March 23, 2015
“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.
The main dynamic through which this contest was fought out, in Tooze’s economic historical telling, is the question of debt and credit. While Tooze emphasizes that the American contribution to the Entente victory in the military sphere was modest at best, the main American contribution lay not in manpower or materiel, but in the financing of the war effort. The Entente victors ended the war owing the United States a vast sum in inter-Allied debts, and the Americans – Democrats and Republicans alike – were intent on making good on these claims and in so doing subjugate the British and French permanently to a world order of American dominance. However, what complicated the picture was the demand for reparations established by the Entente powers against (especially) Germany, which was perpetually unable to actually pay these. The efforts of international diplomacy and politics in the period 1916-1930 therefore became a veritable pyramid scheme with the United States on top, and each debtor below attempting to recoup their own losses before the whole collapsed under its contradictions. In order to forestall such a collapse and to obtain the necessary leverage combined with the equally necessary flexibility, the Entente powers attempted various means of political institutionalization of the debt and credit relations, from the League of Nations to the series of international agreements between Versailles (1919) and the Young Plan (1930).
Tooze’s narrative, while complex and providing a wealth of substantive detail on everything from the Soviet-Polish War to the internal dynamics of Japanese interwar parliaments, can roughly be summarized as follows. Wilson’s politics, Tooze argues, have wrongly been portrayed as a naive or ‘idealist’ internationalism. Instead, what Wilson recognized was that the only possibility to prevent another such political crisis as 1914 was the establishment of a new liberal order. This order must be based on the fact of American hegemony (which naturally Wilson favored), and in order to achieve this, it was necessary to avoid permanent alliances between the US and European powers, instead favoring ‘peace without victory’ in World War I. When this failed, Wilson shifted to a strategy of using the inter-Allied debt leverage to enforce his vision, seeking to use this constraint on the freedom of the victorious European powers to prevent them from any further 19th century style inter-imperialist rivalry. Instead of the old balance and rivalry of powers, there was now to be a world based on the ‘Open Door’, the freedom of the seas, and the liberal international institutions like the League of Nations. This would guarantee a world where liberal-democratic principles could slowly embed themselves in all the major states and where American economic superiority could be peacefully translated into political dominance without the need for further intercontinental entanglement.
Tooze’s tale, however, is not one of success but of failure. The two central theses he develops out of his narrative are the observations that 1) this liberal-democratic new order was the only possibility to prevent the twin radicalisms of Communism and fascism from taking hold in a serious way, and 2) that it failed to come about due to the incompatibility of the demands of the winners and losers of the post-WWI settlement and due to the repeated failure of American diplomacy to effectively cajole the main powers into a ‘peace without victory’. The result was the ‘second Thirty Years War’, as some historians are now describing it, that we are all familiar with. This approach involves a convincing reinterpretation and rehabilitation of many aspects of the period often dismissed in later years: Wilson’s internationalist vision, both less naive and less successful than often portrayed; the Versailles Treaty, a necessary step in institutionalizing the “chain gang” that bound the losing powers to the winning powers and the winning powers to the United States; and even the much-condemned Clemenceau and French foreign policy, whose supposed revanchism against Germany appears very defensible in light of the damaged and exposed position of the postwar French state.
The strength of Tooze’s narrative, besides his admirable command of source materials and the logic of international macroeconomics, is to replace the usual psychologizing narratives of WWI and its aftermath (Clemenceau’s revenge, Lloyd George’s deceit, Wilson’s naivete, Lenin’s devilishness, etc) with a plausible model that explains the diplomatic continuities across parties of the period in terms of economic and political interests. In that sense this work definitely represents the ‘realist’ approach in international relations at its best. But it is not wholly shorn of discussions of ideology and the domestic conflicts of parties and factions either: an important part of Tooze’s discussion of the would-be liberal global dispensation is the domestic opposition between the liberal-internationalist politicians, oriented towards the United States, and the radicals of left and right, seeking to prevent the former from bringing about this order. In this model it therefore makes less difference what individuals or even political ideologies were involved, but mainly what position they took vis-a-vis this “remaking of global order”, as the book’s subtitle puts it – hence the convergence between a bourgeois radical like Clemenceau and a rightwing nationalist like Stresemann. Yet both the oppositionalism of left and right radicals and the opportunism of this expansive ‘center’ meant that those in the “chain gang” failed to come to terms with the new order sufficiently to make its institutions work. The result, Tooze suggests, was the stillbirth of democracy in much of the world and the victory of the radical forces over the liberals, so that another world war became inevitable.
The obvious strengths of this explanation are also its weaknesses. Much more than in his rightly lauded previous work, The Wages of Destruction, the worldview expressed in the book seems that of a contemporary ‘muscular liberalism’. Tooze truly believes in the liberal hierarchy of nations supervised by the United States, and wishes it could have been established earlier. This necessitates some political judgements that are, to say the least, debatable. He does not hide the fundamentally imperialist nature of Britain or France after WWI or their futile efforts to combine the new internationalism with a stronger grip on their colonies. But he never quite reconciles the enduring imperialist adventures he describes – from the colonization of Egypt in 1919 to the Japanese efforts to divide and rule in China or the Franco-British schemes in the Middle East – with his repeated assertion that the new world order was based on the recognition that the ‘old imperialism’ (which Tooze argues only really started in the 1880s anyway) was no longer possible in an era of mass mobilization, and that the era of global competition was over (287). He is therefore unjustifiably sanguine about the “liberal imperialism” and its supposed moral advances over the previous era.
