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Socialism or Barbarism; Anarchism or Annihilation

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Sunday March 28, 2010 16:37author by Wayne Price - personal opinionauthor email drwdprice at aol dot com Report this post to the editors

The Relationship Between Crisis and Consciousness

Considering the economic and social crisis we are facing, what are the relationships between the objective tendency of capitalism toward catastrophe and the subjective consciousness involved in class struggle? Is it "inevitable" that capitalism will crash and produce the socialist-anarchist revolution? Can we ignore or deny objective social laws in favor of focusing on the self-activity of the working class?

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At a March conference of the U.S.--Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (US-NEFAC), we discussed a document some of us had written. It covered the current economic crisis and the likely prospects for the coming period. No one claimed to know for sure what the immediate future would bring--would the Great Recession be over soon or would recovery collapse into a new crisis? When will there be a new working class upsurge? But we expect that the overall economic direction will be downhill, despite short-term ups and downs; that there would be no return to the relative prosperity of the 50s or even the 90s; that there is a likelihood of a second Great Depression, worse than the 30s; that ecological and environmental decay will deepen; and that wars will continue and may even get worse. In response, we expect an eventual new wave of popular radicalization, combining elements of the 30s and the 60s.

This led to a discussion, on and off the conference floor, about the nature of the developing crisis and its relation to a hoped-for workers’ revolution, particularly the relation between objective trends and subjective popular struggles. I will continue this discussion here. Since anarchism does not have much of a developed analysis of capitalism and crisis, it will be necessary to mostly use Marxist concepts (although I am not now a Marxist --I call myself a Marxist-informed anarchist). Roughly speaking, there are three ways of conceptualizing the relationship between objective crisis and subjective mass struggle.

Is Socialism Inevitable?

One view is that capitalism works in an automatic way, producing a trend toward eventual catastrophe as well as producing the modern working class This class will become aware of the danger and will automatically make a revolution and establish socialism. This has been a common interpretation of the lines in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (in Draper, 1998; p. 135; more grammatically: “are alike inevitable”).

This implies that history is an automatic mechanism, something which happens to people rather than something which people do. The most the working class can do is to speed up the automatic processes, but not to make them occur in the first place. This was the main interpretation of Marxism among the Social Democratic Parties and among Stalinists.

The Italian anarchist Errico Maletesta complained that his teacher Peter Kropotkin had this orientation: unrealistically optimistic, mechanistic, and fatalist, not unlike the worst of the Marxists. “Since, according to his philosophy, that which occurs, must necessarily occur, so also the communist- anarchism he desired must inevitably triumph as if by a law of nature…. The bourgeois world was destined to crumble; it was already breaking up and revolutionary action only served to hasten the process” (Malatesta, 1984; p. 265).

The inevitablist interpretation can have unfortunate political consequences. It can justify limiting struggle to reformism, since any struggle will (supposedly) inevitably lead to revolution. It can justify a lack of struggle (Malatesta cites various anarchists who retired to private life, confident that the world would reach communist-anarchism without needing them to make any effort). It can lead to the repression and mass murder of the Leninists, since it will come out all right in the end, in socialist freedom, or so they believe they know. It led to Trotsky arguing that the collectivist bureaucracy of Stalin’s Soviet Union could not be a new ruling class, because if it were, this would violate the transition from the bourgeoisie being the ruling class to the workers overthrowing them and becaming the next rulers (Matgamna, 1998). If the bureaucracy were a new ruling class, he claimed, that would discredit the entire revolutionary perspective! Following this logic, orthodox Trotskyism capitulated to the Stalinism it was formed to fight against.

Of course, there is also the sense in which people may psych themselves up, crying, “The revolution will win!” or “The strike will win!” or “The Red Sox will win!” This is not a matter of cold-blooded prediction but a statement of desire, of intention, and of commitment. It says that we are committed to our side’s victory and that we intend to do all that we can to see that it happens--which is pretty limited for sports fans but in the case of a revolution is a pledge of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Can Objective Tendencies be Ignored?

