Book Review: Marcello Musto, “The Last Years of Karl Marx”

In this intellectual biography, the Italian sociologist and Marxologist Marcello Musto seeks to rehabilitate the theoretical and political output of the last years of Marx’s life. Covering the period from roughly 1879 to his death in 1883, Musto tries to counter a tendency observed both in academic philosophy and in many biographies of Marx, namely to treat his final years after the publication of Capital as more or less uninteresting and a period of intellectual decline, usually skipped over entirely or at least given short shrift. To support this aim, Musto builds on the much greater manuscript knowledge of Marx’s work, thanks to the MEGA2 project, as well as the re-evaluation of the richness of Marx’s late theorizing, as seen in works like e.g. Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins.

In some respects, the book – which consists of four essay-length pieces with a brief introduction by the author – must be considered successful in this regard. The combination of personal biographical material, in-depth theoretical discussion, and political and social context in the book gives a real stimulus to taking the last years of Karl Marx seriously. Some of the material discussed will be quite familiar to people well-versed in ‘high Marxology’: the famous draft letters to Vera Zasulich on the possible persistence of the Russian mir, or the work Marx undertook on revising for translations of Capital volume 1 and the publication of volume 2, or Marx’s engagement with the then highly popular ideas of the American economic reformer Henry George. Musto provides some helpful additional context to Marx’s well-known comments on the work of the political economist Adolf Wagner, whose work was representative of the so-called ‘state socialism’ of the time, a highly conservative form of dirigisme that would eventually play a role in defining some non-Marxist strands of social-democracy.

Even so, there is a lot that was quite new (to me, in any case), either in content or in degree. While scholars probably know that Marx wrote mathematical manuscripts, Musto shows just how thoroughly he engaged with pure maths – especially calculus – as an intellectual hobby, something undertaken for pleasure and mental relaxation as much as for the purposes of supporting his theoretical work. Remarkable to me was learning that Marx engaged on a chronological timeline of world history, with short notes and comments, covering global history from about the time of Caesar onwards. This seems to me something of enormous intellectual interest even though it is apparently still largely unpublished anywhere (the references provided give the IISH source material).

There are also some interesting observations from Marx from his brief stay in Algeria, the only time Marx ever left Europe, something typically only alluded to in biographies because it provided us with the last photograph of the man before his death. (It turns out Marx shaved his beard immediately afterwards! Musto gives us a ‘reconstructed’ version of the photo showing what he might have looked like with less hair – it turns out this is something of a cross between Sigmund Freud and Jules Verne.)

Some of the material is interesting but more tragic in nature. The biographical matter is rather grim reading, a chronicle of Marx’s ever-worsening ill health (Musto suggests he had bronchitis that seems to have worsened into tuberculosis) and the loss of his wife and then one of his daughters. He shows how the impression of a lack of intellectual fertility in this period is rather to be blamed on the dispersed and fragmented nature of his writings and activities, often induced by his bouts of illness, which have given the impression of a lack of systematicity.

But in fact Marx did a great deal, and in some respects was at the height of his abilities. Not just in the revisions of Capital, including preparing the French edition often considered the ‘canonical’ version, but also in working through huge amounts of new material: for the question of Russia, for the anthropology of ancient society, for the development of a political programme for the French communists (of the Guesde faction), for the study of the effect of the railways and the growth of joint stock companies, and for the study of colonialism. Merely the constant interruption of illness and the need to move to warmer climes or keep to his bed forced periods of inactivity on him, and prevented much of this labor from being worked up into published or publishable materials.

In this sense, Musto succeeds quite well in demonstrating that Marx died not a doting old man well past his prime, but really at the prime of his intellectual powers and especially at a time when his theoretical range had if anything markedly widened compared to his early years.

Unfortunately the book also has some less felicitous aspects. In his eagerness to underline how Marx’s thought gained in scope and subtlety as it matured, Musto constantly wants to tell us just how flexible and how undogmatic he was, which ultimately comes to sound so defensive that it achieves rather the opposite. It is an irritating habit of Marxologists, who by nature tend to be fans of the man as well, that they are always so keen to contrast in everything the Marx Who Was Right with the Everyone Else Who Was Wrong. The contrast is inevitably made in an ad hoc fashion against a litany of figures whom such a Marxologist wants to blame for a perceived bad reputation Marxism has: whether it’s the Soviets, or Engels, or the Frankfurt School, or the liberal interpreters does not really matter.

While it’s right of course to point out when later commentators or interpreters have misread Marx or use him poorly, this kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ practice generally does more harm than good for rehabilitating Marx’s reputation, and is annoying for a reader who isn’t looking for a convenient target to shove the ‘blame’ onto (especially poor Engels is often the most convenient straw figure here, and Musto abuses him similarly).

The more Musto cites Marx seemingly just to tell the reader “See! Look how flexible and nondogmatic this is!!”, the less interested one becomes in what Marx was actually saying, since it is (so to speak) damned with vague praise. Here the old novelists’ adage “show, not tell” would have served the author better: whether Marx’s arguments are wise or subtle is a subjective judgment best left to the reader, not imposed by the author, however enthusiastic he is. The fact the individual parts of the book were probably written or published as separate essays also adds a considerable amount of unnecessary repetition and some clunky structure to the overall work, which is all the more a shame given how short it is.

That said, for a solid systematic overview of what Marx – indeed continuously in collaboration with Engels – was up to during the last years of his life, this work is probably as good as it gets, short of consulting the relevant MEGA2 volumes oneself when they are fully published. Musto finely balances the focus on intellectual-theoretical biography with information about Marx’s social and family circle, political acquaintances and antagonists, his travels, and the many different subjects and themes of interest to Marx in his final days. In so doing, he provides a stimulating portrait of genius at work, and makes one all the more lament how the state of medical knowledge in the Victorian era ultimately cut short the fervor of his wide-ranging mind.

Lenin and the Ukrainian War


With the war in Ukraine reaching its anniversary, we have to once again learn to think about a matter that was until recently deemed obsolete by many of the leading figures in the capitalist states: territorial war. Matters of war and peace have always been a difficult subject for Marxists, since by their nature they substitute conflicts between states and nations for the – from a Marxist viewpoint at least – more straightforward direct forms of social conflict. While since the experiences of the First World War Marxists are in general in agreement about the need to oppose war itself, and especially imperialist war, it is a lot less clear what that implies for any given conflict in practice. Wars invite everyone who is not an immediate participant to take sides, to declare oneself to be for or against one of the warring sides. After all, the nature of war is to be a state of emergency, a very literal question of life or death for the participants.