Tooze is honest enough to report the contradictions: “Liberal visions”, he writes in a discussion of the British suppression of Indian national liberation between the wars, “were necessary to sustain empire in the sense that they offered fundamental justifications. But they were always likely to be reduced to painful hypocrisy by the real practices of imperial power…” (391). Very true. But how are we to reconcile this hypocrisy with the seemingly self-evident desirability of the liberal order over that of the ‘radicals’? A similar problem appears in the omission of any discussion of the racial dimension. Again, Tooze honestly reports on Wilson’s white supremacist views, and how the latter’s politics were founded on his hatred of the Reconstruction period. He regularly mentions the usage of racial categories and language by the diplomats of the Entente nations, and the hasty rejection of Japan’s motion for racial equality in the Treaty of Versailles. But the connection between these views of racial hierarchy and the content of what he sometimes calls the “liberal imperial order” – even had it succeeded – is not made explicit.
This stands in strange contradiction to the importance he attaches to the racial-colonial dynamic of Nazi Germany’s war strategy in The Wages of Destruction, where precisely the importance attached to this dimension gives his narrative such an added explanatory power. Japan’s defection from the liberal order towards fascist military adventurism is portrayed as a consequence of the Great Depression, which there as elsewhere robbed the liberals of their main (economic) arguments to hold the revanchists at bay. This is true enough as it goes; but might it not also have something to do with the statement by Victor Wellesley of the Foreign Office on Chinese policy, which was founded on the observation that “the prestige of the European races has been steadily declining in the Far East… and it has suffered a severe blow as a result of the Great War” (406)? Do not the repeated expressions of racial contempt for Slavic peoples, for the ‘Jewish degenerate’ Bolsheviks, and the horror stories about the Senegalese forces in French service, combined with the white supremacist policies of the Americans, perhaps matter more than incidentally for the shape the postwar order took and the inspiration of fascism? In his previous book Tooze was clear about this; in the present it seems much more muddled.
Radicalism, for Tooze’s liberal IR realism, is all of one kind and necessarily leads to war and destruction without clear advantages. The book throughout equates Communists, fascists, anarchists and other radicals in the political sphere, making it a matter of diplomatic indifference whom one is dealing with; he equally applauds Gustav Noske’s repression of the Spartakusbund as the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch. The Soviet Union is treated with nothing but scorn and contempt, and Lenin appears as nothing but a deluded adventurer who destroyed Russian democracy (the Constituent Assembly, which gets a great deal of space) and became a puppet of German interests. (Given Tooze’s main sources on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath appear to be the works of Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes, his lopsided and absurd judgements are perhaps not so surprising.) The repeated repression of the workers’ movement, from the French miners to the revolutionary moment of 1919-1920 all the way to the UK General Strike of 1926, is virtually without fail applauded by Tooze. For him, Noske is a responsible statesman, Clemenceau a “pragmatic reformer” who was “demonised” for repressing the miners’ strikes with armed force by the “doctrinaires” of the French Socialist Party, and the Entente intervention against the October Revolution a defense of democracy. The ‘Red Scare’ and Palmer raids in the US after WWI, often seen as precursors to McCarthyism, are a mere “carnivalesque distraction” (354). The minor welfare programmes and high taxes of the Lib-Lab policies in Western Europe after the war, however, represent “immense new burdens” (250), and the pensions and compensations for war veterans a dubious “new notion of entitlement” (359).
Although Tooze repeatedly admits that the liberal imperial order he favors did not really – beyond the persona of Wilson – have the support of the great majority, he sticks to defending it without fail as “progressive” or the “progressive center”, even putting ‘imperialist’ between scare quotes when applied to its protagonists, despite his own descriptions of the fundamental accuracy of that term. In distinction to this progressivity, the radicals can never be right – that Weimar Germany or Soviet Russia attempted to come to understandings with defeated or colonized powers like China, or indeed each other, is depicted as “self-indulgent nationalist fantasy” (436). Sinn Fein’s independence movement was an expression of “apocalyptic radicalism” (377), and the repeated “political concessions to nationalism” forced upon the British empire (the only one examined in detail) are discussed with more than a hint of regret. One will find little patience with national liberation ideas or radical politics of whatever stripe in Tooze’s book: it’s the American way or the highway as far as the peace of nations is concerned.
This also generates difficulties for him in describing the deflationary policies that have become so notorious in retrospect. Whereas an economic historian like Barry Eichengreen represents mainstream opinion in (probably overly simply) seeing the crisis caused by the deflationary policy and the subsequent dissolution of the liberal-imperialist interwar order as the result of bad economic theory, Tooze is more ambivalent. He explains the virtual universality of the deflationary attachment to the gold standard as the expression of the desire to be part of the new American-led order of ‘Open Door’ international relations, surely a much more plausible explanation than simple error. However, the difficulty is that this deflationary economics undeniably was a major factor in the crisis of 1920-1921 as well as that of 1929; and these crises, in turn, destroyed the world order Tooze so favors. It therefore appears both as the necessary result of liberal internationalism and its destruction, which raises the question whether – just as with the notion of ‘liberal imperialism’ in India and elsewhere – the strategy was not too internally contradictory to have ever been a plausible historical outcome to begin with.
