Giacomo Marramao on Marxist theories of economic collapse and crisis.
Table of Contents
1. Capitalism and Crisis in the Debate on Organization: between Lenin and Kautsky.
2. The Vicissitudes of the “Theory of Collapse” and the Genesis of “Linksradikalismus”.
3. Imperialist Crisis and the “Imminence of Revolution”: the Leninist Phase of “Linksradikalismus”.
4. The “Two Souls” of Linkskommunismus.
5. The Theoretical Phase of Left Communism and the New Framework for the Question of Crisis.
6. Grossmann’s Dynamic Model and the Common Matrix of Plan-ism and Collapse-ism. From “Generalized Imperialist Crisis” to “State Capitalism”.
The constantly recurring refrain “Collapse or Revolution” in the various phases of the development of Marxism is today rightly considered as a fact established by the recent historiography of the workers movement. What has not yet received the attention it deserves, however, is how, in the periodic re-articulation of their diverse theoretical expressions, the two terms of this alternative were taken up by various political positions, often combining under a common denominator heterogeneous and occasionally opposed currents or political positions. Hence our conviction concerning the disorienting character—for a correct historical understanding of the crucial moments of the western workers movement and, consequently, for a theoretical rehabilitation of socialist strategy in the countries of highly-developed capitalism—of the interpretive schema which reduces this picture to the clash of social democracy and Leninism and, more generally as well as within each of the two “domains”, to a reproduction as sterile as it is mythological of the split between the reformist spirit and the revolutionary spirit.
An obvious example of the fruitlessness of such a schema is paradoxically provided by the trajectory of that “left radicalism” which, having arisen at the beginning of the century within the European socialist parties (especially the German and Dutch social democracies), later gave way in the course of its development to an array of complex and disparate positions. What interests us here, however, is not so much to emphasize the historiographical implausibility of those studies that persist in dealing with the phenomenon of Linksradikalismus under the generic aegis of “extremism” (which is true of its defenders as often as of its opponents, as is proven by the continuing failure to distinguish, even in the most recent research in this field, between “Left Communism” or Linkskommunismus and Council Communism or Rätekommunismus, a truly serious defect); we are more interested in showing that the positions of the radical left with respect to the problematicof the destiny of capitalism—which is still very relevant for us—were far from homogeneous and that it is therefore arbitrary and ideologically retrograde to presuppose the existence of a revolutionary line in its pure state, that is, beyond the day to day routine of the workers movement and the contradictions of “reformism”.
Of course, tracing the complex and contradictory trajectory of Linkskommunismus—situated at the key point of collusion and collision between the “Marxism of the Second International” and “Leninism”—to a large extent involves following the processes of class struggle and the theoretical-strategic debate that took place between the turn of the century and the years of the war and the October Revolution; above all, however, it involves the later complication of the shifting positions and terms of debate evident in the period between the beginning of the “stabilization phase” and the great crisis of 1929 (which was also the era of the Communist International’s “Left Turn”). In the period between the wars, in the face of the resistance of the capitalist States and the stagnation of the movement, a problem arose and became increasingly obvious which was responsible for the strategic impotence of the European Left (a problem which had remained in the background as a result of the unfolding of an objective political dynamic during the years of frontal confrontations): crisis theory and the theory of development—“collapse” and “organized capitalism”—were, taken separately or posed as abstract alternatives, hard to square with a precise political position. One need only consider that, if among the supporters of the Zusammenbruchstheorie one finds, together with Kautsky (or at least the “orthodox” Kautsky), an evolutionist like Heinrich Cunow and a revolutionary like Rosa Luxemburg, among its opponents we also discover, together with another one of the outstanding leaders of social democracy like Otto Bauer, one of the leading theoreticians of left communism, Anton Pannekoek, as well as the “reformist” Rudolf Hilferding. Nor do I think it was merely by chance that it was precisely the latter who, in a report presented in 1927 at the SPD’s Kiel Congress—a report justly reckoned among the key texts in the debate on organized capitalism—insisted that in his opposition to “collapse-ism” he had not hesitated to embrace the activist postulate of “Linksradikalismus”: “We have always been of the opinion,” Hilferding claimed, “that the collapse of the capitalist system must not be fatalistically awaited since, far from being the product of the system’s internal laws, it must be the result of the conscious action and the will of the working class. Marxism has never been fatalism, but to the contrary a maximum activism.”
This tangle of positions, which at first glance could give the impression of a paradoxical quid pro quo between extremism and reformism, must not however lead us to the all-too-convenient and sterile denunciation of the “limits” of the “western” left (or “western” Marxism), but instead should encourage us to understand the complexity and richness (although certainly not free of contradictions or shortcomings) of its problematic, which—far from constituting a dead end—interacts profoundly with the problems of Leninism and with the most advanced organizational and ideological levels reached by bourgeois hegemony.
To acquire an idea, even a partial one, of the complexity of this problematic, it will be necessary to highlight three of its aspects which until now have remained obscure but, in our opinion, are nevertheless fundamental:
1. The convergences and points of intersection of certain positions of Linkskommunismus and certain “varieties” of the Marxism of the Second International.
2. The multifaceted character—in the determinist sense—of the “theory of collapse”, whose fate must be viewed in connection with the distinct historical phases of the dialectic between capitalist development and the workers movement, in which it not only plays various roles by being attached sometimes to opposed political positions, but also undergoes its own internal transformations, assuming distinct epistemological “statutes” and distinct ways of focusing on the theme of crisis.
3. The change of function of the theoretical moment of analysis of capitalism and its developmental tendencies, through the work of the most sensible and advanced part of “left communism”, in the post-war era and, above all, at the end of the 1920s.
For all these reasons, the considerations we shall articulate, while not allowing of a restricted frame of reference in the positions of Linkskommunismus, are not on other hand intended as a specialized treatment of the debate on the destiny of capitalism within Central European Marxism. We instead propose to examine—within the framework of a broad-based investigation—the outstanding points in which this debate was later framed, in the magnetic field between the two poles of “Leninism” and the “Marxism of the Second International”. During the course of our essay we shall try to specify the diverse venues and moments of this complex framework of debate, with reference to polemics and thematic aspects that, due to the particular conjuncture in which they were written or because of their value in characterizing a certain period, seem to us to possess an emblematic prominence.
1. Capitalism and Crisis in the Debate on Organization: between Lenin and Kautsky.
In January 1916 Lenin’s article “Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International” appeared in the German journal Vorbote. The reason for starting with this article, for the purposes of the general economy of this essay, is based not so much on the fact (which is otherwise of such great historical importance) that it is a lucid balance sheet of the regression of German social democracy, but rather on the circumstance that a specific connection is adduced within it. That is, Lenin strictly relates the method and the merit of this critique of what he considers to be the extremely virulent stage of the opportunism of the Second International—social chauvinism—to the rehabilitation of the theory of the final crisis, seen as a fundamental basis for the possibility of an imminent revolution: “The epoch of capitalist imperialism is the epoch of mature capitalism, which is overripe and on the verge of collapse.”
Despite appearances, Lenin was not proposing to dust off the old Zusammenbruchstheorie, which was integral to the doctrinal corpus of the first phase of the Second International, but was instead proposing to resolve the collapse/revolution duality in the concept of revolutionary crisis. If we situate this work of reflection in the world-historical moment when it was written—we are in the midst of full-scale war and on the eve of revolution—we also discover its powerful political burden: a lot of water has passed under the bridge, in the course of long and embittered tactical-organizational debates in the Russian and German social democracies. Nor is it by accident that one of the principle targets of the Leninist critique in this article should be Kautsky’s theory of “super-imperialism”. The “completely political” character of Lenin’s discourse does not arise from the contingencies of a particular historical moment, especially favorable to the revolutionary forces in Russia, but from a more than decade-long strategic inquiry, characterized by the hypothesis of a new organic connection between the theoretical form and the organizational form of the class struggle on a world scale. The Leninist category of imperialism can be read, in its totality, from this perspective: it presupposes a necessary interpretation of the social tendencies of development which cause the relations of force between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to undergo rapid dislocation in a new phase which favors the former. His “theory” of imperialism (which has frequently been subjected to perfectly legitimate, although abstract criticisms, as a result of their having been conducted on a purely scientific-economic terrain) directly derives from and depends on this evaluation of the entirety of the relations of force on a world scale, and therefore fits into a tactical-organizational model which had already been prepared: the Bolshevik model.
