transitional Programme, for example, but even those who are not specifically 'Leninist' are nevertheless influenced. One reason is that Lenin's Imperialism has not been followed by an alternative that has matched its explanatory power. Abstract rejection of certain aspects of his work actually assists the dissemination of its deeper assumptions. They remain unobserved, all the more powerful for being part of a smuggled conventional understanding. In particular, there are in Lenin's work conceptions of transition, planning, the imminence of revolution and the role of the working class that have formed the basis for how much of the left has perceived its role, or judged what should be considered to be a 'socialist experiment' or progress. In the present period when so many sections of the left have been forced to reorientate we believe it necessary to question the deeper assumptions.
This is not a period in which the left can gain from complacently taking its assumptions for granted. This is further emphasised by the effect of the Gulf war that seemed to confirm Lenin's relevance, despite the absence of an adequate analysis of existing conditions. Quotes from Lenin and Trotsky and reference to 'what Britain did in 1921' appear sufficient to make the effort of further understanding unnecessary. This extends beyond issues of imperialism. For many on the left nothing much of significance has been added since Trotsky's death and indeed did not need to be. For positions on bureaucracy Trotsky is resorted to, despite his opposition to bureaucracy never having lead to a critique; for guidance on political practice we can turn to Lenin who died in 1924.
It is true the influence of much of their work does rest on its real qualities. This is especially true of Lenin's Imperialism. People can turn to it to provide answers to the kind of questions denied in the liberal press. Whether a 'popular outline' or not it takes up observable developments and experiences within a unified and strong explanation. It demonstrates that war arises from the capitalist system itself. It follows, therefore, that it is impossible to oppose war without also taking up the struggle against the capitalist system itself. So Lenin provides the political economic basis for the demand for a revolutionary overthrow of the system. Capitalism has become moribund. Further development can only aggravate the tendency to war. Lenin's main political target is Kautsky, who he represents as holding a reformist vision of imperialism that is unable effectively to oppose the war. It should not be surprising that many still turn to Lenin. This is especially true when re-thinking has so often ended closer to reformist political conclusions than to revolutionary ones.
We will present Lenin's argument in order to show its strengths, before we identify the limitations of his political economy. The argument is clear; out of competition arises the gradual concentration of capitals. This concentration advances until eventually it can be said that monopolisation has occurred. Very large, dominating capitals, have emerged, and so the system enters the period of monopoly capital. This process is accelerated by two interrelated factors: firstly, depression incites further merging of capitals and secondly, finance capital itself becomes concentrated and through its overseeing role, as controller of credit, accelerates monopolisation. Out of free competition emerges monopoly that pushes out free competition but not competition itself. Competition is between large monopoly capitals, with each striving to gain necessary control of markets and secure supply of raw materials. This gives colonisation in the late nineteenth century a different content from that of previous periods, one specifically imparted by monopolisation. It requires the full division of the world as the whole world becomes either a potential supply or market for competitors. Given the inherent unevenness of capital's development the arrival of new economic powers and change in the balance of old ones must lead to struggle over the redivision of the world. The drive of capitalist development is to war - expression of the continuing private appropriation as need for the division of the world.
From the war comes universal ruin. This is central to Lenin's case because ruin forces recognition of the need to overthrow the system. Hence we have a catastrophist view of what, in Lenin's words, is the 'eve of social revolution.' The necessity for overthrowing the system is not identical with social revolution and nor does Lenin leave it there. The same process and development that is the dynamic to war is also one out of which comes the imminent possibility of socialism. Concentration out of free competition leads to monopolisation. Accelerated by the organising hand of finance capital there is an increasing interlocking of capitals. Individual is replaced by interlocking capital. The capitalist is dragged, against his will, into a new social form as the productive forces are increasingly socialised. This movement stands opposite the continuing private appropriation that takes on increasingly parasitic forms, 'coupon clipping'. The contrast of social productive forces and private appropriation becomes ever greater. The ability to control, to judge markets and supplies, and hence plan, emerges within the forms of private property. These developments would provide the worker's movement of that time with an important basis to the claim of a scientific socialism founded on the observation of real movements.
The movement towards socialism is not, however, its realisation. The question remains as to how the productive forces shall break out of their integument. Action of the working class is required. This is obstructed. Again we turn to the process of monopolisation for explanation. It allows the super-profits from which the bribery of sections of the working class is made possible. The working class is corrupted. Opportunism prevails. It is, then, the movement to universal ruin that forces recognition of the necessary task, the overthrow of capital.
Lenin provides a remarkably efficient analysis of the conditions of his period. He gives a simplifying explanation of war that ties it directly into the system. Yet from the same process comes the possibility of superseding that system. We should not be surprised that, in the absence of any similarly coherent and unifying explanation, Lenin's work still holds the power to convince for much of the left. How many others have been able to match his analysis? It could be said that other, better analyses, have been suppressed within and by the bolshevik tradition. True or not, this isn't relevant to our case since Lenin's work has been the available text for the left and can claim its place in the broad tradition.
As Marx came to the end of his life he could observe the first crisis to start outside of Britain. It marked the emergence of the modern period, of world economy with many national components. Marx recognised the importance of the new phenomena but died before he could finish his work on them. Lenin was able, it might be argued, to update Marx's work and to combine an explanation of opportunism with the condition of world economy. This gave it continuing relevance as a framework for political activity. Lenin's conclusion can be summarized in his own words '...the fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism.' This marks a real theoretical achievement that recognises the intertwining of capitalist development with that of the labour movement and derives its political practice from it.
It is true that not all his follower's have taken Lenin as far as he might have wished. He has been used to support a number of political positions that we may guess he would not himself have supported. This does not however mean that, necessarily, he must have been misinterpreted. There are in Lenin's Imperialism lines of analysis which point to other conclusions than the ones drawn by Lenin. The point we want to draw attention to is that aspects of his work take on a new significance when they are asked to provide explanation of the present period. The pamphlet holds a contradictory message that becomes more important in light of the subsequent development. On one side we have the possibility, imminence, or eve, of social revolution, yet on the other there is an essentially passive, effectively defeated working class. Central to this is that Lenin holds a conception of a working class that not only is bribed but which, more importantly, can be bribed.