This makes it more difficult to simply say ‘a pox on both their houses’: both sides will see this as abandonment of their survival to the forces of the enemy, and natural moral instincts do not tend to reflect well on people who are unwilling to help people in an emergency situation. You don’t respond to a drowning person with the declaration that you are neutral between them and the water. The continued strong appeal of nationalism even in the post-WWII context does nothing to diminish this identification of personal interests with those of states (at least in wartime), even among people who are otherwise inclined to be critical of their own.

Moreover, in the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st so far) the context of imperialism – whether in the form of inter-imperialist rivalry, the Cold War, or the era of American hegemony – has further strengthened this tendency to want to pick a side, as opposing imperialism is for many Marxists the sine qua non of political orientation in international relations, and that means that a studied neutrality could easily be seen as betraying such principles. Already Marxists tend not to believe in ‘neutrality’ too much – as exemplified by the popularity of Howard Zinn’s famous saying “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”.

But if neutrality is out and anti-imperialism is in, this still far from solves the problem in any given conflict. Even if the left can agree on opposition to imperialism and annexationism, support for converting war between states into class war, and the principle of self-determination of nations against attempts by larger powers to control their policies and institutions by violent means, this does not mean that there is always much consensus on how to apply this. In the context of the Cold War, the question was often whether one considered the US or the USSR the greater imperialist; or if one opposed both, what to do with cases where they were directly in confrontation. Supporters of ‘real existing socialism’ had difficulties with cases such as the border war between China and Vietnam, both states claiming this mantle.

Invoking Lenin

In the era of American hegemony, the dilemma has tended to revolve rather around balancing opposition to American imperialist domination with opposition to the often reactionary governments targeted by that same domination; but as the case of the present war in Ukraine shows, sometimes old-fashioned concerns about relations between the imperialist hegemon and lesser powers still come to the fore too. Couple all this with the tendency of Marxist thinking in international relations to rely on a combination of a rather cheap consequentialism with an underdeveloped realism – something I have written about previously – and you have a theory which, to put it mildly, seriously underdetermines any particular political stance to an ongoing conflict.

One reliable tendency, and in principle a good one, is to refer to Lenin for insights into imperialism and war. After all, if 1914 demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old social-democracy by its willingness to (at least passively) support a senseless inter-imperialist conflagration that left millions dead on the battlefield, it equally demonstrated the acuity and strength of the position of the small left opposition that denounced this attitude – the one that has historically come to be associated with the Zimmerwald Conference (1915) and with the work of Lenin, who was present, in particular.

While other writers, such as Mao, have written substantively on war and imperialism since, these are often presented as elaborations of Lenin’s thought, and even well beyond strict Marxist-Leninist circles the influence of Lenin’s thinking as formed from the experience of WWI can be felt on the left. Lenin’s analysis of WWI, although more than a century old at this point, is still a major compass for much of the left wing in understanding the attitude to any particular conflict that ends up in open war.

The positions against support for Ukraine

But what did Lenin actually say? And how would one apply his analysis to a situation like the Ukrainian war? This is far from obvious, as will become clear. While most of the left – I think it is fair to say – has generally sided with the Ukrainian state in its struggle against the Russian invasion, there is a perhaps substantial minority that takes a different approach. In particular in (self-identified) Marxist-Leninist circles there seems to be a considerable sympathy for the Russian stance in the conflict, in particular insofar this is presented as opposing an expansion of American imperialist hegemony. Some openly support the Russian side. Others, probably a more representative group, rather argue on the basis of Lenin that the war is not an imperialist war of a larger power against a smaller nation, and that therefore the usual anti-imperialist position – to defend the smaller nation in such a case – does not apply.

Based on Lenin’s thought, so the reasoning goes, we should focus on opposition to any war and any participation in war, and this extends to opposing any support for one of the belligerent powers (in this context, primarily Ukraine, e.g. through providing supplies or weapons) or warlike punitive measures against another (primarily Russia, e.g. sanctions). There is clearly not much prospect at the moment for converting the war into class war, so we see instead the return of neutrality, but under the banner of Lenin.

I want to examine both of these arguments – the denial of the Russian invasion as imperialist in Lenin’s terms, and the claim that Lenin’s arguments suggest we should either support the Russian position as directly aimed at American imperialist hegemony or take a neutral stance between the belligerent states – and argue that they are ill-founded. They are, I suspect, based rather in the popular legacy of Lenin, the kind of simplified figure that emerges from instrumentalized selective quotations and secondary summaries of his work as popular in various small Leninist parties, than in Lenin’s actual writings and thinking.

Examining Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism

First I want to address the question of imperialism in Lenin’s work. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that in the ‘popular Lenin’ few works loom so large as his classic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in the first half of 1916. If Marxists are likely to have actually read anything by Lenin at all, it is usually this work, and as a result they tend to take it as a pars pro toto for Lenin’s thinking on imperialism altogether. But this book is actually a rather specific argument and one at a rather high level of abstraction. In order to understand what it does and does not say, we must discuss the book at some length. Because this book tends to be the foundation and cornerstone of virtually every ‘Leninist’ argument about war and imperialism, this is worth some detailed attention.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, as Lenin himself explained in a later written introduction, he set out to prove analytically two things in particular: that WWI was an inter-imperialist war, and that it was driven to become so not because of diplomatic errors but by the logic of capitalist accumulation, in particular by the specificities of the development of finance capital in the period leading up to the war.

For Lenin, the era was an era of what he called “monopoly capitalism”, when big trusts and large concentrations of capital were the dominant motive force of capital as a whole. This monopoly capitalism had in the leading capitalist countries become more and more subject in turn to the rule of financial capital (itself equally concentrated). This led to the division of the world in terms of spheres of control, where the leading powers were animated by competition over superprofits on the export of capital, driven by the interests of finance capital. His political (rather than theoretical) argument is subsequently that these superprofits allowed the emergence of a labor aristocracy in the superprofiting, richest nations, which in turn formed the social base for the right-wing of social-democracy that had just betrayed international solidarity by supporting the war.

Lenin’s argument in this book has to be understood as consisting of different aspects. Most of the book is in fact dedicated to a series of empirical arguments, in which Lenin sets out to prove that advanced capitalism is in fact everywhere of the “monopoly” type, that finance capital has arisen as a single motive force out of the union between mercantile capital (banks) and industrial capital (industry), but with the “financial oligarchy” in charge, and that the primary profit-seeking method of this finance capital is the export of capital. This covers chapters I-IV. He then speaks of the division of the world into the spheres of influence, both through the global colonial empires and through what he calls “financial and diplomatic dependence” of small independent states on the major powers. Again, for Lenin the primary driver of this process is the “monopoly” aspect of capital, the desire for each financial-capitalist mega-interest to achieve superprofits by essentially extracting the rents of monopoly power over and above average profits obtained in competition. This argument is explained in chapters V-VI.