Lenin was certainly not alone in this effort of elaboration, which lasted from 1905 to 1917. He neither acted nor thought within the splendid isolation of the cosmic-historical individual as he has been preferably depicted by the sterile hagiography of a stereotyped Marxism-Leninism reduced to an empty formula, but was instead engaged in a dense and heated debate which pitted the leading exponents of the workers movement against each other and which had its origins in the Bernstein-Debatte. Ten years before Lenin wrote the article referred to above, Rosa Luxemburg, in her famous essay “Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions” (1906), had in effect made a completely analogous use of the categories of “crisis” and “imperialism”: the imperialist and militarist phase of the bourgeoisie starkly posed the alternative “socialism” or “imperialism” and objectively determined a qualitative leap in spontaneous mass action. The mass strike then became a form of expression and also at the same time an instrument of a relation of force between the classes in struggle, which is the product of an objective situation. The controversy over tactics, the Organisationsfrage, provided an enormous impetus to the internal political struggle of social democracy, and also led to a qualitative leap with respect to the debate over revisionism, where it had originally started; it is precisely this, at the nerve center of the polemic on the mass strike, which led, in effect, to a split within the party’s “orthodox front” (the break between Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg), with the characterization of a new “radical” tendency (that would be joined, as we shall see, by Pannekoek as well).
It is important to emphasize that, by combining the theory of the inevitability of the imperialist tendency of the capitalist mode of production with the debate on the tactics of social democracy, Rosa came to assert the organizational centrality of the Massenstreik, basing it on the objective proof of a reduction in the space of maneuver for the bourgeois class, from which she deduced the consequence of the latter’s increasing radicalization in a reactionary, aggressive and anti-worker sense. “Thus,” she wrote in her now-famous pamphlet, reflecting on the Russian Revolution, “the mass strike is shown to be not a specifically Russian product, springing from absolutism, but a universal form of the proletarian struggle resulting from the present stage of capitalist development and class relations (. . .) the present Russian Revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already over the summit, which is on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society, at which the bourgeois revolution cannot again be smothered by the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but will, on the contrary,expand into a new lengthy period of violent social struggles, at which the balancing of the account with absolutism appears as a trifle in comparison with the many new accounts opened up by the revolution itself. The present revolution realizes in the particular affairs of absolutist Russia the general results of international capitalist development, and appears not so much as the last successor of the old bourgeois revolutions as the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions in the West. The most backward country of all, just because it has been so unpardonably late with its bourgeois revolution, shows ways and methods of further class struggle to the proletariat of Germany and the most advanced capitalist countries.”
From the context of the Luxemburgian discourse emerges not only an analysis of the relations of forces on an international scale similar to that of Lenin, but also the belief that the irrevocably reactionary and authoritarian character of the development of mature capitalism made the reformist project not just mistaken but obsolete and paradoxically made the revolutionary perspective of backward Russia pertinent for the most advanced countries. Thus the alternative “imperialism or socialism”, which Kautsky had also posed, at least verbally, in his 1909 work The Road to Power, made its appearance. For here, too, the concept of the inevitability of the end of capitalism and of the revolution was based on the prediction of an increasing polarization in the class confrontation between a reactionary (and necessarily imperialist) bourgeoisie on the one side and the proletariat (firmly attached to the social democratic party) on the other. Beyond surface appearances and verbal similarities, however, the adoption of the “orthodox” schema played a completely different, if not totally opposed, function for Kautsky than it did for Rosa Luxemburg. This difference, moreover, can never be grasped if we restrict ourselves to textual analysis; and this is true for the simple but fundamental reason that the center of the debate had shifted from the strictly ideological to the organizational plane. In this latter sense the principles and the very “statutes” of the theory were now reformulated. That this was, on the other hand, the root of the movement’s weaknesses, of the underestimation of the adversary’s capacity for resistance and reorganization which revealed the insufficiency of “orthodox Marxism” for the purpose of scientifically penetrating the complexity of the historical process of the capitalist social formation, is another problem, which we shall address below. It is on the level of the strategic option, however, that we can discover the clear divergence between Kautsky and Rosa, the profoundly different uses to which they put the theory of collapse. While Rosa Luxemburg subordinated the overall analysis of the catastrophic destiny of capitalism to the objective establishment of a new form of organization and action (it was not by accident that she wrote The Accumulation of Capital six years after the pamphlet on the Massenstreik), Kautsky sought to deduce from that analysis a depiction of the relation of forces between the classes which could be harmonized with a gradualist tactic. In an important article published in 1909 in Die NeueZeit, he introduced the usual contrast between advanced Europe and backwards Russia precisely in order to prove, in his polemic with Rosa, the absurdity of an open offensive in the mature phase of the development of the class struggle; the polarization of the conflict into a bourgeois bloc (which is increasingly prone to reaction) and a proletarian bloc, inevitably produced by the imperialist tendencies of capitalism, leads to the avoidance of the use of a form of struggle like the mass strike, which would constitute an adventurous attempt to forcibly bring about an era of rupture. Hence the necessity for Kautsky of drawing a distinct line separating the “strategy of annihilation” from the “strategy of attrition”, which respond to different situations and stages of the relation of forces.
Kautsky’s reasoning was undoubtedly acute and valid, but not to the point of obscuring the pragmatic substance of the operation. I think that we would be committing a serious mistake if we allow ourselves to be led to see in this Kautskian discrimination a presaging note of the subsequent theoretical-strategic reflection of the western workers movement, or even of the Gramscian distinction between a “war of movement” and a “war of position”. Leaving aside the historiographical consideration of both situations, in this connection it is necessary not to lose sight—precisely for a correct “historicization”—of a theoretical aspect which in our opinion cannot be ignored: all of Kautsky’s works lack the moment which in Gramsci underlies the strategic option for a war of position in the advanced capitalist countries: the reactivation and rediscovery of Marx’s critique of political economy and theory of revolution by way of the analysis of the structural ruptures and transformations of the mode of production, which, by determining a specific relation between State and society, politics and economy, in the various social formations, profoundly influence the composition and methods of struggle and the forms of consciousness of the contending classes. The gradualist postulate, grafted onto the trunk of a natural-evolutionist view of the genesis and passing of society’s forms, in turn prevented Kautsky from taking into account the possibility of a productive comparison with the specific morphological framework of the distinct historical moments of capitalist development, obliging him to resort to ascribing the choice of strategy to “superstructural” or purely “political-institutional” factors. Here, if we see clearly, is the root of that juxtaposition of categories (which is also found in various phases of the Kautskian conception) and of that oscillation between economism and politicism which, if it is also typical of the Marxism of the Second International, is nonetheless not a characteristic pertaining to the Second International alone, but which was transmitted to theoretical tendencies and political currents which were declared enemies of that kind of Marxism, such as those later lumped together by Arthur Rosenberg, the great historian of the Weimar Republic, under the rubric “radikalerUtopismus”. In conclusion, although we accept the important critical observations contained in the most recent research concerning the evolution of Kautskian thought, we must point out here that not even in Kautsky at his best did the theory of collapse ever serve as the basis for an autonomous and activist strategy of the working class or for that concept of the “imminence of the revolution” by means of which, after the 1905 Russian insurrection, the European left began to address the discontinuities of the historical process and the unevenness and chronological disjunctions of the processes of economic-social transformation.
2. The Vicissitudes of the “Theory of Collapse” and the Genesis of “Linksradikalismus”
It was therefore around 1910 that the rupture within the “orthodox” wing matured, and an autonomous “radical” tendency took shape in the German social democracy and the Second International—while Kautsky, for his part, upon the occasion of the electoral success of 1912 (which was obtained by the SPD by conducting a very moderate campaign, which allowed it to lay claim to being, with 34.8% of the vote, the strongest party in the Reichstag), definitively opted for the path of centrism. At this point, however, a fundamental circumstance for the purposes of our discourse must be highlighted, to which we already referred in the preceding paragraph: the emergence of a new way of approaching the problematic of the destiny of capitalism, one that has little in common with the Zusammenbruchstheorieof the early Second International (as eloquently expressed in Cunow’s determinist collapse-ism).
Contrary to the canons of the doctrinaire corpus of Marxism (against which Eduard Bernstein had fought with a series of articles entitled “Probleme des sozialismus” which would serve as the basis for his Presuppositions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy—published in English as Evolutionary Socialism), the theory of crisis, or of “collapse” (as Rosa Luxemburg called it), which was elaborated and heatedly debated during these years, was not limited to the contemplation of the unfolding of an ineluctable law but was intended to activate the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. We have already seen, furthermore, that Kautsky himself had adapted to this new stage of the debate by dropping his previous collapse-ism and elaborating a pragmatic approach—from the political point of view—to the Zusammenbruchstheorie within the framework of a gradualist tactic. The strong symmetry exhibited by the various possible courses of this “objective” trend exhibited by the logic of Capital, which for the revisionists seemed to lead to an algebra of collapse which was just as mythical as that “algebra of the revolution” that Lenin saw was contained in Hegel’s Logic, thus seems to fully justify the retrospective judgment formulated by Korsch immediately after the advent of Nazism, according to whom there had never been a revolutionary theory of crisis per se, which is why those who sought to discriminate among them had to have recourse to fundamental political attitudes which more or less represented crisis theories. For now, we shall set aside Korsch’s acute diagnosis (which was made in the context of a significant discussion of Linkskommunismus) for later analysis, and shall instead attempt to distinguish—precisely in order to facilitate the understanding of the various vicissitudes of the theory of the final crisis in the debates of historical extremism—the forms which the concept of the inevitable end of capitalism assumed in the different stages of the workers movement.
