The Coming Revolution, and the Necessity for a Rethinking of Marxism

In the twenty-first century, as capitalism enters an epoch of unprecedented crisis, it is time to reconsider the Marxian theory of proletarian revolution. More precisely, it is time to critically reconsider it, to determine if it has to be revised in order to speak more directly to our own time and our own struggles. It was, after all, conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, in a political and social context very different from the present. Given the long span of time from then to now, one might expect it to require a bit of updating. In this article I’ll argue that it does need to be revised, both for a priori reasons of consistency with the body of Marx’s thought and in order to make it more relevant to the contemporary scene. That is, I’ll argue that when Marx conceptualized revolution in terms of a fettering of the productive forces by production relations, as well as in terms of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” he was the victim of both analytical imprecision and a misunderstanding of his own system. Accordingly, I will amend Marx’s conception of revolution. What we’ll find is that the correction not only makes the theory more cogent but updates it for our own time, in such a way that it can teach activists strategic lessons.

In brief, I’ll conclude that in order to make the Marxist notion of revolution consistent with the premises of historical materialism it is necessary, if not to reject, at least to qualify the statist perspective to which Marx and Engels were committed, and which they transmitted to their successors. As I’ve argued in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (chapters 4 and 6),[1] it is necessary to conceive of revolution in a gradualist way, not as a sudden, single historical “rupture” in which the working class or its representatives take over the state and organize social reconstruction on the basis of a unitary political will (the proletarian dictatorship). According to a more realistic Marxism, even the early stages of the transition from capitalism to post-capitalism must take place over generations, and not in a straightforwardly planned way but somewhat unconsciously, in a process slightly comparable to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I will also argue that my revision can be the basis for a partial rapprochement between Marxists and anarchists.

The Marxist Theory of Revolution

Marx has, in effect, two theories of revolution, one that applies only to the transition from capitalism to socialism and another that is more transhistorical, applying, for instance, also to the earlier transition between feudalism and capitalism. The former emerges from his analysis of capitalist economic dynamics, according to which a strong tendency toward class polarization divides society, in the long run, between a small elite of big capitalists and a huge majority of immiserated workers, who finally succeed in overthrowing the capitalist state and organizing a socialist one. It is the transhistorical theory, however, that I will focus on here. Its locus classicus is the following passage from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

…At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

These sentences have inspired reams of commentary and criticism, but for our purposes a few critical remarks will suffice. First of all, they are clearly the barest of outlines, desperately in need of elaboration. Unfortunately, nowhere in Marx’s writings does he elaborate them in a rigorous way. Second, the ideas are stated in functionalist terms, which is one reason exponents of Analytical Marxism have criticized them. Revolution happens supposedly because the productive forces—i.e., technology, scientific knowledge, and the skills of the labor force—have evolved to such a point that production relations are no longer compatible with their socially rational use and development. But what are the causal mechanisms that connect this functionalist concept of “fettering of the productive forces” to social revolution? As far as I know, nowhere does Marx express his theory in causal, as opposed to functionalist, terms.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that, as it is stated above, the theory comes perilously close to meaninglessness. How does one determine when production relations have started to impede the use and development of productive forces? It would seem that to some extent they are always doing so. In capitalism, for example, one can point to the following facts: (1) recurring recessions and depressions periodically make useless much of society’s productive capacity; (2) enormous amounts of resources are wasted on socially useless advertising and marketing campaigns; (3) there is a lack of incentives for capital to invest in public goods such mass transit, the provision of free education, and public parks; (4) the recent financialization of the Western economy has entailed investment not in the improvement of infrastructure but in glorified gambling that doesn’t benefit society; (5) artificial obstacles such as intellectual copyright laws hinder the development and diffusion of knowledge and technology; (6) a colossal level of expenditures is devoted to war and destructive military technology; (7) in general, capitalism distributes resources in a profoundly irrational way, such that, for example, hundreds of millions of people starve while a few become billionaires. Despite all this, however, no transition to a new society has happened.