The next two chapters expand on the economic argument. Here (although still using empirical claims to buttress the overall reasoning, of course) Lenin moves to attack Kautsky’s political attitude to imperialism and to instead establish his own. Helpfully, Lenin here even provides a definition of imperialism, for the purposes of the economic analysis in these chapters:

“(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”

This may serve as a very useful summary of the economic argument of the book as a whole. So what is his beef with Kautsky? Well, it is simply that he accuses Kautsky of having missed the specificity of imperialism in the present context (that is to say, in the 1910s) as being finance-dominated monopoly capitalism, and of having advocated the possibility that such capitalism could and would resolve itself peacefully in the long run, leading to a global unified capital rather than a conflict of capitals. Note that Lenin does not here make any political arguments about Kautsky’s attitude to WWI or the general Marxist attitude to war, as is often supposed, but argues against Kautsky on the grounds that his economic analysis of the capitalism of the time was faulty.

It is only in chapter IX that Lenin moves to a political discussion of the correct Marxist view on imperialism as he defined it above. This entire chapter essentially builds on his argument against Kautsky above, where the fundamental point is that Kautsky (according to Lenin) wrongly considered a peaceful development of the capitalism of his time possible, whereas Lenin thinks it is not possible, and uses WWI as an illustration of the kind of inter-imperialist conflict he considers inevitable.

For Lenin, Kautsky’s political errors stem from his failure to understand the economic impetus of his time and the specificity of the capitalism of his time. As he sums it up: “Kautsky’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, as well as his economic and political critique of imperialism, are permeated through and through with a spirit, absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism, of obscuring and glossing over the fundamental contradictions of imperialism and with a striving to preserve at all costs the crumbling unity with opportunism in the European working-class movement.” The final chapter actually adds little more to this, other than to provide a very summary historical discussion of the origins of the monopoly capital system Lenin had described in the book.

So, what is the upshot of all this for the problems of the Ukraine war and our attitude to war and imperialism in general? I think two things. Firstly, that Lenin’s argument in Imperialism is primarily an economic and empirical-theoretical one, not a political one. By this I mean it is an empirically supported argument about the economic structure of capitalism in his day, from which he derives a series of intermediate level theoretical generalizations for the system as a whole – monopoly capital, capital export-driven value flows, and superprofits. These in turn support an actually rather small set of political conclusions, still at a high to intermediate level of analysis: that capitals will compete with each other and come into direct conflict, rather than developing peacefully (as he accuses Kautsky of thinking), that every part of the world is or will become subject to the competing spheres of influence economically and politically, and that the superprofits allow opportunism to arise in the working class of the advanced nations.

The significance of this is that Lenin’s argument is fundamentally contingent: it is predicated on him having analyzed capitalism in the 1910s correctly, and it applies to capitalism as it was in the 1910s. In fact, Lenin goes out of his way to emphasize the specificity of this analysis to the capitalism of his time (hence the title of Chapter VII in the standard English translation: “Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism”).

There has been a great deal of debate among economic historians and theorists since Lenin’s time about whether his analysis of capitalism around WWI was correct in the first place, which I need not go into now. More important is to keep in mind that the very structure of the argument is such that its applicability stands and falls not with the correctness of any particular generalizations about Marxist views about imperialism and war, but with the economic analysis of capital in it. Even if one thinks Lenin’s view of capitalism around 1916 was correct, it is not exactly a reach to say that global political economy has drastically changed since those days, and not least in exactly those spheres he based his discussion on: formation of trusts and concentrations of capital, the predominance of capital exports from metropole to periphery, the existence of large colonial empires, and the emergence of an integrated global financial market that crosses the boundaries of states and powers.

A modern application of Imperialism‘s argument, therefore, would have to take all these things into account, and consider how much we can still speak of monopoly capitalism, union between industrial and finance capital, division of the world into spheres of monopoly superprofit extraction, and capital export as the primary driver of global economic activity. I suspect in some respects these elements are present, and in some respects they would need to be drastically revised; just as I think that Lenin’s analysis in his own day was partially quite insightful and partially mistaken (although certainly better than the one he attributed to Kautsky, which was his primary point). But one can have any number of constructive discussions about this. What remains is the empirical contingency of the argument, and its insistence on specificity: it would not be in any way strange to analyze (say) WWII and its origins in totally different terms than Lenin did for WWI, nor would this have to imply contradicting Lenin’s theses in Imperialism.

This brings me to the second conclusion: what the book does not do. What it does not do is provide that thing which it is probably most often mistakenly thought to provide: a general Marxist argument about how to relate to war and imperialism in any period of capitalism, or even in any particular conflict within such a period. Lenin does have such argumentations, at least of the latter kind, but they are precisely not formulated in this book (aside of course from his opposition to Kautsky’s attempt to “pacify the workers and reconcile them with the social-chauvinists who have deserted to the side of the bourgeoisie”).

Lenin on the lesser imperialist powers

For those we can much more productively look elsewhere, at texts much less popularly known, but dating to the same period. These may help shed some light on the claims invoking Lenin in the case of the Ukraine war: the arguments that anti-imperialism demands we support the Russian invasion, or alternatively that it demands we oppose supporting Ukraine in the conflict, either because it is a rightwing bourgeois state or simply because of the necessity of an antiwar stance.

The first of these arguments is simple, and runs essentially like this: America (through its alliance of vassal states, NATO) is the primarily imperialist hegemon in the world right now. Russia is opposing the extension of the American imperialist sphere to its border regions. Being clearly a weaker power in every respect than the US is – economically, militarily, diplomatically – and because it is oriented against the hegemon, we should support it. Against the hegemonic imperialism of the existing great power (the US) and its smaller power supporters (especially Britain, but also Germany and Japan), we must as anti-imperialists support a multipolar system. This means supporting the national interests of the anti-hegemonic powers (Russia, China; perhaps the so-called BRICS as a whole). This, the argument goes, is the implication of anti-imperialism, and Lenin is often invoked to defend it (the ICFI being a salient example).