It is in my opinion possible to distinguish three stages of the Zusammenbruchstheorie:
1. The first stage is the theory of collapse that we can define as the “classic theory of the Second International”, developed during the 1890s and set out in exemplary form in the pages of Die NeueZeit by Heinrich Cunow. Cunow made no distinction between the objective and subjective sides of the Marxian exposition of crisis, which is why he did not hesitate to attribute to Marx the naïve catastrophism criticized by Bernstein: “Bernstein claims (…) that we have no reason to expect an imminent collapse of the current system because the atomization of enterprises, which still prevails, would set before us an unrealizable task in a scientific debate concerning the validity of the Marxian view of the capitalist developmental process. This would be justified if it were a matter of provoking the collapse by force, by way of any violent methods, an insurrection, a general strike, etc. But in this case such methods are out of the question; all we want to know is whether the preconditions for a collapse are present or whether they are possible, and in relation to this inquiry neither our will nor our desires matter. The crux of the whole problem is whether our economic development is generating the operative tendencies leading to a general catastrophe; and in regard to this question no desire of ours carries any more weight than the desires of any other party, the national-liberals or the anti-semites, for example.” As one can immediately recognize, this is almost exactly the opposite of Hilferding’s position cited above, but it is also distant enough from the revolutionary collapse-ism of Rosa Luxemburg, who set out precisely to end the divorce of science and action, theory and politics, of the sort rigidly asserted in the Cunowian (and Kautskian) emphasis on the absolute Gesetzmässigkeit of economic development.
2. The second stage began in 1905, after the Russian events, with the debate—aspects of which we have already examined above—concerning the role of the mass strike in the proletarian revolution in relation to the dynamic of imperialist crisis. This gave rise to the tendency which would later take the form of “left communism”; and it was during these same years that the alternative “collapse or revolution” was first posed, that is, the militant debate about whether or not the Zusammenbruchstheorie was compatible with an activist-revolutionary perspective. This stage lasted until about 1924—i.e., until the Stabilisierungsperiode—and also contained the beginnings of so-called “western Marxism”, which has until now been studied, in most cases, in an exclusively ideological,geschichtsphilosophisch key, but never in relation to the concrete dimension of the theoretical-political discussion of those dramatic years in Weimar Germany (and here it is legitimate to ask how it is possible to understand the “Luxemburgism” of the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness and the “radical Leninism” of the Korsch of Marxism and Philosophy without taking into account the impact of the Organisationsfrage, the contradictions of the councils movement and the “theory of the offensive” of Radek and Bela Kun).
3. The third stage—which coincides with the decline and then the defeat of the European workers movement—extended from the mid-1920s to the debate on crisis and state capitalism that took place during the 1920s and 1930s. This stage is emblematically expressed by the stagnation of the catastrophist theory of the Communist International on the one side, and by the development and completion of the theory of cycles “in the bourgeois camp”, on the other. Insofar as it affected the Linksradikalen, the crucial and theoretically most significant point is the debate over Grossmann’s book, which indicates the presence of an organic Zusammenbruchstheorie outside of the Second and Third Internationals. What distinguishes this stage from the previous one is the decline of the debate on “tactics”, which reduced the theory of collapse to a political slogan; hence the impression of a greater separation from politics, directly proportional to the requirement for a scientific-predictive focus on the developmental tendencies of the capitalist mode of production. In its mature analytic and theoretical productions, as we shall see, this perspective would produce a sharp and fertile confrontation with bourgeois economic thought—Keynes in particular—and with the problematic of State intervention.
In order to understand the importance of these stages of the debate on the destiny of capitalism it will now be necessary to first of all examine the internal differences within “left radicalism” during this period—already partly delineated by the polemic between Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg—of the second stage.
In his 1914 book on the political strike Heinrich Laufenberg—who would later, with Wolffheim, become the leader and theoretician of “national bolshevism”—while drawing up a balance sheet of the Massenstreikdebatte instigated by the radical left, claimed that the mass strike was the organic effect of a particular social epoch, characterized by the imperialist phase of capitalism. But if it is true that in regard to this general claim, in which “imperialism” and “the imminence of revolution” were used synonymously, all the Linksradikalen were in agreement (they based their initial support for Lenin on precisely this issue), one cannot say the same about the consequences they deduced from this in terms of the analysis of the objective contradictions of capitalism. In reality the corollaries of this theorem were very far from being taken for granted among the central European left; and, as we shall see, they would not even be accepted as valid within the milieu of Linkskommunismus, when it became organizationally autonomous and separated from the Communist Party. In this connection it is significant that in the polemic that saw them unite against Kautsky, one could already discern the outlines of a divergence between Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek.
3. Imperialist Crisis and “The Imminence of the Revolution”: The Leninist Phase of “Linksradikalismus”.
Although he accepted the Luxemburgian connection between imperialism and mass action, Pannekoek tended to view the crisis-revolution problematic from a decidedly subjectivist angle. His analysis is totally concentrated on the process of the progressive emancipation of the masses from the pedagogic-enlightenment tutelage of political and trade union organizations. In two articles published in Die NeueZeit, which in other respects constituted interventions of notable importance in the debate on the tactics of social democracy, Pannekoek stated that while it is true that revolutionary subjectivity is the result of objective contradictions inherent in economic development, in the current phase the train had overshot the station platform: while the material preconditions for socialism currently exist (i.e., economic objectivity has practically fulfilled and completed its proper function), what was needed now was to produce a true spiritual animation of the proletariat (i.e., the role of subjectivity must acquire unquestionable predominance). The means of activation are exactly those mass actions which reformist passivity denigrates as adventurism. Driven forward in this fashion, the autonomous action of the working class will spontaneously move towards the revolutionary break with the bourgeois State. The theme of proletarian spiritual autonomy is stressed even more in the second article, “MarxistischeTheorie und RevolutionareTaktik”: what is unique about the imperialist stage is not to be found so much in structural aspects, or in a particular new morphological configuration of the capitalist relations of production, but instead in the fact that in the imperialist period the proletariat has conquered the ability to organize itself, its term of apprenticeship in the “classical” competitive capitalism having come to an end, now that it has definitively constituted itself as an autonomous class; furthermore, now that they have acquired the permanent disposition towards a spontaneous sense of organization and solidarity, the workers must emancipate themselves from the tutelage of the party and, more generally, of their historic organizations. In this diagnosis Pannekoek went far beyond Rosa Luxemburg’s theoretical-political positions: while she criticized the fetishism of the organizational apparatus, without thereby denying the necessity for and the function of the party, Pannekoek saw in the latter a bad habit of the past, a superfluous residue destined to be consumed in thefurnace of the “spirit of solidarity” which—in parallel with the tendency of the imperialist bourgeoisie, out of a fear of the approaching end of their system of exploitation, to adopt more aggressive and reactionary positions—will spread over the whole proletariat.
It must immediately be pointed out that, besides the already-mentioned subjectivist tone, Pannekoek’s position also displays an ingenuous bipolar economistic-ethical schema, which renders meaningless any requirement for an analysis of the social-economic structures and institutions of the capitalist system and is thus unable to discern the internal dislocations of the class structure on the basis of the modifications of and the processes of transformation that were revolutionizing the physiognomy of the “classical” capitalism of the 19th century.
It was no mere coincidence, then, that he proposed to integrate Marx’s work—which he considered to be insufficient with regard to the elaboration of the concept of emancipation—with the Dietzgenian theory of the “spirit of the proletariat”: whereas Marx only analyzed the conditioning of the subjective spirit by the economy, Dietzgen, on the other hand, focused the way the spirit operates within the framework of its autonomous activity. If we were to want to make explicit the assumption which constitutes the basis for this view, we would say that, for Pannekoek, Marxian theory is conditioned by an Enlightenment residue, precisely from an historical phase when it was still necessary to “educate” the proletariat, because the latter had not yet reached its full independence and voluntary activity. The root of this Jacobinism was alleged to be the unilateral concept of science (substantially positivist and very much a product of the 18th century) accepted—as a result of the particular historical situation—in Marxian theory, which therefore remained a kind of incomplete revolution in the sphere of social thought: “the revolutionary significance of Marxism,” Pannekoek wrote,“consists in having made the doctrine of history and of society into a science of the same character and subject to the same strict rule of law as the natural sciences; its conclusions, which refuted all the old bourgeois conceptions, therefore assumed the certainty of universally accepted natural laws.” The task now posed to the workers movement is to transfer this struggle and this inquiry from the plane of separate objective science to the plane of consciousness and ideologies. The need to “take advantage of Dietzgen’s philosophical clarity in the controversies over tactics” is negatively demonstrated by the enormous influence exercised by “bourgeois philosophical ideas” over the revisionist current, which opened hostilities with the Bernstein-Debatte, that is, with the “first theoretical discussions concerning the fundamentals of Marxism”. Pannekoek justified this operation by pointing to the fact that Marxism must be profoundly renovated in order to adapt to the new situation of the relation between objective conditioning and subjective maturation (the capitalist and working class domains): while at that time “the struggle of the proletariat was essentially preparation and gathering of forces”—which is why theoretical investigation had to assume during that period a predominantly historical and economic character and, symmetrically, the general theory of Marxism never went beyond the statement that “the revolution in the mode of production is also necessarily accompanied by a revolution in the political superstructure, that the spirit is determined by the real material world and that the reality of the economic world progressively gives rise to the existence of the material preconditions for socialism”—in the current imperialist stage the primary task is instead the rediscovery of that “active side” (tätigeSeite) which had remained in the shadows in Marx’s “economic materialism” and which must be recovered with the analysis of the autonomy of the proletariat, of its will and its action. Only in this way can theory be fully realized, that is, find a way out of its own scientistic “separation” and materialize in the activity of the masses.