Indeed, in other respects capitalism continues to develop productive forces, as shown by recent momentous advances in information technology. It’s true that most of this technology was originally developed in the state sector;[2] nevertheless, the broader economic and social context was and is that of capitalism. It is therefore clear that a mode of production can “fetter” and “develop” productive forces at the same time, a fact Marx did not acknowledge.

In order to salvage his hypothesis quoted above, and in fact to make it quite useful, a slight revision is necessary. We have to replace his idea of a conflict between productive forces and production relations with that of a conflict between two sets of production relations, one of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. This change, trivial as it might seem, has major consequences for the Marxist conception of revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that, in addition to making the theory logically and empirically cogent, it changes its entire orientation, from advocating a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that seizes power before the social revolution, which it then plans out and executes, to advocating a long-term evolution of social movements that remake the economy and society from the ground up—albeit with the crucial assistance of a slowly transforming state.

My revision of the theory, then, is simply that at certain moments in history, new forces and relations of production evolve in an older economic, social, political, and cultural framework, undermining it from within. The gradual process of social revolution begins to happen when the old set of production relations fetters, or irrationally uses, productive forces in relation to the new set of widely emerging production relations. The “in relation to…” that I have added saves the Marxian theory from meaninglessness, for it indicates a definite point at which the “old” society really begins to yield to the “new” one, namely when an emergent economy has evolved to the point that it commands substantial resources and is clearly more “effective” in some sense than the old economy. The first time such a radical transformation ever happened was with the Neolithic Revolution (or Agricultural Revolution), which started around 12,000 years ago. As knowledge and techniques of agriculture developed that made possible sedentary populations, the hunter-gatherer mode of production withered away, as did the ways of life appropriate to it.

Similarly, starting around the thirteenth century in parts of Europe, an economy and society organized around manorialism and feudalism began to transform into an economy centered in the accumulation of capital. Several factors contributed to this process, among them (1) the revival of long-distance trade (after centuries of Europe’s relative isolation from the rest of the world), which stimulated the growth of merchant capitalism in the urban interstices of the feudal order; (2) mercantile support for the growth of the nation-state with a strong central authority that could dismantle feudal restrictions to trade and integrated markets; (3) the rise, particularly in England, of a class of agrarian capitalists who took advantage of new national and international markets (e.g., for wool) by investing in improved cultivation methods and enclosing formerly communal lands to use them for pasturage; (4) the partly resultant migration of masses of the peasantry to cities, where, during the centuries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth, they added greatly to the class of laborers who could be used in manufacturing; (5) the discovery of the Americas, which further stimulated commerce and the accumulation of wealth.[3]

In short, from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, capitalist classes—agrarian, mercantile, financial, and industrial—emerged in Europe, aided by technological innovations such as the printing press and then, later on, by all the technologies that were made possible by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. All this is just to say that in the womb of the old society, new productive forces and production relations evolved that were more dynamic and wealth-generating than earlier ones. Moreover, on the foundation of these new technologies, economic relations, and scientific discourses arose new social, political, and cultural relations and ideologies that were propagated by the most dynamic groups with the most resources, i.e., the bourgeoisie and its intellectual hangers-on.

My revision of Marx’s formulation of his hypothesis has another advantage besides making the theory more meaningful: it also supplies a causal mechanism by which a particular mode of production’s “fettering of the productive forces” leads to revolution—indeed, to successful revolution. The mechanism is that the emergent mode of production, in being less dysfunctional or more socially rational than the dominant mode, eventually (after reaching a certain visibility in the society) attracts large numbers of adherents who participate in it and propagandize for it—especially if the social context is one of economic stagnation and class polarization, due to the dominant mode of production’s dysfunctionality.

