Class, Race and Capital-centric Marxism: an interview with Charlie Post
Could you introduce yourself, by describing the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?
Politically, I was shaped by the social struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. My father’s family were working-class Jewish social-democrats, who, while voting for the US Democratic Party since the 1930s, were anti-racist and anti-imperialist. They supported both the civil rights and black power movement. My uncle, who was involved in the unofficial and illegal strikes among teachers in the late 1950s and early 1960s that won collective bargaining rights, broke with the New York City teacher union leadership when they struck against African-American community control of the schools in 1968. They also opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War from the outset — despite having voted for both Kennedy and Johnson as ‘lesser evils.’
I became active in anti-war organizing in middle school, and became permanently disillusioned with the Democratic Party after working on the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968. By 1970 I thought of myself as a ‘revolutionary,’ but had no real vision of an alternative society (other than rejecting the Soviet Union or China as any sort of model), and saw no social force that could carry out a radical transformation of society (my father believed all of his coworkers, especially the older white workers, were bought off with six-packs of beer and color TVs — his version of the ‘labour aristocracy’ thesis).
Walking a picket line with my father during the wild-cat (unofficial) strike at the US Post Office in March 1970 was a watershed. First, it was clear that the Nixon administration was much more frightened when 200,000 postal workers stopped working than they were when nearly a million anti-war protesters descended on Washington in November 1969. Even more importantly, I saw how collective struggle transformed working class consciousness — even if temporarily. I saw older white workers, who my father described as stone-cold racists and pro-war ‘hawks’ taking orders (not merely ‘leadership’) from black and Latino workers and young white Vietnam veterans with anti-war buttons. These same workers temporarily blocked buses filled with National Guard, almost over-turning the busses. It was that strike the propelled me from being a New Left radical to a Marxian socialist who saw the working class as the agency of revolutionary social change.
After reading whatever Marx I could get my hands on (The Communist Manifesto, Value, Price and Profit), I went searching for a Marxist group to join. Unfortunately, in the suburb of New York where I grew up, the choices were very limited. There were members of the Community Party, but they impressed me as upper middle class Jewish liberals who liked the Soviet Union — not very appealing. The other choice was the local Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) — the largest Trotskyist organization in the US. This group was mostly high school students like me, concentrated in one of the more multi-racial and working-class suburbs. They also turned out to be dissidents who found the SWP too focused on the campuses and insufficiently radical in its propaganda. (In retrospect, if I had radicalised in New York City, I would have probably joined the US International Socialists [IS] who were much more oriented to workplace struggles than the SWP). I joined in May of 1971, just after I turned seventeen.
Over the next few years, I became part of an opposition current in the SWP, which aligned with the European majority of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (FI) led by Ernest Mandel in 1973-1974. I was expelled from the SWP in July 1974 and was involved in various attempts to regroup FI majority supporters in the mid to late 1970s, all of which failed. As a result of my interest in the origins of capitalism, I had encountered Bob Brenner (more below) who was, at the time, a member of the US IS. In the Summer of 1979, Brenner and Steve Zeluck (a founding member of the US SWP and former member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency) led a split from the IS (which in retrospect was a mistake) and sought a regroupment with FI majority comrades in the US. I became a sympathiser of the new grouping, Workers Power, which produced the first series of Against the Current. Workers Power was a vibrant analytic and theoretical current, but never succeeded as an organized political group. By 1983, when I finished graduate school, I became involved in the regroupment of Workers Power, the IS and former members of the US SWP to form Solidarity in 1986.
I was an active member, playing leadership roles in the NY branch and nationally, in Solidarity from 1986 until 2013. While I will hold my assessment of that experience for later, it was a crucial political experience of me. I was able to find a milieu where I could draw on the strongest elements of the FI (Mandel on reformism, socialist democracy; the experience of various comrades in workplace organizing in Europe, willingness to build revolutionary organizations with comrades from a variety of traditions) and the US IS (Draper on ‘socialism from below’, Brenner on social-democracy, and Kim Moody’s work on the US labour movement and the transformation of US capitalism under neo-liberalism) traditions.
While I am currently not a member of an organization, my politics remain those of revolutionary socialism from below — a commitment to a revolutionary transformation of society, led by the working class (in all of its racial and gender diversity) which will establish a democratic collectivist order, no matter how distant the prospect. This perspective shapes my day to day activity in this clearly non-revolutionary period — struggling for immediate demands/reforms through organization and struggles that do not rely on elections, capitalist legality or the forces of official reformism (the labour officialdom, middle class liberal leaderships of communities of color, women, queer folk, etc.)
Parallel to — and in many ways providing the intellectual foundation for these politics — have been a number of intellectual influences. The US SWP’s ‘Marxism’ was quite mechanical and orthodox (George Novack, their leading intellectual, was a militant Plekhanovite), when not purely impressionistic (the notion that the US bourgeois revolution was ‘incomplete.’) Fortunately, aligning myself with the FI majority exposed me to a vibrant, critical Marxism. Central to that was the work of Mandel, especially his political writings and his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to develop a concrete analysis of contemporary capitalism rooted in Marx’s Capital. Through Mandel I discovered, like many of my generation, the New Left Review of the 1970s, which exposed me to the most important currents of Western Marxism — Lukacs, Gramsci and Althusser.
As the varied attempts to regroup FI majority supporters in the US failed in the mid-1970s, I decided to go to graduate school. Initially, I hope to do a social-history of a group of German workers (miners, metal workers or dock workers) who went from the left wing of the SPD, to the USPD to the KPD — a case study of a mass defection from reformism to revolutionary politics (which I still thought was immanent somewhere in Europe at that time). When two of the faculty members at Rutgers University with whom I hoped to study were denied tenure, I decided to change course. (I have recently returned to my original interest in labour history, and am working on a book on the struggle over the World War II no-strike pledge in the US United Rubber Workers)
I had done some reading on the debates on English agriculture in the seventeenth century (Tawney, Trevor-Roper and Stone) and US plantation slavery (Genovese, Fogel and Engerman), and became interested in the question of the origins of capitalism generally and the origins of capitalism in the US specifically. The place of the US Civil War and Reconstruction had been a question I grappled with since I was a teenage member of the US SWP. I was especially troubled by their notion that permanent revolution — a theory and strategy developed to guide workers struggles in a society ruled by an Absolutist-feudal state and where agriculture remained non-capitalist — applied to the US, the most advanced capitalist social formation on the planet. The notion of a ‘combined’ US revolution was rooted in the claim that the US Civil War and Reconstruction were somehow ‘incomplete’ bourgeois revolutions. I had read some of Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System and discovered that he had constructed a vibrant, Marxist influenced sociology program at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I applied, was accepted and began the program in the Fall of 1977.