Secondly, in reaction to inevitablism, some have turned in a liberal direction. I am thinking of the criticisms of Marxism made by the influential liberal philosopher John Dewey. In effect, he denied that the social system was governed by determining laws at all. It was dogmatic, he wrote, to claim that the class struggle was necessary to change society in a freer direction; the struggle of the middle class might do as well as that of the working class. Contrary to Marx (and Bakunin), electoral activity might yet bring the state and economy into socialism--peacefully, gradually, and “democratically,” without an overthrow or replacement. In short, revolution is not needed.

Some Marxists and anarchists react against mechanistic inevitablism by also adopting an open-ended analysis, which has similarities to that of liberalism. In effect they reject the idea that capitalism is a system which has laws. (In my opinion, social laws mean patterns of mass behavior which are regularly repeated). Instead they focus on the self-activity of the working class, which interacts with the self-activity of the capitalist class, each responding to the other—and little else. (This view is elaborated by Cleaver, 1979/2000.)

While often insightful, this is one-sided.. For example, how explain the Great Recession? The working class had not become more aggressive recently against the capitalists (quite the contrary) and the capitalists had not wanted the crisis. Indeed, the capitalists generally do not understand their system and the workers lack socialist consciousness (however militant their struggles, very few see the need for socialism). Therefore the two basic classes act more-or-less blindly, as if they were part of an automatic mechanism, which causes society to be an automatic mechanism, in effect. For the workers, this can only change if they become aware of what they are doing and what they might do differently.

This open-ended, solely-subjective, analysis often ends up with liberal/reformist conclusions. The working class may be rejected--either because almost everyone is defined as part of the “proletariat,” even peasants, or because people can (supposedly) deliberately quit being exploited workers, or because they are better seen as a multiclass “multitude”. Revolution becomes unnecessary because people can peacefully and gradually build a new society inside capitalism --without a need to overthrow capital and the state. So Cleaver writes, “As opposed to the traditional Leninist view that building a new society could only occur after revolution-as-overthrow-of-capital [which is also the anti-Leninist Marxist and anarchist view!—WP], these new movements…were undertaking the building of ‘the future’ in the present…. Those who are doing the elaboration…move beyond being ‘workers’” (1979/2000; pp. 17—18). An even worse example is Hardt & Negri’s Empire (2000). I find it depressing that the autonomist Marxist trend should end in this rejection of the working class and revolution.

Socialism or Barbarism!

The third possible view was expressed near the beginning of the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles….a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (in Draper, 1998; p. 105—107). Draper explains this as “either a revolution that remakes society or the collapse of the old order to a lower level” (1998; p. 200).

Engels restated this several times, for example, throughout his Anti-Duhring. He writes that the modern working class must make the socialist revolution or else face “…sinking to the level of a Chinese coolie,” while the bourgeoisie is “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive [with a] jammed safety-valve…” (1954; pp. 217—218). For the capitalist class, “…its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and…are driving the whole of bourgeois society toward ruin, or revolution” (p. 228). When the capitalist system turns most people into proletarians, “…it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution” (p. 388). Socialist revolution is not inevitable. But if it is not made, society faces ruin and destruction, with the working class reduced to the level of the starving, super-exploited, Chinese workers of that time. Therefore the working class and its allies should consciously and deliberately decide to make the revolution (and we, the revolutionary minority, hope that it will).

Where Engels said the alternatives were “ruin or revolution,” the great, revolutionary-democratic, Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, said the alternatives were “socialism or barbarism.” What she meant by that is discussed in an intriguing study by Norman Geras (1976). She emphasized the tendency of capitalism toward catastrophe. She wrote that this contradicted the program of the reformist “revisionists” such as Bernstein, who thought that capitalism could peacefully evolve closer and closer to socialism. It also refuted the beliefs of the “orthodox” Marxist centrists, such as Kautsky, who thought they should limit the workers’ struggles to reforms without raising the need to educate the workers for the struggle for power.