Moreover, this latter condition means that, after a long evolution, the emergent economic relations and their institutional partisans will have access to so many resources that they will be able to triumph economically and politically over the reactionary partisans of the old, deteriorating economy. This, of course, is what ultimately ensured the political success of the bourgeoisie in its confrontations with the feudal aristocracy. Likewise, one can predict that if capitalism continues to stagnate and experience massive crisis over the next fifty years and more, a new, more cooperative and socialized mode of production that has developed in the interstices and eventually the mainstream of capitalist society will mount the summits of political power.

In short, my seemingly minor conceptual revision provides a condition for the success of anti-capitalist revolution, and thus helps explain why no such revolution so far has been successful in the long run (namely because the condition has been absent). Another way of seeing its implications and advantages is by contrasting it with the views of orthodox Marxists. A single sentence from Friedrich Engels sums up these views: “The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production into state property.”[4] This statement, approved by Lenin and apparently also by Marx, encapsulates the ultra-statist perspective of the orthodox Marxist theory.

This perspective is briefly expressed in the Communist Manifesto, where Marx writes, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class,” and then lays out a ten-point plan of social reconstruction by means of state decrees. By the 1870s Marx had abandoned the specifics of his earlier plan, but his (qualified) statism remained, and transmitted itself to his followers.[5] It is true that orthodox Marxists and Leninists expect the state, “as a state,” to somehow (inexplicably) wither away eventually, but they do have a statist point of view in relation to the early stages of revolution.

The statist vision emerges naturally from Marx’s famous passage quoted above, in that the idea of a conflict between the rational use and development of productive forces and the fettering nature of current production relations suggests that at some point a social “explosion” will occur whereby the productive forces are finally liberated from the chains of the irrational mode of production. Pressure builds up, so to speak, over many years, as the mode of production keeps fettering the socially rational use of technology and scientific knowledge; through the agency of the working class, the productive forces struggle against the shackles of economic relations; at long last they burst free, when the working class takes over the state and reorganizes the economy. These are the metaphors naturally conjured by Marx’s above-quoted Preface.

But there are logical and historical problems with the statist view, the view according to which the substance of social revolution occurs after the seizure of state power. First of all, it is in tension with the Marxian conception of social dynamics. Briefly stated, Marx sees the economy—rightly, I think—as the relative foundation of the rest of society, including the political sphere, which suggests that a post-capitalist social revolution cannot just be politically willed and imposed. This would seem to reverse the order of “dominant causality,” from government to the economy rather than vice versa. Moreover, such extreme statism exalts will as determining human affairs, a notion incompatible with the dialectical spirit of Marxism.

According to “dialectics,” history really happens “behind the backs” of actors: it evolves “unconsciously,” so to speak, as Hegel understood. Social and institutional conflicts work themselves out, slowly, through the actions of large numbers of people who generally have little idea of the true historical significance of their acts. As Marx said, we should never trust the self-interpretations of historical actors. And yet he apparently suspends this injunction, and his whole dialectical method, when it comes to the so-called proletarian revolution. These historical actors are somehow supposed to have perfect understanding of themselves and their place in history, and their historical designs are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly—despite the massive complexity and “dialectical contradictions” of society.

The reality is that if “the working class” (not an undifferentiated unity) or its ostensible representatives seize control of the state (whether violently or electorally) in a still-wholly-capitalist society—and if, miraculously, they are not crushed by the forces of reaction—they can expect to face overwhelming obstacles to the realization of their revolutionary plans. For example, there will be divisions among the new ruling elite, divisions within the working class itself, widespread resistance to plans to remake the economy, the necessity for brutal authoritarian methods of rule in order to force people to accept the new government’s plans, the inevitable creation of a large bureaucracy to carry out so-called reconstruction, etc.

Fundamental to all these obstacles is the fact that the revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They cannot be magically transcended through political will. In particular, it is impossible through top-down directives to transform production relations from authoritarian to democratic: Marxism itself suggests that the state is not socially creative in such a radical way. The hope to reorganize exploitative relations of production into emancipatory, democratic relations by means of bureaucracy and the exercise of a unitary political will is utterly utopian and un-Marxist.

