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Socialism in the 21st century

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 126 | May 2020

Presented on a panel with Jamal Abed-Rabbo (Democratic Socialists of America), Patrick Quinn (Solidarity, Democratic Socialists of America) and Earl Silbar at the closing plenary discussion of the 2020 Platypus Affiliated Society International Convention, April 4, 2020. Video recording available online at: <https://youtu.be/j6-4qydOti4>.

The 21st century

Last year at the Platypus international convention closing plenary discussion, I spoke on the issue and problem of “Redeeming the 20th century.”[1] There I commented on the phenomenon of the neo-social democratic and neo-Stalinist turn of the Millennial Left in the Bernie Sanders campaign[2] of 2016 and the Jeremy Corbyn-aligned Momentum caucus of the UK Labour Party. I titled my talk “Statism and anarchy today” and addressed the phenomenon of socialism and Marxism being mistakenly identified with statism and freedom being mistakenly identified with the anarchy of capitalism. — I have been thinking a lot lately about Karl Popper’s liberal “open society” of freedom and unavoidable risk contra socialism’s false and self-defeating promise of security.

In previous convention talks over the last few years, I have sought to address the problems we inherit from the past 100 years, which I called the “century of counterrevolution,”[3] following the failure of socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution.[4]

I intended today to elaborate on the difference recognized by original historical Marxism between progressive capitalism and socialism,[5] and to review the history from the late 19th century origins of Progressivism up to today. I was going to take the occasion of the impending defeat of Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign this year for nomination as Democratic Party candidate for President.

But the coronavirus crisis has intervened, rekindling hopes in far-reaching government reforms of capitalism, for instance seeming to pose the need for Medicare for All public insurance for health care as well as student loan debt forgiveness and even a Universal Basic Income (UBI)[6] to deal with the pandemic. Trump[7] and the Republicans he leads and not only the Democrats have been alleged to have embraced “socialism” in the crisis.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election and sudden explosion of growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in response to Trump,[8] I declared the Millennial Left “dead.”[9] At the time, it was commented that my declaration was “sublimated spleen” — repressed melancholy at the losses of the Millennial Left. Now, regarding the growing wave of disease about to engulf us and desperate attempts to stem the menacing tide of misery from economic and other social devastation and dislocation, I am struck by how the Millennial generation has had to endure the worst catastrophes to have occurred during my lifetime, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and now perhaps the worst plague in more than a century — the gravest scourge since the 1918 Spanish Flu. This does not change the verdict of history,[10] which, as the young Nietzsche recognized, is not merciful let alone sympathetic in its judgments, but is rather relentlessly ruthlessly “critical.” As Marx observed, in his historical moment, and at his similarly relatively young age of 25 years, it is necessary to be “ruthless” in the “critique of everything existing.” And as Engels observed, quoting Goethe’s Mephistopheles, “everything that exists deserves to perish.” — Is this the perishing we deserve?

Back to basics

In the interest I serve that Marxism not perish entirely, I want to get back to basics and define the task of socialism properly. This means defining the problem of capitalism properly.

First, it is important to address what capitalism is not. It is not greed or profiteering, nor is it exploitation — all recognized sins and crimes in this society. Capitalism is not a social system or moral order or set of values — it is a crisis of the social system, moral order and set of values. The society we live in is bourgeois society.[11] We live in bourgeois values and morality. Capitalism is the contradiction of that society and its values. And contradiction does not mean hypocrisy.

Rosa Luxemburg called capitalism “the wage system,” and her book masterpiece was on The Accumulation of Capital. This suggests the problem of capitalism that Marxism thought tasked socialism, namely, the crisis of capital accumulation that undermined and destroyed the social value of wage labor.[12]

Georg Lukács observed the phenomenon of “reification” in capitalism, and described this, among other things, as a reversal of cause and effect.

We commonly identify capitalism with class inequality and hierarchy[13] and its resulting relationships of exploitation, but we are given to think that this is the cause of the problem of capitalism, rather than, as Marxism properly recognized, the effect of capitalism.