On that note, one final aspect of the work should be noted. It does not escape Tooze, of course, that parallels can be found between the institutionalization of international debt and credit relations between the wars and the construction of the European Economic Community after them; nor the significance of the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact and other treaty forms of American-led international pacification for the United Nations of today. Indeed, Tooze emphasizes such continuities, suggesting that he seems to regard the present order and its problems as comparable to those of the internationalist liberalism of the Wilsonian vision. Even the role of (Soviet) Russia is perceived in this way, where German policy is portrayed as a necessary response to its inherent threat after WWII as much as before the Great War: it was the “very real threat of a Soviet takeover”, we are told, “that drove West Germany willy-nilly into the arms of the West and kept it there” (276). (In fact, Stalin repeatedly offered the possibility of a neutral and united Germany, which the West, including West Germans, declined.) For Tooze, the ad hoc alliance between the Entente nations presages NATO and the Marshall Plan, equally defined by the opposition between liberal democratic internationalism and the violent revanchism of radicals. But as the present Eurozone crisis demonstrates, the straitjacket or “chain gang” such ‘internationalism’ of debt and credit represents can do at least as much harm as the radicals, and moreover helps to bring radicalism about – a similar contradiction today to that that frustrated the Wilsonian order.
These political considerations aside, one is unlikely to find a better treatment of the intersection of global economics and diplomacy between the wars than Adam Tooze’s The Deluge. As with his previous work, it certainly helps to have a basic grasp of macroeconomics and international trade, as monetary policy, trade deficits, and budgetary constraints carry a lot of explanatory weight and the author does not pause to explain their basic mechanics. The great virtue of this work is to make reason out of folly: to make sense from the perspectives of the participants of what is often simply portrayed as naive errors of economics and politics. That is to say, at least from the perspectives of the supporters of the Wilsonian order. The tale of the rise and fall of ‘liberal imperialism’ and ‘liberal internationalism’, frustrated by the incompetence of Wilson himself, the opportunism and economic weakness of the postwar European powers, and the opposition of radical political factions, is fundamentally strong and merits a serious reading. However, Tooze’s political perspective does not allow him to tease out the inherent contradictions in these concepts and the reality of what such an order actually did and does entail, not least for those at the bottom end of the “chain gang” hierarchy. And that limits the explanatory scope of the work compared to his deeper perception in his previous book.
March 19, 2015
Does the world really need another Marx biography? As a fan of the man as thinker and (to some extent) as historical figure, normally my answer would always be ‘yes’. However, recent years have seen a spate of new Marx and Engels biographies that have been thorough and substantive on all aspects of their lives. Tristram Hunt’s irreverent but sympathetic biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist, 2009), Francis Wheen’s fine overview of Marx’s life and thought (Karl Marx, 2000), and especially the brilliant study of the intersection of the private lives and public convictions of the whole Marx-Engels clan (including children and domestic servant), Mary Gabriel’s commendable Love and Capital (2011) have provided well-researched 21st century retrospectives on the lives of the great revolutionaries. Add to that the solid biographies I would consider the ‘standard classics’ from the previous generation, David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (first edition 1973, now on the fourth) and J.D. Hunley’s underappreciated study of Friedrich Engels (The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation, 1991), and it becomes a truly daunting task to add much new content to our view of either man.(1)
Nonetheless, Jonathan Sperber has persevered, and while the work is not an overall success, it certainly has some merit of originality of approach. Sperber’s speciality is 19th century German history, especially of the various mid-century radical factions and figures around the 1848-1849 revolution, and this shows. The subtitle “A Nineteenth Century Life” puts his cards directly on the table, as does the introduction to the book: Sperber is convinced that Marx was fundamentally a figure of that period, never escaped the limitations of the mid-19th century worldview, and has very little to offer to anyone living in later times. This is the burden of his biography, quite contrary to virtually every other biographer (friendly or hostile), and Sperber throughout portrays all developments with an eye to making this case. Unfortunately, the argument is simply not plausible, and it leads to not just an at times rather contemptuous treatment of the subject, but also to some very odd shifts of emphasis and context.
Sperber cannot be faulted, it should be noted, for striking inaccuracies of fact or historical detail. He only occasionally slips up (The Hague is not the capital of the Netherlands, 512), and in some small respects he even manages to add more information and correct some previous biographers, such as Marx’s relation to Feuerbach or in the supposed controversy of his marriage to Jenny von Westfalen. One can see that Sperber is best at home in the Germany of the 1830s-1850s, and the sections of the book devoted to Marx’s adventures in (Young) Hegelianism and away from it again, as well as Marx and Engels activities around 1848 leading to the birth of the Communist Manifesto are the best of the book. One of Sperber’s justifications for the new biography is the “unprecedented access” to the new MEGA2 scientific editions of Marx and Engels’ collected works vaunted by the publishers, and likely some of the matters of biographical detail corrected in this biography are to be found there. Much has been made in certain Marxological circles, especially German-speaking ones, of the great significance of the MEGA2 project and the wholly revised view of Marx’s life-work it would present; but Sperber’s biography can be taken as evidence to the contrary. Where Sperber varies from the established insider view in any major way, it is in matters of interpretation and opinion rather than of fact and chronology, and indeed very little by way of new theoretical or political advantage is gleaned from these archives in this work or others I have seen.
