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Why I am not a Leninist (nor an anarchist)

No thanks, Vladimir.

Years later, I still reproach myself for self-publishing my book on cooperatives, because that ensured it would have a limited readership. (The only good outcome of my decision was that I could make the book downloadable for free online.) I think that book, rough as it is in some respects, is a useful contribution to "revolutionary praxis," to use a pretentious term. While it places, perhaps, too much faith in worker cooperatives, its two theoretical chapters go some way toward settling the century-old (or older) question among Marxists of why socialist revolutions haven't happened in the advanced capitalist world. Gramsci, for example, argued it was because of "cultural hegemony": the masses are too integrated into the dominant culture; they give too much consent, passive and active, to the regime; civil society is too thick, too rich and integral, too vibrant and healthy, etc. This was hardly a profound insight, and it had already been expressed by other thinkers (such as Eduard Bernstein and even Lenin), but Gramsci elaborated on it in relatively fruitful ways. Still, I don't think his explanation got to the crux of the matter. For one thing, coercion—and the fear of coercion—is still absolutely essential to class rule even in the "advanced" countries. More importantly, I think a really fundamental revision is needed in the Marxian conception of revolution in order to make sense of the twentieth century and also make the idea of socialist revolution realistic, finally. In brief, the necessary revision is that we have to think of successful revolution as involving a "competition" between two modes of production, not just a seizing of the state and then a redesigning of the economy from the top down. Transitions between modes of production, whether from hunting-gathering to agriculture or from feudalism to capitalism, have always been gradual, not accomplished in a few decades. The old mode decays and deteriorates as the new mode rises, due, ultimately, to its greater ability to produce and distribute resources in the conditions that prevail. Partisans of the emergent economy gradually take over more control of the state as their favored economic relations spread; and their favored relations spread more thoroughly, become more entrenched, the more control of the state they have. (One of the problems with my book was that I downplayed the element of state action in preference for a "grassroots" emphasis. Both emphases are necessary. We need a fusion, so to speak, of Marxism and anarchism.)

The arguments in the book are a good deal more involved than this simple notion of an emergent economy competing with the decadent one, but that's pretty much the heart of it. I'm not exactly sure why earlier Marxists had no interest in this idea, or didn't see how such a revision makes the theory of revolution, for the first time, consistent with the rest of historical materialism. In part, the time just wasn't ripe for it, because there was no awareness of the "solidarity economy." But I honestly see no other realistic way of conceptualizing revolution than the one I outlined.

The simplicity of the idea(s), by the way, is yet another reminder of how simple, how intellectually nugatory, the social sciences tend to be, and how pretentious is the intellectual bureaucracy that has grown up around them, with the millions of words published every year to pad resumés and make simple things seem complicated. (Doubtless a minority of books and articles are highly valuable. The majority....not so much.)

So I'm not a big fan of Leninism (vanguardism, elitism, ultra-statism, etc.), though I respect the courage and determination of many Leninists. The following excerpt from the last chapter of the book gives some arguments regarding how I think we should approach the idea of revolution and why I'm not a Leninist. (I'm not really an anarchist either, except in my values. I'm just a level-headed, non-doctrinaire Marxist who's willing to find useful ideas in a variety of traditions.) I've inserted a few extra remarks, here and there, to qualify the unsubtle formulations in the book.


....On the basis of my arguments, one can translate problematic statements by Marx into statements that are both substantive and possibly true. An example is his hypothesis that “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.” Said in this way, the statement is objectionable. It’s functionalist and isn’t even entirely meaningful. One can translate it, though, as follows. “The overwhelming mass impetus necessary to effect a revolution in the dominant mode of production will not arise until the latter has nearly exhausted its resources, has reached a point of dysfunction such that it cannot efficiently use or develop productive forces any further; however, there also has to exist an alternative mode of production that has reached such a level of societal influence that it can withstand attempts by the old ruling class to destroy it.” In some ways this is quite different from Marx’s original statement, but it is both inspired by it and more cogent.