Marxist recognition of capitalism

For Marxism, after the Industrial Revolution,[14] capitalism exhibits a crisis of the value of labor in social production. But the value of labor, specifically of labor-time, is still the measure and still mediates the value of social production in capitalism. In short, and without explaining how this works in Marx’s view, it is the self-contradiction of the value of labor-time that produces as a result the conflict between the value and social right of capital with the social right and value of wage-labor. In capitalism there is a conflict of social rights between labor and capital; but Marxism understood this as a conflict of labor with itself, since capital was nothing but alienated labor. Reification in Lukács’s sense meant a reversal of cause and effect such that capital appeared as a thing separate from labor; but as Nikolai Bukharin put it, in The ABC of Communism, capital is not a thing but a social relation. Specifically, it is the self-contradictory social relation of labor with the means of production, or, the contradiction of two aspects of value in social production, capital and labor, namely, between past accumulated dead labor and present living labor.

The self-undermining and self-destructive character of the disparity between the diminishing value of human labor-time in industrial social production and capital as the “general social intellect” of technique and organization in production and the reproduction of society — what my old professor Moishe Postone described after Marx as the “shearing effect” and resulting antagonism between labor and the needs of its reproduction and its results and effects in society — has as its expression the phenomena of inflation, the necessity of interest in credit, and finance as the necessary form of speculation — namely, the claim of the past and present on the future — in investment in production.

The result of massive and constantly increasing productivity in industry is the cheapening of labor and thus the cheapening of value. But this cheapening threatens the value of investment and its speculation, hence the crisis of social value in capital. Attempts to preserve value in capital result in accumulation and concentration, producing a separate capitalist class of investors, who, in Marx’s words, are not rich because they are captains of industry, but rather become captains of industry merely because they are rich: they are capitalists in the sense of not merely owners of capital, but rather are the agents and servants of capital. Capital does not follow the dictates of the capitalists; but the capitalists follow the dictates of capital.

Capital is not profiteering because profiteering is compelled by constantly diminishing value in capital, to preserve the value of investment. All production in capitalism is in this sense profit-driven, but not because profit is the goal or the ends of production, but rather because profit is the means by which capital preserves its value. Workers have an interest in the profitability of the capital that employs them, to preserve social investment in their work.

Marxism thus considered capitalism to be a general social compulsion to produce and preserve value in the form of capital to which all — everyone — in society are subject. In this sense, everyone in capitalism is a capital-ist, namely a follower of capital.

And capital does not mean money; rather, as we already call it, “human capital,” labor itself is a form of capital, and is of course the most important form of capital: Marx called it “variable” as well as “circulating capital.”

Crises of value in capital characteristically result — as in the recent Great Recession — in the twin phenomena of superfluous labor and superfluous money: money that cannot find investment as capital; and labor that cannot find employment in social production. This results in the destruction of existing concrete forms of production — the destruction of the concrete manifestations of capital — which means the depreciation of money and the unemployment, starving and perishing of the workers, the idling of machines and factories, the bankruptcy and dissolution of firms, etc.

All of this is to help explain what Marxism originally meant by capitalism being not a social system, but rather a contradiction of the bourgeois social relations by the industrial forces of production. Bourgeois social relations, for instance private property, meant the social relations of labor — for as we know from the bourgeois revolutionary thinker John Locke, the social rights of property are based in the social rights of labor — namely, the self-ownership of the workers to freely dispose of their labor as a commodity, for instance in the employment contract. For Marxism, industrial production represented the self-contradiction of the social relations of labor.

As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, it was capitalism itself which abolished — undermined and destroyed — private property, not only in the form of capital but also and most importantly in the form of labor: industrial production abolished the value of labor as a commodity. Nonetheless, this constant self-destruction of value was the occasion for its reconstitution and reproduction in different concrete forms after each crisis in value. In short, so long as there were starving workers desperate for employment, the social value of labor would be reconstituted — however, it was subject to self-destruction, restarting the cycle of capital accumulation again.