The record of so-called Communist revolutions in the twentieth century is instructive. While some Marxists may deny that lessons should be drawn from these revolutions, since they happened in relatively “primitive” rather than advanced capitalist countries, the experiences are at least suggestive. For what they created in their respective societies was not socialism (workers’ democratic control of production) or communism (a classless, stateless, moneyless society of anarchistic democracy) but a kind of ultra-statist state capitalism.

To quote the economist Richard Wolff, “the internal organization of the vast majority of industrial enterprises [in Communist countries] remained capitalist. The productive workers continued in all cases to produce surpluses: they added more in value by their labor than what they received in return for that labor. Their surpluses were in all cases appropriated and distributed by others.”[6] Workers continued to be exploited and oppressed, as in capitalism; the accumulation of “capital,” in a sense, continued to be the overriding systemic imperative, to which human needs were subordinated. While there are specific historical reasons for the way these economies developed, the general underlying condition was that it was and is impossible to transcend the capitalist framework if the political revolution takes place in a capitalist world, ultimately because the economy dominates politics more than political will can dominate the economy.

In any case, it was and is breathtakingly utopian to think that an attempted seizing of the state in an advanced and still overwhelmingly capitalist country, however crisis-ridden its economy, could ever succeed, because the ruling class has a monopoly over the most sophisticated and destructive means of violence available in the world. Even rebellions in relatively peripheral countries have almost always been crushed, first because the ruling classes there had disproportionate access to means of violence, and second because the ruling classes in more advanced countries could send their even more sophisticated instruments of warfare to these countries in order to put down the revolution. But if a mass rebellion came close to overthrowing the regime of one of the core capitalist nations, as opposed to a peripheral one, the reaction of ruling classes worldwide would be nearly apocalyptic. They would likely prefer the nuclear destruction of civilization to permitting the working class or some subsection of it to take over a central capitalist country.

Thus, the only possible way—and the only Marxist way—for a transition out of capitalism to occur is that it be grounded in, and organized on the basis of, the new, gradually and widely emerging production relations themselves. This is the condition that has been absent in all attempts at revolution so far, and it explains why, aside from a few isolated pockets of momentary socialism (such as, perhaps, Catalonia in 1936),[7] they never managed to transcend a kind of state capitalism. They existed in a capitalist world, so they were constrained by the limits of that world.

I should note, however, that none of the objections I’ve raised implies that the state will have no role in the emergence of a new economy. Far from it. Governments are instruments of massive social power and they cannot simply be ignored or overthrown in a general strike, contrary to anarchist beliefs. However unpleasant or morally odious it may be to participate in hierarchical structures of political power, it has to be a part of any strategy to combat the ruling class.

It is essential, for instance, to elect socialists, to move “liberal” parties to the left (though doubtless they won’t move very far), to organize workers’ parties, to foment as much political conflict as possible, in general to foster divisions in the ruling class that open up space for left-wing policymaking. On municipal, regional, and national levels, it’s necessary to move the state to the left, and ultimately to force it to enact policies that facilitate the transition to a new economy, such as nationalizations (e.g., of the fossil fuel industry), conversions of corporations to worker-owned businesses, the creation of public banks, municipal enterprises (a kind of municipal socialism), and the subsidizing of mutual aid networks that can help popular organizations share and accumulate resources. Organizations like the Democracy Collaborative, Shareable, and Yes! Magazine, in addition to the Democratic Socialists of America and other such explicitly political groups, are hatching and publicizing the ideas that will get us from this world to the next. Many of these ideas amount to the “solidarity economy,” which can be expanded on grassroots, sub-state levels as well as through the initiative of the government.