It is not difficult to find a direct answer to this kind of argumentation in Lenin’s own writings, when transposed to the relevant terms and powers of his own day. Lenin discusses precisely this reasoning in an (unfortunately) much less read text, one which deals much more directly with the political attitude towards WWI and its theoretical basis: Socialism and War: The Attitude of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Towards the War (1915). Especially the first chapter is enlightening and contains general theoretical principles that are much less contingent than those found in Imperialism. In the course of defining different types of wars and emphasizing that WWI is an inter-imperialist war, Lenin discusses the argument that one should support the German (or Central Powers) side since it is the anti-hegemonic power, acting against the big imperialists with extensive colonial possessions. To this he answers the following:

“From the standpoint of bourgeois justice and national freedom (or the right of nations to existence), Germany would be absolutely right as against England and France, for she has been “done out” of colonies, her enemies are oppressing an immeasurably far larger number of nations than she is, and the Slavs who are oppressed by her ally Austria undoubtedly enjoy far more freedom than those in tsarist Russia, that real “prison of nations.” But Germany is fighting not for the liberation, but for the oppression of nations. It is not the business of Socialists to help the younger and stronger robber (Germany) to rob the older and overgorged robbers. Socialists must take advantage of the struggle between the robbers to overthrow them all. To be able to do this, the Socialists must first of all tell the people the truth, namely, that this war is in a treble sense a war between slave-owners to fortify slavery.” (emphasis added)

In other words, the argument that one should support the less hegemonic power (Russia) against the more hegemonic power (the US) is explicitly rejected, even when one of the powers is clearly less able to enforce a sphere of influence than the other and has (or claims) legitimate ‘national interests’ to preserve its status against that of the hegemonic power.

The next argument is to say that Russia’s war is not actually imperialist, because it does not qualify as imperialist under Lenin’s definition of imperialism and it is not the hegemonic power; and that therefore the correct thing is to simply support them as against the American hegemony. As seen above, the ‘lesser robber’ argument does not actually find any basis in Lenin’s writing. The question whether Russia is an imperialist power is reliant once more on generalizing from the specific argument in Imperialism (the book). In any case, it is not very convincing at even a superficial glance. It is not obvious that Russia, with its highly oligarchic economic structure (one Ukraine shares with it), is less “monopolistic” in Lenin’s sense than the US or the Western European economies. Secondly, if Russia is disqualified on the grounds of not being a capital exporter, then so should the Western powers be: in fact, the United States is currently the greatest importer of capital in the world, and thrives precisely on its hegemonic control over the global flows of value, steering them towards itself through reliance on its financial institutions – akin to a type of seigniorage.

This problem also reveals some of the weaknesses in taking Lenin’s argument in Imperialism as a checklist: in his own day, powers like Japan and Russia had a rather underdeveloped capitalist class and very little capital export or strong financialization compared to the more advanced powers, but this did not prevent Lenin as well as everyone else in his day from regarding them as imperialist powers due to their political, institutional, and diplomatic structures and attitudes.

Lenin equally does away with the argument that Russia, as a non-hegemonic power, is somehow entitled to impose a settlement on Ukraine, or the use of the plight of the Donbass as a pretext for annexation of part of Ukrainian territory. This is usually justified with reference to the bourgeois-rightwing nature of the Ukrainian government (to which I will come shortly), or alternatively, with reference to the argument that it is justified because of provocation by NATO, ‘forcing Russia’s hand’, as it were. This kind of ‘annexationism’ was already roundly condemned in his day, as it should be today, even when in each case each of the powers – including the aforementioned “younger robbers” – has some kind of explanation for it.

Here, it is instructive to quote at some length from another essay, this time Lenin’s lecture War and Revolution held in 1917. This lecture (much neglected) is excellent for an actual formulation of general principles about war on Lenin’s part, in a way Imperialism does not provide. Here he addresses the pretexts for annexations, and what is meant by annexationism. The emphatic point is that while it is absolutely correct to say that the larger context of the war is decisive for the attitude one should have towards it, it does not at all follow from that that this justifies territorial claims, since all the powers maintain them:

When we argue about annexations and this bears on the question I have been trying briefly to explain to you as the history of the economic and diplomatic relations which led up to the present war when we argue about annexations we always forget that these, generally, are what the war is being waged for; it is for the carve-up of conquered territories, or, to put it more popularly, for the division of the plundered spoils by the two robber gangs. When we argue about annexations we constantly meet with methods which, scientifically speaking, do not stand up to criticism, and which, as methods of public journalism, are deliberate humbug. Ask a Russian chauvinist or social-chauvinist what annexation by Germany means, and he will give you an excellent explanation, because he understands that perfectly well. But he will never answer a request for a general definition of annexation that will fit them all: Germany, Britain, and Russia. He will never do that! And when Rech (to pass from theory to practice) sneered at Pravda, saying, “These Pravdists consider Kurland a case of annexation! How can you talk to such people!” and we answered: “Please give us such a definition of annexation as would apply to the Germans, the English, and the Russians, and we add that either you evade this issue or we shall expose you on the spot”[1]Rech kept silent. We maintain that no newspaper, either of the chauvinists in general, who simply say that the fatherland must be defended, or of the social-chauvinists, has ever given a definition of annexation that would fit both Germany and Russia, that would be applicable to any side. It cannot do this for the simple reason that this war is the continuation of a policy of annexations, that is, a policy of conquest, of capitalist robbery on the part of both groups involved in the war. Obviously, the question of which of these two robbers was the first to draw the knife is of small account to us…

For “Kurland”, insert “Donbass”. Lenin then continues, making the point that regardless of the apparent historical pretext, which all imperialist powers always maintain against each other (and cannot avoid doing, by his own argumentation about capitalist imperialism), this nonetheless cannot warrant annexationism even by the lesser power:

That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back! The logical thing, following this line of argument, would be to close down all newspapers, burn all books and ban all mention of annexations in the newspapers. In this way such a view of annexations could be justified. They can’t tell the truth about annexations because the whole history of Russia, Britain, and Germany has been one of continuous, ruthless and sanguinary war over annexations… There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation. That is why, on the question of annexations, they cannot give the reply that we give, when we say that any nation joined to another one, not by the voluntary choice of its majority but by a decision of a king or government, is an annexed nation. To renounce annexation is to give each nation the right to form a separate state or to live in union with whomsoever it chooses. An answer like that is perfectly clear to every worker who is at all class-conscious.

This sword cuts at both sides: both Ukraine and Russia present themselves as being under attack ‘suddenly’ by the other camp, and imply that this simply requires an attitude of ‘defense of the nation’. Lenin rejects both of these claims, regardless of whatever pretexts the imperialist powers have for making one or another claim against each other in territorial terms. Rather, Lenin acknowledges in essence no territorial claims. The operating principle here is the desire of a nation as a whole, as meaningfully and democratically expressed, not the justifications (true or false) by this or that imperialist power that would justify annexations – like those Russia has been undertaking in Crimea, the Donbass, and even regions beyond.

