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.↩
October 2, 2013
The tradition of the dead generations
What is the real Marxist tradition? This is one of the seemingly big questions that causes endless argument among Marxists, usually creating more heat than light. Especially certain ‘tendencies’ or ‘traditions’ of Marxism, often ones who identify themselves in those terms and are associated with particular sect-parties, are keen to separate their own Marxism from all the others by a process akin to product differentiation. If one were cynical, one might venture that the main purpose of such activity is to stake a claim to a particular territory of ideas within Marxism, preferably one that sounds impeccably orthodox while not yet claimed by others, and in so doing to capture the few students and union members that, at least in Western countries, wander into such a wilderness every now and then. But one could also read it more charitably: no doubt for many of the intellectuals engaged in such questions on behalf of this or that micro-party it is a real question of the life or death of the organization whether their programmes and organizational rules accord with their view of the real Marxist tradition, whether or not this might require some ‘retcon’ operations to make it so.
I’ve written plenty previously about my objections to the sect form and the sects’ obsessions with organization, as well as their failure to analytically separate strategy and theory. That is not what I will do here. What I will do instead is focus more on one specific way the sects mobilize theory in dishonest and self-serving ways. One of the most important, or at least pervasive, of these is the talk of real and false Marxist ‘traditions’, and indeed to think of Marxism in terms of a ‘tradition’ or set of traditions. This is the stock in trade of many of the sects and a major intellectual component of the institutional and strategic conservatism of virtually all of them. With traditions, inevitably, comes traditionalism: the notion that the main task of the revolutionary organization is to separate the real tradition from the heretics, the pedlars of false prophecies, that will lead the sheep astray, and to defend this tradition and ‘win the argument’ (or worse, the ‘line struggle’) for this tradition against all comers.
Of course, one could argue that this is a necessary evil in a certain sense. Does not everyone seek to defend as orthodoxy that which they think is true? It is no more inherently invalid to defend something seen as orthodox than to defend something because it is heterodox, and indeed it is no worse to defend whole, coherent theories (‘world outlooks’) than piecemeal, ad hoc propositions about the world. I want to emphasize this: grand narratives are no more inherently invalid than petty narratives, certainly not for being ambitious, and equally it is not wrong to insist on theoretical coherence and precision and to reject ‘eclecticism’. In fact, the latter is often more intellectually honest if done in a spirit of constant self-improvement. But equally, it can sustain one indefinitely in stale orthodoxy that is defended for the sake of being orthodox, and this is what the talk of traditions in Marxism more often than not leads to (and no doubt, in other political schools as well – as demonstrated by a Lewis or a Chesterton).
It is therefore not to violate Mao’s fifth stricture against liberalism, to seek a personal quarrel, that I pick on comrade John Molyneux in this article, but because I happened across his booklet and it serves as such an excellent example of the poverty of argument and above all of critical spirit towards one’s own position that characterizes the tradition-mongerers. One wonders when the word ‘tradition’, or its counterpart in opposing ‘revisionism’, became such a positive term in the history of an intellectual movement dedicated to the “ruthless critique of all that exists” and a political movement that “is the real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs”. Whatever it was, I suspect it was a mistake, and the occasional invocation of Engels’ argument that Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action is not sufficient to make it so – that has to be proven by the arguments used and the spirit of critical thought, not just asserted. Again, this is not because whatever the orthodox view is is necessarily wrong. On the contrary, I find myself often in agreement with precisely those ideas in Marxism or those Marxist thinkers long derided by the sophisticated as dogmatic and orthodox – insisting on the absolute necessity of Marx’s theory of value, for example, or seeing much merit in the historical ideas of G.V. Plekhanov. But they are no more right because they are orthodox than they are wrong because they are, and talk of traditions encourages such thought.