Those specific matters of interpretation and opinion that make this biography stand out, and not altogether in a positive way, relate to Sperber’s insistence on Marx as a ‘nineteenth century life’. There is of course nothing wrong with historicising Marx; indeed, little sense can now be made of many of the allusions, jokes, references, claims, proposals, and polemics of his life without a fairly solid grasp of 19th century politics (and economic thought), from Napoleon III to the ‘True Socialists’. But Sperber opens his work with a series of bold, unsupported assertions: that Marx’s idea of the social revolution to come was essentially a rerun of the French Revolution’s Jacobin moment; that Marx’s view of capitalism described only the capitalism of the early to mid 19th century and that none of his crucial insights apply to the modern day; that the bourgeoisie Marx by turns excoriated and exhorted has nothing to do at all with the capitalist or bourgeois class of today; and that Marx essentially foresaw nothing of lasting importance for the future. Marx is not Gandalf the Grey, Sperber mocks (xiii) – a rather amusing comparison, given Gandalf’s foresight in his older guise was decidedly limited, whereas his recurrence in greater power and foresight in a later period of the war of the ring makes this analogy difficult for someone who insists a similar return of Marx (be it in the realm of ideas) is not possible. “The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course” (also xiii), Sperber insists – a tall order indeed, not least when even now millions belong to political parties and movements invoking his name and several countries are ruled by those, rightly or not, claiming his inspiration.
Neither in his introduction nor in the work itself does Sperber find a real justification for this view. He rightly notes, of course, that Marx failed to observe many things that would become especially important in the 20th century West: the rise of the ‘social movements’, the enduring importance of nationalism, the Russian revolution, or even the rise of neoclassical economics. But this has been noted by many others; and they have also noted, as an ample secondary literature attests, that Marx and Engels did have at least some things to say on all these topics, and that often these few things have proven remarkably useful and enduring in 20th century social science’s attempts to grapple with these phenomena. Indeed, on page 289 Sperber himself quotes the famed anthropologist Levi-Strauss, who – while by no means an orthodox Marxist – is cited stating “I rarely broach a new sociological problem without first stimulating my thought by reading a few pages of the 18th Brumaire…”!
In the face of this, Sperber resorts to two strategies for sustaining his dismissal of Marx’s posthumous relevance. Firstly, his book throughout treats Marx’s political, theoretical, and organisational commitments and shifts in a remarkably psychologizing and subjectivist manner. For him, it seems every decision of Marx (or Engels) on whether to support this or that movement or whether to participate in this or that organisation is largely determined by Marx’s mood and illnesses at the time, by his personal relations with the characters involved, by whether he was poor or in a period of relative comfort, whether he thought to gain something by it, and so forth; in short, by any criterion at all except a serious commitment on Marx and Engels’ part to undertake what they claimed to undertake, a ‘scientific socialism’ that – successful or not – had the ambition of both scientifically sustaining the possibility of a communist revolution and showing the way towards that revolution.
There is no doubt of course that both gentlemen went through several phases of thought in their lives, and that they were by no means always consistent or single-minded on every question, as Sperber aptly shows. But he overeggs the pudding by refusing to consider first whether an apparent arbitrariness or inconsistency over time could not be explained in theoretical or strategic terms, such as to make sense of the whole of their views to a greater degree, before simply assuming the decisiveness of personal quirks. Marx and Engels were both men of great personal conflicts and of at times domineering attitudes, but this need not dominate our explanations any more than Darwin’s work and his changes of view are best explained by his personal feelings about the peoples of Tierra del Fuego or about race relations.
Sperber’s approach has the merit, to be sure, of not making the opposite mistake: unlike some biographers on the other end of the spectrum (not least politically), he does not assume beforehand to study Marx in “the unity of his thought”(2), nor that any complete consistency of approach and ‘method’ is to be found in Marx’s work throughout his life. Indeed, it is a welcome reminder in some senses that the enduring problems of the left – how to relate to certain nationalist movements, whether it is better to pursue communism in larger states or to support self-determination for minorities first, how to engage with gender and race questions, how to separate personal sectarianism from principled differences, how to approach elections, reform measures versus revolutionary adventures, etc – were just as much problems Marx and Engels had trouble solving and had inconsistent views on. Indeed, more often than not all sides in these debates have been able to find quotes from the masters in their favor, which should be telling.
Also, for all Sperber’s occasionally dismissive attitude to the substance of Marx’s thought, he is fairly accurate in representing it. Even the section on Marx’s economic thought, often a stumbling block for unwary biographers, is acceptable enough. But this is mitigated by the second aspect of Sperber’s historicising strategy: in line with his own specialisations, Marx’s actual theoretical thought – especially that of the later period after the US Civil War – is treated in a very summary way compared with the great attention to the details of interpersonal relations among various more or less obscure Victorian radicals. To be sure, the author has the requisite discussions of the views of the Manifesto, of Marx’s efforts in Capital, his historical and journalistic writings, and so forth. But most of these warrant a few pages of loose description at most, and generally with a focus on their significance for Marx’s relations to existing radical movements and figures, rather than any serious discussion of their substance.
This fits the notion that these theories are now mere historical curiosities and that the main point of reading about Marx is the entertainment value of Victorian polemics (certainly not to be underestimated). But it can equally be accused of being a biased presentation that assumes what it needs to prove: that these theories have little to offer to today’s world. Something similar goes for Sperber’s undue emphasis on Marx’s ‘accelerationist’ support for free trade over protectionism, which he comes back to time and again; an interesting observation, no doubt, but one suspects only highlighted here because it will look odd compared to the views of most later Marxists. Whenever actual revolutionary theories come to be discussed, Sperber quickly dismisses them as being really about a Jacobin type coup, a statement not anywhere substantiated and dismissed by virtually every specialist on Marx’s revolutionary thought. Sperber’s historicising allows him to avoid overly ‘retconning’ interpretations and allows him a more nuanced discussion of e.g. the claims about Marx’s ‘anti-Semitism’ and Marx’s enduring, at times paranoid, hostility to Russia (in that sense the equivalent of modern leftist attitudes to America). But in this way it also effectively disappears the significance of works like the Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value and Marx’s notes on marginalism (which, contra Sperber, he was aware of). This approach portrays Capital as merely a scholarly, not very revolutionary post-Ricardian corrective (here and in the discussion of the ‘transformation problem’ Sperber seems to owe more to the followers of Sraffa rather than of Marx) and ignores how Marx also wrote it “to put a weapon in the hands of workers”, as Harry Cleaver put it(3).