The six years I spent in Binghamton were crucial to my intellectual formation. Although I have since jettisoned the Althusserianism that was so influential among those critical of Wallerstein (my doctoral thesis was, for the most part, a Poulantzian analysis of the class struggles culminating in the US Civil War), I was exposed to the two most important influences on my Marxism while in Binghamton. The summer before I started the program, I read the first volume of Capital, the original Dobb-Sweezy debate on the transition and Brenner’s ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’ in Past & Present. I arrived in the program convinced of the broad outlines of Brenner’s thesis. As I was finishing the seminar paper for Wallerstein’s seminar in January 1978 — the first version of my analysis of the origins of capitalism in the US — I read Brenner’s ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’ in New Left Review. From that point, I became a convinced ‘Brennerian’ on the transition.
I also read broadly on contemporary capitalism, especially crisis theory. Ever since I had read Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism and Luxemburg’s Reform and Revolution as a freshman in college, I understood the importance of crisis theory to revolutionary socialist politics. Working my way through Mandel’s Late Capitalism was extremely important to my long-term understanding of Marxian political economy, despite the ultimate weaknesses of Mandel’s analysis (multiple crisis tendencies, different stages of capitalism/regimes of accumulation with distinctive dynamics, monopoly, etc.) At Mandel’s urging (I studied with him at the Boston University Social Theory Seminar in the Summer of 1979), I began reading the work of Anwar Shaikh. Reading ‘An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories’ from 1978 reshaped my thinking permanently. While still in graduate school I began a political and personal relationship with Shaikh, and later with several of his graduate students (in particular Howard Botwinick and Mary Malloy). Shaikh’s work is central to my understanding of the laws of motion of capital.
My encounters with the work of Brenner on the transition and Shaikh on the dynamics of capitalism were reinforced and consolidated after graduate school as I developed political and intellectual relationships with Ellen Meiksins Wood and Kim Moody. Like most people on the international left, I first discovered Wood through Retreat from Class, a work that began my critical reassessment of Althusser and Poulantzas. Ellen’s role in systematising the ‘political Marxist’ (or I prefer ‘Capital-centric Marxist’) paradigm has also been formative to my development. She was a generous and encouraging critic of my work, giving me consistent and insightful feedback.
I first encountered Kim Moody through politics — we were both members of Solidarity for over twenty-five years. As an active trade unionist (first in the New York public schools and later at the City University of New York), Kim was one of the key comrades sharping our approach to the US labour movement. Kim’s analytic work on contemporary capitalism and the class struggle US is rooted, quite explicitly, in the work of Shaikh and Botwinick. His work (especially in Workers in a Lean World in 1997 and his new book On New Terrain) represent some of the most important applications of Shaikh’s world to the concrete changes in US and global capitalism over the past four decades. In recent years, Kim and I have worked together on an essay for Socialist Register, and he has encouraged my work on the rubber workers during and after World War II.
You’re a Marxist, aren’t you? What does this mean for you in analytical and political terms?
Questions like that often bring out my New York Jewish sarcasm — I imagine the T-shirt with the Marx Brothers and Karl with the caption ‘Sure, I’m a Marxist!’ But seriously, yes I am a Marxist.
Analytically, the foundation of historical materialism is the notion that ‘innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice’ (Capital, III, p. 927) are the relations human beings enter into with one another and with nature to produce and reproduce the material conditions of their lives. Specifically, it is the relations human beings enter into with one another — social relations of production — shape specific ways in which human relate to nature through the use of tools — the labour-process or ‘forces of production.’ These sets of ‘social-property relations’/modes of production/ forms of social labour all have strong laws of motion/’rules of reproduction’ which produce distinctive patterns of growth and crisis, and distinctive forms of class struggle. It is in phases of crisis that conflictual class relations are intensified, opening the possibility (not necessity) of systemic-modal transitions- the emergence of new social property relations as the unintended consequence of attempts by producers and appropriators to reproduce their social position.
Capitalism is a specific, and in many ways unique form of social property relations. Capitalists own and control productive property (land, tools, machinery, etc.), buy the capacity to work (labour-power) of wage workers, direct producers who do not possess means of production, and organise the latter in a labour process to produce commodities (products for the market). While the capitalists pay the wage workers the value of their capacity to work (the monetary equivalent of those commodities that the workers need to survive day to day and reproduce themselves inter-generationally), capitalists are able to extract a surplus product (surplus value) through their command of the labour process, which allows them to force workers to produce commodities in excess of the value of their wages. Since both the capitalists’ means of production and the workers’ labour power take the form of commodities, the continued economic survival of both capital and labour requires successful competition in the market place. The social property relation between capital and wage labour makes possible (through capital’s ability to adjust the size of the labour force), and inter-capitalist competition makes necessary (through the need to minimise costs) the specialisation of production and the continuous investment of surpluses in new productive technology (labour saving machinery). The operation of the ‘law of value’ — the compulsion to economise labour-time enforced through price competition — shapes a labour process that is the basis of industrialisation and its attendant social changes. The law of value produces a distinctive tendency toward crisis, as the increasing capitalisation of production leads to long-term declines in the rate of profit, periodic stagnation in the mass of profit and economic crises.
Politically, this analysis leads me to understand that any attempt to reform capitalism, especially through state regulation of the economy, is bound to fail. Capitalist social property relations necessitate the formal, institutional separation of the political and the economic — a public sphere of coercion from the private sphere of exploitation and competition. The ability of state actors to regulate capitalist accumulation must take place at a ‘distance’ from accumulation, which is subject to its own ‘economic’ logic — the law of value. Crisis, like growth and reproduction, are necessary features of capitalism. Thus, strategies that envision a series of partial breaks in the logic of capitalist accumulation, often posed as winning ‘non-reformist reforms,’ are utopian — based on an unrealistic understanding of capitalism.
The necessity of crisis shapes the terrain of struggle between capital and labour. Clearly, workers have won important reforms — shorter hours, higher wages, some checks on the despotism of capital in the workplace, social welfare and labour-market regulation. However, these reforms are always the product of massive, disruptive social struggles — strike, occupations, demonstrations — that go beyond the boundaries of capitalist legality or electoral politics. Even more importantly, they are continuously subject to capitalist counter-attacks, especially in periods of crisis and declining profitability. Put simply, political strategies that based on legalised collective bargaining, electoral politics and winning state office to secure lasting reforms do not work. As Brenner has put it, the paradox of reformism is that reformist strategies which accept the limits of capital, invariably fail to win or defend reforms.
While workers in their workplaces, especially large and capital-intensive cites of production and transport (logistics today), have enormous potential social power, there is no guarantee that workers will act to utilise that power. As Moody puts it, workers are ‘pushed together and pulled apart’ under capitalism — brought together as collective producers in workplaces, but pitted against one another as competing sellers of labour-power. As competitors on the labour-market, workers are subject to racist, sexist, xenophobic and other reactionary political ideas. Only when workers are able to organise themselves collectively against capital and the state do they have the potential to develop radical, revolutionary class consciousness.