Imperialism therefore signifies the terminal stage of capitalism, as the imminence of the revolution and its ongoing manifestation as autonomous mass action: if it is true that this general assumption contains the whole internal conundrum of Pannekoek’s discourse, it is nonetheless equally true that it is precisely the coordinates of its generality which provide the reason for his momentary support for Lenin. The reasons for the conjunctural convergence between the Bolshevik praxis and the positions of the Linksradikalen are to be found in the common demand for a new tactic for the workers movement, mediated by the critique of the “old” theoretical form of Marxism, but above all in the political character—referred to above—of the Leninist theory of crisis; which explains the extraordinary effect his theory immediately had on the movement, but also the analytical weakness and precariousness of Lenin’s focus on the theme of imperialism, as would become clear during the course of the 1920s and, above all, after the great crisis of 1929.
In fact, between 1912 and 1917 the main reason for the convergence of Lenin’s position and that of the “radicals” was an apparent, concrete and striking fact: their attitudes towards imperialist war. Between 1911 and 1914 Kautsky defined and completed his conception of imperialist superimperialism based on the alleged contradiction between finance capital, which was supposed to be the true subject and protagonist of imperialist policy, and industrial capital, which was instead said to have an innate vocation for peaceful expansion and coexistence, as it is capable of expansion only when there is an harmonious extension of markets based on free trade: it was from this latter sector, then, that Kautsky saw positive impulses towards international understanding and peace. On the basis of this analysis he arrived at the conclusion that it was possible to break the bourgeois front by promoting an alliance with the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie, precisely those that represented industrial capital. Which is why, furthermore, Kautsky predicted that, once nationalist and imperialist militarism, supported by the predatory clique of finance capital, was defeated, there would be a shift from inter-imperialist competition (i.e., from that state of tension which permanently threatens to assume the form of open war) to a new form of international organization of capitalist production, which we could define as a kind of cartel of States.
When, at the SPD’s Chemnitz Congress (1912), the party’s president (Haase), Ledebour, Bernstein and Liebknecht himself (who, on the other hand, would in December 1915 take a radical position, breaking party discipline with his personal vote against renewing war credits, and would be punished with expulsion from the parliamentary group) supported this position of Kautsky’s (the Congress concluded with a resolution in favor of peace, understanding between nations, disarmament and free trade), Pannekoek—demonstrating impressive understanding and long-range political vision—did not hesitate to define the Kautskyan hopes as illusory and stressed that the only solution was the final revolution carried out by the workers themselves. He thus anticipated Karl Liebknecht’s position by three years, who would define Kautsky’s struggle against the “domestic truce” (Burgfrieden) as “utopian”; Kautsky wanted the SPD majority who voted for war credits to support a peace without annexations and create a situation where the proletariat would have the best democratic opportunities. The war thus became the moment of truth in the political confrontation between the moderate and opportunist fraction of social democracy and the revolutionary fraction, and it was therefore the practical attitude towards the war that drew the line between the reformist right and the Linksradikalen.
Until 1920, the various components of “historical extremism” were united first of all by their rejection of all compromise with the bourgeoisie, then by the critique of the Second International’s “exogenism”, which viewed the war as a momentary perturbation of the “normal” socio-economic course of events, with the resumption of which, as Kautsky said, the movement’s internal “disagreements” would also disappear (it is significant that, even during the latter half of the 1920s, Hilferding still conceived of war as external violence crashing down on the natural rhythm of economic law: to complete this thought, it would have been enough to restart the mechanism, almost as if it were not a matter of its own organic character, but a transitory interruption of an intrinsically perfect automatic mechanism).
For the left, on the other hand, the war was not an episodic event, just as the victorious October Revolution, which survived long enough to confirm its analysis, was the world-historical manifest form of the system’s imminent end and the reality of the revolution.
In 1918, Herman Gorter, the other great Dutch leader and theoretician of Linkskommunismus, welcoming the October Revolution as the advent of the era of the workers councils, which he said constituted “a striking example (…) offered by the development of imperialism to the workers of western Europe, of how they must act to achieve unity and victory,” declared: “the Russian Revolution is the first revolution made entirely by Marxists according to Marxist theory. Anarchist, syndicalist, reformist and pseudo-Marxist theories (such as, for example, the Kautskyan theories) are proven to be unusable in the revolution.”
The October Revolution thus served to trigger an extraordinary accelerating impulse to the ideological-political development of the whole European left. In 1918, the activities of the Linksradikalen, which had until then evolved within social democracy, began to take on a politically important autonomous role. However—and here we come to a crucial point in our essay—if it can be said that, prior to the 1920s, it was a matter of complete indifference what practical positions were assumed with regard to being a defender or an adversary of the theory of collapse, this aspect will henceforth constitute a primary rallying point, on the political plane as well, within “left communism”.
4. The “Two Souls” of Linkskommunismus
The Bremer Linke (InternationaleKommunistenDeutschlands) and the Spartakusbund merged into the KPD(S). But within the KPD itself two souls continued to exist: that of the “Bremen Left”, inspired by Anton Pannekoek, and that of the Luxemburgian current. So we once again pick up the thread of the disagreement that, as we have seen, ran just under the surface across the leftist front, in the form of the varied inflexions of the attitudes of Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg between 1906 and 1913. Now, at the beginning of the 1920s, the internal disagreement of the radicals broke out into the open. We shall synthetically set out its stages of development.
In 1922, after having attempted to form a left opposition in the Comintern (at the Third Congress), Karl Schröder’s Berlin group—linked to what was known as the EssenerRichtung (the “Essen Tendency”)—called for the immediate foundation of a communist workers international. The Berliner Richtung(the “Berlin Tendency”) did not support the proposal, in consideration of the still-inadequate political-subjective conditions. The radicals’ International (InternationaleArbeiter-Assoziation)—which would immediately be re-baptized as the “KommunistischeArbeiter-Internationale”—was founded only by the EssenerRichtung and the corresponding current within the Dutch Communist Workers Party (the KAPN).
The theme of the ensuing debate was precisely the prognosis for the short-term future of capitalism. While the “Essen Tendency” embraced the “Theory of the Death Crisis” (Todeskrisentheorie), the “Berlin Tendency” saw the revolutionary solution, brought about by the exclusive autonomous subjectivity of the working class, as the determinant factor in the end of the system. It is interesting to observe that these two opposed wings cited Gorter and Pannekoek, respectively, whom Lenin had lumped together in his polemic against “extremism”. In fact, the founding theses of the KAI (KommunistischeArbeiter-Internationale) substantially reiterate positions set forth in the “Open Letter to Comrade Lenin”, written by Gorter in 1920 in response to Lenin’s essay on extremism.
In this work of the Dutch “Tribunist” we find, besides the thesis, common to all Linkskommunismus, concerning the “bourgeois” character of the Russian Revolution as a peasant revolution, a nexus between the strategic need to guarantee and safeguard the “pure” working class character of the European revolution and the prediction of the “death crisis”, which is why it is of such vital and immediate importance to form a “workers international”: “Theory,” Gorter wrote, “teaches us that capital is formidably concentrated in banks, trusts and monopolies. In the West and especially in England and Germany, these banks, trusts and cartels have integrated almost all the capital of the various sectors of industry, large or small, and most of agriculture, both large-and small-scale, has come to be totally dependent on big capital, and has been incorporated within it.” The conclusion which he drew from this analysis of capitalist concentration was undoubtedly that of the imminence of the final crisis and of the advent of the revolution; nonetheless, a doubt remained which in itself pointed towards a serious theoretical impasse: “Capital is certainly terribly weakened. The crisis is coming and, along with it, the revolution. And I believe that the revolution will be victorious. But there are still two factors upholding the stability of capitalism: the spiritual slavery of the masses and finance capital.”