As for the obvious question of why a capitalist state would ever support such anti-capitalist policies, the answer is twofold. First, to try to maintain social order, many governments will be compelled, sooner or later, to grant concessions to popular movements that will be exerting overwhelming pressure on them in the context of sustained social crisis.[8] There are historical precedents for this, notably social democracy, which was, in effect, a compromise between the working class and the capitalist class. But full-fledged, expansive social democracy on an international or global scale is no longer possible (despite the hopes of the Jacobin school of thought). It was appropriate to an era of industrial unionism and limited capital mobility; for forty years it has been succumbing to the atomizing, disintegrating logic of hyper-capitalism. The alternative to social democracy is the gradual, tortuous and laborious process of constructing new economic relations.[9]

Second, states, and liberal sectors of the ruling class, will likely not see incremental changes as existentially threatening to capitalism. They’ll see them as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being the complete dissolution of capitalist power caused by the dissolution of society. However, as changes in social relations accumulate, over generations, under the pressure of mass popular resistance, the old political economy will begin to give way to a new one, a relatively “un-fettering” one that makes possible more adequate responses to crisis than capitalism does. By this point it will be too late for the capitalist elite to reverse the revolutionary process: new institutions will have been consolidated internationally, and in any case the ruling class will have been weakened and attenuated from the enormous destruction of wealth coincident with economic crisis.

How long this global process will take is impossible to tell, but transitions between modes of production do not happen quickly. It will surely be at least a hundred years, and probably longer, before the old social relations have been overcome around the world. Near the end of the long evolution it might be possible to speak of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that completes the transition, much as a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” completed the transition from feudalism to capitalism once it had finally purged all feudal remnants from the state. But it is pure idealism and utopianism to imagine, as many Marxists still do, that a working-class government will start the process.

Marxism and Anarchism

The revision of Marxism I have briefly sketched has other advantages besides making the theory more realistic, updating it for the twenty-first century, and providing an analytical framework to interpret the emerging solidarity economy. It also, perhaps, suggests a partial resolution of the conflicts between Marxists and anarchists that have afflicted the left since Marx’s bitter fight with Bakunin. The way to transcend these old divisions is to recognize that, in its prescriptions and ideals, Marxism is not radically different from certain strains of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Indeed, properly understood, Leninist vanguardism and elitism—or any other “top-down” version of Marxism—is less Marxian than anarcho-syndicalism, or any school of thought committed to building the new society within the shell of the old.

“Every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism,” the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker wrote. “Without this preliminary any social evolution is unthinkable. Even revolutions can only develop and mature the germs which already exist and have made their way into the consciousness of men; they cannot themselves create these germs or generate new worlds out of nothing.”[10] The institutions around which anarcho-syndicalists hope to construct a new society are labor unions and labor councils—organized in federations and possessing somewhat different functions than they have in capitalist society—but whatever one thinks of these specific institutions as germs of the future, one can agree with the basic premise of prefigurative politics (or economics). And it is this that is, or should be seen as, quintessentially Marxist.

The revolutionary practice of Lenin, on the other hand, was, as Rosa Luxemburg understood, in tension with what a genuine Marxism entails.[11] Scholarly accounts of the Russian Revolution, such as Christopher Read’s From Tsar to Soviets (1996) and Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy (1996), make it clear that the critique given by anti-Leninists like Noam Chomsky is basically right: the “Revolution” was, in effect, a coup, conspiratorially and secretively[12] organized by Lenin, Trotsky, and the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Soldiers loyal to the MRC occupied Petrograd’s telegraph offices, the railway station, and nearby bridges., and then took over the Provisional Government’s headquarters at the Winter Palace. The coup was a swift, decisive series of acts that triggered hardly any fighting and barely disrupted the city’s functioning.