To Luxemburg, capitalism, in its final epoch, was propping itself up by imperialism, which would lead to ever greater crises and “a period of world wars” (quoted on p. 32). Left to its own tendencies, it would produce barbarism, by which she meant,”…the destruction of all culture, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery” (quoted on p. 33). Geras makes the strange-sounding statement that, for Luxemburg, “it is not socialism but barbarism that is inevitable” (p. 31). What he means is that if capitalism is left to itself, continuing to operate blindly by its own laws, it will eventually collapse into barbarism. To prevent capitalist collapse and barbarism requires that the proletariat make a conscious decision to overthrow it and create a new society. Geras writes, “The idea of inevitable capitalist collapse and the idea of socialism-or-barbarism…are one and the same idea” (same). Luxemburg wrote, “In relation to capitalism as a whole, that society’s objective development merely gives us the preconditions of a higher order of development, but that without our conscious interference, without the political struggle of the working class for a socialist transformation… [socialism will never] come about” (quoted on p. 19).

That is, there is an interaction between objective factors and subjectivity. As a system, capitalism creates the possibility of socialism. This includes a high level of productivity, higher than ever before in the history of humanity; the proletariat, a collective working class, trained in cooperation and joint action by the system itself, living in the centers of capital production, and international in scope. In many ways capitalism pushes the workers to move toward a new, cooperative, world order. It also has mechanisms for holding back the struggle, for dividing the workers into a million distinct groupings. The better-off workers may feel satisfied and conservative. The worse-off workers may become demoralized. But capitalism finally threatens the workers, and all who live under its sway, with catastrophe, mass destruction, and barbarism, and this also pushes the workers to overthrow it, to end it, and to build a better society. This will not happen inevitably. It is a matter of struggle, of consciousness, and of making a collective decision—of breaking with fatalism and mechanism. It requires the efforts of the revolutionary minority to win over the big majority of workers and oppressed.

It may still seem to be rather fatalistic to say that there will inevitably be one of only two outcomes. But this is not as rigid as it may sound. There are, unfortunately, many possible forms of catastrophe in which capitalism may end, and there are many different ways in which a revolution may happen as well as different types of a free society which may come out of one. There are many possible concrete ways in which “socialism or barbarism” may become realized. So history is not as limited as the formula may appear.

But, yes, I am making a claim to a sort of inevitability. I am saying that, as best as we can determine, as much as we can understand the world, this status quo will not last, however stable it appears when we look out the window. Just like all previous social systems, capitalism too will come to an end someday (and sooner than we may think). That is inevitable. But how this will work itself out, and, especially, how conscious and self-active the working people will be—that is something which we cannot know at this time.

(Whether Luxemburg had the best analysis of the mechanisms by which capitalism tends toward catastrophe is another question. I am discussing the politics involved. She focused on the difficulty capitalism has in selling its commodities and which, she thought, required imperialist domination of non-capitalist countries. In my opinion, Luxemburg made some serious analytic errors, which I will not discuss further—but for a neo-Luxemburgist analysis, I highly recommend the insightful work of Loren Goldner, [website]. An understanding of the tendency of capitalism toward catastrophe and the means by which the system holds it off as long as it can, until there is, hopefully, a revolution, is better provided by Henryk Grossman [Kuhn, 2007]. He sees crisies as being caused by the long-term tendency of the falling rate of profit and the growth of semi-monopoly firms—I cannot go further into his analysis here. Like Luxemburg, he denied that there will be an inevitable, automatic, change from crisis-ridden capitalism to socialism. His views on capitalist crisis were highly valued by the council communist/libertarian Marxist, Paul Mattick [1934].)

The anarchist Murray Bookchin noted that the hierarchical structures of modern capitalism threaten human survival through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe (he wrote before global warming became so obvious). “No longer are we faced with Marx’s famous choice of socialism or barbarism; we are confronted with the more drastic alternatives of anarchism or annihilation. The problems of necessity and survival have become congruent with the problems of freedom and life” (1986; p.62). In the event of a nuclear war, we would be lucky to have barbarism!