In sum, the Marxist analysis of capitalism leads me to embrace what Hal Draper called ‘socialism from below’ — the strategic centrality of the self-organization and self-activity of working people (again, in all their necessary racial and gender diversity) and the dead-end of politics that looks to other social forces (parliamentary politicians, labour bureaucrats, NGO staffers, etc.) to bring about radical change.
You have gone on record several times, and once again in the course of this interview, stating your preference for the term ‘Capital centric Marxism’ over ‘Political Marxism’. Can you give a basic breakdown of why, and what the implications are?
First, the term ‘Political Marxism’ was originally formulated by Guy Bois as a polemical insult — an attempt to claim that Brenner’s analysis of the origins of capitalism somehow underestimated the laws of motion/rules of reproduction of feudalism and overestimated the role of class struggle in the transition. The adaptation of ‘Political Marxism’ by Wood and others, while similar to LGBT folks calling themselves ‘queer’ as a means of defanging their opponents, gives too much ground to our critics in my opinion.
Capital-centric Marxism, for me, highlights the compatibility of the work of Brenner and Wood (and Shaikh) with Marx’s mature writings from the 1850s onward. In the Grundrisse and especially Capital, Marx definitively breaks with Smithian and Ricardian notions of both the origins of capitalism and value theory, producing his own distinctive understanding of capitalism as a mode of production. In particular, it is in these works that Marx most clearly jettisons remnants of the ‘commercialization model’ of the origins of capitalism (capitalism emerges in medieval cities and spreads with trade) and productive forces determinism (‘the water mill gives us feudalism, the steam engine capitalism.’) As the highpoint of Marx’s scientific writings, Capital is the bed-rock for concrete studies of historical and contemporary capitalism.
What is your take the concept of ‘social property relations’? In what way do you think this can be a useful analytical notion in conducting historical research and more precisely in the transition debate? What do you think, for example, of the abandonment of the concept of ‘rules of reproduction’ by Samuel Knafo and Benno Teschke in favor of a more historicist understanding of the historical process? Do you believe that they have succeeded in their stated aim of achieving a non-reductionist understanding of capitalism’s history? Or do we need a certain kind of reductionism in our historical analysis? If yes, of what kind?
To reiterate, for me social property relations are the relations people enter into with one another (producers-appropriator) that then shape their relationship with nature through the use of tools (labour-processes) in the production and reproduction of the material conditions of their lives. Each set of social property relations has strong rules of reproduction – laws of motion that determine forms of expansion and crisis and of class struggle. Such an approach is crucial to understanding the transition from one set of social property relations to another. It is their distinctive rules of reproduction that produce distinctive forms of growth and crisis, which intensify class conflict. These strong rules of reproduction allow us to understand that crises do not necessarily lead to new social property relations (e.g., the ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe) – there is the possibility of the restoration of a new pattern of growth on the basis of existing social property relations. Nor do they necessitate any particular transition. There are more than one possible routes out of a crisis (e.g., consolidation of peasant proprietorship and centralised surplus extraction in Western Europe v. the emergence of capitalism in England alone) Put another way, as classes struggle to reproduce themselves in phases of crisis, strong rules of reproduction make the resolution of the crisis dependent upon the unpredictable outcome of the class struggle.
I think that Knafo and Teschke reject a ‘rules of reproduction’ approach in favor of what I would call a much more random (not necessarily more historical or historicist) understanding of the historical process. Their approach cannot account for the regular patterns of growth and crises of either feudalism or capitalism, and that leads them to embrace highly problematic frameworks like ‘varieties of capitalism’, and can actually result in minimising the centrality of class struggle in either modal transitions or winning reforms under capitalism. If there are not strong rules of reproduction, what prevents feudalism ‘organically’ evolving into capitalism, as various Smithian historians argue? Only an understanding of the strong rules of reproduction allows us to understand why tumultuous class struggles were historically necessary to the disruption of one set of social property relations and their replacement with another. Similarly, if capitalism does not have strong rules of reproduction and an endless variety of capitalisms are possible, what explains the near universal roll-back of social-democratic economic regulation and welfare states across the capitalist world?
I would not say that we need a ‘certain kind of reductionism,’ but instead a structuralism that allows us to understand the limits and possibilities of historical evolution and variation. I actually think that Alex Callinicos’ Making History, his last work before embracing productive forces determinism, is the best discussion of what such a theoretical structuralism would entail for Marxian historical studies.
How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? How bourgeois were they? Do you think that is a useful analytical concept? What is your take on Neil Davidson’s utilisation of the concept in his recent study on the topic?
Given that I deal with the issue of ‘bourgeois revolutions’ and Neil Davidson’s book in some detail in a forthcoming issue of Historical Materialism, I can be relatively brief. I think the ‘Capital-centric’ Marxist tradition needs to develop a more rigorous theoretical and historical approach to the problem of revolutionary upheavals in the transition to capitalism. As Anderson argued, correctly, ‘one of the basic axioms of historical materialism … the secular struggle between classes is ultimately resolved at the political – not at the economic or cultural – level of society.’ While I generally agree with the rejection of the canonical version of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ which is linked to a Smithian-commercialization model of the transition to capitalism, we have yet to put forward our own account of the role of revolution in the transition.
Neil’s book has many strengths — his rejection of the extension of the notion of ‘bourgeois revolution’ to include almost any change in capitalism (including the emergence of neo-liberalism or the granting of trade union rights), his rejection of the oxymoronic notion of a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution, and the promiscuous use of ‘permanent revolution’ (especially its application to the US). However, as I point out in my review essay, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? suffers from Neil’s continued attachment to productive forces determinism and his desire to include the French revolution of 1789 in the pantheon of revolutions that produced states that promoted the development of capitalism.
Briefly, I prefer the term capitalist revolution — it does away with the terminological ambiguity around ‘bourgeois’ (a term designating urban dwellers including holders of venal office or merchants with monopolies granted by Absolutist States — who are not capitalists). It also emphasizes the most important insight of ‘consequentialist’ analyses of these revolutions — that the key to their social character is not the leadership or intention of those leading these revolutions, but the results of these political-military upheavals. Specifically, these political-military must have two consequences to be capitalist revolutions. First, they must destroy state apparatuses which fuse political power and surplus extraction and establish an ‘impersonal’ sphere of political power separate from privatized appropriation. Second, these new state apparatuses implement policies that systematically promote the development of capitalism social property relations. As I argue in great detail in the Historical Materialism essay, the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848, while radical, democratic and plebian, were definitely not capitalist. Instead, after the English and American revolutions, the most important wave of capitalists revolutions were in the 1850s and 1860s, as pre-capitalist ruling classes in Germany, Italy and Japan (and possibly elsewhere) responded to the changing conditions of political-military competition with capitalist Britain and the US by destroying old state and constructing new ones in revolutions ‘from above.’