The other thing about the question of the ‘real Marxist tradition’ is the notion of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. One of Marxism’s greatest strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that it is self-reflective. Unlike liberal or conservative thought in most cases, it can justify and explain its own existence as a historical phenomenon. For historical materialist thought and especially the Marxist kind, it is no surprise that Marxism came together out of its famous three components in the mid-19th century when it did: the rise of the industrial working class, the internationalism of the first great industrial globalization period, the intellectual legacy of left-Hegelianism and of the utopianism about the working class derived from Enlightenment critiques, the apogee of classical economic theory with its strengths and limitations in value theory, and so forth – it has taken many Kolakowskis worth of writing to explain it, but it clearly can be done in fully internally consistent terms. Whereas the Whig-liberal tradition, for example, has never been able to get quite beyond the notion that its concept of freedom was always a normative presence in history and for contingent reasons, whether to do with human frailty or with the pervasiveness of market failure, simply failed to emerge in most of history, and now has. It can only take an Archimedean point outside history and judge historical progress by this ahistorical standard.
Unfortunately, too much of Marxist writing coming out of the tradition-mongerers does just that and thereby weakens, to my mind, Marxism at an important strong point. It is understandable enough to want to place oneself in political opposition to this or that historical Marxist party, leader, or theorist and to explain why one disassociates oneself politically from them. Nothing wrong in such a move, and especially for the micro-parties it is essential because they need to undertake this kind of product differentiation to attract recruits. (Perhaps public choice theory should be let loose on the history of Trotskyism sometime? But I won’t tease too much.) Serious problems arise, however, when this becomes a wholesale operation to distinguish the true Marxism from all the pretender Marxists. Especially in popular Marxist writings, such as John Molyneux’s What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, this condemns one to one of two major errors. (1) Either one decides that all the false Marxisms were never part of the history of Marxism to begin with – but then how did they come about and why were they ever popular? Such an approach can always be followed in its arbitrary criteria of distinction until the only true Marxism, conveniently, is precisely that practiced by the micro-party the author is a member of (the British SWP, in Molyneux’s case).
The other possibility is to declare that they were false Marxisms, but popular due to their appeal for a certain class base or some other political foundation that doesn’t ‘count’ for true Marxism but was significant in its time – this is the more commonly chosen one, and the one Molyneux follows. But this requires no less an Archimedean point than the first one does. In both cases, one sets up the true Marxist tradition against the actual history of Marxism, which whether one likes it or not shows both a great diversity of theories and strategies and a clear refusal on the part of the majority of the world working class to actively line up with any of them (although some more than others). One separates the sheep from the goats from a standpoint outside history, one that allows you to know for past, present, and future what the correct position would have been or will be.
This begs the question: real or correct by what norm? Usually, the standard applied here is that of the ‘guide to action': i.e., whatever brings about international proletarian revolution the fastest. But, needless to say, all Marxism whatever fails by this standard if used absolutely, for we are undeniably still stuck with capitalism. So it then becomes a question of applying it to what the author thinks the opportunities for revolution were and where and how they were missed – a highly speculative endeavour leaning heavily on counterfactual history. This is hardly a guide to action at all. What it entails is taking history, especially 20th century history, and exercising some preconceived set of normative judgements on it that, because of their counterfactual nature, can only be self-justifying. They are valid insofar as any such judgement is roughly as good as another, but that does not help us very much. At the least, one would then expect from the tradition-mongerers some degree of humility about which of these judgements is the ‘real’ and which the false Marxist one, but precisely the opposite is the case.
Comrade Molyneux’s Marxism and ours
Comrade Molyneux’s book is a perfect illustration of precisely all these errors committed by those whose Marxism in practice consists of separating the sheep from the goats. His What is the Real Marxist Tradition? was published by Bookmarks in 1985, after a 1983 publication of the same in International Socialism (2:20). This is, admittedly, a long time ago, but because it is so representative of these kind of sect-based popular works in Marxism, promoting true traditions against false ones (see also my essay on package-deal Marxism and canon-building), I will engage with it nonetheless. I believe that the practice of many Marxists has changed little, certainly in how Marxism is presented to the novice members of the micro-parties.