This translation also answers the question that no one has ever satisfactorily answered, namely, why hasn’t a truly “post-capitalist” revolution occurred anywhere despite all the problems with capitalism? It isn’t hard to think of various superficial reasons, such as that the capitalist class has had enough means of violence at its disposal to crush rebellions. What is needed, though, is a more comprehensive answer that acknowledges that the failure of past revolutions necessitates a substantial correction to orthodox Marxism, which predicted revolution long ago. But what, precisely, has to be corrected?

It turns out the answer is pretty simple: there is not only one condition for the success of revolution but two. First, capitalism has to be fettering the productive forces such that the majority of people live in poverty relative to the conditions they could be living in if society’s productive potential were not so shackled. This is the condition Marx stated. The second condition, to repeat, is that a more rational or socially appropriate set of production relations has to already be spreading and attracting hundreds of millions of people worldwide who understand its superiority to capitalism. If this condition doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t matter how much “fettering” the old production relations are guilty of: they’ll continue to predominate. The ruling class will still be able to maintain its hold on power, because it commands more resources than its relatively impoverished opponents do. In fact, radicals should be resigned to the fact that the capitalist class will retain substantial control over society for a long time to come, until capitalism has virtually no reserves of power left—as the European feudal aristocracy had virtually none left in the early twentieth century, when its remnants were still frantically trying to maintain their hold on the reins of power. (It took two world wars to destroy all vestiges of feudalism in the West.) Revolution is not a matter of swiftly overthrowing the state, shooting all your opponents, and then organizing a “new society” from the top down.

One might ask if the second condition I’ve identified will ever arrive, given that we’re still waiting for it. The answer has to be yes, if only because the unsustainable nature of capitalism has become blindingly obvious. Unless the human species completely destroys itself, which likely isn’t possible, a new mode of production will necessarily evolve as the old one succumbs to its contradictions and catastrophic environmental consequences. It’s worth remembering, too, that the fact that radicals have been expecting an imminent socialist revolution since the 1840s means precisely nothing—except that they’ve been wildly over-optimistic and have wildly misunderstood history. Feudalism was around for many centuries; industrial capitalism has been around for barely two, and for less than fifty years in much of the world. It would be nice if history went faster, but, as it happens, it prefers to go very slowly.

Thus, as painful as it is for a Marx-lover to admit this, it is clear that Marx misinterpreted mid-nineteenth century radicalism. It’s time we revised our understanding of history and resurrected the idea of [relative] “historical necessity.” All the popular discontent and rebellions from 1848 to 1871 to 1917 and afterwards were nothing like what Marx thought or would have thought—were not pregnant with historic potential in the way he hoped: all these battles were fought by heterogeneous masses, some of them, like the craftsmen who felt themselves besieged by this terrifying new thing called industrial capitalism, “reactionary radicals,”[1] and others proletarians in the classic Marxist sense, but whose miseries could have been (and eventually were) effectively meliorated by mere reform. They were not proletarian armies “disciplined, united, and organized by the process of capitalist production”[2] but disparate masses of the lower classes with disparate interests—some progressive, some reactionary—temporarily thrown together by the sheer chaos of early industrialism. As capitalism matured in the twentieth century, the working class was “disciplined and united” into explicit reformism, and this was both good and inevitable. When [significant] reform is possible, revolution is not. Only when broad welfare-statist reform has become impossible is (gradual) revolution possible, because the dispossessed are forced to turn from obvious reformist solutions to less-obvious radical ones.

That is, there is no conflict between reform and revolution. People should always be fighting for reform. Only when it becomes impossible on a large scale does the question of revolution arise.

This idea that “necessity” plays some role in history begs the question: what about the twentieth-century revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and so on? What did they “mean”? Were they socialist revolutions, as their leaders claimed? Or merely some form of radical coup? Do they have any implications with regard to the ideas I’ve presented in this book? Such questions are made more important by the fact that these “revolutions”—the Russian in particular—still bewitch many radicals, who mistakenly look back to them for inspiration and strategic lessons. The reality is that they have very little to say to us who live in advanced capitalist societies, and they were certainly nothing like Marxist or socialist revolutions. I’ve discussed the Russian example briefly elsewhere, and I’ll be even briefer here.[3]