Moving now to Perry Anderson’s work. What is your take on his piece ‘The Notion of Bourgeois Revolution’? Is it still relevant? Was capitalism’s genesis a national phenomenon or an inter-societal one, as Perry Anderson has suggested by arguing that capitalism developed as ‘a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites’? Anderson argues in his dilogy on the Absolute state that the rise of capitalism the historical task of bourgeoisie, which, was assisted by the spread of market opportunities and the revival of Roman law, developed in the interstices of the old feudal order. What do you think of this? Is the idea that capitalist development began in England not a reproduction of Eurocentric or even Anglocentric historical tropes?
Let’s disentangle a number of issues. The first is how Anderson understands the bourgeois revolutions in that essay. While he still, mistakenly in my opinion, continues to view 1789 as a ‘bourgeois revolution,’ he embraces ‘consequentialism’ and makes the essential point that the most important of these revolutions all took place ‘from above’ — as pre-capitalist ruling classes attempted to transform themselves and their states and societies along capitalist lines to compete, politically and militarily with emerging capitalist powers.
One can embrace these insights without agreeing with his notions that the origins of capitalism are found in the ‘interstices of the old feudal order’ or are the result of a ‘value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites.’ The claim that urban centres under feudalism were sites of capitalist production and trade is a mainstay of the historically inaccurate ‘commercialisation model.’ Both trade and production was regulated by either the monarchy or local communal bodies (guilds, etc.) — neither involved a competitive compulsion to specialise output, introduce labour-saving techniques or accumulate capital. Nor is there any evidence that urban-rural trade (mostly in agricultural surpluses for the handful of handicrafts peasants themselves could not produce) had a transformative effect on the countryside.
The notion that capitalism emerges as the result of an international (or more accurately inter-societal) process is also highly problematic. All the various and sundry attempts to make this argument — whether Anderson in Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism or Lineages of the Absolutist State, Banaji in Theory and History and most recently by Anievas and Nisancioglu in How the West Came To Rule, end up assuming what they are seeking to explain. As Wood points out, this argument assumes that some or all of the dynamics of capitalism — market competition, development of the productive forces, etc. — already exist, at least ‘in embryo’ making an actual explanation of the rupture between pre-capitalist and capitalist rules of reproduction/laws of motion unnecessary.
Clearly, once capitalism has emerged in England — the result of a complex pattern of class struggle that abolished extra-economic extraction of surpluses from the direct producers, but allowed the appropriators to impose commercial, capitalist ground rent — then the ‘international’ (or ‘inter-societal’) is crucial to explaining how capitalism emerges in much of the rest of the world. Agrarian capitalism in England allows the English (and later British) ruling classes to build up an impressive military apparatus without bankrupting agriculture. With the shift to industrial capitalism, Britain had even great capacity to build its military. Faced with declining prospects in political-military competition, non-capitalist ruling classes across the world had to either transform themselves along capitalist lines (Japan, Germany, Italy, eventually France) or face subordination to the major powers (Tsarist Russia and the global South).
Finally, I think the accusation that the Brenner-Wood analysis of the origins of capitalism that emphasizes the class conflict in England is ‘Eurocentric’ is baseless. Eurocentrism can, reasonably, be defined as the assumption of the superiority of European culture and institutions that define the necessary path of development of all non-European societies. The notion that capitalism’s origins are internal to England assumes neither. Unfortunately, much of the anti-Eurocentric literature either reproduce the assumptions of Eurocentrism (all societies are on the same developmental path, but some are blocked solely by ‘European exploitation’) or lead to a casual indeterminancy (more when we discuss the uneven and combined development).
Could Silvia Federici’s re-appraisal of the function and nature of ‘primitive accumulation’ in the transition from feudalism to capitalism be combined fruitfully with the tradition of Political Marxism, in order to bridge the thematic and epistemological gap regarding gender that exists in the histories of capitalism articulated by the former?
I have always found Federici’s work extremely provocative — filled with interesting insights, but often flawed. Specifically, her work on changes to gender relations in the transition to capitalism is flawed by a notion of a Western European transition — rather than specifically English transition — from feudalism to capitalism in the sixteenth century. Many of the processes she describes on the continent are connected to the reorganisation of peasant agriculture and the centralisation of surplus extraction with the rise of Absolutism — not the emergence of capitalist social property relations.
A much superior attempt to bridge the gap between gender and the origins of capitalism, utilizing social reproduction theory, is the work of Nicole Leach, a graduate student at York University in Toronto. Nicole’s brilliant essay ‘Transitions to Capitalism: Social-Reproduction Feminism Meets Political Marxism’ in the symposium on social reproduction theory in Historical Materialism in 2016 — and which is being revised for a collection of essays I am editing with Xavier LaFrance (another York University Ph.D.) for Palgrave, Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism — provides a solid account of the transformation of gender relations and social reproduction in the transition.
Given the wide range of political positions adopted by Political Marxists — from say George Comninel to John Clegg — is there any discernible political payoff in the debates around Political Marxism, or is it ultimately a purely analytical question so that Political Marxism can be legitimately adopted by anyone on the political spectrum?
I stopped believing there is a one-to-one relationship between a theoretical position and the politics one adopts on the socialist left over thirty years ago. For example, most who embrace an under-consumptionist theory of economic crisis — that inadequate wages/demand leads to periodic slumps — are reformists and social-democrats. For them, the inadequacy of demand can be remedied by state policies that enhance working class consumption. However, one of the most important under-consumptionist theorists was Rosa Luxemburg — one of the outstanding revolutionary Marxists of her generation for whom the exhaustion of ‘external markets’ for capitalist produced commodities would lead to the ultimate collapse of capitalism.
Other theoretical frameworks within Marxism also display a similar political indeterminacy. Let’s look at those who argue for a version of historical materialism that assigns historical primary to the trans-modal development of the productive forces. Among its adherents are revolutionary socialists like the late Chris Harman and Neil Davidson. But they also include classical reformists from the ‘orthodox Marxist’ center of pre-war social democracy like Plekhanov and Kautsky; and apolitical academics like Erik Olin Wright.
Clearly, I believe that my politics are the most consistent with the Brenner-Wood and Shaikh analysis of the origins and dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production, as I argue above. However, many people with very different politics — which are ultimately shaped by their political experience and practice (or non-practice) — can embrace (with a greater or lesser level of consistency) the same conceptual framework.
Why has no Political Marxist from the anti-Stalinist left attempted to develop a Political Marxist-compatible analysis of Soviet-type societies, beyond Brenner’s two-part article in Against the Current. Surely this, rather than the origins of capitalism, would be a better test of the analytical superiority of the approach?
First, unlike many in the Trotskyist tradition, I do not believe that one’s particular analysis of the Stalinist state is some sort of political-theoretical ‘acid test.’ The success or failure of Capital-centric Marxism as a research agenda will not be decided primarily on its ability to develop an analysis of the Soviet-type societies — as important as I believe that is. I believe that the failure of comrades in our tradition to follow up on Brenner’s analysis (excepting, of course, John Marot’s attempt to use this framework to analyse the origins of Stalinism) is rooted in the fact that these societies collapsed soon after the framework was systematised by Wood and others. The truth is that there has been relatively new research on these types of societies — by all varieties of Marxists and non-Marxists — since 1991.