Ultimately, all this forces Sperber into making some bizarre statements to dismiss its current validity, such as the claim that Marx’s Capital did not foresee the existence of ‘services sector’ employees (456) – what of the pawnshops Marx regularly visited? – and that it failed to “take change over time into account” (435). When Marx does in such works make statements pointing out revolutionary implications – such as his questionable claim that corporations were a capitalist embryo of the socialist future – this is presented by Sperber as an idea that some early French socialists also had, and therefore proof of the “backward-looking nature of Marx’s economic views” (455-456). This kind of ‘reading’ can damn any author, to be sure. Marx is said to have “fervently endorsed the actions” of the Narodniks (536), when a more fair portrayal would note he did indeed applaud the death of the Czar but called their tactics a “‘specifically Russian and historically inevitable method about which there is no reason… to moralise for or against”(4). One can doubt whether the 19th century was truly “more gentlemanly” (528); whether Marx “downplayed the importance of crises for the end of capitalism” (433); and whether Marx’s engagement with the German and international workers’ movements was “accidental” and “fortuitous” (355).
Typically, Sperber notes Marx’s growing interest in rural affairs and in the possibility of revolutions outside the industrialised world in the late period, but sees this as an oddity impossible to explain on the basis of Marx’s “long-held theories of social development”. Marx in this way gains no credit for shifting views, only discredit: he is portrayed as backward looking and inconsistent where many others have seen an increasingly anti-Eurocentric and anthropologically engaged perspective (Marx’s anthropological interests appear not at all). Similarly, Sperber observes how Marx had an interest in agricultural chemistry but views this as a marginal hobby, not noting the great foresightedness in direction of Marx and Engels’ interest in agricultural transformation and ecological constraints, nor the importance of their comradely relations with Justus von Liebig, the greatest organic chemist of the 19th century. A more theoretically engaged view might have noted the significance of these pastimes, not as an inability to deal consistently with Malthus, as Sperber on one point suggests, but as important for the “abolition of the contradiction between town and country”, and indeed as empirical evidence that Malthus’ approach was not justified. But this may also be because Sperber indulges the usual fulminations against Engels, whom he accuses (!) of having invented the image of Marx as a ‘scientific socialist’ and who is to blame for all the ‘positivism’ in his thought.
This is not to say the book has no interest to people familiar with Marx. There are some intriguing details, such as Marx’s love of chess and the influence of Eduard Gans on his early formation. More significantly, Sperber’s book is good if one is mainly interested in Marx’s personal connections and relations to the various movements of ideas and politics of his time. Sperber has some useful things to say about the enduring ambiguity between what he (not very helpfully) calls ‘positivism’ and Hegelian approaches in Marx and Engels’ thought, and he is also good in relating the difficulties Marx and Engels had with the various claims of nationalist movements; although on the latter e.g. Hal Draper probably offers a more politically aware treatment. However, on the whole his work is vitiated by an unwillingness to separate major and minor elements in Marx’s life, guided by the polemical treatment of Marx as a figure who a priori cannot be read through any lens that might imply theoretical relevance.
1) Incidentally, McLellan wrote his own review of the present book here.
2) As a famous study of Lenin’s theoretical development described it. Georgy Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (1924)
3) Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (1979)
4) Letter to Jenny Longuet, 11 April 1881. Sperber does note Marx’s disapproval of terrorist tactics in Germany, 537.
April 6, 2014
It’s easy to be against austerity and neoliberalism; it is less easy to say something meaningful about it, and to take stock of the Western situation in a sober and critical way. To do this is the purpose of Against Austerity, the most recent work of the hand of Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and (ex-)member of various radical groups in the UK. Although the cover blurbs present it as a strategy for defeating austerity and reviving the left, most of the book by far is actually concerned with analyzing what austerity is, how it relates to neoliberalism, state and class strategies, ideology, and economics. While these topics are by now fairly well-trodden ground in left analysis, there is perhaps a need for a popular synthesis of the various theories and interpretations offered in the literature, and this book helps fill that gap. Combining — as is Seymour’s wont — Poulantzian/Gramscian state and class theory with the economic interpretations of the crisis offered by the school of Panitch & Gindin and Duménil & Levy, this work offers a (brief) political economic reading of the crisis that is fully integrated with a strategic and political conception: neoliberalism as a class offensive of financial capital and its state integration to recompose the state-economy relationship and indeed the very structure of ‘the market’ and its society itself. As Seymour puts it: “what we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not just spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism, deepening an equivalent shift that began in the 1970s” (3-4).