Such a strategy is evidently based on the belief that revolution can emanate from the will of a few men, as long as they command a coterie of loyal soldiers. As I argued earlier, this elevation of will above the protracted dialectical processes of history that go on behind the backs of historical actors has nothing in common with Marxism. One might even agree with what Orlando Figes says in the following comments:

All the main components of Lenin’s doctrine—the stress on the need for a disciplined revolutionary vanguard; the belief that action (the “subjective factor”) could alter the objective course of history (and in particular that seizure of the state apparatus could bring about a social revolution); his defense of Jacobin methods of dictatorship; his contempt for liberals and democrats (and indeed for socialists who compromised with them)—all these stemmed not so much from Marx as from the Russian revolutionary tradition. Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, [etc.]….to inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive—content to wait for the revolution to mature through the development of objective conditions rather than eager to bring it about through political action. It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary.[13]

While Marx himself, being a man of action, was susceptible to this “Leninist” way of thinking, the logic of his system does demand that one “wait” (though not passively) for conditions to mature rather than believe that a few leaders who have, in a sense, risen above history and penetrated all its mysteries can and ought to seize the state and plan out a vast social reconstruction from authoritarian capitalism to democratic communism. History is too dialectically contradictory—or, in non-Marxian terms, simply unpredictable—for mere humans to be able to play God in this way.

Even the old Marxist strategy of forming workers’ parties and entering the electoral arena—which is something anarchists have traditionally been hostile to, since they regard politics and the state as an evil—is not especially “Marxist,” though it is realistic, necessary, and can produce enormous gains for the working class. Its un-Marxist element is that such parties can, and historically have, become integrated into the dominant political and economic order, so that their radical edge is dulled and the essential antagonism between labor and capital is blurred. They can end up functioning as props for the stability of the system they were originally created to overthrow. This was the fate, for example, of the German Social-Democratic Party, which already by the time of World War I had shed much of its former radicalism. (As we know, it supported Germany in the war, a nationalist position anathema to many Marxists of the time.)

If there is nothing essentially Marxist about forming political parties, so there is nothing un-Marxist about the favored anarchist tactic of “direct action.” Marx himself and his followers have consistently engaged in and supported direct action of all kinds, including strikes, sit-ins, armed insurrections, and every manifestation of civil disobedience. Indeed, insofar as direct action highlights antagonistic and asymmetric power relations, striking at the fulcrum of society in the economic sphere or demonstrating that the rule of the powerful rests on pure violence, it emerges straight from the logic of Marxism. Here too, then, anarchism and Marxism are one.

We may recall, in addition, that the “economism” of anarcho-syndicalism that Gramsci so deplored is reminiscent of Marxism’s materialism and economism. Both schools of thought privilege the economic sphere over the cultural and political spheres—insofar as the latter can be distinguished from the economic—focusing on economic struggles and such tools of working-class agency as unions and labor councils (though, again, Marxists tend to acknowledge the potential utility of political parties as well). For both, the class struggle is paramount. For both, workers’ self-organization is the means to triumph over capitalism. James P. Cannon has a telling remark in the context of a discussion of the anarcho-syndicalist IWW: “The IWW borrowed something from Marxism; quite a bit, in fact. Its two principal weapons—the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the workers must accomplish their own emancipation through their own organized power—came from this mighty arsenal.”[14] The very life and work of Marx evince an unshakeable commitment to the idea of working-class initiative, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit), self-organization. The word “self-activity” evolved into the even more anarchist concept of “spontaneity” under the pen of Rosa Luxemburg, who devoted herself to elaborating and acting on the Marxist belief in workers’ dignity, rationality, and creativity.[15]

Traditionally, anarchists and Marxists had another conviction in common (aside from their shared moral critique of capitalism and vision of an ideal, stateless society)—a mistaken one, however. Namely, they both thought a revolutionary “rupture” was possible and desirable. They had a millennial faith in the coming of a redemptive moment that would, so to speak, wash away humanity’s sins. By concerted action, the working class would with one blow, or a series of blows, overturn capitalist relations and establish socialist ones. This is the basic utopian mistake that Marxism (if purified) can prove wrong but anarchism cannot, because it lacks the theoretical equipment to do so. Even anarcho-syndicalists, despite their verbal recognition that the seeds of the new society had to be planted in the old, shared the utopian belief in a possible historical rupture, not understanding that the only feasible way to realize their “prefigurative politics” was to build up a new mode or modes of production over generations in the womb of the old regime. This long process will be punctuated by not just one but innumerable ruptures, departures, and moments of terrible violence in every country. But such is history, a long record of struggle and violence.