While it is true that Brenner’s essay in Against the Current is the only analysis of these societies from an explicitly social-property relations perspective, his analysis is part of a long-tradition of attempts to characterize the Soviet-type formations as a non-capitalist form of class society. Clearly, much of this literature (in particular Max Shachtman’s writings on bureaucratic collectivism) has little theoretical or historical value, being marked by a profound moralism. However, there are others who have produced similar analyses of the distinctively non-capitalist dynamics of these socities — Tickten, Filtzer, Kuron and Modzelewski, Draper, Machover and Fanthan, and even Mandel in his later writing (as he tentatively questioned the notion that the working ruled but did not govern in these societies).
Let’s speak now about your study, The American Road to Capitalism. You argue that the system of plantation-slavery had a non-capitalist character. Ηow, then, did we shift to the establishment of the capitalist mode of production in USA? Which were the main structural historical transformations that took place in order the capitalist social relations to be established? In your first chapter, you use concepts deriving from the Althusserian theory, do you still find these concepts analytically useful? Ιs Althusserian analysis compatible with historical research? What were the key political effects of the American Civil War on capitalist development for the second half of the 19th century?
I would argue that the origins of capitalism in the US lie in the transformation of northern agriculture in the wake of the American Revolution and Constitutional Settlement. Briefly, the merchants who led the American Revolution sought to reproduce themselves as traders who profited from discrepancies between markets (‘buying cheap and selling dear’) and from land speculation independently of Britain. To create a state capable of both securing the national debt of the newly independent US (a condition of obtaining credit necessary for both trade and land speculation) and establishing a social monopoly of land, the merchants had to break the resistance of northern independent farmers who wanted low taxes and non-market access to land (‘squatting’), and the southern planters who feared a centralised state that could undermine their property in slaves. After the uprising of Massachusetts farmers in 1787 (Shays Rebellion), the planters joined with the merchants to forge a state capable of creating a military that could discipline the ‘lower orders’ — either rebellious farmers or slaves. The new Federal state created in 1787 was able to levy taxes to secure the national debt and build an army capable of both collecting taxes and forcing rural settlers to purchase public land through a government organized auction system.
Over the course of the first four decades of the nineteenth century, the cumulative effect of the defeat of the northern farmers’ revolts of the 1780s and 1790s and the spread of the Federal land auction system effectively transformed the conditions under which prospective settlers obtained, maintained and expanded land holdings. By the 1840s all settlers were forced to accrue mortgages and other debts to purchase land, forcing them to specialise output, introduce labour-saving tools, machinery and methods and accumulate land and tools. The expansion of petty-capitalist agriculture (household production subject to ‘market coercion’/law of value where wage-labour plays a minor role) across the north created a growing home market for manufactured means of consumption and production, sparking industrial growth in the US in the two decades before the Civil War. The geographic expansion of plantation slavery, this form of social labour’s characteristic form of expanded reproduction, was transformed from a spur to the expansion of commodity production (slave produced cotton exports allowed the importation of British credit that financed land and transport speculation) to an obstacle to capitalist development — setting the stage for the cataclysmic struggles that culminated in the US Civil War.
The War produced a massive centralisation and expansion of the capitalist state in the US. Plantation slavery, whose geographic expansion was the major potential impediment to capitalist development in the US, was abolished. While southern agriculture remained non-capitalist before the 1890s, sharecropping did not have the same geographic expansionist tendencies and deepened the social division of labour by eliminating the production of food as use-values. The newly centralised state established high tariff walls to protect US industry from British competition, maintained an army capable of ‘removing’ indigenous populations from the west, established a national currency and banking system, subsidised a trans-continental railway system and expanded a public land system that sold the vast majority of land to private companies at public auction.
It is true that when I wrote the first chapter of The American Road to Capitalism — which appeared in New Left Review in 1982 — I was very much an Althusserian. I was attracted to the work of Althusser, Balibar and Poulantzas because of its conceptual rigour — concepts actually had meaning — and, more importantly, their rejection of productive forces determinism and the Stalinist teleology of necessary sequence of modes of production. I believe that Althusserian Marxism can be compatible with historical research — Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship is a good example. However, their defense of an ahistorical ‘theoretical practice,’ quasi-idealist notions that concepts like ‘modes of production’ do not exist in historical reality and other inheritances of non-Marxian structuralism, left this framework open to the pull of non-materialist, anti-historical analysis in the 1980s.
When I left graduate school in 1983, I saw how most of the Althusserians were drifting toward what would become first post-structuralism and later post-modernism. It was the work of Ellen Wood in particular that helped me understand the profound limitations of the Althusserian framework. Ellen’s systematisation of ‘political Marxism’ — particularly in Democracy Against Capitalism — convinced me that her and Brenner’s approach gave me everything useful from Althusser (primary of productive relations over productive forces, rejection of a necessary sequence of modes of production, separation of the political and the economic) without much of the baggage of non-Marxian structuralism.
Which is your take on the use of Trotsky’s theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ as analytical framework to comprehend the transition from feudalism to capitalism?
The notion of uneven and combined development, as developed originally by Trotsky in the 1930s, is a major contribution to historical materialism. The idea that once industrial capitalism becomes dominant in England the conditions of political-military competition force non-capitalist ruling classes in the rest of the world to adopt capitalist social relations of production — and the latest forms of the capitalist labour-process — to survive is crucially important to understanding the spread of capitalism across the globe in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The work of Shaikh and his students allows us to see that uneven and combined development is also the necessary result of real capitalist competition, which produces continuous heterogeneity of labour-processes, profit and wage rates.
However, the attempt to make uneven and combined development a trans-historical law which can explain the transition from feudalism to capitalism is deeply flawed. As I argue in detail in a forthcoming contribution to a Historical Materialism symposium on How the West Came to Rule? Anievas and Nisancioglu ambitious analysis ultimately fails because, like Smithian and productive forces Marxist analyses it assumes what must be explained — it assumes the ‘rules of reproduction’ of capitalism, uneven and combined development, in order to explain the origins of capitalism. The result is a causal indeterminacy where everything depends upon everything else, and numerous errors of historical fact.
What were the specific internal reasons (ideological, theoretical, strategic etc.) for the overshadowing of Trotskyism by Maoism in the US of the 60s and 70s, as opposed to in the UK?
I think there are two major factors, one sociological-historical and the other political. In the UK, a strong tradition of working class radicalism survived the Cold War. The purges of the US labour movement in the late 1940s effectively severed the connection between political radicalism and the working class for an entire generation. By contrast, both the Communist Party and the left-wing of the Labour Party were working-class political currents — well rooted in both industrial workplaces and working-class communities through the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, the notion that all workers were ‘bought off/bribed’ by ‘imperialist super-profits’ did not have the same resonances among radicalising youth in Britain than in the US.