What does this shift consist of, according to him? The author discusses a fairly broad range of phenomena, and the discussion of the crisis and its strategic meaning ranges from economics to class, to state, and to ideology. Let’s take the economics first. The general thesis of the crisis interpretation may be summed up as the Panitch-Gindin-Duménil-Levy school. That is to say, the view that neoliberalism entails an intensification of existing trends towards ‘financialisation’, seen as the dominance of finance capital over other capitals and its stranglehold on the state; an attendant rise in inequality and more open class warfare, as opposed to the welfarist compromises of the boom period when manufacturing capital was in charge; and a shift from consumption to an investment orientation. When it comes to the state analysis of neoliberal economics, however, Seymour (in my view rightly) takes his cue from Philip Mirowski: the neoliberal state presents itself as a ‘small government, free market, individual responsibility’ type liberal regime of familiar sort, but in reality neoliberalism means an enormous increase in the state’s repressive authority and even in its reach over all aspects of life. The difference is that the state is now used to create markets and market dependence where none existed before, or where it was attenuated by welfarist ‘obstacles’. The neoliberal state is a regime of (re)imposing market relations into the fabric of everyday life wherever possible, and it is in this context only that the combination of increasing authoritarianism (at least compared to the 60s-70s) with the new conservatism and the drive to (anew) outsource and commodify all labour can be understood.
Financialization also comes into the class analysis. After all, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism (all agree) has been the increasing indebtedness and financial ‘enmeshing’ of Western workers. Also, the centrality of finance and the finance-state alliance in the United States to the workings of the international economic system since the end of Bretton Woods, as documented by Gindin and Panitch in The Making of Global Capitalism (London/NY 2013: Verso) has generated (or imposed) similar alliances elsewhere in the Western world. The upshot of this is that, on this interpretation, finance has become the central nervous system of capitalism and that financial capital has become the leading sub-class (hegemon) within the ruling class alliance. Unpacking Seymour’s Gramscian-Poulantzian jargon, the social relation that is the state is always in some sense a reflection of the struggle of different classes and class forces. In this particular case the alliance between corporations, banks, political parties, civil servants and so forth that dominates the UK is led by finance capital and its direct or indirect representatives in politics: the often-observed City-Westminster nexus.
Yet in the state analysis, Seymour rightly emphasizes that the neoliberal austerity alliance is not an impregnable unity. On the contrary, neoliberalism is as any movement an alliance of different ideas and forces and has a fragmentary nature. If cohesion is created by the dominance of the particular interest of finance over the whole, even other sectors of capital, the strategies pursued on this basis also entail risks and potentials for division. The wholesale attack on the conditions of social reproduction as they have grown in the postwar era more aggressive and sweeping than even in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and this means that either Marx’s ‘moral’ historical element in the reproduction of labor will be pushed down to a systematically lower living standard for the Western working class; or it could mean sufficient disruption and resistance that this social reproduction itself is threatened and the attack has to be called off. The former appears to be happening now, but the latter was the picture of the earliest wave of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and this shows the importance of organized labor resistance to raising the risks of an austerity strategy for the ruling class.
Similarly, the pursuit of debt reduction, cutting government expenditure, public employment and so forth makes sense from the viewpoint of financial capital — as it strengthens credibility and therefore creditors — but it threatens through the ensuing conflict and contraction the position of weaker elements of capital, such as manufacturers and those dependent on international trade. Such state intervention as exists in the economy is explicitly to defend finance capital at all costs, hence the bailouts, but there are also other elements of the ruling class alliance and global stability to keep in mind, not least politically. Hence Seymour rightly notes that “the divisions among elites over whether to proceed with austerity reflects both the risks of the project and divergences of short-term interests” (94). This solves the riddle of whether austerity is ideological madness or whether we should adopt the ‘rational choice’ view that this ruling class must be right about its own interests: it depends on what segment of the alliance we are talking about.
This brings us to the question of ideology, which perhaps more than anything else (unless it is the decline of unionism) defines our current era. Here, Seymour is perhaps at his best. As is obvious to all, but often handwaved away in the wishful thinking that passes for much left analysis, the situation ideologically is very grim. In the UK, fewer people now support the old ‘welfare’ set of views than even at the height of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s that inaugurated Thatcher’s rule. The new ‘common sense’ imposed by decades of virtually unchallenged neoliberalism and the demise of the Soviet Union — the latter a factor Seymour barely mentions — has quite successfully imbued the current generation of young people with an ethos of individual careerism, of identifying with the discipline of the market. While this generation is much more progressive than the previous on questions of gender, sexuality, race and so forth, it is also much more neoliberal in terms of the relationship of individuals to society and its political economy — a trend visible throughout the Western world. In addition, Richard Seymour gives due attention to the counterpart of this common sense: the increasing violence and authoritarianism against those who resist or transgress the new discipline of the market and its inequalities and exploitation. From forced labor to obtain benefits to the escalation of police tactics, it is especially the women and people of colour of the Western world who make up much of the working class that bear the brunt of this offensive. The rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and benefit dependence only legitimizes this new ‘liberalism without a human face’, and the more the state and its remaining welfare system present themselves as modes of exercising neoliberal authority, the less they are seen as universal achievements of citizenship in a high-wealth society. Seymour brings out this vicious cycle of our current times quite well.
