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Marx's Economics for Anarchists - Chapter 8

category international | economy | opinion / analysis author Sunday November 20, 2011 22:29author by Wayne Priceauthor email drwdprice at aol dot com Report this post to the editors

Socialism or Barbarism?

This is chapter 8 of "Marx's Economics for Anarchists; An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy". It provides Marx's outline of how a proletarian revolution might occur, why the working class is important, whether socialist revolution should be seen as inevitable, or whether there is an alternative between socialism and barbarism.

Chapter 8: Marx's Economics for Anarchists

Socialism or Barbarism?

How would a proletarian revolution occur, in Marx’s view? According to the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” there will be increasing economic (social, and political) polarization. At the top, a smaller and more concentrated layer of very rich people will be served by salaried employees. There will be fewer but larger semi-monopolies, increasingly integrated with the banks, with speculators, and with the state. At the other economic pole are the workers. Their wages and salaries are under constant pressure. Under them will be increasing layers of unemployed workers and a growing pool of the very poor, in the industrialized capitalist countries and world wide in the poorest nations. There is increasing “entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market” (Capital I, 1906; p. 836).

The laws of capital, however distorted in practice, will not cease. In its epoch of decline, the rate of profit declines. Stagnation increases; even the growth is one-sided and unbalanced (development here, decline there). There is unemployment, underemployment, under-use of productive capacity, economic crises, inflation and deflation, fictitious capital replacing accumulation of real capital, pools of poverty even in the richest nations, “underdevelopment” in the most oppressed nations, with lopsided growth in some. There are constant wars as well as ecological disasters. This is our world today, isn’t it?

Marx expected the working class to respond. The system itself pushes the workers to become conscious of their situation and to rebel. “With the accumulation of capital, the class struggle, and, therefore, the class-consciousness of the working-men [note], develops” (same; p. 717). There “…grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself…. Capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production….Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor…become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder….Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation….We have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (same; pp. 836-837).

The Working Class?

Given the above general forecast, critics have raised various objections. One is to its focus on the rebellion of the working class (let alone of the “working men”). The critics point out that the working class has never made a successful socialist revolution (leaving aside the ambiguous case of Russia 1917). They add that the US working class, in particular, includes a great many people with conservative, even far-right, views, and the rest tend to be moderates or, at most, liberals.

There are other sources of rebellion, it is argued. There are non-proletarian classes which are economically exploited (particularly the peasants; still a large class on a world scale, if not in North America). There are non-class forms of oppression (of women, People of Color, oppressed nationalities, Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans people, physically disabled, and many more). There are issues which are supposedly not directly related to class (particularly war and ecological cataclysm).

Some draw the conclusion that the workers’ class struggle is only one of, say, three or five key struggles. In practice, their political conclusions may not be very different from those of a sophisticated Marxist or class-struggle anarchist.

Others have concluded that the struggle of the working class should be dismissed as not very important. Perhaps the workers are seen as even less likely to rebel than other oppressed sections of the population. This view disagrees with the core of Marx’s Marxism. It also rejects a key component of revolutionary, class-struggle, anarchist-communism However, there are many “Marxists” and anarchists who agree with this rejection of the working class struggle. (Marxist-Leninists pay lip service to the working class, but accept peasant-based armies led by Stalinist dictators, as in China, as socialist revolutions, and accept governments without worker control as “dictatorships of the proletariat.”)

Marx and Engels never believed that the workers’ class struggle was the only struggle of interest. As a young man, Marx had been a leader of the fight for bourgeois democracy, before he became a communist. He never stopped supporting all struggles for the expansion of democracy, such as the British Chartists, whether or not they were directly tied to the class struggle. He fought for the national liberation of Poland and of Ireland. Marx was part of the effort of the British labor movement to support the North in the US Civil War, in alliance with the most exreme abolitionists. They fought against the pro-slaveowner views of much of the British upper class (Proudhon, as a white supremacist, supported the South). This is only part of the record.