Lenin on ‘neutrality’

Next we must address the ‘neutrality’ argument. This probably has a much greater purchase on the left as a whole, not least because of the (very justified) general tendency to oppose war and militarism, as well as more specifically the influence of Lenin, who is popularly known for his calls to oppose all sides in WWI and to convert the inter-imperialist war into a class war (something which eventually did happen in Russia and Germany, two major belligerent powers). The neutralist interpretation of Lenin’s argument is that this is essentially a proxy conflict between NATO and Russia, and both sides are imperialist powers, this constitutes an inter-imperialist war within which we should take no stance for either side and lend no political or material support. Usually this is joined with the argument that since Ukraine has a rightwing bourgeois government, it does not deserve our support against the Russian invasion in any case, since that would be tantamount to supporting rightwingers from the left.

To understand Lenin’s attitude to this type of argumentation, we must do a more precise transposition of the present situation to the terms of WWI, which Lenin was responding to when speaking of war and imperialism. In another diatribe against Kautsky, The Collapse of the Second International (1915), Lenin discusses precisely the issue of how to judge of a rightwing bourgeois government (which for the sake of argument we shall accept Zelensky’s Ukraine is, and indeed well may be) in two respects: insofar as it is defending itself in a national war against an imperialist power (ie Russia, in our case), and insofar as it is part of an inter-imperialist war. Using Serbia as an example, Lenin here writes:

In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria (which, by the way, was noted in the resolution of our Party’s Berne Conference). It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, “the masses of the people”, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a “continuation”. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie, as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war. However it is this conclusion that the sophist Kautsky, who is now in the service of the Austrian bourgeoisie, clericals and militarists, has failed to draw.

Further, Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted. The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of   Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a “draw”, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a “continuation of the politics” of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is “liberating” Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria. (emphasis added)

We see here both of these aspects, or ‘moments’, of the war represented (taking of course Serbia as the equivalent of Ukraine for our purposes). Lenin is, as can be seen, unequivocal that despite Serbia being ruled by a bourgeois-reactionary government, insofar as its war represents a war of national liberation or national survival against an imperialist aggressor (Austria, read Russia), socialists must hope for and support its success in that endeavour. This is all the more striking when one considers that in 1914, Serbia was an only semi-constitutional monarchy, that moreover had recently itself annexed and acquired a substantial amount of territory in the preceding Balkan Wars, and had also pursued a longstanding policy of diplomatic appeasement of Austria-Hungary (in fact not dissimilar to the Ukrainian diplomatic closeness to Russia until 2014).

At the same time, Lenin makes it clear as well that this reasoning does not apply to the war as a whole (meaning here, WWI as such), insofar as it is an inter-imperialist war – whereby we already know what Lenin’s general attitude is to inter-imperialist war in general, regardless of the relative strength of the imperialist powers involved.

We see then that the ‘neutralist’ position is partially right and partially wrong in drawing from Lenin. It is wrong insofar as it neglects to fully incorporate the necessity to support the success of Ukraine, as a nation fighting a struggle against an imperialist invader with territorial-annexationist claims against it and seeking to subjugate it into its sphere of influence, regardless of whether Zelensky’s government has any progressive qualities (which it may well not have). It is right, on the other hand, when discussing the larger context of a real or potential conflict, whether directly or via proxy, between the rival imperialist camps of US/NATO and Russia (and perhaps China also, at some point). In that specific conflict, the position of neutralism and refusal is absolutely correct from the viewpoint of Lenin’s argumentation. And indeed just as the Entente was selling out Serbia in its own interests, so NATO (and the EU) are manipulating, deceiving, and instrumentalizing Ukraine’s struggle for their own ends. But equally, just as with Serbia in WWI, the “national element” of justified defense against imperialism and annexationism remains even within that context, in the case of Ukraine’s defense against Russia.


To conclude, then, there is no basis in the use of Lenin’s writings and arguments about imperialism and war, especially not as formulated around WWI, to argue either that the correct socialist position is to support Russia in its war in Ukraine, nor to argue for a ‘neutralist’ position with respect to Ukraine’s defense against Russia, nor to argue that the Russian war is not properly considered an imperialist war, with all the implications that this carries.

It may be objected that I have not said much about the war itself, or the long runup to it (including the many deceptions perpetrated by NATO and the EU against the ‘Westernizer’ faction in Ukraine that they claim to be supporting), nor much about what this implies in terms of a socialist position on e.g. arms deliveries by other powers to the Ukrainians. This is because as so often, there is analytical value in separating out different claims, so that the truth value of one is not confused for the truth value of another. In this case, I have dealt with the positions against support for Ukraine insofar these are based on putative Leninist principles or arguments, and found these wanting.

It may well be that there are other arguments regarding the present war that can shed more light than Lenin’s on what the position of socialists should be, and what this means in practice considering our limited ability to influence the course of events, whether in the West or in the warring countries. But Lenin himself, whatever the merits of his analysis of “the highest stage of capitalism”, on my interpretation offers no ground to refuse Ukraine support in its defense against Russian imperialism.

Book Review: Aaron Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work”

Does automation mean the end of work? In this relatively brief essayistic work, Aaron Benanav – fellow Berliner and sociologist – engages critically with one of the main topics that have found new and fruitful engagement in Marxist theory over the past two decades or so: the topic of automation and its relation to freedom. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, computing (or at least computational power), and algorithmic coordination have advanced so greatly in recent years that they have led to a reconsideration of the future of labor under conditions of strong labor-saving technological change. For many, not least in the Western labor movements, this has been a cause for concern and even fear. But others have seen in these developments the unfolding of the potential required to make a qualitative leap into a new kind of relation to work, and therefore a new relation to human freedom.

The tendency to see potential in these developments, rather than merely threat, is primarily found among the intellectual thought of the contemporary left. Certainly, for some reactionaries the thought of pesky labor organizations and demanding First World workers being shunted out by automation and being relegated to cowed serfs depending on a new corporate-feudal oligarchy for handouts is an attractive proposition. Among some liberal economists, there has been worry about the implications of shifts in the labor market for social stability and for the ability to contain ever-rising inequality. But among those engaging with real-world developments, it is primarily the left that has drawn attention to this process and its implications in our times. (Certainly the theme as such is not new, but this orientation was true in past iterations of automation discourse as well: examples are such figures as André Gorz, James Boggs, and Herbert Marcuse, as Benanav points out.)