Good 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 several facts abundantly clear. First, the revolution was something of a historical accident, not “inevitable” in the way Marx thought a socialist revolution would be. A thousand incidents leading up to the October coup had to go just right in order for Lenin’s wild schemes (considered wild by his associates) to succeed, and if the prime minister Kerensky had shown a little backbone the Bolshevik leadership might have ended up ignominiously imprisoned months before the coup was attempted. And yes, the events of October were a coup and not a mass uprising, as any disinterested retrospective observer has to admit. Conspiratorially, secretively, Trotsky, Lenin, and the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Petrograd Soviet planned out what would happen on October 24 and the following few days, namely that soldiers loyal to the MRC would occupy the city’s telegraph offices, the railway station, nearby bridges, etc., and then take 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. In the following weeks and months the Bolsheviks miraculously clung to power, perhaps in part because of Lenin’s immediate moves to establish dictatorial control over the government.

The main reason, of course, that the party was able to stay in power in the subsequent weeks was that, for the moment, it had the support of most soldiers, industrial workers, and peasants. Why? Because Lenin was an astute politician. Since April 1917 he had distanced the Bolshevik party from the unpopular Provisional Government and used very popular slogans to propagandize for his party, in particular “All power to the soviets!”[4] and “Peace, bread, land!” The vast majority of the population wanted an immediate end to the European war that Russia was mired in; urban workers, many starving, wanted an end to the shortages of food; and peasants wanted carte blanche to seize aristocrats’ land. So Lenin spent months telling them that the Bolsheviks would grant their wishes. Not surprisingly, he became exceedingly popular, such that when his coup occurred most soldiers in the vicinity of Petrograd accepted it.

In the following years, the Bolshevik dictatorship and bureaucracy grew so bloated and inefficient that even Lenin complained about it. Workers’ earlier factory takeovers (before and right after the October coup) were reversed as a hierarchy of managers and bosses was reinstalled. Popular uprisings against the Red dictatorship were crushed in the context of civil war and afterwards, as even the Bolsheviks’ former supporters grew terribly disillusioned with this “socialist” government that was in many ways more repressive than tsardom. Russia was so devastated by its civil war that in 1921 Lenin deemed it necessary to end forced grain requisitions and partially reverse some of the nationalizations of industry that had taken place since 1918. His New Economic Policy began, the most important achievement of which was to restore market relations to agriculture and thereby stimulate food production. This partial “retreat” to capitalism ended in the late 1920s, when Stalin ordered a return to full nationalization of the economy, organized the collectivization of agriculture, and began his Five-Year Plans to industrialize the Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucracy proceeded to liquidate millions of people and effectively enslave the rest for the sake of developing the USSR’s industry and military. This situation lasted until the country’s collapse in 1991 (though things did improve after Stalin’s death).

Now, does any of this seem like workers’ democratic control of the economy? That’s what socialism means, after all. Does a secretly planned coup in a backward, semi-feudal country eighty percent full of peasants seem like a mass working-class revolution in an advanced capitalist country? The historical meaning of the so-called Russian Revolution is no mystery. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (before the Bolsheviks took over) Russia was undergoing the transition that some Western European states had already experienced, from being a late-feudal country with an absolutist monarchy to being a semi-industrial capitalist country with either a constitutional monarchy or some other form of representative government. Unfortunately, Nicholas II was a desperately incompetent ruler reminiscent of France’s Louis XVI, not least in being utterly resistant to even minor democratic reforms that the population was clamoring for. Combined with the unstable state of Europe at the time, riven by imperialism, nationalism, racism, and an international arms race—all of which led to the height of “instability,” World War I—this fact of the tsar’s incompetence made it likely that Russia’s decades-long “bourgeois revolution” would go off the rails sooner or later. It finally did, in the context of a world war that exacerbated the population’s grievances. A new elite with good intentions took advantage of mass discontent to seize power—and used it to establish a more vicious kind of state capitalism than existed in the West. Classic historical irony.

The point is that none of this was revolution, at least not in the Marxian sense. The same is true of the Chinese case and others. What all these signified was interruptions of transitions to a mature capitalism, long-term transitions that got waylaid for a few decades—because of the misery and popular revolts imperialism produces—and then inevitably returned to paradigmatic capitalism by the 1990s or 2000s. The only lessons they hold for us are in how not to do things.