Why does comrade Molyneux worry about the real Marxist tradition, and why should we? Well, he tells us, it is a fact that Marxists have often been found on different sides of the barricades, fighting each other not just with words but with weapons. Besides, did Marx not say that he was not a Marxist? (This favorite cliché of every liberal interpreter is considered by comrade Molyneux to be a “neat dialectical joke”. (2)) For these reasons, then, we should wish to know who the real Marxists are – already from the start Molyneux smuggles in the implication that because of past political struggles, we must discover for each of these struggles the correct ‘side’ to retroactively support, whatever that might do. He then goes on to strengthen the argument for this ‘practical’ enterprise by emphasizing its necessity for political action. “There are”, he says, “those who would reject the question altogether, denying that the search for a ‘true’ Marxism has any meaning and simply accepting as Marxist all those who claim the label. On the one hand this is a convenient response for the bourgeoisie and its cruder ideologists… On the other hand it also suits the academic Marxologists, enabling them to produce numerous profitable ‘guides to the Marxists’, offering cribs to every school of thought from the Austro-Marxists to the Althusserians. Such an approach is essentially contemplative… Political action requires decisiveness in theory as well as practice. Marxists who want to change the world, not just to make a living from interpreting it, have no choice but to face the problem and to draw a dividing line between the genuine and the false.” (p. 8)
There are so many astounding judgements in this small paragraph that it is necessary to unpack them, just to see how preposterous they are. Firstly, one wonders what comrade Molyneux imagines the profits of producing academic texts are for the academic – is he not aware that, the occasional bestselling popular history aside, virtually all profit such a book is likely to generate (and it is likely little) will be pocketed by the publishers? Secondly, he was and is a member of a party whose acknowledged political and intellectual leader is none other than Alex Callinicos, Professor of European Studies at King’s College, London. Does he not “make a living from interpreting” Marxism and much else beside? And what is so bad about a guide to the Marxists? If Marxism is indeed an intellectual tradition, true or false, is it not the common practice in the history of ideas to inclusively and objectively present all that falls under the ‘family resemblance’ of a particular ‘tradition’, such as Marxism, or liberalism, or analytical philosophy, or postmodernism? But this is sheer contemplation, comrade Molyneux objects! One should not just write guides to the Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. This is why he wrote What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, which instead… offers a guide to the real and false Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. That, indeed, makes one contemplate – the tremendous hypocrisy of the author. But perhaps this book is distinguished because it is “decisive in theory” as well as practice, whatever that means. So let us continue.
Molyneux discusses two other approaches for distinguishing true and false in Marxism. One is the possibility of judging it by “faithfulness to the word of the master”. This, he rightly objects, leads to scholasticism – although perhaps a better objection would be to say that it begs the question, as indeed the notion of a ‘true Marxism’ presupposes that this philological certainty can be achieved in the first place. Rather, he emphasizes once more, Marxism must be a guide to action, and circumstances change. The other option is that of Lukacs: defining Marxism by method, entirely independent of its substantive content. This, comrade Molyneux tells us, is impossible. His counterexample runs as follows: if capitalism had evolved “into a new form of world bureaucratic society without internal competition and contradictions, which precluded the possibility of either socialism or barbarism, then clearly Marxism would be refuted” (p. 9) and Burnham, Rizzi, and others proved right. It is a good Popperian practice to give some contraindications, to let skeptics know what it would require for the theory to be proven wrong – which indeed must be possible if it is to be scientific. However, Molyneux’s example is typically unhappily chosen. Marxism itself, it could well be argued, precludes the possibility of a society without contradictions, and the operative concepts – socialism, barbarism, contradiction, competition – have not yet been defined and indeed nowhere in the book are defined, so that as a thought experiment it is fully inert. This is not unique to Molyneux; it is not so easy to think what a disproof of much in social science would be. But it is absolutely destructive when making a scientific proposition about Marxism such as this to not clearly analytically separate what is descriptive, what is normative, what is political and what theoretical, and at what level of abstraction one is speaking at any given time. This lack of self-reflective rigour is characteristic of the potted histories provided by the party Marxists, and also of their package deals in Marxist theory.