The problem for today is that in the continuing absence of revolution the burden of explanation shifts onto the fate of the working class. Yet this is the least developed aspect of Lenin's pamphlet. The dynamic to war and the possibility of planning are both results of a movement derived entirely from a relation between capitals. The nature of the working class and its relation to capital is not established, but the implication is that significant development only arises from capital. It is not clear how the bribery is achieved. As far as the pamphlet goes one may assume that it is through higher wages. At its most extreme this interpretation was developed to present the working class as effectively exploiting the third world, benefiting from surplus value generated there. Since Lenin referred to a stratum of workers as workers-cum- bourgeois this interpretation was not so outlandish. What it did, though, was reveal a serious weakness in Lenin's work, the absence of any discussion of the law of value, and the movements of surplus value. It is this absence of any theoretical discussion of the law of value that is replicated unchallenged in the tradition that followed Lenin. What happens to the operation of the law of value if there is growing socialisation? How would this affect the condition of struggle of the working class? And perhaps most important, what relation to planning, to needs, does a working class have when it can be bought off? Does it have an impact on the operation of the law of value? Does it remain mediated by The value form? Hence what is the poverty composition of the class? Discussion of imperialism as a category has tended to take the form of competing interpretations of Lenin's text; real discussion of the category must recognise crucial omissions from that text and then grasp the consequence of these for a left tending more to need explanations for the lack of revolution in 'moribund capitalism'.
The real weakness of Lenin's work is the failure to develop any conception of the working class that can match his analysis of the relation between capitals. This acquires a special significance once explanation is sought for conditions since world war two; whether on the nature of the transition, planning, or the composition of the working class. The absence of any analysis of the social relation tends, by default, to allow the working class to appear as essentially passive, needing overhead objective conditions to mature or to be exposed before taking decisive action. The chronic expectation that distinct objective conditions will be exposed accompanies the militant and inadvertently exposes his undeveloped view of the nature of working class consciousness. As is argued elsewhere (see Gorman, Radical Chains 2) too much of left thinking is characterised by treating consciousness as separate from political economy and so as an ahistorical, asocial problem. It is then treated as a merely political phenomenon.
Lenin himself recognised the limitations of his purely 'economic analysis'. He later introduced the work by explaining that censorship in tsarist Russia had forced him to speak in a 'slavish tongue' on the socio-political roots of imperialism. There are two sections where he does deal with imperialism in the context of the class relation. Referring to imperialism's socio-political roots he goes on to quote Rhodes: 'My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem ... if you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.' A few pages later Lenin again refers to the need to supplement economic with social causes of the 'modern colonial policy'. He then quotes Wahl: '...the energy which is being hurled out of the definite class channel must be given employment abroad in order to avert an explosion at home.' Apart from these references, the possible relation of a dynamic within the working class to the development of imperialism, is not taken up. Yet these quotes suggest the trajectory of the working class as posing a threat to the social order and that the need to counter this threat was itself a root of imperialism. This is not made clear, nor even developed, by Lenin. We do not have an adequate political economy of opportunism when all we are offered is an unspecified re-distribution of surplus value as response to an unclarified threat to the social order. We could argue that Lenin did not need one, when war and breakdown were imminent, but this should not lead us back to Lenin for the clarification we need today. The limitations of the text are historically different as we move from a period of imminent revolution into one when it has clearly receded.
As far as Lenin goes we are offered on one side a passive, essentially defeated working class, and on the other a movement of objective conditions, the relation between capitals, that will produce the revolutionary situation. On one side, a bourgeoisified proletariat; on the other the eve of social revolution. The co-existence of these two poles determine the limitations of the bolshevik tradition's search for understanding. No room is left for any real historical development. There is, instead, an endless procession of immediate situations. An essentially frozen political economy can only allow a range of judgements within a narrow political focus. We are bequeathed here the permanent possibility and impossibility of revolution. One moment encouraged by the former, the next we are braced for the latter. Either way, we lose in the thrall of political necessities the real perspective of communism. The left continues in radical opposition but has lost any distinctive vision of social supersession.
Even with Lenin's own disclaimer concerning his 'purely economic analysis', the left has failed to take a critical distance. Lenin's limits have been absorbed as the left's hidden assumptions. A contributing factor in this is the consistency between the view of the class implied by Lenin's economic analysis with that presented in his What is to be Done?. In that work the ahistorical view is put forward that the spontaneous struggles of the working class do not advance beyond trade union consciousness. This might provide a missing theoretical basis for understanding the bribery of the working class. It is also congruent with the enlightenment project developed later in The State and Revolution, in which the material conditions of existence of the working class have first to be transformed in order to permit the emergence of a genuine communist consciousness. Lenin's Imperialism fits neatly into a package of his work that accounts for the absence of the revolution in today's conditions. From it there is derived the particular role of the vanguard party. A genuine appraisal of the current epoch's political economy has been considered unnecessary. Instead there is the tendency to look to the 'crisis of leadership'. From there the path is short, down to a graveyard of cultural explanations dealing with consciousness without political economy. We have too often to endure a sort of contempt for the working class. Signs of improved living standards are taken as confirmation of its corruptness. The slide is accompanied by the meticulous fine tuning of sectarians, errors are discovered, evicted, and so on, and the essential quote marches to the rescue as the effort is made to protect the pure message from the surrounding corruption. The effort may be valiant but appears to have exhausted the capacity for original thought, not whimsy but the attempt to apply Marx's method to the difficult conditions since 1917. Lenin's focus on the relation between capitals and neglect of the social relation has implications for later views of transition and of planning. To explore these we will return to the central dynamic identified by Lenin. As already stated, the process of concentration, monopolisation and interlocking of capitals is also, for Lenin, the socialisation of the productive forces. Finance capital plays a vital role as organiser of the interlocking. The system tends towards centralisation. On this basis visible control becomes possible. Estimations of the size of markets and raw materials becomes possible and so, in principle, rational control of the productive forces.
What Lenin sees as the rational element in finance capital is bounded by the continuation of private appropriation and hence, competitive forces. Yet the tendency within the productive forces to rational planning is clear. In Lenin's account this is further emphasised by his conception of finance capital as the merging of finance and industrial capital. Lenin, it is true, also recognises the separatism and parasitism of finance capital, but this recognition, contradictory to the central drive of his argument, remains undeveloped in his work. This merging process is consistent with socialisation since it is so to speak the merging of mind and body. Still within the limit of private appropriation, however, it is therefore never fully realisable without shedding the old social form.
One problem with Lenin's interpretation has already been identified by Ticktin (Critique 16-17). Lenin's account, he argues, bases itself on Hilferding's work and so on Germany as the model of finance capital. In this case it was quite proper to perceive finance capital as the merging of finance and industrial capital. However as Ticktin points out this isn't simply wrong; it is rather the right conclusions drawn from the wrong example. Ticktin argues that for the essential development we should look to Britain as the earlier developer of capital. In those conditions we observe, not the merging of finance and industrial capital but their separation. It is this separation that Ticktin stresses in his account.