This analysis does not change the basic argument: in a social system which both creates the possibility of a free and productive society (what Bookchin calls “post-scarcity anarchism”) and which has drives which threaten catastrophe, socialist-anarchism is not inevitable. But it is needed (by the most modest of moral standards, such as, it is good for the human species to survive). Therefore the workers and all oppressed people need to become aware of the danger and to decide to make a revolution and build a new society. (Unfortunately, Bookchin did not quite draw this conclusion, since he had come to reject the centrality of the working class and the need for a revolution, rather similarly to Cleaver the Marxist.)

Ruin or revolution! Socialism or barbarism! Anarchism or annihilation! These slogans (of Engels, Luxemburg, and Bookchin) are central to understand the alternative we face. (The libertarian socialist and ex-Trotskyist Cornelius Castoriadis, in the 1950s, called his French grouping “Socialisme ou Barbarie”; Cleaver, 1967/2000.) One of these choices (ruin/barbarism/annihilation) will be the outcome if capitalism is given its head; if the bourgeoisie is allowed to blindly run it into the ground; if the system is permitted to follow its innate tendencies (objective laws) to their bitter end. The other (revolutionary socialist-anarchism) requires that the working class become aware of the danger, conscious of the possible alternative to disaster, and decides to take the choice of freedom, cooperation, radical democracy, ecological balance, and internationalism.

I discuss three possible approaches above (inevitability of revolution, subjectivity, the interrelation of the objective crisis and the subjective choice). Which is the “correct” interpretation of the Marxism of Marx and Engels, I do not know, or much care. Probably they are all based in some aspect of what Marx actually wrote and thought. But whatever Marx and Engels (and Kropotkin) thought, there is no inevitable outcome between socialism and annihilation. The issue will be decided in struggle.


References

Bookchin, Murray (1986). Post-Scarcity Anarchism. 2nd Ed. Montreal-Buffalo: Black Rose Books.

Cleaver, Harry (1978/2000). Reading Capital Politically. Leeds UK & San Francisco CA: Anti/Theses & AK Press.

Draper, Hal (1998). The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto. Berkeley CA: Center for Socialist History. [Includes Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party; pp. 103—185.]

Engels, Frederick (1954). Anti-Duhring; Herr Eugen Duhring’s Revolution in Science. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Geras, Norman (1976). “Barbarism and the collapse of capitalism.” In The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. London UK: Verso. Pp. 13—42.

Goldner, Loren. website: Break Their Haughty Power. http://home.earthlink.net/%7Elrgoldner/

Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio (2000). Empire. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Kuhn, Rick (2007). Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism. Urbana & Chicago IL: University of Illinois.

Malatesta, Errico (1984). Errico Malatesta; His Life and Ideas (ed.: V. Richards). London: Freedom Press.

Matgamna, Sean (1998). “Introduction.” In The Fate of the Russian Revolution; Lost Texts of Critical Marxism. Vol.1. London UK: Phoenix Press. Pp. 9—156.

Mattick, Paul, Sr. (1934). “The permanent crisis—Henryk Grossman’s interpretation of Marx’s theory of capitalist accumulation.”
http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1934/perma...s.htm

Written for www.Anarkismo.net

author by Anarchopublication date Mon Mar 29, 2010 05:20Report this post to the editors

"Contrary to Marx (and Bakunin), electoral activity might yet bring the state and economy into socialism--peacefully, gradually, and “democratically,” without an overthrow or replacement. In short, revolution is not needed."

Marx repeatedly suggested that socialism COULD be introduced by electoral activity -- both before AND after the Paris Commune. A short time after the Commune he said:

"We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; and we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means. That being the true, we must admit that in most countries on the continent it is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers."

Engels, of course, made many more comments along the same line. For more discussion and evidence:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secH3.html#sech310

In short, Bakunin was the one who consistently opposed social democratic notions while Marx and Engels built up the illusions that in a democratic republic the workers could use their political power to end capitalism.