Gorter’s diagnostic thus exemplifies the oscillation between capitalism’s collapse and its authoritarian reorganization which would characterize Linkskommunismus throughout the period between the two wars and whose roots are to be found precisely in that Marxism of the Second International the radicals believed to have been definitively superseded. It was not by chance that in his response to Lenin the Dutch Tribunist once again took up the theory (previously championed by Kautsky) of the predominance of finance capital as the ultimate factor in the concentration and coordination of all industries and as the common fabric, which is all the stronger for its elasticity, of all the social strata with an anti-worker function: “the modern western European (and American) society and State form a vast whole articulated even to its most distant industries, and ruled, put into motion and regulated by finance capital; (…) society is here an organized body, organized according to the capitalist model but organized nonetheless; (…) finance capital is the blood of this body which flows through all its limbs and nourishes them; (…) this body is an organic whole and (…) all its parts owe their extreme vitality to this unity so that they will remain bound to it until death. All except the proletariat, which is the creator of the blood, surplus value. Due to this dependence of all the classes of capital and the formidable power at its disposal, all these classes are hostile to revolution and the proletariat stands alone. And since finance capital is the most elastic and malleable power in the world, and since it knows how to multiply its influence a hundred-fold by means of credit, it succeeds in keeping the capitalist class, society and State united, even after this horrible war, after the loss of millions, and in a situation which seems to us to be its bankruptcy. Even so, it succeeds in unifying all the classes more solidly around it (with the exception of the proletariat) and organizes their common fight against the proletariat. This power, this elasticity, and this mutual support of all classes, are capable of lasting a very long time even after the outbreak of the revolution.”
The lack of any relation between the moments of the analysis of autonomous workers action as an inherent phase of revolutionary crisisand of the description of the tendencies toward concentration under the aegis of finance capital, explains the absence in Gorter’s discussion (which is otherwise so stimulating and rich in insights) of any interest in the structural-institutional effects of the passage from the anarchy of competition to the “despotic” reorganization of society and the economy under the control of a single authority. But if the growing emphasis—which is in many respects ideological, insofar as it is not supported by specific economic research—on the importance of finance capital must be seen in relation to the theoretical limitations of the workers movement of those years (which was not even aware of Lenin’s Imperialism), the simplistic diagnosis that reduces the complex problem of the class structure of western societies to a fragile bipolar schema based on the juxtaposition of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (in which the support of all the other social layers for the policies of finance capital is taken for granted) was in reality a legend derived from the Kautskian tradition of the Second International, but which we shall find expressed, after the “left turn” of 1929, in the “class against class” tactic of the Communist International. At the root of the conundrums of Linkskommunismus, then, was undoubtedly a profound inadequacy of the instruments of analysis of capitalist development, which prevented it from understanding the endogenous, that is, organic character of the crisis, and the intimate relation between crisis and political-institutional reorganization, and consequently also prevented it from grasping the changing tendency of the class dynamic and focusing on its roots in the reorganization of the factory system and social labor as a whole. The fact, however, that this theoretical difficulty was so flagrantly manifested among the classic representatives of “left communism” does not mean that it was an exclusive attribute of the latter.
It was, rather, a limitation also shared by the “majority tendencies”—socialist and communist—of the workers movement, something which, going beyond paradox, “historical extremism” had in common with the Third International. As we shall see, few and far between were the reflections in the Marxist camp that would be based upon the highest levels of the social and economic reorganization of the capitalist relation in order to reformulate the terms of discourse concerning the crisis and its relation to strategy at this level.
5. The Theoretical Phase of Left Communism and the New Terminology for the Problem of Crisis
The internal division within Linkskommunismus—officially sanctioned by the 1924 split—between those who engaged in further elaboration of the subjective aspect of the discourse (and therefore put the accent on the possibility that economic crises would be absorbed and anticipating the progressive concentration of the system of exploitation) and the “neo-collapsists”, concealed an unresolved issue, which both views had in common: in neither of the two tendencies could one find a combined analysis of structural transformations and social-political changes. Instead, both turned to the “classic” dualism of economic law and the subjective factor which, by dissolving the problem of the State within the “ideological” or “spiritual rule” of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, made both sides in fact equal in their political sterility. It is not by chance that even in Gorter’s reflections discussed above, the hypostasis of the process of concentration of finance capital corresponds to that aspect of “spiritual power”, of geistigeMacht, on the supposedly political field, which played a decisive role in Pannekoek’s “anti-collapse” conception (and which, in the final analysis, was not so different from social democratic thought, which sought the reason for the crisis or the success of capitalism in the “moral factor”).
The fact that this inability to achieve a strategic reconstruction of its foundations cast doubt, in the tragic Weimar years, upon the most fundamental postulates of the movement’s Weltanschauung, was already clear to the most lucid and well-known intellects of the “western European left”. It is enough to recall that, precisely at the beginning of the 1930s, an intellectual like Karl Korsch unhesitatingly began to speak of a “crisis of Marxism”: “Marxism today is in the midst of an historical and theoretical crisis. It is not simply a crisis within the Marxist movement, but a crisis of Marxism itself. This crisis reveals itself externally in the complete collapse of the dominant position—partially illusory, but also partially real—that Marxism held during the pre-World War I era in the European working class movement. It reveals itself internally in the transformation of Marxist theory and practice, a transformation which is most immediately apparent in Marxists’ altered position vis-à-vis their own national state as well as with respect to the bourgeois system of national states as a whole. It is deceptive and even false to see the theoretical origins of the present crisis as resulting either from a perversion or an oversimplification of Marx and Engels’ revolutionary theory at the hands of their successors. It is equally misleading to juxtapose this degenerated, falsified Marxism to the ‘pure theory’ of Marx and Engels themselves. In the final analysis, today’s crisis is the crisis of Marx and Engels’ theory as well. The ideological and doctrinaire separation of ‘pure theory’ from the real historical movement, as well as the further development of theory, is itself an expression of the present crisis.”
What nonetheless remained obscure in the Korschian denunciation of the fissure which had opened up between theory and movement was the problem of the verification of the methodological assumptions and conceptual framework of the analysis of capitalist development accepted at that time in the workers movement; a verification which was all the more necessary when one considers that it was precisely during the 1920s and 1930s that bourgeois social and economic thought underwent a burst of extraordinary fecundity. It was precisely this circumstance that made the poverty and inadequacy of the internal debate within Linkskommunismusso striking.
The work of Henryk Grossmann, occupying the point of intersection between “bourgeois theory” and the workers movement, heralded a decisive turning point, facilitating a partial escape from this impasse and opening a new phase of debate, characterized by a multifaceted focus on the problematic of the destiny of capitalism, and bequeathing a heritage which—during the years of workers defeat and fascism—would allow a whole group of Weimar intellectuals and “council communists” to confront the new tendencies and organizational forms of the capitalist economy, from the nazi-fascist regimes to the New Deal, by means of a deepening of the category of “state capitalism”. Grossmann’s book The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System was published in 1929, the year when the depression began, and circulated during the phase of the movement’s reflux and liquidation. His elliptical revision of Zusammenbruchstheorie, however, could not (and furthermore did not attempt to) serve as a direct instrument of political combat: that is, it was not a book for activists in the strict sense of the term. This fact, however, does not detract from its historical importance, which can only be understood by those who make the effort to grasp its innovative aspects in connection with the general problems of the workers movement of those years. The Grossmannian program of a scientific exposition of the developmental tendencies of capitalism is not formulated on the basis of (or at the same level as) the earlier crisis theories. What is more, the latter are at first subjected to a dual critique: 1) because they remain anchored in a rigid preconceived assumption of underconsumption; 2) because they did not differentiate (and therefore made unjustified inferences) between the “logical plane” and the “historical plane” (the scientific exposition of the tendential laws and the real movement), both in defense of as well as in the criticism of the Marxian analysis of capitalism. We cannot take the time here to consider the extremely well-articulated way Grossmann develops this two-pronged critique in his major works and in his “epistemological” essays, but shall focus our attention on providing an outline of their most general aspects, which will nonetheless give the gist of their originality and qualitative rupture with respect to the previous debates on crisis.
The characteristic feature of Grossmann’s theory—which is especially noteworthy when compared with Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, or with the analyses of imperialism made during the 1920s by the Luxemburgian Sternberg—is the deepening of the elements of epistemological discrimination between the logical structure (and internal functionality) of Marx’s categories and that of the two classical epigones. This allowed Grossmann to recover the hermeneutical capacity of the theory of value in relation to the nexus of production and reproduction. Hence his critique calls attention to the various forms of underconsumption and the recognition of the common “exogenist” cast of the collapse-ist and plan-ist explanations of the developmental mechanisms of capitalism. Despite the continuing survival of vestiges of Second International sociologism (visible in the definition of the abstract-concrete relation in terms of “procedures of approximation” or “methods of isolation”), the Grossmannian critique of the shifting of the axis of the development of crisis towards the realization of surplus value (the market) expressed a powerful demand that Marxist analysis must measure up to the complex character of the system’s development, which must be grasped in its productive-reproductive unity, rather than by means of the dual schema of production-underconsumption.
During the early 1930s, Grossmann’s work was read and debated not only within the European left but also among the emigrant groups of Linksradikalen in the United States. It was precisely during this period that the United Workers Party published a manifesto that practically embraced the Grossmannian theory as the theoretical basis for a new orientation of the workers movement. This manifesto provided Pannekoek with the opportunity to reopen the polemic concerning the theory of collapse in the theoretical organ of European “council communism, Rätekorrespondenz.
