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Correcting Marx's theory of revolution


From an academic paper. (See my book on worker cooperatives, where this is all fleshed out in much more detail.)-- The Food Wars (2009), by Walden Bello, presents both a damning indictment of the neoliberal world food system and a vision of an alternative system based on small-scale agriculture, which Bello argues can be more efficient, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable than capitalist industrial farming. Indeed, according to Via Campesina, such alternative agriculture (and hunting and gathering) is responsible for most of the world’s food. Not only is it an ideal, therefore; it is an incredibly important reality. However, Bello does not really theorize the hoped-for supplanting of corporate monoculture by what he calls “peasant” agriculture; he simply says, or implies, that Marxists have been wrong to predict the end of the peasantry, that instead this category of producers can represent the post-capitalist future. In this paper I will provide some of the theory that is lacking in The Food Wars.

In my Master’s thesis, entitled Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, I tried to update Marxism, specifically its theory of revolution, so as to explain how a transition to a post-capitalist civilization could occur. The essence of the revision is the replacement of Marx’s statist vision—his prediction of a dictatorship of the proletariat that plans and directs social and economic reconstruction from above—by a more grassroots-oriented, quasi-anarcho-syndicalist vision, according to which decentralized (or relatively decentralized) networks of workers, farmers, consumers, and communities gradually build up the new society within the shell of the old. Ironically, this anarchist vision is, I think, more compatible with the fundamental tenets of Marxism than Marx’s own statism is, for several reasons, of which I will mention two. First, the idea of a state organizing a new, egalitarian mode of production in a society that, after a merely political "revolution," is still dominated by authoritarian capitalist relations of production, is inexplicable in Marxian terms. According to Marxism, after all, political relations are conditioned by economic relations; the state cannot simply organize a wholly new economy out of thin air, purely by an act of bureaucratic will. That would reverse the order of dominant causality. Given an already existing authoritarian economy (namely capitalism), the “new” economy organized by the post-revolutionary state will necessarily be authoritarian as well, in fact will reproduce many of the essential relations of the old economy. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, when the Stalinist bureaucracy organized an economy based on the exploitation of workers, the accumulation of capital, and other essential features of capitalism. Socialism means workers’ control of their own economic activity, which is the exact opposite of both capitalism and the Soviet economy. What has to happen, in other words, according to a properly understood Marxism, is that the economy be substantially transformed—in a gradual process—before any "seizing of the state," as was the case during Europe’s transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. (The French Revolution, for example, happened after capitalism had already made significant progress in France.) The same will have to be the case with regard to a transition from capitalism to a properly understood socialism.

Second, Marx theorizes social revolution in terms of the “fettering” of productive forces by an obsolete mode of production. As he says in the famous Preface to the 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 [of politics, culture, etc.].

This hypothesis is basically true, but it is expressed in a sloppy way that tends to support Marx’s invalid statism. It is virtually meaningless to say, as he does, that a specific set of production relations starts to fetter the productive forces at some point in its history, thus finally triggering a revolution that sweeps away the old society—by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat, as Marx says elsewhere. For most or all of its history, the capitalist mode of production has both promoted and obstructed the development and socially efficient use of productive forces, by encouraging technological innovation but wasting resources in periodic economic crises, wars, socially useless advertising and marketing campaigns, an inequitable and irrational distribution of wealth, and so on. “Fettering” and “development” can therefore happen simultaneously, in different respects. In order to make any real sense of the notion of fettering, it has to be considered as relative to an alternative mode of production emerging within the bowels of the old society, a new set of production relations that is more productive and/or socially rational than the older set. Feudalism fettered, in a sense, the development of productive forces for eons, but it collapsed only when this fettering was in relation to a new, more dynamic mode of production, namely capitalism. Similarly, capitalism has in some ways obstructed the development of productive forces for a long time; it will collapse, however, only when it can no longer effectively compete with a more advanced, cooperative mode of production. Then, and only then, can a post-capitalist political revolution occur—i.e., after the (gradual) social revolution has already reached a fairly mature level.

In short, the approach of Via Campesina, the World Social Forum, and other such organizations to fighting capitalism—their decentralized, federated, grassroots, un-Leninist and un-Maoist approach—is wise (though it can and should be supplemented with a more “political” strategy too, as long as it doesn’t go to Leninist or Maoist extremes). Moreover, it is a truly Marxist approach, if Marxism is cleansed of its authoritarian and un-Marxian elements. The notion of peasant activism as having a role to play in a transition from capitalism to socialism is not particularly un-Marxian, as long as it is understood that such activism has to work in tandem with urban, industrial activism in order really to lead to a new society. It is simplistic, however, to equate peasant agriculture with all small-scale farming, as Walden Bello seems to. A Marxist does not have to be committed to the idea that small-scale farming is doomed or has no role to play in an advanced capitalist or socialist society. All he is committed to is that the explosive growth of capitalism tends, in the very long run, to undermine or destroy feudal class structures and subsistence agriculture. These may persist for long periods of time, and subsistence farming in particular may last in some regions for all of history. It does tend to become less widespread, though, as industrial capitalism conquers the globe—a fact that Bello does not deny. Whether various forms of small-scale agriculture might be essential to the functioning of even late capitalism or socialism is a separate question, to which a Marxist can coherently answer “Yes.”

Questions about Marxism aside, Bello is right that the way to a new society is represented by the economic and political activism of the downtrodden classes in all sectors of the economy, be they agriculture, industry, public education (under attack across the West), the service sector, or whatever. The Marxian injunction that “workers” all over the world unite should be understood as referring not only to the industrial proletariat but to the exploited and marginalized of all stripes, non-capitalists in whatever form. Whatever Marx’s original intention was, this is the proper understanding of the revolutionary path. If peasants, low-paid workers, students, small farmers, the unemployed, environmental activists, victims of discrimination, and dispossessed indigenous peoples all join hands to carve a new economy and politics out of the collapsing ruins of the old, it is possible that humanity will live to see another era.


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