Moreover, an important strand of Marxist thought, with its pedigree in writings of Marx and Engels themselves, points to automation and the labor-saving process as the foundation for the potential to reduce the total workload of society, and thereby to free up humanity for its true development. The development of the productive forces makes much human labor objectively unnecessary, even if under capitalism only labor has the ability to add value and is therefore essential to the system’s reproduction. This contradiction can be blown up with capitalism itself in order to free up humanity from its unneeded toil, leaving the machines, robots, and computers to do most of the work when humans no longer depend on such work for a living. In recent years, this has found a new impetus with among others the work of Srnicek and Williams in their Inventing the Future (Srnicek and Williams 2016) and sometimes ‘semi-ironically’ referred to by the loose slogan “fully automated luxury communism”, associated with the left media network Novara.

It is with this tendency that Benanav’s book critically engages, marshalling both economic-historical and theoretical arguments. His core thesis is that automation, which he defines as fully labor-saving technology as opposed to technology that merely increases productivity of existing labor, appears as a sense of crisis or a tipping point because of a persistently low demand for labor. This low demand is not just in evidence in the rich countries, but across the globe. However, against the automation utopians, Benanav argues contemporary automation is not the actual cause of that low demand for labor. Instead, he locates the causes of this low demand in the long term of secular capitalist stagnation that set in after the boom period of capitalism was over, i.e. in the 1970s. Since then, as Benanav shows, rates of output growth have slowly but systematically declined throughout the world.

The crux of his argument is not this familiar observation, however, but to point out that rates of productivity growth have also systematically declined since then, quite contrary to what the bullish talk of the automation theorists would suggest. During the boom period of capitalism (1950s-1970s) and as part of the process of economic development and reconstruction in the postcolonial era, manufacturing output enormously increased. Because the world market is a capitalist market, this tremendous increase in output caused significant and persistent overproduction at the global level (tempered only somewhat by population growth). This overproduction has not only hindered the possibilities of economic development through industrialization in much of the Third World, but it also caused rates of growth in manufacturing to plummet, causing deindustrialization. Indeed deindustrialization has been such a potent process that it has not only stripped much of the Western world of its industrial workforce, but even such ‘workhouses of the world’ as China have seen declining shares of manufacturing employment. Manufacturing output growth rates have over time become so low that productivity growth in this sector is consistently greater than the rate of output growth, implying the systematic shedding of employment.

This absolute surplus workforce has been shunted off into the service sector. But the service sector has the peculiarity that it is particularly unamenable to significant growth in sectoral productivity. (Indeed, as Benanav mentions, the primary way this tends to happen is by a process one could call ‘reindustrialization’: instead of launderettes you have washing machines, and fast food has subjected cooking to a factory mode of organization.) This leads to even lower rates of output growth and an even more sluggish accumulation rate overall, with declining rates of return inducing enormous financial bubbles for want of places to invest.

So as overproduction in global manufacturing has crashed output growth rates and taken productivity growth with it, it is not rising productivity rates but falling output rates that are the real drivers of global stagnation. The result is widespread underemployment and increasing inequality, as organized labor has been unable to adjust to the new feedback loop of stagnation and has found it harder to organize in the service sector. Meanwhile many governments have pursued neoliberal austerity policies aimed at reducing the costs of labor, both to remain competitive in the global market and to force workers into accepting an absolute increase in the rate of exploitation. Underinvestment resulting from the lack of returns for private capital – and almost as poor prospects of improvements in productivity across the economy as a whole – lead to technology hypes and huge speculative inflation of fixed assets like real estate as capital seeks a way out of the cycle of stagnation.

Seen from this vantage point, Benanav proceeds to critique some of the more utopian or at least optimistic solutions proposed by the automation theorists, in particular his comrades on the left (whom he repeatedly avows sympathy with, even as he disagrees on the analysis). Based on the preceding analysis, he critiques the proposals from the left (and some of the libertarian tradition) for a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI), as well as more traditional Keynesian and social-democratic amelioration strategies. What these have in common, Benanav argues, is that they essentially ignore that the power of capital over the production process and over investment and distribution of resources is the basis for the political power of capital, and that in order to counter the ‘rational’ decisions of capital in the pursuit of profit under conditions of stagnation an enormous amount of political force and power will be required.

Essentially Benanav’s critique of these approaches is in line with the traditional Marxist critique of social-democracy (in the post-1918 sense): if you have enough power to force capital to accept a UBI that supplements workers’ bargaining position rather than undermining it, or to accept something like the Meidner Plan, then you also have the power to overthrow capital as such, and should rather do so. In the conclusion, he points in that same direction: a regime of social relations based on maximizing free time, equal distribution of burdens, and rational collective control over economic decision-making is a matter of political will and strength, and does not depend on any particular level of automation or the coming of the Great AI.

Indeed the great strength of the book is precisely this: to remind the left automation theorists that while their Marxist analysis of the potential of liberation from work is quite correct, what they should not neglect is the other part of the Marxist theoretical legacy, namely the critique of capitalist production. Although Benanav mostly eschews using Marxist economic jargon and uses mainstream authors like Leontieff and Baumol wherever possible, in essence his argumentation is based on a demonstration of the operation of the falling rate of profit: capitalism’s own success undermines its conditions of accumulation, and this causes stagnation and bubble formation until sufficient value is destroyed to reboot the cycle. Benanav’s emphasis on the particular significance of manufacturing as the “engine of economic dynamism” is a reflection of the role of commodity production for the production, and therefore possible accumulation, of surplus value. Although large ‘service sectors’ are often portrayed as a sign of a modern and mature economy and therefore desirable, from a Marxist point of view it is ultimately the regime of surplus value generation and accumulation that determines the ‘health’ of the beast, not the distribution of this value across all other sectors. (Needless to say, the health of the beast is not the same as the health of the workers trapped in its belly, in either case.)

The point of all this is not to hammer one over the head with theory, but to point out that left engagement with automation and other forms of qualitatively striking technological change should not forget what Kliman (Kliman 2011) has aptly called the failure of capitalist production. Even for left theorists it can be tempting to take capital in a sense at its word, to be led to the mountaintop and shown the dazzling vistas that lie ahead and to think what we could do with all those tools and riches. But not all that glitters is gold. For all the hype generated by the tech billionaires and the slow but not negligible rate of improvement in global living standards from increased output (which the author acknowledges), capitalism is reminiscent of the man who sticks a bar between the spokes of his own bicycle: sooner or later it brings itself to a fall, and then looks around indignantly for who might have sabotaged its great promise. But it is its own mode of production and accumulation that does this, and it cannot help but do it, again and again. No amount of machine learning or robotics can alter this fate of its own power, whatever other potential the computers and robots may have.