The first point that can be brought out from these different theoretical conceptions of finance capital is that Lenin's account tends to emphasise the role of finance capital as the organiser of the productive forces, the rational kernel leading to socialism. In Ticktin's work it is rather the role of finance capital as the overseer of the capital relation that is emphasised. The separation of finance capital is both a flight from the working class and an outflanking operation. Ticktin's theory evolves from a conception of the law of value and its fate. Finance capital is a further form of the universal equivalent, abstract capital. In particular phases of its circulation it is apparently free from the mundane task of surplus extraction, able to remove itself from any one site. Yet, as a whole, it still has to pass through the form of concrete labour if it is to accumulate further value. Capital can secure its control through flight but ultimately cannot escape the working class as a whole.
In contrast, Lenin's account allows an interpretation of the process of socialisation that is one-sided. The tendency and movement to communism is not located in the working class. Conceptually the dynamic appears to proceed over and above the working class. Its struggle is not linked to the possibility of planning. The struggle is not specified despite the threat to the social order it represented. In Lenin there is no reference to or even sense of the concrete struggles of the working class which were, in his own time, tending towards communism. He seems unaware of the evolving forms of working class struggle, the factory committees, shop stewards committees, and rent strikes, through which the workers were carrying out before his eyes their organisation as a class. As he does not specify the composition of the class, he is unable to comprehend in its struggles the movement towards communism and the material basis for planning.
We are instead trapped by this framework in a single political moment: the perpetual emergency of the immediate situation. What is absent is the specification of the relation of struggle to needs, its antagonism to a fundamental of bourgeois political economy -absolute poverty - and so the emergence of the potential for planning, positing abundance as its condition. The content of struggle that must change with the development of productivity is not considered. The corresponding, evolving, forms of prevention cannot be specified. We are left within the two dimensional world of the political focus sifting through a jumble of victories and defeats.
Along with the depiction of an essentially inert working class is an equally inert relation to planning. Its basis is seen formally in the objective socialisation of the productive forces. Within this focus it is scarcely surprising that the merging of finance with industrial capital tends to be emphasised over Lenin's own undeveloped views on its separation and parasitism. The theoretical emphasis is anyway, as we have tried to show here, already in Lenin's own work and is consistent with lack of development of concepts from the evolving struggle of the class.
The lack of any real comprehension of the working class in transition is all the more important when it appears to be carried over into a conception of planning. Lenin represents planning as emanating in the 'big enterprise', as the combination of production leads to an end to the anarchy of production. He quotes approvingly a German imperialist quoting Saint-Simon: 'A central committee of management, being able to survey the large field of social economy from a more elevated point of view, will regulate it for the benefit of the whole of society, will put the means of production into suitable hands, and will take care that there be constant harmony between production and consumption.' Lenin's theoretical ical work in this pamphlet offers no basis for an alternative to this rationalist conception of planning. The general will still appears to need a 'central committee' that will 'regulate' 'social economy' '...for the benefit of the whole society'. How needs are registered in this scheme of things is not at all clear. To explore these themes further we must now turn to The State and Revolution.
LENIN'S THE STATE AND REVOLUTION
When Lenin's The State and Revolution first began to appear in Western Europe from 1919 onwards, it attracted the enthusiastic support of much of the revolutionary left, including many individuals and tendencies who were shortly to be denounced in 'Left-Wing' Communism - An Infantile Disorder (1920). In France the centrist socialist parties - the 'orthodox marxists' - denounced it as 'a mixture of anarchism and blanquism' while the revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists welcomed it (Alfred Rosmer, Lenin's Moscow, 1953; Bookmarks, 1987, p 54). hi Britain the anti-parliamentarist communist, Guy Aldred reviewed it, claiming that Lenin, 'in showing the revolutionary oneness of all that is essential in Marx with all that counts in Bakunin, has accomplished a wonderful work' (Worker, 13/12/19). Writing in The Spur in 1920 he was to add: 'no man can really and truly be an Anarchist without also becoming a Bolshevist... no man can be really and truly a Bolshevist without also standing on the Anarchist platform'. The State and Revolution was translated into Dutch by Herman Gorter while Karl Korsch,in 1922, described The State and Revolution as 'that classical work on the theory and practice of the Marxist conception of the state' (Marxism and Philosophy, NLB).
This enthusiasm is not surprising. In The State and Revolution Lenin identifies the state as an organ of class rule and insists that it must be smashed by violent revolution if the liberation of the oppressed classes is to be possible. In this process, Lenin argues, the proletariat must establish a new proletarian state with which to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie. This state will itself begin to 'wither away' from the moment of its foundation. Lenin's commitment to proletarian democracy and self-organization is confirmed moreover by his endorsement of Engels' description of the Paris Commune as 'the dictatorship of the proletariat.' Lenin, indeed, demands control by a 'state of armed workers' and speaks of the probable suppression of the bourgeoisie by the self-organisation of the armed people without the need for an extensive state machine. For revolutionaries who had witnessed - and fought against- the evolution of the Second International, the contrast with Bernstein and Kautsky would have been both obvious and inspiring. The State and Revolution would have appealed to all the democratic and anti-bureaucratic sentiments of the European left. It should not be forgotten that in this work Lenin sided retrospectively with Pannekoek in his fight against Kautsky.
The State and Revolution still exercises an influence today. Marcel Liebman, for example, speaks of Lenin's 'democratic inspiration' when referring to this text (Leninism under Lenin, Merlin, 1971). Others have discerned in it, moreover, a profound contrast with the conception of a passive working class found in earlier works such as What is to be done? The State and Revolution appears then as a profoundly democratic polemic against bureaucracy and the alienation of power. Yet there are many ambiguities in Lenin's vision which require explanation. Questions must be raised about Lenin's conceptions of transition and planning and of the relation between the state and the working class. We shall argue that contrary to initial impressions The State and Revolution contains conceptions that echo the assumptions Lenin is supposed to have discarded when he distanced himself from What is to be done? Our point is not that Lenin's thought displays a striking unity throughout his work, but that, for lack of developing a real critique of political economy, his re-thinking tended to reproduce large elements of previous positions by default. We will show that the conception of planning, consistent with What is to be done?, that is implicit in Imperialism appears in The State and Revolution in more developed form.
The 'highest' stage of capitalism, Lenin argues, is in close proximity to the 'lowest' stage of communism. The existing postal service is, for instance, an example of a 'socialist economic system'. The postal service and the trusts in general are at present organised as state capitalist monopolies, but 'the mechanism of social management is here at hand'. The trusts constitute 'a splendidly equipped mechanism' that only needs to be 'freed from the hands of the "parasite"' - ie., finance capital. The construction - of communism is seen primarily as the generalisation to society as a whole of the rational organisation of production within the enterprise. Indeed: To organise the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that technicians, engineers, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials, will receive a salary no higher than 'a workman's wage', all under the control and leadership of the advanced workers - this is our immediate aim. This is the state and this is the economic foundation we need'. The immediate task is therefore to transform 'the whole of society' into 'a single office and a single factory, with equality of pay'. The social factory is not 'our ideal, or our ultimate goal' but rather a 'necessary step', the basis for further progress.