The second is political. The two most important Trotskyist groupings in Britain — the IS/SWP and the International Marxist Group — engaged the new left in Britain politically and organizationally. They were willing to address the issues raised by the new left, especially around race and gender-sexual oppression, and participate in groupings like the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation. By contrast, the most important US Trotskyist groups — in particular the SWP, but to a lesser extent the Independent Socialist Clubs (the predecessor of the US IS) especially in the Bay Area — failed to effectively participate in the new left’s most important organizational expression, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The result was the complete absence of the politics of ‘socialism from below’ in SDS. Progressive Labor, the major Maoist organization, essentially set the terms of debate in SDS — with their opponents attempting to demonstrate they were more ‘Mao than thou’! The result was an entire generation of young revolutionaries being educated in the politics of Mao-Stalinism. Most of these groups embraced ‘Third Period’ Stalinism — ’left’ Stalinism — during the upsurge of the ‘long 1960s’ (1965-75). When the upsurge ended, they fell back on ‘popular front’ Stalinism, and most have either become apolitical or been integrated into the labour officialdom and the Democratic Party.
In your recent intervention on race and capitalism, there are several strands I would like to pull out. Firstly, in a few words, would it be possible for you to define race? Is race, a political relationship between races, and among members of the same race? Is it something else? In the second place, your claim that race emerged out of capitalist relations could be quite controversial, considering that several anti-race theorists have suggested that race has its origins in, what are according to ‘Capital-centric Marxists’ non (or pre-) capitalist relations, of Spain, the Colonial encounter of 1492, the Spanish inquisition. And that, while the British colonisation of Ireland nominally took place within the context of a developing English capitalist system, it is quite unclear that the English treatment of the Irish was indeed taking place through a capitalist imperialist form. Could you expand on the thesis that the origins of racial power lie in capitalist relations, rather than emerging as a pre-capitalist relationship that has continued through to today?
For me race is an ideological construction — a crucial coordinate of the mental road map of the lived experience of capitalism. Put another way, race has no biological reality, but does have a social reality — as a way that people organise their lived experience. Race specifically is the notion that humanity is divided into distinct groups with unchangeable characteristics. From the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, these characteristics were claimed to be biological or genetic. Since the Nazi Judeocide, these unchangeable characteristics are often deemed to be ‘cultural’ — where values and behaviours become unalterable. Whether conceived biologically or culturally, these unchangeable characteristics make certain groups inherently superior, others inherently inferior.
I would argue that race is one of a number of mental road maps that are spontaneously generated by capitalist social property relations. Capitalist social property relations, where the process of exploitation and accumulation takes place through the apparent ‘exchange of equivalents’ — exchange values — rather than through extra-market coercion, spontaneously produces a distinctive view of the world. As Marx put it in Capital, I, Chapter 6, the sphere of the circulation of commodities appears to be the ‘Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. ’Put another way, capitalist social property relations produce a world view that assumes the equality of all commodity owners.
However, capitalist production necessarily produces inequalities — between capital and labour, within the working class, and between societies in the capitalist world economy. While inequality is assumed in pre-capitalist societies, inequality must be explained under capitalism. This explanation must be, somehow, compatible with the notion of human equality. This is where notions of inherent and immutable differences amongst humans become a necessity. Only if humanity is divided into groups with unchangeable characteristics, which makes some groups inherently superior and others inherently inferior — not ‘fully human’ — can workers and capitalists make sense of a society where all appear to be equals but there is real inequality.
Gender differences, especially when reduced to biological sex differences, have historically been naturalised. Race naturalized the other differences — religion, language, regional/ethnic origins, etc. — that pre-exist capitalism but were seen as flexible and fluid. These differences become fixed and inherent and ‘explain’ the apparent inequalities between human groups — some groups are ‘born superior’ others ‘born inferior.’
From this perspective it is not simply historical accident that race is invented in the context of the first capitalist imperialism-colonization — of Virginia and Ireland — driven by the reproduction of English agrarian capitalism. As both Barbara J. Fields, Edmund Morgan and Theodore Allen argue, race only emerges as a way of classifying humanity when legal-juridical equality becomes the norm and only distinctive groups (African slaves, Irish tenant-peasants) are unfree. In societies (like classical Antiquity, pre-Bacon’s Rebellion Virginia or other slave plantation colonies) where slavery (or coerced peasant producers) was only one of a number of unfree legal statuses, there is no need to explain unfreedom/inequality — it is simply assumed to be the condition of the majority of humanity. Only in the context of an emerging capitalist society that is making legal freedom the rule do we need to invent notions of inherent/unchangeable differences amongst humans to explain inequality.
I would argue, further, that even if plantation slavery/unfree peasantry had not developed in the English colonies, capitalist social property relations would have spontaneously produced race/racism. Other than a naturalised version of gender, there is no other way for workers and capitalists to explain the inequalities between and amongst them other than the notion of inherent ‘racial’ differences (We can see how pre-capitalist differentiation becomes racialised in the case of Irish-Catholic workers in both industrialising Britain and the US; or the racialisation of Eastern/Southern Europeans in the US as the ‘non-white races of Europe.’) In sum, capitalism must somehow ‘naturalise’ inequality and I would argue there are only two options — gender (reduced to biological sex) and race.
The forms of classification-prejudice in Absolutist Spain and its colonies are similar to those common in most non-capitalist societies — fluid categories like strangers v. neighbours/kin and heathens v. believers — which allowed individuals to move from one category to another. Strangers could easily become kin through adoption, heathens could become believers through conversion. In pre-capitalist societies, where surplus extraction takes place through extra-economic coercion, there is no assumption of human equality — and thus no need for an ideological construction that ‘explains’ inequality among ostensible ‘equals.’
While I am only beginning to do research on various forms of classification-prejudice in Absolutist Spain and their colonies, I believe the claim that these were forms of race and racism in the sense I am using them is incorrect. It is true that Spaniards worried that ‘secret Jews’ had not abandoned their distinctive religious practices after the expulsion of observant Jews in 1492. Thus, they contrasted ‘Christians by blood’ with the more unreliable converts. However, I have found no evidence that converted Jews were denied the privileges or obligations of other Christian subjects in Spain. Even more importantly, in the colonies indigenous people who converted to Christianity were ultimately accepted as having ‘souls,’ and were subject to the same extra-economic coercion as other labourers. Again, I am only now beginning to read more extensively on forms of classification-prejudice before capitalism, and the analysis is still tentative.
Is racism ‘produced and maintained’ only in labour market competition or before the worker reaches the labour market?
Fundamentally, I would argue that the process of labour-market competition — which shapes competition among workers for housing, education, health care, etc. — is the fundamental basis for the production and reproduction of racism in the working class under capitalism. Competition produces heterogeneity in labour-processes, profit and wage rates. Both capitalists and workers (especially when class-against-class organizations like unions are weak) organise that competition along ‘naturalised’ lines of gender and race. Certain racialised groups are viewed or present themselves as more ‘reliable and disciplined’ — thus best suited higher paying and more secure employment. Others are viewed as less ‘reliable and disciplined’ — thus suited only for the worst paying and most insecure employment.