The Russian case had another pernicious consequence: it cemented the idea in the minds of many Marxists that the way to make a revolution is to seize in toto the national state and then remake society. This is exactly the opposite of the proper path, and the opposite of what Marxism (despite Marx) prescribes. In chapter four I explained the reasoning behind my revision, or rather purification, of Marxism, showing how it follows from a simple conceptual alteration and dramatically changes the thrust of the theory of revolution. I’ll recapitulate that argument now before considering how it bears on the old, and rather tired, debate between Marxism and anarchism.[5]

To frame the conflict that leads to revolution as between two sets of production relations rather than between one set and the productive forces it shackles (as Marx does) has other advantages besides making the theory more meaningful, supplying causal mechanisms that answer academic complaints about functional explanation, and answering the question of why revolution hasn’t happened yet. It also gives the theory a grassroots, democratic emphasis, since the new set of production relations—which, in the context of the transition out of capitalism, are necessarily “cooperative” as opposed to antagonistic—cannot but emerge gradually from the energies of “ordinary people” [in alliance with progressive changes in state policy]. In the case of the post-capitalist transition, they emerge from ordinary people’s efforts to adapt to a world in crisis, efforts that take the form of creating cooperatives of all kinds, joining movements for public banking and municipal enterprise, pressing for nationalization of key industries, joining radical political parties with agendas to confiscate wealth, agitating for comprehensive participatory budgeting, taking over factories and making them worker cooperatives, demanding improved and cheaper public resources, and forcing expansion of the social and solidarity economy. Eventually, perhaps, one can talk about taking over the national state (in whatever form it may exist in at that point), but not until the corporate capitalist class has been enormously weakened by crisis and all the democratic initiatives that have accumulated over decades.

It’s obvious how these arguments bear on the “Marxism vs. anarchism” issue: they bring Marxism closer to anarchism, by jettisoning the (implicit) total statism of most orthodox Marxists and Leninists. In fact, I’ve argued that the essence of Marxism always was semi-anarchist in this way, since the idea of a national state consciously organizing a radically new economy—abolishing class structures, ending authoritarian hierarchies, eliminating the exploitation of workers and an elite’s appropriation of the surplus they produce—is both a thoroughly “un-dialectical” notion and inexplicable in Marxian terms. Historical actors almost never understand the broad significance of their acts or succeed in their designs as they interpret them (a Marxian apothegm ironically borne out by the Bolsheviks’ total misunderstanding of what they were doing, thinking they were establishing socialism or leading a working-class revolution when they were really, in effect, just opportunistic political adventurers who founded a regime that magnified some of the worst aspects of capitalism). History is always an agonizingly slow and unconscious process; one cannot sit in the driver’s seat, so to speak, look at a map, and direct it where to go. If one tries, as Lenin did, one will find that History in fact is still in control and has another destination in mind.

[Note: my use of the term "History" here was merely whimsical and metaphorical. I didn't mean to reify history or suggest it has some sort of intentionality or predetermined goal. I just meant that there are large-scale historical processes and dynamics we're not always aware of at the time.]

Even the old Marxist strategy of forming workers’ parties and entering the electoral arena—which is something that anarchists have traditionally been hostile to, since they regard politics and the state as an evil—is not especially “Marxist,” though it is realistic 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. (It supported Germany in the war, a nationalist position anathema to many Marxists of the time.) Later, European Communist parties followed a similar trajectory.

On top of this, there is the tendency for party activity to degenerate into the “parliamentary cretinism” that Marx and Engels loathed, “a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honorable house.”[6] In general, the real conditions and struggles of the working class can be forgotten or neglected by an insular party elite seduced by power or its illusion.

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 most of 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.