Most of all, Marx and Engels saw the need for the working class to ally with other oppressed and exploited in order to further their cause. At the end of his life, Engels was trying to persuade the German Social Democratic Party to develop a program with which to attract the mass of (mostly conservative) peasants. I am not saying that Marx and Engels had an adequate understanding of all oppressions; they did not. But they were far from advocating a working class-only perspective.

However, Marx put the working class at the heart of his strategy for liberating society. He thought that at the bottom of civilization was a system of exploitation of the working people. It was from the surplus value that the rulers got their wealth. At the very least, this form of economic oppression overlapped with and interacted with all other forms of oppression. Should the workers, especially those at the very bottom of society, stand up, they would shake all of the system and raise every issue.
All previous movements were movements of minorities in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of present-day society, cannot raise itself up, cannot stand erect, without bursting asunder the whole superstructure of strata that make up official society….

“The communist revolution is the most radical break with the traditional property relations; no wonder that in the course of its development there is the most radical break with traditional ideas
” (Communist Manifesto, pp. 133, 153).
It was not that the workers were morally more oppressed than anyone else. But strategically, because they produce the wealth of society, they have their hands on the means of production and distribution. They have the potential power to stop all society in its tracks and even to start it up in a different way. And it is in their direct self-interest to do so. They are the ones immediately oppressed by capitalist exploitation. It is more likely that the workers will rebel against exploitation than that rebellion will come from the capitalists, shopkeepers, or police.

As all those who sell their labor power to live, and who are not supervisors, the modern working class (including workers’ spouses, children, unemployed, etc.) is the big majority of society. They include most of every other section of society which are oppressed in every other way (women, African-Americans, immigrants, etc.). Their interests are not opposed to the rest of the oppressed.

Repeatedly, proletarians have formed organizations which fight for a better world for themselves and for others. This includes large union federations as well as socialist or communist parties or anarchist federations. Repeatedly they have rebelled, with everything from massive strikes to near-revolutions to actual revolutions. In over a century and a half, the modern working class has rebelled more often and more thoroughly than any other oppressed class in thousands of years.

It is true that most US working class members are pro-capitalist as are many workers in other countries (although the US has its own history of massive union struggles). But this just means that most of the population is pro-capitalist. We are not about to have a revolution! If the working class majority is not ready for a socialist revolution, then there will not (yet) be a socialist revolution. And when they are ready….

Is Socialism Inevitable?

This brings up another problem in Marx’s revolutionary perspective. Was he saying that the proletarian revolution must happen or only that it could happen? What did he mean by the sentence quoted above, “Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation”? This inexorability seems to present the revolutionary process as an automatic process, like a chemical or biological “law of nature.” And it refers to the concept of “negation” from Hegelian dialectics. Hegel presented history (as part of nature) moving automatically through the zig-zags of the dialectic to its final but pre-set goal. This is called “teleology.” For Hegel the end-goal of history was his philosophical system, and—more concretely—the bureaucratic Prussian monarchy. Either through science or dialectics, human consciousness and choice do not seem to have much to do with change!

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx expressed the same thought, “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 inevitable 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 Marxist-Leninists.

This inevitablism combines with Marx’s non-moral approach. Nowhere in all his work did he write that people should be for socialism, that it was morally right to fight for socialism, or that ethics were central to a vision of a good society. Supposedly socialism will be a product of natural processes. In fact, his writings—like his life—are filled with a moral passion, but it is not an acknowledged part of his theory.

The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta complained that his teacher Peter Kropotkin had a somewhat similar orientation: unrealistically optimistic, mechanistic, and fatalist, not unlike 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). Except that Kropotkin, unlike Marx, also believed in revolution as a moral cause, and sought to develop a naturalistic ethics.

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 Leninists’ repression and mass murder, since it will come out all right in the end, in socialist freedom, or so they believe they know. The non-moralism and inevitablism become a problem when “history” produces something calling itself “socialist” which is actually a mass-murdering totalitarianism. Most revolutionary Marxists found themselves accepting such vile regimes as “actually existing socialism.”