What is your take on intersectionality as an analytical tool to describe the multiple oppressions that are experienced by the subaltern classes?
I would approach the notion of ‘intersectionality’ in two different ways. When young activists talk about ‘intersectionality’ they are expressing a desire to politically link struggles against racial and gender oppression and class exploitation. In that sense, I am completely supportive of ‘intersectional politics.’ However, as an analytical and conceptual tool, intersectionality is deeply flawed. Like the ‘dual systems’ theory of capitalism and patriarchy so influential in the 1970s, intersectionality’s notion of separate systems of oppression misses how capitalism produces and reproduces various forms of oppression.
Lise Vogel’s masterpiece, Marxism and Women’s Oppression, fundamentally shaped my thinking on gender as the product of the structural tensions between the socialization of production and privatized reproduction of labour power. The power of her insights can be seen in the work of Nancy Holmstrom and Johanna Brenner in the 1980s and the recent revival of social reproduction theory in the contributions to the symposium in Historical Materialism and Tithi Bhattacharya’s edited collection Social Reproduction Theory (which includes an excellent discussion of the limits of intersectionality by David McNally). My own work on race is an attempt to construct a ‘unitary theory’ of race and capitalism in parallel to the efforts of these comrades.
How should we think about the role of the ‘white working class’ in Trump’s win? Does the ‘white working class’ exist as such? Mike Davis’s Prisoners of the American Dream argues that the emergence of Reagan had to do with the inability of progressive forces to articulate an adequate hegemonic response to the political pressures arising from the crisis of 1973. Do you agree with this interpretation of the emergence of Reaganism?
First, I agree with the broad outlines of Mike Davis’s analysis of Reaganism — but even more with the analysis of the Brenner’s in ‘Reagan, the Right and the Working Class,’ recently republished on the Verso blog. The key to Reagan’s victory, and the shift to the right in US politics, was the defeat of the working-class rebellion of 1965-1975 and the progressive weakening of collective class organizations, in particular in unions. When workers cannot defend themselves against capital and the state through collective, class organization and activity, they turn on one another as competing sellers of labour-power. As they attempt to defend their declining social position at the expense of other workers, they inevitably adopt ideas that make sense of that tactic — racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic ideas. Not surprisingly, a significant minority of older, white male workers have been voting for Republicans for nearly forty years.
In terms of the 2016 Presidential election, the notion that the ‘white working class’ was responsible for Trump’s victory cannot be sustained through a close examination of the voting data. In essays by Davis, Moody and myself, reprinted in the new Haymarket books collection, US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, we demonstrate that the vast majority of Trump’s support did not come from the working class. Instead the majority of Trump’s voters, including the ‘non-college graduate’ demographic that is often equated with the working class, were from the middle classes — traditional small business people and many low level supervisors and technicians, most of whom do not need a bachelor’s degree. Trump won not because of a mass defection of older white workers in the deindustrialised regions of the Midwest. First, miniscule numbers of voters (often less than 1%) in these regions switched from voting for Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 to Trump in 2016. Even more importantly, an even larger group of working class voters — white and people of color, male and female — simply stayed home, disgusted with the neo-liberal Democratic candidate.
Do you agree with the liberal media’s characterisation of Trump as a fascist? What the best way to conduct antifascist politics in the current conjuncture?
Trump may want to be a fascist dictator, but he is not. He is a right-wing nationalist populist whose base among the radicalised middle classes is similar to that of fascism. However, there is no mass fascist social movement in the streets, and despite what he might like to do, Trump has been essentially contained by the capitalist class and the structures of capitalist representative government. As Clara Zetkin pointed out in 1921, fascism is the price the working class pays for failing to take power. Unfortunately, the working classes in the US and other parts of the global North have not posed any substantive threat to capital for more than 40 years. There is no reason for capital to turn over power to a fascist despot at this point.
Trump’s ‘America first’ protectionist nationalist program has been successfully contained by capital — the only substantive policy he has pushed through is a thoroughly neo-liberal tax plan which will actually encourage the movement of transnational operations abroad. While a fascist seizure of power is not an immediate threat; the social and political conditions for the renewed growth and confidence of fascist movements do exist. Economic stagnation and falling living conditions among broad sections of the middle and working classes, combined with the twin crises of traditional capitalist politics and of the organizations of working and oppressed people provide a fertile environment for the growth of fascist gangs. The electoral success of right-wing populists like Trump provides a ‘wind at their back’ and encourages them to take to the streets for the first time in almost twenty years. Put simply, the growth of fascism is a real danger for the left, working people and the oppressed. We need to stop them now, when they are still a marginal and despised movement.
Our strategy for fighting right-wing populist ideologues and politicians — the Trumps, Bannons and their ilk — needs to be different from our strategy for confronting fascist gangs. Following Sam Farber, we need to distinguish between right-wing ‘persuaders’ like Trump, Murray and Bannon, and fascist intimidators. The ideologues should be picketed, challenged and debated, without abandoning the left’s historical commitment to free speech. As long as these ideologues engage in speech — in an attempt to persuade people with their unscientific, false and repulsive ideas — we should not attempt to stop them from speaking.
By contrast, fascists do not engage in speech or persuasion, but in terror and intimidation. Fascism is not a political movement that wins adherents through appeals to ideas and fears. Instead fascist organizations build themselves through collective violence against organized workers, the left, people of color, queer folks, Muslims and immigrants. The absence of effective counter-mobilisations with the goal of shutting down fascist action only emboldens them. Contrary to claims of the liberals, ignoring fascists will not make them ‘go away’ — it will only encourage them.
While agreeing that fascists must be ‘no platformed,’ some on the liberal and even socialist left want the capitalist state and university administrators to ban fascists. This is a strategy that is bound to fail. The police cannot be relied upon to disperse fascists; and the left will be the most likely targets of government and university bans on ‘disruptive’ or ‘controversial’ organizations and speakers, not the fascists.
Today the left needs to help build mass mobilisations that will outnumber and, when possible, physically confront the fascists. Some ‘anti-fa’ groups are adventurous– initiating physical confrontations without the support of the organizers of larger anti-fascist mobilisations, and when the fascists outnumber us. However, their basic argument — that fascism needs to be confronted and smashed, physically if necessary is absolutely correct. While we must mobilise as many people as possible so that we outnumber the fascists, mass mobilisations alone will ultimately be insufficient. We must prepare ourselves for the inevitable physical confrontations that have historically been crucial to defeating fascism.
Finally, anti-fascist mobilisations are not a ‘diversion’ from ‘real organizing.’ They do not divert energy from reorganising unions or from building an effective movement for single-payer health care. While the revival of a labour and social movement that can effectively defend working people against capital is essential to undermining the appeal of both right-wing populism and fascism among working-class people; our ability to begin to rebuild our own class and social organizations is threatened by an emboldened fascist right.