Related Link: http://www.anarchistfaq.org.uk
author by Waynepublication date Mon Mar 29, 2010 07:45Report this post to the editors

I find Marx's views on electoralism to be more ambiguous than you do. It is definitely true that a central part of Marx and Engel's strategy was the forming of workers' parties, which would be (supposedly) independent of the capitalist class and its parties (this was the key programmatic difference between Marx and Bakunin). How this would lead to the overthorw of capitalism is not quite clear to me. They did write that some governments would let workers' parties be elected, peacefully and "democratically," as you write. However, Marx almost always followed such statements by saying that such an election would probably be followed by a "slaveholder's rebellion." By this he was referring to the rebellion of the U.S. Southern slaveholders after the election of Lincoln. He did not expect a peaceful road to socialism even in Britain and the U.S.A. Later Marxists of the revolutionary wing, such as Luxemburg and Lenin were more clear about disbelieving in a peaceful overturn of capitalism and its state.

author by Ilan Shalif - AAtW, ainfos, Matzpenpublication date Mon Mar 29, 2010 19:06author email ilan at shalif dot comauthor address Tel AvivReport this post to the editors

Wayne Price wrote an article which include old and new wisdom but old and new questionable claims too.
"...what are the relationships between the objective tendency of capitalism toward catastrophe and the subjective consciousness involved in class struggle?"

The capitalist system has an inbuilt tendency for fluctuations and cycles, but even the most acute of them like the 1930s and the present were far from catastrophe.

"... But we expect that the overall economic direction will be downhill, despite short-term ups and downs; that there would be no return to the relative prosperity of the 50s or even the 90s; that there is a likelihood of a second Great Depression, worse than the 30s; that ecological and environmental decay will deepen; and that wars will continue and may even get worse. In response, we expect an eventual new wave of popular radicalization, combining elements of the 30s and the 60s..."

The capitalist system has few inbuilt processes that seem to be impossible to block. The most important one is the concentration of capital, and the second in importance are the cycles of gradual acceleration till a recession puts a stop to them in a more or less abrupt way. However, they have not been fatal till now and it seems they will never be.

It is probable that the US economy will go downhill as its ability to extract profits from other regions diminishes, but it is more downhill for the US wage slaves than for the core of big capital.

For world capital - the upsurge of Chinese capitalism and the more gradual Russian one - it may be an uphill battle...

"....Since anarchism does not have much of a developed analysis of capitalism and crisis, it will be necessary to mostly use Marxist concepts...."

My first lessons in economics in my mid-teens were of Marx and Engels... but I am not sure they invented the basic concepts describing the dynamics of capitalism.... nor the wishful thinking of the ultimate replacement of capitalism by socialism because of economic factors. Not even the claim that the capitalist system will end because of the "tendency of rate of profit to diminish".

They and their disciples failed to understand the subjective processes that enabled a social order that is in contradiction with human nature. Because of this failure they adopted wishful thinking about catastrophes.

Socialism or Barbarism

".... It may still seem to be rather fatalistic to say that there will inevitably be one of only two outcomes. But this is not as rigid as it may sound. There are, unfortunately, many possible forms of catastrophe in which capitalism may end, and there are many different ways in which a revolution may happen as well as different types of a free society which may come out of one. There are many possible concrete ways in which “socialism or barbarism” may become realized. So history is not as limited as the formula may appear....."

The claim that capitalism will be ended in a revolution or other catastrophe is not more plausible than the possibility of the concentration of world capital into one global concern - authoritarian and exploitative as capitalism is.

We may know all the relevant factors involved and still be unable to predict where the system will evolve in the distant future.

".... But, yes, I am making a claim to a sort of inevitability. I am saying that, as best as we can determine, as much as we can understand the world, this status quo will not last, however stable it appears when we look out the window. Just like all previous social systems, capitalism too will come to an end someday (and sooner than we may think). That is inevitable. But how this will work itself out, and, especially, how conscious and self-active the working people will be—that is something which we cannot know at this time...."