All these thoughts and revisions require a more extended treatment, which I have attempted in my abovementioned book. But one objection must be considered here: given accelerating ecological destruction, does humanity have time for such a long revolutionary process? This is an open question, to which the answer might well be no. Socialism isn’t inevitable, after all: we have a choice, either socialism or apocalypse. Fortunately, it is possible to go some way towards confronting ecological collapse even within the framework of capitalism, whether through government regulation, burdensome taxation on polluting industries, nationalizations, the subsidizing of nuclear power (a clean and effective source of energy despite the conventional wisdom), the promotion of renewable energy (in spite of its costs), and so on. But it’s true that the environment won’t be safe until capitalism, the “Nothing matters but profit!” system, has been overcome.

Toward that end, we must be willing to engage in open-minded, flexible, creative thinking and rethinking, as opposed to a strict adherence to the dogmatisms of the past.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

References

[1] Being an extension of my Master’s thesis, the book over-emphasizes worker cooperatives. It does, however, answer the usual Marxist objections to cooperatives as a component of social revolution.

[2] See, e.g., Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (London: Anthem Press, 2015).

[3] Among many others, see Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977, 25–92; Rodney Hilton, ed., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1976); T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986); Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (New York: Verso, 1994); and Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] Quoted in Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 15.

[5] See, e.g., ibid., 51, 52. Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France, written in 1871, expresses an attitude close to anarchism, but it is not clear that this essay is a direct statement of his considered views. To a great extent it had to be a eulogy for the Commune and a defense of it against its bourgeois critics, not just a neutral discussion of what it did right and wrong. Elsewhere, Marx is critical of the Commune.

[6] Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 109.

[7] See Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939 (New York: Black Rose Books, 1974).

[8] It’s true there is another possible state response: fascism. But fascism has a fatal problem: by its murderous and ultra-nationalistic nature, it can be neither permanent nor continuously enforced worldwide. Even just in the United States, the governmental structure is too vast and federated, there are too many thousands of relatively independent political jurisdictions, for a fascist regime to be consolidated in every region of the country. Fascism is only a temporary and partial solution for the ruling class. It doesn’t last.

[9] Limited social democratic victories are surely still possible and should be pursued. Medicare for All, for example, may be politically feasible years from now. But a genuinely social democratic state, consolidated internationally, is no longer on the historical agenda. The social stability it entails will be impossible in a context of multidimensional global crisis.

[10] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 58.

[11] In fact, considering the long-term (and even short-term) consequences of the Russian Revolution, I would go so far as to say that the main lessons of that event for us today are in how not to do things.

[12] Notwithstanding Kamenev’s leak to the press (in October 1917) of Lenin’s plans before they had been carried out.

[13] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin, 1998), 145, 146.

[14] James P. Cannon, “The I.W.W.” (1955), available at http://www.marxists.org.

[15] See, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism?” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961/2000).

Author: Chris Wright

I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and am the author of "Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States" (available for free online). My website is www.wrightswriting.com

3 thoughts

  1. Chris Wright

    Your above thesis makes interesting reading, but you fail to differentiate between industrial capitalism and financial capitalism, even though the two are intertwined. The official privatization of the US money supply in 1913 with the passage of the federal reserve act, whereby all US money is created as interest bearing debt is the major source of all the world’s problems.

    1. I’m not sure it’s necessary for the purposes of my argument to differentiate between those two dimensions of capitalism.

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