Cuba tends to be seen as ‘tropical Stalinism’. While there are many problems, is the Cuban experiment a complete failure?
I have come to agree that Cuba is not fundamentally different from the other bureaucratic post-capitalist societies — it is ‘tropical Stalinism.’ Following Sam Farber (whose work on Cuba is unsurpassed in my opinion), I would say that Cuba, like all of the state collectivist societies did accomplish some important things — a break with the capitalist world-economy, some development of a diversified agro-industrial economy (less in Cuba than elsewhere), and an extensive social welfare apparatus (universal free education, health care, housing, etc.) However, the inability of these societies to continuously develop the productivity of labour — there was neither the whip of the market compelling cost cutting nor workers democratic rule seeking to reduce the working day — eventually undermined all of these accomplishments. Not surprisingly, Cuba is well along the path trod by the rest of these social formations — restoring capitalism while preserving a single-party dictatorship (what Farber describes as the ‘Sino-Vietnamese model’).
Where do you stand now in the debate within the Fourth International on broad parties vs vanguard organizations? How, for example, should revolutionaries relate to the Democratic Socialists of America?
I think this issue needs to be posed somewhat differently. I do not believe that the revolutionary left has a simple choice between participating in broad left parties and building a vanguard organization through direct recruitment to a revolutionary program. For reasons I outline in my contribution to the 2013 Socialist Register, the disorganisation of the ‘militant minority’ or ‘workers’ vanguard’ — the mass layer of worker leaders who struggled and organized independently of the forces of official reformism — after the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern put limits on the ability of small groups of revolutionaries to transform their organizations into even small mass parties in the 1960s and 1970s. Combined with the collapse of both social-democracy and the Communist Parties as effective forces of reform, no less revolution, segments of the labour and social movements sought alternative forms of political representation and organization. This is the social-material basis for the emergence of these ‘broad left’ parties, with all of their contradictions and limitations. Put another way, these ‘broad left’ parties are responses to material changes and will emerge and grow independently of the subjective desires of the revolutionary left.
The revolutionary left ignores the growth of these new political formations at its own risk of continued marginalisation and irrelevance. We need to be working within these organizations as organized political currents that both educate broadly for revolutionary socialism and put forward strategy and tactics for these parties in political and social struggles. Unfortunately, much of the revolutionary left who have participated in these parties have focused on winning formal leadership positions and influencing formal positions and program. Of much greater importance, in my opinion, is attempting to transform these parties from primarily electoral-parliamentary formations into activist organizations that intervene in the labour and social movements. Much more energy needs to be invested by revolutionaries in creating networks of party activists in unions and social movement organizations who push forward a strategy of militancy, democracy and independent organization.
Revolutionaries in the US should be very encouraged and excited by the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). To characterise its growth as simply the the rebirth of ‘social-democracy’ or ‘left reformism’ is to miss the possible dynamics of a new radicalisation. As in the early 1960s (admittedly without the vibrant mass movements of that era), a new left is emerging in an organization of US social-democracy — SDS was the youth league of the League for Industrial Democracy. The young people flocking to DSA are looking for a radical alternative to Democratic Party neo-liberalism and the conservatism of the labour and social movements in the US. There is a real opportunity for the emergence of a new Socialist Party in the US — one which could give socialism a real presence in US politics for the first time in decades and allow socialists to play a role in emerging social struggles. For this to come to fruition, two things need to occur. First, DSA needs to allow collectively organized currents into their organization — which is currently impossible with the ban on so-called ‘democratic centralist’ organizations. Second, the revolutionary left needs to work alongside — and ultimately within the DSA to build a new socialist organization, intervene in ongoing social struggles, and educate and organise around their own politics.
What is his balance sheet of the experience of Solidarity in the US, and how do you see the future for the International Socialist Organisation?
In terms of Solidarity, I want to state that I share a great deal of responsibility for its various short-comings (although I probably have less responsibility for its successes). I served as a branch leader throughout the twenty-seven years I was active in the organization, and served on the national leadership for six of those years.
I believe that Solidarity, especially in its early years, demonstrated that a multi-tendency revolutionary organization was viable. Not only were we able to overcome past political and organizational inheritances to forge common work in unions and some social movements, but we developed a common analysis of the crisis of the Soviet-style societies — despite the theoretical differences on the nature of the Soviet Union. Solidarity helped train a significant layer of labour activists (including myself) over the years, and produced compelling analyses of neo-liberalism, the Democratic Party and the problems of socialist organization. I do not regret the time and effort I invested in the organization.
However, there was among a significant portion of the membership — and of the leadership — a strong aversion to sharp political discussions that would lead to decisions we would carry out collectively. Put another way, we often equated being multi-tendency with never making and carrying out decisions. This had several very serious organizational and political consequences. First, we had difficulty defining our political boundaries, leading us to admit several groupings and individuals who had never broken with elements of Trotskyist orthodoxy (in particular the notion that they embodied the ‘historic program’ and were thus the party in ‘nuclei). Second, our internal educational efforts were highly uneven. We found it extremely difficult to define a common set of theoretical and historical points (nature of reformism, labour officialdom, evolution of the middle-class leaderships of women, people of color, LGBT folks, the necessity of revolution, critique of Stalinism) around which we could train a cadre. Finally, there was a tendency for ‘big picture’ political discussions to be detached from strategic and tactical discussions of our common work, leading to a general de-politicisation of the membership. Combined with a chronic inability to generationally renew our cadre and leadership, this led to a crisis in 2015 when the organization decided to participate in the ‘Labor for Bernie’ organization supporting Sanders in the Democratic primaries. I had been inactive for two years for reasons, but formally resigned at that point.
I believe the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has shed much of its sectarian baggage over the last decade, while building a small revolutionary organization that has survived for nearly forty years. The ISO has cohered a substantial cadre of comrades with between ten and twenty years of experience on the revolutionary left. This includes a significant layer of experience labour activists and a group of creative, critical Marxist intellectuals. As a result, I relate primarily to them and the emerging left in DSA.
I have also encountered a political and organizational conservatism in the ISO. In many ways, this conservatism is understandable. Unlike most of the revolutionary left, the ISO and not only survived but has grown since the early 1990s. I can completely understand caution about risking these organizational and political achievements. However, this is a period that requires a greater audacity on the part of the revolutionary left in the US. The growth of DSA, as I argued earlier, marks the emergence of a new socialist left. If the organized forces of revolutionary socialism from below do not relate to and participate in the development of this new left, others with much worse politics will.
George Souvlis is a doctoral candidate in history at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer for various progressive magazines including Salvage, Jacobin, ROAR and Lefteast.
Charlie Post is a long-time socialist and labor activist who teaches at the City University of New York.
Sebastian Budgen works as a senior editor at Verso Books, and is on the editorial board of Historical Materialism.
Jeremiah Gaster is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Studies at York University.