State monopoly capitalism cannot, however, be identified with 'state socialism': The trusts, of course, never provided, do not now provide, and cannot provide complete planning. But however much they do plan, however much the capitalist magnates calculate in advance the volume of production on a national and even on an international scale, and however much they systematically regulate it, we still remain under capitalism - at a new stage, it is true, but still capitalism, without a doubt'. Despite the close proximity of state capitalism to state socialism, they remain separate worlds for the planning provided by the trusts cannot be complete. Yet to say this is only to say that the trusts can (and do) provide a limited or partial form of planning. Planning, in The State and Revolution as in Imperialism, becomes identified with a process of calculating in advance of production the volume of production and systematically regulating it on a national and international scale. A fully planned economy would be no more than an extension to the whole of society of what the trusts do already within the limits set by private appropriation.
Planning is presented as a technical problem and not a social relation. It appears merely as the rationalisation of tendencies inherent in the movement of capital from competition to concentration. Finance capital is not conceived of as having a role in the class struggle. It is the organiser of production and yet also a parasite and -as such fails to be fully or properly rational. The solution to this problem is stated in the April Theses (1917): The immediate amalgamation of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers Deputies'. The nationalisation of the banks is in Lenin's view 'absolutely indispensable in order to combat impending total economic disintegration and famine' (The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution, 1917). The relation between planning and workers control remains unclear. Lenin wants, for example, to replace the bureaucracy with a state of armed workers 'in the control over production and distribution, in the work of keeping account of labour and products'. Workers control appears only as the supervision and implementation of technical decisions made outside the immediate process of production. It is reduced to 'supervising and recording' and 'issuing receipts'.
Antonio Carlo has suggested that in The State and Revolution the party is given 'no privileged political position' (Telos, 17, Fall 1973). It is true, the party is hardly mentioned in that text, but the omission is itself significant. Transition might be seen as the generalisation to society as a whole of the rationality of the individual capitalist enterprise. But this process must come up against a barrier in the form of bourgeois social relations. Finance capital, by its very nature, hastens the process of centralisation but thereby also prevents its realisation because it remains a form of private appropriation and so a divided and competitive form. Socialism might, moreover, be inherent in the process of socialisation but they are not identical. The transition from the one to the other will necessarily provoke the resistance of the bourgeoisie; it will come into conflict with the guardian of bourgeois society: the state. This must be smashed. But how?
As already pointed out, Lenin's Imperialism locates the dynamic of transition in relations between capitals but fails to develop any conception of the working class in transition. The concrete struggles of the working class, as we have already noted are not even mentioned. This understanding is carried over into The State and Revolution. The objective movement towards communism lacks any subjective awareness of itself. The rationality inherent in the capitalist production process remains to be grasped in consciousness but Lenin offers no explanation of how it is to be grasped. This omission opens up space for an enlightenment project of adjusting consciousness to the rationality inherent in objective reality. As there is no subjective movement towards communism on the part of the working class, communist values must be inculcated into it. This requires the intervention of a force external to the working class. In What is to be Done?, it was the party that served to bring consciousness to a passive working class; the conception of a passive working class lies also at the heart of both Imperialism and The State and Revolution. A working class such as the one Lenin envisages requires externally imposed discipline.
The subordination of labour to capital rests not only on the separation of labour from the means of life but also on the separation of individual workers from each other. The law of value presupposes atomisation. To obtain a subsistence, labour power must exchange with capital and the relation to capital is mediated individually by the wage. Workers create the means of life but are separated from them by money. From this alienation however, arises the struggle for the direct satisfaction of needs through which workers combine against capital. In doing so they undermine the real need for exchange mediation and abolish their subordination to capital. In this process, individual labour comes to recognise itself as social, the fetish appearance of the law of value is dissolved and collectivity is formed around the direct satisfaction of needs.
Communism presupposes a working class which is capable of taking social production into its own hands. Lenin, by contrast, wants 'the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and foremen and accountants"! This necessarily follows from a conception of transition in which the working class merely suffers - a conception which repeats the assumption of passivity found in What is to be Done? A working class which has passively accepted an opportunist leadership needs to be administered. From this follows Lenin's scepticism about the immediate abolition of bureaucracy: 'Abolishing bureaucracy at once, everywhere, and completely, is out of the question'. The old bureaucracy will be smashed and a new one, geared to serving proletarian needs, will be erected in its place. Like the state of armed workers, the proletarian bureaucracy will begin to wither away from the start. Lenin does not "'dream" of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination'. This was written in 1917, before the 'bureaucratic turn' of 1919.
Yet to build socialism with people who cannot dispense with subordination creates problems. Lenin, as has been shown, believes that communism presupposes 'not the present productivity of labour' but a vast expansion of the productive forces. In addition, communism, in Lenin's view, presupposes 'not the present ordinary run of people, who, like the seminary students in Pomyalovsky's Stories, are capable of damaging the stocks of public wealth 'just for fun' and of demanding the impossible' There is no conception here that the working class might revolutionise itself. Indeed, it is impossible to avoid noting the strong parallels between Lenin's vision of the ordinary run of people and that of the character in the saloon bar who warns of the dire consequences to follow the abolition of work, money, and the police. And we cannot avoid asking whether the state Lenin believes necessary to safeguard 'the common ownership of the means of production', will have to defend socialist property, not only from the bourgeoisie but also from the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat separates itself from the proletariat as the dictatorship over the proletariat.
Even under communism, Lenin argues, inequality remains at first because 'we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any rules of law'. There is of course no magical transition from capitalism to a pure communism. Lenin has touched a real problem. However, given his assumptions about the level of development of the working class, even on the eve of social revolution, we should be forewarned about his particular understanding of the problem and its resolution. In fact, what we have discerned so far in Lenin concerning the passivity of the working class is carried over into communism itself.
Even should we accept Lenin's understanding of the problem the question remains how the antagonism between individual and society be resolved. For Lenin, it is only in the higher phase of communism that the need 'for the subordination of one man to another, of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social life without violence and without subordination'. Indeed, Lenin speculates that it is possible that only future generations, brought up under the dictatorship of the proletariat will be able to observe these rules 'without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state'. For Lenin, even at the highest stage of communism the working class cannot generate its own needs or formulate its own desires. Instead even though it has overthrown capitalism, it becomes accustomed to observing externally imposed rules ... Lenin conceives of planning in terms of a well-oiled machine that matches production to consumption or supply to demand.