That said, Benanav’s own suggestions for the norms of a noncapitalist world are in the foundations not very different from those discussed in such left automation theory works as Srnicek and Williams’ or Peter Frase’s Four Futures (Frase 2016), also premised on a fully automated future. Indeed, with its discussions of collective distribution of work and its slightly blithe argument that the denizens of the future socialist world should just agree with each other on how to solve economic challenges, it reminds one a bit of the slightly older tradition of such postcapitalist social design like Parecon (Albert 2004).

On this basis, I would suggest it is not so much to be read as a critique of left automation theory as a supplement to it, one that more systematically incorporates the Marxist critique of capitalist production as not just wasteful of its potential, but also as subject to (irrational) secular tendencies to stagnation and unemployment. Insofar as the book has weaknesses, it is mainly in this latter sphere, the discussion of the low global demand for labor. Benanav tends to treat the First World and the global South as fairly equivalent and subject to the same processes in this regard, but thereby tends to elide the structural differences between them. After all, the vast majority of global inequality is inequality between nations, not within them, and structurally huge unemployment and underemployment are characteristics of poorer nations more than of richer ones. Premature deindustrialization is certainly a matter of the world market, as Benanav rightly says, but that world market is not born equal, and likely his argumentation works all the more clearly and transparently in countries with an educated but wildly underemployed workforce like Syria or Egypt than in the Western metropole.

This also raises the question of what to do with the traditional Marxist argument of the need to develop the productive forces to achieve the necessary potential for a postcapitalist future – a cornerstone of both Marxist and non-Marxist state practice in the 20th century in the form of the developmental state, but an issue not much addressed by Benanav. This is slightly curious since precisely this insight is at the heart of the (so to speak) ‘left optimists’ in the automation discourse: it is precisely the appearance of a very advanced state of development of the productive forces that invites the suggestion that the potential for utopia is around the corner. This may not be justified, and others have historically hewed closer to Benanav’s apparent approach that the leap to freedom is a matter of political will more than of technological capacity. But a further discussion of this theme would, I think, add to the filling out of Marxist theory that the left automation theorists are so fruitfully and – dare I say – productively engaged in.

Overall, Automation and the Future of Work is a remarkably lucid and sharp argument made in hardly a hundred pages. It fits well together with the previously mentioned works of Srnicek and Williams as well as Frase as part of a larger (and very welcome) exchange of thoughts among left theorists on the implications of modern automation technology and the systematic restructuring of the global workforce since the 1980s. It adds to this discussion a firm rooting in the Marxist theory of capitalist production and accumulation as well as more neoclassical interpretations of the ‘secular stagnation’ thesis, which point in the same direction. Most importantly, by emphasizing declining output growth rather than increasing productivity growth, it provides an important empirical and theoretical check on overly bullish interpretations of capitalist Promethean power.

Benanav, Aaron. Automation and the Future of Work. London 2020: Verso.
Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life after Capitalism. London 2016: Verso.
Kliman, Andrew. The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. London 2011: Pluto.
Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London 2015: Verso.

The Reversal of Values as a Method in Criticism

One could say with only limited exaggeration that all intellectual vices reduce to the vice of intellectual dishonesty, and that all intellectual dishonesty reduces to the phenomenon of kneejerking. Kneejerking could be defined as responding to the form of the thing rather than the thing itself: to its associations or appearance or emotional resonance, not to the substance of the argument within its specific context. While in principle everyone knows this vice to be one, it does not mean that it is easily avoided (as is generally true for intellectual vices). Within the political and cultural left, particular forms of kneejerking occur that are peculiar to our social sphere. Without wanting to point the finger at anyone or any group in particular, I think it is worth examining in more detail some of these specific forms of intellectual vice that we are prone to. 

One such example I think is often not recognized as a pattern, despite being unfortunately rather common in ‘radical’ theorizing. In fact, it is often not recognized as being an intellectual vice at all, although I think more often than not it is one. It is a form of kneejerking, but at a high level of abstraction: a form I call ‘the reversal of values’.

By the reversal of values I mean this. Often there will be a dominant or powerful narrative with normative implications, whether historical, political, or otherwise, in which a clear value hierarchy is established. There are forces or abstracta that are portrayed as good or desirable, and ones that are portrayed as bad or undesirable, and through this value hierarchy the narrative tries to make sense of the dynamics at issue. One could call this the conservative master narrative. By definition, radical theorizing sets itself against such conservative master narratives in the specific domain which it studies, and seeks to undermine it. 

A frequent approach in radical theorizing has been to do this by taking the conservative master narrative and reversing its values. This seems, after all, the strongest kind of critique: to show that those things seen as good are ‘actually bad’, and those things portrayed as bad are ‘actually good’. This undermines not just the original narrative’s potency, but also the ability of the exponents of the conservative master narrative to make value judgements at all. It exposes their value hierarchy as reversible, and therefore not natural or inevitable, which has been one of the essential goals of radical theorizing in modern times since it roots in the Enlightenment and romanticism. Finally, it has the clear advantage of having the theoretical tools laying ready to hand. After all, the conservative master narrative has already done most of the work in distilling the relevant abstracta and providing the raw materials for theory: all one needs to do now is to question the normative frame. In this way, it is always a tempting approach, since it appears simultaneously radical and easy.

It is not difficult to find practical examples in (relatively) recent radical theorizing. A clear example is the study of the witch hunts. The conservative master narrative had portrayed the witch hunts as a kind of irrational mass craze, and their victims as (at best) pathetic losers who had lost social support or (at worst) sinister figures in their own right who might have brought it on themselves. From the 1970s onwards, a strand of feminist historiography inspired by the work of Margaret Murray and others has sought to reverse this approach. Most eminently represented by Silvia Federici’s work, this strand has argued that in fact the witch hunts were very organized, ‘rational’ and deliberate undertakings, supported by a social elite, and their victims primarily (proto-)proletarian women, whose freedom and self-organization the witch hunters sought to destroy in order to inaugurate or further capitalist social arrangements. 