In his article Pannekoek substantially reiterated the anti-collapse arguments he had employed twenty years earlier in the crisis debates, and accused Grossmann of having a bourgeois view of “economic necessity”, which he claimed was a mythical “extra-human power” for Grossmann. The theoretical basis for the critique was once again the abstract postulate (that is, it was not analytically mediated) of the unity and reciprocal interpenetration of the objective side and the subjective side, the economy and politics: “Economics, as the totality of men working and striving to satisfy their subsistence needs, and politics (in its widest sense), as the action and struggle of these men as classes to satisfy these needs, form a single unified domain of law-governed development.” It is thus evident that Pannekoek’s activist subjectivism was not only incapable of confronting the methodological instrumentation of Grossmann’s book, but, when faced with the need to set forth theoretical alternatives, was obliged to to the safe haven of the Second International’s old concept of Gesetzmässigkeit, of which the two attitudes of economism and ethical voluntarism ultimately were variants. But the aspect we would most like to emphasize here is the appearance, in the last part of his article, of the prediction of an “organized capitalism” of an authoritarian type, which, however, would still not necessarily result in the integration (or irreversible defeat) of the working class, but in an acceleration and spread of the process of the total unification of the latter. “It is not due to the economic collapse of capitalism but to the enormous development of its strength, to its expansion all over the Earth, to its exacerbation of political oppositions, to the violent reinforcement of its inner strength, that the proletariat must take mass action, summoning up the strength of the whole class. It is this shift in the relations of power that is the basis for the new direction for the workers’ movement.” Even though it is possible to discern in this prognosis the faint outline of that overwrought ideologization of the category of “state capitalism” that would be carried out during the 1940s by some theoreticians of the ultra-left (among others, Korsch), for which the process of the total socialization of the working class was the mirror image of the capitalist concentration process, Pannekoek’s intervention once again proved to be very impoverished in terms of any indications concerning the strategic problem of the analysis of the new phenomena of the capitalist process. Nor was it by chance, furthermore, that this critique of Grossmann should denounce an approach to theory and crisis in a way that was methodologically much less differentiated and articulated than the attempt made years before by Korsch in the journal Proletarier in his essay “Some Fundamental Presuppositions for a Materialist Discussion of Crisis Theory”, referred to in Part 1 above.
“A great shortcoming of the form in which the discussion of crisis took place hitherto, especially in the circles of the left and far-left wings of the workers’ movement, was to be found in their search for a ‘revolutionary’ crisis theory per se, just as in the middle ages one searched of the philosopher’s stone. Historical examples, however, can demonstrate quite easily that possession of such a supposedly highly revolutionary crisis theory says little about the actual level of class consciousness and revolutionary preparedness for action of a group or individual believing in the theory.” If we momentarily disregard the implicit assumption of the Korschian approach (which is immediately obvious if it is compared to the earlier piece on the crisis of Marxism), one cannot help but appreciate the implicit novelty of the distinction between political positions and the scientific “paradigms” of Krisentheorie. The distinguishing element of the various crisis theories that appeared on the stage of the workers movement must not be sought in their internal conceptual construction or their methodological bases, but in the attitude that animated them."
Korsch then extracted from this criterion of orientation to realize a total balance sheet of the crisis debates and distinguished two basic types of Krisentheorie:
1. The first kind was the “official social democratic crisis theory” which—descended directly from Bernstein—found its greatest representatives in Hilferding, Lederer, Tarnow and Naphtali;
2. The second kind was the “objectivist theory of crisis”, classically formulated by Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital, and later upheld by Sternberg and Grossmann.
The characteristic trait of the subjectivist crisis theories—which culminated during the 1920s in the concept of “organized capitalism”—is the “ideological reflection of past stages of the real movement of capitalist economy, counter-posing it to the present changed reality as fixed and rigid ‘theory’”. Unlike Pannekoek, Korsch had a good grasp of the political risks of such a conception, which in reality destroys “all the objective bases of the proletarian class movement”, reducing socialism’s strategy to a mere “moral demand”.
On the other hand, the objectivist theory of crisis which conceives of “an objectively given economic tendency of development whose ultimate goal can be grasped in advance employs pictorial notions rather than unequivocally determined scientific concepts. Furthermore, it is founded inevitably on insufficient induction” and appears to Korsch “as not suitable for bringing forward that full earnestness of self-disciplined activity of the proletarian class struggling for its own goals, which is as much necessary for the class war of the workers as it is for every other kind of war.”
To these two positions Korsch opposes “a third fundamental stance to the crisis question” which “alone deserves the designation of a truly Marxian materialist stance. This position explains the whole question of the objective necessity or avoidability of capitalist crises as a senseless question in this general form(within the framework of a practical theory of the revolution of the proletariat). It agrees with the revolutionary critic of Marx Georges Sorelwho will not consider Marx’s general tendency of capitalism to catastrophe generated by the insurrection of the working class—colored in a strong idealist-philosophical ‘dialectical’ manner of speech—as valid scientific prognosis, but merely as a ‘myth’ whose whole significance is limited to determine the currentaction of the working class.” Despite his strong subjectivist inflection, Korsch was not attempting here to dissolve the categorical framework of Marxian analysis in a generic activism, nor much less to reformulate a new form of revolutionary syndicalism, but was instead provocatively expressing the requirement of a “disaggregation” of Marx’s morphological prediction (consider, furthermore, the function of “myth” within Gramsci’s rehabilitation of Marxism, after the real “split” reflected in the Revisionismus-Debatte) as a condition sine qua non to make it hermeneutically and practically effective. “The materialist stance”, he hastily adds, “is, however, not in accord with Sorel when he quite generally wants to limit the function of any future social theory of revolution to form such a myth. The materialist stance rather believes that certain, if only always limited, prognostic statements sufficient for practical action can be made on the basis of always more exact and thorough empirical investigation of the present capitalist mode of production and its recognizable immanent tendencies of development.”
However, by defining the “activist-materialist attitude” in such an undoubtedly evocative way (which hearkens back to Lenin’s 1894 critique of “the subjectivism of the revolutionary populist Mijailovski and the objectivism of the erstwhile Marxist theoretical guide Struve”) Korsch passed over a basic theoretical problem: the non-linear nature of the relation between what is “logical” and what is “historical” in the Marxian analysis of capitalism. As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere, this gap in the Korschian discourse—which is manifested in a declared indifference towards the specific modality by which the “laws” which explain capitalist reality operate—must be viewed in the context of a lack of understanding of the strategic role that the distinction between the mode of research and the mode of exposition (Forschungs und Darstellungsweise) plays in Capital. In this connection, the important theoretical points made by Paul Mattick in Rätekorrespondenz in defense of Grossmann sound like a response not only to Pannekoek’s critique, but also to the more complex Korschian attempt to carry out a “pragmatization of the dialectic”. What was criticized in Grossmann as an “economistic” perspective, as a limitation of analysis to “purely economic” aspects, was in reality the result of a scientific application of the Marxian idea of dialectics, which coincides with neither a generic “holism” nor with the philosophical postulate of the “unity of opposites”: “For Grossmann, too”, Mattick wrote, “purely economic problems do not exist. This does not prevent him, however, from limiting himself in his analysis of the law of accumulation, formethodological reasons, to the definition of purely economic assumptions, and thus from theoretically grasping an objective limiting-point of the system. The theoretical understanding that the capitalist system, through its internal contradictions, must necessarily move towards collapse by no means leads him to consider that the real collapse is an automatic process, independent of men.”The Marxian analysis of the capitalist system is scientific not because it reflects the real history of the mode of production, but because it defines its structural prerogatives through the study of the forms in which the basic contradiction between productive forces and relations of production are reproduced in the passage from simple reproduction to extended reproduction.
If on the one hand disequilibrium and crisis do not arise from the disproportion between production and market (that is, as a result of the difficulties of realization) but are already present in simple reproduction, on the other hand what is constant in this process of transformation is the affirmation of the value-form as a totality on the scale of society: in this sense, Mattick concludes, the “movement of capital on the basis of value is nothing but (…) the dialectical movement of society itself”. Ignorance of the irreducible specificity of the Marxian dialectical method has prevented the orthodox as well as the revisionists from grasping the profound meaning of this self-movement of capital” on which the Marxian theory of crisis is based. It is interesting to observe that it was via this route that Mattick would later come to denounce the “epistemological vice” which lay at the root of the celebrated controversy between Böhm-Bawerk and Hilferding concerning the problem of the transformation of values into prices: Marx’s efforts in this regard referred to “the theoretical requirement of proving the validity of the law (of value) in the face of a reality which appears to contradict it. In order to discover whether value relations determine price and market relations, a price theory consonant with value theory was needed. The ‘transformation’ of values into prices of production satisfied this theoretical requirement. For Marx, the problem of the determination of individual prices was of no real interest; all that mattered were value relations and the certainty that the divergence of value and price in reality did not either logically or practically invalidate the concept of value as the key to the fundamental laws of capitalist production.” The divergence of value and price therefore does not invalidate the labor theory of value precisely because the essential nature of the concept from which the “fundamental laws” of the system and its predominant developmental tendency are deduced is not conceived in a linear relation of direct determination with respect to the historical phenomena of development. This central epistemological assumption of Marxian “science” remained completely alien to Hilferding’s point of view, which is why, precisely when he takes up the defense of the theory of value, he actually empties it of its critical substance in order to accept it as an interpretive schema for the real market relations: “For Hilferding, in capitalism social necessity is transformed into the law of value because social relations relate to things and appear as things, as relations between commodities and not as what they really are, that is, social relations of production. Once liberated from the fetishism of commodity production, Hilferding thought that the law of value would be revealed as what it really is—the necessity of regulating the social labor process in accordance with social needs as directly recognized in the needs of men. For Hilferding, it is only in this sense that the law of value is a historical law.”