The 'elementary rules of social life', Lenin contends, 'have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copybook maxims'. Only when people become accustomed to observing these eternal rules will they work for 'society' as a matter of course. What Lenin offers as a higher stage of communism is a harmony of self-policing and self-absorption. Here there is no self-emancipation but rather the adjustment of workers' consciousness to the rational laws of nature. Lenin's highest phase is a utopian realisation of the moralising of austerity and of love as self-sacrifice for others - maxims, disgraceful banalities rather, which are repeated today to encourage co-operation with the existing order. Here, 'society' is set up as an abstraction over against the individual. The individual is, as in bourgeois society, subordinated to collectivity. This necessarily follows from a project which seeks to induce people to work for society.
Much has been made of Lenin's study of Hegel's Science of Logic in the winter of 1914-15. This is supposed to have instilled in him a deeper understanding of dialectics. Imperialism and The State and Revolution are supposedly its products. In On the Question of Dialectics, written in 1915, Lenin notes: 'the individual exits only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual'. Yet by 1917 Lenin had come to outline a project which involved subordinating the individual to the universal, violating the insight he had achieved in 1915.
But this subordination of the individual to the universal has its roots earlier, in the one-sided political economy of Imperialism (1916) in which transition results from the unfolding of objective laws independent of any human subjectivity. Imperialism is the product of Lenin's more profound appreciation of dialectics and yet it repeats the mechanical formulations of the earlier Karl Marx (1913) and Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. (1909). Lenin, it would seem, taught himself dialectics but in the application of those dialectics proved to be so undialectical.
The State and Revolution embodies an enigma. A working class which overthrows bourgeois society cannot be expected voluntarily to submit to another regime of accumulation set up over and against it. Yet this is exactly what Lenin requires. The State and Revolution is the highest product of the French Enlightenment. In it Lenin outlines the conditions for the fullest realisation of the passivity attributed to the working class in Imperialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat represents the general interest of the working class as opposed to the particular interests of individual workers. From the self-interested workers who demand the impossible, the workers' state demands altruism, self- sacrifice. Until the 'higher' phase of communism is achieved, 'the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption' will be necessary. This control 'must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, and with the establishment of workers' control over the capitalists, and must be exercised, not by a state of bureaucrats but by a state of armed workers'. If, however, there is to be subordination, how is this to be achieved if the workers are armed? Or is the state of armed workers actually separate from the rest of the working class? Finally, how clear can we be about the distinction between Lenin's lowest stage of communism and the prevention of communism? A notion of transition which puts the emphasis on the relation between capitals must be susceptible to a conception of progress blind to bourgeois society's determination to 'dress in red' when the situation requires it (See Shepherd, Radical Chains 2). This blindness is all the more serious when one social relation, that of administration is not distinguished from the qualitatively different social relation of planning.
THE LEGACY OF LENIN
Lenin's legacy has sustained much of the left over the last seventy years; it has enabled a combatitive attitude to opportunism. Unfortunately this legacy has also had other consequences. Its lack of an historically developed political economy has meant that it has had to seek explanation for the absence of revolution at the merely political or subjective levels. The left has splintered into a mosaic of revolutionary errors, deviations and betrayals. Different groups may then claim the title of Party but in reality the party of the working class has taken the form of these exclusive groupings. This fragmentation is an expression of the separation of the party from the class, itself a condition of the prevention of communism.
The range of subjective errors and betrayals are not a matter of bad faith but have an objective quality. They might, more humanely, be understood as inevitable consequences of intervention by bourgeois society in the formation of the class. This required modification of the class relation if struggle was to be diverted from its potential. Administrative categories grew from confrontation to the 'free market' of an antagonistic social power. Defence of the 'market' required the extension of bureaucratic structures. Needs were formally accepted, while preserving their atomisation in administrative practices, so as to pre-empt and divert their socialisation.
Success in the project to reform the formation of the class necessarily left the party of the working class fragmented. Essentially the struggle of the party has been a chronic oscillation between opportunism and sectarian purity. What has been referred to as the 'crisis of leadership' goes far deeper than 'leadership'. The political economy of capital has decayed into forms of the prevention of communism. To understand this phenomenon we need analysis at the level of the law of value to understand alterations in the terrain of struggle and in the spontaneous struggles of the working class. Capitalism may indeed remain an exploitative, crisis ridden system, but this should not be taken as meaning that objective conditions have remained unchanged.
To make such a claim is to naturalise bourgeois society and from that follows the tendency to seek political or subjective explanations, the pathway to sectarianism. While bourgeois society itself is recognised to be an historical phenomenon, the laws of capital are taken to be given and unalterable for the duration of the existence of capitalism as a social system. Since it is assumed that the class struggle does not impinge on these laws until the final act, they can only be understood to operate in exactly the same way until overthrown. To say that the class struggle impinges on the laws of capital does not imply the possibility of a gradual overturning of the existing property relations. The operation of the laws are altered but this is not a smooth, linear process leading to communism. Rather, new elements are introduced which contradict the system while preserving it. They do not form the basis for communism but are aspects of its prevention.
If, as the leninist tradition does, we begin with a static political economy of the class relation we are banished from any historical conception of class spontaneity. It is relegated to being, like the laws of capital, a 'natural' phenomenon, a given in the construction of explanation. In a previous article (Gorman, Radical Chains 2) it was shown how the typical understanding of commodity fetishism rests on an assumption of working class passivity at the level of the system. It entails reading Capital Vol.I., as if Marx's section on commodity fetishism were the explanation for events since the turn of the century. It is in this sense that the laws of capital become naturalised. Marx's Capital gets reduced to the level of excellent textbook for the paradigm.
The problem is not so much naturalisation but the fact that this process has gone on unobserved. Nobody has even had to defend it. Necessarily, theoretical corruption must follow. Theory becomes a mere reassertion of taken for granted categories, deployed without re-engagement with the existing social reality. This is not a matter of 'error' for the tendency of the epoch remains in place i.e., rejection of marxism, as inappropriate to current conditions, leading to opportunism, revisionism, rather than invigoration. This has its equal and opposite reaction, the reassertion of a sectarian purity, and hence the reinforcing of the tendency to naturalise the laws of capital. This tendency was inevitably strengthened by the disastrous effects of stalinism.
The current situation, especially the disintegration of stalinism and the success of what has been labelled 'thatcherism' has led to a period of disorientation and re-orientation on the left. It is common enough to find the need for re-thinking stated in previously more certain quarters. The destination of this re-thinking has been different for different sections of the left. For many, of course, perestroika has upset their previous confidence in the command system's ability to plan and this in turn has'pushed them, for reasons we will explain below, towards types of market socialism. For others, perestroika has helped undermine confidence in a critical orientation towards the claims of the command system and has induced, perhaps, a sense of nostalgia for what was rejected.