Beyond the historical specifics, the argument is quite explicitly framed as a reversal of values: the witch hunters were not crazy but rational (in an instrumental sense anyway), their victims not social losers or sinister schemers but oppressed workers, the violence not primarily a work of religious mania but of gendered social control, and so forth. These are, of course, social abstracta and not values in the strict sense. But the normative import attached to it, and the purpose of the historical exercise, is precisely to demonstrate that the victims were – anyway from the viewpoint of Marxist historiography – the ‘good guys’ and represented historically progressive forces, while the witch hunters are to be identified with the same historically regressive forces of exploitation and oppression that would manifest under capitalism, and therefore the ‘bad guys’. For her, the victims of the witch hunts were indeed the social underclass, but this is good about them

Moreover, Federici hints at the old idea that the oppressed workers victimized by the witch hunts were really in some sense deviants from the official Christianity, and had a different religious life; it plays into the reversal of values between the conservative master narrative of church history and its radical opposite. It is not a coincidence that Federici is happy to regularly rely in her book on very old works inspired by Catholic reaction, works in which the witch hunts are essentially justified as necessary measures to defend Christianity. These suit her purpose, because they give her a perfect opportunity to reverse that polarity. She too presents the witches as representing an inherent challenge to that same Christianity, but argues that this is a good thing, because that Christianity was patriarchal, oppressive, controlling, etc. 

There is much that can be doubted about this line of argument; it is certainly not in agreement with the more contemporary historiography of the witch hunts, which does not see such strong class or religious differences between witch hunters and their victims, nor was the upper class of the time uniformly enthusiastic about the enterprise. But that is not the point. The purpose of the book is to establish a reversal of values, where the victims of history are feminine, working class, organized, and free, and therefore represent things to be valued, whereas the winner-protagonists of the conservative master narrative actually represent all the things to be despised. 

Similar kinds of arguments can be found outside historical discussions too. One may think for example of the arguments about the nature of ‘rationality’. The conservative master narrative of philosophy and reason of old presented rationality as masculine, cultural, and dominant, and therefore associated irrationality with femininity, nature, and passivity. Clearly, this is no longer generally believed (although it still has its fans in many dark intellectual corners). What is surprising perhaps is how popular nonetheless the reversal of its values remains. A popular response is to say things along these lines: perhaps femininity is better then, because more in touch with emotions; or perhaps artificiality is ultimately destructive and harmful, and the natural is more balanced and more sustainable; perhaps rationality is not so desirable, because instrumental reason is ultimately a form of domination, and we should seek a more intuitive approach; perhaps acceptance of the dictates of nature is better than the aggressive and vainglorious attempt to control and dominate the natural; and so on and so forth. 

All of these represent in one form or another an attempt at the reversal of values as a method of criticism of the conservative master narrative, in fact a reversal by now much more common and more persistent than that old narrative itself is. Many more examples could be furnished: one need only think of the postcolonial studies tradition of revaluing the ‘subaltern’ against the Orientalist conservative master narrative, or the desire to revalue ‘queering’ against a vast array of master narratives of Otherization, and so on. 

It would seem a banality to observe that this method, as a method in radical criticism, is not really adequate, were it not so pervasive. Its great weakness is that while it undermines the value system of the conservative master narrative to which it responds, it preserves its parameters intact. It is in this sense that it is a kind of kneejerking: it says “if you say X is bad, I will say X is good!”, while thereby conceding that X has the properties and meaning that were ascribed to it in the first place. 

Analogous to how for Wittgenstein “philosophy leaves everything as it is”, the reversal of values also leaves everything as it is: it challenges the normative implications or the identification with one or another label, but does not challenge the structure of the argument itself. One might instead ask: what if the witch hunts were neither a defense of the true church nor a conspiracy by the ruling class, but a product of the particular social tensions of Renaissance state-building and religious conflict in which perpetrators and victims were often quite similar? What if rationality is not masculine to begin with, or femininity not natural, or the artificial not inferior to the spontaneous, or indeed none of these binaries particularly sustainable or likely to refer to natural kinds?

The point here is of course not to take positions in those specific debates, but to identify a pattern of reasoning. Indeed, reversing values is by itself not necessarily a bad thing. Many values do deserve reversal, and the reversal when undertaken as a deliberate enterprise intended to provide a form of counterculture or counterideology can be a healthy contribution to the landscape (Gerald Gardner’s inspiration of Wicca comes to mind here). But as a product of the kneejerk it is a serious methodological problem in radical theorizing. 

The upshot is that the critique of ideology demands a questioning not just of the normative claims inherent in the analysis but also of the analytical parameters themselves. The first instinct should not be to preserve the reasoning but to reverse its polarity, but to find that tertium quid – one that is not merely saying “this binary is insufficient” (which is surely itself often banal), but to find that analytical ground from which the parameters themselves come to look very differently, and the normative reversal becomes as irrelevant as its original counterpart. The way past the reversal of values as a method in criticism is to reject the instinct to say, as the witches in Macbeth, that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. This is a beginning, perhaps, but not adequate to the task. Instead we should make our instinct to go outside: to find that Archimedean lever, with which one can move the world.

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Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better

The release of 5th Edition has both enabled and benefited from a revival in Dungeons & Dragons across the world. On the whole, I think, 5th Edition is a good system, possibly the best D&D system released yet. Certainly it has the smoothest gameplay and is the most accessible and easiest to use. (Disclaimer: I have never played 4th Edition and do not know it well, nor Pathfinder, so those may be competitors for all I know.) Besides the mechanics, my main concern is really with worldbuilding. While roleplaying itself is fun, for me the juice, the real vigour is in the worldbuilding that provides the context for the roleplaying, and this goes especially for D&D given its high fantasy setting. Few things are more reliant on doing well-established tropes well as high fantasy is: after all, being tropey is precisely the point of that genre, and D&D has always recognized this (as does Shadowrun, for that matter).

Given that fact, there are certainly things to be satisfied about from that point of view in 5th Edition. Although it is not new for this edition, getting rid of the bizarre ‘race’ based restrictions on class is a clear step forward in general: no longer can gnomes, for some unaccountable reason, only cast arcane spells as illusionists, as was the case in 2nd Ed. They have also decided to abandon negative racial modifiers, leaving in place the racial bonus system but removing the malus, which strikes perhaps the best balance between the demands of the trope (why else bother with the idea of separate ‘racial types’?) and the understandable desire to not associate the term with negative attributes. One can wonder whether using the term race in this context at all is still appropriate and helpful. ‘Subspecies’ might sound too clinical or biological, but something like ‘physical nature’ or simply ‘character type’ would do just fine, especially given how vague terms like ‘class’ and ‘archetype’ already are anyway. But that is not what I want to talk about here. I have a few enduring frustrations with the worldbuilding assumptions of what I call default D&D, and I want to rant about those here instead. Continue reading “Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better”