If my revision of Marx’s conception of revolution is justified, it follows that the ideas bearing his name have more in common with anarcho-syndicalism than Leninist vanguardism, elitism, and statism. Anarcho-syndicalism is committed to the task of building the new society within the old, according to its understanding that “every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism,” as Rudolf Rocker writes. “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.”[7] This statement seems like common sense, but, judging by the writings and practice of a number of Marxists, it is either beyond them or they don’t understand its implications. The institutions around which anarcho-syndicalists hope to construct a new society are 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 new society will necessarily be erected on the basis of new production relations, and these will necessarily emerge through generations of popular struggle in the framework of a dying corporate capitalism.

In addition, the “economism” of anarcho-syndicalism that Gramsci so deplored is of course reminiscent of Marxism’s materialism. Both schools of thought privilege economics over politics and culture, focusing on economic struggles and such tools of working-class agency as unions and labor councils. 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.”[8] The very life and work of Marx evince an unshakeable commitment to the idea of working-class initiative, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit), self-organization (with the assistance of dedicated organizers, a qualification accepted by every leftist worthy of the name). The word “self-activity” evolved into the even more anarchist concept of “spontaneity” under the pen of Marx’s disciple Rosa Luxemburg, who devoted herself to elaborating and acting on the Marxist belief in workers’ dignity, rationality, and creativity.

For instance, in her pamphlet “Marxism vs. Leninism” Luxemburg inveighs against the “military ultra-centralism” in party organization that Lenin advocates, counterposing it to the spontaneity and vitality of a living revolutionary movement organically connected to the working masses. Her concluding sentence even harkens to Kant, the philosopher par excellence of human freedom and dignity: “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”[9] (Compare the quotation from Kant in chapter two of this book.) “The working class,” she declares, “demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.” Left-Marxism, i.e., true Marxism, thus merges with anarchism or semi-anarchism, the only remaining task being to scrap the impurity of “a dictatorship of the proletariat”—which simultaneously updates Marxism for the twenty-first century and provides a theoretical framework to interpret the new and growing alternative economy, including worker cooperatives.

To give due credit to history, however, we should remember that the old statist formulations favored by a broad swath of radicals were a product of their time and appropriate to it. They were fantasies that never could have been realized, but, given their historical context, they were powerfully appealing and may even have seemed plausible. The nation-state was still in the ascendant—a fact that many Marxists would have denied, believing on the contrary that states had entered their terminal phase already in the early twentieth century. But Marxists’ overwhelming commitment to state action—“everything for the sake of taking over the state as soon as possible!”—itself belied their hopes, for it grew unconsciously out of the social environment of capitalist governments consolidating their rule, expanding their bureaucracies, regulating behavior ever more intensively, reaching ever further into society’s nooks and crannies to take control, growing more aggressive in every respect. It was perfectly reasonable in this context to think that revolution necessitated seizure of the entire state apparatus and manipulation of it or “smashing” of it for one’s own purposes. And the anarchist notion that political activity was unnecessary, that revolution could proceed automatically from a general strike or a succession of them that would bring the state to its knees, was utterly utopian. As if other states wouldn’t immediately send in their armies to crush the workers if things got really serious!

While governments therefore had to be reckoned with—“seized”—because of their vitality, they were not yet the unimaginably hypertrophied entities they became later and are today. Today, it’s just idiotic to think “the working class” can take over a national government [at least in the foreseeable future]; a hundred or more years ago, it wasn’t quite so idiotic. Especially considering the vibrancy of labor movements then, the radical consciousness and militancy of a sizable proportion of the working class, the wide spectrum of political parties, and the tumult of a civilization experiencing transformations unique in history, it was surely easy to believe, if one wanted to, that successive conquests of national governments were possible. In retrospect we can see how impossible that was, and maybe intelligent people should have known better; but the combination of moral outrage and frenzied hope has ambiguous cognitive consequences. Certainly when reading radical tracts of the time, one gets swept up in the emotion and the compelling logic and is almost astounded that revolution didn’t happen. But then in the cold light of reason one remembers that history is slow, and that ideologies and intellectual self-interpretations are never scientifically accurate.

Anarchists and Marxists had one conviction in common (aside from their shared moral critique of capitalism and vision of an ideal society): they both thought that 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 fell 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 doesn’t have 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. [Of course, there will be innumerable little "ruptures" along this path.]