I think too that the transformation to a free society is most probable.... but not because of the basic economic factors of the capitalist system as the basis of Wayne's prediction seems to be. I also disagree that there is a wide spectrum of systems possible.

I predict that in the future, the legitimacy of the Authoritarian & Inequality & Non-solidarity basis of capitalism will diminish much faster than it did during the last century and this will put end to the capitalist system. (One can discern the acceleration of this process in recent decades.)

I think that only a world libertarian communist society based on the three principles of Freedom & Equality & Solidarity will be a viable alternative to the class society.

Related Link: http://ilan.shalif.com/anarchy
author by Waynepublication date Tue Mar 30, 2010 11:15Report this post to the editors

Ilan writes,
**The capitalist system has an inbuilt tendency for fluctuations and cycles, but even the most acute of them like the 1930s and the present were far from catastrophe.**

Yeah, the crisis of the thirties lasted for a decade, including the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, the defeat of various revolutionary upsurges, and then WWII. Tens of millions died. Ilan's definition of a period being "far from catastrophe" is not mine. Obviously it was not the *final* catastrophe* (they did not have the atom bomb until the very end).

**The capitalist system has few inbuilt processes that seem to be impossible to block. The most important one is the concentration of capital, and the second in importance are the cycles of gradual acceleration till a recession puts a stop to them in a more or less abrupt way. However, they have not been fatal till now and it seems they will never be.**

The concentration of capital and the capitalist cycles do indeed "seem to be impossible to block." And of coiurse they have not yet been "fatal" since we continue to live under capitalism alas! But I do not know why Ilan is so absolutely sure that "it seems they will never be" fatal. Considering the dangers of nuclear war and ecological catastrophe (both of which are associated with capitalist economic processes), I love to be as sure aa he is! Not to mention his apparent confidence that the Great Recession, the worst crisis which capitalism has had since the Great Depression, will end on a upswing.

**the subjective processes that enabled a social order that is in contradiction with human nature**

Apparentliy a social syiistem can survive for centuries or even millenia while supposedly contradicting the human nature of the people who are maintaining it. This is not how I understand human nature.

author by Ilan Shalif - AAtW, ainfos, Matzpenpublication date Wed Mar 31, 2010 01:37author address Tel AvivReport this post to the editors

Wayne:
"Apparentliy a social syiistem can survive for centuries or even millenia while supposedly contradicting the human nature of the people who are maintaining it. This is not how I understand human nature."

Sure it could and indeed it did for the last ten millenia or so... But it could survive only because there was an accepted legitimacy for its authoritarian nature.

From private experience of 70 years I can asure you that the legitimacy of authority is diminishing in an accelerated rate.

Just ask the poor kindergarten teacher how little authority there is still accepted among the todlers.

How little respect there is among the religious people to their religious.

I am just amazed to the acceptance/tolerance of the disobedience of the antiglobalization activists who disrupt the meetings of world elite.

May be I am a bit over optimistic, but experiencing week after week the failure of the mighty Israeli state to put end to the involvement of few dozen anarchist activist in the joint struggle against the separation fence and more in the occupied west bank do that to me.

May be I am intoxicated by the tear gas I inhale the last 5 years every Friday and some time like today in week days too. ;)

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La creación de una tendencia que el llamó "comunalismo", criticada por muchos fundamentalistas "superrevolucionarios", que ni siquiera se toman la molestia de estudiarla a la luz de las experiencias actuales, constituye un camino de construcción altamente valorable y necesario, en los tiempos en que los movimientos sociales se encuentran con tan baja autoestima y grado de fuerza.

textZapatistas announce details of organisation of Intercontinental encounter Nov 29 EZLN 3 comments

The Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona proposed a new Intercontinental encounter to follow up those held in the 1990's in Chiapas and the Spanish state. This communique announces details of a consultation to take place until June 30th on holding it that proposes that “Intergalactic Committees” be formed on the five continents.

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