What, then, is comrade Molyneux’s solution to the problem? Well, to state that Marxism is both: a method as well as “certain essential analyses and propositions”. Hard to argue with, and more sympathetic to my approach than the philosophizing of Lukacs. However, it begs the question as well. He appears to recognize this when he writes that here lurks the danger of sectarianism, simply reducing Marxism to “the correct line on everything”, so that any deviation from this correct line is not Marxist: “Luxemburg was not a Marxist when she disagreed with Lenin about the party, that Lenin was not a Marxist when he maintained the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, and so on.” (p. 10) Rightly, Molyneux recognizes this would be a purely sectarian reading of history, the kind of history-as-proxy-for-politics that I have argued against before. But what then? Nothing remains than the old saw: Marxism as a totality, which he settles on as a solution, and which forms his approach to separating the real from the false.
In all the tradition-mongering, this appeal to the ‘totality’ is decisive: it allows on the one hand to create whole organic ‘traditions’ in Marxism, canons of the saints, irrespective of whether the authors and politicians in question agreed with each other much or responded to the same theoretical and political problems: in this way the Trotskyist canon, which Molyneux sets out in the next chapters, can neatly include such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci, Lukacs, and Victor Serge (all of whom are explicitly included in the text), and yet exclude ‘the late Bukharin’, Stalin, Mao, and pretty much all of the Marxists outside the First World. Indeed, in Chapter 4, the concluding chapter, he even ranks the various figures in importance, with Lenin and Trotsky at the top, then a mid-tier including Serge, James Connolly, and John McLean, but also Clara Zetkin, with finally “hundreds of thousands of working class fighters” (p. 63). History as canon, and canon as league table! That is indeed one way of seeing Marxism as a totality.
It is telling that this concluding chapter talks virtually nonstop of tradition, where it is not establishing a Great Books canon. (Just to clarify: I do not inherently object to a canon in terms of texts, but do object to how it comes about, and how it is mobilized. Perhaps one should distinguish a canon from a reading list.) In just one and a half pages (65-66), Molyneux uses ‘tradition’ ten times. How does he then justify this tradition opposed to the others? Merely listing names ex post facto, as if one were a Mormon posthumously baptizing the dead in the ranks of the saints, is not really an answer to the question posed by the title. Sadly, the answer is as circular and weak as one would fear. We are told that this tradition “is our tradition”; that it is based on nothing less than the world working class; that it belongs to the SWP and its affiliates; and that it is not monolithic, but full of debate, yet cumulative, etc. etc. Lots of self-praise, in other words, but little historicism: precisely the Marxism without self-reflectivity that characterizes the sect mentality. Not one moment does comrade Molyneux have to worry what Alfred Rosmer, Antonio Gramsci, Victor Serge and Lenin would have thought of being thrown into one tradition, let alone if the size and pluralism of this tradition is then inversely proportional to the significance of the micro-parties that carry it, like the SWP with its 1000-2000 members at best. These grand incorporations combined with the puny nature of the ‘tradition’ in actual empirical terms, that test of practice that we are assured so often is the criterion of a ‘guide to action’, make one feel as if comrade Molyneux and similar writers are looking at the history of Marxism through a telescope held upside down.
It is therefore all the more characteristic, if no less jarring, that the bulk of a rather small popular booklet is spent fulminating against the false Marxists, and that those should turn out to be in particular the ones with an empirically verifiable mass following of some sort. The Second International and its mass party building is dismissed in Chapter 1 as “Kautskyism” and is, we are assured, “a bourgeois position at bottom.” (p. 40) To see this movement, with its millions of working members, as a part of Marxism is to “mistake form for content” – did not Kautsky write in 1932 an obituary for old Eduard Bernstein, the archfather of reformism, in which he said they had agreed on all matters of importance?(3) Guilt by association is not beneath comrade Molyneux, is indeed so weighty an argument that one need not further examine any of Kautsky’s own works or that of any others in the Second International (exactly one text by Kautsky is actually cited) – working class support or no. So much for the practical test of Marxism! The Archimedean judgement prevails.