There is much to like about this book. It is a clear and well-structured read: it starts off rather blocky and posturing in the beginning (for which I am just not the right audience) but improves over time with an at times fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the rule of finance capital within the neoliberal state and the concrete strategies, alliances, and ideological ‘strong redescriptions’ this entails. Refreshing especially are two important things about this work: firstly, Seymour’s resistance to wishful thinking and hand-waving optimism. He describes the utter weakness of the left’s resistance, the decline in unionism and the small likelihood of its recovery, and the increasing neoliberalization of the Western common sense in no uncertain terms. Secondly, he rightly points out how identifying neoliberalism simply with ‘free marketeers’ and seeking a restoration of the old welfare capitalism and union alliances to combat it is an illegitimate and impossible exercise in old union worker nostalgia and doomed to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. He emphasizes how much unions have now come to rely on public service workers for their base, the last relatively privileged and secure bastion against the labour market, and how the neoliberal offensive on this point is destroying even that base as we speak — without any clear counter-strategy to be seen. The spirit of ’45 is an obscene display of delusional nostalgia, and should be rejected wherever it appears, and Richard Seymour does not indulge it — which is rare among the left in the UK, although such politics of nostalgia is much less evident in the United States. On the whole, this book does what should be the starting point of any Marxist analysis: it describes with sober senses how bad the radical left’s strategic position is, unhindered by the shibboleths or blinders of sect strategy.
Admittedly, I have some disagreements with the analysis as well, both larger and smaller in nature. Although these are all points on which people can reasonably disagree, I’ll mention a few points of difference here. One is that I think Seymour still concedes too much to the existing union structure, despite his justified emphasis on the need for a ‘new unionism’. The Owen Jones argument that unions are still the ‘biggest democratic institutions in the UK’ and the like simply does not convince, and masks the real issues of organized workers in the West. Firstly, if we criticize liberal democracy for being a sham democracy in some respects, being structurally set up to favour the elites and by demobilization and abstention excluding much of the working class, then this goes a fortiori for the unions. Even in the United States general elections will reach a 50% turnout or so, whereas union leadership elections are often decided on a turnout of about 15%. That does not bode well for an argument about their democratic content. Moreover, the dependence of Western unions on public sector workers. While the conditions and makeup of the public sector workforce is increasingly like that of private sector work, the strategic position is different. Public sector workers are more subject to the neoliberal ideological resistance to the state apparatus, making them seem ideal examples of wasteful obstacles and parasites to be cut; they’re often, as state representatives, in ambiguous relationships to workers (think of teachers or social workers); and they depend way more than private sector workers do on a general reserve of public support and solidarity. In Chicago, the CTU managed to triumph on this basis, but in most cases the long-term trend is not good for public sector-heavy unions.
Finally, there is also a certain analogy between the ‘Labour is defined by its members, therefore should be supported’ and the ‘unions are run by workers, therefore democratic’ arguments: both ignore the way the structure of membership is set up to prevent the use of that instrument for any anti-capitalist purpose under current conditions. A new unionism would mean a radical reformation of the existing union structure just as it would require a doing away with Labourism (something Seymour does agree on). It is worth noting that in various polls, from the US to Australia, people systematically indicate that unions are among the least trusted and liked institutions in the West — comparable to big business and parliaments, in fact.
Another point concerns the economic analysis. While I do not want to go into too much technical detail that will likely bore or confuse a general left audience, it is at least worth noting that some of the economic reasoning that underpins the book is disputable. While I readily agree with Seymour’s analysis of neoliberalism in the Mirowskian style, i.e. as the imposition of markets by a stronger (and even sometimes bigger) state rather than a classic free market offensive, I am less enamoured than he is of the Gindin-Panitch-Duménil-Levy approach to the crisis. Everyone can agree that the proximate cause of the crisis lay in the financial system and its particular overexposure to bad debt, and that this bad debt in turn has its roots in the stagnation (though not necessarily decline) of worker compensation. But it does not follow from this that long-term financial trends are the dominant ones in explaining global capitalism since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. The argument that opponents of this school do not take finance to be a ‘real’ part of capitalism is misplaced; while indeed the populist narrative sometimes leans towards seeing finance as merely parasitical on capitalism, none of the Marxist economic literature on the crisis does this. It is clear that the credit system and finance are central to capitalism, as one can find in Capital volumes 2 and 3. But it is also clear that if finance is essential to capitalism, it is equally incapable of generating new value in the system, and this — rather than its circulation or the imposition of competition and productivity increases for their own sake — is the lifeblood of capitalism at a global level. This does not make finance irrelevant, fictitious, or parasitical, but it means that a purely financial explanation of longer term trends in capitalism is less plausible within a Marxist economic analysis, because less ‘microfounded’ (as the neoclassical economists would put it). Perhaps, of course, such Marxist analysis is wrong — post-Keynesian theory, for example, does indeed give good reasons to support a wholly financial explanation of long-term crisis tendencies, relying on the interaction of expectations and demand, and this is something we find repeatedly in Seymour’s book next to the Marxist literature.
This points to some of the inconsistency of the economic analysis proposed by some of Seymour’s narrative. He attacks those who see declining rates of profit (identified by Marx himself as one of capitalism’s most important crisis tendencies) as central to the long-term analysis of crisis trends in capitalism by using two arguments: 1) that profits have been at a record high before and after the crisis; and 2) that such an argument is teleological and implies there is a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Neither of these is convincing. The first is a common reply to the ‘rate of profit’ literature on the crisis, as in Andrew Kliman and Michael Roberts, but it rests on a conceptual misunderstanding. The historically high profit rates Seymour cites are, besides being uncorrected for inflation (!), stocks of profit. What determines investment in Marx’s theory, however, are rates of profit — returns on investment. Not absolute amounts, but returns as a percentage of a capital invested. If capitalist A invests $1000 and gets $100 back, and capitalist B invests $100 and gets $50 back, then it is A who will be outcompeted, not B. A should have invested in B’s production process (or finance, or trade, or whatever) and made $500 instead of $100 on his capital, and it is precisely the role of finance to make such distributions of investments happen, and thereby to equalize (and maximize) the rate of profit. It is precisely these rates of return that are advertised in all the financial literature and that play the same role for capital as the ’200 or 500 a year’ in rents (or interest) did for the Mister Darcy types in the Austen and Brontë novels. In fact, Seymour himself notes that “what matters to capital is the rate of profit on investment” (69)!