The true task of socialism

Socialism arose, from the perspective of Marxism, from this constant self-contradiction, crisis, destruction, and demand for the reconstitution of the social value of labor. As such, socialism was an expression of capitalism, namely, an expression of the contradiction of bourgeois social relations and industrial forces of production. As the advocacy of the social value of labor, socialism was an expression of the demands of the reconstitution of the bourgeois social rights of labor, namely, its social value.

As all serious thinkers of capitalism have recognized, capital is meant to be a means to the ends of social production, namely, of serving and sustaining a society of labor. That capital has reversed this and become an end in itself and social labor a mere means to capital, this is the perversion that is denounced as capitalism, or the subordination and domination of society to the dictates of capital, to the compulsion to produce, reproduce and preserve the value of labor after it has been diminished, undermined and destroyed by industrial production.

In this sense, the task of socialism that Marxism recognized in industrial capitalism already nearly two centuries ago remains today.

However, the clarity that Marxism achieved about the true nature and hence purpose or end of this true task of socialism, to overcome the social relations of labor, has been obscured and lost. Instead, we have at present calls for socialism, as were posed already before Marx and Marxism, by pre-Marxian socialism, more naively and less critically consciously, based on preserving the value of labor. Even calls for UBI, for instance in the recent Presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, are based on the social value of labor that fails to find monetary compensation on the market.

Supposed “socialism” today means the state and hence political management of capitalism — the administrative maintenance of the working class when capital fails to do so. But this means trying to preserve capitalism against its own self-contradiction and crisis in social production.

Finally, a note on another way that capitalism is characteristically misrecognized, namely as competition and resulting individualism (including the competition of social groups in capitalism as “individuals,” for example nations and other concrete collectives, hence nationalism and other forms of competitive communitarianism): it is the self-contradiction and crisis of value in labor that drives workers against each other competitively in zero-sum games for survival, rather than as the original consciousness of bourgeois society recognized as a function of the development of cooperation: to lose one’s job in an obsolescent industry that loses to competition just means switching to a new and different form of employment. This development of social cooperation in production still occurs in capitalism, of course, but it is the tendency of diminishing and self-undermining value of labor in capitalism that renders such development fragmentary and unfulfilled, unnecessarily destructive and wasteful. So individualism and competitiveness are, again, not the cause but rather the effect of the problem of capitalism. | P


[1] “Redeeming the 20th century: Statism and anarchy today,” Platypus Review #116 (May 2019), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2019/05/01/redeeming-the-20th-century-statism-and-anarchy-today/>.

[2] “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s,” Platypus Review #82 (December 2015 – January 2016), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2015/12/17/sandernistas-final-triumph-1980s/>.

[3] “1918–2018: The century of counterrevolution,” Platypus Review #106 (May 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/05/04/1918-2018-the-century-of-counterrevolution/>.

[4] “1917–2017,” Platypus Review #99 (September 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/08/29/1917-2017/>.

[5] “The end of the Gilded Age: Discontents of the Second Industrial Revolution today,” Platypus Review #102 (December 2017 – January 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/12/02/end-gilded-age-discontents-second-industrial-revolution-today/>.

[6] “Jobs and free stuff,” Platypus Review #124 (March 2020), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2020/03/01/jobs-and-free-stuff/>.

[7] “Why not Trump again?,” Platypus Review #123 (February 2020), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2020/02/01/why-not-trump-again/>.

[8] “Why not Trump?,” Platypus Review #89 (September 2016), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2016/09/06/why-not-trump/>.

[9] “The Millennial Left is dead,” Platypus Review #100 (October 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.

[10] “Capital in history: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left,” Platypus Review #7 (October 2008), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>.

[11] “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today,” Platypus Review #51 (November 2012), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2012/11/01/class-consciousness-from-a-marxist-perspective-today/>.

[12] “The future of socialism: What kind of illness is capitalism?,” Platypus Review #105 (April 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/04/01/the-future-of-socialism-what-kind-of-illness-is-capitalism/>.

[13] “Class consciousness,” op cit.

[14] “Robots and sweatshops,” Platypus Review #123 (February 2020), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2020/02/01/robots-and-sweatshops/>.

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