A similar process happens with “Stalinism”, which is a mirror image of Trotskyism in its historical-theoretical practice, so that each becomes a bogeyman of the other (the latter also includes “revisionism”). Stalinism gets the full treatment of the usual Trotskyist clichés about it: socialism in one country as central philosophy, “having formally inserted nationalism into Marxism”, and its class basis in the ‘bureaucracy’, whose nature and relationship to the social productive forces is nowhere explained. Again, judgements and denunciations do the work of explanation here as in so many texts (just as true for ‘Marxist-Leninists’ writing about Trotskyists in turn). Simultaneously, we are told that Stalinism is much closer to Kautsky than to Marx and even Lenin (p. 49), because of its theory of ‘socialism in one country’ – Molyneux of course going through no trouble to actually prove that there was such a theory or that it was central to a tradition called Stalinism and its influence worldwide. (Comrade Molyneux is honest enough to note that Stalin was “realistic” about the prospects of socialism in Russia and elsewhere and that for him, “the bureaucracy was not”, in fact, “a class”.) (p. 45, 47).
From the Archimedean point of view, socialism in one country and the parliamentary, cumulative buildup of power before revolution of Kautsky and the SPD are essentially the same thing – the convex lens has narrowed much more. The decisive thing, however Stalinism may appear empirically, is however this: “on the fundamental question, the international workers’ revolution, the self-emancipation of the world working class, they [the forms of Stalinism] are united in their opposition.” No need to demonstrate that the ‘Stalinists’ actually believed this – from the Archimedean point, comrade Molyneux has omniscient powers – like those of a novelist making his characters think this or that… Imagine, though, if one were to say the same thing about the ‘genuine Marxist tradition’, with its utter failure to draw any mass of workers at all! The outrage at such slander would reverberate throughout Professor Callinicos’ lecture rooms.
The final historical dismissal goes to the “Third World Nationalists”. Here, too, an ideal type is produced by reducing a ‘tradition’ once more to a single slogan, in this case “guerrilla war for national independence”, of which we are told China and Cuba are the purest examples (p. 56). This not only relieves comrade Molyneux of the need for historical and geographical specificity, but just as with ‘socialism in one country’ allows him to falsely represent responses to historical necessities – you know, those empirical tests as a guide to action, etc. etc. – as ideological points d’honneur in the same style as the list of theoretical ‘achievements’ of the real ‘tradition’ he treats us to.(4) These movements are then dismissed as idealist, for believing that the political line is more important than the economic circumstances, as evidenced by trying to make revolution in mostly peasant countries like China and Cuba; although this is of course not idealism when Lenin does the same thing in mostly peasant Russia (p. 57-58).
There is no attempt to read or explain any of the arguments for their actions used by such figures as Mao, Castro, Sankara, Cabral, or any list of other people one could point to (including theorists like, say, Fanon and Rodney). Rather, everything has to be read in such a way as to make them seem ridiculous, with no reference to context, and to misrepresent their intentions – just like the ‘Stalinists’ and Maoists etc. do with the Trotskyists in turn, all this to the despair of any intellectually honest person trying to learn about Marxism. For example, we are treated to Mao’s injunction on his forces not to mistreat the peasants, not to steal or force them to labor, and so forth. In comrade Molyneux’s hands, this is yet another sign of the misdeeds of Maoism: “What has to be grasped here is the power relationship between peasant and guerilla that makes these moral injunctions necessary because in reality it is a continual temptation to behave otherwise.” (p. 61) How much more honest the academic Marxist’s list of “Austro-Marxism to Althusserians” would be than this kind of ‘reading’ of history! Did Trotsky’s need to write Terrorism and Communism prove that in reality Communists are like terrorists, because of the strictures against it, because there is a continual temptation to behave otherwise? In this manner, comrade Molyneux manages to dismiss literally every Marxist movement, irrespective of success or flaws, that did not originate in the First World – yet , for all the talk of the problems of nationalism, not a word on Eurocentrism!