Since this was historically impossible eighty or a hundred years ago, when the capitalist nation-state was waxing in power, it would have struck revolutionaries as much more unreasonable and utopian than the hope for a sudden social upheaval. It made some sense then to adopt the Marxist attitude of contempt for worker cooperatives and other such “interstitial” endeavors as being distractions from real revolutionary work. As the capitalist state and civil society continue disintegrating in the coming decades, that attitude will no longer make historical sense. The arguments I’ve put forward in this book will seem merely truistic. The necessity for a wide range of revolutionary strategies, from interstitial to politically confrontational, will be obvious—for the interstitial will be the seeds that will have to be guarded and supported by the politically confrontational, which itself will be increasingly reliant on the interstitial for access to resources and a base of support.

—History is kind enough to offer its own, correct, solutions to old problems. Hegel was right about this. The truth appears when the moment is ripe.

In the end, doctrinal points about Marxism and anarchism are not as important as the single overriding imperative that anarchists, Marxists, and other radicals have too often violated: work together, don’t consume oneself and each other in sectarian squabbles. Strict adherence to points of principle is sterile and counterproductive. David Graeber probably thinks he is espousing a magnanimous position when he says that anarchists ought to be “willing to work in broad coalitions as long as they work on horizontal principles,” but even this seems inadmissibly sectarian.[10] Surely it’s conceivable that coalitions not organized on anarchist principles can do valuable work. Hierarchy, even in a moderate form, may be a violation of human dignity, but the world is in such a state that activists should be prepared to tolerate hierarchy for the sake of getting things done. Likewise, it’s ridiculous for Leninists, or anyone, to refuse to work with anarchists, or to refuse to support worker cooperativism. It should be common sense that the transition to a new civilization will happen on multiple axes.

For the sake of clarity, though, I do think it would be useful for leftists to abandon their typically voluntaristic conceptualization of radical change. It’s an attitude strikingly common among every group from centrist liberals to Leninists to anarchists. Given the balance of forces, it’s natural for activists to interpret their task as that of battling overwhelming tendencies, of pushing back against reactionary entities with exponentially more power and resources than the left and its popular constituency have. One of the problems with such an attitude, at least in the context of hope for systemic change, is that it sets one up for disappointment: historical movements on the colossal scale of neoliberalism cannot be halted in their tracks or reversed by some counter-organizing among trade unions and their allies. That simply isn’t how history works, nor does the democratic resistance have anything remotely comparable to the resources of the global corporate elite. In particular, it is hopelessly benighted to think (as, for example, the editors of Jacobin apparently do) that a revival of the centralized welfare state is possible.[11] That social formation was appropriate to a time of industrial unionism and limited international mobility of capital; it has been dying for forty years (starting in the U.S. and U.K.), and no such magical incantation as “We propose a new anti-austerity coalition” can call it back to life. Coalitions of that sort are desperately needed, and their targets should be at every level of government, but their outcome will not be a new manifestation of twentieth-century social democracy.

The proper way for a radical to conceive of his activism is in terms of the speeding up of current historical trends, not their interruption or reversal. Systemic trends have never been reversed, and cannot be. What radicals are doing now, and should be doing, is to contribute to the (self-)undermining of corporate capitalism and construction of an alternative. This self-undermining is the trend we are witnessing, which coincides with the trend to carry capitalism to its most pathological extremes. Just as the earlier liberal phase of capitalism’s history eventuated in the Great Depression and had to come to such an end—this was its natural endpoint, even its telos, so to speak[12]—so the current neoliberal phase cannot but end in a virtual disintegration of the nation-state, its social fabric, and its political economy. That is the historical “meaning” and “mission” of neoliberalism, its essence, its “secret,” as Marx might have said.[13] One should understand this and interpret one’s activism accordingly.

Again, most leftists don’t like to admit that things have to get worse before they get better, preferring the liberal’s optimistic faith that if only we got our act together and willed a system-wide change for the better—perhaps a return to the welfare state—it could happen. No acute social crisis is necessary, only determination and competence. This elevation of will above objective social conditions and possibilities, aside from being the opposite of Marxism, is reminiscent of Lenin, who evidently thought a revolution could emanate from the will of one or two men (if they organized a coup and so on). One might even agree with most of 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.] 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.[14]

While Marx himself, being a man of action, was occasionally 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 skilled propagandizing, political maneuvering, and coalition-building alone can get the job done. Thus, just as the mature welfare state couldn’t happen until things got worse—as they did with the Great Depression and World War II—so a transcending of capitalism can’t happen until things get much worse than they are now. It is this that will force people to come together, as it did eighty years ago, to effectually demand systemic changes.