The first example we want to discuss is that of Robin Blackburn, who, in a lengthy article in New Left Review attempts to analyse the implications for socialists of the demise of stalinism. Blackburn was not alone in that journal in reaching the conclusions that he did. The limitation of this re-thinking is not where it ends up but in where it begins.
Arguing that'the anti-capitalist Left will have no credibility unless it can account for the dire experience of Communism since 1917' (NLR, 185), Blackburn, previously an uncritical admirer of Castro, now tries to distance himself from bolshevism as a whole. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky, he argues, 'can escape the charge of having themselves in some degree prepared the ground for Stalin by their often ruthless practice of party dictatorship'. He argues that 'central planning' cannot organize production efficiently or rationally and is inimical to the principle of consumer choice. He invokes the authority of Kautsky, Hayek, and von Mises and departs for the market. Market mechanisms, Blackburn argues, are necessary to balance production and consumption. Although this mechanism must be regulated by a form of 'planning' and 'socialization it must be one ' that builds upon and gives new direction to, the forms of economic co-ordination achieved by for example, the multinationals, the banks, the credit card agencies, and bodies like the EC.' (NLR, 185, Jan/Feb 1991). This conception is not only reminiscent of Lenin's texts we have dwelt on here but appears almost to fall out of the April Theses.
Blackburn appears thoroughly saturated with the tradition he seems to be re-thinking. It is at the fundamental level that nothing has changed. The hidden political economy, actually inimical to any communist potential, carries on its work. He cannot challenge the assumption found in Imperialism and The State and Revolution that planning must be done by people and institutions set apart from the direct producers. He rejects centralised command from above but he does so from a standpoint that assumes it really was planning. Its failure is seen from the perspective of the organisers of labour who need information about consumer demand. It is not located as a social relation but a technical problem of the centre and so he manages to conflate the problems of a hierarchical elite with problems that will confront the working class. In fact the elite, needing to secure its position, has set out to achieve the disconnection within the class that has guaranteed precisely the problems of co-ordination and information identified by Blackburn. In this case the real problem is that the elite's survival is directly antagonistic to the potential of planning.
Blackburn is prepared to endorse the manipulation of the 'consumer' through the intervention of the state into the market mechanism to promote preferred consumption patterns. This would be achieved through price fixing that would maintain the illusion of free choice. The working class, for Blackburn as for Lenin, has no historical existence and appears incapable of communicating its real needs. In Blackburn's account socialism appears more as a systematic denial of needs. He has ditched one type of the prevention of communism in favour of another but the shared assumptions of each obscure the fact that it is the actions of the working class that have forced him into this change.
A more serious, if less academic, attempt to confront the real crisis of the left has been made recently in Living Marxism (December 1990) by Frank Richards. Admitting that Traditional left-wing ideas and attitudes make little sense today', he accepts the 'need to set about developing a coherent critique of capitalism in its most contemporary forms'.
Richards argues that for the first time this century there is no real sense of a working class movement with a political identity anywhere in the world. Marxism and the collective solution have been discredited. Richards rejects explanation in terms of the objective reality of capitalism. The key difference between today and the past has little to do with the objective reality of capitalism; that is still a crisis ridden exploitative system. The difference has a lot to do with subjective political factors; primarily, the defeat of the working class'. Recent events have seen the destruction of organisations that gave the working class coherence and identity.
Richards' conclusions are somewhat curious when one admits his political history. He has opposed both stalinism and social democracy, yet, faced by their breakdown, he sees a breakdown of working class identity and coherence that he equates with the defeat of the working class. What kind of critique of stalinism assumes that it gave the working class coherence and identity? The problem is that he attempts understanding at the political level. It is because he starts from an assumption that outside this level the working class is unchanged that Richards has-to put so much stress on the political representation. It is only here that he can really seek out his explanation. He does not apprehend such forms as arising from modification of the operation of the law of value. He doesn't have a critique of stalinism, so much as a moral revulsion. Although, certainly, it is political, stalinism can not be reduced to politics if we want to understand it. In the Soviet Union as elsewhere stalinism has existed as the disorganisation of working class coherence. It has been the organisational disenfranchisement of the working class.
According to an analysis that has been attempted by some within Radical Chains, we should see present events as part of the crisis of forms of the prevention of communism, of which stalinism has been the typical form in the latter half of the twentieth century. The crisis of such forms should not be regarded as defeat of the working class but as the failure of forms of labour control. The events we are witnessing take place in social economy itself. Lack of distinct political representation does not translate as defeat in social economy. Attempts to change forms of labour control must have consequences for the nature of working class struggle. These will not magically translate into political representation. Nor does the irrelevance of old forms mean that the working class is defeated. To believe this is to assume that little can take place at the level of social economy and hence that the only form of the class that has any significance must be political. From this it would follow that defeat of a form of political representation is defeat of the working class. We would be closer to the mark if we recognised the pernicious effect of stalinism politically but that this form was defeated at a deeper level.
This is especially true in the Soviet Union where the elite has had to prevent collectivity i.e. prevent the class coming into being. (This analysis has been put forward excellently by H Ticktin in the journal Critique). Through administration the elite has ensured a direct atomisation of the class which entailed a sabotage of the product. This was not a 'choice' or, the part of the elite but one already by a previous level of struggle The result of the forms of prevention existing in the Soviet Union was a form of labour probably unique in history. Partaking of aspects of both abstract and concrete labour it was never adequately either. Instead there was a highly atomised yet very particular labour from which use values were never a reliable result. Workers exercised a very particular control over their own individual work process. The turn to the market is an attempt to retrieve an adequate control over labour, hence the surplus, and the elite have as little choice in this as they had in determining the previous system.
We are not inviting a fragmentary analysis of a national situation. A proper understanding of the Soviet Union must start theoretically at the level of the global system. From there we can then trace the fate of capitalism in the twentieth century. The survival of the system as a whole depended on the limitation of its direct operation. In many areas the universal equivalent ceased to apply. Regimes founded on administrative practices have often directly assisted the requirements of capital either by policing or by killing off radical working class movements. This has usually been done under a banner of progress.
Our purpose here is to give sufficient theoretical understanding fora contrast with Richards. His argument rests on a separation of objective and subjective conditions. We want to argue that it is not possible to identify merely 'objective' conditions. The operation of the law of value has been modified as a result of the subjective which in turn was objectively developed. We should be extremely careful to avoid assuming capital to be historical and yet treat its internal laws as effectively natural and given for the system. What is needed is analysis at the level of political economy and this can only proceed, we believe, from recognition that development of the productive forces, the power of combined labour, has forced bourgeois society to modify its political economy. It is time that marxists became accustomed to analysis that flows from the law of value and this cannot be done if we leave unexamined the left's hidden political economy. Otherwise the law of value seems to appear outside the social relation and then scarcely worth a sustained effort at understanding.