The use of sources throughout this book is also characteristic of the tradition-mongerers’ approach. A narrow and canon-building Marxism, one bent on ‘traditions’ and maintaining them, is going to use a narrow and canonical set of sources and has no intellectual ambitions beyond this, or even the honesty to state as much. It is the routine practice of such writings to cite overtly hostile contemporary or historical political sources as evidence of empirical or factual claims, despite every single rule of decent historiography absolutely forbidding such a practice. No serious historian nowadays would ever cite, say, Suetonius as proof that the decadence of the early emperors is historical fact – at least not without extensive discussion of source reliability, just like no-one would take Samuelson at his word that Marx was a “minor post-Ricardian” or claim on the basis of conquistador texts that the Aztecs and Incas were all brutal barbarians. Let alone that one would believe that the Russian Revolution was a coup by a small conspiracy of Bolshevik fanatics, because Kerensky said so!
But this basic rule of history-writing can be safely ignored if one is ensconced within the towers of the ‘tradition’. For controversial empirical statements such as “the Chinese Communist Party continually held back the spontaneous peasant struggle for land in order to maintain the national coalition in the war against Japan” (p. 61), we are given as a source none of the above, but rather… one text by Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, and one by Nigel Harris, prominent member of the SWP! In the footnotes for the entire section on Maoism, Harris is cited as authority four times, Tony Cliff six times, and Molyneux even cites himself, besides various other Trotskyist sources. On the other hand, in the whole section on Maoism, nowhere is Mao directly cited in bibliographical terms. In fact, only one Maoist is ever cited at all, namely Bettelheim. No historical standard work or accepted mainstream text on Chinese history is cited. In a similar vein, for his analysis of ‘Kautskyism’ Molyneux relies strongly on the hostile political works of Lenin; for the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, mainly on Trotsky. The one more or less independent source is Massimo Salvadori’s book on Kautsky and his legacy – every single other source is either a political intervention or explicitly Trotskyist in origin. So much for a Marxism that is not a dogma, but a guide to action.
Do I say all this to mock comrade Molyneux individually? Not at all. No doubt hundreds of similar writings could have substituted for this example. Molyneux has just done what was expected of him in contributing to the canon-building of the sects; many have gone before him and probably many will follow. But it is in its brevity a compact and clear example of the combination of dogmatism, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, intellectual dishonesty, historical ineptitude and total lack of self-awareness that characterizes so much of this kind of party Marxism and tradition-mongering, and which to my mind is, within the realm of ideas at least, the main obstacle to a renewal and reinvigoration of Marxism as a serious and committed theory, one that desires a revolution in politics and a scientific analysis to make it possible. In this, I would use some of the ‘genuine Marxists’ against comrade Molyneux and all who write texts along these lines (not remotely limited to Trotskyists, I might add – they’re just admirably open about it).
The first is to say, with Lenin, “better fewer but better”: let’s not require every Marxist party politician to write another pseudo-book setting out once more the same ‘tradition’ on the basis of the same narrow set of sources and judging from the same ahistorical Archimedean point the actions of the past. This tradition-mongering is as futile as it is dogmatic and achieves no ‘guide to action’ whatsoever, as is evidenced by the very fact that it has not helped any of these people, whether in the SWP or in the CPGB (M-L), or their equivalents in any other country, come anywhere near making a revolution of any kind whatever. Indeed, this problem is remarkably handwaved away by comrade Molyneux towards the end. That this ‘tradition’ has been, in its rejection of most of the mass activity of the 20th century, “the tradition of a tiny minority”, we are told is “unfortunate but unavoidable”. Why? Because “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class and the mass of workers reach revolutionary ideas only in revolutionary struggle”. In other words, the sects should be small, because if they were large, they would be bourgeois, except in times of revolutionary consciousness. When does this happen? Well, when revolutions happen. When do those happen? When the workers join the revolutionary party… Needless to say, such a reasoning can justify any sect, and leads us no further to understanding their contribution to this revolutionary struggle, other than as a cheerleader of their own ‘tradition’ in it.