The analytic effect of this epistemological deformation of the law of value is the inability—shared, as we have seen, by almost all parties to the debate—to explain the crisis as an organic phenomenon of the capitalist system; this inability to penetrate the contradictory dynamic of development nourished not only naïve catastrophism but also the success the idea of an “exogenous” Regulierung enjoyed during the 1920s, which gave rise to the famous “theory of organized capitalism”. “The fact that the clique of neo-harmonists”, Grossmann wrote to Mattick in 1937, “the Hilferdings and the Bauers, have been systematically trying to distort Marx(…) is noreason for us to collaborate with the neo-harmonists. Having consistently followed Marx’s reasoning to the end, how is it possible that, in simple reproduction, where such a harmonious equilibrium seems to reign everywhere, a crisis develops? Only then will you discover in Marx some theoretical elaborations which the ‘philosophers’ have never even heard of, not even those who, like Karl Korsch, imagined that they understood some Marxian economics.” Significantly, these harsh words came three years after the important anti-critique in which Mattick, polemicizing against Pannekoek, indirectly called attention to the fact that, despite the insightfulness of his summary of the debates concerning crisis theory, Korsch had not grasped the novelty and originality of Grossmann’s work in a workers movement which was divided and oscillating between underconsumptionism and plan-ism.
6. Grossmann’s Dynamic Model and the Common Source of Plan-ism and Collapse-ism. From “Generalized Imperialist Crisis” to “State Capitalism”.
While, in the period between 1928 and 1934, the Communist International established an extremely close connection between imperialism and crisis which clearly pointed towards a theory of collapse—assuming, above all in Varga’s works, an underconsumptionist reading of crisis—in the European social democracy the debate concerning organized capitalism took shape. In the report to the Kiel Congress mentioned above, Hilferding defined this controversial concept in the following terms: “Organized capitalism means (…) the replacement of the capitalist principle of free competition by the socialist principle of planned production.” Such a task immediately posed the problem of the relations between the program of economic planning and the State as the centralized technical hub of organization and fulfillment of that program, by means of which the working class takes the productive apparatus under its control: “This means nothing less than the fact that our generation is faced by the task of transforming, with the help of the State, that is, with the help of conscious social regulation, this economy organized and directed by the capitalists into an economy directed by the democratic State.” Hilferding integrates this scheme of (techno-) political democracy by combining the elements of “enterprise democracy”, or Betriebsdemokratie, with those of “economic democracy”, or Wirtschaftsdemokratie (the latter theme having been most fully elaborated by Naphtali), which were to be realized by way of trade union action, and which were to be related to the State in accordance with a ready-made rigorous framework of representation, which—symptomatically—says not one word about the councils or any other instrument of rank and file democracy.
The fact that the plan-ist perspective failed to discuss the sources of surplus value and the “simple dynamics” of the system (which was considered to be exempt from any disequilibrium or disharmony), and thus remained imprisoned within the “juridical illusion” of resolving the cyclical downturns of the economy by way of a conscious regulation of the anarchy of circulation, was made clear not only by the Hilferdingian version, but also by other planning projects such as those of Henri DeMan or the “French socialists” (Deat). In any case, despite its serious analytic limitations and the ideology with which it was suffused, the theory of organized capitalism reflected, in a certain sense, all the difficulties and contradictions of the workers movement confronted by the vast economic-institutional reorganization processes of western societies. It was this aspect that completely overshadowed the selective class-ism of the European communist (and socialist) left as well as the sectarian perspective of the Communist International.
In 1934, barely one year before the Seventh Congress, Varga liquidated the problem of the planned economy while showing total indifference to the organizational forms of capitalist society, which he viewed as all the same due to the fact that they were utterly incapable of eliminating the exploitation of the workers and crises. But what is of more interest within the context of our discussion is the fact that, in order to supply a bit of “scientific” support to his polemic, the official economist of the Comintern was obliged to resort to the “classic” underconsumptionist explanation which had dominated the Zusammenbruchstheorie side of the debates of the Second International: “capitalism,” Varga wrote, “whether it is based in whole or in part on free competition, or is totally or partially spiced with ingredients of State capitalism, necessarily leads to periodic crises (…) the ‘nationalization’ of credit or a State monopoly in raw materials changes nothing in the framework of the bourgeois State; and ‘underconsumption’ cannot end because the working class will continue to receive only a part of the value it produces in the form of wages, while the other part remains with the capitalists in the form of surplus value and will be used to augment their capital. There is no capitalism without underconsumption, without the limitation of the earnings of the workers to the minimum, as determined by the profits of the capitalists.”
Aside from the facile denunciation of the political incompatibilities and the democratist ideology of the theory of organized capitalism, the new historical fact which the Communist International failed to grasp was precisely that tendency on the part of the capitalists to introduce elements of regulation and control of the economy which, far from being mere tactical instrumentalities for the purpose of obtaining a temporary adjustment of the anarchic market mechanism, implied a direct intervention of the State in the social reorganization of production and, consequently, an increasingly closer connection between the “political” and the “economic”. But the fact that this “detail” escaped its notice was only a consequence of an inability to provide a rigorously “endogenous” explanation of the dynamic of the capitalist crisis, that is, of grasping the contradictory nexus of crisis and development, “anarchy” and “planning”, as an internal structural connotation of the mode of production. Viewed in this light, if we look closely, there was not much difference between the thinly disguised collapse-ism of the Comintern and the plan-ism of the social democrats. To have provided all the elements for a demonstration of the common source (and of the paradoxical interchangeability) of the opposed theories of “generalized imperialist crisis” and “democratic planning” constitutes the most original aspect of Grossmann’s contribution. It is not by accident that his critique applies equally to collapse-ist supporters of the underconsumptionist hypothesis and the “neo-harmonists”: both proved incapable of penetrating the consubstantiality of the crisis of capitalist development, explaining the vicissitudes of the period extending from 1914 to 1919 as “catastrophes” or as “disturbances”, produced in any event by external causes. Both Hilferding and Varga conceived of the war as a consequence of an external accident, a hiatus or momentary interruption of the accumulation process: for Hilferding, the Marxian nexus between crisis and the process of reconstituting the conditions for accumulation disappears, and is replaced by a distribution of the already-attained level of capital accumulation, a mere regression or relapse to a previous stage. The ostensible contrary objectives of the two positions do not contradict this symmetry (Varga’s absolute indifference to any kind of plan corresponds to Hilferding’s exclusive attention to the mere organizational form), which Grossmann even connects to the Hilferdingian tendency—already outlined in Finance Capital (1910)—to extrapolate the analysis of monetary phenomena and financial concentration from the context of the Marxian theory of value, elaborating his own theory of money. As a result neither the debates concerning imperialism nor the investigations into monopolist forms of organization really came to terms with the authentic theoretical structure of the Marxian undertaking, which “explains all of the phenomena of the capitalist mode of production on the basis of the law of value”.
Although having ultimately failed—with its drastic denial of the possibility of any capitalist control over the economy—to have an impact on the historical limits of the debate, Grossmann’s theory possessed the seeds of instrumentalities that would prove decisive for the purposes of analyses of the “morphological” modifications of the system. It would be Friedrich Pollock—who had also, like Grossmann, been formed by that extraordinary meeting-point of the bourgeois social sciences and Marxism represented by the Grünberg-Archiv—who would verify, over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, the possibilities and the limitations of a capitalist planned economy, on the basis of a complex and highly-articulated analysis of the morphology of the international crisis, and to single out a new mode of the functioning of the economy, based on a displacement of the Marxian contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production. If the novelty of Pollock’s research resides in its confrontation with the real historical form of “organized capitalism” which represents state capitalism within the framework of an “endogenous” explanation of the crisis (which is therefore viewed strictly in relation to developmental trends) this was nonetheless unthinkable without Grossmann’s fundamental prolegomena, which constituted the constant methodological rearguard of the work carried out by that Weimar intellectual left that would later become famous under the name of “The Frankfurt School”.