Given that the centralized welfare state is becoming structurally untenable,[15] what will necessarily evolve is an alternative economy. Exactly how this cooperative economy will interact with a decaying capitalism is impossible to predict—although it is already so interacting in places all over the world. Particularly in the early stages of the process, before they have established a myriad of supporting institutions, cooperatives and other anti-capitalist organizations will have to compromise some of their principles in order to compete successfully and survive in a hostile political and economic environment. But as the networks accumulate capital and experience, as well as grudging support from political and economic elites—as happened, too, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism (with regard to absolutism’s support for capitalist industry)—they will acquire such power that they undermine the foundations of the current society. The world-order will come to consist of a mix of cooperative and competitive social relations such that it is no longer clear what is the “dominant” mode of production. Eventually this will change; cooperativism will continue “snowballing,” propelled by its own momentum, as capitalism was in an earlier era. Just as worker co-ops’ current rarity reinforces itself, so will their future growth reinforce itself. Throughout this history the nation-state will be declining, in part because many of its functions will be taken over by other institutions. Whatever counterattacks there are from the elite will not be able to stop these processes; capitalism will have lost any competitive advantages over cooperativism, because the latter’s efficiencies, which were in some ways ill-suited to a competitive, atomistic, profit-driven society, will finally be irresistible. It seems likely that even at the end of this process there will remain a role for the market and the price-mechanism—and even, in a minor capacity, for wage-labor, which will probably never be completely abolished everywhere in the world[16]—but precisely what that role will be is, again, impossible to say.

Prophecies are not necessary, however. What is necessary is only to embrace and institutionalize the attitude of people like Armando Robles and his fellow workers, Brendan Martin, Leah Fried, and the whole grassroots vanguard of the revolution. Militant action is what will birth a new world; abstract intellection, such as this book contains, will not. We need only remember the old truth, “The people united will never be defeated!” That is the pith of the Left’s accumulated wisdom, and the guide to action.

[1] Craig Calhoun, “The Radicalism of Tradition.” [2] Marx, quoted in Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868–1936 (San Francisco: AK Press, 1998), 281. [3] See Notes of an Underground Humanist, chapter two. My paper “Causes of the Russian Revolution” (on gives a more detailed summary of the events and commentary on them. [4] The soviets were popular, relatively democratic institutions that had sprung up in many cities and towns after the February revolt against the tsar’s rule. [5] A good introduction to anarchism is Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970). His No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (San Francisco: AK Press, 1998) is a panorama of the original writings. [6] Friedrich Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (1852), chapter 15. [7] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, 58. [8] James P. Cannon, “The I.W.W.” (1955), available at (accessed December 5, 2013). [9] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism?” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961/2000), 108. [10] David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 89. [11] Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Welfare State of America,” In These Times, October 22, 2012. [12] See, e.g., Richard Du Boff, Accumulation and Power, 91: “What had really happened between 1929 and 1933 is that the institutions of nineteenth-century free market growth broke down, beyond repair. Had the chain of circumstances been ‘right,’ it could have occurred in 1920-21 or possibly 1907.” Some academics like to mock Marx for his “teleological” conceptions, as if invoking that term constitutes an argument. This lazy mode of pseudo-argumentation, which simply assumes that anything hinting of teleology must therefore be wrong, is a legacy of the shallow positivism that has guided mainstream social science for too long. [13] Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx, 404-407. [14] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin, 1998), 145, 146. [15] See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project (London: Cassell, 1997). [16] The world is a complex place, and different modes of production will always coexist. The capital/wage-labor relation will probably constitute for centuries a more-or-less large part of the world economy. But will it still be the dominant mode of production, the one that determines the dynamics of the whole system? As I've argued, there are good reasons to think the answer is no.

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