Secondly, we must not be led into personal or sectarian fights with the members of this or that micro-party. It is not the fault of comrade Molyneux, or even of comrade Callinicos; no doubt they are as much “sincere workers who had joined their parties to overthrow capitalism” as the former charitably (?) describes the members of the CPs (p. 50). But it is clear that if Marxism is indeed to be a scientific socialism, that is to say not just a set of political demands but also an understanding of the empirical facts and trends of history read in such a way as to make the political demands possible from the current state of affairs, and to do so in a way that is intellectually honest and self-reflective with regards to its practice, then works of this kind simply will not do. If someone with limited historical qualifications like me can point to glaring holes in the methodology and to obvious fallacies, imagine how badly such a Marxism would survive the real (if limited) tests of socio-historical science.
Is this forgivable? Popularizing is important, and not every work has to be an academic text, to be sure. From the point of view of the micro-parties, it no doubt serves the purposes of limited recruitment. But the real criterion is not academicism, but whether it can stand on its own as a Marxism that critics could take seriously or that an honest observer could find convincing. After all, Marxism is exceedingly weak in our times, politically and even theoretically – precisely in the fields where its purpose is strongest, such as economics, political theory, history, and things like systems theory, we find Marxism pushed to the margins, while it blossoms only in cultural theory and literary criticism. I would therefore urge the tradition-mongerers and canon-builders to give up on these practices, for we can ill afford them, but not to give up on popularizing Marxism, which is all the more important. Here we must quote that genuine Marxist, Marx himself: “ignorance has never helped anybody yet!”
1) John Molyneux, What is the Real Marxist Tradition? (London 1985: Bookmarks). All page references are to this edition.
2) It was in fact no such thing. Marx used the phrase responding to a political tendency calling itself ‘Marxist’, perhaps the first one to do so, organized in France by Paul Lafargue. Marx was not too enamored, reports Engels, by some of the views and activities of this group and therefore distanced himself from them in these terms. There has never been any proof that it was intended to have meaning beyond that, aside from the fact it’s probably not a literal quote. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm#356
3) As this published letter, located in the IISH archives, has not yet been digitized, we must take Massimo Salvadori’s word for this, who is the only source for this quote I could find.
4) These include, apparently, “the theory of deflected permanent revolution in the third world”, “the analysis of the arms economy boom and the new economic crisis” (long since deflated), and “the critique of the trade union bureaucracy” – hardly unique to this ‘tradition’, and besides nowhere in evidence in the practice of the SWP and such parties.
June 24, 2013
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)
In this post, I will attempt to identify a number of in my view underappreciated or insufficiently recognized problems in the main modes of inquiry of Marxism today – in particular in the Marxism common in Western countries, where it is dominated by the activities of academics and small party formations, sectlike or otherwise. These points cannot be but generalizations, and as the Dutch saying goes, ‘whoever fits the shoe should put it on’. Nonetheless, I hope that in discussing these issues it will open up some room for more critical reflection not just on our present conditions on the left, which is perhaps weaker than it has been at any point since the early 20th century, but also on the methods used in the process of transforming a Marxist understanding of the world into politically applicable ideas and praxis. In order to keep these as clear as possible as conceptually distinguishing closely related issues will allow, I will simply present them as a series of points. Read the rest of this entry »
May 12, 2013
Tower Hamlets Council have announced that the church of St. John, Wapping, will finally receive a heritage plaque for the gravesite of Thomas Rainsborough (1610-1648).(1) As acknowledged leader of the Leveller cause within the Putney Debates, he became known as Colonel Rainsborough in Cromwell’s New Model Army, where he served with great courage and distinction, finally being killed in a commando raid to seize him at the siege of Pontefract (1648). At the Putney Debates, held in 1647, the constitutional structure of the England that was to come was decided – it represented the fighting out of the different ideological positions among the coalition that formed the rebel forces of what kind of cause they were truly fighting for. As has often been remarked in the historiography of the English Civil War, like with any revolutionary cause the rebels soon split between a radical and a more reformist wing. Unlike in the case of the later French or Russian Revolutions, it did not wholly come to force to decide the matter between them, but the Putney Debates foreshadowed the dominance of the reformist wing against the radical – perhaps inevitable given how much some of the radical demands were ahead of their time. Read the rest of this entry »