The USSR is a prime example. It illustrates clearly that there is not a controlled conspiracy on the part of any bourgeois section. The modified political economy is a resultant, intended or not. In the west there has been somewhat more deliberation but this doesn't change the principle that in the present period the consequent political economy is formed by the interpenetration of objective and subjective factors. It is a crucial aspect of decline that subjective factors take on increasing importance. This is as true for the bourgeoisie and yet this is in conflict with its narcissistic dream of itself as the end of history. The subjective has changing objective consequences as the system attempts to sustain its eternality in the face of a developing social alternative. The forms of labour can be significantly altered as we have argued for the case of the USSR. This in turn will act back on the spontaneity of the working class. This argument applies similarly for the West, although clearly the forms differ and crucially the repression in the East could he presented as the actually existing alternative, a prospect that has bolstered the West. We should not as Richards does paint the picture of a lack of alternative to capitalism whilst abstracting from the important role of so-called alternatives in keeping capital looking sweet. Again, Richards operating in a narrow political focus, ultimately only understands stalinism as the wrong leadership. If only it had been as simple as that.
The problem in both Richards's articles on 'Midnight in the Century' is that they do not and cannot offer any grounds for analysis of the period. He skips from political to political economic levels without noticing, or distinguishing the two. This lack of discrimination allows him to make contentious, yet analytically vague statements regarding the defeat of the working class. It is interesting that in his second article he does not mention the defeat of the working class again. Here the message is more upbeat. Indeed if one were to develop his argument one might conclude that the present period marks a victory for the working class. And indeed why not? Victory in this movement may have bloody or unpleasant consequences. The previous forms of labour control in the factory and broadly in the general reproduction of the class were made incompatible with accumulation. The previous forms did not and could not give the working class coherence but rather set out to de-activate it as bureaucratic object, as national, gender, race specific labour, and so on. An inability to distinguish the political from the political economic leads us to see today only a lack of political representation. This draws us into a dangerous flirtation with a nostalgia for previous 'coherence and identity'.
Is it not victory when so many intellectuals give up on marxism if that marxism insisted in different ways that the Soviet Union was progressive? Is it not better that they ply their trade elsewhere? Perhaps marxism can now breathe the fresh air of intellectual non-respectability; no longer having to defend aspects of officialdom, it can retrieve an understanding of the essential disrespect of the working class for bourgeois society.
Rather than lament, we should celebrate, the crisis of stalinist and social democratic paradigms of working class coherence and identity. These paradigms were never more than an expression of the fact that the working class had not yet broken decisively with the society of the bourgeoisie. The emergence of the proletariat, defining for itself its own needs and desires in opposition to capital, was accepted partially within limited political localities, and then channelled through extending administrative practices. The political economy of bourgeois society was able to bend with the wind of the new social power. There was a cost in terms of the operation of the system, in the mediation of needs outside the enterprise wage relation. Success in such a project for the bourgeoisie could only be gang according to the degree to which it contained the possibility of social consciousness. This necessarily implied new forms of representation arising from administrative containments. Since the project was essentially one of limiting consciousness the representations needed a relative autonomy; they had to represent the unity of the working class as existing outside of itself by marking real limits on political economy. The paradigms were necessary for capital in so far as it was not expedient to re-impose a respectable bourgeois paradigm of working class needs. The crisis of a socialist definition of the working class does not mean that the proletariat has been 'defeated'. On the contrary, it indicates the increasing impossibility of imposing such limiting definitions on the working class.
Socialism is dead or dying. At its best, however, it was never more than a secular asceticism: charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, self-denial and hard labour. Its historical project was the reconciliation of the proletariat with bourgeois society through the transformation of its material conditions of existence. In the interests of its own self-preservation, capital consented to being partially abolished through the extension of administrative control. Socialism was always an attempt to render superfluous the autonomous self-formation of the working class. Initiative would be intercepted by the intervention of social engineers armed with definite paradigms of the good life. Whether reformist or revolutionary in tendency depended on the concrete conditions that were required to be contained. The left's hidden political economy constructed around the assumption of the inert working class made it peculiarly incapable of an adequate critical confrontation to the new forms; it could never rid itself of the conceit that the working class needed external discipline. It has sustained an ambiguous relation to the prevention of communism.
Socialism in its contemporary forms is the outcome of developments in Europe and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that period, when productivity was less advanced than it is now, the bulk of the surplus had to be ploughed back into the expansion of the productive forces. From this crude material premise there arose in the misty realms of socialist ideology the demand for the rational organisation of necessary labour time. In this context, the socialisation of the productive forces, then proceeding under the domination of capital, came to serve as a paradigm for the alternative society. Socialism was thus conceived of in terms of 'planned' production (See G Kay, Critique 23, 1991). For social democracy, including both its reformist and revolutionary wings, planning was identified with the extension of the rationality of the capitalist labour process to the whole of society. The sign of socialism's origins in scarcity can be found in this tendency to identify the social project with the rationalisation of work rather than its abolition.
The old socialist paradigms have been undermined by the development of the productive forces for which they were the political condition. The rise of mass consumption, increased productivity, and, in particular, automation, have formed the basis for struggles around the refusal of work. If in the late 19th century, the alternative society could only have been conceived of in terms of the rational organisation of necessary labour time, this vision has been superseded today by the possibility of reducing necessary labour time to the point of the abolition of work. The possibility of communism as the conscious and democratic organisation of the conditions of free activity, of intellectually and emotionally engaged activity, is anticipated in the struggles of the working class against the imposition of work. In this struggle there is the real unity of intellect and passion that can only transform its conditions of existence. Socialism, in its various forms, stands opposed to this movement, asserting the dignity of labour and the right to work, so asserting as idea what capital itself cannot help but undermine as the basis of wealth.
The present crisis of the socialist project, in both its social democratic and stalinist forms, is in itself an indication that socialism is not adequate to the working class. What becomes clearer is the practical necessity for communism as activity that leaves behind external mediation within the self-formation of the universal class. Yet there can be no immediate transition. To repeat a point made elsewhere, proletarian consciousness is inevitably burdened with the fear that the socialist alternative is the only alternative and that therefore there is no alternative. The crisis of socialism must also be a crisis of proletarian consciousness. This cannot be resolved overnight. The fact that the working class is not organised around a coherent programme of social transformation, does not represent a victory for capital.