It can also lead in the opposite direction. Marx is interpreted as predicting that the working class will inevitably make a socialist revolution. Since it has not, then the whole theory must be mistaken and the program of socialist revolution must be rejected. Many have reasoned this way.

The Moral Choice

However, Marx and Engels sometimes used a different formulation. Near the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, it says, “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). Marx may have had the fate of ancient Rome in mind.

Engels restated this several times throughout his Anti-Duhring. He wrote 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, Engels was saying here. It is a possible choice. But if it is not chosen, in the epoch of capitalist decay, society faces 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 (as we, the revolutionary minority, want it to).

Engels did not specifically state that this was a moral choice. That is implicit. There is no great ethical reasoning involved in preferring socialist revolution to the ruin of the working class and all society. The main issue is whether we agree with the political-economic analysis, as I do. Yet I regard it as a weakness that the ethical issues are not brought front and center.

Where Engels said the alternatives were “ruin or revolution,” the great, revolutionary-democratic, Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, said the alternatives were “socialism or barbarism” (Geras, 1976). She believed that capitalism was in its final epoch, propping itself up by imperialism, which would lead to greater crises and devastating world wars. She foresaw that capitalism, if unhindered, would destroy culture and populations, would create deserts where there had been cities and nations. She was accused of believing that the economic collapse of capitalism was inevitable. What she believed was that if capitalism was left alone, to follow out its own dynamic laws of development, it would eventually collapse, and produce “barbarism.” This was “inevitable.” But she argued, if the working class chooses to intervene in history, it will be able to prevent barbarism and collapse; it will be able to save humanity through making socialist revolution.

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 its epoch of decay, capitalism threatens humanity with terrible destruction. That is why a revolution is necessary. If this were not so, then socialism (of some sort) might be a nice ideal, a morally-attractive goal, but it would not be necessary. There would be no need to ask workers and others to engage in great struggles, to risk everything in a revolution, if capitalist society might continue on a course of gradual improvement, with ups and downs in the economy. Indeed, it would be wrong to advocate a revolution, with all its costs, in wealth and blood, and risky uncertainties.

While threatening destruction, capitalist industrialism has also made possible a new, non oppressive, classless society. Its technology is so immensely productive that it could provide plenty for everyone, with lots of leisure and only a minimum of labor. No doubt the technology would have to be redesigned to fit a sustainable ecology and a self-managed economy, but the potentials are there to do that.

Will the working class take up the challenge? Capitalist industrialism pushes them toward class consciousness and revolution. But some workers are (relatively) better off than the majority of the world’s workers. Marx and Engels sometimes called this layer of proletarians, the “labor aristocracy.” These workers may be bought off, corrupted, or just feel satisfied with the way things are. At the opposite pole, there is a mass of very poor workers, including the super-exploited (paid less than society’s standard for their labor-power commodity) and the unemployed. They may be exhausted, demoralized, and overwhelmed, feeling uninterested in economic or political struggle. There can be no guarantee that either layer of the working class, or any other, will engage in struggle at any particular time and place.

Marx believed that socialism was only possible when technology had become potentially productive enough. Only this made it possible to return to the equality and freedom of early human hunter-gatherer societies (“primitive communism”) but with a much higher standard of living. In the past socialism (communism) was simply not possible. There was not enough to go around. After previous revolutions, most people had to go back to the daily grind in order to keep everyone fed, while a few were able to spend full time being rulers, as well as artists or scientists. Various mass struggles could produce more freedom if they won, but they could not jump from a low level of productivity to socialist liberation.

But productivity has greatly expanded. For example, up until quite recently, as history goes, 95% of the population was committed to raising food, so that 5% or less could live in cities and have an urban culture. Today, in the industrialized nations, the proportions are reversed. Less than 5% of the population produces more than enough food to feed the rest of the nation. Even if we turned to fully organic methods of farming, the proportion of those who have to do farm work will be much smaller than they have been for most of history. It has finally become possible to have a society which satisfies the needs and wants of all its members, under socialism.