Another aspect of Grossmann’s work that would prove seminal not only for the analyses of the Frankfurt School but also for those of Paul Mattick and his group in the United States, is the attention devoted to the problem of dynamics which, in certain respects aligns the Polish economist with the research on cycles carried out during those same years by Schumpeter and Mitchell, rather than with the “Marxism” of that time—the research of the former took as its starting point the rejection of static systems and the central position of dynamics as the scientific criterion for the analysis of capitalist development. In this context, what Grossmann wrote to Mattick in a 1933 letter seems highly significant: “until now, all Marxists have been the victims of a ‘little misfortune’: they did not understand Marx’s simple reproduction, its real meaning. All of them addressed only extended reproduction as a real problem. In the schema for simple reproduction everything functions perfectly. But Marx wanted to prove precisely the contrary. In simple reproduction, too, crises are inevitable. And this is precisely why Marx is a true dynamicist, in contrast to bourgeois economics, which is essentially static (the ‘tendency to equilibrium’ which automatically asserts itself—crises must therefore arrive like a deus ex machina from outside the system). In Marx disequilibrium is connected with the essence of the system.”
To confirm the points of contact which, despite notable differences, link Grossmann’s research to cycle theory, it is enough to once again cite his continuing confrontation with Tugan-Baranowski, whose text on commercial crises in England had become established among the not merely analytic but also methodological acquisitions of bourgeois economic thought.
On turning our attention now to the diagnostic of the debate on the destiny of capitalism carried out between 1920 and 1939, as viewed in the light of our previous considerations concerning Grossmann’s work, we cannot but be surprised by the position of those who believe it is possible to conveniently draw a sharp dividing line between a stance which affirmed the necessity of collapse through “purely economic” causes, and another stance which instead links the downfall of the system to the “proletariat’s subversive intervention”. Using a touchstone of this kind amounts to erasing in one stroke the characteristic note of the third phase of the debate concerning capitalism’s destiny: the differentiation within the crisis theories along not only political-strategic, but also “epistemological” lines. After 1929, in short, what was imposed upon the movement was not so much an empirical retouching or an “adjustment” of analysis (proposed by the Communist International), but rather a new foundation and a change of form for Marxism: a distinct expression of theory with respect to the entire capitalist social formation, as a precondition for a new relation to revolutionary politics and praxis. If these were the problems of the movement, the recovery of the hermeneutic capacity of the theory of value, the establishment of the moment of reproduction at the center of strategic elaboration, and thus the shifting of the center of gravity of a debate which had until then revolved in a vacuum, the prisoner of the production-consumption opposition, were certainly notmerely academic propositions. Untying the knot of reproduction therefore implied the elaboration of a theoretical model capable of explaining the dynamic of the whole capitalist mechanism, on the basis of that accumulation-crisis nexus, rejected by both social democratic “revisionism” as well as by the Cominterm’s “left radicalism”, by Hilferding as well as by Varga, and—therefore—capable of providing a foundation, by means of scientifically-controlled passages, for the terrain of politics. All of this, for obvious historical reasons, could only have been present in Grossmann in an embryonic state. It would be Marxist economists of the stamp of Mattick and Kalecki who would continue, during the following years, the discourse which began at the end of the 1920s, tackling the problems of state intervention and the dynamics of the capitalist cycle, in a frontal confrontation with Keynesianism and bourgeois economic thought.
The analyses carried out between the wars by Paul Mattick and the working group he organized and led, which published the “councilist” journals International Council Correspondence, Living Marxism and New Essays, are important because they reformulated crisis theory in a manner that was no longer ideological and/or empiricist, but by way of a more profound understanding of the circulation-production nexus and of the relation between the State and the process of reproduction. In this sense they also provided the key to an interpretation which is not purely sociological, but “structural-morphological”, of fascism and the various forms of state capitalism. If, then, during the 1930s and 1940s the most vital component of Linkskommunismus could productively take on phenomena and aspects unknown to the debate of the 1920s, this was due in no small part to the fact that—in the study of the various forms of capitalist concentration and organization—it had taken from Grossmann the theoretical instruments required for the avoidance of the repeated suggestions offered by the underconsumptionist hypotheses (which, in a new guise, made notable headway during the 1960s with Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital) and also for going beyond the Hilferdingian conception, which had weighed just as heavily on the development of collapse-ist theory of imperialist concentration as on the plan-ist theory of organized capitalism. We shall subject this last point to closer examination and attempt to arrive at some kind of conclusion.
His critique of Hilferding allowed Grossmann to make further distinctions concerning the relation between finance capital and industrial capital and also to recover an aspect of Lenin’s analysis that he considered to be valid and seminal: “As for your questions,” he wrote in a letter to Mattick dated June 21, 1931, “I want to make it clear first of all that I oppose Hilferding’s concept of ‘finance capital’ but not Lenin’s. The two concepts are fundamentally different. Hilferding understands by finance capital, bank capital; he does not ask himself what lies behind this bank capital. I fought against this conception of the decisive role of bank capital. Lenin, on the other hand, did not define finance capital as bank capital, but as the fusion of monopolist capital, above all of industrial capital, with state power and state policy which is an instrument of that capital. It is a completely different thing. It is obvious that the banks are mediators of capital expansion. But we must ask ourselves whether, for example, the North American bankers play the principal role in the economic life of the United States, whether they make the decisions concerning the direction of American policies of expansion, or whether they are instead only organs of the industrial magnates who have their representatives in the administrative apparatus of the banks. In my book I tried to prove (in a very succinct manner, of course) that in the initial stages of industrial development bank capital has an autonomous influence. In an advanced stage it is the magnates of industry who practically control the banks. I agree with the fundamental role of finance capital in the Leninist sense, insofar as Lenin—like myself—does not speak of ‘bank capital’, but to the contrary of industry controlling the state and its policies.”
As he wanted this judgment of the Leninist concept of imperialism to be assessed in the strictly economic sense, Grossmann thus sought to assert—utilizing Lenin against the “neo-harmonists”—a theoretical demand that was also implicitly (for the whole European workers movement) a strategic demand: the analysis of the mode of functioning of capitalist society on the basis of the mutual interpenetration of circulation and production, reproduction and production, politics and economics. Based on the process of restructuring which, at the highest levels of development, was then taking place in the big factories and seemed to be the unavoidable precondition for grasping and verifying the efficacy of that mutual interpenetration in the process of the social reorganization of labor and capital in their entirety, which reproduced on an extended scale (and, as Pollock would later define it, displaced) the contradiction between forces of production and relations of production. In the final pages of his book Grossmann sees the relation between banks and big industry in a way completely opposite to Hilferding’s position: the resulting accumulation allowed very high rates of self-financing; thecontrol and distribution of surplus value is carried out directly from the brain of the big corporation, as a result of which—as has recently been observed—“the bank lost its unifying, centralizing and controlling power, which according to Hilferding’s hypothesis created the conditions of a pre-socialist economic organization”. But if one acknowledges that the implicit subject of Grossmann’s analysis is the big corporation which revolutionizes the techniques and organization of labor, one must also conclude that the natural theoretical-political complement of his “model” is not the attitude of waiting characteristic of the ideology of the Second International, but the analysis of the structural effects of Taylorism and Fordism carried out by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. The fact that Gramsci understood the importance of Grossmann’s book (with which he was only indirectly acquainted) and that he treated “Americanization” as a countertendency to, though outside the scope of, the fall of the rate of profit, is by itself indicative of how the solution of the great strategic problems of the movement necessarily had to pass through the reactivation of the categories of the critique of political economy and through the new theoretical foundation of Marxism at the level of the new morphology of the mode of production.
With Gramsci we are certainly far beyond the limitations of Linkskommunismus, as we are also far beyond those of the “Marxism of the Third International” (including its most “heretical” variants)—but, at the same time, we find ourselves in a perspective which addresses and explains the problems, the contradictions and the fearsome backward steps of the western workers movement as a whole. From Gramsci, we have not only obtained a great contribution to the generic demand for a creative development of Marxism. We have also learned the strategic importance of the relation between the critique of political economy and the science of politics: that is, of the problem of how the crisis dynamic functions in the current phase of “state capitalism” and, within that phase, the dynamic of that reproductive process which is not just the reproduction of “dead labor” and wealth (commodity), but of relations of production—therefore: the reproduction of classes. If, in order to grasp the complexity of this tangled knot, it is indispensable to retrace, by secularizing it, the history of Marxism and the workers movement, in order to untie it, today it is necessary to theoretically penetrate the internal dynamic of that “integral politicity” (the “political cycle”, as Kalecki calls it) which is the unique mechanism of contemporary capitalism: without taking these steps it is impossible (or it is a mere ethical postulate)—as the contradictory trajectory of “historical extremism” shows us ex negativo—to translate the problem of the destiny of capitalism into the political problem of the revolutionary transformation of the existing relations by organized subjectivity.
From Derrumbe del Capitalismo o SujetoRevolucionario?(Collapse of Capitalism or Revolutionary Subject?), Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente, 1978.
From Collective Action Notes