Why does this matter? Because whether or not Kliman and Roberts are right in their statistical analysis, it seems evident that a rate of profit analysis can explain why despite all the neoliberal offensives and despite 500 billion bailouts and the governments more or less begging capital to invest (as Seymour notes in his book), no investment is forthcoming. The left is no serious opposition; the unions are moribund; the government gives capital all it wants; and it does not invest. This baffles the Obamas and the Osbornes, who have only neoclassical economics to go by. The high-profit view also has no explanation of this, but the low rate of profit view does. There lies the relevance of this debate among Marxists.
The second counterargument should also be addressed, because it applies to the broadly SYRIZA-type strategies proposed by Seymour. While I think he is probably right that this kind of Eurocommunist ‘broad alliances’ and ideological offensives are about the best we can achieve at the moment, I think we should recognize that this is a position of weakness. The liberals are winning, and while a long-term offensive of ideology may hit the neoliberals where they are weakest, it is not likely to reverse the arrangement of forces in the short or even medium term. It is therefore very nefarious when nostalgic analysis substitutes for sober senses in this regard, as Seymour observes. But this applies also to the strategic implications of the inconsistency mentioned above, between emphasizing the need for investment and accumulation on capital’s part on the one hand, and simultaneously insisting this requires more consumer demand on the other. This is a fundamental mistake. Contrary to the Keynesian analysis underpinning this argument, according to Marx’s economics it is not the case that capital accumulation requires high worker consumer demand, nor therefore does it require the state to intervene on this basis to guarantee it.
The state does indeed often, since the Great Depression, intervene to prop up — in various ways, according to the class configurations in charge — the consumption levels of the working class. But this is for political reasons, and defended as such: Roosevelt and LBJ alike were worried about riots, uprisings, and revolutions, not about ‘multipliers’ (in fact Roosevelt famously campaigned on an austerity agenda). If this seems implausible, remember that capitalism accumulated quite fine in the Victorian age, even if regularly wracked by crises, despite the subsistence level (or lower) consumption of the workers, and the same thing is true for capital outside the West — a dimension Seymour barely mentions at all in his discussion of the political economy of the crisis. (I could here go into the relevance of the global dimension for the strategic problem of whether we should prioritize the living standards of Western workers in the face of globalized value flows, and also the absence of a discussion of the transnational capitalist class in this work. But arguably that would go too far for a review of a popular book mainly concerned with domestic strategy.) The importance of this argument rests in this: 1) that it would be wrong to think that the liberal state cannot go beyond a small bandwidth of austerity and repression; 2) that it would be wrong to think that any form of ‘demand side’ politics would do better than austerity at overcoming the crisis from the standpoint of capital.
The mistake here is a common one, and by no means limited to Seymour, but it entails confusing the needs of capital accumulation with the needs of the working class. It is precisely Marx’s point that the two are disjoined under capitalism. The conditions of capital accumulation are determined by the rate of profit and the variables that constitute it; whereas Marx pointed out that saying a crisis consists of insufficient demand is a tautology. (It must be noted this is recognized by some post-Keynesian literature as well.) The upshot then is that we must resist the urge to promote Keynesian solutions as an alternative to austerity ones for growth, i.e. capitalist accumulation, although of course we can and should defend the welfare state, good public services etc. on other grounds. It also means that we should not think that austerity is irrational or a mistake on the part of the ruling class compared to the possibility of a Keynesian alternative, as most of the center-left suggests. Not to suggest Seymour is one of them, but there is perhaps an unexamined tension between his interpretation of the economics and the most important observation in the book: that “if we attempt to ground our criteria in terms of the dominant criteria of what is good for capitalism, we cannot win” (159, emphasis omitted).
If I seem to spend exaggerated attention to the economic discussion in this book — which is only a part of the whole — I apologize; this just happens to be my main subject of interest at the moment. But the relevance of economic analysis of the crisis remains important to any strategy as well, as I’ve hopefully shown, and that is a major concern of this book. That said, I think on the whole this is a readable and useful guide to the interrelationship between austerity, neoliberalism, and the state at the level of strategy and ideology, and these are perhaps the book’s main foci in any case. It will disappoint the more ‘left communist’ skeptics, in its Eurocommunist-Gramscian approach, but this is itself a product of the limitations of our times. Aside from the usual minor errors — Alex Andreou is not called ‘Alex Alexandreou’ (102n56); Krugman is not ‘marginal within his profession’ (126) — the book has much to offer in terms of a sober and nuanced analysis. This goes especially in the UK where the trend towards nostalgia, wishful thinking, and resisting empirical and strategic reconsideration is so strong. As Richard Seymour puts it in the conclusion: “if this book has been intended to do anything, it has been to find a way to drop those fetishes… assimilate the reality of our present situation, and soberly assess the challenge posed by austerity, without losing sight of the objective — which is to navigate our way out of this impasse” (152). To that aim this book is certainly a worthwhile contribution.
January 22, 2014
This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.
In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?
Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?
Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.
More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.
It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.
The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.
A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.
This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.
The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.
Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.
But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.
Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.
But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.
The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.
However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.
How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:
In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.
Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.
Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.
For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.
1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.↩