In the present period, then, we discern an unprecedented crisis of human social consciousness. The working class, disenchanted with the socialist project, has yet to embrace communism. At the same time, the left remains shackled to the old socialist paradigms in one form or another. It is able only to counterpose the museum of the glorious socialist past to the present consciousness of the proletariat which it contemptuously brands: 'false'. But if the working class has not yet grasped in consciousness the possibility of smashing the barriers of bourgeois society, neither has the left. For the most part the left counterposes to the present degraded mode of existence, the present degraded mode of existence under another name.
If the working class has not yet become communist this should not be cause for despair or talk of defeat. If there is for the working class one remaining gain of the great socialist experiment, it is a healthy distrust of all who offer to lead the way to the promised land. In light of the historical destinations arrived at in the earlier part of this century, this distrust is itself an indication of a more developed proletarian consciousness. Indeed, in the circumstances, if workers were displaying much enthusiasm for communism, this would give us real cause for concern. It would indicate that workers were indeed unable to learn anything from history. Administrative solutions can never again appear without invoking the horrors they have inspired in the past.
In the 19th century, Marx could counterpose the free activity of communist individuals to the present enslaving subordination to the division of labour. In the present epoch this is not so easy. In the intervening period there have come into being grotesque forms of social organisation, products of the socialist project, which associate themselves in some way with the name 'communism'. The very idea of communism has thus become compromised by the experience of socialism. Separating us from Capital and the Communist Manifesto, the First International and the Paris Commune, area history of forced labour, famine, police terror, chaos, and the historical presence of left parties that have systematically sided with reaction and silenced opposition, often brutally.
The problem is made all the more intractable by the historical failure of the communist opposition to develop a theoretical critique of these crimes. Founding their opposition on personal integrity and moral revulsion, they failed to rid themselves of many of the theoretical assumptions of their enemies. In particular, socialist conceptions of the working class, of consciousness, transition and planning, have been incorporated into the practice of the (fragmented) communist opposition. Such conceptions, largely derived in some form from the works of Lenin we have discussed here, still form an important centre to the ideological baggage of the left. This baggage must be discarded if communists are to leave the museum of the socialist past and participate in the movement of the working class towards communism. Failing to do this, the left will continue to find itself bewildered by events and, in its bewilderment, obstruct the process of self-emancipation.
Conditions are not yet ripe for the growth of a mass communist party. In the present circumstances, to invoke the communist project in opposition to socialism is essentially to protest against reality in the name of an abstract principle. The historically existing communist opposition remain trapped within the theoretical framework of socialism. This should not be surprising: there is as yet no conscious, organised movement of the working class. In the absence of such a movement it remains unclear exactly what we would be counterposing to present existence. Just as the working class remains sceptical of the existing left, ourselves included, we must remain constantly sceptical of our relevance to the working class.
The crisis of socialism does, however, assert the practical necessity for communism and, as such, constitutes a crisis for bourgeois society. Despite the real disorganisation in the historical consciousness of alternatives, there is no solution for capital. Only recently it appeared that the market had been reasserted as the historic destiny of humanity. This has not lasted long. The apparently' obvious solution of the market has broken down on the difficulties of imposing it, its social contradictions asserting themselves in advance. Also in the USA the market has to be supported by extensive state intervention in terms of bail-outs for banks, savings and loans, and more covertly through the defence industrial policy. The principal representative of capital accumulation has retreated from the free market. Indeed its huge budget deficits over the last decade have undoubtedly helped world economy through the recession of the early eighties. Furthermore difficulties in reviving its vigour at the spring of poverty have meant flight of capital from the organised and militant labour of the old 'rust belt' industries of the north eastern states, and its relocation within the 'sunrise' industries of the southern and western states and, in particular, Mexico, where labour is less organised, less militant. At the same time development was shifted towards the Pacific Tigers', such as Taiwan, and South Korea where a proletariat could still be formed out of agricultural conditions.
This flight leaves in its wake poverty and degradation. Opposite this also stands the growth of financial forms that have meant an explosion of personal, corporate, and sovereign debt from the seventies onwards. Accompanying this is the huge expansion of foreign exchange markets quite independent of the needs of trade. Money has a tendency to stand opposite exchange as antagonist. The crisis of social consciousness around the issue of social regulation has one concrete form in this mass of 'capital' in search of valorization.
Yet capital is unable to recompose poverty as a condition of accumulation. In the period from the 1860's through to the 1930's, especially in the U.S.A., capital was able to draw on a continuous flow of mass immigration. This constituted a vast reserve army of labour which could be used to smash the unions, disorganise the class, and assert the conditions of absolute poverty. The position is somewhat different today. We are living on the threshold of abundance. The development of mass consumption since the 1920's has made it more difficult to present poverty and work as natural necessities. This, in turn, has necessitated extension of welfare administration. When, however, capital attacks welfare in an attempt to recompose absolute poverty, it produces struggles against welfare cuts, as well as developing disenchantment with the usual political channels. This may only be apparent initially in reckless 'non-political activities'. The process of class formation knows no blueprint.
At the same time, the end of mass immigration abolishes the reserve army which was an essential condition of accumulation in the earlier period. Poverty is no longer a universal and productive discipline on the working class. The tendency is for absolute poverty, the necessity to labour for subsistence, to be supplanted by an abundance of useless poverty. It appears no longer as a natural necessity but rather as a socio-political imposition, an artificial rather than natural threat. It appears less as a condition of the advance of the productive forces, but rather as an expression of the decay of the law of value. However the case might appear today, socialism still remains a necessity for capital as an essential support of the system in decay: the problem is how it can be re-engineered as an ideology of progress without concessions, at the level of needs and the law of value, that will obstruct accumulation. It is necessary, in other words, for capital to offer the working class paradigms of hope; otherwise the proletariat will confront its conditions of existence with all the clarity of despair. Even if capital were to extend concessions, however, it is questionable whether these could ever mark the limit of working class struggle rather than the platform from which it begins.
The free market has been recognised as impractical even amongst its friends, without an alternative coherent programme being put forward. The hiatus in working class formation that underlies present conditions of consciousness will allow temporary space for policies of fudge and mudge. The space is not unlimited. The social power of the working class does not go away. This potential has been the presupposition both of the breakdown of social democracy as of the attempt to reverse it, as well as of the breakdown of stalinism. Resolution of the general crisis of social consciousness can only come through the self-consciousness of human creative forces. The infantile political problems related to the preservation of the minute horizons of the ruling groups will be superseded by the practical problems set by the deliberate, self-definition of needs. Ideologies founded on the rationalisation of poverty need to be revealed as limiting forces by the real science that starts from recognition of the abundance within the international productive forces: the uncontainability of the proletariat.
W.Dixon and D.Gorman