Production by freely associated men [note]…,” wrote Marx, “demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions for existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development” (p. 92).

Similarly Kropotkin wrote that in the past, “…the power of production of food-stuffs and of all industrial commodities had not yet reached the perfection they have attained now. …Communism was truly considered as equivalent to general poverty and misery, and well-being was…accessible to a very small number only. But this quite real and extremely important obstacle to communism exists no more. Owing to the immense productivity of human labor…a very high degree of well-being can easily be obtained n a few years by communist work” (2002; p. 172).

This concept of Marx’s and Kropotkin’s cannot be proven or disproven (without access to an alternate universe). I hope it is true. If it is not true—if it was possible to achieve socialism any time since people began agriculture 10 thousand years ago—then humans have been failing to create socialism for 10 thousand years. This does not make our future chances look good. But if socialist freedom has only been possible for a century or two at most, due to the development at last of the necessary “material groundwork,” then this is not a long time as history goes. It suggests that we still have a chance to create a free and cooperative society--before catastrophe overtakes us.

According to the philosopher Martin Buber, Marx wrote to Engels, in 1865, “The difficult question for us is this. On the continent, the revolution is imminent and will immediately assume a socialist form. But will it not necessarily be crushed in this small corner of the earth, seeing that over a far greater area the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant?” (in Buber, 1958; pp. 84-85). Next to the words, “this small corner of the earth,” Buber puts in parentheses, “[meaning the continent of Europe!]” But then Buber was a Zionist and Marx was an internationalist. Marx was expressing a realistic fear that the European socialist revolution would be held back by the lack of economic development on a world scale. And so it was. Marx did not realize that capitalism was not yet in its final epoch but only reaching the height of its development. Today industrial capitalism has entered its epoch of decline. Humanity has reached and passed the point where it is capable of industrializing the whole world.

The alternatives, then, are “a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large or the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx), “ruin or revolution” (Engels), “socialism or barbarism” (Luxemburg), “anarchism or annihilation” (Bookchin). With this interpretation, what Marx and others were saying was that what capitalism produces “with the inexorability of a law of nature” is the end of capitalist prosperity and stability, one way or another. The good times, such as they were, do not last.

It may seem to still be deterministic and teleological to say that, not only one, but one of two possibilities is likely to happen. However, both “a revolutionary re-constitution of society” (communist revolution) and “common ruin” (“barbarism,” “annihilation”) could take many possible forms. The “re-constitution” could involve any of various methods of revolution and any of various forms of socialism. “Common ruin” might include any of various forms of destruction, including wars, economic degradation, and/or a range of ecological disasters.

As best as we can predict, capitalism inevitably creates the possibility of an alternate society, built by the collective working class and its socialized labor. Its situation in life pushes the working class to struggle against its oppression. This tends to create a consciousness of exploitation and a desire for a new society. The beautiful vision of socialism, the culmination of the moral values of humanity down through the ages, has become a real possibility and even a necessity.

But it is a choice. It is not inevitable, not inevitable at all, that the workers or anyone else will chose revolution before we face economic collapse, nuclear war, or environmental cataclysm. It is possible, not inevitable. The issue is not prediction but commitment. Whatever is the “correct” interpretation of Marx on the question of “inevitability,” the issue will be decided in struggle.

Chapter 9 will cover "What Marx Meant by Socialism/Communism".
Previous parts:

Chapter 7 - State Capitalism
Chapter 6 - The Post-War Boom and Fictitious Capital
Chapter 5 - The Epoch of Capitalist Decline
Chapter 4 - Primitive Accumulation at the Origins of Capitalism
Chapter 3 - Cycles, Recessions, and the Falling Rate of Profit
Chapter 2 - The Labor Theory of Value
Chapter 1 - An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy

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